All In Your Head

You’re better now. You have all the tools you need for a peaceful sleep.

So when the shadow skitters up your wall to hang over your bed, you can tell yourself it isn’t real. When something cold grips your blanket’s edge, you can tell yourself nothing is there.

You can tell yourself these things, but that doesn’t make them true.


Awakened

Briar-Rose awoke, but the spindles remained hidden. She’d slept so long; bored and restless, she paced the corridors.

When at last she found the seamstresses, their spinning wheels froze.

“Please,” she said gently, “I only wish to learn to spin.”

Tara Evans

The Same Dark

The lakefront cabin wasn’t quite how Marianne had envisioned it when John showed her their surprise getaway destination online. The photos had promised airy, bright rooms with sunshine streaming over rustic armchairs and polished hardwood floors. She could practically hear the fire crackling in the river-rock fireplace.

Instead, the windows were streaked with mildew, the hardwood floors creaked every time someone walked across them and sometimes when no one did, and when she sat in the armchairs trying to appreciate the view, she kept thinking she saw something in the corner of her eye, in the fireplace.

But there was never anything there, not even logs, because the property manager kept promising to bring firewood and then forgetting.

John tried to make the best of it. He found candles in a kitchen cupboard and set them in the fireplace so they could have the ambience, if not the actual warmth, of a fire. Sometimes the candles blew out; John relit them, assuring her it was just the old drafty chimney. At least when Marianne saw something in the corner of her eye, she could now reassure herself that it was only the flickering candles.

He’d brought wine and strawberries and chocolates, but Marianne found herself continually distracted by the tricks her eyes were playing on her. If it wasn’t movement in the fireplace, it was patterns in the mildew, the green rivulets morphing into gaping faces.

She’d hoped for a romantic weekend away, but as the hours ticked away, she felt less and less in the mood.

She tried to read; the faces on the windows peered at her over the top of her book. She wrapped in a blanket and watched the ripples on the gray lake; she never felt warm, and shadows moved among the candles in the fireplace.

The second night, she sat up with the candles, staring past her wavering reflection and the mildew at the night, lake and forest and sky indistinguishable in the black. Marianne hadn’t seen or spoken to another soul since they arrived; John had been the one to talk to the property manager. He was sitting by the hearth, reading by candlelight, unbothered by the faces watching him or by the darkness beyond their walls. If there were other cabins out there, she could see no lights. She felt as if the lake was growing around her, encompassing her in an isolated darkness.

The candles flickered. The mildew faces twitched. The drafty chimney – or what John had assured her was the chimney – made the candles gutter, then blew them out altogether.

“This is ridiculous,” she said finally. Her own voice sounded tiny in the dark isolation of the cabin. The soundless night threatened to smother her words with its press of black. “John, will you please just go find the manager and get some firewood?”

She couldn’t see his expression, but he got up with a sigh. Not even his outline was visible in the blackness. It was as if he was already gone. Without a word, he fumbled in the kitchen for the flashlight, pulled on his jacket, and went outside.

Marianne relit the candles. The cabin seemed cozier now that it was just her. The faces in the windows smiled down on her. It wasn’t so bad, being alone – just her and her candles and the green smiles claiming their island in the black lake.

The candles burned down, and down. Red wax puddled among the old ashes. Marianne watched them melt. John was taking a long time. Maybe the creeping lake had reached him.

Another gust buffeted the candles, and they went out again.

Outside, someone shouted, close by. Something clattered heavily on the patio, but even with the darkness, Marianne was not afraid. She was alone now, and being alone wasn’t so bad.

She opened the door to the night, letting it mingle with the darkness inside. It was all the same absence of light. She didn’t even really want the firewood anymore, but John had gone to the trouble of getting it, so she took a few logs from his limp hands and went back inside. She left the door open. It was all the same night. She set the logs in the fireplace but she just didn’t feel like striking a match.

Marianne hunched in front of the darkened hearth. She didn’t have to turn around to know the faces in the window were smiling.

Dark Spaces

It was the right time to leave. The monster under the girl’s bed knew this, but he was having trouble accepting it. The monster outside the window left two years ago; the monster in the closet left just last month. The monster under the bed wished them well in their hunt for new positions. He was not yet ready to face the uncertainty of unemployment, but in truth, the monsters were becoming redundant.

The girl was seven years old. She talked to her teddy bear about the boy who was mean to her at school. The monster under the bed gathered that the boy had been reprimanded. No doubt the adults thought one stern lecture would be sufficient, but no one knows better than the monsters under the bed the enormous reach of small traumas, not to mention the expansive hurt that can be inflicted by one uncorrected heart.

The monster under the bed can hear the news from all the rooms with screens, which is every room but the girl’s. It speculates on and rehashes pain, both past (which is to say current, because no pain stays behind) and forthcoming, both known and hypothetical, while offering few explanations and fewer solutions. The girl hears it, and even if she doesn’t quite understand all of it, she understands that something in the world is wrong. The light of day is less reassuring; the darkness in her room at night is more frightening.

The monster under the bed began to make preparations. One more week.

The girl arrived home from school in a rush of running footsteps, a thunk onto the mattress, and sobbing barely muffled by the loyal teddy bear. The mother arrived; between sobs, the story came out. The girl had had to hide under her desk to practice what to do in case someone came to the school to hurt them.

The monster under the bed can’t compete with the monsters out there. He doesn’t even want to. The girl needs a refuge. The other monsters figured that out long ago.

At sunset, the monster under the bed left. When the girl wakes up crying, at least it won’t be because of him.

The Nymph of Salento

You had been swimming, you and he. You wear the water well. Together you went back up the beach. You were laughing, your hair loosed from its braid and dancing. He never stopped smiling at you.

I followed you and your laughter to your hotel. You were staying on the water, the Adriatic steps from your door. I let the waves rock me nearer to the wall; I could not see you, but I could hear you. I listened for hours. Your conversation was probably mundane, but that made it all the more special to me:

Look, another cruise ship is passing.

Can you get the lights for me?

Where did the bottle opener go?

At sunset, like all the other couples, the two of you walked along the wall. You’d redone your braid. I trailed silently in the water below you, hidden beneath reflected gold and dusk. When the cool evening breeze picked up, he draped his jacket around your shoulders. I wanted your place more than ever in that moment.

I could have taken him; he wouldn’t have been the first I’d pried from a partner. But at the end of the seawall he stopped just to hold you, to press a kiss first to your hairline, then to your lips. He looked at you like he beheld you for the miracle you are. I could not hear what he whispered to you that made you smile, but I could guess. Such words have been said to me, but the man who whispered them didn’t believe them, so neither did I.

They were not him. They did not see the miraculous in me – not the way he sees it in you.

When the sea finally darkened to fractured starlight, you took his hand and together you walked back. I did not follow you.

Ambition Unburied

We’re so far down in the Scuttles that not even the neon advertisements reach this deep. The only light comes from the police vehicles and a single icy white streetlamp. The gawkers left hours ago; once the rumor spread that the killer was high on Krimson, people wanted some distance. Eyewitnesses claim the incident began as an argument between two dealers: both used their product to fuel their aggression. The one who got the upper hand ended up killing everyone in the room, then fleeing.

I lean against my car, waiting for the go-ahead to enter the building and begin the investigation. I wish Colin would hurry up; the longer I wait, the more memories creep in. He’s probably dealing with unpleasant memories, too.

Anusha joins me, leaving the crime scene techs to mill around near the entrance. They shoot furtive glances at me; I can tell Anusha is uncertain around me, too. This is only her third encounter with Krimson; I built my career on cleansing the city of the stuff. So I’d thought.

“Still no Colin?” she asks.

“He’s finishing his preliminary.”

She squints up at the seventh floor windows where the crime took place and takes a deep breath. “Taking his sweet time.”

Finally, Colin arrives. He’s engrossed in typing on his tablet, his face bathed in blue glow.

“Detectives,” he greets us without looking up. “We’re ready for the techs. Still waiting for toxicology on our blood samples, but almost certainly this was a Krimson addict. If you’ll follow me, please.”

“Did you work a lot of Krimson cases back in the day?” Anusha asks as we walk.

“Oh, I’m sure Detective Pia has all manner of horror stories from those days,” Colin says.

“You’ve never told me any.” She studies me.

“Yeah, because they’re horrible. These new cases pale in comparison.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“One time I had a case involving a Krimson user who got mad at his neighbor for having the TV up too loud. He concussed himself and shredded his hands trying to break down the door.” What he’d done to his neighbor once he got through didn’t bear repeating. “I’d never seen anything like it before. And that was one of the nicer cases.”

“Then why would anyone bring Krimson back?”

“Easy: money.”

Colin comes to a halt and I nearly walk into him. “Not just money,” he says. With his tablet lighting him from below, he looks like he’s telling a ghost story. “Power. Control. Pia, you and I are among the last who remember what the Scuttles were like when Krimson was at its height.”

I do remember, and I hate it. I don’t understand how Colin can speak about it with such reverence. “Who else has accessed the crime scene?”

“Just myself and the techs, who no doubt need your expertise.” He gestures impatiently toward the entrance.

I look up at the austere concrete facade. “Who took the blood samples?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

I point up. “If you’re the only one who’s been up there, who could have taken blood samples already?”

Colin’s eyes dart. I keep pressing; Anusha tenses, ready to move. “How did they match the blood from four victims and the killer so quickly?”

On the seventh floor, something explodes.

Anusha drags me back; my knee twists and I fall. Glass shards and chunks of concrete rain around us. Dimly, I hear Anusha shouting on her comm, trying in vain to reach the techs.

She doesn’t see Colin running, but I do.

I pull my gun and fire. The shock round sticks in the back of his thigh. His leg locks up and he falls, twitching.

Anusha helps me up. We make our way through the press of cops and firefighting drones toward Colin. She cuffs him before deactivating the shock round, and I pick up his tablet. In the corner of the screen is a timer, flashing zero.

“I’m guessing Anusha and I were supposed to be upstairs by now?”

Anusha hauls Colin to his feet. He snarls at me. “You have no idea how much I lost when you cleaned out Krimson.”

“Clearly you got back in the game. What was this,” I ask, gesturing at the burning building, “eliminating your competition?”

“Making it easier for history to repeat itself. Krimson could have faded into urban legend. Gruesome murders caused by a powerful hallucinogen, or just another night in the Scuttles?”

“While you get rich,” Anusha scoffs.

“I told you.” He smirks. “It’s about so much more than money.”

“Well, now you get nothing.” I gesture toward the cars. “Get him out of here.”

To Your Health

The science officer and her aide came to my office late in the cycle, past 14th hour. Normally I wouldn’t take meetings that late, but there was something stilted and overly formal in Doctor Palu’s request that put me on edge.

I re-read her message while I waited, trying to keep the anxiety in my gut from spreading. Was it the nature of this job to always be worried, or was it just part of getting older? Even on Earth it seemed like there had always been something keeping me up at night, and that was before I had two dozen lives relying on me.

They entered my office exactly on time. Palu gestured to Dom, who was trying to pretend the crate he was carrying wasn’t too heavy for him. He slid it onto my desk with a grunt.

“Doctor, you know my birthday’s not for another two months.”

Palu’s arms were tightly folded. “Open it.”

I stood and took off the crate’s lid. Inside was a dented rectangle of mesh that looked horribly like…

“Is this a water filter?”

“This is the water filter, Jessica.” Palu’s jaw was tense. No wonder her message was so carefully worded: there’d be panic if the contents of this crate were publicized.

“What happened to it?”

“Tell her, Dom. It’s all right.”

The aide glanced at her and cleared his throat. “It was George. He had an idea for increasing efficiency that required putting a special coating on the filter. None of the usual techs were available, so he tried to do it himself.”

“He told me it hadn’t broken the first time he’d dropped it,” Palu said sourly. “Not that that excuses it.”

“And the backup?” I asked, heart pounding. My voice held steady, miraculously – of all the crises a space station could endure, running out of water was the worst.

“Contaminated. Technically that one’s the backup – the original failed during construction of the second ring.”

“That was weeks ago!”

“We don’t have the solvent to restore the original filter. It’s scheduled to arrive on the next resupply shuttle, along with two more filters, but…”

“They’re four cycles out.” I sighed. “What are our options?”

“Rationing,” Palu said promptly. “We have to be careful, though: too conservative and we cause panic, too light and we run out of water before the shuttle arrives.”

“Right.” I stood. My fear throttled down to standard anxiety. “’The water filtration system is undergoing maintenance to improve efficiency’ – it’s more or less the truth. I trust you to establish the ration amounts.”

Palu nodded. “We’ll have the numbers later tonight.”

“What will you do about George?” the aide asked. It was the first time he’d spoken since Palu had ordered him. Clearly George was his friend, and he’d been gathering the courage to ask about his fate.

A brief glance at Palu told me what she would like to do with George. I smiled at Dom. “I’ll have a talk with him. Do you know where I can find him?”

#

George was sitting in the far booth in the commissary. His face was blotchy, his eyes swollen. In front of him sat a can of fizzy grape-flavored vitamin beverage, something concocted by the nutritional biochemists.

“Drowning your sorrows?” I asked.

He jumped. “Ma’am?”

“Drinking. It’s a joke. A bad one, obviously.”

“Oh, no, it’s not open, ma’am. I thought…maybe I should save it.”

I sat down across from him. “There’ll be plenty of water, George.”

“I knew the shuttle was coming,” he said desperately.

“Keep your voice down,” I replied, smiling. The commissary was practically empty this time in the cycle, but it was a small station.

“I knew if something went wrong,” he continued in a no-less-suspicious whisper, “the shuttle would have fresh supplies, and everything would be fine.”

I gestured at the view outside the porthole: blackness, a distant star, and the ochre curve of our uninhabitable anchor planet. “’If something went wrong’ is not a viable experimental parameter up here. There’s too much at stake.”

“I couldn’t – ” George was a smart kid; that’s why I hired him. He knew defending himself was moot and now he ought to listen. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”

“Wait to work with the staff next time you have a great idea,” I said. “We have plenty of time for innovation, just no time for disasters. Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I stood. My anxiety hadn’t disappeared, but it diminished; that was good enough. “Cheers, then.”

 

Photo by Nick Cooper on Unsplash