The Shannon Ferry

“How does it work, mister?” The old helmsman was in a daydream and found himself startled by the young boy’s question. He turned around.

“Well, that is a very interesting question, isn’t it? But, how does what work, exactly? How does the wind blow? How does the water flow?” The helmsman raised an eyebrow and swept his arm outward. “How does this mist form? And, why does it always smell so much like some wondrous childhood memory that I can’t seem to remember?” The old man’s face carried a puzzled look.

“No, sir. I mean, none of those things. How is it that the boat knows the way across? Mother says that only this boat knows how to cross The Shannon. She says that all other boats get turned around and wind up right back where they began. She says that only this boat can reach Albion.”

“Well, now, is that what she says? Well, tell me this: how do you know it is the boat what knows the way across and not the helmsman?” He studied the boy’s face while the boy pondered his question. “Hmm… Have you ever heard of magic?”

The boy looked up and his eyes came alive. “Oh yes! We had a magician in Beland! He could heal people and make fire! He made the sky explode every year at the festival of Bel! Oh, but…” The boy’s face turned sullen and tilted downward. “He… Well, he died when the… Well, mother says he saved us, anyway. She says we’re going to Albion to start over.”

“Oh, is that so!? Well… forgive my disbelief, but, I can scarcely believe that you know no magic. You are practically brimming with it like a tea kettle about to blow its whistle.”

The boy was taken aback. “N… No, sir,” he replied as he shook his head.

The helmsman grinned and winked at the boy. And then, with a wave of his fingers and a mumble of some words the boy did not understand, he drew some of the mist into his palm. The mist began to take shape–the shape of what the boy thought must be a fairy. A misty, winged ballerina pirouetted on the helmsman’s freckled, wrinkled old hand. And then with another wink, the ballerina was gone. The helmsman leaned down and whispered in the boy’s ear, “Magic exists in everyone if you know where to look.”

The boy’s eyes might have bulged out of their sockets had the helmsman not interrupted the amazement running through the boy’s mind. “Now it is time to get back to your mother, if you don’t mind. I have a ferry to attend.” The boy turned to run back to his mother. The helmsman brought his hand up to his temple in that sort-of half-salute one does when they’ve remembered something. “But, before you go.” The boy stopped and the helmsman pointed toward the far corner of the deck near the bow. “You see that man slouched in the corner? He must be asleep, and sleep on the Shannon is the most peaceful of sleep. It is said that it can conjure the most fantastical of dreams. Do try to not disturb him, if you please.” The boy nodded, thought better of running, and decided to walk back to his mother, instead.

The ferry drifted along the water as if floating on a cloud, with nary a hint of list or pitch or some other disturbance in its course. In fact, if not for the sound of the lapping waves, the passengers might have believed they were truly sailing the skies. No shore could be seen in any direction and it was often difficult to tell which direction they drifted, causing unspoken doubt and fear to propagate throughout the passengers. The helmsman suffered no more disturbance until the ferry reached the other side.

He plopped the gangway down on the shore. The passengers made no attempt to hide their relief and then their excitement redoubled at having reached Albion. They departed post haste, nearly barreling over the helmsman before he had a moment to step to the side. He stood at the gangway and wished them a good evening and thanked them for their patronage. He noticed the boy was being shuffled along by his mother and gave the boy a wink and a grin. After the last passenger stepped off the gangway, the helmsman raised it and the ferry departed.

After a time, the helmsman stopped the ferry, weighed anchor, and sighed. Not one of the departed passengers had taken note of the man sleeping by the bow as they departed. He approached the sleeping man, bent down, and gave him a shake.

“No doubt you’re wondering why you can’t move.” The helmsman pulled out a projectile device and tapped it on his arm. “This is what you call a tranquilizer gun, and it is the best investment I have ever made for this job. You see, I shot you with this as soon as you sat down and the dart was small enough and the gun quiet enough that nobody noticed. It’s a shame nobody checked on you before they departed. If it’s any consolation, they never do.”

The helmsman grabbed the man under his arms. “It’s about time for the effects to start wearing off, so here, let me help you to your feet.” He heaved the man up and leaned him against the side of the boat. “The truth is, this ferry belongs to the Lady of the River, and it requires neither passengers nor helmsman to find its way. However, she requires payment, and some folks have need to cross, so I am here to ensure that payment is made. The tranquilizer gun is so great because, well, she wants you alive.” And with that, he pushed the man overboard.

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I See Darkness in My Dreams

I see darkness in my dreams.

The darkness hints at a sense of peace just beyond the tips of my outstretched fingers.  But it is never truly reachable, like a woman for whom you bare your soul but she refuses to give yours even the slightest of glances.  It is a short-lived respite and I welcome its frigid embrace for the quickening moment that I am allowed; for I will soon wake up, and that is never pleasant. This brief moment of darkness–this gentle kiss from the Night Mother–is all I now await; all I now desire; all I now portend.

It is always the chair I first notice when the darkness begins to recede. Then my hands. I can never move my hands. The chair is my seat and my arms are bound to its arms and my legs are bound to its legs; though I cannot seem to feel my feet. Why is it her face that I always see when I open my eyes? Why can’t I open my eyes to some other sight, just the once? Her face is full of hatred and malice and revenge. Deservedly so.

How many times must I endure this?

Once upon a time, I had a bit of a bottle problem, or that’s one way to put it. I had a numbness, well really the numbness was all I experienced any longer, and the bottles made it less so, at least for a while. I was lost in a sea of the past when time was my artistry was worth something. A time that seems so long ago. A time before the destitute wretchedness my life had become. A time when a brush in my hand and a palette of color in the other was my sorcery; my true magic. A wave of my hands could record the very essence of all emotion, and the results were coveted more than gold and jewels, more than the elation and proclamations exclaimed at the height of erotic passion, more than the temporary powers granted a victorious election. But, that was a time long past, if ever it truly existed in anything more than my imagination.

My bottle problem was less of a problem for me so much as it was a problem with the self-proclaimed and self-entitled aristocracy permeating this damned society. It’s like a disease with no cure. Bottles are easy to come by and I needed little else. Not thinking myself a burden on society, other than my apparent insult of having to be looked upon when the occasion arose that one of those pretentious haughty pompous supercilious cane-toting trolls happened to walk by, I simply awaited my death whilst numbing my numbness with the bottles.

This woman was not a troll.  She found pity when she looked at me and decided to act upon her pity. She did this, not only for me, but for a great many others, in spite of herself, and with little regard for her own well-being. In fact, despite the wrath unfolding before me, I believe she is a good woman still, and always has been; the epitome of goodness if there is such a thing. She is a woman that can bend your own desires to coalesce with her own before you even realize what had happened; and after the realization hits you, you are glad that it happened. She wasn’t particularly pleasant on the eyes, in fact, she was a bit plainer than most and her figure reminded me more of a wooden box than the luscious curvature you envision when you think of a typical woman–well, it was more of a rectangle, but it doesn’t matter. She was kind and gentle and patient and wise and all the good things that entice you trust a person. And trust her I did.

She convinced me to give up my bottles, and for a short while, I chose to help her in whatever way I could. And for a moment, I think I felt something beyond the usual numbness, though I can no longer recall what that something was beyond the hollow space of love I once felt for her. In addition to helping wretched old souls like myself, she also ran an orphanage, and I was good with the children. I think I truly loved them in my own way, but it was for her that I took care of them. It was for her that I taught them to express their artistry. It was for her that I helped them learn their letters. It was for her that I read them bedtime stories. I loved her. She loved me. She told me as much on many an occasion. We shared a bed. We shared a life for a while. The numbness was abated.

But it did not last.

The numbness never really leaves you once it has taken hold. Thus, I began to consult my old bottles on the occasions that she would not notice, mostly in the dead of night during the sleeping hours. It is strangely difficult to sleep when you feel nothing at all, and the bottles numbed the numbness if ever so slightly. It was one of these occasions that I committed the worst sin of my wretched existence.

The bottles not only numbed the numbness, but also the senses. And, on one of those nights, I accidentally (at least I think it was an accident) tipped over a candlestick, which tipped over another, which tipped over a third. The dry wood of the orphanage burned rather well and I was powerless to stop it.

She managed to save five of the twelve children before the orphanage collapsed on itself.  Half her uncomely face was burned beyond recognition. I managed to stumble outside before getting injured.

So here I sit in this chair. Strapped to it. Offering no resistance. I shall never offer resistance no matter how many times this repeats. In point of fact, I lost count quite some time ago.

Tears and snot and all the fluids of despair stream down her face as she screams at me. “WHY!?” she screams. Occasionally it descends into some desperate wail or a sullen sob. Sometimes it is a whisper. Sometimes she can not speak it aloud, but her eyes scream it louder than her voice is even capable.

I offer no answer. I will not offer an answer. I have no answer. She deserves this bit of vengeance.

Eventually, she comes close to me and gently presses her knife through my chest. Everything she does is gentle. She is a gentle soul. The last thing I hear before descending into darkness is her whisper through her tears, “I love you.” Thus ends this cycle.

I see darkness in my dreams.

Fort Stupid

Whatever was calling to him, Zero was certain he liked it. The further he went toward whatever the thing was, the more of them he came across. And the more of them he came across, the more of them he got to burn.

If only he could get a damned vehicle to work. None of them worked. It didn’t matter how much gas they had, or what kind of condition they were in, they simply did not work. Damn all this walking. Walk walk walk walk walk. He wasn’t even sure how many days he had been walking.

But there were more of them to burn in this direction, and so he kept walking.

He walked through cities as much as he could, wading through the debris and ruins imagining what each building must have been like before.  He passed a family-owned auto-body shop. It’s too fucking bad they can’t fix any of this shit. Oh, and look, another playground. And there’s little Johnny getting picked on again. He passed an old house that had no business being in the middle of a block of apartments and he imagined an old man and woman living there. The old woman had a frying pan in her hand and she bashed the old man’s head again and again. The bashing matched Zero’s steps. Step-bash, step-bash, step-bash.

He walked on.

As he made his way through a small town, a large rat passed too close to him, not knowing what a mistake that was. Zero had a fine meal of roasted rat that night. Even better, he found some old stale beer in the trunk of a car, and he drank every last bit of it. Stuffed more so than he could recall since before the world ended, he lounged on the hood of an old car, stared at the night sky, and waited for sleep to take him. He would not sleep, though, which happened sometimes. More than sometimes. Too often, to be honest.

That night was different; the calling seemed stronger than before. He felt sure there were some of them to be burned close-by, and a chance like that, he could not ignore. He leapt off the hood and began walking in that same direction; the same direction he had been walking for days. Or maybe it had been weeks. Hell, it could have been months. It didn’t matter.

He made his way through a small woodland to emerge in a clearing of some sort, and holy shit he had hit the mother-load! Hundreds of them. So many to burn!

Tears and snot and spit poured from his face and he was so dizzy, he could not tell which way was up and which way was down. He didn’t care. He let the flames take over. They burst out in all directions. He didn’t care where they went. He ran through the hoard, burning and burning as he went. He laughed heartily and marveled at the ash they left behind as it sparkled through the sky.

Oh shit! Look at that big fucker over there! I bet he wants to be burned, too!

And burn he did. He took a bit longer than the others, but he burned. They always burned. He would never be satisfied with the aftermath, but the moment of the burning was enough for Zero. Enough for that moment, anyway.

He continued dashing back and forth like a mad man, burning as he went. He was a mad man in that moment. He knew he was mad, but he didn’t care. He gave himself to it. Their numbers dwindled as most had been burned to ash and smoke, but he would not stop. He could not stop. He continued his flaming rampage.

A blinding blue light broke through his flames and he felt himself being choked. His flames died in that same moment, and he saw that the blue light was a girl. A young girl. A young girl in armor. A young girl in armor with blue fire in her eyes that held him by the throat and squeezed. He realized he couldn’t breathe.

She released him and he collapsed on the ground, gasping for air and laughing hysterically at the same time. It took him quite some time to regain steady breathing.

“What the fuck, girl? Why didn’t you squeeze a bit harder and for a bit longer?”

She stared down at him with cold anger and seemed to grit her teeth as she clenched her fists. “You have burned most of our supplies, all of our food stock, and you almost burned half the people. And you laugh. You laugh still.”

He looked up at her. “Well, maybe you should get the fuck out my way.”

She punched him square in the nose. It hurt. A lot. It was certainly broken. He tried to summon the fire in retaliation, but alas, he could never do that unless it was directed at them. Oh well.

The armored girl walked away and in her place stood an even younger girl. This one squatted next to him.

“Hey! Who are you? What’s your name? Where do you come from? That was amazing what you just did, and I’ve seen some amazing things. Would you like to hear about them? You really saved us just now, you know. Does your nose hurt? It’s all crooked now, I’ll have you know. Don’t look in a mirror if you can help it. If you come up to Fort Hilltop, I’m sure somebody will patch it up and straighten it up some. Though, you’ll have to wait in line. Many of the others are either hurt or dead. Or hurt and dead, I suppose, but I don’t think the dead ones care that they’re hurt. I think Mr. Otis is dead and I really liked him. Oh, and we have food. Sure you got most of the food, but there is some left despite what Alice said. Are you hungry? Why were you laughing like that?”

What the hell, is this punishment of some sort? Why couldn’t that other girl just finish me off? Zero stood up and walked toward the hill.

He was hungry from his bout of madness. It had taken a lot out of him and he was famished despite the roast rat and beer from earlier. He didn’t expect to get any food up there unless he just took it, but he walked toward the hill, anyway.

As he approached the hill, he could see that the size of the group was quite small, but he was pretty sure this was the largest group of normals he had come across since the world ended. Some of them were at work cleaning up the wreckage of whatever storm had just blown through, and others were weeping openly, loudly even. It was annoying. He wanted to leave.

An older man approached him wearing anger on his face and malice in his clenched fists, but he took one look at Zero’s nose, thought better of it, and turned around. Zero sat down on the ground. He didn’t like this. He didn’t like these people. He wasn’t sure he liked people at all, anymore. He wanted to leave. But, that girl had broken through his flame like it was nothing and he hadn’t thought that was possible before that moment.

He lay back on the ground and it occurred to him that whatever had been calling to him was in this area. He knew that meant more of them to burn, and he could not pass up that opportunity. Maybe he would stick around a day or two to see what happened.

He awoke to the feeling of being kicked in the ribs. A small boy was doing the deed and giggling about it between each and kick. When the boy saw Zero open his eyes, he ran off exclaiming, “I kicked the fire man, the fire man, the fire man with the crooked nose!” Fucking kids. Zero hoped his name was Johnny.

He concentrated on the pain still in his face when he noticed what sounded like an argument on the other side of the tent-thing he was lying behind.

“You told us we’d be safe here! We trusted you god damn it!” It was a man’s voice, rough and angry.

A gentle feminine voice answered, “She told you it was the safest place we had found. That’s all. Nobody knew they could burrow underground.”

More voices, “I want to go back to the city.”

The gentle feminine voice seemed to be directing the answers. “We left the city because there were too many places for them to hide and too many places for them to surprise. You all know that. Alice cannot always detect exactly where they are.”

“But there was food in the city!”

“And my Otis would probably still be alive if we hadn’t come out to this godforsaken hill. And poor little Marco!”

“Fort Hilltop! Get it right!” Zero recognized the young annoying girl’s voice.

The angry man was not amused. “Of all the fucking shit, you just shut the fuck up! And that name is fucking stupid!”

Zero had to agree with that one. Fort Stupid should be its name. It wasn’t even a fort. Why in the hell were they calling it that?

They argued for a bit about going to the city or staying on the hill. Zero grew bored. He looked at the small shack and imagined it had once been a whacking shed for young boys in the area. Coming and going every moment they could sneak away, or rather, entering the shed, coming, and then going. The shed probably had a collection of nudie mags, but all the pages were stuck together. Their desperation at seeing what was on the pages drove them to spend hours trying to pry the pages apart without damaging them.

The mention of himself brought him back to reality.

“And where is that son-of-a-bitch that burned everything? He needs to pay.”

There was some agreement among everyone. Zero didn’t care. He wasn’t paying shit.

There was a small moment of silence as if a hush had befallen the arguers, and Zero heard a frail voice, barely above a whisper.

“We are alive because of him. I summoned him here, and he will not be the last.”

Fort Hilltop

“Twenty-one adults and five children, all present and accounted for, ma’am!” Jasper was always so formal.

“Good, now go get some rest, and please do not call me ma’am.” Alice knew that last part would be ignored, as always, but she said it anyway.  She couldn’t help but like Jasper. He was eager to learn, willing to work, and hadn’t yet adopted the doom-and-gloom attitude of most of the rest of the group.

Erin was another exception; constantly running about asking questions. She seemed in high spirits regardless of the situation. She often claimed to be afraid, but never showed any signs of it. Indeed, Alice had never seen Erin in an anything-less-than-cheerful mood. Something wasn’t right about it, and Alice cycled through all her memories of Erin trying to put her finger on it, to no avail.

“It’s been a month since we came here, and two weeks since they attacked, and you still refuse to rest.” Sarah had climbed the makeshift lookout tower. “You need sleep.”

“Be that as it may, I can still feel them. They are everywhere and yet, apparently nowhere.”

“Well, you certainly picked a good spot to set up this thing, whatever it is. Erin has named it Fort Hilltop. She’s so creative, that one.”

Alice smirked. “Yes, and I heard Jasper refer to it that way, as well. Though this is definitely not a fort; we have no defenses.”

“We have you.”

They stood in silence for a bit, surveying the land. Their camp sat on top of a hill in what used to be an ocean of grass. They had burned all that, however, so that nothing could approach the camp without being seen. A series of shelters encircled the lookout tower on top of the hill. Some were tents and others were little more than blankets tied to whatever they could find to use as poles. Their lookout tower was an old tin shack that had been sitting alone atop the hill. Its roof was missing, but the rafters remained.

“It’s rare that you’re away from Micah this long. Has anything changed?”

Sarah sighed. “No. He still can’t see. He still hasn’t said a word. I think he was asleep when I came up here.” She shrugged. “But it’s so hard to tell.”  She paused a moment. “He does tend to wander, now, so I suppose I’ll be going.”

Alice nodded.

“There’s no harm in letting someone else keep watch for a while, you know. Jasper would do it gladly, and so would Ben.”

Alice continued studying her surroundings.

“Well good night, then.” Sarah started down off the rafter, but then stopped to wait for a response.

Alice turned to her and nodded. Sarah smiled and dropped to the ground below and set off toward Micah.

Alice had no desire to lead a group of people. Never did she imagine she’d be doing anything of the sort; her thoughts had always been on fighting whatever it was that was coming. All her preparation and training had been bent on the fight. She was younger than most of these people, and she feared more than a few of them were on the edge of that insanity that seemed to have gripped the rest of the remaining populace.

Most of them seemed afraid of her, and she thought it comical, since they had yet to see Sarah’s capabilities beyond that third attack, and Sarah had held back during that one.  She had held back quite a bit.

The ground rumbled, soft and hollow like a stomach that has been empty for too long. Alice thought nothing of it, at first, but it happened again. And again. It was louder the next time, and louder still the time after that. Alice, on full alert, darted her eyes back and forth in all directions, but she saw nothing. A scream erupted from a tent below.

Alice was in the tent in an instant. Several of them had emerged through the floor after having ripped through the bottom of the tent, though they were different from any she had seen before. The lower half of Otis was on one side of the tent, and the other half was nowhere to be seen. His wife, Pam, screamed and waved her limbs around wildly as she backed herself against the other side of the tent as they seemed to be trying to take hold of her.

Alice didn’t pause, her sword had been out the moment she heard the scream. The trio didn’t stand a chance, but that was only the beginning of the chaos. The entire camp erupted in a panic as more of them emerged from the ground. Alice could feel them in every direction all at once. There was too much commotion for her to gauge the best course of action, so she tore through the camp slicing the tops of every tent and makeshift shelter and pulling the freed fabric to the ground. In the next instant, she was back up the lookout tower to study the ground below.

It wasn’t the ground below that drew her attention, however, it was the expanse of burned plains surrounding the hill. Hundreds of them in all sort of varieties were charging the camp. And, in their midst was the largest of them she had ever seen. It was easily four times the size of the largest she had yet encountered. Fear took her and she could not focus it.

It was then that she noticed Micah standing next to her, and he opened his mouth to speak.

“He has arrived.”