You're rather resilient, aren't you? I thought we'd be done with this by now. It feels like we started a long time ago, doesn't it? It feels that way to me. It feels like this should have been finished such a long, long time ago, but for some reason… Bah. Nothing to worry about right now, is it? This! This is supposed to be a time of celebration! A time of jubilee and cake and ice creams, yes? That's what it's supposed to be.
Funny how things turn out, isn't it?
Welcome back to another year, fair elder. Welcome back to another celebration made of tales. Tales made of happy truths and sad fictions. Tales made of wet paint and dry sand. Tales about roads that were traveled until they became rivers, and tales about the page before the book's cover. Tales about the man made of ashes and cinders, and tales about the woman who stitched herself a patchwork husband. Tales about the satyr who fucked a universe, and tales about the lost ones who are waiting for us all under the dirt. Tales of triumph. Tales of failure. Tales about the treasures found in attics and the horrors in closets. Tales of years fluttering out of your hands like the fragments of a broken leaf…
Ah. Ahem. And Happy Birthday, Gears. For now.
There’s a little man who lives in a box,
Right at the corner of my bed,
And the little man that lives in the box,
Whispers secrets into my head,
And the little man that lives in the box,
Wears a scarf made of puppy’s tongues,
And the little man that lives in a box,
Well, that’s how he has fun.
The little man who lives in a box,
visited by sister last night.
The little man who lives in the box,
borrowed my eyes for sight,
The little man who lives in the box,
collected one more tongue,
The little man who lives in the box,
came back and told me to run.
The little man who lived in the box,
still sits at the foot of my bed,
and the little man who lived in the box,
Sometimes crawls round in my head.
The little man who lives in the box,
Will never let me atone,
And the little man who lives in the box,
Will never leave me alone.
The angel is radiant.
I've fallen to my knees already. I don't remember now if I meant to do that, or if something about this creature just knocked me to the ground. I had been running, running through the woods prior to this, running across the shitty little nature trail that the city had installed a year ago to commemorate someone who was run over in the street because he didn't have a shitty little nature trail to get run over in instead. I've been running for what feels like…years. Half an hour, maybe, that felt like years, in this day that's moved as slowly as a geological epoch.
My knees hurt. Shit, I thought, I would figure I wouldn't feel anything right now. That's the shit part, though. You feel all kinds of things when you don't want to.
She isn't saying anything. I don't know how I'm giving this thing a gender, but I've decided that the vaguely humanoid shape in the blinding light before me is female. There's probably a very interesting psychologcal deconstruction to make from the fact that, in this time of all fucking times, I'm looking for a woman to save me.
"Are you…" I gasp, half out of breath, half out of a decided uncertainty of all of my words.
"Is…" I said, trying again, still unsure.
"Can you…" I'm actively just embarrassing myself in front of the divine at this point.
Finally, I hear a powerful whoooosh as the angel breathed the diseased air of the corporeal world into herself.
"WHAT DO YOU NEED, CHILD."
"H…help," I stutter out finally. "I…help me. Please, help me."
"WHAT IS WRONG?"
I spoke to the angel like a child speaks to their mother, in the brutal honesty that comes from the complete inability to form these feelings into some larger gestalt, the complete inability to frame my problems as her problems, the complete inability to somehow sell her on helping me by pretending there's some benefit to her. That's how we do it, isn't it? It's somehow wrong to just need, to reach out with the complete absence of strength, to hope that there's a hand on the other end to help us up. We have to manage our pain like a politician, stuff away as much as possible and bribe our friends to be there when we need them. We'll jump to the aid of anyone who asks us, but God forbid we need to ask someone else; then we just imagine everyone we know has some quid-pro-quo account of help they're willing to give, and if we haven't made enough deposits, you better not expect much of a withdrawal. Nobody does this, and we act as though everyone does this.
Well, fuck that. I don't have the strength or the inclination.
"It hurts. God, it hurts so much. It's been so long since I felt this, and it hurts."
"HAVE YOU HURT YOURSELF?"
"No, no, she hurt me. That…that fucking bitch hurt me. She…she stabbed me in the back. I trusted her, I loved her, and she hurt me. I…I can't have deserved it."
"WHY DID SHE DO IT?"
"Because she didn't love me anymore. Because she's bored with me. Because she's the fucking Devil. I don't know. I don't know. I didn't see it coming. I don't know."
I'm not crying. I can't. I wish I could, but it isn't happening. It never will again.
"WELL, THEN. HAVE YOU NOT HURT YOURSELF?"
"Wh—" I didn't understand. "I don't understand. I just said —"
"YOU ARE HUMAN, CORRECT? WITH VOLITION AND FREE WILL, AS YOU CLAIM? THIS IS NOT THE STOMPING OF AN INSECT BY A HUMAN FOOT. THIS IS NOT THE ERADICATION OF THE BODILY FORM OF A HUMAN BY A SERAPH. IT IS AN INTERACTION OF EQUALS."
"I…you can't say that I deserved this. That's fucking ridiculous. I did nothing but love her. I did nothing but show her love."
"AND SHE HAS REJECTED IT. THIS WAS ALWAYS A POSSIBILITY. LOVE IS THE OPENING OF THE CHEST AND BARING OF THE HEART BEFORE AN EVER-PRESENT KNIFE. THE ENTRY OF THE KNIFE INTO THE CHEST WAS ALWAYS A POSSIBILITY. THE PAIN WAS ALWAYS A POSSIBILITY. YOU FEEL HATE SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU FORGOT THIS."
I had no response. I could not conceive of this. It all had the feeling of truth to it, but it was a truth I wasn't really prepared for.
"YOU CAN HATE HER. YOU ARE FREE TO DO THIS, JUST AS SHE IS FREE TO HURT YOU. THIS IS THE FREEDOM OF CHOICE, AND CHOICE CAN BE PAINFUL. I MUST WARN YOU, JUST AS HER CHOICE MAY COME BACK TO HAUNT HER, THE DECISION TO HATE HER WILL DAMAGE YOU WITHOUT DOING ANYTHING GOOD FOR ANYONE. IT REMAINS YOUR CHOICE, HOWEVER."
I lost my balance on my knees and fell onto my hands then. The pain in my chest was blinding, the ache around my solar plexus or so. I looked up to see the creature in the light was descending toward me. I saw her reach out toward my face. I was frozen, completely unable to comprehend what was happening.
"THIS IS THE PAIN OF LOSS, CHILD," the being of light said. "ONE OF FEW SENSATIONS ALL CREATURES IN ALL OF CREATION SHARE IN COMMON. WHETHER YOU REALIZE IT OR NOT, EVERY PRION FEELS THIS WHEN ITS OFFSPRING ARE STERILIZED. EVERY COCKROACH FEELS THIS WHEN ITS NEST IS POISONED. EVERY HUMAN FEELS THIS WHEN THEIR BELOVED FINDS ANOTHER, AND EVERY GOD FEELS THIS WHEN THEIR CREATIONS TURN SOUR AND ROT ON THE VINE. YOU WILL HAVE THIS TO SHARE WITH MOST EVERYONE YOU MEET, AND YOU WILL HAVE THIS TO TRY TO PROTECT THOSE FEW WHO HAVE NOT FELT IT YET. AND YOU WILL FAIL TO PROTECT THEM, BECAUSE THEY WILL BARE THEIR CHESTS AS WELL, AND THE TIME WILL COME FOR THEM TO FEEL THE KNIFE."
She caressed my face. "THAT IS WHAT I CAN TELL YOU. YOUR PAIN WAITS FOR EVERYONE, AND EVERYONE CAN WALK AWAY FROM IT WHOLE, AFTER A TIME. AND FROM WHATEVER PERSPECTIVE I CAN HAVE OF YOU, AND YOU OF ME, I WISH YOU THE BEST."
The light before me faded into the dark night. After a time, I stood.
I regret to inform you of the loss of your betrothed, Pilot Lieutenant Bantreeisis-28388852. I have been her wing commander for the past six months, and have personally flown with her on not fewer than fifty-four attack missions. I can assure you that she gave the greatest possible sacrifice for the defense of her fellow pilots and in the defense of our Collective allies against the High Menace.
We had been performing standard combat air patrol around a base we had established around a High Menace colony. A Collectivist base was expanding in the area, and their government had been hoping to establish an aerial presence in that sector. Our air wing had established two major aerodromes in an elevated position relative to the Collectivists, as per standard protocol.
Our CAP had noticed increased High Menace activity around their colony that day. Bantreeisis, another pilot, and myself flew to the Collectivist base to meet with their commandant and agree on a strategy. While attempting to access the base, we were detected by one of the High Menace massgrowths at the base, which let out a distress call. Bantreeisis attempted to disable the massgrowth with multiple attacks to its exterior while we allowed the third pilot to escape, but she was only able to strike twice before she was hit. We were able to evacuate her to the principle aerodrome and begin Rejuvenation.
I would like to point out that while Bantreeisis's actions were not technically authorized by me, she was acting in accordance with the finest tradition of bravery our Force can know. Her efforts allowed myself and the escort pilot to escape with our lives, much as she would have survived had the counterattack not taken place.
In the process of escaping the attack zone, the High Menace apparently suspected that the entrance to the Collectivist base was a Task Force aerodrome. Additionally, an erroneous navigational maneuver by another pilot allowed the Menace to locate the site of our principle aerodromes above the Collectivist base. Multiple massgrowths converged on both locations with immense quantities of chemspray and devastated both bases before we could lift off. While our allies in the Collective have developed methods to survive exposure to their chemsprays themselves (without the knowledge of the High Menace, who seem to believe it to still be lethal in itself), the spray reduces our maneuverability in-flight and renders us susceptible to other attacks.
Bantreeisis was attempting to evacuate the now-uninhabitable aerodrome when she was hit by a chemspray blast and was forced to make an emergency landing. While grounded, a massgrowth targeted and destroyed her. Our methods of Rejuvenation, while powerful and far in excess of that of the High Menace's knowledge, could not restore her. However, I can say that in distracting the High Menace
I am very sorry to give you this news, but please know that your mate was killed fulfilling the highest calling of our people. The Red Force will salute the name of Bantreeisis-28388852 and her sacrifice now and forever, unto the Rising of our people and the destruction of the High Menace.
Yours in sorrow,
Commander, 2888592th Wing, 6993295th Division, Red Air Force
FROM THE DESK OF CHARLES GEARS:
Hearing rumors about unusual Vespidae activity around the 1006 enclosure. Please investigate at earliest convenience.
I've always loved driving at night, especially down a country road like this. There's something about it that's so serene, like it's just you and the inside of the car and what's in your headlights. Everything else just fades away. Just you and your thoughts.
Tonight was a night where I needed a good drive. Jacob had gotten sloppy and forgot to clear his text messages. While he was in the shower, I looked through them. I know it's kind of gross, but I needed to know. Like how when you watch a scary movie, you peek through your fingers. He'd been texting other people. Some men, some women. It didn't matter, really. I was mostly just mad at myself for being so stupid, for thinking that someone as magnificent as him could ever want someone like me.
But it wasn't until I saw him step out of the bathroom that it hit me. His perfect body, no sign of age or trouble. His beautiful hazel eyes. His being with other people scared me.
I showed him the messages, and he tried to give some half-ass excuse. Tried to tell me that it didn't mean a thing, that I was the only one for him.
A few minutes later, I was on the road, trying to see through the tears.
It's been two hours of driving on country roads now, just me and my thoughts in the car. Thinking about how many times this has happened before, how many times I said that this was the last time, that we were through. But not this time. This time it's for good.
It's been ten minutes since I last saw the sign saying I was leaving Pollensbee. I see the old empty field, the one with the crooked almond tree in the center, and I pull over. The car jerks to a stop and I get out and pop the trunk.
I see his hazel eyes looking up at me. His arms and legs are bound. He tries to plead through to duct tape, but all that comes out is muffled shouting. I pick up the shovel resting behind him.
I raise it high above my head and bring it down on his neck.
He gurgles, and the muffled shouting becomes frenzied. There's a dark purple splotch rising where the bones have broken.
I hit him again and again and again. He stops making noise.
Pretty soon, there's nothing left of his head but crushed bone and pulped meat. One of his perfect hazel eyes looks up at me.
Taking him by a leg, I drag his body to the hole. The six foot deep one I swore I'd never need again. I dump his body into the pit and start shoveling dirt.
He's not even halfway covered when I start hear groaning and see that his head has already started to knit itself back together. The muffled screaming starts again when there's a foot of dirt over him. It doesn't stop, just gets more and more muffled.
As I pat down the last few shovelfuls of dirt, I see a stream of blood slither from the the trunk and disappear into the soil.
Part of me wants to dig him out, hear him say that he loves me and that I'm the only one for him. That we'll be together forever. But fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
No, this time, I'm going to bury him and leave him here. Let him scream here forever under six feet of soil.
The hot summer sun beat down on Victor as he stood impatiently at the edge of the slope of the woods. His fiancee, Jessica, had once again dragged him out to her parents farm to gather the annual "crop" of black raspberries, but Victor, being more used to city life than rural life, could only daintily pick the outermost berries. Frustrated, his fiancee told him to stay behind with the big bucket as she disappeared down the drop-off to find the bigger, better berries.
Victor slapped the back of his neck in frustration. These god damn gnats were out in full force today, swarming all over his face and neck. He couldn't even stand still for more than a millisecond without a gnat flying into his eye or buzzing loudly into his ear, and since they were so small there wasn't much he could do about it. Victor's mother told him once that his family's blood was generally sweeter, so bugs were more attracted to him than his fiancee. Whether or not that was true was up for debate, though the constant cloud of insects floating around him supported that theory somewhat.
The suddenly loud buzz of a gnat flying into his ear caused Victor to jerk sideways suddenly, nearly falling over. Infuriated by the heat, the bugs and the general discomfort, Victor started flailing his arms desperately into the air, trying to swat away the cloud. His struggles were in vain as the gnats continued to surround him, frustrating him even further. He tried ducking down low to get out of the cloud, but the gnats followed him down to the ground.
At his wits end, he started pacing back and forth, getting a slight reprieve from the gnats as he moved. The cloud seemed to grow more aggressive, though, as the gnats began to match his speed and attack his face and body in much fuller force. Victor sped up, desperately trying to keep the gnats away from him. He eventually began sprinting in a circle, barely paying attention to his footing in his efforts to keep the gnats away. He tripped on a raised bit of dirt and felt a sharp pain in his arm as he landed. He raised his arm to find a moderately deep gash from a rock, and only had a moment to register what had happened to him when the gnats started swarming into his wound.
No longer caring about the berries, Victor screamed as he tried swatting the gnats away from his cut arm. Dozens of gnats parted with every swat but returned in full force almost immediately, and Victor could feel the gnats entering his bloodstream through his cut, and swore he could feel the bodies of the gnats pumping through his system. He flailed about in an effort to keep the gnats away, edging closer and closer to the drop-off of the woods. He lost his footing, and fell.
Victor landed in water, a small runoff from the nearby creek. His body felt bruised and scraped from the fall, and tried to pick himself up when he heard a very loud buzzing coming from above him. He turned and looked to see an enormous cloud of gnats, mosquitoes and flies hovering above the water. All at once, the swarm descended onto Victor, his screaming and thrashing drowned out by the buzz, the deafening, unbelievable buzz of hundreds of bugs eager to investigate the sweet blood of the intruder.
Jessica made her way out from the woods, her minuscule bucket almost overflowing with berries. She walked over to where she left Victor, but he was nowhere to be seen. Confused, she walked around the area, trying to find any sign of where her fiancee had gone. She looked over the edge of the drop-off to the bottom, and only saw the last few ripples of a splash in the runoff from the creek, probably from a fallen branch. Annoyed, Jessica concluded that Victor had abandoned her and was waiting inside her parent's house. She began to stomp her way back up to the house, only stopping to swat away the advance of an unusually fat gnat.
They’re always there, you know.
In the cracked fissures of forgotten sidewalks
Lying in wait with pointed tails ready
Unbalancing the unwary and in the moment of resulting confusion
Slithering towards ankles, to veins
Beneath the shadowed sheen of leaves
Brushing the crown of your head
As you pass by, unknowing of the hurried scuttle of legs
Crawling from stem to hair and through to scalp
Within the space between sheet and skin
Creeping through cotton threads
Picking through dead discarded flakes
Burrowing into nail, cracking open bone
On the inside lining of your lashes,
Waiting patiently to dig pincers into your eye
Should a blink be inopportune
In the dainty capillaries of your lungs
Clustered and clamping
In the air, in your breath
Everywhere, to your death
They’re always there, you know.
I live in a rather dangerous nation. Our goverment is more busy dealing with wealthy people and blaming foreign countries for the current economical shithole than taking care of the huge deliquency issue. Whenever I see the news, there's at least two or three people who got shot for an overpriced Iphone, or just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I always watched those news with a blank mind, trying not to empathize with any of them. And at the same time, believing that if I went undernoticed, nothing like that would happen to me…
By this time is obvious that I was pretty much wrong.
Last thing I remember is that I was walking on the street, and suddenly some bikers pointed me with a gun, handcuffed me, put a bag in my head and forced me to to go with them. Once we stopped, they threw me into a room and started to beat the shit out of me. They didn't even ask me any questions, but rather kept screaming insults and saying I was gonna die (like if it wasn't clear to me already). I think it happened around half to an hour beating me till they grew tired of it, and when they took the bag out of my head, I barely saw several shades of guns through the blood in my eyes. I was scared, and in despair. I didn't see all my life through my eyes, but I couldn't stop thinking of all I wanted to do, but I won't. My dreams, goals, hopes, wishes, all the time I spent struggling to go ahead and have success. Everything I could have done, completely destroyed by some guys who didn't know respect for life. At the end, they didn't care at all. I felt the first shot in my stomach, and a new source of pain passed through my bleeding body. They didn't even waited for me to completely process it, and kept shooting. The second one hit my belly, the third one hit my chest, fourth fith and sixth my lungs, seventh my throat, eighth my arm, ninth, tenth, eleventh twelveth fourteenth seventeenth twentieth thirty ninth…
I couldn't believe I'd stay aware to feel every bullet. specially the one that hit my brain.
Well, even when I thought I was aware, I couldn't move by myself, but the pain stayed there, and it was getting even worse. Despìte that, I felt when those guys took me out, but I was busy dealing with all that pain was a new and terrble experience. I thought that if I was already dead, at least I'd deserve to go to Hell first or something. But instead of that, I was taken into a wasteland, and got my deadself abandoned to the animals. The pain I feel never fades away, . I think there's no worst afterlife than this…
My nose itches… Well, I can always be wrong.
Heads bowed, the family said grace. Their Christmas feast was nothing special, but it was enough. Father smiled at Wife. This was the good life.
Outside their cottage, the eternal storm was brewing. Some days, it might look closer to finally breaking down than it did on others, but never going all the way. Frozen in time and perched above the edge of a glacier, but never falling over the edge.
Well, everything had gone to hell in a handbasket pretty quickly.
As with all things, it had started small. Harry, the co-pilot, had wanted to drop a small amount of altitude to check on weather. Mark had no idea what the something was.
The blame game didn't really matter now. The pilot lay in several pieces across the debris field, and the co-pilot was out cold, bleeding from several alarming wounds. Mark wasn't doing so well for himself, either.
He'd been thrown out of the plane and landed in a snowbank. He was still bruised to hell, but at least he wasn't in pieces. Physically, at least.
Mark could hear the baying of dogs in the distance. Maybe the self-evaluation of his mental faculties could wait for another day. Sitting up, he gathered his things, papers, clothing, and tore into the woods. Pressing onward into the forest, his eyes felt like they were growing a layer of frost, with sharp crystals blinding every step.
The clothes which had seemed so comfortable on the plane now laughed at his feeble attempts to ward of the cold. He kept on stumbling through the darkness, grasping at frozen, dead tree branches and stones buried in snow. A blind flight into the unknown.
He tried thinking of home. Any home. Maybe it'd be nice to back with Mom and Dad, in Boca. It was always warm there. Didn't need to worry about being up to your knees in snow, alone, thousands of miles from home. Maybe he could go back with Nicole, and Brandon. But that wasn't warm. Apartment. Think of the present. Think of the creature comforts waiting back in the States…
Creature comforts? He'd be a creature's dinner soon, if he didn't find someplace to stay.
Mark wiped the snow out of his eyes and kept going. He couldn't see anything, or… there was something. Windows, with light spilling out onto the snow.
There was a cottage. A small cottage, with timber walls and smoke curling from a chimney. Knocking on the door was not a hard decision to make.
A man opened the door, allowing a crack of light to spill over Mark’s face.
“Terribly sorry, but we’re not interested. We’re in the middle of…”
“No, no. No. It’s nothing like that. Can I please… uh, sir, may I call you that? Sorry. I just… need a place to get out of this cold, and I found your house, and…”
The hand opening the door was connected to a strong, older man. His hair was pulling into a widow's peak, and a caterpillar mustache perched above his lips. A big red nose and squinty eyes completed the center of his face, peering down at Mark from above.
"Sorry, we're not, uh, interested."
"NO! No, wait, please. I'm not selling- it's cold out here. Please, may I come in?"
The man stared at Mark, considering him. The light from behind his massive frame was swiftly being joined by delectable smells, turkey and grease and gravy, swirling around Mark, swooning him and pulling him in.
"Alright, you poor soul. It's Christmas, isn't it?"
Walking inside, Mark kept his eyes on his new surroundings. This was a small, three room cottage. One room to eat, one to sleep, one to sit.
The family was sitting down, at the table, with the food, on their plates. They were all looking up at him, they didn't quite seem to know what to think. The woman, maybe the wife, was looking at him nervously.
The Father spoke up, in a booming, deep tone. "Family! This is…."
"Mark! He's here to eat with us. Poor old boy was wandering out in the cold."
“Thanks so, so much… I might’ve ended up like a snowman out there, if I hadn’t found you all…”
“Well, Mark… I have to say, we’re all very sorry about thinking you were just another salesman. Isn’t that right, love?”
The Wife nodded, wordlessly.
“We moved here to get out from the salesmen, but they still come knocking every now and again… but, we do well for ourselves. Don’t we?”
Mark nodded, his newfound warmth making him feel exceptionally limber. “Yeah, yeah, sure ma-sir. Again, thank you so, so much…”
Father slapped him on the back, heartily. “Well, we’ve got a chair here, Mark. Have a seat” He pulled a small folding chair from beneath the table. “You’ve found a family to rest with, on Christmas eve.”
Mark sat down, blinking the last of the frost out of his eyelashes. “I didn’t realize some places celebrated the holidays so late…”
Father ignored him. “So, do you have a family?”
At this, the children — which had until now, been little more than smiling decorative pieces — perked up. “Do you have a wife, Mark?” piped the girl. Mark looked at the assembled family. “Oh, uh… well, me and my wife, we’re… separated.”
They stared for a moment.
“Is she okay?” asked the little boy.
“Uh, no,sorry, nothing like that. She’s fine. We just…. agreed, uh, that we needed some time apart.”
They stared at Mark.
The Father’s smile dropped a few notches. “Well, I’m sure you’re not in the usual for separating, right?”
“The normal. Status quo. Is separation the status quo?”
Mark paused. “Uh… no, I wouldn’t say it is, but… yeah, no, I think the status quo would be to stay together?”
The Family nodded in assent, silently consuming their food as they eyed Mark. The warmth in the room, which had seemed so inviting only minutes ago, was now stifling, and Mark fidgeted in his seat.
“You seem nervous, son. Are you okay? Was it too personal?”
“I’m sorry, the chill has gotten to me. Do you, uh, mind if I take a minute in your… parlor?”
Sitting in the overstuffed chair, Mark kept his hands close to the crackling flames. The smoky wood drifted over him, taking him up and away from his troubles. Closing his eyes, and felt himself relaxing.
Idly, his hand found itself dragging along the cover of a leather-bound scrapbook.
It was titled “THE FAMILIES WE’VE BEEN”.
Leaning into the chair, and placing the book in his lap, Mark opened it. The fluttering of paper and peered in.
Photographs. Dozens of them, some old, some new, a few loose and blossoming with the molds and warping of age. And all of them, all of them, had the family now hosting him.
Some of them looked to be in old English garb, with Father sporting a mustache, and the wife looking as barefoot and pregnant as could be. Some had no children, and some even had no wife. Constant in every one was Father, peering over the frame and into the viewer.
One photo had the family in the woods, smiling and posing as he delivered the killing blow to an Oak tree.
Another depicted them on a boardwalk clouded by early morning fog, smiling at the photographer.
One even had them all at work in a factory. Father looked on from a parapet, lovingly staring at his family as they operated the heavy machinery. The Daughter was only visible partially, as she was climbing into the machine.
Before Mark could glance at them any more, there was a strong knock on the door. A high pitched voice called inwards.
“Are you okay, Mister Mark? Daddy is worried…”
Mark paused. “Be out in a minute!”
The only sound in the dining room was the soft clinking of silverware, and the small giggles of the children. Mark had elected not to elucidate the family onto his discovery. Better to get a hot meal, say his pleasantries, and be out before whatever dark secret this family was holding grabbed ahold of him, too.
“Enjoying your meal, son?”
Mark looked up. All of them, Wife, and children, were watching over him.
Mark’s next thought probably should’ve been to try and ask why they were all looking at him the way they were. Or perhaps where The Father was? But he didn’t get to ask anything, because everything was going black.
Mark passed out into his plate.
Father turned another page in the scrapbook. "Oh, do you remember when we played in the clearing, with baseball?"
The Son smiled at him. He definitely remembered that.
Father smiled too, tousling his hair. "Oh, the factory days… remember when all the families out there, they all just kept living in such squalid conditions."
The Wife bristled. "Dreadful."
"Yes, yes…" Father grabbed Mark's head, and forced him to look back at the scrapbook. "You poor boy. I feel bad for this. I really do. Your wife left you, took the child… that’s why we had to keep you. So you can learn."
The family all shook their heads "No!"
"We've had so many stages shared together… Remember the Victorian days, when you gals had to wear those corsets?"
They all nodded, in unison.
"Even then, in trying times, we stood together." Father kept turning pages. "Ohhh… Here's a cute one. It's from when we had all of those Jap tourists, coming on… between the four of them, your mom ended up in some queer sort of evening gown!
A collective chuckle echoed throughout the house.
"Look, Mark…" Father grabbed the ropes covering his shoulder, playfully rustling him. "I think we've learned a lot about modern families from your stories. But people like you… I sincerely hope they're an aberration. Moving out away from your son… it goes against all values of family."
For a moment, there was silence, punctuated only by the quiet clinking of silverware, and the eternally brewing storm outside.
"But hey… maybe I could build a cabin. If the kids ever grow up, they could live in it!"
The family laughed.
"Kids, can you take Mister Mark out of the room? We’ve got a lot of learning ahead of us, and he needs to rest up."
Mark felt himself waking up, as he had many times before. The children had wanted him to come outside and build a snowman with them, and how would he ever be able to say no to the children? They were the most important part of life.
Rising from the mattress, Mark heard the singing and dancing outside. The children had already awakened, and were anxious for him to get out there. Slipping on shoes, he caught a glance of himself in the mirror.
Oh, how he had changed in the past months, years… some time, but what did it matter? Time flies with good company, and here he had some of the best any man could ask for.
He skipped out of the bedroom, sliding into the dining room. The Wife and The Father were seated, looking out the window to the sound of smiling children. Father had grown old, but wise with time. He’d taught Mark so much.
Father saw Mark, and smiled. “Mark… may I have the privilege of speaking to you in private?”
Gesturing to the dining room, Father led them inside.
“I’ll be frank with you, Mark. I want you to be my replacement.”
Mark blinked. “Sir?”
Leaning against the wall, Father sighed. “I’m getting old, Mark. You’ve grown up so wonderfully with the kids, and the wife… I think you can take care of them.”
“Sir, I… wow. I just want to tell you… over our time together, you’ve taught me so much, just, everything, about family. I didn’t think it mattered before. But… it does. I don’t know just how to put it to words. I mean… the kids, and the wife. It’s all-”
“Shhh. I know. I was the same way.”
Mark swallowed. “Where will you go?”
“I have a place to move on to. You’ll find it too, when the time is right.”
Placing his hand on Father’s chest, Mark felt himself tearing up.
“Thank you, sir… I love you.”
Father smiled. “Go play with your kids… Dad.”
Mark walked out the door, taking only one brief moment to look back to the watching Father. Then, he opened the door, and stepped out into the eternally fresh snowfall.
Mark ran out, and embraced his new family for the first time.