Traveling between islands on God's Stilts, I think of my father and mother, as I always do when burdened by the legacy they gave, the role they left me to play: messenger on a dying world.
I look down at the clouds, dark, gaseous poison, and imagine their bodies stare up at me.
It is easy to feel free, to forget the translucent shackles that bind. When the wind tousles your hair, when you launch yourself forward one impossible step at a time. When you see the sun, your saviour, and damnation, shining down from above, its heat reflected again from below.
In those fleeting moments, I can remember my parents for the people they were--my father's steady hand as he strapped the practice stilts to my feet, my mother's mischevious glint as she showed off a coin trick, or other sleight of hand--and not the monsters they became.
Fights between families are never about the individual quarrel of any given moment, the inciting incidents linger in memory, the scars and slights accrued over decades: some petty scratches, some gangrenous wounds. They can be ignored only so long before resentment boils over.
Hence, the vacation of a family as old and powerful and as steeped in disagreement of the Gonurlys was a powder keg. Each member held a match. Be it the eldest daughter playing second to her younger siblings, or the son, the namesake, struggling under the yolk of expectation.
The youngest, brother and sister, raised from birth to play peacemakers and tired of the roles thrust upon them, mourning their mothers who died and were summarily replaced and forgotten by all but them.
The storm following Maggie up the coast chased her into dreams as shivering in the dark, warmed only by the prospect of reconciling with Jerome, she slipped into troubled dreams. She closed her eyes, opening them back in her own bed, strong hands rubbing her thighs in the dark.
"Is this all right?" A familiar voice asked. Rome's velvet tongue followed where his hands had traced before. Maggie gasped.
"This all right Mags?" The smile in his voice, the scoundrel already knew the answer.
"Oh! Rome," She moaned, closing her eyes, giving in to the warmth.
Upwards his kisses traveled until... yes! That man knew what he was doing, and she didn't mind the slight pain at how tightly he gripped her thighs... at first. But he squeezed tighter, more firmly, until finally she had to cry out.
Jerome led Maggie up a winding flight of stairs, each step groaning with their passing. The sun had set, and Maggie could feel the wind begin to blow. Storms followed her up the coast to where, it seemed, she was meant to meet doom one way or another. Still, she did not despair.
A miracle had occurred. A small hole in the clouds opened, allowing a bright shard of light to pierce the darkness haunting her these past 10, 15 years. A detente in the pain she had caused by her rejection of her son.
Jerome, she rejoiced inwardly, he called me Mom!
Sure his demeanor towards her was still cold, cautious, but the ice wall was melting. Before, Maggir wondered if they would ever be what they were to each other again. Not just Mother and Son, but friends, confidantes, conspirators.
Any hope she had of the gap between them faded in the light of the silent fury left in the wake of Duncan's departure. It was clear to her now: only his husband's presence had restrained how angry her son was. All this fury directed at her? After all this time? Maggie despaired.
"So, Duncan seems ni-"
"Son, I'm just trying to help."
"We aren't doing this Margaret."
"We're not doing... what?"
Jerome pushed his chair back from the table and stood, all in one sudden motion.
"How did you think this was going to go? You come waltzing back into my life?
"You help me solve this case? And suddenly we'll be okay again."
"Well it won't! People keep asking me to forgive you! Dad, when he was dying, then Bri, and now my own husband? I'm not gonna just, I can't-"
Jerome was shaking. Maggie waited. There was nothing to say.
Dinner that night was a hushed, awkward affair. The three of them sat in a dining room which--Maggie noted gratefully--lent itself to Jer's preference for violet hues and starlight in its decoration than Duncan's taste for the occult. Still, the whole house felt like a shroud.
She also noticed that neither Jer or Duncan had once mentioned the murders plaguing Autumn Lake, she found that particularly troubling, given that Jer was the-
As if reading her train of thought, Duncan quickly derailed it with an interjection.
"So, has Jer told you yet?"
"Told me what?"
"Why, about the killings of course! Seems like they'd be right up your alley given your int-"
Jerome interrupted with a cough.
"Oh, sorry, am I not supposed to know about that?" Another wink. "Jer wanted me to play dumb, but he told me about your... hobby?"
A man stood at the doorway, arms crossed, as Jerome and Maggie trundled up the walk with her bags. His expression as they approached was inscrutable, a shadow for a brief moment as his eyes met Maggie's, but turning to Jerome, his expression melted into sunlight.
Maggie knew that look well, having felt it on her many times before when Rome still lived. That lingering look of love. Jerome dropped the bags in the foyer and they embraced quickly.
"Margaret," Jerome said, not facing, "this is Duncan... my husband."
Duncan turned his smile on Maggie, no hint of the shadow grazing his features just a few moments before. He had a round, kind face, ruddy skin, facial hair on his soft chin cropped to a close stubble. He extended a hand to Maggie.
Once, after when, while in high school Jerome confessed to his parents that he was an atheist, Maggie asked him "How do you remain humble without God?
They walked, as they often did, around a park near their home at night. At the question, Jerome smiled and looked up at the sky.
"Easy, Mom." He took her hand, answering in his typical eloquent way, "Look up at the stars. The vast night between them. Look up and think how even the smallest of stars can fit 1500 Earths inside it, and countless trillions of people."
Tears streamed from his eyes as he spoke.
"Think of the Andromeda Galaxy, and how the light it shines on us has been traveling here since before homo sapiens existed, or think of Earth itself."
"What about it?"
"Well Earth is... about 4.5 billion years old. Modern humans have existed for maybe 200,000 years.
To picture the quintessential New England suburb is to picture Autumn Lake, Maggie thought as Jerome pulled off the highway and, on a series of narrowing streets, eventually came to the town's edge. Idyllic, stately homes, painted either in white, or soft tones, hemmed them in.
Maggie was inherently mistrustful of towns like these, knowing all too well how people... like her have been shunned since time immemorial by these supposedly enlightened folk. Those who turn their noses up and think, well, yes, everyone deserves equal rights. Just... not here.
And yet, she couldn't deny the appeal, of these perfect little homes in their perfect little rows. People sought order, knowledge that they had a place in the world. She imagined here it would be easy to be a puzzle piece, to find your fit, and live simply.
The car ride passed in silence. Maggie wondering at how long she would suffer the unendurable half-life of forgiveness, Jerome an exact copy of his father, down to the moody inscrutibility. Neither spoke, Maggie for fear that the spell might break and Jerome would send her home.
On the highway, rushing South of the city, the aging baker finally felt like she could breathe again. And was just gathering her bearings when her son finally spoke:
She didn't respond.
"How long Margaret? These killings. It's too dangerous for a-"
"An old woman?"
"You know what I mean. For an amateur. Going around playing Columbo? With this things? Mo-Maggie. You're gonna get hurt eventually."
Maggie couldn't help but notice his slip. Had he almost said Mom?
"Well, 'Jerome', if I didn't know better, I'd almost say you were concerned."
The train pulled into South Station under clear skies, no sign of the storm, nor the handsome conductor who transformed and fled under its auspices. Maggie stood, groaning as she pulled her luggage down from overhead, and thought of her son, Jerome, and the distance between them.
How clearly hindsight crystallizes your mistakes. Maggie closed her eyes, seeing herself 15 years before, knocking on her son's dormitory door. There was a quiet rustling within, a muffled voice.
"Jer? It's your Mother..." And she entered, changing their relationship forever.
Later. She had called Rome to tell him what she had seen. She has expected him to share her shock, her rage. They had raised him better, hadn't they? They had taught him better than to be a... a... remembering the word that had crossed her mind then only deepened her shame.
Peals of rain wailed against the train windows, hitting with such force they sounded like hail. Maggie wrung her hands as she tried and failed, to sleep. She wished she was home, busying herself in the kitchen, recreating the sounds and scents that recalled a more pleasant past.
Fog hid the landscape rolling by, only brief flashes of lightning pierced the clouds and darkness. Had Maggie not known better. She would have sworn it was night. She blinked. It was far, far too dark out there. Almost as if...
...she closed her eyes, cloaked in quiet despair.
She still didn't understand her gift, Nyla and the others refused to explain it to her, or perhaps were too divorced from the human experience to know what there was to explain.
All she knew was this: ever since the deaths of Rome and her Mother, she could... see things.
Tuesday morning came in a flash. Maggie found herself, as always, running late as she rushed to pack for her trip north. The departure time was just 45 minutes away when she finished. All her clothes into two large suitcases, along with a well-worn copy of the book of the dead.
Piling her suitcases into the Lyft with the driver's help, she shot a quick text off to Bill, explaining she had been called out of town on short notice for family business, telling him the spare key was was in the flower pot on the front porch and to call if he needs anything.
Bill immediately responded: "Gotcha ;-). If you ever want to talk about... whatever, I'm here."
Maggie stared out the window pensively, watching Baltimore fly by. Her mother's home, and her mother's. On her way to Penn Station, she couldn't help but wonder: was this goodbye?
When the Earth was ailing, its stewards, long more concerned with the depth of their own coffers than the breathability of the air, or the cleanliness of the water, were faced with a choice:
Confront their role in poisoning Gaia's well and use their wealth to try and undo what was done, impoverishing themselves in the process, or leverage that very same wealth to avoid the consequences of their profligacy.
It will surprise precisely no one, which option they chose.
Sidestepping responsibility was, at this point, easier than breathing. So, blaming the laborers whose bodies they broke, whose lungs they burned, whose wallets they purloined in pursuit of riches, they announced plans to leave the Earth behind.
Leafing through the newspaper, it didn't take Maggie long to find what she sought.
THREE MORE DEAD AS STRING OF GRUESOME KILLINGS CONTINUE, POLICE BAFFLED
The article itself was sparse on details. Just that a young couple, or what remained of them, had been discovered by a neighbor. A neighbor who died from a massive myocardial infarction soon after dialing 9-11. Googling the incident, Maggie was able to find photos of the scene.
To the untrained eye, it would seem chaos, murder most foul committed by a madman, or woman, with a yen for bloodletting, but Maggie relaxed her focus, pupils dilating as she sought the picture behind the picture. And yes, there it was, a pattern glowing beneath the gore.
The next day, after a night full of fitful sleep, an uneasy, dreamless slumber. Maggie fixed herself a breakfast of fried bacon, eggs, orange juice and a steaming mug of coffee. Caffeine restoring the warmth to her cheeks, Maggie sat enjoying the autumnal sun through her window.
She sighed looking out at her front lawn. The storm had made a real mess of things, leaves and branches strewn everywhere, whole patches of grass churned to mud, just looking at the chaos made her knees hurt. Thinking of the yardwork ahead made her finger joints ache.
The knock at her door answered her unspoken prayer.
"Mornin' Ms. Hader! I can smell the bacon from here, I know you're up."
Despite the ill-omens of the night before, Maggie couldn't help but smile. The fool... She shuffled to the door.
Later that night, as her rhubarb pie lay wrapped in foil in the fridge with all but one slice uneaten, Maggie wrestled with her nightmares.
They began, as they always did, pleasantly enough. She and Rome luxuriates in the grass behind their first home, enjoying a picnic lunch.
Rome had his strong hands wrapped around her waist, his head lay pressed against her distended stomach, her eldest, Brianna, desperate to be born. He smiled and laughed as the baby kicked inside her. It tickled Mags, to see him so happy, so excited for their family to be.
Angie lay on her belly in the grass beside them, wriggling on her belly in the sun. Tail wagging, tongue lolling, young and frisky and blissfully aware of the plans time had for her. Mags reached out to scratch her belly, and was rewarded with Angie's low, contented moan.
But she was not alone. Hidden in the wafting scent of rhubarb and flaking crust, dancing in the darkness, a malevolent presence wedged itself into our world. A spot no larger than a speck of dust unfolded, growing limbs and toothy faces, cackling at a register that drove men mad.
But not Maggie, she sat and watched the Demiurge manifest, calmly sipping her tea. She thought of Rome, his kind, dark eyes. She remembered going to the hospital and holding his hand. She remembered watching him fade, until quietly, eyes dulled by fear and pain, he subsided.
For that was the trick to safeguarding yourself against the madness of those who make and unmake worlds. Whether through Pentagrams, charms, sacrifices or incantations, you shield your humanity from their ravenous tentacles.
The blinders hide the track from us, keep us ignorant to how it curves. Too late, we notice that no matter how fast we run, no matter how far. Our journeys begin where they end. At the start of a gun, the beginning of a song.
Tell me, how many nights could you resist our call?
I know for me, it was a short battle. The sharp crack in my ear, the echo that followed, the whine became a melody became my dreams.
Come, they beckoned. And though I tried to resist. Tried to suppress the urge, the image in my mind of the moon and wood. Come, I eventually did.
My feet lead the way, surer then than my mind has ever been. I let my thoughts wander, my head light and empty. Away from home. From the village lights. Up that narrow path obscured by forest shadow, through the leaves as the song grew louder. The moon loomed larger. The stars.
The beach at night, where looking up at the stars, she cannot tell where they end, and their reflections begin. The glimmer of the atmosphere indistinguishable from the roiling waves. A bed of stars ripples toward her from above and below. She dances to the rhythm of their hums.
Shadows join her, twisting to match her movements, gliding through the air as she glides, in easy defiance of gravity. They gain mass and shape, and soon, a dozen of her clones dance alongside her. Welcoming the tide that rises to meet the moon, feet tracing patterns in the sand.
The beach at night. A hundred crabs stream from their homes, holes in the sand, catacombs that drown and dry with the ocean, fooled by the brilliance of her smiles into greeting a morning that will not come, impressed by her power into carving their own sharp motif on the shore.
Beneath the sand, the rock, the skittering gilla monsters that flee from shade to shade, long roots pumps something dark into the world. The man at the motel desk closes his eyes, no longer seeing the ocean, the souls in its distance, but a tall forest.
And it beckons to him.
But the dream is not for him; they are never for him, merely flashes that the remnants of his human soul can catch. A sketch of the trap set for another. He opens his eyes, unsurprised to see The Motel lobby change. The floral patterned wall-paper stippling into dark ridged wood.
The lamps flicker, the light melts as they creep up the walls, there solidifying into dangling lanterns. The countertop shift between his fingers, changing from formica into redwood, smooth at the touch beneath a glaze finish that reflected the light like glittering stars.
Only snatches of light and sound, filtering through the bars and around corridors, does the Prisoner have to construct his world. One shrinking every day as memories of his old life grow faded and gray. Papered over by the stench in the cell: voided bowels, rotten food and fear.
No answers, no reason why, just nightmares of the rough hands that roused him one night. Tearing him from his lover, their adopted child. Memories of their screams as he was bodied from their home into a running car, hood over his head, heavy breathing, too scared to even beg.
And they brought him here and... left him. No questions, no accusations, only the barest hint of light, quiet snippets of the guards' hushed conversation.
"He's coming... wait... to do... nothing... wait..."
Not nearly enough to hint at why he is here, or what they want.