Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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by K. C. Stapleton

Leaning back in his tall chair, Webster sighed and rubbed his bearded chin. He was twelve panels in, so he there was roughly eighteen more to go. With the stringent system fostered on him by his editor he didn't see why a free-hand artist was even needed. The strict outline called for six panels a page, followed by four panels, then two, after which the rest ran in a repeated cycle of the same numbers. Six, four, two, six, four, two, over and over made him feel he was in an artistic straightjacket instead of the usual creative dance he loved to perform when he worked.

He shook his head ruefully and tossed the pen down. He wasn't producing anything remotely entertaining, and he needed to stop rationalizing.

"Coffee break!" he called out to his empty living room.

His bare feet, numb from sitting so long, barely felt the fuzzy dark carpet beneath them. The linoleum of the kitchen by contrast was a shock of cold. Working from home meant he could wear what he wanted, which in this case was a pair of jeans and nothing else. In a snazzy office, the sight of his sagging belly, graying chest hair and fish-white toes would have driven his co-workers out into the street.

"At least I still have a full head of hair," he mumbled. Of course, said hair was now more salt than pepper.

Pouring the water into the coffeemaker, he thought for the thousandth time that he hadn't expected to still be working now. Thirty years ago, during the comic book world's grand renaissance, he'd been thought of as a wunderkind guru of the art. He'd expected to ride off into the sunset, but in the 80's he'd trusted a broker who had believed more in recreational drugs and psychics than stock tips. No big cushy retirement fund---no sunset.

A satisfying gurgling sound and a strong aroma erupted from the machine. Finishing tonight and getting it over with was preferable to dragging this out, even through his editor and publisher Steve Brock had given him a week to complete the job.

Webster didn't blame the writers for his boredom. Occasionally, he saw snippets of their real work. Pop culture references, social insights, and the occasional honest observation showed up in the storylines and dialogues that made their way to his drawing table, but the readers would never know as any nods to a comic fan's intelligence were always crossed out by Brock's red pen.

Clutching his favorite mug, Webster sat back down and turned the radio on low. He liked to listen to a particular late-night talk show because they stayed off tedious topics like politics. Tonight, the host was chatting up a quasi-scientist type. At least it was better than hearing the usual arguments yet again.

He checked his script and found that the next panel was in the same setting as panel twelve, which was another of Brock's formulas. Of course, when this book didn't sell any better than the last, his boss would blame everything under the sun except his own bland recipe.

"Graphic novels," Webster muttered under his breath. Many were big hits of late, but as he poised his pen above the paper, he knew this wouldn't be one of them.

"Oh, I know for certain there are definitely other dimensions beside our own," the guest scientist's voice murmured gently through the radio next to Webster's shoulder. "Eventually we will find a way to see into them, perhaps even interact."

"Drapes!" Webster grumbled. "Why do they have to be stuck for four panels in a study with dark flowing drapes?"

He paused, selected another pen, and continued, focused almost to the point of hypnosis on creating the scene as dictated by the writer.

"We are separated from, but connected to other areas of being," the scientist droned on. "But I'm convinced that something as simple as a mathematical formula, code or combin -- "

"Sorry?" the host interrupted. He sounded thankful to have gotten a word in edgewise. "What kind of a connection?"

"Well, it's strictly a theory, and my own theory, really," said the guest, taking charge of the conversation again, "that we're connected by what have been called ley lines."

"Ley lines," Webster repeated absently, still deep in his fog of concentration. "Panel thirteen completed, and now back to six, four, two and six, four, two again."

"Ley lines?" the radio host asked doubtfully.

"Yes!" the scientist gushed. "Horizontal and vertical trans-dimensional energy lines that run unseen through our existence and where these lines intersect, a conduit might be found."

Webster sat back for a second and surveyed his work. Half his mind was focused on the radio discussion, and he found himself staring at the corners of the panel in front of him. An idea floated through his mind and he realized what this evening's whack job was trying to say was that they were all stuck in an artist's graph.

"Perhaps artificially created at some point in time... " Dr. Hanson continued.

"Hey, guys!" Webster tapped the bottom corner of one panel. "Lookit! It's your way out." He grinned widely as he urged his captive well-drawn figures to escape. "Jump up and down on this corner here. Trust me. It doesn't get any more stimulating from here on. Run while you can."

The smile slowly dwindled away as he realized what he was doing.

"You're losing it, Web!" he scolded himself. "See? There, you're talking to thin air. Gotta stop having these overly private conversations."

The host was hurrying Dr. Hanson off the air and preparing for the next hour's show. Webster checked the clock on the mantel above the fireplace and saw that the hour was in fact three in the morning. As he returned his gaze back to the table, he caught a glimpse of a faint glow against the dark carpeting. He looked down cautiously out of the corners of his eyes.

Every three feet, there was a glowing light blue line running up and down the room. As he watched, the lines faded back into the carpeting, only to flare up again a few seconds later.

He tore off the black-framed glasses he wore for close work and stared at the carpet. This time he saw the same thing, only he had to squint.

Late the next afternoon, Brock, his own bald head shining with a gleam of perspiration dropped, by the house with one of his newer employees in tow. Webster had a difficult time remaining polite after ushering them inside. Brock alternated between being gratingly supportive of his progress and appearing exasperated for no a reason. The new kid, who talked nonstop about Japanese artists, snooped around with a strange, almost predatory gleam in his eyes.

"Do you want some coffee?" Webster asked them for the third time since they'd arrived. Before they could answer, he started toward the kitchen.

Brock and the new kid were both dressed in light-colored polo shirts and well-pressed Dockers, so they probably preferred pretentious, overpriced, decaffeinated concoctions sipped through a straw. Webster had never understood the concept of decaf or expensive casual clothes, but he was glad he'd at least thrown on a sweatshirt when they'd knocked.

"Feeling okay?" Brock's voice followed him.

Webster turned and saw the looks they exchanged as he stepped gingerly around the living room. He realized that to them, he must look like a drunken sailor playing hopscotch. His home was free of the kind of clutter that could have been a good cover for his odd new gait. Web wished he'd thought of that before now, but there was nothing for it since he couldn't explain to them what they couldn't see.

"No problems," he called back over his shoulder.

Pushing his unkempt bed-hair out of his eyes, he spooned in half a can of strong Colombian blend and started the coffeemaker.

"You know," drawled Brock from behind him, "one of the reasons we came by was that I realize I've put too much work on you."

His mind racing a mile a minute, Webster only half-heard him. Still barefoot, he experimentally touched one toe to a spot on the floor. Jerking it back quickly, he turned his gaze to the editor with an absentminded, “Hmm?"

Realizing from the other man's expression that his own face must have looked a little blank, Webster smiled widely, hoping to cover his preoccupation.

"Yeah," said Brock slowly. "Too much responsibility on one person's not good. What I wanted to do was have you show Tim how it's done, and then he'll start helping you out."

"Uh-huh," Webster responded. The wide grin remained frozen in place, but he knew what was going on. He realized he'd be training young Timothy to do his job, and then Timothy would help him right out of employment. The young man followed Brock into the kitchen talking excitedly about working with "such a renowned graphic artist."

Webster dimly watched as Tim's over-sized head, covered with kinky red hair bobbed up and down in enthusiasm as he spoke. Webster watched the kid as he kept glancing toward Brock with a sly smile playing on his lips.

Ordinarily, Web would have been telling both of these self-important twits off with well-versed venom. In fact, a few politically-incorrect words swirled through the maze of excited thoughts buzzing in Webster's brain, but they couldn't make it past the barrier of the floor problem, which was presently taking up most of the space inside his skull. He couldn't really say what he might have chewed them out for first -- thinking that he could be replaced by a ten-buck-an-hour, polo-wearing, anime-doodling bobble head, or believing for a second that he was stupid enough to buy their crap. The kid whose eyes kept flicking toward the editor had no clue who Web was. His routine must have been cued by Brock.

"That sounds great." Webster pushed the words out through his straining lips. "How about we start on that later?"

"Well, really, I thought immediately... " Brock said.

"Not possible," said Webster as he held the grin in place. "You guys come back in the afternoon and we'll start right in."

"It is afternoon," Tim piped up, scowling.

"Same time, same place," Web said firmly, ignoring the kid while guiding them none too gently out of the kitchen and through the living room.

They both tried to struggle back inside, but were blocked by Web's considerable gut. Finally, his aging had come in handy. Brock, the shortest man among them by several inches, was red-faced either from anger or exertion, it was hard to tell.

"That coffee sure smells good," Tim said trying one last gambit as Web closed the front door on him.

"I'll make some more tomorrow," Web shouted through the keyhole as he locked the door for emphasis.

Once they were outside, he turned around and surveyed the living room. The blue lines still pulsed steadily, but at the corners where they intersected, large holes now sparkled with multicolored light. He wished he'd known the openings couldn't be closed when he started messing with them. A few were in very inconvenient places.

The bare wooden floor of his bedroom had four holes, and there was only one in the kitchen, but in his enthusiasm, he'd inadvertently turned the living room carpet into a minefield where eight recesses to other dimensions glimmered merrily.

"What was I thinking?" he mused to himself.

After assuring himself he’d been dreaming and getting out of bed, Web had discovered that if he pressed down on the corners where the lines met, a small section of the floor would dissolve under his hands. Another hour and he'd worked up the courage to stick a mirror into one of them, but that hadn't worked because only the bright light

was reflected back. Finally, he'd tried actually sticking his head through one opening near his bed; a deafening buzz had filled his ears, all he saw was a white blur moving against a white background, and he couldn't breathe. He gave up on that one.

Out of more than a dozen fissures, three looked promising and one was downright terrifying. The only place in the kitchen he'd tried was right beside his beloved coffeemaker and when he looked into that one all he saw was complete darkness. He could hear what sounded like muffled cries or moans and when the acrid smell of smoke reached his nostrils, he'd pulled his head out quickly, thankful for the gloom that hid whatever was down there.

After listening to make sure Tim and Brock were gone, he slumped with his back to the door and tugged nervously at one ear.

"Gotta think," he muttered. "What should I do?"

He was going to have to go solo, since from the second he'd opened the door to Brock and Co., he'd realized no one else could see the lines. The possibility had already occurred to him when he'd tried throwing a pen down a hole near the fireplace and discovered that only things he was touching could go through. Somehow, he'd started this, and it was unique to Webster Collins.

"But at least I can draw it," he said softly as the idea dawned on him.

Four hours later, he was still at his drafting table as voices from the radio conversed softly just outside his awareness.

"They completely disappeared," the host was saying. This time he was talking to a “well-known author of the unexplained”.

"Yes, that's right," his guest agreed. "There was a big cover-up at the time."

Webster paused for a moment and took a healthy gulp from the steaming cup resting beside him. After chugging three strong pots of coffee, he'd managed to capture every scene he'd viewed through each opening. The hard part was expressing how they all fit together. A new thought raced across his mind and he quickly picked up his pen.

"Other universes... exist inside our own," he murmured as he scribbled next to one illustration of a fiery landscape, "as if ... it were... "

"They completely disappeared off radar," the author continued on the radio. "The flight leader's last words were 'Don't follow me,' and not a trace of them has been found since. There were rumors relating the event to an old black ops experiment... "

"...A honeycomb," Web finished with satisfaction.

Nothing to do now but pack, he thought. He went to the kitchen and added a few cans with pull-off lids, a can opener just in case, an unopened bag of freshly ground coffee, and a few snacks. After a moment's contemplation, he thought to put in a few bottles of beer.

The best one he'd investigated was underneath his drafting table. He pushed it aside and stood looking down.

On the other side of the opening, he'd seen a clear sapphire sky, smelled fresh clean air, and watched the marshy grass that would come up to his hips wave in the breeze. The place had a wild, untouched atmosphere. In this world as in a few others he could see the ley lines glowing here and there. He’d have a way out if needed it.

"I guess Brock will just have to replace me, won't he? Oops, wait, too late, guess he already has,” Web muttered.

He'd had spent all of his adult life rendering pictures of fantastic characters, most of them superheroes. A part of him had always envied them. Of course, unless it got edited out they always had something spiffy to say at moments like this.

"No final catch phrase. How’s that for pitiful," he said calmly after a moment, then stepped forward.

A neighbor heard Steve Brock and his new artist Timothy pounding on Web's front door and let them in with a spare key Collins kept under a fake rock on the patio. They surveyed the house and turned off the radio. There was no sign of Web anywhere in the sparsely kept home.

"Look at this!" Brock exclaimed as he examined the drafting table. "He hasn't touched a single panel since yesterday."

Timothy decided now wasn't a good time to mention that Webster still had three days left to finish. He picked up a stack of papers sitting beside a heavily stained cup.

"Looks like he was working on this," he pointed out sounding like a tattling child. He pushed the pile into his boss's hands.

"How do you like that?" Brock said, clearly incensed.

"How's this for loyalty? Nothing he does will sell. Here I am trying to ease him out gently, and he takes other jobs! No gratitude."

Brock wandered into the kitchen, found the coffeepot full, and began searching for clean cups.

"What are ley lines?" Tim called out to him.

"Ley lines? Never heard of them."

"Is Collins the first artist you've -- " Tim dropped his voice a little, but could still be heard in the kitchen -- "let go?"

"Nope," sighed his boss as he scratched his hairless head. "He's lucky number thirteen. Do you want cream and sugar?"

Tim, who actually preferred a piping hot spicy chai tea, made a face his employer couldn't see.

"Sure," he called back. "Just whatever. You know, I'd like to change how he's done this panel-to-page ratio. Maybe mix 'em up a little, or, like, have one a breakaway panel near the end with lots of action."

Brock frowned. He'd discovered two spotlessly clean mugs with superhero logos embossed on them, obviously collector's items, but if Web didn't want them used, he should be around to keep his appointments.

"No, don't do that," he called out. "I wanted Webster to show you. It has to be that way. It's six, then four, then two, all the way through. Six, four, and then two." He stepped back toward the coffeemaker.

Rolling his eyes, Tim continued to scrutinize Web's work. As he would tell the police several times over the next few days, he waited a minute in silence before going in to check on Mr. Brock and finding only the two steaming mugs waiting for him in the quiet, deserted kitchen.


© 2008 K. C. Stapleton

Bio: K. C. Stapleton goes by the handle "Supernatural News" on MySpace and also maintains a website by the same name. A resident of Austin, Texas, she has so far refrained from opening a ley-line hole in reality under her husband's favorite chair... Visit her MySpace page, Supernatural News, or the main Supernatural News webpage for more insight into K. C.'s interests and work.

E-mail: K. C. Stapleton

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