“Is there anybody out there?” Lindy whispered from the darkness of the trees. She was afraid and didn’t know why. No answer came but wind in the ivy; bustles in the hedgerow. She crept from the cover an old willow weeping with rain, looking for a blank space on The Wall to write her message. It was a simple symbol she was going to leave, but she found it there already, twice, the mark of meeting, friend and ally.
Sary and Penn had been there before her, recently, it appeared, and both had written in haste.
Odd, she thought. Sary rarely used the traveling message board known as “The Wall”, but Sary, being odd anyway hadn’t been quite herself lately.
The Wall’s latest incarnation occupied a low brick wall on a dead end street, a few blocks off of Broadway Avenue, next to a small park overlooking the city and the sea. Lindy hadn’t been to the Wall in at least a couple of weeks, and had seen neither Sary nor Penn in that time.
The Wall was a bulletin board, of sorts; moving from place to place about the city, always near, never far. The messages left were public or private, plain as day, or coded and secret. Poets, punks, artists, and others, knew of it and used it regularly, writing only in chalk, a fleeting medium, authors usually anonymous.
Lindy made her mark next to the others, shivering, and hurried from the alley, suddenly cold. She felt something not exactly right.
Something moved across the street, a clicking of claws on pavement. Rats, she knew the sound well, but they really didn’t scare her.
She could take care of herself, always had, since she was twelve. Her momma died, and she was left in the custody of her alcoholic, pedophilic, stepfather. At fourteen, after two endless years of hiding from Daddy, she stole his wallet quickly from his coat. From the inside of his hat, a battered brown fedora, she took his “mad” money, and boy would he be mad when he woke up from his latest drunk to realize his tax deduction and cook, had robbed him and run away. The money smelled like him; sweat, cheap cigar smoke, and diesel fuel.
Daddy pumped petrol for the big rigs out on the interstate. He always used the hat to muffle her screams, hitting her to keep her mouth shut proved counterproductive. People noticed black eyes and fat lips, and reported it to the proper authorities; beating her up wasn’t logical. He would gag her, or tie her up if he had to. He had, too, on many occasions. It was all very logical for Daddy.
“I’ll slice your throat, you little bitch,” he slobbered and slurred, “Kill you dead as your Momma. Be rid of both of you.” Then as he beat her, he used the hat to cover her face, so much like her mother’s, and the hatred, exactly like her mother’s.
As a final touch, Lindy planned on dropping his car keys down the sewer drain in front of the house, but never had the chance. As she reached for the front door, Daddy, somehow awake from his blackout, grabbed her from behind, dragged her across the floor to the kitchen, and pulled her to her feet. Lindy swung blindly at Daddy, connecting cleanly with her left hand, lodging his keys in his right eye. He screamed in pain as he fell, and knocked himself out on the corner of the counter. His blood sprayed across the kitchen, almost everywhere, yet missing her.
Before Lindy fled, she covered his face with his stinking hat, noting that he was still breathing, and kicked him with conviction in his groin. Instead of throwing his keys down the sewer, she pulled them from his eye socket and rinsed them of the gore. They were a multiple use item, she mused, as she shook the last of the bloody residue from the keys. Clarity struck Lindy square between the eyes; she was on a one-way trip Elsewhere.
She knew how to drive, but forgot about gas, and abandoned his piece of crap pickup on the side of the highway. Lindy having Luck, the truck ran empty near the home of many greyhounds racing off in myriad directions. She rode one of the buses west, passing the station where Daddy pumped gas. He wasn’t going to be pumping Lindy anymore.
The greyhound lost its pace in a city she had never seen, only heard of. It was loud, and big, but not frightening, most of it, and it sure as hell wasn’t where she had come from. She began as if she had always been there, using the same guile and cunning that served her during the years spent hiding, and running, from Daddy.
Lindy delivered messages on bicycle, suicide on the wet, slick streets, and bussed tables at the deli connected to the messenger office. She lived in a storage room shared by both establishments. She had cleaned it out, giving both companies more storage than before, and purged the building of the rats snacking on Gino’s salami. The rats were a constant problem, Gino told her, and he was thrilled to be rid of them. She’d enjoyed this relationship for almost a decade, eating and living free.
She broke into a sweat, in the cold, waiting for the metro, Lindy felt something at the back of her neck. It was a feeling she knew instantly, one far worse than she felt at the Wall. It was fear, and it crawled up the back of her neck like the smell of rancid cigars, mixing with the diesel fumes of the bus as it pulled to the curb. Lindy retched in the gutter, and climbed suddenly unsteady into the crowded bus. She found a seat at the back next to an old man, examining him as she approached, feeling he was harmless. Lindy closed her eyes trying to think. She was never sick, and didn’t know what she was experiencing.
With the years Lindy had grown used to the clamor, learning the patterns of the patter of voices along the streets, the whims of the weather (always unpredictable), and the sheer collective energy of the people. Sometimes she thought, when she closed her eyes, that she could see the great red tornado of a young couples passion as they walked past, or the low hanging black cloud of a heroin addict, post high. She felt it all and loved it, trying always to filter through the detritus of negativity and focus on the positives.
That was not the world now, however. The change, or Change, had come. It had come with the snow. It was only a hint at first, small tingles when she might brush against someone on the street, or sit next to someone on the metro. If she caught their eye, she didn’t always see fear, but it was there nonetheless. Over the last couple of weeks it had spread to others, yet many remained untouched, or at least oblivious. Numb? The snow had gone, but the cold remained.
The fear dragged her down, tired her out. She guessed maybe Sary and Penn felt it too. And now it overwhelmed her. Where were they?
She had to find them soon; something was amiss in the City and right now she needed to be with her friends. The metro dropped quickly down the Hill to a short stop midway to the waterfront. Lindy could see the saltwater laying flat and dull between the equally gray skyscrapers as she stepped into the cold.
It didn’t smell just right down here, thought Charles; something was rancid. Even the worst pocket in Tom’s coat was better than this smell. He was under the streets, following along gas lines and electrical conduits, detouring now and again around various obstacles, skittering across phone lines, wondering all the while, in his mouse sized brain, what all could be being said between his toes, and under his feet.
Charles was a mouse, a wood mouse to be exact, used to the smell of the Forest, residing as he did in the hollow of a peeling madrona tree that grew in an old garden on the hill above the city. Nevertheless, he felt quite at home here in the city. He traveled this path often, going to and from his visits with his good friend Sebastian. Old Bastard, as Charles called him, was a city mouse and very well educated, a fact with which Charles was constantly reminded.
It was slightly after three, and it was teatime, a relatively quiet time between lunch and after work drinks. Sebastian lived above the Two Bells Tavern, a coffee and conversation house tucked between Battery Street and Bell, on Fourth. The building was old, erected in the early teens of the last century, full of cracks and passages perfect for a mouse. His home was in a hollow behind the bar, and just below the ceiling, a hot water pipe elbowing through one corner. Sunlight and starlight beamed through a crack above, and man’s light and noise through a gap below. Smells and talk were companions to the light from the tavern, keeping Sebastian abreast of current events.
What first brought Sebastian to the Two Bells was the smell of cheese; gruyere, pungent, fill your nose, smell-it-under-the-street-for-five-blocks-cheese. Where he had come from was a little more obscure.
He found himself one day suddenly aware of where he was, and what he was. He was a mouse, no longer a senseless scrabbling rodent. Together with his friend Charles, he had climbed into one of the pockets of the long coat of a visitor to the Forest, unaware, which they found sleeping soundly, snoring loudly, among the tremendous firs and cedars. Charles smelled chocolate and wasn’t about to miss out on a free meal. While they enjoyed their snack the man woke and continued on with his journey. They exited the coat far from where they had entered, and found themselves, Aware, no longer in the forest.
Charles had news for the head of the underground. He scampered through the tiny passage leading into the warmth of Sebastian’s little castle, and was quickly shushed by the resident mouse, then was beckoned closer. Sebastian was listening in on some of the regulars to the Two Bell’s.
“This can’t wait you old ass,” Charles insisted, “a storm is coming.”
“I know, old friend,” he sighed.
The small space of Sebastian’s home was suddenly all feathers and agitated, squawking bird.
“You know,” Crow complained, “Those damn doorways don’t always work the way they’re supposed to work. I’m tired of ending up in some void somewhere, somewhere I can’t breathe, or fly, or see.” He was quite ruffled.
“Stop your incessant whining,” The mouse chastised, “You know we’ve got a job to do, and you,” Sebastian shook his head in disbelief of the whole situation, “are the only one with access to almost everywhere. You need to pull yourself together.”
“But the time lines you’ve given me are ridiculous!” Crow protested. “I can’t be everywhere, or everywhen you want me to be.” His feathers were very untended, and his eyes looked rimy.
“You may understand the whole mess, but I certainly don’t, and I can only risk my life so many times before I’ve got no life left to risk.” Crow was nuzzled up against the hole from the kitchen below, trying to warm his cold body. “What difference does it make anyway, if we help these stupid humans with this?”
Sebastian sighed. “Difference? None, I suppose. Except that if we lose, there will be no more red wine, no more gruyere cheese, and no more heat coming from a kitchen overflowing with food.”
“No more beer, either?” Crow questioned in alarm.
“Nothing grows in an eternal winter, old friend, no hops, no barley, only despair.” Sebastian answered quietly. “We need to do this, as much for us as for them. None of us can survive long in the world that is proposed by this Power.”
Crow knew what the Power could do. It had caused the detours and dead-ends he experienced traveling between his different places, escaping many of the hazards only by luck and skill. Most of his group, his murder of crows, had dispersed, or were hiding. He was alone with the few others in the city that could see beyond the day-to-day life of those not human. Humans themselves these days were little better than the rest of the animals. They all knew it, but only Sebastian, so far, was willing to believe it and try to do something about it.
“So what now?” Crow asked, “I’ve seen, or contacted, or at the very least heard of, all of the targets you gave me, plus a couple of newbie’s.”
“Newbie’s?” Sebastian stopped in his thoughts. “What do you mean?”
“A rat, and some little puff of stuff that continues to get in my way.”
“Rat,” Sebastian was startled, “What did he look like?”
“I don’t know. It was dark, and cold,” Crow moaned, “And I was busy following that Old Wu guy. What do you have to drink? Any dark beer?”
“Charley, old boy. Anything to smoke?” Crow chittered.
The wood mouse merely shook his head. Charles respected the crow’s talents, but they were constantly in disagreement.
“Think, damn it,” Sebastian spat impatiently, “It’s important. Was he old? Was he crippled?” He paced about the small hollow, ignoring Crows request for a beverage. The bird was an excellent source of information if handled properly, and not allowed his liquor before debriefing.
“He was old and gray,” He answered, “and slow. He looked like he could use a good, stiff drink.”
“Alright, shush for now,” Sebastian ordered, “I need to think.”
Sary stepped into the garden white with frost. She shuddered in the frigid still air, stopping frozen, literally, in her tracks. Her tiny feet left prints, quickly iced, on the cobbled path. A crow, sparkling white with ice, sat cold upon the dieing wisteria, cursing the numbing temperature.
She had woken from her dream, or hoped so, at least thought so, after speaking with some crazy old man from her Forest. “My Forest”, she laughed to herself. He told her about Winter, and a messenger; it was something that had come to him in a dream. She laughed again remembering. He was a very pleasant man, talking in riddles and rhymes, calming her from the darkness invading the Forest.
But sure as the seasons change, Winter had come, and her apparent messenger stood before her, cringing in the cold.
“If you are”, she started, then stopped, laughing again at herself. She was addressing a half frozen crow, for God’s sake.
“If you are who I was told you would be”, she continued, still unsure of her sanity, her feet burning in the frost, “then let’s get the Hell inside”.
She turned for the door, and turned back hearing the pathetic caw of the bird. It was so cold it barely made a sound. Sary let it step onto her arm, then it collapsed, and she cradled it in the blanket still wrapped about her.
She had fallen asleep on the last day of Summer, and woken to the middle of the worst Winter she had ever seen. The power was out, and the streets were bare of life, and Sary wished for her friends, and feared for them. She felt the cold on her feet, and it was pain, when she had never felt it before. She had sensed a change, in the Forest of her dreams, a darkness descending. And where was Old Wu? He might have something to say about this.
The Forest had been hers alone, in her dreaming, until she saw the old man. At times she watched him snoring on the bank of the stream, or bathing, naked and singing in the frigid waters. She always smiled when he was around, and he would watch as she danced along the mossy paths under the twilight. He was there in her dreams a lot lately, more often than not sitting in thought along the stream. He favored a pool, dark beneath an overhanging fern grotto.
Sary would of course only catch glimpses of the man, dancing as she did among the giant trees, losing herself in Forest, until her last dreaming when he appeared before her. She stopped short, mid-step, and he smiled wide, showing yellowed teeth.
“Dancing’s done, girl. Time for doing,”
It was a dream or reality; she no longer even tried to discern the difference. She closed the door quickly behind her, rolled up a rug and placed it on the doorsill to block out the cold, and carried the near frozen bird to the stove. She turned on the electric oven and cursed, remembering the power was out. She found matches and lit every candle she could find. After a short while the small room glowed with several dozen flickering lights, warmed a little, and the crow began to stir.