I’m delighted to have my dark fiction story ‘Patterned in Ebony‘ published today at Gobblers & Masticadores. This is my contributor’s post for December. As always, a big thank you to editor Manuela Timofte for trusting in my work.
Gobblers & Masticadores is a wonderful online magazine of poetry and prose with a new post almost every day. I would thoroughly recommend trying it.
We plumbed forever’s depths, mined eternity’s fields, tipped our caps to infinity, and came to one startling revelation: Death was the end.
Kara and I closed our eyes together, holding hands as we always did. Sleep soon came. But unlike those times when one awakens to a glimpse of an imagined world that pops out of existence, out of memory, out of reach, this was the beginning and there was no forgetting.
The stars swirled around us, we the centre of our own galaxy. Residual particles sparkled in the vermillion and cobalt light like so many gems in a universal crown, those remnants of the beginning. This place was a tangible, sensual revelation, and we smiled for the first time since the sombre policeman said, “Missing.”
“Do you think?” asked Kara. Her wide eyes implored. Her fingers grasped.
There was no ‘How?’ or ‘We?’ or even a surprised ‘Oh!’, just a complete acceptance of being together here, now, in this place.
I shrugged, for words were never my friends.
We soaked ourselves in splendour, familiarised ourselves with every speckled area of night. Then, once we’d appraised everything, like a compass pointing the way, moved.
We flew. With our hands clasped together and hearts already one, we flung ourselves into heaven. Our search had begun.
To explain what we saw, what we felt, would relive the disappointment of losing it, and we’d already lost our everything, but after all reality’s magnificence, we came to another place. An un-reality, one might’ve termed it, though it felt more real than the blood in our veins.
The cosmos is darkness made magic, but darkness, nevertheless. This place, this domain, however, was only darkness. Light was as foreign here as an ant in the Arctic.
“Where?” she said.
I shook my head.
This absolute darkness folded around us, sucked us into itself as grapes pushed into jelly. There was no pain, nor fear of it, just acceptance. We moved from one plane to the next. We sped through this nothingness with more hope than ever, for it is what you don’t see, not what you do, that offers possibilities. Then we arrived, and she was there.
Little Corrine sat upon her knee like she once did on Kara’s. The child giggled. It broke my heart again.
“No!” screamed Kara at the top of her lungs; the darkness snatched it away.
She saw us then, not Corrine, our sweet girl, but her hostess, her keeper, Death.
I like most had expected the Reaper to tower in dreadful, skeletal manliness. I was wrong. I was so wrong!
Death wore the visage of the afterlife, porcelain and wan. Her tumbling hair glittered a raven waterfall. Her form shamed all other goddesses and queens. The ghost of all ghosts, she appeared in her sable litheness. And then she opened her eyes.
They held everything and nothing at once. All that had passed and all that would come in all its manifested sadness. She bore its brunt. Knew it all. And she did it for us, for everyone, and more so for our darling Corrine.
“It’s not fair,” wept my Kara. “It’s just not fair.”
I pulled her closer.
“At least we know.”
“But we don’t know how?”
“We don’t need to, my love. She’s safe now. That’s all that matters. No one could care for her more.
We awoke together as we had fallen asleep. Our only regret, our one misfortune, that she’d never known us there.
Lost in a lucid dream, she stirs, unaware of the sleep she sleeps. The darkness beyond the mirror swirls in anticipation.
Outside, trees rustle a surprise, raining dying leaves upon the frozen ground as if desperate to please. Never has a season died so beautiful a death. But this is always her season; life never moves on.
The girl imagines sitting by her window and watching the snow. She loves snowflakes, how they taste the ground. Yet, she knows it a mirror and not a window at all, and still, she sleeps.
For those who fear to tread the streets, it is not the leering faces, the waves of crashing humanity, nor even the lines of cars who patrol as fuming anacondas that scare, it is themselves. I am no less a person. I would not wish it on anyone.
The palpitations begin at the city limits, as the towers rise like reflective mountains into a disrupted sky, my heart quickening. I gasp, seek to steady my breathing to the train’s repetition, a synchronising of man and machine. There is even a moment when I think it works and a sigh escapes my lips. It is short-lived. It is always short-lived, never lasting beyond the next batted lash. How life continues to disappoint.
Swamped by suburbia’s blur, the train gears up for one last dash, and we charge into the station like Usain Bolt for the finishing line: the tape broken, we stop; no one is victorious. One journey over, another begins.
Disembarking like so many ants from an anthill, we follow the chemical signatures laid down by history out into the glare of a city more on the rails than the train. People are everywhere. Like fish on a decaying reef, humanity teems across the porous concrete, searching for a purpose where there is no purpose. Some look to have hope in their eyes, most not. The difference between the believers and the sceptics is stark. Some might term it enlightenment versus resentment. I prefer reality versus dreams.
A stoplight glares in crimson; a double-dare to death. I have forgotten who waits for whom, so go with the flow and strive to remain somewhere in the middle. It’s only when I reach the other side that I realise I don’t want to be the last to go, the final smear on a Japanese car’s bonnet. I make a mental note to not make the same mistake, but an unhappy seagull, lost and far from home, squawks a distraction and the memory is lost.
The coffee district extends forever. Yes, there are intermissions in the chain of cocoa-driven madness, but not many, and nothing meaningful. I choose one that looks emptier than the others and order the same drink I do every single day. One day, I’ll risk a Latte, but I feel an Americano defines me. The smell of the bean soothes my mind. I wish to take the stuff intravenously, feel that brown warmth tickle beneath my skin. It is a dream I have in a world where dreams are scarce.
I linger at the coffee shop for longer than I should, but less than I wish. Before I know what’s happening, my feet are leading me out of the door and down the canopied street to my own private hell; the roof keeps the weather out and us in. My eyes remain on the ground wherever possible, striving not to look up, not to provoke a response. Not even the three false palms set to equidistant perfection fail to disturb my concentration. Like a robot, I approach the working district.
This world is glass. This world is made of a million versions of me. Everywhere I look, I am there. Even when I close my eyes. The last person I wish to see in repetition is myself. Anyone but me! Alas, life deems to torment me in refraction.
I open the doors to our office building; as I enter, another me leaves. A brief paisley respite — if ever paisley wall coverings can be called this — and I take the stairs. I work on the tenth floor but would rather ascend a hundred flights in preference to the glass elevator and be surrounded by those leering, sneering doppelgängers. Each step takes me higher, ever higher. Soon enough I see the world as a pigeon, a rat of the sky. There are more rats all around me. I feel swarmed by them.
I collapse into my office seat and a faux leather embrace. A moment. All I require is a moment. I don’t get one. Curlicues of steam flit like intangible faeries before my eyes. Where am I?
The office do-good has seen, found and presented before I’ve even taken my jacket off. I nod a thank you whilst contemplating stabbing her with my pencil; my pencil is blunt, typical!
My work provides a distraction, nothing more. The turgid rigmarole of everyday mundanity allows my mind the freedom of thinking itself elsewhere, somewhere where walls are rock and skyscrapers consist of trees. I wish myself away to a world without triplicated others and reciprocated frowns, but never for long enough.
A colleague wakes me from my stupor, even though my fingers continue to type in a fallacy of actual life. I smile, but he’s already gone. It is time to leave. The worst time of the day.
Most look forward to their return, the drive home, the commute. I do not. I hurry down the stairs and out of the revolving door. Too late, the sun is setting.
Everywhere I look, everywhere, a million others are doing the same thing. Each is crowned by a halo of liquid gold. The glass makes angels of all. All except one. The original, me. They mock me from their mercury sanctums, point, and laugh. Every face in every window, every man, woman, and worse, observe me. They know. Oh, how they know! I am abhorrent to them. I am abhorrent to me.
The train is stifling, dark and full of eyes. But as the lights click on, catching me off-guard as I gaze out into the nothingness, I realise there is only one certainty in this reflected face: these glass coffins have me captured and everyone’s watching me die.
We, by which I mean me, endeavoured to do right by each other. I spoke kind words, and she shoved them down my throat. I held open the door, and she vacated it. And so on, and so forth. This was our way, use and be used.
Time was not kind to us, by which I mean me. The bruises grew larger, her rages ever greater. I grew timid, as she grew robust. And still, I did my best. Still, I tried.
She, by which I mean they, buried me one cold and windy November afternoon. It rained upturned buckets. Another man already held her umbrella.
Now there was no we, no she, just me. For the first time in forever, I was alone. Nothing lasts.
I returned from the darkness like a roosting bat, flittering around our, by which I mean her apartment, every evening after lights out. She was never alone.
Our paths crossed when she went to the toilet shortly after midnight. I held the door for her, or tried.
“Do I know you?” she sneered. “You remind me of someone I once used.”
The fact I was a ghost seemed inconsequential, her attitude unaltered. I shrugged a delicate breeze, for words were beyond me now.
She rolled her eyes and got down to business.
“Well! Don’t just stand there, pass the toilet roll,” she commanded, upon finishing.
I laughed as I flapped and flailed, unable to acquiesce to her wishes. I tried so hard. Yet, this simplest of tasks was beyond me, and so I left and never returned.
We, by which I mostly mean me, often talk of her, and if she sits there still, stinking and swearing, whilst waiting for another to service her.
I once watched an artist paint the sky. His brush caressed the canvas like a lover’s kiss. His every fluent movement was poetry in motion. At least, I thought so. The painter did not.
Whether it was frustration, or a lack of imagination, who knew? But the fellow grew so incensed, he snatched each sheet from his easel and tossed them into the wind. There they drifted like enormous snowflakes off to decorate unfamiliar landscapes.
The trees provided shade and anonymity. These I used for hours. The painter remained unaware of my presence throughout. And although I couldn’t see what he painted, I took a certain satisfaction in knowing I would.
As the sun evaporated into the river in tangerine bursts, things changed. The poor fellow’s inability to capture what he wished gained momentum until, in one shrieking outburst, he threw his palette away. It landed upside down in the water.
I expected to see a brief flash of vermillion, perhaps a touch of violet, cerulean or emerald green; there was only black. The paint bled into the river like a cut vein during an eclipse. Spilled ink might have described it, but ink had a purpose and this did not. What a waste. What a terrible waste.
I clasped a hand to my mouth, but too late. The cough echoed into infinity.
The painter turned. He wept. Tears streamed from his old, rheumy eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I spluttered.
The painter looked right through me, right into my soul. His eyes took in my colours, my personal palette. He refused to stop swamping me in his sorrows. I feared we’d both drown.
When the sun disappeared below the horizon with a pfft of extinguished flame, only then did he look away. To heaven, actually.
“Ah,” he crooned. “Now I remember.”
“Remember what?” The words left my lips without permission.
“Raven. Her hair was raven. If only I’d not tossed my paints away. Ah, well!”
Head drooped and feet shuffling, the painter packed up his belongings and made to leave. He paused as the moon came out in mercury silvers, turned back. “Never forget what she looks like, young man.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
With that, he departed. I never saw him again.
I often looked back and mulled over his words. He’d seemed so genuine. But only as I too regarded her bone white features and robes of liquid obsidian, did I know who he meant. I couldn’t have captured her raven hair either, as her ebony eyes already held my own.
They differ to us substantially. The most apparent of these is their appearance. We stand upon two legs, make our way through a tactile world with two hands and regard our universe through two eyes. In a more direct description, we are paired. This pairing navigates beyond the physical into the realms of belief. We believe we should live our lives in pairs, couples, if you will, so we do. We are a species who thrive in the plural. A species must thrive if it wishes to endure.
They exist in the singular, derived from a singular entity, one that split to spawn many. Wherever possible, they refrain from interaction and keep to themselves. They live alone, talk alone and enjoy doing so. Physically, we are comparable, but they do not see it this way. They look through two eyes, but act as though looking through none. They have two legs, but refuse to use them unless necessary. Their paired arms and hands have become so conjoined with technology, they have become indistinguishable from the greater whole.
Their name? They have many names and many subsets. They dislike being classified as many and prefer singular — as is their way — identification. My colleagues term them vermin, but the correct and almost forgotten genus is human. They are a strange lot, yet as a scientist, I find them intriguing. Though at their present rate, I suspect I shall not for much longer.
I dream of a girl with raven hair and eyes suffused with sorrow. She lies on a bed draped in lace and languor, waiting for something, anything, but not me.
The nights roll past like midnight breakers, the froth of their passing coating my dreams. I watch the moon descend into this nothingness without ever the certainty it’ll rise again. At least, I know it won’t rise for me.
A pinprick sky of dazzling gems flickers. The stars take their last hurrah. An obsidian curtain shall soon drop across them like freshly dug earth upon a grave. I set my spade aside.
There’s a man in a nightmare from which he can’t wake, where a girl in her bed dreams of the ocean, and the stars die every evening. I have the power to help one of them, but which? This uncertainty shall ruin me.