Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
I watched from the doorway of my father’s study as he hunched forward over his desk with his hands between his knees. The linkpen stood tip-down on a blank page and scribbled as if guided by a ghost. Father stared at the words and I craned my neck, trying to read, terrified of any sound I might make—afraid Governess Mayna might catch me, or Michael might wake and scold me for snooping—but I couldn’t make out the letters. The room was too dim and Father’s bulk cut off my view.
The linkpen sped down the page and Father leaned closer, his face screwed up in terror and ecstasy. I didn’t know who moved the master pen to which father’s pen was connected, and I was afraid for him. Mother was taken by the wasting five years earlier, and Father was never the same after that. He had a respectable managerial position in the Verash company, but his work no longer brought him pleasure. I watched him flit through the quiet, creaking house, ignoring my brother and me like a shadow.
The clock tolled midnight. Father looked up and I stepped back. The floorboards creaked underfoot. He saw me in the shadows—and swung his arm, knocking over the linkpen. It sputtered and twitched like a dying rat spilling ink across the page as it tried to keep mimicking the movements of the primary.
“Jenine,” Father said, but I ran back to my room and slammed the door shut.
I heard no sound on the stairs as I hid beneath my blankets and prayed.
I didn’t see Father again until he returned home the next day for his afternoon meal. He dined on bread and soup as I hovered nearby.
“You were up late last night,” he said, without looking over.
“I heard sounds,” I said as explanation.
He seemed tired. His hair was thinning and his skin was sallow and splotchy. I wondered how my father had gotten so old and was afraid the withering had come for him, too.
“I have a meeting tonight after work,” he said. “If something happens—“ He stopped and closed his eyes. “Your brother will take care of things.”
I shook my head, confused. “What do you mean, Michael will take care of things? Where are you going?”
He looked up then and a lump caught in my throat. His expression was tortured, like a great depression rose through him.
“It will be okay, Jenine,” he said softly. “Now, go sit with Governess Mayna.”
That was my dismissal, but I had a thousand more questions. None of this made sense—the pen, the look on his face, the potential of him not coming home. We’d lose the house, lose our lives, lose everything—the Verash Company was not merciful.
But he was my father and I did as he said.
He returned to work, and I made my plan.
I reached father’s office ten minutes before closing. Verash was crowded and dirty, ashy smog hung in the air, and the sound of clattering carriages and the stink of horse droppings and human sweat assaulted me like whip-cracks. I hid near the front door for an agonizingly long time until Father appeared and began walking toward the docks.
I followed at a distance. He was hurried and distracted, ignoring the men and well-dressed middle class ladies he passed on the street. I wanted to call out and beg him to make me understand.
The docks crawled with people and activity. Clothing styles changed as we got closer to the water: knee-high socks and breeches turned to rough trousers and untucked button downs stained with grease. Father wove through the crowds, past taverns and public houses, until he slipped down a side alley that dripped with hidden moisture. I stood at the entrance and watched.
At the end was a narrow door, tall and painted black. Father stood before it and knocked.
The door opened a crack. Father took a step back and raised his arms as if to shield his face.
I felt a gust of sudden, freezing wind.
“Are you sure about this, Martens?” a man asked, his voice resonant and lightly accented. I glimpsed long limbs wrapped in a dark form-fitting suit and the swirl of something white.
“I’m sure,” my father said. “But only, my family. Will they be taken care of?”
“Of course,” the man said. “You will be returned to them healed, or they will be compensated for their loss.”
My heart juddered. Our loss? And healings? I wanted to scream for Father to get away, but he pushed the door open further—
Beyond, an impossibly tall and thin man stood framed by a frozen tundra of ice and heavy, ancient pines dripping with snow.
Father stepped out into the snow and the door slammed closed behind him.
I ran after him, bunching up my skirts in both fists.. Verash dripped with heat, but the doorknob was icy to the touch, and that man in all black, his limbs stretched like taffy—
I took a moment to still my wild breath before I gripped the frozen knob in both hands and turned. The door swung open and I staggered through, sub-zero wind biting at my lugs.
I stepped into an icy forest that stretched back on all sides like looming buildings. The door banged shut as my thin shoes scraped through deep snow. The pines hung so heavy that the boughs nearly broke, and I turned desperate to see Verash, warm and humid Verash—and found only a rough timber frame made by two wooden posts sunk into the frozen ground and a beam across them.
The door was gone. Runes were dug into the snow, but fat flakes fell in thick gusts, filling the lines, and I scrambled desperately to try and activate their magic—
The posts lay quiet and the wind cut bitterly through my thin summer dress, and I was very much alone.
ps, Possibly the start of something larger? Definitely a piece in a new world I’m building. If you liked it, share! I also added a paid subscription option— I don’t expect anyone to actually sign up for that, but if you feel like supporting me with $5 a month (the lowest Substack will allow) then I’d appreciate it. Have a great week! - DC