Outlawed

December 30th, 2023

by Shannon Brady
[this is the second in the three part series–
read Final Stop from the beginning, here]

His daughters always said he worked too hard, asked him again and again when he would retire. He always had the same answer for them: “When I’m good and ready.”

He knows he never did anything better in his life than father two wonderful kids, and he always misses them something fierce when the rails take him away from them. It was better after they were married with their own homes, no longer waiting around in Dad’s cramped city apartment. Still…he never exactly got Christmases and birthdays off.

Eric’s hands — stiff and always slightly sore nowadays —rest protectively on the control stand, meticulously kept free of dust and scratches. Even after everything, he can’t resent the old train. The presence of the levers and switches inches from his fingers feel as much like home as…well, home. And, oh…

He lifts his gaze to the very top of the windshield. If his eyes were going-going, like his older daughter worries, he would have sadly hung up his cap already. But he can still see the subtle undulations of the yellowing grass in the plains, the leaves blowing away from the trees, how crystal perfect blue the sky is over the mountains and forests. Never looked better, the thought occurs to him.

It’s almost disappointing when he finally pulls into the last station, the little rusty-red structure that some of the younger boys laugh at and call a shack when they think Eric can’t hear. Let them laugh, he supposes. They’re spoiled these days, these kids, but they’ll learn as they get older, just like he did.

Hell, he was born in a shack in the middle of nowhere, and look how far he’s managed to come: over peaks and down valleys and through the most vicious blizzards and storms to see every inch of this country.

“Um…sir?”

He hasn’t jumped since his first years driving the train, but he does let out a startled sort of cough from deep in his chest as he turns around. “Hrm…? Oh, excuse me, young lady. Can I help…ah.”

The politeness falls away as he gets the full picture of the woman in the doorway of the control car — red hair smartly tied back, blue eyes wide and alert, and brand new engineer’s uniform spotless from her cap to her shoes — and is replaced by genuine warmth. My, how times are changing, he thinks.

“I think I have an idea of what you’re here for, new kid.” He offers his hand to shake. “Eric Flange.”

“I know — everybody talks about you!” The woman has a firm handshake, the likes of which he hasn’t felt in a long time, and Eric smiles approvingly. “They told me I’d get to meet you when I took over this line, I didn’t quite believe it at first. No offense!”

“None taken. And your name?”

She snaps into a sharp salute, grinning in spite of herself. “Nea Wye, sir! It’s an honor to meet you.”

“Is it really? Little old me?”

“I heard you always did sell yourself short. From Joe back at headquarters, mostly. He said even after that crash, when you pulled all those people out of the fire, all you could say when the ambulance came was—”

Eric almost laughs. “It was my job, I said. And it was, all there was to it. How is Joe, anyway? He ever get promoted?”

“Retired now, actually. Traveling with his family, last I heard.”

“Ah.” The words put a weight in Eric’s heart, but he breathes slowly and carefully around it. It was always going to fall like this, wasn’t it? “I ought to get to that, shouldn’t I? I should have retired in ‘62.”

“That’s the age for it, according to the manual,” Nea says, in the same crisp tone. But she can’t quite hide the sorrow in her eyes that tells Eric she knows exactly what he meant. “You’ve done amazing, sir. Everyone says so. Now, though…may I?”

Eric takes one more deep breath, before stepping aside and gesturing welcomingly to the control stand. “You’ve read the manual. Good. But you’ve got to know that’s not enough as an engineer. Enough time behind these controls, you’ll develop instincts. When it counts, you’ve got to listen to them. Understand me?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Nea steps up, and a shiver of excitement runs over her body when she lays hands on the controls. “My whole life, I’ve been waiting for this…!”

Eric lifts his head proudly. “It’ll be a good life. I promise you that. As for me, I’ve got to go see my daughters. But…would you allow me one last ride with the old girl?”

Nea smiles, patting the controls affectionately. “It’ll be my honor to drive you.”

Eric gives her one quick, encouraging squeeze to the shoulder — the kind he’d give his kids when they were young, running home from school with A’s on their test papers — before finally walking out of the control car to the passenger cars. The seats are a lot plusher than they used to be, and he has his pick of any of them from here to the caboose.

But he’s never been picky. He sits in the first row by the door, right at the window. It’s comfortable, but he’s only able to settle in when he feels the train growl and roar to life underneath him, same as always, and feel the rattling vibrations against his head leaning on the glass. He doesn’t focus on any particular thing, only on the colors of grass and sky and mountain all rushing together, impossibly beautiful.

Funny, he thinks, for the first time in a long time. I don’t think I remember that ambulance ride…

All at once, the train shoots into the tunnel through a cliff side, and everything goes pitch black.

The first she can, Nea turns to ask if Eric is finding everything alright. But his seat is as empty as the rest, and her shoulder is still cold.





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Final Stop

December 29th, 2023

by Shannon Brady

Bad Order
(publishing December 29th)
Outlawed
(publishing December 30th)
Eight and Sand
(publishing December 31st)


Bad Order

“Detective…”

Miles considered himself quite lucky when a young doll like this became his client. Rita Walker spoke in that smoky-sweet tone he adored, and the way she fluttered those doe eyes up at him definitely got him all hot and bothered. True, she was a Missus Walker instead of a Miss…but he could work his way around that.

“…I am just so thankful that you were the one who volunteered to take my case. All that time you spent trying to find my husband, and chasing such a clever hunch too! I never would have guessed any of it.”

“Don’t worry about it, ma’am. Nobody else in the office did, either, you know.”

“The lengths you went to! Why, you could have been killed by those dreadful kidnappers!”

“All in a day’s work for Miles Cowan.” He tipped his hat, to which Mrs. Walker — Rita, he ought to start thinking of her — giggled. There were plenty of couples among the crowd bustling around the train station: he imagined the pair of them didn’t look any different. “Now, I don’t want to make you late for your train home, ma’am, but could I interest you in a New Year’s Eve party at my home? No better way to ring in nineteen-forty.”

More lash-fluttering. “Oh, my, Detective…without my husband?”

“Well, if you see fit to leave him home…”

Music, wine, friends willing to look the other way, and Miles would be ringing in the new year just beautifully. As would Rita: the lady’s smile and eyes definitely knew the score.

“Yes…well, perhaps not home. I went to such pains to arrange his abduction, after all.”

So entranced was Miles by her voice that it took a good few seconds for her words to register. His smile froze on his face. “Wh…wha—?”

He first thought that a man had punched his spine. Before he could react at all, Rita was throwing her arms around him, holding him still with a hug as she whispered into his ear: “You’re many vulgar things, but more than anything you’re a nuisance. Thanks to you, we had to resort to murder instead to get my husband out of the picture. You are too talented for your own good, I didn’t lie about that, but that just means we can’t have you on our tails.”

Our? Miles’ head was turning hazy. Pressure was steadily intensifying in his back. We?!

A lady’s shoes clacked up to their side. His eyes flicked over to see the lady they belonged to: honey-blonde hair gleaming in the sunlight, dark eyes gleaming with malice, and her bloodied knife gleaming silver as she slipped it into her purse.

“Well done, Brigid, my dear.” Rita let him go and took her hand. “Goodbye, Detective.”

Miles swayed, then pitched, and crashed to the floor. Between the legs of panicked bystanders now rushing to help him, he saw the lovers vanish into a departure gate, as his vision swirled into darkness.




Outlawed

His daughters always said he worked too hard, asked him again and again when he would retire. He always had the same answer for them: “When I’m good and ready.”

He knows he never did anything better in his life than father two wonderful kids, and he always misses them something fierce when the rails take him away from them. It was better after they were married with their own homes, no longer waiting around in Dad’s cramped city apartment. Still…he never exactly got Christmases and birthdays off.

Eric’s hands — stiff and always slightly sore nowadays —rest protectively on the control stand, meticulously kept free of dust and scratches. Even after everything, he can’t resent the old train. The presence of the levers and switches inches from his fingers feel as much like home as…well, home. And, oh…

He lifts his gaze to the very top of the windshield. If his eyes were going-going, like his older daughter worries, he would have sadly hung up his cap already. But he can still see the subtle undulations of the yellowing grass in the plains, the leaves blowing away from the trees, how crystal perfect blue the sky is over the mountains and forests. Never looked better, the thought occurs to him.

It’s almost disappointing when he finally pulls into the last station, the little rusty-red structure that some of the younger boys laugh at and call a shack when they think Eric can’t hear. Let them laugh, he supposes. They’re spoiled these days, these kids, but they’ll learn as they get older, just like he did.

Hell, he was born in a shack in the middle of nowhere, and look how far he’s managed to come: over peaks and down valleys and through the most vicious blizzards and storms to see every inch of this country.

“Um…sir?”

He hasn’t jumped since his first years driving the train, but he does let out a startled sort of cough from deep in his chest as he turns around. “Hrm…? Oh, excuse me, young lady. Can I help…ah.”

The politeness falls away as he gets the full picture of the woman in the doorway of the control car — red hair smartly tied back, blue eyes wide and alert, and brand new engineer’s uniform spotless from her cap to her shoes — and is replaced by genuine warmth. My, how times are changing, he thinks.

“I think I have an idea of what you’re here for, new kid.” He offers his hand to shake. “Eric Flange.”

“I know — everybody talks about you!” The woman has a firm handshake, the likes of which he hasn’t felt in a long time, and Eric smiles approvingly. “They told me I’d get to meet you when I took over this line, I didn’t quite believe it at first. No offense!”

“None taken. And your name?”

She snaps into a sharp salute, grinning in spite of herself. “Nea Wye, sir! It’s an honor to meet you.”

“Is it really? Little old me?”

“I heard you always did sell yourself short. From Joe back at headquarters, mostly. He said even after that crash, when you pulled all those people out of the fire, all you could say when the ambulance came was—”

Eric almost laughs. “It was my job, I said. And it was, all there was to it. How is Joe, anyway? He ever get promoted?”

“Retired now, actually. Traveling with his family, last I heard.”

“Ah.” The words put a weight in Eric’s heart, but he breathes slowly and carefully around it. It was always going to fall like this, wasn’t it? “I ought to get to that, shouldn’t I? I should have retired in ‘62.”

“That’s the age for it, according to the manual,” Nea says, in the same crisp tone. But she can’t quite hide the sorrow in her eyes that tells Eric she knows exactly what he meant. “You’ve done amazing, sir. Everyone says so. Now, though…may I?”

Eric takes one more deep breath, before stepping aside and gesturing welcomingly to the control stand. “You’ve read the manual. Good. But you’ve got to know that’s not enough as an engineer. Enough time behind these controls, you’ll develop instincts. When it counts, you’ve got to listen to them. Understand me?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Nea steps up, and a shiver of excitement runs over her body when she lays hands on the controls. “My whole life, I’ve been waiting for this…!”

Eric lifts his head proudly. “It’ll be a good life. I promise you that. As for me, I’ve got to go see my daughters. But…would you allow me one last ride with the old girl?”

Nea smiles, patting the controls affectionately. “It’ll be my honor to drive you.”

Eric gives her one quick, encouraging squeeze to the shoulder — the kind he’d give his kids when they were young, running home from school with A’s on their test papers — before finally walking out of the control car to the passenger cars. The seats are a lot plusher than they used to be, and he has his pick of any of them from here to the caboose.

But he’s never been picky. He sits in the first row by the door, right at the window. It’s comfortable, but he’s only able to settle in when he feels the train growl and roar to life underneath him, same as always, and feel the rattling vibrations against his head leaning on the glass. He doesn’t focus on any particular thing, only on the colors of grass and sky and mountain all rushing together, impossibly beautiful.

Funny, he thinks, for the first time in a long time. I don’t think I remember that ambulance ride…

All at once, the train shoots into the tunnel through a cliff side, and everything goes pitch black.

The first she can, Nea turns to ask if Eric is finding everything alright. But his seat is as empty as the rest, and her shoulder is still cold.




Eight and Sand

“It really is so lovely here.”

Was it the hundredth time she’d said so? Jack never minded. With the endless arrivals and departures around them, he liked being reminded it wasn’t wrong of him to enjoy this place. It wasn’t the Grand Central Station of his boyhood memories, but still…

“When I was young and it was bright out like this, I wished for it to last forever. It was always so beautiful.” Jack laughed in slight embarrassment. “I sound like a grandmother.”

“It’s nice.” Alice smiled. This was not unusual, but Jack sensed something new about it. “It’s good that you remember something so clear.”

“Come on now, I’m not a day over thirty.”

“I wonder a lot whether I ended up having grandchildren. I’d have liked some to talk to like that. I barely had any time with my daughter to — “

“Say!” Jack blurted, pointing to several people who had gathered together and were now bolting for one of the gates. Its time was set for twelve. “Where d’you suppose they’re going?”

“Maybe back into the city. The real one.”

“What, all of them?”

“Well, I don’t know about that.”

“Exactly. Who says they’ll end up in the same place, even if they do leave by the same train?”

“Scattered all over the world. Like dandelion puffs.”

“Doesn’t that scare you?”

“Yes. But I want it all the same. When it’s been sunny for so long, you start wishing for some rain.” She sighed. “It’s been fun, Jack. But I think now it’s time to go find some.”

If Jack still had a heartbeat, that would have stopped it. After all the time they’d only had each other here, she was just going to…!

“Come with me?”

His legs wouldn’t move. “I..I can’t. Please, wait a bit longer.”

“I don’t think I can anymore. But I hope to see you then anyway. Maybe we’ll be siblings.”

“Or maybe I’ll be your grandchild.”

That got a rare laugh out of her. “Oh, Jack. Don’t wait that long, for your own sake.”

Jack stared as she disappeared into the gate too. He imagined her boarding the train, settling down into a comfortable seat, being carried away into the dark. Part of him yearned to race after her.

The rest of him looked around at the bright gold station interior that never wore down, the endless sunlight streaming from the windows, his own body that would never be hurt again, so long as he stayed here, and couldn’t. Not yet.

“Be safe, Alice,” he murmured.

The clock struck twelve.





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#3 The Rapture

December 28th, 2023

by E.E. King
[this is the third in the three part series–
read Three Tales of Rapture from the beginning, here]


Priscilla sat next to her husband Hewn. The road on either side of them stretched ahead endless, flat and arid. They had a long drive before them. It was hundreds of miles, from their home in Lynchburg Tennessee to Salvation Oklahoma. There she and Hewn would join hands and hearts with 100,000 or more brethren under the big white tent. There they would raise their voices in prayer, giving thanks together, under the watchful eyes of God and Jesus.

The wind blew, dusting the trees and flowers grey. The land was colorless. Priscilla’s hands moved back and forth knitting a pair of blue wool booties for Hewn. He already had over twenty pair, but she liked to keep occupied.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” she muttered.

The view ahead was blocked by the doors of a huge semi. “Jesus bless this journey,” Priscilla, muttered. “Jesus bless the loneliness of the long-distance trucker and keep him company.”

Suddenly as if by supplication, the doors flew open. A dozen figures rose out of the truck, up, up, up, lighter than prayer, higher than the notes of Sister Jessie Fargo’s soprano solos.

“It’s the Rapture!” cried Priscilla, “Jesus take me too. Jesus don’t leave me here, poor miserable sinner though I am.”

She fumbled with the door handle, struggling to release her seat belt and unlock the door. The bodies soared above her disappearing like lost hope. It seemed forever before she managed to get the door open. She cast herself out. The pavement rose to meet her, harder than disbelief. She never knew that the truck ahead of her was a blow-up doll manufacturer who had forgotten to latch his door.


*





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#2 An Explanation

December 27th, 2023

by E.E. King
[this is the second in the three part series–
read Three Tales of Rapture from the beginning, here]

Dear Humans,

I know you will be sending prayers our way. You may have noticed some disappearances lately; this letter is by way of an explanation.

You came up with the idea of rapture long before we realized that one species, among the many we’d created, was suicidal. Who could’ve imagined that any species would have such a disregard for life, in all its myriad forms, including its own, that it would destroy the planet that was its home?

We’d created a world that could and would evolve, each new leaf or branch creating its own pollinator. Every pond spanning new variations.  We’d never expected one species to become dominant, and if we had, humans are not the species we would’ve picked. You’re not the oldest species, nor the most competent.

Although we’ve tried to be impartial, we could not help but realize superiority and skill when it was apparent: the amazing eyesight of the mantis shrimp, the maneuverability of the hummingbird, the compassion of wolf and wombat, and most of all, the ability to turn sunlight into food, but we did not play favorites. We let things develop as they would, to our surprise and disappointment.

There were those who argued that we should’ve stepped in again. We could’ve sent a messenger, an Angel, a son of God, a daughter of the Goddess. But we tried that before. Although the Messiah was recognized, as soon as he’d been killed his message was perverted by mad men, would be saints and emperors.

At first, we thought to remove the problem, but you had worked quickly and done so much damage it hardly seemed fair to burden the innocents with cleaning up the mess.

One of our angels, Anthropogenic, first proposed the idea. I’ll never forget the look on God’s face when Anthropogenic described the rapture.

“When all the pure would be lifted up to God to join God and his son in heaven.”

It was a fierce undertaking. We had to prepare an empty but fertile planet. A half-filled sea, ready to be crammed with life.

We argued about the violence of chimps and ducks, about murders of crows and raping dolphins.  Some wanted only to take plants and fungi. Others desired herbivores, and many thought we should take everyone but the problem species.

Once again it was Anthropogenic who came up with a solution based on your history.

“The Christian rapture” Anthropogenic explained, “doesn’t take place all at once, first the dead rise, and then the pure.”

So, on the first day we rapture the dead, emptying slaughterhouse and freezer.

We noted an increase of prayer, but thankfully no burnt offerings. 

On the second day we too the purest: plants and fungi. On the third: prokaryotes, Bacteria, and virus’. On the third we took fish, birds, reptiles and most mammals.

We are watching the new planet with interest. Good Luck and God Bless.

*





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Three Tales of Rapture

December 26th, 2023

by E.E. King


#1 The Disappearance
(publishing December 26th)
#2 An Explanation
(publishing December 27th)
#3 The Rapture
(publishing December 28th)

#1 The Disappearance

The sun rose with a brilliant flash, for a single instance completely illuminating world and sky, before dimming back to a softer, more conventional dawn.

Mariana turned over in her bed, awakened by the absence beside her. Her arms made tiny windmills blindly searching for the body that should be there.

“Misty,” she called. There was no answering gallop of feet. No responding bark. No welcoming tongue.

Mariana bent and looked under the bed, even though it wasn’t like Misty to hide. She groggily pulled herself upright, conscious of the weight of her eyelids and staggered from room to room of her tiny two bedroom. There was no way Misty could have gotten out.

Mariana opened the front door.  Outside, despite the early hour, despite the quarantine, the sidewalks and streets were already full of people.

“Spot,” someone called.

“Midnight.” Someone else cried.

“Mogwai, where are you?”

“Have you seen Cuddles?’ Marianna’s neighbor, Bertha, asked.

“Rambo,” called the large, tattooed muscle man next door. “Come boy, Come now.” He whistled loudly.

All up and down the street, people were looking beneath cars, behind trash bins and under bushes. Searching around corners, in cul-de-sacs, and in shrubbery, calling for lost pets.   Marinna watched and listened, slowly becoming aware that beneath the sounds of people, below the airplanes and above the cars was a profound silence. No birds sang. No daredevil hummingbirds screeched from feeder to feeder.  No insects buzzed or bit. No gnats hovered. No mosquitoes whined.

She stood in the doorway, helpless as to where to look. She went inside. Made herself a cup of coffee and stared at her computer. Reports were flooding the internet. Posts washing in from all corners of the world. Videos broadcast up from monitors in the Mariana trench, the deepest place in sea or land and images beamed down from satellites.

All dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, snakes and chameleons had inexplicably vanished from homes, tanks, and cages. Even insignificant aquatic snails and feeder goldfish were missing. Waving plastic treasure chest lids flapped in unoccupied bowls.

Labs were empty of rats, mice and monkeys. Even lab beagles, specially bred to crave affection and love so desperately, they even adored the scientists who tortured them had vanished. How? Not only were the labs locked, these dogs, bred for faithfulness, would never have willingly fled the hands that cut them.

Stables were horseless. Feed lots were vacant. Zoos were empty. A woman who had leeches, was suddenly leech-less. A man suffering tapeworm was uninhabited.

The politicians had no answers. The scientist had no explanations, even the priests, imams and rabbis were wordless, silent as the air, earth and water had become.

Everything else worked. The internet. Memes. News.

Only food had changed because not only was the knacker’s yard vacant, all the freezers were empty of meat, fish and fowl. Slaughterhouses Hooks dangled bloodless. The butcher’s block was bare.

What had happened? How could she find answers? Where could she even begin to search? Mariana drank a full glass of whiskey and went to bed. 

It was hard to sleep with no furry comfort beside her. But eventually she sank into a realm of dreams so clear they seemed real. 

Misty floated in the clouds. He raced across the sky, chasing Spot, Midnight, Mogwai, Cuddles and all the other absent pets, missing cattle, experiments and butchered beasts made whole.

Over the rainbow bridge he ran, playing fetch with large shadowy figures that seemed made of light.

When she awoke, she understood. The Rapture had come and gone.

*






#2 An Explanation

Dear Humans,

I know you will be sending prayers our way. You may have noticed some disappearances lately; this letter is by way of an explanation.

You came up with the idea of rapture long before we realized that one species, among the many we’d created, was suicidal. Who could’ve imagined that any species would have such a disregard for life, in all its myriad forms, including its own, that it would destroy the planet that was its home?

We’d created a world that could and would evolve, each new leaf or branch creating its own pollinator. Every pond spanning new variations.  We’d never expected one species to become dominant, and if we had, humans are not the species we would’ve picked. You’re not the oldest species, nor the most competent.

Although we’ve tried to be impartial, we could not help but realize superiority and skill when it was apparent: the amazing eyesight of the mantis shrimp, the maneuverability of the hummingbird, the compassion of wolf and wombat, and most of all, the ability to turn sunlight into food, but we did not play favorites. We let things develop as they would, to our surprise and disappointment.

There were those who argued that we should’ve stepped in again. We could’ve sent a messenger, an Angel, a son of God, a daughter of the Goddess. But we tried that before. Although the Messiah was recognized, as soon as he’d been killed his message was perverted by mad men, would be saints and emperors.

At first, we thought to remove the problem, but you had worked quickly and done so much damage it hardly seemed fair to burden the innocents with cleaning up the mess.

One of our angels, Anthropogenic, first proposed the idea. I’ll never forget the look on God’s face when Anthropogenic described the rapture.

“When all the pure would be lifted up to God to join God and his son in heaven.”

It was a fierce undertaking. We had to prepare an empty but fertile planet. A half-filled sea, ready to be crammed with life.

We argued about the violence of chimps and ducks, about murders of crows and raping dolphins.  Some wanted only to take plants and fungi. Others desired herbivores, and many thought we should take everyone but the problem species.

Once again it was Anthropogenic who came up with a solution based on your history.

“The Christian rapture” Anthropogenic explained, “doesn’t take place all at once, first the dead rise, and then the pure.”

So, on the first day we rapture the dead, emptying slaughterhouse and freezer.

We noted an increase of prayer, but thankfully no burnt offerings. 

On the second day we too the purest: plants and fungi. On the third: prokaryotes, Bacteria, and virus’. On the third we took fish, birds, reptiles and most mammals.

We are watching the new planet with interest. Good Luck and God Bless.

*




#3 The Rapture

Priscilla sat next to her husband Hewn. The road on either side of them stretched ahead endless, flat and arid. They had a long drive before them. It was hundreds of miles, from their home in Lynchburg Tennessee to Salvation Oklahoma. There she and Hewn would join hands and hearts with 100,000 or more brethren under the big white tent. There they would raise their voices in prayer, giving thanks together, under the watchful eyes of God and Jesus.

The wind blew, dusting the trees and flowers grey. The land was colorless. Priscilla’s hands moved back and forth knitting a pair of blue wool booties for Hewn. He already had over twenty pair, but she liked to keep occupied.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings,” she muttered.

The view ahead was blocked by the doors of a huge semi. “Jesus bless this journey,” Priscilla, muttered. “Jesus bless the loneliness of the long-distance trucker and keep him company.”

Suddenly as if by supplication, the doors flew open. A dozen figures rose out of the truck, up, up, up, lighter than prayer, higher than the notes of Sister Jessie Fargo’s soprano solos.

“It’s the Rapture!” cried Priscilla, “Jesus take me too. Jesus don’t leave me here, poor miserable sinner though I am.”

She fumbled with the door handle, struggling to release her seat belt and unlock the door. The bodies soared above her disappearing like lost hope. It seemed forever before she managed to get the door open. She cast herself out. The pavement rose to meet her, harder than disbelief. She never knew that the truck ahead of her was a blow-up doll manufacturer who had forgotten to latch his door.


*







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VI. That’s One Way to Remember You’re Alive

December 25th, 2023

by Jennifer Weatherly
[this is the sixth in the six part series–
read Nature Always Finds a Way Through from the beginning, here]


Here’s one lesson I’ve learned, with more heft than nearly anything else: Now means a great deal, but only if you believe that that’s true. Try believing in before or tomorrow, and you’ll see things differently. Here’s another one: Nobody knows anything, but they’ll pretend they do just to get by.

Sometimes you only realize how little you know about the world when you get thrown into one of its quieter corners.

Because, sure, most people will tell you you’re bound to get wise from stumbling through city streets and noise, from shoving your way into late-night whispered conversations, from grinding out hours upon hours of work. That’s one of those things they pretend is true. Me, I thought they were right. That’s why I moved here. But the last lesson I learned is this one: They’re only a little bit right, the people who spout those ideas. They’re missing, if I had to assign numbers to it, about sixty, sixty-five percent of what matters.

And I’m not prone to digging into those pockets myself, not at all someone you’d call earthy. I do clerical work; I don’t like getting shit in my fingernails. So when she invited me home after we’d gone for drinks, and home turned out to be a garden, I was almost speechless. Almost.

You’ve got to be kidding me, I laughed. So no house? Not even a hothouse. Just plants?

She smiled, and it was irritatingly coy. Yeah, she said. You’ll see.

What do you mean, I’ll see?

Her answer was a flicker of a kiss on the mouth, one that made its way down my neck. Then she started unbuttoning my shirt. Already she was moving so fast, like a high school girl on a second date who’d been kept under her parents’ thumb too long. But I didn’t stop her. She was rapturous, I was getting hard, and I didn’t want to stop her.

But by the time we both were naked and down on the ground, in the grass and the dirt, I just about wished I had. I could feel the earth between my toes and hear its gentle thrum beneath my head. And it said—well. I couldn’t really tell you what it said. That’s the point, I guess. But it was so damned loud. It’s so loud, and we never really listen, we don’t hear it at all.

Then we finished and I gasped, rolling over onto my back. She turned herself onto one side, facing me. I craned my neck and saw that she was smiling again, but widely now, beatific. The full moon lit up her eyes and I wondered how I’d failed to notice them at all. They were amber, iridescent.

Thank you, she sighed.

No one ever says thank you afterward, at least no one I know, so I just stared at her. Until I saw it. The reason why. Her hand closest to me was sealing itself to the earth, or really, into it; it was flattening, turning pale, then pale green.

The aroma of tomato vines had never nauseated me before.

What’s happening? I asked, but I didn’t need to, because that was when her eyes lost their pupils. Her face started changing. Her body was falling away from me, twisting upward into ropy strands that spiraled around one another. More vines. She was covered in tiny white flowers, and suddenly I realized she had stopped looking like she. It must have happened when the fruit replaced her eyes.

Then I was alone, undressed, on the ground, in a garden I’d never been to before and didn’t ever want to see again. That’s what I meant before, I guess. There’s only so much you can gather from being around everybody else. They all follow the same rules. Except one. They forget that when you leave your cells behind, they have a mind of their own, and grow into something else whether you like it or not.


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V. Some Friend

December 24th, 2023

by Jennifer Weatherly
[this is the fifth in the six part series–
read Nature Always Finds a Way Through from the beginning, here]


I decided to make friends with the lizard who kept skittering back and forth across the kitchen in my apartment. It had taken so long to get him to trust me, I thought I might as well try. Even so, when we finally spoke, he told me I had his name wrong.

You’re saying it like a plebeian, he said. It’s Henri, not Henry.

Oh, I said. I’m sorry. Or, I guess, je suis desolée.

It’s fine, he sighed, before adding, Also, I’m a skink. Not a lizard. There’s a big difference.

Really? I asked. I didn’t clarify which part I was surprised by. Probably because it was all of it.

You know, you could learn something from that, he said. You humans are obsessed with the wrong kinds of names. You want nothing to do with specificity.

What? I said. What do you mean, wrong kinds? We over-specify everything. We apply in equal measure bullshit terminology and Latin titles. What about that is not specific?

The lizard-now-skink, Henri, sat up and folded his tiny arms. That’s not specificity, friend. Surely you know that. You know a great deal, actually, save for your own name and occupation. What do you want to be called? he asked. How will you use your brief time on this small patch of earth you’ve been granted?

His time, I realized, was so much briefer than my own. My heart sank as I noticed the crepey patches on his elbows. Or whatever elbows were called on a skink. No wonder he took this so greatly to heart.

I guess, I said, it’s to be determined.

Yes, that’s all well and good, said Henri, but when?

And suddenly now seemed to mean a great deal more than I’d ever imagined.


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IV. When Your Time Comes, You’d Better Be Listening

December 23rd, 2023

by Jennifer Weatherly
[this is the fourth in the six part series–
read Nature Always Finds a Way Through from the beginning, here]


There was a light that sprang out from the middle of the street. I staggered when I saw it, because it happened right next to where I was standing, ran toward the sky parallel with my posture. I nearly stumbled off the sidewalk when it happened.

Honestly, for weeks, I’d assumed the hole in the pavement from which it’d emerged was the start of sinkhole. I’d even called the city about it, something I never do. Of course, they never followed up or got back to me. I hadn’t seen a city-stamped truck or van on that street even once.

Maybe they knew all along what it was.

Whether or not they knew a thing, the light flowed through, and jumped up, and forced its way into the neighborhood and thereby the world. It was a single beam, round like a small PVC pipe of light; it was heavy, dynamic, and yet so gentle. It knew it was doing, even if the city didn’t.

I don’t recall why I’d been walking by at that time of night. It was late, or midnight-late, anyway. I was there, and so was a sort-of neighbor. He’d been standing out on his front porch. I didn’t know his name then, and I still don’t, but I often saw him outside smoking or watering his plants.

He wasn’t doing either of those things now, I noticed as I cast a glance his way. He was staring as intently as I’d been.

The light held steadily for several minutes, or for what felt like it. Much like everyone, I don’t wear a watch; I didn’t have my phone in my hand, either. Actually, it was the first time in a long time that I hadn’t.

You’d imagine, I found myself thinking, angelic music might pour from a light like that, or maybe extraterrestrial chatter, but there wasn’t anything of the sort.

There was, instead, one sentence, or statement, really. One statement delivered in a businesslike, matter-of-fact voice. It sounded like a woman’s voice, the kind of woman who would stand at the daïs of a lecture hall or sit at a mildly important front desk.

She—or, the voice—said:

What are you still looking down for? Look up.

And then the light snapped off. Vanished. The hole remained, steadfast as always, but its light was gone.

I looked at my sort-of neighbor again. He looked at me and shrugged.

Perhaps there was nothing to be said. I certainly couldn’t think of anything. So I did the same—I shrugged, waved at him, and walked away.

I don’t know why you have to look down to start looking up. Save for the would-be sinkhole, I’m not the most observant person; usually, I don’t look anywhere but straight ahead. All of it would probably have meant more if it’d shown up in a dream.

Maybe that’s why it didn’t, though. Maybe.


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III. The True Meaning of Gaslight

December 22nd, 2023

by Jennifer Weatherly
[this is the third in the six part series–
read Nature Always Finds a Way Through from the beginning, here]


I wondered where the stars went once they disappeared for good. I wondered out loud, because it seemed to have happened overnight. A city’s a terrible place for stargazing, certainly, but one or two usually made their way through the haze.

Not this night, though. And not any night after.

Some people raised their eyebrows and said, They’ve been gone for ages, haven’t they? Hell, maybe they never even existed.

Others bit their lips and sighed, because they didn’t know what to think, but had ideas as to where they’d gone, be it light years away or swallowed by a black hole. String theory, they said casually, tossing out the words like they were tossing confetti. Quantum mechanics.

Others still looked at me with wide eyes because they’d not even noticed. What, they asked, could have erased them? Light pollution? Ordinary pollution? Or maybe another act of careless overreach by the central government. It must have been all of that.

Maybe, I said, with a shrug, as if I cared less than I did.

Well, they said, we’ve got to get them back!

Stunned, I asked, Well, why? If you never noticed them until they’d left, then why?

We deserve them, they said, and repeated. So we’ve got to get them back. It’s our duty. We’ll build a tower to the sky if we have to.

I never found out if they built that tower. I didn’t wait around. I had plenty of other shit to deal with that wasn’t star-related. Sure, the stars had vanished, and I used to watch them every night. But without them, I was still someone. I just didn’t know what sort of someone. Someone who didn’t deserve the stars? That was a start, I suppose.

Either way, I was still breathing, and maybe, somewhere far away, the stars were breathing too, in their way. Pulsing, rather. Or maybe they weren’t far away. Maybe they were waiting beyond an unreachable layer of cosmic fabric. Whatever space it was, it was their space, and I’ll never tell the rest of them, but they have exactly what they deserve. Who’s to say, after all, what any of us needs to have?

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II. I Was Never Mistaken for Something More Noble

December 21st, 2023


by Jennifer Weatherly
[this is the second in the six part series–
read Nature Always Finds a Way Through from the beginning, here]


Tell me, I asked the vulture, why you scavenge.

What do you mean? He scratched at the bark of the tree branch where he was perched.

I mean, I said, you have talons and the scariest beak I’ve ever seen. Scary eyes, too. You could hunt if you wanted to.

Isn’t scavenging hunting? he asked.

Not really, I replied. Although now that I thought about it, it was, in a way. Just not in the way that I’d meant.

So I said: It’s similar but it’s not the same. You don’t do the whole job yourself. You just pick up what’s already been weakened. So it’s a lot easier.

Is it? he asked. Have you ever tried it?

I thought of everyone who’d ever kept me waiting on their sofa when they promised they’d be ready an hour before. I thought of my eating habits. I grimaced. No, I lied.

The vulture knew I was lying; I could tell, because he stopped scratching at the tree bark and dropped to the ground. You couldn’t really call it flying. You could call it swooping if you wanted to, though.

Sometimes, he said, it’s nice when things are easier. Especially when you haven’t eaten in days.

I suppose that’s true, I said. I crossed my arms and grabbed at my elbows.

Does that mean you haven’t eaten in days? He pointed at my middle with his beak.

It didn’t, although I hadn’t, at least not a proper meal. What it meant was, I didn’t want him to pick at me anymore. But he didn’t seem to know how to do anything else. And I was getting pretty good at not telling him the truth.

So I said, No. It’s just something humans do.

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