Sometimes, I regret setting my stories in an alternate reality, mostly when it prevents me from commenting on the popular culture of the day. I was able to address this somewhat in Hybrid Mechanics, which featured a simulated reality that just happened to be the real Austin, Texas from 2017. So that became canon: there exists in the Vinestead Universe a simulation that matches what you and I call reality, where COVID and Trump and Nazis are things we have to worry about on a daily basis. I’ve been playing with that concept, going back to the origins of that simulation, wondering if it existed in VYear 2020…
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
The single-word message shook Scott out of a boredom that had only grown worse as the day wore on. He’d pulled the night shift again, and as usual, he’d finished most of his work in the first hour while the sun was still up and baking the side of the temporary building where he worked. Now those same frosted window slats that had once glowed in the failing light were dark and open to the world, letting in the sound of light rain as it fell on the gravel in the parking lot.
At least it was something.
Scott groaned as he pulled his feet down from his desk. His foot nudged the mouse, and the default sea green background of Windows 98 filled the dormant monitor. It flickered briefly before slowly drawing the window for Outlook Express. A single message sat in the otherwise empty inbox. Scott gripped the mouse and selected the email. Another window popped up, appearing just as slowly as its parent.
The email was from Daemon78756. The subject was Anomaly, and the message body contained nothing but an address. Scott selected the address—2811 Shoalwood Ave—and pasted it into Mapquest. A few seconds later, he had a rough idea where in Austin he needed to go. He clicked on Directions, entered the address of his trailer, and printed out the turn-by-turn to get him to his destination.
Once the printer was done, he rolled up the papers and slipped them into the inside pocket of his raincoat, which he then pulled on over his shoulders. It was bright yellow, with two vertical lines of neon orange running down each breast—standard uniform for Public Works. At the door, he grabbed a flashlight, as the distant storms were already starting to flicker the lights a bit. It felt like the thunder was getting closer by the minute.
He jogged from the trailer to the white Bronco on the other side of the parking lot. The engine rolled over on the second attempt. Scott flipped the headlights on and illuminated the thick trees on the other side of the chain link fence. The rain picked up, but it wasn’t anything the wipers couldn’t handle. He pulled out of the parking lot and onto Manor Road, where he took a right towards I-35. As he accelerated up the on-ramp to the highway, he checked the clock on the dashboard.
His shift was over in less than two hours, which meant this would be his one and only call for the night. He decided to take his time and keep the Bronco under the speed limit as he drove north. As he came out of the lower decks, the Texas sky stretched out in front of him as a monstrous black mass sparking with hidden lightning. It seemed to come all at once, from all directions, reflecting in the beads of water streaming off his windshield.
Scott flipped on the radio, wanting to hear something other than the falling rain. The dial was tuned to Country, but he flipped it over to 93.7 as the last strains of some aging Aerosmith song were fading out. He listened as a DJ broke in to warn about a flash flood warning in effect. He didn’t belabor the point, and soon the sound of the Foo Fighters filled the cab.
The streets were pretty empty. Though Austinites seemed to have a habit of driving through low water crossing, most of them at least had the good sense to stay home when visibility was low. It only took twenty minutes to cross the city, and when Scott turned onto Shoalwood Avenue, he dialed the volume on the radio down to zero. He could barely see the house numbers painted on the driveways, and at first, drove right past 2811. Scott doubled back and parked on the street.
Stepping out into the rain, he held his flashlight like a weapon, ready to strike anything that might jump out of the darkness. There wasn’t a single light on in a house that looked very much like a face, with two large black windows flanking the red front door. Only when the lightning flashed could Scott see the color. He moved slowly up the cracked pathway and paused for a moment at the porch.
There was light in the house, moving beyond the curtains, as if someone was going from room to room with a flashlight of their own. Perhaps that person was the anomaly mentioned in the email. Scott shrugged, stepped to the door, and rapped twice.
Nor did the light behind the curtains stop moving.
He knocked again, louder, but only the rain answered him. There was a small button embedded in the doorframe, but when he pressed it, no corresponding bell rang beyond the door. That made sense; doorbells ran on low power, but power nonetheless.
Scott turned his flashlight and used the beam to illuminate his path around the side of the house. The rain had begun to collect in the yard; he had to hop from one flagstone to another to avoid walking through the mud. He was wearing his work boots, and though they would stop a concrete cylinder from crushing his toes, they weren’t waterproof. In the backyard, he made a long leap to the porch and approached the back door. The screen creaked as he pulled it back and tried the handle.
A bit of luck, he thought, though any relief he felt was instantly wiped away as he pushed the door open.
2811 Shoalwood Avenue was darker than death. It was the kind of darkness so absolute that Scott immediately began to see shapes and colors he knew couldn’t be there. Only in the glare of his flashlight did the visions dissipate, revealing a messy kitchen with yellow-tiled counters. Dishes were stacked next to the sink—a single plate with a knife and a fork, as well as a glass encompassed in a yellow floral print. To his right, a small Formica table sat next to a wall. A placemat on the table showed a map of Texas with all the tourist sites marked—the Alamo, Reunion Tower, and so forth.
“Hello?” called Scott.
There was no reason not to announce his presence. This was Texas after all, and the homeowner was more likely than not to be armed with some kind of handgun.
“I’m with Austin Public Works. Sorry to barge in, but I thought you might be in some kind of trouble.”
That was only half true, but it might be enough to keep him from being shot on sight.
The kitchen led into the living room, where a boxy television sat atop a larger, wooden television set. On an end table by the sofa, a half-smoked cigarette rested in an ashtray. The small plume of smoke rose out of the flashlight’s beam and disappeared.
Whatever anomaly had happened, had happened fast.
Scott moved slowly into a small adjoining hallway. His boots creaked on the wood floors, but he hardly heard it. His attention was focused on the soft shuffling coming from beyond a slightly open door to what he assumed was the bedroom. He wanted to call out again, but the words stuck in his throat. His chest convulsed as if he had fallen into a tub of frozen water. In fact, there was some kind of chill coming from the crack in the door, like a draft but far more acute, less about blowing out than pulling in.
The flashlight went in first. If anything was going to happen, better it happened to the inanimate tube of metal and plastic.
Two steps into the room, the cold was absolute. Only, it wasn’t cold as in the absence of heat, but more like an absence of energy. There was a staleness to the room, a sense that nothing was moving. Scott couldn’t even hear himself breathing anymore. The only sound was the distant—as if on the very edge of consciousness—thunder. Lightning continued to flash beyond the large square window, but it held too long, as if time itself found it difficult to move through whatever viscous fluid filled the room.
Scott swept the flashlight from the window to the bed, bed to the closet door, closer door to the corner—
The freezing water hit again, and Scott dropped the flashlight on the floor. It rolled to the left and then turned as its head hit a leg of the bed. The corner of the room was still half-shrouded in darkness, but it was enough for Scott to see what looked like the silhouette of a woman. The figure was slight, shorter than him, and draped through the body. He only guessed it was a woman by the thin arms and slight swell of the chest. Whereas the rest of the room glowed dully under the flashlight’s beam, the silhouette was absolute shadow. The darkness was beyond anything Scott had ever seen before, and though his mind tried to imagine shapes and colors within it, it failed.
Something moved inside the silhouette, inside the shape of a woman cut from the very fabric of reality.
A white flash. First left to right then back again.
It was as if something was moving behind the silhouette, as if the shape itself were some window into an alternate world. It took a minute for Scott to recognize what he was seeing—the wispy hair, the white cotton, the padding of soft slippers.
“Ma’am?” he said, somehow finding the strength again.
The woman stopped, half in and half out of her outline. Scott caught sight of her eyes—beady black marbles that gave back none of the light it received. Her face was wrinkled and wizened; her cheeks sank inward. Chapped lips as pale as her skin came apart to reveal a mouth with only half of its teeth.
A scream grew in the distance, mixed in with the thunder. It moved closer in fits and starts, like lightning seeking out a path beneath a cloud. The woman looked at Scott and reached out, folding her skeletal fingers over the edges of her silhouette, as if she were trying to climb back into his world. He would have turned and ran, despite all of his training, despite everything he knew, but there was no need. The silhouette was already fading, shrinking really.
What would have been a five foot tall woman was now several inches shorter. The woman tried to push her way through, but the opening was too small. She tried several times to press her head into its outline before giving up and opting for the larger opening at her chest. A fully formed head and shoulders crossed whatever metaphysical line had been drawn between Scott’s world and hers, brining with it another icy blast of air that immediately emptied his lungs.
The scream that had once been muted by the silhouette now pierced his ears, rising in volume with every passing second. Scott put his hands to his head and cried out. He shut his eyes against a sudden pain, having forgotten everything. The only thing he knew was that he wanted to get out of the room. Deaf and blind, he stumbled backwards into the door. As his head hit the wood, a crack of thunder filled the room.
Then all was quiet.
The old woman and her cut-out were gone when he opened his eyes. The cold had gone with her as well.
Scott retrieved his flashlight from the floor and hurried out of the room.
Though the rest of the house was warm and the outside air uncomfortably humid, he couldn’t shake the chill from his bones. His feet missed the flagstones, plunging his boots into dirty water he was sure was going to swallow him whole. Even as he climbed back into the Bronco and started it up, he could still feel the cold on him, as if a mantle of ice had been draped over his shoulders.
He shivered as he drove up the street. The rain was falling harder now, and the wipers were finally beginning to struggle. At the next intersection, he pulled into a two-pump gas station and parked in front of the doors where the security lights were the brightest. He got out, fished for a quarter and a dime in his pocket, and picked up a receiver on the payphone near the door. He dialed the main line for Austin Public Works and listened to the ring warble in his ear.
A man came out of the convenience store with a Camel Joe gimme cap pulled low over his eyes. He stopped under the awning to light a cigarette. The man took a long drag and noticed Scott.
“Rough night?” he asked.
The man eyed the reflective rain jacket. “You the one keeping the power on?”
Again, Scott nodded. Why wasn’t someone answering the phone?
“Smoke?” asked the man, offering the pack.
“No, I don’t,” said Scott, reaching for a cigarette. He let the man light it, nodded his thanks, and turned in the other direction.
He inhaled, let the smoke fill his lungs.
The burn was there, but none of the heat.
The ringing stopped abruptly, and a voice said, “APW. Bob speaking.”
“I need to log a bug report,” said Scott.
“2811 Shoalwood Avenue.”
“Type of bug?”
He took another drag. The good samaritan in the Camel Joe cap had wandered away when Scott started talking on the phone.
“File it under horrible fucking anomaly, Bob.”
Bob chuckled. “That bad, huh?”
Scott squeezed the receiver with his chin, blew a puff of smoke. “Scared the shit out of me.”
“It’s not real, man. Don’t let it get to you.”
Scott turned and looked out over the dark street. A silhouette walked in the distance, its head partially hidden by an umbrella. Was there a person there? Or a window? A window to a reality beyond the simulated reality?
He dropped the cigarette on the pavement and crushed it with his toe. Over the crunch, he heard the woman’s scream echo in his memory.
“Seemed pretty real to her, Bob.”