Inktober 2019 – Dark

I had only gone into the kitchen for two minutes, to get us both something to drink. Milk for him, orange juice for me. He was watching one of the age-appropriate shows which my wife and I could just tolerate, all earnest dialogue and songs with scansion that set adult teeth on edge. When I came back, the TV was making its noise into an empty room.

I did not panic, because there was nothing to panic about. He did not wander out the front door. That would be worth panicking about, because when my wife had left after supper, stepping out into the blowing ugliness of a January night, I had stood at the door and felt the cold lashing through my socks and through my shirt. But I had also thrown the deadbolt as I watched her walking to her car. Our son was a precocious two-year-old, but he had neither the reach nor the hand strength to undo the lock.

I checked anyway, after setting down our drinks. Part of not panicking is being methodical. It was still firmly closed, the deadbolt as it should be.

I did not worry about him pitching down the basement stairs, because I had been in front of them while getting the drinks. This limited his options to the bedrooms at the back of the house, and the bathroom.

He was not in the bathroom, I could tell at a glance as I passed along the hall. It was brilliantly lit, because I left the light on in the evening, and with the shower curtain pulled back there was nowhere to hide. I felt a small tremor which I would not let develop into panic, because the two bedrooms, his and ours, were open but unlit. He couldn’t really reach light switches, either.

I could, and I threw the one in his room as I stuck my head in. I had glanced into our room, saw the foot of the bed looming in the back-scatter from the bathroom and nothing else, but now that the light in his room revealed he was not there, I turned. The tremor was becoming insistent, to the point that I missed the switch in my own room.

It was unnecessary. With his room lit up, right across the hall, the dimness of the adults’ bedroom was somewhat relieved. Now that I was in it, I could make out the bed, the book-shelves to either side of it, and the smiling face of my son. He stood on my side of the bed, as far from the door as possible, grinning.

“Hey, Sam,” I said, the depressurization of relief sweeping away that tremor which had not quite been panic.

“Hi, Daddy.” As he spoke, I realized he was not looking at me, but at the closet door next to me. He was a smiley kid, a charmer commented on constantly by strangers, and he was at it now, looking as happy as clam as he stood in the darkness of the bedroom. I turned my head to look at the closet. The door was open all the way, its usual state. Beside it, I could see some indistinct items of clothing, my wife’s or mine, poking out, but not really into the closet.

“What’cha doin’?” I asked. He kept looking at the closet for a few seconds, then began giggling. Then, with the sort of lack of warning we had come to expect from him, he ran, still laughing in his delightful liquid way. He ran to the end of the bed, past the closet, past me, and into the living room.

I stayed where I was, wishing my heart wasn’t feeling so tight. I kept my eye on the closet as I reached, with deliberate care, for the light switch.

All was as it ought to be. The lad had slightly disarrayed the bed clothes in his passage, the closet was its usual jumble, and there was less order in the books on my side of the bed than on my wife’s. Perfectly normal. I went back to the living room myself.

I forgot to turn off the light. My wife commented on it when she got home.

That was six years ago now. I only remember it occasionally, as now, when I wake up in the small hours of a winter night, and the lights of the city bounce from snow-fat clouds to provide just enough light to let me see the familiar terrain of the room.

But only dimly. Six years, and I’ve yet to understand what was so funny.

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

Inktober 2019 – Tasty

Essex Shipping News, 7 August 1893:

Lost in high seas: “Demeter” Russian flag sloop, last sailed from Varna, Bulgaria. Was observed by HMS “Trent” to be running without lights, rigging in poor order; gave no response to signals. “Demeter” broached to when cross-sea developed as “Trent” moved to offer assistance. Sank quickly, no sign of survivors. No debris of any consequence.

“I had a dream, Doctor.” The patient looks at me through the bars, the mild expression I had been used to returned, after days of rage. “It upset me greatly.”

I asked him to elaborate.

“I dreamed that I was servant to a great man,” he told me. “Not a good one, oh, no. But a powerful member of nobility. He promised to reward me, if I served him faithfully.”

I suggested to him that this did not seem upsetting. He tutted at me, in an interesting inversion of our relationship, then explained.

“Oh, Doctor, the services he required, and the awful inducements! I could not name them to you, for fear that you would think me irredeemable.” At this point, he looked about his cell, apparently quite sensible of the meaning of his surrounding. “A patient may hope to be cured one day, I should think.”

Knowing this ‘dream’ of his to be the recent period of mania, I asked him if he knew what brought on the state. He shrugged.

“I sleep, as all men must. Are not all men susceptible to dreams as they sleep?”

I then asked how the dream came to end.

“Oh, it was quite terrible, Doctor. The Master sat in a sumptuous bed, explaining his…” The patient gave a furtive glance around the cell, as if not certain we were alone. “His designs. His desires for my service.” He looked straight at me, then asked with great earnestness, “Your fiancée is quite well, I hope?”

I was somewhat taken aback. I do not discuss my personal life with the patients, of course, but he must have learned of my engagement from one of the attendants. I merely nodded as a response.

“I am so glad.” He nodded, apparently very relieved, then returned to his previous thought. “While the Master spoke, there was a sudden roar outside, and then he was tumbled from the bed, as if his apartments had been upended.” He smiled, and I could not decide if it was a quite wholesome expression. “I thought I saw a fish fly through the room, even as darkness filled it. The Master was silenced, and I awoke.”

I congratulated him on escaping from the unpleasant ‘dream’ but I was not entirely satisfied. I asked him about the request he had made the day previous, and he looked very blankly at me.

“A kitten? Oh, no. Oh, no.” He shuddered, without any appearance of putting on. “You are mistaking me for one of the other patients, Dr. Seward, my salvation depends upon it. I am a humble man, and I keep to my humble appetites.”

At this, he wet the end of his finger, dabbed up several ants from the line which runs perpetually from his window to the little pile of bait he restores out of his daily meals, then licked them up with every evidence of enjoyment. He dabbed up a few more, and extended the finger to me so I could see the creatures wriggling there. “Are you sure I cannot tempt you, Doctor? They’re ever so nutritious!”

What am I to make of my own hesitation before declining his offer?

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

Inktober 2019 – Dizzy

People pay to get this sensation. The fairground rides are mostly designed to give it to you. And here I am, getting it for free as part of the job.

There are limits, of course. Run the Tilt-A-Whirl too fast, leave the Zipper going too long, and all the kids would be begging for it to stop between spewing corn dogs. I’m sort of at that point, myself.

I could stop. I am an adult, I have it in my hands, almost literally, to get off the ride whenever I want. It’s my choice.

But I’m going to stay with it a little longer, not because this is fun, but because I’m not exactly sure what’s under me. They always say look before you leap, and the world outside is whirling around too fast to get a good look at.

I’d prefer to correct the spin instead of yanking on the ejector handle, leaving twenty tons of fighter jet to settle into the roof of a school.

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

Inktober 2019 – Ghost

There was a line of six photographs laid out on the table. Each one showed the front of Oliver’s house, dimly lit by a post-sunset sky and streetlight on the far side of a tree. The position of the camera was the same in all, as was the colour of the sky, suggesting without need to refer to the timestamps in the lower right corners of each that each was taken in quick succession.

Oliver gave them a cursory glance, then looked across the table at the young couple who had brought them. If not for the current circumstance, he thought he would think well of them, because they seemed pleasant enough.  They were polite, well-spoken, and their visible tattoos were interesting rather than shocking. The letter they had left in his mailbox was, some modern failures of punctuation aside, entirely unthreatening. He realized only now it had been a mistake to even respond to it.

“It appears that this investigation of yours is already underway,” he said, with a coolness that seemed to strike home. Both his visitors blushed, and he almost forgave them.

“We thought…” said Will, the taller of the two, before having to clear his throat. He was all in black, from hair to shoes, and Oliver marked him as a goth, although either non-confrontational or under-committed. “We thought, since we were dropping off the letter, we’d…”

“Take advantage of being here.” Oliver said the first two words with careful emphasis, drawing another blush. “I’m sorry, but I really do think you’re wasting your time here.”

“Mr. Whitlaw, please.” Aurora was much less thematic. Oliver couldn’t decide if she was affecting professional dress or if she had simply come directly from some kind of higher-end retail job. “We just want to look into the stories about your house.”

“Those stories are outdated,” he said. “I have lived here almost thirty years, and never run into anything upsetting.”

“But…” Will pointed to the odd-one-out of the six shots, fourth in the series. In one of the dark upstairs windows, there was a slim pale figure, face as white as the torso. The head had no features but for a pair of great dark eyes, which seemed to be melting down toward the neck. “That’s definitely something.”

“A reflection from something on the other side of the street, maybe?” Oliver shrugged.

“But then why is it only in that one shot,” Aurora asked. “Look at the timestamps– there’s only a tenth of a second between the shots.”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged again. “Perhaps it’s something in your camera, rather than my house.”

That made them look at each other. Before either had a chance to get their feet back under them, he pressed on. “Look, you said in your letter you wanted to do an interview. Let’s go through your questions, and I’m sure you’ll be satisfied that your time will be better spent looking for hauntings in a livelier place.”

An hour later, Aurora and Will were stepping through the front door, thanking Oliver for his time. He bid them a polite good evening, while inwardly shouting and don’t come back! When they were off the porch, he turned out the light in the foyer, then stood and watched them, concealed by the sheer across the little window in the door and the glare of the porch light. They crossed to a small car, and drove away moments after climbing in. No more pictures taken.

Oliver went upstairs, shaking his head. He had heard the stories about the house from the neighbours when he and Ellen had moved in. Those stories had become cross-fence jokes during barbecue season, and had dropped entirely after the car accident. Perhaps, with the intrepid Aurora and Will seen off, their questions about cold spots and unexpected noises all answered in the negative, he would hear no more about those long-ago spectral tales.

He paused at the front bedroom, the one he and Ellen had always called the spare. He took a deep breath, partially because he was getting old and stairs were not getting easier, and partially because he hadn’t remembered to sigh with relief when his visitors drove off. He tapped at the door, then opened it just a crack.

“They’re gone,” he said. “I won’t be having them back.”

From somewhere in the darkness of the spare room, an echo of his sigh drifted.

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

Inktober 2019 – Tread

There are few things as upsetting as the sound of a footstep in a house you know to be empty.

Standing here in the attic, searching through boxes by the light of a single bare bulb, it’s all too easy to let imagination get out of hand. I can not have heard the sound of a foot lowered carefully to the old boards of the floor below. Before I came up here, I made sure that the doors were locked, front and back. I looked in every room.

But I also know what I heard. There was no mistaking it. A foot on bare wood. The only bare wood floor is in the hall beneath me. The bedrooms all have carpet. The bathroom is closed. So the sound could only have come from the hall.

Directly under me.

So now, I stand here, trying to decide which is the better idea: go down and look, or wait here for someone to come up the ladder.

Either way, I don’t know what to do if there is someone there. Because I know the house is all locked up tight, and I know that the old couple who own the place are completely, utterly dead, lying side by side on their gore-soaked bed.

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

Inktober 2019 – Sling

The weight of the work-day had hardly begun to lift when Brett walked into his house. He thought he heard Samantha calling a greeting to him, but it was hard to tell over the furious stampede. All three kids thundered down the stairs, eyes sparkling with glee. They were all shouting something as they clustered around him, hugging his legs and tugging at him. He finally made out Rochelle, the oldest of the three, chanting “Come and see what we made!” over and over, and then realized that’s was all were saying, at different pitches and speeds.

“OK,” he said, loud enough to make himself heard. “Just let me get my shoes off.”

“No, Daddy!” Vanessa, the middle child, still pulling at him. “It’s outside! In the back yard!”

The four of them passed through the house. Brett waved at Samantha as they passed, but he was not allowed to stop, Rochelle and Vanessa each tugging at a hand, little Kayla dragging at a trouser pocket. As they passed, Brett looked a question at his wife, who shrugged. “A surprise for Daddy,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to look.”

After a moment of near-disaster going down the stairs at the back of the kitchen, the formation passed out on the back deck. The kids let go of Brett, and with the same choral unity as before shouted “Ta-daaa!”

Brett stood, letting his admiration show on his face. Some kids would waste a day off school, just staring at a tablet, but not his girls. They definitely had drive.

“We made you a hammock, Daddy,” said Rochelle, giving Vanessa a little shove which failed to stifle a fit of giggles. “Try it!”

Brett shook his head, smiling. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Come on, Daddy,” Kayla piped. “It’s real comforbul!”

Brett looked at his shoes, but the smile remained. He hated to do anything to curb the kids’ enthusiasm, but there were limits he wouldn’t pass. “No, kids, I’m sorry.”

“Aw, come on.” Vanessa took hold of her hand again. She was still having trouble stifling giggles. “It’s a hammock. Sit in it.”

Brett lifted his hand until it slipped out of her grip. He had let them shove him through the house, but he was still a full grown man and able to resist three little girls. “No, it’s not a hammock.”

“It is a hammock,” Rochelle said, with the emphasis of a child’s transparent duplicity.

“No, sweetie. That’s a trebuchet. It’s really impressive, but I’m not going to sit in that. It’s dangerous, and after supper we’re going to have to take it down.”

Brett turned for the door, anticipating the delayed post-work beer, steeling himself against the disappointed groans. He stopped and turned to look at the huge machine again when Rochelle said, almost sullen and without a trace of deceit, “Mr. Gzowski from next door thought it was fun.”

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

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 – 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.