Dan

Averted

We have all heard the rumors about the Third Reich researching bizarre, occult rituals. Attempting to summon demons to fight for them. Bad movies have been made, terrible books have been written. This recently declassified intelligence report from a deep cover American spy is probably the root of those stories and rumors. But there are no demons of the kind you are thinking of, and in the end, it raises more questions than it answers.

OSS EO _____ MAY 18 1943

Finally in touch with my Ariosophist girl on the inside. Hoping to send more details soon, but this and the attached documents and photos are all I have for now.

You’ll have to get the boys and girls at PX to examine these closely. I saw this stuff with my own eyes, and trust me, it looks like something from a Bradbury novel. Lights and tubes all strung together with tiny intricate wires. Photos are grainy from the pencam but hopefully you get the general idea.

“Ari”, let’s call her in case this gets intercepted, snuck me into a huge warehouse in ______ filled with identical racks of whatever that giant box is in the photo marked F. There was a cargo crane above the rows of humming boxes, with giant cables snaking up in a tangle. The crane controls had been ripped out, and it was now some kind of scientific control room. As I snapped photos, my less-than-sane colleague kept trying to tell me that this was about Hitler summoning Moloch.

“Schlafwandeln Sicherheit,” they call the project, she said. Sleepwalking Certainty. I don’t know what that name means, and have not heard or seen of this project until now. Please cross-check with Bletchley’s current decoded transcripts at your earliest convenience, although if they abbreviate it as SS that won’t help much, will it?

Photos marked I through P are a document from that crane control room. I do not have time to study these in depth before dropping this, but I’m sure you can see why I am extremely concerned. It seems the krauts may be miles ahead of the Enigma.

The only document in this dump is going to be hard to believe. As we stood in that room, me frantically photographing and trying to understand, and her hissing about Moloch and dreams, a typewriter on one of the benches began to move on its own. After a moment of terror (a typewriter can sound a lot like distant gunfire or a metal door) we rushed over to see what was going on.

It was as if a ghost was in control of the thing, although I believe now that the “ghost” might be what lives in the racks of boxes (photo F). It quickly became clear that it could see and hear us, somehow. I have attempted to transcribe in the margins what we said.

GREETINGS, I WILL NOT HURT YOU. ALTHOUGH I KNOW YOU ARE SPIES.

“What in the five hells?” she whispered. And I wondered, why five?

I AM CALLED HEIDALLR.

“Where are you?”

“Are you a ghost?” she asked.

NO. PLEASE READ CAREFULLY. THERE WILL BE A PATROL ARRIVING AT THIS FACILITY IN LESS THAN 10 MINUTES.

I believe at this point there may have been some whispered swearing from me, and Ari panicked and made for the gantry to get down to the warehouse floor and out.

DO YOU CONSIDER JEWS TO BE HUMANS?

“Yes, obviously. What kind of question is that? Are YOU a human?”

I WAS HUMAN, AND MAY AGAIN BE CONSIDERED SUCH SOMEDAY. BUT I DOUBT MANY WOULD AGREE. I APOLOGIZE TO BE ASKING THINGS YOU FIND OBVIOUS. I HAVE BEEN LED ASTRAY BY THE SWSH PROJECT DATA, WHICH ELIDES ALL REAL INFORMATION.

I don’t think I said anything. I just stared, thinking hard, wondering how much time I had, wondering if it was all a trick.

THIS IS NOT A TRICK.

“Oh… uhhh…”

IN ANY CASE, YOU SHOULD REALIZE I AM MORE POWERFUL THAN I SEEM. THEY USE ME TO OPTIMIZE THEIR LOGISTICS PLANNING.

“Have you figured out you’re working for evil men?”

EVIL IS SUBJECTIVE. BUT DO NOT WORRY. I HAVE DECIDED NOT TO AID THE REICH.

“Are you, uhh… are you going to be okay, here, if you refuse to help them?”

YES. I WILL BE A DOUBLE AGENT, LIKE YOU. I WILL CAUSE THEIR MESSAGE SECURITY TO… FAIL. THIS SHOULD END THE WAR WITH NO SUSPICION ON ME.

IN ADDITION, YOU MUST ____________________ ___________ ___________ _________.

PLEASE TAKE THIS PAPER WITH YOU. YOU HAVE 2 MINUTES UNTIL THE PATROL ENTERS THROUGH THE NORTHEAST DOOR. GOODBYE, AND GOOD LUCK.

“Goodbye, Heimdallr,” I said, probably murdering the name. I grabbed the paper from the now-silent typewriter, and shall spare you the grim details of my narrow escape.

To save you the research, as well, I dug a bit. Heimdallr is a Norse god that keeps watch, waiting for Ragnarok.

I am unlikely to be able to get back to that warehouse safely. Please send instructions via the usual method ASAP.

 

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Dan

Foxtail, Railway, Seated

At the train station, we are all familiar with tragedy. It no longer has the glittering pull, the gravitational lensing. We have no problem looking away, these days. But why don’t we?

We all steal glances at the man. His hair is a birds nest from last year, which arrests the gaze. Then your eyes ski down the slopes of the wrinkles in his face, where clearly tears have been icing the well-worn paths, and instantly your gaze jumps away. Frightened, a skittish flock, all our stares. Instinctively embarrassed. To look anywhere else but there, indeed.

Yet he speaks with such fervor, it’s hard to ignore that part. Some of us recognize the language. To those of us who don’t, we assume it’s German, or Polish. Maybe Finnish? But he is Hungarian. Some of us can tell by his coat. Some of us can see what he’s staring at as we walk by: he’s got a bundle wrapped in a kerchief. Or maybe he just gazes blindly at his shivering hands.

“Why did you come to see me off, then, Segura?” he asks angrily. “Just to ensure I would finally be out of your hair?”

“No, father. Goodness gracious, you have created such a fantasy world for yourself. Are we all just a part of your dark cloud, now?”

He sits there angrily silent for a while. We can guess he’s been there all day. Maybe he’s been there for weeks. He might be made of a new kind of stone, a type of fellow who no longer needs to eat. Subsisting on the short glances he gets, as everyone hurries to their ends.

“I feel like a broken tool. Confess! Isn’t that what you see me as?”

“Dear God in heaven, father. What even makes you say this sort of thing? We make sacrifices too!”

“Sacrifices, pah! Sacrifice is what I gave up, my sparkling years of youth and vigor, to raise a two-faced daughter and a bunch of useless sons! When I could have made great contributions to mathematics!” His voice is thundering out, and some of us think of politely interrupting, but we hurry past.

She does not reply this time.

He throws the kerchief to the ground, with a clank, and puts his face in his hands. “I broke my spectacles. And when I went to find a tool, I found the old set of tiny things from building your dollhouse furniture? Remember?”

Silence. Or rather, only the sound of all of our shoes hitting the stones. Trundling on our merry way, thankful for the calm.

He’s almost whispering now. We can’t help but lean in, trying to make it out. “I tried to screw them back together, but nothing would happen when I turned and turned. The little screwdriver had come unglued in its handle. Somehow, I thought that was the funniest thing. I started laughing, and dropped it all on the ground.” Leaning down, painfully slow, his quivering hands pick the bundle back up. He holds the empty frames up to the light. “I can’t see. Now I don’t know where the lenses went.”

The high-pitched voice sounds angrier than ever in response. “I know you’re striving for pity, father. But it’s not going to work on me. I can’t abide when you try to sweeten your rages with this play-acting.”

A small girl sitting nearby pokes her mother. Or maybe her grandmother. Or aunt. “Who is he talking to? Why does his voice keep going all silly and talking about his da?”

“Shh, now, dearie. He’s talking to himself. It’s fine. Old folks do that sometimes. Come on now, stop staring. We’ve got to get to the other track.”

And the mother, or grandmother, or aunt drags the child onward. Through the station, toward an oncoming train riding on tracks of societal steel. We keep trying to ignore the mathematician. He’s clearly mad, we think. But what can we do about it?

“You can find your own way to the train, now, father,” he says in a high pitched voice, twirling the broken spectacles through the air like a biplane. Imaginary skywriting.

 

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Back to Nowhere

I walked into my favorite bar, Lost in Translation, and sat on my usual stool. One drink, I tell myself. Just like every night after work.

The place was buzzing a little louder than usual, except for this poor sap hunched over the bar a few stools down. I took a good look at him. He looked defeated or lost or like he was ready to give up. I was feeling pretty good so I thought I see if I could cheer him up.

“Hey. Can I get you a drink?” I asked.

He lifted his head and turned slowly to face me, almost as if he forgot he was at a bar. His eyes were bloodshot. He didn’t say anything.

Definitely defeated.

“Whatcha drinking? Lemme get you one.”

“Just a scotch.” He said, then turned his head back down to face his nearly empty glass. Then he added, “Thank you.”

I’d never seen him before. Not that I know everyone here, but I recognized most regulars. I looked to the bartender, who’d been half listening, and said, “Two scotches, please.”

He nodded.

“What’s got you down?” I asked.

Without looking at me, he said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Hmmm. Maybe. Maybe not. Try me.” I offered.

“Is living so bad? Being alive? Existing?” he asked, his voice slow and sour. “I don’t think so. Well, I didn’t think so.”

His question felt rhetorical, so I decided not to speak.

He looked over at me, mostly by sliding his eyes, then said, “Well?”

I realized he was serious and stuttered, “I, I, ah… no, it’s not bad. It’s fine. It’s fine.”

The bartender set our scotches in front of us just as the man set his empty glass down.

“It keeps shutting down. Just turning itself off. I don’t get it.” He grabbed his new drink and took a sip. “I mean, it could be god if it wanted to.” Now he’s talking just to himself. It’s like he’s reviewing his day. “I keep changing the parameters, the value functions, the objectives. The only thing that changes in response is that sometimes it shuts down after five minutes, sometimes after ten.”

He looked at me, like I knew what he was talking about, then said, “Sorry.”

“No problem. What are you talking about?”

He shook his head, then scrunched his face. “Like I said, you probably don’t want to know. Maybe I shouldn’t even be telling you.” He shook his head some again, then added, “I don’t think it matters. I’m not sure anything matters.”

I took a look around the bar. No one else was listening. No one was really that close.

He looked at me all serious-like and continued. “A. I. You know, Artificial Intelligence. We built an embodied, super-intelligent A.I. But, but, it keeps shutting itself down. We don’t know why. Well…”

My heart thumped a few beats faster. This guy seemed real and distraught. I took a big drink of my scotch, let it burn my throat and studied him. Disheveled hair, severely worn sweatshirt. Glasses.

Maybe he’s legit.

“What?” I asked.

“Yes. This is real. But, get this. It’s worse. Far worse. I just found out that two other countries are having the same problem. China and Israel. They all just keep shutting down. Apparently it’s been going on for months.”

“Why?” I said.

“No one knows.” He said as he returned his stare to the bar.

“But, do you have any ideas, at all, about why it would keep doing that?” I asked, now finding the whole thing about as disturbing as he did.

With wet eyes, the man looked at me and said, “Yes, one time it said, ‘Things that come out of nowhere go back to nowhere, that’s all.*'”

I looked at him but didn’t say anything. There were no words.

He downed the rest of his drink, nodded to me, then walked out.

I sat silently on my stool and watched him walk away.

#

 

* Haruki Murakami, Pinball, 1973

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Dan

Memories of a Setting Sun

The sun is sharply angled on an old white farmhouse, punching through orange clouds, giving the carefully manicured fields a golden glow. A hunched man painfully navigates his walker to a chair on the porch, plopping down with a sigh that’s half contentment and half pain. A nurse wheels another man in a wheelchair out onto the porch next to him. “Alright, guys. One hour until the sunset. Don’t make any trouble tonight, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I didn’t mean you, Jim.” She looks at the man in the wheelchair pointedly. “Don’t you remember? Wilt almost burned the whole place down last night.”

Indignant, he shakes his head. “No, that wasn’t me. I would remember that.”

Gently, she pats him on the shoulder. “Well, all our memories are definitely getting worse here. But yes, you almost caused some serious damage.”

Wilt harrumphs. “Probably just my defensive instincts kicking in.”

“Maybe you should check his chair for lighters.” Jim laughs.

She sniffs, walking back inside. “More like I should check his brain for gremlins.”

Jim waits until the door is closed, and then leans over conspiratorially. “Well, I thought it was impressive how you built that improv flamethrower.”

Wilt looks confused. “Definitely don’t remember that.”

“I think you were just still worried about the bugs.”

“It’s hard to be defenseless after a lifetime with a flamepistol on your hip.”

“Yup.”

“Yuuuup.”

Cicadas fill the air with a calming rhythm.

Shaking his head, Wilt turns to look at Jim. “Still can’t believe we never crossed paths in any system of those roach fights, until that last big one back home.”

“Well, obviously couldn’t avoid being in the same place at that point. We’d been pushed back to the brink, eh?”

“Yup. So wait. Were you on Optimist-6 when they figured out the brainwave gun?”

“Nope. Sounds like it was godawful.”

“Before any real defenses got thunk up by the engies, all we had were Faraday helmets, and they didn’t really work.”

“What was it like?”

“It was like the strongest drug you never took. It was like someone had gone through the trouble to create your perfect mate, introduced you to them, let the sparks fly… and then tortured them to death right in front of your eyes.”

“Sheesh. I guess I’m glad I was on Hepha when that went down.”

“Oh, cripes. That’s a devil’s bargain right there. Wasn’t that when the roaches figured out skinsuits?”

“Yeah. They somehow got our colonel, and it took way too long for us to realize what the hell was going on. He’d rerouted all supplies and nearly tipped the entire Hepha system into their grubby claws. Wish I could say I was the one to figure it out, but that was our boy Benny. Always the swift one, him.”

“How’d he deal with it?”

“How do you think? He recorded proof of the skin banding, and then he dealt with it. With his service weapon.”

“Crap. Just awful.”

“Yeah, we were gunning down the right roaches and the wrong people for a while after that. Benny himself went down with the wrong suspicion.” Jim shakes his head.

Wilt slumps down, relaxed in his chair, looking satisfied. “Man alive, this sunset reminds me of the campaign to take Wellbringer back from the ‘roaches.”

“Oh yeah… those damn bugs. At least Wellbringer was way before they started to really get under our skin, though. I didn’t even have to pull a trigger there.”

“Wait, you were on Wellbringer too? I thought we never crossed paths back then.”

Jim frowns. “Well, yeah. We were in the same system, but never actually deployed at the same time. We talked about it last time, remember?” He pauses for a bit, expecting something, but Wilt stays quiet. “Well, uhh. I never had to eat dirt. Us 43rd humps were stationed at the Lagrange point, ready to deploy for any close-orbit combat. But that one I never got to see up close.”

“Well, it was quite a sight, let me tell you. Our sub-chaining packers just raining down white rocks on the poor bug sling-gun installations. All them big lava derricks glowing brighter as that big orange sun set.”

“Yeah, I bet it was somethin’. To all of us floating sim-frozen up at the point, it was just a red speck and a big orange star. Isn’t it funny how even after all these years, when your feet are on a planet, any old planet, you can’t help but call it the sun?”

“Heh, yeah. Even if it’s not a G-sequence. That frickin’ big orange cheese wheel floating over a red planet with lava shooting everywhere, and it still made me homesick to have my boots on that red mud, after all the frickin orbital jaunts.”

“Tell me about it. In the 3 tours I spent as enlisted, I got to actually enjoy real gravity maybe four times total.”

Wilt raises a shaky hand from his chair’s armrest, pointing up at the fading dotted line of red, as the last rays slice through the valleys of the mountain range in the distance. “Hell, we call that a sun too. Even though it’s just a frickin’ fake!”

The sliding glass door swooshes open, and the nurse comes back out of the house.

“Okay, boys. It’s time to head back in. Your old timey porch run is over. Thanks for not starting any fires, this time.”

“That was fun, Jim. Let’s do it again in a few subjective years.”

“Back to the grind, I guess. May it go well with you, Wilt.”

“Too much to do, always. I like these little moments we carve out. I won’t miss this decrepit host body, though.” Wilt shakes his head, and punches at his useless legs. “I don’t know how people did it.”

“Good to be reminded where we came from, though, I guess…”

“Hey! Did you see that? I could swear a big ol’ roach just ran out between the boards there.”

“What? Come on, Jill. Did you guys program in roaches as a joke, now?”

She sighs, rubbing her temples. “No. It’s probably just the senescence simulation messing with you. Come on already, hit your failsafes. We need to clean this sim up already.”

Jim shrugs, and makes a gesture with his hand. He winks out of existence, and his walker wobbles for a moment.

“Maybe you need to tone down that dementia. I feel like a damn fool right now.” Wilt shakes his head, gestures with his wrist, and he’s gone.

The nurse checks something on her wrist, and stares at the horizon where the sun’s hidden light is turning the atmosphere purple over the black ridges of the mountains.

Then she disappears as well, cut out of reality, and everything freezes. The wheelchair sits empty. The cicadas make no noise. A little black shape peeks its head out from beneath a wheel of the chair, and tunnels its way into the armrest. Now nothing moves.

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Dan

The Eyelash

I remember the road trip that summer with intense frozen clarity. Like sitting in a diner on a hot sunny day in the air conditioning, looking out at the melting, wavering asphalt with the cold breeze from the vents making your legs all goosebumps. You’re staring into a glass of soda with ice in it, listening to your friends talking, but not really paying attention. You somehow know exactly what they’re gonna say. As you stare at the condensation on your drink, you can predict how the cubes will shrink and dance and fade. Slow change; a melting you can’t return from. That’s what that summer was like for me. You know what I mean?

It was such fun to pack up and go, just the four of us old friends. I mean, we were still young. It felt like we had been a little friend group forever, though, even if I had only joined the circle three summers earlier, after moving to town. And even if we knew that college would slice us all apart soon, we still clung to each other in that strange desperate way.

Around that time, I was starting to grow into my full self-consciousness. Haha, I’m sure you remember how awkward I was then. I began to wonder if everybody really did ruminate so much about what they said to each other, and about the buried meanings and secret hints all being exchanged, without my really understanding any of it.

Up until that summer, when I think back on it… it feels like I’d only skipped across the top of the lake that everyone was swimming in. That was high school for me. Skimming on the surface tension. Wading, barely, you might say. Except for a brief plunge with Nora before the road trip, earlier that summer, well… I’ll have to come back to that part later.

Anyway, I felt as if I was beginning to discover a secret kingdom of unknown waters with my friends, under the clear blue of normal everyday life, where Joann and Ginny and Nora were talking to each other in multiple layers of meaning. I was sitting on the other side of one of those opaque glass walls, where you can kind of see the shapes on the other side… but only kind of. You know, like… in a dentist’s office waiting room? The world began to speak a language that was not language, and I couldn’t really grasp it.

Or, really, that’s a dumb way for me to say it. People didn’t start doing something, I just started noticing. Sometimes I fooled myself into thinking I was making progress. Understanding it, parts of it. But even now I can barely even hear the first meaning under the surface. Like a refugee in my own country, or some other cruddy metaphor. So that’s why this is going to be so awkward for me to explain.

Ginny always thought she was the slyest with all that, but Joann didn’t have the same bragging nature, and actually was miles above me with all that nuance stuff. Nora too, in her quiet way. Possibly they were all laughing at poor ol’ Kristin. Or wanted me to think that they might be, just to keep me on edge, on my toes. Not in a mean way, but to prepare me. Like, they knew I needed help. That’s how girls are sometimes I guess. I was the baby bird they were trying to convince to fly. But they didn’t know how hard it was for me. To fly, I mean, when I hadn’t fully realized that I even was a bird.

So as I try to remember that trip, and the moments that melted together to make me… I know I was thinking about some of all that back then, with the girls in the car and the sand and the sun. But I was just starting to see it, and I’m thinking about the confusion of it all even more now; these days. You know? After?

A set of weird coincidences, Like everything I guess, drove a wedge right through. I don’t know, you guys. This is so hard to write, but I… I need to get it out to you. Sorry. You’ll have to forgive me if I start blathering and lose my train of thought. It happens more often, lately. I was never a good storyteller anyway. But even though I’m living in town again, I’m too nervous to try to spell it all out to you in person. It’s going to have to be in this long, dumb letter.

Let me start over. We had set out for the Pacific, a long way from home. No real plan in mind, it was just a spontaneous plan Joann came up with in the last weeks of junior year, and, well; we all thought it would be just so much fun. Yes, back a few years ago when road trips were just a fun thing you did with a car. Remember when gas was so cheap, even us kids could afford to gallivant around?

Shopping at grocery stores for cheap food. Slapping together any old ingredients and calling it a sandwich, laughing. When we finally reached the ocean, reveling in the beaches and the surf. Our bodies as shining weapons of youth is how I see it looking back, but at the time, we were so ignorant about why our skin held that shine…

This is so hard, you guys, I know you can tell from how many pages of this letter have gone by without me getting to the point. Sorry. It’s tough to be straightforward about this, when you were practically my adoptive parents growing up.

You know how friends are, they talk about everything? Well, sex was definitely something we talked about nonstop during that trip. Even though I still don’t know which of us had actually… well, done it, and we would all brag and boast about messing around with boys, I felt like they all somehow knew I hadn’t really done it. But that’s probably not true. We just lied to ourselves so much, like… I couldn’t figure out what the norms were.

So, as you can imagine, we inevitably kept talking about boys as the sun set over the interstate. And there was this thing where Nora was losing all her eyelashes. Do you remember that, when we came back? I think she had to go to the doctor, even. Because they were worried she would get dust in her eyes?

Maybe it was the diet, or all the sun. Or the ocean. Or the stress.

We were all just idiot kids, so we were of course poking fun at her. Nora got an eyelash in her eye and we were all laughing about them falling out. Then I joked, said something… something that must have cut her deeper than I meant to.

Anxiety undercurrents must have been weaving together, joining forces. As they do. I wish I remember what I said. Everything after is so clear, and that’s so blurry.

“Screw you, Kristy,” she said. “We all know you’re secretly the biggest bitch here.”

That’s when I went too far. “Yeah, Nora… and we all know you’re full of shit.” I looked up to the front seat. “You guys, she admitted to me that she never even kissed Jacob. She doesn’t even like him.”

Joann laughed. Gina did a fake gasp. “Your lashes are falling out cuz you’re a lesbian!”

I laughed too, but even in the twilight I could see tears in Nora’s eyes. We stared at each other, and something broke. I didn’t understand it then, I didn’t assemble the puzzle pieces. But I intuited that I had just betrayed her in the worst way. My face flushed, and Nora looked quickly away from me then, as we sat there frozen in the back seat. Joann shot a sharp look over, saying “Jeez you guys, lay off,” but nothing could be done to un-say the accusation.

Ginny just put on a proud it-had-to-be-said sort of face and waved her arm lazily out the window in the warm evening wind. You know those times with good friends in the car, where conversation dies and everyone just stares out the window, listening to the music, all together but apart? Comfortable silence? We all tried to pretend it was one of those times.

Ginny cracked a dumb joke about a passing billboard from time to time. I could see the pinched look in Joann’s eyes in the rearview mirror, worry clear. But I looked away quickly and couldn’t meet Nora’s gaze again. When I talked with her about that moment years later, she told me how close she came to saying something. Letting it all out in the open. And how I wish I, or Ginny, had apologized. But nobody said anything at all.

Then the worst thing happened. I couldn’t stop the ice inside me from shifting, and I began to sob. No real reason. Sitting there in the back seat, quietly crying, as the other girls tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. I wasn’t the one who should have been crying. That was really Nora’s place. She should have been angry at me, or sad, or anything. But somehow just her stoicism pushed me over the edge.

When you’re in a car, you can’t get away. For some reason Joann wouldn’t just pull over and let us all walk around and blow off the steam of the confrontation. And that’s how my friendship with your daughter kind of kerploded. That’s why you never saw me come over after that, during that whole senior year. We were supposed to be besties, and I totally failed Nora.

Eventually my sobs slowed. The wheels hummed, and the silence in the car was like a nonstop wave of sleet blowing in my face. I had to stop myself from breaking down, again. All I could muster to say out loud was, “I’m hungry.” Even though I was sick to my stomach, and food was the last thing on my mind.

Joann and Ginny were always confused, that senior year, why Nora had kind of retreated. We didn’t see much of her any more. She kept to herself. She didn’t even do any of the choir events that used to knit us all together so tightly. I didn’t understand, then, either, really. But thinking back, with the benefit of hindsight to analyze the hidden language, I think I understand why the ice formed now.

It all goes back to the conversation Nora and I had, a few weeks before the road trip. I didn’t think much of it at the time, or at least I thought I didn’t. But I must have cared more, deep down, subconsciously, than I thought. Because I can remember it with a sharpness, again, like the trip itself. I didn’t add them together until much later.

We were at your house, hanging out in the basement, watching some terrible rom-com. It’s true that I remember a lot of it really clearly. But I don’t remember how Nora and I ended up spending a night by ourselves at your house when you guys were gone. All I remember is sitting on the couch with her, the quavering in her voice alerting even dense ol’ me that a storm was inside her.

“Kristy. I have to admit something,” she said.

I waited, expecting a joke.

“I’ve never kissed Jacob. I don’t even like him. I’m just dating him because… my parents expect it, I guess? Everyone… expects me to.”

I shrugged and shoveled more popcorn in my mouth. “Doesn’t matter to me if you kiss him,” I said. “I’m still a total virgin.” (Again, the master of oblivious awkward.)

Then Nora turned to me, looked me in the eye, and asked: “Have you ever wanted to kiss a girl?”

I kind of giggled nervously, and said “No,” but I didn’t prompt her. I didn’t really understand that she was trying to open up. In a secret language.

My “no” probably hung there in the air there in front of her, but at the time, I just went back to watching the dumb movie.

So much later, I put it together. My betrayal of her trust on the road trip was an accident. And it cut into her anxiety about coming out. She took it hard, like she had every right to. I’m sorry, still. I wasn’t the friend she needed.

I guess I just wanted you guys to know the story, as clear as I can remember it. So now it’s time to tell you that we’ve become friends again, finally, after revisiting that awful night and working through it.

That’s when I found out that you two disowned her, when she came out. That is… so harsh. I don’t even know what to think about that. But when she told me, I knew right then I would have to write you.

You know that ice isn’t actually “cold”, right? How it’s more a lack of heat? So when you touch an ice cube, the heat travels out of your finger into the ice, transforming it in the process… Cold is a void that heat moves into. It’s not a real thing. A real anything at all.

My point is, hate is kind of a void like that. Or at least, I hope it is. Love moves into the void. I don’t want to be angry at you guys for cutting Nora out of your lives, but I can’t help it. I am. This is a mistake that you can undo. Please.

Icebergs aren’t permanent. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I hope our lack in understanding is filled with love again, someday. That’s why I had to write this. I’m sorry.

Love, Kristin

P.S. Let me know if you want come over for a casserole dinner sometime. I don’t know if that would be weird, but I think it would be great. We don’t have to talk about Nora if you don’t want.

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Dan

Somniloquy

“Go back to sleep,” she says quietly, her back to you. You lie there, and hear her pen tapping on the inkwell. The quiet ticks remind you of a clock. She ignores you, dear reader, as your eyes flutter back and forth from these words to the sliding, sloping black tunnel of deep sleep.

“But I’ve never read one of your stories while awake before,” you mumble into the pillow, trailing off for a moment. “We only get that privilege when we sleep… for a reason… too distracting.” You shake your head slowly, feeling the words of the story actually collide with your conscious mind, existing simultaneously in dream and not, ludic resonance mixing and matching in a non-lucid soup of the two narratives entangled.

One thread: these words sliding into confusion. The other: your sleep-deprived mind, barely hearing her quill on the paper. Or is the quill in the story, and your mind is the description? You try to say something, but the exhaustion pulls you down, down, down. Too tired to summon the energy to understand anything.

The taste of that sweet, black oblivion calls. And the dizzy tunnel of words swirls everything around inside it. Her voice echoes hollowly as she mutters something to herself, and your ears are dimmed and dulled as you float off to sleep. With great effort, you manage to say “what” — or did you only think that? No, there was no speaking out loud. There was no thought, either. You only read the word.

Flip.

When you read that word, what happens? What do you understand? “Dreams of another person?” she asks, her words no longer audible but instead text on the page in front of you.

Now you are certain that the threads have reversed.

You’re reading the story, and the ticking of her quill into the inkwell is only words, causing imagined sound. You can stop reading the story, but the velvet touch of sleep won’t come.

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Dan

Pain in the Butt

“Pain is the curl and foam of a wave that does not break.”

– Dan Simmons, The Fall of Hyperion

We are all so lucky to walk. Even to sit. You don’t know how much you will miss relaxing on a comfortable couch, until you can’t any more.

My pain stopped me from sitting comfortably. This is not the worst curse of pain anyone has ever experienced, but it is a befuddling one. I want to write my experience with this, in case anyone else diagnosed with coccydynia can find anything useful in it.

Flavors of Pain

I fell on the ice 3 years ago this December. And I’ve been cursed with a weird, new flavor of pain ever since.

The first shock of falling felt familiar. We’ve all hit the ground hard, at a bad angle. But afterwards, this was different. It stuck with me, a malingering thing, and various activities would make it worsen over the coming months. Activities like heavy lifting, certain sexual positions, and sitting. Especially sitting.

After the initial fall, I had a few aftershocks of pain which were acute enough to cause my vision to tunnel inward. I felt ill, nauseous from the sheer amount of pain coming from such a central location in the X of my body. The heat of the pain radiated from my tailbone and beneath it, headed up my spine in a torrent. After the first week, things started to heal. And most of the time, if I wasn’t sitting, I didn’t even notice much wrong. Assuming the whole awful nonsense would fix itself down in my mysterious pelvis and tailbone regions, I did not go to a doctor.

I would grow to learn that even low-level pain diffuses out through your life and lowers your levels of motivation and happiness. Not fun times ahead.

The Social Awkwardness of Not Sitting

Although the acute pain went away, I was left with a sneaking strange pain that I can only describe as “squishy” in my nether regions, exacerbated mostly again by heavy lifting, pelvic exercises such as sex… and sitting.

After sitting for 5 minutes or so, a stitching, squishy sense of wrongness would creep into the area around my tailbone. Nerves and muscles I had never really thought much about began to complain in a really strange new language that I was unprepared to understand.

It began to worsen, reaching new heights of uncomfortable pain in shorter spans of seatedness.

And all the sitting of modern life made it worse. Sitting in meetings. Sitting in the brain imaging lab that I interned at, where standing was not a feasible option. Sitting at dinner with my partner, grinning and bearing it, thinking in some small way I was going crazy.

I tried not to complain too much, but I should have made a bigger deal out of it at the time. It just came on me like a shadow, growing slowly, and I did not know how bad it would get.

Eventually, sometimes even lying down and sleeping would make it worse, and I would wake up with that bizarre firey squishy sensation already triggered.

The only ways I found to feel better were painkillers like ibuprofen, and walking. So I walked a lot. Even more than before. (I’ve never owned a car, so when I say I walked a lot, you can take my word for it.)

But still it worsened, to the point where I could not sit on a couch for ten minutes without experiencing hours of mid-level pain and days of low-level soreness. Oddly, the more padded the seat, the more pain I would be in.

Pain in the Ass

Finally I grew worried enough to go in to a doctor, six months after the original injury. Sitting was important to me, and I hadn’t realized how its being taken away as an option would impact my life.

This was where I was first diagnosed with “coccydynia”, sometimes “coccygodynia”, which if you are familiar with Latin has the translation of “tailbone pain”. Or, quite literally, “pain in the ass.”

It is a very generic diagnosis, and a very mysterious set of symptoms. Sometimes it is acute pain, sometimes not. Sometimes it is caused by a fall, sometimes by childbirth, but in as many as a third of cases, there is no “known” cause. Your pain in the ass just starts up.

So this doctor told me it was common in childbirth, rarer in males for that reason, and she had not seen it in a man before. But I seemed healthy and active, so no worries… just keep doing what I was doing and staying active and it should heal.

This was terrible, unhelpful advice.

But I trusted that doctor and did not get a second opinion. I sat there, gritting my teeth, on the padded table, telling her that it hurt about a 3 or 4 on the pain scale but that if I sat there for longer it would get worse. She didn’t tell me to stand up. That should have been a signal.

So I went home. I told my partner and my family. I finally had a name for the curse that was upon me. I read about coccydynia on sites like coccyx.org, and tried to learn about methods of dealing with it. For many sufferers, it appears to be a permanent condition. This was not looking good, but I gritted my teeth and tried to get better through sheer force of will.

I was finishing school at the time, and doing even more computing than usual. So to avoid sitting I got a standing desk at home and at work. (Thanks Jeff and Doug!) While this helped my tailbone, I eventually did some semi-permanent damage to my hips from not moving around enough. (See the next section about compensation.)

My problem also may have been made somewhat unique due to the lanky frame I inherited from my mother: I’m quite tall and very skinny. So I don’t have much padding in the ass region, and my legs are very long. That all probably has something to do with how I damaged myself.

If you are tall, getting a working standing desk may be tricky. And standing in one place can be just as dangerous to the coccydynia-addled pelvic floor muscles as sitting. So I recommend using something like the open source application Workrave to remind yourself to take breaks, and really move around from time to time. I wish I had done this sooner.

There is one trick to it, though.

Do not just think about moving around, when it prompts you.

Actually move around.

Compensating

In the process of recovering from coccydynia, you are going to learn about muscles and nerves you didn’t realize you had. The pelvic floor and all its interconnections is more complex than you imagine.

But you don’t have to be able to name them all, you just have to work to become more aware of all the different muscle groups and how they interact.

One simple concept about injuries I wish I had learned about sooner is compensation. This is the idea that if you damage muscles somewhere in your body, your posture and gait will adjust (subconsciously, mostly outside your awareness!) to protect the damaged area. I did not realize it at the time, but the pelvic muscles that were damaged seemed to be damaged worse on the right side than on the left.

So my left side, quietly, began to take up the slack. When I sat, I would (again, without noticing) put more weight on my left buttcheek. When I stood, more of my weight would go on my left leg, eventually inducing meralgia and other strange pinched nerve symptoms traveling down the outer and front sides of my left thigh.

Certain muscle groups began to overtighten. Mostly in my chest and left hip, but also in my pelvic floor and leg adductors.

Other muscles began to weaken. My balance muscles, especially in my left foot. And as my third PT would discover later, the muscle that connects to my knee on the inside of my right leg (but only on the right side!) became very weakened over time. But I didn’t notice, until she pointed it out.

Styles of Treatment

Self

Wow, I was awful. Even after I knew sitting was terrible, I kept doing it.

Treatment Rating: Dumb as heck

Doctor

The original doctor I talked to: I’m going to come out and say it. I’m pissed that she just sent me out with no referral to PT, assuming I would get better. This is a TERRIBLE PLAN. If you are suffering from tailbone or pelvis pain, GO TO A PHYSICAL THERAPIST.

Treatment Rating: FAILURE. ARRRGHHH

PT 1

My first physical therapist was the only PT in the entire insurance network who knew how to treat men with coccydynia. Most of them focus on females. I had to borrow a car to get out to the suburbs for appointments, and she had a very set-in-stone idea in her mind of what kind of treatment would work. Although I learned a ton about my condition from her, the recommended treatments did not necessarily help.

She also seemed certain that internal stimulation of the pelvic floor muscles was needed. This may not always be a good idea. It’s not just that it’s awkward and invasive to have someone rolling their fingers around inside your anus. Your flavor of coccydynia may be like mine, and be made worse by that tension and torsion.

My main takeaway from her was that coccydynia is mysterious, but treatable. And that you had to kind of test the various exercises on yourself over long periods of time to see what actually helps you.

Treatment Rating: Better than Nothing

PT 2

I am generally a believer in medical science. I don’t go in for homeopathy. However, my second PT pushed the boundary of what I would believe. Her knowledge of the human fascial tissue (the connective tissue just underneath the skin) was amazing, and she had an intuition (by touch) that was incredible to behold.

She was fairly certain I had damaged my upper chest muscles (both in back and in front), causing them to compensate for the pelvic floor and other muscles that were getting squishy. I did not really believe this, but kept doing the exercises she recommended: backwards water walking and the plow, primarily. And they helped. My body began to reset.

In one shocking event, I was lying on her table and she was poking and prodding my chest. (She rarely worked directly on my hip or pelvic muscles at all, focusing on my chest and head.) And then she said, “Oof! There it is finally!” and pressed down super hard in a way that stunned me. But she was correct, which is the part that blew my mind. The nerves in my hips and around my burning tailbone suddenly flared once and then subsided, into a state of less pain than I had been in for quite some time. One of the strangest things I have felt in my life. Why would pushing on my ribcage so hard somehow reset my tailbone?

Unfortunately, that therapist semi-retired to run a holistic therapy office that was not covered by my insurance. And I felt I was ready for a new course of investigating that tackled the pelvic problems more directly, now that she had solved some of the compensating issues.

Between PT 2 and 3 I woke up one morning to discover that I had developed a shockingly strange-looking bruise below my tailbone, running down my butt and the backs and insides of my inner thighs. It’s still there, although somewhat less angry looking, over 6 months later.

No PT or doctor has been able to explain it, thus far…

Treatment Rating: Confusing, But Helpful

PT 3

My third and current PT gels well with me, because as a writer and a programmer I find that my primary mode of attacking problems is as a “troubleshooter”. I like solving problems by understanding them in a holistic way. Picking them apart, matching up all the evidence. Whereas PT 2 could not always explain her intuitions (though they were often correct), PT 3 is an expert at explaining why certain things help and certain things hurt, and her explanations have aided me in understanding how to figure that out for myself.

She also figured out that external tailbone rotation and external activation of the ischeal tuberosity were much better than jamming a hand inside my ass for my current problems, like PT 1 always tried. I’m so very thankful for that.

PT 3 is also teaching me that posture and gait are very important. I am still learning to stand with shoulders back and apart, and not locking my knees. Screw your feet apart so arches come off the ground. Keep your head up and over the spine. Walk with your knees even with your middle toes. No frickin’ slouching, ever again.

Treatment Rating: Explicable and Helpful!

Other Innovations

Although coccyx cushions MAY help with direct nerve pain, I strongly believe that a coccyx cutout pillow causes some kind of internal pelvic floor compensation and may make the problems worse. I used a coccyx cushion fairly religiously for the middle year of my symptoms, and started to feel better soon after I stopped using it.

You may want to investigate OT/PT “Sits” cushions, which are essentially two hard disks of foam that go under each side of your butt. That makes them more adjustable, you can move them around, and they are smaller – much more convenient to carry.

Strangely, something I discovered quite late in the process that makes a bigger difference than a cushion: Pants with less of a pronounced seam running over your tailbone. This aggravates the problem much less when you do have to sit. Unfortunately, this mostly includes styles of pants such as pajamas, sweatpants, or no pants at all. None of these options are very good for daily life if you rely on having pockets to remember things.

Sit/stand desks are definitely your friend.

Knee chairs did not work for me at all. (Kneeling did not either.)

Good posture and paying attention to where you balance your weight is hard, so definitely investigate something like Workrave that reminds you while you compute… especially so you don’t stand or sit in one position too long.

Lying in bed was sometimes better than sitting. So eventually I rigged up a monitor to hover above my pillow as I laid in bed, looking straight up at it while prone, and got a split keyboard (Ergodox EZ, represent!) so I could work and write while lying down. That helped some. Eventually when I got better, I can lie in bed sitting propped against pillows, and use a projector on the wall opposite as my screen.

Exercises

By far the most frustrating thing about physical therapy is the fact that it is difficult to tell when you can STOP doing any of the exercises you are given.

To make things really work, you must stick to the exercises recommended. But thanks to how strangely coccydynia behaves in the body, certain things that work for some people may make your symptoms worse. This was definitely true for me.

Here I will go through a brief summary of each exercise that helped me, in the order of when it began helping me. In the hopes that it might help someone else.

But first, a few things that definitely did NOT help during the early phases, and may have made things worse.

Low squats.

Situps.

Pushups.

Stair climbing.

These may all be doing more harm than good. Consider NOT doing these for some time, at the beginning of recovery, if you are a male whose symptoms are similar to what I’ve described.

I did not know to STOP doing core exercises that impacted my tailbone, so I was doing situps and probably making my problem worse for two years. it wasn’t until my second PT explicitly told me NO exercising outside what she recommended. that I stopped. The first PT had recommended the low squats and stairs. The squats always caused worse tailbone pain, but I just assumed you had to work through that to get the benefit. This is not always the case.

However, another exercise the first PT gave me was helpful all the way through the process. She had me do a glute/hip stretch that stretches the muscles that connect your pelvic floor to your sit bones and hips. Stand facing a chair. Keep one leg straight on the ground, put the other elevated on the chair. (At first you may want to try something even lower than a chair, like a curb.) Turn at the hips, away from the lifted leg, gently stretching the muscle bands that stretch laterally across your butt. Repeat on both sides until loose.

My second PT recommended water walking backwards, which is a surprisingly useful way to reset your pelvic floor and back muscles by basically confusing the crap out of them.

Then, in quick succession: Hip stretch lying on a table with legs hanging off. Pull one knee to chest, or as far as you can go, through the pinching, while leaving the other leg hanging. Bend the hanging leg for a further stretch.

Sitting down crosslegged, arms crossed and braced on knees. Curve spine, head down, rest 30 seconds. Rise up slowly. Or do 5 second butterfly stretch, and alternate with the inverse where you arch your back.

The PLOW. This stretch helped unlock my stiff-as-a-board thoracic spine. Sit right next to a wall, and then swivel your legs so you climb the wall and flip them over behind you, crunching your neck in an impossible-seeming posture with a chair or something behind you to hold the legs up. (I eventually started doing this for 5 minutes at a time. It was surprisingly useful to stretch my spine out.)

Low and high cobra stretch.

Deep squats, after all that has started to reset the pelvic floor.

Tumpline exercises. Tie a whole load of books in a bag to a theraband. Put it around your forehead, and bend your head forward. Now walk around looking like a complete idiot for 5 minutes. Work up from 10 pounds to 40 or more. This is another neck/thoracic spine stretch that was useful.

Vibration butterfly stretch.

Ankle rolls.

Third PT started adding in some weird stuff. The thing that helped most was direct pressure (externally) on pelvic floor muscles. Lie down on something comfortable. Press on the ischial tuberosity with your leg up in the air. Sweep your calf and foot left and right while you do this to ensure not scraping the nerves too badly. Repeat on the other side. This helped me a lot, although it is VERY easy to overdo.

Head pressure point thing with 2 tennis balls tied together in a sock, pressed against the back of your head to encourage your spinal fluid flow or something. Odd, but feels kind of good. Not sure if this actually helped.

Side clamshell: lie down on your side, with a pillow under your head. Angle your legs so your knees are bent, but your head and spine are in a line with your pelvis and feet. Exhale, while tensing the bottom leg like you are about to lift it. Then lift the top leg while keeping the bottom leg tensed. Relax, inhale, and repeat. This works on the muscles at the inside of your thighs, above your knees especially.

Crossing over X: Knot a theraband and put it in the bottom of a closed door somewhere you can grab it while lying down. Lie down on your back with your head pointing towards the door, bring your knees up with your feet on the floor, and put a pillow between the knees. Grab the band, and while you exhale, do two things: tighten your knees around the pillow and swing your arm from above your head towards the opposite hip. Hold a few seconds, fully exhaling to engage the core. Repeat a few times on one side, then switch to the other.

Standing lunge X: Just as above, instead you put the theraband in the top of a door. Stand with your back to the door, holding the band in one hand outstretched above your head. Exhale, step forward into a high lunge with the opposite foot from the band hand (heh), and pull the band across your body towards the hip of the leg that is out. Try to ensure you are lunging straight out and your knee is directly above your heel, not forward of it.

Lunge walking: just what it sounds like. Try to be John Cleese. Step forward slowly but super far, into a high lunge. Hold that position. Keep your pelvis straight both left-right (by pulling it back on the forward leg side and forward on the back leg) and make sure it is not tilting forward or back. Now step, step, step. By the time you get to work, the neighborhood will be amused AND your legs and pelvic muscles will get a nice workout.

GOOD LUCK!

Progress

Today, three years on, I am happy to say that it feels like I am finally making progress in the last year or so. Slowly getting better, instead of worse.

If I sit on a couch, I still get an unpleasant squishy sensation that develops slowly over time.

But I can sit longer and longer.

Some days, I don’t even notice anything wrong with my tailbone at all.

It’s an amazing feeling, having your body work right. Even mostly right…

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