Runes in the Snow

The Wilks family Range Rover made its way ponderously through the snow and down the mountain. It was the kind of road trip that the whole family looked forward to, and then on the drive back, universally agreed was a terrible idea. (Bucky World was not at all worth the 500 mile trip, and the mascots, in particular Ruffy the Rabbit, made Savannah cry rivers.)

After thirty miles of nothing but dead landscape and white noise, Savannah pointed out the window. “Look mommy, a sign!” The small sign she pointed to was a weathered wooden board with letters burned in: What’s stronger than five mules? After they drove past, Savannah’s mother Holly idly mused, “I wonder what that’s for.” The father, Luke, dismissed it. “Probably nothing.”

A few tenths of a mile later, and another sign cropped up out of the snow: What’s more loyal than a golden retriever? A picture of a cartoonish dog dragging an oversized newspaper accompanied this sign. Savannah giggled. Even Luke grinned — but then he caught himself, and returned to his road trip scowl.

The final sign – much larger this time, like a billboard – came after a few more tenths of a mile. Zombies Unlimited! it said. (And boiled peanuts), it said in smaller text. This sign marked a small settlement just off the shoulder of the mountain road. “Honey, let’s pull over here,” said Holly. Luke obliged reluctantly.

The billboard dwarfed the snow-covered lean-to and trailer that comprised the little store. An older man, probably in his sixties, hustled out as fast as he could with a collie at his side. The man had the look of an eternally hurried person; his all-black suit was poorly tailored and wrinkled, and his black hair was matted and overgrown. Still, his smile was warm and his face was soft. “Welcome folks, welcome! My name’s Max – and this little fella here is Edric – and I’ve got the perfect solution to everything you need!” he exclaimed. The way he talked made Savannah think of old-time cartoon characters.

“Well, what exactly is it you have?” asked Holly, with a brilliant smile.

“Zombies, my lady! Strong, able zombies, ready to travel on home with you today,” said Max. He strode over at the lean-to, and removed a tarp to reveal half a dozen gray zombies standing at attention, their gazes drifting to nowhere in particular. Holly looked over and nearly jumped. Savannah let out a shriek. However, despite the word “zombies” being used to characterize them, they were surprisingly whole. Their skin was gray, and their eyes were mindless, but they were none worse for the wear. There were three women and three men, all dressed in white dress shirts and jeans. They were abnormally tall, muscular creatures; perhaps, they were chosen because of these qualities. Their hair kept life’s luster, and that, along with the various shades of gray skin, served to distinguish the zombies from one another.

“My word, that’s terrifying! Do you just leave them out like that, out here in the cold?” said Luke. The scowl was back.

Max held out his hands. “Now, now, you’ve got nothing to fret. These fellas don’t need much in the way of food or lodging, and they sure are great in a pinch. Had old Cecil over there help me haul some mulch at my ranch down in Pen-see-cola Florida just the other week! Did it without a word of complaint.”

“But they’re…dead,” said Savannah.

“Dead in the mind, yes, and maybe their hearts don’t beat, but look at this, little lady. Jonathan!” said Max, and a seven-foot tall zombie came up. Max uttered some words in a language the Wilks didn’t understand, and the Jonathan flexed his powerful muscles, lifting up Savannah on his shoulders. Savannah shrieked again, but then laughed. And Jonathan laughed too, a deep, hearty bellow.

“See? As friendly as a puppy and as harmless as a lamb,” said Max, his smile beaming. He then used that foreign language to order the zombie he called Cecil to start chopping at a nearby tree. Before long, the tree was down, and Cecil carried the whole thing over himself. “Such amazing strength,” said Holly.

Luke fished around in his pocket and looked up boldly. “How much for the lot?”

Max put on this strained look. “Well, all figured, you’ve got six zombies…see, I’m a whole-number kinda person…what do you reckon, 200 dollars? Plus I’ll throw in this-a-here dictionary which’ll surely help you talk at them.”

Holly smiled. “Well, 200 dollars would be a steal!” Luke nodded in agreement. “We’ll take them!”

Jonathan carried Savannah over to the Range Rover, and let her down gently in the car. A few zombies piled in and sat down, while a few had to be stacked in the trunk like firewood. “They don’t mind it at all,” Max reassured, “not at all, not at all.” The Wilks loaded up their zombie cargo, and then they drove away with the satisfaction that their whole road trip was saved by this chance encounter.

After he could no longer hear the engine or see the vehicle, Max took out an ice scraper and scratched away some markings on the frozen ground. Then, he struck down the lean-to and set it on fire. It was dangerous to leave such powerful magic unattended, and he had no way to control the zombies’ urges now that they were away.

“We did it Ed,” Max said to his collie. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he smiled a sad smile. “We’re finally free of them.”

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The Tree and the Wolf

(Formerly “The Black Cat Effect,” revised slightly on April 17.)

At work one morning, I got a phone call from my neighbor Jack. (Why do people lose their minds when they retire? Seriously, it’s like the only thing that kept them sane before was their job. Now, their whole world has shrunken down to my front lawn, and questions about why I didn’t pick up my newspaper.)

“Felix? This is Jack! Jack Scrivens, your next door neighbor!”
“Yes, Jack. What’s up?”
“Well, I just got back from walking Topsy, and I saw water gushing out of your front door!”
“Gushing?”
“Yes, gushing, gushing!”

I googled the nearest plumber and ran out the door.

———————-

When I got home, I saw a green truck outside with a huge clover leaf on it. I went inside and saw that my Irish plumber had already let himself in.

My house was something out of a Lovecraftian nightmare. Green and black water flowed freely across my floor, a veritable Mississippi River of backed-up sewage. I saw a scaled mass in the deepest part of the water in my living room. It looked like some kind of tentacle.

“Mr. Carpenter, in here!” a whiny voice yelled. Before I could puzzle over how he knew my name, I found myself in the master bath looking at a red-haired midget in green overalls, with a wooden tool that looked more Shillalegh than wrench. His nametag said “Warwick” in bright gold letters. I stood there wordlessly viewing my wrecked bathtub.

“Well, you got yourself a hydra there,” said Warwick.
“A hydra?”
“Yep. Maybe more than one at this point. Now I reckon he — or they — been living down there a while, so it’s really entrenched. The fangs really chewed things up.”
“The fangs?”
“Yeah. Look, if you keep repeating what I say we’re gonna be here all day.”
“Right, sorry. Look, uh, Warwick…I find it hard to believe…I mean can’t you check the, uh…Jesus, a fucking hydra?”
“Yeah. Big, scaly reptile with lots of heads.”
“…Can you fix it?”

The funny-looking midget wiped his brow. “Well yeah. I could probably coax him – or them – out. It’ll cost you, though. Five gold coins.”

“Gold coins? You’re joking,” I said. That leprauchan-looking guy paid me no mind and unpacked a crossbow and several bolts out of a large backpack. “I’ll just put it on your tab. You’re good for it, right?” said Warwick. I nodded, and then he yelled down my devastated, riven bath drain, “ALL RIGHT YOU TENTACLED SONOFABITCHES! I’M COMIN’!!!!” Then, I saw a rain of gold dust, and Warwick had disappeared. Vanished in thin air.

I was convinced at this point that I had a gas leak of some kind and it was making me lose my ever-loving mind.

———————-

I was hardly back in the office when my phone rang again. When I saw it was Jack again, I felt like screaming.

In fact, I did. I screamed really, really loud, like a howl, in the middle of the Cubicle Farm. At the top of my fucking lungs, like I was being attacked by a grizzly bear.

I got a lot of weird looks. (That wasn’t new to me.)

“Felix? This is your neighbor Jack, Jack Scrivens!”
“Yeah, I know, Jack! What is it now?”
“Oh, I hate to bother you at work Felix…but I’m hearing some kind of terrible hissing coming from your backyard! It’s just giving Topsy the creeps! And you know how her tummy gets when she’s scared, she just voids her–”
“Right, right. Thanks. I’ll take care of it right away.”
“Oh, well that’d be just fine, thank you so much Felix, I didn’t want to interrupt or distur–” Click.

I googled, I dialed, I ran.

———————–

When I got home, I saw Warwick’s green van still out there, but I also saw a camoflauge jeep with a matching horse trailer. I walked to the backyard, and it was utterly ruined. Just fucking, irrevocably ruined. All of the bamboo, the herb garden, the patio awning, everything, was ripped apart by what seemed to be gigantic snake tracks.

Oh, and I had a hedge maze now. A fucking hedge maze.

A seven-foot-tall dark-skinned man in a “desert camo” hat and cargo shorts ran up to me. He had a green nametag on that said “Jordan.”

“Holy sweet shit, what in the fuck happened back here? Who the fuck are you?” I said with a growl.
“I’m the landscaper-slash-zoologist you called! Jordan Ramsey! Excuse me, do you talk to all your people like this?” he said.
“Look, no, sorry, I just have…a hedge maze? How did this get here?”
“The hedge maze is just a symptom. You’ve got a medusa in your backyard — big snake-woman with snakes for hair — and whenever they show up, they put these things up and fill them with stone statues. Now, if you see her, don’t make eye contact, else she’ll make a statue out of you.”
“A fucking medusa? Those actually exist?”
“I don’t make the rules.”
“Right, uh…so we’re just screwed then?”
“No. Luckily — you’ve got me. And you’ve got this,” he said, leading me out to his horse trailer.

He opened the door to the trailer to reveal a hulking bull-beast that stood on two legs. It was like a man, except with a bull’s head, and hooves instead of feet. Every inch of it was covered in thick, corded muscles. “OK, I think I’m starting to uh, get this…it’s a minotaur, right?”

Jordan nodded. “Yeah. Check it out.”

The minotaur roared and charged towards the backyard. I heard some of the most awful screaming and bellowing I had ever heard. It was the kind of world-shattering screaming that simultaneously created and destroyed the universe. Jordan laughed, and that was maybe even more horrible. It was like this high-pitched hyena laugh. “Hahahaha YES! Listen to that combat! They’ll be at this for DAYS! Motherfuckin’ DAYS!”

————-

Later, I came back home for the day, and the only car outside was Christine’s. She’s home early, I thought. I heard a loud SCREEEEEEEE noise from the backyard and knew that my, uh, minotaur was working well. (I wondered briefly if I should feed it. What does it eat? The souls of the damned?)

Damage-wise, Warwick had cleaned up most of the water and hydra-chunks. Christine was lying down in bed, paler than I’d ever seen her.

“Hey, you didn’t go to your class tonight? What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“I’m just…tired,” she said.

This wasn’t anything new. I had felt that she was disconnected from our lives lately. Her energy-level was at an all-time low. She hated this neighborhood, and while she was sweet about it, I could see her wilting before my very eyes. Still she endured it, and so did I, because we made a lot of money in this town.

“Warwick left your bill,” she said. “And I paid Jordan and made him go home. He invited a few of his friends to watch whatever’s in the backyard. It was getting weird.”
“It wasn’t weird before?” I asked.

I went to go shower, read, and fall asleep.

——————–

Waking up to the husky roar of a minotaur is the worst way to wake up. Your entire day gets ruined by that.

I brushed my teeth, thinking about what today would hold. What next? A phoenix slams into my roof and I have to hire a roofer who summons some kind of water demon? Hey, maybe the hydra could kill the phoenix, and then I could get Ra, the Sun God, to redo my shingles! Whatever the case, I was convinced I needed to go out to lunch with my friends. There was something about being with a group that was calming. It’s the pack mentality.

I brushed my teeth then came out to the living room. There was a half-circle of chairs. From left to right — Warwick, Jordan, the hydra, the medusa (with sunglasses on), and the minotaur were sitting expectantly. (I knew I’d have nightmares for years from this.) Across from them was a single, unoccupied chair.

“Have a seat, son,” Warwick said.
“Son,” I scoffed, and sat down. “What’s the meaning of this? An intervention?”

The minotaur spoke up. “You’re killing your fiancee,” he said, with a throaty growl to his voice. I felt the foundations of the house shake.

“No, I think I’m just losing my mind and imagining things,” I said impatiently, thinking about how much work I had stacking up on my desk.

“No, actually, you are. Do you know why we staged all this stuff?” said Jordan.
“Staged? Why? Please, tell me!”
“To wake you up! To show you there’s more in life than just your narrow views! This is a great neighborhood? You both have great jobs? Then tell me why you’re not happy. If you could just expand your mind and believe what you thought wasn’t possible, you’d see what is right in front of you. To accept reality, sometimes we need to embrace the fantastic.” Jordan gestured at the assembled crowd.

I thought about the events of the last day and looked at the five individuals in front of me expectantly. “Fine. What do I need to know?”

“Christine is a tree spirit. You can’t keep her here anymore,” the Medusa said, in a dreadful voice that sounded a lot like a decaying supermodel.

Warwick chimed in. “Yeah. Stop being selfish and get her where she needs to be. Where you both need to be. It’s not just her, you know. You are something…more, too, though what, we don’t know. You know this place isn’t right for you. What have you actually felt here? Do you even feel alive here? What are you moving toward?”

Suddenly, it all made sense — our lives for the past five years, and the troubles we’d had. Christine was a tree spirit, and she needed to live with the trees.

Plus, that would explain all the leaves I kept finding in the shower.

—————————–

I could tell you about the rest of our lives, but why spoil the ending? The middle is always the best. I could tell you that we moved to the biggest forest we could find, and that Christine grew into a more vibrant person than I had ever known her to be. I could tell you her pale skin became ruddy, and her white-ish blonde hair matured into a rich auburn; that she slept in tree branches and sang songs to the creatures of the canopy. Maybe I could even tell you we transcended our human forms, becoming something more than we were. I could tell you I howled in meadows filled with moonlight, sending my song cascading across the heavens. And, most importantly, I could tell you I found peace out there, shuffling my paws along the shores of twisting rivers with our growing family.

I could tell you all those things, but I won’t. I’ve found sometimes it’s better to use your imagination and figure life out for yourself.

Lynchpin

A firm knock is the lynchpin to success when meeting your fiancée’s parents. Knowing that, Stephen knocked, and a few moments later, he heard the rattle of a chain and the slide of a deadbolt. “Hello?” a voice challenged.

“Mr. Bloom?” Stephen asked hopefully.
“Stephen! It’s nice to finally meet you,” said Mr. Bloom.

“Oh, and you as well. I’ve been looking forward to having dinner with you.”

“Well, we’re out back, so why don’t you come in.”

Stephen followed Mr. Bloom through dimly lit hallways and a sliding glass door. Moonlight, a few candles, and the glow of a charcoal grill greeted him.

“Lauren’s getting changed. Have a seat. Let’s have a talk.” Mr. Bloom gestured towards two ornate chairs on the deck. Stephen took his pick.

“Well, I wish this weather would make up its mind,” said Mr. Bloom, wistfully.
“Yes, it’s cold one day, hot the next,” said Stephen.
“Lord knows when summer will finally, really hit. Y’know, I have some ATV’s. You ever ride one of those?”
“Actually yes. My parents in Lubbock owned a couple.”
“That’s living. Bet you had better land to ride on.”

Mr. Bloom got up to tend to the coals on the grill. Some kind of mask, balanced on a pole, caught Stephen’s eye – black, with shiny, pink feathers adorning the crest. It reminded him of something he’d seen on the History Channel.

“Do you follow much Russian history, Stephen?” asked Mr. Bloom, as he poked at the coals on the grill.

“Not really,” said Stephen.

“Well, it’s a strange place, particularly under Stalin and the Soviets. I’ve been reading a book lately – The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Do you know how terrified those people were of their own leader? You could be arrested without even speaking a word. And you get sent to horrible, horrible places…”

Mr. Bloom started stacking firewood around the empty chair. “Give me a hand, will you Stephen?”

“Solzhenitsyn wrote about the different arrests under Stalin. One in particular caught my eye. There was a communist convention, and at the end, the chairman called for a tribute to Stalin. Applause filled the auditorium, and it turned into a standing ovation. Well, nearly three minutes went by, and everyone was still clapping. Because, why stop? What would it look like to the secret police if you were the first to stop clapping? But eventually, you have to stop. There were many old men in the crowd – how long could they stand there exerting themselves until they collapsed? Ten minutes went by, and then finally, the owner of a paper mill sat down very business-like and stopped clapping. Then, everyone else stopped.

“Well, the secret police came by and arrested the paper mill owner later that evening. Typically, when convicts ask the Soviet secret police why they’re arrested, they don’t get an answer. But the interrogator said slyly, ‘You should know not to stop clapping first!’”

Stephen smiled nervously. His eyes were fixed on Mr. Bloom, who was spraying the two bundles of wood around each chair with lighter fluid.

Lauren came out, with her mother by her side. And while she was nearly pristine in her white dress, her face was streaked with mascara and tears. Her mother comforted her wordlessly, a grave expression across her face. Mr. Bloom held a burning torch in his hand, and gestured for his child and would-be son-in-law to each take a seat.

And nobody said a word.