On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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I was walking through the pine forest, taking my usual route, when I heard the small crack of a breaking twig. It came from over near the stream, and my dog turned his head in that direction at the same moment I did. The animal seemed as surprised as I was to see a man so close by, undetected by his own clever ears or nose before now.
My canine companion’s large brown eyes met mine, uncertain, and I had the sense that he and I were both encountering a situation that was new to us.
The stranger on the bank of the stream was sitting down, and his head turned towards me. He had dark hair and dark eyes, and his clothes were plain and drab. He held a fishing rod in his hands, but there was no reel or line; just the rod itself. I couldn’t see any fishing paraphernalia beside him, nor anything else at all. It was an odd scene, but perhaps he was waiting for someone who would arrive better-equipped. I raised my hand in a gesture of acknowledgement, and the stranger nodded in response, his expression remaining neutral.
My dog watched this exchange warily, and then, seeing that there was apparently no cause for alarm, trotted towards the other man. A friendly animal from birth, I was surprised when he stopped short by a few metres and sniffed the air, raising one forepaw from the ground. I went over to join him, and when he felt me by his side, he pressed himself against my leg. I frowned.
“It’s alright,” I said, stroking his fur, then I glanced towards the stranger. “Do you have a dog too?” I asked, wondering if it was a scent that was making my dog wary, but the man shook his head.
“I have no pets,” he said. “Animals often react strangely to me.”
I took his response at face value, though something about the cadence of it was unusual. I clipped my dog’s lead on, then nodded towards the stream. “Nice day for fishing,” I said.
The stranger seemed to struggle with my statement, tilting his head to one side not unlike the way my dog would when I said something he didn’t quite understand. I wondered if perhaps the man might be neurodivergent in some way, and I resolved to treat him with patience, but to my shame I found myself tightening my grip slightly on the dog’s lead.
After a moment or two, the stranger seemed to realise I was talking about the fishing rod in his hands. He lifted it up like a ninja warrior reverently considering a sheathed sword, and then he looked at the stream too, clearly putting the pieces together. He looked at me again, and I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth.
“I found this here,” he said, then he put the rod down in the long grass. “I’m a visitor.”
I couldn’t place his accent, and I thought that perhaps it was because he really didn’t have one. His speech could almost have been the synthetic output of a digital assistant, like the one I had on my phone, or built into the music speaker that sat in my kitchen near the toaster. I didn’t have any sense of danger, but I was puzzled as to why I didn’t feel more uneasy. Objectively, there was something a little off about this person, and except for my dog, I was alone here.
“Well, welcome to town,” I replied. “Where did you arrive from?”
He might have said the name of any town or city within a few hours’ drive. He might have said the name of a different country. I really had no idea what to expect. He didn’t say any of those things.
“To the best of my understanding, you’ve yet to name my home. But since you ask, our own name for it is—”
The next word or phrase was unacceptable.
He definitely said something — or at least made a sound, or a series of them — and it only lasted for a second or two. It was the right length for the name of a place. His lips moved, and his utterance definitely reached my ears, but then my mind rejected it. It wasn’t language, or really even sound in the way that I understood it. It was something else, and I had the vague sense that I lacked the necessary means to not just understand it, but to deal with it at all. It was a new sensation: a comprehensive and unilateral rejection of input by own faculties. It just couldn’t be accepted.
I shook my head, disoriented, and when I looked at the stranger again I could see that he understood. There wasn’t anything in his eyes, but I could nevertheless tell that he had experienced this reaction before. And of course I knew then that he was from substantially farther away than I’d anticipated.
There was an aftereffect, both outside of my skull and inside of it at the same time, and I had the briefest mental glimpse of darkness and emptiness, and then an oasis of light; blue and bright and small, unimaginably far away. There were five planets, their orbits eccentric in the extreme, and I knew that his was the first one, closest to the blue star.
“I can’t… I can’t take your words,” I said. “I can’t seem to bear them.”
The stranger nodded, as if this was entirely normal. “Incompatible,” he said simply. “Don’t let it concern you.”
“Are there others here? Like you? We’ve never—”
“No,” he replied. “Perhaps I’m the first. You’re very isolated. And you have little of value. You’ve destroyed much of it already.”
I knew what he — or she, or it, or probably something else entirely — meant. We all knew. It was on the TV and the internet all the time. We could feel it, from the strangeness of the seasons now, and the eerie light in the sky sometimes. And from how some of the birds and the insects had gone away.
“We’ve burned the planet,” I said. “Melted the ice. Dirtied the air. And killed so many of ourselves. What’s the attraction?”
My dog sat down, and looked up at me. I had the unsettling feeling that he was expecting me to answer my own question for him, and that he’d been waiting a long time for me to do so. But he just yawned, and then resumed watching the stranger.
“This is a place of innocence,” the man, who was not at all a man, replied after a few moments. He looked up at the sky towards the vapour trail of a passenger jet headed for somewhere more exotic, but still ultimately very close by in the grand scheme of things. An appalling cost, to travel almost no distance at all. The stranger nodded, as if my thought was also his own. He looked at me again.
“Compared to what’s out there, and what you’ll see if you live long enough, even this broken place is still a paradise.”
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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