Smibbles On The Edge Of Today
by Bettie Lee Turner
The city was bleak and the weather was cold. Meep huddled in the doorway of an old photocopy place, cursing the bitter gusts that ruffled his fur and twittered his antenna. This place had one machine, a XEROX that coughed and spluttered, but still had some juice and plenty of toner in storage. Rumor said the old mecha that ran the place kept it hidden in a safe in the basement, along with some AA batteries still in the package. That was more than could be said for the other broken down machines in this city.
Off to the left, a can rolled, a hollow sound. Meep froze in place, sucking in air so that all his fur stood on end. Something moved in the litter. One step. Two. A pair of quivering antenna rose from the edge of the gutter, slowly, as if tasting the air for danger. Smibbles once told each other apart by color, but those days were long past. Now they were a uniform shade: washed out, the color of broken dreams and forgotten dustbunnies. Some of the paranormal and horror smibbles were dangerous now, turning to their dark natures when unable to find an outlet. It didn’t pay to be reckless. Meep held his breath, all his fur on end, unable to flatten it, he could only hope not to be seen. The antenna wiggled in a familiar pattern. One bob. Two. He let out all his held breath in a whoosh. It was Marp.
Meep chattered, inviting him closer. With a dash and a roll over the battered sidewalk, Marp was tucked up next to him under the newspaper, panting and fluffy with excitement. “There’s a rumor!” Marp chirped. “A person! He came in just a few days ago! And guess where he went?! The Library!” he said, extolling the word with all the weight it deserved.
When Marp started in on stories about persons coming in out of the big empty, Meep was usually prepared to squash his friend’s hopes, and he thought this time would be no different. The persons out there that wanted to be in here could only be more fodder for the gutter, or scavengers that didn’t know how little here remained. Now he felt a small bloom of hope. No one scavenged in the library.
“Well?” Marp said, his voice pitched high in his excitement. “Are we going?”
The futility of it all dawned, a bloom of realization in his furry little head. Meep staked out the copy shop with a hope, a dream: to find a writer. Why would a writer come here to copy stories? Who would read them? Fiction had died, long ago, among the wars and the tech battles. First, the right to print on a large scale was seized by the government. After the government squashed the dreams that bred stories and the hope that made people read them, the government was seized by the rebels. The rebels were hungry for tech, and the last thing they wanted was anybody sitting around moon eyed and reading. It didn’t matter. The world had gotten out of the habit of writing and storying. Readers were shunned. Writers were lynched. Then everything really went to hell. The smibbles took to the streets and gutters, along with the mecha and the remaining persons left alive.
The library. That is where he should have been. He was a stakeout, it was his nature to sit and wait and hope. He sometimes envied the foolhardy Marp, an action scene, all that dashing around, the lust for excitement. The poor smibble usually had to make up things to dash around about. Now there was a reason, a real live person that might, just might, be a writer…
“We’re going!” Meep said.
It took them two days. The wide open park at the base of the library was too dangerous. They had to stick to side streets. It gave them a chance to spread the word, but the word had lost its magic. Meep’s own mother chased them off with a toothpick in her mouth (she was a female main character suffering a nervous breakdown, who up until now had managed to keep it together). Not only did the other smibbles not want to believe, they didn’t want to want to believe. The only bright moment in the trip was Smip and Bip, endlessly seducing and betraying each other. He was a love affair, she a vixen bent on revenge. They had even managed to keep some of their color. Smip was the deep blue of an old dishrag, Bip a crumpled bit of pink dryer lint. They were too involved with the stars in each others eyes to be bothered with a writer in the library. Meep imagined that was how it was in the old times. At least it was something. Better to leave them to it.
Finally, they came to the steps of the library. For safety, they would go around to the side and use the handicap ramp, but for now, Meep just wanted to look at them. He imagined he could see the path of the writer in the rubble, some of it pushed aside or crumpled as he climbed them. The columns were creamy white expanses, reaching up into the sky, as far as a smibble was concerned. The words, golden in Meep’s mind, danced across the pediment. Library. Marp was chittering nervously.
Distracted, Meep asked, “What’s wrong?”
Marp wiggled his antenna, his fur rippling. “I don’t know if I can face it.”
“What do you mean?!” Meep asked. “We’ve come all this way!” He could feel Marp’s tension, coming off him in waves, as if his fur were electrically charged. He scuffled in the loose sandy soil.
“What if he’s not… you know… I don’t think I can stand it.” Marp look ashamed more than anything.
Meep felt his former hopelessness threaten to press back around him. He had worn it for so long it was like the clouds overhead, always there, threatening them with rain and never coming through. For the last few days, his barometer had been oblivious to the threats, too bent on the hope that lived in the library. He glanced up at the doors, one hanging loose, the darkness of the interior rife with possibility. “I’ll go. You go get the others. As many as you can. Even if there isn’t a writer, this is where we should be. We can’t go on much longer like this.” He turned to his friend, trying to look hopeful. “We won’t be any worse off.”
Marp grinned. “I’ll bring them all! I’ll find Purp! He’s a grand oration. If he can’t stir them up, nothing will!”
Before leaving, Marp reached his antenna toward him. Meep reciprocated, buoyed by the small charge of inspiration bouncing back and forth between them, like must have happened in the old days. Meep felt swollen, his fur all on end.
“I’ll never forget,” Marp said. “When the time came, you’re the one who went through the door first.” With that, his friend turned and bounded away, soon lost in the overgrown bushes rimming the park.
Meep looked back up at the hanging door, and made his way to the handicap ramp
The smell inside wasn’t promising; old furniture, rotten leather, damp, disuse. It was forbidding. Meep moved slowly. Adding the smell of half-eaten smibble to the place wasn’t on the agenda. The last thing he needed was to find a cat or an owl on the hunt before he found the person.
Something here was different. His antenna had lifted of their own accord and were jittering, akin to a person’s feet deciding to start tap-dancing on their own. Then he realized what it was. Music. The sweet strain of a violin, far off, so low it could be the track of someone’s dream. He was in a rectangular room, bound on all sides by straight faux wood paneling. It brought the music to him the way a narrow mountain pass brings a howling wind. Sticking near the edge of the wall, he made his way to the end.
The next room was vast, with a ceiling so high it was hidden in the gloom. There were rows and rows of shelves off to the side, standing like quiet sentinels. A fire raged in a massive fireplace, throwing dramatic figures against the walls and shelves. A chair looked like a mountain, a table was a plateau. And there, between them, his height thrown along the length of the floor like a PI in a film noir, was the sharp figure of a person. The flames appeared to lick either side of him.
Suddenly faced with the person, Meep understood Marp’s fear. At this moment, there was so much possibility. Who knows what beats inside the body of a smibble, but surely they have something like a heart. Meep’s was trip hammering away, so the violins were accompanied by a back beat. An old phonograph spun and rasped, the sound less perfect close up, but even now, the record was coming to an end. The person reached over with one hand and hit a button. The music was over and in a few minutes, Meep would know. There was only one way to find out.
So as not to frighten him, Meep crept forward, swinging around to approach from the side. He realized he had never seen a person, not in the flesh. This one was lean, wearing a white, loose fitting shirt, the sleeves rolled up, the first two buttons undone. His hair was swept back from his face, the comb leaving dark rich furrows. Not old, but not exactly young, he had a coat of dark stubble that made him appear grim. Still unaware he was being watched, he spoke.
That moment, the moment of possibility stretched, for one word, maybe two, and then was crushed. It was over. Meep didn’t understand the words. He let out a sigh, his antenna so low the mipples on the end dangled in front of his eyes. He would have understood a writer. They spoke the same language. But this person, he was just another dreamer, like himself. Instead of sitting outside an old copy shop, waiting for a writer to show up, this person went roaming the cities, looking for civilization, maybe polite conversation, maybe an old wine cellar to get darkly drunk in and rant about the old times.
The person sighed also, in odd imitation of the smibble. He went to sit in the opposite chair, and pulled a battered old pack onto his lap. He was still speaking, a steady rumble of sound that made no sense, while fishing something out of the pack. It looked like a wad of old yellow cotton.
The person made more noises, more jibber jabber. Meep had longed to hear his voice, to converse beyond yips and chitters, but this droning nonsense mocked him. He wished he had never come. The despair pressed down on him so that his fur lay smooth, his antenna completely limp, laying on either side of his body like fishing line. He hoped Marp wouldn’t be able to find anyone else. He hoped his friend had gotten side tracked and was out, trying to jump from roof top to roof top, or across the old subway tracks, pursuits he had tried to stop him from performing in the past.
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
This was followed by gales of laughter. Meep looked up. The person had spoken. Language. Words, a sentence! Had he heard right? He came closer to the edge of the chair, waiting.
The person was now staring off into nothing, a sharp stick-like object in one hand, the wad of cotton no longer a wad of cotton, but a bunch of yellow pads, swollen from water damage and much handling. He had freed one from the papery grip of its cousins and held it on his lap like a bloated fish. Dry thunder cracked overhead, sending the man into another hearty gust of laughter.
“A dark and stormy night, it is!” he said, shouting in the empty library, the words ringing among the empty, leaning shelves, going up the chimney and dislodging chunks of ash.
Something didn’t seem right. The person felt it too, because slowly, his laughter tapered off and turned to sobs. He gripped the yellow bundle in his lap with both hands, staring down at it, gripping it harder with each hitching sob until the cardboard back was bent nearly in half between his hands, the papers coming undone at the edges. Was this why they were in such a state?
The person suddenly wiped away his tears, like a child, with the heels of his palms. Finally, he held them there and talked to himself. “I do believe,” he said. “Fatigue. I’m tired, that’s all, I shouldn’t try so soon after getting to a new place. It always wrecks it. I believe. I do believe.” He continued to mutter to himself, shoving his paper back inside the battered pack.
At first, Meep was disappointed. He’d felt something start to happen, then it all came crashing down. What if this is all the person ever did? Was capable of doing in these dark and desperate times?
Meep shook himself. Maybe the person was right. He was just tired, as Meep was tired. It had been a hard time, for both of them. Soon the person was moving a couch from across the room near the fireplace, stoking the fire with things that looked like broken off table legs and shelving.
When the person lay down, Meep crept to the arm of the couch. They both watched the fire burn down together, each wrapped in their own thoughts. Before the person fell asleep, he muttered one last thing. “Maybe I don’t believe. What is there left to believe in, anymore?”
He didn’t wake until the sunlight came, weak as watered milk through the windows on the upper floor. He lay there, inventorying his various aches and pains, the blisters on his feet, the pulled right calf, and going over the failure of the night before. “A dark and stormy night,” he muttered, his voice cracking. He lay his arm across his eyes until guilt made him sit up and face the day.
The pack with its scrounged paper wads were beneath his feet when he swung them over. Every day he said he would fish them out and start writing, first thing, before anything except relieving himself, but life and housekeeping got in the way. The search for water was the most dire, second was enough fuel to burn for the night. His eyes rose to the rooftop, and then the stacks on the upper floor. There were still dark, rectangular blocks lining shelves in the shadows. Unpilfered books. Refugees from the madness of the burning and banning. He wondered. Was there anything worth saving, or were they all fire fodder? The last library had nothing left but ancient almanacs the size of small tabletops. They predicted the weather and crop yields for the coming year. Those years and their crops had come and were long gone. He wondered why the next almanac said nothing about the veracity of the previous year’s predictions. In the end, he burned them with no guilt.
He pondered the cold fireplace. It was warm enough for now. He had half a canteen of water. He picked up the pack, fishing out the paper, the pen and the canteen. “All right,” he said aloud, then swallowed a mouthful of musty water. “A paragraph. Just a paragraph. That’s all. You can do that much at least.” He stretched his legs first, pointing his toes inside his boots. The hairs on the back of his neck had risen. The tangle of black curls running up and down his arms had gone straight, the hair slightly lifted. The sensation was like a hundred little spiders crawling up them. He was overwhelmed with the feeling of being watched and looked behind him. Nothing. Nothing was there. He turned back to the cold fireplace. “One paragraph. I do believe. I do.”
And so it went. The person would wake every morning, stretch his legs, and say “Just one paragraph!” and follow it up with the calm statement: I do believe. Sometimes, he would chuckle as he said it, sometimes, he forgot the ritual entirely and slipped into a creased-brow study, staring beyond the paper as he laboriously formed words with the stick. Often, he would look up and cast his eyes around the room, looking for something. As the days went by, the periods of sitting on the couch with the bloated yellow pads across his knees grew longer and longer. Sometimes, he would leap up, unwrinkling his brow, shocked at the color of the sky and the hours that had passed.
More often, he smiled or laughed out loud as he wrote, Meep sitting silent on his shoulder. He didn’t dissolve into tears, as he had that first horrible night. “I do believe” were the words spoken most often to the fire.
Then came the day when he didn’t leave the couch at all. He woke in a brown study, fumbling for the pages of his manuscript before he was even sitting upright. He ate nothing from the dwindling food supplies. The sky had gone from murky morning light to the brown haze of afternoon to the warning purple mist of evening before the man rose from the couch.
And rise he did. He leaped up shouting, his arms thrown wide, his head thrown back. “I believe! And it’s done!” He lowered his eyes from the heavens, and for the first time, his and Meep’s met.
He stood there, his arms raised, his heart in his throat, choking him. The manuscript was done. And there was a purple puffball sitting on the table in front of the fire. A purple and green puffball with eyes and antenna and an intelligent, quizzical expression. The antenna bobbed. First one, then the other.
“Oh my God,” he said weakly, his knees insisting he sit. He sat. “I don’t believe it.”
“Neither did I,” chirped the puffball. “None of us did.”
“Us?” the man repeated dully, his lips slightly parted, as if the muscles holding them on his face had gone slack.
The antenna swayed as if in a breeze, indicating the spacious gulf of the library hall behind him. He turned slowly, his muscles stiff, afraid of what he would find. Even before he saw, he knew. Had he not sensed them? Had there not been that feeling, day after day, night after night, that something was here, watching him? He squeezed his eyes shut, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. The hall was a sea of colored puffballs, antenna swaying in a non-existent wind, little googly eyes intensely observing him.
“I don’t believe in you,” he said, as if saying it would make them go away. “You’re a myth. A dream. A crutch…”
Gentle sounds came from the sea of creatures. Chittering, the sounds of the little beads at the end of their antenna clicking together, soft sighs.
He turned back to the puffball on the table. “How long?”
“From the beginning. From before there was a beginning.”
“But I don’t believe…” he said, his voice distant, an ocean of blood rushing in his ears.
“You said you did,” the puffball said. “Day after day. Night after night. As you spoke the words, you wrote and more of us came. And then our color came back...”
“This can’t be happening. It’s a mantra, from the old times. It’s folly,” he interrupted. “I don’t believe you are real,” He spoke each word spoken singly with his hand, still stained with ink, pressed against his chest. It sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
The little creature seemed to grow in size, it’s antenna lifted up higher as they bobbed in the air. There might have been a face in there. There might have been a smile. “Perhaps not. You don’t have to believe in us. What matters is that we believe in you.”