Jones has a gnome problem. And who wouldn’t think it’s a problem to have gnomes out to kill you? If that isn’t bad enough, he just broke up with his girlfriend and his neighbor, who is a fairy, just drank his last beer. The world of magic isn’t all fun and Hobbits and old wizards who smoke too much. Sometimes, it’s threatening and sinister and not some place you’d like to go for vacation.
“Friggin gnomes,” I muttered. I’ve never liked gnomes. Filthy little thieves is all the really are. You can always tell when gnomes are around because shit starts disappearing. Shit like lighters, clothes, knick-knacks, jewelry, etc. The little bastards even stole my bartender’s tool! You can’t be a proper bartender without a bartender’s tool. Needless to say, I lost that job and have hated gnomes ever since. And now they were trying to kill me. Everything comes full circle I suppose. “I just broke up with my girlfriend. I don’t need this shit.”
Doloria rolled her eyes. “Get over yourself. You’ve got bigger things to worry about.”
I glared at her, but she was right. “O.K. So what stops a gnome??” I said and began pacing.
“You mean besides your blade in its gullet?” giggled Doloria. “I like a pixie stick.” She swung an invisible wand at an invisible gnome.
“I’m not a fairy. I can’t use a pixie stick.”
“Make a circle of protection then. With a gnomish twist.”
“I’d rather not. I don’t like using magic. Why don’t you keep watch. Just for tonight? I’ll figure something out in the morning, I promise.”
“Uh no. I’ve got plans. Looking for my sister. She’s been gone a few days. Other fairies have gone missing too.”
“Want me to help?”
“Uh, no. You have your own problems.” She guzzled the remainder of her beer and burped loudly before springing to her feet. “Well as much as I love our little chats, I gotta run.”
“Protection circle it is,” I sighed and prepared to create it. I do all my ceremonial magic automatically. I can’t tell you how I do it. I go into a trance and the magic preforms itself. That’s why I’m not a wizard. I’m not casting spells out of dusty tomes or trying to conjure demons. I just think about it and it kind of happens. After I was done I dug an old book of matches out of the kitchen drawer and lit a smoke. Now, at least, no gnomish assassins would sneak up on me in my sleep. And tomorrow…tomorrow I’d start finding answers.
The best place to find answers to my questions was a flea market. Gnomes love the shit out of flea markets. They get to buy, sell and trade any “treasures” they’ve come across. My bartender’s tool probably ended up in a flea market. Plus, flea markets usually have a fat Elvis impersonator. Gnomes go ape shit for fat Elvis.
Just like any other weekend, the flea market was was overcrowded and stank of body odor and fried food. Junk peddlers called to the second hand shoppers, proclaiming their junk better than their rivals’. I know what you’re thinking. How was I going to find a gnome in all that? But spotting gnomes in a flea market is easier than you think. When the fey disguise themselves as human, they don’t glamour themselves as Oompah Loompahs or munchkins. Nope. They are usually the huge, loud and dirty fools running around slamming into people and spitting in improper places. The trick is to separate the glamoured fey from the actual huge, loud and dirty fools that populate the flea market.
This is most effectively done with a holey stone. A round stone with a hole through the center. Old magic and simple. It allows you to see through illusions and glamour. Of course this meant I was wandering around covertly peeking through a hole in a rock. But, hey, it’s the flea market. Crazier people wander around there every day. That’s where they go to hide.
It didn’t take long to find a gnome running a booth. He was disguised as a monster of a man: well over 6ft and half way through 300 pounds. His shirt and jeans were colorfully stained and he had a huge bushy beard which stored leftover bits of food.
“How’re ya today?” he asked as I browsed his wares.
“Great. Just great. I’m looking for a bartender’s tool. Have one?”
He scratched his beard and belched thoughtfully. “Been a while since the last one passed through my hands.”
“That’s a shame. I have good money to spend.” Mention money and a gnome’s eyes instantly widen. But when I pulled out the golden coin his eyes widened for a different reason: fear.
“You! You’re supposed to be—“
“Dead? Yeah, I know. Funny how life works out, isn’t it?”
He chuckled nervously and darted quick glances around his shoulders.
“What’s your name?”
“Skittleshanks.” He eyed me up and down. I could tell he was trying to tell if he could get past me without blowing his glamour.
“Look. If you insist on causing a scene I’ll bind you and get my information that way. Or–and this is the option I’d choose if I were you– you take a lunch break and we talk about this like civilized folk. And maybe get a fat Elvis set in, too.”
Fifteen minutes later I was sitting across from Skittleshanks watching him devour double cheeseburgers and funnel cakes.
“Where does something so small put so much food?” I wondered, mildly impressed at his display of wanton gluttony.
He burped in my face in response and wiped his mouth with the back of his meaty hand. “What is it you want, exactly?”
“I want to know why your cartel is trying to kill me.”
“You mean you can’t figure that out for yourself? Someone is paying us to. It’s business.”
“Who paid you to?”
He finished off a jumbo soda before answering, “I dunno.”
“Don’t play with me, gnome,” I threatened. “I need answers before things get ugly.”
“Oh things got ugly the moment I laid eyes on you. I told you I don’t know who put out the contract on you. I just know it’s there. Management doesn’t let us in on all the juicy details, see?” He looked over my shoulder and nodded. “This is him, boys.”
“What’s going on?” I demanded as I was hauled to my feet by two buffoons as equally large and filthy as Skittleshanks.
“These are my brothers Skeetshills and Spittlespew.”
A word of advice: Never get captured by gnomes. There’s few things in life worse than death and most of them have to do with gnomish captivity and torture. “Let me go!”
Skittleshanks guffawed. “Or what? You’ll bind me, Mr. Mystic?”
One of the lugs holding me clocked me upside the head and sent my world spinning. Then they dragged me out and threw me into the trunk of their beat up Continental without drawing a second glance from any of the flea marketers, like nothing at all was out of the ordinary. And through it all fat Elvis sang “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in the background. And that,folks, is why I love flea markets.
From the story “A Night In Summerlands” in Twisted Yarns by Jason DeGray.
Get your copy on Amazon today!
THE WATERMELON MOUNTAINS
How do you know when you’ve crossed the border into insanity? Is there a conscious awareness of that moment? If there were, Kurt couldn’t recall it. But the fact remained that, to him, reality didn’t seem real anymore. There was a definite disassociation with not just ‘society’ but reality altogether. As far as he was concerned, existence was fake. A sham. A badly written plot to an epic science fiction novel replete with corporate dystopia and inexplicable quantum phenomena. He had become a detached observer from the whole of it. Bemusedly watching his fleshly persona scurry about on a quest with no foreseeable positive outcome. Like Percival on his search for the Holy Grail. Utterly and irrevocably absurd. He was sure there were mental disorders to describe his condition—But hell. Anymore, there were mental disorders to describe every aspect of human nature. Most of them justifications to write people prescriptions for pills they didn’t need. Normal had come to mean a placid complacency in life characterized by a dull stare and inability to see past the latest distraction. What this fake reality was a distraction from, he didn’t have time to consider because Albuquerque was coming into view.
The fading sun painted the Sandia Mountains a pinkish red to the east, giving them their name among the locals of The Watermelon Mountains. To the west he could make out the tips of three dormant volcanoes that characterized the West Mesa. Before him sprawled the town of Albuquerque in all of its chaotic glory. It had a charm to it—a definite enchantment. But Kurt could feel the undercurrent of violence and destruction that ran hot just beneath the surface. He’d seen enough news to know that hot undercurrent bubbled to the surface more frequently than most cared to admit.
He had to get a room and fast. Somewhere out of the way. Not flashy. A place where his comings and goings wouldn’t be monitored. That place was the Borderlands Motel, a seedy joint hovering on the border of civilized Albuquerque and the place where civilization went to die. He spent a fitful night amidst the screaming, yelling and fucking of the motel’s other patrons leaking through his walls. The next morning, he drove to the nearest Mal-Mart and picked up a new burner phone. His first call was to Esme.
“Kurt! Oh my god! Where are you? I’ve been trying to call you for a week!”
“I left my phone at home. Smart phones aren’t safe to carry. I’m in Albuquerque.”
“When are you getting here? Bella keeps asking for you. I’ve been worried sick. My mom’s driving me up the wall. You know how she gets.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Look. It’s almost over. I’m gonna get the answers I need here and then I’ll be in Arizona. Two or three days tops. I promise.”
“So what’s going on? Is the government really after you? My mom thinks you’ve gone crazy.”
“Look. I’ll explain everything when I get there.” Hearing her voice was painful. He didn’t want to have to deal with this shit right now too. There was enough crazy going around already. All this did was complicate things for him. For some reason their first meeting played through his mind. She looked so alone sitting at the coffee bar. He didn’t know if he should approach her. Didn’t know if he could even muster the courage. But there she sat, hand cupping her shapely chin. Honey brown locks tumbling over delicate shoulders. Her face a mixture of intensity and boredom as she struggled to maintain focus on the book in front of her. He loved her instantly. He loved her still. And the last thing he wanted was to bring this weirdness into his family’s life. “I miss you guys so much.”
“Yeah. We miss you too,” she said, concern leaking into her tone. She had been scared since he busted into the house that day and started shoving clothes into a duffel bag. Sure, he was an eclectic guy. Always had been. That was part of his appeal. But this…this was different. The panic and paranoia had reached critical levels. He very well could be having a psychotic break. She kicked herself for not seeing this earlier. If Kurt was going through that, then the last thing he needed to be doing right now was running across the country off the grid and afraid of every shadow to cross his path. Sure things were difficult between them lately. He was an asshole more often than not and she’d entertained plenty of thoughts of leaving, but it’s not like she didn’t love him. And if he needed her, she would be there for him. “Are you O.K? If you want, I can come meet you out there. We can finish whatever you have to do together.”
“No need to worry. It’ll just be a little while longer. I promise. Tell Bella I love her and will see her soon.”
“Kurt…I really don’t think you should be alone right now.”
“That’s why I love you. I really have to go.” He hung up the phone and immediately called GRL_BLU. “In town. What now?”
“Meet me at the tram. 3 p.m.”
Albuquerque is home to the world’s longest tramway. A cable car system running from the bottom of the Sandias to the peak where a restaurant greets weary travelers.
Kurt found his way to the tram and waited for GRL_BLU to show. He watched as people came in, purchased tickets and boarded the tram, unsure of who he was looking for until a short Hispanic girl in her 20’s sauntered in. She had hair dyed a sapphire blue and enough piercings to make her look like a walking tackle box.
He approached her awkwardly. “Umm…excuse me. Are you—“
“Not here. Just get on the tram. We’ll talk more later.”
The tram was basically a tiny, metal box suspended by nothing but a wire cable. It swayed and lurched on its journey to the top and Kurt was sure that at any moment he would be plunged to his death on the rocks below. He kept trying to make eye contact with GRL_BLU, but she was ignoring him, gazing out the window, lost in her own thoughts.
What is going on here? What am I doing? Kurt wondered as he studied the woman who was supposed to help him. This isn’t safe. GRL_BLU was cool online but he didn’t know a damn thing about her in real life. Knowing someone online and knowing them in real life are two different things. Everybody is playing a persona online whether they realize it or not. They pretend to be the best versions of themselves in some form or fashion. For all he knew, this strange woman was a shill for the Mind’s agents luring him to his death. He stopped short after that thought and his eyes widened.
GRL_BLU turned to him then and smiled knowingly. “Man, your head must be about to explode from all this shit. Am I right?”
He nodded and leaned in close, hoping no one in the crowded tram would overhear, and whispered, “Are you working for Them?”
She giggled. “Them? No. I’m with They.”
“That’s not funny.”
She laughed anyway. It was always the same with these Swifting types. She would never understand what made them the special ones. What it was that triggered the mutation in them. All of them were basically the same. Timid cowards who were incapable of making any real decisions. They floated through life when their abilities were triggered, adrift in a sea of uncertainty and dread. Never knowing whether they were going to wake up in the world they fell asleep in or another altogether. Maybe it was for the best that she and those like her stepped in. All the Mind’s cells were suffering from a corrosive insanity. Existence was sick—diseased—and it was up to her and her cohorts to end the suffering once and for all.
“You met Jim in Durango, right?”
“I did. You guys know each other?”
“Yeah. As much as two people can. He’s supposed to meet us at the restaurant and go over some things.”
Kurt mentally kicked himself. He’d managed to himself caught no matter where he turned. Neither GRL_Blue’s mysterious friends nor the Mind’s agents really cared about him. They were only interested in what Kurt, and namely his Swifting, could do for them. He had a feeling this had all been played out before by his online Swifting comrades, like Kid_Kode. And he was fairly certain Kode was dead.
“Relax,” the blue-haired gutter punk assured him as if prying into his thoughts once again, “It’s all going to be O.K.”
The restaurant at the top was an old log cabin style building with a large, wooden deck around it. Jim was nowhere to be found. Nor had anyone matching his description been through there.
“Don’t worry,” GRL_BLU said, “I’m sure he’ll show soon. Let’s go grab a drink.”
They took seats at the bar on the back deck, each trying to ignore the uneasiness building.
GRL_BLU was the first to break the uncomfortable silence. “So I take it Jim filled you in on what’s going on here.”
“Yeah. Are you validating what he said?”
He looked at her quizzically. “Are you sure? It’s pretty insane shit.”
“Jim always says sanity is nothing more than being well-adjusted to your situation. But Truth, well, Truth just is. What you consider sane or insane doesn’t really matter in the face of Truth.”
“Jim is just stuffed to the gills with information, it seems.”
“He is,” GRL_BLU assured him. “He’s literally one of the smartest people I know.”
“Well alright then. Let’s hear it. What’s the next step?”
“That all depends on you.”
“Yes. The Machine is already falling apart. Everything is falling apart—the Mind is infested with insanity—falling headlong into chaos and then…” she shrugged her tiny shoulders, “You feel it, don’t you? Admit it.”
“Yes,” he said, a barely audible whisper that escaped his lips to expose his innermost thoughts.
“I knew it! I knew you would get this. I told Jim you’d be different.” She ordered another round and two shots of Captain Morgan. She handed one to Kurt and raised hers for a toast. “To Kurt. And the sacrifices we make for a little peace and quiet.”
“Uhh…cheers? I guess…”
“So you basically have two choices. Kill yourself and end your insanity or run and hope you can swift far enough ahead of the Mind to start making things interesting.”
“How can I run?” Kurt couldn’t help but recall his visions. “It’ll eventually catch up to me, right?”
GRL_BLU nodded. “Unless we quicken you.”
“We…kick you into overdrive. Catapult you into new dimensions altogether.”
“For what? Jim said that was dangerous.”
“Sure it’s dangerous. But think about it. Everything is crumbling into nothingness anyway. You can get a head start on all of that. Help the get the ball rolling. End the universe’s suffering. You’d be, like, a hero for sure.”
“Actually, that sounds pretty terrifying.”
Before she could retort, her phone chimed for an incoming text. She glanced down at it. “It’s Jim. Said to meet him outside. There’s a shelter up the trail a bit.”
It was much colder on the peak than it was in town and Kurt wished he’d brought a jacket. As they neared the shelter, GRL_BLU called out for Jim. Silence was her response. She sat down at the stone table and Kurt checked out the view. It was breathtaking. The whole city of Albuquerque sprawled out below him like some 3-D map.
“I’m king of the world,” he yelled.
A low chuckle from the underbrush got both of their attention. GRL_BLU waited expectantly and couldn’t contain her shock when the Bald Guy and the Brunette stepped into view holding odd looking weapons.
“Are those credit cards?” Kurt wondered.
“No,” GRL_BLU answered and took a few steps back, “They are definitely not credit cards.” She was desperately searching for a way out. This couldn’t be it. She couldn’t go out like this. Not this way. When she died, she would return to the Void. She had to make her mark on the aberration called Creation while she still could. She had to be remembered. And she wasn’t going to let her footnote in history end like this.
“Don’t even think about it,” the Bald Guy said and chuckled. “I’ve always wanted to say that. But seriously. Don’t.”
“What have you done with Jim?” demanded Kurt. He had finally had enough. Something changed inside him. He lost fear of anything anyone could ever do to him.
“Who is Jim?” asked the Brunette while cleaning out gunk from underneath her nails. She didn’t seem the least bit worried about Kurt at all. “He a friend of yours?”
Had he shifted again? To a world where Jim didn’t exist? “No. Yes. I don’t know…maybe. He was the guy I ran into in Durango. He told me about everything.”
“Oh. Him,” remarked the Brunette with obvious distaste. “Is that what he told you his name was? He’s no longer a problem. No need to worry.”
“I’m not worried about him. You’re the ones trying to kill me!”
She laughed, a beautiful and haunting sound that resonated in the depths of Kurt’s innermost soul. “Another one of ‘Jim’s’ fairytales, I take it? Make no mistake. Both Jim and his little side kick here want you dead. They just want your death to destroy worlds. We want you to save them.”
“They’re already being destroyed,” said GRL_BLU defiantly. “You assholes are losing. It doesn’t matter what you do. The Mind is coming apart at the seams. Insanity is leaking in. Creation is the abomination. I’m just helping return everything to peace.” And then she made her move.
It all happened so fast Kurt would never be sure what really happened. In one instant GRL_BLU bolted. In the next the Bald Guy zapped her with his credit card gun and she vanished. No blood, no body, not even a neat little pile of ashes, GRL_BLU was gone as if she’d never existed. Kurt snapped and rushed the Bald Guy in a blind rage. They wrestled for control of the strange weapon until the Mind’s agent mysteriously vanished too. After that, the Brunette was on top of him, her weird gun pressing threateningly on his throat.
“What is your problem? We aren’t trying to kill you, you stupid asshole, you’re already dead!”
“What? What do you mean?”
“You. Your specific version of ‘you’ is dead. You died in that train wreck back in 2005. Or you should have died. There was no close call. Something glitched and you ended up swifting. We’ve been trying to catch up to you ever since. To set it right.”
“So it was you who killed all those other versions of me? Is that what setting it right means?”
“No. Those deaths you saw were committed shortly after you’d swift. The Mind was trying to self-correct your little anomaly. You were supposed to be dead, after all. But somehow you always managed to slip through—shift away—and get swapped out for some innocent version of yourself who ended up paying for your mutation. A mutation which can very literally blink universes out of existence.”
She believed what she was saying. She really did. It made sense that this is what the Mind would tell her, that is, if the Mind had actually spoken to her or any of her fellow agents in a very long time. Honestly, she had been shooting from the hip for countless centuries and across an infinite number of universes. All the Mind’s agents had continued on their initial missions like immortal automatons whose creator had passed on and left them alone in a cold and uncertain world. They had purpose—a prime directive, so to speak. And that purpose was to perpetuate existence. To keep nonexistence from creeping in and taking over—to keep the multiverse from becoming static. She pushed on keeping this mission alive but at times she couldn’t help but wonder if she was following the Mind’s goal or following her own flawed logic. Now was one of those times. But second guessing herself would only get her killed and endanger countless lives. So she steeled herself for what she had to do.
“There is no other way. You can’t be allowed to continue this.” The credit card gun at Kurt’s throat started to glow and hum.
“Wait!” he yelled and a bright light filled his vision.
He awoke the next instant, shaking and sweating; his alarm blaring in the background.
“Daddy! Daddy! It’s morning, daddy. I want waffles,” said a small voice he instinctively knew belonged to his toddler son, Jacob.
He tried to shake off the dream, to accept this newest universe he’d stepped into. He ran his fingers through his hair and managed a smile. “Waffles it is, little man,” he promised and put on his robe. A mental image flashed through his mind—an image of him jumping off Sandia Peak to land in a broken heap on the rocks below. He felt a pang of guilt for Esme and Bella.
“Daddy needs his coffee.”
“Coffee is brewing in the kitchen. Estimated time until completion is one minute twelve seconds,” chimed the robotic female voice of Rosie, his automated housing assistant.
He maneuvered around his apartment, it was unlike any he’d Swifted into before. It had a completely different floor plan. Different furniture. He didn’t recognize the woman in the picture with him, but knew her name was Elise. A television embedded into the wall clicked on as he passed by.
“…partly cloudy and 55 degrees. Light winds and a slight chance for afternoon showers…”
He poured himself a steaming mug of coffee, fixed Jacob breakfast and stepped out onto the balcony. The mug slipped from his numb fingers and crashed to the ground. The geography, the plant life, the sky were all wrong. All unrecognizable as if he wasn’t even on Earth anymore. He was on an island, a vast ocean stretched out before him and dense jungle covered most of the land with unrecognizable plants. He was part of what looked to be a large, walled city that stood in the center of the island like a dark monolith.
“Where am I?”
“Home,” chimed the robotic female voice of Rosie, “This is your residence, Kurt.” Tiny robots swirled around him, cleaning up the broken glass and spilled coffee. “You have lived here with your wife, Elsie and son, Jacob, since your arrival three years ago.”
“But where am I? Am I on Earth?”
“There is no Earth. It died long ago. This is Colony Prime on the moon Arboles, orbiting planet Marduk in the Rigel system. Why are you having memory problems? Should I inform the medical ward of your troubles?”
“No. No, I’m fine. Just had a strange dream is all. I’ll be fine.” He’d done it. He’d broken free of the cell and Swifted into another dimension. “I’m gonna need another cup of coffee though. This is going to be a long day.”
And deep inside the heart of Creation, the Mind stirred.
Part two of the dimension hopping saga of Swifting! Enjoy!
OVERHEAD SPY SKA-TELLITE
He watched the plane take off and then got in his car. GRL_BLU had said she’d email him her info if he needed any help. He had to assume that if the Brunette knew so much about him already that she was privy to most, if not all, of his online sources of information. Hell, probably anything connected to a computer was fucked. But he had nowhere else to start. Besides, if They (and he hated using that proverbial term) knew his next move then he’d be better off seeing what his options were.
He logged into his other email account—the one kept hidden so he could keep his Swifting as low key as possible. His inbox lit up with one new message from GRL_BLU.
So yeah. Weird shit and things probably aren’t safe. But whatever. If they know, they know. Right? So here’s my number give me a call and let’s figure this out.
Kurt eyed his smart phone warily. He couldn’t trust the damn thing. Eyes and ears and photographic memory all rolled into one. Forget that. He went to Mal-Mart, bought a burner phone and dialed the number he was given. She answered on the fourth ring.
There was a long pause before a timid, “K?”
“Yeah. It’s K.”
She breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Oh thank Tiamat. Are you OK?”
“So far so good. Nothing weird yet.”
“Are you alone?”
“I am now.”
“You shouldn’t be. I can help you. Get to Albuquerque and call me again.”
“Yeah.” She hung up after that.
Albuquerque, New Mexico didn’t seem like the kind of place Kurt wanted to end up. He’d seen it on popular t.v. shows and if art imitated life in the least, he was pretty sure Albuquerque was a cesspool of crime, drugs and moral degeneracy. All of which were fascinating to watch on television but not so much to experience in real life. The upside was that it was on the way to Arizona where Esme and Bella awaited him. At this point, it was either Albuquerque or sit around and wait for the Brunette to come knocking. His gut told him this was a bad idea. He’d known GRL_BLU from the forum for over a year now. She always seemed like a cool enough person. So fuck it. Road trip it was.
He left later than night, heading out of town and north deciding on the northern interstates in an attempt to be less obvious. He made it to Madison, Wisconsin taking breaks to sleep at rest stops and paying for everything in cash. He was at a gas station browsing for chips and soda when a short, chubby bald man entered and flashed the clerk a disarming smile.
Kurt’s thoughts immediately went to his conversation with GRL_BLU just before he left and her story of Kid_Kode running into a bald guy right before he disappeared. But that was just being paranoid. Right? There were millions of bald guys in the United States. Every one of them couldn’t be working for whoever was after him. He took a deep breath, and turning to face the drink coolers, exhaled and tried to relax.
“Oh nice. Two energy drinks for five bucks,” the bald guy said and stood beside him. “You like these?”
“Huh? Oh, I don’t know. I think all energy drinks taste the same.”
“True enough,” the bald guy chuckled. “So you on a big trip?”
The question caught Kurt off guard. “How’d you know?”
“Just an educated guess.” He studied the energy drinks, unable to choose one. “I think orange and grape. What do you think?”
“I think you should learn how to make decisions by yourself. Asking strangers for advice gets people in trouble.”
The bald guy laughed. “That’s smart.”
“Yeah,” Kurt mumbled and hurried over to another isle. He was browsing the chips, trying not to look in the guy’s direction when he felt the barrel of a gun pressed into his back and hot, fetid breath on his neck whispering, “Do you know what fear is?”
Kurt froze for an instant, unsure of what to do. “I have a pretty good idea right now.”
“Fear is nothingness. Staring the void right in its empty, vapid soul and realizing that is the potential for everything. Does that not terrify you? That all of this—the whole of existence—could some day disappear into nothingness?” Kurt opened his mouth to answer but was cut off, “Don’t worry about answering. What you think doesn’t mean a damn thing. What matters is that you, Kurt, are a catalyst of said undoing. Which is why you’re coming with me.”
“Mister, what are you doing to that man?” said a child who appeared at the end of the isle, clutching a teddy bear. Her big, innocent eyes were wide with worry. “You look mad. Are you gonna hurt him?”
The Bald Guy smiled and backed away. “Why, of course not, little one. I was just talking to him. Wasn’t I?” He turned to Kurt for affirmation, but Kurt had already fled.
The Bald Guy watched from the window as his quarry got in his car and sped off, almost hitting 2 people in his frantic haste to escape. “Now look what you did little one. You let him get away.” The Bald Guy turned to give an admonishing smile to the little girl, but she too was gone.
He saw her at the counter with her mother, buying chocolate milk and pretzels, her eyes alight with joy and the uncomfortable situation already forgotten.
“You got played,” said a voice at his ear. “We had him dead to rights.”
He nodded at the Brunette’s statement. “They’re getting brazen. They must really want this one. C’mon. I’m hungry for some chicken fried steak. I saw a diner right off the I.”
Kurt drove frantically for hours, unsure and unconcerned with the direction. He stopped only when he had to get gas and stayed awake with caffeine pills and energy drinks. He hadn’t seen the Brunette or Bald Guy since Wisconsin and hoped that he had finally given them the slip. He couldn’t keep this up. Exhaustion was setting in and he had to stop for a while. Get his bearings. Figure out where he was going to go from there. He saw signs indicating Durango, Colorado was coming up and decided to stop. Durango was a quaint mountain town just across the border from New Mexico. It housed a thriving tourist industry, a small college and Ska Brewery. He really needed a good beer and Ska Brewery had always been a favorite.
He was well into his second beer and half a cheeseburger when he saw a man browsing the merchandise corner, shooting quick glances in his direction. He tried to ignore him—tell himself he was over reacting. The guy wasn’t bald. He wasn’t a hot brunette chick in disguise. Just some blonde dude who was way too tan and looked about 30. Nothing to worry about.
Until the guy walked over and said, “Hey. They have good cheeseburgers here?”
“I guess. Yeah.” Said Kurt, avoiding eye contact in hopes of making the creeper go away.
He didn’t. “Great. Gonna have to try it. The beer good too?”
“Yeah. Beer’s good too. Now if you don’t mind…”
“Right, right. See, I just drove in from Salt Lake City. Just asking some friendly tourist questions.”
“You a Mormon?”
“A Mormon. You’re from Utah, you said.”
“Not everyone from Utah is a Mormon. Besides, if I was a Mormon, you think I’d be in a bar?”
“I dunno what you religious types do. Look man—“
“Look, Jim. I’m done answering friendly questions. Now for the love of God, leave me alone!”
Jim raised his hands in mock surrender and took a few steps back. “No need to get all bent out of shape. I’m just trying–”
“Just trying to be friendly. Yeah. I get it. But if you knew what I’d been through lately you’d understand that I’m the last guy you wanna be friendly with. Now leave me alone.”
“Right. Sure.” He made like he was leaving and threw, “Women, huh?” over his shoulder.
Kurt bristled. This guy was seriously testing his patience. “What did you just say?”
“Women. Hell, whatever happened to you, it’s plain to see that a big part of it has to do with a woman.”
“Mind your fuckin’ business,” he growled while tossing some cash at the bartender and marching out the door.
Jim walked slowly and deliberately toward him as he fumbled for his keys, unable to fit them into the lock.
“Kurt. I’m one of the good guys. I’m here to help.”
Kurt dropped his keys with a curse. “Yeah right. You’re a liar like the rest.”
“The rest? You mean the Brunette and the Bald Guy? I don’t work for them. I work against them.”
Kurt paused for a second and glanced at Jim.
“I’m telling you the truth. Just calm down and come back inside. We can talk and if you don’t like what I have to say you can leave. No questions. No following you. Just…let’s talk, alright?”
Kurt stood there for a brief moment obviously struggling with the decision. “Alright. One beer. I need some answers.”
“Me and the people I work with are a conglomerate of sorts. You are aware of the existence of other universes? Parallel dimensions?”
“Of course. Bubbles within bubbles within bubbles.”
“Or cells within cells, yes? Now imagine each and every possible universe within your own is part of an even larger cell, or your prime universe, so to speak.”
“And that prime cell is only one of a countless number of cells within the whole Mind.”
“Like the mind of God?”
“If you want to call It that. Though most of us consider that kinda tacky.”
“Oh wow,” Kurt stammered as his mind was blown. “So each of these cells—these universes—exist as its own separate dimension?”
“Now you’re getting it!”
“I’ve been at it for a while. Swifting and all…”
“Ah yes. And that’s where the crux of your problem lies. You see, Swifting between universes within the same dimension is seen as normal and within the confines of the Mind’s goal. Most of the time people Swift without ever realizing it. Little shifts here and there to help their progress. It’s when violent shifts happen and people become aware that worries those that seek to harm you.”
“Why?” He didn’t ask for this. Never set out trying to Swift into different places. He didn’t understand why anyone would want to harm him.
“These anomalies like you break free of the cell. They can eventually Swift to different dimensions altogether. Places where they aren’t meant to exist. Places where their unnatural presence can irrevocably alter the Mind’s goal for that particular cell. You get it?”
“Yeah. Shit can get really messed up if we end up where we aren’t supposed to.”
“Right.” He leaned in closely. “So when did you first notice your Swifting?”
“You mean when it dawned on me? Simple. It was after I got back from a road trip to California in 2005. On the way home, we almost got hit by a train.”
“Yeah. And when we got home we found out that Billy Graham wasn’t, in fact, dead.”
“The preacher? And you remember him being dead?”
“Yeah. He died in the 90’s. President Clinton played the sax at his funeral. It was on television. I watched it with my mom. She kept saying what a great man he was. My friend that was with me remembered him dying at the same time too.”
“Interesting. Where’s your friend now?”
“Haven’t seen or heard from him in years.”
Jim nodded sagely. “He’s probably dead by now.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Look, the Mind has a way of…dealing with problems like you and your friend. You’ve already met them.”
“You mean Brunette and the Bald Guy?”
Jim nodded. “Yup. Agents of the Mind, we call them. They are specially privileged individuals who get to hop universes and dimensions enforcing the Mind’s goal.”
“Wait, are you saying the Mind is trying to kill me?”
Jim smirked and sipped his beer in reply.
“Weird how things turn out sometimes. Now as fun as our little chat was, we’ve gone over our time. You need to get back on the road. The Brunette and the Bald Guy are probably close behind if they’re not already here. You need to keep moving. Get to where you’re going.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve been playing this cat and mouse game with these idiots for longer than I care to remember…or admit. Safe travels.” Jim walked to the bar, paid the tab and left.
Swifting is a short story I wrote about hopping between parallel universes. Always remember: Nothing is impossible in the Realm of Possibility! Enjoy!
“How do I tell her? How can I tell her? There’s no way she’d believe me. Hell, sometimes I don’t even believe me. How can this be real? It can’t be real. Can it?” His knuckles whitened under his grip on the bathroom sink. But he was completely immersed in his thoughts and didn’t notice. Nor did he notice the intense half-insane face staring back at him in the mirror. To be honest, he didn’t know who he was anymore. Every time he looked in the mirror lately, he felt like he was staring at someone else—a different version of himself who was always something of a stranger.
“Forget it. I can’t do it. I can’t tell her,” he announced to his reflection. Then thought better of it. “What am I saying? You don’t fuckin’ care. You’re somewhere else right now. Every version of yourself is simultaneously shifting into a different place. You’re probably shitting yourself right along with me. Well it’s good to know that I’m not going crazy alone.” He laughed softly at his own joke and brushed his teeth. He couldn’t tell her, but he had to tell someone. He was going out.
“You can’t tell her shit man. You got that? You can’t utter a fucking word of this crazy shit to her. She’ll see you for the nutjob you are. Don’t. Say. A goddam word. You hear me?”
He had to hand it to Darren. He had a way of being himself no matter where he was. He admired that about him and it was largely the reason he was his best friend. He was a constant. When a person can’t keep their consciousness stable, constants help them cope. Constants offer grounding in a world that changes more than it stays the same. Darren was who he was. Short. Bristly. Built like a tank. Cursed like a sailor. He made no qualms about who he was or what he thought. He could always be trusted to speak truth, no matter what that truth may be. And most importantly, that never changed about him.
“Dude, you don’t understand,” he told Darren, “Shit is getting bad between us. Bad. All our fights end now with her telling me to go find someone else. I’m dying over here. And don’t get me started on our Bella…Fuck, man. I don’t even know which version of her I’m gonna get. Is this a place where we’re together? Or are we at each other’s throats again? It wears on a guy, ya know?”
Sometimes Darren regretted buying into Kurt’s story when he sold him drugs the first time. Time travel or universe hopping or other shit he was sure came straight from science fiction novels was what the guy talked about. Darren didn’t know for sure, he just thought the guy was kooky and amusing. He was pretty convinced that the drugs were only making whatever the fuck was wrong with Kurt worse. He almost felt bad for the guy. He really did. But his money was good. And the story was good at least. Better than most of the junkie insanity he listened to on a daily basis. But really, he put up with Kurt because he bought the drinks. And a person that did that was a friend, as far as Darren was concerned.
“Then fucking leave her already, man. Shit. It’s always coming back to that woman poppin’ off or doing some stupid shit. Man, that’s prolly why you’re going crazy. She’s driving you straight off a cliff. I read an article that talked about how women nagging their men all the time actually kills them quicker. It’s true. Science and shit. But not you, man. You’re over here all, ‘but I think I might possibly love her sometimes when I don’t hate her fucking guts’. It’s bullshit man. Fucking bullshit. And you need to man up and opt out before you end up in a damn nuthouse or worse.”
“Yeah I hear that,” he said morosely. But he wasn’t really paying attention. He’d heard all this before. He knew this narrative by heart because it was whata he should be doing. But he couldn’t. He could never bring himself to ‘opt out’ as Darren put it. So he changed the subject. “Lately, I’ve been getting this visions. These mental flashes of these other versions of me offing themselves one by one. In all these different and weird ways. It’s like it’s moving down the line and I’m trying to keep ahead of it.”
“Oh man. You’re back to that freaky multiple universes shit? So tell me this: what happens when one of these other you’s puts one in his skull? Why don’t all of you die then?”
“It’s not how it works. We are connected to our other selves, but they are each an independent clone born of the choices we didn’t make. I think that movie ‘What the Bleep Do We Know’ explains it best.”
“What the Bleep Do We Know.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Huh. Probably not a movie here, then,” Kurt said to himself.
“Or you coulda just dreamed it up in that nutty head of yours.”
Darren checked the time on his smart phone. “Well as much as I love our little chat, I’ve got other business.”
Kurt had another beer, musing about his next move when he noticed the woman sitting at the bar. He hadn’t seen her before, he’d been too engrossed in venting to his friend. But damn if she wasn’t staring at him without staring at him; trying to act nonchalant and failing miserably. He normally wasn’t a brazen man—never could find the courage to talk to an attractive woman—and this stranger was definitely attractive. Brunette hair failing over her shoulders and halfway down her shapely back with a face of a movie star and body to match. But this wasn’t a pick up. She was watching him. Had been watching him and he wanted to know why.
He got up and made his way to the restroom where he splashed cold water on his face while trying to muster some grit. Whenever he emerged from the bathroom, she was still there stirring ice in an empty glass. He wasted no time in approaching her lest his grit fizzle out, and said in his best imitation of a macho voice, “Hey there.”
She looked him up and down, making no effort to hide the fact she was studying him before replying, “I need another drink.”
“I don’t work here. You better tell the bartender.”
“I know that,” she snapped smoothly. “I’m asking you to buy me a drink.”
“O.K…Wow. That was really forward.”
“You gonna buy the drink or what?”
“Yeah. Sure. Why not?” Kurt signaled for another round and sat down next to the intriguing brunette. “So what’s your name?”
“No? Your name is No? Man your parents were mean.”
She laughed and it sounded like a thousand crystals tinkling together. “I meant, no you can’t get in my pants. You’re with someone.”
“How d’you know that?”
“You’ve got a total dad bod going on. Vain enough to know you should look good but too lazy to give a shit.”
“Oh that’s hilarious,” the sour tone in Kurt’s voice was unmistakable.
The Brunette smiled disarmingly. “Look I get it. Depression can do that to people.”
“So now I’m depressed?”
“Definitely. You failed as a photographer. You failed as a—what was it you called it?—Oh yeah. Free lance journalist. You’ve failed as a partner to your wife. You’ve failed as a father. And most importantly, you’ve failed to remain rooted in one place for years now. Ever since your ‘accident’ with the train.”
The color fled Kurt’s face and he stumbled out of his chair. The barstool clattered to the floor as he backed away. “Who…who are you?”
“I’m a friend.” Her disarming smile seemed infinitely less so, taking on the qualities of a sinister leer instead.
He backed quickly toward the door. “Who the fuck ARE you? How do you know about me? About my Swifting?” The first few weeks after he realized his universe hopping, Kurt did an internet search and found an online forum dedicated to this very phenomenon, which they called “Swifting”. The forum was a safe, anonymous place full of people like him where stories were shared, theories discussed, lost loves and lives lamented, but most importantly, it offered camaraderie. It didn’t take very long before the forum became a constant and those on it like real friends. Lately though, it had been quiet and Kurt couldn’t help but wonder why.
“Kurt! Don’t you dare split without paying,” growled the bartender. A burly vet Kurt had no intention of pissing off.
“Hey yeah. About that, I’m gonna leave it right here.” He threw a wad of cash on the table nearest him and bolted out the door.
“What the hell was that about?” the bartender asked the Brunette.
“I don’t know. Threatened by beauty, perhaps?”
The bartender grunted and shuffled over to collect the money from the table, “Damn nut jobs. City’s full of em.”
SWIFT_K: Any1 on right now?
GRL_BLU: Hey. What’s up K?
SWIFT_K: Just had some crazy shit go down.
SWIFT_K: This girl at the bar started talking to me like she knew about me. About my Swifting.
INCOMING PM FROM GRL_BLU
GRL_BLU: I think you should run.
SWIFT_K: WTF?? Y???
GRL_BLU: Look. I don’t know NEthing for sure. OK?
GRL_BLU: I was chatting with Kid_Kode the other day. Said he met some1 at Mal Mart. Some bald guy, I think. Said dude knew a lot about him.
SWIFT_K: WTF??? Where is Kode? He on?
GRL_BLU: No. Hasn’t been on in 3 days.
SWIFT_K: Shit. Shit. Shit! We should def not be logging on here anymore.
GRL_BLU: I know. But this place is a constant.
SWIFT_K: Not anymore.
GRL_BLU: I guess… Good luck, K. I’ll email you my info if you ever need to get in touch.
GRL_BLU: Be careful OK?
SWIFT_K: You know me. 😀
Kurt shut down the computer and immediately started stuffing clothes into a duffel bag.
“Kurt, what are you doing?” Esme, his wife, stood in the doorway holding their daughter.
“Baby, we gotta go. Get you and Bella packed. Quickly!”
“Where are we going?” she had known Kurt for what seemed like lifetimes. She knew every quirk, every trigger for mood swings. At least she thought she did. Lately, he hadn’t been the same. Almost as if he were a new person every few days. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Baby, we don’t have a lot of time. We aren’t safe…I don’t think…”
“Stop it, Kurt. You’re scaring me.” The baby agreed and started crying, sensing the tense and uncertain energy around her parents.
He briefly explained his encounter at the bar, leaving out the Swifting details.
“So you think this woman is after you to kill you? Why?”
Kurt searched his imagination for a plausible lie to go along with his fantastic truth. “I, uh, have been on these online forums. Umm…grassroots activist type stuff. And people started disappearing off the forums lately. Word is, they got approached by someone with a lot of information about them before they disappear.”
“We gotta call the police!”
“No!” Kurt exploded and then wrangled his control back. “That’s not—I don’t think they can—or will—help us. Please just pack your shit and go to your mother’s.”
“My mother lives in Arizona. You know that.”
“Yeah. Perfect. Get there. Fast. I’ll drop you guys off at the airport. Catch the next flight you can.”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“I’ve got to figure this out. I’ll catch up to you when things have calmed down.”
She stared at him, boring into his soul, trying to decide if he was serious or lying to get her out of town so he could fuck around with whatever little bitch he’d been screwing. Kurt had been acting weird lately, and she automatically attributed his odd behavior to cheating. She was convinced that was the reason for the deterioration of their relationship. It had to be. Nothing else made sense.
He shifted uncomfortably beneath her gaze. “Esme, please. I’m serious about this. It’s not safe. Please. If not for me then for Bella. Go to your mother’s!”
“O.K.” she finally conceded. “For Bella. I have two weeks I can take. Will you have your government-wants-to-kill-me shit figured out by then?”
“For sure. I’ll see you there in a week. Tops. Now please, pack and let’s go already!”
I stopped in at Wal-Mart on my lunch break today. I needed to pick up a few things to make a smoothie. I scurried around the store, collecting my few items and then rushed to the self checkout lane. I got:
1 Navel Orange
1 half-gallon of milk
1 little container of strawberries
1 container of Greek yogurt.
In all, the visit was less than $10. I paid and waited for my receipt. But before my receipt could finish printing the lady manning the self checkout area comes over to me and says,
“Let me see your receipt,” she demanded, snatching it from the register before I could get it.
I said, “Are you serious?”
She nodded and started digging through my groceries.
“What are you doing?” I said angrily. “What are you looking for?”
Her answer was to point to my container of Greek yogurt and claim, “I thought that was a thing of red chile. My bad,” before walking away like nothing happened.
So seriously Wally World? WTF? What was it about me that peaked your invasive interests? The clerk totally ignored the very ominous looking man in a white muscle-shirt, khaki shorts and covered in gangster tattoos eyeing the candy rack while he thought no one was looking. But that would be profiling, and profiling is wrong and socially unacceptable. I guess walking around Wal-Mart in pants and a work shirt is a little too suspicious for the lunch time crowd. But that’s profiling. And profiling is wrong and socially unacceptable…except at airports and now Wal-Mart.
And in case you were wondering, the smoothie was freakin’ delicious!
They never saw the raiders coming, nor did they expect the plague that came in their wake.
The skull-faced marauders fell on the village, striking them from the mountain that had nestled and protected it for centuries. The villagers had looked upon the mountain with reverence and now death fell upon them like an avalanche from the very mountain that had given them sustenance.
The wild men came, their skulls gleaming whitely where their faces should be, adorned with parts and pieces of their victims. A necklace of ears here, jerkins sewn from human flesh there. Everywhere trophies of slaughter and gore that the raiders only added to as they tore through the village, hacking and slashing anything that shrieked or moved. The reavers left the village smoldering in its own ashes and returned to the mountain, great plumes of smoke rising high above the mountain peak.
The survivors (those not killed or taken as slaves) dug themselves from the rubble and looked upon the devastation with tear-streaked faces. But their reason for tears was only beginning. Three days after they buried their dead, the plague came.
It claimed the dead first. Eating away at their flesh until only a hideous skeletal visage remained. Possessed with a sinister new life and an insatiable hunger for bloodshed, they dug their way to freedom and forced the survivors to barricade themselves in the town hall. The next to fall were the sick and wounded. Whatever condition they suffered from worsened exponentially, killing them within a week and transforming them in the process. Having no other recourse, the healthy villagers that survived threw out the remaining sick and injured and cowered in corners, awaiting starvation.
“I’m telling you, it’s the perfect getaway spot,” Infinity Jones insisted to his companions. “Hot springs. Mountain air. Pristine surroundings. Exactly what an over-stressed, newly-wedded couple needs.”
“If I want to get away, I set sail from the harbor,” grumbled the Pirate Prince Perfidious. “All this stable earth beneath my feet makes me nauseous.”
Jones laughed. “Spoken like a true scourge of the seas! But seriously. It’s awesome. And it’s home to the famous Haunted Vino Basement. You’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Supposedly the poltergeist activity makes the vino better.”
“I’d rather not have vino tainted by spirits,” snapped the Pirate Prince.
“Come on, husband,” cooed Mistress G to Perfidious. “Infinity speaks truth. I’ve been there myself. It’s beautiful. Serene. Very Zen. And the vino is simply otherworldly.”
“As you like it. How much farther?”
“It’s just over those hills. Nestled against the mountain. Near that giant plume of smoke.” Infinity pointed. “See?”
“Steam from your hot springs?” asked Perfidious sarcastically.
“Most probably. It is the steamy season after all,” said Infinity cheerily, but his face was clouded with worry.
They rode into town the next day. Infinity wept at the sight. The pristine village had been reduced to ashes and cinders. Smoke filled the air, thick enough to choke the life from the living.
“Charming,” sneered Perfidious between coughs.
“Is anyone alive?” called Infinity.
Somewhere in the cloud of smoke, rocks slid and tumbled.
“Careful,” warned the Pirate Prince, drawing his blade, “Could be scavengers.”
“Human or animal?” asked Mistress G.
“It doesn’t matter. They are scavengers. One in the same.”
Humanoid shapes appeared in the smoke moving toward the trio with a deliberate but jerky gait.
“Why are they walking like that?” asked Mistress G.
“I’ve walked like that a few times,” admitted Jones, “Usually after a long night at the pub.”
“Well they would have something to drink about,” joked Perfidious, “What with their village being naught but smoke and cinders.”
“Hullo, good folk,” called Jones. “Can you tell us what happened here?”
“Rooooo….” Answered the shambling form in the forefront that was almost in sight.
“I said, ‘Ho there!’” Infinity reasserted. “What’s the deal?”
“Ruuuhhhhh,” answered the villager then stepped into view. His head was devoid of flesh, his eyes replaced with pitch black orbs, swirling with a sinuous and sinister motion. Flesh hung from the rest of his body, most of it looking to flee the horror it was attached to.
The sight caused the horses to rear up, spilling their riders on the ground before they broke and fled into the mountains.
Infinity and Mistress G leapt up at the ready, but Perfidious was too slow.
The skeleton-headed monster fell on him, gnashing at the frantic prince with his terrible teeth. Perfidious held the monster back, throwing it off and sustaining only minor scratches.
Jones rushed over and ran the abomination through, but to his horror, it didn’t die.
“Look!” yelled Mistress G and pointed.
A whole crowd of shambling monsters was limping toward the prone travelers. Nobody needed to be told to run. They did it instinctively. Fleeing the monstrosities without direction, only trying to find safety. They checked every door along their path. All were locked or filled with more of the walking dead. The crowd’s numbers swelled and they closed in on the adventurers with deliberate determination.
“How are we to kill these things if they refused to die?” wondered Perfidious. His face was flushed and beads of sweat collected on his brow like a crown.
“We don’t kill them,” said Infinity, pulling a barble (a glass marble) from his pouch and setting it at his feet. Closing his eyes he chanted,
“Now that I find myself in trouble, secure me and mine in this hamster bubble.”
Energy flashed and the orb grew to do just that. The trio was encased in a large glass bubble just as the horde broke through the smoke.
“How long with this hold?” asked Mistress G above the din of the frustrated and howling skull-faces flailing futiley against the glass barrier.
Jones shrugged. “Until they get tired and leave or we run out of air. Whichever comes first.”
“The dead don’t tire,” wheezed Perfidious. He looked feverish, his scratches and cuts oozing green puss.
“My love! Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he reassured his wife. “Just…a…scratch,” he wheezed and collapsed against the bubble.
“Jones! Help him,” pleaded Mistress G. “I think he’s dying.”
“I can’t help him here. We have to move and find safety.” Jones nodded in the direction of the town hall. “That’ll be the most fortified place in the whole village. We can hole up in there.”
Mistress G reluctantly agreed and together they began the slow journey, rolling the glass ball toward safety. The horde stayed on them the entire time, never relenting. Some of the abominations were caught beneath the orb and having their skulls crushed, didn’t rise again.
As they approached the town hall, the door opened and six pairs of eyes peeked out.
“Survivors!” cheered Infinity and redoubled his efforts.
They rolled the glass ball to a stop at the door. Gore streaked down the sphere in thick rivulets.
“How do we get out?” snapped Mistress G. “I don’t want to get any skeleton in my hair.”
“Watch and be amazed,” said Jones theatrically. He traced a person-sized rectangle on the glass facing the door, finishing with a small circle, acting as a crude doorknob. He opened the glass door and knocked politely on the door. “Excuse me, good folk. Would you please let us in? As you may know, the village is beset with ruffians.”
The door opened swiftly and the three amigos were rushed inside. Once secure, Jones let his magic slip and there was an audible pop followed by the sound of numerous thumps and splatters—like obese rain falling.