The old man on Park Street was dying. Slow. Mom would have us bring him blankets and money and foodstuffs and things to make it easier, but it didn’t help much. My sister, Mia, hated the old man, hated getting up early, hated walking to Park Street. And when it was cold, I agreed with her. But when it was warm and life was good, I thought if I were him and he were me, I’d like for him to visit. I’d even like Mia to visit, though she’d hate me for it.
“Can’t David take them?” said Mia over the breakfast table one morning, gesturing to a pile of blankets. “He’s older and everything.”
Mom set down her coffee mug and stared at Mia. “No. You’re both going, kindness is good for the soul.”
“And hard on the wallet,” murmured Mia, low enough so only I heard.
“Oh, Dave, take this,” said Mom, handing me a white envelope.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A bit of cash to get him through the week.”
I stuffed the envelope into my pocket. Various morning chores, and then I was following Mia out of our just-a-little-bit-too-small house, wrapped tightly in my winter coat, gloved hands thrust into my pockets, and towards Park Street. It was a vicious winter, the kind of cold you could cut yourself on. It wasn’t snowing, but there was a blue tinge to the air that made my eyes hurt.
Mia shivered and wrapped herself in a blanket. She eyed the white envelope. “How much do ya think is in there?”
“Dunno, couple hundred maybe?”
Mia whistled. “Lota money for a dead man.”
I said nothing, and we walked on. Ahead, orange squares of light burned through the blue air in front of us. A café, sanctuary! For grownups with credit cards, not pre-teens with blankets. We eyed the little shop with its orange glow and warm drinks like two Dickensian orphans.
“Say,” said Mia. “I would kill for a hot chocolate right about now. You?”
“I haven’t got any cash on me,” I said, the envelope hanging heavy in my hand.
“Shame. How far’s Park Street?”
We stopped to watch a customer get a hot, hot coffee. Careful not to rip anything, I picked open the envelope’s seal. There was a handful of banknotes inside. Mia plucked a $20 from the bundle and dashed into the café before I could say anything. Begrudgingly (but actually relieved), I followed her in. We ordered two hot chocolates that tasted like summer. We finished the drinks and drudged back outside, warm and happy, if a bit ashamed.
Multi levelled and architecturally beige, Park Street’s public housing complexes hunched together like an aging wino’s decaying teeth. The lobby of the old man’s building was a slimy place. A palpable smell of helplessness was in the air; of stale cigarette butts and faeces. I led the way up the concrete steps to the third floor and out onto a similarly neglected corridor. The corridor seemed to bend to a brown plywood door at the hall, and we walked to it. I knocked on the old man’s door and waited; Mia kicked absentmindedly at the fading welcome mat. There were shuffling sounds from inside and then, with a showman flourish, the door was opened. He stood before us wearing the same ratty dressing gown and stained boxers as the last visit, his face marred by rotting skin, his eyes like misty gemstones.
“Cross the threshold,” said the old man, holding open the door. “I shall prepare some tea.”
“We got ya some stuff,” said Mia, thrusting out the blankets as we walked inside.
“Place them on the table.”
The apartment was the same, too. Like it was occupied by a feral animal rather than a human. Clutter and garbage had spread out across the floor like a tumour; Mia cleared a stack of bound leather diaries off the kitchen table, dumped the blankets as the old man busied himself making tea.
“What’re these?” I asked, setting the envelope down, and reaching for the diaries.
“Nothing,” he snapped, abandoning the tea and slapping my hand away from the books. “Personal affects.”
He grabbed a stack of the books and rushed out of the kitchen with them. Mia, mildly amused, reached down and picked one up.
“Put that back,” I hissed at her.
“Up yours,” she hissed back, tucking the book into her waistband and pulling her shirt over it.
“That’s not yours!”
The old man came back in looking like a lost toddler and stared at us, utterly confused.
Recognition. “Oh, yes, quite fine, thank you. Would you care for some tea? I’ll prepare the kettle.”
“Tha–” I began, but Mia interrupted:
“No thanks Mr, we’ve gotta go. Homework and all that. It’s been swell.”
“I’ll ocean you later,” said the old man.
“Whatever dude,” Mia headed to the door.
“Hold on,” I said to the old man, and I turned to Mia. “Where are you going?”
“Home,” she said, opening the door and stepping outside. “I wanna find out what’s in this book, coming?”
I looked back at the old man doddering about his kitchen, oblivious to the world, and then at Mia gesturing for me to hurry. I shut the door behind me, followed her down the stairs, and back outside. The morning sun was a dull white against the winter blue, and I wished Mia had stolen something useful like a scarf. But instead, she sat down in a bus shelter and opened the book.
“Listen to this,” she said as I joined her. “The elder raises his vorpal dagger and plunges, plunges it downwards towards my heart as the juniors squeal with delight and the bound souls within me strain to break free and I and I need to make, I need to make this last and I need to… I need to pause, I need to think, I need to pause, time.”
“I didn’t take the old man for a fiction writer, though he might need to work on his prose if he wants to get published.”
Mia leafed through the diary. “It’s all like that. Him trying to pause time as some sort of elder tries to kill him and juniors—whatever they are—laugh.”
There was a serious look about her, as if she had just found a missing jigsaw piece behind the couch and was trying to guess which set it belonged in. The urge to turn the book into a joke faded from my mind.
“Let’s go,” I said. “You can read that stuff where it’s warm.”
Mia shut the book with a sigh.
We started the long hike back home.
Every shadow seemed darker.
I spent the rest of the day in the bedroom I shared with Mia, two single beds at either side of the room and an invisible line between them, alternating between procrastinating on my homework and rereading Crispin Hershey’s Desiccated Embryos, watching as the blue morning slowly trickled into night. Mia had gone out with some friends—leaving the journal under her pillow—and I didn’t see her again till after dinner. Then the usual before bed chores: showers, brushing teeth, et cetera and now sleep.
“I hate it there,” said Mia from the other side of the bedroom. The lights were off, and I could only hear her voice.
“Hate it where?”
“That old man’s apartment. I feel so… familiar with it. It’s like I’ve been there all my life and only dreamed I was here, you know?”
“Were you drinking the tap water again?”
“Funny,” she said. I heard a rustling from her side of the room as she turned away from me.
“Goodnight to you too, sis.”
I had a dream of my own that night. Where I was inside a giant snow globe, little specs of white floating around me like dust, a log house with red trimmings and all the plastic crap the manufacturers jam in there. I couldn’t quite see through the glass walls to the outside world; it was like a dense hurricane of fog surrounded me. Then there were footstalls like earthquakes and laughter like a volcano and shaking and shaking as the white dust whipped faster and faster, cutting into my skin, and… and… Mom over my bed with two police officers. All three had crumpled up worried faces. I looked over to see Mia’s bed was empty.
“Where’s Mia?” I asked, stifling a yawn.
“That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you, son,” said the older of the two police officers, who looked like he’d be at home in a Dashiell Hammett novel.
“Yes,” grunted the wannabe Continental Op. A part of my mind desperately wanted for him to light a cigarette and start monologuing about blood so I’d feel safe.
“He doesn’t know, see?” said Mom, wringing her hands together and glancing nervously at the officers. “Do you need anything else? Pictures, report cards, anything?”
“No ma’am,” said the young officer, more of a Sherlock Holmes type. “We’ll notify headquarters and they’ll circulate your daughter’s description. More than likely this is an attention thing, but on the off chance it isn’t, we’ll be prepared.”
“I’ll show you out,” said Mom, leading Holmes & The Op away.
I lay back in my bed and listened as their footsteps went to the end of the apartment, then a single lonely pair returned. There was an ugly coughing from the kitchen and then the kettle came on. I glared at the empty bed. An idea came to me. I got up, walked over to Mia’s bed, and rifled through it for the journal. Nothing. Perhaps Holmes had already deduced the diary and officers were on the way to the old man’s apartment. Or perhaps… I slipped on some jeans and winter jacket and wandered into the kitchen.
“Where’re you going?” asked Mom, who was staring very intently at the kitchen wall.
“Oh,” she murmured vaguely. “Be safe, ok?”
And as I ventured out into another blue morning, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that something awful was about to happen. But I wasn’t sure what.
The old man peeked out from behind the apartment door, refusing to budge. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I have no cognition of what you might be talking about.”
I placed my hand on the door and pushed a little. The old man fell back a little. “Am I going to have to do more of that? I can.”
He sighed. “You best enter. Tea?”
“No thanks,” I said, brushing past him.
The apartment was cleaner than last visit; it was as if an actual human lived here. And though the old man was still in his dressing gown, it wasn’t as stained as before; there was blue visible in his eyes. I wondered if his illness was clearing up or if this was just a good day. The journals were nowhere in sight. I sat down at the kitchen table and glanced around for them. Nothing. He wandered into the kitchen and started making tea.
“Do you know where Mia is?” I asked. “Did she come by here?”
“The entity you refer to as ‘Mia’ does not exist,” he said. “Sugar?”
“I said I don’t want tea!”
He turned to stare at me. “Young man, I do not appreciate that tone of voice. If you insist on being rude, I shall say nothing.”
I suppressed the urge to beat him upside the head with the kettle. “What do you mean when you say Mia doesn’t exist? She’s my sister, I’ve known her since before she was born.”
“You knew the idea of a Mia,” he said, sitting down opposite to me and stirring his tea. “What you called Mia was the soul of a person so long dead even I’ve forgotten their name.”
This was pointless. “Are you just completely fucked in the head now?”
He laughed, a short, brutal grunt. “I assure you, I’m more lucid than I’ve been in a long while. And since you so desperately want to know where Mia is, I’ll tell you,” he leaned in and I feel his sour breath on my face. “I reorganised her consciousness into the idea of an Evalyn and reassigned her to a family across the hall. I haven’t yet erased the memories she planted in other souls, but I’m getting there.”
So he had done something to her, but in his demented mind he saw it as reassigning her. I wanted to leave and call the detectives, but curiosity held me in place. “Does this have anything to do with those journals?”
“You read those?” he was surprised. He leant back in his chair. “That was a very bad day when I made those. These thoughts were screaming inside my head and I couldn’t think of any other way to get them out.”
“It was going on about vorpal daggers and death and elders and stopping time…”
“True, I am about to me made redundant. But that’s millennia away. I’m using the energy of Mia’s now Evalyn’s soul, along with everybody else’s, to slow time. It’s actually quite fascinating. You know the one about the frog that has to get across a room, but can only jump half the distance between him and the end at a time? I’m doing that. As the vorpal dagger you mentioned descends, I halve the space between me and it, slowing time to a trickle and letting me live here,” he gestured to the world outside his apartment. “In my dreams.”
I wanted to call bullshit and get out of there, but his words had the ring of truth about them. It was as if I had always known what he was saying to be true. “If you’re correct and I am one of your souls, why would you tell me?”
“Oh, I plan to reorganise you too, but I get lonely every now and again. You feel me?”
“Wait,” I said. “No, I don’t want that…”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll leave your personality as is. I’ll even let you stay with your mother, sound good?”
“Wait,” I stammered. “No, do–”
The old man waved his hand, and I fell silent.
The world crumpled and darkened before me.
I couldn’t quite tell if what I was seeing before me was the old man’s apartment, or the pinky black mass of brain matter.
Before I could resolve the contradiction, my mind sto–
The warm hiss of frying butter filled my senses, the gooey smell of pancake batter was in the air. I opened my eyes to see if Mia was awake and… and… a bubble of memory popped in my mind as the parts of my brain that thought of her sparked and died. I looked over at the large bookcase at the other end of my room, at its rows of cracked and dog-eared books, and felt the urge to cry. But there was nothing to cry about.
“Pancakes!” called Mom from the kitchen.
I noticed how desperately hungry I was and bounced into the kitchen. “Any maple syrup?”
“Sure baby,” said Mom. “I think there’s some in the cupboard.”
I drowned my pancakes in the stuff and dug in. They tasted like utopia and I forgot the vaguely tragic feeling hovering around me, not even sure why I had felt so sad. I ate until I couldn’t stomach anything else and then ate a bit more.
“Want some tea?” asked Mom when we’d finished eating.
“I hate tea,” I said.
“Since, uh,” my mouth stammering as my brain tried to find the words. “Since you, um, spilled some on Mia that one time?”
“Dunno,” I said, puzzled. “Must’ve imagined her.”
“Got much homework?” she said, changing the subject.
I went back to my room, a dark suspicion growing within me. A revelation was on the very tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t assemble the right words to articulate what exactly was wrong. It felt like a vital part of my body had been amputated and I was experiencing a phantom pain right in the depths of my soul. And then I saw Mom had left out the new Crispin Hershey novel Banned Book on my desk, and I forgot all about any vague philosophizing. I lay back on my bed and immersed myself in a world of fantasy and imagination, the aches in my body disappearing and my mind easing. Bright rays of sunlight poked through my window, warming the bedcovers and making me feel like I was encased in a golden smile. It was going to be a good day.
And time flows forward with the soft psychedelia of a dream.
Harman studies Psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His short fiction has previously appeared, or is forthcoming, in numerous magazines including Flame Tree Press Newsletter, After Dinner Conversation, and Cosmic Horror Monthly.