Paul clutched his jacket and passport against his chest, blinking away rough vines that sprouted through the tiles and snaked around the metal legs of the hospital bed. He flattened himself against the wall by the door, trembling.
He dropped his hands to his stomach, unsure if he was hearing the pixie’s thoughts or his own.
If he waited, perhaps–but his body was already moving: a marionette worked by a master puppeteer as it slipped through the door. He glanced furtively down the hallway half-hoping, half-dreading that he would catch a glimpse of Anna, Grace, or the monstrous Dr. Kluka. Like a criminal he slunk towards the elevator, only to duck down a hallway as it opened.
Did it matter whose thoughts they were? He knelt behind a soda machine whose cool, metal side bristled into tree bark against his back and smelled like freshly tilled soil.
The click of Anna’s heels echoed in the corridor, mixing with the raspy swish of Grace’s tennis shoes and Dr. Kluka’s heavy hoofs. Their backs appeared as they headed towards his empty room, doubtless to reassure him that the prognosis was good: that the operation would save his life.
Part of him wanted to run to them. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth that died as he tasted hot cinnamon and saw superimposed on their frames thick shoulders, mottled skin the color of mud and cement with bony protrusions that rode up the backs of their necks like studs: agents of the Goblin King. The thing that wore Dr. Kluka’s skin paused and turned his way, sniffing like a hound. Paul dropped against the vending machine in a tight ball, sweat dripping into his eyes. He held his breath until he sensed as much as heard Dr. Kluka hurry after Anna and Grace. It would be a matter of seconds until they reached his room.
Hunched over like a football player protecting the ball he loped down the corridor, trying to step softly on tile that flickered into rough ground after a moment of static. More than anything he wanted to cup Grace’s small, pale face in his hands and experience the transcendent joy of lying in bed on a Sunday morning, listening to the deep intakes of breath and sudden snorts that Anna still denied, ten years later. He hesitated, one hand on the door to the stairwell.
This is how you save them.
As he clattered down the stairs the cement blurred into the rocky floor of a cave decorated with leering, bestial faces that stared at him darkly. The rail vibrated under his white-knuckled grip and he felt a sudden sense of vertigo, unsure if he was in the sky or on the ground.
The points don’t always match. Hurry.
He turned sharply, feeling cement under his feet but seeing rough-hewn stone as his damp hand slid on the rail and he tumbled into the darkness, his shoulder smashing against a jagged rock and his head hitting the wall with a shock of pain that exploded into sudden, unexpected clarity: terrible loneliness as the cave shrunk into a concrete stairwell, two floors below where he’d started.
Everything stood out in sharp relief, as if the pain in his skull had reached out brush-tipped fingers and repainted the world. He licked his lips, slid down the wall and prayed that no irreparable damage had been done. He rested his hands on his stomach and almost cried with relief at the mad fluttering, like a butterfly trapped beneath the skin.
Isolated thoughts echoed in his mind like single note chords, tinny and false. He screwed his eyes shut tightly and pulled his mind back, reaching for the dream but ending up instead where some puzzling part of him needed to be: a Mexican street where Grace skipped ahead of them and Anna–still Anna!–watched anxiously.
“She’ll be fine!” he heard himself saying as he squeezed his wife’s hand.
“I know.” The squint of her eyes and the intensity of her gaze told him that she only half believed.
Anna was the nervous one: she waited like a catcher at the bottom of slides and held cuts under the water for five, egg-timered minutes to avoid infection. Paul believed in the lessons of scrapes and falls; he wanted Grace to see the world as an amazing place, full of possibility. “If she doesn’t fall, she’ll never learn to get up” he’d said, time and time again, half to provoke the familiar, pained look that he knew so well–the look that said that there would be time enough for her to fall, but not just yet.
Why was he thinking about that trip, now? He always pictured the same street: pink, red, and pale blue two-story buildings, balconies overlooking asphalt cracked and darkened with tar, spotted with imaginary puddles that Grace treated like stepping stones, hopping from one to the other until Anna nervously told her to stop and Paul warned her with a wink that she might drown.
Sharp, stabbing pains sliced at his stomach from the inside, as if the pixie were trying to carve out a message. We’re running out of time. His thoughts, but nonetheless true: at any moment the door two flights up would burst open and the agents of the Goblin King would find them.
All at once it seemed bizarre: silly, even. He forced himself to focus on the first night, hoping to re-forge the lost connection. He built the garden that he had seen, smelled, and felt in his dreams: the marble steps down, the twilight shadows, the smell of pine, maple and oak that suffused the air and a carpet of leaves and acorns, crunching beneath his feet. He lived it again as he had night after night, the entirety of the garden like a great wheel with the ancient oak at the center, its base three times the breadth of his reach, gnarled creases like wrinkles, grooves and ridges that ran down the trunk only to break away like long, thick-knuckled fingers drumming into the green.
In the center of the old oak a gaping, sideways mouth split open and in his mind he approached it cautiously, finding in the inky blackness a green spot of light that grew and then the pixie burst out, trailing sparks, tiny arms open and eyes bright, body no longer than the length of his hand.
I’m still with you. Your belief gives me strength. Now run!
As he gathered his coat and passport he felt a familiar thrill of knowledge, confirmation that his dreams were real, that there was more to the world than what those around him could see or hear. As he ran down the stairs he gloried in the feeling of longing fulfilled, hope realized, even as part of him felt nostalgic for the magic time when awe was all he’d known: the time before betrayal and apocalypse. He felt the pixie moving, growing stronger as he pushed open the door at the bottom of the stairs and blinked up at the blazing sun.
He woke to a blur of concrete, rushing by through the car window. His head buzzed, and he tried to shake the sensation that there was something he’d forgotten–a dream-detail that slipped away even as he tried to catch it. He tasted hot cinnamon and wiped his eyes. He was in a cab.
The veil grows weaker.
He still had his coat though he was wearing it, now. He squinted at the meter mounted on the dash: a little more than an hour had passed since he had left the hospital.
“Excuse me,” he said to the cabby, a middle-aged black man with neat, graying corn rows. “Where are we going?”
The cabby laughed and glanced at the meter. “The airport,” he said. “Right?”
“Sure.” He let himself fall back.
We have to heal the rift. The pixie sounded tired, as if getting him to the cab had worn it out.
He looked past the condos and strip malls to a mountain that rose in the distance, a glowing red nimbus like a halo at its peak.
The mountain of the Goblin King.
Over the past few months Paul had gotten used to losing time. At first it had been just a few minutes, here and there. Nothing he couldn’t explain away by telling himself that he’d fallen asleep, or gotten so focused on what he was doing that the outside world had slipped away. Then one day he had woken up in a park, his eyes stinging with the sudden light as he rolled over and realized that the last thing he remembered was leaving for work.
It had taken him a few weeks and a half dozen more lost hours before he’d told Anna. By then he’d stopped telling her about the dreams.
The quest is not to be shared.
“I know,” he said, not realizing he’d spoken aloud until he saw the cabby’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
After the first round of doctor’s appointments and CAT scans he’d made his last attempt to explain it to her. She’d found him sitting on the toilet with his face in his hands.
“The veil between worlds,” he’d whispered, “it’s collapsing…”
She squeezed his shoulder and sat cross-legged at his feet. “Paul,” she said, looking up at his face. “You’re not making any sense.”
He took her hand. “At first I didn’t realize–I thought it was a dream, too–but it talks to me–” he felt a twinge of pain but pushed past it “–it was sent here to heal the rift–”
“Honey, that’s crazy.” He’d made her cry. “Please, just come and lie down.”
“You don’t understand!” The knot in his stomach twisted. He knew he shouldn’t continue, but she was his wife. “It’s in me!” he said, as red and white spots exploded under his eyelids.
He’d woken up in the hospital.
“It’s a tumor,” Anna had told him, clutching his hand with a desperate, hopeful look. “In your stomach. They’re not sure why or how it’s affecting your brain, but it is.”
Soon enough he’d realized why she couldn’t understand, and why he couldn’t talk to her about it, again.
“We’re here,” the cabby said. “Enjoy Mexico.”
He fumbled in his pocket as he got out of the car and pressed a few, crumpled bills into the other man’s hand. Why Mexico?
The less you know, the better.
He walked through the sliding doors, his eyes scanning the crowd, at first seeing only humans but then seeing past: a small, gray-jowled group hung near the security check point, tusks and tiny ears superimposed over the mohawks and shaved heads of skater punks. He swallowed hard and backed away.
They won’t see you unless you panic.
Feeling like he’d stumbled into someone else’s body he took a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and skimmed the details of a flight he didn’t remember booking. His hands shook as he fed his credit card information into the machine and took his boarding pass, still struggling not to look up at the skater punks. A sudden wave of nausea washed over him as the airport shimmered, replaced for a few seconds by a medieval courtyard.
Soon there will be one world.
Thoughts raced through his head as he waited in line at security, grateful for the humanity of the woman waiting for him at the end of the line. It had taken a week of nights practicing at the base of the big tree before he’d been able to see through the veil, even for an instant.
Your gift is why you were chosen.
It had been such a game, at first: to see beyond the mundane to a world of wonder, of fairies and magic and–
He took off his shoes and his belt–he had no change, or keys–and waited for his turn in the scanner. What would they see? A tumor? Nothing? He wondered how he looked to them: a lone man with no bag. He should have bought a book, just for show.
The people–the humans–around him were flying for business or to see friends or going on vacation, oblivious to the reality that was crumbling and bleeding into theirs. How could they not see that some of them had already changed, already been turned?
The Goblin King would extend his realm.
Had the voice always been so measured? So strong? At first, when it had spoken to him–in dream–its voice had been high and lilting, with laughter at the edges. The more he saw into its world, though, the stronger it seemed to get.
He saw his gate up ahead, sudden terror coursing through him at the inhuman shapes of half of the passengers.
Soldiers. Advance scouts.
They could sense him if he let his guard down, and if they did they would tear him apart–rip the pixie out of him and destroy it to prevent it from closing the breach. He looked down, trying to remain inconspicuous: not a hiding place, not a shield–just a man, who turned away at the last minute and headed for the bathroom. Inside, he looked at himself in the mirror, trying to hide his shock at the pale, damp skin, filthy hair, and wild look in the eyes of the man staring back at him. He’d had a fever when he’d left the hospital.
“The tumor is making you sick,” Anna had said. He’d had to force himself to stay silent.
He hid in one of the stalls. He would wait until boarding and get on at the last minute. The walls around him shuddered and he smelled burning flesh. What would he see if he opened the door? He screwed his eyes shut. But why Mexico?
We have to go to where the veil is the weakest, to the tear itself.
But why there? The same place he’d been–they’d been–just a few months before?
He cried out at the shooting pain in his head and cracked open his eyes to see the world around him in flames.
This is the Goblin King’s pleasure.
No! He threw his head back again and again, feeling it hit something solid. The flames receded to a dull roar. Fire licked at his arms and legs. He tasted hot cinnamon, but some part of his mind had returned to the multicolored flats–to Grace, skipping ahead.
“Zippy Totec!” she had sung. “Zippy Totec!”
He slammed his head back against the wall, trying to get the fog to clear but instead seeing red and green sparks that faded and then burst to black.
The sun, creeping towards the horizon, woke him. He was laying on a stone step, in a doorway, the back of his head resting against battered, pink stucco that flaked away as he got shakily to his feet. With one hand shielding his eyes he looked at the sun, dipping low over two and three story buildings that threw shadows down like a broken sundial. He recognized some of the buildings as being in the heart of the tourist district. A few miles outside of town the resort where they had stayed clung possessively to a section of white, sandy beach. Steadying himself against the wall, he gently touched his stomach and reached out with his mind: he had lost hours–the entire flight–but the pixie was asleep.
Without knowing where he was going he made for the center of town, keeping his eyes on the sidewalk in front of him: a tourist, exploring the city. A week’s worth of remembered habit drove him in the general direction of the resort. His coat had vanished but his wallet, passport and cash remained. Part of his mind grappled with the idea that he would need somewhere to sleep but with a detached feeling of amusement he realized that this was the least of his worries.
He felt a childlike sense of freedom that was quickly replaced with confused urgency as the pixie shifted. As he hurried past shops and weaved between souvenir kiosks he pretended that Anna and Grace were just ahead–that he’d lost them in the crowd; he scanned it, looking not for agents of the Goblin King but for a slender woman with blond hair hanging in a heavy wave over her shoulders and a little girl with dark ringlets, carrying a snow-cone. Squinting at the sun he stopped at one of the kiosks and bought a cheap baseball cap, maroon with Mexican Nights spelled in sequins that trailed out over the brim.
How could he have left them? A day ago she’d been perched on the edge of his hospital bed. He’d laughed, trying to ignore the shafts of impossible sunlight that poured into the room from the hallway.
“I’m worried about you,” she’d said, one hand resting on his arm.
“That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? To get this thing out?”
“Yes…” She played with his fingers. “But we still don’t understand what might happen…”
The veil will dissolve, and both worlds will be destroyed.
She looked at him intently. “You’re hearing it again, aren’t you?” she said. “The voice?”
“I’m ignoring it.”
“You know it’s not real, don’t you? That it’s just… something you’re hearing?” She squeezed his hand fretfully. “Because that’s what I’m worried about. That nobody seems to understand why a tumor in your stomach is making you hear voices.”
Because I am not a tumor.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.” As he lied to her he thought about the dream-lessons he’d had, the way the pixie had taught him to see. The stories it had told him about the veil and about the Goblin King–how he had been chosen to carry the Pixie until it was strong enough to get to the rift and seal it from the other side. Had it all been a delusion?
Open your eyes.
He brushed Anna’s cheek gently with his free hand, but as he did the pixie lifted the veil and he saw the red glow behind her eyes that changed them from blue to purple, and a dark presence that coated her like a film.
She’s not Anna. Not anymore.
He started crying, and the thing that had been his wife held him and he let it, screwing his eyes shut and pretending in that moment that it was still Anna, wondering if he could leave her even knowing what she was and then he opened his eyes and saw a gibbering, leather-skinned creature like a monkey scamper into the room, that blurred and straightened into Grace as he blinked the tears out of his eyes and felt despair open up like a well in the back of his mind.
It’s not too late to save them.
He worked his way through the tourist center, hungry but not sure if he could eat, letting his feet carry him down residential streets and seeing Grace in his mind, skipping ahead.
“Xipe Totec,” he corrected softly as the sign loomed up on the right, red letters painted on a rough plank carved to look like driftwood.
It occurred to him that he shouldn’t be surprised that the place was boarded up, considering that though they had gone there almost every day he’d never seen any other customers. He peeked through the spaces between the wood at the round tables and unused bar, cut into shadowed sections by dust-filled panels of light.
He licked his lips and tasted hot cinnamon, remembering the dishes he’d had there almost every day for a week, dishes so hot that his tongue had burned long after the meal was over. The owner–bone thin, all sharp angles and with a brown face that Anna had said reminded her of cracked earth–had refused to tell him what the spice was, saying only that it was “passed down.” It made Grace and Anna gag, but he couldn’t get enough.
He sat on the curb and rested his forehead in his hands, thinking suddenly about how often he’d had that taste in his mouth since their trip ended. He’d associated it with his dreams, but now his mind filled with images of the strange owner and how she’d shuffled around in a long poncho, clicking as she walked as if her joints were constantly popping out and snapping back into place.
The world around him rippled and he felt himself driven up, walking stiff-legged away from the restaurant as red mixed with the blue in the sky like drops of blood that spread and mingled, and grass sprouted out of the cement at his feet.
There’s not much time left.
“What’s going on?”
The pixie didn’t answer, and as he staggered forward he felt as if he were drowning in himself, as if the pixie was too weak but if it could put him to sleep, it would. Instead he struggled, twisting and falling into the gutter only to stumble up again, not realizing why he was fighting but somehow thinking that he should.
Look around you.
The stucco buildings vanished, and he let the pixie steer him as he half-ran through a rocky pass, searching the outcroppings and shadows for agents of the Goblin King.
He gathers his forces.
The mountains fell away and he entered a wide valley, wondering if he’d lost time again as he looked back and saw the peaks far behind. Ahead, the valley opened up into a sparkling lake, a glowing red oval like an open maw hovering at its edge, dripping light.
Signs of what must have been a pitched battle surrounded him: blackened earth, and the bodies of armored goblins. He expected the pixie to explain but the voice in his head had gone silent. There were other people around him–what looked to be a human warrior in dark mail and a woman in a light leather tunic. There were others, as well, wandering the battlefield. He approached the woman. Close-up, she looked to be in her middle fifties with long, dark hair and glasses.
“Um… hi,” he said, the words sounding foolish as he spoke them aloud, “are you here to help close the veil?”
She peered at him through narrowed eyes and he wondered what she was seeing. “I’m here for the angels,” she said. “Are you one of the angels?”
“I don’t think so.”
He turned away, pondering the pixie’s silence and his own lack of urgency as he headed towards a young Asian girl dressed all in white. He wondered what she would say if he asked her why she was here but then a sudden pain twisted in his gut and he dropped to his hands and knees, tasting hot cinnamon, a burning sensation in his mouth and cool sand under his palms.
His body felt numb, as if his blood had touched something hot and pulled back. He felt movement and a tickling, scraping sensation in his chest. It occurred to him that he was dying. He flexed his jaws, his body convulsed and something flew out of his mouth.
When he opened his eyes again he was on his knees in the sand. The world around him had contracted, narrowed to the size of the creature that hovered a few feet in front of him: insectoid, eyeless, wings beating with a steady hum. He felt it in his mind–a tenuous connection but still there as it clicked its mandibles.
Where the veil had been a ship hovered, lined with blinking lights. Up and down what he realized suddenly was a beach, other creatures like the one in front of him hovered and buzzed in the moonlight and then moved as one towards the ship. He felt the connection between him and the creature severed as the ship rose into the air, a spinning machine the size of an SUV that hung against a carpet of stars, and then vanished.
His feet and hands tingled. His throat felt like rubber but he sensed the edges of coming pain. Ahead of him, the woman who had been in the tunic lay on her side, curled into a tight ball. He crawled over to her and she opened her eyes.
“There never were any angels,” she whispered. “There’s nothing. It was all a lie.”
“Was it?” he said as he fell back onto the sand and the pieces of what had happened began to spin slowly in his mind, jostling and bumping against each other, struggling to fit.
The Pixie Copyright © 2014 by Steven M. Long. All Rights Reserved.
The Bug Copyright © 2014 by Derek Benson. All Rights Reserved.