Gilbert Tubers shuffled down the street in a huff, clutching the most valuable thing in the world. It was tucked under his arm inside a glass jar, and he admired it every twenty paces while he stopped to rest. His heavy breath came in rhythmic ebbs, and inside the hood of his yellow hazard suit, it both obscured the street noise and blurred the round visor in a moist fog. Gilbert held the jar close and peered at the little passenger through the thin, fogless rim of the glass portal. He smiled and shuffled off again.
Those few people left in South Carton, the dark, crumbling, trash-ridden hind end of Freecity, crossed the street when they saw him coming. They did it nonchalantly, as if that was their intended route and crossing had nothing to do with the funny man in the radiation suit. Not that Gilbert minded. In the fourteen years since the accident, people had faded from his life like music from a deaf man.
It was hot and humid after all the rain—even more so inside the heavy suit—and Gilbert’s ass cheeks were well lubricated by the time he reached the abandoned tenement where he made his home. He could feel beads dribble one by one down the back of his legs like falling suicides. He rested at the top of the stairs for a moment and let them drop while he caught his breath. The lead suit was heavy, and he resolved to take a shower before unwrapping his prize.
As he walked through the door, the fairies in the large glass terrarium at the other end of the loft fluttered behind a rock. Gilbert heard sounds and remembered he had left the music on for the plants, which had withered in their pots. He set the jar on his workbench, next to a stack of Amateur Fairyer magazines, and walked to the windows to examine potted death. Fourteen plants, one for each year—some hanging, some stacked on books, all the leaves dry and crusty. He noted the date and time in the open logbook. This batch had taken less than twelve hours to die, a record.
Gilbert switched off the turntable and stripped out of the heavy suit as he walked to the bathroom. His thinning hair was wispy, and it reached for the ceiling as he removed his hood. His condition was getting worse. He could feel it. He was filled with energy. He barely slept. He had headaches every night. He needed answers soon. He showered and tried not to think about it.
Sitting at his workbench, minty and damp, he stared into the glass jar at its eyeless passenger. The dome of the creature’s cranium reached across its forehead and ended at two fleshless, skull-like nasal openings. Its skin was gray and soft. Its phalanges looked long enough to strangle a man. Its camouflaged wings resembled dead, black leaves, and they snapped together in angry clicks as the creature hissed at Gilbert through rows of tiny serrated teeth.
Gilbert set the glass jar down next to the terrarium. His three remaining live fairies, a male western crested blue fay and two female pink Winkler’s pixies, peered at the new arrival from behind the rock. The withering sprite was larger than the others by several inches. Gilbert wondered if it looked like a giant to them, or if, like insects, they were too stupid to notice. Either way, at least they were cowering at something besides him.
Gilbert took out the mounting block he had made for the withering sprite. He’d carved it custom. The withering was so rare, McMasters didn’t even keep a specimen tray large enough in stock. Gilbert pressed the inlaid cork to make sure the glue had dried. Then he pasted the information card to the right side.
Species: Withering Sprite
Average Size: Unknown
Unknown, he thought. Perfect.
Gilbert looked up at the rear wall of his loft. It was covered in specimens: pixies, fairies, fay, and sprites of all sizes and colors hung inside small wooden blocks, sorted by genera, color, and type. Gilbert had a sizable collection of autumn and summer varietals and quite a few spring as well. Similar species tended to show similar coloration, and so there was a splotchy rainbow effect on the wall. Warblers tended to be purple or violet-hued—except for that blasted green meanie—and Gilbert had arranged them in a cluster near the bottom. Above the warblers were the mint pixies, then the dark spotted, then the western and eastern light spotted, and so on up to the crown jewel: Gilbert’s exhaustive collection of razorbacks, all reddish-hued and violent.
He had mounted the razorbacks in live-action poses, wielding small sticks like swords and poised mid-strike. (It was well-known that razorbacks, besides being potent insect-hunters, were one of the few species intelligent enough to use tools.) Taken together, the red collection looked like a dance of devils, a miniature dark mass, photographed and frozen.
In the center of everything was a picture of Gilbert’s dad. Carl Tubers had died of a stroke in a crowded elevator. Rush hour patrons had come and gone while he clutched his chest in silent agony, unable to move or call for help. Pressed to the back of the car by the crowd and then released, over and over, the coroner estimated Carl was stuck there, clinging to the rail, for the better part of an hour, surrounded by people who could help.
“Sorry, Dad.” Gilbert took the picture off the wall and looked at it. His dad was bald and scrawny and smiling. “You were only just a placeholder.”
Gilbert hung the empty mounting board on the vacant nail. It fit perfectly.
He walked back around his cluttered workbench and picked out the supplies he needed: the jar of ether, a cotton ball, an extra-large skewering needle. He cleared a stack of medical texts and set the equipment down. The withering sprite had stopped hissing at him. Its tentaclelike phalanges were pressed to the glass. A thick, mucous drool hung from the edge of the sprite’s rounded mouth as its eyeless head stared at the cowering fairies. Their tremors shook their wings, which shed a sparkling dander that floated down to the terrarium floor.
“I bet you’re hungry,” Gilbert said. “You had a long trip. How about one last meal?”
Gilbert loosened the top of the jar and placed it inside the terrarium. The pixies shrieked in high-pitched squeaks, like a record player run too fast. The two pink Winklers hid behind the crested male, who was standing upright, chest puffed, head and neck glowing blue, as the withering sprite worked the lid off.
The metal top fell with a clatter and the dark sprite fluttered out on black wings. It hovered in the air for a moment, and Gilbert thought maybe it wasn’t hungry after all. But as soon as he reached for the ether, the sprite swooped down on the crested blue, two-thirds his height, and batted him out of the way.
“Hmm . . .” Apparently it had a taste for Winklers.
The withering grabbed the closest pink, who was trembling and covering her eyes in fear, and sank its rows of teeth into her head. Gilbert could hear a slight sucking sound as the sprite inhaled the sap from her body. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head and Gilbert watched her tiny body shrivel like plastic wrap under the withering’s slow, steady sucking.
For his part, the crested blue was still trying to drive the giant away, but he was no match in size or ferocity. The withering sprite grabbed him by the head and dragged him, struggling, toward the second Winkler, who curled into a ball in the corner and sobbed uncontrollably. Her pink gossamer wings trembled to a blur.
The black sprite lifted the little pixie by her feet and bit into her side like an apple. There was a short shriek, then the slow, steady sucking again before she too was reduced to wrinkles stretched over a tiny skeleton. A bit of pink pixie sap dribbled down the sprite’s neck, and after it tossed the Winkler’s corpse aside, it wiped its face with the back of its hand. Then it lifted the crested blue, took off his head in one clean swipe, and started to munch on his thick, azure wings.
Gilbert watched the glow of the blue’s head fade. When it was dark, he again reached for the ether. As he dropped a soaked cotton ball into the terrarium, he heard a sliding sound. He turned and saw something in the middle of the floor. It was black. An envelope. It had come from under the door. He listened. There was nothing.
He stood and walked toward the door. He listened again.
Gilbert lived in an abandoned building. There was no one within a half-mile in any direction. He was certain of it. He didn’t want to make anyone sick, especially now that his condition was accelerating. He didn’t receive mail. He didn’t have guests. People didn’t dare be within a hundred feet of him, even when he wore the lead-lined radiation suit.
Gilbert reached down and picked up the envelope. It was sealed. He turned it over. No address. No writing. Just a stamp in black. Black ink on black paper. Gilbert recognized the symbol and his heart beat faster. It was time. He took a long, deep breath and walked back to his desk and sat down, turning the jet-black sleeve over in his hands. The paper was thick and firm. Expensive. He opened it gently and sat back in his chair before removing the contents.
There was a gray vellum card with black letters struck by a broken typewriter. Tiny bits of ink splatter hugged the characters. At the bottom, the same black stamp: an open hand, palm up, fingers pressed together.
Gilbert sat back in his chair, card in hand, and stared up at the wall of specimens, at eight years of his life. He looked at the withering sprite in the terrarium. It had finished the crested blue’s wings and was now hunched over, munching on his severed head. The ether evaporating from the cotton ball was already taking effect. Soon the sprite would be asleep, and Gilbert would tie it to a small rack under a magnifying lens. He would sit there for hours, first lobotomizing the specimen, then carefully removing the vital organs, one by one, before skewering it with the needle affixed to the wood box. Finally he would pose its limbs with bits of candle wax and hang it in the prize position.
But now he couldn’t do any of that. He looked down at the card again, then at the terrarium. He removed the top of the little chamber and left it on the desk.
Moments later, Gilbert was back in his suit and shuffling down the fire escape as dark engines turned in his mind.
from my “gory, violent, and unpredictable” first novel, FANTASMAGORIA, in which I had no idea what I was doing!