Inktober 2019 – Ornament

Tobin was reaching into the tree, seemingly up to his elbows when Nadine came into the room. She almost yelled at him, then realized she would likely just set off the catastrophe she wanted to avoid. She took a deep breath and said, in as calm a tone as she could manage, “Please be careful.”

“It’s fine,” Tobin said, muffled by his own upraised arm. Nadine stood rigid, coffee mug creaking in pale-knuckled fingers, hardly daring to breath until with a final jingle he withdrew. He turned with a look of pride, which turned to confusion when he saw his wife’s face.

“What’s the problem?” he said.

“Why were you fishing around in the tree like that?”

“I was moving The Elf.”

Nadine sighed, resuming her course through the room. She resented The Elf, an infinitely worse infiltration of surveillance culture into the festive season than the lyrics of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The argument she and Tobin had entered when he’d brought the thing home was not a marriage-wrecker, but it was an uncommon point of soreness between them. If he had consulted before he’d brought it home, she would have vetoed, but he’d just hauled it out in front of the kids, who had been amused. At the time.

“Why do you have to put it in the tree?” Nadine asked as she sat. “I thought it was supposed to stay on a shelf.” She  tried to keep her eyes on the TV, but in the end she scanned the tree for it, finding its judgmental little pink face peering from between a couple of silver icicles and… damn it… Nana’s glass ball.

“Oh, they say in the book to do that,” Tobin said, settling onto the couch. “It keeps the kids from peeking into the presents.”

“Have our kids ever…” She cut herself off, making gestures of negation with both hands. If they kept arguing about The Elf, the little beast would start to affect the marriage, and Nadine was entirely aware of how stupid that would be. “Anyway, when you want to move it tomorrow, let me do it.”

“Why?”

“Because if I break Nana’s ornament, then I don’t have to be mad at you.”

Tobin frowned, then became appropriately horrified. He knew exactly how much that big opalescent ball meant to Nadine. It was the only thing either of them had to which “heirloom” could be properly applied. It was not intrinsically worth much at all, as far as either of them knew, but it connected Nadine across a span of three maternal generations. It was a distillation of what both of them understood as the real Christmas spirit.

“You got it,” Tobin said, and then turned on the TV.

The next morning, between breakfast and the arrival of the school bus, Kaori and Devan engaged in the usual sort of pre-Yule speculation common to all children. Nadine looked in on them occasionally as she made got their lunches and hers packed, and saw The Elf Effect at work. Each child would occasionally stop, peering over one shoulder or the other, body rigid with anticipation of spotting the filthy little homunculus.

As far as she could tell, neither of them had actually spotted the thing in its perch in the tree. Their counter-surveillance was broadcast, as it were, taking in the whole living room, rather than focused aloft. She thought of pointing it out to them, just so the anticipation would break, but the demands of the morning preparations kept her from acting on the urge, and soon the bus’s appearance took away the kids and the opportunity.

After supper, the morning scenes began to play out again. Nadine remembered her intention from the morning, and was drawing breath to act upon it when she realized that she couldn’t see The Elf where she expected it. Nana’s ornament was an easy landmark, and the sappy face was nowhere near it.

A quiver of anger went through her, modified by the fact of the antique decoration still being there and whole. She filed the matter until later.

As it happened, Tobin raised it while the kids were brushing their teeth. “Nadine, where’s The Elf?”

She asked him to repeat himself. When he did, verbatim, she said, “I didn’t touch it.”

“Well then where is the little dickens?” Tobin stepped in close, craning to look between the branches.

When he started to reach toward the tree, clearly intent on pressing limbs aside, Nadine stood. “Hold up, there. Let me.”

They traded places, and Nadine stood tip-toe to look into the tree. The little lights shed their diverse glows into the depths of the needles, making it clear that The Elf was not just slumped further down the branch. She reached for Nana’s ornament, thinking that she would take it down and set it aside to allow for a more energetic search.

Her hand froze by the hanger. Nana’s ornament was slightly translucent, and normally there was a hint of the lights behind it. Now it was dark, and its usually unblemished surface seemed marked… except the marks were within.

Two blank eyes and a wry smile, The Elf’s features, were just visible through the pearly glass. They lay not at all in their usual relation. Broadened and smeary, they brought the word dissolved rushing out of Nadine’s imagination. Even as she stood, hesitating, one of the eyes disappeared, swirling away from the other and losing coherence.

With the reverence she usually showed it, Nadine took the ornament from the tree. She cradled it in both hands as she moved away. “OK, you see if you can find your Elf,” she said, her back to Tobin.

She dared not let him see the way she was smiling.

“Inktober 2019 – Ornament” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Wild

Marcie shrank away from her friends in their boisterous jollity, their giggles echoing down the alley. They were having as much fun as they had promised her, but it was less infectious than she had hoped. Perhaps if she had drunk as much as them, she would have loosened up more, but without loosening up more, she couldn’t bring herself to get that drunk.

They had cajoled her into coming out with them, efforts she had resisted until Nancy, her room-mate and the nicest of the bunch, had leaned in close and pointed out that there was little point in coming to the big city university if she was going to keep her head locked up in the small town she grew up in.

It had not been Nancy’s idea to cut through this alley, but she had not said anything against it. It seemed like a bad idea to Marcie, but so did a half-dozen back-to-back shooters. Go along to get along had been working so far, so she said nothing.

She also said nothing, because she was in no position to utter “I told you so” when three masculine shadows detached from the end of the alley, derisive chuckling filling the sudden silence as the drunken giggles choked off.

The man nearest them, still just a silhouette against the lights of the street, put his arm out to one side, turned the knife he held so it caught those lights. “OK, ladies,” he said, the shape of a predatory grin informing the sound of the words, “who’s first?”

“How about me?”

The three drunk women turned to look at Marcie. Marcie, who has hardly spoken the whole night.

Marcie, in the least hot outfit, slacks instead of a skirt, sensible flats instead of heels.

Marcie, who had helped her father and her grandfather in the slaughter barn since she was ten years old, who was not in the least squeamish.

Marcie, who had all but tripped over a piece of the hollow square steel that street signs are mounted to, a piece not quite three feet long, heavy but not unwieldy.

Her first night out on the town, and the girl went wild.

“Inktober 2019 – Wild” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Legend

The muffled sound of the dust storm increased for several seconds, and Morris looked toward the doors that separated the foyer from receiving hall. Pilgrims came at all times, but to come on a day like this… they must either be very devout or very reckless.

Three people entered. They had clearly taken a moment to beat the dust from their riding clothes, but it still sifted from their hats. Morris wondered at the perseverance. Even with doubled bandannas, breathing would have been a chore in such weather.

“Welcome, travelers,” Morris said. He was not dressed appropriately, expecting no visitors, but he held himself with the dignity of his post. “What do you seek?”

“Water,” said one of them, without hesitation. A woman, if the tone of voice was a guide.

“Of course.” Morris gestured to the long sink on the wall beside the door, behind them. The three looked, then back at Morris. They did not take a step. If anything, one of them recoiled slightly.

“You have running water,” asked another, his voice deep, and probably pleasant when not afflicted by dust.

“Fed from a cistern on the hill above us,” Morris said. This was a place of enough wonders, without pretending to any others. “It’s still quite full; winter was hard but left us that gift. Please, drink and wash. You may hang your coats and hats over there.”

There was some residue of hesitation, but they did as they were told, and before they were done, they were reveling in it. Morris smiled. The entire point of this place was to provide solace, and to see these pilgrims enjoying the simple pleasure of water not drawn from a well or carried from a stream was part of his reward.

When they were done, they slowly approached Morris. He stood by the great door to the sanctum, smiling gently at them to balance the forbidding essence of the great iron-bound portal. “Please tell me your names.”

The woman spoke. “I’m Agatha Fletcher, this is Gerrow Smith, and this is Jonah Gerrowchild.” Morris nodded to each of them in turn.

Welcome, all of you,” he said. “Your cattle are safely in the shelter?”

Gerrow said, “We came on foot.”

Morris’s eyebrows went up. “You left them back in Fernton?” Fernton, the nearest town, was more than a day’s walk away.

“We came on foot,” Gerrow repeated, with an emphasis that made Morris’s heart quiver.

“So devout,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. He looked them up and down. No sign of weapons, not even the ubiquitous knives that everyone outside carried, used for both dining and brawls.

“More than you know, sir,” Agatha said. “If the rumours are true, August means to stay with you.”

Eyebrows up again, Morris looked at the youth. It had been a long time since any young person joined them, and here was one too young to have even taken a trade-name.

Just as interesting was the evident dynamic he saw written on the faces of the three. Agatha was clearly devout, a sparkle in her eye that the candle over the sanctum door hardly accounted for; she burned with the hope which Morris and the rest of the order hoped to nourish. August was embarrassed, although Morris could not tell if it was at having their ambition revealed for them or simply because embarrassment was the constant companion of that age. Gerrow was a worry. Whatever else showed on his face, it was plain he was not resigned to the idea of leaving his offspring in a cloister, however worthy the cloister might be.

He would bear watching.

“Well, then,” he said, “let us show you the wonders we hold safe.”

He rapped at the portal. There were several different sequences, the meanings as diverse as where is my relief? to I am lost, release flaming oil against invaders. The bolts were withdrawn once he completed pilgrims here, normal caution and he stood to one side.

The three stepped forward, watched now by Jerome and Daria. Good, competent warders, Morris thought, easily able to take three foot-sore pilgrims in hand. And then, he saw with a delight which nearly made him laugh that the pilgrims were genuine.

All three dropped to their knees, eyes wide, mouths agape with awe. They had been told that this place was stuffed with wonders, no doubt had heard descriptions of the strange relics of the lost past, but now they were presented with one, and the fact of it, right there in front of them, simple as it was, had dashed them to the floor.

The incandescent bulbs in the sanctum, glowing with steady white light, were just a hint of what lay in the vaults below.

“Inktober 2019 – Legend” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Overgrown

The kids were making such a ruckus, I had to say goodbye twice. It was worth it, the ragged chorus of I love yous reminding me that we were raising the kids right.

As I stepped off the porch, onto the little path that ran to the driveway, I noticed the tiny yellow dot of a dandelion’s newly-formed blossom peeping from the otherwise uniform green of our lawn. I’d probably take care of it myself when I got back, although it was the sort of minor chore that allowances were built on.

When I reached the front corner of the car, I realized I had left behind my shopping bag. I could have just gone, brought home the four items in one of the store’s plastic bags, but if I kept neglecting the reusable bag, it would never become a habit. I spun in place.

The grass on either side of the walkway was suddenly knee high, thistles and ragweed visible in the yellowish stalks. I took a shocked step back, took in the way the ornamental cedars on either side of the picture window had gone shaggy, swelling to hide all but a grimy black sliver of the glass behind them. Above, the gutters bore a line of saplings.

I touched the hood of the car, without looking at it. Firm, smooth painted metal under my hand. I moved the opposite foot a little, heard the shush of long grass, felt a tickling on the arm on that side. Without turning my head, I could see the neighbour’s house, trim and unchanged, the lawn on their side of our little shared fence cropped like a golfing green.

I tried to not blink as I moved back toward the house, afraid what other changes might come if I took my eyes away. I stepped onto the first step, paint crumbling away from satiny grey wood. The door had shed its paint, too. The doorknob was dim verdigris, and its corruption had made a long stain under it.

I hesitated as I reached for the knob, not fearing to touch it, but terrified of what I might discover by opening it.

I stepped through the door, back into the embrace of my family.

“Inktober 2019 – Overgrown” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Ash

Bronson seemed shocked to find himself where he was. It was not, after all, where he went to sleep. He was still confined, of course. I might have pulled him out of prison, but I was not letting him free. I stayed back in the shadows for a while, listening to him rattle the bars, stifling my own laughter when he screeched as the cage shifted and he realized how far off the ground it sat. I didn’t think he noticed the cables securing it at the top. He wasn’t in any danger.

Not of falling, at least.

Five minutes seemed enough of an overture. Bronson was starting to run out of juice anyway, as he either started to think about his current situation or just didn’t have the stamina to keep screaming. I lit a candle and stepped out where he could see me easily. Another laugh needed suppressing, although I could hardly disguise my smirk at the way hope and fear chased one another across his face.

“Hey,” he called down. “Where am I?”

“You’re in a cage, Mr. Bronson.” More fear in his eyes, and much less hope. Excellent. The very tone I was looking for in the opening movement of this little composition. “Shall I elaborate?”

A single slow nod, and I could almost smell his thought. Keep her talking. Stall for time. Good luck with that. “Your cage is in a dairy barn which has not been used for about fifteen years. It’s not too far from town, but it’s a lot farther than your voice will carry. I promise.”

He drew a breath, as if he would prove me wrong, as if he hadn’t spent almost five minutes making as much noise as he was able before I revealed myself. I watched, holding the candle up by my face so he could see how unconcerned I was. How amused I was.

I wondered if any of the rage was showing behind it.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

I should have made up a bingo card of things I expected him to say. Two for two, so far.

“Because of what you did to me, Mr. Bronson.” I gave that a moment. The glare of the candle by my face made it a little hard to see him, but I kept it there, letting him have a good look as his expression wrinkled with the effort of searching memory. “I don’t think you know who I am.”

“No. No! I never did anything to you. Why don’t you let me go?”

“After going to so much effort to bring you back to San Guillermo?” I lowered the candle, because I wanted to see his face properly when that realization dawned. The start of the second movement came as his eyes grew wide.

“Hey…” He came right up to the bars. They’re widely spaced, and I wondered if he would try to get between them. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see that or not. It might have been fun to watch him wriggle between the steel uprights, head firmly stuck, but he’d also be distracted when the finale arrived.

He didn’t even try. He just looked down at me, and said, “Look, no one was hurt…”

“That’s what I heard. That’s what they thought. We had to look pretty hard to find somewhere so far off the beaten track that wasn’t already full of nazis or preppers.” He shook his head a little, and backed away. Good. I didn’t want him to misunderstand anything.

“I’m not… the judge said I…”

“Spare me the diminished capacity line, Mr. Bronson. You seem to have a fine grip on the concept of consequences, to judge from how you’re sweating up there.” I walked around his cage, a wide arc which took me toward the barn’s main door. A little table stood there. It had been a fortuitous discovery, because the moment I saw it, I knew it was going to be an important element in this part of the performance. I stood behind it, setting the candle down on one corner. He watched me, mesmerized.

“You will spend the rest of your life in that cage, Mr. Bronson, unless you can give a convincing reason why you shouldn’t.” I held up my hand, shaking my head, and he didn’t finish the first word of whatever he was about to say.

“You don’t have to convince me. You have to convince my husband,” and as I said it, I set medium-sized jam jar down on the table. It had no label, and the dusty grey contents were easily visible in the candle-light, even from where Bronson was. “And our children.” Two more jars, smaller, one on either side of the first.

“Go ahead. Make your case.”

While I didn’t know the specifics he’d come out with, I had a sense of how the end of the second movement would run. The sheet music often has largo or andante up in the corner. It’s the dull part, the bit where the audience can nod off. But I did him the courtesy paying attention, because part of me was honestly curious.

What I found most interesting was that he actually spoke to the jars. Pointless, of course. They were just props. When I got back to the house I couldn’t tell any of my family from the beds they slept in or the roof that had failed to shelter them. It had been a dry season.

Less interesting was the litany of excuses. Failures of society. Frustration at rejection by the fire department, despite his obvious potential. No mention of an abusive parent. No suggestion of the kind of cognitive impairment that would really lift the blame from him. Eventually, I raised my hands to stop him.

“Let me consult with the tribunal.” Like the jars, this was mere theatre. Where my family had gone, my powers cannot reach. It was just the way I wanted to kick off the finale.

“I suppose you’d like out of there,” I said, and Bronson nodded enthusiastically.

“Stand by the door, then.” I really couldn’t help smiling at this part. He did a full turn, then reversed, yanking at the bars on each of the four sides of the cage. Then, bless him for being thorough, he reached up to tug and push against the roof. He even stared at the grill under his feet.

“Oh, that’s right. There is no door.” He gaped at me. “Do you know how I got you in?”

A shake of his head. He was slack-jawed, confusion starting to crowd out the terror that was filling him. That was fine. Terror could take a short rest.

“Magic. My family lived at the back end of nowhere so I could do magic without people getting in the way.” He wasn’t believing me. His confusion was marbled with amusement, and that amusement was coloured by the idea that he was at the mercy of a lunatic. Bronson did not have much of a poker face. “So when you were asleep, I made you into a mist, and passed you right through the walls of Folsom and all the way back here to San Guillermo and into that cage.”

Terror was coming back from its break. His eyes were on swivels, looking for the way out that wasn’t there. He touched one of the support cables, ran his fingers over it, dismissed it as unhelpful.

“So,” I went on, as if I hadn’t noticed, “would you like to see how I got you in? How I could get you out?”

That got his attention. He still didn’t believe me, clearly, but I suppose he thought humouring me might help. I picked the candle up from the table, raised it until it was right before my face.

“Watch carefully,” I said, making the flame dance with the passage of the words. Then I brought it closer, pursed my lips like I was about to blow it out.

Then I blew, very gently, and the flame of the candle laid over, stretched out and drew the candle behind it, until the whole thing was just the idea of a candle stretching from where I stood, filtering between the slats of the great cube of shipping pallets I had collected and built up until it was as tall as me. The cloud that once was a candle found its way to directly below Bronson at the height of the packed dirt floor, and then it was a candle again.

It was also dark in the barn again. Not as dark as it had been because a little light was seeping out between the pallets. It was getting brighter. The finale was well and truly underway, allegro, soon to be vivace.

“It’s very dry wood, Mr. Bronson,” I said. “You won’t have to worry about suffocating from the smoke.” He let out a weird little yap as I turned my back on him, and I could hear him frantically bounding from one side of the cage to another. I was pretty sure the cables would hold, to keep the cage where it was once the platform under it collapsed. It likely wouldn’t matter, one way or another.

By the time I had driven down to the little secondary highway, the light from inside the barn was noticeable. I glanced to the right, saw people at the gas station on the edge of San Guillermo. Satisfied that someone would raise the alarm before things got out of hand, I turned left.

It was only then I realized that I had left the jars behind. I shrugged. Only props. If they did, by chance, contain any trace of my husband or my children, if that trace somehow mingled with a similar residue of their killer, it didn’t matter. The essential parts of them and him were bound for entirely different places.

“Inktober 2019 – Ash” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Dragon

Chakura would not, a year earlier, have pictured herself doing this, and yet she had scaled the dragon’s tower without so much as turning the head of one of the guards. Now she was in the inner sanctum, where the guards dared not patrol. Not the human ones, as any rate.

She had seen signs of inhuman sentinels as she had crept closer to the innermost chamber, and she had done all she could to avoid their notice. There was no telling what they might do if aroused; they might manifest as a whirling cloud of razor-sharp blades or as nothing more than a disembodied screeching. Either way, the master of the tower would be alerted, and Chakura would not lay a finger upon his hoard.

Thus, she was careful, not racing the last few steps to the place where her quarry slept, and she was able to slip inside unheard, unseen, undetected. She could hear him breathing in his sleep as she made the last few needed preparations, then she drew her weapon and went to wake the dragon.

It only took a few minutes. Just a little threatening talk, and he had applied his thumb to the tablet. Only a few minutes, there at the top of his tower, but the culmination of weeks of groundwork by the coders. Perhaps if he had been a crime boss, it might have been harder, but the whole of his experience told him that lawyers would fix it and so to avoid her knife he had done as he was told.

By the time those lawyers were awake, the trail of servers would have collapsed, one after another treble-formatting itself after finishing its part in the relay, and all that he had transferred would have been deposited, unbreakably anonymous, into the hands of a thousand charities.

The dragon’s hoard was not emptied, of course. Only liquid assets could be extracted, so his factories, his airplanes, his dozens of empty houses, were all still his. He would survive. But thanks to Chakura, so would millions of poor who might have otherwise perished.

“Inktober 2019 – Dragon” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Snow

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The way it drifts down, great fat clumps of it sifting slowly past the window, and it you open the door you can hear it, almost fizzing, a more festive sound than rain’s hiss.

The world closes in when it snows like this. You can hardly see across the street, and you want to hug your family, all huddled together on the couch with mugs of hot chocolate, just enjoying the fact that you’re all together and warm. Even when it’s time for bed, the glow of the city trapped in the flakes means it’s never quite dark

And then, the next day, when the snowfall has stopped and the sun has just come up, everything shining brilliant white in those first minutes of the day. There’s a real sense of newness, as if the whole world had just been shipped, new and wrapped up against bumps in transit, all the familiar sights in front of the house obscured and waiting to be revealed, waiting to delight you with details forgotten during that brief concealment.

Of course, one can’t just stare out at it. Eventually, boots have to go on, shovels have to be taken up, and doors opened. Then you get to breath in the brisk, bright air, as sparkling as the smooth surface of the snow, and it feels like your lungs are being cleaned.

But then, there’s those footprints in the snow, the only ones laid down since the snow stopped. They come all the way along from the farthest corner of the block on the city sidewalk, turning at the path up to your front door, and covering half the distance from street to house. And there they stop, as if the walking person just vanished mid-stride.

Just the same as last year, and the year before, and as far back as memory stretches. And every year, just for a moment, you wonder why no one ever comes looking for the owner of those footprints, just before you scrape them out of existence.

“Inktober 2019 – Snow” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Pattern

“Please come inside. You’ll get sick.”

I had left my mentor alone with her reading to prepare our lunch, and as was not uncommon, which I returned with the plates I discovered that she had wandered out of her study. She was the grand scholar, after all, and her whims were the guiding force of our lives. I was starting to wonder if she wasn’t going senile, though. I wouldn’t have thought to look outdoors on a day like this if she hadn’t left the door open.

“No, come here, come here, you must see this.” She beckoned to me from the apex of the bridge, sodden sleeve flapping. I went, and when I stood beside her I put the umbrella she had walked past into her hand. Her fingers were ice cold.

“It’s very picturesque,” I said, glancing out over the lake that held her interest. The rain hazed the usual view, throwing a grey veil over all but the nearest houses of the village. None of the fishers had taken to the water today, their boats tied up on the shore, and the windless downpour made the lake into a pale slab, as flat and blank as cutting board. “Why don’t you come and have your lunch? I’ll make up a fire and…”

“Hush.” It was not the harsh tone she usually used when I vexed her. She almost sounded awestruck. Thoughts of senility gained strength, especially when she said, “I could hardly believe it when I heard it.”

I listened, but heard only the patter of raindrops on the umbrellas and the hiss of the broader rain dropping on the lake and surrounding landscape, white noise under random percussion. I put a hand under her nearer elbow, tried to gently get her moving in the direction of our cottage.

“Fool!” There was the tone I was used to. She drew back, furling the umbrella I had pressed upon her. She swung it against the backs of my thighs, the blow sharp if not too hard. “This is why you study. Now, look at the lake.”

I looked again, and when she pointed I followed the gesture. Not far from the bridge, I watched the unremarkable reunion of rain and lake.

“What to you see, youngster?”

I weighed whether I  should try to be clever. Not with her in this odd mood. “Raindrops hitting the lake.”

“Yes.” Again, the low tones, nearly reverential. “A drop makes ripples, yes?” I agreed. “Look again. What do the ripples make.”

Which ones? was at the back of my throat, ready to jump out, but then I started to see what she meant. Each drop had its ripples. The countless impacts sent peaks and troughs across the lake, high and low, light and dark. I knew I wasn’t seeing what she saw, but there was something in the way those tiny waves moved together.

“Close the umbrella and listen.” Hardly even a whisper, right by my ear. I did as I was told. “See and hear.”

The lake ceased to be a uniform flatness before me. Light and dark. Dark and light. High and low. All churning, cooperative and antagonistic in turns, to make the image of a great face, as big as the lake was wide. The sound of the rainfall was a voice, whispering in a language I hadn’t known that I understood until this moment.

I shivered, although the damp had yet to penetrate my clothes. I trembled at the sudden knowledge the world was revealing to me, and before the storm ended I fled to the cottage, leaving my mentor all alone to face that enormous unrepentant confession.

“Inktober 2019 – Pattern” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Swing

Every day for the past week, supper had been devoured in a hurry. Ethan had suddenly decided that the play structures in the little one-block park across the street, which had been there for his entire life, was the best sort of dessert. He had, in the way of little kids, decided that his visits to the slide, the teeter-totter, and the swings must come after supper, but he was more than willing to force the clock regarding just when after was.

Every day for the past week, Rose and I had taken turns courting indigestion, stuffing down our own supper to make sure he got his play-time in. It had been worth the effort, as Ethan had been flirting with insomnia previously, and this week had been a paradise of easy bed-times.

But tonight, he was carefully counting peas before each spoonful, and making potato sculptures with the slow deliberation of someone in a movie who has seen a UFO. It was my turn on playground duty, and I finished my supper long before he did. I exchanged a look with Rose when I stood to take out my plate, and we shared our confusion. Ethan had seemed as excited as every other night when the plates were going down, but that excitement had disappeared by the time he came in from the living room.

When he eventually finished, I said, “Ready for the playground?”

He looked up at me, corners of his mouth a little down-turned, eyebrows tented, and said, “Do I gotta?”

That demanded another look at Rose. She, behind him, was free to shrug. I felt myself mirroring his expression as I said, “Not if you don’t want to.”

His face cleared. Not all the way, but there was definitely relief. “Good. I’m gonna play Legos.”

I thought I should dig a little. I could understand a kid suddenly wanting to use a slide that he hadn’t taken notice of previously. It was like suddenly noticing that air exists; it’s been there all your short life, but one day you blow on a piece of paper and you’re aware of it. That playground was sort of the same. We’d taken him across when he was very wee, slung him on the little kid bucket-swings, then fallen out of the habit. It had become a mere part of the background until, for whatever reason last week, it came into focus.

To suddenly become disenchanted, though, was a bit of a worry.  That’s usually connected to a bad experience. When I’d been out with him, we’d been alone, and he hadn’t hurt himself on anything. Rose hadn’t mentioned anything, either. Maybe we’d missed something.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go across the street?”

“No.” He didn’t stop in his amble toward his room.

“Why not?”

He replied, as he rounded the corner out of the hall, but I didn’t understand what he said. “What was that, Ethan?”

He shouted the same response, as kids will, not just a little louder to carry the distance, but top volume. I still had no idea what he said, other than it had two syllables and might start with a G or a K. There was something in it, though, a slightly hectic edge, that made me drop it. I could ask again later, in hopes he would be more settled.

I was still afflicted with curiosity, so I went to the living room and had a look at the playground. It was just as it had been every other night previous, a line of structures on the near edge of the block, the rest of the space given to tiny ball diamond and an open field that saw little kids playing football in the fall. It was just as empty as ever, slide unslid, teeter-totters inert, only the swings showing any action, set going by the wind.

But that wasn’t right. One of the swings was moving, one of the big-kid ones that was just a straight strip of rubberized canvas. The others, another of the same sort and two of the little-kid baskets, hung like plumb-bobs. I looked past the swings, to the trees of the block beyond, and saw no sign of wind stirring their canopies.

Just that one swing, swishing through a broad arc, an enormous pendulum without a clock.

I watched, mesmerized. I wanted to call Ethan out of his room, get him to say that word again so I would know what it was. But I was starting to think that I had heard it as clearly as it could be heard, and I also remembered the slight tinge of hysteria in his voice when he repeated it.

As I stared, someone came in view. I didn’t know his name, I just recognized him from a similar passage the last time I was out there with my son. An older man, accompanied by a small trotting dog and a mild fug of smoke from his pipe. I had nodded at him then, as he passed, and he responded in kind, the standard suburban mutual acknowledgement. He didn’t look in my direction this time, but he did glance at the mobile swing without slowing his pace.

A moment after he was past the swing, it stopped dead at the bottom of its travel, suddenly as immobile as the others.

I craned to see the man as he departed. Neither he nor his dog seemed concerned. When I lost sight of them, I pressed my ear to the window, listening for… anything.

I almost jumped when the thunder of Ethan’s feet came up through the floor and into the glass. He had pounded out of his room, carrying something made entirely of blue Lego, with an unlikely arrangement of wheels. “Daddy, can we go out and play now?”

There was no sign of the nervousness that had gripped him earlier. I turned, and saw all the swings hanging and still in the light of golden hour.

“I thought you didn’t want to go tonight,” I said, cursing myself internally for wanting to rekindle worry in my innocent, happy boy.

“It’s OK,” he said, laying down the Lego thing as he headed for the shoe rack at the front door. “It found someone else.”

“Inktober 2019 – Swing” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.

Inktober 2019 – Frail

The last block before home stretched out ahead of Katrina. It only felt like it was uphill. She sighed, took a better grip on the canvas shopping bag in her left hand and the cane in her right, and got underway once more.

As she made her way past the car without wheels or windows, Katrina wondered once again whether it wasn’t time to move. The neighbourhood had definitely gone downhill since she had moved in, back in ’95, and it hadn’t been wonderful even then. She had been younger, more certain of herself, and she had considered the future only in terms of what would stretch her pension out as far as it could reach. Now that she was realizing that she might come to the end of her physical reserves before the financial ones, the relative cheapness of her apartment was losing its power to convince her.

Still… she considered the other apartments, on her side of the street and the other. She knew people here, some well. That had been quite a feat, after leaving her job; discovering how to treat people as something other than tools or threats. She was proud of herself for managing it, back when she was more supple in mind and limb. The prospect of having to go through that process again, now, was daunting.

“It’s my rut, and I’ll lie in it,” she muttered, smiling.

In the next building along, a door banged open. A man stepped into the sidewalk in front of Katrina. He was a recent arrival, one she didn’t know, but she had noted him. She might have had to expand the categories she applied to people, but she had kept possible threat on her list. He was loud, frequently abusive to passers-by and neighbours, and was willing to show a switchblade. He was no longer young, but was still young enough to be stupid in his strength. He was an argument for moving.

And he had locked his gaze upon her.

“Hey, Granny,” he said, booming artificial joviality. She knew the look on his face, a moon full of mean joy at the prospect of some bullying. She kept moving, already on a course to pass him by.

He stepped into her path. “What you got in the bag, Granny? Got treats for me?”

Katrina stopped. “No treats.”

He frowned, which did not change his demeanor in the least. He stuck his hand out.

He was more than a head taller than she was, probably less than half her age. She had seen his kind, over and again, and she could almost smell the desire to hurt coming off him. He would push her down, because he was stronger and she was there, and if her hip broke it would just be a better joke.

She held up the bag, offering it to him, distracting from the cane. She turned her right hand hand over, letting the shaft of the cane run through her hand until the rubber foot stopped against her little finger.

When he grabbed for the bag, he tried to get her hand into his fist as well. She pulled back just a little, pleased that she’d got the timing so right, and his hand closed on nothing but bag. She gave the bag a little tug, and when he yanked…

She knew exactly where she was. She was not mentally transported to the dim back alley on the wrong side of the Wall, back when there was a Wall in Berlin. She was not imagining the man in front of her to be anything other than what he was, however much he shared a soul with a some Stasi thug. But when she hooked his foot with her cane, when she yanked him all the way off balance, she remembered exactly the fierce joy that came from knowing she had done it right, that the fight was already won and lost and that she was on the side that survived.

And then she heard the sound his head made, or perhaps it was his neck, as it hit the lamp post behind him. She knew, even before she saw how limp he lay on the ground, that his days of menacing old women were at an end. Suddenly, she was transported back in time, and could only see the sparring room where her training had begun, could only hear the voice of her instructor. When he had lectured them on the essential frailty of the human body, he had wanted to make sure they understood what might happen to them, if they got the lessons wrong.

When she came back to herself, she realized that she was sitting on the front step of her own building. A young woman sat beside her, wearing a dark uniform that almost set off another fugue before Katrina recognized it as police. A blanket had been put over her shoulders, and her cane set across her knees, making her the very picture of a little old lady, confused at the ruckus of witnesses giving statements and emergency medical technicians giving up.

The next day, she began to look at retirement communities. She felt her cover had been blown, and she should get to a safe house, however unfamiliar.

“Inktober 2019 – Frail” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.