Humboldt Preview

Where Lords’ houses were encroaching on the dead, and the dead on its residents, Modern’s very being was an encroachment onto the ground it had been built on. Businesses rose quickly, stacking atop restauarants and apartments, shattering the residential harmony of Yellowside to make way for towers of economy. Buildings grew off the backs of other buildings, morphing and merging together before shooting out into once-alley ways, vanquishing space that once existed there. Stoplights marked every street and the traffic was more stop than start. Horns bellowed out of sleek black cars at similarly dressed men and women in business suits, slick skirts, watches, rings, necklaces and other dangling expenses. The people here moved at the speed between a walk and a jog and carried binders and clipboards and suitcases and briefcases and cellphones and those that had two free hands used the opportunity to pump them aggressively. Taxis watched from every corner. Retail buildings and commercial spaces shouted from two story display windows, advertising a range of mannequins luxuriating across furniture and wearing fashionable cuts of cloth. The people on the streets responded, mimicking the same accessories as they sped by their plastic counterparts without so much as a glance.

A Short Update on my first novel: Humboldt

Hello!

A lot of people have been asking me how my book is going, and I always mention that it’s going extremely slowly.

It’s funny, since finishing the first draft on New Year’s Eve I have felt as though I’ve barely touched it, which is true in a way. But in another way it has been consuming my thoughts moreso than when I was directly working on it each day. I spend most of my idle time throughout the day thinking on how to solve the problems of flat characters, lame plot devices and muddled story structure. I have been largely frustrated with how unsubtle a lot of the writing is, let alone how rough and jagged it reads.

But I am always thinking in the back of my mind, reworking sections, adding and subtracting characters, cutting subplots and cleaning up the order of events, and I am now preparing for my first rewrite, which includes the following:

The ‘bad guys’ have been entirely reworked and turned into actual people, or sympathetic characters at the very least. I still can’t believe I let my first draft have stereotypical villains in it. 

The characters of Rich and Cash from the Hole short story are completely cut. 

Soar from Sore Throat, and the Noctambulist from Shamblers have been combined into one character. 

The primary antagonist of the story had no place within the plot at all, and upon finding the right place for him he turned into a protagonist, which I find hilarious, but it works well so I’m excited. 

The first half of the story is going to be cut nearly in half to allow for more time to be spent with the interesting bits, as well as introducing the important side characters earlier on and giving them more time in the limelight overall.

The middle third of the book is going to be almost entirely removed and the subplot that accompanied it along with it.

I finally feel like I’m starting to understand what editing a novel takes. Editing is always something I’ve shied away from as you can probably tell by how I tend to ramble whenever I write anything. I get bored of it easily because the creation aspect is what interests me about writing. But that aside, things are going well and I’m starting to feel excited and optimistic about Humboldt again for the first time since just around this time last year when I began outlining the story. 

My plan is to still have a readable draft by the end of this year that I’m proud enough of to start showing around to friends/family to get feedback, but who knows for sure. Thanks, as always, to my friends and family who have been nothing but supportive of me during my bizarre creative endeavors. It means the world to me.

The Awful Offal of Sir Bellengier

While most offal is quite awful,

Turgid gut rot; foul air,

There is no offal quite as awful

as of Sir Bellengier’s.

.

Last of all who would contend

these wretched remnants which distend,

The man who met a wicked end,

And found himself ensared

by the innards of Sir Bellengier.

Of a motive? No one knew.

A murderer’s mind is oft askew,

Of tax man’s death? Sad, not a few.

Simply Bellengier’s just dues.

But that night revealed a truth,

Split wide open by vagrant sleuth,

Those who gorge spoil most uncouth,

When leaked out to the air,

Dark secrets, base affairs,

When moonlight looked inside Sir Bellengier.

First came many ghastly scents,

Unbridaled wealth, hate, apathy

The count’s belly then dispensed,

Far more repulsive sights to see.

Grey liver bloat with vice,

Gold-laid intestines divulged their price,

Misshapen heart hollow’d so precise

That putrid pile began to stare,

Blinked, sloshed, rose a monstrous heir,

Its host now gone beyond repair,

Revenge was claimed by Bellengier.

Lashed out impious insides,

Misfortunate, who crossed the line,

Drained one more man of his provides,

His black-slicked entrails enshrined.

Of that night was little said,

Though one who peered down from her bed,

Claimed to see three monsters’ ends,

But she was unaware,

‘neath that man’s flesh and hair,

The creature that was there,

Would proudly have declared,

He was, in fact, Sir Bellengier.

Summoning Sunday

When I was a child I would wait in my room for the sound of my father closing the front door and then rush down the stairs and into the garage, stopping briefly in the den to retrieve something from near his chair. I would turn the key halfway in the ignition and sit, staring, into the headlights of the car my father worked but never drove. The blinding light would drip across my vision, spinning my head, and hours would pass.

I do much the same thing now, with the various electronic windows I spend my day peering into. It doesn’t make it any harder to see, though I feel just as dizzy afterward.

*

The energy to wake, but not to stand. To wait for the numbing to wash over. By the time you notice, you are already fully soaked. The only way to dry yourself is to wake tomorrow and hope to leap from bed before it returns.

*

My father died just three weeks after our child was born. He held him once. We had just come home from the hospital the day before, and Lynne commented afterward that it had been the happiest she had ever seen him. I hadn’t noticed, and told her as much, but she insisted in a way that made me miss her. We had always shrugged off the various niceties and societal standards that went along with such events in the standard ‘life’. For my father to hold my child and show a great emotion, more so than the stone-faced American father was storied to, was the right thing. It filled your heart in the way it was meant to. And whether it was true or not was beside the point, because we have a script, so why not stick to it? Lynne was never like that before. Maybe she was now.

She had always wanted a child. The first time we discussed it was a mere few months after marriage, and the following week we had gotten a kitten. The next discussion came a year later, almost to the day, and the following week I brought home a puppy. The kitten had been full of life and excited at first, taking in the wonders of a new home and of a new world. The puppy was much the same. But the cat understood its confinement, retiring to a routine and napping to pass time. The dog recognized its role, pushing through each day with enthusiasm. I had always preferred cats to dogs.

Finally we had our child. Lynne and I traded off bathing duties each night, though one would always join the other. At first. About the time my moustache began to droop past my upper lip I stopped joining them in the bathroom when it was her turn. She never commented on it, though there was always a silence accompanying their return to the living room that was broken by our child and not by us.

Tonight was no different. Saturday and Sunday were long, end days that wrapped their arms around the week, pulling them tighter. It was six o’clock and the sun had set an hour ago. Lynne collected the baby. She drew a bath.

There was an old trick. A dark art I had learned early on in my youth when watching him. Tonight was the night to re-enact that sordid ritual. An evocation, an insistence, a plea to time itself. Move to my whim. I entered the kitchen, my footfalls hidden under the guise of a distant waterfall.

A three-fourths full handle of bourbon nestled itself beneath frozen vegetables in the freezer, a forgotten Christmas gift from my brother. I filled my glass and emptied it as fast. And again. Keeping in mind the observations of my youth. I call out to the long dead sun and newly born moon, to aging and mortality. I swig down my golden elixir.

Things begin to morph around me. Swirling shapes. It has begun. I stalk across the kitchen toward the crying thing in the woman’s arm. I laugh and warmth streaks out from my chest. She mutters something. “Really? You did this on purpose.” I try to hold that smile. It is not important. I lie down in my bed and close my eyes. Sunday comes.

First Draft of Humboldt is Done!

And a day early! 

It currently stands at 442 pages and 139,347 words. It has been a really interesting process for me to work through, and now that I’m done with a draft it is difficult for me to sum up how I feel about what I’ve written.

If you would have asked me a month ago how my book was coming, I’d have said it was utter garbage, that I was pretty sure I was going to ax the whole concept and get right to work on a new, ‘better’ book. I’ve heard similar complaints from other writers over and over again about how they feel when they’re in the middle of writing something, but once I was in the thick of it I succumbed to doing the same exact thing. A few times in November I even already considered the book ‘done’ because I was positive I’d never actually get around to finishing it. But after my second two week long break (during the end of Nov / beginning of Dec) a couple things happened. I calmed down, for one, and reread some of what I had written in the book thus far, deciding that while yes, it was far from in a place where I’d ever want to show it to anyone and it was going to have to undergo considerable plot and character changes to ever move beyond a first draft, some of the writing was genuinely not terrible and the rest was fixable, because of course it is. It’s hard to describe how difficult it is to force myself to like something I’d worked for so long and so hard on and still felt so far from my goal, but taking a short break seemed to do me a world of good morale-wise.

The second thing that happened was that my girlfriend, Emily, yelled at me one day on the way home from work when I brought up the possibility I had been considering about not finishing the draft and tossing it aside to work on something new next year. She has been incredibly supportive and understanding throughout the process, especially when putting up with my near constant complaints regarding the frustrations of writing this thing. I was honestly surprised by how strongly she felt about me finishing it and it humbled me in a way that made me realize that yes, it might be easier to give up just 100 pages from my goal and move onto other barely hatched ideas in my mind that seemed promising, but who’s to say I wouldn’t be in the exact same position five months from now with another book? 

And so with my new mindset being, ‘I don’t care how this turns out, but god dammit, I’m going to finish this’ coupled with a severe lack of work in the past two weeks, I finished the last 8 or so chapters and was able to put the first draft to rest.

Now, where do I go from here? Well, as I just finished writing the thing today, it’s time to stop thinking about this book entirely for a week or two, maybe more, but definitely not less. I have a whole bunch of screenplays that have been patiently waiting to be written that I’ll work on early next year to keep from getting more rusty than I already am. And then I’ll come back and read what I have and try to make sense of where I want to take it. I’m anticipating a near final draft of the book by the end of next year, though I really have no clue how long it will take, as I could be a lot closer or further from my goal of writing a not terrible book than I think I am.

Anyways, that’s it from me! I might post bits and pieces of reworked sections of the book next year once I get them to a place I’m happy with. If you’re interested in what the book is about, any of the short stories I wrote earlier this year (which you can all find with the hashtag Tales of Humboldt on this blog) play an important role in the plot and setting of the novel, though honestly the writing style is quite a bit different from how I chose to write the book itself. I think my favorite might be Catman’s Catbox or Dead, Baby, but I’m happy with all of them.

I just wanted to send out a huge thanks to everyone who took the time to read this, as well as to all of my friends and family who supported and encouraged me along the way to writing this. This is a sort of childhood dream of mine, writing a novel, and regardless of whether I ever do anything with it, I’m very proud that I managed to get the words out of my head and put them somewhere else.

Have a happy New Year!

Below is an unedited, certainly not final, snippet from the book, if you’re interested! 

And here’s a link to the song I listened almost every day while I was writing this, as it and the game it is from really inspired a lot of the feelings I attempted to capture in my writing. 

Theme of Laura

Prologue

Humboldt hadn’t always been odd.

At least, not before it came to be known by that name. The once small mining community had, over time, grown into a marginally successful hub of regional activity. Eventually the residents decided the activity was a bit too much for a hub, and it grew again. First into a town, and, as fashion trended away from towns, it became a city.

One day, and no one really knew why, the name that had once belonged to that miniature mining community no longer fit. Someone woke up and decided they would call their city Humboldt, and all of Humboldt’s residents shared the thought that Humboldt was a good name indeed.

And since that day no one ever really came to Humboldt, and, much the same, no one ever really left. And Humboldt became quite odd. Though no one knew why.

It might have been the harsh division lines throughout the city. Residents of Uptown tended to keep to themselves, knowing exactly where Uptown ended and Further began, and never so much as dreamt of approaching the other side. If there was one thing Tash and Lyle Square hated more than the Downtown residents that would bleed over to visit the bars and the shops, it was each other. Yellowside had such distaste for the surrounding neighborhoods that they often joked about seceding. And eventually those amongst them that could not stand that attitude renamed themselves as belonging to Upper Yellowside, and the rest of the neighborhood responded in kind, proudly referring to their locale as Yellowside Proper. It was said that those from Lords were instantly recognizable by their dull manner of speak, and slow, lifeless gait. The people of Arnkngthand Park were old, and those from Modern were young. Those of Sentry, Dale, Caldwell, and Sellard were forgettable; Loomfield and Pinkton might as well not exist at all.

Or maybe Humboldt was odd for what brought them together: dreams of tomorrow and comparisons of furniture arrangements. The events of the past were unimportant and much less interesting than what may or may not be stretched out across the horizon. And when they did speak of yesterday, it was in hushed tones and genuine disfavor.

The city itself, like most cities, was structured not unlike an explosion set to glacial pace. Boundless skyscrapers erupting up from the center and increasingly smaller amalgamations of brick and mortar folding inwardly upon themselves thrust out toward its edges. Swirling stone structures frozen in time, the only surrounding movement of light and dust, dark emptiness down each alley. Ideals, emotive thinking, surging inspiration all transposed, made tangible through institutions and taverns, offices and homes. Coarse slabs suggesting the unknowable, ideas that should not be gone into their erection. The city of Humboldt smiled.

And so did its residents, though now less and less often. Something had been happening as of late. But no one could quite put a finger on it, or say it out loud. Things were shifting in ways they should not. People changing in ways they should not. The cats still purred, the mannequins still stood in their store windows, the buildings, mostly, remained where they ought, but were you to ask them if they felt different in any way, big or small, while they would not be able to place a finger on why, if they reached back in their mind and spoke the truth, though it might frighten them to do so, their answer would be firmly in assurance. They would remember back to that day in the middle of September where they were suddenly compelled without reason to look to the west. And though they could brush it off then as a freak occurrence, an odd, meaningless urge that left as quickly as it had come, that compulsion did not leave their minds. They returned to it that night when they had fallen asleep. It remained, festering, that next morning when they woke, and it would not leave. West. They did not know it, but someone from outside Humboldt had driven down the Interstate on their way into the city that day. Humboldt’s first new resident, excepting those by birth, in over sixty years. But to those immersed daily in the routine of the place, the bustle and the toil and the recreation, it was nothing to worry about. And were you to suggest otherwise, why, they couldn’t dream of a reason to fret. Things had always been normal here. How could they suddenly be any different? And maybe that was what made Humboldt so odd. 

One month into writing a book. Things have been going pretty well over all, though I can already see how monumental the editing and rewriting process is going to be. Also, it’s going to be way longer than I meant for it to be, which seems to be a running theme with what I write. The plan is still to have a completed rough draft by the end of the year, though if I really take all four months to write this at 3,000 words a day five days a week I think I might go insane. We’ll see!
Also, I just discovered that the entire book is really just the origin story of Neil Gaiman, so that’s pretty neat, I guess!

One month into writing a book. Things have been going pretty well over all, though I can already see how monumental the editing and rewriting process is going to be. Also, it’s going to be way longer than I meant for it to be, which seems to be a running theme with what I write. The plan is still to have a completed rough draft by the end of the year, though if I really take all four months to write this at 3,000 words a day five days a week I think I might go insane. We’ll see!

Also, I just discovered that the entire book is really just the origin story of Neil Gaiman, so that’s pretty neat, I guess!

Filmed the short film version of a short story I published last year: http://chubbytired.tumblr.com/post/29492286152/sylas and after an agonizing 6 months of preproduction due to difficulties with locations and actor issues, moreso than any of the much larger film undertakings we’ve worked on before, we finally pulled through and completed the majority of the film (minus three pick up shots to be done in the future)! With a three person crew (all of us having a hand in production, myself as writer/director, Taylor Russ handling camera and lights, and Conor doing costume, set-dec, and hair/make-up) we moved at an insane pace and finished early both days without any regrets and feeling like we got exactly what we wanted. It is a great feeling shooting again after such a long break and so refreshing compared to sitting in a room and writing with no outside interaction which has been the rest of my creative work this year. So huge thanks to all of Jazz Records, the actors and their parents: Charles, (it was a pleasure to finally work with Charles Harris, and while I can’t wait to see him take on the role of Landon in King sometime in the future, his fantastic performance in this short helped to stave that anxiety off for a while longer) Elijah and Jen, and Cole and Traci, as well as a thanks to Conor’s mother for allowing us to invade her home for a couple days. Sylas was a success and I can’t wait to show it off to people. It has a very different flair to it compared to our last shorts by design and without any post production work is already looking to be from another era entirely. From here we’ll be working on establishing and improving our website, as well as shooting a music video for Perfect Families and preparing to venture into feature territory again next year! Stay tuned here on this tumblr, as well as over at https://www.facebook.com/jazzrecordsfilms for further updates and more content hopefully coming at a regular pace! Thanks for all of the support and we’ll see you soon! 

Sore Throat

Lake Toluca looked silent. Bella Luna would have thrust up from the shoreline, a shouting, boisterously red and white building in sharp contrast to the subtler sandy blues and greens, asserting itself before the low landscape had a chance, on any other day. But on this day, the eve of Humboldt’s swan song, the bed and breakfast was not present. It was simply someplace else.

For as much a stir as this caused the establishment’s neighbors, who found it hard not to notice the absence of the scenery spoiling structure that stared them down each morning blocking the sun’s eastern glow for just a moment longer in defiance of the dawn itself, the residents and customers of the Bella Luna were even more aghast at their sudden predicament. The manor was not gone from time and space entirely, but displaced. It currently floated, a continued insubordination of the natural world, in vast, seemingly endless waters of an undefined elsewhere. Those that happened to be in the Bella Luna during the occurrence called this body of water Lake Toluca, though the brine that sloshed the sides of the building and stung the eyes argued to the contrary. But the residents of the bed and breakfast agreed upon and imposed an entirely unspoken ignorance to where their actual location may be, which kept their heads a little bit clearer and made falling asleep at night a little bit smoother.

There were quite a few alarming topics that remained unspoken aboard the newly buoyant Bella Luna, much to Soar’s puzzlement. She would observe those patrons smiling as they ambled down the stairway for breakfast. Maybe they were a bit quieter than they had been before their building became a ship of sorts, but they smiled, nonetheless. They would joke and taunt over billiards or smoke at the bar or read in the lounge and no one so much at glanced outside. No one except for Soar.

Soar had trouble reaching the kitchen countertops. The place where the most desirable delicacies, croissants and Danish rolls and other sweetened pastries, were kept, which put her a few inches beneath where she ought to be, in her mind. The regrettably small Soar treated her life much like her beloved novels. She would spy (one of a few acts her shortened stature did not detract from) upon the maids and the cooks and the bellhop who quarreled and screamed and kissed with an invested interest that, when it came to her own life, she very much lacked. And so when she first had lost her voice and gotten past the initial frustrations that go along with a lessened agency, Soar’s daily routine hadn’t seemed all that different.

A fever had stricken something fierce. Soar was immediately confined to the bedroom she shared with Madame Heely, Bella Luna’s proprietor, head chef, and the woman who had first discovered Soar collapsed in the pantry. The Madame attended to Soar whenever she was not off on some errand, and over two blurry, unconscious days the young girl’s throat became so raw and bloodied that she was unable to speak at all. Excepting the pain, Soar did not mind her affliction much, as Madame Heely’s daily serving of homemade vanilla and pecan ice cream, made especially for Soar, had been more than a fair tradeoff. But the bell she had affixed around the girl’s wrist (which had to be resized twice as Madame had very much so underestimated exactly how small the child’s wrist could be) Soar could have done without. She had removed it once for a day. That evening when she returned was the only time the Madame had raised a hand to her, screaming that she would not be responsible for the loss of someone’s child in such trying times, and Soar promised with vigorous head shaking that she would never again remove the piercingly intrusive thing.

If Soar could trade that noisemaker and the bloodied coughing fits but keep the ice cream and the loving attention, she would be just fine without a voice. And, had she the choice, she might never want to speak again, anyway. Were she to talk of what she had seen the night before she grew ill, Soar feared she would be exiled off of what should not be, but was now, in fact, an island. That maybe that thing would return. That it would find her and consume whatever fragile sanity she had retained, and that she would simply wash away, like a small building amongst the infinite oceans.

That awful night, the one before she had gotten sick, Soar was doing what she had perfected in the nights before. The Bella Luna had been a treasure trove, and Soar its stowaway, before it went off to sea. She would scrounge in the kitchens and scour open rooms, pillaging pastries and cheeses and nuts, not the meats though. The meats were always slathered in a grease that churned her stomach. The urchin would eat her fill and carry any remaining spoils back to her spot beneath the patio overlooking the lake. Fall was fast approaching and she would need to find a warmer spot inside soon, though for the moment it did the trick.

But something had spoken within her that night as she laid to rest. Something had called out. Or rather, and she recalled this clearly, the echo boomed from within her mind, a thought that was meant for no one, but she had heard it, just the same. It had been overheard. And the sensation in her head pointed her not back to the kitchens, or the pantry, but instead down. Down, down, down into the depths of the dark that was the cellar. And she, entranced, followed. And then that feeling, voice, compass, pull said the boiler room. And she followed. And then it said to look down in that crack beyond the- that space that should not be there at all, but it was. And she followed. And she opened that not a door and entered that not a room and-

Boundless blanketing energy folding in on itself. Infinity coiling, an inward swirl of light and dust. The center of it all and, when she would blink, dark emptiness. A powerful surge of idea and thought and life that sprung up from nowhere and everywhere around her in a place that did not exist. The convulsive display offered knowledge she shouldn’t know. Things she didn’t want to know. For the first time in her short life, the young girl now knew exactly who she was. What she was. It was a fate she would not have wished on anyone.

And then it smiled.

*

And when Soar had awoken, she was in bed with fever, much like she found herself now, a week or so later, slowly returning to consciousness in the makeshift bed in Madame Heely’s cramped room. Her head felt fuzzy and warm. Her eyes were on fire. The moon shone through the window accompanied by the faint sound of waves crashing against wood. Her throat was usually the reason she awoke from her sickness slumber, and this time was no different. She felt as though she hadn’t had a drink in days. She had to unstick the back of her throat and could have sworn it audibly cracked as she did. An attempted to groan failed to produce any sound.

Without looking Soar reached over onto the nightstand beside the bed for her glass of water. Water was, thankfully, one of the few things that wasn’t becoming a scarce resource on the Bella Luna, and just as well, as it was all Soar seemed to be able to stomach. Soar smelled her sickness mixed up in the dry and lingering sour air. It disgusted her, but she usually didn’t have time to think on it long before the aches in her head and joints forced her to stop moving and fall back into sleep. And the cycle would repeat.

Soar gripped the glass and lifted. Weight told her the glass was empty. She turned over and searched the floor beside the bed for the large pot of water that Madame Heely would refill from time to time. It was gone. Soar sat up and glanced over. Madame Heely was gone as well. That was odd, but not unprecedented. Madame never stopped moving throughout the day in an earnest attempt to cheer and service all of her customers, and sometimes that carried her into the night, especially now. Lately she no longer talked about her duties and her errands and had begun talking about raising morale and creating distraction. And that she did. People would smile as she entered the room, knowing her positive energy would at the very least bring them momentary respite from the bleak unknown.

Soar held her hand up to her throat. Her stomach tensed as if she were about to scream. Air forced out, but it was no louder than a heavy breath. Soar threw her cup across the room. It clanged against the wall and rolled back, shifting across the floor with the slight sway of the sea. The bell on her wrist jingled. Soar gripped onto it, white knuckled, before relaxing again.

Soar slowly planted her feet on the floor and hoisted herself up. She crossed the room, stopping at the edge of the bed to retrieve her cup, and she entered the bathroom. Soar thrust her cup under the sink faucet and drank, not stopping until it was empty. She used the time it took to refill to catch her breath and then Soar downed the second glass of water just as fast. The sink might have tasted badly of rust and minerals, but the taste of blood prevented her from knowing. And then Soar sat on the floor of the bathroom, her hand against the toilet. She took deep, ragged breaths, satisfied at the few noises she could still make with her mouth, happy to be out of breath in trade for a wet throat and stomach.

Madame Heely still had not returned. Soar glanced toward her bed. It looked alluring, but, more and more, the sheets and the pillows, cotton and down, the way they rolled and tucked and folded, seemed exactly the same as the larger, watery prison that currently contained her. Maybe it was the momentary energy provided by the sink water, or it might just have been a strong sense of curiosity overpowering her body’s aches and pains, but for the first time since that awful night Soar refused to think any further about, the Bella Luna stowaway struck out into the dark.

Madame Heely’s quarters were at the very back of the third floor residents’ wing, sharing the space of a normal guest bedroom with a maintenance and broom closet. The other workers also resided here now that they were unable to leave. Otherwise, most of the third floor rooms remained empty. Madame Heely had always preferred to keep it that way except for those festivals and holidays where the place would fill up, and with the workers now permanent residents as well, the Bella Luna was about that.

Soar stepped into the hallway on quivering feet. Each plodding step sent shivers and aches throughout her body. She carefully held the bell’s clapper with her right hand to prevent it from colliding against the brass wall each time she moved. The orange, wispy carpeting of the hallway felt nice against her feet, at least, compared to the cold, hardwood of Madame’s room.

A sharp cry erupted from somewhere down the hall. A shrill yelp. Soar froze in place, waiting. And then it came again. A man’s voice.

"Damn it!"

Room three twelve stood ajar, a dull yellow glow spilling into the hallway. Whoever it was in there spoke very coarsely with an occasional high pitched growl. As Soar inched closer she could make out a woman’s voice as well. Very calm, consoling. Warm. Definitely not Madame. But it couldn’t hurt to take a peek.

The door to room three twelve opened inwardly and, luckily enough, toward the rest of the room, so Soar had no difficulty making out much of what was occurring on the bed from her place in the hall.  A man sat at the foot of the king sized bed, stripped to the waist. His left arm was stretched around his torso in an effort to hold something in place against his right shoulder. Toyle. One of Madame’s favorite workers. She would tell Soar that Toyle was a man who could drink, heavily, with her once they were closed up for the night, but always sobered when morning came and went right back to work. She said not many men his age would do that without bringing their vices along with them, and she respected him for it. Soar had not had much time to get to know Toyle, but when she had he was shouting at children running through the halls or peering into a corner, stroking his white moustaches. He was good at giving off signals that could easily be picked up from across the room that he did not want you approaching him.

A woman, one of the maids, and still on duty from the look of her dress, crossed in front of the crack in the door. Soar tensed up, but made no sound. And, not for the first time, she was glad at her inability to make so much as a peep. Soar had never seen the woman before, but she hadn’t gotten much of a chance to meet the people of the Bella Luna with her current ailment. The woman was tall. Very tall. Dark red curls that matched her lipstick escaped from either side a black bonnet. She looked down at Toyle with a cold expression that did not match her soothing voice.

"Only woman in m’life I ever felt skittish around. She ain’t right." Toyle’s thin moustaches twitched as he breathed in sharply. He rubbed his shoulder.

The woman held a dripping sponge to his back and tapped Toyle’s side, signaling him to let go. He did, dropping his left arm with a thud against his lap. He continued. “I knew the moment I saw ‘er, gal’s a menace. And no one’ll believe me.”

She removed the sponge, now a bright red color, and retrieved a bandage from the bed, wrapping him up. “You been drinkin’, hon. Just lie down and go to sleep. We can figure this out tomorrow. How the hell did you do this to yourself?”

"See? An’ you ain’t believin’ me either. That’s her whole trick! She plays the pretty little princess, but then there’s something else underneath that skin. It ain’t a heart or a soul, I’ll tell ya that. Sometimes I- I get the feelin’ she’s here to hunt me. Hunt me like a dog.”

"If you really think that way tomorrow morning, we’ll go sit down with her and have a talk."

"I’m tellin’ yah, Marie, that girl’ll eat me alive if I go back there. I won’t do it! I won’t! An’ you know as well as me I can’t prove it to no one. How’ll I explain this?”

Something flicked and fluttered behind Toyle’s left shoulder for a moment. Soar squinted, trying to get a better look at the thing that might not have been there at all, but in doing so she bumped up against the door, causing it to shift forward slightly. And she quickly got up to continue on down the hall, not bothering to check behind her whether they had noticed.

Soar reached the third floor lobby, where the different residential wings met up, and peered down each hall in turn. She was entirely alone. The moonlight streaming in through the large, glass double doors to the third floor balcony illuminated the grandfather clock, a piece Madame would proudly exclaim was Lloyd’s work to anyone who listened. The clock itself was normal enough, but it was entirely slanted, as if it were halfway melted, and people often tilted their heads to one side to read it. Soar did just that and the hands read four thirty-five. While the nightly forays into different corners of the Bella Luna had given her a rather thorough understanding of the building’s layout, Soar had no idea where to start when it came to finding Madame. She decided she would check the second floor lobby and wings, and then venture to the first floor offices. If she did not locate her, perhaps she would at least find something else as entertaining as her peek into Toyle’s bedroom had been.

And find she did. But not Madame Heely. As Soar descended the steps to the second floor lobby, she heard a deep thrusting sound, like steam being shot out of a pipe, except much lower in pitch. And then a similar sound followed, slightly higher in pitch. Soar thought of giant bellows. It came from the eastern wing of second floor patrons’ quarters. Room two oh three. As she got closer the sound grew. It was accompanied by something else. A low rumble that she could feel in her feet. And for a moment Soar recognized the noise for what it was, though she dismissed the notion soon after. She waited by room two oh three until the loud exhale began again and she slowly turned the door handle and cracked the door ever so slightly.

For a moment Soar could not understand why this room was so much smaller than the ones surrounding it. It seemed as though the wall cut off the room at about where the bed should be. And it was just as well the bed was missing, as there was no room for it to still allow space for anyone to move around. But then the wall moved. And then Soar realized that it was no wall at all.

Cascading mounds of flesh drooped down from the ceiling, folding outward from themselves with no discernible beginning or ending. The various flaps and piles of loose skin would shift and expand with the Gift Mother as she rolled and breathed in her sleep. Soar had only ever seen the woman once before, on the first night she had broken into the Bella Luna after dark. The enormous woman was being carted away from the kitchens by a crew of men and a small girl not much older than Soar. That was the only night that Soar had been unable to find so much as a scrap of food in those kitchens. But her surprise and disbelief at first seeing the gigantic woman was outdone by the enormous wall of flesh before her now. The Gift Mother had appeared to more than double in size since she had seen her. Not only that, but Soar had trouble identifying she was even a living being at all. The fat, loose flesh that hung and draped down around the room all but covered the rest of what should have been a body. Soar spotted her head in the bottom right corner of the room. A small structure seemed to have been built there solely to prevent the mounds of skin that expanded out from her body from suffocating her. The female wall jiggled with her deep snores.

"May I help you?"

A small young girl with dark hair and eyes peeked out at Soar from around the corner, startling her. Soar tried to say, “I’m sorry for bothering you”, but her lips moved before she remembered that she wasn’t able to.

The young girl narrowed her eyes at Soar for a moment before nodding. Those eyes looked old. Like Madame Heely’s or the tall red headed maid upstairs. Too old for a child.

"She’s not feeling well. She’s been very sick lately." The young girl turned to look back at Gift Mother. Soar noticed the large gold necklace adorned with a bright ruby in the young girl’s hands. "The doctors said that she might get sick from this eventually. That her body should not be doing the things it is doing and that they were worried what would happen. But it was so sudden. She had never been sick before."

The girl stopped talking and they watched the shifting barrier breathe. She turned back to Soar, noticing that her eyes were still on the necklace. Soar quickly looked back up. The girl smiled sadly, her eyes not losing that unnatural age, and she held the necklace up to Soar.

"Would you like it? She never addressed who this one was meant to belong to. That happens sometimes. It came out of a little boil on her back, but don’t worry, I washed it off." She continued holding it in front of Soar’s face. While Soar was deeply disgusted by what the girl had just said, she had heard of Gift Mother before and knew of the importance of the trinkets and relics she produced for Humboldt’s residents, and so she decided she should not pass up the opportunity. The ruby shone brightly in the dim light. Soar could recognize its dazzling brilliance even then. She accepted the gift, and the young girl helped fasten it around Soar’s neck. It wasn’t until too late that Soar realized what it truly was. The ruby was the back of the necklace to cover up the clasp. The front was a large, golden bell, the outward curve embellished in flecks of diamond and ruby. It was beautiful. But it was another bell. Soar did her best to hide her disappointment for the incredibly lavish gift.

The young girl smiled. “That looks very pretty on you. I feel as though, were she awake right now, she would have said it was meant for you.” And then the girl picked up a diamond encrusted silver bucket of water and a large, gold scrubbing brush and went to work. She hoisted up folds with all her might, shoving the brush as deep into those dark, fleshy crevices as she could, scrubbing away. Soar felt embarrassed for the girl and decided it was time to leave. She again tried to speak, a “thank you”, but of course it did not come. Instead, she gripped the small handle above the bell around her neck and gave it a little jingle. It let out a soft, dainty ping that sounded much less piercing and much more expensive than the one she had around her wrist. The little girl turned around again. Those eyes. She smiled in understanding and waved. Soar waved back before shutting the door.

And as she turned around, Soar spotted movement at the other end of the hall. She crouched instinctively. There had never been a feeling of danger in the bed and breakfast, but the last time she had snuck through these halls had been to steal. She had been up to no good long enough that hiding and running were habitual. And as the figure in shadow grew closer, Soar was glad she had crouched. The woman that made her way to the second floor lobby was Lady, the only person Soar had met since her coming to the Bella Luna that she did not trust. There was something about the way she looked at others. It was as if she was sizing them up. But for what reason, Soar did not know. She felt as though she had learned something about Lady recently, and the Gift Mother for that matter, from somewhere. But wondering too much about what it was that she had learned caused her mind to go to places she did not wish it to. Soar shook her head violently, physically demanding her brain think on a different subject.

The woman who called herself Lady had told everyone she was originally from Pinkton, a suburb south of Humboldt. She had gone to nursing school, and that was about all anyone knew of her. The more pressing question, the one that made Soar wish she still had her voice, was how exactly Lady had found the bed and breakfast to take up residence in the first place. She was the only one here that had arrived after the Bella Luna had suddenly found itself no longer on the coast of Lake Toluca. People seemed unconcerned with how or why she had come, and Lady herself seemed ignorant of where exactly the building was currently. She had offered to pay for each night of her stay, though everyone else onboard had been given free residency by Madame until they could sort out how to get back to shore. Lady kept to herself, and people seemed to have forgotten about her. The only time she ever left her room was on Fridays and Sundays to go down to the first floor lobby to phone her mom, which she had requested remain open for her during those times, and she paid Madame extra for it. The woman was a mystery, and Soar did not trust her in the slightest. The adults around her seemed oblivious.

And now Soar had even more reason to be wary of the woman. Lady moved quickly and quietly in the dark. She was tiptoeing. And not in the polite way people do at night out of respect to others. Soar knew this sort of movement well. She was sneaking. And what’s more, she held something close to her chest with both her arms. Something that must have been very precious to her. Quickly deciding this was enough to be suspicious, Soar followed at as great a distance as the hallways would allow.

Lady crossed the lobby and made her way down to the first floor. As soon as the woman was out of sight, Soar ran after, trying her best not to lose track while holding tight what was now two bells she wore. As Soar reached the steps, she moved more hesitantly. Carefully descending the stairs, avoiding known creaks. And then Lady was gone. The first floor lobby was empty. Both the northern and eastern hallways led to customer quarters, which were her more likely destinations, though the woman could have gone toward the offices as well, had she a reason. They were all empty as far as Soar could see.

A door clicked from somewhere down the north hallway. Soar moved quickly, gambling that it had been Lady’s door that had clicked and that she would not still be out in the hall somewhere, waiting for her. As she rounded the hallway the same door clicked open and shut again, and Lady left a room, walking further down the hall. Her hands were empty now and she moved upright with no attempt to stay hidden. Where she was going, Soar wasn’t sure, but as soon as she was out of sight, the young girl ran down the length to Lady’s door.

Luckily, it was unlocked. Soar figured she was short on time, and so she burst in, not thinking about what might lay beyond. Soar’s first step in the room was onto something brittle, and it snapped underfoot. Her feet slightly stuck to the slimy substance on the floor. Another step met the same result. It felt as though she were walking on potato chips. The thing Lady had been carrying, whatever it was, lie on the bed. A long, thin object wrapped in a white sheet, about the length and size of Soar’s arm. She took another step forward.

Crunch. Her feet were slicked in the halfway dried stuff. And as Soar stepped further in the odor wafted up to her as well. The place smelled stale. Sickly. And then footsteps signaled someone was at the door behind her. A woman gasped outside.

Soar froze. She had forgotten to close the door. She quickly scrambled into the bathroom on her right. The room was laid out much like Madame Heely’s room on the third floor, but larger. The cold tile of the bathroom was slicked and covered in the same stuff and made a loud crunch when Soar crouched down. She decided not to move anymore though she wasn’t entirely hidden around the wall of the bathroom out of fear of making more noise. Lady entered and closed the door behind her.

She took soft, apprehensive steps into the room. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Soar couldn’t see into the bedroom, but it sounded as though Lady had stopped right on the other side of the bathroom door. She inhaled deeply. Noisily. And then- crunch. Crunch. Crunch. She was walking away. She plopped down on the bed and Soar heard the rustling of sheets.

And it was then that Soar noticed the feeling of the thing underneath her hand on the tile of the bathroom floor. It was twitching. Soar looked down. The white tile was littered with dozens of small, black things. Most of them lie still. But some were twitching. From the other room another crunching sound began. Crunch. This one was different, though. The crisp sound of an apple splitting apart. What were those things on the ground? They were everywhere. They were on the sink and the toilet. From what Soar could make out from the other room they were strewn across the carpeting in there as well. Soar leaned down to get a better look at them. The beautiful, gold and ruby bell around her neck jingled.

Soar froze. The crunching noises from the other room stopped. She held her breath; her heart was pounding in her head. The feverish aches throughout her body intensified. Her skin was burning. Throbbing. The crunching noise resumed and Soar could breathe again. And then she saw what it was on the floor in front of her.

Each of those black spots were the wings, or the body, or sometimes a bit of both, of a moth or butterfly or other winged insect. It took every ounce of Soar’s resolve to prevent herself from reeling back in horror and jingling that damn bell again. The floor was slicked with brown, sticky muck. The smell was- Soar wanted to vomit. Luckily she hadn’t eaten in over a day. And that noise from the other room…

Crunch. Lady was insane. This confirmed it. She was more awful than Soar had ever imagined. The people of the Bella Luna were stranded at sea with a lunatic. There was no way of reporting her to the police. No way of escaping. Soar had to get out of there. She had to. Maybe Lady was facing away from the bathroom? Perhaps she was lying down, or watching out the window. Ever so slowly, Soar leaned forward in steady, minute movements, careful not to sound the alarms around her wrist and neck.

Soar’s heart leapt into her throat as she locked eyes with Lady. The woman had been staring at the exact point where Soar was before she had been there. And Lady was smiling. She sat on the edge of her bed, holding a dark black, dripping thing, the thing that had been wrapped in that sheet, up to her face. And without blinking or looking away, Lady took another bite of the thing in her hands. Crunch. She chewed slowly as she watched Soar, that twisted smile that curled the ends of her lips never faltering. And Soar ran.

She would have screamed. But she could not. Lady did not react as Soar threw open the door and rocketed into the hall, crashing against the wall opposite the room with a jingling thud. And she did not stop running until she was all the way down the southern hall of the first floor. She crawled underneath a table that sat against the wall and tears streamed down her cheeks. She did her best not to move, though her body convulsed in waves of sheer terror that roughly went in time with the rhythmic sway of the bed and breakfast.

And what scared Soar more than the floor of dead insects and that Lady had seen her was that somehow Soar had known what she was going to find in Lady’s room. How could she possibly have known that she would find Lady munching on that giant thing she had carried away in wrappings? But she did. It was almost as though the image had been in her mind, and leaning around that bathroom wall had allowed her to sync up what was happening with what she had expected. And her mind was going back to that place again. She shook herself out of it.

Madame Heely’s thick, deep voice arose from somewhere. “… any sense. I am not understanding. You are coming here and you are telling me these things and they’re meaning is nothing without the context.”

Soar’s head snapped to the right. She was beside the office Madame used for weekly meetings with her workers. She had found her. She was safe. She could write down what she had seen and get Lady kicked off of this ship or this building or whatever this was and maybe everything would start going back to normal.

Soar stood up and placed her hand on the door handle before stopping. Another voice responded. It was a woman’s as well. Scratchy and gravelly. The voice was grating, almost painful, to listen to. And in between each long pause she continued the gross, deep vibration of her voice. It never stopped. Almost as if she never needed to take a breath.

"You… will protect… her…and…the new arrival… more… arrivals…before the end…duty…to…"

Madame Heely was almost to the point of shouting. “I am not understanding! You are coming here and harassing me each night and I am wanting to go home. My home is not in the middle of the water!”

"She … too important… not as great a cost… many need her…"

"And what of this? What of this? These things that sprout out of my scalp! I am coming unhinged! Am I to die like this? I am hurting! More and more, I-"

Slowly, ever so slowly, Soar turned the knob of the door and pushed it open to spy yet again that night. She was unsure who this strange woman was and did not want to give away her position until she understood what it was they were talking about. Maybe they knew something about what has been going on lately. Maybe Madame knew more than she had ever let on.

The woman speaking to Madame Heely was another young girl. Soar recognized her, as she had visited often during the day before the Bella Luna had become separated from the shore. It was that Selby girl. But Soar had never seen her up close before. Her eyes were closed. Her head lolled off to one side. Her eyelids fluttered rapidly as she spoke and her mouth opened and closed as she made those awful vibration noises. Sometimes when it opened it would form words and those were the ones that came out.

And then Soar saw Madame Heely. She had always worn a hair wrapping when Soar had seen her. Even when she went to bed. They came in many different colors; red or orange or purple or black to match her outfit. Soar never knew where Madame had been from originally, and the wrapping added to her mystique in a way that seemed fitting. This was the first time Soar had seen her without that wrapping.

Atop her dark black curly hair was something that should not be there. Translucent black slimy things. Little sacks with dark blobs swirling around inside them. They pulsed and squirmed. They reminded her of little eggs. And Soar realized the smaller black dots in between the larger ones were the same, but smaller. Thousands of them atop Madame’s head. And then Soar recognized again that this was something she had known before. And she thought about how it was that she had.

Very slowly, as Soar processed the impossible sight in front of her, her eyes traveled up and back into her head. The little sick girl who had had one too many frights that night crumpled in a heap on the floor.

*

And Soar did not awake that next day. Or the day after. Or the day after that. And Madame Heely began to worry about if she would ever wake again. But that Selby girl had said as much. Said it would happen. And, again, as the girl predicted, Lady stepped forward to offer her nursing expertise to care for Soar. And though Madame Heely did not much trust the woman, she had known her to be the only one aboard who could care for any injured. And she did a good enough job as long and Madame and her crew continued paying her in the bottled insects that they had accrued over the year before this all had happened, as per the Selby girl’s advice.

And so the Bella Luna and her crew, with Madame at the helm, floated in the middle of a nameless sea in what may or may not be any place in particular, biding their time, as the Selby girl had instructed. They waited for the day that Soar would wake up again, and what would come next.

Another Anise

Humboldt hadn’t always been odd.

At least, not before it came to be known by that name. What once had been a small mining community built on the edge of Lake Toluca had, over time, grown into a marginally successful hub of regional activity. Eventually the residents decided the activity was a bit too much for a hub, and it grew again. First into a town, and, as fashion trended away from towns, it became a city.

Then, one day, and no one really knew why, the name that had once belonged to that tiny mining community no longer fit. The mayor woke up and decided they would call their city Humboldt, and all of Humboldt’s residents shared the thought that Humboldt was a good name indeed.

And since that day no one ever really came to Humboldt, and, much the same, no one ever really left. And Humboldt became quite odd.

So odd, in fact, that the plastic models that haunted Humboldt’s department stores and malls troubled Carl. His girlfriend had left him over two weeks ago, but the pain of remembrance was so fresh that it still seemed like only yesterday. Carl mostly stayed indoors now, working from home. He told himself it was to allow him to grieve in private, but he knew that was not the case.

Anise had always been so gorgeous. Her features ran so smoothly into each other, soft and subtle yet entirely striking once you did notice. The way she moved had been so unlike anyone else Carl had met. A slow elegance that barely registered; a ghostly grace, as if every lithe limb moved not via muscle attached to skeleton, but rather a slow, descending glide on the breeze. And descended she had on Carl. Everyone who saw them together said that Carl had been extremely lucky. Or at least, that was what they thought. And then she grew even more beautiful. Each day Carl would wake next to her, sleeping so softly and soundlessly, and wonder for a moment whether he was beside the same woman he had bedded the night before. The counterpane was the culling cocoon each night, removing those increasingly slight imperfections, ever propelling her to higher reaches of the beauty she flaunted each morning, stretching out her pale wingspan, as if for the first time. And she became even more noticed by those around them. The sneaking suspicion that their relationship no longer seemed to stretch infinitely into the future took hold in Carl’s mind.

Anise’s face and voice retained their softness, but everyone around her seemed to more loudly comment to Carl on exactly how beautiful she was. And more and more people paid attention to those claims, nodding in agreement or casting sideways glances to join basking in Anise’s angelic aura. She was recommended various avenues of employment offering desirable stipends, much more than her work at an ad agency. And so she had her go-see, and then she was on runways, and then she was the fit model, and now Carl was staring at one of the many mannequins in the Modern storefront window that was molded after her likeness.

The plastic Anise was frozen midstride, a striking and unbecoming pose of the woman he had known. She wore a tight black skirt and a thin white top. Those large, dark sunglasses hid her expression, and her lips were closed tight, a seal of determination, but Carl knew that, somewhere, wherever she was, Anise was smiling. Those legs, those arms, the way they stretched and curved, they were exactly hers and his fingers remembered them well. Her left hand was elevated and thrust behind her, mimicking a wave as she moved on past the implied somebody she left behind. Anyone else would see this woman and her pose and see a woman in control of her fashion and her life. She moved through the crowd without a pause, no time for those she left in her wake. She was headed somewhere important. Somewhere that was not here. To anyone else, that is what they saw. But Carl knew better. She was waving a dispassionate goodbye to the man that had fought her modeling career every step of the way because he was horrified that he might just lose her. And then he had; the prophet foretelling a self-fulfilled demise.

Anise had become the forefront of Modern’s advertising campaign for their new clothing line. Carl had taken it as nothing but bad news, like all confirmations of his lover’s beauty, whether confirmed by couples, companies or corporations made no difference to him. And it had been the last straw for her and she said as much. Though Carl could not imagine a worse feeling than that of losing the one he cared so deeply for, he found himself unable to celebrate her rampant success. And, sure enough, a month later she was gone. She did not say much when she had left. The model in the window was a surprisingly accurate portrayal.

And these poseable plastic imposters now littered Humboldt. Carl used to go for walks to clear his head when something weighed particularly heavy, but each attempt at that in the past weeks had ended with him retreating from another of her doppelgangers. He stuck to his small apartment now; an old building up in Fluid, northwest of downtown. It was cramped and in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint, but it was affordable and he had lived there long enough that it felt like home to him. Unfortunately that feeling seemed to have departed him along with Anise. Now his room and his couch, his kitchen and the breakfast table, they stunk of his former love. He couldn’t take a shower without finding yet another one of her hairs, a discovery that damned him to the deepest corners of despair for the rest of the day.

Carl briefly considered moving away from Humboldt for good, but the thought that he should not leave Humboldt immediately wormed its way into his mind and he decided that it was, of course, a bad idea.

He was trapped. Her presence was felt on every corner of the city. Traces of her lingered in each room of his home. Carl would go outside when being inside made him too sick with memory, and then again inside when outside did the same. Each day went like that and that was why he was currently on another corner, in front of another mall window, looking into that same pair of eyes he saw each time he closed his own.

"I miss you," Carl croaked. It was the first time he had spoken in days and his voice sounded hoarse, like two stones grating against one another. He briefly wondered whether his first words in days being directed toward a mannequin was cause for worry or not, but he decided it was symbolic of his Anise, and that was good enough to not be crazy. "I didn’t think you’d leave yet. It always seemed like something that would happen a few years down the line. But I guess that’s my fault."

Carl stopped himself from turning to check whether anyone was staring. He decided they probably were but making eye contact with them would not make him feel any better. He had no explanation for them. And saying “that’s my girlfriend in there” probably would not help.

"You were just too pretty for me, Anise. I didn’t know what to do with that. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing all the eyes that would be on you that next day. All of the men that would want to take you. I am too weak to handle that. And I’m sorry." It wasn’t closure, but Carl did feel something of a relief. He could suddenly breathe a little deeper, and his heart hurt slightly less. And he nodded to himself. He felt like smiling.

The Anise doll in the storefront window turned its head from its forward facing position to look directly at Carl. And its mouth opened. And though Carl shouldn’t have been able to hear a voice through that thick glass, these words rang loudly in his head, the fury of a thousand church bells sounding in unison. The plastic woman’s lips moved along with the words: “Don’t worry, Carl, baby. I’m here for you.”

*

Carl didn’t sleep that night. He tried. After what had happened he had gone straight home and into his bed in disagreement with the sun which still hung low in the sky. He stared at the ceiling, praying for sleep to overtake him. It was now long past midnight and still he stared. The same cold sweat ran down his neck and back. The same mixture of deep anxiety and crippling fear kept him shrunk back against his mattress. Carl wanted to cry or yell or scream but he could not. After what he had witnessed, he wasn’t sure whether he even had a voice any longer, and he was too scared to find out. If he could talk, what would come out? He was obviously insane. Carl knew that no one else would have seen what he had there in front of the Modern building. Sane people did not have two way conversations with mannequins.

A knock came at the door. It was oddly light and hollow sounding; as if it had come by accident. But it came again quickly, refuting Carl’s pitiful hope that he had not heard it at all. There was no one in this city that would visit him at this time of night. There was no reason for anyone to want to get inside of his home.

Unless

From time to time Anise went out with a few of her girlfriends for drinks. She would come stumbling home late at any and all hours of the night. But it couldn’t be her.

The knock came again.

Could it?

Carl got up slowly, trying not to make a sound. His breaths were ragged, despite his best efforts to control them. He left his bedroom and crossed the living room to the door. Knock, knock, and knock again.

Carl peered into the peephole. What he saw sent him crashing to the floor. His vision went dark for a moment and his consciousness wavered. Carl began coughing, choking on his own spit. Cold sweat slicked his spine. He whimpered on the ground. He felt like balling up, holding himself; weeping; never getting up again. But he couldn’t cry. He couldn’t even do that.

He now knew he was truly insane. And that made him sadder than Anise having left. He knew that what he had seen on the other side of that door simply was not there in actuality. Just a projection of his grief, his crazed mind playing a dark and sinister trick on him. But there it was, nonetheless. In a last ditch effort to recover his sanity, Carl forced himself up and grasped the handle to the front door of his apartment. He undid the lock and the bolt and took a deep breath. He was going to open this door and whatever had been on the other side would no longer be there. And then he would go to sleep and never think about Anise again because while he no longer had love, at least he would have his mind.

None of those things happened. Carl threw the door open. Eight mannequins filled the hallway in front of his apartment. All of them modeled after Anise’s body. And when they saw Carl they smiled. And, one by one, they entered. A ninth walked up the steps and into the hallway, joining the rest as they made their way inside.

Carl did not move from his spot at the door, staring, dumbfounded, off into space. He focused on reaching into the depths of his mind, fighting to get some sort of grasp on his sanity. It must be hidden away someplace. He just had to find it and pull it back into the rest of his brain to make these plastic women that stood in his living room go away. Carl shut the door and turned around.

They were still there. They were smiling. Their chests and their stomachs rose and fell. They were breathing. Though they had no nose or mouth openings to speak of, they sure made a good show of it. And they moved in such a way that Carl was unsure whether they had ever moved at all before. Each second of stillness in between the motion seemed to hang in the air, just another one of the natural poses befitting lifeless models of human likeness. When they smiled it seemed as though they had always been smiling; of course they were smiling, but then Carl would watch their collective mood shift as each would bite its lip or frown slightly in impatience, and then that emotion was the one that seemed frozen in time.

And that voice from before returned in Carl’s ears. Each set of supposed lips moved in harmony with the words that bellowed from somewhere inside his mind. “I came for you, Carl. I will never leave you again.”

And the plastic figurines grabbed at him. Their fingers and wrists and elbows and shoulders all bent as though they had working joints. They pulled at him and he resisted but as more and more began pulling he no longer could, and somewhere in his brain he did not want to. The mannequins lifted Carl and carried him into his bedroom. They laid him down and crouched around him. Their lifeless, moving faces all staring at him intently. Featureless heads poked up from the edges of his bed, shaking and swaying as they watched panic wash over him. They whispered and cooed and stroked his face and his arms and his legs.

Carl struggled. He tried to yell. Nothing worked. The things continued petting him and sweet talking him and slowly his muscles relaxed against his will. His eyes felt heavy. Their hands ran across his body. They squeezed and pulled and caressed with those stiff, hollow hands. Down his face, across his chest, over his arms, up his thighs…

Carl closed his eyes.

*

A month later the mannequin women of Carl’s apartment collectively birthed his baby boy. The young man looked as Carl had always imagined the children of he and Anise to look, though more much more pale and lifeless. The young boy resembled a child of ten, and could almost pass as one from far away. Up close his body and facial features shifted and warped in that same eerie and unnatural way his mothers’ bodies did.

Over that month before the birth, the rest of the Anise mannequins in Humboldt made their migration to Carl’s place in Fluid. They first only came in the shroud of night, but as more and more of the Anise mannequins were sighted by the general public, they went by day as well. And there were now well over a hundred. The cramped apartment could not contain them all, and they spilled out into the hall and onto the street. They would make Carl breakfast, fetch anything he wanted from the city, and they all took turns caring for their son.

Carl had been overjoyed to see that he had, in fact, retained his sanity. It was the city itself that had gone mad. He had lost his precious Anise and received a thousand in return, all there to care for his every whim. And he had a little boy. Though Reginald was an odd child, he was still Carl’s child. And he learned quickly, too. Carl taught little Reginald to speak with his mouth and not just through people’s minds, and how to behave in public, and that though he might look different, he was to be proud of that fact and that he was unique without forgetting that, deep down, he was just like everyone else, no matter what they would claim.

Eventually people came to watch the things move about in the streets in front of Carl’s place, and a large majority decided it was very disturbing. Modern quickly responded with a press release agreeing with that notion and sent over a crew to begin the ‘removal’ of the things that should not move.

Carl fought back. Though he claimed the moving mannequins were his girlfriend, Modern did not see it that way. Carl gathered as many as he could inside and boarded up his home. It was decided that they were, effectively, property of Modern and that Carl had stolen them. Not only that, but the other mannequins throughout the city had seen what the Anise models had done, and some were beginning to decide they wanted to get up and move around as well. Most of the city agreed that they felt uncomfortable about the once inanimate objects that were now up and moving about, attempting to claim themselves residents of the city.

Carl recognized his days with his plastic girlfriend were numbered, that the giant corporation of Modern was going to once again steal away his love, and so he hid his son in the crawlspace of his apartment, beyond the false wall. A place he had never known existed until the last few days of desperation seemed to have resulted in him discovering exactly what he needed. And then Carl organized the rest of the mannequins in the city to fight back against those that would destroy them. The Modern crew came again, and Carl fought with his mannequin army, but mannequins are hollow, light things and they do not stand up well to batons and bullets and hoses, and so they were defeated and taken away.

Carl fled during the chaos with a few of the remaining Anise models. Weeks later, Modern claimed to have never been able to find him. The police of the city were similarly unsuccessful in their search. Modern declared the mannequin issue dealt with. They gave a concise apology and the public accepted it and things returned to normal. Modern ran a new line of mannequins, and people were wary for a time, but these ones hadn’t yet moved and so they decided it was alright. Although it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that more than a few store owners had their mannequins chained to the floor, just in case.

*

Little Reginald lays in his crawlspace, spending most of his time staring at the wall. Luckily he does not need food to sustain himself. As the months pass, he grows in size, though he seems to stop growing soon after. He doesn’t understand much about the world outside, and he won’t learn much of anything in this cramped dark space, but he does know that it is not safe for him to come out yet.

After a few years he again hears thumping and moving around in the area beyond the crawlspace, but he does not leave to check what it is that is out there, as his father instructed him to stay put unless he knock three times on the wall.

Before Carl left he hugged Reginald and told him that if he never came back, only to come out when he had to or he knew it was safe. He promised that he would hide one of Reginald’s mothers out in Humboldt, somewhere where they “will never find her.” Carl looked Reginald in the eyes and said:

"When you’re ready to look for her, look for mother. Whatever you do, don’t forget that. Look for mother, and you will find her."

And then Carl kissed his half-human son on the forehead, wiping back tears. He stuffed him into the dark crawlspace and shut it up. He promised he would come back for him soon.

Carl never came back.

Dead, Baby

There is an abyss. You know it as well as I. The blueblack pall hangs just beyond sight. Forever carried with us. Forgotten in life, but yet internalized; a referential point that has us look toward the future with fear and cower when we again catch glimpses of it in our deepest slumber. We ache and squirm and fear the numb emptiness and yet it will come. An old enemy we once knew, deep within the womb. Inexistence. And just as we all entered into life out of that uniformly static nonbeing, we will again return to it. The smart among us curse and bless the knowledge of such an eventuality each day. And what for those that do not know?

Does the prebirth child stare into this void? Yes, the cradle swings above the abyss, but does that time in stasis, before entering out of mother into life proper provide a fleeting glimpse of what forever before was and what will forever more be again? And then, the finite infant, with its complete and utter understanding, gladly shrugs off this knowledge when greeted with the activity and color and feeling that life brings. A sensory overload meant to shock and astound; the sole purpose being to forget. And that first emotion. The realization of where it had been before causes each of us to weep uncontrollably. The last time we are able to fully comprehend that complete and utter lack. Perhaps we would hold onto this knowledge if we could. But when faced with the daunting task of an entire life ahead, you’d never think of it.

And there are other things we’d rather not think of. That unborn child that meets both ends of the void at once, never the chance to see what was meant to lie betwixt. But this child knew of something more. For the woman who had him carried just short of term was able to impart with him something of life beyond. And as she sat in her own inescapable prison, a well-designed, once comfortable seat on one side, and the other, the weight of a displaced steering column, she wept for him. She cried not for the loss of his memory, of the eventual numb despair, but rather for his loss of life. Nonetheless, she cried for him as he would not get to do. She would never know the thing that would grow in her name. Would grow up in her flesh and her blood. But in her fleeting consciousness, she unloaded all of the love she might have had for those years that would no longer be. She shifted and struggled to free her right arm and placed it softly against her bulging, throbbing belly. And she sang a tune she did not know, but knew to be the right one at that moment.

Don’t worry about being dead, baby.

Because I’m dead too, baby.

In that way, we’re together, baby.

I love you.”

And the unbirth thing within the dying woman heard that gorgeous, melodic and maternal voice for the first and last time. It understood in those words the beauty of life in a way many never would with their decades of living. And this boy knew both of life and the void at once, and for whatever reason, he did not go mad. Did he know too much? Or nothing at all?

Somewhere in Humboldt, something decided that no, it was not too much. And, because of that decision, the child that heard of its mother’s love slithered out of her upon the mortuary slab a few days later. Where it would go and what it would do, the newborn corpse did not know, but it continued its twisting path right out the door. And the mortician that had witnessed this never said a thing out of fear he would have to then confront his supposed insanity.

Little did he know the impact that child would have on the city of Humboldt.

 

Lonely Lonnie

Humboldt hadn’t always been odd.

At least, not before it came to be known by that name. What once had been a small mining community built on the edge of Lake Toluca had, over time, grown into a marginally successful hub of regional activity. Eventually the residents decided the activity was a bit too much for a hub, and it grew again. First into a town, and, as fashion trended away from towns, it became a city.

Then, one day, and no one really knew why, the name that had once belonged to that tiny mining community no longer fit. The mayor woke up and decided they would call their city Humboldt, and all of Humboldt’s residents shared the thought that Humboldt was a good name indeed.

And since that day no one ever really came to Humboldt, and, much the same, no one ever really left. And Humboldt became quite odd.

So odd, in fact, that Lonnie’s dream of one day up and leaving the city of Humboldt to escape the feeling of being encased in a concrete tomb had come true, though not at all in the way she had hoped. She was known by the neighbors as Lonely Lonnie, and by those neighbors’ children as Loony Lonnie, but she preferred just Lonnie, and would have told anyone who asked as much, but no one ever did. And now they never could. Lonnie had awoken one Sunday morning a week ago to a shocking discovery. Pulling back the curtains of her bedroom window to invite the morning sun into the second floor of her small one bedroom home revealed that the suburb of Pinkton had been reduced to a flat, ruinous wasteland, seemingly overnight. Buildings were leveled, reduced to piles of smoldering rubble. Once well-manicured lawns were now different shades of black death, and the roads themselves had been upheaved, creating giant gashes, dark, cavernous wounds that ran deep into the earth. The sight was enough to make Lonnie feel both loonier and lonelier than she ever had before.

And not only that, but the residents of Pinkton had entirely vanished. The streets were empty. The hopeless cries and screams of human suffering Lonnie had expected to accompany this diorama of despair simply were not there. And that scared Lonnie more than the apparent coming of the apocalypse. How long did the ruin go on for? Was it just this area, or had the entire world been consumed by a silent, fiery death? From her home, she could not make out so much as a trace of humanity left behind. There were still those things, but Lonnie had decided early on that week that they were entirely inhuman. She had never much left her home before Pinkton was wiped off the face of the Earth, and the things that came at night gave her an even better reason to never leave now..

Lonnie had always relied on the three distractions to keep herself busy throughout the day, cooped up in her home as she always seemed to be. And now that she was trapped there, those distractions had lost their ability to distract, and Lonnie spent most of her day peering out the always-drawn blinds, wondering what it was she would do when her stock of canned food in the basement ran out.

The first distraction from life, lunacy, and loneliness had always been the most important. Lonnie’s lovely daughter, Lady. Though she never visited anymore— Lonnie never got up the courage to ask why because she suspected that the sight of her old mother living in the small one bedroom home depressed Lady— her daughter always called twice a week. Once on the week’s end in the early hours of evening, and once on weekend’s end in the afternoon. Conversation was always pleasant and never idle, ranging from how their days had been, to their hopes and dreams, to insects. They did talk about bugs quite a lot, though Lonnie never knew why. The two cared deeply for each other. Neither had to feign or force excitement about hearing how the other had been since last they spoke. And that Sunday morning Lonnie had discovered the rest of Pinkton had all but up and left in the night, a little bit of her was still at ease because Lonnie had that weekend chat to look forward to, and boy did she have something to talk about. But the call never came. And then on Friday, it again did not come. And now it was the second Sunday since Pinkton’s happening, and Lonnie anxiously checked her answering machine every hour, hovering a hand over the phone when she was not. She grew more and more restless each time that robotic voice came through the slotted speaker announcing the absence of any new messages. She was certain the call had simply not gone through. Possibly because of the layer of soot that cast a permanent funerary veil over the landscape. But Lonnie could not shake the voice that liked to make its presence known in the back of her mind during times such as these. And this past week had allowed it to grow louder than ever before as it wormed around, as restless as she. It was a deep, rotten voice, and always had much the same thing to say. It told her it knew exactly why her daughter had stopped calling. Lonnie had, in fact, been forgotten along with the rest of her suburb. And, more and more often, Lonnie could not convince herself to the contrary.

Though her first distraction had failed her, Lonnie had been able to turn to her second favorite method of occupying her mind. The television had worked fine, as glowing and crystal clear an image as ever before. That may have been what saved her from losing her mind completely. But it did not last. The outside world seemed to soldier on without so much as a notice of Pinkton’s absence. Lonnie was certain an event such as this would be cause for national news, but even the local Humboldt stations seemed much more interested in the weather, fashion, and the current plant creature craze. The other voice in the back of her mind would speak to this point with glee. She had finally lost it. There was nothing wrong with Pinkton, and there was everything wrong with Lonnie. You’re gone, baby. Vacancy sign reads open, right across your forehead. Loony Lonnie. Loony Lonnie. Its voice was much higher in pitch from the other. But Lonnie had gotten good at dismissing this one. She saw what she saw, and she knew it was mad, but her senses told her it was real as well. She heard the screams of those things. She felt her mouth and lungs fill up with smoke and ash when she opened a window. Until someone convinced her otherwise, Lonnie held strong onto those other senses, taking solace in their awful assurances. The world might be crazy, but ancient loony Lonnie’s still going strong, she would think, and then she would concentrate on the television again before her mind had a chance to continue the argument with itself. As the days went on, the ash that snowed down on the wreckage of Pinkton seemed to make its way inside of her TV as well. Static overtook every channel. But she kept it on, day and night. The background noise was, for the most part, successful in drowning out her thoughts, and she took comfort in that.

The third distraction was the one that had been nagging at Lonnie since last Sunday. The post; messages delivered to Lonnie’s doorstep bringing news and bills (mostly bills) from the outside world. There was no mail on Sundays. Even Loony old Lonnie knew that. But for some reason that red flag that stood up on the outside of her mailbox that Sunday morning bothered her almost as much as the destruction that surrounded it. She hadn’t put that flag up herself, and she hadn’t planned to send any outgoing mail that day. Someone else had done it. Was someone trying to tell her something with that little red flag? Was there something in her mailbox that might fix all of this? A message from her daughter that she was coming to save her? Or at least contact from the outside world? It was almost enough to make her brave the new, tattered world outside to investigate. Almost. But the red flag stood up on her mailbox regardless. She liked to imagine it as the small, red cry for help, as pathetic an attempt at gaining someone’s attention as Lonnie’s refusal to go outside was.

Lonnie’s front lawn and the mailbox were untouched by the carnage the rest of the city suffered. Her lawn had always resembled more of a hay field than the green pastures on either side, but in comparison to the scorched earth that now surrounded her, Lonnie’s lawn glowed with the green of life and abundance. It was a bright green ray of hope, standing strong in the middle of the desolation; a representation of what Pinkton used to be.

And now Lonnie did not know what she was to do. She blinked slowly. Lonnie had not gotten much sleep in that past week, both because of the stress and because of the noise that assaulted her home each night from those things. The public access station had gone blank again, and though the sky was a constant shade of black, the sun that managed to make it through the smog told her afternoon had long since passed and it was rapidly approaching Sunday evening, well beyond the time she should have expected her daughter to call. But of course she wasn’t going to. How can she remember to call someone so entirely forgetful? The gravelly voice stated from somewhere within her.

Lonnie shook her head furiously, hoping to somehow punish the intangible thing that existed inside her, but instead only gave herself a slight headache. She stood up and made her way to the sitting room window overlooking her front lawn. Peering between the blinds, Lonnie observed what she knew would be there. The mailbox and its incessant red flag. There was something out there. And today she was going to find out what. Those things never came out when the sun, weak as it had been, shone through the darkness. She still had maybe an hour before night arrived, and all she had to do was take twenty steps outside her home and back again. If her daughter had indeed forgotten her, Lonnie had nothing left. Nothing except whatever it was that could or could not be inside that box. And until she knew, there was both something and nothing, and she refused to die a curious woman.

Lonnie dug through the various piles of stuff in her basement, eventually finding a pair of child’s first chemistry set goggles. She brushed off the several layers of dust and put them on, along with an old sun hat, windbreaker pants, and a thick, charcoal gray wool coat. If she was going outside, she was going to protect herself best she could.

And then, after a few attempts at controlling her breathing, Lonnie turned the knob on the front door of her one bedroom home and walked outside. The wind bellowed fiercely, throwing ash and soot in all directions. Lonnie held her breath and covered her mouth and nose with her hands. Her hat blew away during her sprint to the front of her lawn and she did not bother to retrieve it. And as Lonnie closed in on her destination, an awful stench began to overpower her other senses completely. She gasped involuntarily, coughing and sputtering from both the filth in the air and the smell of the thing she now noticed on the ground in front of her, sprawled out, as if guarding the mailbox.

A dismembered human arm stretched out across the grass. It did not bleed, and looked to have been long since parted from its owner, but it still twitched and writhed where it was. Lonnie stumbled back. The smell in the air was one of decay and rot, as if someone had left out the carcasses of a thousand pigs to spoil in the sun. All of that smell could not have come from this one arm, could it? And the thing that twitched around in front of her still seemed very much alive in its own right, and well preserved if not. The arm was pale and slightly hairy, a man’s arm. The forearm was muscular, and it cut off at the elbow. The bone seemed to be missing, but muscle and tendon and other bright and colorful gore was still present, wriggling around along with the rest of it.

And Lonnie struggled to her feet and fled to the comfort of her home. She slammed the door and sat herself firmly against it. Lonnie breathed heavily, still coughing up the black that had gotten inside her nose and mouth. She double locked the door and crawled back to the sitting room to look out the window. The hand was sticking up now, and it seemed to be waving at her. Lonnie shut the blinds again. This was ridiculous. She had finally lost it. Loony Lonnie. The kids had all been right. Told you, the high pitched voice cheered from somewhere inside.

And Lonnie checked the blinds again, but this time the arm was gone. Had it ever been there? Or had her mind just made up a reason to prevent her from reaching her destination? Was that red flag even up or was that another manifestation of her imagination? Maybe she had in fact invented the whole scenario as a way of clinging onto the fringes of sanity. Maybe she just liked to imagine someone had sent her mail because then she didn’t have to feel entirely hopeless.

Lonnie considered going out again, but it was already growing dark, and if that arm hadn’t been a clever trick her brain had pulled on her, it was probably still out there somewhere. And the last thing she wanted to do was let an animated human arm with unknowable motives into her home.

And then, along with the night, the things came, as they had done each night since the catastrophe. They resembled feral children. Shirtless little boys and girls that ran around on two or four legs, congregating at various light sources throughout the city. The flicker of a still-standing gas station sign that sat kitty-corner to Lonnie’s home was, unfortunately, a popular meeting point. And after that first night, Lonnie learned to never leave the lights on past sundown.

They would come, one or two at first, and then several more and several more, growing into the hundreds quickly, not unlike the gathering of a thousand insects on the only light bulb in a dark room. And then they began their nightly ritual. The first one to find the light source would start. The little thing would arch its back, raise its head toward the sky, and utter the most horrific sounds Lonnie had ever heard. Noises that went both above and below in pitch of what Lonnie thought the human voice to be capable of producing. Then the others would join in, seemingly in the order that they had arrived. The shrieks and bellows were guttural, piercing the night in violent outburst. As they each joined in the noise grew deafening. Lonnie jammed her fingers in her ears in an effort to prevent her ear drums from bursting, an act which only slightly muted the excruciating sound of a thousand howling children.

And tonight was no different. They gathered across the street from her home and began their screams. Those wretched cries into the night that without fail reduced Lonnie to tears. She lie in her bed, head stuffed between two pillows, and quivered uncontrollably. The sound rendered her incapable of anything except shivering. Gooseflesh ran across her skin and remained for hours after the shrieks died and went away. And they did stop. Suddenly. Much sooner than they did most other nights. And that scared Lonnie more than if they had continued on. Why had they stopped? What on earth could cause them to stop?

A thud from somewhere downstairs answered her question. Lonnie looked outside her bedroom window. She could not get the correct angle to make out what it was that was pounding on her back door, but she could see the children. They were making their way towards her home. How they could have heard it, Lonnie did not know, but they had.

The thud came again. Lonnie thought quickly. Whatever it was, it must be silenced. If she shuts it up maybe the things will lose interest. Maybe they’ll get back to their awful shouting and leave her home in peace. But she had to hurry.

Lonnie bolted out of bed and down the stairs. She ran through the kitchen to her back door as the noise came again. Something rather heavy was slamming itself against the door. Lonnie scrambled up to the counter and pulled open the blinds. She looked out onto her back porch carefully, being sure not to let whatever it was out back, or those inhuman children, see her. Lonnie squinted in the low light. She couldn’t see a thing. She let out a sigh of relief. Maybe it had gone? At least it wasn’t another one of the children out there, demanding to be let inside. But then it came again.

Thud. And Lonnie frantically searched from her spot at the window. She ran across the kitchen to the other door, hoping a different vantage point would reveal the intruder. And as the thud once again sounded, she saw it. A dismembered human hand, pounding at the door. She hadn’t imagined it before. It was alive. Well, alive might not be the right word, but it was moving, and it wanted inside her home.

Lonnie let out a terrified yelp and fell back from the window, crashing against the vinyl flooring, her head connecting with a loud smack. Lonnie struggled to maintain consciousness as the thudding continued. And then she could see the children, or the things?, she didn’t know which, staring at her through the windows. They seemed to want in as well, but they hesitated to approach the hand that had decided to make it presence known in the first place.

And it continued its assault on Lonnie’s door. And then Lonnie knew she had truly lost it. She watched as other limbs and pieces of flesh and muscle and bone and viscera made their way up the stairs that led from her basement. Upon seeing those bits and parts that once belonged to various people, something in the back of Lonnie’s mind stirred. She recognized them for some reason, though she wasn’t quite sure why and the surreal events at hand allowed her to dismiss the unnerving thought from her mind entirely. And those bits and pieces of corpse, arms, legs, hands, tongues, necks, fingers, bits of flesh and other unrecognizable parts, joined in on the attack against Lonnie’s back door.

The children watched. And eventually the fingers and hands and everything else got a grip on the handle of her back door and pulled it down under their weight. And then when the arm on the outside crashed against the door again, it was thrown open, and the hand slithered inside, shutting the door behind it. The children left. What happened next was even stranger still.

The hundreds of tiny remnants and pieces of those long since passed began to coalesce. Necks stacked on each other, arms slid into place between thighs, hair covered what it could and everything else joined in as well. The resulting mass was a horrifying assemblage of human remains. A fleshy tower slicked with blood and muscle and matted hair of different colors. The necks stacked on top of each other, forming the center from which protruded the legs and arms and everything else. Teeth ran up the back of the thing like a spine and muscle attached itself onto it. And the pieces began to move as one. And that arm sat at the top of the seven feet of parts, waving at Lonnie in recognition. At that point, Lonnie decided she had lost it entirely and proceeded to lose consciousness as well.

*

Lonnie awoke at her kitchen table. She was propped up against a chair, and a tea cup from her china cabinet was placed in front of her. Something moved around the kitchen. Lonnie began turning her head to see what exactly that thing was, but stopped as pain shot down her spine. She remembered faintly smacking it against the floor. Touching the bruise on the back of her head revealed a bandage had been wrapped around it.

And then Lonnie remembered. She looked up from her place across to the window over the sink, which was no longer drawn. The morning sun shone through. The children had fled. And then… and then…

Lonnie froze as she remembered what it was that was shuffling around behind her. It couldn’t be… Could it? And she fought through the pain, turning her body as well to reveal the towering corpse thing was still in fact in her home. And it was heating up a tea kettle.

The thing turned as Lonnie watched it, and the hand on top acknowledged her, waving. Good morning. The teapot whistled and the thing bent itself down to allow the hand on top to grip the handle. Legs and thighs and several tongues stretched out to secure the bottom of the teapot as the thing made its way back to Lonnie’s spot at the table. The bits holding the bottom of the kettle sizzled, and Lonnie could smell burning flesh, but neither the thing nor the individual parts seemed to mind it.

And the pieces of human remains served Lonnie piping hot tea. And it was delicious. Lonnie sipped it, minding the heat, as she watched the construct move from room to room. It seemed to be tidying up the place. At times she would spot it with a broom, and then later a mop. It moved furniture to clean underneath, and dusted off those places that were well beyond Lonnie’s reach. And then it refilled the tea cup and sat with the old woman at the table.

By this time Lonnie understood completely. She smiled at the thing. It waved back excitedly. And Lonnie began to talk. She spoke about her daughter, her hopes and dreams, and about how dreadful this past week had been. And the thing listened politely as the hours passed. And once Lonnie was finished it set out to continue its work around the house. (It even learned to operate a vacuum, albeit after more than a little struggling.) And, thankfully, the things seemed to fear the towering pile of flesh. It even chased them away at night when their nocturnal activities caused them to draw too near to Lonnie’s home.

The days went by like that. Her daughter never called, the TV never righted itself, and the children continued their insufferable shrieks. But Lonnie didn’t mind. She might still be loony, but Lonnie was lonely no longer. She had gained a friend.

And before long, she remembered the other thing that she had worried about before her friend had shown up. One morning, as the thing watched Lonnie eat a delicious and balanced breakfast it had made for her, the old woman leaned over to it and said, ” Could you be a dear and fetch me the mail?”

Nabokov is endlessly inspiring

His way with words is simply unreal. 

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated." -Speak, Memory

Hole

Humboldt hadn’t always been odd.

At least, not before it came to be known by that name. What once had been a small mining community built on the edge of Lake Toluca had, over time, grown into a marginally successful hub of regional activity. Eventually the residents decided the activity was a bit too much for a hub, and it grew again. First into a town, and, as fashion trended away from towns, it became a city.

Then, one day, and no one really knew why, the name that had once belonged to that tiny mining community no longer fit. The mayor woke up and decided they would call their city Humboldt, and all of Humboldt’s residents shared the thought that Humboldt was a good name indeed.

And since that day no one ever really came to Humboldt, and, much the same, no one ever really left. And Humboldt became quite odd.

So odd, in fact, that Rich had never been as busy covering the news of Upper Yellowside as he was now. Gift Mother had been carted through the Yellowside neighborhood just a week ago, leaving shiny new trinkets in her wake. Rich himself was given a platinum ink pen with the words Yellowside Chronicle engraved along the body in a sapphire script. It hadn’t been the name of Rich’s bi-monthly newspaper before, but after careful consideration, Rich decided he liked Chronicle better than Times and now had that to thank Gift Mother for as well. Even though Rich was, much to his frustration, unable to procure an interview with Gift Mother, it still had the makings of what could be the greatest article the Chronicle had ever seen.

And just as he was putting the finishing touches on “Step Aside Santa: Gift Mother Appears in Yellowside”, Rich caught word of neighborhood activity behind the Collins’ home. A hole had appeared in the center of their backyard. Bahtilda Collins and her son Loam swore they had done no digging, though some of the older neighbors suspected the boy. Rich rushed to the scene. A large crowd had already formed, and so he forced his way through, claiming reporter credentials to those who wouldn’t budge.

From a distance the hole looked insignificant. Though only stretching about five feet in diameter, closer examination revealed it to be perfectly rounded. Inhumanly so, thought Rich. He crossed Loam off the list in his mind. Not only that, but as far as everyone could tell, there was no visible end to the thing. The hole stretched down into a darkness that not even the afternoon sun could find the bottom of. The people of Yellowside were abuzz with the news. It took quite a bit to get them out of their homes and off the topic of boring things such as Modern furniture, a current fad for the more affluent adults in Humboldt, but a hole had done it. At least, for a time.

A few hours later everyone agreed that while it was an oddity, it was, in fact, just a hole, and they went home. Rich stuck around a while longer. Eventually Bahtilda asked him to please get the hell out of their backyard so they could eat in peace. Rich obliged, with the caveat that they start a subscription to the Yellowside Chronicle. And that was how he finally convinced the last house on the street without a copy of the Chronicle to add themselves to his ever growing readership, now up at twenty-five. He had tried to get her to commit to two, one for her and one for her son, but she said not to try his luck. He decided that was a good idea.

And by morning, Bahtilda was gone. No one knew where she went or why. Some suspected she up and left because of the mounting prices of Loam’s loans, or that the hole’s mysterious nature had caused her frail mind to snap and she had run off into the night. The police were contacted, but Bahtilda had not been gone long enough to mount a search. But that didn’t mean Rich couldn’t start a search of his own. With a fresh copy of the Chronicle as his excuse, Rich paid the Collins house a visit just two days after Bahtilda’s disappearance.

Rich rapped loudly on the oak door engraved with a crown. A Lloyd piece, he noted. One of the last in the Yellowside area. Loam Collins answered the door timidly. He looked exhausted. In his left hand he held the silver butterfly knife shaving razor he had been given by Gift Mother. It was engraved in his initials. Loam had always had a thick, dark beard, but the night after she came through he had shaved it off entirely. Gift Mother had that effect on people. He was a different man without the beard, and Rich was momentarily disarmed. But just momentarily.

The young journalist thrust his hand out to the large man. “Richie T. of the Yellowside Chronicle, formerly The Yellow Times.”

Loam sighed. “I know who you are, Rich.”

Rich smiled and produced a copy of the Chronicle from the tote bag slung over his shoulder. “Seeing as you are new subscribers, I thought I’d let you get a sneak peek at the next issue. Fresh off the printers. Isn’t out ‘til tomorrow.”

He continued to smile, extending the five page paper out to Loam, who seemed thoroughly uninterested. But Rich wasn’t one to give up. Eventually Loam took it. He fished around in his pockets for a quarter, but Rich held up his hands.

"Please, this one is on me."

Loam raised his eyebrows slightly, which did nothing to move the frown on his face. “Gee, thanks, Rich. See you.”

Rich jammed his foot in the door and leaned his shoulder against it, throwing all his weight against the much stronger man on the other side. “Please, Loam, just give me a- I only need a minute of your time. I won’t come in. Doorstep interview! Doorstep interview only!”

But it was no use. And Loam said some very unkind words which Rich did not think were true.  Rich shouted that 5’8” was a very average height for a boy of eighteen, but Loam had already locked the front door by that time and no longer seemed to be responding.

It was going to be tough getting answers, but Rich was in no way discouraged. He rang up his printing press buddy Cash Reynolds, and they resolved to meet up at midnight on the sidewalk in front of the Collins house.

Cash sauntered up, twenty minutes late, a cigarillo protruding from between his lips. “‘Sup, Rich. Want a smoke?” Cash coughed violently. He had only turned eighteen one week ago and since then Cash had been inseparable from the things.

"Of course not. Why are you always late everywhere we go?"

"Ain’t gotta be on time when you’re doin’ a crime." He blew smoke out slowly up in the air. The gesture ended in another coughing fit.

"First of all, this is not a crime. We are simply accidentally wandering into the Collins’ yard during a nightly walk, if anybody asks. Secondly, that makes no sense. A crime is something that requires precision and careful planning if you don’t want to be caught. If there’s anything you should be on time for, it’s something like this. "

Cash shrugged. The man was dumb but he always came through in a pinch. He was much bigger than Rich, and if anything happened, having the oaf to back him up helped to put the odds in his favor. Cash started wheezing and Rich rolled his eyes. “Put that shit out. We can’t be stealthy if you’re waking half of Yellowside.”

Cash inhaled quickly before tossing the cigarillo on the sidewalk and stamping it out. He kicked it off onto the street. The two boys slowly made their way around the Collins home to the backyard. The lights were out, which put Rich at ease. Cash walked up to the hole straightaway, but Rich slowly worked his way around the perimeter of the yard, watching for signs of movement. The yard was enclosed in a picket fence and ran right against other yards’ fences. No lights were on in the surrounding homes, but there were many windows facing their area of investigation. The moon was bright that night, and just one-

"Whoa, Rich, check this shit out!" Cash exclaimed loudly from his place near the hole. Rich turned, frowning at his partner. He tiptoed around the hole, careful not to get too close to the edge, as the thought of falling in terrified him. Cash’s attention was fixated on something down there. "Is this really happening or are my eyes going all funny?"

Rich peered into the hole, following Cash’s gaze way down in a way that scared Rich. There was a pulse of some kind. A light. Something was down there. It looked like the flicker of a dying light bulb, but the color was off. And the color, a dull yellow at first, kept shifting. Purple, green, orange, red. But it changed in a way that made Rich unsure whether it had ever been those previous colors or it was a problem of his eyes adjusting in the dim light of night. It seemed so far down that Rich felt a lurch within his stomach and he had to pull back before he was sucked in.

Two simple words formulated somewhere in his mind. They were not said or written or communicated in anyway, but instead merely known.

Follow me.

Cash stood over Rich. “You alright, man?” Rich was on the ground, the wriggling of a cold sweat slowly making its way across his skin. Something had bothered him about that hole. Those lights. There was something that felt very familiar and very terrifying at the same time but he could not remember why. Had he seen that before? Or-

"I’m not crazy, right? You see that lightshow going on down there?" Cash seemed bothered in much the same way. Rich nodded. He stood up and ran home without another word.

But things only grew more and more strange after that night. Bahtilda returned the following morning. Loam woke up to his mother knocking on the front door of their house. The police called off the investigation that had just begun and everyone was happy to see that the issue had resolved itself. But then people started running into Bahtilda. Out on the street or at the store or when she came by to play bridge that week. She was different. And not just in the odd way that she did not speak much anymore and always seemed to have that same smile on her face. She was beautiful. So much so that she would have gone almost entirely unrecognized if it weren’t for the blue and green starburst pattern in her pupils that made her eyes stand out so much in the light of day. Her face had once sagged, but now it was stretched nicely over an angular jaw and cheek bones. Her forehead was less pronounced, and her eyebrows thin. Her lips were shapely and her ears no longer jutted out away from her head. She was perfect. And everyone thought so. Men and women alike were in visible awe of her presence before they remembered their manners and did their best to hide it. And that smile. Everyone else commented on how beautiful and white her teeth were. How lovely was the deep natural red of her lips. But that smile sent a chill down Rich’s spine. And no one else seemed at all concerned with how much her personality had changed. Bahtilda had always been a loud and outspoken woman, and she herself had said as much. But not anymore. She just smiled and nodded and thanked everyone quietly for their kind words. Her gaping smile was accompanied by her never ending stare, as if her eyelids were taped open in some way. Rich swore he had never seen her blink but Cash told him that he was just jealous.

A few people asked Bahtilda Collins where she had gone, but she said nothing. She acted as though she had simply been out of town for a few days and that everyone had known that. And eventually everyone thought that they had. But Rich knew better. He had seen something in her eyes. It was an odd, piercing familiarity in the same way the light of the hole in the Collins’ yard had been, and he now deeply distrusted Bahtilda, though he was unsure why and said nothing due to lack of evidence. There was something behind those eyes that words did not communicate. Rich resolved to find out what. And though he did not know why, he knew he had to return to that hole in the backyard that night.

Cash had told Rich he was crazy and that he should leave the Collins in peace, so Rich went alone. Now that Bahtilda was back home, he needed to take utmost care if he did not want to be caught snooping around their yard, and Cash wouldn’t have done much but cause noise anyway. But as Rich snuck around to the back of the Collins’ home, he quickly discovered he was not the only one that had come to see the hole after nightfall.

Benny and Paul, the new young couple that had moved in last year, were standing in front of the hole, staring into its depths. A little too close, Rich thought. Chloe, Benny’s grandmother, was there as well. The three seemed fascinated with the hole, stone-like expressions on their faces. And Rich could see that flickering, pulsating light that had been so far down before now reflected on their faces. It was stronger than before. Rich thought a moment about approaching the three of them to hear their take on the lights, but decided against revealing his position just yet. The pulsating of the light did not grow quicker, but it did slowly fall into a rhythm. Purple, red, orange, green, yellow.

Follow me.

Rich stood up, but he did not know why. He took a step forward. He feared the three in front of the hole would notice his approach, but they did not. Or they did not care. And Rich noticed he was taking steps in time with the pulsing, flickering lights shining from deep in the earth. And so were the three in front of the hole. And then those three each took one step too far. They plummeted, soundlessly, into the gaping wound of the Collins’ backyard.

Rich again found himself on his back. He must have fallen over in shock at the sight of the three willingly stepping into a hole with no discernible bottom. His head felt fuzzy and his whole body throbbed with the beating of his heart. Disparate memories of the last hour slowly connected themselves together. They hadn’t made a sound. There were no screams.

A light flicked on somewhere above Rich. He looked up. From the second floor of the Collins’ home, Rich could see Bahtilda, looking out at her backyard, smiling. She stared directly into the hole. That same damn smile she wore out in public. And at bridge. And at the store. And everywhere else that got her so much attention from everyone she met. And slowly, unblinking, Bahtilda moved her eyes down to Rich. Her smile did not shift or change in the slightest. She was completely still. Was she was even breathing? And for the second time this week, Rich ran all the way home from the Collins’ backyard.

The next day was spent running around Upper Yellowside in Rich’s best attempt to get someone to listen to him. He told everyone he could about what he had witnessed. Adults assured little Richie that the three had gone out of town for a few days’ vacation, or that they were going to visit family, or that they had won tickets to a show, and that they would be back by the week’s end. No one seemed at all concerned about Rich’s story, most of them more concerned as to what Rich had been doing in the Collins’ yard after midnight.

And so Rich returned to the one place where he still had a voice. His audience did not want to hear him speak, but maybe he could get them to listen to evidence in writing. He spent two days working meticulously on the greatest story he had ever written. It was a scathing criticism of Upper Yellowside’s lack of attention to the bizarre goings-on of the past few days and their apparent lack of concern for the reported death of three of its residents. And he took it to Cash, who told him that he couldn’t print the article, because Benny, Paul, and Chloe had, in fact, come home, just as everyone predicted.

Not believing a word of it, he marched over to their house. He pounded on the door with ink stained palms. Paul opened it. Or, he thought it was Paul. Paul looked beautiful. His once scraggly beard was well maintained and his long neck seemed less gargantuan than Rich remembered with a much less pronounced Adam’s apple than before. Paul had always had an overbite and a few crooked teeth, but they were all now straight and perfectly aligned with the rest of his face. He was symmetrical and fit-looking and his skin was slightly more tanned. His smile reminded Rich immediately of Bahtilda’s. It was gaping and the ends curled up widely. It looked very unnatural. Almost painful. And his eyes were opened as wide. Rich shifted nervously under his gaze and felt suddenly sick. The man he had watched jump to his death was in front of him, and he was smiling.

"Good evening, Richard. Have another issue of the paper so soon?" Paul’s voice was softer than before. And smooth. It had always been so gruff and raspy. This did not sound like the neighbor Rich had known.

The reporter struggled to find his voice for a moment. “Ah, no, actually. I was- uh, I was wondering whether Chloe and Benny were home?”

Paul’s smile seemed to intensify. “Why, of course.” He pulled back the front door, revealing Benny just beyond him in the entry way. And further down the hall, sitting in a recliner facing a television, Chloe looked over her shoulder to make eye contact with Rich. They all were the same: inarguably beautiful things that no longer resembled who they were supposed to be. And they all stared with wide, unblinking eyes and a crazed smile.

Benny cleared his throat quietly. “Would you like to come in, Richard?”

Richard hadn’t thought this far in advance because what was happening in front of him was clearly supposed to be impossible. He took a step back instinctively. “I think I have to go, actually. Forgot my pen, wouldn’t you know.”

And Rich sat up in his room on the third floor of his house on the end of the street, watching over Yellowside the next few days as more and more neighbors made their way to the Collins’ house. At first they only went in the shroud of night. And then those that went stopped hiding it as more became aware of what was going on and why their neighbors had all suddenly become so gorgeous. They all wanted the same thing. They wanted to be noticed. To be recognized. And whether or not jumping into that hole seemed strange or suicidal at first, each neighbor returned, unharmed and seemingly better off for it. And Rich watched it happen, unsure what to do. He had never felt so powerless before. So afraid to step outside of his own home. Passerby’s would wave up at him when they noticed him, and more and more often, that wave was accompanied by that same pair of wide eyes and that awful, awful smile.

And then Cash went. And when he returned he visited Rich. He came up to his bedroom and asked whether he wanted to go outside and play some ball. Cash had never wanted to play ball before. Rich had never really seen Cash smile either. But now his friend seemed unable to stop. And just before he left, Cash stopped in the doorway and said that Bahtilda had sent him. She wanted Rich to stop by her place that night and have a talk. Cash shut the door behind him.

Rich knocked on the Collins’ home that night with a large steak knife tucked away in his boot and hidden underneath his pant leg. Bahtilda answered, all smiles, and admitted him. She poured a cup of tea, which he declined gracefully, and sat down with him at the kitchen table. She said nothing. Her eyes seemed to be moving around actively. Instead of looking at Rich, they were darting around the room, as if searching frantically for something. Touching the knife under his pant leg in an attempt to give himself strength, Rich asked her if she had jumped into the hole herself. She had. He asked her why, and she did not answer. And though her smile did not falter, her eyes did. And Rich knew there was something more there.

"I’m sorry to press the issue, Miss Collins, but I really need to know what is happening to the people here. What happened when you went into that hole in your backyard?"

Bahtilda’s eyes settled on the table for a time. They looked sad. But she continued to smile, as if it were not of her own will.

"Richard, I need you to listen."

Rich leaned forward over the table.

"There was something down there." Bahtilda did not move, but her eyes looked off to the side as if to indicate behind her into her backyard. She struggled to get the words out as she pressed a finger against her temple. "Now it’s in here."

They sat in silence for a time and Bahtilda continued to press her finger against her head. She was really digging it in, as if trying to relieve a headache. “I need to get it out soon.” Bahtilda dropped her hand suddenly. She continued smiling, but her eyes looked tired.

Before Rich left she asked him to print an emergency set of flyers using Cash’s dad’s old printing press. She wanted everyone to gather in her back yard tomorrow afternoon so she could address them, and she had felt the writer of the Chronicle was the person for the job.

And so he had a purpose and direction again, if only for a brief time. Though unsure what Bahtilda’s intentions were, Rich knew Yellowside was going to finally speak about what had been happening lately, and any chance he had to gather everyone together could not be passed up. Rich ran to Cash’s place and dragged him out to the printing press. They spent the night designing the flyer and printing copies. Cash seemed uninterested in the coming meeting, but Rich made him promise he would show.

Rich pounded on every door on the street that next morning, making sure not to stop until it was answered by a pair of tired eyes but an unsurprisingly fresh smile. He handed out flyers on the street and posted them everywhere they would stick.

Luckily, it seemed to have worked. By ten to noon, a large and beautiful crowd had already gathered out in the Collins’ yard. And then Bahtilda came out of her home, thanking Rich as she passed him by. Her eyes held an immediately recognizable sadness. It even seemed as if she was struggling to hold the smile on her face. But the grinning crowd had no such problem. They watched as Bahtilda made her way to the hole. She stood directly in front of it and turned to face them.

"I’m sorry." She said with a soft voice just loud enough to carry to the back of the crowd. Everyone shifted uncomfortably. Rich’s heart was pounding. What did she want to say? Bahtilda again raised her hand, pressing a finger to her temple. "It just gets worse. Don’t let that thing stay in here. Please. I’m sorry." Rich looked around to the smiling faces. They watched her intensely. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath. And then she did it.

Bahtilda thrust a silver butterfly knife shaving razor into the air. The letters L.C. glinted in the bright afternoon sun. Rich cried out in horror as Bahtilda aggressively pulled back her right ear with her left hand and brought the blade to it. The sound of flesh ripping and slicing began. He lost control of his legs and dropped to his knees. The crowd watched silently.

Bahtilda continued the slow, methodical process of removing her face. She made sure to cut in and around the eye sockets, returning to the bridge of her nose several times in an attempt to remove every bit of flesh that was there. She removed her lips as well. The silence of the crowd helped the sounds of slowly peeling skin carry. And when she was done, a perfect, beautiful mask of flesh and blood was thrown onto the lawn in front of the crowd. And faceless Bahtilda locked eyes with each of them in turn before her body crumpled to the ground and tumbled back into the hole.

Rich could not find the strength to lift himself from the ground. The onlookers seemed to be rooted in place, those horrible smiles still stuck to their faces. But their eyes. Those eyes held recognition and horror that was entirely alien to the rest of their expression. And those eyes continued to widen, close to bursting, as the beautiful people of Upper Yellowside realized the fate they had in store for them.

Catman’s Catbox

Humboldt hadn’t always been odd.

At least, not before it came to be known by that name. What once had been a small mining community built on the edge of Lake Toluca had, over time, grown into a marginally successful hub of regional activity. Eventually the residents decided the activity was a bit too much for a hub, and it grew again. First into a town, and, as fashion trended away from towns, it became a city.

Then, one day, and no one really knew why, the name that had once belonged to that tiny mining community no longer fit. The mayor woke up and decided they would call their city Humboldt, and all of Humboldt’s residents shared the thought that Humboldt was a good name indeed.

And since that day no one ever really came to Humboldt, and, much the same, no one ever really left. And Humboldt became quite odd.

So odd, in fact, that Han’gar knew the various feline factions claiming territory in Humboldt had been on the brink of war for some time now.

He had first come to this realization three months prior when Imi,who he had foolishly called Elsewhere before coming to know her true name, had started acting peculiar. She would spend long hours mewing at his back door, a part of the home she never frequented before. And the noises she made did not sound like the Elsewhere he had known. They were deep, hollow and rounded; empty, dispassionate utterances coming from somewhere beyond thought or instinct.

Once-wife and Once-daughter seemed to think Imi had only wanted more food, but Han’gar had known better. He had been feeling the same thing Imi had. A pull. It was as though a tide was slowly streaming through the house, pulling him ever toward that back door. Though he hoped it would eventually subside, the pull only grew stronger with each passing day. Han’gar had to start leaning against the current while sitting, lest he topple over. And then, one October night, the time of year when the weather worsens its chill to a bitter cold, Han’gar awoke to Imi's back door mew, and knew what he had to do.

Han’gar slowly rose out of bed. He gathered a set of wool blankets from the linen closet on his way to the back door. Imi'scries were louder than ever, and did not acknowledge his approach. Han'gar waited patiently, trying to discern what it was he needed to do to communicate with her. He needed to let her know that he had felt the pull too. That he was going with her. And then, without giving it much thought, Han'gar crouched and arched his back. Imi watched him curiously, ceasing her monotonous cries briefly. Slowly, Imi's look changed. She recognized Han’gar for the first time. And then Han’gar knew her true name. He stood back up, suddenly feeling much less comfortable on his two feet. He opened the back door of his Once-home and followed Imi into the night.

The path Imi took was slow and meandering, but Han’gar could see it was done with careful calculation. Using mostly back alleys, Imi approached each intersection with the same hesitation, sniffing the ground furiously. Sometimes she would then continue on her way, but more often than not she would turn back and reroute. While she did not always head toward the pull of the invisible current that drove them ever forward, her roundabout path would inevitably reconnect with it. From time to time they would seemingly step out of the stream of the pull and Han’gar would no longer feel its guidance. Each time they reconnected with the invisible beckoning thing he let out a sign of relief and could again ease the tension in his shoulders. At first Han’gar followed closely behind Imi, but her swipes and low, discreet growls deterred him. He decided to follow from a distance, which she allowed. She even made sure to wait for him to catch up when he fell too far behind.

He had not known the reason for Imi's caution then, but he slowly grew to understand her tentative, winding route over time. Humboldt was a very divisive piece of land for a cat. Something was at its center. Han'gar did not know what it was, and he wasn't entirely sure the toms and queens of Humboldt knew either. But they wanted it. They wanted it with every ounce of their being, and they were willing to fight and claw and maim and murder until they could have it. So lines were drawn, factions were formed, and Humboldt was now a very unsafe place to be for the unaligned house cat.

Eventually their voyage through Humboldt’s back streets came to an end at an entirely unassuming dead end of a back road in Humboldt’s western reaches. Nothing more than an underpass guarded by a chain link fence. A small hole had been dug, which Imi used convieniently to pass through to the other side. Han’gar spent the rest of the night digging, and then did the same.

*

When they had first arrived, he and Imi found nothing more than concrete, rubble, and a few aluminum cans. Those first few days were spent lying in wait. Han’gar and Imi anxiously watched each other for some sign as to what to do next. He watched her stalk the area, carefully learning and refining his ability to hunt small rodents. The guiding current had evaporated the moment he and Imi had arrived at the underpass. Han’gar missed its sense of purpose. And though the sensation did not return right away, something else did: a burrowing pressure within his brain. It was the pull of something much greater.

Han’gar had been doing less and less thinking those past few days, and this tug within his mind worked without the need for contemplation or reason of any kind. He did not receive messages or images or directions, yet, more and more often, he knew exactly what it was he needed to do. And so he did it. He built a small enclosure out of rotted wood and leaves and a tarp he had found in the area. Imi watched Han’gar closely as he returned with soil and small stones and sand and other objects he felt had a nice smell to them, and he placed these materials inside the small structure. After a few hours of gathering, Han’gar knew that he was finished.

Imi entered the box, sniffing and pawing and digging around. She squatted and buried her waste. She quickly ran up to Han’gar, purring for the first time in days. She nuzzled against his unshaven jaw, chirped happily, and jaunted out into the night. Han’gar knew not to follow, and he wished her well.

Over the next month various cats visited Han’gar and his catbox. At first they would come in groups of two or three. Sometimes they left at the first sight of Han’gar, and those that entered did so warily. A few decided they trusted Han’gar, and would be immediately drawn to the catbox, sniffing every inch twice over before promptly leaving. Though Han’gar watched many of them defecate and urinate just outside the underpass in the soil, none of those who came in the first month so much as dug around in the litter within Han’gar’s structure.

And then, for a few weeks, Han’gar was without visitors. Time was passed hunting and collecting aluminum cans from nearby alleys, which Han’gar used to catch rainwater. The cold turned again, from bitter to dire, and the snow came. Han’gar used his blankets and other materials found in the surrounding area to keep warm. Eventually he resorted to building a fire, which he felt wrong about, though he could not discern why. As the heat of the flames thawed his joints and warmed his flesh, any regret he held melted away with the surrounding snow.

And then they came again. Han’gar did his best to shrink back into the shadows on that first Friday. Without warning he had found himself staring at over a hundred pairs of wide eyes, glowing by the light of the fire. They observed him silently for a time, and Han’gar wondered whether he was going to die. Iufni stepped forward, a lazy saunter that swung his drooping belly back and forth. He lowered himself to the ground and entered Han’gar’s underpass.

Han’gar dropped to the ground, his eye level slightly lower than Iufni's. Thankfully the gesture seemed to cause the rest of the feline audience relax. Iufni arched his back at Han’gar before admitting himself to the catbox. Han’gar did not move from his conceded position. He listened as Iufni began to paw around in the litter.

Iufni let out a hiss and returned to Han’gar. He hissed again, wetting Han’gar’s face. Slowly Han’gar rose up and moved to the catbox. Imi's long-hardened waste had been dug up. Han'gar removed it, digging around to ensure no other bits remained. He returned to Iufni, showing him the clump of waste. Iufni sniffed it and returned to the catbox. He was silent for a time, and then he left, taking his companions with him.

It happened like this for the next month and a half. Each army of cats larger than the last, and each arriving on a Friday. Eventually a member would emerge from the crowd and enter the enclosure. Instead of hissing as Iufni had done, they dug up the waste from the weeks before and added onto it. At first Han’gar did not understand what was occurring. On the third week, the Friday that brought Heterphenebty, she insisted he sniff the growing mass of feces collecting within the catbox. He did so but did not understand. After a time of watching Han’gar, Heterphenebty left, frustrated.

Han’gar continued sniffing in and around the catbox, desperately attempting to learn what she had tried to indicate to him. But something webbed its way through Han’gar’s consciousness and made apparent what it was he had to do. Han’gar broke off a bit of the waste and consumed it. And then he knew again.

There was a mounting tension between the various lines of royalty within Humboldt. Each family had staked out a claim in the city as the result of a long and brutal war. Thousands were slain in a struggle for control, and no one left the victor. But as the aftermath of a devastating war was slowly forgotten, each house had again decided that they did not have as much as they deserved. Some wanted war, others cried for a diplomatic resolution. Spaces not owned by one faction or another were rare, and it so happened that Han’gar’s catbox fell right in the center of one of only two unclaimed territories in all of Humboldt. Each Friday a representative and their escorts would visit Han’gar’s box and squat. They were not simply depositing waste, Han’gar had come to understand, but adding their scent, their voice, to the conflict, forging contracts and treaties and attempting to put out in the open what would otherwise go unsaid.

And so, one by one each week, Han’gar greeted them. The queens: Hent of the tabbies, Sadek, who represented the Abyssinians and Sphynx, and Khuit of the half breeds; and the toms: Thutmose of Rex, and, the only pair, Merenptah and Unas, who spoke for another collection of motley breeds. Han’gar recognized Imi amongst Khuit's ranks, watching silently from beyond the chain link fence. He made no indication he knew her. She no longer belonged to him.

Han’gar was again left alone for a time after Merenptah and Unas’ departure. He studied the proposed terms of the various contracts brought up and knew that he must prepare for the coming negotiation. As both a neutral third party and an ambassador for humankind, he knew the value of his position. Han’gar was preparing for what would certainly be the most important day of his life.

Time passed and Han’gar’s knowing returned. He welcomed the invisible pull that made its presence known one morning as he woke. It was a certainty and direction as Han’gar had never before experienced, and the force of its beckoning was stronger than ever before. It came from the east. One by one throughout the following night they appeared. Each representative examined the completed mass in the catbox before finding an unoccupied area of the underpass to lie down and gather their thoughts. Han’gar lit a fire to offer further warmth as they waited for the rest to arrive, but only Merenptah acquiesced.

Merenptah was a fluffy, orange Persian that moved around stiffly, struggling with his old age. He watched Han’gar carefully for a time, but eventually settled against his leg to share body heat. Han’gar petted the patchy old cat and Merenptah purred quietly. It was not loud enough for the others to hear, but Han’gar felt the vibrations. Unas looked down his nose at the two of them, but did nothing. Merenptah observed Han’gar carefully. He seemed to want to communicate something, but what, Han’gar could not determine. There was a real sadness behind Merenptah's eyes.

An hour after the sun had set on Thursday night, Han’gar and his clowder of cats made their way toward the indecipherable pull that they all felt from within. Han’gar walked tall. It was the first time he had moved on two legs in a while, but he felt it necessary as a representation of his place in the coming assembly. His monarchal companions formed a circle around him, holding their heads high in an attempt to move gracefully, though the image fit some better than others.

Unlike Han’gar’s first journey through the city with Imi, the path they took was direct. The group moved quickly, a regal procession viewed by thousands. Beady, darting eyes watched out from alleyways, bushes, overhangs, wondering nervously about what tomorrow’s decision would bring. As one district was left and another entered, different members of the travelling party would hold its head a bit higher, acknowledging passing residents with pride.

They reached the center of the city not long after sunrise. Two back alleyways converged suddenly into something alien. They had reached the other unoccupied territory within Humboldt. A small garden was hidden between two sagging apartment structures. It seemed as though both the monolithic tree and its surrounding plant life grew with abundance in spite of the weather. Tucked away behind the tree was an opening that descended down into the earth at an angle. The materials used to construct the tunnel reminded Han’gar of his catbox.

The cats entered one by one, Han’gar bringing up the rear. Though he had to squeeze, the opening omitted him rather easily, and Han’gar crawled through the dark, cramped passage for a time. The smell of plant life was left behind. In fact, Han’gar seemed to have lost all traces of scent, almost as if what lie ahead was devoid of any smell entirely. The hole grew in size as they continued and, eventually, Han’gar could stand. His eyes adjusted to the dim light and he could make out a dull white glow from somewhere ahead of them that grew in intensity as they continued on. The pull of the current once again vanished as they arrived at their destination, but Han’gar was too amazed at what he found to notice its sudden absence.

The tunnel had opened up into an enormous room. Bright white walls reflected an unknown bright white light coming from somewhere above, though Han’gar could not tell from where. The bright white ceiling, or what he supposed had been the ceiling, was indecipherable from the shining white walls that towered around him. He was unsure whether the walls themselves stretched so high that they appeared to be the ceiling as well or that they melded together with the roof at an indiscernible point. It dizzied him just to think of it, so Han’gar concerned himself with what was beneath him.

The soil was deep and rich and warm here. The ground was made up of dirt and stones and sand, much like the catbox Han’gar had constructed. But the materials here seemed to be of immaculate quality. It was so soft and loose that Han’gar very slowly sunk into it. He crouched down on all fours to distribute his mass more evenly, which prevented him from being swallowed whole. He had no sense of how deep the soil went and did not want to stand up again to find out.

The cats each took a place in the room, forming two lines that faced each other. Han’gar was between them. They did not seem at all amazed by the massive room and instead set to work. One or two or three cats would break out of their ranks at a time, meeting at a corner or other spot of the room, each taking a turn squatting and depositing a bit of waste. Each other would come and inspect what was left and add onto it before the process began again. Negotiations grew fierce. They hissed and growled and roared, but no violence broke out. Negotiations and bribes and declarations took place. Hours passed as different cats paired up to discuss anew, though Unas and Merenptah always stayed together.

The cats then all agreed to nap through midday, their first decision reached unanimously, and Han’gar took this time to crawl around the area, inspecting various deposits. Many had been buried, a sign that they were offers no longer on the table. Han’gar inspected a few of those as well to get a sense for some of the more heated arguments that had occurred.

The cats began to stir and yawn and stretch. Han’gar returned to the middle of the room. From what he had gathered, the next negotiation would be their last, and would decide each faction’s stance on Humboldt’s ownership once they had left this safe haven.

Han’gar was now needed. He knew his place. It was not to speak on behalf of humans, but instead as a show of their presence, an act of goodwill and the human desire to reach a resolution peacefully. At least, Han’gar desired as much. He would inspect the final treaty to the best of his ability, hoping to root out any loop holes or tricks hidden within.

Han’gar settled down between the others and the final deliberations began. Merenptah, the old Persian, approached the center first, squatting in front of Han’gar. The orange cat’s fur looked even more sparse and matted than it had yesterday. He lurched and shook as he moved, and Han’gar took pity on the thing.  Merenptah slowly made his way over to a far corner of the room after and drifted off to sleep. He rolled onto his back and exposed a patchy pink belly.

Unas, Merenptah's companion, went next. He added his own fecal deposit and then joined his lover. One by one the cats added their part to the forming treaty. Han'gar watched intently, trying and failing to gain a sense of what was being said. He desired to be able to interpret and communicate through smell in the same way the rest could, but his nose was simply not strong enough for it. There was a running joke about Han'gar between the cats that he had discovered in some of the buried piles about his humanity and the need to consume to understand. But Han'gar had not gotten the entirety of it.

As Iufni added the last bit to the pile of waste, Han’gar approached and lifted the mass up, holding it for all of them to see. Han’gar examined the proposal under their scrutiny. They shifted anxious, each eager to learn of the final offers held within. He looked at each of them in turn. It was imperative he stay as objective and apprehensive of each cat’s terms as possible. Han’gar lifted the waste to his lips and was about to take his first bite. But he did not. Han’gar felt that something was very wrong. Unas had returned with the other cats to his place in the line. His lifted head watched Han’gar eagerly. There was something about his look.

Merenptah was missing. Han’gar hesitated, examining the rest of the room. The puffy old cat was nowhere to be found. Han’gar had not seen him leave and as the cats watched and looked around they came to the same realization. They instantly rose around Unas. The suspicious cat began flicking his tail, faster and faster, against the ground. He tried to escape but was pinned down until he ceased struggling. Han’gar set the waste down and made his way back down the tunnel.

Han’gar searched best he could for signs of Merenptah in the dim light of the passageway,but could not find him. He emerged on the other side, back in the garden. Though snow did not touch this place, it continued to fall, and some had piled up just beyond the edge of the greenery. Though the fresh snow covered their tracks from before, there was a single set of paw prints leading away down the alley. Han’gar followed.

The trail led Han’gar down one alley, and another, and another. It wandered aimlessly, and the prints met up with themselves multiple times, but eventually Han’gar found him. Merenptah had crawled underneath a sea green dumpster hidden away between an unoccupied semi and the unmaintained back porch of an equally unmaintained establishment. Surrounded by colorful trash and colorless snow, the old orange cat gasped, taking in large gulps of air that he seemed unable to do anything with. As Han’gar approached, Merenptah struggled to move his head toward him. He managed to purr slightly in between those ragged, halting breaths, though it seemed only to make his breathing more difficult. Han’gar reached out and touched the pitiful old tom. And that thing that occasionally wormed its way into Han’gar’s brain grabbed hold forcefully this time. Something clicked inside his mind and then, through touch alone, he knew.

Merenptah was indeed very old, though that was not what ailed him. The cat had poisoned himself. That last bit was not something Han’gar gathered on his own, but rather, it seemed, something Merenptah admitted willingly to Han’gar as they shared that indescribable connection. Han’gar got up. He considered this information for a time, slowly connecting all the dots on the plot, considering Merenptah’s part in the attempt on Han’gar’s life. But then he watched the dying cat and decided to sit back down, affectionately scratching the Persian underneath his chin. Han’gar comforted the cat underneath the dumpster for a few hours until Merenptah breathed his last.

When Han’gar returned to the enormous white room, it was with Merenptah held carefully in his arms. He lay the corpse down in front of the others and allowed them to inspect it one by one.  Unas was not offered a chance to move from his place on the ground, though Han’gar doubted he would have made an attempt were he able. He did not so much as look at his dead mate.

Han’gar touched each of the cats in turn. Had it been Merenptah that showed him this new way of communication? Or was it something else? Regardless, simply placing his forefinger at the nape of each animal’s neck allowed him to share a deep and sudden sense of understanding that they seemed to reciprocate. Merenptah and Unas had agreed to intentionally poison Merenptah. This would serve as a way of removing Han’gar from the picture the moment he swallowed Merenptah’s virulent waste. Merenptah's corpse would prove Unas' innocence in the matter and the rest of the cats would be wary of one another. It would be easy to plant seeds of doubt within each of the other factions, playing them off of each other until their infighting and own attempts at assassination allowed for Unas and his army to overtake the rest.

The cats all understood. Many wanted to murder Unas then and there, but Han’gar and a few of the others recognized the more damage than good that would come of a faction suddenly left without either of its leaders. They instead decided to spread word of Unas' treachery and his murder of Merenptah. They would wait a time, allowing this news to spread, before making another attempt at peace talks.

Han’gar and the rest of the cats left and returned to the garden. It was there Unas received his punishment. Each cat in turn slashed at his face. And then they removed his right eye. Law had dictated he be separated from his other as well, but the cats took sympathy at his loss of partner and spared him this small part of the sentence. The cats went their separate ways. A few paused to thank Han’gar. They congratulated him on his part in the discussions and indicated that they looked forward to seeing him again soon. Many also offered Han’gar free reign in their territories, promising a meal any time he desired. Han’gar thanked each of them in turn and offered to take care of Merenptah's body after it had become clear Unas left without tending to it himself.

*

Han’gar returned to his underpass with the cat carcass, which had gotten him more than a few stares from the humankind. He went about preparing and burying Merenptah's corpse in the way that he knew he needed to. He wasn't sure how or why he knew, whether it had been inferred from his connection with the cats, or it had been that thing worming around inside of his brain, or something else entirely, but he knew, and so he did.

First Han’gar slashed open Merenptah's stomach. He hung him up on the fence for a night to drain the fluids that he could. Han'gar then removed Merenptah's organs, all except for the heart, which he knew he must leave in, and then placed them in a few of the aluminum cans he had used for drinking water. After much searching, Han'gar found a nail of the right size to slip up Merenptah's nostril. He started a fire and held the nail in the flames for as long as his fingers could stand, and then a little more, before piercing through the nasal cavity and into the brain, which he then scrambled around until it was mostly liquefied. Merenptah was hung up for another night to drain. Though he felt he had not done everything correctly, it was the gesture that mattered more. And he knew that what he had done to Merenptah was good and was what a king such as he deserved.

Han’gar built a small structure using the same sort of materials he had for his catbox and wrapped Merenptah's corpse tightly in a torn piece of wool blanket. He then put the wrapped body and aluminum cans inside the structure, gathered his things, and set off with the enclosure.

Unas' territory was in northeastern Humboldt, near the lake and the forest. It was a long trek, but he made good time with his newfound ability to move freely throughout the territories. Unas' followers greeted Han'gar at the border of their territory. They identified him as Han'gar Catman, and as He Who Moves Freely, and as Son of Bastet, among other things. They were impressed with the stories they had heard of him and of his treatment of their deceased King. They congratulated him and knelt before him. Despite the formalities, Han'gar was well aware he was not allowed to cross to Unas' land without permission. He set the enclosure down and the sentries inspected it before admitting him. They led Han'gar through a path of the forest hidden from the eyes of man and down to a clearing where Unas lay, surrounded by his kin. Different toms rubbed up to him, licking and tending to his wound.

Han’gar placed the small tomb down in front of Unas, who examined it. Unas approached Han’gar and nuzzled against him. He thanked Han’gar, and Han’gar knew he meant it. And then from somewhere in Han’gar’s mind Unas spoke to him. He said: You will leave here, Son of Baast, and you will never come back. I have been disgraced and damned for all eternity by your hand. Left to despair in this city without even my lover. I will have my revenge on you and each of those who claimed a part of my flesh a thousandfold before I depart to the river below, and you will see me once more, and that will be the very final moments of your life. You believe you have done this city and your people good, but all you have done is delay the inevitable, Catman.

The mournful cries of a once proud king resonated throughout Unas' forest as Han'gar made his way back to his own territory. Territory he had not himself claimed, but had now been given willingly as agreed by the other factions in the city. (Minus one, of course.) The underpass in West Humboldt now belonged to him, and cats traveled there from time to time to pay respect to the Catman and his catbox.

 

Humblings

Humboldt hadn’t always been odd.

At least, not before it came to be known by that name. What once had been a small mining community built on the edge of Lake Toluca had, over time, grown into a marginally successful hub of regional activity. Eventually the residents decided the activity was a bit too much for a hub, and it grew again. First into a town, and, as fashion trended away from towns, it became a city.

Then, one day, and no one really knew why, the name that had once belonged to that tiny mining community no longer fit. The mayor woke up and decided they would call their city Humboldt, and all of Humboldt’s residents shared the thought that Humboldt was a good name indeed.

And since that day no one ever really came to Humboldt, and, much the same, no one ever really left. And Humboldt became quite odd.

So odd, in fact, that the Humbling creatures became extremely popular for a brief amount of time during the spring and summer of 2006. “The Humbling is not much different from the flower,” Lloyd Hamm, owner of Lloyd’s Antiqueries, had been quoted as saying. “They were designed to be precious, fleeting marvels. Each individual Humbling was able to tap into a timeless beauty because their lifespan was anything but.”

For a time, Humboldt’s residents agreed with Lloyd about their beauty, but whether they were plants or creatures was a bit more controversial. The Humblings were not fashionable long enough for everyone to come to a consensus on which descriptor to use, and although Lloyd insisted that the Humblings were nothing more than a new breed of genetically engineered plants, and they did indeed grow out of the soil, once bloomed, Humblings got up and walked around, making it hard for the people of Humboldt to think of them as mere plants.

The story of the Humblings is as much about the vegetal beings themselves as it is about Humboldt’s two competing furniture companies. For decades Lloyd’s Antiqueries had been one of the most popular little shops in Humboldt. His handcrafted furniture pieces were often the centerpiece of any home able to afford it, and their often experimental slant had made for good conversation. The table legs twisted at interesting angles and his china hutches often shone brighter than the prized items they held. What looked like a drawer often turned out to, in fact, be a cabinet door, and his affinity for false knobs and handles made his handiwork instantly recognizable. Lloyd himself was well known to be a recluse, always slaving away in his workshop in an attempt to outdo his latest opus.

But things did not stay that way. In the mid-90s a new name had begun cropping up whenever Lloyd’s work was discussed. Modernity. Both the brand, and as a concept at odds with Lloyd’s designs. Rina and Handle Steward, the couple that had started Modern Furniture, were able to fill a gap in the furniture market that Lloyd could not. Specifically, their Modernity line offered a fresh, sleek take on existing pieces for affordable prices. Some of their more loyal customers called the switch from antiques to Modernity a “religious experience”, and, over time, many followed suit and Modern Furniture began mass production. Lloyd responded with even more experimentation. His pieces became outrageous and unusable as anything more than cumbersome works of art. He experimented with size and structure, adding organic properties to his designs, making Modern Furniture all the more attractive in the process. Lloyd grew more bitter and hard to reach the more his work fell out of style. As his pieces were pushed from the center of the Humboldt home to the periphery, and then removed entirely, Lloyd moved from his extravagant home in the center of Humboldt to a small place beyond the interstate, just south of the city. Production was halted and Lloyd Hamm slowly disappeared from the minds of Humboldt.

And then almost a decade later in the winter of 2005 Lloyd’s name started appearing in publications. He had claimed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. The few journalists who were invited to private showings at his new home in the farmlands claimed that what he was going to soon announce would change the very way the people of Humboldt interact with each other. Everyone buzzed with the news of the potential return of Lloyd’s Antiqueries. And then, at the end of the first week of good spring weather in April 2006, Lloyd showed all of Humboldt what he had been secretly working on for so long.

The first Humbling blossomed in front of a small audience of journalists, camera men, and politicians, and was broadcast throughout the city, where everyone watched anxiously for what was to come. Lloyd pulled back the small curtain that had been constructed out in the middle of an unassuming field, and revealed a small, squirming thing rustling back and forth violently in an attempt to remove itself from the ground it was sprouting out of.

The thing resembled two large, dark red and green leaves, though they were thicker than any normal leaf that fell from a tree. The two halves of the plant joined together at the top and sides, and expanded outward in the middle, where something obviously resided, causing the plant to expand and contract as it struggled to contain. And then the thing inside the red and green plant was successful in its endeavor to uproot its cage. A sound not unlike the slow pulling apart of flesh caused a few of the onlookers to cringe as the plant split open.

Flashbulbs went off and news anchors talked excitedly in front of cameras as the Humbling emerged from its herbal womb. It stumbled about, struggling to find its footing as it used its legs for the first time. The thing was rather small, standing one and a half feet tall. It was slender, with translucent green and red skin that shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. It resembled a small person in its proportions, having two feet, a torso, and a head, though the Humbling had no arms or mouth. But it had eyes. Its eyes were especially striking, though they lacked pupils. They shone a fierce orange that glowed from somewhere within, illuminating the area around it briefly.

And it was beautiful. After spending a few minutes finding its footing, the plantthing hobbled around the field. Its eyes narrowed and widened in curiosity as it examined its surroundings. It showed more interest in the plant life and the grass and the soil than any of the people clamoring around it. The journalists and news anchors dubbed the Humbling Henry and for the next few days, people from all over Humboldt lined up to watch Henry wander about the Hamm property.

"The Humbling is not much different from the flower," Lloyd said in an interview later on that week. "And, as such, little Henry here can’t survive very long once he is plucked." And he was right, just a few days later, Henry wandered underneath the mushroom cap rocking chair in Lloyd’s living room, dried up, and stopped moving. His translucent skin hardened, turning black, and his eyes, which had grown dim over the days since his hatching, went out. And that afternoon Lloyd announced he would be taking down orders for the first batch of Humblings, and that they would be arriving to customer’s homes in just two weeks’ time.

At first Humboldt did not know what to do with the things, though everyone knew they wanted them. They would display them in vases and on end tables. Some would set out water bowls to set them in, hoping to prolong their life (which it did not), and others hung them out in the front of their homes, treating them as nothing more than the latest in Lloyd’s oddities. Men began buying them for women, exchanging them as a gift on a first date, and more than a few women began fashioning earrings and other jewelry out of the dried husks of deceased Humblings. Though at first the colors and eye glow varied from Humbling to Humbling, customers began to request certain colors to match a wedding arrangement or their spouse’s birthstone. And it didn’t stop there. Lloyd began offering a variety of customizable breeds. Humblings that had more eyes, or ones whose eyes glowed with brighter intensity. Ones without legs, to be used as a temporary lamp, or ones that crawled and slithered, or those that rolled around instead of walking. A particularly popular breed, the Firecracker, had its lifespan shortened to that of no more than an hour. The Humblings were always most beautiful when they first hatched, or even moreso if they were forcibly hatched a few days early, and so this new breed hatched days ahead of when they should, and their smaller, slender bodies had trouble ever getting up and moving around, but everyone agreed they were the most beautiful of all. A journalist from Humboldt’s Outside periodical called the Firecracker an event “as exciting as sharing a quiet sunset with the one you love. Lloyd’s Firecracker offers the beauty of birth, life, and death encapsulated in one hour. It is an experience that simply must not be missed.” And although Lloyd’s new creation did not rival Modern’s furniture output in any way, people’s interest in his other work was rekindled as well, particularly the plantlike pieces that resembled the Humblings themselves. Lloyd was once again on top, and people liked to gossip about whether Modern Furniture would respond with their own take on the Humbling.

But, once again, things did not stay that way. In late July, Handle and Rina Steward’s eldest daughter, Fleur, was holding a small get-together of the Humboldt rich and famous to celebrate the coming of her first child. The Stewards were considered local celebrities, and Fleur’s party was anticipated and written about for weeks leading up to the event on August 16th. Much to the rest of the Steward family’s dismay, Fleur ordered one thousand Humblings for the event, all set to bloom the night of the party in what was to be one of the most extravagant events Humboldt had ever seen. Never before had more than five or ten hatched Humblings been gathered in one place, and Fleur’s grand gesture seemed to reach a new height in the ever burgeoning excitement about Humboldt’s Humblings.

The night of the party arrived and those that were there described it as one of the most beautiful things they had ever seen. The sound of a thousand Humblings wriggling to get free of their leafy shells could be heard from miles around. They were of every color, shape, size and breed. The various colors and intensities of their lantern-like eyes gave the party an otherworldly quality that the guests said they would never forget. After the scheduled “hatching of the Humblings”, the party moved from Handle and Rina’s home to Fleur’s house a few blocks further down because, as they had predicted, a thousand wandering Humblings made a home of any size seem rather crowded. Rina decided to stay behind, saying she had an awful headache from the earlier noise. The last person reported as seeing Rina was Handle Steward, who had claimed there was no one left in their home besides a few housekeepers and the cleanup crew hired to remove the Humblings.

After the night of August 16th, many referred to the incident as the Humbling scandal, or at least included the story as a part of the ongoing publically perceived feud between Lloyd Hamm and the Steward family. But, despite the rumors, the police could not find Lloyd at fault.

The night of the 16th, after Fleur’s party had concluded, Handle returned to an empty home. Rina was nowhere to be found. Search parties were sent out, family and friends called, and the police began an investigation immediately. The extended Steward family gathered together at Handle’s home, and after just a few hours of worry and half-hearted assurances, learned the horrifying truth.

They had checked the home from top to bottom, again and again. Not only did they think it strange that all of the housekeeping staff were gone, but also that the Humblings had gone as well. The cleanup crew wasn’t expected to be finished until morning, and yet they were nowhere to be found. Not only that, but an odd, pinkish gray mush covered bits of the house in fine, viscous layers. And it smelled awful. Handle had assumed that it was some sort of residue left behind from the Humbling removal and had told his family as much. The investigators that arrived a few hours later regretfully informed the Steward family that the odd smelling paste strewn throughout the house was in fact remnants of the cleanup crew, their housekeeping staff, and their mother.

The Steward family was furious with Lloyd, and said as much anywhere they had a chance. This began a public condemnation of the man and his work. What had once seemed beautiful, the stretching fields of Humblings, wriggling in their encasings, now appeared menacing. And it further unnerved the people of Humboldt that the thousand Humblings had still not been found, though they should have died mere days after the incident. Additional production of Humblings was halted immediately, as mandated by the city, and Lloyd was heavily investigated. Though people talked in hushed voices about whether Lloyd had purposely exacted a brutal, twisted revenge on the Steward family, no one ever did know for certain, and Lloyd quickly retreated from the public eye once more.

And thus, Humboldt’s fascination with Humblings was snuffed out as quickly as it had begun.

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