Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 46
The Gaunt of Dennis Mallory
by Scott M. Roberts
by Nathaniel Lee
The Machine in My Mind
by James Maxey
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Imitation of self
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
The Angelus Guns
by Max Gladstone

Evermore I Told the Raven
    by Ken Scholes

Evermore I Told the Raven
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

It was the perfect day for a funeral. Gray with a promise of rain. Mist ribboning around the headstones. And it was the perfect size -- a small baker's dozen dressed in black, some with umbrellas and some without. No music. Few words. I stood to the side and watched. When it was over, I walked back to my car.

This was the first time I'd driven to Bradley. My last trip home had been by bus. Before that, I'd come by train and in the early years, by wagon. But now I had been home for two hours and I was ready to feel the highway mumble beneath me as I sped north and away. I climbed back into my rental after the graveside service. I'd always been out of place here and I felt it even more so now that he was dead.

The youngest member of the funeral party separated from the rest. She was a woman -- maybe twenty -- wearing a black vintage dress all severe lines and lace. She approached my car.

I willed myself to turn the key, fire up the engine, pull away. I'd come. I'd paid my respects. But she seemed intent upon speaking to me so I paused after sliding the key into the ignition.

Then I sighed and rolled down the window.

She stammered. "Are you Thomas' brother?"

I looked at her over the rims of my sunglasses. "I am."

"He told me to keep an eye out for you. There's something for you back at the store." She paused and I saw her cheeks flush with self-consciousness. "I worked for him."

We'd started the store together though he'd always known I'd be the one to wander off. First with the wars and then with just the excitement of a world to see. And I'd stayed on the go, too. My ship had only been in from Hong Kong two weeks when I got the call that my brother was gone.

"What time can I meet you there?"

She shrugged. "You can follow me over now if you want. I'm opening late today." She pointed to a red two-door. "That's me there."

I nodded and waited while she climbed into her car. Then, I followed her slowly out of the cemetery and onto the highway. I hadn't been home in decades but despite the growth and sprawl, the downtown stretch was instantly familiar to me. And the corner building my brother and I had chosen so many years ago. The original sign had been meticulously maintained: found brothers books and sundries.

I pulled up front and she pulled around back. I was waiting at the front door when the lights came on and she made her way through the stacks to let me in.

"I'm Victoria by the way," she said. She extended a hand and I shook it. Briefly.

"Michael." She was staring at me and I tried not to notice. Instead, I glanced around the shop. It was more cluttered than I remembered it -- stacks of books and magazines colonizing the walking space between overstuffed shelves. Large tray tables filled with LPs or bagged comic books. The shiny metal espresso machine looked out of place in the room but the purring cat in the window did not.

Victoria turned the sign around. "Would you like some coffee, Michael?"

I turned. "No. Thank you." I shifted on my feet. Part of me wanted to stay and sift through what my brother had made of his life here. Part of me wanted to wander the streets that he and I had wandered during our childhood together here. Part of me wanted to get into my car and head back to Vancouver. There would be another ship to another place where I could vanish for a while and sort all of this out. "So what did he leave for me?"

She dug around in a drawer behind the counter and pulled out a key-ring. She handed it to me and I stared at it in the palm of my hand. "What's the plan, boss?"

Now it was my turn to stammer. "Plan?"

She nodded. "It's your store now."

I shook my head. "I don't want it." I stretched out my hand, offering her the keys. "You take it."

Now she snorted. "I don't think so. I'm a worker bee, not a queen bee."

I looked at the keys in my hand. "Was there a note or something to go with these?"

"He said there was letter but I couldn't find it."

I looked around the store. "I can't imagine why." Even the counter was awash with papers -- newspapers, bills, notes, old magazines still opened to unfinished articles of great interest at some time. I sighed again. "I guess the plan is that we clean up."

I argued with myself about the plan as I set to work. It was at odds with the plan that had me back to Vancouver and shipping out within the next few days. Not that I had any idea where.

Anywhere but here, I thought.

We sorted the counter space and back office desk out in about two hours moving things into piles then reduced the piles to a single box of noteworthy items. It took three hours and then we moved into the stacks of clutter in the front of the store. The crate was buried under a flat of LPs and stacks of old pulp magazines and National Geographics. When she saw it, Victoria clapped. "Oh! We wondered where it had vanished off to."

She pulled a claw hammer from the tool drawer and went to work prying the crate open.

"What is it?"

"An old statue he picked up at an estate sale. He always talked about mounting it above the door." She laughed. "But after he got it back to the store, he lost it."

I looked around the room we'd barely made a dent in. "I wonder what other buried treasure we'll turn up?"

She lifted the statue up from the Styrofoam peanuts it was packed in, grunting with the effort. It was a white statue of Pallas Athena.

"Of course it is," I said. And now I knew where to find the letter. I oriented myself around the shelves of the room until I found the classics. I pulled down a leather-bound edition of Poe's collected works and found his favorite poem quickly.

The page was marked with a folded sheath of yellow papers.

I unfolded it, suddenly eager to see what words he'd left for me. It was the copy of the deed to the store and the property it sat on. "Well," I told her, "this isn't it."

"So we'll continue our great quest tomorrow?"

It's not what I wanted. I eyed my rental car through the shop's dirty front window. But the missing letter, more than the dead brother, stirred something up inside me.

"I guess so." My uncertainty turned into resolve as I glanced again at the statue. "Yes."

Outside, the gray moved to a deeper shade of dark as the afternoon moved toward evening. The day had slipped past us and we'd barely made a dent in the clutter that surrounded us. Victoria went to the counter and scribbled something down onto a sticky note. "Are you staying upstairs then?"

I hadn't thought about it; I figured I'd be back in Canada by now. The last time I visited I'd only stayed a few hours and hadn't even gone up to the apartment my brother and I once shared above the store we once managed together. I looked at the deed in my hands. "I think so."

She handed me the sticky note. "The key is on your ring. This is my number if you need anything."

I took it from her and stuck it to the deed. "Thanks, Victoria."

"You're welcome." She smiled and it was a sad smile, her brown eyes soft with compassion. "I'm sorry about your brother."

"Me too," I said. Though it slowly dawned on me that I felt very little. Still, her eyes told me that she felt his loss deeply. "I'm sorry for your loss, I mean."

I saw the beginning of tears now as she tried to blink them away. "I only knew your brother for a few years. But you . . ." She took a deep breath and released it. "He was your brother."

"Yes," I said. She kept watching me and I suspected she was looking for a response beyond my words. I said nothing.

The silence grew awkward and she shrugged into her raincoat. "I'll see you tomorrow," she said as she slung a tattered backpack over her shoulder. "I have class until ten."

"Tomorrow then," I said.

I locked the back door behind her as she slipped out. Then I contemplated the stairs to the upper floor. I didn't want to make that climb; I felt the resistance in my bones. Instead, I scooped up my jacket and brought the copy of Poe with me as I slipped out into the late afternoon. I wandered the downtown sidewalks -- familiar old buildings with new shops now. The old brothel was a Thai restaurant now. The old hardware store had reincarnated as a radio station, the disc jockey sitting in a glass window where passersby could watch him work. He smiled at me as I moved down the sidewalk.

I found a German restaurant where Dick's Barbershop used to be and went inside. The jagersnitchzel and spatzel were as good as anything I'd had in Germany and the beer was kellarkalt and sweet. While I ate, I read through Poe.

Words had been my brother's favored mode of experiencing the world. He'd been around the world once -- a careful student taking in his stops by book first then going with a meticulous list of things to experience and see while he visited. But once around was enough for Thomas and then he was back to his place on the stool behind the counter of the store. The one time I'd watched the store for him -- the month he'd been in Paris -- I nearly went crazy from sitting still for so long.

The world, in my mind, was to be gulped on the run letting each place surprise me with its people, its food, its customs. I didn't want to know in advance what I would see and do. I wanted to be ambushed by each place.

We understood these differences in one another. More than that, we embraced them. And so I could be gone for decades and never once be shamed for my time away. And never once did I shame him for his time in that first home that had found and embraced us here in this place.

I took a slice of apple strudel to go, the smell of baked apples and vanilla filling my nose as I left the restaurant. I walked back to the store past the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church. I paused as I stepped into the shadow cast by a statue. It was a bronze likeness of the man who was the closest thing we had to a father and I looked up into his face. It was Reverend McKay, shrewd as a serpent and harmless as a dove, captured perfectly in the lines of his jaw and brow. He was with the hunters who found us -- shivering from cold and fear on the side of the mountain -- and brought us back into the fledgling town on the edge of the Cascades. He was the one who named us. The Found Brothers. Thomas and Michael. And that last name stuck even after he adopted us.

Seeing Reverend McKay brought back a flood of memory culminating in his own funeral shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. My brother and I knew by then that we were very different, that we didn't belong, but we'd yet to understand much. We still didn't, even all these years later. We knew we weren't from here. We knew we didn't age the same way they did. We also didn't get sick. We didn't experience humanity in the same way despite looking the part. The Reverend's death had been one of those realizations early on to just how "other than" my brother and I were in the small town that had adopted us.

The sky cracked open and the rain threw itself violently down around me. I moved quickly along the sidewalk and slipped into the back door of the shop, taking the stairs slowly up into my brother's apartment.

I let myself in, leaving the strudel on the narrow counter and making my way to the guest room I used the few times I'd visited before. The room was ready and had been for some time. A thin layer of dust coated the desk, bureau and nightstand.

I took a cursory tour around the place, inhaling the smell of my brother and his things. It was a heavy, musty aroma. I sat, ate the strudel and read more Poe. He'd loved his books, his world of words. I fished and hunted and found my peace in the forest or on the water. The real world in my mind. Still, the irony of the poem he'd marked was not lost upon me. A man up late at night pouring over his old books seeking some truth in them that might assuage his suffering.

And yet here I was, in my dead brother's home reading his book, fresh from his funeral, and I felt nothing at all.

No sorrow. No sense of separation. No tears. And yet today I was more alone in this world than I had ever been before.

Eventually, I took myself to bed and lay awake a long time wishing I felt something -- anything -- until I fell into a light and dreamless sleep.

I was awake and walking the streets of my hometown long before dawn. The rain had let off but the fog was heavy. I eventually found a bakery and sat in the park with fresh croissants and strong black coffee until the sun rose and the fog turned pink.

I returned to the building and forsook the stairs in favor of the store. Victoria wasn't due in for another two hours and I busied myself around the shop. My ambivalence was slowly becoming agitation and the books and heady smell of paper felt like walls that threatened to collapse upon me. I was on a ladder, mounting a shelf above the door for the statue we'd uncovered, when I heard the doorknob rattle.

I paused and glanced down. A middle-aged woman in a raincoat and holding a briefcase stared up at me through the door's glass window. "One minute," I said.

I climbed down and moved the ladder, unlocking the door.

The woman stared at me. "Are you Michael Found?"

I nodded.

"You look much younger than your brother."

"Yes," I told her. There was no way I could explain that to her. He'd chosen to experience old age. I hadn't. Just like he'd chosen to stay in Bradley and I'd chosen to stay on the road or at sea or uptrail or downstream. Any place that wasn't standing still.

She blushed and extended her hand. "I'm Sandra Matthews from Matthews and Donaldson's."

I shook her hand. "Yes. I knew your father."

"Actually, my grandfather."

Again, I'd found that explaining rarely helped. "Ah. Yes. My mistake."

"I saw the lights on and thought I'd stop by. I heard you were in town. I have some things to go over with you regarding your brother and the business at some point."

Mordecai Matthews had been one of Reverend McKay's strongest supporters. A deacon in the church and an expert marksman. He'd been with the Reverend on the day we were found. And when it became obvious that we weren't quite like our neighbors, his office became the keeper of our secret and the machine that kept our lives quietly possible.

"I'd be happy to meet and go over everything." I said. I paused and glanced from the statue to the ladder. "Is there any chance that my brother left a letter for me in your care?"

Sandra shook her head. "Not to my knowledge. But I can go through the file to be sure." I found myself wondering how big that file must be given how far it went back. The Found Brothers were easily their oldest clients. And Mordecai's granddaughter was processing that better than I expected. It was one thing to deal with a man my age by mail as I'd done with their offices since leaving town so long ago. It was another to look me in the eye and see what made me different from her and the rest of her kind. Something quietly unsettling that Thomas had set about repairing, learning to fit in. I'd never seen the point.

Of course, I'd not seen the point in staying here. Or in growing old. Or dying for that matter. But Thomas had for whatever reason. And whatever message he might've had for me was most likely lost within the apocalypse of our bookstore.

Sandra's card materialized, cream against the lighter cream of her hand. "Call me and we'll set up an appointment."

I took the card and slid it into my shirt pocket. "I will."

She smiled and let herself out. I went back to the statue and the shelf I was hanging.

I stood beneath its stare when Victoria's keys jangled in the back door. "It looks good," she said as she dropped her backpack behind the counter.

"That's where he wanted it?" I'm not sure why it had become so important to me but it had. More urgent in the moment than even the letter. Still, that urgency was at least some kind of emotion. I glanced at Victoria.

"Yep," she said. "That's even the shelf he picked out for it."

We were the Found brothers. We could finish one another's sentences. And one another's projects. It was part of why not finding his last words to me was so perplexing. "I found it in the back room," I said. "I found the screws in the drawer."

Victoria hung her coat. "Well, you're off to a good start. What next?"

We spent the morning making more of a dent into the store, getting books up onto shelves and out of the way. She started a box of free books to put on the sidewalk, weather-permitting, and I focused on going through the scattered apocalypse of loose paper. Bills, receipts, notes, requests, doodles, forgotten napkins stained with petrified bits of jelly. And after another full day, this time the dent much more noticeable, I still had nothing from him.

I felt the tickles of panic and wondered at it. I should feel sad. Or lost. It's how I felt when the Reverend died. But all I'd felt so far was urgency that now balanced on a sharp edge of fear. And yet it still didn't feel as if he were gone.

We closed up and Victoria waited by the door. "How are you doing?" she asked.

The question surprised me and I didn't want to answer. "I'm fine," I said.

She nodded. "You're probably still in a little bit of shock over it all."

I shrugged. "Probably."

She put her hand on the doorknob. "So . . . tomorrow then?"

"Yes. Tomorrow."

Victoria reached out and squeezed my shoulder. "We'll find the letter. I'm sure of it."

I offered a weak smile as she slipped into the dusk.

I stayed in that night and went to bed early. But sleep evaded me and at ten minutes to midnight, I turned on the lights to the shop below and sat in the overstuffed reading chair we'd discovered earlier that day beneath a mountain of books.

I opened the copy of Poe and glanced at the statue.

The pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber-door. I read the words and smiled. Then I settled into the chair and read until the dull chime of midnight made me jump. I chuckled at myself.

But I didn't jump at all when I heard tapping at the door. Between the book and the bust, I wasn't surprised. And it explained why I didn't feel as alone in the world as I should have.

I stood up, put down the book, and went to let my brother in.

He hopped into the room with many a flirt and flutter and I locked the door behind him. Papers ruffled as he flapped his wings and launched himself toward the ceiling, finally settling onto the statue.

"Ta-da," quoth the raven.

I shook my head and chuckled again. "Hello, Thomas."

He cocked his head. "Pretty good, huh? I see you got my message."

"Eventually," I told him, pointing to the book. "I should've guessed sooner."

"Didn't Victoria tell you?"

"She thought it was a letter." Of course, now I realized there'd never been a letter. There'd been a carefully placed book and a carefully marked poem. A buried bust. A hidden chair.

"Ah," he said. "Semantics. It was more of a message. Dressed up like a conjuring."

"Yes." I felt relief now and in it, I could feel the hidden tension in my body easing up. "And now I know why it didn't feel like you were gone."

"Exactly," he said. His eyes sparkled like pools of ink. "I'd never leave without saying goodbye."

I felt nothing at his funeral but those words -- leave and goodbye -- hit me like rocks. "But why leave at all?"

Thomas picked at his wing with his beak. "We've been here a long time. I'm ready for something else."

Now I was feeling even more of my emotions. Fear that tickled and anger that reared up without warning. I waved my hands at the room. "You've spent most of your time locked away here in this little town, this microcosm of reality here. How can you be ready?"

He paused and looked away. "I just . . . am." Then his eyes met mine and were steady. "I supported your decision to leave and see the world. To stay young and steer clear of your roots here." He didn't say the rest but he didn't need to. He had supported all of my decisions because he was my brother and he respected my autonomy.

I nodded. "You're right, of course."

"And we know there was something before all of this. They found us on the mountain and time has proven that we're more than misplaced children or lost orphans. So I'm certain there's something after. Maybe a moving forward or maybe a coming home. I want to see that."

I thought the words and wanted desperately not to say them. I failed. Because now I knew that the loss I'd not felt before was only delayed in its coming. "But what about me?"

"I don't know about you. We came here together, I know that. But I don't think we need to leave together." He hopped from the statue to the counter. "Maybe you'll catch up to me when you're ready." He paused. "I only know about me, Michael. I'm ready to go see what's next. What about you?"

I sighed. "I don't think I'm done yet." I looked at my hands and the fine dark hair of my forearms. "I'm not even ready to let my body age."

Thomas's chuckle was more of a cackle. "That one took some getting used to. The weight and wear of time's passage on the body and the mind. Shuffling off the mortal coil at long last."

I shuddered at the thought of it. And yet, here he was.

"So the raven was your idea?"

He hopped back to the statue and held his wings out. "It felt right."

And it suited him. I still didn't understand exactly how he'd done it. Or why he was going. But his words rang true. It felt right. For him at least. And my next question was more for me than him. "What's next then?"

"I thought we'd catch up a bit here and then take a trip." He chuckled and it was the caw of a hungry predator. "Obviously you'll have to drive."

"No," I said. "I mean for me."

"Ah." Thomas waited and watched me for a moment. "You'll know when you know. But I can tell you: I have no regrets about my life here in Bradley. None. I saw enough of the world. The best parts of it were the ones we met the first time we set foot upon it. My tribe here in Bradley." He cocked his head. "And you, of course. But I've known you for all my lives."

More truth. I can't remember anything before the day that Reverend McKay found us naked and wandering in the snow. But I knew in my bones there were other mountainsides, other findings, and that someday it would be time for my brother and I to leave this place and be found all over again. Maybe in that life, I would stay in one place and he would wander. Or perhaps do some of each together. Until now, I'd never questioned our choices but the sorrow of his departure weighed on my chest heavy as a boulder.

"I wish I'd spent more time with you in this one. I wish I'd know you were planning to go." Bargaining come early as grief finally reared its head.

"I didn't want it to be a spectacle," Thomas answered. "I wanted a quick, simple goodbye the night before."

I nodded. "After it was too late to talk you out of it."

More laughter like fingernails on a slate. "Exactly."

We drove in moonlight and starshine until the forest swallowed us. I turned off the headlights and let my senses guide us, window-down, onto the gravel spider-web of roads leading up into the foothills.

My brother clutched the passenger seatbelt with his talons, beak pointed out the window. We were quiet as we went. We'd done all the catching up we needed to do.

As we went, the forest came to life around us. Bears and elk and coyotes and bobcats formed their ranks on each side of the road. They knew us here for who we were, unlike the others, and we drank their adoration as we remembered briefly where we came from and how we mattered in the Slow Moving Wheel. The mountain that was our mother on this plane loomed above us and I felt her call upon my brother. It was a gravity flooded with joy and I knew I could expect the same when it was my time to follow.

We parked and stepped out into the cold. The ground here was white and crunched beneath us. A light snow fell and I could hear each snowflake singing -- a billion-voiced choir in the night -- as they drifted down.

I walked as my brother flew ahead through the trees until we found the clearing. I went to the tree right away. It had grown in the decades and decades since I'd last seen it but I found the markings and ran my hand over the initials we'd carved there so long ago.

"So this is it," Thomas said. He hopped onto a fallen tree that rotted on the edge of the clearing. "I trust your judgment on the store but I hope you'll make sure Victoria is taken care of."

"I offered it to her the other day. She said no."

He chuckled. Then he was quiet and the silence settled over us. "I'm going to miss you," he finally said. "But hopefully I'll see you soon."

"We're the Found brothers," I told him. "We'll find each other."

"Over and over again," he replied.

"Evermore," I told the raven. "Evermore."

There was that raucous laugh again. This time, I joined him. "Good one."

"Thanks, Thomas."

"You're welcome, Michael. I sure do love you."

"I sure do love you, too. See you soon, eh?"

With that, my brother lifted off into the air and beat his wings against a sky that refused to hold him down. He flung himself upward at the moon and stars and the veil of cloud and the mountain that awaited. He flung himself at all of that and flew free across the night's Plutonian shore.

I watched until I knew that he was gone and then I sat in the car and let grief begin its work in me.

I drove in the dark alone with my tears and paused at the cut-off to Bradley. I had an apartment -- nearly empty -- in Vancouver. And any number of ships to work. I could have my bag packed and be back on the road before Victoria arrived to open the shop. I could call the attorney -- Sandra Matthews -- and arrange for the store to be sold and for Victoria to be retained.

Or like my brother, I could decide it was time for a change. I could pack up my few belongings, move south, and take on the store. Maybe even write a book or two of my own about my life here. And then, when the time was right, follow him up the mountain for whatever world waited beyond.

"I don't need to know right now," I told the empty car.

For now, I had a store to finish cleaning. Days to spend in the smell of dust and paper while I made up my mind.

The bakery was open when I hit town. The coffee was hot and the donuts were fresh. I bought a dozen and realized as I climbed back into the car that the snow had followed me down from the mountain. I watched it settling upon the shoulders of the statue of Reverend McKay. I listened carefully and far, far away I thought that I could still hear it singing.

I wondered if it meant my brother had been found again. If the cycle had started up again. I wondered where and how I would find him, and myself be found again.

But I knew that I would learn this all soon enough.

When it was my time to follow.

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