Day 27: “The Sun God”

Mama and Father are arguing again.  She says she never wanted me out there with him, that a boy of barely twelve had no business among a hundred men in a desert.  She thinks I haven’t been the same since, not myself, either sleeping too much, or staring out of windows.  Father tells her that Egypt did not harm me, and he was proud to have his son there with him to witness history.

*

I have been looking out our windows a lot.  Since we came home I find I miss the sun.  It was sweltering there; sometimes I couldn’t think straight.  Father said it’s common to feel disoriented, especially for those from cooler climates who have never experienced such heat.  I heard even a few of his men began to act strangely, and some talked about the fears the locals had that the expedition would be cursed for disturbing the tomb of a Pharaoh.

*

I have become so cold.  There is never a way to get warm enough.  Yesterday, Mama wrapped me in two quilts but I was still shivering.  And everything has begun to feel strange, slow moving, yet loud, as if the world is underwater and all the noise I hear is echoes through thick waves.

*

Who is this woman, pale as if she is sickly, who screams at me in a foreign tongue?  Doesn’t she know I preside over multitudes, that she should bow before my greatness, ruler of the kingdom of the sky?

Day 26: “Opening the Crypt”

It had been Dr. Foltrig’s idea to go first. No one knew what was beyond the gate, and he always insisted on being the leader of any team he ran.

The spider webs plastered their foreheads like cheesecloth. The rats and other small, skittering things ran for their shadowed corners.

They expected to find centuries of dust. A long unwalked path. Nothing but the sealed remains of this heretofore undisturbed enclave.

The last thing they expected was the hum of a voice, distant and human. Nor a strange desire to drift onward, Foltrig at the helm.

No one noticed the boulders roll in front of the entrance way, even as the shaft of light illuminating their way narrowed and disappeared.

They were going to be sealed in with her for all eternity.

Day 25: “Banshee”

(Content Note: Mediphobes, nurses, and doctors run away.)

*

I never meant to get that new girl killed.  I only wanted to get her fired.

Some people called her the best nurse in surgery, even though I know damn well that’s me.  I found her insanely irritating.  Constant talking, too upbeat, telling the patients not to worry, other drivel.  So I started a rumor she was stealing from the med locker.  She was gone in two weeks.

When they fired her, she left crying.  They think that’s why she stumbled into that ambulance.  The first person on the scene howled and howled when she saw her.  The fat girl had been pulled under the wheels, her head crushed.  Messy.

I don’t feel guilty, but sometimes I’m distracted.  When I hear sirens, I hear that howling.  Last week, I thought I saw her outside an OR, cleaning up the bloody towels.

It doesn’t help that my aunt reads Tarot, and uses cards with fairies on them.  She gave me a reading yesterday, and a card labeled Banshee turned up.

“That means someone behind the scenes is trying to screw you over,” she said.

I didn’t tell her I’d already been the behind the scenes someone.

“It can also be a death omen, but rarely,” she added.  I looked away.

*

They call this a minor procedure, not to worry.  And I’m fine with it, my insurance is even covering.  That is until I see her, standing at my head, just as they’ve started the anesthesia.

“Count backwards from ten,” she says.

Day 24: “Pity the Reanimated: A Zombie’s Lament”

(Content Note: Rated R. Also, I’m told this story should not be read by anyone anywhere. You have been warned.)

Left for Dead:  A Preface

It’s no fun being a zombie, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Every time I see an advertisement for that damn Walking Dead series, I want to scream.  Every time I hear someone talking about how ‘cool,’ or ‘unusual,’ or ‘thrilling’ they think it would be to live forever in a perpetually desiccating corpse, I want to slap them silly.  (Neither of which, I can do, by the way, but we’ll get to that.)  This attitude is particularly frustrating to encounter on Halloween.  Don’t get me started on what popular entertainment is teaching a generation of youngsters about what ‘life’ in a world of undead dead people can be like.  To the t.v. producers, it’s all drama and gore.  Something to glorify in the name of ratings.  I hate that this sort of media is marketed to children.  Kids are a hideous soft spot for me.

I started my human life in 1978 as the daughter of an engineer and a biologist.  Two highly successful, socially conscious, maritally fulfilled individuals who would be mortified to see what I’ve become since they last saw me.  My decision not to pursue the sciences in college was hard enough for them; I can’t imagine how they’d react if they knew I’d been catapulted into a life of mandatory carnivorality, estrangement from family and friends, and an endless parade of costumes, stage make-up and overpriced wigs.  Subsisting in the class of the undead in an all too living world isn’t for sissy pants.

After my transformation, I lost everything.  No one understands, or can understand the plight of the zombified.  And contrary to what George Romero may have duped you into thinking, we don’t travel in packs, we don’t help each other out.  There are no support groups for us, no unions, no members-only clubs.  This is the ultimate club no one wants to join.  Please remember, as you read these pages, I didn’t choose to go zombie.  It’s an existence forced on me by the worst kind of bad luck, and no matter what else you think you know about it—it could happen to you.

I:  ‘Death’ and Rebirth

We were in Santa Fé when it happened.  Lev and I were on a picnic with our three year old, Chandra, enjoying an unusually warm March afternoon in our area.  (Little known thing about New Mexico for those who’ve never lived there—it isn’t always a million degrees outside, or even sunny.)  We had packed well, even brought out the proverbial square food basket and checkerboard blanket, trying our best to effect the attitude of a normal, happy family and, miraculously, succeeding for once.

It hadn’t been easy for us to do, settle into family life.  For many years, I had denied a desire for children, believing, as any devoted secular humanist would, that procreation could undermine both my creative spirit and whatever use I hoped to be for society at large.  On top of that, I was an untenured art history professor at a small, New England university and couldn’t, realistically, raise a baby on either the low salary for my position, or its erratic scheduling demands.  I had been there eight years, and knew no women on the faculty with children, even the married ones.  Lev understood.  As another Internet industry gun for hire, whose own income and time realities fluctuated wildly, he knew he would not be in a position to pick up the slack.

But as our thirties rolled forward, both of us began to feel the pressure of what I had always believed was an oppressive, sexist and thoroughly made up idea:  that infernal thing called biological imperative, more commonly referred to as one’s biological clock.  Before mine began to tick with the subtlety of a wrecking ball into bricks, I had thought its existence to occupy roughly the same space as those urban legends about choking Dobermen and alligators emerging from toilets on the Upper West Side.  I wanted a baby.  Not a horde, just one.  And it seemed Lev had wanted that longer than I had.

You’d think this would have actually lowered the barometer between us, a couple who could get along more sporadically than consistently, and which is comprised of a female spouse who is high strung under the best of circumstances.  Yet, no, opening the lines of communication about baby making actually created more stress between the two of us, particularly after I admitted to having, as I graciously put it, “daydreamed about a child for more than two years,” at that point.

“How could you have kept that from me?”  Lev asked, shocked, over a plate of chicken vindaloo.  I had mistakenly thought broaching the subject while we were in a public space, such as Bronwyn, Connecticut’s nicest Indian restaurant, would help calm the waters.

“I don’t know,” I answered lamely, staring down at my curried vegetables and trying not to cry.  My inexplicable silence did seem pointless, almost callous, at that point.  What had I been thinking?  “Maybe I thought you’d say no.  It’s not as if you’ve ever been gung-ho about the subject of children, not even when we were first married.”

“What, when I was twenty-six?”  He had moved from shocked into distinctly unkind.  “Things can change quite a bit in a decade, Selah.”

“Well, I really don’t know, why didn’t you say something?”

“Because I thought you had ruled the idea out entirely!  Because of your career, the university system as you like to call it, your parents, your grandparents—”

(Most of my mother’s family had survived the Holocaust, barely, and their reluctant, though vivid, disclosures of their experiences as the victims of genocide actually had given me great pause regarding whether or not the idea of children was ethical in our still dangerous, anti-Semitic world.  And being the child of my mother, who bore the lingering misery of her mother’s survivor’s hardships, wasn’t exactly a compensating motivator.)

I’m getting weepy again.  It’s amazing to me how the discussion about creating life in the middle of generations of murder, death, and unhappiness was ever a discussion to begin with, let alone a debate.  Especially given the way I live now.  We wasted a lot of time, Lev and I, and I wasted a ton of living.  And if we’d talked earlier, tried earlier, the child could have become children, who could have been born under other circumstances, into another place.  Maybe I wouldn’t have wound up on that picnic blanket, and maybe I would be with my family today.

I digress.  The truth is, it’s impossible to hate the way things went up until That Day in the Park, or hate the product of our fruitless years of Hamletesque delay, because that series of events ultimately produced the world’s perfect child.  I would often think, in that first, insomniac year, despite being trapped in the restless whirlpool of early parenthood, that if we had acted any differently, I wouldn’t have Chandra, I would have some other baby.  There is only one Chandra, and for a time I was horrified that had our mating dance been made up of just one altered step, she could have been supplanted by a child who would, I was sure, be a stranger to me.  Only one daughter.  I would never want any other, or anyone more.

In the end, we got lucky.  Extremely lucky.  Like, zillion dollar jackpot lucky after you’ve been living on assistance for ten years.  Okay, it wasn’t a zillion dollars.  Lev’s father died and left us ten million.  It was supposed to be used for the care and feeding of his mother in her golden years, but she had passed a month earlier, so the remains of the family fortune, a more modest sum after the relevant taxes, went to us.

We left Connecticut, and moved to Santa Fé after I got an offer to manage a gallery there.  Lev’s plan was to run his own software developing business from home.  (Neither one of us wanted to fall into the trap of confusing inheritance for long term security, and so planned to continue working.)  After brief consultation with supportive doctors, Chandra was conceived.  I’ll spare you the details of the pregnancy and birth, which, honestly, are simply too excruciating to want to think about anyway.  She was born in June, 2006, under a full moon in the sign of Sagittarius.  I read that this means a child may have a mother who works in academia.  Or a mother who is sort of free spirited, and leaves the child in peace to do her own thing.  It can also mean a mother who roams the earth, with or without her kid, which I think is obviously how it played out.

Or astrology is crap.  Sometimes I become sentimental about her.

We chose her name, Chandra, for its magnificent meaning:  she outshines the stars.

I hope it’s true.

My ‘death’ took place in the following way.  Or, rather, I thought it took place in the following way.

I was on the blanket, cleaning up the napkins, cups and crumbs, when I started to feel dizzy.  Since I had just finished a meal, I knew it couldn’t be my periodically low blood sugar.  Since it wasn’t that hot out, or even warm, really, I knew it couldn’t be heatstroke.  Vertigo?  This seemed like the most likely choice, as the disorientation became worse after I stood up to walk to a recycling bin.

I hadn’t had vertigo in ages.  That should have been my first clue.  That and the way Lev was looking at me, as if I were not quite right.  He didn’t seem ‘right,’ to me, either.  There was a reddish haze around his skin.  His eyes were whiter than I’d realized.  When he reached out to feel my forehead, the parent’s auto-response to see if a potential contagion has entered the sanctum of the child’s biosphere, he smelled like a, well, it sounds cliché now, but it was like baked Alaska.  Roast chicken.  Savory meat.

“Are you okay, See?”  he asked, and his voice was also altered.  A slow motion baritone rumbling through a mile of ocean, beneath which I had sunk, so fast I could not remember the descent.

The next bit I recall in flashes, because I know my spirit must have been orbiting outside my body at that point, and most of what I saw and heard I could not have heard in my condition.  Either that or the mind movie was filmed by some other consciousness, implanted in my brain because mine was not ‘recording’ at this juncture.  (The latter explanation is most probable, actually, but that’s a story I’ll get to later on.)

I was on a gurney, being wheeled into the emergency room.  I was behind a drape, my expression gone a slack, glassy blank.  No response to questions.  No response to painful stimuli.

I saw them asking Lev the usual questions.  Which medications did I take?  Drug and alcohol use?  Signs of illness?  Any recent foreign travel?  Overall health status?  STDs?  Someone asked about allergies.  No, he said.  Wait, except for codeine.

Nobody was exactly worried about codeine by that point.

I saw them wheel me, or, rather, my body, to a room off the ER’s main hallway.  They gave Lev a chance to ‘say goodbye’ from the doorway.  No one could tell him anything.  It didn’t look like a virus.  It didn’t look like food poisoning.  It didn’t look like a heart attack.  They could investigate further in autopsy…maybe.  (For some reason, they didn’t like that idea.)

Lev said no.  I guess that was another piece of luck I should be grateful for.

Then he walked away.  Chandra was getting checked over by nurses.  He found her and went to a hospital lounge to begin calling relatives.  I thought that was strange.  It’s not like we were a young couple just starting out.  It’s not like it was a long illness, a scenario in which some husbands might be relieved their wives had expired at last.  I expected crying, or in the absence of tears, obvious grief.

But that is something he has never had for me.  Maybe he knew, on some level, I was not truly and would never be gone, even if neither of us could know it then.

I woke up in the dim, peach colored lights of a quiet space.  It was cool, and felt like a library.  The walls were beige, and you could have heard a pin drop.  I turned my head about to check out my surroundings.  It was no hospital.  Could it be rehab, I wondered?  How long had I been out?  Perhaps I had experienced coma.  Where was Lev?

Then I remembered.  I had ‘died.’  He thought I was dead.  He had called to tell my parents I was dead.  Chandra.  Chandra had also been told I had died.  My own daughter believed I had left her motherless.

Abruptly, I realized, with cold in the pit of my stomach—left alone in this room, the beige walls, the dreadful, inexorable silence.  I was clearly in a funeral home.

Oh, I had to get to Lev immediately, get to someone, tell them all it had been a terrible, terrible mistake!

I tried to sit up.  It was a no go.  I was incensed at my predicament, filled with rage, but physically, I was very, very weak.  It was an odd combination.  Consumed with the worst blend of conflicted emotions and a body that won’t cooperate.  That was definitely for the best, now that I think on it.  If I’ve learned any lessons about rage in zombie form, it’s that it never goes anywhere I want to be (or you do.)

After an enormous effort, I managed to raise myself from the pallet I had been arranged on.  It came to my attention I was dressed.  My favorite blue piece, one I reserved for special occasions.  My best leather pumps, with their low-heeled wedges.  Some fumbling, and I was standing on the floor, though staying upright required the aide of a near by countertop.

I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror.  A long mirror hopefully reserved for the families who wanted to see their loved ones before internment.  I didn’t look half bad.  A bit pale.  A bit thin.   It was the grey pallor to my skin I didn’t care for, though I thought it meant I probably hadn’t been embalmed, and was temporarily thanks that the tenants of the faith we weren’t exactly ardent observers of generally discouraged embalming.  When I moved closer to inspect my hair, amazingly well-coifed by the mortuary’s attendants, it appeared I was sprouting a few silver hairs I’d never spied before.  Why should that matter now?  I’d never really dwelled much on aging, even when we were committing to conceive Chandra.  I wanted my husband and child to recognize me.  Would they?

Getting out of a funeral home that’s been locked for the night is tough.  Getting out of one when you are exhausted and perpetually thirsty is tougher.  The doors were shut tight, so I had to wander the thin carpet of its air freshener coated halls until I discovered a back window I could wrench open.  A little pounding on the screen outside with the bottom of one of my trusty wedges and the screen popped out.  I heaved myself through the frame and took off into the dusty New Mexico night.

II:  The God of Zombies

Lev sued the funeral home for five million dollars.

More accurately, my parents made him sue, on the grounds that ‘losing’ a body the morning of a burial service was the last thing a funeral home should allow to happen, which had brought severe emotional devastation to the family and on top of that the life of our toddler, who would have to live the rest of her long life knowing her mother could never be given a proper final resting place.

I’m not sure how all that translated into legalese, but what it says about the torment they endured explains why no one was at the house by the time I returned home the morning of my resurrection.  Why no one was there at all the following day or the day after that.  The trauma of a missing body, which the police began a relentless search for, must have been too enormous to face in the domestic familiarity of the family home.

Based on what I would eventually read in the exposé a local paper ran on my story, the cops concluded a body thief had abducted my remains from the window I’d climbed out of, then done god knows what with them.  Sold them to an unscrupulous med school for research.  Turned them into a sex toy for a death fetishist.  Who knew.  I hate that they had to worry about any of that.  That my parents and friends and maybe Chandra will always wonder.

The morning of my escape, the only thing I could really focus on, aside from walking, was thirst.  Somehow, I had surmised that if I was to reintroduce myself to my family, I would have an easier time of it if I hadn’t created unnecessary witnesses to my inexplicable return from beyond the grave.  This ruled out convenience stores, the only places open in the pre-dawn hours, which I would have had to skip anyway without a wallet.

I wandered sixteen blocks before I found a public drinking fountain, and stayed there almost forty minutes trying to sap as much water out of it as I could.  There was a bizarre edge to the quality of the water, as if I could taste every molecule of grit and pollution in it, but also as if it was the most wonderful experience I had ever had.  The drawback was I couldn’t get enough.  No amount of it seemed to truly satiate me.  How dehydrated I must have been, was all I could come up with.  How dehydrated.

I had the wherewithal not to try to hitchhike, primarily worried about the witness factor, but it took five hours of walking to get from the funeral home to our neighborhood.  By the time I reached the deserted house, I was too limp to go any further, and ravenously thirsty again.

That was the point I began to grab hold of the idea that I might not have been ‘mistaken’ for dead.  What was it you called someone who had died and then not dead anymore?  Vampire?  No, that other thing.  In the movies, they shuffled and struggled to walk.

I got into the house by the backdoor, which Lev had forgotten to lock for some reason.  Normally, I would have been pissed, but once inside, I was overtaken by other urges.  The family cats were about, and while I had forgotten their names, I could smell them everywhere.  They had lost the smell of the fuzzy felines I had given homes and cat treats to, however, and instead smelled to me like chewy pieces of beef jerky.  Where were they?  I had to find them.  I had to find them.

I never did find the cats, but I will forever be consumed with gratitude that Lev had temporarily abandoned the house in those days.  If he had come home that morning, he would have found me eating frozen chicken unceremoniously on the kitchen floor.  I ate what seemed an impossible amount of chicken, maybe ten pounds of it, then proceeded to go about gorging myself on all the meat items we had stashed away anywhere.

I stayed there for two days and two nights, before Lev’s car in the driveway forced me out of my slumber (yes, we undead do sleep) and out a second floor window.  I took a small bag of clothes with me, light enough to carry, along with some jewelry I knew I would have to pawn while I searched for shelter, lodging.  I don’t know if Lev had cause to ask what happened to those diamonds, or if he just chocked it up as another misfortune atop the pile he had already endured that heartless Spring.

I never did believe in a god during human existence, but there is an entity in Zombieland that seems to have a powerful, you might say omniscient quality.  I encountered Him once, and it was frighteningly memorable.  (Yes, we undead feel fear; quite a bit of it—you’d be surprised.)

Our meeting was in the rear parking lot of a Walmart where I was munching raw chicken straight from the package.  The cravings for meat had not subsided in the seven months since I had died, and as a result, I had been forced to resort to eating as much of it as possible whenever I could.  With extreme difficulty, I had acquired the Walmart job, where I could shoplift as much chicken as I could carry out in my bag every day.  In addition, my Walmart access came in handy as a supply of cheap, heavy cosmetics, which I needed to cover the skin dry enough I had to massage it with olive oil each night, when I wasn’t gulping the stuff by the cup.  As I wrote earlier, being zombified is no party.

“That is no meal for the likes of you,” rasped a voice from above me.  I looked up, and saw a mass of dark gold light hovering a few feet from my head.  It was eye shaped, much like the Tolkienian eye of Sauron and glowing as brightly.  The voice was hard, the unkindest I could imagine.

“Haven’t you learned how to feed yourself?”  it asked.  It was like someone speaking through a corn husk hollowed out.  Air and dust.  Menacing.  Mean.

“This is how I feed myself,” I said.  There was a side to my personality by that stage that responded to meanness with meanness.  “What’s it to you?”

He told me, then, I was breaking the rules.  Zombies, prey upon human flesh, not the flesh of the lesser, the animal.

“I won’t do that,” I told Him bravely.  “I’m no murderer.”

The Zombie god howled, saying again I was profaning him, and the “gift” of eternal life.

“Some life,” I shrieked.  “My husband is gone from me, my child.  I roam the streets for—for this!  Or else I suffer!”  Yes, I had suffered.  Before the Walmart job, there had been cats, the occasional dog, other creatures to weak to defend themselves.  I loathe these memories, because they are emblem to the times I was subjugated to my disorder, my disease.  My curse.

“And now some worthless god of zombies comes to condemn me!  Who are you to object?”

He said that He had made me.  “Saved” me, as he put it, from certain death.  In my mind, I saw what had really happened in the park That Day.  A bee had stung me under my right thigh, and I had been oblivious to the subsequent anaphylaxis.  But the god had been watching.  He said that as I started to die to this life He had stepped in, as I had always imagined the human god could step in, and the zombie god had filled my body with the energy of these eternal cravings for meat and blood.

“I am not your god,” He said at the end.  Suddenly, he was standing five feet from me.  “This,” he said, producing the carcass of an obviously dead full grown man, “this, is the God of Zombies.”

I threw down my chicken and bolted into traffic.

That was the evening I went after a group of school kids.  They were twelve, tops, hanging out in a park not unlike the one in which I had spent my final day as human.  The chicken had not satisfied me as it usually did.  The scent of the children, fresh as sweet clover had been to me in my earthly life, was overpowering.  The anger I felt from the zombie god’s harsh words egged me on.  If they had not run as fast as they had, who knows?  I might have feasted on their tiny brains instead of the chihuahuas I had to steal from a backyard kennel.

How there could be a god as cruel as to create something as pitiful as I am is too much for me to contemplate most days.  When I do, these are the days I spend praying to any other energy out there to spare me another encounter with Him.

III:  The Entirely Visible Barrier

I tried to go back to Lev and Chandra in November of the year I died.

Naturally, this took a hefty does of chutzpah, and hours upon hours of lengthy preparation.  It also took about a month’s saved pay from Walmart, mostly used to purchase the most expensive of the several wigs I had to invest in when my daily cup of olive oil failed to prevent the drying out of my hair, and I started watching it fall from my head in clumps.

I found them in what had been our favorite playground.  I thought it was sweet that Lev still brought Chandra there.  She had grown about a foot since I had seen her last, and her father had changed her wardrobe style a lot in my absence.  Gone were the corduroy and denim overalls I had kept her in 24-7.  She was more grown up now, wearing a dress and red slip-ons.  I thought briefly of a New Age Shirley Temple.

I hovered for a bit about twenty feet from the swing sets.  Eventually, Lev did pick up on my presence.  There was no sign that he recognized me.  I couldn’t tell if this was because of my new hair, or the overall degradation of my appearance.  (What I wrote at the start of this is somewhat misleading; I wouldn’t say a zombie desiccates, but I am constantly fighting my skin’s ever present desire to wrinkle deeply, which has shriveled my face considerably.)

When I took even one step toward them, he bolted.  Chandra was whisked away to the Jeep faster than I lurch.  I haven’t seen them since.  I cannot bear to.

In academia, there were constant references, at least among my women colleagues, to the infamous glass ceiling, the invisible sexist barrier between us and the kind of success commensurate with what our male academics enjoyed.  I never cared much for this discussion, because I believed, particularly after the wanting for children came into my (human) existence, that the barrier was anything but invisible.

It is the same with Zombieism.  There is no more obvious barrier to equality than being trapped in a prison of grey, dead flesh.

IV:  Prospects for Unity:  Bridging the Zombie Gap to a Human World

The title of this section is another misnomer.  Their aren’t any prospects for me.  I work at Walmart.  I steal their chicken.  I buy make-up, then more of it.  (I would buy the chicken, but the exorbitant levels I consume would, excuse the small bón mot, eat through my budget in a week.)  When not at work, I drift through the streets, trying not to smell the enticing aroma of the human, and trying not to lose my temper with anything, which makes those insufferable cravings impossible to control.

Walmart, in spite of its reputation for disrespecting female employees, has promoted me six times.  This is enough to keep me in a modest apartment, with a modest shield between myself and the rest of society.  I have no friends.  I own no pets.  I am the living dead.  I am nothing else.

Day 23: “Beach Trip”

The kids built a sand castle. Marvin helped. Eventually, he told Penelope he would try out those surfing lessons.

Wetsuit on, he disappeared into the waves. She watched for a while. The children kept shaping sand into turrets.

An hour passed. Where was he? She scanned wave crests for a clue.

Then screams rose up. Beach combers ran. She saw his red striped surf board cruise by.

A dorsal fin emerged, tombstone grey.

Day 22: “Show and Tell”

(Content note: Rated R. Teachers, students, and parents beware.)

*

“Let’s quiet down, everyone,” Deborah told her class.  “It’s Lou Ann’s turn to show and tell about what she’s brought in today.  I want everyone to save all questions until the end.”

Secretly, Deborah hated Presentation Days.  The school kept them as a mandatory part of the second grade curriculum despite the number of teachers who’d told the administration about kids who brought in things which were dangerous, inappropriate or just plain weird.  Deborah tried to screen the students’ items, making sure to check with parents in advance, but it wasn’t always possible.  This part of the district wasn’t really blessed with the best neighborhoods.  You couldn’t count on parental involvement or availability.

Lou Ann’s mother had been in touch, though.  The previous week, she had assured Deborah that her daughter’s “favorite teacher ever” would be listening to a presentation about the Wondercube, a foam-and-fabric version of the old Rubix cube, which was totally harmless, and which Lou Ann and her brother, Edward, played with after school every day.  Even if Lou Ann threw the Wondercube at a fellow student, Deborah knew it would be far less stressful than that time Cady Pelgrin brought in a live snake, or that day Kobe Johnson shocked everybody by presenting his brother’s Sports Illustrated collection—specifically the swimsuit issues.

Standing confidently at the front of the room, Lou Ann held up a square box, almost large enough to be a moving box, or the kind of thing you stored winter clothes in.  Is the Wondercube in there? thought Deborah.  It sounded smaller than that.

“This is our new pet, Centy,” said Lou Ann.  “We call him that because he looks a lot like a centipede.  But we don’t really know what he is.  My brother thinks he’s a space alien.”

Great.  Deborah was instantly on edge.  Lou Ann’s mom seemed to have helped her daughter prepare a safe and normal presentation.  Evidently, Lou Ann had deviated from the plan.

Lou Ann started to open the box.

“Uh, Lou, why don’t you keep that closed for now,” Deborah suggested.  “Some of your classmates might be afraid of centipedes.”

“Okay,” said Lou Ann, obviously annoyed but willing to comply.  Then she went quiet.

“Where did you find Centy?” asked Deborah, hoping for a polite story about turning over rocks in the family backyard.

“Out by the shed,” the girl answered cheerfully.  “He was trying to open the door.  And there were a couple of dead cats right there, so he was probably trying to find more of them.”

“Excuse me?”  Deborah was aghast.  Presentation Day had never turned quite this creepy before.

“He eats cats,” Lou Ann said matter of factly.  “Roscoe, our old Tom, went down the first night.  After that he got Maynard, the Siamese.”

“Lou Ann,” Deborah said carefully, “why don’t you put that box on my desk and sit down.”

Lou Ann did as she was told, depositing her box with a noticeable thud.  Whatever was in there was clearly heavier than a centipede.

Deborah hastily put the heaviest textbook she could find, their gigantic one with all the world maps, on top of the box’s lid.  It was a well made gift box, she saw now, looking as if it had come from the local Paper Source store, but she doubted it would stay closed forever against a wild animal.

“Now,” said Deborah, trying to remain calm, “you said it…eats cats?”  She might as well have a better idea what she was dealing with before buzzing the principal.

“Yeah, that’s why my mom couldn’t take us to school today,” said Lou Ann.  “My brother said he couldn’t wake her up.  He thinks it was because of Maynard.  I don’t know if she was that upset about him, though.  We found Centy in her room this morning.  She must have let him sleep in there, so she can’t hate him that much.”

Deborah closed her eyes.  She turned toward the call button on the wall.  Before she could tell the office, We have a problem here, the box began to bounce back and forth on her desk.  Deborah could heart the scuffing of thick fur or rough spines against its cardboard interior.  The disturbance thumped the book of maps off the lid.

“Everyone stay calm,” said Deborah, her voice suddenly high and nasal, “I’m going to—” and it was then it burst forth, a conical mass of grey skin and the thick spines of a sea urchin, red with the blood of its recent feeding.  Deborah had thought only children could scream as loud as she began to, drowning out all other noise in the room, the hallway and the school for a long time.

Day 21: “The Prophetess”

(Content Note: Here be unicorns. If this is simply too silly for you, go check out Chilling Tales for Dark Nights for now.)

It had seemed an ordinary day in Unicorn Harbor when Calliope of Spotted Hoof first experienced her vision.  The clouds had been spooled white over a lapis blue sky, the air had been calm and the temperature entirely agreeable for the late summer season.  The unicorns were certainly not anticipating anything unusual.  Neither was Calliope, who had spent this quiet day of her third year grazing and then strolling about with other Unis her age, unconcerned with anything more than the breeze over her hid and the scarlet sunset to arrive at day’s end.

The most unusual thought in her mind had been how strange it was that her fellow Units referred to their dwelling place as Unicorn Harbor.  It was not, Calliope knew, a Harbor at all, but a strip of rolling green hills coalescing around a clear, gently rippling lake.  Harbor were supposed to lead out to the sea, weren’t they?  Unicorn Harbor was at least twenty miles from the nearest ocean.

After mulling over this conundrum for most of an afternoon, in between mouthfuls of grass, drying dandelion stalks and sips of fresh lake water, Calliope put this question to her mother, Circe. Though Circe had been young at the time of Calliope’s birth, almost a year younger than Calliope herself was now, she was widely regarded to be among the wisest of all Unicorns in the known world.  Calliope could always count on her to provide insight into difficult problems.

“Why do we call it a harbor, mama?  It’s not near an ocean and it’s miles and miles from one.”

“‘Harbor’ is also a word that means safe haven,” Circe explained.  “All the Unicorns have always been safe here.”

It was true, Calliope realized.  Any Unicorn could feel safe in this environment.  When they did not have the welcoming green of the hills in Spring and Summer, the Unis took shelter in a series of large, above ground caves, which provided warmth and protection from the Fall and Winter.  Quiet streams flowed through these passages, even in the months when the lake froze over.  Unicorn fur, which grew coarse when the cold air came on, provided them an armor from the harsher elements of cave dwelling.  Their thick hooves, far more durable than those of their cousins known as horses, could tolerate the rocky terrain of the cave floors.  So the Unicorns enjoyed comfortable lodgings in both halves of their climate of their region.

Calliope had just been settling into the satisfaction of her mother’s response, of knowing she, as a Unicorn, could forever consider their lakeside dominion a home, when the vision struck her.  A series of mental pictures tumbled behind her eyes, like slices of memories from far off days.  But Calliope knew these were not memories from any time period she had experienced in her life.  The images were of she and many Unis, not just her relatives from the Spotted Hoof Clan, but those of Willow Tail, Curling Ear, Long Mane and Silken Hide, all of the twelve tribes of the Unicorn Nation, running like mad across the hills.  Sheets of dark grey dust, like black rain, poured down around them.  A cascade of fire followed.  She could see its sparks leaping up around a great, gaping hole, where more fire pooled, and the sickening heat of death spun out from its chasm.

At first, Calliope was so shaken by these impressions that she had to toss her head several times to make sure she was awake.  She worried, for a second, she might have taken ill, as the pictures had the unreal shimmer of those she had seen in her mind after she had developed a high fever as a colt.  Looking about, she saw others staring at her.  She was among friends and kin, where they had gathered for the day’s repose.  She felt fine, aside from the emotional jolt.  She was not sick.  It had been no dream, no feverish hallucination.

“Calliope?  Are you all right?”  The entreaty came from Artemis, her mother’s closest sibling.

Calliope, still entirely unnerved by the thundering destruction she had witnessed, could not give her a reply.

Later, as the last of the sunset disappeared and night was settling on Unicorn Harbor, Calliope went to tell her mother what had happened.  With frightened eyes and a fast heartbeat, she spoke to Circe of the pictures like a dream, of her enormous anxiety for every Unicorn they shared the land with.

Though they had tried to keep the conversation to themselves, relatives from Spotted Hoof had slowly gathered around mother and daughter to listen to Calliope’s tale.

“It sounds like a vision,” Artemis decreed at last.  “Though no one in Spotted Hoof is known for that particular gift.”

“Does it matter how it came into her head?” asked Circe.  “Calliope has given us the means to forestall disaster.  Tell me, child, do you know what you saw in your mind, other than us running?”

“No,” Calliope admitted.  “It was as if it rained, but the rain was thick as soil, and black like the obsidian we find in the cave hollows.”

Circe gestured with her chin, pointing Calliope’s gaze toward the great, half triangle of rock to the northeast of their home.

“That is Barbary Mountain,” she said to her daughter.  “I believe you have seen its eruption.  It is said not to have erupted for many thousands of years, but if it were to do so, it would endanger all our lives and make this terrain unlivable.”

“But what can we do, mama?”  Calliope asked, still terrified.  “Surely their is no magic, not even a vision, that can stop a mountain from exploding.”

“No, of course not.  But we may have time to relocate.  It would take enormous effort, as Unicorns are spread out over this area in vast numbers, yet if enough people found out before the lava begins to flow, we might escape the worst.”

“You must tell Perseus,” said Artemis in a grave tone.  “At once, before another day passes.”

Perseus?  King Perseus, ruler of all the Unicorns?  Calliope was shocked to hear his name mentioned.  He ruled with the other member of the Bright Horn clan, within the emerald slopes of Unicorn Harbors highest hills.  He was a wise and generous leader, everyone said, but busy enough with keeping all the Unis safe that he was rarely able to interact with anyone outside his own family.

“What if he will not see us, mama?”  Calliope had heard that many sought an audience with the king and were turned away due to his engagements with one matter or another.

“He will see us,” Circe said, with certainty.  She gave her daughter a look that told Calliope, as her mother sometimes did, that Calliope had stumbled upon a matter far beyond her years to comprehend.

And so, though it was dark and increasingly chill, Calliope, Circe and others of Spotted Hoof spirited into the night en route to the imposing hills where the Bright Horns spent their days.  Calliope tried not to think of what their king would say once he heard of her ordeal.  What if he did not believe her?  Not every Unicorn talked of psychic visions, the gift of sight, or anything outside the realm of eating, sleeping, and raising offspring.  King Perseus was often said to be reasonable and, above all, fair, but what if this fairness simply did not include consideration of the prophetic daydreams of young unicorns unknown to him?  Calliope was afraid of what could happen then.  How would they tell the other Unis of the danger everyone faced?

As the first lightening of the sky brightened over their heads and the Spotted Hoof members were only a few miles from Bright Horn territory, Calliope asked what they would do if Perseus refused to hear them out.

“Why then, I would have no choice but to try to warn the rest of the Nation myself,” Circe told her.

But he did agree to hear them out.  Although they were incredulous at first, the elder Bright Horns, who had been summoned after the younger members of the clan heard Circe’s description of what Calliope had undergone, were quick to locate the king, who was already awake despite the early hour of the morning.  Perseus, while staring intently at Calliope, agreed with Circe that the Uni’s experience bore the hallmarks of visionary insight.

“We have had concerns about our safety in the Harbor for some time,” he admitted to his audience.  “Mount Barbary has long shown signs of another eruption, on top of our additional worries for the well being of all Unicorns.  We shall take heed of this new warning, and proceed with plans for relocation.”

Before midday, the call had gone out.  Messengers from Bright Horn were dispatched to every known location of Unicorns throughout the Harbor, and within one day, a migration of thousands was underway.  It had been decided they would move Southward, where talk of a long river, a sustainable water source, could help the Unis rebuild their population in an area the mountain’s eruption could not reach them.

Calliope had been impressed and relieved with the seriousness of Perseus’s reaction, but could not stop thinking about his suggestion that Unis had other threats to fear besides a mountain’s flame and lava.  After two days on the migration trail, she asked Artemis about it.

“He was probably alluding to the problem of Man,” said Artemis, a contemptuous scowl on her normally unruffled features.  “They are the ones you have heard of in our bedtime stories, those who walk on two legs, have no fur and no manes.  They have been encroaching on our territory in increasing numbers and none can seem to find a way to stop their advance.”

Calliope had heard of Man before.  Circe once admitted the Unis feared Man more than any other obstacle, including disease and starvation.  It made sense that Perseus himself would be thinking about them.

“How does heading to the South get us away from Mankind?” Calliope asked.  “Does that really take us farther from them?”

“It doesn’t,” said Artemis, sharply.  “It just takes us farther from Mount Barbary.”

The Unicorn resettlement took several months.  Their new home was very different from what Unicorn Harbor had been.  The grass was sparser, heavier, and tended more toward yellow than the soft, green expanse they had known before.  There were no caves, but the land was shaped by high cliffs of orange stone and sandy dirt. They had, indeed, found a river, though it was neither as sweet, nor as inviting as the lake they had known all their lives.  Still, when the smoke from the now distant Mount Barbary was seen to drift over the horizon in harsh, imposing shapes, Circe and countless others thought of Calliope with great relief.

Eventually, Perseus and the Bright Horn clan told the Unicorn Nation of Calliope’s vision and its role in saving the Unis from destruction.  The young Uni was showered with the thanks of her kindred and of strangers from other clans she had never dreamed she would meet.  All seemed so grateful, and most, in awe of her.

Calliope was, for the most part, uncomfortable with the recognition.  What had she done, really, besides see a series of pictures in her head?  What was so special about precognition anyway?

“Precognitive abilities are not common,” Circe said, “even among our kind.  It sets you apart.  You are special.”

“That’s what bothers me, mama,” said Calliope.  “I’m already a unicorn.  Aren’t I special enough?”  Calliope remembered well the day her mother had taken her on a lengthy journey into hills far away from their usual spot in Unicorn Harbor, as an attempt to teach Calliope about their history.  Circe had brought her to a spot where the grass wore down to dust, and in the surface were carved the outlines of unicorn skeletons, horns and all.

“These remains are ancient,” Circe told her daughter.  “They are proof that we were here so long ago and in so great a number these skeletons still exist to show for it.  Now, we number in only the few thousands.  We must take care of ourselves, Calliope, for the unicorn is in danger of dying out completely.”

In the wake of her vision and its consequences, Calliope did not want to feel set apart from the other beasts of the world in any other way.

After one full year, the unicorns had managed to eke out a stable existence in the new lands.  Despite the oddities of an alien environment, there was enough water, enough food and a warmer climate to keep them alive and reasonably happy.  As for Calliope, she had tried hard to accept their new circumstances, and to put the discomfort of her psychic episode in the back of her mind.  She had vowed to try hard to the state she had known before, and not to upset the life of the Unis any further.

One afternoon, however, as she roamed about the sand swept depths of a ravine, she was struck again with terrible images from the depths of a nightmare.  A loud shaking of the earth wracked her mind, and she heard the sickening sound of boulders thudding to the ground around her.  The shrieks and wails of unicorns filled her ears, and she saw a few of their bloodied bodies crushed by falling stone.

In agony, Calliope again ran to her mother, to spill forth a story of damage and death for their kind.  Circe, though obviously uncertain, again insisted they tell Calliope’s story to the king.

Perseus, while distressed and clearly frustrated to hear of another catastrophe set to befall his Nation, greeted Calliope’s news with stoic acceptance.

“It sounds as if your vision showed you an earthquake,” he said.  It was a kind of phenomenon they had not known in Unicorn Harbor, that no unicorn had been through in living memory.  As protecting the unicorns was still his chief responsibility, Perseus again ordered a mass migration, this time to the East, in an attempt to save them all from the ravages Calliope had seen.

The trek to the East was lengthy and arduous.  The Unis were forced to cross an airy, desert landscape, and more than a few perished from the heat and from dehydration.  One of those lost was Artemis.  Once they reached a destination that appeared adequate for settlement, Calliope cried for hours over the loss of a beloved Spotted Hoof and their friend.  While her mother and her kin tried to comfort her, Calliope was inconsolable.

“What good is a gift of visions if it cannot be used to protect unicorn lives?” she had sobbed.  “I don’t want another vision as long as I live!”

Though her own clan was known for its compassion and overall gentleness with its members, there were many in Spotted Hoof who seemed to resent the visions as much as Calliope had.  Eventually, some even told her of those in the Nation who blamed her for their feelings of upset and displacement in the wake of the migrations, and grumbled that her visions were useless, possibly fictitious.  Occasionally, a Spotted Hoof told Calliope she should keep her visions private from now on, or pretend they didn’t exist.

Pretending the visions did not exist proved impossible for Calliope.  Their frequency increased, as did their intensity.  Sometimes, they showed her scenes of flash floods, of roving packs of hungry wolves, of freezing sheets of ice, snow, hail.  Each time she was caught up in their unceasing currents, she felt compelled to tell King Perseus, who, more often than not, compelled the unicorn population to uproot itself and move toward safer ground.

Each resettlement inevitably led to loss of life, and each one took Unicorn Nation into territory wilder and more unpredictable than what it had known before.  There were those who said Calliope should never had revealed even one of her visions.  And those who said she should never have been born.

A morning came when the unicorns had been undisturbed in another new land for a period of time long enough to have lulled them into a sense of security about the future.  No one had talked of the difficulties of their most recent migration in some months.  No one could remember the last time they had lost a kinsman or a friend in the disruption of moving from place to place.  And Calliope appeared to have stopped having her visions altogether.  A certain hopefulness emerged tentatively from their misery.

Then one day, on the other side of a river the unicorns had gathered to drink at, an odd creature strode into view.  He walked on two legs, and though his head was covered in hair heavy and flowing as an unicorn mane, he was not of their kind, or any kind they had seen before.

Calliope knew instantly he was a Man.  They had finally traveled far enough away from Unicorn Harbor to have stumbled into the realm of Man.

He was loud, and shockingly afraid of them.  In the space of an instant, he began to hurl pointed sticks in their direction, forcing the Unis to scatter and gallop for their lives.

Calliope ran immediately to King Perseus.

“We saw a Man!” she exclaimed, hoarse with sweat and fear.  “He is by the riverbank.”

“Yes,” said Perseus.  “It was inevitable.”

“I can’t believe it,” said Calliope.  “I have not had so much as one vision of their fearsome species, nothing to tell us how we are to escape them.”

“That is because we are not meant to escape them,” her king said sadly.  He was older now, and the stress of their numerous journeys had worn him down.  Yet he was still wise.  This Calliope was sure of.  He had always known how to use her prophecies to help them avert impending pandemonium.

“What do you mean?  There is no way?”

“No,” said Perseus.  “You see, Calliope, I, too, have the gift of visions.  All I have seen of Man is our inevitable fall beneath His onslaught.  They will take all of the remaining land, fill it with their sort, who are called Human.  They will take the rivers and hills for their own, leaving no space for unicorn to thrive.  They will hunt us down.

In the end, most will forget the Unicorns entirely.  We will become like myth to them, left so far in their history it will be as if we never were.  There is no vision that can prevent this monstrosity.”

Perseus turned and walked away, leaving Calliope alone within a deep silence.