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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Retrograde

A short story about time, and a chance meeting, and watching the film unwind.

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Retrograde


I met Hannah about a month ago.  Of course, she wouldn’t phrase it that way, but maybe there’s no other way to say it and be understood, so let’s just leave it there; I met her about a month ago, the week before Christmas.
It had been an unusually cold December.  Even people who’d been born and raised in Ithaca were complaining.  There were about two feet of ice-crusted snow on the ground, and the sound of the plows growling by became so common that you stopped hearing them.  I was walking up Meadow Street, and as my boots pressed into the snow on the sidewalk, they made that squeaking noise that only happens when the temperature is getting close to zero.
I do this walk most nights, up from the bicycle shop where I work to the Ithaca Bakery to grab a bite to eat, then over two blocks on Cascadilla Street where I rent an upstairs room from an elderly couple.  It’s an okay life but you don’t need to tell me that I’m floating, that I’m slipping through life doing the bare minimum.  My mom tells me that most times I talk to her, but it’s not like I don’t see it myself.  I’ve got a decent brain.  I know I could do okay in college, but right now, I just don’t see a path.  I’d rather work at the bike shop, come home with my food and sit and read or watch TV or mess around online, than go to college and spend lots of money to spin my wheels, you know?
Anyway, I was doing my usual trek on that icy December night.  It was right around the solstice, so it’d been dark since around five o’clock, and by this time it was that kind of dark that seems to be an actual substance, not just an absence of light.  Even the streetlights didn’t help much, just illuminated the flakes of snow that were beginning to fall again.  I passed a guy I often see on that walk – tall middle-aged dude, wearing an old-fashioned felt hat with a feather, always going the other way, carrying a briefcase.  That night he had a thick scarf wrapped around his face, and I could barely hear his voice as he said, “What happened to the goddamn global warming?” 
“No kidding,” I said.
“Winter storm warning tonight,” he said.  “Supposed to get another foot and a half by tomorrow noon.  Christ.”
I shook my head.  “Unbelievable,” and then we both went on our way.
The Ithaca Bakery was empty except for me.  There never were many people in this late, but it wasn’t usually completely empty.  Maybe the winter storm warning kept people home.
I could hear a couple of folks in the kitchen, bumping around as they cleaned up.  There was only one person behind the counter.  I’d never seen her before, and I knew most of the staff by name.  She’d been looking down, her hands holding onto the counter, when I walked in, but then she looked up at me.
She was one of those people who is hard to describe; pretty but not beautiful, medium-length blond hair held back by a clip, oval face, medium height.  Her only real standout feature was her eyes, which were a very pale blue.  An artist might describe them as a chilly blue, an icy blue, but that’s not right; there was no cold in them at all.  They had a fire in them.  I’ve read that the hottest fire, past red hot, and yellow, and white, is blue; and after seeing her eyes, I think I understand that.
And as soon as those eyes met mine, she started crying.
She looked down again, still clutching the counter, her whole body shaking.
“Jesus,” I said.  “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head, kept on crying, and I just stood there, feeling weird and uncomfortable, and glad there were no other people in the Bakery that night.
Finally she just looked up, those pale eyes still flooded with tears, and said,  “Eli, I can’t believe it’s already that time.”
I stared at her for a moment, and then said, “Do I know you?”
“Not yet,” she said.  “But you will.”  She drew a sleeve across her eyes, and attempted a smile.  She finally unclenched one of her hands from the counter edge, and reached it across for me to shake.  “I’m Hannah,” she said.
“Eli,” I said, even though she apparently already knew that somehow.
“What can I get you tonight?” she said, trying for that cheerful and courteous sound that restaurant staff always have, and mostly succeeding.
“Sun-dried tomato bagel, toasted, cream cheese and lox.”
She smiled a little bit, for real now, and said, “The usual, then,” and turned away to get me my food.  I put a five dollar bill on the counter, and pretty soon she came up, handed me my plate, gave me my change.
“Look,” I said, still feeling strange, “you want to talk for a while?”
She shrugged.  “No one’s here tonight, and the place closes soon anyway.  We won’t get many more people in this weather, and if we do, I can just get up and take care of them, right?”
“That’s fine.  We can talk for a little while.”
I went to a table, over in the corner by the window, and she followed me, sat down, and rested her chin in her hands, her elbows on the table.
I looked at her, trying to place where I knew her from, but still drew a blank.  I’ve got a good memory for faces, and I wouldn’t forget those eyes, I knew that.  I was certain I’d never seen this woman before.
“I know you don’t understand, now, Eli,” she said.  “It’s so awful for you.  I’m sorry about the way I acted.  Inexcusable, really inexcusable.”
“Are you sure you know me?” I said, taking a bite of my bagel.
She just smiled a little.  “Do you want me to explain?  It won’t make much sense now.  It will later.”  She paused.  “My name is Hannah, by the way.”
“Hannah,” I said.  “I know.  You already told me.  But explain?  Explain what?”
She looked out of the window, at the snow falling faster, hissing against the glass panes.
“I don’t see the world the way others do.”
That was kind of a vague start, I thought.  “None of us see the world the same way,” I said, trying to be helpful, and only ending up sounding like somebody who’s read too much pop psychology.
Her lips tightened, her face looking resolute.  “Okay.  I guess I just need to say it straight out.”  She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly.  “What’s the past for you is the future for me,” she said, in a low, intense voice, and then just looked at me, her pale eyes searching mine.
My rational mind said, This chick is crazy, but something about her demeanor seemed so normal that I couldn’t just attribute her odd behavior to her being a nut.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“When you say something is in the past,” she said, patiently, “it hasn’t happened for me yet.  What I remember is what you call the future.  What you call the past I don’t remember, because it hasn’t happened yet.  For me, at least.”
I stared at her, my mouth hanging open a little.  “That’s impossible,” I said.  “The past is the past.  The future is the future.”
“Not for me.”
“Time passes the same way for everyone.”
She shook her head.  “It’s been this way all of my life.  All the few short weeks of my life.  Time runs backwards for me.”  She gestured at my plate, and smiled a little wryly.  “Can I have a bite of your bagel?  I’m starving.”
I picked up half of the bagel, handed it to her.  “Why did you ask, if for you it’d already happened?  For you, you’d already taken a bite, right?”
“Yes.  But I knew by what you said that it was going to happen, and if I hadn’t asked afterwards, you would have wondered why the hell this strange chick had taken a bite of your dinner without asking.  I learned this stuff the hard way.  I’m beginning to adapt.”
“So you asked to have some of my bagel because for you it had already happened?”
She shrugged.  “I guess from your perspective, that’s the only way you could make sense of it.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.  The clock only runs one way.  No one lives in a world where glasses unbreak, snow falls upward, balls roll uphill.  That’s scientifically impossible, right?”
“I can’t answer that.  All I can say is that we see the same things.  For me, the film runs backwards, that’s all.  Other than that, there’s no difference.  There’s nothing I can do to change the way things unfold, same as with you.”
“That’s why you were crying, when I came in.  Because of something that for you, had already happened?  What was it?”
She shook her head.  “I shouldn’t answer that.”
I thought for a moment.  “It’s me, isn’t it?  For me, I was just meeting you for the first time; for you, it was the last time you’d ever see me.”  I winced, and rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand.  “Jesus, I’m starting to believe you.  But that’s it, right?”
She didn’t answer for a moment.  “The thing is, you know, you just start looking at things as inevitable.  Like you’re in some sort of film.  The actors seem to have freedom, they seem to have will, but in reality the whole thing is just scrolling by and what’s going to happen is only what’s already written in the script.  You could, if you wanted to, start at the end and run the film backwards.  Same stuff, different direction.  No real difference except for the arrow of time.”
“I guess I’d cry, too.”
The corners of her mouth turned up a little.  “It’s no problem, I can get you another bagel,” she said.
Before I could ask her what she was talking about, there was a sudden crash as someone dropped something in the kitchen.  I jumped, and my hand jerked.  The plate with my dinner slid off the table and fell upside down on the floor.
I looked at it, mutely, then at her.  She shrugged, and smiled a little.
“Yeah,” I finally said.  “That’d be great.”
She stood up, one eyebrow raised quizzically, and went off to the kitchen.
My mind was spinning.  Was she crazy, or was what she was saying the literal, factual truth?  How could anyone perceive the world in reverse?  If what she was saying was true, someone should be told; it would blow away all of what was known about science.
But then, how could they test it?  As her life unrolled, she would forget more and more, because as our clocks moved forward, hers would be moving backward.  Only at the present moment did our lives touch – for an instant only, and then continued to spin away along their inverted paths.
She returned with the bagel.
“Sun-dried tomato, cream cheese, and lox,” I said.  “You remembered that, at least.”
She just smiled at me, and sat down, then reached across the table, and took my hand.
Then I thought, No, she didn’t remember.  You just told her.  All she did was get what you just told her to get.
Looking across at her, my heart gave a funny little gallop in my chest.  She knew it because it had already happened for her, I thought.  It was the past.  She was remembering, not predicting.  And I think that’s the moment when I was convinced that she was telling the truth.
“It’s been three weeks since it all started,” she said, still holding my hand.  “It’s nice to find someone to tell about all this.   You’re the first person I’ve told.”
“Three weeks?  Three weeks since what?”
“My life started three weeks ago.  I don’t really understand how, but there it is.”
“Started?  Started how?  What happened three weeks ago?”
She looked down, her eyes becoming unfocused for a moment, as she searched her… memory?  What else could you call it?  After a moment, she looked up.  “The first thing I remember is a shock.  Like an explosion.  Then I felt wind.  Before I knew what was happening, I was up on a bridge, near Cornell, over that really beautiful gorge, I forget its name.  It was snowing, just like today.  Cold.  I didn’t know where I was, all I knew was that my name was Hannah and I was cold.  And I began to walk, and finally came here, and talked to one of the managers, and he offered me a job.  They let me sleep on a cot in one of the offices in back.  Only till I can get a place, and it was really nice of them to let me, I honestly don’t know why they agreed.  But three weeks – yes, that’s when it all started.”
“So that means you’ve only got three weeks to live.”
“I suppose that’s the way it would appear, from your perspective.”
“My perspective?” I shouted.  “My perspective is all I have!  You don’t mean to tell me that in three weeks you’re going to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it?”
Hannah shrugged.  “I don’t know any other way to explain it.  It really is all about perspective.”
I leaned back in my chair.  “So you’re telling me that from your point of view, you’re going to get younger and younger, and finally a baby, and then you’ll disappear up into your mother’s uterus, and then you’ll just… cease to be?”
“It’s not so very much weirder than your life seems to me.  What will happen to you when you die?”
Well, she got me there, and I didn’t respond for a little while.  “I don’t know,” I finally said.  “I’m not religious.  But even so, I don’t know how you can expect this to make sense to me.”
“Look, you don’t have to be upset on my behalf.  It is what it is.  Maybe we should just stop talking about all these matters of life and death, and the afterlife.  Or beforelife.  Or whatever.”
The snow was falling faster now, beginning to pile up on the older drifts, swirling in curtains against the streetlight.  “I’m not upset,” I said, and I was telling the truth.  I felt completely calm for some reason, despite having spent fifteen minutes in what was the most peculiar conversation I’d ever had.  I ate the last bit of my bagel, and looked into those eyes, those strange, luminous eyes.  “Look, I don’t know.  Do you want to come back to my place?  I know it’s weird to ask, but it might be better than your staying here, alone, and having to be left with… your memories.”  
She smiled.  “I’d like that.”
I held out my hand for her, and she stood.  “Let’s go,” I said.  “I just live a couple of blocks away.”

We didn’t talk any more about time and perspective – just talked about what we liked, talked about the weather.  We each had a beer and sat on the couch for a while, and then went to bed.  I offered her the couch, but she just smiled and shook her head, saying that that if the point was for her not to be lonely, the couch was no better than her cot back at the Bakery.  I didn’t argue.
We made love that night, and as I was drifting off to sleep, I wondered what that had been like for her – an explosion, merging into excitement, fading into anticipation, then subsiding into silence.  I hoped that it was good, however she had perceived it.

She stayed with me for three days.  On the morning of the fourth day, I awoke to find a note on the pillow next to me, and that she was gone.  It wasn’t really a surprise, but still, it made my stomach clench when I picked it up.  Time was spooling by, the clock was running; it never stopped, whatever direction it was going.  You couldn’t halt it either way.
The note read:
Eli…
I know you won’t understand this, but this can’t go on indefinitely.  It will make sense to you eventually, I hope.  I hardly know you, and as time passes for you, I will know you less and less, and finally forget you entirely.  It’s better this way.
Hannah

I looked at the note for a while, then got up, showered, dressed, and headed up to the Bakery.
Hannah was behind the counter.  She looked up at me, and I was greeted by a smile.  I went up to her, stood silent for a moment.
“My name is Eli,” I said.  “I don’t want you to forget that.  Eli.  And for three days, you were important to me, Hannah.”
She smiled again, those odd eyes glittering.  “I won’t forget,” she said, and reached across and touched my hand.
“Don’t forget,” I said.  “Don’t ever forget me.”

And that was all.
I went in to the Bakery a couple of days after that, near closing time, taking my usual route after getting off from work at the bike shop.  Tom, the long-haired, multiply-pierced counterman, greeted me with a grin.
“Hey, Eli,” he said.  “The usual?”
“Yeah,” I said.  He started putting together my dinner.  “Hey, Tom,” I said.  “What do you think about that girl who works here, Hannah?”
Tom half turned, my bagel in his hand.  He rolled his eyes.  “That chick is wack, and that’s my considered opinion,” he said.  “Owner said she could live in the back room for a coupla weeks, till she finds a place.  But she’s a strange one.  Nice looking, though.”
I nodded.  “Yeah.  Pretty strange.  You got that right.”

Then last week, in the Ithaca Journal, the following article appeared on the front page.

Local Woman Killed in Fall from Bridge
Hannah van Meter, 24, was killed in what police are considering a probable suicide.  On the night of January 17, she fell from the bridge on Stewart Avenue into Fall Creek Gorge.  A witness, whose name has not been released by police, stated that she had been standing for some time, looking down into the gorge, and that he went up and attempted to speak to her.  She seemed disoriented, and would not leave the bridge even though the witness attempted to persuade her to do so.  She threatened to jump if he approached her more closely, he stated.  After five minutes, the witness went to a nearby house to get help, and was walking back up toward the bridge when van Meter jumped or fell over the bridge railing.
She was the daughter of David and Helen van Meter of Chenango Forks.  She had lived in Ithaca for only a few weeks, and had been employed by the Ithaca Bakery since mid-December.
Police are investigating.

I sat in my room, crying and reading the article over and over.  You still cry even when you know how the story’s going to end, sometimes.  But perhaps, if the story is read backwards, it will have a happier ending. 
Or beginning.  Or whatever.
At least that’s what I am hoping for.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sephirot: An excerpt from a work in progress

It's been months since I've posted here, partly because of... you know, life.  The universe.  And everything.  But also because I've been working on finishing up Past Imperfect, the fourth of the Parsifal Snowe Mysteries, which will (I hope!) be released in August.  I've also begun work on a new novel, Sephirot, based on the ten linked worlds of Jewish mysticism -- and an unfortunate everyman named Duncan Kyle who finds himself lost in them.  Here's a bit of the first chapter, which I hope will pique your interest!

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It had been, Duncan Kyle reflected afterwards, a completely ordinary day until the moment he fell through the floor of his living room at a little before two in the morning.
A slow day at Carthen, Douglas, and Prescott Financial Consultants.  Dinner with his girlfriend, Libby, followed by drinks at his apartment and the happy (but never certain) outcome that she intended to spend the night with him.  They had not fallen into a contented doze until nearly midnight, and Duncan fully expected to sleep until his alarm went off at seven o’clock.  So it was something of a surprise when he opened his eyes in the pitch darkness, and turned his head toward his clock to see that it was only 1:54.
His mouth was sandpaper-dry.  He swallowed, throat muscles contracting on nothing, and reached toward his nightstand for the bottle of water he kept there.  His wrist contacted the bottle before his searching fingers did, sending it tumbling to the floor.  It gave a light clatter as it landed on the hardwood.
Empty.
He swore under his breath, and swung his legs out of bed.  Libby made a small, childlike noise in her sleep, mumbled something incomprehensible, and then was quiet.  Duncan stood, and walked out of his bedroom, naked, not even bothering to take his robe from its hook on the back of the door.  He padded down the hall toward the kitchen.  There was moonlight coming through the living room window, turning the furniture and carpets a silvery gray.  The window was open, and the curtains fluttered in the humid July breeze, looking organic, like some kind of sea creature swaying in the current.  He went along his sofa, brushing his fingertips along its rough cloth surface, and passed in front of the television.
Then the floor caved in.
There was a grinding, rending crash, and the smooth surface tilted beneath his bare feet.  He reached out for something to grab, and caught a projecting strip of the underlayment, but it snapped off in his hand.  With a cry, he fell into darkness, with pieces of hardwood flooring, insulation, and dust raining down around him.
He landed on his side, a rough edge of the tumbled mass of debris tearing a long scratch across the skin of his back and left shoulder as he came slithering to rest.  The impact  knocked the wind out of him, and for a time he lay, gasping and coughing while the dust drifted down, his thoughts seeming as shattered as the world around him.
It was only two minutes afterwards, but it seemed a great deal longer, that he braced himself on his elbows and sat up.  Grit and wood slivers dug into his arms, legs, and butt as he forced himself upright.
"Earthquake...?" he croaked, and coughed again.  "Libby?"
Duncan had never been in an earthquake, and he had a vague memory from one of his high school science classes that upstate New York wasn't on a fault zone, but he couldn't think of any other ready explanation.  He looked upwards, and struggled to his feet.  There was a gaping hole in the ceiling, perhaps fifteen feet overhead, and he could see a bit of his living room through it.  A corner of the sofa, and one end of the coffee table, tipped perilously near the edge, along with trailing wisps of fiberglass and loops of electrical wire.
I'd better move out of range, he thought.  I don't want to take a coffee table to the head if there's an aftershock.
He moved to the side, out of the likely landing area should the coffee table fall, and called again, louder, "Libby?"
There was no sound from his apartment.  In fact, there was no sound at all.  He looked around him, and that was when he realized the oddest thing yet, something that had been knocked clean out of his mind by the shock of what had happened.
If the floor of his apartment caved in, he should have fallen into the apartment below his.  If things were normal, he would have landed in the living room of Mrs. Elena Gonzales, a sixty-something widow who was a mother hen type to the entire apartment building, constantly inquiring about the tenants' health, eating habits, and love lives.  And although going through the ceiling, stark naked, into Mrs. Gonzales's living room would have occasioned an apology, he had no doubt that she would have been more concerned with whether or not he needed to go to the emergency room than the fact that he happened not to be wearing any clothes.
But wherever he was, it was clearly not anyone's living room.  The light was dim, coming through a row of slot-like windows high up in the wall.  What he could see amongst the shadows was a dingy gray brown.  The air was cool, and smelled of age and mildew.  Near him, and covered with broken pieces of two-by-four and particle board, was a jumble of wooden boxes.  In one corner was a worn marble statue of an angel, its face toward a wall made of rough stone.  The end of one wing was missing, and its feet were partly buried beneath piles of broken ceramic jars.  The wall behind the statue had a shelf cut into it, and it held untidy stacks of leather-bound books.  Tumbled blocks of fallen masonry lay strewn on the stone floor, where in places the facing had peeled away, leaving bare rock and earth showing underneath.  Further away, almost invisible in the darkness, was an arched doorway through which he could see nothing but blackness.
Did I fall through Mrs. Gonzales's apartment, too? Duncan thought.  Maybe I'm in the basement of the building.  I didn't even know there was one.  But immediately, he doubted this guess.  This didn't look like any basement he'd ever seen; it looked more like his imagined idea of catacombs, or a dungeon beneath a medieval castle.
He rubbed his face, and then dragged his fingers backwards through his hair, making it stand on end.  "Fuck," he said, his voice creaking in his dry throat.  "What do I do?  Sit around and wait to be rescued?  Or try to get out on my own?"
There was clearly no way to reach the hole in the ceiling and climb through back into his apartment; there was nothing big enough, or sturdy enough, to use as a makeshift ladder.  If help didn't come from overhead, there was no escape in that direction.
He shouted again, up toward the hole, “Libby!  Help me!”
Silence.
He waited, watching, for some minutes.  If there’d been an earthquake, or at least a cave-in, shouldn’t the noise have alerted someone?  Shouldn’t there be voices, sirens, noises of rescue equipment being moved?  Libby wasn’t a heavy sleeper; no way could she have slept through all this.
He called out again, “Libby!” and was again met with complete silence.
Then, with a sudden gush of relief, he thought, I'm dreaming.  I'll wake up soon, and Libby will be right there next to me, and I'll tell her all about it, and we'll have a good laugh.  I wonder why I'm dreaming this?  He reached up and touched his shoulder, wincing as his fingers brushed the oozing and aching scrape.  Hey! he thought, brightening.  If I know I'm dreaming, this must be a lucid dream!  I've never had a lucid dream before.  May as well enjoy it, and explore a little.  He walked around the room, avoiding the worst of the fallen debris, but still yelped once as his bare foot contacted something sharp and painful.  Hobbling, he went up to the bookshelf, and looked at the battered and dust-covered spines, barely readable in the gloom.  The books were bound in dark leather, and were ancient, to judge by the faded writing.
Liber Ivonis.  Cultes des Goules.  De Vermis Mysteriis.  Unaussprechlichen Kulten.  Necronomicon.
All seemed to be in languages he didn't speak, to judge by the titles, so he moved on.
He made a complete circuit of the room, and ended up standing before the doorway underneath the arch.  A set of three stone steps led up to it, but beyond it was completely lightless.  A cool breeze flowed from the door, carrying with it a faint aromatic scent, and he shivered.
If it's a lucid dream, maybe I can control it, he thought.  He said out loud, "I want my robe!", feeling vaguely foolish as he did so.
Nothing happened.
"How 'bout a flashlight?" he said.
Still nothing.
"Shit," he said.  "I thought lucid dreams would be more fun than this.  That I'd be able to fly and teleport and do magic.  And that there'd be lots of scantily-clad women.  What do I get?  Rocks and broken crap and dust."
Duncan took two steps up, peering into the darkness.  
Walking stark naked into a dark hallway, in a strange place, seemed unwise, so he stood there, uncertain.  Another shudder rippled over his bare skin, and he retreated into the room, and found a wooden box to sit down on.
It being a lucid dream doesn't mean that there might not be a monster hiding in the dark.  At least it seems safe in here.  Also, if this isn't a dream, and there really has been an earthquake or something, it's probably better to stay put.

It was several hours later — he couldn't be certain exactly how long — that he finally gave up on that idea.  He had slept uneasily for a time, his head in his hands, but thirst kept waking him up (Why couldn't this have happened AFTER I got my drink of water? he thought, miserably).  He got up once to pee in the corner of the room, returning to his seat on the box after peering cautiously up through the hole in the ceiling.  He could still see the coffee table and the sofa through the gap, but the light hadn't changed; it was still dark, with only the faint, shimmery quality of the moonlight on edges and corners.
Shouldn't it be morning by now? he thought.  Or at least near dawn? It still looks like the middle of the night.  And why hasn't Libby noticed anything?  Heard the noise, or at least seen that I'm gone?
He shouted, "Libby!" up toward the hole, again, to no effect.  Then he returned once more to the box.
Duncan had been told before that he lacked imagination; that he was solid, reliable, and stable, but not creative.  It was, honestly, true enough.  Accountancy and financial consulting had been a good choice of a career.  He was a steady employee, could be self-motivated when he needed to, but his best qualification was that he took direction well.  He was good with details, sharp about numbers, fast, and efficient.  But other than that, he was mostly interested in what he called "guy stuff" — sports, news, friends, food, beer, and sex.  So he had filled his life with those things, and considered himself lucky if he had a baseball game to watch, a full fridge, and a steady girlfriend.  He wasn’t good at thinking outside the box, largely because he'd never had to.
Now, he was out of the box, and he didn't like it.
He stood up and stretched, yawned, and said, "Well, if this is a lucid dream, it sucks."
He walked back to the archway, which seemed like the only exit from the place, and again took two tentative steps up.  There was once more that brush of cool air against his bare skin, carrying with it a trace of some unidentifiable spicy odor.  He reached out his left hand, and his fingers touched the rough stone of the wall.  Extending his right hand out and upward, to avoid if possible cracking his head on any low obstacles, he plunged forward into absolute darkness.
The passageway was smooth and unobstructed.  Duncan felt the coolness of hard-packed dry earth beneath his feet.  His left hand contacted nothing but rock as the tunnel slanted gradually upwards, and his right hand touched nothing at all.  The air became progressively cooler, and he felt goosebumps standing out on his arms and chest.  Finally there was an angle to the right, and the incline increased, but he became aware of a change as well in the light.  There was a faint grayness, not enough to make out any objects, a shift subtle enough that at first he thought was a trick of the eye.  He realized, though, that he could see his hand in front of him — vague, but visible when he moved it.  The light continued to increase, until he could see the contours of the stones that made up the wall, the smooth surface of the floor.
All at once, the tunnel opened out into a wide room.  The light was still dim, and he couldn't see the other side of it from where he stood, but it was at least better lit than where he had come from.  There was a window cut into the stone wall near where he stood, but too high to peer out of, and through this a chilly breeze flowed.  He shivered, once again wishing for (and not getting) his robe, which was probably still hanging on a hook on his bedroom door.
Duncan went up to the window.  All he could see out of it was a rectangle of gray, featureless sky.  He reached up and hooked his fingers over the edge of the sill, and tried to find toeholds so he could lift himself up and find out more about where he was.  He succeeded, after one failed attempt that left him with a scraped knee, but finally ended up with his elbows propped on a broad, flat sill almost three feet deep, the lower part of his body dangling, pressed uncomfortably against the cold stones.
He was looking out over a landscape he'd never seen before.
Duncan felt a skittering sense of panic, like a rock skipping on the surface of a lake, leaving little shuddery ripples behind.  Where the fuck am I? he thought, and his heart pounded in his chest, sweat standing out on his skin despite the chill.  This can’t be a dream.  It’s too real.  But it can’t be real.  It’s too dreamlike…
He looked out through the window, the breath whining in his throat, his elbows aching from supporting his weight on the rough-hewn rock of the sill.  There were undulating hills, dotted with brown, scrubby plants and rust-colored stones.  The aromatic smell was stronger.  It was a dry, desiccated odor, and he was reminded of a passage in one of his college history texts that described the spices the Egyptians used when they embalmed dead bodies.
It wasn't a comforting thought.
He hung there, feet dangling, for some minutes.  Nothing moved.  There was not a sound, no bird song, no rustle of little animals in the leaves.  It looked like an artist's depiction of a dying world, a world where everything wise enough and mobile enough had already long ago departed.  There was a tired, ruddy light coming from somewhere behind him and whatever strange building he was in.
He considered briefly climbing through the window, but it wasn't possible from his vantage point to tell how high up the window was in the wall, or if there might be a sheer drop on the other side.  In any case, the vista in front of him looked singularly uninviting.  Finally, Duncan pushed himself out and away, and landed with a soft thump on the floor inside.
Duncan's thirst was becoming unbearable, and for the first time, the thought crossed his mind that he might be trapped.  He still wasn't certain if this was a dream; but in the end, it didn't matter much.  While he was there, what he felt was the reality.  If in a dream, he spent days without water and finally perished of thirst, would that mean the agony, the terror, the despair would be any less?
He padded across the earthen floor, moving away from the window.  Whatever this room was, it was considerably larger than the one he'd fallen into.  The far edges were obscured in shadow.
He stopped, suddenly, and shouted, "Is there anyone here?"  Even his voice sounded thin, sapped of all of its blood and vitality.  He stood still, listening, not expecting any response, and getting none.  There was a noise; whether caused by his call, or not related to him at all, he heard a faint sound from the darkness.  It was a dusty, dry creak, like stone on stone, quiet enough that when it ceased he half convinced himself that it had been his imagination.  No human voice, nor even the rustling and squeaking of mice or other small, subterranean animals, followed.
A shudder rippled through his frame, and for the first time in years, he felt like crying.  His chest heaved, but he fought the sensation back, and started walking again, toward the dark side of the room.
There was more fallen masonry in the middle of the room, and Duncan added a bruised shin to his other injuries before he cleared the rubble.  He slowed as the light from the window diminished, but kept walking even after he had descended once more into total darkness.
Despairing thoughts echoed in his mind, seeming loud in the oppressive silence.  Buried alive in the crypt.  Left here, alone and naked, to die slowly.  How long will I keep walking before I give up?  Or will I finally drop from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst?  My body will lie here and slowly mummify, and no one will ever find my bones.
The room, whatever its function to those who had constructed it, was immense.  Long after the light was gone, Duncan kept walking, and other than small pieces of fallen stone, his tentative feet and outstretched arms encountered nothing.  He walked more confidently after a time, still moving forward, although with no clear idea of why.
When he finally struck the opposite wall, it was with a glancing scrape to his left shoulder.  He stopped, and swore loudly, massaging it, fighting down a combination of rage and frustration that came welling up from his belly.
And then, he heard the same sound he had heard before; a grating noise, like the grinding of a stone millwheel, this time from nearer at hand.  He turned his head in the dark toward the sound, and shouted, "Hello?"
The faintest of creaks answered him.
He put out his left hand, and walked along the wall toward the sound, his fingertips lightly brushing the stone.  He had only gone about twenty feet or so when the wall took a sharp turn to the left, and the floor began to slope downhill.  Straight ahead, but still too distant to illuminate anything, he saw something that set his heart pounding against his ribcage.
Firelight.
Fire meant inhabitants.  And even hostile inhabitants were better than a solitary death in an abandoned catacomb.  He had been in this place for how long?  Perhaps ten hours?  And already, he was ready to risk anything in order simply not to be alone in the dark.  The light flickered and wavered, its quality somehow more alive than the dreary ruddiness of the sky outside the window.
He walked steadily downhill toward the light, which soon revealed itself as coming from another stone archway.  He looked down at his own body, now just visible.  The red light glimmered garnet on the bloodstains on his legs and across one side.  Without any conscious will, he began to run, his bare feet thumping on the packed earth of the floor, only slowing as he came, squinting, into the full firelight shining through the opening.
He hesitated for a moment on the threshold, and then stepped through the arch.
The room was stone-walled, as all of them had been, but this one had a ceiling so high as to be out of sight.  It had no windows.  In the center of it, and taking up most of the room, sat a huge statue of a Sphinx, its face angled away from Duncan.  The thing was enormous; the top of its head was barely visible in the gloom.    Its hind legs, smooth-carved and rippling with muscle, towered over him.  The massive paws alone, resting on the ground directly in front of him, reached nearly to his waist.
Walking silently, he made his way around to the front of the Sphinx.  Directly between its forepaws was a huge bronze brazier, in which a fire burned steadily.  But more importantly, beneath the brazier was a stone basin with a pool of dark, still water, reflecting the light from a surface like a mirror.
Duncan felt his thirst surge tenfold.  He said, in a thick croak, "Water.  Thank god."
Immediately there was the same grating noise he'd heard before.  And the Sphinx's head moved, angling downward.  Rock dust came down in a trickling stream from the sides of the neck.  His thirst forgotten for the moment, Duncan looked up into the statue's immense face.
And then the Sphinx's eyes opened.
The eyes were glossy, liquid, alive.  The irises were green flecked with gold, the pupils an inky black, the whites as smooth and unblemished as polished alabaster.  It regarded Duncan with a gaze that seemed curious, intelligent.  Duncan froze, body and mind, in such a balls-clenching panic that he was unable to utter a sound.
And then it spoke.
"You're naked," the Sphinx commented.
"I know," Duncan was able to squeak out, after a moment.
"I thought you might," the Sphinx said, in a conversational tone.  Its voice was deep, resonant, like a cello.  "It just seemed odd."
He looked down at himself again, and then back up at the Sphinx's face.  "I...  I wasn't wearing any clothes when I fell through the floor of my apartment, and ended up here."  He swallowed, painfully, and said, "Can I drink from the pool?"
The Sphinx's mouth curled upward a little in an ironic smile, and there was the same creaking grate of stone on stone, and another thin tendril of dust spiraled downward.  "What does that mean, can you drink?  The water is right there.  Have a drink if you wish to."
"You won't grab me, or hurt me, will you?" Duncan said, and immediately felt ashamed at how cowardly it sounded.
"Of course not," the Sphinx said.  "Why would I do that?"
Duncan moved forward, and knelt down, reaching out to cup his hands into the water.  He saw his own reflection — his hair disheveled, his face pale and grime-streaked, an ugly scrape across his shoulder — and above him, he saw the reflection of the Sphinx looking down at him.  Its smile widened, and he caught a flash of sharp white teeth.
"Of course," the Sphinx said, "the first thing you should learn here is that everything you see and hear is a lie."
Duncan looked up in alarm.  The thought, What would it feel like to be bitten in half? bounced through his skull, and he braced himself for the pounce, for the teeth to pierce his torso, tearing sinew from bone.  But the Sphinx didn't move.  It just continued to watch him.
There was another frozen moment, but he recovered more quickly this time, and thought, Well, fuck this.  If it kills me, it kills me, but I'll be damned if I won't have a drink of water first.  He scooped up water in his hands — even the feel of it against his skin was delicious — and took one drink, then another, and another.
I have never known what it was like to quench thirst until now, he thought, as he stood again, sated for the time being, rivulets of water leaving trails down his chest.  He backed away from the Sphinx, who was still regarding him with an amused expression.
"Better?" it asked.
"Yes," Duncan said.
"Good.  There are many hard ways to die, but thirst is certainly one of the worst.  And there you have the second lesson you must learn: fear may be a necessary companion, but it is a poor guide."
"Who are you?" Duncan said.  "And where am I?"
"Those are two different questions, of course.  Which would you like me to answer first?"
Duncan ran his arm over his mouth, still wet from the pool.  "Who are you?"
"Look at me.  Who do you think I am?"
Duncan leaned his head back till his neck ached.  The Sphinx craned its own massive head downward, its shining eyes looking into Duncan's.  There was a brief moment when his mind teetered on the edge of complete incredulity, and he wondered if he was neither dreaming, nor lost, but had simply gone insane.  And he thought, No.  No, that's not possible.  How...?  And he said, in a small voice, "Maria?"
"Ah," said the Sphinx.
"You look... you look like my sister..."
"Do I?"
"Just like.  Exactly like."  And as he watched, the resemblance seemed to become closer.  The angle of the nostrils, the sardonic lift of the eyebrow, the way the carved waves of hair fell against the shoulders.  Did I not see it at first, because I was so thirsty and afraid? he thought.  Or did its face change when I thought I recognized her?
"There you are, then," the Sphinx said.
"But Maria... Maria died."  Duncan felt the old grief rise in his chest, a painful grip on his heart.
"Did she?"
"A car accident.  When she was seventeen."
"A pity."
"She was my twin sister."
"It must have been hard for you," the Sphinx said, and there was a hint of mockery in its voice.
"But you're not Maria.  You look like her, but you're not her."
"No," the Sphinx admitted.  "You're correct about that."
"So the fact that you look like her... that's a lie, too."
"That is one way of looking at it."
"Am I dreaming?" Duncan said.
The Sphinx didn't answer for a moment.  "If I told you yes," it finally said, its voice thoughtful, "might I not be telling the truth?"
"Of course."
"And if I said no, might you still be asleep and dreaming?"
"I suppose."
"Then what is the point of asking?"
Duncan shook his head, rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.  "What the hell is this place?" he said.
"Yes, that was your other question," the Sphinx said.  "Where are you?"
Duncan looked up, waiting, but the Sphinx didn't say anything more.  It just continued to watch him, its green-gold eyes glittering in the firelight.
"Well?" he finally said.
"It is a hard question to answer," the Sphinx said.  "What is this place?  I could tell you what it is called, but what would a name tell you?"
"It's a start," Duncan said.
"Yes," the Sphinx said, its voice deepening until it made Duncan's innards vibrate, a sound as rich as the bass pipes on an organ.  "A start.  That is exactly what it is."
"What is it called?"
"It is called Malkuth."
"Where is it?"
The white of teeth showed again, just for a moment.  "All around you."
"But..." Duncan said, and took a deep breath.  "Damn it all, you know what I mean."
"Do I?  Are you so sure of that?"
"Fine.  The Sphinx talks in riddles.  I get that.  I remember that from my college English class.  I guess I have to be specific.  Where is this place, relative to my apartment?"
"Did you not say that you fell through your apartment floor, and that is how you came to be here?"
"Yes."
"Then you know the answer, do you not?  It would seem that this place is beneath your apartment."
"But I know that's not true!" Duncan shouted.  "There's no place like this underneath my apartment!"
"Suit yourself," the Sphinx said.
"Look, all I want to do is get back home.  Or wake up, or whatever.  How do I do that?"
"I think that you humans have a saying, do you not, that the only way out is through?  I believe you will find that to be the case here."
Duncan regarded the Sphinx's face, and thought, No wonder it looks like Maria.  Maria would have liked this.  She always loved riddles.  And he said, "You said that everything here was a lie.  Are you lying now?"
"Oh, of course not," the Sphinx said.  "I wouldn't lie about something that important.”
"So how do I get through, then?"
The Sphinx looked down at him, its face in a sardonic twist.  "Do you want some advice?"
"Sure."
"The best way to get the information you need is to ask the right questions."
"How do I know what the right questions are?"
The Sphinx's stone mouth opened slightly, and it gave a basso profundo laugh that Duncan felt vibrating in the floor beneath his bare feet.  "Well, that certainly wasn't one."
"You are a pain in the ass," he said, scowling.  Then he looked down, and said to himself, "This is fucked up.  I'm talking to a statue."
The Sphinx inclined its huge head.  "At your service."
Duncan took a deep breath, and looked back into the Sphinx's face.  "Okay, look.  Let me start with some simple questions, before we move on to the big stuff.  I haven't seen any trace of anyone else here since I arrived.  But there's a fire burning here.  Who keeps the fire going?"
"My attendants."
"Where are they now?"
"How should I know?  It's not like I get out much."
"But who are they?"
The Sphinx smiled.  "Who are you?"
"I'm Duncan Kyle!" he yelled.  "And why can't you just give a straight question a straight answer?"
"Because I really don't think you know what you're asking, most of the time.  You humans are like that, you know.  You think things are their names, and if you know the name, you know the thing itself.  You throw words around as if they were meaningless, or as if they mean whatever you want them to, and could mean something completely different tomorrow.  Then you blame each other when there is confusion."  It paused, and blinked its enormous, glistening eyes.  "If you were asking for my attendants' names, I can't tell you that, because I don't know the answer.  As for who they are?  They are silent.  They come to feed the fire and replenish the water in the pool.  They don't talk to each other, nor to me.  How can I know who they are, who they would be if they were like you, alone and naked in the dark?  How would I know what they love, what they hate, what angers them, what fills them with grief, what fills them with lust?  They never tell me such things.  And even if they did, I do not doubt that much of it would be a lie.  Humans, I think, are as good at lying to themselves as they are at lying to each other.”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Flash Fiction Contest, Week 8 Winner!

We have a winner from the Tales of Whoa/Potato Chip Math Flash Fiction Contest, week 8!  The prompt was:

The first sign I had that something was wrong was when the birds stopped singing.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

From Jane (@janesharp11) we have the following emotionally-wrenching piece:
At the time I don’t think it was something I was consciously aware of; that the first sign I had that something was wrong, was when the birds stopped singing. You would think getting the phone call asking me to come in the day before my scheduled appointment might have been the big clue. Looking back I have no recollection of sound of any kind as I walked to the appointment on that February morning so long ago. The sky was bright blue and cloudless, with the full heat of the day yet to come.
There was a part of me that knew what was coming. My world had already started to shift as I was gradually beginning to move out of kilter with everyone else. I was becoming different. Secretly I knew it. It wasn’t denial or avoidance. Perhaps it was the beginning of acceptance. It took me almost an hour to go from being at one of the best times of my life, to experiencing something completely foreign to me.
Halfway there my mobile phone rang. It was the boy. Not long returned from his honeymoon he was calling to catch up. I hated that I had to shatter his mood and give him cause to worry; he had been through his own darkness recently. But what can you do? We said goodbye and disconnected. I promised I would call him afterwards. Later he would tell his sister the news.
I kept walking, mind blank. No sound. The birds were still quiet. I reached the main road and the cars and trucks rolled along, making no noise at all as each one carried those inside towards their own destinations. Weird… Surreal…I didn’t pay too much attention to the phenomenon because I was already merging into that other, shadow world.
Almost there now.
I thought about how, depending on what I heard, I would either ring my husband or send the message, “All’s good.” I never sent that message.
I reached my destination and the receptionist was professional and kind, but she never really looked me in the eye.
I waited. Time rushed. Time froze. It was my turn.
I went in and sat down.
She gently closed the door and turned to face me.
‘I’m sorry to say it’s cancer,’ said my doctor.
Of course the birds never did stop singing. I just stopped hearing them for a while.

Thanks to all who participated!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Flash Fiction Contest, Week 8 Prompt!

So, here we are, Week 8 of the Potato Chip Math/Tales of Whoa Flash Fiction Contest.  The rules are the same as always; 500 word maximum, and the prompt must be included verbatim somewhere in your piece. The deadline is Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at 8:00 PM EST.  We'll post the winner next Wednesday!

So here's this week's prompt -- see where this one takes your creativity:

The first sign I had that something was wrong was when the birds stopped singing.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Post your pieces in the comments section here, along with your Twitter handle if you'd like recognition there.

Have fun!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Flash Fiction Contest, Week 7 Prompt is up!

My pal Andrew Butters over at Potato Chip Math has the prompt up for Week 7 of our Flash Fiction Contest.  It's another photo prompt... so this one should be fun!

Remember the rules: 500 words, based on whatever direction the prompt gets your creativity going.  The deadline is Tuesday, February 25, at 8:00 PM EST.

Have fun!

Flash Fiction Contest, Week 6 Winner!

Sorry for the delay this week in announcing the winner, but I was off vacationing in sunny Florida.  I know, I know, I won't get any sympathy over that.  Maybe I'll get a little if I tell you that I almost got stuck in Detroit on the way home because of an ice storm?

So enough about me, already.  Last week's prompt was a photograph, and it generated some wonderful pieces of flash:

[image courtesy of photographer D. Sharon Pruitt and the Creative Commons]

The winner this week has won before, but her piece was such a standout that it had to get first place.  I've always been a sucker for stories that are emotional without sinking into sentiment -- and this one has all of that, and more.  From JMcPike01 we have the following Valentine's Day story:

*****

Behind her she heard the rattle of a skateboard over cement. “Kay! Hey, Kay! Hold up!”

She held up and stepped out aside. It was the boy named Aloha. He had on a baggy shirt over his thin frame and floppy, ragged shoes that slapped on the cement. He rode that skateboard right up to her, kicked it up into his hand like a pro.

“Here,” he said and thrust something at her. “Take it.”

“What is it?”

“A flower, stupid.” He held the precious peachy-pink rose in his grubby fingers. “What else is it gonna be?”

“Why?”

“It’s Valentine’s Day, duh. Here, take it.”

“But,” her soft voice embarrassed her when his was so loud, “we’re not…sweethearts.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah we are. Don’t you remember what I said to you when you came into our class?”

“Oh.” She had thought it was a cruel joke. She’d never mentioned it to anyone.

“I’m gonna marry you when we’re grown up,” he told her. “Don’t forget.”

She accepted the rose from him and said nothing. He was exuberant. Blonde. Bright-eyed. Everything she wasn’t, with her dark curling hair and dark brown eyes. “I won’t if you won’t.” Carefully, she smiled at him, a genuine thing that she felt from her heart.

His smile was full of spaces. “I won’t.”

She kept the rose in a slim glass vase on her beside table. She looked online for ways to preserve the flower and pressed it flat between a fold of wax paper and dictionary. Its scent lingered in her dresser drawer. When she brought it out, thinking of him, she could still smell the rich, light fragrance and she remembered his promise.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Flash Fiction Contest, Week 6!

Hi y'all...

Welcome to Week 6 of the Tales of Whoa/Potato Chip Math flash fiction contest... but first, a reminder of the rules:

It's very simple: we give you a prompt, and you write 500 words or less (including the prompt, if it's words -- which this week, it isn't!).

You can write in any style that you wish; just be sure to use the prompt exactly as it is shown, keep it under 500 words, write it in English, and ensure it's completely made up (this is a flash fiction challenge after all).

Next week Andrew and I will post the pieces we liked the best and will do a shout out on Twitter to those folks (if they so desire; if you'd like us to recognize you there, please include your Twitter handle). After a few months we'll compile a list of our favorites and we'll get the Internet to vote. The winner will win stuff (to be determined, but we're sure they'll love it).

This week's prompt is a photograph.  Valentine's Day is Friday -- and this one has a romantic bent, although you are (of course) free to travel with this inspiration to dark places, if you prefer!

 [image courtesy of photographer D. Sharon Pruitt and the Creative Commons]

Use the comments below to submit your work.  You can submit anonymously if you want, but wouldn't it be nice to be recognized?

The deadline is Tuesday, February 18, 2014, at 8:00 PM EST.

Have fun!