The Situation: Coming Next Year From PS

I’ve just turned in “The Situation” to Nick Gevers for publication by PS Publishing in spring 2008. Scott Eagle, whose art adorns this site, is doing the cover. Here’s an excerpt for those interested…


Once, when things were still good, Leer and I had shared beetles. We had even created a few just for fun. At lunch, we would sneak out behind the company building with a blanket and sit on the little hill there, looking out onto a ravaged landfill full of the bright skeletons of vultures and then, beyond that, the city in all its strange mix of menace and vulnerability. The grass was yellowing rather than dead. A wiry tree stood on the hill at that time. We would eat crackers and old cans of shredded meat, the smell in that context almost unbearably tantalizing.

With us we would also have boxes full of our beetles. After we had eaten, we would open the boxes. Their shining green-and-crimson carapaces would open like the lids of eccentric jewelry boxes, revealing their golden wings, and we would release them into the world.

Those beetles contained every joyous thing we had ever known, and we loved to watch them fly out into the distance.

“My father’s dry laugh!” I would shout.

“My mother’s mock frown!” Leer would reply.

“The color of the faded cover of my nursery rhyme book!”

“The taste of real potato soup!”

“The feel of thousand thread-count clean sheets!”

“The ache of muscles after playing stick ball!”

Our voices would get softer and softer until I was whispering things like “The smell of my father’s aftershave when he reached down to hug me.”

Then we would stand there, trailing off into silence, and get so much satisfaction out of wondering who would find them and what impact they would have on their discoverers. Sometimes we would even have tears in our eyes.

I can remember Leer saying once, “This hill makes me happy.”

So it was that when I decided to become proactive in the midst of my worsening situation, I persuaded Leer to join me on the hill, “for old time’s sake.”

The grass was mostly gone by then and the tree, too. Earthworms writhed and died in the naked dirt. The day was cold and gray, and the city did not bear looking at. The muffled sound of explosions, the smells of smoke and intense rot, told the story well enough. We stood there and turned our backs on the city, looking up at the company building, and searched for glimpses of the behemoth grub, lost in the low-lying clouds.

“What has happened, Leer?” I asked her. “I haven’t changed. I’m still the same as I ever was.”

Leer refused to look at me. She stood with arms folded and stared into the blank windows in front of her. On this day, she had revisited her true form. There was no artifice to her.

“You’re imagining things,” Leer said.

“Like I imagined Winterlong’s face,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, but so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her.

“Leer, I know things have changed. It’s not my imagination. We all used to be so close.”

“Do you know,” Leer said, “how much I hate this place. I hate my job. I hate being here. And I hate the world out there.”

I shuddered at that. To think of the past, the distant past, before all of this–she was right: who could bear it? Sometimes I wondered if we had been sending out those beetles not to help others but to help get rid of the horrible weight of happy memories.

“I know you hate it,” I said. “I’ve known that for a while. I’m not stupid. But what does that have to do with me?”

Leer said, “Why do you fight it? Why do you care about any of it?”

“In the old days, we were all friends,” I said.

“It can’t be that way anymore. It’s just work.”

“But why?”

Leer just shrugged.

I think I cried a little then and Leer took pity on me and said, “It’ll be better. It’ll be better, I’m sure of it. When we’re under Slumber. Then it will all be fine.”

By then, we had both noticed the Mord coming up the hill. He was larger than I remembered and his thick fur had a golden brown luster to it. His eyes and fangs stood out more.

The Mord wasn’t walking up the hill. The Mord was levitating up the hill, effortless.

I expelled my breath all in a rush.

Leer blanched and a look of terror came over her face.

“I couldn’t bear to be disconnected from the worms,” she whispered to me. “And Mord can read lips.”

The Mord settled down in front of us. Even sitting on the incline, he was taller than us, and his shadow unfurled itself across us and across the entire top of the hill. I had the curious sensation of seeing his human face superimposed over his animal features, for just a second.

Then I caught a hint of movement behind him, at the bottom of the hill. Scarskirt stood there, her arms folded, her legs apart, sentinel-silent.

Leer looked me in the eyes and said, “We don’t want you here. We aren’t the same. You’ve changed. You don’t do good work any more.”

The Mord let out a roar that pushed its blood-shot, crazed eyes half out of their sockets and pressed my hair flat against the sides of my head. In the Mord’s breath I could smell a thousand different kinds of rot. I could smell the stench of the entire company.