Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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The Song of Skybrooks

by Matt Spencer


1

There were no real surprises when they showed up at the old place, at least not when it came to the three young folks doing the showing up. Randall was exhausted from driving. Sylvia was so glad to be off the road that her face lit up like a freshly woken firefly. Roger sat quietly in the back, still not sure why he’d been invited.

The surprises would play polite hosts, and not start ’til everyone was settled.

Sylvia couldn’t have gotten out of the car too soon. She wiggled her bare toes to catch and feel the grass between them, soft and delicate, with just the right tang of sharpness to the tiny blades. Then she drew in the late spring honeysuckle air, threw back her head, and did a spinning, dreaming dance up across the sloping lawn, all the way to the porch.

Randall and Roger watched from the car as the wind sent waves through Sylvia’s fiery hair and made her oriental tapestry skirt flow out around her legs like a blooming cloth bell. Randall opened his door, swung out his legs, and sat flexing and stretching his long body. Roger unzipped his backpack, and Randall had a rough idea what Roger would say next.

“Long car trip got you down, Randall my boy?” came that mountain gravel drawl. “Well, Dr. Roger’s got the cure to what ails ye.”

Randall turned and accepted the little hand-carved pipe and rolled-up zip-lock bag that Roger held out to him. He saw Roger’s old smile -- that slight, closed-lip smile, so intimate yet somehow secretive all at once, eyes narrowing into slits of anticipation.

Randall guessed he was used to it by now.

Then came that thick aroma of mountain-grown Lord’s Leaf as Roger called it, wafting up from the bag. Then the strike of flame, then the flood of green-blue smoke through Randall’s lungs, hot and cool all at once. Roger never smoked any himself, just sat and smiled, seeming to get high from watching the enjoyment of his friends. There were days when Randall wondered if he was some kind of modern-day Faust, and Roger was his Mephistopheles, the way Roger always seemed so eager to help indulge his bad habits, often seeming to notice Randall’s need before Randall did.

Just like how Roger always seemed to come from nowhere, yet seemed to carry everything and everywhere with him, within him. The way he took all those things with him, yet left them to linger long after his own departure.

If Roger was the devil, they must have made the Fatal Wager on Randall’s soul – or whatever the eventual fee – when Randall was too stoned to remember.

Roger got out of the car, stood up, and took in these new surroundings. Not just see them, but really feel out the area, find the core essence that lay beneath anything Randall or Sylvia could perceive. Here was a place of sloping fields and rushing rivers, where the beasts weren’t so inclined to hide from human eyes as elsewhere. The earth was so rich that the air was laced with its scent, all the way to the tips of the proud-standing trees. It was supposed to be a town, this place named Skybrooks. It seemed more like a sparse web of roads and highways, threaded through a kingdom of forests and pastures, sprinkled with houses, churches, a general store or two, many abandoned buildings, and some wonderful little family-run restaurants. People here lived year-round on the crops they grew in summer and the meat they hunted in winter. Roger’s consciousness drifted through it so he felt the essence of these people, and he loved them already. They were old-fashioned, yes, but not so full of fear and spiteful delusions as his own family. No, these people weren’t hiding from the outside world. Rather, it felt like a small part of the outside world had flowed into this land, letting itself be absorbed. The town might have existed between Bradder and the mountain home where Roger had grown up, though both places were miles away. Truly far away, out here with his friends… his final separation from his family seemed official for the first time.

Three weeks now since Roger had come down out of the forest into town. It wasn’t unusual for him to show up, but it was unusual for him to still be around a week later, still sleeping on various couches, asking some people if they’d like him to start chipping in on the rent. He’d been selling Lord’s Leaf – marijuana, pot, weed, the people in the outside world called it – like he was making a profession of it, his backpack full of a bigger harvest from the family garden than he’d ever dared carry around before.

“Don’t you think your family’s starting to wonder about you by now?” Randall had finally asked.

To which Roger sneered and said, “I’m done with those fuckers.”

That was also how he said he was done talking about it. Just like he wouldn’t talk about what had happened with Jack or Fey.

Roger thought of his family, shut off in their time-capsule puritan paradise, and he wondered if they’d finally learned to hate him in his absence. Probably not.

He wondered if his father was dead yet, or close to death. That seemed more likely.

After three weeks crashing on the couch of Randall’s super-stoner brother Irwin, it still hadn’t felt quite real: he was a man of the outside world, the real world, like he’d always said he would be.

He didn’t want it to start feeling real, because he knew deep down that that’s when he’d start feeling scared.

Then Sylvia had told him how her grandmother had called her the other night, said an old friend in another state had died. Sylvia’s grandmother lived in an old house, in a little town called Skybrooks about two hours from Bradder, and could Sylvia please come up for the weekend and watch the house, while Granny caught a plane to New Mexico for the funeral?

Roger sat and listened. Sylvia always told him what was happening in her life, and he told her as much as he ever told anyone about his.

So Randall was going to drive Sylvia out to Skybrooks, and they were going to spend the weekend in the old house, off in the middle of nowhere.

Right. Roger bet they were. He was about to say so out loud, then she asked if he wanted to come along.

Roger said yes before really thinking about it.

Now here they were, about as far from Bradder as Roger had ever been. He felt the life energy pulsing through this place, from the earth beneath his boots to the tips of the trees, as surely as he felt his hands and the movement of his fingers at the ends of his arms.

Singing, Roger suddenly thought. This place was full of song. At night, if you knew to listen, you’d hear it on the air like a constant echo, as though all the land were a single deep hole for the song to resonate out of. Roger hoped the singing came tonight, that he would get to hear it.

Roger thought of his friends here with him, and was struck by a rare moment of sentimentality. He felt alone in his constant, heightened perception of his surroundings, down to the molecular, energetic make-up, and he wished he could share it with them. He glanced over at Randall. Randall had stopped smoking. He leaned against the car, staring off across the horizon, where the sunset would soon start. Roger knew, if he let Randall see long and deep enough into his eyes, Randall would see the hidden world, would ever after see and feel the world as Roger saw and felt it.

And Randall was probably stoned enough by now, probably had his brain in enough of a floating, receptive state, that Roger could have shown him all these things and not driven him irrevocably insane.

But no. Roger had sworn to himself never to make that decision for anyone, ever again. Not after Jack. Not after Fey.

“Wanna go check out the house?” Randall asked.

“You go on. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”

Randall headed on towards the house. Roger stood at the edge of the lawn, looking out, up and down the road on which they’d just come. A few houses were visible in either direction. Off down to the left, the road forked. One way led back to the main highway. Far down the other way, a broad bridge stretched out above a roaring waterfall. On the other side of the bridge, from down below, an abandoned factory building could be seen. Roger listened to the roar of the waterfall, and as he got lost in the sound, he felt himself tumbling over the cliffside, over and over and forever, as though he were the eternally spilling river itself. The feel of the river seemed to carry him on forever, but it couldn’t carry him to the true core of Skybrooks, to the source of the song, to the mystery of the place. And that was what Roger sensed most of all, more and more, as he felt his way along the underlying spiritual contours of this area: great and ancient mystery.

It suddenly felt like the mystery, rather than Sylvia’s invitation, had truly called him here.

2

The porch was visibly old, a mass of warped boards and peeling paint, so Sylvia had to tread a little more mindfully than on the grass. Up here, rusty nails might be sticking up. There was no lock on the front door, which was probably why Granny had wanted Sylvia to come keep an eye on things. Granny had called on Thursday, said she’d need to leave Friday morning with the friend who was going to drive her to the airport, and could Sylvia please come up as soon as she could? Granny would be gone when Sylvia got there, but she’d be back Sunday. And of course Granny would be thrilled to see Sylvia again, to meet the nice young man Sylvia had found for herself.

And Roger…

Well, it was hard to tell how Granny would react to Roger. It was hard to tell how anyone would ever react to Roger. Sometimes Sylvia didn’t know how she reacted to him. Too often her impulses towards him came unbidden, like inviting him along on this trip.

Tucked under her left arm, Sylvia held the sketchbook that was seldom more than five feet from her person. She wanted to draw the house while she was here, wanted to draw both Roger and Randall in the house, surrounded by this distant part of her life, so unconnected from the two of them ’til now. Then she stepped through the front door into the living room, and there was that hazy past, right in front of her all over again.

God, she hadn’t been here since she was – what? – thirteen? That’s right, her dad had brought her here one last time after splitting from her mom, not long before getting himself thrown in jail, which was where Sylvia guessed he still was. She’d kept in touch with Granny by the phone and sometimes letters, but hadn’t gotten around to visiting ’til now. It didn’t matter. When memories decide to come back, they never care how long they’ve been gone. They care even less when you’re the one who’s been away. And they don’t give a damn what new memories you thought you’d put between yourself and them.

The living room was the same – ratty carpet, the rattier leather sofa, the ’50’s-model TV that still sort of worked, the single light bulb dangling precariously in the center of everything. Sylvia already knew exactly what she would find when she went exploring: the kitchen, Granny’s bedroom, Granny’s sewing room, the staircase and hallways – narrower still, now that Sylvia was all grown up – all pristinely kept. Photographs and quaint Americana artwork would decorate the walls here and there, but there’d be no trace of dust or clutter. All except for Grandpa’s private room, left just so beneath its thin, eternal layer of dust. During Grandpa’s life, that dust had only ever been brushed aside at his desk, left to settle on the bare room behind him. When Sylvia had last peeked into that room seven years ago, the dust had claimed the desk and chair, too.

Grandpa’s private room sat directly adjacent to the living room. It had its own bathroom, which led through to the kitchen. Sylvia thought about sticking her head into the study, but instead went straight into the kitchen. No, she wouldn’t look in there yet. But still her thoughts turned to the abandoned factory across the river. She’d been eight years old the first time she’d been in the abandoned factory. That had been on the same family visit when Grandpa had died. She was pretty sure no one had known she’d been in the abandoned factory. No one but Grandpa anyway, and the ones who’d been in there with him…

Anyway, she was sure none of them knew about the times she’d gone back there afterwards, searching. She hadn’t heard until much later about the rumors around town. Not rumors about her, or about Grandpa, but about that place, about lights seen there at night. She guessed she’d have to go back there sometime this weekend.

Sylvia shivered slightly. Yeah, she’d go there, but not tonight. She wandered back into the living room, just as Randall came through the front door. In the sleepy light, he looked even more fair-skinned, clear-eyed, and gangly than usual. His long limbs made him look bony sometimes, even though he was pretty thickly muscled all over. In either hand, he hauled the groceries the three of them had bought for the weekend. The sight of him chased away some of the memories, or at least stole some of their strength. He set down the groceries, might have started to say something, but she threw her arms around his neck, and he lifted her up to kiss her. He was so tall, he practically had to pick her up every time they kissed, but she didn’t mind. Being in his arms felt right and safe, always made sense, especially here.

She smelled, tasted, and generally sensed that he was stoned, which didn’t surprise her. It seemed these days that you could hardly put Randall and Roger together without Randall ending up stoned. Thinking about it must have sapped some of her enthusiasm, because he drew back and set her down.

They started putting the groceries away, then Randall stopped midway to make himself a sandwich. Sylvia broke into a pack of Triscuits and soon decided she wasn’t hungry.

Soon afterwards, Randall went exploring through the house, and Sylvia wandered back to the porch. Roger stood on the edge of the lawn in the receding light. Roger, the Man out of Another Time, the Man out of Nowhere. It had been almost a month, since he’d claimed to have said goodbye to whatever weird, shrouded mountain life he came from, and he still wore those old-fashioned clothes; the simple white shirts, the soft-cloth black pants, the home-tailored leather boots. He’d been dressed like that when they’d first met. They’d both been ten years old, and it had been the first time he’d left his home up in the hills, to come discover and explore “the outside world.”

She thought his old-style clothes were cool, she’d told him.

Sylvia crossed the lawn and stood next to Roger, right where the ground dropped off steeply, down to a ditch that rose just a foot to meet the road. He stared off down that road, his thick black hair partially tied back, a few loose strands hanging in his face as usual. Sylvia thought of Randall, wandering stoned through Granny’s house, and she thought about bitching at Roger for it. Instead, she followed his gaze and saw the top half of the factory building, the long-dead smokestacks rising neck an’ neck with the treetops.

“What’s going on in Roger’s head?” she asked.

He looked at her. She stared back in fascination, as she often caught herself doing. He was like Skybrooks to her: a tangle of winding, intertwining backroads and secret trails, sloping, rising, deeply forested, more there to discover than a single lifetime could hold. You wanted to go exploring for hours, trying to see everything, to find all the mysteries. You had to be careful though, around the steep and rocky places, or you’d take a long tumble and end up bruised and scarred.

“Nothing much is going on in Roger’s head right now,” he answered.

Bullshit, she almost said.

“Why’d you invite me along?” he asked.

“’Cause you’re our friend, and I thought the time out of Bradder would do you good.”

“Yeah, but I just thought you and Randall might, you know, want the time to yourselves.”

“Randall and I find plenty of time to ourselves.”

He stepped sharply towards her. She almost stepped back, but he took one of her hands in his. “Thank you,” he whispered.

She felt her palm heat up, then go cold with sweat against his. Her heart was beating faster, but not from discomfort. She thought about the factory, thought about seeing Grandpa in there, the night before Grandpa died.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said.

And she was. In fact, for some reason, there was no one she would have wanted here more, not even Randall, during whatever was to come. Roger understood things, somehow. When he was around, she felt like she understood things a little better too. Or maybe she just felt more comfortable with all the mysteries. Maybe he’d help her understand the things here.

Sylvia glanced off to the side. The light was fading around the old factory, and she squeezed Roger’s hand tighter.

3

Sylvia was eight years old again, on a walk with Grandpa beneath the mid-afternoon sun through Skybrooks. Everything glowed lighter and gentler than usual like thinned-out watercolors. Things are like that in dreams and memories.

They’d walked an old forest trail, crossed the river at one of the shallow spots, and now they were back on the main road, headed back to the house. Sylvia always loved visiting Granny and Grandpa Greco, especially ’cause Grandpa Greco was the only other person in any part of the family who liked going for long walks, just exploring the woods like she did. It was neat to explore like that with someone else, ’cause they always noticed things you wouldn’t normally notice, and you’d notice things they wouldn’t normally notice, like a certain patch of flowers or a hole where a certain type of animal lived. And even when you didn’t point these things out to each other, you’d notice the other person noticing, and you’d see those things too.

“Grandpa? What’s that building there?”

“That’s the old war factory, kiddo.”

“War factory?”

“Yeah. Like they made parts for things like airplanes and bombs and guns and stuff. Back during the second big war, that ol’ place brought in more big bucks, made us richer than any big businesses or fancy shops ever could have, put together.”

“It made us rich? So how come we ain’t rich now?”

Laughter. “Not us, I mean it didn’t make us, as in the family rich, but it brought in money and jobs all around, made things good for the town.”

“So how come all that money and jobs ain’t here now?”

Grandpa didn’t answer at first, like he didn’t know or had tried to forget. Then he finally said, “Well, the war came and went, and for a while, there was no big war, so after a while the factory just closed down. People always said, if there was another big war, and they opened that place back up, this town’d be one of the first places to get bombed. Then there was that big thing over in Vietnam, though, and the place stayed closed down.”

“And the town never got bombed?”

More laughter. “No, I don’t reckon it did.”

Eight-year-old Sylvia tugged Grandpa’s hand. “Let’s go look inside the old factory.”

Grandpa got a strange look on his face, like fear maybe. He covered it up with more laughter. “Oh no, Sylvia, you don’t ever wanna go in there. Everything’s all rusted and broken down. Too much stuff to slip and cut yourself on, too many holes to fall in and never get found, too much hangin’ stuff that might fall and knock you on the head.”

No, Sylvia would later learn, when she actually did see the inside of the old factory, not so much of that sort of thing. But there were other dangerous things, things Grandpa hadn’t told her about ’cause Grandpa didn’t have words to explain, and he didn’t want the words.

In a way, though, Grandpa had been right, for he’d already fallen into what was in there. Years later, Sylvia still felt like she was wandering through that darkness, still not finding him. Her dreams skipped to when she discovered these things, or started to.

Now it was Grandpa’s wake. Granny was crying harder than she had since it had happened. Sylvia sat off in a chair, away from everything, head slumped, little shoulders slouched forward and inward, little feet pressed tight together. Somehow she realized, Granny wasn’t just crying because Grandpa was dead.

Finally Sylvia overheard why Granny was really crying so much. She’d heard the reverend whisper that Grandpa hadn’t really been saved, or that he’d somehow lost his salvation. Said Grandpa had let his soul wander from Jesus, get too wrapped up in things God didn’t want His children to know about. Sylvia’s dad was outside arguing with the reverend. Sylvia’s mom told Granny not to worry, of course Grandpa had been saved. Just Granny wait and see, and Grandpa would be up there waiting for her in heaven, right next to Jesus.

Of course Sylvia knew that Grandpa hadn’t been saved, not in the end, at least not by Jesus. She didn’t tell anyone, though. Sylvia didn’t think she was saved either, not even then.

By now it was half a dream, half a waking memory printed like silkscreen on her inner eyelids. Twenty-year-old Sylvia lay in her and Randall’s sleeping bag, on the floor of what used to be Grandpa’s private room. She rolled and pressed her face into the crook of Randall’s neck.

Randall tightened his arms around her. His brain had only come half-awake, but his body was vaguely aware of the hardwood floor through the sleeping bag, more aware of the softness of her body moving against his, seeking refuge from her troubled dreams, increasingly aware of his own body’s response. She shifted closer. He nuzzled against her neck, and she relaxed. He started tasting her neck, let his hands do more to her body than just cradle it close, let them find their way inside the flimsy T-shirt and panties she slept in. Her body moved more and more against his, but no longer with discomfort. He teased her neck ’til she shifted so their mouths met. Roger lay wide-awake in the next room, hearing them through the walls. He clenched his teeth and glared at the darkened wall for letting the sounds through. Sylvia gave a few muted sighs, then that audible gasp from of the first penetrating thrust. Roger was getting hard listening, in spite of himself. His palm slipped to his crotch and moved back and forth over the hardness through his pants. He caught himself doing it and jerked his hand away with a silent snarl.

It struck Roger that Fey had been the last girl he’d slept with, the only girl for more than a year actually. And he hadn’t gotten to really touch Fey during the last week before she ran off. That made it how long? Two months? Three? He was too muddled and furious right now to think clearly about it.

He clenched his teeth harder and yelled at himself inside to cut the self-pitying bullshit. It would just make him angrier, which would make him more horny, which would remind him further how alone he felt, which would just bring the cycle back around.

Sylvia breathed louder and quicker. Soon she’d start giving little squealing moans. Roger was tempted to undo his pants, work himself to the rhythm of Sylvia’s noises, spend himself right in time with Randall. At least then, he might be able to sleep. If he really concentrated, he could probably have stretched out and melded his consciousness with Randall’s, could have really felt what it would be like inside Sylvia, to really hold her in that way. He did none of this, of course. Neither of them would know, at least consciously, but it would have felt cheap, and the last thing he wanted was to feel cheap when it came to –

No, he told himself, just no. It was one thing to lust idly after Sylvia sometimes, but it would be bad to start thinking of her like he was in love with her, like he might have a shot in hell at getting her into bed and keeping her there. Love was the easiest emotion in the world for him to give. Only hatred even came close. Receiving love was the tricky thing. It was something you had to compete, bargain, and manipulate for. You’d have to compete against someone else’s love, whether it was another boyfriend or girlfriend, a parental figure, or whatever imaginary god told them what a bad, bad, bad influence you were. If it wasn’t someone else, it was something about you that wasn’t good enough, something you’d have to compromise or lie about to make yourself lovable. Sooner or later, competition and manipulation always left someone broken on the floor. He wasn’t going to leave Randall broken from competition, and he wasn’t going to leave Sylvia or himself broken from manipulation. And he never bargained. Instead he’d just fuck himself until he found someone again who he wouldn’t mind manipulating a bit, or competing ruthlessly for.

In the meantime, though, he just lay in the dark with a painful hardness in his pants. In the next room Sylvia’s little squealing moans broke into a breathless, climactic cry, and Randall let out a satisfied grunt.

Roger kicked off his sleeping bag, which had suddenly felt intolerably close and hot around him. He stood up. The whole room felt just as intolerable, so he stormed out onto the porch, not caring if Randall or Sylvia heard him. Outside, even the porch felt too close somehow, so he stepped down into the grass. He didn’t feel the need to go back for his shirt. He’d gone to bed wearing his pants, and he’d left his boots out on the steps. He grabbed them and put them on.

He had to go for a walk, clear his head. Maybe he’d work himself over out in the woods, get himself calmed down, then be able to go back to the house and sleep.

Or maybe he was just having trouble, sleeping so far from home.

He walked to the edge of the lawn, made a tumbling run down the embankment, then leapt out of the ditch and crossed the gravel road. He jumped another ditch and scrambled up an even steeper embankment, to another stretch of grassy, craggy earth. Roger had spent his childhood traversing treacherous terrain, and he preferred it any time to level ground. Most of the swelling in his pants was gone, now that his blood circulation was more evenly distributed.

At the height of the rise of earth, Roger stopped and listened. There it was: the secret song of Skybrooks. One didn’t need the heightened perception to hear this song. Still, most people here never heard it, not consciously. Maybe they were afraid to let themselves listen. Roger heard it, though, and he followed. Before he realized where he was going, he was halfway across the old bridge. Beneath him, the raging falls mingled with the ever-nearing song.

Roger glanced over at the big abandoned building that rose up from around the bottom of the falls. It looked like it had been some kind of factory. Earlier, while they stood out on the lawn, hadn’t he glanced Sylvia looking off at this building, or had it just been one of many things in her line of sight?

Either way, now that Roger headed over the bridge, he was definitely feeling the building’s unique energy, and the song of Skybrooks was getting louder.

Roger hurried to the end of the bridge and stepped off the road. The ground was steep and slick, thick with underbrush and old leaves. Roger found himself one part running, one part walking, one part sliding towards a cluster of brambles and thorns downwind of him. He craned his body backwards and stretched out his arms, trying to keep from spilling over face-first. He caught a low hanging tree branch, grabbed more branches with both hands, and maneuvered to a point where the ground was more walkable. He couldn’t see the old building from where he was, but he imagined that once he reached level ground, the place would present itself fairly easily.

And damn, but the song was so loud now!

Roger reached the bottom of the hill and hurried through the trees, until the underbrush thinned and gave way to sandy, rocky earth. The factory’s entrance sat behind a fallen tree that lay across a jutting tangle of scrap metal. Lights spilled clearly through what had once been a loading dock. Roger climbed effortlessly, over and through obstacles, then pulled himself onto the concrete ledge.

The inside walls looked and felt surprisingly sterile. There were some hanging walkways, broken glass, a few metal rods and such strewn about, but not much left-behind, broken-down machinery. No hanging lines of unused parts, either. The windows were all boarded or painted over. The light spilled from a thousand handcrafted candles in handcrafted holders, hanging from the ceiling on handcrafted twine. About a hundred people stood about. Their clothes were even simpler than Roger’s, made from everything from dear pelt to silk, though some of them wore round, golden caps on their heads. They appeared to be of all races, with white, black, brown, and brass-colored skin. Their bodies looked perfectly proportioned and well angled. Many had hair that went down to around their ankles, touching the straps of their sandals and moccasins.

While none of them were close enough for him to be sure, Roger guessed they’d come up to a little below his knee.

They stood proud and straight-shouldered, not arranged in any perceivable pattern, but somehow uniform. And they sang. And their song was the night song of Skybrooks. When Roger came into view, a shot of discourse ran through the harmony. In the next instant, they all stopped and shifted their eyes to him. The impeccable, uniformed posture was gone, and they were only people now – very small people in a very large room – all looking at Roger.

The ceasing of the song seemed to throw something intangible out of balance. All through Skybrooks, Roger sensed, men, women and beasts were tossing and waking with discomfort, whether they ever consciously heard the song or not.

These were the little people of legends the world over, Roger realized, the unseen tricksters of every countryside, the original magicians… the ones who, it was rumored by some, had given birth to the human race eons ago.

“What’s he doing here?” one of them asked.

“You said Little Rose-Hair would come,” said another.

A pale, curly-haired man stepped from the center of the room, saying in a booming, carnival-master’s voice, “Now, now, now, folks, there’s no need for excitement. Little Rose-Hair will be along any time, and things’ll get right on schedule.”

“But now he sees us, too,” shouted one of them from the crowd. “What if that spoils Little Rose-Hair for us, makes her do as the one before her did?”

When the curly-haired leader heard this, he looked really afraid for an instant. Then all his jovial hospitality came back. “Oh, I don’t think we need to be worried about her doing that. She’s younger and tougher than that other one, don’t forget. Besides, she knows this boy here’s in the right spirit of things. She won’t mind that he knows.” He looked at Roger, smiling hospitably. “And you ain’t gonna give her a reason to mind, right son?”

Roger raised an eyebrow and half-smiled. “Well, that depends. I assume you’re talking about Sylvia. So just what the hell do you have in mind for her?”

The curly-haired leader’s eyes widened. A stunned murmur flooded the room.

“What did you expect?” Roger said, smiling fully, his eyes calmer than ever. “You think everyone’s going to just fall to their knees and be spellbound at the sight of a bunch of fifteen-inch magicians?”

The disquietude increased in everyone but the curly-haired leader, who came nearer to Roger. “Now, now, now, my boy, there’s no need to get mean-spirited. See, we have a history with Little Rose-Hair, of sorts, and we’re just glad to see her finally back in these parts. We’ve been hoping she and us can keep going on something we got started lots of years back, first with her granddad, then with her.”

“And just what’s that?”

“Well, er, um, son, maybe we’d better wait to discuss that ’til she shows up, so we can talk about it together.”

“And what makes you think she’ll show up?”

“Same way we knew you were gonna show, son, from the minute you started following the song. She’ll follow the song here, too, just like before. Except this time, she’ll know where she’s headed. In fact, she’s on her way here now.”

“What do you mean, just like before?”

“Son, I really wish you’d just wait for all the big explanations ’til she gets here. It’d make things so much easier.”

Whether these little people knew it or not, a lot of the big things had been answered. There was the song, obviously, and then there was the real reason the factory had closed down – no way a lot of mystical creatures like these were going to let a modern, obscene thing like an industrial factory exist but so long on their sacred soil. Come to think of it, that could go a long way towards explaining the town’s continued isolation and underdevelopment. If these critters had wanted to drive Skybrooks back into the Stone Age, Roger had no doubt they could have sabotaged the whole town’s dealings ’til it happened.

Then there was Sylvia. So she had unfinished business with these little people, did she? Roger thought of how she’d told him about this trip, and how she’d invited him along.

And earlier that evening. I’m glad you’re here, she’d told him.

He knew she sensed more about him than she let on, and now she thought it might help matters here. But how, exactly?

“In fact,” the curly-haired leader went on, “you won’t have to wait so much longer as it is. She’s on her way now. In fact, she’s just come in sight of this place.”

Roger looked skeptical.

“Go out and have a look, if you don’t believe me.”

Roger turned and headed back towards the door out onto the loading dock, but kept casting a suspicious eye back at the curly-haired leader. He stepped back out into the night, and peered all around for Sylvia.

And there she was, coming down through the trees from the bridge, on the other side of the water. It wouldn’t do to wait here for her. He wanted to go meet her properly, have some words without the little people there to butt in. He glanced at the water. It looked shallow here, less than half a foot deep, not too wide, with plenty of rocks sticking up to skip across. Roger’s eyes darted back up and met Sylvia’s in the distance.

Without thinking, Roger jumped off the side of the loading dock –

– And into the raging river.

The current shot him down and along so fast, past the building, moving quickly out of sight of everything, that he didn’t have time to be surprised. It was well over six feet deep all around him. He thrashed madly, first just trying to keep from getting sucked under, then to master the current, to swim to something he could grab and pull himself to shore.

He never quite worked himself into a real swim, not in this rush, but he managed to catch a low-hanging branch. Once he’d scrambled ashore, he didn’t spend much time collapsed on his back, heaving for breath, before the shock subsided and the rage set in.

That curly-haired leader, that’s who’d done it! Sylvia hadn’t been standing there on the other side, any more than the river had thinned into a stream. That little fucker had gotten inside Roger’s head, and Roger like an idiot had fallen for it. These were little people he was dealing with, after all, and well, damnit, he should have remembered that the water had been a full-bodied river moments ago.

But no, little people enchantment was a tricky, lulling thing like that.

Roger found his feet and ran back through the woods, tearing through brambles and underbrush, cutting his bare arms and chest on thorns, their stings only fueling him on. He reached the building, circled around the side opposite the river, sprang onto the loading dock, and stormed back inside like a rampaging monster. The little people scattered, all except the leader who didn’t have time. He started to run, but Roger closed in and kicked him square in the rear, sending him flying.

The leader of the little people gave high-pitched, drawn-out yelp, then glanced off the nearest wall, hit the ground, went up again, then landed and settled.

They bounced. Interesting.

Roger went over to the little man and hoisted him off the ground by the arm. The little man squirmed violently, not seeming to have any broken bones or other major trauma. Durable fuckers, these little people.

“You try that enchantment shit on me again,” Roger roared, “and that’s a trifle to what you’ll get. And next time, I won’t use physical violence, either. Understand?”

The curly-haired leader nodded quickly.

“Come on out, all of you,” Roger called to all the dark corners of the building, “or I’ll rip your leader apart from the inside. Then I’ll come after the rest of you. And you all know I can do it, too, without laying so much as a hand on any of you.”

The room had emptied, but now it slowly, reluctantly filled back out with the little people. Roger stood in the center, soaking, muscles drawn tight from the cold river, chest red and pink as blood from bramble cuts mixed with the water. He held the leader high by the arm. The rest of them could only stare on at the scene.

Roger’s face was calm and smiling again. “All right, as I was saying… What is all this you have in mind involving Sylvia?”

4

Sylvia lay with Randall ’til she was sure he was asleep. He was wonderfully passionate in moments when he acted the lover. The rest of the time, his touch was almost unbearably light. Maybe that’s why she loved him: that a man of such thorough, blocky strength could be so gentle, as though his nature never came in sight of anything else. There were honestly moments when she’d have liked a bit more wildness from him, maybe even a touch of roughness in bed.

Right now, though, she preferred for him to stay asleep. It was never hard to slip free without waking him. Her T-shirt was still mostly on, pushed up to her armpits. She pulled it down and hunted for some pants. When she pulled them on, they felt thick and muggy around her sweat-caked skin. Her eyes adjusted, and she looked down at Grandpa’s old study. The afterglow licked sweetly at her innards, and she felt dirty in here. At the far wall was the desk, then in the middle of the floor, Randall basking comfortably in post-coital slumber.

Sylvia left the room quickly, treading even quieter than usual. She hadn’t planned on sleeping in there, and didn’t know why she’d agreed to. That evening, she’d been leaning over Grandpa’s desk, finding all the old papers and folders still there. She wasn’t sure what she’d been after; Grandpa’s collection of old Skybrooks news articles, maybe whatever he’d written up of that town history he’d talked about sometimes, as he might actually have included any clues about the little people. Would he even have written about them, just for his own thoughts? Not likely, so what the hell had she been doing, going through his old things like that?

Then Randall had wandered in, sleeping bag rolled up under his arm. Sylvia had drawn back sharply from the desk, feeling caught and cornered, as if Randall could have known he was catching her at anything.

“You wanna sleep in here?” he’d asked, still stoned.

She’d agreed quickly, because how would she have explained it otherwise?

In the next room, Roger’s sleeping bag lay flat. The only bed in the house was Granny’s, and no one was gonna sleep there, so Sylvia had told the guys in advance to bring sleeping bags. She’d given Roger the living room so he could have the couch, but he’d apparently preferred the floor. She’d heard him storm out earlier, and she felt bad all over again. She hadn’t planned on it. It had just sort of happened, before her brain was awake enough to realize what her body was doing. Randall had been the one who’d really wanted it at that moment, and she guessed she’d complied to shake off the dream.

Now the dream felt stronger than ever, and Roger was still out in the night somewhere. Sylvia felt the need to go find him, to –

– To do what? Apologize? It would have been beyond embarrassing, actually talking it over, especially if Roger was still in a bad mood.

It didn’t matter. It was time to go out and face Roger. More importantly, it was time to face Skybrooks, time to face the song it had left singing in her head for too long.

She went out onto the porch, scanned the yard, but didn’t see Roger. He’d left his boots on the porch, she remembered. Now they were gone, probably carrying him well off into the wilds of Skybrooks. Sylvia went to grab her sneakers from the car, put them on, then took off down the road. She figured she’d run into Roger, like she always seemed to on those sleepless, wandering nights back in Bradder.

They weren’t in Bradder tonight, though. And Sylvia didn’t just wander the physical terrain around her now. In her mind, she also walked these roads as they’d been years ago. She’d known Grandpa had been going out every night, just as surely as she’d heard Roger leave the house less than an hour ago. She’d heard Granny and Grandpa arguing about how Grandpa wasn’t going to church anymore. He was getting like those wild Indians, Granny said, the ones who’d been around in the days of Granny and Grandpa’s parents, looking for salvation down in the earth where the devil was, not on high where God was. And Grandpa had yelled at Granny, said she didn’t understand him. And Sylvia’s mom and dad had tried to step in, tried to calm down both Granny and Grandpa, find out what was really going on, and Grandpa said none of them understood him, so fuck ’em all. They didn’t understand anything, he’d said. Sylvia had stayed back in the other room, listening.

No, she’d realized, none of them understood Grandpa. She didn’t understand Grandpa either, but unlike the rest of them, she’d really wanted to understand.

Now she’d found her way onto the old bridge, was halfway across. And there below was the rushing river, and off to the side, the old abandoned factory. She thought of the first time she’d headed towards that building with the direct intention of going inside, on a night very much like tonight, except she’d been eight years old, and she’d had no idea what she would find. All she knew was, that’s where Grandpa went, and she wanted to know what Grandpa found in there, why Grandpa didn’t go to church anymore, why he said no one understood him.

Out of everything from that night, what Sylvia remembered most was the thing she’d noticed least at the time: Grandpa’s sad face, doing his best to hold the smile, hiding how crushed he’d felt by Sylvia’s discovery. The same creatures that had inescapably enchanted him – enslaved him whether intentionally or not – had drawn his little granddaughter into that same web. And all that night she’d danced and played and run with the little people. And Grandpa must have known that this meant something terrible. She woke the next morning, refreshed as though she’d slept the whole night soundly. Then she went down to breakfast. Everyone was crying, and Mom told her Grandpa was dead.

From then ’til now, whenever Sylvia snuck away to the abandoned factory, she’d found just that: an old abandoned building, rotting to pieces, ever more forgotten, as it probably deserved to be. But she always found her way back sooner or later. Eventually she’d catch the little people in their night-time revels again, or they’d choose the time to reveal themselves to her. And one way or the other, she would have the answers she wanted.

She reached the other side of the bridge and hunted for the best way down the slope. There was a torn, beaten path someone had created recently. She made an abandoned, frantic run down the path, knowing that one false step would send her smacking into a tree, and if she tried to stop, she’d topple one way or the other, likely as not breaking her neck. She reached the bottom and kept running. There it was, the old loading dock entrance. Lights shown from within, and she knew it wasn’t the flashlights of poor scavenging townsfolk or kids out on a dare.

Sylvia climbed cautiously as she could manage through the branches of the fallen tree, then over the tangled scrap metal. Finally she climbed onto the loading dock, then headed straight inside and around the corner.

The little people all turned and looked at Sylvia. She remembered all their faces, all one hundred or however much of them. She couldn’t have known their exact number even if they’d stayed still long enough for her to count, yet she recognized every face her eyes met. Roger stood at the center of them, just as Grandpa once had, except that Roger was half-naked, soaked to the bone and bloody.

And he wasn’t on his knees like Grandpa had been. Grandpa, submitting himself to creatures that didn’t even have enough of the same notions of reverence and devotion to appreciate such things from Grandpa. Roger didn’t share such notions either, Sylvia was pretty sure. And instead of standing around to be amused by his reverence, the little people stood transfixed themselves, full of fear and awe. Roger held the leader off the ground by the arm like a child hauling around his Raggedy Andy doll. Sylvia saw the fear in the creature’s eyes, the pain in its stretched limbs, and something clenched in her she didn’t quite understand.

“Roger, put him down!” she cried out.

“Little Rose-Hair,” one of the little people cried.

“Only not Little Rose-Hair now,” another pointed out.

Roger turned and saw her, but didn’t yet lower the leader. His eyes burned into her, like he meant to blister and peel her away layer after layer ’til he found the answers he wanted. The obvious questions were:

Who the hell were these little people?

What was it they wanted from her, and vice versa?

So was this why she’d really invited him along?

Sylvia guessed the answer to the last question was, yes. How it all broke down, she couldn’t have said, but it had to do with that strange something extra Roger had, what Sylvia always found herself so caught up in, that strange energy he gave off. Somehow, unconsciously, she’d known it would lead them to this, draw the little people out into the open, not on her terms exactly, but not theirs either. She’d known that to get the answers she wanted, it couldn’t be like before, couldn’t be just her wandering in the dark, waiting for them to come out, come out, wherever they were.

Maybe she should have been more honest with Roger, but how could she have been? She understood so little herself. Now she’d put him before her mystical childhood playmates, Grandpa’s gods, and he held them in terror. What had they done to him to make him do that? She wanted to yell at him again, but her voice had locked up, and she felt too much like yelling at herself.

“Help us, Rose-Hair,” cried the leader, still gangling from Roger’s fist. “He’s a demon! Don’t let the demon hurt us!”

Sylvia came forward. Tears blurred her eyes, and she found her voice. “He’s not a demon! Roger, you’re not a demon, right?” She stared into his eyes.

“I’m not a demon.” He said it to her, not to them, and he didn’t sound so certain. “I’m not.”

She blinked back more tears. She hadn’t meant it like that, just wanted him to vouch for himself. So why, just for an instant, did she feel as uncertain as he sounded?

“Just don’t let him hurt us!” cried the leader.

Something broke in her. “Yeah? Why not? Why shouldn’t I let him do whatever he wants to you?”

“We’re your friends! Don’t you remember, Rose-Hair? We all ran, and we all played together, when you followed Old Iron-Hair here. We all…”

“I remember,” she said. “I remember my Grandpa. I loved my Grandpa, and I remember never being able to figure out what it was he loved more than all of us, what it was that made it so none of us, not even me, could ever be really close to him. Then I remember that night, that one night when I finally thought I was in on it, that I could love the same things he loved and really be close to him, that everything would be different from then on…”

“Little Rose-Hair…”

“Don’t fucking call me that! You killed my Grandpa! You showed me everything, and then you… Goddamnit, tell me now, just… what the fuck?”

Silence, all through the room. Sylvia’s eyes went back to Roger. The venom had drained from his face. He still held the leader of the little people in that cruel way, but he wasn’t thinking of his captive anymore. Instead he looked gently at Sylvia.

“What can we do?” asked the leader finally. Certainly it was out of desperation for Roger to be called off, but maybe there was regret there, too. Just a touch, if creatures like these could even know regret, any more than they could feel true malice.

“I just want to understand,” Sylvia sobbed. “Make me understand why you took my Grandpa from me. I don’t want to know what you are, or where you come from, or anything like that. I just… why?”

“Tell her the truth,” Roger said, the menace creeping back. “If you lie to her, I’ll know, and you won’t like what happens.”

The leader of the little people took a deep breath. “We didn’t kill Old Iron-Hair. He killed himself.”

Sylvia looked on. Roger’s face stayed sullen, but didn’t get any worse. Sylvia guessed he detected no lies.

“No,” the leader went on, “we didn’t kill him. We liked him. We liked him because he just naturally sensed we were here, and he didn’t hate us or fear us like you people usually do, and he didn’t want to make a mess of everything, with all the machines and all the stores and all the money, like the rest of you do. He just wanted to come and listen, just wanted to play. It was nice that one of you actually heard the songs, wanted to come and play and sing with us, without so much other bad stuff. It had been so long since we found one of your people who was like that, since well before your light-skinned tribes ran off the darker ones who were here before you. Even back then, we hardly ever brought any of you in. But it had been so long, and we wanted to give it a try with him. The problem was, he... wanted all of it.”

Roger’s face had gone from anger to sadness. Slowly, not gently but not roughly or carelessly either, he lowered the leader to the concrete floor, until the little man stood on his own two feet again. The little man rubbed his arm and looked warily up at Roger. Right then, the other little people might have scurried back into hiding, without fear of whatever night magic Roger had threatened them with. Instead they stayed and watched.

The leader continued with, “For the longest time, we watched Old Iron-Hair when he wasn’t here with us. We watched him with you and the rest of the family. He was right, none of them understood him. But you, Little Rose-Hair, you understood. You understood him better than you ever could have realized back then. Just ... none of us understood him quite well enough in the end.”

Sylvia’s whole body shook. She knew she would break down soon. But not yet, not ’til she’d heard the little man out.

“That was why we let you find us too, Little Rose-Hair. We thought you might understand us. That you’d like us, the way Old Iron-Hair did. We thought he would like that too, that he’d want to share us with you. That you could come and be a part of it all like him, with him. It turned out, he just couldn’t handle that, I guess.”

Roger watched Sylvia and listened to the little man. He didn’t know if Sylvia understood, at least not yet, but he did. Or at least he thought so.

In the little people, the old man had wanted something that was all his own, wanted himself to be the only one to worship and to know these secrets, the true life of Skybrooks. In short, he had wanted his own salvation, carved from something the rest of them didn’t know, something they would never corrupt. Why exactly he hadn’t been able to live with even his precious granddaughter, precious Sylvia, sharing in the mystery, was the one remaining question. Maybe he’d wanted their world to absorb him, to leave behind everything and everyone from whence he’d come.

The final answers, Roger realized, would always be mysteries, lost in the chaos that was everything. Maybe Sylvia would understand this now, or maybe not. Maybe she would eventually, or maybe she would draw different conclusions. As for the little people, Roger decided, human men and women could no more decipher their complexity or simplicity than the little people could have figured out humans. Maybe it was best that their magic stayed hidden, an enchantment reserved for only a few, like Sylvia’s grandfather had wanted it.

Roger looked down at the leader of the little people. “So you just wanted to be friends with Sylvia’s Grandpa, then with Sylvia?” He asked matter-of-fact, man-to-man.

The leader looked up startled, as though Roger had just threatened him again. It was probably the first time someone of Roger’s height had ever spoken to him like that. “Yes…”

“It’s hard to be real friends with something you put on a pedestal, something you see as a god or a demon or whatever. Sure, most anyone’s gonna see you that way when you first reveal yourselves. But you have to learn to let that act drop if you want any connection worth having to form. Sounds to me, you never learned to do that, with Sylvia or her Granddad. Maybe we’re similar enough at the source for our kind and yours to be real friends. But you’ll never know, ’cause you won’t let yourselves act like anything but mysterious little tricksters towards us big, ignorant, lumbering apes. Maybe you should stick to your singing and whatever else it is you do amongst yourselves.”

The little man didn’t answer. His little face was unreadable.

“Roger,” Sylvia sobbed.

He turned to her. “I’m here, Sylvia,” he said softly.

Maybe tomorrow, it would make more sense. Maybe tomorrow, it would seem so much like a dream that neither of them would acknowledge it as anything else for many years to come, at least not to each other. There within the moment, though, they simply came into each other’s arms. Holding each other, they rocked back and forth. When they looked around, the factory spread empty around them. The flickering candles were the only sign of the little people. One by one, the candles went out. Roger and Sylvia left the building as the last flame died.

They held each other for the whole walk home. Sylvia’s sobs died off, and Roger’s shivers subsided as her body warmed him. All around them, the song of the little people rose again and flowed out into Skybrooks.

THE END

Copyright © 2007 by Matt Spencer.

Matt Spencer is the author of THE DRIFTING SOUL, illustrated by award-winning artist Stephen R. Bissette. His short fiction has appeared in InfinityPlus, Lilith's Lair, and Hardluck Storis. Mr. Spencer has worked as a film critic, film script editor, and professional chef. He now lives in Kansas.

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