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.