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Look, But Don't Touch · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The Long Way, The Long Now
No such thing as shortcuts, my father had always told me, and with him it was true. Every turn we’d take to shave a few minutes off a forest hike always led us to something else we had to stop and admire, or another plant he’d have to warn me about or show me how to prepare properly, or Foster, the family mastiff, would pick up a scent that had him haling off into the deep brush, or Dad would spot a good lecture subject.

He’d lift up a rock, poke around a bit in the dirt, and put a little pill bug in my hand to watch it roll up into a ball, and tell me how this little creature was really a crustacean that had foot-long relatives that lived in the bottom of the ocean. Or he’d point to the moss and lichen growing on a tree and tell me that lichens weren’t really a plant or a moss, but a sort of partnership between microorganisms and fungi.

And often, the pathways went the way they did for a reason; too much thorny bramble down that slope, or loose rock treacherous for ankles, or maybe the bees liked to build in that hollow tree, and we’d have to backtrack anyway. But that was okay, we got to spend more time in the fresh air with the clear scent of pine resin and wild honeysuckle in the breeze and the crunch of fallen leaves and twigs under our boots.

Over the years and then the decades, I’d grown to be a rambler just like him, and it always seemed to get me into just the right amount of trouble; small adventures that distracted me for a day and let me find my way home in triumph, scratched and muddy, muscles pleasantly sore from exercise, green stains from vegetation permanently woven into my denim pants and leather boots.

Today, me and Foster the Third, a white brown-snouted bitch, were having a particularly long ramble, but we had a special destination deep in the forest under the evening sky. I’d brought a hip flask of Irish honey whiskey to toast dad’s memory on the anniversary of his death, and we were headed for his grave in the old Waelsden cemetery, a town that hasn’t existed for a hundred and fifty years, though the foundations and gravestones are still standing. Dad never thought it worth paying for a funeral plot when so many people he had once admired were neatly and comfortably interred in such a peaceful spot, and we’d pulled some strings to get authorization for a home burial. His legal headstone was on the farm, but me and a few family friends burned some midnight oil to haul him deep into the woods that night and add his coffin and his real stone to Waelsden’s defunct census.

I was trudging along with Foster trotting around me in lazy circles when she scented something and ran off ahead of me, chasing towards the green stones and rotted wood stakes that enclosed the cemetery. I figured she’d scented a groundhog and gave it no more thought until I passed through the old archway myself, and saw the headstones toppled and awry like crooked teeth, and the mounds of dirt, some covered with weeds and some fresh.

Someone had been digging up the graves. I ran among the piles and the tilted granite, and fell to my knees as I found Dad’s grave, as empty as the others, his coffin standing up in the hole and its lid wrenched off, splintered and battered open as if with heavy stones.

I shivered and my skin crawled under the sleeves of my jacket. Who could have done this? Why would anyone desecrate a graveyard, and what had happened to Dad? There were footprints in the rain-packed dirt around the grave, some with shoes, some looked barefoot but strangely thin… Shit, zombies weren’t real. Probably some of the corpse’s feet had dragged in the dirt as they pulled them out…

I looked around me into the forest silence. A light breeze was soughing through the trees and rustling the branches of the trees that had grown amongst the streets and house foundations of Waelsden. It was growing colder with the onset of the evening. I tried to imagine gangs of armed people, robbing graves, maybe lingering about, but I couldn’t see any signs. Hiding behind the trees? If so, they had great camouflage. But Foster would have smelled them.

“Foster!” I called out. “C’mere, girl. We’ve got to go. Foster!” I called again, and looked around. I couldn’t see her or hear her. Was that a whimpering noise or my imagination? I called again and again until my voice started to get rough, circling the graveyard vainly, then I made myself stop. There was no sense in wearing myself out, and I’d surely just given my position away to anyone who wanted to find me. But once I realized I was alone, the trees and the graves and the cold breeze just seemed to close around me and I wanted to curl up and bawl.

But it wasn’t hopeless, she might have just treed a raccoon somewhere. I could always come back and find her later, or she’d find her own way home. My duty was clear, I had to get out of here before I encountered any nervous and possibly armed grave robbers and warn some people. Revealing that Dad had been quasi-legally buried was a small concern in comparison.

I took stock. I’d planned to camp out if necessary, so no one was going to be looking for me until late tomorrow, if even then. I didn’t have anything more potent than a hunting knife and a portable camp saw. If anyone had a gun, that was it for me… Okay, enough, no point in imagining danger until I was frozen by fear.

I walked slowly past the open graves again on my way out… they were bothering me more and more. When a shovel bites the earth, it leaves clean slices, but these holes looked as if they were clawed out. I blinked and trudged slowly on, keeping my ears peeled for Foster.

As I turned my attention back to the old stone archway, two tall gray shapes were there, blocking the path. I yelled and jumped back, and when I looked again, they were gone…

No, they were still there, they were just looking a lot like the damned trees. My heart jumped in my chest and flooded me with fear and I wanted to cut and blindly run, somewhere, anywhere, but… no such thing as shortcuts. That way lay a broken leg or worse. I glanced behind me, nothing there yet, so I drew my knife, grabbed a branch with my other hand, and walked slowly forward.

They were human in general shape, but covered in something like tree bark, and their eye holes didn’t have the glitter one would expect. There was an odor of forest loam and old dried carcass to them. They stood still, just watching me approach. They didn’t seem to be breathing, and I was already wondering if they were statues put there as some stupid prank.

I got closer and closer, holding my fear tight in the center of my chest and keeping my legs moving with regular steps. “Okay, get out of here,” I growled at them. “Go on! Go try to be trees somewhere else!”

I poked forth with the branch… and they stepped back. I froze and almost dropped the branch. In my heightened state of panic I could almost hear the grubs curling up under the ground and the grass growing around me. What was this, a trap? They were going to get scared away by my stupid branch?

I lowered the branch and thrust my face forward at them, scowling and snarling, “Git!” They backed away, tottering a bit on stiff legs, but didn’t flee, and they closed in towards the archway when I backed off. I tried to puzzle it out. They weren’t scared of me, and they didn’t want me to go, but they didn’t want me to get near them?

I looked around for another branch, figuring I’d just rush them and bull my way through and make a run for home, but then I heard a familiar whine behind me.

“Foster!” I turned and was about to rush to her, but stopped dead. There was another one standing near her, holding her with an old rope for a sort of leash, and she was sitting with him and didn’t look scared. But he… He was the right height, and had that way of standing with a bit of a leftward lean from when he’d hurt his leg in a hunting accident.

“Dad?” I asked in wonder. I took a step forward, but he backed off, shaking his head, and held up his hand until I stopped moving.

He mimed sneezing, with flakes of powder coming off his hand as if he was actually spraying particles all over from his face. He pointed to his face, then to me, then shook his head no. He then pointed to his face, then to Foster’s face, and nodded.

“Whatever this is, you’ve got it, and I don’t, but Foster got it from you.” Tears welled in my eyes. I just wanted to hug, and get hugged, and comfort, and now my dog whom I’d been giving tummy rubs just last night was going to become some sort of wooden thing. Bark worse than her bite, came the manic thought to my head. Foster the Third had only known Dad as a pup, but she seemed comfortable with him, though it was clear that she wanted to come to me and was only held back by the rope.

Dad gestured for me to sit, and I had nowhere else to go. It was getting too dark now to travel safely. I settled myself on a handy rock and took out the lantern from my kit, throwing shadows around me from the headstones and dirt, and casting Dad’s looming shadow over the trees behind him.Slowly, he took a stick and scrawled in the dirt, and so did I, and so he taught me another lesson as the night wore on.

People always underestimated things like lichens, that affix to dead wood and lie there. They don’t look complex, but there’s always more detail under the surface just as there are always more bugs under the rocks, living their lives in ways we never see. Lichens aren’t plants, they’re miniature ecosystems in themselves, algae and fungi and bacteria in balance, their strengths supporting each other’s flaws well enough for them to gain a survival advantage.

There was a connection, a sort of rhyme through time, in how little the cyanobacteria and algae had changed throughout the eons as continents rose and split and seas flowed in and mountains grew to the skies. There was an accumulation of time there, a meaning that transcended the depth that we ordinarily ascribe to our own lives. It’s a sort of time that we never perceive, as we live in a world where everything is continuously happening around us, constant change and swift biological cycles running our bodies.

They can’t get our attention, living in a different rate of time. But the dead have nothing but this kind of time… and at last, playing the long game as they always did, they’d figured it out, how to reach us and interact with us in a way more meaningful than dissolution.

Dad’s hand stretched over a piece of wood, and the shapes crawled in the lichen as I watched. Under his influence, the shapes started to take meaning. The sense of time was something that could be exchanged, maybe taught. Once we were done running around with our little concerns of life, and laid down for the long sleep, we could enter the other world, take the vegetative pace, and try for something that could span eons and mean even more, a long way that was longer than any yet undertaken by humanity.

And that was how we left it as the dawn crept over the treetops and I left him there, keeping watch with Foster, whose body was already adapting to another way of life. I knew I’d be coming back to visit them, protecting myself from infection, until I was finally ready to donate my body and join in.

And it would take us a long time to spread the word around the entire world, but that was to be expected. There was really no such thing as a shortcut.
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#1 ·
So combine this one:

With the bird one, and we might have something. :)

Here, I'd like more detail about the characters--whether our narrator is male or female, for instance, and what he or she does for a living in the workaday world. That would make for a nice contrast with the world the lichens are offering, would let us see the two worlds through the narrator's eyes and make the story more specific to him or her.

#2 ·
Were this to be extended, I might agree with the above comment about detailing the narrator, possibly emphasizing the pace-contrast with specific details. However, as-written, I must note that the blank nature of the protagonist affords the reader the ability to project themselves into the situation as they see fit, which may be to this story's credit.

I have really mixed feelings about this one. Between the tranquil woods to the terror of being watched to the calm lecture; betwen the cerebral awesomeness of the creatures to the exsitential horror they might represent... The former giving rise to mood wiplash, the latter engendering conflicting emotional response to the conclusion and its implications.

ETA: The Long Earth
#3 ·
Huh, 7 pieces of art and only 2 got used.

I only saw one or two minor editing things which I'm sure you'd catch on your own, so I won't bother with that.

This one starts out calmly, and I can't quite put my finger on why, but it does give me the vibe that it's going to be about something strange. There's nothing overtly so at the beginning, but it still felt that way to me. Like both stories so far, it probably spends a little too much time on the setup, which makes it feel like the story's focus is going to be on something else than it ultimately is.

So this is some kind of infection, but one that can take effect even after death? It's strange. It's a nice idea, but not one that plays to any of its emotional investments much. The ingredients are there, what with the various relationships: father-son, master-pet. yet the context for each is pretty superficial. There's some history presented for each of those, but nothing deep enough to give me an emotional investment in it. While the events were interesting, and there would definitely be significant consequences, they never had that much of an impact on me.

I can't quite tell what conclusion the narrator reaches at the end. That he'll join his father when he dies? Or that he might decide to some time before that? Certainly he could if his remaining quality of life would be poor enough that he'd rather go ahead with it. I'm going on a tangent here, but does he share his secret with someone to insure he'll be buried there? For that matter, my first impression is that the bodies that had been in the cemetery a long time would have been converted long ago, but the condition of all the graves suggests this just happened now instead of his father joining ones that had already been there for a while. That makes me wonder what made all that come about so suddenly, rather than it being endemic to that place. Not that the narrator can give me the answers—he doesn't know. But the evidence of it has some odd implications, and I didn't know if you'd thought through it to where you had a complete picture. As it is, it feels weird to me that it would work that way.