Iiiiiii… am being a busy little writer at the moment. I have some time free to go sort out my life and my hard drive, not necessarily in that order, and I keep finding things! Like the first-ever Starlight origin story – you’re not seeing that, it’s thick with bad Justice League fanfic – and part of a word war I forgot to polish – and my ‘novel’ – ahahahaha now there’s a joke – and the Mafia story I still owe Walter – working on it, honey, I swear, it just got all stally on me – and a sonnet of Rasla’s that you haven’t seen yet, and a buncha poems of my own. I’ll see how I go with finishing and polishing and posting the finds over the next week or so.
Anyway, here’s the first installment of the word war story.
I lived in East of Nowhere all my life, except for the five years I moved to the city, around the time Shaniah got murdered and everybody thought it was Harry Vaughan that did it, because nobody ever did trust the Vaughans, not since Harry’s great-great-grandfather tried to cheat Captain Hart out of the ten acres at Hart’s Corner with a stacked deck. Now, Harry was cheating on Shaniah, with that green-eyed cousin of Lou Bell’s that was visiting from Cincinnati, but he didn’t kill her – he was with the cousin at the time, in a motel down the coast. Anyway, that doesn’t matter, that’s just the kind of story that pops up in a town this size.
I took history in college – it was something to do – and it got me interested in folk history, in writing down the little stories before they turned themselves into myths – for example, legend was that Captain Hart was either a vampire or a devil, depending on who you asked, but as near as I can tell he just traveled particularly much, aged particularly well, and owned a very nice pair of dueling pistols for the time. That was why I wrote about Shaniah: she was strange, heck, everything about her was strange, but not supernatural or anything near to it.
So, when the stories about Helen and Curnow, in the house in the Hollow, started to get really far-fetched – she was a witch, he was a ghost or a shapeshifter or something, there was something really creepy about the kid Sylvia – I’d just published my sixth book, this one of realities behind folklores in Andalusia, and I thought it high time I looked a little closer to home for some material. I called ahead, that’s only polite. White Helen – so called around town due to her long, silvery hair, pale skin, and habit of wearing crisply-starched men’s dress shirts with tan slacks and white Converse – was happy to have me visit, but warned she or Curnow or both would likely be busy at some point.
As the name implies, the Hollow is below the main township of East of Nowhere, in the dense block of yew forest between the town and the sea cliffs. Helen and Curnow had lived there as long as I could remember, in the grey stone house set incongruously, like some giant kid’s discarded building block, with the trees gathered close around it and no front garden, just an abrupt concrete parkway springing out of the gravel drive. Kids dared each other to go touch the wall of the Hollow House, but Lou Bell from uptown was the only regular visitor. I felt a kind of creeping trepidation, approaching the point where the concrete roadway of town gave way to the gravel road down into the Hollow – it was like being ten years old again, terrified of meeting White Helen, who I swear hadn’t changed at all in the ensuing decades.
I didn’t have to knock at the heavy wooden door – it swung open as I approached, and Helen stood on the threshold, pale against the dark stone walls.
“Good afternoon. Do you mind talking in my laboratory? I may have to ask Misty to take over at some point, as we’re expecting an unplanned visit from a lawyer. I’m not sure what it’s about yet.”
As oh is not a particularly intelligent answer, I did not have an intelligent answer to this. “Thank you,” I said. “That’s fine.”
The corridor was dim and bare, lined with mirrors on both sides, from an inch or so above the flag-stoned floor to a foot below the dark beams of the ceiling. I thought it was just unusual decoration, until Helen touched a dark-colored square on the edge of a mirror, and the whole panel swung out into the hall. Helen hooked a leather-bound book from the cupboard behind the panel, pushed the mirror back, and beckoned to me. There were no doors off the corridor, and at the end was only a blank white wall, so it was not much to my surprise when Helen opened another mirror farther along, to reveal a narrow passageway with a harsh white light spilling along it.
“Come along,” Helen said, turning down the corridor. Other passages, and doors, and a couple of steep, narrow staircases, loomed out of the darkness, darker patches in the grey of the corridor. Eventually we reached the frosted glass door from which the light spilled. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, but the room beyond the door caught me by surprise.
For once thing it was slightly beyond vast – at least fifteen yards by ten – it might have been more, with all the odd alcoves and cupboards and smaller rooms opening out of each other like an Escher drawing. Just when I had got my head around the scale of White Helen’s home lab – no wonder Lou Bell brought so many mysterious toxic and flammable and hazardous boxes and crates up here – I noticed the window. It was hard not to: only the entire far wall of the lab was glazed, vast sheets of plate glass, flinging the edge of the room out onto a brief strip of the scrubby grass that grows near the sea, and then a sheer chalky cliff, and then nothing but the restless grey ocean, all the way to the hard, flat line where the sky rose out of the sea. A storm was blowing up fast from the horizon, and standing looking out that window was like staring off the edge of the world.
Inside, though, it was warm and bright and quiet, with only the soft hum of air extraction fans and the subdued bubbling of a flask of purple liquid boiling on a hotplate inside a glass-fronted cabinet. Long countertops, with rows of cupboards and drawers underneath, jutted out into the room from the window side, cluttered with boxes and neat racks of glass tubes. White countertops. White cupboards. I suddenly noticed the walls that weren’t glass were covered in panels of whiteboard, with markers magnetized to the surface here and there, and notes dotted around the whiteboards – mathematical expressions, something that looked like a diagram teaching molecules how to dance, a note to fetch bread from the store, a neatly-written four-week calendar, with alternating Tuesdays in blue, and comments in what looked like Greek or Cyrillic arrowed in to other squares. On a few of the benches, steel frames like the skeletons of huge and narrow animals rose along the center, with flasks and intricate networks of glass piping and valves clamped along them. My high school chemistry lessons floated back to me, tentatively suggesting ‘condensation apparatus, perhaps?’
A pair of long, delicate glass tubes like outsize eyedroppers, the rubber bulbs at their ends semi-deflated, hung from a smaller skeleton over a freestanding ceramic sink; the tips of the tubes seemed to be dripping slowly into a beaker placed beneath them on the narrow strip of bench beside the sink, mixing a milky green fluid with something that looked like water, but going off the smoke coiling lazily up off it, probably wasn’t. Firmly-capped bottles stood beside the beaker, each about three-quarters filled with more of the liquids. I stepped closer.
“I wouldn’t touch that,” a calm voice said off to my right.