If you like tales of people attempting to construct cosmologies that allow them to process grief and guilt, then whoa baby, do I have a story for you. In other words, The Coachella Review has published my story, “At the Speed of Light.”
This started out as the final story for my undergraduate creative writing thesis at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It evolved and focused through my MFA at New Hampshire, and finally found it’s home. This is also the first solicited work I’ve published, which was a nice process to go through. Many thanks to Coachella‘s fiction editor, Chih Wang, for her help bringing this story to publication.
In my continuing series, here’s the beginning of a short piece from 2011 that never went anywhere…
Jack French was a London tourist and he was running. And he kept running. He wasn’t wearing the appropriate gear for running. One might think someone running like that would be wearing athletic shoes and perhaps shorts because the weather was so unseasonably warm. One would be wrong. Jack was wearing a Valentino three-piece and a pair of Crocket & Jones oxfords. It is not recommended to run in oxfords. Oxfords have no traction. Jack French knew this of course but there are times when such conventions are impractical. For instance, when one is being chased through the streets by gibbering madness, one is permitted to run anywhere, at any time, at any speed, and in any shoe one desires. One may even forgo shoes entirely.
It is almost Oxforth of Ordmount. The fourth moon still lingers above the cherry-hued mountaintops that ensnare this valley. The other three moons have set and yet my wife still sleeps. Her cranberry velvet legs twitch, a jerk, a twinge, a lumbering hare chasing prey in the Other. Her time is near. Soon she will birth us a son. The fetus is ripe and the last stage of gestation is procurement of a soul from the Other. It is a delicate maneuver.
She put the finishing touches on her painting though she did not sign it, no not yet. She dabbed a gangrenous shadow across the mountain, the shadow of a cloud, a harpy of a cloud. The slow, dense, black crepuscular mass that frightened children with its immensity, sent them scurrying into the house with its burbling momentum, an infection rumbling across the pristine sky, devouring robin blue like a cancer with a hideous laugh of thunder deep in its bowels threatening to shit freezing hail and lightning onto the cars of housewives and homemakers. She wanted the mountains to fear the cloud. She imagined the mountains retreating in panic from this cloud. Plate tectonics did create mountains. Mountains fleeing this mass of condensed water, dirt, and dust sent the plates rushing in fear for far shores. She stepped back from the canvas and felt something close to Shangri-La shudder from her sacrum to her crown, a serpent of flame unfurling from a long nap, a yawning yearning to incinerate every cell, to realize the potential in every atom, a reactor in every cell division, a furnace in every molecule.
Jack skid to a halt at the end of a dark alley. He never understood why people being chased always ran into dark alleys. He’d cursed them as bloody fools in films, but when in the same situation, he’d done the same bloody thing, past dark dumpsters and bins, slipping on God-knows-what in £800 shoes. He listened, waiting for the gate-crashing thunder of his cardiovascular system to retreat from his ears. The opening of the alley was clear, the streetlights shining on the cobblestones. Whatever was pursuing him was gone. The sounds of the night came back like skittish rabbits returning to a lawn after the bark of a dog. An ear here, a twitch of a nose there, a pair of round black eyes like traffic the next street over, like a telly three flats up blasting the news out an open window. Jack’s own belabored breath. One might have heard his adrenaline recede, his autonomic nervous system go offline and refuel. His testicles dropped and sensations like thirst, hunger, and sex returned accordingly. He inched back out of the alley still leaping at every aural oddity, his awareness amped and alive. He was a dead man ten minutes before when the madness came at him with slavering jaws. As he reached the light-bathed street, his pupils constricted and he realized that in all of his forty-six years, he’d never been alive.
“Where have you been?” Jack couldn’t quite place her mood. Somewhere half between boredom and annoyance. There should be a word for that. Boreyance. Annoydom. Neologisms danced before his eyes, obscuring the woman he’d been dating for eleven weeks. Her name was Penelope and she was an artist and completely out of his league. Though his friends said it was quite the opposite, that she was the lucky one who’d wrangled a fabulously wll-to-do banker to support her quote-unquote art. Jack didn’t support her art, at least not financially. She’d never asked for a pence to be quite honest. She’d clocked him straight away.
It was Penelope’s first major show at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. The owners of the gallery had recently expanded due to a loan he’d been able to arrange and they’d invited him to the grand reopening. As soon as he saw Penelope, he’d fallen madly, hopelessly in love, which, Jack would agree, was always a very bad sign.
“I’m not a manic fairy dream girl,” she said in a distinct Welsh accent. Jack had only said hello. She wasn’t following the correct social cues at all.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t quite hear me. I’m quite sure you did, but you mean what as in you don’t quite understand what I’ve said. To be absolutely transparent, I’m not a manic fairy dream girl. It’s quite obvious that you’ve seen me and fallen head-over-oxfords in lust with me, which you, in your upper-middle class upbringing has confused with love. I am absolutely not your type, you’ve never felt this way about anyone before, et cetera. And I will tell you right now so we are absolutely clear: I am absolutely not going to be the free-spirited artsy-fartsy tart that’s going to break you out of your stick-in-the-mud, uptight bullshit.”
“You’re awfully full of yourself, aren’t you?” He handed her a martini. “It’s not drugged, I swear. I’m quite capable of seducing you without narcotics.”
“Are you now?” She finished the martini in a single swallow and handed the glass back. Penelope spun on her heels, a simple one-eighty, and inject herself into another conversation.
“Apologies, Penelope, the service was late arriving with a car.” It was a good excuse, better at least than the truth.
“Cars are so pedestrian.” She affected an accent. Queen’s English.
“How droll.” Jack took a seat and ordered a drink.
“I finished the painting today. I think I broke myself. I put on the finishing stroke this afternoon and I’ve been wonky ever since. I’m not even sure you’re here. It’s entirely possible that you’re not and I’m having a boring nap at the loft. Perhaps I’ve had a stroke and you’ll find my corpse on the floor when you finally get out of the office.” She yawned into the back of her hand.
“It must be your luck day,” he said, taking in the rest of the restaurant. “I can quite assure you that I am indeed out of the office. I am very much here.”
“How can you be sure? I haven’t been sure of anything all afternoon.”
“I’ll tell you what. Let’s get out of here. We’ll go back to the loft and you can introduce me to this masterpiece of yours. If you’ve had a stroke and you’re in a heap on the floor, we’ll find you and get you to a hospital or a morgue or something.”
“That is a fantastic idea. You, sir, are a genius. Call the Nobel committee.” She handed him her coat. Jack held it while she spun and slipped into it, a single remarkable movement, a fluid grace despite her fluid intake. Jack motioned to the waiter for the check when the madness stepped out from behind the bar. His heart broke from his chest, throttled Penelope’s empty glass which shattered against the tabletop. Amorphous and thundering it slunk across the restaurant. it moved through instead of around diners who shivered unaware. They instinctively looked toward the door expecting a cold breeze and returned to their lobsters confused, unable to process why they were cold on such a warm day.
“Jack,” Penelope prompted. “Jack. Are you alright?” She followed his eyes across the distance. The madness vanished, swirling away like fog exposed to sunlight. “Darling, you’re absolutely soaked. Come.” Penelope thrust her arm through his and ushered him from the restaurant.
“Did you see it? You saw it, didn’t you.” His voice was a whisper, sand shuffling over glass.
“If you’re referring to the cloud of fearsome madness that was causing all that ruckus in the restaurant, I saw no such thing.” Penelope thought about her painting and that horrible crepuscular mass.
The fourth moon wanes. My wife wakes. I watch her starred pupils dilate, adjusting to the crimson twilight. I can feel her disappointment in my heart. She is close.
“I have anchored into the Other. The net has been set. He will be ours and our son will be ensouled before the next moon of Oxforth of Ordmount.”