Fiction: This Door is Locked

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

Few things were more unpredictable, or harder on the stomach than traveling through the Doors. An air car dropping too fast off a high platform, maybe, or launching into space on the equatorial fast track for the first time.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move, I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

Instinct drove his hands into his pockets, where he found his supplies were almost gone. He had a few vacuum-sealed bags of Earl Gray, enough water to last another day or two, three protein bars, and a picture of Rose smiling under an umbrella on a rainy Budapest riverside. Their second date, David remembered, back before they were both starving professors trying to eke out a living in the oversaturated, over-priced wasteland of New York.

An old, hollow pain in his heart made David think about taking a running leap off the cliff’s edge, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to splatter himself on those distant, glaive-like rocks, to feed whatever creatures lurked beneath the waves of this planet’s briny, black ocean, wherever this planet was. But he knew it was just the pain of seeing her face again.

This world, the world of the fjords, is the best candidate we have for being their home world. If I’m going to do it, it’s not going to be until after I find them.

There was no other way down from the devil’s tower that David could see. Returning through the Door was never an option, either. Escher Doors were one-way.

Where the hell is my ship? He could remember landing it, but not where, which meant the memory wasn’t very old or very recent, but somewhere in the middle.

The Escher Doors robbed you of your short-term memories. That was the price you paid to wander through them. But David had been wandering long enough that the oldest memories of his pilgrimage had started becoming fixed. It was only a matter of time until-

The wind howled, cold biting through David’s jacket, making his knees buckle and collapse. He fell onto his knees and vomited again on the snow, the empty contents of his stomach an embarrassingly small offering to the gods of this stark, frozen world.

Gotta find shelter. Fast. Too weak to try climbing. Body temperature dropping. I need something to eat. I’m so hungry.

The thought of food was enough to motivate him to move. He found his feet, brushed the snow and loitering bits of vomit off his beard and clothes, and began frantically searching for something, anything, that would point the way to the next Door.

But there was nothing. Soon the gray, glass bottle bottom sun sank behind the fjords, and David was forced to make camp, digging a tiny shelter in the snowbank under the foot of the island’s single tree that he hoped – no, prayed – would keep him alive until morning.

A green light caught his eye while he was digging, far off across the fjords and the bruised, purple sea, as the dusk finally deepened.

It was only a tiny, green glimmer, so miniscule that if David didn’t know what it was, he might have mistaken it for some bioluminescent animal prowling the shoreline. He watched the soft, jade light flickering on and off, as regular as a heartbeat, until he was done digging, then as he laid shivering in his shelter, waiting for sleep to take him. He watched it when he woke up at night to urinate, and again when the wind howled like a blizzard of throwing knives over the mouth of his shelter.

David knew the light’s source could only be one thing. It was one of the ten million-year lamps that guarded each Escher Door, the beacons set to guide the Wanderers on their long, endless pilgrimage.

He awoke to the grey light of dawn seeping over the fjords, and a soft, mechanical buzzing in his ear. David leapt up out of his snowy bed, and immediately kicked himself for being so easily startled. Each Escher Door was fitted with a resupply station to replenish those who traveled through it.

Rose would be laughing at me right now.

The pain of losing her was always the worst after waking up. Her voice echoed in his mind’s ear: I don’t want you to go. What if something bad happens to you?

He saw her wiping her eyes on the back of her wrists, took them, and kissed her on the eyelids.

Nothing bad is going to happen to me, babe.

What had the old man had said about redemption being the inversion of selfishness? David couldn’t remember.

The whirring sound grew louder with each handful of snow. His fingers scraped metal less than a foot down, and the bare corner of the small, spherical delivery plate of a food printer peered up at him.

The machine had sensed him exit the Escher Door and cycled on sometime during the night. David couldn’t blame a machine that was several million years old for taking a few hours to turn on. He only hoped that whatever it printed was still edible.

Thankfully, it was. The raw, dirty paste that fed from the printer’s nozzle into an insta-fabbed leaf cup tasted disgusting, but it gave him enough strength to get up and move around.

He washed his face and hands with the snow, placed the leaf he’d eaten out of in the printer’s recycling bay, and started looking for the path that would lead him to the next Door, which he now knew for certain was hidden on top of the devil’s tower.

Within minutes, David found the hatch.

It was an old fashioned trapdoor built into the ground and hidden under several feet of snow, not five paces away from the nutrient station. The hatch hissed open as he muscled through the ages of rust and time that had sealed it.

David crouched and lowered himself into the dark dampness of the ancient stone stairwell. It was several degrees warmer here than up top, and grew even warmer as he descended. Automated lanterns in the ceiling and walls flickered on as he passed. The lanterns had been one of the first subjects of David’s study when he began specializing in Wanderer culture back at the university in New York.

Feels like that life belonged to a different person, David reflected, as those old memories came back to him: of cramming to finish lesson plans, and braving hordes of students at office hours; of pinching every penny so he and Rose could make rent each month on that stupid, microscopic studio apartment that always stank of burning roaches; of practicing with the band, of missing practice; of the rare one or two days a year when they got a gig, and he could let it all go; of his fingers dancing up the worn neck of his Engelhart stand up double bass, the only item of any value he and Rose owned; of Rose’s eyes glimmering, inches from the stage, as if they existed only for him.

At last, the stairwell opened to a wide tunnel hewn into the glistening rock of the channel floor. Huge dripstones hung from the ceiling like a theater of forgotten puppets, overgrowing the ancient pictograms the Wanderers had cut into the walls.

Those mood pictures were the only form of writing the Wanderers had left behind. David had once published a theory that the indecipherable, swirling doodles had held religious significance, that they didn’t tell a story, but were more akin to visual hymns.

They are formless. Pure. Like jazz, they wander without knowing the road, only the destination.

But like all David’s theories, that one would likely go unfulfilled unless David found what he was looking for. The Wanderers appeared to have destroyed all written records of their history once the Escher Doors were built, including any discernable map to where the Doors led, which was why David’s mentor Dr. Liapis had informally given the long-since-vanished alien species their moniker. No physical remains of the Wanderers’ bodies had ever been found.

They went through the Last Door, David thought, gazing at the swirling, mystic spirals that graced the cave walls. And the Last Door is here. On this world. It has to be. All of my research pointed to the Fjord World being the end of the pilgrimage. It was some kind of last rite for their species, the last staging ground before moving on to their promised land.

I’ll never know until I find that Door. I’ll never know until I walk through it.

The tunnel went on for so long that David lost all sense of time. He was hungry again when he finally saw the tunnel’s endpoint, a filled-in halo of white light gleaming in the distance above him. The tunnel curved upward and David ascended into cold air.

The tunnel exited onto a snowbound isle in the middle of the fjord, a meter or so higher than sea level. The island’s only feature was an ornate stone archway guarded by a blinking, floating buoy that spat bursts of brilliant green light every few seconds – the same light David had seen from the top of the devil’s tower. A few scaly birds resembling Terran sea gulls nested on the buoy.

The Escher Door was a little one, built for local on-world travel, not the slightly larger kind that could jump you across entire arms of the Milky Way in the blink of an eye. Wherever it led was somewhere relatively near, and paying for the ride would cost only a negligible amount of David’s short-term memory. Any apprehension he might’ve felt was forgotten as soon as he stepped through, as was everything else he’d felt since waking up the previous afternoon: the cliffs, the tree, the shelter, the dirty paste, the tunnel and its incomprehensible wonders.

David forgot everything but jazz, and Rose.


A wall of cobwebs met him on the other side. He felt sick and tasted bile in his mouth. His memory came back much quicker this time, as did the pain of Rose’s absence. Some old argument effervesced from the buried annals of his mind.

If you don’t go, David, how will we ever have a future? How will we afford to have kids, a state-of-the-art home gym, to live in the Bay Area and buy a cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas, so you can busk with your band on Nob Hill?

I don’t know, Rose. I don’t know how we’ll do those things. But this feels wrong. It feels like I’m about to make the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

Then don’t go.

Don’t say that. You know I won’t.

I love you. And I’ll support whatever decision you make.

His fingers instinctively found the worn, smooth corners of the amber bracelet she had given him to match the necklace he got for her their first Christmas together. They had chosen amber because it was the only precious stone either of them could afford. The sunburst stones still held their cool, dusky glow, but the silver setting was tarnished and ruined. Three of the amber leaves in its spiraling tree motif had fallen out. David couldn’t remember when.

Still, it was the last piece of her David still had other than that old picture.

Rationally, he knew Rose might no longer be alive. Nobody knew how the Doors worked, if Door travel actually was as instantaneous as it seemed, or if there were relativistic effects like those that accompanied normal acceleration. Would he return to Earth to find that Rose had grown very old, like the twin who was left behind from Einstein’s infamous paradox? Or worse, that she was several hundred, or several thousand years dead?

You made this choice for a reason, he reminded himself. And now you’re going to see it through.  

He exited onto a huge plaza at the heart of a vast stone city nestled between the walls of a great fjord. A hundred tawny torches blazed silently from the walls of the abandoned metropolis.

The plaza was made of many small islands floating upon an oblong lake, all connected by causeways that formed a shallow quincunx of canals. The horizontal pattern mirrored the vertical one the city itself carved from either side of the fjord. It was the most awesome architectural marvel David had ever seen.

Thousands, perhaps millions of stairways, tunnels, and arched doorways dotted the sheer cliff faces, weaving a singular, flowing mood picture a hundred times larger than Manhattan. The telltale glimmers of uncountable lanterns sparkled in every groove and spiral.

At first glance, it looked like a giant, stone-wrought maze. But as David’s eyes studied the rolling, fluid images cut into the escarpment, he began to see that none of it was supposed to be connected at all.

A city of neighbors who could never meet. A multitude of Doors leading to nowhere and everywhere at once. But that was the point, wasn’t it?

As much as he wanted to stay and fall upward into the pale vertigo of that infinite city forever, David didn’t have time to stand around gawking. The sun had set, the moons were rising, and despite the queer calm of the air, he didn’t want to get stranded again without real shelter or food if the weather changed for the worse.

There was a small, minaret tower watching over the plaza of canals that looked different in style and structure than the surrounding buildings. Its light was yellow, not green, and it appeared to have been recently built.

David headed towards it, finding the most direct path he could across the interconnected islands of the plaza. When he was halfway across, he noticed that the yellow light wasn’t a beacon, like those guarding the Doors, but an indoor light shining through an open window.

Someone still lives there, David thought. Door Traffic Control, maybe? A caretaker? No. That’s a human structure.

Someone else is already here.

The possibility that he might not be the first to have discovered this world, that he wouldn’t be the first to wander through the Last Door, filled David with deep, existential dread. His fear was tempered only by the thought of taking a long, deep drink of clean water and filling his belly with something hot.

Dr. Liapis and I were the only two people who were supposed to know about this Door-path. No one else so much as speculated about it, let alone that it could lead to the Last Door. It was a shot in the dark, which is why he sent me all the way out here instead of coming himself.

A dark shape blotted the light in the window. David’s blood turned to cool sludge. Who the hell is that?

When David reached the foot of the tower, a distinctly human shape stuck his head out of the window and called down to him, in American English, “Look at you! You made it in one piece. Open the gate and come upstairs. There’s hot food and tea. The door’s automated. The password is Charles Mingus.”

David tried, but the door of the tower wouldn’t open. “Did you say Mingus? As in, the jazz bass player, Charles Mingus?”

“The legendary, the one and only. But just hold on. That old thing can be a real pain in the ass if you don’t know how to jangle it right. I’ll do it for you. Be right down,” the man said.

An instant later the door to the tower slid open, and David was enveloped in a bubble of warmth and light.

An old man stood in front of him, silhouetted against the light spilling out from the interior, but David could see him clearly enough to know he was no one who had ever worked in the very small, very catty academic field of Xenoanthropology, at least while David was alive.

The man was short, much shorter than David, and completely bald save for two slender gray quasar jets of hair sprouting from either side of his head. He wore a water-reclaiming outskin that resembled a suit of tight, but comfortable pajamas, and his eyes held the two-tone look of someone who is used to having two conversations simultaneously – one with the person they are speaking to, and a separate one about that person inside their own head.

The old man extended his hand. “Pleasure to finally meet you, Doctor Tovakol. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

David shook the old man’s hand and said, “Hi. Look, I don’t mean to be blunt, but…”

The old man cut him off. “You thought you were the only one here. It appears you are not.”

“All right,” David said. “So, who are you?”

“I’m Nobody,” the old man said.

Great, David thought. This guy isn’t just a lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere. He’s a cracked lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere.

“Is that your first name or surname?” David said.

The old man tilted his head, his tone losing its hint of jovial amusement. “Did I stutter, Doctor?”

“Look. I’m sorry. I’m really thirsty and I haven’t eaten in… well, I can’t remember how long, but it’s been a while. Can I come in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “I thought you’d never ask.”

David followed the old man inside. “Wait,” he said. “I have to know something. Were you really the first one? Or have there been others?”

The old man paused, setting one foot on the stairs. “I was, and remain, the first and only human being other than you to ever take a living breath on this world. Not that it matters. It was never ours to discover.”

The old man’s humility made David angry. “So I was right. This was their home world? Or at least, their capital?” David said.

“This entire galaxy was their home. But yes, this planet was where they first evolved from the primordial soup. It remained sentimental to them, until the very last shedding of their lower culture.

“Now, please, Doctor. I’d prefer if we had this conversation upstairs,” the old man said.

They went up the tower, ascending a simple spiral stairwell lined with a hypnotizing array of stone panels floating in protective vacuum cases. At first David thought they were mood drawings, salvaged from some corner of the Wanderers’ civilization he had yet to see, until he noticed they were laser-etched.

“You’re mapping them,” David said.

The old man turned and looked down at David over his shoulder, stopped and leaned on the handrail of the stairs. “I was, yes. Or rather, I was trying to, until I learned the Door-paths can’t be mapped. Come along. These damned stairs get a little harder to climb each day, and soon I won’t be able to ascend this phallic eyesore at all.”

“But… “ before David could speak, the old man cut him off.

“If you wanted to ask why, you should’ve majored in philosophy. Come along now. This way.”

David kept his mouth shut, ascending the rest of the long, winding stairway in silence.

The tower’s penthouse was a circular room with panoramic windows looking out over the dusk-lit fjords. The only furnishings were a twin bed and slapped-together kitchenette, and a crude worktable.

Instead of the expected, stereotypical piles of dusty vellum scrolls, glass beakers, and spider-infested grimoires, the old man’s study was crowded with piles of curved, sanded wood in various stages of becoming large, stringed musical instruments.

David recognized the pieces instantly. He’s making standup double basses.

Here was the scroll, half-finished. There, the neck and belly, missing only the final polish. The vices of the old man’s workstation held the youngest iterations, naked in their raw hillocks of sawdust, while his completed works surrounded his bed like a guardianship of wooden soldiers.

“Curious, isn’t it? That two musicians should find each other all the way out here, at the fuzzy edges of spacetime. Please, give one a try,” the old man said.

David touched one of the finished basses, admiring the old man’s handiwork, tilted the hollow body into his arms and plucked out a few notes, the opening riff of Mingus’s Hog Callin’ Blues. The instrument’s sound was deep and elegant.

The old man beamed. It wasn’t pride David saw gleaming in his eye, but the deep respect of process. “You haven’t seen the trees of this world yet, but they are truly grand. The wood gives a different sound than what you get back on Earth. That’s all it is. My skill as a luthier is still light years away from decent. But the wood compensates for my shoddy craftsmanship. I suppose in another fifty or a hundred years, I’ll start to get the hang of it.”

David gave a polite smile. “You’ve got one hell of a hobby,” he said.

The old man went over to the kitchenette and put a pot of water on to boil. “Tea?”

David nodded.

“Earl Grey?”

David took a seat at the kitchen table. “Yes. Black.”

“How would I get milk out here, young man, or sugar, for that matter? Even these tea bags are probably a few centuries old, taking Door travel into account. Thankfully, they’re vacuum-sealed.”

The old man handed him the steaming mug. David sipped it, letting the heat spill down through his body. When was the last time he’d had a cup of real tea? Not since leaving the ship, he thought. Days? Weeks? Or was it years ago?

“Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty,” the old man said, taking a seat at the table beside him. “I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I have will not be satisfactory. You will just have to accept that you won’t know everything, yet.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” David said.

The old man cleared his throat and began: “The Doors have funny effects on time. You and I both have passed through probably one too many for our own good. Because of that, there are at least three of us who know about this place: you, your professor, and yours truly. I’ve dedicated my life to studying the Freeway, ever since I was your age, and I still haven’t figured out exactly how it works, nor how I arrived before you did, you being the one who is actually credited with its discovery back on Earth.”

“I am?” David said.

The old man nodded. “You are. I have scarce communication with them these days. The Freeway isn’t as exotic a subject as it once was. Research into it barely receives any funding at all. The people’s imagination has seemingly moved on.”

David shook his head. “How? We barely know anything about the Wanderers back home. I’ve never even heard the Escher Doors referred to as the Freeway before you just said it. But, I admit, we know even less about the effects of traversing them, so, I’ll concede that anything’s possible,” he said.

“Ha! Wanderers…” The old man cackled. “I remember when I used to call them that. Of course, it’s been decades.”

What do you call them?” David said.

“Why, nothing. They were Nobodies. Like me.”

“I don’t understand,” David said.

The old man gave him a sympathetic look. “The enigmatic ancients you have traveled so far and sacrificed so much to study were a self-annihilating culture. Not suicidal, mind you – they sought to eradicate the idea of personal importance, of being someone, from their cultural id. It’s the entire reason they constructed the Freeway in the first place.”

“That’s a theory I haven’t heard before,” David said.

A fire lit in the old man’s eyes. “It is only my professional opinion, but it’s one I’ve formed over tens of thousands of hours of meticulous research, decades I spent here alone, freezing my bloody butt cheeks off and surviving off of protein paste so I could one day tell you about it. Do you think I would have chosen this path if I didn’t have at least a solid inkling of what’s going on?”

“I suppose not,” David said.

“The Nobodies’ civilization advanced to the point where they realized that rampant individualism was the driving force responsible for the worst evils of their world: greed, poverty, famine, war. Yet, it is in the nature of all intelligent beings to be self-interested, and technology only amplifies this primitive urge. Considering the level of technology they had, it was only a matter of time before they destroyed themselves, and the entire galaxy along with them.

“So the Nobodies started a gargantuan project, the largest in their history, to eradicate the ego from their species. They built the devices we call Escher Doors, a vast network of portals placed at seemingly random points throughout the Milky Way, which wipe the short-term memory of anyone who walks through them.”

“I think I follow you, so far,” David said.

“This network is what I have come to call the Freeway, because the Nobodies believed that traveling it was the only way for the individual, and thus society as a whole, to become totally free,” the old man said.

“Free of what?” David said.

“Of the baggage of egoism,” the old man said.

“And do you believe that?” David said.

A smirk curled up the side of the old man’s lips. “Does it matter what I think? You’re going to complete your journey regardless of what I tell you, even if I say with 100% certainty that doing so will mean not only erasing every last shred of your desire to become Someone of Importance… it will also mean you can never, ever return home.”

“You found the Last Door,” David said. It wasn’t a question.

The old man’s fingers tapped out a burning rhythm on the tabletop. “That is an interesting way to phrase it. The answer to your question is yes, but in my experience, that way of seeing things is not entirely accurate. The Doors work like jazz. You wander through them, experiencing riffs on a scale, but there is no definite structure, no pre-determined road to where you are going. The music can go on forever, or it can stop as soon as the musician – or the audience – grows tired.”

“Did you find it or not?” David said.

“Calm down, Doctor. I already told you I found the Door you’re looking for, and passed through it. But while it is true that all Doors lead to the same place, eventually, the Door you came here to find is certainly not the last.”

David was about to open his mouth and demand that the old man take him, but the old man put a gentle hand on his, all blue veins and pale wrinkles, and said, “I know what it is you want. Why you came so far. Why you gave up what you did, even nearly losing your life. I have no quarrel with any of it, Doctor. I understand. I was young once, too. I simply want you to be ready before I take you there, to be prepared for what will happen to you. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be before you finish your tea.”

They set out into the eternal twilight, two lone pilgrims wandering through howling drifts of snow and shadow, their own shapes cast indecisively, growing long, then short, then long again as they passed under the periodic lights of the city.

“It took me almost a decade to realize they never lived here,” the old man said as they walked.

“How?” David said.

“Tested the soil. No signs of carbon-based life ever having settled in these dwellings.”

A sudden wind bit into them, driving the cold deep beneath his skin. It never seemed to end, that cold; hadn’t, since he’d started wandering through the Doors; even the brief respite of warmth and light in the old man’s study hadn’t driven it away for long.

“Where are we going?” David said.

The old man pointed.

Far ahead of them, the ghostly tip of a high hill could be seen rising from the city’s labyrinthine skyline, conjoining the massive canyon walls into a single line of impassable, craggy white.

They began to ascend, and soon David could see the city’s shape falling away around them, a spiraling maze of concentric stone rings of which the hill they were now climbing was the center.

“So why’d they build a city they never intended to live in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “Did you notice anything different about the doors of those houses we passed?”

David squinted to look at the distant, twisting avenues winding up the cliffs. All of the arched doorways had been intentionally sealed by piles of rubble.

“They’re blocked,” David said.

“Yes. They are,” the old man said. “All of them, closed until the end of time. Except, those aren’t houses. By the time this city was built, the Nobodies’ society had already advanced past the point where they lived in houses at all. They carried everything they needed on their backs. Every door you see in this city is an Escher Door.”

So they are, David realized. There were hundreds of them, thousands; uncountable portals leading to myriad worlds scattered further across space and time than the imagination could grasp.

This isn’t a city. It’s a transit hub. How did I miss it before? Or did I already know, and forgot?

The old man seemed to read David’s mind. “Yes, this place was the great hub of the Nobodies’ Freeway. And now every gate in the terminal is closed, every single Escher Door here, except the one you came through, is a collapsed, dead end.”

“Why?” David said.

The old man’s chest puffed. “Because I closed them. I was spending too much time wandering, and I had work to do. Funny, isn’t it? Traveling through the Doors was the one thing that prevented me from crafting my theory about how they worked.”

They reached the summit of the hill. A single, familiar light burned through the pirouetting snow devils, above an archway whose Escher Doorway was still open.

“I thought you said they were all closed,” David said.  

The old man cracked a smile. “Part of me wants to leave you to figure it out for yourself, but without knowing what I’m about to tell you, it will be impossible. Besides, I won’t get another chance to say it. This is the last time we will see each other, Doctor Tavakol, for a very long time,” the old man said.

“Tell me,” David said.

“We were both mistaken about how the Doors worked when we first arrived at this place. The Doors are purposeful errors in the spacetime quantum structure, like playing a wrong note on purpose during a concert. Except, spacetime is a self-correcting architecture. It is always stable. The Nobodies found a way to exploit that stability, by hacking one of its fundamental rules, that forward motion through time is an inherently destabilizing motion. The universe balances itself by constantly replaying its own melodies and harmonies so there are no wrong notes.

“You aren’t transmitted the way a photon is when you travel through the Doors. The act of the universe rebalancing itself is literally making you a false correction somewhere else, at some other time, to balance out the error you’ve made in the present by opening it.

“That is why Door travel costs memories, and why walking through that…” the old man pointed to the Last Door where it stood, now a mere fifty meters ahead of them across the hilltop’s flat, snowy plateau, “…will not take you where you wish to go.”

“Where does it go, then?” David said.

“Only where you need to,” the old man said.

They were almost to the Door now, so close David could practically feel its shimmering veil washing the pain of regret from his mind.

The old man grabbed his arm as he was about to step through. “David, please. The Nobodies went through this Door for the exact opposite reason we did, that you still feel you must. But I promise you won’t find them through this Door. I beg you to reconsider. This Door does not lead to Someone.”

David looked down at the veiny, pale hand grasping his arm. The old man’s sleeve had fallen back to reveal the ancient glimmer of a silver bracelet bearing the shape of a spiraling tree. Most of the tree’s amber leaves were long since fallen, but the few that remained still held their dusky, sunburst glow.

The old man winced and withdrew his hand.

But David couldn’t turn back, not after coming so far, after sacrificing so much. “If I don’t, I’m nothing. We both know I have to do this,” David said, and stepped through the Last Door.

The old man sighed. “I’ll leave the light on for you.”


The room was a tiny, hot mess high in the sky traffic zone of some ancient upper Manhattan smogscraper, the furniture all clinging to the corners between the poorly placed abutments and piles of discarded clothes, barely a hundred square feet if you included the bathroom and oven-less kitchen. The window was open, as always, an almost futile measure to beat the brutal heat of the New York autumn. Dusk had already settled, and far below, the slow, perpetual red storm of the city churned indifferently under sideways pillars of pollution. Somewhere in the apartment, a woman was crying.

David knocked on the bathroom door, wiggled the knob and found that it was locked. “Rose?” he said.

The sobbing ceased for a moment and resumed.

She’s pretending not to hear me over the noise of the fan. He knocked again. “Hey baby? Are you all right?”

Another long pause, then a faint, whimpering, “No.”

“Will you come out?”

A moment later the door opened. Rose stood in the doorway, her face framed by a halo of wild curls. She gave him a teary frown and hugged him like she’d never let go, said, “I don’t want you to leave.”

“I know, sweetheart. But we talked about this. This is what’s best for both of us. You said that. Remember?”

Rose nodded.

“Do you know how much I love you?” David said.

Rose pulled back, wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist. She nodded. “Yeah.”

He kissed her on the eyelid. “I’m sorry, baby. I wouldn’t have taken this assignment if I knew it was going to hurt you. We both knew this was coming. We don’t want to live like this forever, right? What about the cottage in Bolinas?”

A fresh wave of tears spouted. She buried her face in her hands, said, “I’m just going to miss you so much. What if something bad happens to you?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen. I’ll be back. I promise,” David said, feeling more false than he ever had in all his life.

She walked him out to the hall to pick up his bag, since there wasn’t enough space for it on the floor of their former – now Rose’s – apartment, then they stepped out onto the platform where the air taxi was waiting to take him to the university’s orbital fast track. He kissed her deeply, gazing long into the eyes of the last woman he would ever love, whose heart he was again breaking in pursuit of a dream, as he had countless, unremembered times before, as he would countless, unremembered times again.

I’ll fix this. I’ll be back as soon as I find it, he convinced himself. But as the air car lurched and fell away from the platform and the waving, weeping figure it held, another, deeper part of him said, No, David. You won’t. The mistake has already been made. Every choice is a door, and this door is already locked.


The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second before he ran off the edge, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks lurking a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.


(First published in the Time Travel: Short Stories anthology from Flame Tree Publishing.)

‘Lurk’ BookBub Post-Mortem: How I Quadrupled My Sales and Doubled My Reviews in 30 Days

Hey friends. This is a breakdown (for educational purposes) about the outcomes of my recent free book promotion with BookBub for Lurk. It will probably not be of interest to you unless you’re a self-published or small press author, thinking about becoming a self-published or small press author, or are just really really into the process of marketing books (if the last one is you, you’re sick).

After about 30 days, the steady flow of reviews, KENP page reads, ebook and paperback sales is finally starting to peter off back down to my normal, pre-promotion levels, so I thought I would do a quick post-mortem to show how exposure really is everything, and that even giving away your ebook to thousands of people can be a huge boon to sales and visibility.

Thankfully, not this.

The Promotion

Back in August, I was accepted to BookBub’s promotion newsletter for my first novel, Lurk. At the time, Lurk had seen some moderate success, but was still mostly unknown. I’d sold about 1,000 copies across all media, long since made back my initial $1500 investment in cover art + editing + promotion, and was taking in about $250-350 a month in combined royalties (ebook, paperback, audiobook, and KENP). Some authors may not wish to discuss sales and income but since my sales are pretty pathetic, and the purpose of this post is transparency, I don’t mind. When I was accepted for BookBub, the book had 26 reviews on Amazon, around 40 text reviews on Goodreads, and 100~ish ratings on Audible (my main source of sales).

I made my book free for five days. The BookBub promotion was on the first free day. For a free book promotion in the horror category, BookBub charged me $160 dollars. I opted for the free promotion rather than a $.99 or $1.99 promotion both because it was much cheaper, and because my main goal was not sales but exposure. I just wanted to get my book on as many people’s Kindles as possible, as I was confident that once most started reading it, they would be hooked and want to finish.


The Initial Results

More than 26,000 people downloaded the book in the first three days of the free promotion. Reviews began flooding in almost instantly, most of them positive, some glowing – one lady said she thought I was Stephen King writing under a new pseudonym (she was being super nice, but that felt pretty good). Lurk reached the number one spot in all of its categories, and the number 4 overall (free) book on the Kindle store. For a brief moment, I got a taste of the pie that the very very very most successful of you self-pubs are eating, and it was awesome. Seeing my book hit those ranks alone was worth the $160 bucks I paid for the promo.


The Aftermath

However, the real benefit came later, from Kindle Unlimited. Lurk is in Kindle Unlimited, something I never paid much thought to before this promotion, as I was only hitting about 10k KENP pages read every month (around $40). But at the height of the promotion, and for about two weeks after, I was getting 10k pages read or close to that every day. As of writing, I am still getting around 4k per day.

Because of this massive boost, my combined royalties for the past month are going to be over $1k. That is a milestone I honestly thought I would never reach in my writing career, much less with this book. In a way it feels like winning the lottery. There are many of you out there who probably see $1k as a bad month, but I write weird books about weird shit, my audience is niche, and I’m admittedly terrible at finding it, even worse at the whole marketing thing.

The first two weeks after the sale also saw my normal ebook and paperback sales get a massive spike. At one point I was moving 10 ebooks and 3-5 paperbacks a day. Again, shit numbers for some of you, but for me, this was huge. Audiobook sales hit a snag, though, which is interesting. A bunch of people who got the book for free during the promotion downloaded the audiobook through Whispersync, and maybe that particular well has gone dry, because the past month has been the worst for my audiobook sales since I released Lurk on Audible. Not complaining, but it is interesting.

You knew this post would contain at least one Bryce Dallas Howard…

How Did This Promo Affect My Reviews?

As for reader reviews, that magic, ever-elusive phenomenon we all know is worth more to us than all the BookBub promotions under the sun – Lurk * currently has 65 reviews on Amazon, most of them verified. I’m a little bit peeved the top review is a 3-star review that talks about plot holes/character inconsistencies that are resolved in the first chapter … but I digress.

The vast majority of the new reviews on Amazon have been four and five stars. Lurk is currently sitting at around 300 ratings and 70 reviews on Goodreads. Goodreads in general is a bit of a tougher crowd, and the spread of positive to negative reviews is a little wider there. Still mostly positive, although I have seen some interesting trends on there that I haven’t seen on Amazon (like a few people one or two-starring several different editions of the book at once to lower its score).

Beep beep, Ritchie


My conclusion is that the BookBub promo, if you can get it, is a massive boon to helping your book find its audience. I made back my $160 investment for the free promotion more than six-fold, got a ton of new reviews, and am extremely happy with the outcome of this promotion. It’s a myth to say that nothing good can come from giving away your book for free. I wonder how my results would’ve differed if I’d asked for a buck instead of nothing during the promotion, but I’m content enough with the results to not really care.

It Doesn’t Bother Me If You Hate My Books

My first novel, Lurk is having a bit of a second wind right now thanks to a recent email promotion through BookBub, the largest book promoting service on the Internet. In a single day, more than 25,000 people downloaded Lurk to their Kindle devices. The book’s reviews on Amazon and Goodreads doubled in number, and it received a massive sales spike which is still going strong – at one point, it was the #1 book on Amazon.

With that kind of exposure, the book is obviously receiving a ton of new criticism. The vast majority of ratings and reviews have been good. But, as is to be expected, a number have been bad, or outright damning. I’ve received plenty of hate for the other stuff I’ve written, in my novels and at my day job; but, due to the current spotlight on Lurk, that book will be the topic of this post. I think anything I say here will probably apply to all of my work, though, as haters are just part of the game. Anyone who writes stories learns early on that they will not be successful without thick skin. No story is going to grab everyone, and no matter what you write or how you write it, in 2017 there is always going to be someone who is offended.

This image will piss off at least one of you.

Lurk may be unique in that it has attracted a certain kind of hater – like the girl who two-starred it twice on Goodreads to lower the score and then riddled both of her reviews with spoilers about the end of the story, or the totally woke guy who called the main character “gross”  (thank you for that deep insight), or the other woke guy who one-starred it after reading ten pages because something about “nice guy syndrome” and him not liking books where the female characters are attractive.

It’s generally considered bad form for an author to respond directly to his critics. But in this case, I think it’s valid. If you didn’t finish a book and then go on to trash it, you’re not writing criticism. If you finished a book, but didn’t think critically about what the author had to say, or willfully misrepresent what the story was about to push a political view, you’re not writing criticism. And while it doesn’t bother me personally if you loved my book, hated it, put it on your mantle or wipe your ass with it, it is unfair to other readers to pretend to be writing good-faith criticism when what you’re actually doing is having what is called a knee-jerk reaction.

**Spoilers may follow, so if you haven’t read the book, continue at your peril.**

Apparently, of some, this is too much to ask.

I always knew there was going to be a certain subset of readers who would hate Lurk. I knew there would be a small, but vocal percentage of readers who would throw the book down in anger, and even a few who would push through to the end simply for the bragging rights of giving it a scathing one-star rating for being too sexist, or too similar to the stuff they read on /r/niceguys, or my favorite – too “creepy.” I have spent enough time observing people like this in the great online jungle that I feel confident making some observations about their taste in books.

This subset of reader tends to only let themselves enjoy books that brazenly advertise an ultra-feminist, leftist, inclusive worldview, because it validates their own personal beliefs. They tend to discard and even malign books or other forms of entertainment that run counter to that, often in a knee-jerk, “look at me” fashion on social media, sometimes in mobs, always with snapping fingers. And this is an endless source of amusement and irony to me…

…because Lurk actually affirms that worldview.

“A Goodreads Hater Writes a Review” – 2017, colorized

The most common criticism of the story that I see from these haters is about Drew: that he’s too unlikable, too unforgivable, too much like the guys they likely spend too much time talking down to and talking about in their clickbait bubbles online. But anyone who finishes this book and spends more than a minute thinking about it without blowing a gasket should be able to see pretty easily that Drew is the villain. That’s the moral of the story: that it’s not cool to be like Drew, and that the ideas and behaviors Drew escapes into and then later doubles down on, most importantly blaming others for his unhappiness, lead him to become a bad person. 

Drew is not the hero of Lurk.

Bea is the hero, and not only that – she is a woman of color in science. Bea is the actor who drives the majority of the plot forward, not Drew. Bea is the one who does something when something drastic needs to be done. When the forces of the story act upon her, she reacts in equal or greater fashion, as opposed to Drew, who for the most part passively accepts what is happening and is steered by the story’s events into a place, which, not to spoil things, is definitely not good. Bea has magnitudes more agency than Drew, and she was written that way on purpose, because she is Drew’s foil.

If you somehow missed this, I would encourage you to revisit Lurk and read it a little more carefully.

“1 star, DNF”

I didn’t write Bea, or Drew the way I did to check boxes or push an agenda. Lurk to me is a story about an idea, and these two characters became the voices through which I saw fit to explore it. I am not claiming that I was always, 100% successful, only that the intent I had was something more than to become a shock jockey and write disgusting shit just for the lols.

There are plenty of fair criticisms one could make of Lurk. I am under no illusions that it is a perfect book. I think it is a good book that serves its purpose to sufficiently scare and engage most readers who find the whole “The Shining in a college party house” thing intriguing enough to pick it up. But it is probably not the best book I will ever write. It was my first novel, a trial by error, but it is a story I am proud of and that many readers have found value in.

Lurk has been successful for an indie book – just this year, I’ve sold over ten times what the average self-published book sells, and that’s after recouping my expenses. Whether the book was successful in delivering on its premise, I can’t say. I like to think so, but it’s not up to me. I’ve given it to the world and moved onto writing other stories. I like writing about villains, weirdos, creeps, and the fringes of humanity, because that is what fascinates me, so if Lurk was up your alley – great! Expect more of that in the future. 

Me eating your hate.

However, if your conclusion upon finishing Lurk, or not finishing it, is that the point of this story is that I think hurting animals is cool, or that resenting women is cool, or that projecting your insecurities onto other people is cool, or that being a hateful bag of shit like Drew Brady is cool, or that I endorse any of these things as opposed to literally having written the book on why they don’t pay off…

Don’t worry too much – I’m sure this wasn’t the most important point you missed today.

Sindago: Chapter Two

< Go back to Chapter One

We descended the valley along a slender, switch-back path like dusty pilgrims chasing the brutal sun. The trash piles grew shorter as the grade declined, giving way to a dwarf forest of rust-brown chaparral, sagebrush, and cholla. The succulents had reclaimed any border that may have existed to mark the edge of Paradise Hills. The sharp, stubby desert plants grew between the houses and through the cracks in the sidewalks and crumbled streets, bursting through caved-in porches and the rusted-out windows of forgotten cars.

And everywhere was that strange, gray grass. It was on the hillsides, beneath our feet. On the streets and in the yards. It was as if the entire valley had been coated in a ubiquitous dust, only, when you looked closer, the dust was actually hundreds or thousands of small, interconnected islands of gray grass.

Something about it looked wrong. It was the growth pattern, I realized. I squinted and knelt to get a closer look at the patch beneath my feet. I didn’t touch it. The blades looked extremely sharp, and their movement was weird, almost hypnotic. I didn’t think they were moving in the same direction as the wind. I raised my finger and traced the vein of grass connecting my patch to the next one further down the valley. Every patch touched at least one other. None of it was totally disconnected, a gargantuan network, or maybe web was a better word.

And the strangest part: all of it was pristine and completely undisturbed. I didn’t see a single footprint, human or animal.

Maybe there was water out here, deep underground, or somewhere else, well-hidden from prying eyes. But if there was water, why had everyone left?

Where the bugs? The mosquitos? The flies? Where was anything? There was no movement but that ocean of grass stirring in the breeze, no sound but my friends posturing to take pictures on their phones.

An oasis wasn’t supposed to be silent.

In my training as an environmental scientist, back when my head was still full of John Muir quotes and dreams of changing the world, my first field of study (and the one I intended to eventually build a career on) was the distribution of water in desert ecosystems. The general rule is that where there is water there is life. No shit, right? Another no shit fact is that life is never a monopoly, even in the harshest conditions. There is always a plethora of species all contributing somehow to the great cycle of competition, symbiosis, and parasitism.

If there was grass in the ruins of Paradise Hills, there should also have been something to eat the grass. If there was something to eat the grass, there should also have been something that could eat that organism; a larger animal, or something small enough to feed on its blood. The limiting factor would obviously be the trash, and the tons of contamination leached into the ground when this place was turned into a dump. But it couldn’t be that limiting, if the grass grew so abundantly.

So, where were the other animals?

It had been a long time since I’d cracked open the works of the great environmentalists that I’d considered so formative in my youth, those of Mr. Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Dr. Seuss. I hadn’t even taken down the box of my old books from the rafters of my parents’ house to look at them in years. The truth is, I can’t remember the last thing I read that wasn’t a real estate listing.

The timeline of how I went from starry-eyed kid with dreams bigger than his head to jaded ex-house slinger with no prospects other than saving up enough money to get the hell out of the country still seems surreal to me. I couldn’t find work after getting my Master’s, and no work meant no PhD. No PhD meant no saving the world. Then my friend offered me a position at his real estate firm, and the false siren of making millions selling houses to rich assholes on the California Coast supplanted my ideals.

Well, maybe supplanted isn’t totally accurate. Just put them on indefinite hold. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t lie awake for hours some nights reading articles on the Link about pollution vortexes or changing weather patterns, then looking at pictures of baby birds to calm myself down so I could sleep.

But years of education and field training don’t vanish overnight. My eyes could still detect that invisible layer of the world working beneath the the world, what I called my superpower of being able to see the ecology of a place in real-time.

Had that strange old man lied to us? It didn’t look like other people had hiked here recently. There were no signs of life at all other than the grass. No droppings. No bugs. No birds circling in the sky. The grass had totally conquered the ruins of Paradise Hills.

Was it dangerous? What if that grass hadn’t just taken over? What if it was poisonous? Or carnivorous?

I suddenly wondered if we’d made a mistake coming here, and if we shouldn’t all immediately turn around and head back to the van.

Jester cleared his throat, pulling me out of my analysis. “You all right there, square?”

“Right as an angle,” I said. I stood up and stretched. “I was wondering about this grass. There’s something off about it.”

“What? Dude, it’s just grass.”

“Good observation. But I don’t see any other signs of life. Do you?” I said.

“Are you high?” Jester said.

“Can we not stop every five seconds?” Shaela muttered.

“I haven’t heard you complain about the bugs yet, so maybe there’s something to it,” Cath told her. “Anyway, can we get going, Mel? I want to look around.”

We stopped at the houses marking the outer edge of the ruins. There was nothing special about them beyond advanced dilapidation. They were the same, nondescript twentieth century suburban boxes of stucco and steel roofing that could have been found on any Main Street, USA in the last century.

The rot was severe, but it wasn’t so far along you couldn’t see that someone had lived here once. The windows were broken, the wood collapsing, the paint stripped by the harsh thinner of time, but there was still furniture inside, and a few personal belongings; the Platonic form of home still remained, however corrupted. Was this what it meant to be haunted? For the idea of what once was to be forever imposed over the much crueler image painted by reality, but never strong enough to fully replace it?

“So cool,” Shaela said, snapping a picture.

And Cath, “Don’t get too close, Shae.”

Shaela was already standing on her tippy-toes to peek through the living room window. “It’s mostly slag. The couches are disgusting. But I see some books. That might be a cool picture.”

“You’re not going in there,” Cath said.

“No, it’s a great idea. We’ll wait right here. Smoke a cigarette in there while you’re at it,” Jester said.

Cath smacked him.

Shaela ascended the porch, dodging a few bristly shrubs that had grown through the broken stairs. She tried the front door. It was unlocked.

“Shae…” I started.

My sister raised her voice over mine. “Seriously, do not open that door.”

Shaela rolled her eyes. “God, you guys are such squares when you hang out together. It’s fine.”

To prove her point, she opened the door and stepped one foot across the threshold.

Cath growled.

Shaela shrugged and disappeared into the abandoned house. She called out to us sarcastically a few seconds later, “Oh no! Help! There’s a monster!”

Jester chuckled. “I guess she found a mirror.”

“No, but seriously, this is awesome. You guys have to come see this,” Shaela said.

Cath, Jester, and I reluctantly followed her in.

The living room was cool and dark, smelled of ancient dirt and forgotten time. It was about as wrecked as I’d expected from seeing the outside. The few remaining pieces of furniture barely held themselves together, beds and dressers and a round kitchen table, all covered in thick layers of desert dust blown in through shattered windows and holes in the roof or walls. The books Shaela had mentioned weren’t in the places books should be. They were scattered on the floors where the shelves had fallen along with the shards of dishes, broken picture frames whose portraits had disintegrated, and the unrecognizable detritus of other household items less sturdily composed.

That off feeling settled in my gut to see that the grass was growing inside the house. Inside, where there wasn’t regular exposure to sunlight. Where there had been so little rain that the pages of the ruined books littering the floor were still legible. It grew from the dust and the rotten piles of old bedsheets and upturned carpet, indiscriminate, the slow devourer of everything in its path. Inevitability manifested into slender, bladed form.

I’d read about rampant wild grasses, both natural and manmade, even some that were carnivorous or that could thrive in brutal climates or those that were heavily toxified, but I’d never heard of one that was all of those things and could grow with so little root depth. The only explanation I could think of was that it had been engineered.

Had someone purposefully seeded this grass here? If so, why?

I kicked a small patch on the floorboard nearest me to see if it would come out. It didn’t. The grass took a unanimous little curl away from my boot, like the entire patch was swaying to escape a second impact. Wait. No. It hadn’t moved at all. Was it my imagination? No. It had moved subtly, then fallen still again. The movement was tiny, minute. But I didn’t think I was hallucinating. The scuff hadn’t damaged the grass at all. The roots penetrated deep into the floorboards and between them, in places eating completely through the materials where they’d taken hold.

“Is anybody else getting freaked out by this?” I said.

“The only thing freaking me out is your weird fixation on it. It’s just grass,” Shaela said from the bathroom, without removing her eyes from her camera. “Cath, you have to see this. They have a real bathtub.”

“Porcelain or plastic?” Cath said, looking up from the dusty baseboards she was photographing.


“Idiots,” Cath said. She went to look.

“I’m not weirdly fixated,” I said, but nobody seemed to hear except Jester.

He raised an eyebrow at me. “I’m going to step outside for a cigarette.”

“Thought you quit,” I said and instantly regretted it. There was nothing that irritated Jester faster than when I hassled him about smoking.

He blew a raspberry at me. “Man, sometimes I think you want to provoke me into getting pissed at you so you have an excuse to put me in a headlock.”

I put on my best poker face. “I wouldn’t do that. Come on. Besides, it was a rear naked choke. And that only happened, like… once.”

“Dude, you’re unstoppable when you finally gain a little bit of inertia and start doing shit. That’s why we call you the Square Bear. You’re hard to move on the one hand, but…”

“I get it,” I said.

“Anyway, it makes me happy you don’t drink that often.”

Square Bear. Talk about nicknames that had long out-stuck their welcome. I hated being called a square as much as Cath did. It’s what we used to call our parents. Besides, it wasn’t even true. I knew how to have a good time. I just wasn’t a dumbass about it like Jester, who had a bad habit of breaking windows and blowing up abandoned cars; or a crying, dish-throwing mess, like Shaela was when she got drunk. Can’t remember how many nights Cath and I both spent being their parents. At least Cath’s nicknames were cute: Caffy Taffee, Cath-a-frass, Cathlynne Stark.

Jester tittered, motioning toward the bathroom. “Anyway, I’m gonna go call Budd and tell him to bring us some water. Those two look like they’re ready to burn this place down with all their fire selfies.”

I stifled a laugh. Jester went outside. Cath and Shaela continued snapping pictures of the bathroom from every possible angle, oblivious of everything but what was in their viewfinders.

I went outside to find Jester hadn’t lit a cigarette, after all. “No smokes?” I said.

Jester shrugged. “Left ‘em in the car.”

“You need to bum another smoke?” Shaela said, exiting the abandoned house with Cath in tow.

“Not yet,” Jester said.

Cath walked up to me and clapped. “Sup, little bro?”

“Let’s do another one,” I said, motioning to the other houses. “What do you think? Or did you take enough pictures to satisfy the destroyed furniture and depressing interiors category of your Link album for today?”

“I took some good ones, but, I mean, yeah. I’d love to poke around in some of those, over there,” Cath said.

We spent another twenty minutes exploring the other houses on the outskirts. After the fourth or fifth one, the thrill of breaking and entering into homes where no one had lived for over twenty years dwindled, and we found ourselves back on that same, trash-strewn street, a block or so down from where we’d descended the valley wall, at three-way intersection with a bigger road heading straight toward the city center.

“Maybe let’s go a little further into town?” I said.

Shaela’s face sank in disappointment. “I mean, is this all there is? I don’t know. It’s cool, and all, but I just thought there would be more…”

“What? What are you looking for? Dead people? They’re right over there,” I said, pointing absent-mindedly up the new street.

Shaela didn’t answer, only stared at where I was pointing. Cath’s mouth twisted. Jester coughed.

I followed their gazes to where I was pointing,  a big, two-story home in the middle of the street, and I instantly saw why their demeanors had changed. A cold sludge entered my blood. The hairs on the back of my neck stood. Slowly, I lowered my finger.

The windows of the house were all boarded, even on the second floor. The glass was shattered and huge pieces of plywood had been nailed in their place from the inside. The lower walls were scorched and blistered from the heat of a fire that had long since gone out. The chipped, blue paint of the second story bore thick, dark streaks from the kisses of smoke.

My feet moved down the grass-covered street as if compelled by some other force. I took one step toward the big house, then two. Before I could take a third, Cath grabbed my shoulder. I looked at her, and we both nodded.

We approached the house as a group, with Cath and me in front, none of us saying a word. As we got closer, the details of the fire told an ominous story. The house itself didn’t appear to have caught on fire at all, only the grass.

That strange grass had been burned back from the house in a huge ring, roughly a dozen feet on all sides. Someone had doused the grass with some kind of accelerant – good old gasoline, maybe; though I wondered where they would’ve gotten so much of the stuff and how they could’ve afforded it, as even in the cities petrol-based products were prohibitively expensive – then struck a match to it and let the fire rage. The arsonist must’ve known what they were doing, too, because none of the other houses on the street bore any sign of damage not caused by time.

We stopped at the foot of the front porch. There was a message scrawled in black spray paint on the board that had, at one point, been blocking the door. The board was broken and hanging by a single nail.

The message read:


Shaela silently raised her camera and started snapping.

Cath shot me a nervous look. “I don’t know about this, bro. What do you think?”

“Doesn’t look like their fortifications really worked,” I said. “Whoever they were trying to keep out seems to have gotten in.”

“Who, or what,” Jester said, from where he’d hung back a few houses up the road.

“I think it was just banditos. And, look. They’re long gone,” I said, then added in my best John Wayne voice, “Un-less you think this here is an am-bush.”

Cath folded her arms. “Actually, I’m with Jester on this one. I don’t think we should take this lightly. It looks like there was a real struggle here. And it didn’t end well for whoever was inside.”

“Jeez. I can’t believe you people. And you call me a square? For all we know this could’ve been five years ago. I thought we were on an adventure. C’mon. Don’t you think Sheriff Budd would’ve warned us if something bad happened recently?”

I only half-believed it, though. I didn’t think the signs of this struggle were from five years ago. I didn’t even think they were from five weeks ago. But the desert preserves things better than we can possibly imagine, and without rain or much wind at all, who knew? Maybe we were looking at some grim tableaux of the distant past.

Shaela took a step up the porch, testing the rotten stairs. Enough of the planks were stable for her to ascend and crouch under the door to get a more dramatic angle for her pictures. “Everyone is going to love this shot,” she said, more to herself than any of us.

Cath ignored her. “Your call, Melvin. I just don’t want to be cleaning up anyone’s blood while I’m on my vacation. Especially not yours.”

“That’s harsh,” I said. “Stop being babies, you guys. There’s no one here.”

I stepped next to Shaela and kicked open the door.

“Hey, fucking asshole! You just ruined my picture!” Shaela said.

I brushed past her into the house. “So? Call Budd.”

A wall of stench hit me as soon as I stepped inside. Behind me, shaela made a fake puke noise and backed away from the door. What the hell was that? I hid my nose inside my t-shirt, but the sour stink got stronger with every breath I drew. It took me a moment to place it. It was the done animal-smell of rats dying in the walls before their rat-friends ate them, of coyote kills baking on the side of the highway in the summer sun.

Death. There was no other smell quite as vile or overpowering.

I stopped and wondered if I should trudge on. Did I really want to see a dead body? And how old could the corpse really be if it still smelled so bad?

The interior of the house was dark, and big. The only light was the shards of afternoon sun that fell through the cracks in the window boards. The former inhabitants had placed somewhere between the upper middle and true upper class; there was carpet on the stairs, three fireplaces, jacuzzi bathtubs, and a vast, opulent kitchen. The decay wasn’t as advanced as the other houses we’d explored, but most of the upkeep appeared to have been done by squatters, and there were battle fortifications in the halls. Someone had made shoddy barricades out of piles of furniture to form choke points at different places throughout the house. The only path of retreat led directly up the stairs to the second floor.

I decided that’s where the smell was coming from, and had a brief battle with myself about whether or not it was worth the risk. Farting around on the first floor of a ruined house was one thing, but upper floors of abandoned buildings are far more dangerous, often prone to collapse. I figured that whoever had tried to seal themselves in here had done so long after the house was initially abandoned, and if they could walk upstairs, I probably could, too.

I was testing the stairs with my boot when Cath and the others caught up to me. She had her shirt pulled up around the lower half of her face, and her eyes told me she wasn’t phased by the smell. Shaela’s, though, were red and bulging above the edge of her sun shawl, which she was holding up with one hand, her other busy taking pictures. Jester had his favorite red bandana tied over his nose like a bank robber.

“You think there’s a dead guy up there?” Jester said.

Cath nodded. “Oh yeah. That’s a dead guy, all right.”

And Shaela, “Better be worth it. This place smells worse than Jester after two hours in the camper van.”

“I thought you were going to say it smells worse than your vagina,” Jester said.

Shaela turned the camera on him and hit record. “Don’t kid yourself, sweetheart. Your vagina is the one that needs a bleach bath.”

“I’ll go first,” I said, and resumed my ascent.

It didn’t take long to find the body. I saw it as soon as I reached the landing of the second floor. The crumpled little shape was lying on the floor of the master bedroom. The door was open. There was a rotten mattress in there, too, and a sea of scattered pages torn out of old magazines. The window was boarded up, like all the others, but there was enough light for me to pick out the important details. There was a shotgun and a few boxes of shells stacked under the windowsill, along with a few empty gas canisters.

“Is that the dead guy?” Jester said.

“Mmm-hmm.” The stink was so bad upstairs that I didn’t want to say much.

The dim light didn’t allow me to see the details until I was much closer than I wanted to be, and when I realized what it was I was looking at, I cringed.

Not a dead guy – a dead woman. Her face was gone. It had been totally eaten off. I didn’t see any teeth marks. The wound looked to have been caused by some caustic substance, but it had done its job so well there was nothing but a deep hole left where her eyes, nose, and mouth had been, not even a skull. It was all just gone.

The face-hole was her only visible injury. The front of her plain cotton shirt and pants bore streaks of dried bodily fluid, as did the floor around her head and neck, but there wasn’t any damage to her clothes. She wore the same basic gear we all had: loose, light pants, a breathable shirt, dirty hiking boots, a belt full of essentials like a flask, a knife, matches, flint, steel, a compass, a package of water purification tablets, and so on.

Her clothes looked damp, which was weird.

No, not damp. Oily. Like she hadn’t rinsed the soap off of them after washing.

From the dry, sunken texture of her skin, she looked to be completely mummified. Her hair was short and grey. I guessed her age at the time of her death to have been about sixty.

Another thing I couldn’t figure out, aside from the cause of her wound and the oily sheen on her clothes, was the smell. She hadn’t rotted. So why did the entire house reek like a dead animal? If it wasn’t the dead woman that smelled, was it something else? Something we weren’t seeing?

Cath, Shaela, and Jester joined me, forming a small half-moon line around the woman’s corpse. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, even when Jester said with a tremble in his voice and an underdose of false bravado, “Shae, I’ll take that cigarette now.”

Shaela fumbled in her bag and pulled one out. Jester took it, pulled his bandana down, gagged, and stuck the stogie between his lips.

No. No fire. That smell. Not death. Something flammable. The gas canisters. The sheen on her clothes. Not gas at all.

Jester dug around in his pocket for a lighter. He found one and lifted it to his face. I snatched the cigarette from his lips before he could light it.

“What the hell, man?”

“Wait,” I said. “You smell that? That isn’t the body. It’s biofuel. The same that the van runs on. Her clothes are soaked with it. Some of the floor, too. Look. See that stain? The dark ring around her body?”

I pointed, and my friends looked.

“You light a flame in here, and this place will go up like kindling. You understand? She doused herself with it before she died.”

“Why would she do that?” Shaela said.

“Desperation,” Cath offered. “Maybe she was trying to burn this place down, and didn’t get the chance to finish the job.”

Jester’s voice was quiet. “She tried to kill herself. But something got to her before she could.”

“Who would do this to another human being..?” Shaela said. I was pretty sure she was talking about pouring corrosive acid onto someone’s face.

“That’s what I’m saying,” Jester said. “I don’t think it was another person.”

Cath’s voice dropped to barely a whisper. “What are you talking about, Chester?”

Jester shrugged. “I can’t be the only one who’s thinking it.”

I wanted to tell him to shut up, but couldn’t. My mind raced in a hundred different directions. I had to focus, prioritize the important information. The ecologist in me couldn’t shake the idea that the grass had something to do with it.

The ring of fire outside. Why was it there? Maybe the dead woman had burned the grass away from the house and locked herself inside. There was no grass growing inside the house, like there had been in the others. Or, was the grass outside already burned when she got here?

The second explanation better preserved the evidence in front of me. But it raised more questions than it answered. This woman had arrived long after the grass had overrun Paradise Hills. Yet the interior of the house we were in bore no damage from having burned. There was only that huge, black ring surrounding the house outside, a permanent dead zone where the grass could not grow.

Biofuel. The biofuel was the missing link. The grass didn’t like the biofuel, was poisoned by it, maybe. But why did that matter? And how was it related to this woman’s death?

It seemed more likely that the dead woman had found the house in an already fortified state, and that the barricades had been made by someone else who was long gone by the time she arrived. She used this house to hide in, from someone, or as Jester put it, something. But it didn’t work. With no other way out, she’d drenched herself and most of the floor around her in biofuel, choosing to self-immolate, rather than–

Than what? What on Earth could be so horrible that burning yourself alive was the better option? What could she possibly have seen here to make her believe something so absolutely, incomprehensibly insane?

My stomach turned. We were in way over our heads, and I didn’t want to stick around to learn more about what it was we’d gotten into. I needed to get the hell out of there, to head straight back to the van, gun it for the highway, and not stop until I was back safely in my own bed, hours away from this utter evil, yes, that’s exactly what it was, what other word do you use to describe finding an old woman trapped in an abandoned house with a giant hole in her face, who had tried dousing herself in bio fuel so she could burn herself alive? This wasn’t evil, this was worse, and although I didn’t know how, or what, or why, I did know that if we didn’t leave as soon as possible, we were going to–

“Hey. Mel. Did you hear what I said?”

Jester was speaking to me. I shook my head, trying to lose the vertigo buckling my legs.  “I think she left a note,” he said, then knelt down and poked the dead woman’s pocket. There was a piece of paper sticking out. He looked at me for approval.

I nodded.

“Hold on. It might be contaminated,” Cath said. “I have gloves in the van.”

Jester ignored her. He took the note out and read aloud:

“Whoever you are,

“2 late for me, but not 4 you. Forgot lighter. Screwd. Learn from my mistake: carry Fire + Bio Gas, ALWAYS!!! Fire kills them, Gas = STAY gone. 10x peacekeeper unit in strg. grg. at 4th & Pine. 3 blocks S. Couldn’t get there in time.

“God forgive me if you exist. PW: ania.”

Cath’s voice was a frail ghost. “What is going on here…?”

“I can tell you,” I said. “We’re going to go downstairs right now, head back the way we came, we’re not going to stop to take even one more goddamned picture, and we’re getting in the van and leaving.”

“Shouldn’t we, I don’t know. Bury her?” Shaela said.

“Why don’t we burn her?” Jester said. It took me a second to realize he wasn’t kidding. “Shit. Don’t look at me like that. It’s what she wanted.”

Cath folded her arms over her chest. “I would normally be against abandoning human remains in the middle of nowhere like this, but Mel’s right. We’re camping somewhere else tonight. If we really want to, we can come back and poke around early tomorrow morning. We can call the authorities once we’re on the road.”

Shaela nodded. “It just seems so wrong to leave her.

I was already halfway to the stairs. “We’ll have all the time in the world to speculate about what we should’ve done on the drive home. C’mon. Let’s go.”

Downstairs, the front door slammed.


Go on to Chapter 3 >