About a week ago I submitted my first attempt at being published. A nifty short story. And now I have my first rejection notice. Belatedly after submitting my story I read the magazine I was submitting to and realized that I didn’t match their story types at all. 😛
But I’m excited. I’m officially a writer. I’ve now been rejected. YAY! I’m working on another story aimed more after the broad themes of the magazine. But I didn’t want to disappear my first work so below is my submission. Please enjoy it 😛
“What is the pay?” I asked even though it didn’t really matter.
It’s so easy to say that you have choices. I guess you do but if you’ve already made your choice as to what is important then what choice is left? I’d chosen to feed them. You chose that feeding them was most important and there were no other choices left. The last time they ate was two days ago.
It had rained. And the worms had come up through the asphalt. Risking the burning rain we’d rushed out and collected as many as we could. Everyone ate at least one but the kids got the most. They’d made a song about it. It was a solid happy point. Where you could feel ground under your feet.
His voice interrupted the happy memory. Big Chang’s voice does that. Interrupts. A lot. But he was usually good for finding you a job. If you cut him in on it. He was well fed too. When he waved his arms around you could see his chest and not all of his ribs.
“You’ll get at least a hundred for showing up. I don’t know what they pay if they pick you.”
That was a lot. That was almost too much. Too much meant it wasn’t true. Wasn’t possible. Made it a trap for hungry rats. But a hundred cans was almost reasonable. Enough to overcome the dangers of groups. Of the open.
So, I went with a friend because these things, you know? Sometimes people just don’t come back. Sometimes they are different. Sometimes they just don’t care.
I couldn’t afford not to care. I’d give the cans to my friend before I agreed to anything further. She’d make sure the food got to the kids. I’d agreed she could take two for every one she left them. And she wouldn’t have to do anything. I’d do whatever needs doing.
“Okay. We’ll go. Where do I meet you?”
“Behind the old Walmart, on Thirty-Third. Be there at 5. Don’t be late.”
Time passes so slowly when you are nervous. I hate it. I kicked gravel and wait and wait some more. I was hungry too. Ravenous. The worms did more for the kids than they had for me. Delicious as they were. I stole water for free from a store fountain before starting the walk there, when the guy guarding it took off chasing another person with the same idea.
We’re nervous. Everyone. The whole world. So hungry. But not eager. Never eager. No one is anymore. Times got hard. Then they got harder. Every year, every event, people would say “this is the worst it’s ever been.” And it done got worse again. What is there to say? I think I was more nervous though at that time than I had ever been. I could feel something. Something in the ground.
You survive. You say you won’t beg, won’t grovel. Some guys didn’t. They’re dead now. But they got their choice I guess. How did you choose? You chose the guys with food. Or you chose to die.
We showed up. I scratched absentmindedly at my scalp. She threw a rock at a window far above us. She missed. I sat on the street and poked at the holes in my shoes.
More people showed up. Everyone kept their space though. Strangers were crazy. They’d stab you and steal your stuff. So we watched each other warily. I tried to put on a dangerous look. Just let any of those crazies get close to me. I’d cut them and make them pay. Maybe take whatever they had on them. Serve them right for trying to push up on us.
Eventually we heard the low rumble. Wheels on broken pavement pulled up on the corner. Mean looking thugs with weapons got out and marked out a perimeter. We were told to gather close. Everyone crept forward cautiously. Trying to look everywhere. Trying to not look scared. Or crazy. Crazy was almost as bad as scared. Scare others and they’d react out of fear. And then everyone would be crazy. But perhaps less hungry. Depending on the choices you made.
“Alright. Alright. Here’s your food. Waaait wait don’t leave. A few cans is only the beginning. This is Doctor Kaylee.”
We all hissed as we backed up. It’s funny I guess but we all looked like cats. Hissing at a big dog. Doctors had caused it all. Had cured it all. And had caused it again. I turned to my friend and tossed her the food. She took off at a sprint. Doctors were too much for her. Almost too much for me, but.
I mean, you know. Everyone back then knew the stories. Everyone. We all knew someone who had been there when a Doc had melted someone. Or seen a Doc save someone only to pull their organs out. Or any number of gruesome crazy. It made good entertainment when you were shuddering in a pile trying not to die of cold. Death is always entertaining. Even if it makes you cry. Let’s you know someone escaped this. Or lost. Depends on your view I guess. If I died who would feed the kids?
I chose to stay. Who knew what would come of this, and I was running out of choices to make.
“If you step up she will test you. “ He gestured to a spot on the ground beside him. “If you have what she’s looking for? Well then we have work, long paying work with plenty of food and new clothes. If not, well take the food and go. Just remember Big Chang took care of you. And nothing bad happened right? Tell your friends.”
He repeated that in a few other languages. Ones I’m not good in. I couldn’t really listen anymore. I just stared at the woman who stepped out of the circle of guards. All brave like.
She wore a dark green suit. A real suit. And clean. Her shoes shined. Like fresh water as it lays eating through the concrete after the rain. Her hair was clean. And she didn’t smile.
I said brave, but there was something. A dark and deadly confidence. The way a hawk looks. The hungry grace of a gryphon. I reached down and touched the asphalt for strength. The crowd cleared back before her.
A predator of a Doctor; a dangerous fluidity wrapped in the emblems of power. Some people didn’t clear fast enough. Her hand came up and I lowered my eyes trembling. The stories were strong.
I heard a bottle shatter. I heard gasps of fear and awe. Then the sickly smell of smoke rolled past me. I heard sighs too. Disappointment. Acceptance. Resignation. I lay my palm on the black tar of the old street and breathed deeply. Gathering my courage. Feed the kids.
As I stood again, I picked up a handful of dust. Looking around I realized the crowd had cleared out around me. I was alone on the apex of an empty semi-circle of people. There were two or three other wretches who had been waved to go stand behind the corridor of guards. Most everyone was shuffling behind me. The Doctor stood in the empty gap, brushing her suit smooth. There was a burning corpse a few feet behind her. And she was looking at me.
Choices roiled through me. I stood fast. I trembled but I stood. She looked at me. I mean she was looking at me but then she really looked. I resolved not to step back. Not to fall. I was angry about being so scared. I was scared of being angry. I wondered who would feed them if I died.
I rubbed the dust on my fingertips together. I felt the earth. And a silliness ran through me. Crazy stirred up inside. What if I didn’t die? Who would feed them if I left?
“No, no. I won’t.” She didn’t blink but I felt surprise rising in her expression and something else. Something angry. I stammered out quickly, “but… but my family will. You’ll take us all. We’ll do.”
Wickedly dark brown eyes stared through me. I felt fear. I felt like running. The dirt under my nails distracted me and I hummed a song. A hymn of sorts.
“What was that?”
I had made sound out loud. A song. Like a crazy person I tried to stammer and explain it away but she interrupted.
“Mister. What did you sing just now… what was that?”
“What were the words?” This was almost gentle, can a scalpel be gentle? The dangerous attention did not fade regardless.
“We are the worms.”
I paused, but she gestured me to continue.
“We are the worms. We are the rulers of the ground. Watch us squiggle! Watch us churn!”
I almost yelled the last. I felt the dirt and stood tall. I chose to die just then. I chose to die proud. That song was my daughter’s song. She sang it even when she could barely move. She sang it holding her brother in the night. But she could still sing. In the midst of all this. I had kept my kids well enough to sing. And if I was going to die I was going to die well for them. Singing so they’d know how to die well.
“Yeah, you’ll do… all of you. Tell the driver where to go and we’ll pick them up.”
She turned back to the vehicle.
“We’re done for today. Let’s get them back and start feeding them. Before they eat each other.”
All I heard was feeding them. And I got inside. To go and pick up my family and teach them how to eat. How to eat something other than worms for a change.
They fed us. There was ten or twelve of us who had passed her test. The two I’d seen before me and eight others who’d been in the vehicle waiting. Throw in my family and it made for a large table. The food was absolutely amazing. They had bread and cheese and some kind of white sauce.
We could have as much as we wanted but they warned us that if we ate too much it would make us sick. I watched everyone’s bellies swell with food, and their faceswith happiness. There was water that had a weird taste to it, almost sweet. And you could see all the way through it.
Everyone chosen was given their own room. It was clean, empty and dry. A room about eight feet by eight feet, single window and solid door. A smooth concrete floor with a bed. The kids squealed and danced when they saw it.
My wife was happy too but she caught my arm and we looked at each other. What would be the price for this? What would be the cost for this? Good things weren’t free. The familiar worry crept back in.
We were told the bells would wake us and all those chosen would need to come out. I’m not sure I slept. I lay there on the bed wrapped in the familiar warmth of everyone’s limbs, staring at the roof. Wondering what choices I would face tomorrow. Wondering if I was a worm, lured by rain, just to be eaten by someone hungrier than me.
Songs danced in my head and I heard, somewhere, a single voice lifted in a haunting song. A song of hope, and joy, and blood and loss. The song seemed so familiar. I asked my wife if she knew it but she didn’t.
At some point the bells rang out. I heard doors opening cautiously, feet on concrete. I slid out from under everyone.
“Hush, go back to sleep. Might as well while you can. I’m not sure if there are any safe hiding spots. I’ll be back. Stay safe.”
I scraped back my hair and slid the door open. I stepped into the hall and looked around cautiously. The others also crept into the hall. We glanced around at each other sizing up the threats. I debated staying to help protect the kids. Then I froze. All of us did. You don’t fear a few rats when a lynx walks into the alley.
At the end of the hall the Doctor stood in her green suit. She had glasses on her face now. At her side another man in a green suit stood writing on a clipboard.
“This way please. We need to get started. You’ve got a long way to go.”
Questions stirred. Before they could find voice she was walking away. And we trickled after. Into a courtyard free of trash and debris. Simple green grass covered the open space, all short, none of it grown too tall.
We tried to spread out and find good safe places. But the guards had none of that. They organized us into a line and made us stay there until more uniforms come out walking to ask us questions, poke and prod, measure us, stand here, walk there, touch your nose etc. One of the others asked what this was all about. “Tests to determine your body’s abilities.” Tests! Whatever confidence I had left me in a rush. I could still fail here. We’d be sent back. Or left burning. Or taken for our organs.
After a time they paused and brought us drinks and sweet round breads. I pocketed mine to bring back to the kids. Someone saw this and asked me if I wasn’t hungry. I faltered and stammered about how it wasn’t important if I was.
The Doctor must have been standing right behind me. Two uniforms were sent to fetch my family. I panicked inside. I’d already messed up. Why didn’t I think the food was a test? Everything else was. It had to be.
“Ma’am, miss lady Doctor, I didn’t mean-. I didn’t know-. I’ll eat the food. Don’t make us leave.”
My impertinence must have shocked the uniform who had first asked. Her mouth hung open. The Doctor held up her hand at me and I froze. But nothing happened. She just held it there a single finger raised.
They came out with my family and had them stand in a row against a wall. Desperation surged within me and I dug my feet into the ground, a few toes reaching around the soles of my shoe to touch the earth. I looked around for exits, plans rushing through my head. Then I paused. Another uniform was carrying two plates of the bread and drinks towards my family.
They were told to sit and were fed.
I looked at them and then back at the Doctor; then at my family again.
“Now. Eat what you are given. You will all be fed.”
She walked away.I just stared. What did they want to do to me that they were willing to spend all this…?
A small cough brought me back to the one standing next to me. Coloring with embarrassment I quickly dug out the bread and took a bite.
She laughed and the random requests continued. Stretch this. Jump here. How much is this. Count this. What does this word mean? Can you read? Do you understand this?
Then they brought out a table and needles and had us line up. A murmur ran down the line. This is how it ended then. I saw everyone else hang back and stepped out of the line walking down it proudly. No choice. Choice already made. I wasn’t going to hide from my fate. My kids would see me die proud.
“We are the worms!” I whispered it like a scream. Like a shout.
The others seemed stunned as I walked past them to embrace the needles.
The uniforms pulled me forwards gently and stuck me with four maybe five different needles. They pulled me forward again and from the other arm drew a single glass of my blood. So weird to see it in a vial, like you’d buy a shop. They wrote something on it and pulled me forwards again. They rolled my hands in ink and pressed them into a book. Then they handed me a pen.
“Sign here please. Sign your name.”
I did and then they took me to a machine and it flashed and I was done. I sat on the grass and watched the others go through it. Watching them in their fear and uncertainty as stepped forwards following my example.
Eventually they were all done. We all sat in the same area of the grass. Not close. But closer. It was clear by now that the uniforms here were very different. Different from everyone. From us. And we gravitated to the familiar.
“That your family?”
The voice came from the woman closest to me. She’d been third in line for the needles.
“I’m from the bridges. You?”
“Down by Burning.”
“At least it’s not the garden.”
“Yeah true that.”
A handful more conversations like that went on around us. They brought bread and cheese again. After we ate we ran back and forth and threw balls and played little kid games for the afternoon while the uniforms took notes. And then drinks and bread. And they told us they would wake us at the bells and explain everything.
We gravitated in small groups back to the rooms.
An old man and his grown son… a lame woman leaning on a dangerous looking boy… the woman from the bridges, alone.
Once about half of us had gone, I nodded at the others and gathered my family and made our way back to the room we’d been given. We continued to snack on the bread and sip from the cups from the last meal. The kids drifted off to sleep and the moon came out and shined bright in the window.
We talked and held each other.
The morning came too soon.
I pulled myself out from under the pile of limbs and made my way to the door before the bells stopped ringing.
We all warily came out onto the grass. My kids and family made their way to the spot that they had watched from before.
I started to walk forwards when I felt something. I felt the expectations of the past roll over me and crash into the unknown of the future. I felt the sunlight through the trees. I felt the ground rising.
And I stopped. The others streamed past me to the middle of the field from yesterday. A platform had been setup and a few uniforms were using it as a stage. The others walked a hair more confidently compared to yesterday. No one else swayed or froze, everyone seemed normal. I checked myself and made sure I wasn’t hyperventilating or dizzy. No I was fine.
It threw me off. I didn’t really have time to think about things but I wasn’t fully paying attention to the rest anymore. For a moment, I had felt the earth rise up. Like the surge of something under the surface. I hurried to catch up to the others looking around to see what triggered that feeling. Nothing.
“Welcome. So now that we’re here I can tell you, you all passed. No diseases no infirmities.”
The uniform talking had a crisp excited accent. A sales person’s pitch. I looked around and spotted the Doctor talking with someone back behind the stage. I checked the exits. Everyone else had probably already done so but I’d been distracted by the feeling.
There was no change in the atmosphere from yesterday. A few uniforms but none guarding exits. Not that I’d know where to go once I went through any of those doors. No new people. The stage was simple, wooden, I could even see underneath it. What could have caused that feeling?
As I ruminated my eyes followed it. It? I tried to figure out what I’d been looking at but I couldn’t. There had been something. Just there. I turned around in a circle scanning the ground.
“Sir?” The voice over the megaphone caught my attention and I looked up. The others had spread out, backing away from me. I’d been too busy spinning in circles to hear her asking me what was wrong.
A blush ran up my face and I stammered. “I’m sorry, dizzy from the food, or the needles, or something. I’ll pay better attention. I’m fine. Really I am.”
The others all nodded slowly. With so much strange it was understandable if it had been too much. Maybe they had all just been stronger than me. The uniform raised her eyes but went back to describing some sort of organizational goals. I caught the Doctor looking intently my way with a green glowing hawk sitting on her shoulder. A hawk made of emerald fire. I blinked and it was gone. But I’d seen it. Like watching someone hold a loaded gun in their hands.
“…So as you can see we have a lot of opportunities and we believe with a bit of training that you would make able recruits. We’re not just blowing smoke. We understand that you may not be used to the kind of things we do but each of you was chosen for intrinsic qualities that we feel are useful to the Council.”
I felt it again. I closed my eyes and finally saw it. The ground trembled and rippled as a large stone snake swam lazily below us in the earth. I felt the trees rub their roots along its scales. I felt the buildings lift and settle when it passed underneath.
A green haze cast a shadow from behind me and a matching pair of blue orbs from across the grass focused on me.
I looked up. Two uniforms in blue suits with frozen blue orbs for eyes walked up to me. Everything felt cold and dangerous.
“Come with us please.”
“What is that?” All my fear was wrapped up in concentration on that singular threat circling beneath our feet. I didn’t want to move. Rats that run get chased. Prey gets eaten. My family! My eyes shot towards where they were staying. I’d have to run directly over the beast. It was too much. I couldn’t move.
A hand rested gently on my shoulder.
“Please. Come with us.”
I shook my head ever so slowly. Two hands grabbed each bicep. They lifted me slightly and started walking.
The snake rolled over and swam belly up. Keeping my eyes on it my heels slid along the ground behind the two in blue. A stone eyelid blinked, no, winked at me. I barely noticed the silence as we left. What was it?
Through a door, down a stair, up a stair, more doors, past a table. I could still see it swirling in circles. Dancing to the tune of a heart of magma.
Then, it was gone. A yellow curtain of light fell cutting it off. A curtain that disappeared as soon as it hit the ground. I was suddenly in a room with the two blue suits and an older fat man dressed in plain clothes. He looked at me through irritated glasses.
“I see what you mean.”
That couldn’t have been addressed to me. I glanced behind me and around. Just the four of us but there was a big mirror in the wall.
“You. Sit.” He pointed at a chair by a table. As that was clearly meant for me, I sat.
“Are you aware of what you did?”
“No..o. No sir.” I tried to pick up what cues I could. It looked like there was no way to differentiate who was the threat I should fear the most. The suits? The mirror? This man?
“How long have you been seeing?”
“I’ve never been blind sir. I passed the eye test yesterday.”
There was a snicker. I couldn’t quite find the joke.
“No disrespect sir. I didn’t if know you knew that.”
I stared at the floor and tried to look nonthreatening. If I had been a dog I would have rolled over belly up.
I looked up. Groveling? Was I supposed to fight? Here? That made no sense. They had all the power and I had nowhere to run.
“You said he had spine. Throw him and his family out. We don’t need this coward.”
He spoke to the air. Throw us out? I sputtered a barely whispered objection. Why now? After a moment’s deliberation he spoke again as if to no one.
“No, keep the kids. We might be able to train them get something useful out of this waste anyways…”
Keep my kids? I set my feet on the floor.
I didn’t whisper it. I didn’t yell it. I just said it. And as I said it I knew it was true. And I found me. I knew what I’d been created for. Just like the snake winking at me I felt like the universe exploded into a delighted grin. The Creator held out a finger and I reached up and grabbed it like a child and he twirled me round and round.
In this moment, I had passed a test. I had found a truth. I was a worm. I was dust. But I was king of the earth. And everywhere I was thrown I would have the earth. I would have this moment.
Choices. I knew that you didn’t challenge threats but I had already said I would die. I already chose my children. I had no choices left.
The yellow curtain tried to fall again. I could see its yellow threads flowing back to the fat man as he tried to cut me off from this truth.
I lifted dust to stop it. Earth to see through. The earth held back his curtain of blinding light.
“You can send me home back to the hunger. Back to the ground. But you can’t take my kids. You can’t throw me out. I may leave. But that will be my choice.”
I braced for his response and then ducked as the wall split behind me and through the mirror I saw a stone snake slid through it. This one was smaller than the one from before but covered in obsidian and gold scales that made it seem more fearsome. A voice like shattering anvils echoed in the room.
“He has been accepted. Welcomed. Taken root.”
The mirror broke into shards hanging in the air and I saw the Doctor in green standing on the other side with a group of surprised uniforms and clipboards. Every word rained dust from the ceiling until a thick haze filled the room.
“He is one of ours. And he is known.”
Then the room cleared. I shook my head and dust fell from all of me. I was just standing hands planted on a metal table looking a medium sized balding man in the eye. The blue suits by the door blinked. The mirror was unbroken, but shimmered with a faint green haze. But in the reflection I could see a massive hole in the wall behind me.
For a moment no one spoke. Then the man sighed.
“Ah. Your family. That’s the driver.”
“They are mine.”
“So they are. And you are a treasure of sorts. I wonder if your family are as precious as you.”
I just looked at him. I could kind of see now what they saw in me. The two by the door seemed made of ice. He was a glowing kind of sunlight, heat and dryness. I felt the green glow from behind the mirror. My hands had a kind of brown haze.
“This is magic?”
“It’s what it is. Some people have it. And we can train them to use it better.”
“There is a price?”
“Everything has a price. Everyone has a choice.”
“You’ll feed my family? Keep them safe?”
“As much as it’s in our power.”
“You won’t ever try and use them against me?”
“I won’t. I can’t promise for everyone but most of us won’t ever even think of it. We need people to help us fix the world, not more enemies to fight.”
I closed my eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. I opened my eyes. Again previous choices made this one.
“Do I get new shoes?”
He laughed. And I was hired.