the.gunmetal.grey

It was as if someone had simply dimmed the lights. A crooked finger on a yellowed dial, quietly rotating the knob. Not quite off, the position just before. Twilight. Perpetual twilight. The crooked finger with the cracked and dirt caked nail staying vigilant to keep the lights low as a fog began to slink in from stage left.

 For all the straining of my eyes it became increasingly hard to see the house a mile down, as it seemed to back itself into the heaviness of the cloud. Even the nearer stumps of corn stalks in the field before me, battered remnants from a recent harvest, washed together like water colors on a soaking page. Waving my hand in front of my face to dissipate the cloud had no effect. It was something within our air. An absence of something  in our light.

I do not remember how I've come to be here. An unfamiliar open field surrounds this house I do not recognize. I am struck by the lack of trees around a country home such as this. There is very little time though, I feel, as the slinking fog begins to settle more. A sense of something sinister, a growing lump in my chest, in my throat, feels bigger by the second. I've no time to waste, I realize. So I start towards the house.

This house can not be mine, I think, as I skip three of the four steps to the white storm door. The quaint outer decor, flowers in the sill, and wind chimes hanging so frail from their noose on the corner of the storm drain. I stop at the top step, hand on the handle to the door.
Something about those chimes. A spiral that plays a visual trick if you stare too long as it spins. Hanging metal bars that ping one another, a former beacon to an absent farmer in a lonely field. Only... the oddity I realize is that they are not pinging, they are not spinning. There is no wind; nothing to direct them in their would-be dance. This fog is not a precursor to a storm. Winds precede a storm. As do lightning and thunder and barking dogs and hairs on end.

Those things are absent here and now.

This cloud is something else, and seems reluctant to concede any ground. Also, the fading light, the dial seems not to turn. It is stuck where it allows just a haze, for the stage to be set for a dream. It feels just as that, a dream. Though, more like a dream within a dream. Down a rabbit hole of subconscious, with a veil hampering the entrance, allowing just enough to see but not enough to recognize or glean some sense. The light never fades, it only gives the illusion that it will do so soon. If the anticipation felt like poise, I would be inclined to appreciate its regal stance. This wait, this refusal to cross the threshold into darkness, feels salacious and with intent. A jaw unhinging, as dense cigar smoke escapes its maw. I am a chunk of meat skewered on a tong, hanging in the smoke, being savored. I would almost welcome the clamping chomp. I would prefer the absolution of the darkness to this unending dark dawn.

Inside the frilly appointed home the fog permeates but only so far. So far. The linoleum floor does little to muffle my footsteps to anyone who may inhabit the home. Knick-knacks perched on free hanging shelves. A cookie jar with a half dozen different types of cookies. A curio cabinet of glass front and sides, home to a full chorus of angel figurines. The little halos and white wings and praying hands ready for salvation that is not forthcoming. On the kitchen table, photo albums, opened. Left for me to see. I lightly flip through the pages and unfold a story of a woman, late in years, straining for more days that will be used only to appreciate her past - or regret it. She seems to do nothing more than hold a foot against the door as death knocks on the other side. The outside of this house and the woman's smile in the photographs agree that their facade is nothing more. Both protect against the emptiness found within. The fog and darkness long since settled in for term.

I round the corner from the kitchen to the living room and there she sits. Stone faced and wrapped in a shroud. Sitting upright in a plush recliner. Her eyes wide open but seeing no more. Her left hand lays limp on her thigh, but in her right hand she holds a picture. A print of a man and a boy, with a field of tall cornstalks as a backdrop. The cornfield just outside it appears to be. The bright blue sky overhead as the young boy and the man kiss, sharing their love for the lens to borrow, for the film to keep, for the woman to cherish. As the glaze in my eyes seeps from my vision I realize the man is me. The scene once again flares into the surreal, as I recognize the boy as my son. The lack of lightning outside is more than compensated for as memories suddenly storm my mind. I close my eyes and press the palms of my hands to the side of my temples. Not to force the memories back, but to control their onslaught so as to make some sense as they appear on the backs of my eyelids.
I hear my sons voice, with his tiny lisp sweetly intoned. "I miss you." he said, but it sounds like "mith you" with his unrectified speech impediment. We will fix it at some point, his mother and I agreed. It wasn't so bad that it warranted anxiety. We were just happy that he was talking at all. For the first few years he was extremely quiet, while seeming to soak in everything around him. He never seemed to have difficulty learning, or solving the small problems that a small child encounters. After tests a specialist told us that he was just fine. He would talk when he was ready. He came around to talking, and did so as much as he was allowed. The lisp was not a worry just yet. It was, in fact, an adorable trait for a little boy to possess. He was just a kind-hearted boy, unfettered by the worlds toxic disappointment. Nothing, it seemed, could weigh down his blithe demeanor. He was innocent and happy; unapologetic behind his insouciance. He lived life on a sunbeam and pulled on-board anyone willing to share the ride.

Suddenly, more memories come to me. I begin to remember how I came to be in this place that I never wanted to be again.




the.veil

In a small fishing village outside of Manila, in the Phillippines, a small boy bends and wraps small dark fingers around a hammer that his father is using to repair the thatched roof of their hut.

As the scent of dried fish oil fills his nostrils, his eyes glaze over like polished coal.  Sunlight gleams off of the soulless onyx eyes but does not penetrate.  The emptiness is within and without and allows nothing to pass the threshold.
His mind is no longer his own, no longer what you could call a mind at all.  The substance of gray matter remains but the brainwaves cease and the thoughts turn to dying and lost, useless fired synapses, like a lightning storm that never bears rain.
He moves and acts through sheer primordial mechanics.  His bare feet shuffle through the dirt, dragging him inside, and toward the corner of the hut where his mother is crouched.  Her back is to him as she cooks their Sunday feast of boiled tubers and sea kelp.

She only glances over her shoulder when she senses him come in.

”Wash up and tell your father to come in for dinner, Mauriso", her voice intones sweetly.

She is one of the lucky ones. She does not have to endure the fear that accompanies seeing the face of death, your face in mute horror reflected in shiny black eyes. The pain impulses in her brain barely register the strike as the stone head of the hammer buries itself deep into the cradle of her skull.

By the time her husbands pained howl storms through the sun baked village, there is nothing more than matted hair and clumps of flesh, in a liquid base of blood, where once there was the head of a mother and wife.

_________________________


The sounds of Central Park float through the open shutters of Britt and Kevin Harrison's loft on the Upper East side of Manhattan.  Car horns honking and a dog barking somewhere in the distance harmonize with their daily ritual of bickering over breakfast.  Their days, filled with avoiding each other, scream of loneliness.  Only two years into their marriage they sense the weakness in the last remaining leg they lean on to keep their union intact.  More and more often throughout the day Britt’s mind allows itself to ponder the what if…

What if she hadn’t been born?

“I’m going to be late!”  Kevin calls from the kitchen, the red doors of the cabinet framing his pent up aggression.  He stands, impatient, hands on his khaki clad hips.

“What is taking so long?  I can NOT be late for this presentation today Brittany!  This is going to make my career!”

He only uses her full Christian name when he’s on the edge of boiling over and berating her with his words.

Still, she doesn’t respond.

Kevin’s black slip on dress shoes click-clack on the hardwood floor of the hallway, and ricochet off the exposed pipes and brick in the loft.  It was a short order task for the realtor to convince Britt and Kevin, a young couple at the time, that the shabby conditions were chique; that lived-in and worn had personality, the new retro-modern.

The door to the nursery stood slightly ajar.  Kevin’s hand pressed hard and fast against the peeling paint and swung the hinged wood wide. The black soled dress shoes scuffed the hardwood floor as Kevin stopped firm in his stride. Brittany stands, with pink bundle of life-draining joy in hand, on the terrace overlooking the park.  The feigned smile that plasters her face, through hardships and bliss, was nowhere to be found.  In its place was a vacant stare.  The blank canvas of Brittany’s face held nothing familiar to her life-long love.  Kevin stood transfixed as his stomach knotted like tree roots
Her lips were moving, slightly, but he could not hear if she was actually speaking.
Kevin forced his limbs to respond and took a step forward.  “Brittany… what are you doing with Anna Lee?”
Britts lips kept moving, but she only continued to stare.  Only, she wasn’t really staring, he noticed.  Her eyes were black.  Like the shoe polish still sitting opened on the kitchen counter.  It was as if she was in a trance.  Lips moving slowly, soundlessly.
Another few steps toward the terrace.  Kevin moved slowly, unsure of whether his wife was even aware of his presence.
Anna Lee stirred in Britt’s arms, then settled.
A few more steps.
“Sweetie, what’s going on?  Are you feeling… sick?  Just come here.  Put Anna back in her crib and come talk to me.  I’m sorry for yelling.  The presentation can wait, I’ll reschedule. Just come off of the terrace before…”
He realized, from this short distance that Brittany’s lips weren’t just moving, but that she was actually whispering.  It took him a moment of intent listening, then he made out her words.
“What if she hadn’t been born?  What if she hadn’t been born?”
His wifes rumination over the birth of their daughter played on her soft pink lips like a scratched vinyl recording.  He had never heard her actually vocalize what he had many times pondered; what he had suspected that they both wondered.
“Britt, sweetie… come here.  Come to me.  We will be alright, we can work through these problems.  I’ll see a counselor like you asked.  I’m sorry sweetie.”
“I love you.”
Her lips quit moving.  Her eyes fixed directly, unmistakably, on his eyes.  The corner of her mouth curled up, just a modicum of a smile.
Kevin screamed, and lunged forward, the last three steps to his wife…
As she tossed their pink-wrapped, unwanted, often unloved, bundle of hope for the future over the iron railing of their seventh story loft.
Kevins arms grasped at air and came up full of the same.  The world around him went hazy as he saw, with tunnel-vision, his daughter plummeting toward the concrete avenue below.  All sounds washed out of his head, leaving a piercing tone to pang his eardrums. Even the screams from the alley across the street, the car horns blaring, and the small explosions from impacts throughout the city went unnoticed.
He could not take his eyes off of his daughters tiny lifeless body, now surrounded by a crowd, aghast, looking over the child and then up to his face.  Back and forth, as if they were watching some macabre tennis match, while they tried to make sense of the scene. Had he thrown her? Was it an accident?
His heaving chest pressed hard into the faded green iron rail, and his arms hung limp over the side.  His fingers still twitching, trying to grasp a swath, a stitch, of pink crocheted baby blanket.  
Behind him, his wife stood motionless, unmoved by her act of infanticide.  Her lips no longer moving, her eyes stained black from her iris to her soul.  
Slowly, her husband's body straightened, erect.  The ink-black heels of his dress shoes pivoted, toes turning to point at his wife's bare feet.  Her head swiveled left, towards Kevin's face, as if directed by mechanical controls deep inside her neck as her empty eyes met his face and the void of his coal black. lifeless eyes.



the.dawn

When it happened, the major news outlets were referring to it as The Dark Dawn. Most just call it The Dawn now. It was a banner for the lead story on the noon edition. Humans name things in order to feign control over them and understand them, to try to predict what comes next.

But I have never seen such hopelessness and dread on the faces of the reporters tasked with spreading the news of the horrible events of that day.

For years, the most brilliant minds in the world - epidemiologists, virologists, biologists - warned of the possibility of disease ravaging cities. They warned of a new ‘super bug’ that could wipe out one-third of the population in a matter of months. "The next extinction level event is almost a certainty" they said. Whether man-made or a newly escaped strain of something long since dormant, the bio-threat was a dominant force in the arena of doomsaying. It could be the new Black Plague, was the popular sentiment. Over-population, unchecked breeding, unsanitary conditions in the major cities: these would lead to the sweeping epidemic that could geometrically progress through our civilization before we could produce a cure. There was nothing we could do, when the time came.

That was one school of thought.

The souls with their eyes to the heavens believed an asteroid would usher forth the end of life as we know it. One particular astro-physicist, Dr. Ernest Sands, claimed that we were mathematically destined to this fate. Because of his wit, charm, and unabashed love for popular culture references, his opinion was widely regarded. Contingents of his loyal adherents regurgitated the facts to anyone who would listen. What once were nothing more than groupies, became Doomsday puppets. We are doomed to the fate of the dinosaurs, they declared, on internet message boards and from the comfort of a stool at the bar of their local taverns. Again, the human race would be helpless in this scenario.

Those of a militant mindset, and those that were children during the Cold War, always believed we would be annihilated by global thermonuclear war. The cheery high pitched whistle of a metal casket falling to the ground, a microsecond flash of brilliant light, then we would all be ashes and dust. The initial attack, whichever nation made the first move, would lead to thousands of retaliatory strikes. Then: nuclear winter. We could never survive that of course but it would not matter. The human race would be wiped out from the attacks. We could do nothing to stave off this threat, were it to occur.


Then came The Dark Dawn.

It was not a plague, no Alleghierian influenza dominatus. It was not a massive chunk of rock and chemicals from deep space, splashing down in our ocean and rupturing the core of our planet. The Dawn was not a simple, errant decision, in the form of a destructive bomb dropped on a hapless village, leading to all-out war. Sentient robots, realizing the uselessness of the human race, were not the harbingers of our doom. Aliens didn't invade and zombie hoards didn't rise and raze the flesh from our bones.

In those beginning hours of our quickly fading days, we knew what The Dark Dawn was not. At ground zero of our fears was the leaden weight of the unknown; we were most afraid of the realization that we were at a loss to determine what The Dark Dawn was.

There were too many accounts of the events of that day to sort out the facts. The source was as elusive as a plague but as powerful as a global killer falling from the heavens. It was eugenics without prejudice. How could something have prejudice that had no face of its own?
Death has no wont for prejudice when we are the vessels for its bidding.

Our fall from the pinnacle of the animal kingdom was swift and complete. In almost its entirety, human civilization was brought to its knees by an untraceable death dealer as alive as any flesh and blood body with a pulse. It swept into existence with stealth and precision. Unparalleled in ferocity, it tore through the fabric of the modern world. Initially, there was no response, because there were no signs. We couldn't assign blame. Pointing fingers was futile because there was nothing could be done to prevent it. Trying to do so was like flying a kite in a snowstorm. Not only was it impossible to delineate solution it was just as untenable to declare even the tiniest variable responsible.

The devastation was perfect. Where buildings once stood, teeming with footsteps and heaving lungs, now there stand only empty monoliths, hollowed and scarred.  Dried up, now, are the busy causeways of human industrialism. A drought of life and soul is that which reaps here now.  Crops of skin and bone and blood, lost to the burning hunger of a ubiquitous masticating maw.  Crimson rivers in veins no longer flow. Across the landscape are scarlet creeks fed by the aftermath of the exodus of souls.

It hit everywhere all at once.

The origin could not be pinpointed because it was all over. 

And it was all over so fast.


journal.entry:33

The cold air that climbs over the jagged teeth of the broken window brushes my cheek and continues on. It reminds me just how lonely I am. Even with these few stragglers that have joined me, I am still the only one alive. They hold hope. Hope because of me. They think that means they still have life. But as soon as you lose hope in yourself you're already dead. Or at least useless to the world and those around you. These people are useless to me; weight, that causes my footing to slip when the path is steep. How do you tell a ghost to leave you be?

Breathing ghosts surround me. Heavy breath and heaving chests of dead bodies sleeping on this concrete bed. We're sheltered for the night in what used to be a textile factory. The cold air helps everyone sleep, helps slow down the blood in their veins for a few hours. But these people don’t need sleep. They need the unforgiving embrace of the reaper.

I am still alive because I have hope. Not because I am particularly optimistic. I never have been, not even before The Dawn. I have hope because I have no other choice. I keep walking, every day, on gravel roads and through slogging fields, with shoes that fill with stones and muck, because a solitary thought owns my entire being - I don’t know if my son is still alive and I have to find out. I have to find him and know for sure, either way. I can not stop walking until I've discovered the glowing relief or wrenching pain of the truth. I'm not allowed. Drive and ambition were never my strengths but now I feel as if, in another world, I could have been something great. My feet are sore and my back aches and I keep walking because if my son is alive he most likely is alone and that thought tortures worse than the idea of his death. Death has finality, it has resolve. Death is a goodnight kiss in the growing light of an atomic blast. If my son is dead, at least I will be able to rest. That time will not come until I'm certain.

So with my head on my pack, and the cold air on my face, I lay back to try to buy some time away from this hell. From one hell to another. The hell of nightmares in which the world is back to the way it was. Those dreams are no reprieve for the mind of a man that has to accept the living hell of the fallen day. I have to keep my eyes on the road. The road that leads to the place where, whether nightmare or dream or beauty of hope’s promise kept, I will find the boy that is the gravity pulling my shuffling feet on.




the.light.and.the.dark

I had imagined the end of the world before.

Driving up and down highways, interstates, back and forth on state routes. I saw humanity's lease running out. The length of untilled fields stretching out, abandoned cars on the shoulder, collapsed overpasses preventing passage; the detritus slandering the once pleasant horizon. A passing vision, but one I never could tear away from.

I rode that way so many times. That vision, my navigator. Corralling my pervading hope for a future that I knew was but a piss into the wind. When I tried to parse it out in my head to make sense in order to dissuade myself, the dread set in more firm. Like a Candiru fish in the Amazon, the spikes of dread spread out as it burrows deep into you. The harder I tried to rip it from my mind the more firmly it held. I felt it and tried so hard to get rid of that feeling. But the more I drove and the more I searched I could no more find a shining bit of hope than I could find the end of the road. Endless road and endless despair.

Then came my salvation in the form of my son. His light pushed back the dark. The road still stretched out before me but the daunting bleakness kept at bay. I finally had a companion, a sidekick. But more than that, he became my guide. His warmth was a compass; my North Star. I would follow him wherever he went. The gloom remained but traveling the roads with him was like walking through a forest at night with the brightest lantern. He was pure effulgence and I basked in him.

Though I never fell down the well, I couldn't stop gazing into it.

Humanity was like that. So many staring into the placid waters of a deep, dark well. Like the frog staring up at its reflection, not realizing it was already free to run and save itself. It kept staring, wishing with pennies and penance and pleading for the answers, convinced that they would come from above and not from within. But when you wait too long, the weight becomes too much, and all you need... is a push.

I was on the phone with him when that push came.


"I miss you."

Weeks had gone by since I last heard from his mother. It was a battle from the beginning, just to be allowed the privilege of being a father to my son. We fought about almost everything when we were together and then everything else when we weren't. I never imagined I would be denied spending time with my son. Even as nonchalant as my own father was about being a figure in the lives of my sisters and I he still had an open door invitation from my mother to see us. Because being a parent isn't about what you want, it's about what the child needs.

And a son needs his father.

More so now than ever, my son needs his father.

I was sitting on the steps in front of my apartment, watching storm clouds roll in, my phone pressed tightly against my ear as my son told me about his day and what he was watching on television at that moment and what he ate earlier. His voice in my ear is like a tickle, but the kind that doesn't make you laugh. A playful touch from a loved one that you welcome as you yearn for that connection, that physical bridge that spans the void between him being there, me being here, and where I wanted us to be: together. Any place, as long as we are there together. Where we were then was always overcast, it was always a day without sunshine.

The sound of something heavy colliding with something soft registered in my gut even before it even registered in my brain. My ears heard it, tried to make sense of it. It was like hands slapping ground beef into patties, that wet sound of thwup thwup. Then my eyes saw the pickup truck, barreling down the street... bodies in its wake. If I hadn't been on the phone, perhaps I would have been lucid enough to bolt into the street and push someone, anyone, out of the way, sacrificing my own body for the safety of theirs. Instead, I watched in mute horror as the front bumper, now glistening with a coat of crimson paint like grisly, puckered lips, made a wet smacking sound as it collided with the blonde braid of my neighbors daughter. One last kiss as the lights turned out.

In the following minutes - hours? - that passed, a pervading thought scratched at my brain until I realized what it was: the little girl had been standing in the street. Not running from one side to the other. Standing there, as if she was trying to remember why she had walked into the street in the first place. Standing there without so much as a flinch at the sound of a two-ton vehicle speeding towards her or the screams of pedestrians as they were either witness or victims of the massacre. Up and down the block, as the truck sped through the stop sign, my neighborhood was flooded with wailing voices, screaming for the dead and screaming for the living, some full of hope and some full of dread.

Dread... the clouds! I thought a storm was quietly rolling in as I sat there. Those clouds were something else entirely though. Something quiet but something much more malicious than a beautiful summer rainstorm.

That was when I remembered the phone in my hand.

"Hello? Greyson, buddy, are you still there?"

Silence.

"Grey, talk to me... are you still there? Is everything ok?"

From somewhere in my consciousness I heard his voice, almost as if I was hearing the echo of a voice through the the static of an old radio: 

"Daddy? Something is wrong with mom."



the.colors.of.nothing

The days are ever bleak. The overcast sky weighs on me, weighs on us all. We walk through cities, hamlets, lakeside resorts and rarely see color anymore. They, the colors, exist; but our eyes (or our brains) fear the acknowledgement, like troops trained not to see the families they gun down in the midst of war. The grays simply wash away the other hues. The entire world through which we now journey is a village covered in a volcanoes ash. An ash that cannot, will not, wash away because a figment of imagination grown to encompass the psyche is harder to disperse than wet ash on a mountainside town.

One by one I gain companions as I make my way along. First, there was the young girl. Fifteen years old, or so, I guessed. I noticed her trailing behind, far enough back to not disturb me. I let her keep pace but did not invite her any closer. The Dark can take hold at any moment. I did not want her to suddenly lapse into that void and take me with her. So I listened intently as I pretended to not notice her loud shuffling feet. At least, I thought, if there is a mob nearby I should be able to escape unnoticed, as they are alerted to her presence and seek to remove her from this world. Her fate was not my responsibility. Perhaps before The Dawn I would have felt a pang of sympathy for the thoughts that run through my head regarding her safety. That was before. Now, the only blood on my hands is blood of my potential failure as a father if I do not get to my son in time. Or if I do not get to him at all.

I come to the side of a barn and decide to stop to eat. With my back to the building I don't have to worry about being caught off guard. At least not from behind. I walk halfway down the broadside of the barn and squat to unpack. With at least thirty feet to either end of the barn it would be very difficult for someone to sneak up on me from the side. I slide my bag from my should and set it on the ground. I think my shoulders will never again remember a feeling free of that burden, my back never again unfamiliar with the raw embrace of canvas straps rubbing through my denim shirt. But my muscles have reappeared as they were in my youth when I spent summers on a basketball court, or in a barn much like the one that towers behind me now. Hot days dragging me with them as I tossed bales of hay into the loft struggling to keep up with my older cousin, who was oblivious to the fact that I was competing with him, if only in my own mind.
Those barns were red though. This barn is more rare. Green. The abandoned tractor in the field across the road is red. The grass is green except where the blood spatters, which used to be red, have turned black in just the few weeks since that large rear tire of that red tractor slowly rolled over the head of the farmer in the blue overalls. I used to wonder at these things and try to imagine the story that these scenes were telling. Where was the farmers boots? What stole his attention long enough for someone to take control of the wheel and run him down? Why didn't he try to run? Was the killer his wife?

But wondering is wandering and wandering leads me astray and I do not have the luxury anymore of indulging my curious nature. I have time only to assess the situation and make use of the facts before me. I see this scene, and I see the colors and chide my eyes and my mind for making even that much sense of useless facts without making use of senseless acts. Is the murderer of the farmer still lurking nearby? That is useful to me. The mechanics of his murder and the prologue to the farmers end and the damn greens and reds and blues all mix with the grey and wash away as I sit and silently pick soft orange carrots from the can with my fingers and feed them to my down-turned mouth.



shush.the.keeper

As darkness creeps across the whole of the world, Shush Montgomery is in his study hovering over the withered pages of an old manuscript. Hours of his life have been spent in this manner. In rare moments spent inside his own mind, Shush entertains the vision that his final breath might slip away as the pages of a yellowed document blur in his vision and he would slide into his battered leather chair, with a humph and a creek of the rusty wheels. But what better way, he had always thought, to prepare for the inevitability of what is to come in the next life than by studying what has already come to pass?

Very little time will pass before Aloysius Montgomery is introduced to that next life.

Glass paperweights and other books sit on the edges of the manuscript to press the curled corners flat and hold the document in place as he scours over the ancient language. Multitudes of heavy tomes on dark shelves shrink the already cramped confines of the room. The path from the door to his desk is the only area that Shush maintains with any consistency. This is where he finds new life every day in the midst of his failing health. This is where he has always felt most comfortable, looming at the threshold of the past. As a child, the documented history of the world fascinated him. With his nose buried in the interior spine of any record of the past that he could get his hands on, young Aloysius would sit alone in his home, constantly reading, leaving the perpetual flow of the present to part around him, like a boulder in a gushing river. Humanity's record is lush, he would bemuse, but reading our ancestry from the pen of an observer is not enough. At only ten years old, Aloysius knew his calling was to traverse the jungle of human history in search of a unifying voice that he always believed would tie together the severed and frayed strings of the various threads of humanity. One voice, he felt, had to exist which could break down the manufactured barriers that separate people from one another, if only in their minds. So, Aloysius spent day after day of his childhood hunched over books at the kitchen table, cross-legged in the grass, back against the concrete foundation of his single room schoolhouse, flat against the wooden slats underneath his bed to hide from his six older siblings. No one understood his curiosity; no one could even understand his proficiency in reading. Of his four older brothers and two older sisters, only three of them bothered to pursue schooling after the age of fifteen. But Aloysius weathered their side-eyed glances and barbed taunts by escaping into worlds long since forgotten. Rarely would he speak to anyone. His extensive vocabulary and firm grasp on language was an oddity to those around him, lending to the idea that he was touched in the head, instead of being seen as the brilliant young boy that he was. "Whatchya readin' now? Book on how'ta be nawmal? You ain't neva gone' be nawmal. May's well give up an' trynna find sm'otha weird boys to be friends with." Aloysius never paid much heed to the comments, seeing them for what they were: benign attacks derived from insecurity and ignorance meant to steal his attention him from his books. The most he would ever concede to the interruptions was in the form of a tart "Shush!" without so much as a glance in the direction of the vexing party. The shush and disregard was usually enough to detract further offense. 

But the nickname stuck. It stuck like the soles of his shoes to the gooey blacktop in the searing North Florida summer heat.

Now, leaned over the papers on his desk, Shush allowed himself a moment to step back from the pages. All morning he'd been at it, filling his mind with towns and people that used to litter the landscape of our planet, but are now no more than crumbling monuments and wafting memories. This pull into the past had always felt like more than an obsession. Whispers of the dead, echoes in the limitless cavern of time immemorial. Today, the pull was especially strong. His mind was searching for something in the pages but exactly what it was, Shush could not pluck from the recesses of his subconscious. When his brain wouldn't cooperate, he paused, breathing in the present and letting his mind settle, and opened the bottom drawer of his desk. There, buried under loose-leaf pages of various scribbled notes was the book Shush Montgomery loved more than any of the others.

Settling delicately into his chair, with what some might interpret as a subtle reverie, he stared at the cover of the book in his palms. Simple and only slightly larger than the journals in which he penned nightly, the book was struck with small, piercing red letters embossed at the top of the cover which seemed to glare at Shush as if to say You do not own me. It is I who owns you. The letters flared in contrast to the cracked black, faded to almost-brown leather of the books outer shell. The title of this tome, the one that Shush, student and scribe of worlds forgotten and names never known, was the one he saw dancing seductively on the backs of his eyelids every night as he slipped away to sleep...

The Dawn Ender