The Artist

James stared out the window as the instructor lectured animatedly at the whiteboard. He let his hand drift over the clean white paper, his pen lazily floating across the page. He purposefully kept his eyes away from the notebook, giving his hand free rein.

He usually came up with some interesting scribbles; someday, he knew that he would turn his eyes to the desk and see a masterpiece. He just knew it. He let another few seconds go by, the ticking of the clock on the wall seemed painfully slow. He pulled back his hand, breathless, and turned his face to the page…

“James. What did I just say?” The professor stared at him expectantly, toe tapping the linoleum, scowling at the wide-eyed look of incomprehension from James. “Quit doodling and pay attention!”

“Sorry, man.” James scowled with ferocity equal to that of the professor, glaring at the mass of incomprehensible scribbles in his notebook. “Just spacing out.” He tore off the top sheet of paper and crumpled it loudly. James returned his gaze to the window.

* * * * *

He jerked awake suddenly, elbows sliding off the desk. Had he fallen asleep? James darted a few surreptitious glances at his instructor and classmates; no one seemed to have noticed. Relaxing his tense shoulders with a sigh, his eyes dropped to his notebook, expecting to see the usual mess of indecipherable scribbles.

Instead, the stark image of a tree was scrawled across the page. The roots twisted in a tangled mass, the grim branches stretched alarmingly to the edges of the page. He blinked fiercely, screwing his eyes shut so tightly that they watered.  He looked again. Just scribbles… the usual swirls and jagged slashes of an aimless, wandering pen. He was sweating, but a chill shivered through him.

A tree. James shook his head. My mind is playing tricks on me, and for a split second I thought that I saw a tree. He looked at the page again; it hadn’t changed. It was nothing, just a mess of ink scrawled across the page.

But if it was nothing, why wouldn’t his hands stop shaking?

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The Curious

Alice was tired.

The Tree had brought her here long ago, when she was just a child. At first, it had been fun. She had explored and played; the Hatter and the Queen had been the most gentle of playmates. Then the Hatter went Mad, and the Queen turned Red.

Alice decided it was time to go home.

She went back the way she had come, along the trail that the Tree That Wasn’t Really A Tree had shown her. She walked and walked, trying to avoid the stares of her former friends. Creatures she had once shared tea with crept menacingly closer, eyes clouded with the madness. The Madness. It was getting worse, spreading faster and faster, paranoia and rage. Fear and anxiety.

Alice hurried.

The path was different than before. The trees loomed taller, darker, leaves thick with malice. No friendly rabbits lead the way, no caterpillars offered advice. Then she came to the Gate. The Gate was shut. She pulled with all of her might, but it held fast.

“Please, Alice. Can you hear me?” a soft voice sighed. “Can you squeeze my hand? Alice?”

She had been ignoring the voices. She had been hearing them since she first set foot in the Wonderland, loud at first. Demanding, insistent.

Go away. She had thought fiercely. Leave me alone. I am happy here. But the voices remained. She was able to block out nearly all of them, and the few she could still hear were merely whispers. Now, though… she was not happy. Wonderland had gone Dark, and strange things were on the move. It was time to go.

I’m here! She cried with all her might. I am here! She slammed her fists on the Gate. Please! Hear me! Help me! I don’t like this anymore! I want to go home!

The voices were silent.

The Tree! The Tree showed me the way in, it must show me the way out! She could see the long branches spreading past the Gate. The roots crept almost to the path, but fell short, just out of her reach. With each moment, they seemed a little farther away. The Tree That Wasn’t Really A Tree was abandoning her. The Tree had tricked her.

“Oh, Alice. Why did you leave us this way?” the soft, kind voice had returned. “Why is she like this?”

A deeper voice responded, “I don’t know. I don’t think she is ever coming back to us. We have to let her go. She’s already gone.”

No! Screamed Alice. No, I am here! Right here! Just open the Gate! Please! She sobbed and cried. Thrashed and fought. Alas, the deed was done.

Alice was trapped in the Dark Wonderland, with the Madness.

Years and years passed in the Dark Wonderland, where all wonders had fled. The Madness grew.

Time wore on. As she grew older Alice was able to focus her energy, and could almost see out of Wonderland. She could almost open her eyes, almost move her mouth. She realized what had happened. The Tree had tricked her, trapped her in her own mind. Stolen her sanity, and now her body appeared vacant. The voices she heard were her parents, speaking over her body, trying to communicate. Praying she was still there. And they were giving up.

Her spirit withered. She felt herself fading and slipping.

Alice splintered in her second decade.

Alice shattered in her third.

The Tree had won.

Alice was the Dark Wonderland, and the Dark Wonderland was Alice.

The Changeling

Changeling

 This is not my brother.

 My brother has eyes that smile. His grin is wide, his laugh contagious.

 The stranger looks at me from my brother’s eyes. His mouth smiles, but his eyes are dark and empty.

 There is something missing.

 He has been replaced by something inhuman, invasion of the body snatchers.

 This is not my brother.

My older brother Deshi has always been my idol. My earliest memories are all related to Deshi; toddling after him as he ran in the grass outside our house, sharing a slice of birthday cake, Deshi teaching me to tie my shoes.

“C’mon, Hy-eeeeee!” laughing, he would drag out the vowel to make it sound like he was calling for a pig. Sooooo weeeee. It alternately made me cringe and laugh throughout our childhood. Deshi was three years my senior, and I was the dedicated little brother who clung to his coattails. He was never the type to get annoyed with my clingy nature, he was patient and kind. His teasing was gentle, loving. Even if his pig-call caused my cheeks to redden, it never caused me to pause when I ran to him.

School was easy for Deshi. He made friends effortlessly, excelled in sports and academics. Deshi breezed through life, and I was happy for him. I was pulled along in the wake of his popularity; if people knew Deshi, they knew his little brother Hyun, too. I was far more reserved, but the general admiration of Deshi seemed to spill over to me by proxy. Desh and Hy Su. We were a social unit until Deshi had to leave for college.

He chose a college far enough away to drive home for holidays, but not close enough to pop in easily for the weekend. I saw him less and less over the first few months of his college education, and my senior year of high school. When he did make it home, his smile seemed a little less wide. His eyes were losing their sparkle.

When I said as much to our mother, she softly ruffled my hair and said calmly, “College life is not so easy. He is probably just stressed by his courses. Don’t worry.”

So, I listened to my mom. I ignored the warning signs, and went about my daily life.

When Deshi came home that summer, things were different. Even my parents voiced their concerns over his changed demeanor. He was still excelling; in fact, even more so than before. He had already been approached by an accomplished law firm to join their practice when he completed his time at the university. Every move he made was calculated for success. Something was missing, though.

His eyes were now cold, flat… dark. Deshi the Shark.

He no longer had time for family; we were not part of his calculations.

A few years passed. Deshi was a corporate lawyer, receiving promotion after promotion. He was ruthless in his endeavors to make it to the top, to be the best.

We saw him less and less, and every time we saw him, a little more of Deshi was gone. The smile on his face was not the smile I remembered anymore.

The last time I saw Deshi, was at my college graduation. We posed for pictures. Smiling hugely, the stranger that Deshi had become put his arm over my shoulders, and said, “Hyun, do well.”

Startled, I turned to face him as the camera flashed. For an instant, I saw my brother again. Really saw my brother. He had tears in his eyes, his smile was sad, but genuine. Deshi, my brother.

Then he was gone again, back to the emotionless, empty shell. Deshi the Robot.

He did not attend the graduation party. No one expected him to. The ambitious lawyer was too busy for parties, for family.

I thought about the camera flash, seeing my real brother hidden away behind the eyes of a stranger. He was still there. Could I help him? What was wrong with him? I was soon distracted by my mother excitedly pulling on my arm to meet more family friends gathering to celebrate my graduation.

Later that night, after the festivities had ended, I lay on my childhood bed, feet almost hanging over the end. My head was buzzing from the party, the alcohol, from seeing my real brother… I took a deep breath, put one foot on the floor. Suddenly I felt the world drop out beneath me, like I was falling from a great height. I gasped and sat up, heart lurching in my chest. I had experienced the sensation of falling when almost asleep before, but never had it felt so real. It took me a long time to relax enough to attempt to go back to bed.

In the early morning hours, we got the call from the police. Deshi had taken his own life. My parents were a mess, inconsolable. I took the phone from my father as he supported my sobbing mother, and I walked to the kitchen in a daze.

“How did he do it?” I whispered hoarsely. “How did Deshi die?” I didn’t really need to ask. I already knew, but I had to confirm my suspicion.

The policewoman on the phone hesitated for a moment. “It was a few hours ago. He walked to the roof of his office building… he took the stairs, all 27 floors.” She paused again. “I am so sorry. He jumped.”

Days later, and still no questions answered. Deshi was dead. Deshi had killed himself. On paper, his life looked amazing; success, money, attractive, popular. We grieved, and struggled to understand the change that had come over Deshi in recent years, and what would cause him to end his own life.

I asked to see the security footage from his office. The police had stated that there was no evidence of foul play, and that cameras had caught almost every image of the last hours of Deshi’s life. The officers had tried to talk me out of watching, telling me that the footage was deeply disturbing.

I was lead to an interrogation room, where a laptop was set up with the film ready to go. I just had to push play. The officer who had been helping me gently squeezed my shoulder. “Are you sure you want to see this?”

I nodded mutely.

She sighed. “Okay. Be prepared, it is pretty jarring. We have already spliced together the footage, so it goes from one camera to the next, with brief pauses in between. Do you want something to drink? Coffee?” I shook my head, staring at the laptop as I sat down slowly. She nodded again. “Okay, let me know if you need anything.” She quietly shut the door behind her.

Closing my eyes for a moment, I took a deep breath, and pressed play.

The security footage was crystal clear. In movies and on the news, clips are always so blurry and grainey, it is hard to make out details. This was a mega-money corporation, who employed mega-lawyers that charged by the hour, and they paid mega-bucks for crystal-clear surveillance of their skyscraper.

I saw my brother enter the building. Close ups of his unsmiling face as he swiped his badge. He climbed 27 sets of stairs. Slowly, deliberately, his expression impassive; he looked mechanical.

Deshi the Automaton.

Each stairwell contained a camera, not even a full second passed that was not on film. Deshi was alone in the last minutes of his life. He reached the last floor, and paused. He stood before the door that led to the roof, perfectly still, for 1 minute and 17 seconds. If the time stamp was not still running, I would have thought the frame was frozen. Then he turned to face the camera. He smiled, his eyes open, serene. He opened the door and stepped out.

The camera on the roof was directly above the door, facing outward. I watched my brother walk to the edge of the roof. Then he stepped off, and was gone. No hesitation. Just gone.