THE LAND BEYOND
By Alexandra Erin
No one really knows what happens to us after we die, the dead least of all. We experience it , but we do not understand it. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What am I supposed to do? What happens next? are questions that we ask each other and ourselves during the duration of our mortal lives, but always the assumption is there that death will answer all our questions, even if the answer to each of them is a resounding “nothing”.
How quintessentially human a trait it is, to assume that everything will work itself out eventually, that the things we seek must be, if not just around the bend, then certainly around a bend and quite definitely one that is in our path.
But no. Death is just one more hill to be crested on our march towards infinity, and the view from its summit is not even particularly inspiring. You die. You close your eyes, or so it seems from your own point of view, and then you open them in more or less the same place, though it is subtly altered.
You aren’t in heaven. You aren’t in hell, at least not that you’ve noticed. The place you’ve ended up in would be hard to describe to someone who hasn’t been here, so maybe that’s why it’s not quite what anyone seems to expect upon arrival.
It looks like the world you know, but it isn’t. It’s bigger, in places, in a way that you don’t notice at first. No matter how many people show up, it never quite fills up.
There are new rules to be learned, social ones alongside physical ones. Figuring out how to get around in this translated state is a bit like learning how to walk, with the added benefit of experience. You’ve done it before, so it stands to reason that you can do it again.
The land of the dead offers enough challenge and novelty to keep you interested for a time, but like all things except perhaps for death, this inevitably ends and you start asking the big questions again.
Why am I here? What does it mean? What’s it all about?
Every religion is represented in the land of the dead, every one that has existed in history and more besides. Some who were faithful in life believe that they are being tested or tricked. Some abandon the faiths of their mortal existence but cleave just as strongly to some new creed that promises answers or offers direction. Some give up the notion of belief in yet another other realm or a higher power entirely, though in the process many of them wind up believing all manner of equally esoteric theories that they say represents the skeptical viewpoint.
They may even be right. Who can say? If there is any land beyond that of the dead, not only has no one returned from it, but no one can say for certain anyone has gone to it. Everyone knows someone with whom they have lost contact with, but the land of the dead is vast, full of deep corners and crowded with the masses of the ages.
By Alexandra Erin
When I close my eyes, I see the silent city.
It is always there, etched into my brain, lurking behind the back of my eyelids, waiting for the lights to go out. I walk its empty streets in my sleep every night, but it’s always there, even when I’m awake.
It’s only when I’m asleep that the ideograms in the store windows and squiggles on the street signs make sense to me, though I never remember what any of them say, only the bare fact that I know.
The roads are all brick-paved, but the street lights and the useless traffic signals are all very modern. Nestled between red brick apartments, brownstone town houses, and glittering glass skyscrapers, there are buildings that look like theaters, storefronts that could be sweet shops or bakeries, though there is never anything inside them, nothing in the window but lettering whose meaning eludes my waking mind. There are no doors, no way in.
Somewhere, beyond the bridge that I can never reach, there are suburbs, and beyond that, rolling plains of wild flowers and green, green grass. I have never seen these things, but I know they are there, just like I know that somewhere, on some street near or far, he will be there.
It’s not my city, but his. He’s the reason I have to keep moving. I don’t know why, when I’m awake. I might be looking for him. He might be looking for me. I don’t know if he knows about me, or what might happen if we meet.
I can see him, though. I see his face laid out with the lines of the city, the criss-crossing grid of major roads and the swirls of cul-de-sacs in the posh subdivisions. The city center is over his eye, his left eye.
It might be that in some way, he is the city or the city is him. I don’t know. That’s a bit metaphysical for my tastes. It’s something to ask him about, maybe, if I ever meet him. If I’m looking for him, and not a way out of the city and away from, and if I’m able to ask him, or even care. I’m not entirely sure I’m the same person, when I’m in the city.
When people ask, I tell them I never remember my dreams. As far as I know, that might even be true.
By Alexandra Erin
“You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain,” I said.
“Of coure I didn’t,” the tiny, winged figure in the circle said. “You made a dea with the devil. Well, a devil. Well, a devilish being. What did you expect to get? Fair dealing and four star customer service?”
“No, but I thought you would be, you know, tricky about it,” I said. “Double meanings, overly literal or figurative interpretations, loopholes… something like that.”
“That sounds like a lot of work when I can get what I want with straight-up dishonesty,” it said.
“But if you don’t have a reputation for honesty, how can you expect people to make deals with you?”
“I had a good enough reputation to pull you in,” it said. “Probably because people would rather tell stories where they were outsmarted with clever wording than ones where they just straight up gave away all their marbles for nothing. That’s how you get stories about magic beans, I’m sure. Anyway, I’m not sure why I need a reputation for honesty. I mean, you expected I would cheat you, and you still agreed.”
“Because I thought I would have a chance to outsmart you!” I said.
“Well, you got one,” it said. “That part where I asked you if you wanted to make a deal. That was your chance to outsmart me. You could have said no and walked away.”
“You told me that you were a creature of honor and that your word was all you had.”
“Yeah, funny story,” it said. “It turns out liars can say that, too.”
THE OTHER CHILD
By Alexandra Erin
The first time you notice the child, two groups of trick-or-treaters have converged on your porch at once. It’s twenty-two minutes past six and the smaller children are out in full force, guided by grown-ups or older siblings pressed into service.
The monsters are pretty thin on the ground right now. At this hour, it’s mostly mutant turtles and cartoon princesses, Sith Lords and Jedi Knights… and at the pack of the pack, standing just off the edge of your small patio-like front porch is one tiny child, painfully pale and painfully thin.
If those dark circles are just makeup, it’s a far more subtle job than the usual Halloween face paint. The brief glimpse of gray you get beneath the neck doesn’t look much like a costume, but then a taller child in wizard school robes shifts in front of you and you lose your train of thought.
By the time the crowd has thinned out, you couldn’t exactly swear that the pale child in the back never came forward to grab a handful of Smarties and Sixlets with the rest, but you didn’t see it happen.
Well, some kids are shy, you tell yourself. Probably someone else in the group was an older relative, tasked with the perilous task of going up to the door and actually collecting the candy.
When you open the door a few minutes later to see the same child, dressed in a shapeless gray sweater and dingy white pants, standing at the edge of your porch behind a pair of children dressed as superheroes in tutus, you manage to summon up a smile and a remark about how glad you are to see they found the bravery to come back, but somehow the words catch in your throat and the smile dies on your face when you meet the child’s eyes.
You can’t be sure—after all, it was only a glimpse before—but you’d almost swear it was standing in the exact same place as last time. Head at the same angle, eyes staring ahead in the same fixed way. You hold out the candy bowl for the first two visitors and then make a valiant effort to thrust it out towards the strange child at the back of the porch for several seconds. When it doesn’t move or react in any way, you step back and quickly shut the door.
The next time there’s a knock on the door, you take a look through the peephole. No one there but a pirate. You step back and open the door in the same motion, and find yourself looking at a child you’re sure wasn’t there before, as though the door had been a screen wipe transitioning to a fresh scene.
You give the pirate the due booty and barely manage to restrain yourself from screaming at a child for being spooky at Halloween.
“Nice trick,” you say to the other child. “Bet you don’t get much candy that way, though. Come up and have some!”
You know the child won’t.
When you close the door, you look through the peephole and then through the side pane and see nothing. You try to convince yourself that if you were to open the door, your front step would be deserted. You don’t quite manage it.
When the next knock comes, you take a long time to answer it. You know what you’ll see before you open the door, and of course you’re right. When you close it this time, you briefly flick off your porch light, then you look at the candy in your bowl and think about the decorations all over the outside of your house. No one would look at your house and believe that you’re not at home to trick-or-treaters.
Anyway, would be any better to hide out alone in your house with the lights off, waiting for the children knocking to go away disappointed? It’s not like the other child would leave.
You do your best to ignore its continued presence as you go about your holiday duties. Surprisingly, it works. No one else mentions the other child or gives it much notice, and after a while it just becomes a background part of the routine.
The crowd changes a bit as the sun finishes setting and full dark sets in. The older kids are out now, the ones who go all out on their costumes. The little kids are cute, but you’ve always loved the scary side of Halloween, the ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night…
And just like that, you’re thinking of the other child again, and suddenly you’re noticing that at some point he took a step up and is now positioned just inside the bounds of your porch. He’s changed the angle of his head, and the look on his face is… less vacant. Hard to quantify, though.
Official trick-or-treat hours for your town run until 8:00, though you’ve always kept the light burning a bit later for people who don’t read the community calendar.
Tonight, though, you start giving out your remaining candy multiple handfuls at a time, and as soon as your phone says 8:00, you lock your door, turn out your porch light, close all the blinds, and turn on every light inside your house.
You pour yourself a glass of wine, and you’re just in the process of trying to decide between going upstairs to drink it with a book or sitting down with something light and fun on the TV when you hear the unmistakable metal screech of your storm door being opened.
You freeze up. The porch light is off. Everybody knows that’s the universal signal of “no candy here”, right? You’ve closed up shop for the night. All you have to do is be quiet and ignore it…
“Trick or treat.”
It’s a child’s voice, a tiny voice, yet one that is remarkably piercing in the stillness of the moment. Your blood pounds in your ears as you try to decide what to do. Answering the door seems impossible, even if it seemed like a good idea, but you’re not sure how much longer you can stand to ignore it…
“Hello?” another voice says, an older one, and you both jump in surprise and then relax so completely you practically deflate. It’s your next-door neighbor. They always come by your house last, after doing a driving tour of other neighborhoods. They must have been running a bit late tonight, that’s all. You remember now that you didn’t see them among the press of costumed bodies at your front door. It might have seemed weird at the time, if anything so normal had the power to seem weird.
“Coming!” you shout, almost laughing with relief.
You run-walk to the front hall, where you reach for the door before realizing you have empty hands. The last remnants of the candy are in the bowl, which you set down on the little foyer table just behind you.
You turn around…
First Published: October 29th, 2015
Word Count: ~1200
SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT SPIDERS
By Alexandra Erin
It has been seven days since I saw a spider within the house.
Knowing their propensity for squeezing within tiny spaces and scurrying under things, I have spent most of the week searching in vain for their new hiding spot, or spots. I examined in minute detail the cracks between the floorboards and all the seams in the walls. Realizing their ability to move in three dimensions coupled with their keen senses and quick reflexes could allow them to follow my own movements through the house while staying just outside the arc of my vision, I tried on several occasions to whirl around quickly and catch them off-guard. I never saw them, though.
After seven days without a single solitary sighting of a spider, I have begun to suspect something. Do spiders count in base eight? Do they attach some special significance to the number of their limbs and eyes? Do they ? I cannot see how it would be otherwise.
If this is so, then whatever they have planned for me, it will be tomorrow.
First Published: October 28th, 2015
Word Count: ~200
FIRST PUBLISHED: October 26th, 2015
WORD COUNT: ~400
WATCHING OVER US ALL
By Alexandra Erin
The cold, pale, slightly irregularly-shaped orb that rose over the horizon that pivotal first morning was not the sun, not our sun at least.
It gave off enough light to be seen, but only just. It was nowhere near bright enough to blot out the stars, but they disappeared in its wake, just the same as if it were drawing a shade behind it as it traversed the sky. The moon was nowhere to be seen.
It had been getting smaller—farther away, astronomers said—for days before, lighting out for parts unknown. No one knew what was keeping the tides going. We’d have to rewrite the physics books entirely when we found out, assuming that anyone could and that anyone would be around to write it all down.
The temperatures plunged, but not as much as you would have expected. Things got chilly, but not icy. Plants kept growing, though they were observed to grow away from the pale new sun rather than towards it. Flowers that had once tracked old Sol’s progress across the sky now turned their faces away from his replacement.
The fire-and-brimstone preachers all screamed that they’d warned us, but as time went on with neither deliverance for them and their followers nor devastation for the world, they sort of settled down and found a new rhythm, a new routine. They said to anyone who’d listen that the end of the world was imminent, that all the signs and portents proved this, but they’d been saying that for as long as anyone could remember.
The really surprising thing was how quickly it all became normal. The government pushed through a lot of new travel restrictions and emergency regulations right away, supposedly to preserve readiness—readiness for what, no one knew—and prevent panic. Some of them were relaxed when no actual crisis materialized, some of them weren’t.
Habits changed more quickly than language, with idioms about daylight and sunshine maintaining their currency years after anyone had ever seen such things.
The world had changed. We just changed with it. Things had been scary for a while, but we came out the other side okay. If anything, it just went to show you how resilient we were, as a society. As a species.
Maybe that’s why there was as little reaction as there was, the day the pallid lid finally opened and we found out what the thing in the sky really was.
First Published: October 8th, 2015
Word Count: 250
by Alexandra Erin
“Tall whipless double espresso soy mocha!”
“We’ve talked about this, Morgan.”
The barista blanched at the sound of her supervisor right behind her. She stood with a fixed smile on her face until the drink had been collected, then turned.
“Simon, I’m sorry,” she said. “It just slipped out! Force of habit.”
“It never should have become a habit in the first place,” he said. “You’ve worked here long enough to know the policy. We ask the guest’s name, we write it on their cup, we call it out! It makes people feel welcome, as if you’re treating them nice. It’s not rocket science. If it was, you wouldn’t be doing it.”
“Couldn’t I just be nice for real? I have… issues… with shouting people’s names. Julia never had a problem with my little quirks.”
“Yeah, well, Julia retired,” Simon said. “I don’t have a problem, either. You do, and you need to get over it right the fuck now.”
“You’re sure I can’t just call out the drinks?” Morgan asked.
“No. Names or nothing,” he said. “Do your job or hit the bricks.”
“Could I… practice with yours?”
“If that’s what it takes,” he said, rolling his eyes.
She called his name.
It didn’t take long for the EMTs to get there, but it was too late to do anything. The shop closed for the day, and Morgan knew it might be closed a bit longer, but when it reopened, no one would ask her to call out names.
First Publication: October 5th, 2015
Word Count: ~1700
MADE WITH LOVE
by Alexandra Erin
When I made Annabelle, I wasn’t looking for a companion. I hadn’t known at the time how much I needed one.
I didn’t think of myself as lonely as a child, even though I was frequently alone and didn’t have anyone who shared my interests. I was simply solitary. My interests were unique, or so I thought at the time. The adults in my life assured each other I would become interested in boys any time, and then some of them assured me it would be fine if I was interested in girls.
Mostly I was interested in making things, and in the strange blue stone that dotted the quarries and rocky outcroppings near our home, and in making things out of the stone.
Astralite, it was called. The star-stone. People used to think it came to the earth in falling stars, but that’s nonsense.
A geologist once told me we have no idea what made astralite form, but it definitely had a terrestrial origin. I don’t know that I could have articulated this as a child, but the way it appeared in veins running through the limestone certainly testified to that.
The name had stuck even after its celestial origin was disproven, because it was popular and evocative and it certainly fit in other ways. The luminescent qualities of the star-stone were one of its many notable qualities.
Despite the difficulties involved in commercial exploitation, high-quality astralite has always been in demand. I was fortunate that our local strain was not seen by anyone as particularly pure or interesting. It marbled our limestone with whisker-thin wisps, not great galloping rivers.
Over the course of several summers, I collected slivers and dust and pressed them into molds of my own devising, stamping out the gears and shafts and other bits that would become Annabelle. I’d created the technique to make jewelry that I gave away as gifts.
Astralite has a tricky reputation for jewelry. My mother still has the first pendant I ever made, but everyone has heard about the rich lawyer who had astralite stones faceted and polished like gems set into a necklace for his wife, only for them to break apart completely before she opened the box. The world is full of stories like both of these: the cherished astralite heirloom and the junk jewelry that disintegrates.
Sometimes astralite is like the most solid of bedrock. Sometimes it is fragile as hematite, soapstone, or amber. People chalk this up to differences in composition or structure, though no one’s been able to reliably measure such differences.
Those who work astralite will tell you the truth, though most people think we’re just being romantic. It’s simple, though. You have to love it.
The proof of this sits next to me on the sofa every evening, and lays beside me in bed while I sleep. I pressed her parts together out of dust and scrapings, but in twenty-three years not a single piece has broken, not a single axle has cracked. There isn’t so much as a chip on the tooth of any of her gears.
People think I’m a genius. Even the ones who believe I’m a fraud—and that’s most people—think I’m a genius at it. Even making a person-shaped machine that can walk and speak like a person is something of a holy grail in the field of robotics, an area in which I have no actual expertise or experience.
If Annabelle were nothing more than a remote-controlled automaton and all those intricate visible clockwork pieces suspended inside the thin blue glowing wire frame that bounds her limbs were simply there for show, she would still be a triumph in both design and execution.
The truth is, I don’t know how I made her. I started with the simple idea for an astralite clock. The immediate inspiration for this was an old spring-driven alarm clock my parents had, which I had taken apart and put back together many times.
As soon as I started making the pieces, though, I found that they pulled me in a different direction. I started making more pieces, other pieces, and putting them together in the way that made the most sense.
I started when I was eleven. It took three years, during which time most of the adults in my life thought I was making an impressive sculpture. When asked, I said “Something like that.” I’d had a vague inkling in my head of what my labor was leading to, but it sounded ridiculous to say it aloud. I was making a person. I was making a girl.
People tell me she is a work of art. I used to correct them by saying that her creation was done out of love, but I’ve stopped, mostly because I realized that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Still, I don’t like to hear Annabelle described that way, as a work. “A thing of beauty” is another one that makes me see red, though that one is also applied to other women.
When I was a child, I made Annabelle the size of a child. Since then, I have grown and she has grown with me. She bathes in astralite dust periodically, according to her own unfathomable internal rhythms. She takes it into herself. She grows. She changes.
We are adults now. We live together, loving each other yet not quite lovers, at least not in the sense that my more prurient correspondents assume. They like to ask how we have sex. I used to ask them why they assumed that we do, but more often than not, this would only result in even cruder inquiries in the next follow-up.
I support my love and myself with my astralite art and jewelry, which I sell to a select clientele in order to preserve my reputation for quality. It’s not enough for the customer to love a piece in the aesthetic sense, or to love the idea of having it. There has to be real love attached to it, flowing through it.
Astralite needs love to survive when removed from its rocky womb.
That’s the secret.
That’s the key.
That’s why I can work it as easily as if it were soft clay, and make a sculpture you can’t dent with a sledgehammer. When my pieces leave me and go out into the world, though, my love for them cannot sustain them. They must go to loving homes. They must be purchased with love, given with love, treasured.
Annabelle helps me vet my clients. While my explanations of astralite’s nature are still regarded as new age fringe theories by many, they are known. So are the qualifications I set for buying my pieces. Many have tried to bluff their way through the interview.
Usually it’s obvious when someone is faking, covering their covetousness with cartoon hearts in their eyes. I can be fooled, though. People can even fool themselves. Annabelle, the treasure of my heart, is never fooled. Love comes as naturally to her as breathing does to you or me. If this means she does not often have to stop and ponder about its existence, it means she acutely notices its absence.
Even with the vetting process, I offer no guarantees with my work, as things can change and hearts with them. I’ve heard from people who received one of my pieces secondhand, often through a bequest or at an estate sale, only to have it fall to pieces. Usually they’re just complaining, but in a few cases a new owner has sought my help in establishing that the piece was a counterfeit so they could seek redress from the seller. I have no choice but to disappoint them again.
On the other hand, I’ve received many kind messages from people who have found a secondhand treasure which appeared pitted and pocked but which cleaned up more nicely than they would have thought possible with a little tender love and care, or who inherited a cherished keepsake from a family member and want me to know how they feel closer to their loved one than ever when they wear or handle it.
I also receive several inquiries a week asking me for instructions on how to build another Annabelle, along with offers to buy her or requests that I make her available for an in-depth examination. I used to try to respond to these, but now I don’t bother.
It’s not even the volume of them. It’s the fact that even explaining that she is a person whom I love feels like I’m granting too much legitimacy to the premise that she’s not. It wears me down.
I couldn’t tell someone how to make another one of her. I don’t think there could be another one of her, any more than there could be another one of me, or you, or anyone else. I doubt copying her framework or the pattern of her gears would create a spritely blue glowing woman who laughs at my jokes and shares my fears.
The mechanics by which her physical form were constructed hardly matter. That’s not what made her. Sometimes, when I receive a query about her origins that is neither presumptive nor insensitive, I share what advice I have to give on the subject, though to my knowledge no one has yet succeeded in making another living being out of astralite, at least not on purpose.
I did receive an email yesterday from a hysterical mother whose daughter had found one of my tiny carved hummingbirds with its wing broken off. The girl had pressed the pieces back together. She wants to be a veterinarian, her mother said, and she cooed over the poor broken thing, and made it a tiny bandage, and kissed it better, and now a tiny blue hummingbirds follows her around, flitting around in circles around her head and watching over her while she sleeps.
Her mother wanted to know if this is normal.
I told her it’s natural.
By Alexandra Erin
First Publication: September 29th, 2015
Word Count: ~500
The wind carried the strange chemical signals away from the crater. The signal-cloud was too light and dispersed to be sensed through the visible spectrum. The molecules it contained were heavy enough to fall like a soft rain in its wake, though, creating a trail that the hive’s scouts discovered.
An individual ant was not equipped to make sense of what it was detecting, any more than an individual rod or cone in a retina can read a book. The first scouts who found the alien scent-trail stopped in their tracks. If they had been people, their reactions would have been as though they’d just read a sentence in which all the words were correct and in the right order but it still didn’t make sense, or as though they’d just heard something that had the tone and cadence of speech but wasn’t.
An ant is not a person, though. An ant isn’t even a mind. It’s more like a slow moving set of impulses in a larger neural network. The ones who found the trail retreated to the hive, where the information could circulate amongst the All. None of the individual ants knew what the signals were. No one could make sense of it.
The All could, though. The All knew what it was looking at.
Ah, the All thought. Chemical formulae. Interesting.”
The hive reached itself out to follow the trail to its source. By the time they reached the crater, the source of the trail had been packed up and carted away by the pesky bipedal monominds who got in everywhere and poisoned everything. The hive did not care. It trusted that if they even noticed the signals, they would have no clue how to read them. All the important information had suffused the soil around the object.
Instructions. Recipes. Technology.
The hive was cautious, but curious. It was always interested in improving itself, and all the necessary ingredients could be harvested or refined easily enough. There were enough young that some could be fed a formula from the stars to see how it would affect their growth. This sort of applied biochemistry was the colony’s stock in trade.
Scouts from other hives began to arrive at the crater. The All of the first hive briefly considered the merits of combat, but discarded it as an option. The markers had dispersed too widely to keep them a secret and there was no hope of defending so wide a territory as the landing site. Better to withdraw and begin applying the new knowledge. If it provided any advantage, then the first hive to develop it would have an edge over the others.
Among the monominds, the message eventually went out that the meteorite had shown traces of an interesting organic compound. This sort of thing was reported often enough that it provoked more debate over the likelihood of terrestrial contamination than it did excitement over the potential implications.
While the monominds bickered, the hives decoded the recipes and synthesized new compounds. The next generation of queens were showing some fascinating potential, and that was saying nothing about the warriors…