This is a short story which I have tried for years to get published. Some of the rejection letters were even nice about it, including the one who told me “it isn’t what we are looking for,” but going on to say it was something that the old Weird Tales pulp magazine might have been interested in. I agree. It really does not fit the current genres that are in vogue, but I would still classify it as science fiction. I decided that this story wasn’t getting any younger, and that I should publish it here. I hope you enjoy it.
Eddie was enjoying a few stolen moments with a comic book. He was a pale skinny kid with puberty looming just over the horizon. When Father summoned him into the office for the word game Eddie would have to leave his pleasure reading behind.
After school he had followed his daily schedule by doing homework for an hour, taking his fifteen-minute break with a healthy snack, and then another hour with the daily math worksheets his parents assigned him. Then it was supper after Father came home, followed by piano practice for twenty minutes, then free time until it was time for his bedtime routine. Eddie liked to read comics during his free time.
Eddie was comforted by the schedules, even when he was inclined to gently rebel against it out of a developing teenage sensibility. He was trying not to be annoyed with the knowledge that he would soon have to stop reading his fantasy comic. Soon Father would call him into the office to give him the word of the day, and review the word from yesterday. His mother joined them after she was finished in the kitchen. It was like clockwork.
“Eddie,” his father called from the office.
Eddie was slow to put the comic down.
“Edward?” Just a little louder. Father never yelled.
A little irritated at being interrupted Eddie yelled: “Coming, Faaatherrr!”
And he immediately regretted using “that tone” of voice. He admired his father very much for being patient, kind, and for never losing his temper except for the rare instance when he seemed to do so ever so lightly, in a controlled mechanical sort of way, to make a point. When he raised his voice it sounded contrived, like reading from a script. For some reason that puzzled Eddie but like all puzzling things he tried not to think about them. Sometimes it made his head hurt.
Eddie got control of himself, and replied, this time in a decent tone of voice: “Coming Father.”
That sounded better. He had consciously mirrored his father’s reasonable tone. Eddie smiled. He felt nice.
Eddie closed the comic book, taking care to put it up on the top shelf exactly where it belonged on top of the rest of his collection, next to the seldom used television. It was time for the word game.
His parents smiled at him as he walked in. Father sat behind his big polished wood desk in an overstuffed black leather office chair. Mother was standing next to him drying her hands on a dish towel. She was wearing an apron over her house dress.
Father looked at his legal pad where the word of the day would be written.
“Confabulation,” he said to Eddie, winking with his right eye. Father was always winking at Eddie, as if they were somehow involved in some conspiracy. Eddie pretended he was in on it.
Eddie did not know that word, so he picked up the well-worn Webster’s desk reference dictionary, unabridged, that was always on his father’s desk, and looked up the term. It didn’t take him long to find it, and study the definition. Like always, he would have to put it in his own words.
“It’s sort of like a lie, but not really,” he said.
His father nodded. His mother smiled approvingly.
Eddie continued: “Somebody tells you something not true, just like a lie, except the person thinks it is true. They don’t know the difference.”
His father said: “Yes. It’s something that is not true, but that is perceived by the person, for whatever reason, as being true in their mind. It’s factual in memory, but false in reality.”
Eddie nodded his understanding. He whispered to himself in an undertone: “Confabulation.” There, he had it.
Eddie then repeated it to himself several more times, then wrote it down several times on the yellow legal pad his father nudged toward him. Father had taught him that saying a word and writing it several times were two different ways to lodge the memory of it in your memory.
“What was yesterday’s word?” Father said. It was time for the review. That was part of the routine too. They rotated through the alphabet one letter per week. C was the letter for this week. Next week it would be D.
“Contingency,” Eddie replied. “It means what you do when something doesn’t work out. Sort of like a backup plan.”
“Give me an example, Eddie.” His father was methodical, perhaps even mechanical, in his pedagogy.
“Like when Mother’s van wouldn’t start, and you had to take me to school in your car on your way to work.” Eddie remembered how calm his parents had been, even when he had begun to panic because he was supposed to go on a field trip that day and didn’t want to miss it. As usual, it worked out. Somehow it always did. He had arrived at school a good five minutes before the bus left, just as his father had assured him he would. Father is precise and good with time.
“Eddie, my taking you to school that day was a contingency. Which was placed into effect when your mother’s van did not start.” Father said. “The van not starting was unforeseen. Be prepared in life for unforeseen things. They can happen any time. Life brings surprises, and we must know how to handle them.
Looking at her watch, his mother said, “Now it is time for you to get ready for bed, young man,” as if Edward were the most mischievous little imp you could imagine. She smiled though, to let him in on the joke. Eddie smiled back, not exactly certain he knew what the joke was. He glanced at his father who winked again. With his right eye. With that, Eddie was dismissed.
In his small bathroom Eddie brushed his teeth with his Star Wars tooth brush, and put on his Mickey Mouse pajamas. He then spent a few moments putting his dirty clothes in the hamper, and getting out a clean outfit for tomorrow, before climbing into bed. He would shower in the morning, but Eddie wanted his room tidy so he could sleep. He was uncomfortable when his room was messy. He was tempted to get up and check everything again, but fought back the urge. Father said doing a thing twice was three times wasteful.
From the bed he set the alarm clock and read quietly until 9 o’clock on the dot when his parents came to him. They tucked him in, kissed him gently, and turned off the light when they left. Like always, their reassurance remained with Eddie after they left. He fell asleep in minutes, tired from a full, structured, day.
Eddie’s last dream that night came, as last dreams will, in the wee hours of the morning before dawn. But this dream was different from the others. It felt too real. In it there were tinkling sounds, like wind chimes, and then Eddie was walking in his Mickey Mouse pajamas down an endless hallway whose open ceiling revealed a beautiful night sky with dark purple, tumbling, clouds. Suddenly the floor began rolling, tilting, and creaking — just a little bit at first. Then the movement became more violent, like a scary roller coaster ride, except not fun at all.
His eyelids flew open. In no time, Eddie was fully conscious, with no cushion to absorb the jarring effect of coming out of a deep sleep. The shaking and rocking became worse, and the tinkling sounds became even louder, no longer musical. His family pictures, and movie posters, began to fall from the walls in his room. From the sound of it, objects were falling throughout the rest of the house, too. There was a sharp popping electrical sound, and the street lights went out, leaving behind a startling darkness. The shaking became so severe that whole walls went down, including the one with the big window right next to Eddie.
Then he heard a loud snap, and something hit him on the head. That was all he knew for awhile. It was very dark.
In this new slumber he did not dream. He woke again with a start. The sun shone deep into his room because some walls were missing, and part of the roof was gone as well. Off in the distance, Eddie heard the unanswered barking of a lone dog. He heard the keening of what he recognized as car alarms, and farther away he heard sirens. His head hurt. He reached up and felt a knot on it.
Across the street he could see destruction had visited the other houses as well. One was still smoldering, no longer in flames, having already burned to the ground. He was afraid of this new mutilated landscape.
He screamed it several times and then remembered one of his vocabulary words from a couple of months ago. “Hysterical.” Eddie knew he was being a little hysterical now, and it felt dangerous to him. Then Eddie had an insight. It seemed to him that maybe at a time like this it was fine — appropriate, even — to be a little hysterical, as long as he didn’t lose complete control. His father would have called this critical thinking. Thoughts of Father and all the lessons he’d taught Eddie had a calming effect. With a clearer mind, he remembered to slow down and control his breathing, just like his father had taught him. With that came a clarity that allowed him to understand that he had most likely just survived an earthquake. Only this wasn’t on the news inside the TV screen. This was real. He prayed his parents had survived, too. He desperately did not want to be an orphan, and he tried to push that thought out of his mind. He did not exactly love his parents, more of a fondness, but they were so,… reassuring. That was the word that came to him. Another word game word from long ago.
He stood up and his feet felt the glass on the floor. He was lucky none of it had cut him. He saw that glass was everywhere covering the ground with a sheen of fine glittery crystals. He carefully found a pair of shoes, and put them on without socks. Something he had never dared to do before. It just wasn’t done. Eddie justified it as a contingency like when the van would not start. He managed to step over, and around, dangling, hanging, and protruding things from the nest of devastation that was his room.
Going into the hallway, he emerged to a changed architecture. Half the house was collapsed flat or sideways, and the rest was sagging. Some places in the house, like the kitchen, appeared surreally untouched amidst the devastation. Other areas were wrecked beyond recognition. He kept calling for his parents, making his way through the debris toward where he
knew their bedroom should be. When he got there he noticed that his parent’s bedroom was not just destroyed but somehow collapsed in the middle. At the edge of the room he saw what must be the hand of his mother sticking out delicately from under a wall that had fallen wholesale on top of her. Her wedding ring and red painted fingernails confirmed the identification. The fingers did not move. He felt them, and they were cold.
Then he noticed something. He noticed under the collapsed spot in the middle of the room, was a stairway leading down that was partially obscured by large pieces of debris. How did that get there? Eddie wondered how it was that he had not known that such a stairway existed. Maybe his father was safe and sound somewhere down those stairs. He had to be someplace. He should check. He started pushing some of the debris aside to make an opening big enough for him to enter.
“Father!” he yelled as he began descending the stairs. He started down the stairs careful of the slippery dust, and fine glass fragments, that covered them until he got to the very bottom where it was clear of debris. Down here the room was untouched by the chaos of the upper level. In the room the air was crisp, and cool, and he stepped under a vent feeling a strong draft coming out. The room was a sanctuary of order and tranquility compared the chaos above him. It was still pretty dark though with only some dim lighting, almost like night lights, low along the walls. It was a very modern place. It reminded him of a science lab at school.
Again: “Father!” He waited. No response. He began moving cautiously deeper into the room until he came to an alcove. In the alcove he noticed a desk with a series of video monitors, maybe a dozen, with most of them still showing some kind of picture. A few of the other screens were all black or just static. As for the working ones, the angles were sometimes weird and some of them showed views too obscure to identify a location. Eddie did recognize his front yard in one of them, and on another screen what was left of his bedroom. Then, outside the alcove in the room, he heard a faint clacking sound coming from the back of the room. He moved toward the sound.
By this time his eyes had adjusted to the near darkness so that he could just see what appeared to be a large glass door in back at the end of the room. He moved toward the door. It was clear then that the sound was coming from behind the door. He tried the handle, but it was locked. There was a pop, a hiss, and on the other side of the glass an odd greenish light came on. He was fascinated as well as frightened.
With the garish light he could see a large revolving track mounted from the ceiling moving clockwise in a circle. That was what was making the sound. Suspended from the track, moving with it, was a row of headless bodies attached to the track with a big clear tube where the neck should have been. The tube was filled with what looked like a bubbling liquid. He counted seven of the bodies. The bodies had an odd tinge to their skin that was exaggerated by the green tinted light. The bodies seemed to glow ever so slightly. The identical bodies were obviously those of a male dressed only in white boxer shorts. Then Eddie noticed there was something at the bottom near each of their feet.
At the feet of each headless body was a head mounted on some kind of small pedestal with the eyes shut, and with the same macabre cast to the skin. He realized the faces on the disembodied heads were identical faces of his father. All alike accept one. One face was flesh colored with the eyes open, but unfocused, with one edge of the skull torn off exposing sharp looking shiny edges underneath with dozens of tiny blinking lights and fine wire like wavy filaments where the brain should have been. Like a wound. Every now and then, from that gaping firmament, came faint sparks shooting out randomly. Suddenly, without warning, the vacant eyes from that one wounded face looked up, focused, and glanced at Edward with a look of glad recognition. It winked at him. With the right eye.
Eddie sensed a presence coming up from behind him out of the dark, but he fainted before he could turn around. Even as he fainted he felt something catch him, something mechanical, which take him ever so gently to the floor avoiding. He also felt just the tiniest of pinches in his behind, just like when he went to the doctor and received a shot.
Eddie slept yet once again. Dreaming mostly good dreams. He dreamed about his life, and things he had done with his parents. Sometimes he would start to dream about the earthquake, about his mother’s still, cold, hand poking out from under the rubble, and the headless bodies and the bodiless heads, and finally the one bodiless head that winked, … but, then something would push it back. Then the good dreams would come again floating into his mind, and Eddie would actually giggle or sigh contentedly and move as if to snuggle against something unseen. Something warm. Gradually the bad dreams were pushed further, and further, back and found little purchase. Then the bad things mostly disappeared. They survived just on the lonely edge of his consciousness. The good dreams, the happy thoughts, took over. Shortly after the happy thoughts took control, Edward woke up. It was funny what woke him up. Frying bacon. The distinct sound, and smell, of frying bacon.
Edward sat up in his bed. His mouth watered. Everything was as it should be. Mostly. Around him there were some signs of repairs completed, and some still underway, but that was okay. They were remodeling. He seemed to remember Mother saying it was time to change some things. “Spruce the place up a bit.” Father had agreed. They never argued or disagreed that Eddy knew of. As a matter of fact, now he distinctly remembered how they had all talked it over. He seemed to remember it better now the more he thought about it. It felt good to think this way.
He got out of bed barefoot, and for a second thought maybe he should put on shoes so he would not cut his feet on the glass, but wherever that strange thought came from it went right back there just as quickly as it had appeared. It did not feel good to think like that. As the thought disappeared Eddie was rewarded with that now familiar soft tickling feeling that made him feel warm, safe, and even a bit giddy. Eddie actually giggled out loud getting out of bed, barefoot after all, moving toward the smell and sound of that bacon, and the light coming from the kitchen.
His father was at the table with a cup of steaming hot coffee, and the newspaper. He was reading the sports section just like always. Mother was at the stove in her long apron. Mother started fixing his plate. “So my little sleepy head gets up after all! Good thing it’s Saturday and you can sleep late as you want” as if Edward was the most mischievous little imp you could imagine. She smiled though, to let him in on the joke.
She brought over his plate bending down to kiss him lightly on the head before setting his food down. Two scrambled eggs, two toast triangles, and two strips of bacon. There was even a sliver of orange on the side as a garnish. Her red nails were perfect. Everything was perfect.
“Eddie?” It was his father.
From the look of his father Eddie knew what was coming. A surprise word game was coming. Every now and then his father liked to surprise him at breakfast reviewing a vocabulary word that they had learned previously.
His father put down the paper, and picked up his coffee mug. Eddie noticed that his father’s head was still bandaged covering some kind of injury. Eddie started to remember something, something kind of dark, and scary, but then felt the tickle feeling again. Suddenly he remembered how his father had fallen in the tub while taking a shower, but that he was mending just nicely. Eddie was glad his father was making a full recovery. He was happy this memory had just popped into his mind as if from nowhere.
His father looked at him and smiled. He stared over his coffee cup at Eddie. “Eddie, give me the definition of confabulation,” and then he winked. With the right eye.