Horror & Dark Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Will You Meet Me There, Out Beyond the Bend?

She stands on the side of the road in the dewy high grass and waits. She wanders among the tangled weeds heavy with crickets, and waits. She drifts among the gathering fireflies blinking their yellow-green light into the darkening forest. And waits, and waits, and waits. They will come, she knows. They will come and see her and take her away from this dreadful place. They will clothe her and feed her and wrap her in a warm blanket, and everything will be perfect again. She knows it’s only a matter of time.

Distantly, a rumble. A sound familiar, but all too rare. A car approaches, its blue-white high beams flickering as ancient boughs stutter its artificial light. The revving engine stirs the forest to wakefulness as the car edges closer.

The others hear it too, of course. She has forgotten much, but she’ll never forget them. They linger on the side of the road, same as her, just past the sign she once could read but can’t anymore. Just past the rotted post bedecked with wreaths and flowers and candles and rain-withered notes.

The others linger like summer fog and flies, like campfire smoke and ash, like streaks of grease on glass. On nights like tonight, when the moon is high and the wind is still, she sees their forms clearly. Up and across the road is a beautiful young woman in a polka dot dress, her freckled face pale as bone, her black hair so long and flowing, it vanishes like cobwebs into the forest behind her. The young woman always holds out a single white rose when the cars come.

A few paces down the road, out from the tangle of thorny scrub like a timid deer comes the old man in his loose-fitting tux. Stooped over his crooked cane as if he’s reaching to tie his shoe, he turns his head ever so slightly so that the lenses of his thick glasses glint in the headlights. With one hand planted firmly on his cane, he uses the other to adjust his bowtie.

A little up the road, two teenage boys hold hands as they emerge from the woods, their shirts unbuttoned, their hairless chests open to the night. But they let go of hands to button their shirts and comb their hair, checking and fixing the other, until they both nod their approval. Then, side by side, they take two long strides away from each other, lift their chins, and wait.

And right across the road, where the tall weeds have budded, bloomed, and gone to seed, a man and a girl step into the night. The man is on the cusp of middle age, daubs of gray hair painting his temples, but his face still clings tenaciously to youth. The girl is eight, maybe nine, her cheeks and scalp colorfully painted with a flying unicorn, its pointed horn adorned with a star. The girl holds a butterfly balloon animal in one hand, and with the other she grasps the man’s little finger.

And she who stands on the side of the road in the dewy high grass, she who cannot remember her name, hates all those who linger here, but she hates this man and girl most of all.

Together, they wait. They all wait, in silence. They want the same thing she wants, to see into the approaching car, to catch a glimpse of its occupants, to know their faces and have those faces know her. To have the car stop and the people get out, and to hear them say, “There you are! We’ve been looking everywhere for you! Come with us, and let’s take you home.” Then, they will give her back her name, which has been stolen from her, and they will give her back her body, which has fallen away, and everything will be right as rain again, just as it was before.

As the car turns the last bend, the brake lights flash on, and the forest behind it burns campfire-red. They’re stopping! she thinks. At last, they’ve come!

Crickets still and fireflies dart away as the car swings closer in a fanfare of wind and engine roar. I’m here! she screams. See me! she shouts. But her words carry no weight; they are as light as dandelion seeds caught in the wind.

They all scream with her: Stop for us! But a single bead of dew falling from grass to earth makes more sound.

The car slows, but does not stop. And its occupants, a middle-aged man and woman, tired-eyed both, stare blankly through the windshield as they whoosh past, neither acknowledging the figures on the side of the road nor each other in the car.

The passing stirs up dust. One of the rain-withered notes flutters away. The car’s red tail lights shrink and vanish like a cinder winking out. And just like that, it’s gone.

The woman in the polka dot dress throws her hands to her face as her white rose falls to the earth and withers to dust. Dark flecks stipple her dress like drops of spilled wine, growing until she is soaked in red. When she pulls her hands from her face, there is only bone.

The old man’s glasses crack and fall. A gash across his cheek spills carmine waterfalls. His cane sprouts cracks and mushrooms as it tumbles away.

The two boys face each other, their mouths open wide, as some invisible hand crushes their frames.

And just across the road, fire, great orange licks of flame that leap into the sky. The girl’s butterfly balloon pops and melts. She stares up at the rising sparks as the colored paints on her face turn black and her skin curls. But the man stares across the road, right at she who stands in the dewy high grass, at she who cannot remember her name, until his eyes melt and his flesh burns away, until there is nothing left of man or girl but bone and ash.

All of this happens in absolute silence.

But of herself, she can’t look, won’t dare see the grotesquery she has become. Better to run into the forest and lose herself among the screaming crickets and darting fireflies, to fall forever into the oblivion of ancient boughs and silent earth. But the Neverman waits in whichever direction she turns.

She doesn’t like to think about the Neverman.

• • • •

Sometimes she wanders from the road. Not too far. Never too far. She walks under the towering oaks that reach for the distant sun, or, when it rains, she stands under the pattering leaves. Sometimes she sits beside the creek and listens to the trickling waters or watches the tadpoles struggle upstream. And sometimes, when the sun is low and the cicadas buzz their loudest, she remembers.

She remembers driving, the radio blasting some furious song. A half-empty vodka bottle sloshing beside her. Her throat burning with each swallow. A cigarette, dangling from her lips. Smoke stinging her eyes. The dark road ahead, high-beams barely touching the night.

And she remembers anger, an all-consuming rage that no amount of alcohol or nicotine or music could quell. And beneath the rage, an ineffable sadness that could not be felt, must not be felt. And the sudden bend, the sound of tires screeching, her late reaction—far too late—and the impossibly slow cracking of the windshield, hair by hair, thread by thread, a horrifically beautiful cobweb, knowing full well that when the glass finally shattered something terrible would happen, something painful, irreversible and absolute.

And just as quickly as these memories come, they dart off like a startled fly. And when they go, the Neverman is there, standing as still as a petrified tree, and just as ancient.

She looks away. She has to look away. His countenance is a mountain that will crush her, a conflagration that will consume her.

He doesn’t make a sound, doesn’t move, not while she looks, which is seldom. But she knows he is there because he is the Neverman. He has never been, nor ever will be, a man. He is something else entirely.

But when from a rare glimpse she does catch his shape, she sees this: a giant buck’s skull for a head, huge pitchfork horns reaching for the sky, the tips glowing as if by moonlight. His head sits atop a man’s body that wears a black suit and tie, or a white wedding dress, or beaded leather rags. But mostly he comes naked, his chest and groin beastly with hair, his bull-like penis hanging to his knees.

Even when she tries to forget, she knows he is there, watching. He is always watching those who linger by the road.

• • • •

She wanders the creek in the blue evening light as the white mists cascade over water-worn stones. And she remembers.

She remembers sitting in the backyard of a house, and there is a man, his name is Aleksandar—oh-god-Alek!—and he is young, and he is handsome. And there is a girl, her name is Stephanie—oh-my-little-Steph!—and she is three, and she is beautiful. And the yard is bare, mere grass and fence, but they have plans, so many plans. Alek has built this house with his bare hands, this rural sanctuary, worlds from the urban sprawl where they met and fell in love. And he has promised to build a swing-set and a tree house and a little garden where vegetables will grow. He has promised so many great things. And the new patio furniture smells of plastic and paint as it fries in the heat. And the grill glimmers in the afternoon sun, the meat smoke rising like ancient sacrifices on their way to heaven.

“Cake, mommy!” Steph says. “Please cake!” And it’s the sweetest sound in the world. Sweeter than the call of a lark or the lament of a mourning dove. Sweeter than all the cake in the cosmos, for this is sound of her daughter’s voice.

“Finish your hot dog,” she tells Steph. “Then you can have cake.” And these words, so ordinary then, so plain and unexceptional, have become the most precious things, because they come from before.

And there are bees in the yard and songbirds in the trees, and the air smells of old memories, of Montenegro, of her childhood, before she came to the States with her mother, before she met Aleksandar. Before everything. Stephanie is their child’s name, an American name Alek chose, because he wanted her to be an American child. But in this yard that smells of distant lands, she knows her past isn’t gone. It’s just been transformed. Alek drinks his beer and Steph laughs, and the world, in this moment, is perfect.

“Are you there?” Alek says, in English. It’s always English around Steph. “Earth to Kate? Hello?”

Yes! she thinks. That’s my name! I’m Katarina, but everyone calls me Kate!

“Did you hear me?” Alek says. “I have to go soon.”

“Go?” she says. “Go where?”

“I told you. I got that job up in Phoenicia, off 28. That basement reno?”

“You never told me that.”

“I most certainly did.”

“You’re working tonight?”

“I’m sorry. The client’s a therapist with a home office. They didn’t want me making a racket while they’re seeing patients, so I said I’d work nights.”

“I see,” Kate says, but she doesn’t. She’s not ready to let go of this perfect moment. Not yet. “Can’t you stay, Alek, for just a little bit longer?”

He stares at her, before he nods and says, “Okay.” Then he takes her hand and kisses it. And they eat ice cream and hysterically laugh when Steph smears it over her face. And Kate reclines as the afternoon unfolds too quickly, much too quickly. And she watches the sun drop below the trees and the yard slide into shadow. She watches Alek down his beer and rise from the table, feels his soft and passionate kiss on her lips and the lovely chills that run down her spine when he whispers, “Volim te svim srcem.” I love you with all my heart.

And she watches in a dream as Alek gathers his things. And she hears his truck start and the sound of him driving away. And she feels the cavernous silence that lingers long after he’s gone. The day was beautiful, but it is over. She wants to cry. But it will be okay. There will be thousands more days like this, thousands more afternoons in the yard. Their story has only just begun.

Kate—yes, Kate is her name—she remembers all of this as she lingers by the creek in the fading light, as the frogs croak their ancient songs and distant burning suns peer through the forest canopy above.

Twenty yards downstream, the Neverman watches.

• • • •

The night is hot and muggy when a car comes rolling around the bend. Kate waits beside the road with the others, the woman in the polka dot dress and the old man in thick glasses and the open-shirted boys and the man and his face-painted girl. How she hates the man and the face-painted girl! They all wait as the car slows, as it pulls onto the narrow shoulder and stops.

At last, they’ve come for me! she thinks.

But a stranger emerges from the car. He is middle-aged, hair ragged and unkempt, eyes puffy and red. As soon as he steps out, the woman in polka dots rushes forward, flapping her jaw, dancing around the stranger, frantically waving, silently screaming, the white rose in her hand making wild figure-eights.

But the stranger doesn’t see. He pulls a photograph from his pocket and lays it at the base of the rotting post, careful not to disturb the flowers and candles and rain-withered notes already there. The stranger crosses himself and falls to his knees, then presses his palms together, bows his head, and mumbles a prayer.

The woman in polka dots falls to her knees beside him. She reaches for his shoulder, but her hand passes through him. She shudders, then mouths something, over and over. And though Kate can’t hear a sound, she reads the woman’s lips:

Papa, it’s me! Papa, I’m here! This goes on for some time.

Eventually, the stranger rises and returns to his car. He sits for a while before starting the engine, then slowly pulls away.

The woman in the polka dot dress stands to watch the car drive off. She sways like a tree in the wind as her white rose falls to the ground, and the earth opens to swallow it. When she turns to gaze at the photograph leaning against the sign post, wine-dark stains spread across her dress. Her feet sink into the ground, inch by inch, as she weeps.

The Neverman stands beside her, holding her hand as she sinks. He has always been beside her, hairy, naked, and huge, waiting for this moment.

The woman sinks to her chest, her neck, weeping soundlessly. Kate can’t bear to look, so she turns away. Across the road, the man and the face-painted girl burn.

• • • •

The day is long and languorous, and the birds are making an awful racket in the trees when she remembers.

She remembers Alek working late for weeks, coming home after three a.m., but still up by eight and out the door by nine. She’s never seen him work this hard, not even when they were living in that roach-infested apartment in Maspeth, banking every penny so they could get the hell out of the city.

“Take a break,” she’s told him more than once. “Slow down.”

“But I can’t,” he replies. “I’m doing this for Steph, for her future.”

And every morning, Alek leaps out of bed like a kid on Christmas, flying out the door in a whoosh, and is gone. And this is all right, Kate tells herself, even though there are moments, when she’s alone with Steph in their sparsely furnished home, when the TV plays some loud cartoon and the rain falls softly in the yard, that a loneliness creeps into her heart, and she longs to hear her mother’s voice, dead nine years, or call friends she hasn’t spoken to in forever. Instead, she just lets the light of the TV enter her and dreams of a day when their house will be full.

And it’s this one night, when her watch reads 3:12 a.m., and moonlight shines through the blinds to scatter upon their bed, when Alek showers after coming home. And Kate needs him. She needs him more than she’s ever needed anyone.

She gets up to pee, even though she doesn’t have to, and she sits on the bowl, and says, “So, how’d it go?”

“Oh, hey!” he says. “Didn’t mean to wake you. It’s going slow. Lots to do.”

His phone sits on the sink, the screen unlocked, and behind the curtain she can hear Alek, scrubbing, scrubbing. She doesn’t want to look, doesn’t want to violate their trust, but she needs something to grasp onto, something to stop her from sinking into this bottomless pit. She takes his phone, and the text messages spring open for her to read.

You coming?

On my way

Good job last night, carpenter!

Haha thanks. U too, doc.

You can really hammer a nail

Lol funny

I need some more work on my basement

I bet you do

As Kate scrolls up, she sinks down, down into the plumbing, down into the earth. There isn’t time to read them all. Alek will be done soon. But she reads as many as she can. And at the very top, at the very beginning of the story, is an address in Phoenicia, just off Route 28.

Hi Alek, this is Dr. McAllister. I’m confirming your therapy appointment for today at 4:30pm. Do you need directions?

No, thank you. I have my GPS. I’ll be there tonight.

He sounds like he’s finishing his shower, so she puts back his phone, wipes and washes herself, then crawls into to bed.

It’s not what it sounds like, she thinks. He’s seeing a therapist and doesn’t want to tell me. And he’s just doing some work for her, that’s all. But she knows this is a lie.

Alek slides into bed beside her smelling of soap and shampoo. He kisses her forehead and says, “Volim te,” I love you. He’s snoring in minutes.

But she doesn’t sleep. In the morning, over coffee, while Steph colors in a Disney princess, Kate says, “When do you think you’ll be done with that night job?” Because maybe it’s just a fling, something he needed to get out of his system. Something he’ll get over.

“I don’t know,” he says, snatching his keys. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

And fuck you! she thinks. Fuck you for destroying our family! But she can’t bring herself to say these things, not in front of Steph. Not now. No, saying these things would make it real, would tear down this home that they have built together. Alek leaves without kissing her goodbye.

The day is a long blur. She and Steph play with blocks and practice letters, and Kate feeds and changes her, and sometimes she just sits and caresses her. And when Steph looks up at her, Kate forces a smile. She has to smile, has to show this beautiful little creature that the world is not a vicious, brutal mess, that the world is not a place where no one escapes unscathed. Kate will protect Steph from that reality as long as she can.

As the daylight fades, even though it’s raining and cool, Kate sets up the little plastic bubble machine on the patio, under the awning, because it’s Steph’s favorite toy. And they watch it spit out endless rainbow spheres, bursting as they fly off into the rain. But there’s one bubble, shimmery with pastel rainbows, that floats off unharmed. How is it, she wonders, that a million raindrops crash all around it, but this one sails over the fence, beyond the trees, whole and intact?

The daylight fades with the rain, and fireflies dart around their empty yard, and Alek isn’t home. But here she is, alone with their daughter, angry and afraid, while he fucks someone else. She calls Joanna, their babysitter, who can’t cover, but her friend Debbie can. And Kate gives Debbie hasty instructions and a vague excuse about needing to see a sick friend. Three times she says goodbye to Steph, but Steph is too immersed in some game on Debbie’s phone to hear.

Then Kate’s out the door, programming her GPS with the address from Alek’s phone, an address seared into her memory. It’s dark when she reaches the house, a large and modern ranch on several wooded acres. A house, as far as she can tell, with no need for renovation. She parks down the road and steps out.

A sign reads, “Pamela McAllister, Licensed Clinical Therapist, LMSW, LCSW, CHT.” Such an American name, she thinks. Alek’s truck is parked in the rain-slick driveway next to a shiny silver BMW. His toolkit lies in the backseat.

The basement window flickers, and as Kate approaches, mesmerized, she knows that when she reaches it she will burn.

She creeps up and peers through the small basement window. Two people sit on a couch, under an afghan blanket, the TV illuminating their faces. One is a stranger, a dreadfully attractive woman. The other is Alek. The TV volume is low enough to hear them speak.

“. . . she’s just so old-fashioned, you know? She grew up in Montenegro, in this little town called Zagrad. It’s literally in the fucking hills. But I was born here, in New York. I just feel like we’re so different, you know?”

“Alex,” the woman ways, “it’s okay—”

Alex, not Alek, Kate thinks.

“—it’s okay to admit you’re unhappy.”

“I just feel so . . .”

“Guilty?”

Frustrated. My daughter deserves so much better.”

Kate wants to scream. She wants to kick in the window and call her a cunt homewrecker and Alek a small-dicked philanderer. She wants to rip out this woman’s slick tongue and cut off Alek’s prick. Instead she just stands there, frozen.

What happens to Steph, she thinks, when everything falls apart?

Slowly, she stumbles back to the car. This isn’t happening. Nothing is real. We are all bubbles in the rain, bursting and washing away. The key finds its way to the ignition. The car starts. She shifts into drive and pulls away.

• • • •

The insects have retreated into their hollows, and the autumn leaves litter the forest floor when she smells the campfire smoke. There are new folks here, she thinks. People not from the road, and she wants so badly to meet them. She wants so badly to leave this place.

She runs into the forest, following the charcoal scent, until the smoke grows thick and the sunbeams form cathedrals of light. She has never been this far from the road before, and it is liberating, and it is terrifying.

She will meet campers, she thinks, and they will give her food and water and comfort. And she will say, “I am lost!” And they will show her a map, and they will point to it and say, “Do not fear! Here you are, just around this bend. And over here, this is where your home is.”

Home, Kate thinks. With Steph and Alek, and an empty house that will soon be full. She wants to go back there more than anything in the world. The smoke is thick, dense enough to sting her eyes and lungs, but she feels nothing, not even the stony ground under her bare feet. And just over that small hill, the campfire burns, sending up waves of smoke just like the grill on that afternoon in the yard, with Alek and Steph and melting ice-cream.

She ascends the hill, hoping for someone, anyone to be waiting on the other side. But there are only smoldering logs.

Hello? she calls. Is anyone here? she cries. The dwindling leaves sigh and the campfire crackles, but no one responds.

She approaches the fire, and it’s only now, before its heat, that she feels how cold she is, how cold she has been. She squats by the logs to warm herself, and lets the heat consume her.

The wind gusts as she looks into the fire. A thick log burns in the center, and four smaller ones burn beside it. A dimpled black stone sizzles too, a colorful unicorn painted on its side. But this black stone is not a stone. And the logs are not logs. This is the girl from the road, burning, burning.

Kate leaps from the fire, screaming without a sound. She tries to run, but the man blocks her way. He closes in, hatred in his eyes, his blackened flesh curling as he slowly burns. Above him the butterfly balloon-animal floats off into the smoky girders of light.

Kate turns and runs. She runs to the only safe place she knows. She flies over rotted trees and mushroom cityscapes. She runs until darkness comes and the forest screams with the songs of night, until she can’t run anymore. She stops beside the road, by the rotted-out post and rusted sign she knows she could have read anytime she wanted to. But she doesn’t want to.

Down the road, the Neverman watches.

• • • •

When the car comes, the sky is gray, all the leaves have fallen, and a dusting of snow covers the sleeping earth. She waits by the side of the road with the old man and the two boys and the man and the face-painted girl—how she loathes them all! But the woman with the polka dot dress doesn’t come here anymore.

The silver-gray car swings around the bend, the same color as the murky sky. The car slows, and Kate thinks, At last, they’ve come for me!

The car slows and slows, and Kate peers inside, at the woman driver and her familiar face, a dreadfully beautiful face, a face once glimpsed through a basement window and never forgotten, a face happy and content. And Kate peers at the man beside her, a man still handsome, but not so young anymore. And in the backseat, a teenage girl, fourteen or fifteen, her face aglow from some device in her hand.

Such a graceful, beautiful face.

The man frowns as he glances at the rotted-out post, but the woman fixes her eyes upon the road. And the girl in the back, she just stares at the glowing object in her hand. And as the car sweeps past, slowly, slowly, until it vanishes around the bend, the rumble of its engine fades into the sound of the wind.

My God, Kate thinks. How long have I been here, waiting beside the road?

The wind gusts and dies, and she remembers.

She remembers speeding away from that cursed house with its basement window, her car skidding on rain-slicked roads. She remembers stopping to buy cigarettes, even though she hasn’t smoked since college, and a bottle of vodka, even though she rarely drinks. And she swallows burning mouthfuls and smokes until she could puke, but the pain lingers. She finds a rock station on the radio and turns the volume up, then just drives and drives, until she finds herself on some dark road far from home, until she knows she’s way too drunk to be driving, and she really should be getting home to Steph.

She sees the sign, but doesn’t read it, and she takes the bend too fast, skidding, and doesn’t see the car in the opposite lane until the headlights blind her. She slams on the breaks, but it won’t help, not now, not ever. And the sound of tires screeching, of metal bending. And the glimpse, through the impossibly slow cracking of the window, inch by inch, hair by hair, through the most beautifully horrific cobweb, of the occupants of the other car: a man, his mouth open wide, and a girl with a painted face, holding a balloon animal butterfly in her hand.

And there is smoke and there is fire and there is pain and there is darkness.

Kate remembers all of this as she stands beside the road in the dull gray light, as she looks to where the car has gone, where her once husband and daughter drove off with someone else.

The man and the face-painted girl burn brighter than they ever have. The whole forest glows with their blaze of light. The Neverman stands beside Kate, reeking of burning oil, his hand outstretched in a gesture of welcome.

But she turns away from them all.

• • • •

She huddles in the hollow of a dead tree as icy rains splatter against the stones. She watches the occasional deer forage for winter scraps before scampering off. She wanders the road, seeking cracks in the pavement, places where the forest has taken over. Cars seldom come down this road. Maybe there is a new highway, a better one. Or maybe people just don’t like to come this way anymore.

Sometimes, when the days are short, she imagines who might be in the cars if they still came. Maybe a young couple in love, singing some pop song as they whoosh by. Or maybe an old man, missing his dead wife dearly, crying as he remembers the first day they met. Or maybe a teenaged boy, heart pumping in his father’s sports car, going too fast, way too fast for this curvy road.

Bust mostly she imagines herself in the car, driving. She is always driving. Beside her sits Alek, as young and as handsome as ever. And in the back seat sits Stephanie, a young woman now, always busy on her glowing phone. Alek makes a corny joke, and Kate laughs, and Steph groans. And they all drive down this quiet road together. And Kate feels full and happy, because there is nothing else she needs in life but this.

She gazes in the rearview mirror at Steph, marveling at how much her daughter has grown, what a beautiful woman she has become. And above her head, through the rear windshield, way, way off in the distance, a pitchfork of horns poke out from the trees, shrinking but never really vanishing, no matter how far Kate drives, no matter how hard she tries to forget who’s waiting for her there. She is just a lucky bubble, floating off into the rain, and she will drive for as long as and as far as she can.

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Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award finalist. His first novel, King of Shards, was hailed as, “Majestic, resonant, reality-twisting madness,” by NPR Books. His short fiction has or will soon appear in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Nightmare, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, and the anthologies Mad Hatters and March Hares, Cyber World, Naked City, After, and The People of the Book, as well as many other places. His work has been translated into Czech, Polish, French, Russian, Chinese, and Romanian. From 2003 to 2010 he ran Senses Five Press, which published Sybil’s Garage, an acclaimed speculative fiction magazine, and Paper Cities, which went on to win the World Fantasy Award in 2009. His is currently the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan alongside Ellen Datlow, and he is a long-time member of the Altered Fluid writers group. By trade, he is a full-stack software developer, and he developed the Moksha submission system, which is in use by many of the largest SF markets today. You can find him at online at matthewkressel.net, where he blogs about writing, technology, environmentalism and more. Or you can find him on Twitter @mattkressel.