A short story I wrote, intended to be part of a series associated with an absurdist storytelling podcast I was producing at the time. Its absurdist roots certainly show in the ludicrous style!
Dusk came early, tonight.
An inarguable fact; but it is not the whole story. We are humans, and so we demand reasons, rationales, a cause to prompt effect, or else we wonder.
We wonder, did the overzealous moon, freshly waxed and gleaming, grow tired of its sibling’s reign, and wrest it from the sky in a fit of lunar pique? Did the Spasming Hill City Council, we muse, detain the official city time again, after it made their morning coffees cold in its passing? We speculate on this and more, and then we move on. For that is the nature of human curiosity, when we smell a story in the making, as we certainly do now. And so.
Dusk came early, tonight.
In the premature gloom, the streets of the city begin to show the first, hesitant signs of activity that is almost certainly neither standard, nor council-approved. Furtive shapes, rendered a shade less furtive by the confusedly dwindling rays of the sun, scurry and hurry, here and there, and well-groomed goats of the evening begin to bleat enticingly at passers-by. None seem fazed by the early dusk; but then, the citizens of this town are used to far stranger afflictions than a mild bout of disjointed time.
One of these distinctly unruffled inhabitants snags our narrative eye as they stride through our field of view. They drag our omniscient consciousness along behind them down High Street, and, unable to disentangle ourselves, we soon resign ourselves to a story about them, in lieu of the story we wanted to tell. This, then, is our unwitting protagonist for this evening’s instalment, one Veronica F. Moverly, “Vee” to her friends.
We manipulate our all-seeing eye to get a better look at our designated driver as she strolls past the reinforced titanium doors of the Ricardo Memorial Thudball Arena, and turns down Braxford Lane, hands thrust deep into the cavernous pockets of her auburn trench-coat. We note her diminutive stature, just shy of 5 feet; the short-cropped black hair, coaxed into artful spikes; the mismatched eyes, one dirt brown, the other cobalt blue, sliding incessantly from stranger to furtive stranger in the dusk. Every darting shape contains an infinitude of possibilities, and Vee delights in idly assigning identities and purposes to their mysterious silhouettes.
There, she thinks, is a courier for the sinister Salad Mafia, running a shipment of contraband basil leaves to one of their numerous salad speak-easies. And that one, that person of indeterminate sex in the overly theatrical half-cape, is surely a member of TUGG, Spasming Hill’s Tragically Unappreciated Geniuses Guild which has spawned fourteen times as many super villains as any other small Midwestern community. And that one… oh. Vee averts her eyes immediately from this last one, for she is sure that the hooded man clad in a nondescript grey suit is in actual fact one of those ever-generous agents from an undisclosed conglomerate, and she has no desire to draw the attention of one such as he.
Breathing a little heavily now, Vee tugs her auburn trench-coat closed against air which, having decided that if everybody else is going to pretend it’s dusk, then it might as well, too, has begun to acquire the first hint of evening crispness. She forges onwards through the gathering night, sweeping past the shuttered facade of the old Sodanational Industries milk bar, crossing the road to avoid the limping, muttering old man in the tinfoil hat, until she reaches the narrow mouth of an alleyway sandwiched between two grungy buildings peeling with neglect.
With a suspicious look up and down the street, she reassures herself that she is not under surveillance – at least, no more than is usual for an inhabitant of this town – and ducks into the alleyway. As the fluttering auburn tails of her trench-coat disappear after her, a troupe of dramatic leaves scuttle by, and the light in an upstairs window of the building across the road is suddenly extinguished. We, too, are inexorably dragged after Vee into the alleyway, but we have time to catch a fleeting glimpse of a pair of pale faces pressed up against the grimy glass. Foreshadowing? Or a wayward plot point from a narrative yet untold?
Inside, the alleyway is short, and dark, the impatient moon still unrisen above buildings that hedge us in on either side. A single wooden door, solid, but misshapen in its frame, is set into the wall on the right, and the sour stench of urine pervades the air. To all outward appearances, then, this alley is indistinguishable from any other alleyway in the city, or is, perhaps, set apart by its sheer mundanity. An alleyway’s alleyway, one might say, wryly, the pinnacle of alley-osity, the alleyway other alleyways aspire to be.
No doubt you lean forward in anticipation, or raise a knowing eyebrow, just waiting for the hidden passage or great and terrible secret that must present itself at any moment; but this is not that kind of story. Vee walks up, naturally, smoothly, to the wooden door, wrinkling her nose, and raises a knuckled hand. A secret knock then, you persist, a whispered word or phrase, a code of puzzling complexity; but this is not that kind of story. She raps upon the wood once, twice, three times, neither hard nor soft, neither fast nor slow, in the manner that anyone who has ever knocked upon a door themselves would find familiar. As she waits for an answer, she rubs an arm and shivers, trying to shake off a sudden thrill of cold. The auburn trench-coat must be too thin, she thinks, for winter, that season which brings increased heating costs and small demons that nibble at the edges of your consciousness, is not even here yet, and she is shivering.
Her wandering thoughts are interrupted as the door swings open, revealing an expressionless man wearing an exceedingly silly hat, of a design that would make one unaccustomed to it burst out in helpless laughter. Behind him, unexpectedly well-maintained stairs lead down, to a basement, perhaps, or a cellar. Vee is evidently accustomed to the man’s absurd headgear and, unsmiling, nods her head at him, and he, unsmiling, at her; pleasantries concluded, acknowledgements exchanged, the man steps aside and Vee files wordlessly past him, down the stairs.
We, however, are not tugged along. Surprisingly, we discover that, in the interim, we have somehow been liberated from her narrative stream, and are free to go where we please; somewhat more surprisingly, we realize that we really would like to know what happens next, if it’s all the same to you, and slip invisibly past the expressionless man just as he closes the door and twists the lock.
The stairwell is lit by bare bulbs that dangle from exposed bundles of multicolored plastic wiring, and though Vee can still feel the chill from outside, there seems to be heat emanating from somewhere beneath, wherever it is that the stairs lead.
At last! you exclaim, eager to guess the outlandish destination that must surely await us at the end of our meandering journey through the premature dusk. For why else would it be located in an ordinary alleyway, behind a commonplace door, bereft of the security provided by a coded phrase or even an elaborate knock, if not to deflect unwanted attention? The secret laboratory, the underground headquarters, yes, the secluded lair of the tragic villain, hunted and spurned for his unscrupulous actions; and I remind you, quietly, that this is not that kind of story.
But, wait; as Vee completes her descent and pushes open the plain, white door at the bottom, emerging into the space beyond, do not throw up your arms in exasperation, and seek another tale to entertain you. Though the room beyond is not alive with the whirring hum of fantastical devices, nor yet deep enough to impinge upon the city’s vast (and secret) subterranean containment complex, it does, after all, contain something to warrant our continued interest.
A trio of people stand in a loose semicircle on the far side of the room, two of whom Vee recognizes, and one whom she does not. Beside the stranger stands a goat, meh-eh-eh-ing softly to itself with its hackles raised. All of the room’s occupants have their gazes fixated upon the creature in the middle of the room, and so it is to this Vee turns her attention.
The creature is a sheep. Vee edges around the farmyard animal warily, studying it intently as she tries to divine exactly what it is that holds the other watchers transfixed. Apart from a slightly nasty odor originating from the vacant-eyed sheep, nothing seems off. She circles back in the other direction, as the expressionless man closes the door behind himself with a muted thud. Eventually, she gives up, and addresses one of the three opposite, a portly man in a plaid jumpsuit.
“But Doctor Rebus, I don’t understand what I’m looking at here. It seems to be just an ordinary sheep!” she exclaims. Doctor Plural Rebus, esteemeddirector of the Unnecessary Research Unit at the Spasming Hill Researchatorium, inclines his head gravely by way of answer, and points a solemn forefinger at one of the sheep’s legs.
“Look closely,” he says.
Vee inches nearer the sheep, and crouchesdown to inspect the indicated limb, frowning. But there’s nothing… except! There! Did the sheep’s leg… flicker? Vee tentatively reaches out with one hand, pausing uncertainly to glance up at the grim Doctor Rebus for reassurance that she is not endangering her questing appendage. At his nod, she completes the gesture, passing her hand completely through the entire lower forelimb of the sheep, which merely stares dumbly at this clear violation of its personal space. In wonder, she repeats the motion several times, working her way up the leg until she finds her hand blocked by a veryreal, very solid chunk of sheep.
“But… but… what…?” Vee stammers, in helpless disbelief, backing away from the placid animal, which remains blithely unaware of its bizarre affliction. Doctor Rebus smiles thinly, stepping over to Vee and placing a steadying arm over her shoulders.
“Ahem. At this stage, we are largely in the dark concerning the, erm, nature of this animal’s malady,” he explains, in a voice that carries traces of an accent from some small, undocumented European republic. “However! Following a preliminaryexamination, it is my professional opinion that, ah, this condition, whatever it may be, did not occur naturally! Rather, it was, eh, induced; someone has, for reasons unclear, destabilized this, mm, creature’s leg.” At this point, the sheep in question adjusts its stance, shuffling its legs briefly before resuming its indifferent wallgazing. This would all be hardly worth mentioning, if not for the disconcerting manner in which it supports itself on a leg that one has passed their hand through bare moments before. Vee experiences a surge of inexplicable nausea just watching it, and is glad for the doctor’s arm.
“So,” she begins, choking down the sudden sickness. “Should we be worried? I mean, this is Spasming Hill, after all. Heck,I’ll bet you see weirder stuff than this every day over at the Researchatorium, Plural. Can’t we just cut it loose and leave it for animal control?” The middle-aged doctor grows stiff, as he always does when his workplace is brought up, and he pulls away from Vee, straightening his plaid jumpsuit uncomfortably.
“Ehm. Vee, you know I can’t talk about what I do at, ah, work,” he mutters. “Besides, it’s not that simple,” he continues, defensively. “I’ll let, mm, you explain” – here addressing the stranger – “since you were the one who, er, found the creature.” The stranger clucks soothingly at his bristling goat, before clearing his throat and waving at Vee.
“Greetings. We’ve never met before, but I’ve heard lots of stories about you, Vee! I have to say, that one where you solve the mystery of the mutant mole people is an absolute favorite of mine, I mean -” Noticing the uncomprehending stare on her face, he tugs awkwardly at the collar of his pale blue shirt and starts again. “Ohhh-kay, so that one hasn’t happened yet. Well, anyway, I found this sheep abandoned next to that hip and trendy new parking lot on my way to work, you know, the one next to the community goat farm? I work at the plant,” he added, and Vee nods. While nobody knows what the plant produces, who owns it, or what precisely goes on behind its non-functional revolving glass doors, everybody knows of “the plant”. Indeed, the plant’s employment of large swathes of the town’s citizenry means that nearly everyone has an aunt, close friend or estranged lover who works there.
“Do you mean that parking lot belonging to that dead guy?” Vee inquires.
“Theodore Popplebody,” chimes in the last occupant of the room, Rex Zorkel-Smythe, an editor at the Daily Spasm. “The officer assigned to the case, one Detective Flypaper, claimed the Salad Mafia was behind it all. Funny thing is, as soon as he goes on record with this, poof, the body goes missing and the case gets dropped. Whole thing’s fairly consistent with the Mafia’s usual modus operandi.”
The stranger nods.
“Thanks, Rex. The proprietor’s mysterious death notwithstanding, I don’t think the Salad Mafia has anything to do with these odd animals. It doesn’t seem their style.”
“Wait. Hang on,” Vee interjects. “Animals, plural? Just how many of these creepy things have turned up?”
“At last count? Well, it started with a cow three weeks ago-” here, he holds up a hand and counts them off – “then there was a rooster, two pigs and now this sheep.” He holds up the hand, displaying five splayed digits. “Five, all up.”
“All, ahem, barnyard animals, and all possessing a, er, destabilized forelimb,” Doctor Rebus elaborates. At this stage, the expressionless man in the exceedingly silly hat leaves the room without a noise. The others hardly seem to notice his departure, gripped as they are by the enormity of the mystery facing them.
“Spooky, isn’t it, Vee?” Rex says, flashing her an easy grin. Of the four remaining humans in the room, it is the thirty-something editor who seems the least perturbed by the entire bizarre scenario; but then, this is to be expected. Having recently completed his mandatory seven years of service in with the Daily Spasm’s crack reporting corps, Rex has seen a lot of strange things, and made a lot of friends, some of whom still have fully-functioning arms. With a head full of memories that either make for a heck of a story or leave him twitching and trembling involuntarily throughout the night, it takes more than a herd of existentially-challenged farmyard animals to faze ol’ Rex “Inkspatter” Zorkel-Smythe.
“Knock it off, Rex,” Vee scowls. “This is serious.” She suddenly looks uncertain. “Isn’t it?”
“Ah, incredibly,” says Doctor Rebus, his own scowl ratcheting up to at least an eight on the gravitas scale. “Mass and energy are, uhm, intrinsically linked. This sheep’s limb is not totally, mm, gone: you felt that for yourself, ah, Vee. But if one could find a way to, eh, fully destabilize small chunks of matter, say, a, erm, animal’s forelimb, then the energy released would be tremendous, far beyond anything we have, erh, seen before.”
“Alright, Plural, I get it. Mysterious individual is conducting experiments to harvest vast amounts of energy; said individual’s purposes could be less than clean and decent fun for the whole family; consequently, the aforementioned individual needs to be found and his method investigated.”
“Full marks, Vee,” Rex says, brightly. “A sleek summation of our situation.”
“What I don’t get,” she continues, “is why you need me, Plural. I mean, okay. This guy and his angry goat found the darned things in the first place. Rex… well, ol’ Rexy’ll find leads buried in the flipping woodwork. He’s so good I swear he’s like some kind of weird termite-bloodhound hybrid when it comes to ferreting out a story.” Here Rex graciously doffs an imaginary hat which no doubt rivals the (absent) expressionless man’s own for utter silliness. Vee turns back to face Plural.
“And you, well, Doctor, you’re just about the most brilliant man over at the Researchatorium, even if they don’t realize it. You’ll probably have this farmyard energy racket laid out on the floor begging for mercy by tomorrow afternoon while Rex tracks down your rogue scientist. So, why’d you call me here? What can I possibly do to help?” The doctor shakes his head emphatically.
“No, ah, Vee, you don’t understand. This… research has incredible, er, potential. As a source of energy it would, mm, be nearly limitless.”
“Imagine what oh, say, the Spasming Hill law enforcement department might do if they got their overzealous hands on limitless energy,” adds Rex. “Enough to power Project Halfmoon Sundae, for example?” Vee shudders at the very thought.
“What about a disenfranchised member of TUGG with some diabolical, energy-guzzling doomsday device?” suggests the stranger. “Or even one of those creepy Sodanational shadow executives you hear about?”
The stranger is of course referring to the recent plague of skulking, half-human creatures, clad in tattered business suits emblazoned with the fizzing soda can of Sodanational Industries, who have been popping up in increasing numbers since their parent company was run out of town over a year ago. Officially, these unexplained “shadow executives” do not exist (although, council spokespeople stress, if they were to exist – which, of course, they do not – it would surely be a result of the previous administration’s unprecedented expenditure of the entire governmental snack budget on a new highway, rather than on Twinkies, as they’d wanted). Unofficially, the town’s pre-eminent conspiracy theorists have unanimously agreed that the nocturnal wraiths leech the deep-seated consumerist tendencies from their victims, storing it as energy for the coming glorious rebirth of their long-defunct employer.
“Not to, eh, mention that if anyone at the Researchatorium gets so much as a, uhm, whiff of this new research, the investigation will be taken away from me and given to that, ah, snake, Barnard, and his oh-so-necessary research unit.” Plural’s distasteful grimace betrays more than a hint of rancor at this thought.
“Okay, okay!” Vee says, knowing how touchy the doctor gets when it comes to Barnard and his work. “You’ve convinced me. Of course I’ll help as much as I can. What I’ll do is…”
As Plural, Vee and Rex begin to discuss details of their plan, we, the tireless watchers, notice that the stranger, uninvolved in the scheming, has pulled his goat away from the main group and is attempting to calm him down.
“Dennis!” he scolds, crouching down and trying to force the restless animal to make eye contact. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you today. It’s just a sheep, and – Dennis!” Dennis, still meh-eh-eh-ing menacingly, wrests his head free of the stranger’s frustrated grasp and resumes his intent stare. The stranger throws up his hands in exasperation and straightens up.
“Really, Dennis! I can’t take you anywhere. That’s it, you’re grounded for…”
He trails off as he notices that his pet goat is no longer staring at the passive sheep, but at the door to the stairs.
“What’re you staring at, boy?” he asks, furrowing his brow. “Is there someone out there?” Dennis’ meh-eh-eh-ing intensifies, but he does not otherwise respond. The stranger fancies that now he can hear footsteps descending the tall flight of stairs, a faint, rhythmic thumping noise that carries through beneath the spirited discussion between the three gesticulating figures. “It’s just that man, the one who doesn’t smile, the one who doesn’t frown. But you know, I think he must have a brother or something, because he reminds of this other man who watches me while I’m working at the plant.”
The room is warm, but the beads of sweat glistening on the stranger’s creased forehead are neither cold, nor yet quite hot; the rhythmic pounding is growing louder, and it begins to sound like there are not one, but two people descending the stairs. Thump, thump-th-thump, badum-dum-dum-creeeak goes the noise, the descenders’ dual footsteps mixing to create an erratic, thumping beat. Did the expressionless man, perhaps, fetch a friend?
The stranger turns to the three.
“Hey, guys?” he nearly whispers, then clears his throat and tries again, louder. “Were we expecting someone else?” The three do not afford him so much as a disparaging glance for his trouble; the thumping grows louder still, but they do not seem to hear. The stranger briefly considers tapping one of the preoccupied trio on the shoulder, but it is not in his nature to be so bold. Stories of what wanders the moon-lit streets above (and what may even now descend the stairs towards the hapless occupants) flit through his head: misbegotten manifestations eschewing flesh and bone; rarely-seen but overzealous enforcers of the law; the mayor and her monstrous doppelganger, out on a walk to get a taste of populace’s political opinions, and a taste of a select few members of the populace itself.
Such thoughts overwhelm our poor temporary protagonist with terror, and he merely watches the door, quivering slightly and clutching at the scruff of the increasingly agitated Dennis’ neck. The out-of-sync footsteps reach a crescendo, and then…
Stop. Right outside the door.
Silence. But only for a moment.
Then, the knocking. Awkward, feeble, and as swiftly discontinued as a children’s toy with a sharp edge, it fails to draw the attention of the yet-impassioned trio. The door bursting open bare seconds later, however, does not escape their collective notice.
“Holy jumping Gilgamesh!” exclaims Vee, who was facing towards the door. We swing back to rejoin her narrative stream as she beholds the two figures who occupy the narrow doorway, deserting the somewhat pathetic stranger and his riled goat.
The figures are gruesome, huge and ravening; fell beasts that boggle the mind and beggar the imagination. They stand there, moaning, quivering, shaking with…
Alas. Embroiled in the heat of the moment, we let our expectations get the better of us (and such expectations they were!). A slight amendment, then, to the above description. The pair of interlopers are not nearly so gruesome, huge, or, indeed, so ravening as we initially presumed; on the contrary, the pair in the doorway are distinctly humanoid, possessing two arms, two legs, and all the other various appendages and features generally attributed to human beings. They’re not so much towering as they are of an average height and build, and they’re wearing loose-fitting polo shirts and two-tone jeans. All in all, the only really remarkable thing about them is that their skin is perhaps a shade paler than usual, but this could easily be a result of the unfavorable lighting in the basement, or maybe just the gift of a Nordic lineage.
“To extend the life of corporation!” declares the one, striking a pose.
“To unite the drones in one vocation!” proclaims the other, equally as dramatically.
“To transfer wealth from you to me!”
“It’s business, not a charity!”
“Business Inc., and we are pretty sleek!”
“Surrender now, and give up the sheep!”
An uncomfortable, stunned silence greets them as those in the room stare in disbelief.
“That last line is dumb. And it doesn’t even rhyme,” Vee observes, looking at the duo incredulously.
“Drinksel?” Rex says, snorting. “What kind of a name is that?”
The man on the right seems to deflate a little.
“It’s Drixl, sounds like pixel? And the lines do rhyme! But it’s a half-rhyme, sleek, sheep, right?” he explains, a little petulantly.
“He reads a lot of fantasy books, you see,” adds his partner, helpfully. The man glares at her.
“Chose your own names, did you?” Rex retorts, sniggering. “That’s priceless, that is.”
The doctor is somewhat less amused, and he frowns at the intruders.
“Ah, excuse me,” he says, adjusting his plaid jumpsuit in an affronted manner. “This is, er, private property, so if you wouldn’t, ahm, mind…?” The woman gives him a brief look of consternation before seeming to remember why she’s here, and draws herself up to her full height.
“No! Didn’t you hear us? We’re not leaving without the sheep. Hand it over and nobody gets hurt.”
“You may as well,” her partner says. “We’ve already taken back all the others.”
“Excuse me?” says Vee. “Who exactly did you say you clowns were, again? And what do you know about these animals?”
“I’m Drixl.” At this Rex snorts into his hand but quickly converts it into an unconvincing cough and waves for them to continue.
“And… and together we make up Business Inc. We’re here on behalf of our clients, Sodanational Industries, to reclaim their stolen property. So if you could just give it here…”
“No, no, no, stop, hold it, back up!” Vee says. “Did you say you’re working for Sodanational Industries? Are you serious? Did you somehow miss the part where they don’t exist anymore?”
“Haven’t for this past year and more,” pipes in Rex, who has recovered from his stifled laughing fit.
“You aren’t… you aren’t shadow executives, are you?” asks the stranger, in hushed tones from where he struggles to restrain the heaving Dennis from tackling the intruders. Drixl eyes the goat warily.
“Not hardly,” he scoffs. “To be honest, we don’t know what those guys’ deal is. We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not even affiliated with our employers.”
“Drixl and I suspect they’re agents hired by a competitor to sully Sodanational’s public reputation,” says Helen. “Maybe the Indigo Foundation, or those arrogant soda snobs over at Bubblecorp with their nasty Triple-Octane Hyperbuzz.” She screws up her face in distaste.
“Ugh! I can’t stand that stuff,” agrees Rex, amiably. “I’m a Grunge Soda man, myself.”
“Grunge is alright,” Drixl concedes. “At least they use natural sweeteners, rather than that awful synthetic junk that -“
“I’m sorry,” interrupts Vee, who is growing steadily more perplexed by this exchange. “I rather think we’re overlooking something important. Namely, how can you ‘sully the reputation’ of a company that does not exist?”
“Oh, honey,” Helen says, rather condescendingly. “You have no idea how businesses work, do you? Sure, publicly Sodanational Industries went bankrupt. But a giant corporation like that? Bankruptcy’s a minor setback, at most. I mean, heck, the majority of their funds aren’t even declared.”
“Offshore bank accounts, tax-free ‘concessions’ to the Church of Overwhelming Gravity, hedge funds, you name it,” lists Drixl.
“All they need is a new slogan, a relabelling of an old product to make it seem new – ‘Sodanational Industries-brand soda classic’, or the like – and a cheap source of energy to get them back on their feet and pushing out profits like they’re bloody King Midas. Which is where that sheep comes in. So if you’ll oblige…” She moves towards the sheep, which remains blissfully unperturbed by the drama unfolding around it.
Doctor Rebus steps forward, placing himself between the woman and the vacant-eyed animal.
“I’m afraid I can’t, uhm, allow that!” he states, firmly. “This, ahm, animal represents an extremely valuable research subject! Please leave the premises at, mm, once!”
“Or what?” she responds, rolling her eyes. “You’ll call the cops? Look, Drixl here is a fully trained and qualified combat accountant, and I myself happen to possess not one but three degrees in public relations. Whereas you are, what, some kind of research guy?”
“I am, ah, more than just ‘some kind of research guy’, as you so eloquently put it,” Plural says, reaching into his plaid jumpsuit with one hand and clutching at something unseen within. “But I have neither, mm, the time nor the, eh, inclination to trade accreditations like a petty grad student. Instead, I will, ahh, merely inform you that I have a vial of concentrated and, er, highly volatile science within my coat pocket, which, uh, I will not hesitate to use.” Vee can see that Helen looks a little worried by the threat, but she blusters on regardless.
“Woah! Hold up there,” she says, standing her ground against the frankly frightening scowl on Plural’s face. “All this trouble on account of one little sheep surely isn’t necessary.” Vee winces at the mention of the ‘n’ word. In unspoken unison, she and Rex begin to sidle past the glaring opponents, while Drixl watches them, unsure of what they’re up to. Rex grabs the stranger as he passes, tugging him along for the ride. Surprised, the stranger loosens his grip on the angrily lunging Dennis.
“Necessary?” sputters the doctor. “It isn’t, eh, necessary, is it?” Vee and Rex redouble their pace, pushing past a confused Drixl (who makes no move to stop them) and start to scramble up the staircase, the puzzled stranger at their heels. Behind them, the enraged doctor whips out a vial half-filled with a startling turquoise liquid.
“Well, here’s what I think of your ‘necessary’, Barnard!” he barks, throwing the vial towards the floor, and then several things happen in quick succession.
The stranger loses his grip on his pet goat completely, leaving Dennis free to charge down the staircase at Drixl, who has developed the distinct feeling that he and his partner are out of their depth; Vee slams the door to the stairwell behind her, Rex and the stranger; and Helen just has time to form the question “Who is Barnard?” before the vial shatters against the ground, exposing the extremely volatile science within to the air.
The concentrated science reacts swiftly with trace amounts of wild supposition and baseless speculation present in the air, producing copious amounts of heat, light, and a neutral compound that neither relies upon logical fallacies for its existence, nor makes falsifiable, testable predictions. Vee, braced against the other side of the thick, white door, feels it vibrate with the muffledfwoomp of the explosion.
“Dennis!” cries the stranger, aghast, frozen upon the stairs.
“Don’t worry,” Vee says, reassuringly. “I have a feeling Dennis is just fine. Let’s see, shall we?” She puts her ear up against the door, briefly, but, hearing nothing, she pushes it open. Helen and Drixl are slumped against the walls, unconscious, while an unharmed Doctor Rebus pats an equally unruffled Dennis as the goat nuzzles gently against his leg. The sheep, of course, is still standing placidly by, staring into the middle distance.
“Necessary, indeed!” growls the doctor, when he sees his friends filing back in. “Who do those, ah, hooligans think they are anyway?”
“Good one, Plural,” enthuses Vee, and Rex nods.
“Nailed it, Rebus my man!” he says, admiringly, proceeding to pull a small camera from out of some pocket and snap photos of the sprawling members of Business Inc. from various angles.
“But… there was an explosion,” protests the somewhat dazed stranger, looking at the unscathed doctor in wonderment. “How…?” The usually no-nonsense doctor taps the side of his nose enigmatically.
“A scientist has to conserve some secrets, you, mm, know.” Some of the levity drains from his face as he looks back to Vee. “But, ah, this raises yet more questions. Something is, uh, undoubtedly brewing in this town, and the involvement of these hooligans raises more questions than it, hum, answers.” Vee nods solemnly.
“I know, Plural, I know. Look, if you can handle the clean-up here…?”
“Don’t worry about a thing, Vee,” Rex says from the corner. “If there’s any dirt to be dug up on these Business Inc. nutters, I’ll be the one holding the shovel. Drixl, can you believe it?”
Vee shakes her head with a knowing grin, bids her friends – and the mysterious stranger – a fond farewell, and begins to climb the stairs leading up to the alleyway. The air acquires a distinctly frosty quality to it as she ascends, and she draws her inadequate auburn trench-coat tight around her. In short order she reaches the top of the stairs, where the innocuous door stands ajar. Oddly, there is no sign of the expressionless man and his silly hat, nor any sign of a struggle, or forced entry. A mystery; but not one that occupies our yawning protagonist for long, for she soon dismisses it with a careless shrug and steps out into the alleyway, breathing in its sour stench as she shuts the door behind her.
Night has well and truly fallen by the time she re-emerges onto Braxford Lane, and the streetlights cast their tiny pools of luminescence upon the shadowed ground beneath. The dramatic troupe of leaves from earlier, caught in the prevailing wind, provide an atmospheric encore as they skitter back past the mouth of the alleyway in the other direction, carefully steering clear of Vee’s leaden footfalls. The moon, for all its earlier impatience, blushes with boredom from its seat in the sky, cursing and vowing to never bring the dusk quite so early again.
+ + + + + +
And thus our short tale ends. The curtain falls upon the stage, and we wish a safe journey to our tired protagonist, huddled against the cold, as she trudges her weary way to a destination and happenings that we, at least, will not be around to see.
“But wait!” you, the reader, interrupt. “It can’t be finished yet. Nothing’s been resolved! There is so much more left to tell!”
That may be; and then again, perhaps it is not. Stories, no matter how comprehensive or complete they strive to be, can only capture fragments, elements, precious slivers of the infinitely complex whole. There is no tale so perfectly complete that we reach the final page, entirely satisfied that every single aspect we could ever have desired to know has been explained in its entirety. Stories are high-railed bridges over rushing rivers, lined with precisely-angled portholes that allow us passing glimpses of the flotsam floating by. Nothing is complete; everything is partial.
But that is as it should be.
And so, in the small Midwestern community of Spasming Hill, in the streets and buildings and vast subterranean containment complex that make up this strange, strange town, we realize something. We realize that here, of all places, not every good story comes to an end.