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.)

Poetry: The Barghest’s Revenge

I.

The Barghest rose from stirring gloom
Through creeping shadows of my room
The dangling keys about his wrists
Like tiny bells foretelling doom.

O’er to my bed he slithered, black
His skin mottled like mordant wax
All tufts of hair in ancient cysts
Sprouting from nose, toes, ears, and back.

With a voice smooth as mercury
Thus he whispered, musically
“Find you the door that matches this,”
And in his hand offered a key.

The toothed, black spindle in his palm
Was twisted, sharp, nine inches long.
Heavy as ages in my grip,
It filled my ears with eldritch song.

“Go you to Edinburgh, my dear,”
The monster said into my ear
“In Robert’s Close, when moonlight-kiss’d
By his name, you must dig near.”

“There you will find a secret trove
Buried ‘neath the roots and bones
With this key I to you inflict
The chance to see your sweet love, Rose.”

I did not ask him what he meant
I did not call him when he went
Drifting like some poisonous mist
To dissipate into the vent.

A year had passed since Rose’s death
Nights I spent whoring, whiskey-vexed
Her shape was still equally missed
On unwashed sheets only half dressed.

For every love has its goodbye
All bright flowers wither and die
Time and death, we cannot resist
And sirens stir in the decline.

 

II.

I left my silver weapons home
‘Twas ten good years since they had shone
Our land dreaming and safe adrift
At last its final devils gone.

We cleansed the highlands and the low
Purged clear loch to Roman stone
Bags of copper spilled through our fists
With not a monster left to roam.

The last ones fled, or hid, or died
I can still hear every black cry
Those loathing hexes, gravely hissed
The Barghests’ were no milder kind.

And now I traveled those same roads
Until that Royal Mile I strode
Robert’s Close, could such place exist?
The cobbles cursed under my brogues.

In Grassmarket, at last I found
An alleyway, all spectral-bound
A name was written in dark script
Of a prince who’d never been crowned.

I scored a shovel for my work
In rusted iron, solace lurked
Imagining my future tryst
I staked it in the hardened earth.

Three feet deep, lay a small casket
A crude, wicker, coffin-basket
Its hard shell made my shovel slip
I kneeled down and unlatched it.

Inside the box, a woman’s skull
But no, not human, not at all
The fangs, the hair, those silver wisps
All bound within a crown of awls.

 

III.

The Barghest rasped into my ear
“How could they bury my love here?
Give her a grave as poor as this?
Monster hunter, it was but fear.”

“During your righteous purge for men
You toxified my family’s den
Never will my wife part her lips
To sing our babes asleep again.”

“See you why I had to infect her?
Why your Rose never got better?
The great trouble with fairness is
Blood for blood just makes us wetter.”

Oh how I raged, debased, and howled
I slashed them, punched them, kicked, and scowled
But my foe had returned to mist
I lay amidst a leering crowd.

I was street-side, covered in filth
A madman preaching madmen’s ilk
I closed my eyes and reminisced
As watchmen drove me up the hill.

Now in my cell, dank, black, and bare
I can taste the old, piss-sour air
I dream of secret doors promised
And retch at demons hidden there.

‘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.

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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.

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26,000???!

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.

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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.

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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).

IMG_6197
Beep beep, Ritchie

Conclusion

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.

Flash Fiction: Covfefe

WHEN HE WAS YOUNG, Covfefe’s father would take him for wharble rides. “Watch for the spout!” his father would say, and hoist the young birpl into the air to blow a big, wet kiss on his belly. Covfefe would squirm and laugh, and they’d fly together through the endless halls of their world-house, father and son, the perfect pair, until his father got tired or dinner was ready or some other cataclysm wrenched apart their loving bond.

Would that those short bursts of birplhood bliss could’ve lasted forever. But bliss is not something made to last.

Whenever Covfefe considered what it meant to be good,  in all the long millennia he lived to consider that question, that was the memory his mind always came back to: his father taking him for wharble rides through the empty, root-filled halls of their world-house. And now that Covfefe was dying, what it meant to be good was the single, all-consuming thought rattling around in his quantum brains. That, and the pain of slow disintegration.

How was it possible he had wasted so many millions – or was it billions? – of years, when his father, a strong, sturdy mirple, simpler than Covfefe, but good, had seemed to live so well on a measly three hundred thousand? How had Covfefe consumed so many worlds and all their myriad species, yet never seemed to feel content, while his father had only needed the two? Those damned two. His dad always bragged about those two like they meant something. Those pitiful two worlds were a veritable family myth. Every time Covfefe’s father had gone out with his friends and gotten drunk on the Good Old Dark Stuff, he’d told the same damned story about how he’d grown to his size without ever extinguishing another life, not even one as small as a single cell. His father’s world-stomach had been so refined with the liquor of goodness it had only consumed cold planets.

Covfefe felt another world slip out of him, and his quantum body slimmed a little more. This one hurt. In the vastness of spacetime, Covfefe winced. It wouldn’t be long now. A few hundred million, maybe a billion years. Not much time at all.

How could his father have been so proud of only two worlds? The old fool had missed the best part of being a mirpl: drinking that beautiful energy as a hot civilization disappeared down one’s world-gullet. Covfefe had surpassed his father’s record before the second millennia of his quantum life. And, as all strong, conservative, world-stomach-minded mirpls knew, once you devoured your tenth star system, your world-intake skyrocketed. Covfefe’s world-stomach-portfolio had exploded after his tenth at a rate that could only be described as “mental.”

Yet here Covfefe was going cold himself. His quantum body was finally, albeit slowly, dispersing back into all its inanimate, constituent parts, and the question of what it meant to be good was unrelenting, like a super-massive black hole at the center of his being sucking in all other possible thoughts. His world-stomach-portfolio didn’t mean a damned thing now, did it? All the lives he’d consumed, from the small to the tall, raised their ever-deafening screams from the silence of the void at all hours. How was he supposed to rest, if he couldn’t even close his local clusters without seeing them? Without wondering what if?

What if someone had done that to him and his family? What if he had never had the chance to take a wharble ride at all, because someone else’s world-stomach-portfolio was more important?

He’d enjoyed eating all those warm worlds, hadn’t he? Feeling their lives disappear into his own insatiable mass? He had. They’d made him drunker than the Good Old Dark Stuff, so drunk that for most of his adult life, all Covfefe could think about was eating more of them.

And only now, in hindsight, could Covfefe see that this was the worst part of the deal. Because, like any rational creature large enough to have a quantum brain spanning millions – or was it billions? – of miles, Covfefe knew what it meant to be good, and that he wasn’t. He knew that it was too late for him to change. He knew he would never give anyone a wharble ride, despite having more offspring than there existed atoms of certain heavier elements in this universe. He knew he could never brag to his friends over a parsec of the best top-shelf Dark Stuff that he’d grown to this size by only consuming cold matter.

The disintegration quickened, and one more world slipped away. Covfefe thought of the wharble rides again. Between the stabbing daggers of pain, he wondered if it was possible, had he grown large enough – another dozen or three dozen or three million worlds, perhaps – that he could earn the power to reverse the flow of time. He still had the energy to give it the old Particle Era try, didn’t he? To eat a few more, hot or cold? To do anything but sadly wither away without leaving a single positive mark on the universe of his birth?

But there were no more worlds in this quadrant. He’d eaten them all. And, sadly for him, there would be no more anywhere else, either – by the time he reached them, he would be too weak. It dawned on Covfefe then that not even gods have the power to undo their mistakes once it’s too late.

Which sort of makes all their other powers irrelevant, doesn’t it?

Flash Fiction: I Miss You

There is a click, click, click coming down the hall. The eaves that echo with every footfall, the ladder creaks as she begins to climb. Hands parting the cobwebs of this old attic. She hasn’t been up here in years.

The picture fills her hands and she cries. “I miss you, Mom. I love you so much. I miss the way you used to sing. I miss you making me soup when I was sick. I miss you just sitting there, watching me sleep. I miss you. I miss you.”

But she can’t hear me when I whisper, “I still do.”

***

First published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

LURK is on sale for 99 cents

LURK is a Countdown Deal on Amazon right now, down from the regular price of $3.99 (Kindle edition) to a meager $0.99. That’s less than the price of a beer in Bavaria! Please note that Countdown Deals are flash sales that go by incremental pricing; it will only be 99 cents today (5/23), then will go up to $1.99 tomorrow, and to $2.99 the day after that.

Get some.

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Fiction: Gene Catcher

 

TINDER was a lost cause. He had over two hundred matches and none of them wanted to meet. The most recent, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, shot him down so hard Paul had to put his phone down and reconsider his life.

Sorry… you don’t look tall in ur pics, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

I’m 5’7, Paul replied.

Must be 6’4 to ride, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

Paul rolled over onto his side, careful to keep his feet off the bed so his freshly polished brogue shoes wouldn’t get dirt on his comforter. It was 10:24 PM.

What happened? I used to get new ass all the time, Paul thought. I might not be the tallest or richest guy in San Francisco, but so what? Tell a girl here you’re co-founder of a science fiction-themed indie rock record label, and their pants practically grow tentacles and climb off on their own.

Everyone has dry spells. I just need to get out of the studio more, and back in the game.

He was walking out the door of his building to go to the bars solo when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a new match: a cute brunette with wide eyes and a seashell smile named Linda, 24, less than a mile away.

You look like trouble, Linda, 24, less than a mile away said.

LOL that’s my line, Paul replied.

Haha really?

That’s my usual opener.

Figures, Linda said.

So, gorgeous, are you just on this for an ego boost, or can we grab a drink tonight?

Linda took a whole ten minutes to respond. While he was waiting, Paul looked at his own pictures. He liked the one where he was drinking beer on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand the best. In the picture, he was tan and sporting an eight-week beard. His chin looked great. Paul thought it was his best physical feature, like a young William Shatner in the first season of Star Trek. His dad had a great chin, too.

Paul was about to un-match Linda when her message bubble appeared. I’m with my friend. We’re at Costarella’s. Come meet up!

On my way, Paul replied.

Linda sent him a smiling poop emoji, and Paul knew he was in.

He hailed a Lyft and was at Costarella’s in exactly twelve minutes. It should’ve been eight, but there was deadlocked traffic a few blocks from the restaurant, a line of cars rubbernecking an ambulance where a pair of EMTs was loading a pale, gasping man onto a stretcher.

Paul caught a glimpse of the man just as they were closing the door. His eyes were parched and bloodshot. His pupils looked like tiny barbed raisins. He looked excruciatingly thin, like he was dried out. His pants were covered in vomit and something else Paul didn’t want to think about. There were dozens of tiny puncture wounds covering the man’s face and arms.

Junkies, Paul thought.

As if reading his mind, the Lyft driver, an Indian man named Patel, said, “San Francisco… beautiful city, but it has a bad homeless problem. This is the third overdose I’ve seen tonight.”

Paul shook his head in disgust. “I know. I hate it. Why can’t they do that shit somewhere where people don’t have to see them?”

The Lyft driver shrugged.

It didn’t occur to Paul until later that night, that the man he’d seen being loaded into the ambulance was dying.

Costarella’s was a trendy seafood joint turned after-hours bar in the Marina. Paul didn’t see Linda and her friend when he walked in, so he pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered himself a double Jack Daniels on the rocks. It was eighteen dollars. Paul promised himself he’d take it easy tonight. That was when he saw the chubby brunette girl sitting alone at a table in the back corner of the bar.

She had wide eyes and a seashell smile, a deep tan like she’d just gotten back from vacation. It was Linda, alright, but she was twenty pounds heavier than in her pictures. Paul felt his heart drop and thought, Great, another catfish. Oh, well. She’s kind of pretty. I guess I could be into it.

Paul approached her and said, “Linda?”

She half-stood and smoothed her skirt awkwardly with one hand while extending the other for Paul to shake. “Omigod, Paul. Hi.”

“Hey, Linda. So formal. What are you drinking?”

“Oh, omigod, I’m not. This is water,” Linda said.

“And… this is a bar.”

“I was waiting for you. Sit down!” She patted the chair. “I’ll get us a round.”

He hesitantly took a seat, deciding whether or not he was going to pull a runner on her. She’s chubby, and has really hairy arms, but I’ve settled for worse, especially off of Tinder. At least, she has a cute smile. But she’s so bloated. Did she eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s before meeting up with me?

Still, it had been a three-month-long dry spell. Paul decided to stay.

A moment later, Linda returned with two glasses of whiskey. She handed one to Paul.

“So, where’s your friend?” Paul said.

“She went home.”

Linda sat down. “So, what do you think? Do I look like my pictures?”

“Sure,” Paul said.

Linda flashed him her seashell grin. “You’re a lot hotter in person. I really like your chin.”

Paul stroked his beard dramatically. “So. This fine patch of German-Irish face forest is the reason you matched me, huh?”

“I’m a sucker for beards.”

“It wasn’t my big muscles or my towering height?” Paul said, immediately regretting it. I sure hope she takes that as a joke. He pretended to flex his right bicep just to drive home that he was kidding.

Linda smirked. “Uh, no. I’ve met a lot of tall, buff guys on Tinder. I wanted to meet a guy with a nice chin. And you have one, so…”

Paul grinned. “So.”

Linda winked. “So, Paul, what do you do?”

“I’m co-founder of a science fiction and fantasy-themed indie rock label.”

“Oh, how cool! I love science fiction.”

“I’m recording an EP for a band called The Body Snatchers, actually.”

“Far out! That totally sounds like my jam.”

“And you?”

“I work in molecular biology.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

“Uh, mostly gene blotting, but not really the traditional kind. It’s complicated, and honestly, it would bore you.”

“You’re talking to a guy who has the RNA tree of life tattooed on his back.”

“Shut up!”

“I do. Check it out.” Paul stood, turned around, and pulled up his shirt, revealing the faded black ink. Linda oooh’d.

“How about you? You have any tattoos?” Paul asked, sitting down.

Blushing slightly, Linda turned over her wrist, where the words Gene Catcher were written in blue ink.

“Gene Catcher? That’s a little weird,” Paul said, running his fingers over the ink.

Linda rolled her eyes. “It’s an inside joke. My parents were weird. Whenever my mother tried to talk to me about sex, she’d couch it in these huge, life-or-death terms, like, Remember, sweetie, whoever you sleep with will be giving your children a whole chromosome, better make it good. For the way she talked about it, you’d think my mom was trying to breed the fucking chosen one or something–Paul Atredes, since you like science fiction. But it isn’t that big of a deal. Sex is fun.”

Paul snapped his fingers, smiling. “Dune. I got that reference.”

Linda stared into the bottom of her empty glass. “Anyway.”

An hour and six rounds later, Paul was drunk. They were sitting closer together now, her knees in between his. Linda was talking about how she ran away from home at sixteen and hadn’t seen or heard from her parents since. But Paul wasn’t listening.

She’s so cute. And she’s staring at me like she wants me. If I don’t kiss her soon, I’m gonna blow it. I can’t believe I thought she was fat earlier. That body is a ten.

Paul cupped Linda’s face in his hands. Linda stroked his chin, closed her eyes and said, “Kiss me.”

Paul kissed her. Her tongue flickered inside his mouth and he felt something sting the tip of his nose. Paul opened his eyes. Hers were still closed.

Did she just bite my nose? How could she bite my nose with her tongue in my mouth?

Paul suddenly felt hot. Queasy.

Linda looked skinnier than she had a second ago. When they’d met up, she had a beer belly and a double chin, hadn’t she? That was only an hour ago. The tan girl sitting in front of him was petite and thin, just like her profile pictures showed.

Paul felt another gas bubble rise in his belly. He rubbed his nose. It hurt. But he was drunk and horny, and she was stroking his hand.

His stomach rumbled louder. Paul sat back and clutched his abdomen with both hands.

“Hey, are you alright?” Linda said.

“Just (hic) drunk,” Paul said with a burp.

A sudden, sharp pain cut through his stomach like he was giving Cesarean birth to a xenomorph.

“Hey. Seriously. You look pale,” Linda said. Her hands were on his forehead. The black coils of hair on her arms seemed to rise, reaching for his eyes.

Food poisoning. Shit. What the hell did I eat?

Paul brushed her hands away. “I’m fine. Come here.” He kissed her even deeper than before.

In five minutes, the stomach pain had advanced to full-blown nausea. Paul stopped thinking about the dull ache that nipped the tip of his nose or the strange, wire brush texture of her hair. Paul’s only thought was getting through the next hour without diarrhea.

But she’s so hot. This girl could be a model. She’s way out of my league.

He lost his train of thought when he noticed Linda nuzzling his neck. “I’m pretty drunk, too,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes were balmy and bloodshot. “You wanna go back to my place? I know a funny YouTube video you’ll like…”

Hey! That’s my line.

A wave of nausea hit Paul, crashing down from the dryness of his mouth to the shaking depths of his bowels. No. Not here. Not yet.

“I’m down,” Paul said. “Let’s go.”

A block away, her hand slipped down the front of his pants. “I want you,” Linda said in his ear. “I don’t want to wait, Mr. Hot Shot Sci-Fi Rock Star. Why don’t you engineer somewhere for us to fuck?”

I need to lie down. I need a shower. No. I haven’t had sex in months. I need to do it.

“Wait until we get home,” Paul said.

“No. When I want something, I get it,” Linda said. She pulled him by the hand towards an old Victorian house with a huge wrap-around porch nearby. All the lights were off.

Pain separated his thoughts into staccato bullets.

“We’re in public.”

“So? Never stopped me before.”

Halfway across the front yard, his legs wilted under him. Just need… to lie down…

“Alright. But we need to be fast,” Paul said. He climbed the stairs to the porch, lay down and unbuttoned his jeans.

Linda seemed oblivious to his distress. She was too busy unbuttoning his shirt, stroking his face, kissing him. The dull ache he’d felt on the tip of his nose spread to his eyes and arms. He was too weak to do anything but lie still.

When he opened his eyes, their eyelids were attached.

Paul felt Linda get on top of him. Something ticklish and wet wrapped around his scalp. He felt a sudden, violent stinging all over his skin, like alcohol poured over a scratched-open wound. With great effort, he managed to push her off him and break free.

Linda’s eyelashes had grown long enough to entangle his entire face. They protruded from her eyes in long, black filigrees as thin and supple as the hair on her head, swaying like little antennae as they searched for him.

Paul screamed and rolled backward down the stairs. The little clasps of her eyelashes snapped and went with him. They wriggled and curled on the driveway next to him, still searching for a grip.

“The fuck…?” Paul said, stumbling to his feet. His fingertips grazed the blood seeping out through the dozens of tiny cheesecloth holes puncturing his skin.

In the darkness of the porch, Linda giggled.

He scrambled to pull up his pants.

“I’m sorry,” someone on the porch said. “You’re so nice. It’s just… when I want something, I get it.” The voice wasn’t Linda’s.

He didn’t look back until he was three blocks away. The street was empty, a rolling sine curve of quaint San Francisco houses and bars falling away to a sea of diamond lights sparkling over the Bay like stars. He knew she was chasing him. She hadn’t been able to quite get everything she wanted – she’d taken some, but there was hunger in the voice that had called down to him from the porch.

What’s happening to me? He thought. I’m going to die. Oh, God. I’m going to die. What did she do to me?

Paul searched his body for wounds. He had dozens of tiny pinpricks on his eyelids, the tip of his nose, and his forearms. There wasn’t much blood, but his clothes were ruined.

She took something from me. What? I’m bleeding a little. I’ve still got my wallet. I’ve still got my…

Somewhere up the street, he heard her giggle. As with the voice on the porch, it wasn’t entirely female. There was more bass, more gravel, like ten voices recorded on separate audio tracks and played back simultaneously.

Paul ran. He crashed through the door of the nearest business. It was a Chinese restaurant. Tables of gasping people dropped their soup dumplings to cover their mouths with their hands. He pushed his way into the kitchen, bowling over a waiter carrying a steaming plate of General’s Chicken. A fry cook cursed loudly at him in Chinese.

She’s going to come back for me. She’s going to find me. This is really happening.

He lurched for the kitchen’s back door. Two wild-eyed Chinese chefs blocked his path. One was wielding a cast iron frying pan. Paul found what he was looking for and snatched the biggest butcher knife he could see off the magnetic hanging rack.

They think I’m crazy, Paul realized.

The chef slashed at him with the frying pan, hitting Paul in the arm. Paul gasped, but didn’t drop the knife. He circled crab-wise until his back was to the door, then tripped and stumbled backward into an alleyway, where he expelled everything in his bowels from both ends all until there was nothing more to expel.

Sirens bellowed on the adjacent streets. He tried to stand and run, but his legs felt disconnected from his body, the misfiring signals in his brain trying to control a multitude of scattered pieces. Everything burned. The strength drained from his body with every stumbling step.

A girl in a blue dress walking towards him on the street saw him and lurched backward in disgust.

Paul grabbed her desperately. “Please, help me. Help me.”

The girl kicked him and ran the opposite direction, stopping halfway down the block to yell, “Go die under a bridge, ya stupid bum!”

Paul couldn’t feel his limbs anymore. His shoulder and guts were distant satellites, the pain growing number with every second.

I’m going to lose consciousness soon. And I don’t think I’m going to wake up.

Paul got up and stumbled aimlessly toward anything, anywhere that could save him, past families, businessmen, bachelorette parties all whispering and covering their noses when they caught his foul waft. A group of frat boys on a bar crawl threw a beer bottle at Paul’s head.

He didn’t recognize the person gazing mad-eyed back at him in the glass of the shop window where he stopped to hold himself upright. His reflection looked haggard and deranged. Jesus. I look just like that guy they were putting in the ambulance. Same hair. Same poked-up skin. Jesus, it’s hot. This fever I’ve got must be a hundred and five.

The word “death” lingered in every errant, feverish thought, despite his conscious effort not to think it. The sweltering heat of his body only drove it deeper into his mind. I’ll never get the label off the ground. I’ll never get big arms in the gym. I’ll never get-

Paul leaned against the shop window and vomited blood, bright red streaks showering down the glass. It reminded him of a science fiction movie he’d seen once, where the victims of a zombie virus vomited blood during the first stages of infection. The blood in that movie had looked as fake as the zombies’ latex flesh. Paul’s blood looked wrong, too; it was thin, and runny, like dried egg whites; only, he hadn’t been infected. Linda – or whoever she was – hadn’t given him anything, but rather taken something away. Like she’d done it to the man who Paul had seen die.

It had to be her. He looked exactly like the dying junkie, right down to the bodily fluids covering his pants. It’s what she does. She takes what she takes, and we die, like in that one movie, Species. But that was about an alien who was trying to destroy the human race by breeding us out of existence. No, this Linda – or whatever her real name is –  is more like a Body Snatcher, except she isn’t trying to infiltrate us. She does this for fun.

I still have time to stop her.

Two blocks up and around the corner, Paul saw the man sitting in the window of a Starbucks.

Paul recognized him instantly. He was tall and handsome, with big, muscular arms, a good tan, and a seashell smile. He was bloated, like he’d just eaten an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. He was using the free Wi-Fi to swipe Tinder profiles on his iPhone. And he had Paul’s chin.

Paul hid the knife as best he could against the side of his leg and slid nonchalantly into the coffee shop. He approached the man, lifted the knife, and stabbed him in the shoulder. He meant to stab him through the heart, but weak as he was, Paul had to sort of slump over into the man with the blade outstretched.

The man with Paul’s chin saw the attack coming and slid easily to the side. He looked down at the knife, then back up at Paul. His eyes narrowed and he set his iPhone gently down on the table. His grip closed around Paul’s wrist. It felt like a thousand-ton vice, burning hot and inhuman.

Slowly, the man with Paul’s chin pulled the knife out of his shoulder. As soon as the blade left skin, the flesh knitted and the wound closed. In an instant, there was nothing but a minuscule dribble of blood to show it was ever there.

Paul recognized the man’s voice when he spoke. It was like Linda’s, only deeper, broader, the kind of voice a starship captain would have, or the singer of a band.

“You surprise me,” the man who had Paul’s chin said. “You of all people should know my flesh is fast-knitting. That was the first one I ever got. I have all the variants, too. Y’know how many thousands of years that took? Lemme put it this way, Paul: there’s a reason I’m the only one around who still has it.”

Paul stared at his hand where it was locked in the man’s grip, the skin quickly turning from white to oily purple. He was too hot and sick to do anything. All around him, people were screaming. The man with his chin didn’t seem bothered. He let go of Paul’s hand. The knife clattered to the floor, and so did Paul.

“Y-y-you t-took m-m-my ch-chin,” Paul said.

The Man With Paul’s Chin casually picked up his phone, returning to the message he’d been typing to Janice, 24, two miles away, which said: You look like trouble.

Someone was sitting on Paul’s back. A different man, an onlooker. He couldn’t move if he wanted to. Locking both of Paul’s wrists behind his back in a bouncer hold, the onlooker asked the Man With Paul’s Chin, “Hey pal, you alright? Looks like this asshole cut you. There’s blood on your shirt.”

“Just fine, thanks. Lots of crazy junkies in this city,” the Man With Paul’s Chin said.

“Well, the cops will be here any minute.” The onlooker nudged Paul in the ribs with his knee. “You hear that? Have fun trying to get high in the joint, you sick bastard.”

The Man With Paul’s Chin gave the onlooker a seashell smile. “Honestly, I think what he needs is an ambulance.”

You stole my chin, Paul thought as the coffee shop ceiling faded to black.

*

A small crowd gathered outside to watch as the paramedics loaded Paul’s body onto a stretcher under flashing blue lights.

“Another one,” one of the paramedics sighed.

“You still don’t think it could be ricin?” the other said.

“Y’know, I thought about your little theory, while we were loading that D.O.A. a few hours ago, and you know what conclusion I came to?” Paramedic A said.

“What?”

“You need to cut your TV time to one hour a night.”

Paramedic B zipped the body bag closed. Beneath it, Paul’s face looked like a pale, dried-out sponge.

The paramedic wagged his finger. “Then how do you explain those other cases in China? Russia? Johannesburg? Mexico City? All the D.N.A. in their bodies, simultaneously destroyed. Gone. Poof. Like it was never there. Dead in a matter of hours.”

“That’s just bullshit you read on the Internet. Wait until the autopsies come back. It’s dope. Something we haven’t seen before. Ricin? Sure. And this is Walter Fuckin’ White.”

“Nah. I’m tellin ya, it’s a cult, and they use ricin to poison their victims. It’s the only logical explanation. Unless it’s aliens….”

Paramedic A grunted, and nodded for the other to help him lift Paul’s stiffening corpse into the ambulance.

*

Somewhere else in the city, Janice, 24, two miles away, waited outside her apartment building for her Lyft to arrive. She hoped the new guy she was meeting up with for drinks liked her shoes. Costarella’s was a nice place, so she’d worn her best Jimmy Choos, the black strappy ones with the rhinestones that showed off her calves.

She stuck her feet out and pointed her toes to admire them. Her calves were smooth and strong from twenty-one years of competitive dancing. Her mother was a dancer, too. Janice thought they were her best feature.

 

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