This story won the November r/fantasywriters challenge.
Zeke locked his truck. “You’re not going to bring the metal detector?”
“If I need it.” Casey trudged across the road, resting her shovel on her shoulder. She stopped in front of the one vacant lot that happened to belong to Zeke. “You lived here?”
“How can you tell?”
“The lilacs. Ghost gardens keep coming up, long after everyone’s gone.”
The lot where Zeke’s childhood house had stood was now a weed-choked field, with only his mother’s lilac bushes to mark the spot where his bedroom window had been. But as they walked through the waist-high grass, Zeke noticed other remnants of the house: cracked slabs of pavement split by thorn bushes, uneven ground that sank into a foundation pit filled with muddy water, and rusty pipes that zigzagged out of the ground like metal roots. All details that he’d missed from the road, when he had first bought the property.
Casey’s brow furrowed. “No house.”
“Nah. We packed it in the truck.”
That move was still among his more vivid memories. It had been a miserable, piss-pouring day, just like this one. Workers slid in mud as they ratcheted the house onto an enormous trailer. And then they had dragged it halfway across the province, diverting opposing traffic on the two-lane highway. Even as a cynical high school kid, Zeke hadn’t been too jaded to think it was cool to move and take your whole house with you.
“That’s a joke?”
“Sorta.” Zeke felt like he needed a cigarette.
“It wasn’t torn down, though,” Casey said, matter-of-factly.
“More treasure-hunter wisdom?”
Casey shrugged. “If there’d been a house, I would see it.”
“Ah. You’re like an archaeologist.” Zeke pronounced the word with all its romantic action movie connotations, though he guessed the reality was more like cleaning a bathtub with a toothbrush. “You’ve got that professional intuition.”
“You think I have an eye for details that others miss?”
“Right. History written onto rocks and stuff.”
“No,” she said, pulling up the hood of her windbreaker. “It’s not like that at all. Archaeologists can have the past. I don’t want it.”
As Casey moved through the yard, her gaze was unfocused, and she tripped over the raised concrete that divided the former garden from the lawn. Her expression was slack, without emotion, though occasionally her lips pressed together in concentration. Her hands twitched through gestures like a dog kicking in its sleep. She was doing that thing that Zeke had once hated, where she stumbled around like a glassy-eyed stoner.
She bent over, prodding the soil with her shovel, and unearthed the handle of a bicycle.
Casey shook her head.
“Right. You just had a feeling about this spot,” Zeke teased. “Is this when you tell me about my rough childhood?”
“I’m not into cold reading.”
He didn’t bother pointing out that she should know too much about his past for it to be a cold reading. If he did, she would only pretend to remember, and her acting fooled no one except herself.
Casey dropped her shovel and yanked on the bike’s handle, as if she hoped to pull it out of two feet of mover-packed earth with the strength of her arms alone.
“Hey, forget the bike. We’re—”
The bike came free, and earth sagged into the space where it had been. It was every inch the ten-speed that he had ridden until its gears came apart, except that this bike was new. Its metallic blue paint job still sparkled, even under a grey sky.
“You don’t want it?” Casey let the bike tip into the weeds and walked away.
“But it’s…” Zeke shook his head. It couldn’t be the same one. It had to be some other bike that just happened to have the same frame, paint job, and holo-foil Pokemon stickers on the seat. But staring at it brought up a wave of nostalgia, and he knew in his gut that the bike was his. His heart stuttered, and he gave it a few good smacks.
Casey roamed around the lot like a sleepwalker. “I told you this wouldn’t be what you expected.”
“Is it time-travel?” Zeke leaned against his truck. He had called an early break, and opened the thermos of hot chocolate he had intended to save for later, when they would be cold and wet.
“I don’t think so,” said Casey.
“Can you see ghosts?”
“I meant the people kind.”
“If there are any, I haven’t seen them.”
“Maybe you just didn’t notice.”
Casey was the type of person who would walk right by her best friend in the supermarket because the store, conceptually, wasn’t one of the places where her friends were supposed to be. She’d told him once that she still remembered him as ‘Math Classmate, Two Seats Right’ a year after they had started dating.
Even when he’d chanced on her garage sale two weeks ago, when he first got back into town, she’d gotten that deer-caught-in-headlights expression as soon as he greeted her by name.
The first words out of her mouth were, “Oh hey. I haven’t seen you siiince?”
It was her standard probing question for smalltalk with acquaintances she didn’t recognize. Zeke tried not to hold it against her. It was just how she was wired.
“I’ll save you the trouble,” Zeke had said. “High school boyfriend. Eleventh grade.”
And then she had smiled, not the forced smile of ‘appropriate social interactions,’ as she had once put it, but the one she saved for people who seemed to get her. “You could have said ‘Zeke.’”
“Glad I don’t have to try to remember where I sat in ninth grade math.”
And when Casey was distracted by someone interested in buying a lamp, one of her neighbours had leaned over the fence, taking a break from watering the garden to dole out life advice to a stranger. “You don’t want to get involved with that girl.”
“She has a garage sale every week.” She covered her mouth and whispered, “Credit card debt.”
“I don’t buy on credit,” Casey had called from across her yard. Her tone was factual, without offence. “I find stuff.”
The eight other people who had been browsing the garage sale looked in Zeke’s direction. The neighbour retreated into her house, where a yappy poodle watched through a gap in her closed blinds. The conflict left his palms sweaty. He felt a flutter in his chest, and he coughed until it passed. Even if Casey never noticed these things, he felt embarrassed for her.
Zeke took in the whole yard in a sweeping glance. It looked less like the site of a weekly garage sale and more like a dump that had recently received the contents of an entire house. She had everything from appliances to children’s toys. “You found all this?”
Casey muttered an acknowledgement, finished counting out change to a man with an armful of books, and rejoined Zeke beside the fence. “I treasure-hunt.”
“That’s perfect,” Zeke had said. His scalp tingled when she came close; it was the same relaxing sensation he got when someone massaged his temples. “Hey, I just bought my parents’ old place. I was thinking of giving it a pass with a metal detector before I started tearing up the lot. Maybe see if there’s any old family treasure. If you aren’t busy, you should come by and lend me your expertise?”
“I don’t think you understand what I do.”
But it was easy enough to convince her. After all, she couldn’t recognize a lie.
“It’s hard to explain,” Casey said. “They’re like leftover bits, outlines that linger when something falls apart. Ties that bind lost things to the places where they belong.”
They were back on the lot, up to their ankles in soupy mud. With hot chocolate warming him from within and the shiny bike out of view, Zeke was already doubting what he had seen.
“You don’t believe me.”
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t, either.”
Zeke rubbed his beard. “Show me?”
“That’s the best way of knowing.” Casey flashed him another one of those smiles that lit up her face. Even with a few grey hairs and crow’s feet, she looked so much like the girl he remembered.
She dug until she struck something hard, and then scraped soil with the shovel’s blade. A finger-sized bone emerged from the dirt.
“That’s not what I had in mind,” Zeke blurted.
But she had already bent over to tug on her find. A cat came out with all its joints, skin, and fur; everything a pet needed except life itself. It sat on the grass, whole, wide-eyed, and stiff.
“Minou?” Zeke choked.
Casey beamed. “It’s like when it was alive.”
“That’s…” Zeke couldn’t stop staring. Minou’s rigid body looked like it had been stuffed. “That’s something.”
“I’ll show you something better.”
“No, thanks, that’s more than enough,” said Zeke, but she was already in motion, carving out chunks of the house’s former foundations, her shovel slicing through concrete at if it were cake. When he stood in front of her, she seemed to look past him. “Casey?”
He put his hand on her shoulder, and was hit by a wave of vertigo.
The ground had gone flat. It was blurry, near-featureless, like the textures of old video game terrain, and he could see through the surfaces of the world to forms beyond them. The soil teemed with unfinished things: segments of worms, dented cans, the sole of a boot. Severed roots sprouted into twisting trunks of lines, like drawing plans of trees, but every one the same. They were not individual trees, but trees in the abstract sense. Concepts given shape.
Below the spot where Casey had been digging, a toy robot was buried in two separate pieces, connected by waving lines that straightened as he squinted. Her shovel uncovered it, and when she reached to retrieve the robot, she tugged it by the lines that tethered the pieces to each other. In her hands, the toy knitted back together, became whole, and faded from view. Soon, it was as insubstantial as the earth under their feet.
It was then that Casey covered her mouth with her hand. “You followed me.”
Zeke opened his mouth to speak, but his voice came out in a croak. His hand still clenched the fabric of her shirt, and it twisted as she turned.
“I didn’t think anyone could. I thought I was the only one.” Tears welled in her eyes, but he could hardly see them. His vision slipped through her cheek to the outlines of her missing wisdom teeth, more solid than any other thing about her.
Choking back nausea, Zeke looked away. Across the lot, a diagram of his parents’ old shed materialized out of a few weathered boards. From the rusty pipes that had been connected to his house, threads stretched into the distance, pulled taut like rubber bands.
“Zeke. Are you okay?” Casey reached out to take his hand.
“Don’t touch me!” He threw up, and watched his vomit divide itself into distinct food shapes.
“Just don’t let go. Don’t let go. Please.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
He broke free, and then the world was right again. Zeke was on his knees, gasping, studying the texture of his own skin. The heel of his palm had slipped into his vomit, and mud had crusted onto his pants. The sky was cloudless, and much darker than it should have been.
Zeke searched the whole lot, tamping the grass flat, but Casey was gone. Even Minou was missing, though the earth was freshly turned where she had dug him up. Zeke couldn’t bring himself to check if there was a skeleton in his cat’s grave.
He stumbled to the truck and sat with his head resting against the steering wheel for a long time, until his pulse slowed and he could think clearly again. He’d lost touch with reality. When he got back to his hotel, he’d google the symptoms to see if he needed to see a doctor. But as he reversed, he heard a metallic crunch. And there it was, wedged under his back bumper: a blue bike with Pokemon stickers on its seat.
The lights were on at Casey’s house. From its front step, he could hear canned laughter and music from a TV inside. Blue light flickered on the blinds. He took a deep breath, and then pounded on the door until Casey opened it a crack, keeping the security chain latched.
“Can I help you?”
He pushed on the door, but the chain held. “What the hell happened back there?”
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Don’t pull that crap. You don’t have the memory of a goldfish. It’s me.”
Casey peered through the crack. Her eyes were red-rimmed, bloodshot, and her face was puffy like it always was when she cried. “No, you aren’t.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He was different. I have no idea who you are.”
Zeke lunged, touching the tip of her nose with his fingertip before she could pull it back. But the world didn’t change as it had before.
She muttered something under her breath, and then clasped his finger in her hand. And he caught a glimpse through the door, as it faded into lines. Her house was a hoarder’s den, piled high with broken things, their lines as tangled as loose yarn.
Zeke felt a flutter in his chest and glanced down, looking through his own ribcage to the heart that stuttered within, unravelling with each beat. He doubled over against the railing.
Casey sighed. “I should have known.” In a blink, she was standing on the front step beside him, with his pinky finger still caught in her vice-grip. She tugged at the loose strings that dangled from his chest, squeezing his ribcage like a shoe laced too tight.
“Stop,” he mouthed.
He wriggled his hand free, and pushed her against the door.
And then it was dawn, and he woke on his hands and knees before a silent house. He knocked until his fists were raw, though he knew somehow that she wouldn’t come. Casey’s nosey neighbour came out to investigate, dressed in a robe and slippers. She shot him a look that said ‘I told you so,’ before disappearing back inside, and Zeke figured it’d be a good idea to leave before the police showed up.
On the hood of his truck, a toy robot had been positioned so that it was giving a salute. Unlike the toy of his memory, there was no battle damage gouged into its armour, and its grey arms were free of the yellow tint that his parents’ smoking had left on so many of this things. It stood, whole and clean, as if it had just been torn out of its plastic wrapper.