I had overslept that Tuesday morning because that is what you do when you have lost the ways and weight of matter; when an airy blanket of complacency has brushed away the heavy passions that drive you from your sheets. Also, there was nothing in the kitchen for breakfast, so might as well skip it.
Emily—in every sense of the name—called me at 11:45, just as the foggy dew was evaporating off my window. I let it ring a few times as I pondered the little water electrons escaping into the atmosphere. When at last I answered, I pretended that I had been sleeping instead of lying awake for the past eleven minutes in the stale egg-yolk light of my bedroom.
“Let’s go to brunch, I haven’t seen you all week,” she said.
“But it’s only Tuesday.”
“I have news. Panera in an hour?”
I agreed. I didn’t want to go to Panera, just like I didn’t want to go bike riding, job hunting, or free-falling from a fifty story building. I didn’t want to sit in a mock-wrought-iron chair and deal with the way Emily scraped smear across her whole-wheat bagel. So I lay in bed for another fifteen minutes, determined to stand her up and make excuses later.
A car alarm went off in the street below. A breeze adjusted my blinds. My skin began to feel sticky, so I got up. Emily, goddammit, Emily.
I took my time in the shower, watching the suds trail off into the drain. As I toweled off I could still feel the hot water pouring down my face, and I sat, and I sank and sank and sank my head into my hands. I could hear the growling darkness pushing itself up from my floor. My breath became shallow as I remembered the terrible texture of worn loose leaf crumbling in my hand, and the image of Max crawling up from the shadows, pulling at the chains of Erebus. I watched his limbs twist and contort themselves toward me; his thin frame even more awkward without the control and confines of a physical body. Max was light and shadow, impossible, but he kept trying to speak to me slowly, screaming as apparitions tend to do in dreams. I was awake shaking against the edge of my bed, trying to ignore the smell and taste of blood. As I curled into myself, feeling my consciousness slip, there was a great howling that came up from the floor where Max had appeared and pulled him down again with a great quake that came from another world. My lamp rattled, though I knew it couldn’t have. I dressed and brushed my teeth, trying to dispel the white, trembling fear from my face.
I went to my notebook, as always, turned a page, and continued my mantra from the night before:
Maxwell Brik is not a monster.Maxwell Brik was my student. Maxwell Brik is dead. He does not desire to harm or speak to me, because he is not alive.
I chewed my pen. I made a note of the howling. That was new.
“This isn’t how I imagined it would happen, you know.” The Knight said. He was sweating badly beneath his armor, but he would never have admitted it. He had wanted to go out in a blaze of metal if he was going to go, not giving a thought to what swamp travel would require. Now, the slow, creeping mud would engulf him before he had an actual battle. He had only used his sword to hack through undergrowth and impress barmaids up until this point, but he was not thinking of this. Moss was already waxing his feet, as though he’d been cemented to that spot for decades. The swamp had a strange way of messing with time, but he was not thinking of this either. “It’s quite tragic though, and that’s fitting.”
The Guide and the Fool stood with their hands at their sides, there was nothing to be done but wait. The Fool shifted his weight gingerly to his good leg. The Knight considered telling them again about his journey to becoming a Knight Errant, starting with his boyhood days in the House of Adeline in the great City-State of Carlotta. As he felt his chest tighten with the drying ooze, he thought he should pick a shorter set of last words. “Once you take my body back to Carlotta, Fool, I am entrusting you to sing an appropriate ballad of my grand exploits. I want to be remembered with panache.”
“You imbecile,” said the Fool.
“Derek, please, now isn’t the time,” said the Guide.
“No. I can’t believe it,” the Fool continued, hobbling a few inches closer to the Knight, but well away from the cannibalizing mud, “After all the shit that we’ve seen, you honestly haven’t learned anything?”
“If the heartfelt goodbye is too much for you, I understand, but don’t embarrass yourself by pretending to be too proud,” said the Knight. He gave his best sympathy smile, which looked a great deal like his arrogant smile. The Knight, unable to move his arms, blew a fly away from his face. The Fool reddened.
“No one is going to remember you Steve. None of us will be remembered—real adventurers never are—but more importantly, we won’t be remembered because we are all going to die here in this grotesque swamp. You should have stayed in your court and lived the life real people would sell their families for, surrounded by wealth and people who at least pretend to like you. You mock me, the Guide, and everyone else who lived a hard life by being here, trying to live out some childhood fantasy. You’re worse than an idiot, you’re insane, and I hate you.” The Fool leaned back a little as he finished and stared hard at the Knight’s face. The Guide looked at her feet. Steve, the Knight Errant, formerly known as the Viscount of Adeline merely smiled and said,
“I understand. It must be hard to see me go. It’s been—”
The Guide looked up to find a murky, clay mask staring back at her. The Fool sat down, clutched his right leg, and closed his eyes. The Guide joined him. She took out a half-full water-skin out of her pack and handed it to him. He shook his head.
“I’m almost done,” he said, “Whatever’s poisoned me is moving fast. The Healer, poor guy, bought me a little time with that salve before he ran off, but you better save the water for yourself.” The Guide sank into herself, thinking that if her soul screamed the sound would echo infinitely inside her.
“I can’t do this alone, Derek. We are all that’s left.”
“If it were up to me, I would have deserted you ages ago, and felt good about it,” said the Fool. The Guide managed a chuckle.
“We both know you had the opportunity but didn’t. Now you are, and it isn’t fair.”
“You’ll be fine. You really are the best of us all. But don’t go telling people I said that. I don’t want you using this heart-rending moment to get laid at whatever sleazy tavern Guides congregate at.”
“Don’t worry, I will keep your reputation as an ass-hat in tact.”
The Fool smiled, “That’s all I ever wanted.” Despite her best efforts, the Guide fell asleep as the shadows fell, the mists came, and the swamp rearranged itself. She awoke a few hours later to find the fossilized Knight vanished into the darkness. The Fool’s face was ashen in the starlight that peaked between the canopy and contorted with pain.
“Fuck,” he whispered, ” I didn’t want you to see this.” He groaned and clawed at his thigh. “My blood’s on fire!” The Guide cradled his head in her lap, hoping he wouldn’t notice her pulse pounding .
“What can I do?” she said. Her hand wandered to the dagger tucked just inside the top of her boot.
“Cut your losses. Don’t go back,” said the Fool. He breathed in jagged gasps, and in one final breath yelled, “Goat-Fuckers!” The Guide made the moment count and plunged the dagger between his ribs up to the hilt. He held her hand against his chest as the light leaked out of his eyes. The swamp claimed him a few moments later, like she had seen with the others in the group, but she couldn’t bring herself to watch it again.
Somewhere near EZ Aquarii, there’s a world of minerals, caves, and teal skies with a burgeoning population of blue and green hominem-shaped beings. Two of them came to Earth to escape Blue-Green Wars and raise their children. They were given refuge and monitored constantly for twenty-three years. This is a transcript of a conversation between the children—Melite and Pax—twenty-six hours after their mother died and one hundred sixty-eight hours after their father died. They are eating dinner.
Pax: I tried to make it like Mom’s.
Melite: You did fine.
Pax: I’ll do better next time.
Melite: I said it’s fine. Don’t worry.
I see you got Mom’s frames. I hope changing the prescription wasn’t expensive.
Pax: Well, you got their room.
Melite: I didn’t mean it like that.
Pax: All the same, it’s a little soon to be selling off their stuff and the changing wallpaper don’t you think?
Melite: We need the space—wait, who said anything about selling Mom and Dad’s stuff?
Pax: I heard you talking with Thad.
Melite: Well, it’s an option…we could put it in storage if you want.
Pax: I don’t see why we have to do anything!
Melite: I’m getting married, Pax. I know this isn’t ideal, but things are changing at a fast rate and I am just trying to keep up. Newlyweds need space, and a little extra money wouldn’t hurt.
Pax: Money? Don’t pretend like you didn’t see the will—selling their bodies to the Institute was probably the smartest thing they ever did—you know this isn’t about money. This is about you getting “yours.” You always were bitching about not having a bigger room; you couldn’t stand that I got the study and you had to stay in the nursery.
Melite: You really think I’m that shallow?
Pax: Well, you are your father’s daughter.
(the sound of cutlery falling to the floor)
Melite: Lot of good that did me. Whenever there was a problem, Mom and Dad couldn’t wait to jump in to protect their precious, little boy. If there’s a spoiled, petty, grey brat in the room, it isn’t me.
Pax: How convenient of you to bring that up. I suppose being treated like an incurable invalid my entire life is worth it now, then? Because I was bought off more than you? Because I was pandered to?
Melite: What are you talking about?
Pax: Oh, come on, you said it yourself! It’s obvious I wasn’t “colorful” enough for Dad—that elitist, azure bastard.
Melite: How can you say that? What’s wrong with you?
Pax: Everything, apparently—nothing I ever did was good enough. But you know the fun part about being looked down on for all these years? Your face right now.
Melite: I’m sorry. I know you and Mom got along the best out of all of us, but this isn’t helping anything.
Pax: And I suppose marrying Thad, the faithful Capricorn agent, does?
Melite: Yes, it does.
Pax: But why? Why marry that? He’s not like us.
Melite: Now who sounds like Dad? No one is like us, Pax.
Pax: He’s rich, I’ll give you that, but you know he’s just marrying you because your Aquarii, right?
Melite: You don’t know anything. You hear me? Nothing.
Pax: For your sake, I hope so. But there’s one other thing that doesn’t make sense—either that or Thad just isn’t very bright.
Melite: How so?
Pax: Well, he’s fucked you already hasn’t he? Gotten the ‘alien-fever’ out of his system? I mean, why buy the blue cow?
(a chair is thrown back, there is a brief altercation: one hit)
Melite: Just because their dead doesn’t mean you get to talk to me that way.
Melite: Don’t you have Calculus to study?
Pax: Why do you care?
Melite: You should start that. I’ll wash up.
Pax: Go to hell!
(Exits. Muffled sobbing for a few minutes in the kitchen. Lights out.)
The fish tank was almost half empty. The muggy water highlighted by the electric green algae that coated all four sides in varying patterns. There were two snails—Snelly and Gary Jesus. Snelly spoke for herself, but Gary Jesus could walk on water by means of surface tension. The snails were relatively new compared to the fish. The three fish were named Thisby, Schweppes, and Dante. At one time there had been seven fish. Olaf had been very small and prone to hiding under shells. He was eaten by Dante—at least that was what was speculated considering he disappeared one night and there was no body; not to mention Dante was extremely greedy and had a very large and capable potbelly. Pyramus was resplendent Thisby’s lover and died unexpectedly just as Schweppes reached maturity. Thisby was never the same afterward, even under Schweppes care. It was never known why Pyramus had once attempted suicide while the tank was being cleaned. Then there was Catherwood and Bunbury, the two Mickey Mouse fish; their congruent bodies moving in a manner Diogenes would approve of. Bunbury (the smaller) died of natural causes a good four or five months after Pyramus. Catherwood, instead of becoming even more of a recluse, found a companion in Dante despite his reputation. Catherwood died of natural causes a month later. There had been a snail before Snelly and Gary Jesus, dubbed simply Gary. The cause of death is not recorded. Considering that there is considerable space in the fish tank, there have been rumors of new arrivals. No decisions have been made to date.