Alex Reynard's Online Books
I: Falling Blind
I'm a coward too.
You don't need to hide, my friend,
For I am just like you.
-Skrillex, "Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites"
Once upon a time there was a little sick mouse who lived in a little plastic world.
His bedroom made the boy seem microscopic. It was the largest room in an already-large house. The walls were plastic-coated. The ceiling was plastic-coated. The cranberry carpets had been long ago ripped out and replaced by tiles as white as teeth. In the corner of the room bobbed a few mylar Get Well balloons, hovering above the deflated resting husks of their predecessors.
A plethora of toys. Trucks and toy instruments and blocks and dolls. All of them plastic. All hand-washable. Even his stuffed animals were soft vinyl, every one. They creaked when he hugged them.
At the opposite end of the room, a bookshelf grand enough to monopolize one whole wall. Even the books, all their pages, were printed on thin vinyl sheets (it made turning them difficult in the hot summertime). Sometimes he'd look over at them and wonder how much Mommy had paid to specially order them all.
Mommy loved him so much.
For many years now, his only sensation of warm, living contact came from Mommy. Though, her fur was beginning to thin out now. And the plum-colored circles below her eyes had been deepening steadily over the years.
From each sunrise to the next, the entirety of the boy's experience was confined to this one room. That was why Mommy had gone to such lengths to fill it with things to make him happy. He'd read every one of his plastic books cover to cover. He watched television too; he loved movies. (No video games though, Mommy was suspicious of them.) So the little white mouse with the coral-pink eyes had an active inner life, even as the passage of time gnawed his body thinner and weaker.
He had to stay in his room. He had to. Nowadays, even going downstairs was too big of a risk.
It hadn't always been like this though. When he was very little, he remembered sunlight warming his skin, grass tickling his ankles, and how the sidewalk felt beneath his sneakers. He remembered kindergarten. Classes with other children. He even remembered being allowed to play in the yard and get his clothes dirty.
But then Mommy had begun to notice symptoms. The boy himself felt nothing wrong. Yet the more Mommy described them, the more he began to notice too. Fatigue. Hiccups. Trouble sleeping. Itches out of nowhere. Soon Mommy was consulting with doctors all the time. Drowsiness. Headaches. Decrease in appetite. Mommy began to buy expensive medicines and other treatments. Scars. Nausea. Burns.
The little mouseboy was confused, not knowing what was wrong with him. Sometimes he didn't feel sick at all. But Mommy knew best of course. So he swallowed the oval golden pills and the long orange pills and the clear pills with the tiny white dots inside. Certain waiting rooms became so familiar he'd finish off all their magazines. Every day it seemed, a new drive to a new doctor.
Daddy wasn't sure about this. There were fights between him and Mommy. Much as he wanted to see his sweet son regain health, the treatments were costing a lot of money, and they didn't seem to be working.
Mommy soon decided that the house was part of the problem. While Daddy was at work, Mommy would flit from room to room like a spirit of sanitation, cleaning everything top to bottom, day in and day out. The boy got used to the vacuum cleaner's constant drone. The 'skritch skritch' of the whisk broom and pan. The air in the house took on the scent of cleansers. Faintly at first. Then thicker. Then sometimes Daddy would have a coughing fit when he came home.
Daddy and Mommy fought more often.
One time, when Mommy was asleep, Daddy took his son to see a new doctor. This doctor looked the little mouse up and down just like all the others had, then talked to Daddy for quite a long while. Daddy had the strangest look on his face throughout the long car ride home. The boy never forgot it; an expression like heartbreak, fury and triumph all mixed together.
When they got home, Mommy was awake. The boy was sent up to his room.
Downstairs, hurricanes destroyed the world.
It was the loudest, longest fight the boy had ever heard. He balled himself into a corner with his tail wrapped tight around him. Sobbing to the point of pain. He had caused this, he knew it. Mommy and Daddy's voices were terrible roars. He couldn't understand their words, but he could hear the hatred in them clear as day.
A few days afterwards, Mommy came into the boy's room alongside a nice man with glasses and a tape recorder. Mommy asked her son to tell this nice man all about Daddy. They had rehearsed this. Two nights ago, Mommy had helped him memorize a story. Like lines in a play. So, while trying to keep still in his seat and not fidget, the boy told the man with glasses about how Daddy taken out his penis, then put in his mouth like playing a flute. The boy made sure to enunciate every word, since Mommy had explained that this was very important (although she wouldn't tell him why). The afternoon seemed to last forever, with the hum of the man's recorder seeming to grow louder and louder by the minute. The boy had been forced to make up lies on the spot to keep the story from falling apart, and that made him deeply uncomfortable. When all was finally said and the man turned off his tape recorder, Mommy kissed the boy between his ears and said he'd done a very good job.
Weeks later, Mommy came to him crying and said that Daddy had decided to run away and never come back. Daddy had told Mommy that he hated her, and hated the boy, and was going far, far away from them forever. That was what Mommy said.
The boy felt his heart crumple like a sheet of paper. Mommy left him alone, and he cried until his eyes stung with dry fire.
Changes happened. The boy's sickness worsened and Mommy soon had new pills for him to swallow. She took him out of school. He said goodbyes to his friends and in time forgot their faces. The boundaries of his world grew smaller and smaller as his condition progressed. One day he realized that he and Mommy hadn't gone outside in a very long time. One day he realized that Mommy hadn't let him out of his room in a very long time.
His days were now a half-dreamt permanent rerun. He'd wake up, kick off his rubber sheets and nylon pajamas, then take his Methotrexate and Mevocor (his M&Ms). Then he'd wait for Mommy to bring him breakfast in bed. There weren't many foods his weak tummy could tolerate anymore (he'd vomited on himself more times than he could remember, and his mouth always tasted like acid nowadays), so breakfast was usually oatmeal, applesauce, and Saltines. Then it was time for his mineral bath. Mommy would bring in the stand-up tub and scrub his sores. He had quite a few, so his legs often ached from fatigue by the time she was done. The sores showed through his fur like ripe red apples fallen in snow. His pajamas were often stuck to him in the morning from the discharge. After his bath he was free to amuse himself. He'd flip through the channels on his television, looking for movies about heroism and adventure. If he found none, he'd instead look for excitement in his books; some of them he knew almost word for word. He'd play with his toys on the floor, using the lines between the tiles as roads. If a toenail or fingernail fell off, he'd put it in the jar. He was also trusted to apply his ear and eye drops by himself if he felt the need. Throughout the afternoon he listened to the sounds of Mommy's furious cleaning downstairs and waited for lunch to come. Chicken or beef stock. Bread rolls. Some hard candies if he was good. Then it was time for the medications to control his Huntington's Syndrome, Tay-Sachs, Naegleria infection, Kartagener's syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Morgellons disease, and Fructose Malabsorption Disorder. He had to make sure he was lying down after taking these particular pills, as he often passed out once the active ingredients took effect. Or he'd get the shakes. Or the shivers. Or the aches. The aches were the worst: blinding, lightning-strike pains all up and down his nerves. Like someone had sprinkled fiberglass crystals throughout his insides. These side effects made him cry, but Mommy said they were necessary. Without his pills, he would certainly die within a day. He knew that was true. Every morning that he opened his eyes was a miracle, Mommy said, and he believed her. So on until bedtime (if he was able to), he would continue to read or watch or play. He didn't see much of Mommy throughout the day, except when she came in to clean his room. But even then, she was so focused on scrubbing and dusting every corner and crease she rarely talked to him. Mommy had been beautiful once. Now her hair was stringy and loose. She shed on him when they hugged. With the passing years she spoke less and less. Her eyes always seemed focused on something not quite there in the room with them. She was not cruel to him, but she was not kind either. She was growing more distant each day. Keeping him alive was a higher priority than loving him, she admitted once. But still, she always tucked him in at night. She helped him take his Cisplatin, Vincristine, Ribavirin and Taxol. Then a little poke in the arm and an IV of Propofol would help him sleep.
An infinity of identical days passed. So many, the boy began to lose track of not just months, but seasons.
Sometimes doctors would come to the house (often having to hold their hand or a sleeve over their muzzle to keep out the miasma of chemical flowers and sickness). More often though, Mommy would drive away for a while and come back with a new treatment idea or a change in medications. One time, after a big plump lady doctor had examined him much longer than the other ones usually did, the boy heard the woman yelling at Mommy. He'd overheard the words 'Munchausen Syndrome Byproxy'. Then Mommy got mad and screamed for the doctor to never come back. When the boy had asked about those words, Mommy stiffened up and asked him where he'd heard them. He'd eavesdropped, he confessed.
Mommy was not angry. She said she'd tried to hide it from him, but Munchausen's was a terrible, terminal disease. His condition had worsened and become this new untreatable illness. He didn't have much time left.
The young mouse had always known he was slowly dying, but now, for the first time, he began to truly feel the weight of this eventuality.
He would die soon. Not exist. His essence would depart his body, leaving an empty, withered thing behind, like his deflated balloons. Where would he go? Would he go anywhere at all? Some of his books said Heaven, some said Hell. Others said that death was eternal nothingness. Eternal. Nothingness. The boy shivered, and it was no longer just tremors from his medicines.
His bedroom had seemed like such a welcome, warm safe haven before. Now it seemed cavernous and cold. No matter its amenities of escapism, it couldn't keep him safe from the end that was sneaking up on him, closer and closer. At night the boy would clutch onto mommy and cry in her fur and beg her not to let him sleep. It could get him in his sleep. He might drift off one night and never wake up again. He felt like he was attached to his life by a single thin string, and he could always hear the scrape of its fibers fraying. The nighttime drugs usually kept dreams away, but sometimes they crept through. Peeling their way past the drugs' effects to play tricks on his helpless sleeping mind. He would wake up panting, soaked in sweat, screaming in a voice so slight it wasn't even a whisper.
Soon, all his other symptoms faded into the background, leaving only one that dominated.
He had panic attacks. He would feel a sudden need to start uncontrollably screaming. He'd pull at his tail till the skin came off in scales. He clawed his blankets to ribbons. Mommy's face when she came in to check on him grew stony and contemptuous.
And one night, she put something special in his bedtime IV.
She kissed him goodbye and exited the room.
Holding his vinyl animals tight in the dark, the little mouse struggled to keep sleep from claiming him. Every sound in the night's black silence was the herald of something unseen and dangerous. Yet soon, inescapably, a vast, foggy hand of pharmaceutical might closed around him.
And then his eyelids closed too.
running oh god running running running faster I can't stop running help me the breath in his lungs burns burning fire inside internal combustion run faster you cannot stop it's behind you keep going I'm trying I'm running running running running it won't let me stop you can't ever stop or you know what will happen to little boys who stop running running running running
Toby was outside in unfamiliar territory. He was scrambling through unkempt grass as fast as his sticklike legs could carry him. His heart was racing even faster than his body. This was the primal terror of any prey animal. Something was behind him. Big, dumb and vicious. It meant to eat him. Maybe worse.
Here. Where was here? He couldn't stop to get his bearings. There was nobody to ask. There was only the grass and dead leaves under his feet. Sky and clouds above. But the sky looked... wrong. Overcast. The clouds were somehow boiling. A daytime without sunlight. No time to focus on what was wrong though, something was behind him.
He could hear it. Footsteps. Slow and plodding, but so loud they shook the ground and sent vibrations like electric current up his bones. Whatever it was, it was larger than him. Larger than an elephant, larger than a dinosaur, larger than a battleship. So large that he could run until his lungs popped like paper bags and it would still catch up even though it was merely strolling.
He risked a glance behind him. What he saw baked his circuits black.
It had legs like an oil refinery. Impossibly tall and covered all over with RUST. That was all he knew for sure. The beast was rust. Red oxidized decay on legs, coming after him. He had seen old, ruined metal on TV. He could imagine teeth made from the same material. What would such teeth feel like on his weak flesh, chewing through him?
He couldn't run faster, yet he did.
Up ahead. Green. There were trees. If he could reach them, maybe he could go unnoticed. There was no cover in this open, grassy area. He was a target in a shooting gallery. Toby tried to blank his mind and think only of the small forest and getting himself into it.
Blank your mind. Don't think about the footsteps. Don't ask yourself if they're getting louder and closer. Don't picture yourself disappearing under those immense rusted feet. Don't think about your corpse vanishing into a thin stain of blood in less than an instant, the monster never even realizing you were there. Don't think. Run.
The trees were in sight. They were actually close. Then Toby was hugging himself to one like it was Mommy. His legs throbbed hot when he stopped to catch his breath. His mouth tasted like copper. He thought he might be on the verge of vomiting blood, and after a bit of dry-heaving a few claret drops really did stain the fallen leaves beside him.
Toby crouched down at the base of his tree's trunk and tried to make himself as small as possible. He shoved himself tightly into the space between the roots. The bark dug into his cheek. Even with his dim memories of what 'outside' used to be like, he was certain this bark felt wrong. Just like the sky was wrong. Just like the leaves were wrong. Everything felt and looked and smelled different from his memories. His heart would not stop hammering.
Smell. He inhaled. He blinked. For the first time in longer than he could remember, there was not a single whiff of anything artificial. No chemical air fresheners, no cleansing agents, no medicinal creams. Just air. Yes, and also the smells of this not-quite-right forest. Decomposing wood and leaves and moistness and his own ill-smelling sweat. Still, overall it was almost pleasant in comparison.
He didn't have time to think about this. The rust-thing was close enough to see him now if it wanted to. Toby was as motionless as a mannequin. Several yards away, the monster began entering the forest. Through the trees and foliage, Toby could only see an outline. It was bigger, and longer, than his imagination had dared picture. Those oxidized mammoth legs pounded the ground and never seemed to stop. It was like waiting for a train to pass. The air changed and now the only odor possible was rust. Toby bit his lips shut to keep from sneezing. The beast moved like an unconcerned crocodile. Passive in intention, yet still massively dangerous. With every step of its endless supply of legs, trees snapped with bonebreak cracks. Their branches exploded into splinters. Their roots were unearthed and exposed to the sky.
Toby knew, he knew, that this was the end of his story.
As he watched the impossible monster walking by just a stone's throw away, his staring eyes burned from his inability to close them. He was deathly silent, yet constantly screaming. Sweat drenched him. He was beyond thought. He became a scream.
It took its sweet time in passing. But finally, after what had felt like hours, a lashing latticework tail signaled the end of the rust-beast's visit. Like a sweeping broom finishing up the last of a mess, a few more trees that had survived the initial massacre fell to the tail's blind swats.
Toby sat still in the same position for a long time after the sounds of the creature had faded into silence. Eyes wide; his heart the only part of him moving.
He wasn't sure how he was still sane. Or how he hadn't passed out. One moment he'd been in bed. The next, he was here. And in mid-stride! This was not like any nightmare he'd ever been in before. There were no foggy curtains around his vision. He could see every detail around him as clear as real life. He could hear clearly, smell clearly, even taste clearly his saliva and the flavor of the air itself.
After a minor eternity of immobility, he took a moment to dig the fragments of bark out of the indentations they'd made in his skin. Toby tried to stand up. His weak limbs nearly failed him. He realized he was barefoot here, wearing nothing but his thin blue pajamas.
Then he noticed something else. No more sores. The little raw, itchy volcanoes that had been erupting all over his skin just a moment ago as he lay in bed were all gone now. Even his fur seemed a little fuller. He reached up to touch his ears and eyes: none of the glue that had always accumulated in the wrinkles there.
He didn't have any time to enjoy this miraculous healing. Just because the rust-thing was gone didn't mean another one couldn't be following it. Suddenly the enormity of his predicament was pressing on him. He was lost. On his own. Wherever he was, it was far from home. He was alone in some bizarre, bent forest, with unspeakable creatures, and he had no idea where to go from here.
The cry was pathetic, even to his own ears. He had no energy to shout.
Shaking, he dared to step away from the tree and look at the devastation the rust-thing had left behind. He stepped over strange mushrooms and rocks made of colors he'd never seen before in nature. He hefted himself up over a fallen branch and his eyes widened. The path of ruin was a quarter-mile wide. Trees were sheared off or toppled. Roots pointed upwards like arms reaching for aid. The ground was churned to smears of black mud. Toby could see for miles down this newly-created road. The raw power the beast had exerted was unthinkable. And it hadn't even been trying! 'What would it look like,' Toby's mind sadistically asked, 'if it ever threw a tantrum?'
That set him off. His lucidity burst like a bubble and he was off running again. His legs screeched in agony but he couldn't hear them. He needed shelter. He needed safety. He launched himself over branches, vaulted over rocks. His rational mind mumbled in the background that he was moving far faster than was possible for an invalid like himself. He was running at the speed his mind said he had to.
He tripped and collapsed, skidding into a pile of crunching purple leaves. Toby lifted himself up on wobbly arms and tried to stand again. His knee felt skinned.
All of a sudden he started crying. Silent, painful sobs. Completely uncontrollable. He was lost, he was alone, he was terrified. This was more than he could bear. He wanted his Mommy. He wanted his bed and his toys. He wanted to be somewhere warm and safe. The topsoil was clammy underneath his clasping paws. He wanted a shower.
He cried until his fear made him get up again. A sniveling little pink-eyed mouse would make a great meal for whatever else lurked in this forest. Nose dripping, he hauled himself to his feet. He wiped the wetness on his sleeve. "I want to go home," he weakly whispered.
He picked a direction and started walking. Quickly.
This place made no sense. In any other forest he'd seen on TV, the trees were mostly the same species. But these were all different. Like guests standing petrified at a Halloween costume party. Some looked like normal wood. Some looked like white paper, or moss, or crumbling chocolate. One looked like parmesan cheese. One looked like old chewed gum. Another was like an ancient, flaking barber pole.
The leaves were making fun of the laws of nature too. Sometimes he'd step on leafy green spring foliage, other times they'd crunch like it was autumn. Sometimes they didn't look like leaves at all. One time he'd looked down and they'd all been shaped like the suits on playing cards. He blinked hard. The impossibility made his eyes hurt.
If there was any consistency, it was the sky. Ugly, iron-grey clouds passed by overhead, bulging as if they couldn't wait to start pissing out rain. Toby could almost hear them chuckling to themselves like mean old men. Again, he felt unnerved by the lack of daylight. He could see, yet the light didn't seem to be coming from any specific direction.
Somewhere ahead of him he heard water. Good. He was thirsty anyway, and he knew you could follow a river and it would lead you out of a forest if you were lost.
Instead of a river, he found a small lake. Just shallow enough to wade across. Near the edge, a thin waterfall seemed to be pouring in from out of nowhere. Just a single column of water falling out of the sky. 'Someone left the shower on,' he thought. The longer Toby looked at it, the more sure he was that the water was actually flowing upwards. He stopped looking at it.
He knelt on the shore. He stared at the water before daring to drink. It might be poisonous, or full of parasites, or some other monster might lunge out of it and bite his head right off his shoulders. But he was thirsty, and he figured he was probably doomed anyway. He cupped his trembling paws into the water and flinched at how cold it was. He brought a mouthful to his lips and drank. It was surprisingly good. A pure, cold taste without the bitter flavor of whatever pill he'd normally be swallowing with it.
In a panic, Toby started patting himself all over, hoping he had a pocket. Of course he didn't; these were pajamas. No pockets meant no pills. They were all back home, where he wasn't. What time was it? He looked up at the sky. Late afternoon? Maybe? That meant he'd missed his morning M&Ms. Probably his lunch dose too. His pills were the only things keeping him alive. He could miss his bath and ointments; they were just to make the side effects more bearable. But without his medicine, he knew he'd be dead before the moon was up.
Frozen in the pushup position, his fear kept him paralyzed a few minutes more until his ears perked up at the sound of more footsteps.
He was hidden behind a tree before he was consciously aware of it.
Toby kept his ears open. These steps were much lighter than the rust-beast's. 'That's a good thing,' he thought. But maybe it wasn't. A small predator could kill him just as easily as a big one.
The footsteps sounded bipedal. Running. Were there two sets of them? He heard growls like the low end of a bass guitar. Then he was sure of it: two sets of steps. One lurching, one delicate. Someone was being chased. A sudden feminine gasp. A woman was being chased!
With great caution, Toby peeked around the tree. He kept his head as low as possible with his ears flattened back. From across the lake he could see flashes of movement among the trees. Something black, something red. Two figures running forth and back.
Then the woods grew quiet. And into the open emerged a wolfmonster.
Toby's muscles locked up. His eyes bulged so wide he was sure the beast would see their reflection from across the water. It was a wolfmonster. That was all it could be called. It stood on tall, thin legs and had long, thin arms. Its fur was black as mold and shaggy like an untrimmed hedge. On either side of its elongated head it had distorted oval eyes the color of egg yolk. And its mouth, naturally, was full of pitted teeth and saliva and a red leather tongue.
It sniffed the air and Toby felt himself turn to stone. It moved all wrong. Like it was nothing but a pelt and skeleton. No, Toby thought, actually the wolfmonster moved like a stick-puppet being operated by someone just below.
From the edge of the forest, Toby saw something red. It moved slowly, thoughtfully. A red cloak. Slender legs. A literal Little Red Riding Hood. When the figure lifted their head, Toby could see dazzling green skin with fishlike streaks of blue. No fur. Perhaps a salamander. A newt? Whatever species she was, her alert onyx eyes were fixed on the wolf.
She stepped towards the monster. Toby shouted in his mind, 'No, no! Go back!'
The red-hooded woman took noiseless, casual strides across the beach. Her thin feet left shallow holes in the sand. Toby realized she was dressed in the red robes of a church cardinal. The wolfmonster was still turned away.
But then that coarse black head swiveled around like a hinge and looked directly at her.
The two figures on the beach made no sound nor movement.
Neither did Toby. He watched as the amphibian woman approached the creature. It stayed still, bobbing slowly back and forth in time with each steaming breath. Toby saw no fear on the woman's face. But then again, non-mammals were hard to read.
She came close enough to touch the wolf, and then did. Her slender arms raised up and her hands perched on its shoulders. Her cloak fell away; it dissolved before it hit the sand.
Their eyes saw only one another. Toby didn't understand why the beast didn't attack.
And then, with no change in her expression, the amphibian woman's mouth opened. Meaning that it OPENED. The blue-scaled jaw dropped and kept on dropping. The corners of her lips extended and traveled down her neck into her chest, until her entire torso became a gaping suitcase. Tiny fishlike teeth ringed the pulsing pink hole. A blue-veined tongue fell out and hit the sand with a whomp.
Unthinking fear tore Toby's mind to shreds as the amphibian woman leaned in close and simply devoured the wolfmonster whole. Her delicate arms showed surprising strength as she effortlessly forced bulging handfuls of fur and muscle into her mouth. The wolf spasmed but didn't struggle. And the woman's expression didn't change, even though her meal pressed against the roof of her mouth so hard it made her eyes prolapse from their sockets. White, creamy tears fell from them.
Toby slammed his eyes shut. If he watched this any longer, the sight alone would kill him.
The sounds nearly did. Neither diner nor dinner said a word, but the echoes of the act carried perfectly over the water. Grotesquely painful swallows. Teeth shredding into fur. Bones snapping as they were compacted down into a place they were never meant to fit.
Toby fought to keep from shuddering, and failed. The green being across the lake would see the movement and come for him next. A sorbet to cleanse the palate. An after-dinner mint.
Instead, he heard the woman finish her treat with a few gastric grunts. Then a wet splash on sand. Maybe spitting something up? Then nothing. Not even footsteps walking away.
Toby kept quiet. The amphibian woman was probably watching him. Waiting for him to move. Then she'd leap silently across the lake in one bound and force him down her throat too, right into the digesting remains of the wolfmonster. Toby's mind delighted in torturing him by suggesting what the combination of stomach acid and matted black fur might smell like.
The forest was quiet for a long time. Only the rustle and whisper of leaves.
When Toby found the courage to open one eye, another was staring back into it.
A hand closed over his mouth and killed off his scream.