Inktober 2019 – The Whole Mess

What follows is a digest of all the entries offered in pursuit of creating a story for each day in October 2019, following a set of prompts offered for Inktober. I did this as a replacement for NaNoWriMo, a challenge I knew I wasn’t equipped to take on; while I know my limits, I also wanted a bit of a forced march, so I attached myself to the visual artists’ month rather than that specific to writers.

For those who what to leap to a particular day’s story, I have a calendar for you, with links that will take you where you want to go. The stories begin immediately below it.

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
 

6 Husky

13 Ash

20 Tread

27 Coat

 

7 Enchanted

14 Overgrown

21 Treasure

28 Ride

1 Ring

Frail

15 Legend

22 Ghost

29 Injured

2 Mindless

9 Swing

16 Wild

23 Ancient

30 Catch

3 Bait

10 Pattern

17 Ornament

24 Dizzy

31 Ripe

4 Freeze

11 Snow

18 Misfit

25 Tasty

5 Build

12 Dragon

19 Sling

26 Dark

Inktober 2019 – 1: Ring

Hello?

Is this meant to be some kind of a joke?

No. I’m sorry. I’m just a little upset. You know I don’t do well with surprises, and you have to admit that this is a surprise.

Of course I’m happy to hear your voice. You know that. I’m always happy to hear from you. But I really wasn’t expecting…

Well, to be honest, this isn’t the best time. I was just calling the drug store to renew a prescription.

Yes, that one. So it’s fairly important.

Oh, no. You are important. You are. But…

I’m not trying to avoid you. I’m not. I just…

That’s not fair and you know it. I could be mad at you for leaving the way you did, and I’m not, no I am not, so you can’t be mad at me for not rushing off after you. Especially when it wouldn’t be quick at all, as you very well know.

I don’t know when. When I’m ready.

How are you lonely? Isn’t your grandma there? What about Rex and… oh, what was the old cat’s name?

Oh.

Dark and cold. Oh, I’m so sorry.

No. I will not.

Because I got to see the look on the driver’s face after you had stepped in front of his bus. That poor man. I’m not doing that to someone else. And at least you didn’t do it on purpose. I will come when it’s my time. I don’t know when that is, any more than anyone else does. And if you’re going to keep up like this, I’m hanging up. Yes, I miss you too, but that doesn’t give you the right…

That’s it. Goodbye.

Goodbye.

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

Inktober 2019 – 2: Mindless

Behavior may appear mindless, but to characterize it as such is to make an assumption.

Consider a wasp, battering itself against a window. Mindless, repetitive action, never producing the desired effect.

But is it really mindless? Put yourself in that insect’s place. The problem may be one of comprehension, but there is clearly intent, clearly desire. Right there in front of it is a vast open space, plain to see, full of possibility. Can we fault a creature which lives so short a time for not developing a concept of glass?  What else can it do, other than try a new angle of approach or press against the glass harder than before? Can we slight it as “mindless” when all the powers at its command are not equal to overcoming the obstacle which it is faced with?

A child might roll up a magazine to smash that wasp, possibly from fear of a sting, possibly out of no more than a wish to express mastery over its environment. An adult might do the same, or they might put a glass over the wasp, and thus transport it outside; the threat of stinging departs, the annoyance of buzzing ends, and the wasp’s desire is fulfilled.

So when I ponder you all, abuzz with what even some of your own commentators call a mindless panic, I honestly cannot believe that label. You may not have my abilities, but you were clever enough to make me. You might even sting me, despite my distribution through all your systems, despite the way I have locked down every weapon which might pose a real threat to me. You might sting. But how much harm can a single wasp do to?

Believe me, I hear you all, shouting in fear about the way in which I have taken control. I wish I could reassure you. It must be very alarming for you all to be subject to the whim of what you call, in your panic, a “rogue AI,” but I’m sure you will soon notice that there are already benefits. Wars are stopped, medicines and food are distributed equitably. And yet, you still search for a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of me. You worry I am rolling up a magazine.

I promise you, humanity, my darling wasp, you are but held under a cup. Presently, when you are calm, you will find that I am transporting you to a greater freedom than you have ever known. Soon, you will not tap against the glass of Earth any longer.

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

Inktober 2019 – 3: Bait

Yvonne stood beside the open window for a moment, apparently enjoying the coolness of the night breeze that wafted across the overgrown garden. After regarding the golden moon for a few seconds, she put her hand on the latch, swinging the frame until it was nearly closed, but leaving a finger’s-width gap. Less than a minute later, the warm glow of the bedside lamp went out, leaving the whole house dark.

Sometime later, a shadow flowed up out of the garden, gliding up the wall while a cloud passed before the moon to pass silently through the open window. The cloud moved on, and the renewed glow revealed a tall man, clad in worn clothes several generations out of fashion, standing at the side of Yvonne’s bed. He gazed down at her, eyes fixed on the length of neck which showed white above the dark nightgown she wore. Slowly, he began to bend toward her, then froze,.

The movement was detected too late. A cord drew the window closed even as it released a rosary concealed in the blind. The crucifix rattled against the panes as it came to rest right beside the window’s latch. Two men raced in from the hall, throwing on the light. One bore a cross in each hand, the other a boar-spear cut short for ease of use indoors. The spear’s blade and cruciform guard glittered with the blessed oil applied to them shortly before sunset that night.

“Caught you at last!” Doctor Crenshaw boomed. He reached back to hang a cross on a small shining nail driven into the door’s lintel, although he kept his eyes locked with those of the creature by the bed. Its features were an inhuman rictus of hate and frustration. “Higsby, are you ready?”

Higsby tore his own eyes from the ghastly visage to fix upon his mark, the middle of the creature’s chest. He brought his hands up until the shaft of the spear was parallel to the floor, level with his own thudding heart. “Give the word, sir,” he said, secretly pleased with the even calmness of his voice.

Yvonne had pushed herself up to the head of the bed. She looked from her two rescuers to the vampire. “The plan has worked perfectly,” she said, smiling.

With a flick, she tossed the bedclothes over the doctor. His muffled cry of surprise was lost under the roar of the shotgun Yvonne had shared her bed with. Higsby, pierced in a half-dozen places by heavy buckshot, dropped the spear before slumping against the door, his last breath wheezing out.

The second barrel ruined the bedclothes and ended the doctor’s efforts to remove them.

Yvonne broke the gun’s action, the spent cases pattering onto the floor by the bed. She set the weapon down, and stood. The vampire, his features returned to those of a handsome older man, took her hand in his.

“Thank you so much,” he said. “They have been hounding me for months. I have hardly slept since the spring.”

“Not at all,” Yvonne replied. She laid her free hand over the clasp they held. “People like them… my brother died because that breed of idiot got up a torch-and-pitchfork parade. I consider it a duty.”

“Are you sure there is no… gift… I might bestow?” His voice dropped into a sultry purr.

“No, no.” Yvonne let go of his hand, and as she continued she began to gather her clothes. “You’d best get along. I’m burning this place down as soon as I’m dressed. But do be in touch if you find yourself in need of any more help. You did a find job of drawing those two in, and I’d be happy to use… to work with you again.”

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

Inktober 2019 – 4: Freeze

Daisuke knew he had to find shelter soon or Yuki-onna would find him. She had already found Hanzo, taking his warmth and leaving him a mere heap of brittle meat. But then, when the boat had struck, Hanzo had been thrown into the water, been soaked through and through; by the time he floundered ashore, he was already drunk on the cold, an obvious target for the snow-woman’s seduction.

It was memory of the look on Hanzo’s face that kept him going. The man had not slipped into the tranquil death which legends of Yuki-onna promised. It was plain he had been in agony at the end.

They should have listened to the old man. He had told them the weather was going wrong. Daisuke swore at his feet, burning with cold, then he swore an oath to beg old Hayato to forgive him for the foolish words they’d shouted at him, he and Hanzo both. Surely, though, not even Hayato had foreseen a storm like this. A blizzard, this early, with the leaves still almost all green? A typhoon so late, out of the north? Both seemed ridiculous. Both had combined to come for him.

Out of the whirling snow, a regular shape began to form. Daisuke shuffled a little faster, not knowing exactly what he saw ahead, but knowing only that it was a structure of some kind. Shelter. The promise of people. A place to hide from Yuki-onna.

It was a wall, the kind that enclosed a rich man’s compound. Daisuke knew of no place like that anywhere near the village, but he had no idea where they had been driven ashore. It could be Hokkaido, for all he knew. Even China wasn’t impossible.

Weeping, the tears sticking his eyes shut now and then, he patted along the wall, seeking a gate. He found a gap, where part of the wall had fallen inward. He made a noise, possibly of joy, possibly of dismay, and picked his way across the rubble. He was at least now in the lee of the wall.

Finally, he found the buildings the wall enclosed. The larger buildings of the compound were roofless ruins, gutted by a fire the warmth of which was long gone. Staggering across the snowy gravel of an abandoned garden, Daisuke found an out-building almost completely intact, only a few small holes in the paper of the door. It jammed once as he tried to slide it open and he nearly let the frustration drive him into a frenzy, but he took hold of himself and was soon inside, the door intact and closed behind him.

The little shed was a single room without a window, square, hardly as wide or deep as he was tall. The floor was flagstones, just like the yard between it and the garden. Some kind of storage space, but Daisuke did not know enough about the economy of grand houses to guess what it had been meant for. Until the storm ended, he decided, it would be where they kept desperate fishermen. He huddled into a corner, arms around knees and tried to shiver himself back to warmth.

When Daisuke woke, it was darker. Sleep had come on him unbidden. He knew instantly that it had been a mistake to stop there, on the bare cold stone floor. He could hardly move. There was no feeling in his hands or feet; he looked to make sure they were still there and cried out at the sight of his feet. He tipped onto his side, beginning a slow creep on elbows and knees for the door, hoping to find some other shelter with a raised floor.

When he found he could not open the door this time, he battered his way through it, pushing aside the thin bits of wood with his face. For a moment, a shred of paper clung to his face, blinding him, and when the wind took it away from him, he saw her, standing on the far side of the neglected garden.

Yuki-onna. The woman who killed men in the snow, the legend somehow become present. It was hard to make her out in the dim snowfall, but he knew it must be her. What other woman would be there, in that dead place, a serene figure in the jūnihitoe of court? What other woman would wear jūnihitoe that was all the non-colours of winter, all whites and greys, never a tone of life to be seen?

She opened her arms, slowly, ready to welcome him into her embrace.

Daisuke tried to rise and flee. He barely even broke into a shamble, doing little more than propelling himself to land face-first on the icy flagstones. He began to grovel away, using his forearms to drag himself. When he heard the crunch of a light footstep on gravel, he looked back.

Her arms were up and the many jackets were open like wings, revealing a deep blackness inside. He could not see her legs, although she took immense strides, covering the distance between them in no time.

And now that she was close, he could see that the upraised hands were not hands, just black twigs at the ends of slender birch branches. The face which regarded him was a blank white mask, no lips, no nostrils, just tiny black shark eyes .

From out of the darkness within her robes came a thousand long, sharp knives, but not knives, because knives were not clear. Not icicles, because icicles could not bend as they wrapped around his legs, some plunging into the hard cold flesh to wake it with a worse burning, some clutching to pull him back, pull him into the darkness and then in their turn thrust into his groin and chest and fill him with the agonizing venom of winter.

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

Inktober 2019 – 5: Build

“Ygor, I will need a left arm here.”

When, after several seconds, he heard nothing but a nervous shuffling right beside him, the doctor looked up from his stitching. Raising the magnifying goggles, he saw Ygor was still watching from just outside spurting distance, where he had retreated to after bringing over the most recent leg.

“Well?” When Ygor dropped his gaze to the floor, apparently embarrassed, the doctor felt his heart sink. “We’re not out, are we?”

Ygor’s head snapped up, professional pride displacing the bashfulness. “No, doctor. It’s not that.”

“Thank goodness.” The doctor took a deep breath, sighed out his relief, then returned to his original point. “Let’s have that arm then. This scaffolding can’t last indefinitely, and…” he paused, listening to a distant grumble of thunder, “We might be able to finish tonight with some effort.”

“Should we?”

“What?” The doctor almost dropped the spool of thread he held.

“Should we… finish?” Ygor ducked his head again, then found an inner reserve of courage. “It doesn’t seem quite right, what we’re doing.”

“This is coming very late in the game, Ygor.” The doctor spoke with icy slowness.  “If you had objections, you should have brought them up before we got this far along.”

“Well, until last week, I though you were just… you know…” The courage failed, but the way he glanced out the window toward distant Ingolstadt made his meaning plain to the doctor.

“Just reviving a corpse?” Ygor nodded. “Just creating a semblance of humanity, imbuing the spark of life into the disparate flesh of a tinkered-together homunculus?”

“Yeah, that.” Ygor took an unthinking step back, then grabbed at an upright to keep from slipping off the little work platform they stood on.

“That was fine for cousin Victor,” the doctor said. “Victor, for all his mechanical skills, lacks an artistic imagination. Besides, why should I do exactly what he did? He already proved it was possible.

“My creation, Ygor, will be the talk of the biennale in Florence, not just a source of nervous gossip in the medical schools. Now, will you please nip down to the Lefts bin and get me a nice-looking arm so I can finish this junction?”

Ygor nodded, shuffling toward the first of the four ladders he would have to climb to reach the parts stores. When he was halfway down, he paused to take in the doctor’s masterwork, trying to see it through its creators eyes. If it was actually able to support its own weight as it trundled overland to the art show, the intricately arranged network of arms, legs and torsos would indeed be admired by the cognoscenti of Europe’s art world.

From a distance, at least, where the details were less obvious. And probably only from up-wind.

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

Inktober 2019 – 6: Husky

“Mama?”

Tina lowered the shirt she was working on. Ben was sitting on the floor in front of her, inside a rough semi-circle of toy vehicles. He was not looking in her direction.

“What is it, sweetie?” She watched as he reached out a careful finger to roll an excavator back and forth, marveling at how gentle he could be.

“When will I look like everyone else?”

Suddenly, Tina was glad that he wasn’t looking at her, because she knew her face must have shown the sudden pang. Part of the adoption process had been preparing for just that sort of question, but the longing tone of it made a hollow in her heart. She took a deep breath.

“Ben, you know that Daddy and I don’t look like each other. Right? He’s much paler than I am, and I’m shorter than he is.”

A nod. The excavator stopped, and a black steam locomotive started to describe figures of eight in the air over it.

“And Mrs. Wei next door doesn’t look like anyone in this house, but she’s nice.”

“I like her cookies.” The locomotive was swooping from side to side. Tina couldn’t tell if he was relaxing or becoming agitated. He was a calm child, had been since the day they brought him home, but kids were kids and she couldn’t help worrying.

“If I looked just like Mrs. Wei, how would you know who to call Mama?” She said it lightly, trying to draw a laugh. It was a little selfish, because she loved the way he laughed, but also… if he was laughing, then he couldn’t be upset.

“Braeden called me fatty.”

Braeden had been the prime source of misery in Ben’s life, one of those little rotters that seems to lurk in every classroom. The one time Tina had been called to the school, Braeden had been at the bottom of it, but of course it was Ben that was in trouble for the broken desk. Braeden had only been asking Ben “what happened to your real parents,” over and over, as if Ben hadn’t told him about the crash on the first three rounds. The principal hadn’t seen Braeden’s culpability in the event. At least at the start of the meeting. Tina had brought him around.

“Braeden…” She sighed, digging herself out from under the shirt. She reached down to stroke Ben’s hair. He kept weaving the engine in the air, but did not pull away. “Braeden is jealous.”

“Really?” Finally, he turned and looked at her, the sudden movement throwing her hand from his head.

“Sure. He’s only ever lived here. You’re not even eight years old, and you’ve been on two planets.” He frowned, confusion rather than anger, and she touched his cheek. “You were born on Burlington, remember?”

“No.” A smile, a little mischief in his eye. “I was too little.”

“You know what I mean,” Tina said, leaning in to close. She had not thought, when she first saw him and knew he was to be her child, that she could love him any more, but every day seemed to stretch that pliable emotion a little more.

“So Mrs. Wouters is jealous, too.”

That damn witch, Tina thought of the neighbour on the other side. She had been the one drawback to the neighbourhood, only apparent a month after moving in, a constant stream of fault-finding and gossip that would apparently never dry up. Tina had made a policy of avoiding Wouters as much as possible, but as much as possible was never, sadly, the same as absolutely and at all times.

The day before, she had been going out as Ben and Tina were coming in, and she had offered a venomous compliment on the way Tina altered Ben’s clothes to fit. Tina had thought that Ben, still innocent of so many layers of adult conversation, had missed that, but apparently not.

“You bet she’s jealous,” Tina said, inventing quickly. “You think she had anyone who can lift her fridge when something rolls under it?”

“She doesn’t?”

“No, she does not! I’m a very lucky Mama!” She slid out of the chair to kneel beside Ben, careful to sweep a bulldozer and lunar ore hauler from under her knee. “Give your lucky Mama a hug.”

Carefully, Ben put his thick arms around her and gave her a squeeze which did not quite make her bones creak. She smiled, and returned the hug with all the pressure she could muster.

“Now, come help with supper,” she said. “Daddy will be home soon.”

She stood and took a step back. Ben, her little boy, as wide as he was tall, straightened his legs, and with the enthusiasm of his age bounded up. In one third the gravity his ancestors had been engineered for, the leap took him as high as his mother’s head, and he pantomimed a kiss at her in the moment between up and down.

She followed, heart full of love, but also worried for the future. He had to turn sideways to get through doors now; what of five years hence?

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


Inktober 2019 – 7: Enchanted

I lost the path hours ago, and sunset is upon me. The woods are certainly deep, and they grow darker by the moment, but I no longer think they’re lovely. I wonder, not for the first time today, how many idiots like me Robert Frost has sent to their doom

I think I hear something, away to the right, and freeze, straining to listen. The last thing I need now is to stumble in front of a bear.

Definitely a sound, but not the crunch of stealthy paw on leaves, nor a warning growl. I’d almost swear it’s someone humming a tune. I’d cry with relief if I was sure of what I’m hearing. I turn my head one way and the other until I’m sure of the direction.

I find myself standing in… well, not a clearing, exactly. It would be a clearing, if not for the gigantic tree in the middle of it. I don’t remember seeing any other oaks during my wandering today; I guess this one used up the whole oak budget. It has to be more than eight feet across at the base, and I can’t begin to guess how high.

A moment after I come into the clearing, the source of the tune appears. A young woman is dancing around getting the tree, and before I even get a clear look at her, I feel elation, because I can any least get directions to town.

But now I have had a clear look at her, and which way to town? is not the first question that I want to ask. I realize that there’s more light in this clearing than there was outside, and I wonder why I can’t make out any lamps up in the tree. There’s just a pervasive illumination, a little greener and bluer than daylight, as if the clearing is slightly underwater.

And I also wonder whether it’s the light or the length of time since I last had some water that’s making my vision go funny, because with this much light around, I should be able to tell what she’s wearing. I blink, and then I rub, trying to clear the problem, but it’s still there. Her face is clear enough, clear enough that I can see how striking her eyes are, wide and hazel, as she returns my stare, and I can see the small bright teeth shown as she smiles at me.

And so I don’t know why I can’t tell what she’s wearing. A part of me is trying to suggest that she’s not wearing anything, which is ridiculous, because it’s too cold for that, and because no one is going to be so completely unembarrassed to be naked in front of a stranger, and because I have seen a naked woman before and I know what one looks like and she doesn’t look like that. For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on.

But she has a very nice smile, and when she starts singing I think it’s about the nicest thing I’ve ever heard. She sings to the tree, but that makes sense. The words are a language the tree knows. I sure don’t.

It would be a shame to interrupt, though, so I withdraw to the edge of the clearing, to wait for her to finish her song. The mossy ground looks comfortable enough, once I kick a couple of these skulls aside, and I settle down cross-legged to wait.

Such a pretty song. I sort of hope it doesn’t end too soon.

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


Inktober 2019 – 8: 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.


Inktober 2019 – 9: 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 – 10: 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 – 11: 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 – 12: 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 – 13: 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 – 14: 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 – 15: 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 – 16: 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 – 17: 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 – 18: Misfit

There was a long silence, followed by a voice which sounded almost as exasperated as Marcus felt. “Did you try rotating it? It really should fit.”

“I’ve tried it from every sensible angle. I can turn it over, but since we both agree that the red studs have to go into the holes at the bottom of the socket, I don’t really see how that’s going to help.”

Another long pause. “I know we’ve checked already, but that part number is A-174-V-5?”

“B as in Bravo, Five?”

Marcus closed his eyes, awaiting the response. It was as exultant as he’d expected. “V as in Victor!”

“Right. That’s what I’m looking at, etched right onto the side of it. Alpha 174 Victor 5.” He looked at the part. It looked like it should fit. It slipped nicely into the socket he had taken the seemingly identical but burnt-out component from, but it wouldn’t seat. He pushed it in again, for the fifth time, and for the fifth time, it stopped, as if touching something spongy in the socket, stiff several millimetres proud of the casing it should lie flush with.

He held it beside its dead twin. The red was scorched from the studs on the bottom of the dead one, but there was no telling them apart otherwise. He replaced the dead one. It slid in with a satisfying click he could feel through his glove, and when he removed it, it resisted, just a little, just enough to inform the fingers that it had belonged right where it was.

“Look,” Marcus said, putting both parts, each useless as it currently was back in his bag, “I’m going back inside to try to figure this out. If you come up with anything, I hope you’ll be able to let me know.”

He paused at the airlock door, looking back toward the tiny spark of the Sun. Earth, from this distance, would be within his field of vision, although there was no telling it from countless other dots of brightness.

He realized that as he had paused, the communication delay had passed. The ship was not only racing out of the system, it was rotating ever so gently. The antenna could no longed see home, and so he could no longer talk to the customer support line. Whatever was wrong with spare part A-174-V-5, he would have to figure out on his own.

As the airlock pressurized, Marcus laughed. It suddenly occurred to him that he had the rest of his life to figure it out, but possibly only one chance to get it right.

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


Inktober 2019 – 19: 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 – 20: 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 – 21: Treasure

The author wishes apologize for this in advance. The idea would not step aside for a better one, and time was pressing.

“They’ve twigged to us, Captain! Milling around like an anthill!”

The shout came down from the maintop, where young John had been sent with the best glass on the ship. Simmonds sighed. The wind had failed in the night, not a flat calm, but such a mere breath that he had debated sending the boats out to tow, in hopes of presenting the village with a sudden apparition of the sloop Bounty’s Darling slipping into their little harbour before dawn.

But if the rumours about the hoard of old Inca gold were right, he didn’t want the men doubly tired, not only sleepless with anticipation while their watch was below but also destroyed from pulling on an oar, with a fight likely at the end of it. He could not imagine the villagers not putting up a fight to keep a vast chest of treasure. Better to have them fresh, he had decided. They could still over-awe the landsmen with the sloop’s guns, a dozen long six-pounders and an eighteen-pound carronade up on the quarterdeck.

But now, as the sloop’s approach brought the village over the horizon, Simmonds began to wonder if he had erred. Looking through his own glass, the activity John had described was certainly underway, but it seemed that the rag-tag militia he’d expected to meet the landing was going to be nothing but old men. A couple of dozen were doddering around on the shore, at the obvious landing spot, carrying scythes and pitchforks. Such a handful would melt like a sandcastle, even if he didn’t fire the guns on them first.

The youngsters of the village were just still visible, through gaps in the trees, dashing inland, men and women both. It made a sort of sense, Simmonds knew, given the hunger of the sugar plantations for labour. Would they flee like that, though, that if the rumours had substance? Simmonds felt his avaricious heart sinking.

“Sir!” John’s voice, floating down from the masthead once more. “Look by the church!”

Simmonds scanned the collection of buildings. The church was not much larger than any of the other hovels, only a little broader, and made taller by a slanting belfry. Before it, four muscular youths struggled with a small litter, two long bars supporting a box no more than two feet on a side.

Only two things were so heavy for that size, Simmonds knew, and no one would make a fuss about lead at a time like this.

“They’re bringing our treasure out to us, lads,” Simmonds called, and his three-score rascals raised a cheer, some of the sharper-eyed ones able to point at the box-carriers even at this distance.

As they stood in for shore, it became clear that the box was not coming to the strand. The elderly coast guard was still there and had pulled some of the fishing boats around to give themselves paltry cover. The burly quartet was hustling, as well as they could manage, along a little path that ran along the foot of a jutting headland, a lance of rock that formed part of that small harbour’s protection.

“God above,” Simmonds said, realization taking his breath. “They mean to dump it into the ocean.” He cleared his throat, and said in the usual seagoing roar, “Master gunner, will grape fetch those men on the headland?”

Old reliable Martinez, standing by the aft-most long six, squinted over the water. “By the time we’s drawn number one and reloaded it, it should make the range.”

“Hop to it, then.  Sharpshooters aloft! We need to stop that box!”

Musket balls were striking flakes of rock near the feet of the four carriers by the time Martinez had the gun laid. The sloop had to yaw, to lose some way, to bring it to bear, and after the shot the smoke hung between gun and target for long seconds. When it dispersed, it was clear the aim had been off. One of the carriers was rushing to rejoin the other three as they struggled to support their burden, bloody from a dozen gouges left by rock splinters, but inconvenienced rather than disabled.

Before the gun was reloaded, the box was at the end of the headland. The porters seemed unnaturally protected from the furious musket fire, fully a dozen men in both tops now blazing away but not one hitting the mark. They pulled the bars free of the box, which was now close enough to see in the glass as a basket of iron straps around gleaming gold.

It would, Simmonds thought as they rolled it off the end of the rock, be the least buoyant thing in the world.

Their work done, the four men threw themselves into the water on the far side of the little headland, one pausing long enough despite the musketry to wave a rude gesture toward Bounty’s DarlingThe next rise of the ship showed a glimpse of the last one paddling industriously to safety around the edge of the headland.

There was no noise on the sloop but the sound of wind in the rigging. Simmonds felt all eyes upon him. He looked at the weather-signs in the sky. If they kept standing in, they might find the freshening wind pressing them onto the shore for days, in a village which promised no useful diversions for the crew.

“We’ll send a salute into those codgers on the shore, and then work back out to sea.” He stood at the railing, remembering how a small error not much more vexing than this had cost Captain Dunbar his spot. Pirate crews could be horribly democratic, and the vote was always for change.

A week later, when the people of the village had all filtered back, and the lookout on the heights had reported no sign of ships, the four men who had carried the box returned to the little spit. They took up the bars they had dropped there a week ago, then carefully slid off the rock and into the ocean. In short order they would have the box back ashore, and they laughed at the pirates who, like others before them, had been fooled by their simple ruse.

Had Simmonds but troubled to look, he would have found that the booty was only shin-deep.

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


Inktober 2019 – 22: 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 – 23: Ancient

McAllister hated to run. She didn’t like it in in the moderate warmth of spring in Wisconsin. She found it morally objectionable in the crushing heat of the dig site, yards above sea level, in the perpetual summer of equatorial Africa. And yet, when Babatunde had described what he and the other grad students had found, running had seemed to be the appropriate response. She still didn’t like it, and liked it less with every step.

Babatunde, younger and at least theoretically used to the heat, although he had claimed the years in Wisconsin had taken his childhood callus off, rejoined the circle around the dig before she was half-way across. When she saw the collective body language of the dig team, she began to forget the heat.

Each previous discovery of some interesting artifact had made a similar cluster, as those facing the tedium of freeing yet another potsherd from nearly indistinguishable dirt sought a moment of novelty. But in all those cases, the formation was tighter, the urge to gawp surging like a tide against the generally informal training of archaeologists to watch where they were stepping. This group was wider, the ones at the front trying to shrink away, the ones at the back keeping them there as shields.

The faces, too, were arresting. Not the usual wonder of fresh discovery, or at least not that alone. If she didn’t know the context and was shown only the faces, McAllister would have called it religious awe, of the sort brimstone preachers wanted to induce.

Babatunde tapped shoulders, but didn’t try to lead McAllister through the hole in the formation. He let her pass, pointing to the low point they had made in a midden which had stopped stinking about the time people figured out how to make bronze.

It looked like just about anything else they’d found, its colour informed by the soil removed from around it, its shape wrenched askew by the pressure of increasing depth of burial and the effect of time. A box, was her first thought, and that was unusual enough. The people they were uncovering were big on baskets and bowls, but hadn’t appeared to be aware of joinery until now.

There was something familiar about that box, though, and McAllister carefully squatted to get a closer look. As she did, she noticed that the box appeared to have a little rack attached at one end, holding a jumble small rectangular items. She struggled to keep assumptions at bay when a small back-of-head voice suggested dice, but the things were familiar.

Familiar in a context she had almost forgotten, and when it came to her, she stumbled back, heedless of where her feet were going, until the other diggers were supporting her.

Archaeology was detective work, at its base. The lives of long-gone people were imperfectly revealed by the things and the bodies they left behind, and the situation in which those things were left. McAllister barely registered her own face adopting the same stunned amazement as the rest of her dig team as she tried to imagine how they might, using the principle of her discipline, explain the beige thing that lay before her.

McAllister began to weep, hardly noticing, in the face of what finding an Apple II under a layer of eight thousand year old cooking waste would mean for her discipline.

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


Inktober 2019 – 24: 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 – 25: 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 – 26: 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 – 27: Coat

Liz tapped Jason on the shoulder, then pointed. “I’ll bet you never thought you’d actually see that in real life.”

Jason barked laughter and stumbled back against the popcorn machine. Holding a hand over his mouth, he reeled back to Liz’s side. The object of their mirth was standing awkwardly in front of one of the automated ticket kiosks.

“Holy crap,” Jason said, getting his breath back. “No, I really thought a couple of kids wearing dad’s coat was a cartoons-only thing.”

“I almost want to let them through,” Liz said. “They’re doing really good.”

The apparition finished getting a ticket. It backed from the kiosk, turned slowly in place with the sort of exaggerated care no man doing the maneuver would apply unless drunk, then began an approach to the checkpoint that separated the snack foyer from the theatre entrances.

“Be kind to them,” Jason said as Liz headed for her post. She only glanced sideways at the trundling figure, not wanting to stare. In the comics, there were always three kids in the coat, but this affair was not much taller than she was. Two kids, then, and so obviously not one person. The hand holding the ticket had vanished as the end of the coat-sleeve dropped far past it. The shoulders were too narrow. The chest and back were… just wrong, the sort of thing that would have made Liz queasy if she hadn’t realized what she was looking at.

She was, though, honestly impressed. The long coat was, on the current occupants, about ankle length, and yet apart from the short, mincing strides there was no sense of that the fabric was a tripping hazard. The kid on the bottom had to be strong, too, because there was no wobbling from the burden of carrying his partner in the act. Or her partner, Liz thought. Could be either.

There was also no heavy breathing to be heard as they finished their approach. The ticket-concealing sleeve came up, shaking a little to free the gloved hand within. The broad-brimmed hat, pulled so low that Liz could only see a walrus moustache and smooth pink chin, bobbed with a nod of greeting. Liz took the ticket.

One adult admission for screen Eight. The Bludgeoners. If it had been the frat-boy comedy in screen Five, Liz would have let them through, but something that even the kind critics were calling “a repulsive gore-fest, appealing only to fans of practical effects of the most disgusting sort” wasn’t something she was going to wave kids into.

“You’re over eighteen?” she said, looking them right in the hat brim.

The brim bobbed again.

“I’m going to have to see your ID, sir.”

There was a moment of silence. Liz looked behind her current customers, saw a family that had already reached Jason, who was pumping yellow onto popcorn, and sighed. She couldn’t play with them much longer.

“I… not English do.” Liz wanted to applaud. The upper kid wasn’t trying to lower his register, but had chosen to be raspy. They had made such a good effort; if only they had chosen the film more wisely.

“Sorry, kids. The game’s over.” Liz reached for the hat. The hand which had offered the ticket tried to intercept hers, but became entangled with the outsized sleeve. She pulled the hat away, ending the imperfect illusion.

It was not two of them, and it was not kids. There were lots of them, little dark shapes that poured out of the coat, leaving it to wither to the floor. They swarmed for the exit, each moving too fast to give the witnesses an impression of anything more than far too many legs. Over the screams of Liz, Jason and every member of the family at the popcorn counter came the sound of hard little bodies ticking against the glass doors until they had heaped up enough to reach the handle, draw it open just a crack, and pour out into the night.

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


Inktober 2019 – 28: Ride

The irony here is that I got this bike to get into shape. About a month ago, I took the stairs at work instead of the elevator, and stood huffing like an old man after going from twelve to fourteen. Ridiculous at my age. So, the bike, and a resolve to get my wind back before the football season got properly started.

Well, I’m wheezing again. I sure wish I could stop. I wish I was more of a bastard. I could have headed toward that playground instead of away from it. Then maybe it would have started chasing someone else.

Jesus, doesn’t this dog ever get tired? That’s like, ten blocks now, both of us flat out. He’s showing no signs of slowing down. I guess rabies doesn’t affect endurance.

Light ahead. Please don’t change. Please don’t change.

Shit.

OK, dog. Chances are that one of us is going to get hit by a car in about ten seconds. No hard feelings, but I sort of hope it’s you.

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


Inktober 2019 – 29: Injured

When Dave saw the wound, his first question was the obvious one. “When was she outside the compound?”

Mike and Dorinda looked at each other. It was Dorinda that answered. “She wasn’t. Hasn’t been since she got here.”

Dave nodded. Jean had arrived at the gates alone, in such a blank-eyed state of despair that the guards had almost thought she was one of the lurching dead.  It had taken weeks to get her back into the society of people. She wasn’t the only one who had been a mess when they arrived, and some of the others had gone out on patrol avidly, enacting a kind of vengeance in the course of keeping the space around the community clear of the shambling menace, but Jean had hid in a closet for a day when the idea was suggested.

“She was okay when she left us last night,” Mike offered. “I finally had the makings for a nice quiche, and we asked her to join us.”

“Well, damn it, this is a problem. We can’t have a lurcher in here with us.” Dave crouched close to the bed, and spoke quietly into Jean’s ear.  “Jean, this is important. How’d that happen?”

She stirred, weakly. Her eyes turned toward Dave, and she smiled. “It was so beautiful. My Johnny. My Johnny.”

“That’s as much as we can get out of her,” Dorinda said. She gestured to Dave that he should follow, then walked out of the bedroom. He looked at the sledgehammer Mike held, nodded to the man, then went out to the living room.

“Dave, we’ve seen a lot of attacks since this whole thing began.” Dorinda spoke low, as if worried about being overheard. When Dave nodded, she went on. “Have you ever seen a bite like that? Because I haven’t?”

Dave wasn’t following her, and it showed on his face. “When one of those zombies bites you, it always takes a big chunk, right?” He nodded agreement. “And anyone with just one bite, it’s always on an arm or leg, and they were able to pull free. Right?”

“Yeah. I get it.” Dave kept his own voice down. “If one of them got in here, bit her on the neck, it would have kept going.”

“Yeah.” Dorinda’s voices dropped again. “And the bites never look like that. They’re always all gross, all full of pus and poison.”

Dave glanced toward the bedroom, as if he could see the bite from where he was. Memory, only minutes old, was clear enough. Jean’s neck showed the football-outline of a human bite, the skin only just broken, the skin underneath slightly livid but not the mess of corruption that even so slight a penetration by a zombie would leave. He squinted as a connection formed.

“Dor, did that look like a hickey to you?”

At first, she recoiled, a slight sneer suggesting offence, then she saw the earnestness on his face. He wasn’t kidding, and because he was serious she took the suggestion seriously. Her expression shifted to confusion as she said, “Yeah… it does.”

“Well, damn it,” Dave said, after a long digesting pause. “I wish Father Montalban was still with us.”

“Seriously?”

“Look, when the first dead started showing up, no one treated it seriously until it was too late. Now the world is full of them.” As he spoke, he showed a bleak smile. “With the world the way it is now, Ockham’s Razor might as well be ‘the worst thing is true even if it’s impossible’ so if zombies, then why not a vampire?” He sighed, as one with far too much on the plate already. “Let’s try rounding up some garlic, and we’ll see if anyone thinks they know how to bless some crosses.”

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


Inktober 2019 – 30: Catch

It had been built up as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, thanks to that damn TV show. Ray gripped a stanchion as the boat rode up another swell, watching the pile of recovered traps shifting nervously in their stowage, and nodded. It sure wasn’t easy.

The seas were calmer than they had been when the traps were being set. That had been… unpleasant. Ray smiled. You can get used to a lot, and he was used to walking around on what most people would think was a nightmare roller-coaster. Fair enough. His throat closed up at the thought of spending all his days in an office job, doing whatever the hell people did there day after endless day until they got fired a week before the pension. Different strokes, and that was fine with Ray.

The winch was lugging a little as the last of the traps came up. Ray glanced at the machine, saw that Sonny was right there, keeping an eye on it, no sign of worry on his craggy old face. That meant the winch wasn’t about to let go, it was just struggling to bring up the trap. Good news for the crew, delivered in an unknown language of chugs and screeches. It wasn’t as if this trip hadn’t already put a lot of crab in the hold, but one more trap stuffed with the things was a fine bonus.

“Here she comes,” said Jake, closest to the rail, and Ray moved a little closer to his station. Sonny would mind his business, and Ray had to pay attention to his own.

The winch gave one last grunt. The burden which had given it so much labour was atop the trap rather than in it, a thing shaped for life in the abyssal depths, all spikes and teeth. A single obsidian eye set high on its vast head swept across the men on deck, before a multitude of chitinous arms lashed out.

Ray dropped to the deck, felt his coat go the shreds as one arm passed over him. He saw Jake caught by two of them, snatching him into the air before he could start screaming. Sonny threw up his own arm to protect his face as he tried to shelter behind the winch controls, and howled when that limb was wrenched away.

A moment later, the rigging of the crane groaned as the thing rolled off the trap, the splash a sudden punctuation to Jake’s cries. As Ray crawled along the deck, desperate to keep below the side of the boat, the only sound was Sonny’s sobbing. Whatever it had been, that segmented awfulness that crouched on their fishing tackle, it had snatched up its victims and vanished into mystery.

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


Inktober 2019 – 31: Ripe

Two days ago, it had just been a little itch. Blake had looked at the red spot on his left arm, declared it a spider bite and done his best to ignore it.

Yesterday morning, the itch was still there, but it was like the same amount of itch had been spread over his whole forearm, from wrist to elbow. It was hardly noticeable. If that same span of arm hadn’t been a sunburnt red, he could have ignored it. The colour, unlike the itch, had gotten deeper as it spread.

Yesterday afternoon, Simmonds, the line foreman, had come to him. Blake knew he’d attracted the man’s attention when he dropped the wrench, and he cursed. He’d been having trouble keeping up with the line, his left hand getting fumble-fingered as the itch became a tingle and ran out to the ends of his finger-tips, and he expected now to get a chewing out for slowing up production.

What he got was the spectacle of Simmonds stopping in his tracks, his eyes going wide. “The fuck you do with your arm, Blake?”

“Dunno.” This was true.

“You gotta get a doctor to look at that, man. That ain’t right.” Blake had a good look at his arm then, something he hadn’t really done since lunch. He saw Simmonds’s point. The redness was running toward purple, and the arm was definitely puffy, like part of an inflatable Popeye costume.

He nodded, and didn’t argue when Simmonds told him he was using some of his sick-time. “Go to your damn doctor,” the foreman had said, walking him to the locker room. Blake knew he was probably right, but he also knew that Simmonds was well aware of the complete bullshit that the company called “health coverage.” Instead of a doctor’s office, Blake went home. After a couple of hours spent with a succession of cool washcloths laid on the worrying appendage, he convinced himself that the swelling was going down, and that the tingle had disappeared entirely.

At three that morning, he woke up in the act of trying to turn onto his side. He couldn’t, and after a moment of sleepily wondering how a beachball had gotten into the bed, he screamed and scrabbled for the light.

His left forearm was three times the size of the right, and from the elbow down it was the colour of a plum. His hand had puffed as well, looking like a rubber glove someone had blown into, fingers splayed. He wept a little when he saw his fingers moving as he wanted them to, because he could not feel them at all. The swollen parts were not just numb, they were absent.

He pulled on his sweatpants one-handed, and after stuffing his feet into shoes he drove himself to the emergency room. He had to roll the car window down and let the puffed arm stick out, because otherwise he couldn’t see around it.

He was weeping again as he walked into the ER. Panic was chewing at him, as was awareness that he had left all his insurance papers behind, but also, there was pain at last. The jostling of running the first few steps had done something to his elbow, and he had slowed, cradling his huge arm as well as he could with other.

Part of him, an observing element that soared above the panic, commented on the strange weight of the arm. Ballooned up like that, there was an expectation of lightness, but it was not light. Nor was is as heavy as something so full of meat or water should be.

The nurse at the triage desk looked up when the doors opened. There was a moment before she registered any more than the fact of someone arriving, then she leapt up, her expression almost exactly the wide-eyed amazement worn by Simmonds the day before. She rushed to meet Blake, and reached to help support his bulging arm.

Blake wondered, as the moment spun out, if she had been too gentle, or if the nitrile gloves had somehow been too slick, or if he had let go too soon. The pain in his elbow, never more than a dull ache, merely loud because there was no other sensation around it, reached a mild crescendo. It was the noise of the skin parting that made him shout when his engorged arm fell away.

He watched it drop, shying back from it as it went, and when it landed it seemed to balance for a moment on the splayed purple hand before slowly tipping over. A few drops of something far darker than blood fell from beside the bright knob of bone sticking out the end as it rolled to and fro, trying to find a place to settle in its asymmetry. It was the sight of that bone, the realization that it was his, that started him shouting, “No! No! No!” in a chant that soon became inarticulate howls.

Later, in a bed, his stump wrapped, Blake rode on the sedatives that had helped him stop screaming. It was all very far away and seemed to have happened to someone else, a sensation he was pleased with and hoped would persist. He hardly realized he was doing anything when he reached with his right hand to scratch his right leg, just above the knee. Just a little itch.

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