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Daffodil awoke to the singing of the birds, thin chirrups that bubbled through the chilly morning air and brushed against her ears. After the cold night, the iron ribs of her vessel felt like ice, though the plush blanket had softened them somewhat. After sleeping in a shopping cart her spine was racked with pain, and she was cold. The flannel was smoldering a bit. She’d tried to lengthen the life of the weak candle flames, pouring them onto broken tree branches and newspaper so it could last. There were shadows at every corner, leaving her marooned on a small island of flickering light, fighting for every breath as she shivered under her clothes.
She picked up the broom and began paddling again.
creak creak creak creak creak creak
Why bother? She only thought that there might be other people. But she'd never seen them.
She could be the only one here.
Reality felt like a thick jelly. Malleable. Or maybe like a blank sandwich, just two slices of bread, not there at all...maybe she was dreaming. She didn’t know. Maybe she'd wake up soon.
There was a plastic folding chair in the rain grate, with someone sitting in it. She had a sallow face, wreathed with stringy brown hair that drifted in the breeze. The grate cover was like a large iron oreo embedded in the street, stained with coppery rust and tossing slices of pale sunlight. There was a faint trickling sound, as water dripped into puddles broken by the chair legs. Daffodil didn’t see her until she asked me for a story. And she answered.
“What do you have for me in return?”
She reached up through the rain grate and handed me and orange. A proper orange, the size of a baseball with a peel like deer hide. She mindlessly pulled at it and tried to think of a story.
“Well, once upon a time there was an apple." She paused and licked her lips.
"It grew on the tree, hard and green." Orange peels fell like rain.
"It ripened, then rotted on the branches because it was frozen there."
"There’s not really much more to say.”
She finished peeling the orange. The rind was cold and waxy, and the curled peels fell like petals at my feet. I bit into it like an apple, the whitish, soft strings flaky on my cheeks as I broke through the clear membrane. Juice ran down my chin and burned with citric acid in the cracks of my chapped lips.
The woman looked on with a small smile, like a Chesire cat teaching a kitten.
An eccentric pair we were.
“You can’t walk.”
Daffodil swallowed a bite of orange. There was a pause.
“Why aren’t there any shadows around you?” she asked.
The woman laughed.
“Because they’re afraid of me.”
* * *
A set of knuckles stretched white around his bones as he fisted the stone in his right hand. It was round like a millstone, and was pockmarked like an orange, but about as big as a grapefruit. It was very hard. Harder than most other stones, and a bit lopsided toward the end, forming a dull point.
His other set of knuckles cradles a round egg of granite. It sparkled dully, and was an ugly, dull red color, mottled with faded specks of black. One of many,many smooth, round stones that filled flower beds as decor. They scrabbled under your feet when you stepped on them, crunching and grinding together. Those smooth, round stones. Those smooth, round, useless stones.
Not for long.
Bricks. Sharp stones. Angled shards. Broken pieces.
The egg of granite split neatly in half. Crystals like conglomerate countertop sparkled from inside. A melange of pepper and glassine salt.
A new piece of his mountain.
It fit as perfectly as a puzzle piece.
With the round, pockmarked, lopsided quartzite grapefruit, he pounded open the piles and piles of stones. They split like walnuts under each heavy thud of his rock, spraying tiny shards of crystal. They were sharp and stung his cheeks with small cuts. But he hardly felt them.
Basalt. Gray and porous like a moon rock. The inside was smooth and made of angled threads like silvery stainless steel.
Flint. A matte gray. Smooth, silver bones like marble.
Peach calcite. A frosty apricot orange that formed ice crystals over the dents and chips. It was filled with dazzling crystal.
Ferris lifted the stone.
Smiling, he took a bite of a snickers. Behind him a pile of chocolate bars in crackling, gleaming wrappers flashed in the sun. His pile of stones was waist-tall now. The photograph was in his jean pocket. A map to his destination.
* * *
creak creak creak creak creak creak
She looked in through a window. She thought she could see a fire burning. She looked up at the rest of it. The sign was worn away. There was a large window in front, that she couldn’t see her reflection in.
She dismounted the cart, and went through the swinging door, and a bell dingled. She wasn’t sure if that’s something doors did. Maybe. A wave of warmth washed over her like steam, and she sucked in a breath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt warm.
Chairs woven from curlicues of iron tendril circled tables that gleamed like floating opals, next to a wall of bookshelves layered like a halved onion. Leatherbound spines oozed from between wooden slabs like peanut butter between slices of bread. The floor was coated in a frizzy carpet that was soft on the cracked soles of her feet. The room was warmly colored with comforting shades of brown, lit with golden lampshades that glowed like sinking suns. An electric fireplace crackled in the wall, plastic logs glowing with red light. Some easy chairs soft and melded from leather-coated rolls oozing like marshmallows leaned in the corner, and the air smelled of something baking.
Uncertain, she tiptoed to a table and sat down. The dip of the seat was like a smooth spoon. She peeled away some of the bandages to look at her blisters. They were looking better. She took the tin of balm for her pocket and applied a fresh coat.
She looked again at the bookshelves. The books on them lined the shelves, wrapped in binding like chocolate bars in candy wrappers. She slid one out of the slot and examined it. It didn’t have a title, and when she opened it, she found that the words were unreadable. They didn’t stay still on the page, her eyes couldn’t focus, they crawled around like ants and dripped over the paper like molten tar.
You must know as little as possible, a voice whispered.
Daffodil turned. In a dim corner of the shelves there was a fuzzy black blot, that was slowly swallowing up light like a small supernova.
Daffodil unsheathed her phone from her pocket and shone the screen at the shadow.
“I can read the words on this,” she said.
Not for much longer, it whispered. We will swallow the light and leech it away like a glass of milk.
The spot of darkness was shifting and gaseous, reaching out to leech away warmth with black tendrils of vapor blurred beyond a sliver of clarity. A shadow. A shadow that shouldn’t have been there, void of the rules of shading and the suggestions made by split shafts of light and dull spots of dimness. A stain, a plague, ugly rust on a haven of warm gold, that would swallow it and blot it out like her house.
But it wouldn’t for a while longer. It was small.
Humming, she got up from her chair and looked into the kitchen. Neat brown packages of earthy coffee grounds lined chestnut shelves. Stainless steel ovens gleamed next to fridges full of chilled dough for brownies and biscuits. The counter was dusted with flour and greased baking pans crackled with waxpaper, and plugs trailed from brassy coffee makers and humming cookie warmers. She took a peanut butter cookie to the table and ate it.
She cried a little more, because this place would be drowned by the shadows. And her heart felt warm, and she felt warm for the first time, as she ate a cookie like the darkness would eat up this place in melting, golden pieces. Her face was shaped for crying and they trickled down smoothly.
What did it matter? This place was empty, so it wasn’t real.
And she didn’t really count.
So she enjoyed the buttery smoothness of the cookie, she let her eyes glaze over the fickle, melting words in the books, even if she couldn’t read them, she enjoyed the warmth of the electric fire, watching the plastic logs glowing red like coals and listening to the artificial crackling and letting it seep into her ears and drown out the whispering shadows.
And then she left, through the swinging, chiming door, and climbed back into the cart.
creak creak creak creak creak creak