Grass in my mouth.
I spat it out. While spitting it out, I realized I was alive. At least, I thought I was alive. It was hard to tell.
I stuck my hand in-between the blades of grass. Wet grass. Cold, wet grass. The realization hit me: I was alive. All I felt was joy. I hadn’t felt this good in a long time. Maybe ever. I laughed, realizing I hadn’t heard such an innocent laugh in a long, long time.
Actually, I’d never heard a laugh like that.
I lifted myself up a little, so that I was on my knees instead of laying down.
The hands weren’t mine. The clothes weren’t, either. I touched my ear to confirm the suspicion: I was an elf.
“What the fuck,” I muttered to myself, in a voice that wasn’t my own. Talking wasn’t helping.
I groped my pockets, finding a wallet. Opening it, I realized it was a badge wallet. An eight-point silver star looked back on me. Squinting, I was able to read the words on the badge: “Elf Guard”.
I stood up, but the height was all wrong. I was just a little bit taller than I’d been a… How long had it been? An hour ago? A day ago? A week ago?
I looked up at the moons. They were on opposite sides of the sky, framing it, two crescents hanging like parentheses in the darkness. It must’ve been past midnight.
For a moment, that made me happy. Meant I could try and go back to the city under the shroud of darkness. But then I realized I wouldn’t have to worry about cover. I was no longer a criminal, and I wasn’t an escaped convict. I was an elf, a guard.
I smiled, only to realize I was on my knees again.
All I wanted was to lay down again.
I did lay down again.
I was just tired.
— — —
I woke up to the sound of dogs barking. Dog breath hit my nose in all the wrong ways.
“Where–” I stopped short of saying anything else when I heard my voice. It hadn’t been some weird fever dream. I knew where I was. The problem was that I didn’t know who I was.
“What in god’s name happened, Sam?” the sergeant asked.
Sam. So the elf’s name was Sam. I had to think fast, if I wanted to stay out of the loony bin.
“Someone broke into the prison,” I said. “Big thing.”
Blue. See-through bones. Deity.
I almost spilled the beans. I was glad I didn’t.
“Not that,” he spat. “Crap, you’ve already forgotten your own timeline.”
“My own–” I stopped short. This wasn’t where I was supposed to be. But where was I supposed to be? I stood up.
“The prison break was destined to happen,” he said. “That wasn’t the surprise. The surprise is that you were supposed to call it in hours ago.”
“Call it in,” I said.
“I thought we had an accidental death on our hands,” he said, chuckling. “I was about ready to call in the Temp Police.”
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“So what made you go off schedule?” he asked. “That beast. Did it fry your brain?”
“No,” I said. “Didn’t fry my brain.”
“Didn’t mess with your view of the timeline?”
“Messed with the timeline,” I said. “Not my view of it. Knocked me out somehow. Kept me from making the call.”
In one way, I’d lucked out: elves rarely talked about the future with each other, for fear that it would disturb the timeline. So long as I could explain why I hadn’t followed the timeline already, I should be in the clear.
“And it took the prisoner?” the elf asked.
Talking about the unchangeable past? That was a bit more difficult. 50/50 chance, I supposed.
“Yeah,” I said. “Prisoner’s gone.”
“I’m not worried,” the elf said. Which was enough to make me think that I hadn’t seen the last of the prisoner. George. Myself.
I guessed Sam hadn’t died after all. She’d just become less of an elf.
The elf gave me a salute, and turned to talk away. If I made one wrong move, if I didn’t do exactly as Sam would’ve done, he would see something was fishy. I took a step.
The elf was already off in the distance, running towards his future.
He wasn’t paying attention. He already knew when we were next going to meet, so he didn’t care.
Then I realized there was nothing to worry about. I’d already gone against the established timeline by not calling in, by not being wherever I was supposed to be. One false step wasn’t going to get me in trouble. I made a second, more relaxed step.
I noticed that the elf’s gun was trained on me.
“That step’s not bringing you closer to where you’re supposed to be,” the elf said. “You’re not fixing the timeline.”
— — —
I woke up in a bed, to the sound of an elf singing a rhyme.
“A sad elf and a glad elf went walking through the wood
The glad elf asked the sad elf why he wore a hood.
The sad elf sighed while the happy elf sat,
and the sad elf told the happy elf his tiny little story.
‘Everything good’s been done. In the future there is no glory.’”
It was a shitty rhyme. I wasn’t a poet, but I was a writer. And as a writer, I could tell you it was one shitty-ass rhyme.
“Hey,” I said, getting the elf’s attention. I opened my eyes and saw that he was laying in the bed next to mine. “Where are we?”
“A sad elf and a glad elf–”
I cut the elf off before he could continue. “Yeah, I got that,” I said. “Where are we?”
“You’re broken,” the elf said.
He wasn’t wrong, but it felt a little like the pot calling the kettle black.
“Everyone’s broken,” I said. “That’s life.”
He nodded his head, even though it looked like he didn’t really understand what I was saying.
“Especially here,” he said.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“A sad elf and a glad elf–”
“Cool it with the poetry,” I said. “Where are we?”
“Where all the broken people go,” the elf said. “The madhouse.”
Shit. Felt like my whole life had been shit, ever since Stellavia had died.
“I’m not crazy,” I said.
“You just admitted you were broken.”
“I don’t belong here.”
“If they brought you here, you probably belong here,” the elf said. “Don’t worry. This place is scary at first, but eventually you get used to it. They tell you everything that’s going to happen, so your brain’s not so empty.”
Shit. A while back I’d written a series of articles on elves who’d lost their view of the future. The facts weren’t pretty.
31% of all elves, just a hair under one third, had lost their future. Most went crazy because of it; many ended up homeless. I’d written about how the ones ending up in an asylum were lucky, since many of the homeless elves died of starvation, climate, or violent crimes.
But that wasn’t my case. I was fine. My elf brain might be off, but my human mind wasn’t bothered by not knowing the future. Getting locked up in here was the worst case scenario. I knew some of the stuff asylums were known for: abuse, magicshock, lobotomies. As you can imagine, people never came out as sane as they came in.
“Do they use magic?” I asked.
“When they’re giving you a future,” I said. “Do they use magic?”
“Not at first,” he said. “If you’re new, they just tell you some stuff that you’re going to do.”
“Rehabilitating you back into the timestream,” I said.
“Trying to, at least,” he said. “They only use magic if they really think it’ll work. Otherwise, they just keeping telling you the future, so that you know what’s going to happen.”
“To make you feel comfortable.”
“It’s better than nothing,” he said.
I wasn’t so sure. Not knowing what to say, I leaned back into my bed, closing my eyes.
The blue beast bursting through the door. The elf’s gun in my face. The sight of my own bones.
The images flashed through my mind, so that this whole world felt wrong. I squirmed.
This body felt so wrong.
“You hear about Stellavia?” I asked.
“She died,” the elf said. “I found out about it a day before it happened.”
Damn. If just one elf had been willing to give up its sanity, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be at home: drunk, high, or a combination of both.
A nurse walked into the room.
“Hello, Sam,” she said. “Hope you’re feeling alright.”
“I’m feeling fine,” I said.
“I highly doubt that.”
I opened my eyes. She was pale, mean-looking. You know the sort of people who wear a mean smile? The sort of people who wear a smile that looks all wrong: like they’re wearing a smile only because showing their true emotion would scare everyone shitless? She had that sort of smile.
“Do you have a newspaper?” I asked.
“You don’t need to see the news, yet,” the nurse said.
“I’d like to see the news.”
“Current events will just cloud your mind,” she said. “Right now you’re sensitive: so focused on the present moment that you can’t see the past or the future.”
I thought back on my past: my brother’s death, my mother’s disappointment. Val Rador killing Stellavia and me killing Val Rador. I didn’t want to think too much about the past. With all the talk of the apocalypse, I didn’t want to think about the future too much, either.
“I like the present,” I said.
“That’s a delusional thing to say.”
“You don’t understand the grand scheme of things,” she said. “When your future is taken away from you, you get a narrow, human sort of perspective. It’s only when you look at the world with a wider lens that you can truly understand it. It’s only by getting a glimpse at the whole that you can understand the parts.”
“Doesn’t matter what I see,” I said. “It matters what I do. And the only things I’m doing are in the present.”
“If you only look at the present, you can’t make wise choices.”
I sighed, giving up the argument I obviously shouldn’t have started. This was the elf culture, the elf way. Not the only elf culture, of course. Not their only way. But it was the dominant way, the one you could expect to encounter in most places. Life as chess game. I guess I liked something a little wilder, a little less obsessive.
Sometimes I thought before I acted, sometimes I acted before I thought. But these elves just thought, going through the motions of action while getting stuck in their heads. I felt sorry for them.
“Guess I’m not a smart elf,” I said. The words sounded all wrong, coming from me but not my voice. I liked them all the same.
“It would seem not,” the nurse said. The nurse walked out the door before I thought of whatever else I wanted to say.
“See?” the elf said. “You do belong here.”
“Guess you’re right.” I closed my eyes.
My body felt wrong. The weight on the chest, the absence between my legs. It just wasn’t me. I hoped the feeling would go away. Maybe if I just ignored it, it would go away. Turn my attention outward, to this place I’d gotten myself locked up in.
It wasn’t so bad, once I thought about it. They must’ve given us a couple free meals a day. I had a warm bed to go to, and nobody expected much of me. After everything that had happened, wasn’t it best to just lie down? Lie down, and let life know that it had beaten me? Give up. It was what I should have done from the beginning. Lie down and give up.
I remembered my brother.
— — —
My stomach grumbled.
The Sun was setting and the first moon was rising, while I sat on our front porch in a rocking chair, making it rock as quickly as I could. It was a moment of waiting, and like so many kids who wait, I was impatient.
I couldn’t wait for dinner, I couldn’t wait for our neighbor to stop by, and I couldn’t wait for my brother to come home.
My brother, Nick. He was the coolest guy I’d ever known. Always did his best. Everyone in the neighborhood loved him, even if it sometimes seemed like he worried about the little things too much.
There was an Elf Lady in town that day. A fortune teller. I’d gone to see her the day before, and she was really cool. Had a crystal ball, incense, the works. Mom said she was probably a fraud, but I don’t know. She seemed pretty believable to me.
My brother wasn’t even going to go, but I insisted. She was so cool, and he’d be missing out if he didn’t go.
So I was sitting there on the porch, waiting for him to come home. I was waiting for a lot of things, but that’s the thing about waiting. Sometimes, you get what you expect. Sometimes, you don’t.
My neighbor Beckett came into view. She walked down the street, hands in her pockets, something in-between her lips. It looked kind of like a cigar, but I knew it wasn’t. Too thin.
She took the thing out of her mouth for a second to laugh, though I didn’t see what there was to laugh about. Throwing her head back, I thought she looked cool. She had on a black pinstripe suit with blue paint splattered all over it. I figured she must’ve been pretty old: at least 20.
She walked down the sidewalk, getting closer and closer, mumbling to herself.
“Hey, Mrs. Beckett!” I yelled.
She snapped her head for a second, looking a little angry. “Who you calling Mrs.?”
“Um.” I didn’t know what to say. “You?”
She bounded up the steps to the porch, and gave me a look. “Don’t ever call me Mrs.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Isn’t that what you are?”
“A Mrs. is two things,” she said. “Old and married. Do I look old to you?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well I’m not,” she said. “And I’m not getting married too soon, either. You got that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I get it. What’s that thing in your mouth?” I asked.
She took it out again and laughed. “This?”
“It’s a cigar.”
“No it’s not,” I said. “It looks too thin to be a cigar. What is it?”
She laughed. “You oughta become a journalist, one day.”
“Why would I?”
“Because you like questions so much.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Yes and no,” she said. “Mostly no. But a little bit of yes, too.”
Mom opened the front door and came out onto the porch. She didn’t look too happy.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, hands on her hips.
“Sorry,” Beckett said. “I was just passing by, when–”
“What is that in your mouth?”
“Nothing,” Beckett said. She took it out of her mouth and threw it onto the porch floor, stepping hard on it, grinding it into the ground. The ashes spread all over the wood floor.
“Don’t spread that all over my porch,” she said.
“Sorry,” Beckett said. “What’s done is done.”
“Get out,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to–”
“I just told you to leave.”
“Right,” Beckett said. “Sorry. Geez.” She shook her head, jogging down the steps of the house. She walked away.
“I don’t want you talking to her,” Mom said.
“But I want to be her,” I said.
“I want to–”
“She’s lazy,” Mom said. “She does things that kids shouldn’t do.”
“But she’s not a kid.”
“She’s young enough,” Mom said. “You’re a kid until you have a kid. That’s what my mother always told me. Sit tight. Dinner’s going to be ready soon.”
“Okay,” I said.
I rocked in my rocking chair for a little bit more. I don’t think it was for a long time, but like so many things at that age the time seemed to stretch on. Finally, after what had probably only been a couple of minutes, I saw Nick.
He didn’t look okay. He brushed his fingers through his hair over and over again, obsessively. His other hand was dancing all over his body, scratching his back one second and his chin the next. When he got close enough, I could see his bloodshot eyes.
“Hey,” I yelled, calling out to him while he was still on the sidewalk. “What’d the fortune elf say about your future?”
He didn’t respond. He didn’t yell, “Nothing,” or “I’ll tell you in a second.” He merely sighed, kept his fingers stroking his hair, and walked towards me. By the time he was on the porch, I knew something was wrong. Really wrong.
“Was it bad?” I asked. “What’d she say?”
“It’s not important what she said.”
“If it’s not important what she said, then why are you so upset?”
He let out a long, deep sigh. “I’m not upset.”
“If you’re not upset, then why did you sigh?”
“I just wanted a breath of fresh air,” he said.
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.
“Doesn’t have to.”
“You’re not going to die, are you?”
“You look sad, and I figured you’d look sad if you were about to die.”
He stood there, looking down at me, a sad look in his eyes. “Sure, I’ll die eventually. But the fortune elf said it wouldn’t be for a long, long time.”
“Wow,” I said. “A whole century? Won’t you get bored? What can you do for a whole century?”
“Save the world,” he said. He chuckled a bit, walking into the house. “God help us all.”