Forward and backward are not stable concepts. The curtains close, a mask is shattered, but we're still here. Wren helps a lost soul and meets some familiar ones.
Thank you all so much for listening, and special thanks to guests Jess Syratt of Nowhere, On Air and Shannon Strucci of Critical Bits and more.
(CWs, spoilers: bullying, derealization, implied dysphoria, brief fire and engine sounds, alcohol, smoking)
*audience shuffling and chatting, dies down*
LOST FISHERMAN: “Good evening, dear audience. Tonight we present to you the final act in a series of strange events. The detective this evening will be played by Wren once more, with the receiving clerk reprising the role of the vanished. I will be your chorus. When you see me again, it will all be over. When I return, you will not be ready, but it must end as all things do. Until then, please enjoy the show.
“A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me”
The vault wasn’t so much an actual vault, but–as you’ve no doubt surmised–a cave. Like the cave I had encountered before, where Lucy served me breakfast. Where I cried over eggs and toast. Maybe just a different part of the same cave, even. All around me, stacked and scattered throughout the yawning caverns was dead mail: letters, packages, objects covered in grime and dust. The light from my phone only revealed a harsh circle in front of me, leaving much of the vault in total darkness. I felt things stirring in that darkness whenever I turned away. They gathered behind me, at my sides, spiraled gaseous tendrils around my ears. But they dissipated any time I faced them.
I flipped through folders and sifted through cabinets and baskets full of decomposing paper. I found many strange stories among the mundane cruft. Some stories I had heard before, some I had not. These pieces had little in common: from different parts of the country, different times, different people. Many followed a similar thread, though.
Something under the office’s purview, my purview, appeared in each: a moth here, an alien worm there. Just little hints of the ineffable, the sublime radioactive backdrop that most people tune out. This damp hall was where my furry friend would have ended up, had I not saved them from that fate. I panned the pulp silt for gold, trying to find any clue I could sink my teeth into.
I went further and farther back, in time and in space. The older files were kept ever deeper in the cave. I was in the middle of reading a peculiar letter regarding an ill-tempered neighbor when my boot struck a vein. Masonry. Not the deep brown rock surrounding me, but a gray slab shaped by human hands. Around the base of the stone was a shallow puddle. I looked up and there I saw an angel.
An angel in gray, its features blurred and worn by time, its form smudged with black. Had the angel been there the whole time, or had it just appeared a moment ago? I leaned closer and inspected its surface.
All across this sculpture–from the top of its head to the base–were dark fingerprints. I gently slid the letter I was carrying through one of the tacky prints. The black substance followed, sticking to the paper. Simply looking was going to get me nowhere. What use is a detective that only uses one sense, anyway? I held the tacky substance close to my nose and inhaled.
Fire, smoke, machinery. This thing was covered in scorched oil. The angel’s hands were clasped to its chest, and I could tell there was something within. I recalled a story I had heard about a sculpture of similar kind. About a disappearance and a hanging thread.
I had to know what was held in its hands.
As if already planting its roots in my mind, the angel’s stone fingers unfolded, and there it proffered an egg, no bigger than a chicken’s. I dared not touch the angel, this seraph bathed in the blood of the ancient earth. I took a step back and shuddered. At this rejection, many fish fell around the angel, all dead and frozen, slapping hard against the cave floor.
Then, from the deepest recesses of my consciousness, there came a sound: steel wire hanging high above a field of corn. The lines shivered in the breeze and sang like clockwork sparrows. Metallic spring sprung forth in a curl of light and noise. An electrical pylon, its arms spread wide, so wide it held the whole state to its chest. Transmissions from everywhere and nowhere collected in the still air inside its ribs. It blew a whispered kiss through the heavy bent stalks, through iced cities and rolling foothills. It blew a kiss as loud as the trumpets of revelation, and spoke in a hundred tongues of electric rapture:
“The next time you see me, you will be dead. And when I come, you will not be ready…”
All of my training, all of my will and wit was for naught in the face of it. And in my mind were two diverging paths, two images in a cracked mirror. One was the face of god, of satan, of bosses and kings, of whips and chains, of a thousand bodies clawing and tearing their way to the top of a pyramid of their own kind. I saw the end of history, a prison of gold bars. I saw an ant on fire under a magnifying glass, carrying this flame back to its colony.
In the other I saw a face I thought I had seen before, strong hands held and strong hearts holding fast against the unceasing tide. But this second image was hazy, uncertain. No way to tell what was to come, but at least something was to come.
I was not prepared to face this pyramid of corpses on my own. I had yet to contend with a force of this magnitude before, and have yet to still again.
So I ran. I ran blindly, avoiding every rocky spire and pitfall as if possessed. I ran until my lungs burned cold and my throat was a sandpaper bellow. I may have run for all time, the ant ever fleeing the flame, were it not for a flickering glow oozing from a bend in the path ahead.
I slowed my jog and warily closer to the light. Beyond the turn I came to its source: a small television set, hissing with static, resting atop a vcr. Nearby were stacks of tapes.
I heard no chase being given behind me, so I closed my eyes hard and just let myself breathe. Once my chest ceased its convulsions, I picked up one of the tapes at my side. There were no official markings or symbols: not mass produced media, these were home movies. And along the spine of each was a different date, but the same name: Lucy.
Sound of vcr
Some collage of sounds here
The video I saw on the screen was odd, clearly taken on a camcorder, but its point of view didn’t make any sense, and seemed to shift scenes at will. There were birthdays, static, soccer games, color bars, a lakeshore, hissing, a hundred domestic scenes.
Then the video slowed and focused on a single point: a specific space and precise time. And here there was a lone child, 10, maybe 12. She sat alone in her room, the low sun filtering golden through the falling leaves outside. A breeze snuck in through the cracked window and stirred the cotton balls on her bed. She held one hand out in front of her, a tiny brush in her other. Once the dark blue paint had been applied to her nails, she rested her hand on the sill to dry.
She was in the woods, laughing and kicking at sticks and stones. She was alone, but content. She climbed a wide oak, chipping a bit of her fresh polish on the rugged bark. From the low branch she stood and surveyed her quiet kingdom. Not far from her perch, she saw the cave. She had heard stories about it from others at school, rumors of danger in this cave. She heard that people had gotten lost there, or lost parts of themselves. That there was something within that would eat you alive. She heard these rumors, but didn’t fully believe them. Usually she stayed clear anyway. Just in case.
This day, however, she was old enough to know better but still young enough to feel invincible. So she went in.
This child snuck into the shale chasm and strained to see in the dark. She took a few steps forward and stopped, startled by the echoing of her own footsteps. She could hear her breathing on the air growing shorter, heavier as the cave whispered it back to her. This wasn’t enough to deter our brave little explorer, however.
She gripped the strap of her backpack tight to her shoulder and trudged inward, farther away from the circle of daylight that dared stick show its face in the cave.
Before long, she heard different sounds ahead. Anonymous low voices, clinking and hissing. She thought about turning back, but wasn’t sure which way back was. The voices and clanking grew louder, and a flicker of light drew her attention. She saw fire spark to life. Glowing embers floated in the dark like tiny red eyes. These eyes, these sounds, she thought, must belong to a great beast with many heads and many eyes, glass knives for fingers, blowing fire in the deep.
She stepped on a loose rock during her ingress, the movement of which clicked and clacked down the stone corridor. She froze, and a great circle of light struck her. The beast had her in its horrible sight. She strained to see through the awful beam. She held her hand over her eyes and tried to speak, to apologize to the great creature, to say she was sorry for disturbing its home. But peals of laughter interrupted her.
More beams of light flickered in front of her, and she saw that the many heads of this beast were actually attached to tall, lanky bodies–human bodies–leaning awkwardly against the shale in baggy shirts and shorts. The lights weren’t the dread traces of a monstrous eye, but simple flashlights. And the floating embers weren’t red eyes, but lit cigarettes, the kind her uncle smelled like.
There were four of them in all: teens who snuck into the cave for a little underage drinking. Though teenagers could be just as fearsome as some beasts, she had learned. She lowered her hands as the laughing died down.
One teen boy pointed his ashy smoke at her hands, snorted and spoke some words she didn’t understand yet but would some years later. The kinds of words that curse a person, that haunt their dreams and sink in icy fangs when they’re at their lowest. No, she didn’t understand the words at the time, but she felt their dripping intent. She knocked over one of the half empty beer bottles and fled the cave, leaving only a thin line of tears in her wake.
She sat on the uneven rock of the cave’s entrance and kicked her heels against the dirt. She looked down at her fingernails, rich cerulean inexpertly applied like waves whipped up by a storm.
She grabbed a piece of loose shale from the ground and chipped at the polish on her left hand until there was nothing left but little scratches.
And then she vanished, and this lone figure became two: a mask, and an invisible hand to hold it.
There were other tapes, too, footage of a first kiss, driving exams, awkward names. College, empty pockets, kaleidoscopic tigers licking their stripes and worms inhaling copious ether. And jobs, so many jobs, so many painful jobs that weakened the back and hands. Breakfast joints, transmission towers, a post office. A letter, an angel, a tower, an engine. A promise, split in half: a face sold for a seat in the boardroom.
The last image I saw before the tape jammed in the vcr was a fuzzy lighthouse. Then the cathode ray spat black and white fizzling particles over the cave wall. And in this, I knew clarity.
At this time, I knew where Lucy was, who she was, but not yet how to get to her. I thanked the glowing television and ventured beyond it.
Fresh air soon tickled my skin, and led me to the mouth of the vault–the cave–and I stepped once more into the cold blue sun.
I was surrounded by trees, and all around me was quiet. To my right, a leaf jumped from its branch and made a slow descent to the forest floor. I felt a gust stir my hair from behind my ear. Things here in the land of the real had begun moving again, which meant…
I rushed aimlessly through the trees, desperately searching for an opening in the canopy. I needed to see it, I needed to be sure. And sure enough, in time I did see it: the giant hand above was once again resuming its thunderous plummet to the earth.
I spun around, hoping someone else would be there, someone older, wiser, maybe, someone who knew what to do, whose job it was to fix this sort of thing.
There was no one under the denuded trees but me. That’s when it dawned on me, perhaps much later than it should have. It was my job to fix this sort of thing. I had been called to this middle of nowhere, ohio branch for a reason. The boss wanted me here, and not just to talk about Lucy. There was more.
I keenly felt the same pain that lone child did. I felt the looks and the comments and the barely-stifled giggling. I felt the carceral hex of the conjurers of orthodoxy. I felt the box they taped me in. Luckily, tape is temporary, and cardboard soft: it only appears to be a prison if you let it be so. I ripped at the tape, set fire to the box, and came out real and raw and wreathed in black flame.
And I felt that I was here to help Lucy do the same.
You see, Director, the moral arc of this world doesn’t bend toward anything. History isn’t an arc, or a line, it’s a tapestry of ever expanding silk. And unlike an arc, there is no end to this tapestry. Even if we won here, even if everything went just right, the tapestry weaves on, eons before we were born and millennia after we’re dead. There are a thousand knots and tears and creases all the way down. But this didn’t dissuade me. No, it opened my eyes. All the feats of our past weren’t accomplished by a few great men, ordained by the universe to bend history by hand. It was threads like us that made it happen. Though I may be just one thread among billions, every thread composes the whole, and the more threads that intertwine, the stronger we become.
In times like these, we threads must act together, act decisively, to prevent the weave’s destruction. We must hold the things we cherish close, yes, but also smother the flames that singe our edges. No half measures, no hesitation, no waiting. We must offer our hands in love, and offer fists in kind for our jailers. We cannot survive on one of these alone.
This, Director, is what I believe is at the core of it all: there can be no love too fierce for ourselves, for each other, and no fury too fierce for our oppressors. No one will come to save us–no one will embrace us–but ourselves.
I looked up to the hand in the sky. Though it was now a fist, perhaps it could be opened. I held my hand aloft and called her name. The stone hand in the sky relaxed as it fell, its fingers extended. If you looked at it at just the right angle, we lined up perfectly. I held the falling hand in my hand, gently and sweetly.
The cold stone turned to skin, and the missing second came to an end.
The biting wind and rain of Aisling was no more, replaced by yellow leaves sailing on stiff curls of wind. I saw the cave in front of me, a child sitting at its entrance with tears streaming down her face. I gently called her name and her head rose. She seemed confused, didn’t expect anyone else to be there. But the way her eyes widened told me she recognized me. Somehow she knew who I was, and why I was there.
I placed my hand on her head and tousled her hair lightly. I told her I would be right back, and stepped into the cave. I could feel red heat bloom in my face, and my fists clenched into white circles.
The adolescents who had teased this child were still children themselves. They had much to learn about the world, about how to be human. I would forgive them this trespass and hope that Lucy would too, some day. Though they were children, sometimes children require instruction, and I was eager to teach. None but those of us within the cave know what was said next, and I will not reveal it here nor anywhere. Needless to say, some important lessons were learned that day.
By the time I left the hollow again, I had calmed down. I unclenched my jaw and let out an extended breath. Lucy noticed my posture soften, and she too relaxed. She looked up at me from her spot on the loose shale.
WREN: “Are you ready to go home?”
She silently wiped the drying tears from her cheek. I took her hand and helped her up. She stood for a moment, gripping my hand tight, then nodded.
We walked through the woods quietly. No one else was around today, no hikers, no one walking their dogs. We listened to the whistle of the air fluttering through the sparse leaves and the percussive crunch of sticks breaking under our boots. We eventually came to the end of the woods, beyond which was a narrow gravel road.
Lucy released her hand from my grasp and made for the treeline. The dark boughs and branches of the trees overhead leaned and bent around her, pulling away in semicircles. The limbs formed parted stage curtains around her. Under her feet, roots twisted and twined, laying themselves as planks beneath her. An audience waited with baited breath beyond. She turned back at the edge of the sylvan stage one last time. She smiled as she waved goodbye, and walked beyond the wooded theatre into the unknown.
I tried to peer beyond the webbed drapes, but all I could see were points of light near the ground, shining my direction. I stepped up to the edge of the stage myself, took a bow, and returned where I belonged.
I found myself exiting the vault door, once more inside the inverted lighthouse. The hanging ice that had been occupying its ceilings and clinging to its walls had almost entirely melted now, and the oppressive atmosphere was clearing. In the center, the engine had vanished. In its stead was a white rotary phone, and strung around its cradle was a mask of a dead president. I waited for the inevitable haunting ring for a second, a minute, an hour, but nothing came. The room was silent save for the occasional drip of water. There would be no call for me. I had to make one myself.
I dialed a familiar number. The line rang only once, and then the call was answered. There was no greeting, however, just a single plaintive line.
“You can take the mask off now, Wren. I’m ready to go.”
I placed the receiver gingerly back on the cradle. Next up was untangling the mask’s elastic strap from the phone cord. Once freed, I held the plastic face in front of me. A cheap, ugly mask from a halloween store, sunbleached from sitting out too long. I peered through its empty eyes and felt bile rising. I knew in that moment that I could put on the mask. That things would be easier if I did. That I had one last chance to take over the Office. One last chance to be the Boss. One last chance to be at the top of the pyramid.
I threw the mask to the wet floor and crushed it underfoot. It made a sickening crunch as I twisted my heel. The fragile mask snapped and broke apart beneath me. In the same instant, I felt a seismic rumble in the earth. The lighthouse shook, and its walls began to crack. I stomped again, and again, and again, just to be sure. And with each stomp, the walls of the lighthouse crumbled further and fell heavy around me, allowing fresh sunlight steal into the chamber. When I finally lifted my foot, the plastic face was nothing more than fragments, loose change. The lighthouse had been reduced to rubble.
I was exposed to the wintry weather again, standing in the open air near the shore of lake Erie. I scanned the clouds above for any indication of the falling arm, but there was no trace of it. The town around me, the specter that once haunted this coast, was leveled. Bits of debris blew in the lashes of wind and sleet. Much of the scrap of this place was being pulled and washed away by the advancing tide, as if the lake itself was reclaiming this rancid land.
And so the inverted lighthouse was gone, the hand was gone, Aisling was gone, and all that remained was me, alone among waterlogged wreckage and rising slush. Well, not totally alone. Along the cold broken shore of the great lake, I found a friend. Alas, it was a friend who couldn’t commiserate with me due to their lack of vocal chords. The little creature’s fur was soaked, yellow beak chipped, but they survived their encounter with the frozen beasts. I brushed the beads of ice from the fur as best I could. My phone was completely dead by now, so I wandered to the edge of the former town. We sat in the frosty grass by the side of the road under a rocky overhang. No sign of my car, of course. It figured it had been swept away with the rest of the place.
We leaned against the wet rock for a time, the chill creeping in once the adrenaline wore off.
“Well friend, we best hope someone drives by before sundown and we can hitch a ride.” I kicked at the loose gravel lining the road. “Otherwise, we might be in for a tough night.”
I sat with legs folded, one arm out with thumb extended. The other arm cradled the little mechanical creature. I let my head hang. I was exhausted and getting colder by the second. The rhythmic patter of the light rain swept me into an unsettling dream.
But as I struggled against sleep, something stirred the air. A rumbling engine. I winced at first, still dazed, but reminded myself that the terrible machine was gone. This had to be something else. The source of the rumble had pulled up in front of me. It was an old cutlass–my cutlass! My precious jalopy!--idling a few feet away.
In the drivers’ seat was a young woman I didn’t recognize. Her dark hair curled and danced in the storm, her eyes obscured by big reflective sunglasses.
LIZ: “Hey, is that you little bird? We’ve been looking for you.”
Though I didn’t recognize the face, I knew the voice. The shadow on the other line.
WREN: “Liz? Oh my god, you made it! And you…stole my car! Okay!”
LIZ: “Hey, just be grateful we got here before you turned into a popsicle. Hop in, we’ve got some insurance money to collect.”
There was another in the car as well, a woman in the passenger’s seat. I sidled into the back.
LIZ: “I’ve been legally dead for, what, a year now? I think I deserve a payout. Plus I’ve got an expensive plane ticket to buy. Let’s get you warmed up. Blast the heat, Ash.”
Liz sped down the slick roads a little faster than I’d have liked, but still, I really was grateful.
WREN: “You have to tell me everything. I’m dying to know what you went through on your side.”
Now in cases like this, Director, it’s important to take in more than just the events. You need a feel for the atmosphere, the scene, the unseen. You’ll recall that forward and backward are not stable concepts: the past outlines the future, and the future colors the past.
If I were an animal, maybe I would be the scrappy songbird, or the oblivious beetle, but recent events leave me feeling uncertain. Perhaps I was the hawk after all. Or simply a beetle playing at being a hawk. Only time would tell. For now, I was alive, and that had to be enough.
WREN, on tape: So the town was leveled, and the engine hasn’t been found since. Is that all? Okay, I’ll send her in next. Thank you, Director.
Office ambience, phones going off in the background, quiet indistinguishable chatter.
Now that the director’s debriefing is over, It’s nice to finally meet you face to umm…face, Conway.
Oh, Conway’s my last name, actually. Call me Lucy.
Well, Lucy, it’s nice to know there’s another one of us in the office.
You know. Another Gay.
LUCY, with a slight laugh
Right. Well, speaking of this office, I’m actually leaving.
Oh yes, my assignment at this branch is over, as well. At least once I finish the mountain of paperwork regarding your case. Then I’ll be heading out west for a while. A matter surrounding a few odd streetlights calls to me. It’ll be nice to see the ocean again, too.
No, I mean I’m LEAVING leaving. I don’t think I can deal with any more of this psychedelic bureaucracy stuff.
Oh…I understand. What are you going to do?
I’m honestly not sure. I’m tired Wren. The radio station is gone, the DLO is not for me. Don’t want to go back to the gas station or the Waffle House if it can be helped. I’ll be kissing my health insurance goodbye, regardless. Might try my hand at painting. If war criminals can find peace in it, maybe I can too.
That sounds lovely. I wish I could do the same. But the reality is that this is what I’m good at, this is where I feel at home: surrounded by things no one else sees, hearing things no one else should, dipping my toes into pools I’ve been warned not to disturb. I don’t really fit in elsewhere, you know? I don’t have a community. Too weird for queer spaces, too queer for weird spaces. It is what it is. Maybe I’ll have better luck finding commonality outside the midwest.
I sure hope so. Well, good luck to you, then. And thank you. You helped me find my way out of the dark. Find myself. You could’ve given up anytime, but you didn’t. You put your hand out even after I bit it. Metaphorically speaking.
Think nothing of it. After all, we have to stick together if we want to continue onward. It’s a dangerous world for us at the best of times, and we are not in the best of times.
True enough. By the way, I got these for you. To thank you. Even after all this, I don’t know you that well, so I made an educated guess. Hope you like flowers.
A silent moment passes.
What a lovely gesture. Say, Lucy: d-do you have any plans this evening? I was considering stopping by the Song Bird one last time. A little drink, a little song, a little dance. Would you like to join me? After what we went through, I feel like I should make more of an effort. To put myself out there, to make friends. I can show you around if you’ve never been. And maybe we could take some time to finally get acquainted.
Oh. Um, that’s mighty nice of you, but I ought to skip this one. I’ve got to have my cubicle cleared out by 5, and I…well, I wouldn’t want to impose on your good time.
I see. Then best wishes to you, and I hope we meet again someday under more auspicious circumstances.
...you too. Stay safe out there, Wren.
And you stay you, Lucy.
Wren steps away from the desk. Another moment passes. Then Lucy drops the box on the desk.
H-hey Wren! You know what, to hell with this. I’m done wasting my time dithering: let’s dance. Let’s sing. Let’s pretend things are normal for a couple hours. I’m buying. What’ll you have?
Corpse Reviver number two.
Do…do they serve absinthe there?
As if I’d patronize a bar that didn’t.
Fair enough. But you’re not allowed to laugh when I whiff the high note in Life on Mars.
I wouldn’t dream of it.
To the Song Bird it is.
Outro music begins, seems like the end of the episode. All is resolved. But the music eventually fades to an eerie drone.
LUCY, with some fear
...we’re still here.
Yes, I won’t be leaving until next week.
Well, I just thought…we finished what we started, didn’t we? We’re back at the office, the Boss is gone, the shadows are free. You took a bow, the curtains closed, you got you roses. This should be it. Why are we still here?
Of course we’re here, we haven’t left yet. Are we taking the bus to the Song Bird or should I drive?
No, no. I just. I feel like something is…When you started this job, did they tell you much about it? Why we were doing any of this cataloging and recording?
Not particularly, no. I investigated the matter on my own, but I was stonewalled at every turn.
Same with me. And do you know who hired you in the first place?
What are you getting at? No, I don’t remember his name. It’s been a while.
LUCY, with growing concern
Neither do I. Now that I think about it, I’m having a hard time remembering when I started working for the office.
WREN, concerned for LUCY
Lucy, are you all right? Do you feel light-headed? Just take a breath. Remember that odd radio station I told you about? The drone of the astral plane? Tune into that.
LUCY, now starting to panic
I'm forgetting something. Something big. Wren, tell me this: how did we get here? Back to the office, I mean. Literally.
I…we walked from the parking lot…right?
Maybe. But are you sure? You’re not, are you. You’re not sure how we got back. You’re not sure because…because nobody saw it.
WREN, trying to help
I’m not sure I follow. Lucy, you’re sweating. Here, sit down.
A chair is pushed back, squeaking on wood.
LUCY, making a terrible realization
No. I need to think. This is like…deja vu. ‘Now she walks through her sunken dream to the seat with the clearest view.’ Wren I…I think I’ve seen this before.
Wait. What do you mean?. How could you have...Oh my god. I think we…I think I miscalculated. There was an…unexpected variable in my equation. A remainder. I should have seen this sooner, how did I miss it? This anomaly…It vexes my thesis. Damn it all. I should have seen this. Not now.
LUCY, feeling impending doom
The man under the stage. He’s the one doing all this.
“All the nightmares came today, and it looks as though they’re here to stay.” There must be so many. Like a winter morning full of constellations. It’s almost beautiful.
Lucy, I know this may sound like a joke, but I promise you I am deadly serious. This is vitally important, perhaps the most important question I’ve ever asked in my life. I want your full attention, ignore everything else. Look me in the eyes. Feel my hands. We’re still here. Now tell me: what do I look like?
LUCY, realizing there’s nothing to see
Wh...Wait, I…I can’t…
The scene instantly changes to the shore of Lake Erie. A man is casting his line into the cold water. The line goes taut, reeling begins. The fisherman has caught something big. A heavy object is pulled ashore.
Now I am speaking to you as in a dream. I told you that when you saw me again, it would all be over. And that when I came, you would not be ready. That reality is but a veil, a scent on the breeze. So easily dismissed if you know how. It’s the dream that lingers. It’s the nightmare you still remember.
Now, I want you to think real hard on what I’m about to ask you: What’s my name? What were you doing before you heard this message? Now look at the clock. Can you read it?
What time is it?”
An engine sputters to life and roars.