waking life

I had a dream tonight.

My dreams have been disturbing of late. Everything is on edge, a few minutes away from violence breaking out. Everyone is tense and the one thing that's clear is that nothing will be okay. By day I try to put on a smile, but I can feel the tension around me. Something is going to snap, and everything will fall apart when it does.

The worst part is I know I'm going to cause it, and I'm going to lose everything when it happens. That's not how it plays out in my dreams, but everyone else is so calm and collected. I'm the only one at the point of breaking. And that's when it all comes crashing down.

But for all that, I'm not afraid. I have this strange singularity of purpose, like nothing my fractured mind has ever felt. I know just what to do in every situation, and I'm not afraid of the fallout. This bothers me. I know I should be afraid. I should be trying to save face, to preserve my life, but I'm not. That's something that happens to other people.


lost and found

I've started calling the numbers on posters looking for missing pets and objects. Oh, I haven't found your cat, but I'd like to take you out to dinner tonight. I used to have a wallet that sounds kind of like your missing one. It might be I still have it somewhere. When I used to lose my keys, I got a carabiner and fidgeted with them all the time. I'd know as soon as I couldn't find them, then.

And so on. I had a small cache of lost things, but nobody ever seemed to be looking for them.

Mostly, they wouldn't respond. Some would just hang up, others would swear at me. But some would talk and listen. Once or twice they even agreed to meet me. I think they wondered what I wanted at first, whether I had some ulterior motive, but soon they forgot about that. We would talk about lost things.

It started, of course, with what they had lost. I'd tell them about things I'd lost in my time. My cat ran away when I was very young. I misplaced many of my favorite toys. One time, I put a magnet in a thing of silly putty, and I swear by all flowers, it vanished inside there. I looked for it for hours, though it was just a little round magnet, and there was no trace. And when I was older there have been still other things I've lost. We talked about them, too. Sometimes we thought we knew what happened. Sometimes they vanished to the whims of fate.

But that's not what we're really here to talk about. After a while, very casually, as if I'm not changing the subject at all, I'll say that a few years ago I lost a part of me that I've never got back. I talk about things that have scarred me--lost love, past mistreatment, mistakes, realizations that I can't take back. And they look at me, wondering if I'm joking. Most of them left, and I don't blame them.

One stayed behind. We came here to talk about things we've lost, she figured, didn't we? For every kitten who's run away, there's a past self we wish we still were. Once I was a boy who had never bled for someone who would not bleed back. Once she was a girl who had never spent six months in a lie. And we lost that.

The thing about lost things, she tells me, is that we're always still looking for them. They're frozen in time, just like they were before they left. Even twenty years on you still wonder if that's your kitten who just ran across the road.

I've forgotten what her poster was looking for. A wallet, some keys, a leather-bound notebook--I just know I haven't seen it. Some kid probably picked it up and wondered about it until he'd lost interest, the way I always do when I find lost things in the street. They remind me of the time when I was a boy who didn't find lost things in the street. A girl I knew took that from me, along with many other things.

I tell her I think I'm hoping that finding lost things might be the key to bringing something of mine back, and then she smiles. It's a warm smile and it encourages me, but it also fills me with the certainty that I'm entirely wrong about that. But for a little while, anyway, that's okay.


the stranger

On the bus today I realized that the world has become a completely alien place. Where before I would pass the time with people-watching, making up stories for each person I saw, today I saw a sea of empty faces. I had no idea what any of them meant, what they were like, what they should have been like. I fled the bus early and took back streets home, and found that the rows of what used to be very beautiful houses now just felt like imposing monoliths, telling me I don't belong here.

When I got home, I turned on the television and watched the evening news. I've always been a man of strong opinions on the news, but I felt only confusion as I watched. I was vaguely aware that something about the evening's events should have stirred my emotions, but I didn't actually feel anything. All I got out of it was the basic facts, bereft of feeling and context. Puzzled, I retired to my bedroom, only to find that it was no more familiar to me than a room at the Motel 6.

It's stranger still because I know I remember a time when I understood the world, when it made some sort of sense, and when I didn't retire at the end of the day feeling frightened and confused. But here I am, laying in bed, watching the lights from traffic play across the walls, and I don't remember what it was like.

I have no faith that it will get better tomorrow, but I have every confidence that I'll put on a smile and act like things are normal.



The darkest evening of the year.

When I was a kid--no older than five or six, I suppose--I cut my finger while we had a babysitter over. There was quite a lot of blood, and I was quite inconsolable. The babysitter asked me if she could kiss it and make it better, even though she knew that it wouldn't stop the bleeding. I let her, and it didn't, but I realized then--do you ever wonder about how perfect and clear some things are in childhood memories?--that she was, for lack of a better word, drinking my blood. I didn't understand, and that just made it worse.

Eventually, electrical tape and what used to be a clean rag solved the problem kissing wouldn't. I don't remember much after that. It was a singularly strange moment and it stuck with me, though. I know we had dozens of babysitters, and I don't remember most of them, but I always wondered about her as I was getting older. Raised as I was in a house with neither a mother nor sisters, she became an iconic female figure in my life, someone who would one day come in and make everything okay.

Of course, I never met her again, but I liked to imagine that the girl I dated through college looked just like her. Maybe she was a cousin or something. I never told her, of course, but I would come to her with my injuries, and she would tend to them. They were seldom bad, but after a particularly nasty accident on my bike, she was covered in my blood and insisting that I go to the hospital.

Instead I put a bloody finger to her lips, and she, understanding, kissed the blood off it, then the rest of my hand, then the oozing road rash on my legs and shoulders. Later I showered, the water flowing pink from my body, and she helped put salt on the wounds so they'd scab, and I never did get to the hospital. Some time a few months later we broke up in a quiet sort of way--no fights or official declarations, we just both realized that we hadn't seen each other in a while and didn't really want to. She never understood why, she told me years later as we met again at a class reunion.

I said that some people just drift apart, but that was a lie, like so many other things.


wormwood, pt. 33

The inside of the diner was dark, and so empty that Winston assumed at first that it had actually been deserted. But a girl who couldn't have been older than twenty greeted them cheerfully, and as his eyes adjusted to the gloom he noticed a handful of other patrons, lurking in dark corners, watching the newcomers with a detached suspicion.

For a moment it was possible to imagine that the world was not ending outside, that this was just a normal diner, that everything was going to be okay. Winston smiled at the waitress and said "three, please," and she showed them to a table and told them the day's specials like it was the most normal thing in the world.

"Of course," she said, "those have been the daily specials since the world started ending, but business has been slow so we aren't running out. You guys need a few minutes?"

They did, so she left them to reading over the menus. Winston tried not to look at his companions, afraid that one of them might comment on how strange this was. That would ruin the dream. Right now he wanted nothing more than some cheap coffee and some hideously greasy egg-based monstrosity. Worrying about safety or plausibility could come later.

As he eventually set the menu down, he noticed that the background was not music, but a news reporter talking about the situation in the world at large. Apart from the widespread rioting and natural disasters, things were bad abroad: militaries were arming and preparing to march, fueled by rumors that their neighbors had stockpiles of supplies that might help them through the worst of it.

The anchorman was starting to talk about water supplies when the waitress returned. "Have you guys decided what you want yet?"

The silence was shattered. Winston ordered his coffee and his greasy egg monstrosity and chatted with his companions and the waitress. News about the apocalypse would wait.



I've started seeing the lights flicker when they aren't. It took me a while to notice, since it happens most when it's quiet and there's nothing to distract me--no one there to tell me that the lights have been burning bright and strong this whole time. But then I asked someone if she saw the lights flickering and she said no, and since then I've had my eye out for it.

Time and again, the lights go dim--just for a fraction of a second--and time and again I ask if anyone saw that, and none of them did. I've had friends of mine who know more about electronics than I do monitor the lights and the circuits. Nothing. It's all in my head.

I notice it now without trying. For a while I tried to ignore it--it was nothing, after all--but it didn't work. I kept thinking. I kept seeing. So I started keeping track. Times, dates, what I was doing. I developed a shorthand for it, so I didn't need to waste any time to make note of it. I knew there was a pattern there, somewhere. The faltering lights were trying to tell me something. But what? I could see shapes in the data but I couldn't see how it pieced together.

I obsessed for a while, keeping all the lights on and doing nothing but keep track, until someone reminded me that perhaps the pattern had something to do with other activities. I tried to return to my daily tasks, but it was no use. The flickering distracted me too much.

In the end I settled for the one thing I knew: the lights can't flicker when it's dark. And so I surrendered to the dark, and finally knew peace again.



In the late spring of this year there was a storm. This is not altogether unusual, but as it is late autumn now--some might argue that it is already winter--and there was a storm tonight as well. Tonight, as then, there was hail, which is rare, and thunder and lightning, which is less so. But unlike tonight, in the late spring I was enjoying the company of a girl who, despite our differences, I rather liked--and envied, of course. She was my superior in many ways.

That night, just as tonight, the storm came on suddenly. It had been raining on and off all day, of course, but it came on suddenly. First we could hear the rain starting up again outside, softly at first but within a minute far more intense than any normal rain. And the winds howled and the lights flickered.

I did not lose power tonight, but we did that evening in the late spring. She had a large house. We had been enjoying some wine I remember very little about, and talking a great deal. I don't really remember about what, but I remember that my throat had been dry before she had poured us each a glass. There was a silence as the storm started. I was excited, but I did not know her well enough to interpret her expression.

Then, as now, I loved storms, and I assumed that perhaps she would be like me in that respect. I was going to kiss her then, with the sound of rain and hail pounding down around us. It would have been the first time. But the lights went out just then, and she got up, alarmed, and asked me for my flashlight.

And of course I gave it to her, and of course the moment had passed. I excused myself to my own home to see if I still had power. I didn't. I never found out if her power had returned before mine, but mine took a week. It was a cold week, but it seems to me as winter encroaches that most weeks are cold. I used to wonder why I remembered such days, but these days, I begin to understand.


rainy days

The rains had been falling for a few days, and weren't showing any signs of letting up. The radio was saying we hadn't seen the worst of it yet, and the grocery stores had already been picked clean. Anyone who wanted to leave town already had, and everyone else was holing up at home, preparing for what I'm sure they thought was the end of days. The streets were deserted. Anyone who was still out was hurrying to shelter or hiding under raincoats and umbrellas. I went out in a light windbreaker and no hat, smiling up into the falling rain like an idiot. The streets may have been filling with water, but they were mine.

I walked to my girlfriend's house instead of driving, and by the time I got there I was soaked clear through, and she asked what the hell happened. I tried to tell her--in the rain everything is beautiful and I am king, but I couldn't shape the words right, she didn't understand. She told me I was an idiot, instead.

I told her it was freeing, cleansing, and she just asked me what was I going to do with this freedom? If I was king, what was the point of it? what could I rule? and of course I didn't have any answer, because there was none. So I said it made me smile, and she said it made me cold. And she was right there, too. I spent the night shivering and wrapped in blankets, trying to imagine some good that might have come of my brief reign over the city streets.


wormwood, pt. 32

Rosalind woke feeling refreshed, and for a while wouldn't open her eyes so she could pretend she still lived in a world that wasn't ending. For that moment, she was still in their apartment, Nicole playing guitar, and everything was right with the world.

It wasn't a particularly compelling fantasy. She opened her eyes, stretched, and sat up. Nicole was on the hood of the guitar, picking at the strings with a screwdriver, lost in a world that was probably a lot more pleasant than the one everyone else currently occupied. She glanced up and smiled when she heard the car door open, but didn't stop playing. Rosalind decided to take a look around.

The car was parked pretty well out of sight, hidden in a dark place but without anything likely to collapse on top of it. This was probably ideal, as the city had picked up a fair amount of foot traffic--she could dimly see shapes moving around, and fending off looters wasn't exactly her idea of a good time.

Then again, neither was waiting. This new world was full of unpleasant things. Too many variables, not enough control over any of them.

She kicked at a pile of rubble irritably and turned back to the car. Winston had probably got lost or killed, but she was still waiting for him for some reason--because he had some harebrained plan to get out of the city on some guy's boat. A plan she was sure would fail, but which had the advantage of being a definite way out of the city and away from the rest of civilization.

If it worked. It galled her that the only alternative she could think of was "drive out of the city" more than the fact that every scenario she envisioned ended in disaster. She had to have better ideas than this. Something which might end positively for all involved.

So she paced, never straying too far from the car, and thought. So much for the benefits of a restful sleep.


the winds have changed

Desert winds are strong, but they're not strong enough.

The winds here blow us temperate weather from the sea. Sometimes it's cold and stiff, but even in the biggest windstorms it's not enough to sweep away my regrets or cover up the past. I often worry about that. I've tried all sorts of rituals to give the winds the power to carry memories away--most of them turned out to be nothing more than old wives' tales and meaningless folklore.

I think I kept trying mostly just out of habit. So when the winds shifted from the west to the north, I was surprised, but not hopeful. And then I noticed that the winds were really working as I'd wanted. They were powerful gusts, and bitter cold. They drove everyone from the streets.

They made me forget. Finally, I was at peace. I smiled at night as the winds howled and the lights flickered, while others boarded up their windows and prepared for the worst.

But the winds blew something else with them. People started wandering north, and they couldn't even tell you why, following the whistle of the wind, going ever farther until they found themselves in lands which the summer doesn't touch. They'd settle down there, having forgotten everything but their desire to live here in the taiga.

They would be mourned, but briefly. Those left behind would forget about them soon, too.



I've been working on a new project. It doesn't really fit here, so updates have been slow. I'd apologize but I'm sure you could use a break.

The rain shouldn't be this warm, but there's not a lot you can do about reality when it happens. I go outside without a coat on and let the rain soak me and instead of shivering in the cold, it's warm like rain in the summer is warm. And the temperatures are still in the 40s outside and it should feel colder than this. But it doesn't.

Nobody else seems to believe me. They only go out when they have to, and they're still protected from it, they're still carrying umbrellas and wearing coats. They hurry like it's still cold, and when I ask if they can feel how warm it is, they say they try not to feel it at all.

People look at me like I'm a crazy person, or, sometimes, with pity. They say things like "I'd hate to be dressed like that in this weather." And I wish I could tell them how warm it is, but they wouldn't believe me. They need to go out there and experience it for themselves. Then they'd know.

But as it stands, the winter came and it brought an impossible warmth, and I'm the only one who knows about it.



The coldest night I've ever experienced happened in the winter several years ago. There were record low temperatures across the state, and I'd been spending the evening with a girl who I'd been friends with for many years, and hadn't seen for a year or two. Neither of us knew about the pending cold snap that night, so we both had light coats.

We were eating at a nice Italian place a few blocks from her place, and we both had more wine than was probably wise. The sun set quickly, as it does in the winter. It was a few blocks from her place. It was ridiculously cold, and we hurried back to her place to warm up. She made hot chocolate with coffee liqueur. We drank and laughed and looked up weather reports which kept calling the cold here "historic." I told her I wondered what that meant.

We started kissing on the couch then--we never had before--and then at some point I mumbled something about needing to go home. She told me I could stay if I wanted, with all the subtext that implied. I made up some excuse about needing to tend to something at home, like making sure the pipes hadn't frozen or something like that. And I put my coat on and left.

It was a long walk home and I was ill-prepared for the temperatures. My hands and feet were frostbitten by the time I got to my house, and I spent the evening wrapped in blankets and shivering, wondering what I was running away from.


city snow

Everyone told me that winter would take some time to arrive. It was still warm enough, with the winds cool but not cold and the skies full of rain but not snow. There would be warning. That's what everyone said. Then in one night the temperatures plummeted and the water froze and by morning the city was covered in snow and completely paralyzed. And already it was like the winter had been there forever.

That's when everyone started telling me that it wouldn't warm up soon. It would keep snowing, the temperatures wouldn't rise. Everything from this point on would be snow and ice. The roads would remain impassible until the end of time. Then in one night the temperature rose and the snow turned to rain and all the ice started melting, leaving the grimy yellow and grey slush in its wake, and by the next day even that was gone.

The trouble is, I believed them both times--that winter wasn't just around the corner, that winter would never leave. And I'm pretty sure I'll keep believing them.


wormwood, pt. 31

They had finally got into the city limits when Winston's car died. "We can walk the rest of the way. It'll be several hours but maybe it's for the best."

His efforts at optimism were, unfortunately, short-lived. His passenger said, "And what happens if we run into trouble on the road? Do we carry all your survival equipment or just hope your friend's got enough for us? What happens when we decide the car is a better shelter than the open road?"

"I guess we'd better be careful," conceded Winston. He wasn't as good at this as Rosalind. The best he could do was stick to the plan, and that was seeming more and more dubious. The idea of the boat, which once sounded like a ticket out of chaos for a while, sounded more like a ticket to becoming one of those shipwreck survival stories--without, he thought with a wry smirk, the survival part.

But waiting here wasn't going to work, and his passengers knew it. They each shouldered some of his gear and started walking through the broken city. But tempers were tight by now, and everyone was on edge. Winston tried to pick a route that would keep them away from other people, but he wasn't sure of the wisdom of this idea. What if they needed help?

But the more they walked, the more Winston found himself flinching at any sound. Stepping over piles of rubble or walking through dry grass seemed unbearably loud. On the rare occasion anyone spoke, he felt like the whole city could hear them. Maybe it could. Maybe the reason they hadn't seen anyone since leaving the car was because they were being watched, and a perfect ambush was being planned.

What felt like forever into the walk, they ran across a diner. The open sign was still blinking, and the door was unlocked. Inside, a waitress waved at them. Just outside the door sat a chalkboard bearing the legend: Special: A reprieve from the apocalypse!

As one does in strange dreams, they didn't stop to discuss or think about entering. They merely walked through the door.


worst case scenario

What could possibly happen?

I can see into the future that never was. Every time I see an event I see how it could go wrong, how it could end in a disaster--even just buying groceries, I see a future where the clerk decided that the last customer was one customer too many. I see riots, murder, fires. The whole chain of events. Lengthy courtroom scenes, jail time, death tolls, media circus.

Except in the past week, every single one of them ends exactly the same way: with the world ending. And not in different ways. Everything that could go wrong goes wrong in the exact same way. It sets off a chain of events--the same chain--that turns into the apocalypse. It doesn't matter what it is I'm looking at. Waiting for the light to change, ordering a pizza, writing a letter to my sister. It all ends with the world ending.

When it started I was a little worried that I was one mistake away from an apocalypse, but after a few days it didn't bother me anymore. With the end at hand I just can't be bothered with the senseless minutiae that make up day-to-day existence. There's so much more to the world, and so little time left to enjoy it. And so what if this newfound hedonism brings about the end? It's time I stopped being haunted by potential catastrophes and just fucking embraced one.



I dated a girl once who saw the world how it really is. That's what she always told me, anyway. What I know is that I have never known anyone who seemed quite so sad, and that was enough to make me believe her. I never thought that the happiest people in the world were the ones who were paying attention to it.

When we met, she told me who I was, and from that point on she was right. Even now, when everything else has changed, what she said right then has stuck with me, defined me, given me something to hold on to. That's what she did for people. Sometimes she'd tell them who they were, sometimes she'd tell them how things worked, and then that became more real than anything else--a little glimpse at how the world really was.

It's possible that's not how it worked. I still don't know why she started dating me, or why she stayed with me for as long as she did. Not really. She said that people helped make the world more bearable, but that doesn't explain the specifics--she never would. Any time I'd let her down she'd give me the most heartbreaking look, like she knew it was coming but she hoped that, just this once, I'd prove her wrong.

I never did prove her wrong, and one day I finally lost the chance. I hope she's found someone who could.


wormwood, pt. 30

Winston stood a few feet from the thick red sludge that moved through the riverbed, his companions a few paces further back. "Well," he said, "that certainly looks like blood."

"You think it is, though?"

"I don't know. I mean, I've read things about, like, the canonical ten plagues of Egypt and how the rivers-to-blood scenario could have been some kind of toxic algae bloom--"

"Do you really believe that, kid?"

Winston hesitated. He certainly didn't believe that the waters had actually changed to blood. And yet, he didn't believe the world was going to end this week, but--well, the evidence wasn't holding up that theory very well. "It doesn't matter. If the water here's gone bad, we need to get the hell out of here and hope it's only localized."

"And if it's not?"

"Get in the car. We'll figure it out when we get there."

They headed into the city. Rosalind had been right--there were no patrols left. But after a while they started noticing some signs of life on the road--and even passed a moving car or two. Mostly they were on foot though, sometimes in small groups and sometimes alone, and often waving for them to stop. If Winston didn't already have a reason to drive as fast as he could, he had it now.


daylight savings

It never seems like the days actually get shorter gradually, so much as one day you find yourself going out at five o'clock and it's dark, and you realize it will be that way for a long time. The afternoons are short and the harsh angles of an autumn sun make everything look more ephemeral than the leaves ever could, which sometimes seem like they never actually go away.

I am reminded of a time in the summer--on the shortest night of the year, actually. It had been raining but the sun had just come out, but we went out to the park, she and I, and climbed trees and read to each other from our favorite books. The light seemed softer than it does now--the angles, and the temperature, and everything. It's a light that feels like it will last forever, as summer so often does.

But the summer faded and so did we, and I'm left here with it getting dark at five every night and no one to go home to, no one to climb trees with or to read to. And though they always tell me autumn's short, I've never really understood why. The dark and the cold and the rain are going to be here for months. We haven't even reached the longest night yet.



But that's not why I'm lonely.

I have planted an orchard that provides an unlimited quantity of beautiful, ripe, delicious fruit. It's never out of season and it grows back as soon as someone picks it, so there's no harm in letting people wander the fields and pick and pick until they can't eat or carry any more. It's good enough to sell to the markets, and it never spoils and it doesn't cost anything more than time to gather, so I can sell it at incredibly low prices and still make a fortune. I've been the subject of considerable media attention and am seen as something of a hero, both locally and nationally. I've set up volunteer programs to gather fruit to send to the poor and the homeless.

At night I close the fields. Sometimes there will be parties in the orchard--some of the more picturesque areas of it, anyway--and they are always a success. When the merrymakers have gone, I walk alone among the trees, or sit among the remains of the evening's revelries. There is no one there to hear me or see me or watch me. Here, there is no one to tell me once again how brilliant I am, how grateful they are for what I've done, how glad that it was me and not someone else.

Maybe that should be enough. Maybe I should be happy to have some time to myself. But sometimes as the evenings wear on at the parties I find myself watching some couples talking quietly and excitedly, laughing at each other's jokes not because they are heroes but because they actually think they are funny. Some of them escape for what I'm sure they think are secret trysts among the endless rows of trees. And as I watch, I realize that I want that, too. But the only smiles and laughs I get are polite, because I am, as they always tell me, a great man. And every time I get another compliment about my work I distance myself from everyone else a little more, and I long for the loneliness of the trees just a little bit more.



I have cast off all unnecessary contact with others in order to finish my work--my masterpiece, my magnum opus. When I run out of food I shuffle out of the home--almost invariably late at night--and make purchases from the self-check-out. But I eat less and less these days. There is so much to think about, and there's no time for distractions.

My work is ever-expanding as I write and think more. New possibilities unfold before me as I ponder them and review what I already have--a turn of phrase that I hadn't paid thought to before suddenly contains the core of a beautiful idea. I often wonder if my subconscious is creating these wonderful thoughts for me, or if it is the stroke of luck. Can luck make a masterpiece? Such things keep me awake during the bare hours I allow for myself to sleep.

People still tried to call me, and I kept my phone on in case something vitally important happened, but mostly it was friends and family trying to see if I was okay. I learned to ignore their calls, which grew more frequent as time wore on. More frequent, that is, until tonight.

I have not received any phone calls to ignore. Not a single soul has tried to find out where I am, how I'm doing. I should have been glad of the chance to work without interruption, but here I am sitting here, staring at the phone, begging it to ring. There is no one out there who still wonders.


wormwood, pt. 29

After they had finished doing recon, Rosalind let Nicole drive--or at least, that's the version of events she was planning to tell anyone who challenged her on finding her curled up in the back. Originally she was taking inventory, making sure she had everything while Nicole wove her way on side streets and detours towards the waterfront. After a while she simply passed out.

She awoke, as sleeping passengers always seem to, when the car finally came to a halt, but chose to lay still for the moment, her eyes still closed. She could hear Nicole rummaging around for something. Then she opened the trunk and got out of the car. A few moments later the trunk slammed shut and she sat down on the hood. Not long after, the air smelled of cigarettes.

"Where are we?" Rosalind asked eventually.

"The waterfront. I hid the car pretty well, as far as that goes. You all right?"


"Give me your phone and I'll tell Winston where to go if he calls again. You should get some sleep."

"Right, sleep. What's it look like out there?"

"Still dark. The skyline's almost all gone, but some of it's still burning. And it looks like there's some life out there--survivors moving around. We might not be alone out there."

"That's probably a bad thing."

"Get some sleep. I've got your back."

Rosalind nodded and pulled a coat over herself and curled up tighter in the backseat. After a while the cigarette smell went away, replaced by the sound of a lonely guitar coming from not far away. And for the first time in what felt like forever, she slept easily.


who will love my ironies?

A wild ode mentioned at New West hotel over wine infusions, light, lit, lofted on very eventertaining moods, yawning in return, open nights, inviting everyone's song . . . .

There's a girl I used to know, who I guess you'd call whimsical, if anyone really used that word anymore--which they don't, which is a shame, because it's a good word. But that's what she was, and she was innocent and alive in a way that I'm not, and she liked me because I wasn't these things. I was jaded--or maybe, since we're using words nobody uses, world-weary. Like a detective in a noir film. I appreciated her joie de vivre because I did not have any, and I smiled to remember a time when I still saw poetry in the world. That's what drew me to her. She was poetry. She was something beautiful. I was just someone who'd been around too long, someone who had long ago killed and buried the young idealist I used to be.

I knew I'd only end up hurting her, but I let her in anyway. I keep saying maybe it was unavoidable, but no. I know just where I could have said no, could have changed everything. I don't think about that part of it anymore. I try not to think about her at all, but sometimes when the guests are filing out and I'm regretting opening that last beer, or when I'm getting ready for bed after a long day of distractions, I remember.

I let her in. I wish the worst I did was taint something beautiful with my cynicism, but it's always more than that. No, I ruined her. I took everything she hoped for away from her. I turned her out on the street with nothing. I heard she went home. She has her whole life ahead of her, but she has some scars to deal with first.

When I think of her at all, I wish I'd think of her more. I wish I could do something more. But if there's one thing I'm good at--one thing humans are good at--it's forgetting, until the day is over and there's no one left to help you forget. And that would be unbearable, but the morning always comes, bright and wonderful and full of opportunity to pretend nothing ever happened, especially not the things that define us.


the impossible

My colleagues are men of science. They are men who know how the world works, who have an intuitive grasp of all of its laws and impossibilities. Me, I don't believe in the impossible. I just believe in irony.

A girl brought a device in today that was impossible. She was there when I arrived, and my colleagues were trying to figure it out. Some insisted it must have been some sort of a trick. Some were, more generously, attempting to explain away the impossibility--which is to say: it wasn't a trick, we were merely deceived. She seemed to find their explanations unsatisfactory. It wasn't a trick. We weren't wrong about it. It was just a thing that couldn't be.

Eventually I asked if I could have a look. My colleagues do not respect me because I do not see the world as they believe that it is--I see it as poetry and beauty and magic, as stupid events and senseless narratives all run together. But they had quite given up. I inspected it for a while, then set it down on the table. I told them it wasn't impossible.

My colleagues demanded clarification. I turned the device on, and it worked. "You see? It's working. Clearly they did something right."


wormwood, pt. 28

The day still hadn't come some hours after Winston finally heard from Rosalind, but he was feeling in better spirits anyway. His companions had left the car and joined him on the roadside. They made a fire, and things almost felt normal for a while. He stopped worrying that everything would get even worse. He had a way out, companions, and he was reasonably certain Rosalind would actually come through. She usually did in the end.

They'd discovered a river running nearby, and Winston's companion had gone to investigate--their water supplies weren't running low, but it was never a bad thing to have more. It was at this moment that Rosalind finally called.

"Hey, it's about time."

"Yeah, okay. Did you stay put like I asked?"

"Where else would I go?"

"Well, good news. I did some recon. The freeway into town from your direction's collapsed, so even if there were patrols left they wouldn't be watching that way."

"Good news?"

"Drive on the surface streets. Go slow. There's no patrols left out there--you might even be able to loot some of their old checkpoints. Meet us at the docks. If your friend is actually trustworthy we should be able to get out of here as soon as he's ready."

Winston's companion returned at that point, holding a cup of some thick red liquid. He sat down opposite the fire and poured it out on the ground. His wife said, "What is it?"

"The river seems to have turned to blood."

Rosalind was saying, "Hello? Are you still there? Winston?"

Winston said, "I'm going to have to call you back." He hung up. "Let's drive. We've got to get out of here," he said, and he wished he believed that driving would help them accomplish that goal.



She approached me one evening to ask me on a date. I'd seen her around the office before--some friend of some other official or something, I was never clear what she actually did there, officially speaking. I agreed, and it wasn't long before I realized she was simply trying to ply me with wine and romance in order to gain access to me--my secrets, my clearance. I told her I wanted none of it.

She made a very impassioned plea--something she'd been saving, I think, in case her charms didn't work at first. If I could help her I could save millions. I won't lie: her cause seemed just and fair. If it didn't I would have turned her in right there. But it was more than my job and my life was worth to help her, especially going only on her word that it would be done, that I would be safe. As it was I merely declined and warned her not to try anything further.

I was out of town when I saw her face on the news--one of our top officials had been murdered, and she was even now being taken to jail. She made no attempt to escape when they found her. She was to be brought to justice. They flew me back home to be questioned by the prosecutors--did I know anything?

The questions seemed to last all night. I thought of the justice of her cause, the necessity of what she did. I thought of what she'd asked me to do, of the danger she could have put me in if I'd said yes. And I thought of the danger she had put me in just by asking me, and my not telling anyone--all she'd have to do is speak my name or give me a glance and they'd know. Of course they would.

What else could I do? I asked for immunity if I testified. They granted it. I became part of a long string of witnesses, unmasking a conspiracy--she didn't act alone, and the trial brought everything down. Everything she did and worked for would be undone in short order.

She sort of disappeared from the news after the trial. They sentenced her to death, of course, but that takes forever in our courts. It could be months or years before the execution--and the anger of the mob died as soon as it came. Sometimes I'll skim the headlines for her name, though. I'll always wonder what could have been.



Charlotte, my Charlotte: I loved your surprises.

I was her way in, of course. It wasn't just her--she convinced me of the need for her infiltration, and I promised her over fine wine in discrete clubs that I could get her there. And if I believed her when she smiled at me and took my hand and kissed me on the cheek, I still believed her when she said that what I was doing would save millions.

So I pulled strings. I bribed guards. I told her how to bypass our security protocols. All perfectly discretely. She had more supporters than she knew on the duty roster that night, all of them more than willing to look the other way. And when I told her it was all done, she kissed me farewell and said that perhaps we'd meet again one day.

That night they flew me out of town and I watched the news from my hotel room. They reported on the murder--police tape everywhere, statements from government officials refusing to identify the victim. And they showed her picture, smiling and innocent. There was no talk of politics or causes. No talk of the lives she'd saved.

Then they showed footage of her being dragged into the police car. The next morning I flew back home. I was there as they transferred her to a higher security facility, among the cameramen and journalists. I shouted her name but she looked right past me, like I was just another faceless bureaucrat. Perhaps I was. Or perhaps she just wanted to protect me.

No letters or secret messages. Not even a glance. The prosecutors talked to me but decided that I knew nothing. And at her trial she never looked at me once, but she seemed to be smiling, just slightly. At least one of us thinks it was all worthwhile.



The absence of light is its own stubborn light.

There were only a few people in the elevator with me when the building lost power. It wasn't just the elevator stopping--everything just went completely and utterly black. It was a bright cold day outside. Nobody had any idea what happened, and the call button was, of course, dead.

Mostly, though, I was worried about being trapped in a lightless box with a handful of panicking people. I'd left my flashlight in my bag, which was on my desk. And the dim light of a cell phone isn't enough to really see or make anything better, but it was enough that we could all have a seat. Someone said we were all going to die in here. Someone else said no we weren't. The first person kept panicking for a while and the second person kept trying to say we'd be fine, they'd restore power soon and we'd get out and everything would be fine.

Then it was quiet for a while, and the girl next to me told us her name, and where she worked, and all those little mundane details that make up who you tell people you are. Then she finished, and it was quiet again until someone else spoke up and gave the same spiel. And so on, and so on.

It was calming, rote, meaningless. I didn't say anything until the silence seemed like it wasn't going to lift. Then I said: but who are you? The girl next to me ventured that they had just said, and I said no, you haven't.

More silence. Then she tried something--really explaining who she was, not just what she did. What made her the only person like her in the world. What the world would be missing if the elevator never left. This time it didn't turn into a series of everyone listing their own traits. It was a conversation, just humans in the dark having real human interactions. Before long they were telling stories like they'd known each other forever.

The lights flickered back on. Everyone blinked at each other and the lights and stood back up and we all hit the button for our respective floors and stood there awkwardly, like nothing had ever happened.


wormwood, pt. 27

I might need to tangle myself with the degenerate plant of a strange little vine.

As Rosalind distracted herself with planning, Nicole opened a window and smoked the cigarette she'd stolen from the cop. The silence made her uneasy but there was a breeze and there was something refreshing about that--like even when the world's ending there are still nice things out there.

For Rosalind, "we" usually meant "me," and she was scribbling maps on whatever paper she had in her bag, lost in her own little world, so Nicole gave her some space. When she was ready she'd talk and they'd be off.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder. "You got any more of those?"

"Yeah, sure." Nicole tossed her a few packs from her bag. "Least I can do."

"Well, here." The woman handed her an unopened bottle of absinthe. "In case you ever have cause to celebrate something, I guess. I don't think I'll be needing it any time soon."

Nicole smiled and slipped it into her bag. "That'll be nice, eventually. How long have you been up? I didn't know anyone else was awake."

"Can't sleep without the noise of the city." The woman laughed. "I always said it felt like there was something wrong when it was quiet, and that's why I can't sleep without it."

"Funny how that works." They stood together in silence for a while, smoking and watching the darkened city's fitful sleep.

Behind them, Rosalind got to her feet. "Get your things together, Nicole. We're going on a road trip."



When I told my girlfriend I didn't feel at home in my new place, she insisted on a housewarming party. I didn't argue, partly because she was usually right, but mostly because it seemed to make her happy, planning and inviting everyone. She put up some decorations--nothing fancy, but she said it would help liven the place up.

It didn't.

The angles and the corners didn't look right. The shadows were too long and too deep, the creaking of the doors and the house settling just a little off. She replaced the light bulbs and put up posters and it only seemed to make things worse--the light in the living room was too bright and still that weird creeping darkness came in on the edges of the room. The attempts to cover it with potted plants and additional lamps only seemed to make things worse.

There was something unsettling in the atmosphere of the kitchen, which she assumed to be the work of a draft. She was confident that when guests arrived they would warm the place up to habitable levels, but the kitchen remained almost deserted through the night, leaving much of the food and drink in there all but untouched.

Nobody stayed long. They sat around the too-bright living room, squinting and eyeballing the dark corners uneasily, had uneasy, awkward small talk, and left, suddenly reminded of some pressing engagement. Those who did stay avoided conversation entirely--and after a while, they stopped even feigning interest in food or drink. They just sat there.

A while after midnight we ushered them out, and on the doorstep they blinked and smiled and thanked us for a wonderful time, and though my girlfriend was sure they were just being polite I could have sworn they were being sincere, despite the haunted, unsettled looks in their eyes.

She lamented that the party was a disaster, and tried to come up with reasons--things I should complain about to the landlord, she said. They were all very logical and plausible explanations, and left out the possibility that the house was simply fundamentally not right.

When I suggested we sleep at her place that night, she agreed a little too quickly, and we left the house in peace.


wormwood, pt. 26

I'm going to shoot for weekends for feeding you wormwood.

Rosalind hung up the phone and turned back to the window, tapping her foot restlessly. After a moment, she turned back. "Winston needs help, apparently."

Nicole lifted her head. "So you have a plan then?"

"Not as such, no. But once we have his location I'll think of something. Goals are important. You've got to have goals."

"That's, uh--"

"Winston can take care of himself. Says he's found a friend who'll take us all off to sea in a boat, and save us from living forever in a little shop downtown."

"You don't sound too sure."

"Mind you, I do love the little shop."


"Just thinking of everything that could go wrong, and this is before I've even started planning. This isn't going to end well at all."

"You okay?"

"Yeah, sure." Her phone beeped. "That'll be Winston telling us where he is. Smoke 'em if you got 'em. We've got some planning to do."


address service requested

I wrote you a letter when the world ended. I guess that was a stupid idea, but I didn't know what else I could do. When I got to your house you weren't there, but the letter was, still in your mailbox with a bunch of junk mail and bills. I guess some people don't know the world is over. I guess I was the only one who thought to write.

I didn't really know what to do. I thought you'd be here. Your house looked the same as it always did. There was some food left, even, like you were just out for the weekend. I stayed for a while. There were no neighbors to ask where you'd gone, and all their houses seemed the same. Sometimes they'd gathered some things up in a hurry, but always there were things left.

I waited for you. I moved in to your neighborhood. I'd prepared. I could have stayed there indefinitely if I needed to. I wasn't planning on it but I could have--I was waiting and what else was there to do? But you never came.

Eventually--I didn't keep track of the days, and eventually the mail stopped coming--some of the neighbors came back. I asked about you and they told stories. You weren't doing well. You were drinking too much, gambling too much, smoking too much. You took risks. It was vague, but it made me smile. They wouldn't talk about why they left, what you were doing away, why you hadn't come back. They didn't know if you mentioned me because they didn't know who I was.

Someone gave me a map of where you'd been, and I set out to find you. I took my letter, just in case. When I got there they wouldn't talk about you, but they gave me more directions and I walked on further.

It must have been weeks before I found you, asleep on a torn old couch, looking so peaceful and happy, and who was I to interrupt? I left the letter on the coffee table next to the mostly empty bottle of bourbon, and I started back home.

I hope you're well.


there is a light

...but I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.

Last night I sliced my palm open with a razorblade. There was quite a lot of blood. I wasn't drunk but I was crazy, desperate, furious--like most people without much in the way of hope. I guess I said a lot of things, but I don't really remember any of it. It's just shapes and feelings and images. I remember her face, things she said, and the empty feeling of an empty room once she'd left and I was alone on the floor, bleeding.

I've bound it up since then. She saw me this afternoon and wouldn't look at me.

It had nothing to do with her. It never does. We'd let each other down so many times there's no depths to which we can't sink. She's dependable like that. When I'm tired of the rest of the world being fucked she's always there. Sometimes she helps. Mostly she makes me so upset I do something crazy again. And in the morning the world's still fucked but I'm so pissed at her and distracted by my hand to really care.

I took a bus back home tonight and dropped my wallet on the way back. I was listening to headphones and not paying much attention, and settled into a seat, and a man came up to me and handed me my wallet--Here, you dropped this, and for the first time in a while I smiled and said thanks. And for a moment at least I wasn't so worried about things.



I had a sister once, but she drowned. I was a kid and barely remember--little flickering scenes from the funeral home, but nothing from the funeral. My mother's face, and how I thought she looked so tired and sad and so I didn't ask any questions, though now it seems like I must have had a thousand questions. I don't remember what any of them were. It's mostly left me with a fear of the water. Even when it rains, there's just this generalized panic, like something is going to go terribly wrong. Naturally, I spend the winter in Seattle terrified.

The thing is I'm not afraid of something happening to me. It's other people. The water makes people disappear, and then they lie there all pale and still in a nice dress they never wore while somber men in dark suits stand by, watching, speaking only in muted, respectful tones.

It comes and goes. Some people know what causes their mood swings, but I find it about as explicable as the ocean's currents. They tell me there's a pattern, that you can study it, but it seems to me that it's just a lot of chaotic waves crashing on the rocks. But some days I don't mind walking past the beach with all those vulnerable people there. Other days I cringe when my date drinks water at the restaurant.

On my bad days I have this urge to help people escape, to get them somewhere dry and safe. I know this is crazy, that they are fine, that people gather on beaches daily without dying. It's not hard to restrain myself from trying to save them. The hard part is knowing that I don't want to help people with any of their real problems. I just want to keep them from doing this to someone else's mind.


you'll not feel the drowning

I found some old notebooks the other day. They weren't from that long ago--maybe a year or two at most. I was reading through them, and though it was definitely my handwriting, I didn't recognize anything I'd written. Some of them I remembered but no longer understood. Others were just words masquerading as something that came from my mind.

I showed them to the girl I was dating at the time, who said she remembered them--I showed her everything at the time. "Why does it matter?" she asked, and I didn't have an answer. Over the course of dinner I spent a lot of time thinking about it. By the time we'd gone our separate ways and I was riding a late-night bus back home, I'd figured it out.

I almost hadn't written these at all.

Everything from that time felt alien and remote to me, and it's because they aren't really my memories. They're from someone else, someone I'd long since killed, buried, forgotten. But they still clung to me, their grasping hands shaping who I was. I had to get rid of them. There was nothing else for it.

It's hard to force yourself to drown, but this was a matter far more urgent than life or death. It was a strangely beautiful sensation as the world went dark, and I awoke in a strange hospital all full of tubes and surrounded by concerned faces. They asked why I tried to kill myself, and I said I didn't, I didn't. I kept asking for a mirror. They eventually brought it out, and I looked at my face and just smiled.

priority mail

I was supposed to carry an urgent message across the sea. They put me on the fastest ship available, gave me a guard to make sure I was secure, and we set sail. They didn't tell me what was in the letter, only said that it would avert unspeakable disaster. They had every confidence in my ability. So did I, I guess. It was supposed to be just a matter of waiting.

When the storm came up I wasn't worried until the captain came down to tell me that everything would be fine. I told him this was important, and he said he knew. I told him that lives depended on it. He said that would have been true even if I wasn't on the ship. And the storm got worse, and I told the captain to keep going, this was important.

The winds dashed us against some rocks--nobody saw them, it wasn't anybody's fault, but we started taking on a lot of water. And no matter how much I said this was important, we were sinking. The sea, it seems, doesn't care how important you are.


signs and portents

She always watched the stars for signs and portents. Any time something happened she'd always tell me, "There's no such thing as coincidence," and after a while I started to believe her. For me I always said it was all about the science of things, how everything is connected, everything affects everything else. There's nothing random. Everything happens for a reason. Really though, it was a bit more mystical than that.

When we were together the signs were all there that we were meant to be. Everything was perfect in ways that only completely unplanned things can be. And I stopped trying to justify it and lived in the moment. All of this happened because it was supposed to happen. The universe wanted it to be.

Unfortunately, as someone once said, nothing good ever lasts.

It wasn't fate that came between us. We were never star-crossed lovers. It was us. Things had taken a bad turn for both of us and there was tension and there was fighting and there were things said that couldn't be unsaid, things done that couldn't be forgiven. But for a while we both held on, because we were meant to be, weren't we? We could overcome. We had to. We didn't.

It was beautiful and sunny when I saw her for the last time. We met at the coffee shop where we had our first date. She had her bags packed and I asked her why this wasn't working. There were so many signs it was right, it was meant to be. And she smiled through teary eyes and said "Maybe it was just the perfect coincidence."


logic puzzles

I recently got trapped in that classic logic puzzle--the one about the labyrinth with two guards, one of whom always tells the truth and one of whom always lies. I know that you're supposed to use their stories to lead you to safety, but instead I found camaraderie with the guards.

I expected the guard who always tells the truth to be better company, but he was inescapably dull. He described the world without any sort of flourish at all. You know how a photographer can make everyday objects into a thing of beauty? A picture of a coffee table can be far more beautiful than the table ever will. The truthful guard could make a thing of beauty into an everyday object.

He meant well. How could he not? He could do nothing but wear his heart on his sleeve. I could put up with the boredom, I guess, but he was more than just dull. There's something profoundly unsettling about seeing the world through a lens which strips everything of its pretense and its airs, and actually describes things how they are. So much of human existence is about seeing things in any way except as they are.

No, I've been drinking with the guard who lies. He tells beautiful stories and the lens through which he views the world is comfortable and familiar. I don't believe a word he says but I don't really have to. Lies are not so binary as the logic puzzle would have you believe, and at least this feels like home. One of these days I guess I'll have to ask which path I should take to get out of the labyrinth. I just never figured it would be to escape hearing another uncomfortable truth.


true love waits

Since she left, I've kept the house just the way it was. I want her to come back and see that nothing has changed. I'm still here. Everything is still here, just the way she left it. For a few weeks I'd still let people come over, but it became too much of a hassle to make sure everything was right where it was. Sometimes I had to piece it together from old photographs, and sometimes it wasn't possible to get it perfect. I know she'll notice.

I allow myself a little change in the kitchen and in the guest room where I spend my days, but it's only for the necessities--eating and sleeping, mostly. Even then I clean up after myself as much as possible. Sometimes I read one of the books that's been laying around, but only if doing so wouldn't disturb anything for long.

When I can't stand the emptiness anymore I'll go for a walk. Around me the neighborhood's changing. It's fall, and everyone's decorating for Halloween. Some of the houses seem to be creeping into decay as time wears. They don't care or understand. They have nothing to preserve. I always start to get aggravated, and the perfection of home calms me down. And so I sit and wait. That's what people do.


wormwood, pt. 25

It was still dark when Winston awoke, and he didn't feel remotely rested. But he started feeling worse the longer he tried to sleep, so he opened up the car door and walked outside.

It was perfectly quiet except for a strong wind, and dark enough that he couldn't really see anything. He walked for a while and sat down on a concrete freeway barrier and stared out into the darkness. The wind was bracing, at least. He didn't feel less tired but at least he felt alert.

His phone rang. Rosalind was calling.


"Winston! It's Rosalind."

"Hey, I tried calling earlier. I thought maybe you died." Images of Rosalind dead flashed through his mind, and he shivered. "You're okay?"

"Yeah, I guess. Nicole and me are holed up downtown. Nice place but I have no idea what I'm doing. But at least it's not a warzone out there anymore. Maybe if we go out we won't get shot."

"Get shot? What--forget it. Listen, I need a favor."

"Of course you do. The world's ending and you're still coming to me for help. I can't always--"

"I've got us a boat. He says you can come. You and Nicole. You just have to get us into the city and to the docks."

There was a long silence over the phone. Then, "Tell me where you are, exactly. Then wait there for me. Tell your friend I'll figure something out. I will call you when I do. Don't go anywhere until then."

"What are you--"

"Just stay there. I'll talk to you soon."

She hung up. Winston shivered again, and wondered what the day would bring. If there was going to be a day.



I've discovered a way to make crops grow out of broken promises, shattered hopes, and disappointment. It started, like most discoveries, on accident, but it didn't take me long to figure out how to capitalize on it.

Every week I take my produce to the farmer's market, and everyone comments on how beautiful everything is, and they ask what my secret is. I make a dismissive joke and they laugh and purchase something and take it home and enjoy nature's bounty and never once think about it. I'm making a modest living off it, but it's not as easy as you'd think. If everyone took advantage of the disappointment so integral to human existence no one would ever starve, but until I started this, I was pretty content.

So I had to go out and make people disappoint me. It wasn't hard, of course--the ease with which I could find people to let me down could fuel an entire season's harvest--but in order for it to work the disappointment has to be real. After a while it takes its toll. People, often the same people who have helped me with the harvest, ask me why I look so sad all the time. I smile and say it's nothing, because what else can I do? I need to let them let me down if I want to stay in business.


gaze long into the abyss

It's not a coincidence.

Things started changing when I lost control of my car and crashed into the garage of our house. It had been locked since we moved in, and we'd never opened it--the landlord always put off giving us new keys for it, and we didn't have anything we needed stored so we didn't really bother.

Nothing was inside. I don't mean it was empty, I mean it was full of void--inside was a blackness that seemed to be pulling the car inward. I got out as quick as I could and stood at the edge of the void and stared into it for a while. It never started making any sort of sense, but by the time I looked away the sun had gone down and it had devoured the entirety of the car, and the garage was gone as well. Now our driveway terminated in a shapeless hole in reality.

We did what any reasonable people would do in the situation, of course. First we called the landlord to complain. He agreed to lower our rent until he could get it fixed. Second, we had a party. We set up caution tape to try to keep people from getting devoured, but mostly it wasn't a big deal. We trusted our friends not to do anything too stupid--and, privately, we joked that if it did eat someone it's not like they'd complain.

The party was a hit, so we decided to landscape around the yawning rift in spacetime. It presented some interesting challenges, but also some interesting opportunities. The neighbors seemed to like the final results. Some of them tried to build knock-offs, but there's only so much you can do with mundane materials to imitate the warping of the fabric of the universe.

We held viewings. We let the media come and talk to us. We became famous for the abyss, and it was actually quite the lucrative venture. I don't know about anyone else in the house, but I made far more than my day job ever could have--enough that I didn't feel worried when I quit, and enough that nobody at work begrudged me the decision.

I never spent any of it.

At night I'd go out and sit by the void and stare. "Why do you exist?" I'd ask it. Sometimes I'd try the same question without the "why" on the front. All of these events, despite what we told ourselves when we planned them, weren't just capitalizing on our fortune. They were excuses to be close to the void, to deal with it, to stand just inches from its inexorable fingers, and probably most of all, to share all that with others.

But it was never enough. We gave a lot of things into the void, and it never gave anything back.



We got hit with one last wave of summer, before autumn really truly fell and covered everything. And not just a warm day, a real heat wave. It took everyone off-guard. The first day people were still in their fall clothes and very uncomfortable, but they figured it would go away soon. By the second day everyone was back in summer clothes and treating it like the first day of spring.

By the third day the streets were deserted. This was weird. This was unpleasant.

Unfortunately, hiding inside couldn't make it go away. People tried to act like it was summer, but something felt off. These barbecues had too many fallen leaves around. Something about the picnics at the park felt a minute away from a cool breeze and a sudden rain, though neither breeze nor rain ever came.

The worst part was not preparing for it. In the summer I always carried water around because I knew it would be hot, but I was used to fall, where forgetting wasn't such a big deal. And I'd go out for long rides in the afternoons, wandering through trails and losing myself. On the longest of them I forgot my water, and too many miles from home I started feeling it. I decided to press on, but I couldn't even make it to the next park.

I sat down off the trail with my bike next to me, ertain this would finally kill me.

Then there was a gust of wind and the rains came and ruined a hundred barbecues and finally managed to cool me down enough to get somewhere I could recover properly.


more apologies

I always used to say I hated apologies. Like so many things I'd say it was carefully crafted in the hopes that someone would ask about it--"why do you hate them?"--and then I could explain. It would have been clever. It never happened. Sometimes I'd say I hated apologies right after apologizing, even. I was lucky if someone gave me a funny look.

Like so many things I say I stopped saying it after a while, but it wasn't because I got tired of it. As time wore it just started feeling more and more disingenuous. I didn't hate apologies, I was afraid of them, and was I just saying that so I'd have an excuse never to apologize? And Lord knows I had plenty of opportunities to.

I hated apologies that were sincere. I hated apologies that weren't full of qualifiers, apologies that didn't so much apologize as excuse. I hated the ones that didn't leave any weasel room, that admitted fault--that were, in short, the opposite of everything I ever said. Most of all, though, I hated the ones that were short. No eloquent speeches or careful wording, just "I'm sorry."

Fortunately I never had to do any of that, because I hated apologies, and that was a thing--if it ever wore on the patience of friends far nobler than I ever aspired to be, they could comfort themselves. It's just a thing. It's not important. Or it wasn't until something finally happened that time, a wry smile, a roll of the eyes, and a dismissive joke couldn't fix.

And for the longest time I hoped I could just wait it out longer, to do anything but the things I always said that I hated. But it didn't make anything better, and after far too long I finally stopped fooling myself--and I was the only person left I still was.

All of which to say: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.


when optimism fails

I've been going to these rallies lately--not political rallies or anything like that. The people there are all dreamers, and they talk about how to make the world a more beautiful place. All their ideas are wonderful, and their projects really clean things up where they are. And it's not political. They had to convince me of that before I'd start coming. Sometimes people really do just want to make the world better, and sometimes all it takes is a smile.

I contributed a lot more when I first started going. Now I sit there quietly and cheer and applaud at the appropriate moments, and when asked how I'm doing I smile and say I'm doing all right, and sometimes it's not a lie.

It's not that I don't believe in what we're doing here. This is not the best possible world and there's no reason we shouldn't be trying to make it better. But rallies end and everyone here is so perfect--and even if they're not they're better at pretending than me. So much of the things we're fighting to fix are the sorts of things that I've done, things I've caused in the first place.

And no amount of making things right can make it okay.


wormwood, pt. 24

Nicole slept easily, but Rosalind found herself staring at the broken skyline and listening to the sounds of the city as it tore itself to bits. Eventually the sirens and the gunshots seemed to die out into a fitful silence, only broken by the occasional sigh of the wind. There was no traffic noise. Her phone rang once, but she only barely registered that it was hers, and ignored it.

Eventually she fell asleep against the windowpane. She awoke some hours later when the position had become too uncomfortable to bear. The morning did not bring any new light, but the eastern sky had turned a bloody shade of red--the sort that illuminated nothing, and not just the red glow of the fires.

She waked Nicole after several minutes of hesitation, and showed her the sky. "I think," she said after a while, "we might be in trouble."


"The city's quiet now, though. No more sirens, no more shooting. I don't know if that means that they won or gave up." She paused. "Or if there's a difference between the two."

"So what do you want to do?"

"I wish I knew. Stay here, I guess."

Rosalind sat down, her back to the window, and stared into the dark of the shop. Nicole settled in next to her. After a while, she said, "I don't like when you don't know what to do."

"Me neither." She smiled wryly. "Guess I'd better think of something."


morning ghosts

The weird dreams I have in the mornings before I really wake up have been mostly ghosts lately, all intricate conversations and this inescapable feeling of sadness before the cheerful tone on my cell phone's alarm clock goes off again, and I hit the snooze alarm again, but that ghost is gone. It's another one now. There's other problems, and I can't remember the tone of the sadness before, except that it was nothing like the new one. Everyone's problems are unique, I guess.

When I finally do wake up I'm surrounded by these shifting ghostly images, at the corner of my vision, lurking and flitting in the shadows of the morning. I can't avoid them as I eat my cereal at the kitchen table and try not to look at my girlfriend, who is always reading the paper and drinking coffee and is definitely not a ghost. There are no ghosts anywhere near her. They need me. I don't want to frighten them away.

The bright light and the heat of my morning shower drives them away for the day, but they come back for the morning. I often go the whole day without even thinking about it. I don't know what they want, or what I can do for them, but knowing me, I probably can't do much.

When we both get home my girlfriend and I drink expensive spirits and talk about our days. The ghosts never come up, even though we both know about them, and we both said we should talk more later on. There's so much going on with our lives. Why should we worry about some ghosts that keep haunting my mornings? They don't worry me, except like a friend worries me when she's going through rough times and I can't do anything to help.

And then we go to bed, much earlier than when we were young, and I don't think of the ghosts until I inevitably wake up in the morning, too early, too early. And every morning I think to myself: I'm going to be unbearably sad until my shower washes away the last memories of sleep.

I told my girlfriend, when we first talked about the ghosts, I didn't want to wash away their memories. And she said that was fair, I wanted to understand. We decided we'd make the most of those mornings. Neither of us mentioned that I could just skip the shower.


ghosts and seasons

I guess there's a season for ghosts. You never hear about them in the spring, when it's bright and green and cheerful and everything is excited to be alive and has no time for ghosts, or the summer, when it's warm and lazy and the world is content and unconcerned about the things which haunt forgotten places. They come out in the autumn, when the air takes on a chill that you tell yourself doesn't need a coat, but outside waiting for the light to change you shiver and wish you'd grabbed that black hoodie hanging by the stairs. And they are quiet, announcing their presence in the rattling of the leaves and the howl of the wind and the steady beat of the rain--and autumn rain is so much more spectral than a summer rain, so much colder. There's an energy in an autumn rain that the summer doesn't have, because the summer is content just to be. It's an energy that reminds you you are not alone, because there are ghosts here.

They linger for winter, when the leaves have fallen and the harvest is gathered and there is no more time for forgetting coats, no more need for reminders that there are ghosts when they lurk in every wispy breath, but the winter is not their season--it's a season for fires and blankets and hot chocolate. Winter is a time for winter festivals, the little ceremonies and celebrations we've built so that we can forget the ghosts that haunt us when the leaves are red and yellow, but the ghosts are still there, in the snow and the frost and the endless grey. And sometimes when the embers are dying and the sky is dark even those cheery bone-fires become something haunted--not just now, but even in retrospect. What are the dancing flames if not ghostly?

But you are warm and dry and there is more hot chocolate, and sometimes even ghosts make good company.


where no one dared to go

When you were young, you were the king of carrot flowers.

I am reminded of a summer where I dated an athlete. She was many other things besides, of course--an artist, a paralegal--but what made me think of her is that she would run, every day, rain or shine. She was not driven to perform because of fitness or even for her enjoyment. She wanted to win.

This was a few years back, I think. I never saw much of her because I had less respectable things to be doing than training for whatever race she was competing in. She didn't particularly care about seeing ruined buildings and dark tunnels. I tried getting her interested by telling her that she could be the first person to ever see something down there. She said something about nobody caring about a victory that takes place underground.

It was true: her races were spectator sports, to a degree. There was a community that cared who won and who lost, even if it wasn't the world at large. She could wear her trophies with pride, just like she showed off her art with pride and talked about her work with pride.

She didn't understand my quiet victories, I don't think. I'd go out late at night on long bike rides to places I'd never been before and get into places I wasn't supposed to be, and tell her the story in the morning. She gave me a blank expression--but to her credit she never once asked if I got something out of it. She tried to be happy for me.

She didn't understand that the only person I really cared about proving myself against was me. She didn't see the intensity with which I tried to best myself. She was never there to hear me sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the sleeping city as I accomplished the impossible. No, my only companions were the occasional dwellers in buildings with open windows, shouting "Shut the fuck up!" as I let my victory be known to the night.

Because I wanted to win, too. I just didn't need to prove it to anyone but me.


my old haunts

And some new ones.

When I died, I thought I'd spend my time haunting all the places that were significant to me in life. My old house, the place I died, things like that. And I did for a while, I guess, but it felt empty. Maybe that's how it's supposed to feel--I've never been a ghost before, I don't know--but I wasn't happy with it. I felt invisible. When my old loved ones called out my name at night, it wasn't because they wanted to talk to me. It was because they were afraid I was still there. They didn't whisper my name at night in hope but in dread. I was unwelcome in my own home. I guess being a ghost will do that to you.

I moved on. I started haunting other places, places I'd never been to. I'd find the biggest creepiest mansions and I'd haunt them until they'd start calling in paranormal experts of some variety or other. Some would come with their equipment and try to see if I was real, some would come with beads and candles and try to commune with me.

They wanted to see me. They wanted me to be real. They wanted to talk to me and know what I wanted. I'd try to play it up a little, give them a show where I could, and then they'd tell the residents what they thought. Sometimes they stayed and I moved on. Sometimes they'd flee and someone else would move in. I'd move on after that.

I started haunting abandoned places eventually, because I'd always felt at home there when I was alive--you're always at home in the places everyone forgot. Soon some of them became known as haunted, and they attracted some ghost hunters, trying to get a glimpse. One of them was a girl I'd seen before--she was with one of the paranormal teams that had found me a couple of times. She'd come to every place I was haunting.

At one of them--an old school--she said something to me. "We've met before, haven't we?" is what she said, and she smiled when she said it. "You really get around, don't you?"

It's hard to talk to the living, when you're a ghost. But she seemed content with my answer, and took some pictures and some readings and headed home. She went to the abandoned theatre I was haunting next and said "I wish I knew your story."

You and me both, kid.


wormwood, pt. 23

Does anyone really know what time it is?

It was a lot longer than Winston would have liked before they started getting close to the city. It was about there that he stopped the car. "So, I'd bet my car the roads in are being watched."

The man in the front seat laughed. "I knew I liked you, kid. You think you can get us there on foot?"

"I'll try. I've got a friend in the city who'll be able to help if I can't figure it out." He fumbled for his phone before pausing. "But, knowing Rose, she'll want passage for herself and one other person or she won't help. Is that possible? She's, uh, pretty handy."

"I don't see why not, kid. Give her a call."

He did. She didn't answer. He managed to refrain from throwing the phone out the window, but only just. "She's not answering," he said.

"Probably asleep. It's probably pretty late by now, isn't it?"

"Asleep, dead, or ignoring the phone. Whatever. I guess we could sleep before trying to head into the city. Maybe the darkness will have lifted by morning."

"You're an optimist, kid. I like that. But while we're all fucked, I could use some sleep."

The car made for a poor shelter, but they tried to sleep as well as they could. It was very early on Friday morning.


with the rain coming down

And you were shrugging it off like a feather.

I probably should have loved the way you could ignore things with a smirk and a shrug and a wry glint in your eye. You had perfected that uncaring, ironic cynicism that I'd spent my whole life trying to achieve--I always thought maybe it's because I had to try, and you never did. And usually I did love it. All the times except for when I cared about something, because even then--especially then--you never did.

Remember when we had to walk all the way home because your car wouldn't start? Miles and miles in the pouring rain, and neither of us had coats. We were dressed pretty nice, actually. And I was talking and laughing because what else can you do when you've got miles of walking in the rain left? And then you turned and you told me to shut the fuck up, this wasn't funny, what the fuck was wrong with me, and we walked on in silence.

At your doorstep I kissed you and said I bet you're glad to get out of the rain. You smiled that wry little smile and said "Oh, is it raining?"

I should have loved you for that. I never saw you upset or concerned ever again, and that makes you something I've always dreamed of. I never asked why it happened. You never offered. I declined your offer to come inside and dry off, because the smile was back and nothing I could ever say could make you care again.

And that night I took a shower and tried not to think of how I hated that about you, how the one thing I wanted to see you do was care.


being a brief note of apology

More wormwood soon. Trying to get back into the right cadence.

I've started receiving letters in the mail. They're handwritten and they're all in the same hand, though the paper and envelopes are always different. They look like they've been scrounged up somewhere. I have no idea who sent them, but they're always apologies.

At first I tried ignoring them, but they kept coming and they weren't petty things. They were touching and sincere and personal--whoever this was, she knew me. Each one described in exacting intimate detail something that she had done to me, some wrong she'd committed--and each would have been the most beautiful apology ever written if any of them were true stories. But every single one was an event which never happened.

But how can you ignore something so beautiful?

I started dreaming about them. The face of my secret supplicant was blank at first, unseeable, unmemorable, but soon she was everyone I had known, everyone I had wronged and who had wronged me--a beautiful and ever-shifting image. I'd wake up feeling drained, thinking of past wrongs, trying to remind myself that none of this ever happened.

Eventually I started getting confused, telling people about the events in the letters as if they were real, or using them as reference points for the passage of time. After a while I stopped trying to leave the world of the letters--everything is so beautiful there. In the real world there are no apologies, and certainly no forgiveness. There's just moving on.

And if my friends think I've gone mad, what of it? They never did anything for me so excellent as these elegant little apologetic notes.



It has been busy lately.

I met an inventor at the bar last night and he had an idea that he said would change the world. It worked on a small scale, he said. All he needed was funding and he could implement it everywhere. It was a generator that worked on human power. All you needed was to wear this little bracelet on your wrist and you, along with everyone you met, became a massive power grid. It made you a little more tired at the end of the day, a little hungrier, in need of a little more sleep--but it would solve all our energy problems forever. Only about three-quarters of the population would need to wear them in order to generate enough, too. What is going to bed exhausted at night, he asked me, if it means we have real progress?

I was skeptical. I asked him about his business model. Would the bracelets be free? Why would anyone want to wear one, when he could just take his off and let the rest of the world shoulder the burden? And with each question he just kept saying it would work, it would fix everything. I grew agitated and told him that's not how people work. People only care about themselves. They'll drag the rest of us down with them if it means they can go to bed a little later. Eventually he paid his tab and left, looking despondent, telling me I was probably right.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the world does work right sometimes. Maybe I'm just afraid to dream.



One day she came to me with a bag packed and said she was going away for a while--to London or something like that--and I just said "Okay," and "have a good trip." For what it's worth, I was being sincere. She smiled and said "thanks" but it wasn't a sincere smile, and I knew I'd said the wrong thing.

I didn't always used to try to stay out of the way. I used to have rules and a strong elaborate moral code. I'd talk about it for hours and hours if provoked. This was back when I thought I knew anything.

She wrote letters while she was away, and called sometimes. I asked how she was doing and I never once asked her to come home, or even when she was coming home. And I knew I wasn't saying the right things. I hadn't been for a while by now, I guess, but she was still testing, hoping that somehow I'd start getting the answers right.

I got over it, I guess. The only rule I recognize now is this one: take nothing but photographs. leave nothing but footprints. It's a common one for explorers of all stripes. I just take it to mean that the most important thing you can do is not fuck it up for everyone else. You mind your own space.

When she came back we went out drinking, just she and I, and she got too drunk and started demanding that I tell her why I was so calm about her being gone. Why I just accepted it, no questions, no pleas, not even subtle suggestions. It wasn't like when I was young and passionate about everything--when I'd do whatever it took to make the world look like I wanted. She just wanted me to act like I cared about something. Anything at all. Even if it wasn't her.

I used to have grand ideas and perfect visions for the world. The idea of just trying to keep a low profile and stay out of the way probably would have made me furious or upset or sad. These days it's all I can ask for.

She kept asking why. Eventually I just said "I like you too much. I don't want to get in the way." That wasn't the right thing to say either, but I think maybe she sort of understood.


bought and paid for

When I discovered I could buy things with my blood, I was ecstatic. I could go about my normal life and every so often go to the store and have them draw blood and take whatever I wanted. The blood would even grow back or whatever the term is for that. It was an amazing deal. My friend told me he didn't like the woozy feeling after from getting blood drawn, but I put up with it. I even started to like it after a while--it was euphoric, and I didn't believe them when they said what was just because of the blood loss.

It was fine until I started overextending.

I used to want less--that old Buddhist spell that old man taught me one day that he said would give me everything I wanted. But then I had access to more, and I'd spend the nights massaging the spot where the needle had gone in and thinking of what else I could get. I started wanting more instead of less.

Easy access to things made me start coming to expect them instead of think of them as nice luxuries, and soon I got impatient. I'd go in before I'd fully recovered and ask for more, and of course they'd take another vial and send me on my way, pale and shaky, but feeling so much more alive for it. I ignored sincere expressions of concern--what did they know anyway?--and went to bed early, thinking of how much happier I'd be when I had the next purchase, and the next, and the next.

Then one day I collapsed on the way home, and my purchase was gone when I came to. There were paramedics there, asking what happened, and I just kept asking about whatever it was--I don't even remember now. They took me in. They looked after me. I told them the story and they said I couldn't do it anymore, and I just cried until I was asleep again.

The next morning a nice man in scrubs said, "You'll be all right," and they sent me home to a house that felt so empty.


wormwood, pt. 22

Shouts and shots followed them as they fled, but they had a head start before anyone noticed them and they knew the streets here. This was home. They ducked into an alley and hid there for a moment--the cops had already called in a search team, but at least they wouldn't have a very good idea where to start when they did.

Then a door in the alley opened and someone said, "In here, quick."

There wasn't really time to make a decision. Rosalind looked at Nicole, who nodded, and they ran into the open door. A woman led them up a few flights of stairs to a large cluttered room with a small section lit by candles--a few couches and a workbench, occupied by a handful of other people.

The woman said, "We saw you turn in here. Thought you could use a place to stay."

"You saw us?"

"Yeah, we were right in the window. No one ever looks up. We're keeping an eye out for survivors."

Nicole smirked. "Survivors. Fuck. I guess that's what we are now, isn't it? We don't live here anymore. Now we just survive."

Rosalind picked out a spot against the wall and sat down. "We can't stay for long, but if there's anything we can do to help, let us know. I don't know if you guys are trying to do anything here or if you're just--"

"Surviving?" The woman shook her head. "We're planning right now. I always said I wanted to do more than just survive. Unfortunately you can't do much with it this dark. We had to steal these candles, even. We'd just waste batteries otherwise."

"Well, let us know."

"I will, thank you. I don't know how long you girls are staying, but you're safe here as long as you do. Like I said. No one looks up."


just go

We spent the evening drinking bad drinks and talking about whatever came into our minds just then. We talked about why she hated driving and why I cared so much about music. We talked about bikes and stories and the drinks we were having. And she kept asking me to clarify when I'd talk--choosing the right words or the wrong words to paint every picture perfectly, carefully--and she'd ask "but what do you mean by this?" or "how do you define this?" or "but how do you do that?" and eventually I ran out of definitions and I'd just say "you just fucking do, man." There isn't a trick to it. You either have it or you don't. It's not something you wrap up with words. I don't have a word for everything. That's why there's things I don't talk about.

But that's the world she lives in. There's a trick to it. There's a definition there. She uses words because they're right, not because they're beautiful or poetic or descriptive. They define the world instead of describing it, for her.

After drinks we walked for a while, not quite drunk and not quite sober, and found a park that was mostly empty and a tree that looked climbable. I climbed up into it and sat on one of the branches, and she tried to climb it, and kept saying she was too drunk for this, she didn't know how to climb up, and couldn't I just tell her how to do it? And I just kept saying there wasn't a trick to it. You just fucking climb it. Like most things, it's all in your head.



When the world is sick, can't no one be well.

I started getting headaches when I was too young to remember. I asked my mother about them one time and that's what she told me, so I guess I've been popping pills since before I could get all my food into my mouth. They never really got worse, but they didn't get better either. I always tell people "you get used to it" but you don't, not really. It hurts just as much every time, and every time you think maybe this time you won't be able to take it, maybe this time you won't get to the pills in time, maybe this time you're going to die. It's always maybe this time until the time you're right, I guess.

I don't even know if it can actually kill me. I just know that the world stops screaming when I take the pills, that then I can lay down and wait for it to pass. Then it's at least bearable, even if I can't really do anything for a while after.

Actually, I lied about not getting used to it. Not the pain, exactly, but it puts a lot of things in perspective. You can put up with a lot of shit because, hey, it could be worse. You've been through worse. You're constantly going through worse. And you keep telling yourself that in the hopes that one day it'll work.

wormwood, pt. 21

And no one knew or no one cared.

It wasn't far to walk before they started hearing gunshots, and it wasn't much further that the sounds seemed to be coming from all around them. They hadn't heard any of them from earlier, but it sounded like they were dying down--just the occasional burst in the distance, like the police were just rounding up stragglers, or perhaps like those same stragglers were shooting back at the police. After that point, they moved a lot more slowly, but there was never anyone around the corner--at least not anyone still standing.

About ten blocks from where the car was parked, they passed one of the burning buildings, lit by the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. Rosalind sat down against the opposite wall and looked up at the flames. "Makes you wish you had some marshmallows."

"Should call Winston. He's probably got some."

"I think he's out of town."

"Pity." Nicole walked to the corner to check around it and found herself face-to-face with a police officer with an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

He stopped dead and stared at her. "What the fuck--"

She punched him in the face, and he dropped. She stood there for a moment just staring at him, then took the cigarette from his mouth and tucked it behind her ear. "Gonna need that later. Rose, time to run."


wormwood, pt. 20

lady i swear by all flowers.

The police blockades were abandoned as Rosalind and Nicole walked through the city. They had better things to be doing now. Emergency vehicles raced past as they walked hand in hand, heading to the skyline, to what must have been the heart of the fires. The storm was nowhere near sufficient to explain the damage to the cars and buildings here. Cars were on fire. Doors and windows were smashed in on houses. Bodies lay bloodied in the streets, little dark shapes only visible by the light of the burning skyline.

Someone was sitting on the sidewalk up ahead--a boy somewhere in his late teens or early twenties, sitting and smoking a cigarette. He spoke as they passed: "Where are you going?"

"Home," said Nicole.

"You don't have a home anymore, lady. You look like you're going into town."

"Yeah, something like that."

"I heard they were shooting people in town now. Anyone they see out, they said. Figured anyone still on the streets were just there to cause trouble. No looters and no rioters."

"Where'd you hear that?"

"People that came from town. You don't want to go down there. You'll just get yourself shot."

"Well, thanks. I guess we'll keep our eyes open."

"Hey, don't blame me when you end up dead."

They kept walking. Once they were a few blocks away, Rosalind said, "Well, this should be fun."

"Yeah, I just hope the car's still there. They haven't invented a cop that can stop me."


wormwood, pt. 19

For a long time, they drove in silence. The streets were deserted and the sky was black, and Winston drove slowly with the lights off until they were out of town and on the abandoned country roads that led out of the little town and back to the city--and the coast. The dull red glow of the fires grew brighter the more he drove, but he kept going.

The man sat in the driver's seat, staring out the window. The woman slept in the back seat, as far as Winston could tell. Eventually the man said, "So what's your story?"

"I was just out camping when I felt the earthquake. I went back to town and call my friend Rose to see if she was all right."

"Was she?"

"Probably. She hung up on me."

Another minute of silence passed. Then, "We live in the city. It was supposed to be our honeymoon. Nothing fancy because I was supposed to be back on the boat in a couple days. The plan was for a buddy to pick me up on his way back to the coast."

"The boat?"

"Fishing boat. Captain got hold of us and said, you want to survive the apocalypse, you should come to the boat. I figure, not everyone'll come. And we'll need extra hands. You any good with your hands?"

"I--I'm more of a thinker, really--"

"You'll learn, kid. You'll learn."

"I hope so." Winston frowned. "What do you think? Do you think this is the--the--"

"The apocalypse?"

"Yeah, that."

"Don't matter what I think. I've got a boat waiting for me. And I promise, kid, ain't no safer place in the world."