Free Fiction Friday: “Palimpsest”

This is another short story that features Puck, the first story, “Pseudonym”, of which I featured two weeks ago. I was once planning on writing a bunch of short stories that all showed Puck through various people’s points of view to tell an overarching tale, but I never wrote more than two. I quite like this story – it’s the only story I’ve written so far from the point of view of an old man. I never queried, partly because I wasn’t sure what genre it falls into – it has a dash of horror, a dash of supernatural, but not very much. Anyway, here it is. I’d love to know what you think.

hitchhiker

Palimpsest

by

Laura Lam

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death.” –Frank Herbert

 

The headlights flashed through the darkness, revealing flickers of the surrounding countryside. The twin beams illuminated a tree just long enough to show its twisted limbs stretching over the road before it disappeared, replaced instead by the muted yellow of a yield sign, the flash of a raccoon’s eyes, or the slate gray of the curving road ahead.

My head nodded, vertebrae clicking slightly as my neck slid down towards my chest; I jerked myself awake. It was late and my energy had begun to fade with the setting sun. The eerie green glow of the electronic clock said it was 11:37 pm. Generic classical music crackled out of the speakers, interrupted occasionally by the nasal voices of announcers. The day was slowly winding like the road before me. There were the artificial boundaries of hours and exits, but neither time nor the road ever really ended, except for death or the ocean.

I shook my head. In my exhaustion, I was waxing philosophical. Usually by this time my head was on a soft pillow.

The headlight beams settled on a lone figure ahead in the gloom. He or she was almost impossible to see, but the pale swatch of a face peered at me, the one dot of a hand wrapped around the body for warmth, and the white comma of the other hand stuck out into the road. The hunkered form of a car crouched behind the small figure, still breathing steam.

I found myself pulling over a bit ahead of the figure. My car hovered by the side of the road, purring. Usually I was a bit more cautious, but I could use the company and the conversation. I chuckled; I was fulfilling the stereotype of the old man who loved to prattle on at the young folk about wars and past presidents.

The steady muffled crunch of footsteps approached. The hitch hiker tried the handle and—finding it locked—knocked politely on the window. I clicked the locks and turned off the radio static, feeling a little silly for forgetting to do it before. I can blame old age on the little things I’d been forgetting for years, at least. The hitch hiker opened the door, the crisp autumn air swirled into the car with its new passenger.

“Thanks,” he said, rubbing his hands together to warm himself. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. He was a young fellow, definitely under thirty. He had a dark beard and a light, slightly grimy face, but in the poor light that was all about him I could discern. His Ivy cap obscured his eyes, which annoyed me. I like to look a person in the eyes when I first meet them. I fiddled with one of the knobs on the dashboard, hoping it was the right one, and the car warmed up by several degrees. The clock read 12:01 am. The green light traced the outlines of my gnarled, liver-spotted hand.

“My car overheated,” the man stated.

“I can see that,” I glanced in my rear view mirror at the smoking ruins as I pulled away. “Where’re you heading?”

“Well eventually I’m headed to Los Angeles, but the nearest big city will be fine so I can call a tow truck. Unless you have a cell phone on you, by any chance?”

“No, sorry,” I said. “I still can’t trust those things.”

He laughed a warm, low sound. “Me neither, though I’m regretting that a bit now.” Though the laugh had been friendly, his face didn’t look it. It looked hard, comprised of sharp angles and tense lines, as if an artist had drawn him while pushing the pencil down too firmly.

“I’m headed about three hours west, to Lincoln; I can take you that far, at least.”

“Thank you.” We sat in silence.

“Pity about your car,” I said, a little awkwardly.

“It was bound to happen sooner rather than later. I seem to have bad luck with cars. They don’t like me.”

“Ah. This car here has served me faithfully for twenty years.” I patted the steering wheel fondly. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to. This is a Ford station wagon. Not fancy, but it’s gotten me from point A to point B over the years. Usually the transmissions on these things are worthless, but my nephew-in-law’s a mechanic and keeps it in good order.” Ah, there was my inane, boring rambling. I was wondering when it’d start up. I felt more awake already.

“It’s nice to count on things.” The man stretched and stifled a yawn. “Feels like I’ve been standing out in that road for hours. What made you decide to take a chance and pick me up?” He twisted, the hat still covering his eyes. He had either a spot of grime or a mole on one cheek. “I could be a crazy person, you know.”

I cleared my throat. “Well, it’s late, and I could use the chatter to stay awake. I’ve always been an early sleeper.”

“Still, shows you’re trusting, what with all the stories on the news.”

I shifted in my seat. “Yes. I suppose I am.” I glanced sideways at him. The man saw and flashed a grin at me. I think it was meant to be reassuring.

“Did you hear about the girl that was killed a week or so ago? Shame, isn’t it? What is the world coming to?” he asked. The tone was sympathetic, the cadence was correct, but something seemed a bit off. It sounded like idle chitchat, like he was talking about the weather.

“Yes. It is a shame,” I said slowly. “It never ends, though. I’ve lost count of how many stories about missing girls I’ve read over the past sixty years. Eventually they all blur together into one sad girl with a sad face.”

“What does that girl look like to you?” He tilted his head at me.

“She’s young, maybe thirteen or so. She has blonde hair but dark eyes. Her face looks like a doll and her eyes look blank, beyond feeling.” I stared off at the road, not really seeing it.

“Who was she?” the man asked, his voice curious.

I hesitated. I was tempted to lie, but I decided to tell the truth to the stranger. “My little niece. We were close. I always think of her when I hear a news report like that.”

“How was she killed?” he asked.

“She was raped and then thrown out of a window wearing black lingerie and angel wings,” I said flatly. Hopefully that would end the conversation.

“What was her name?” he asked after a pause.

“What does it matter?” I said, more sharply than I intended. I should have lied. He turned forward and stared out the windshield.

Silence stretched in the car like elastic. My nerves thinned. The time read 12:53. Two lonely white points of light weaved down the road and passed me. I looked up in the rearview mirror at the red dots as the car disappeared.

“Hey,” the man said after another long pause. “Have you heard of thought experiments?”

“What?” I asked, mystified.

“You know, thought experiments. Theories or problems to think about. I’ve been reading about them a lot recently. Have you heard of the Ship of Theseus?”

Maybe I did pick up a crazy person. “Um, yes, I think I read about it a long time ago, but I’ve forgotten. Greek?”

“Yes, that’s where it originated. It’s also called Theseus’ paradox. You didn’t learn about it in philosophy classes when you were in college? I think it’s pretty standard.”

“I studied biology in the late forties.”

“Ah, right. Theseus’ paradox asks if something has had all of its parts replaced, is it still the same thing?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I relaxed slightly back into my seat. I always loved discussing hypothetical questions. I had read a bit about philosophy over the years, but no one cared to discuss it with me anymore. The young were too impatient and the old were too senile. Next to me, the man was drumming his fingers against the arm rest on the door, tapping his pinky twice each time. I rolled the window down a crack to let in some fresh air; it was beginning to feel stuffy.

“Well, take the Ship of Theseus. It was this famous ship that Theseus returned home from Crete in. The Greeks were determined to preserve it so as each plank of wood rotted they replaced it with an identical but new piece. After centuries, as you can imagine, all the parts had been replaced. So, even though it had none of the original parts, was it still the same ship?”

I rubbed my leg. “What do you think?” I asked.

“I think that the ship remained the same ship, not physically, but it was still the same ship in the minds of its builders and sailors. Theseus hadn’t walked down those new planks, but they could still imagine him doing so. It’s the same ship in their minds for it looks like it did centuries ago. A pile of rotten wood wouldn’t bring up the same emotions or sentimentality.” His tone was sardonic, as if he found sentimentality distasteful. He stopped and cleared his throat. “Do you think it’s the same ship?” he repeated.

“I don’t think it was the same ship. I visited a castle once. I used to travel abroad a lot in my youth. They had tapestries hanging up in the chapel. They were recreated because the ones from the 15th century or whenever they were made were too delicate and damaged to be displayed. The news ones were identical to the old ones, but to me, they weren’t the same. They weren’t created by a weaver in that century. They had never hung up in the Great Hall while the King and Queen feasted. I suppose they hadn’t replaced the tapestry bit by bit, but it was meant to be the same. But they weren’t the same at all.” The bushes on the side of the road blurred into a constant dark green smudge through my window.

“Point. It doesn’t have the history associated with it, even if it has the design. To be honest, though, I don’t really care about the theory so much with inanimate objects. A thing is a thing, right? But if, say, a human being was replaced bit by bit, would it still be the same person, then?”

“But we already have been entirely replaced. We don’t have any of the same cells we were born with,” I said.

He smiled. “Your biology is showing. What about really being replaced? Where the body is entirely different? Foreign, alien. Little by little.”

“But we couldn’t replace every part of a human. We don’t have the technology.” I lifted a brow, but made sure to lift the one that the man wouldn’t be able to see. I shivered, and rolled the window back up.

“No, but we might one day. What about all those science fiction books about robots? Or what if you replaced half of a person?”

“Well, about an eighth of me has been replaced,” I said.

He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me from under his cap.

“It’s true,” I said, and lifted up my trouser leg. The shiny plastic glowed in the jade-green light of the clock.

The passenger leaned forward intently as he inspected my knee. His head was still bowed, so even though he was closer, I could not see his face. I turned from him to concentrate on the empty road in front of us. Drops of rain flattened into watery ellipses on the windshield before being erased by the windshield wipers. The straight lines of the road were distorted by the rain, and the car slipped a bit on the slick road. I heard a slight rustle of fabric and turned to see the man’s hand on my phantom leg. The man pulled away when I jerked in surprise. Even though I couldn’t perceive the touch, it still felt too familiar. People have touched my leg before without my permission. I imagine it’s a bit like when a woman is pregnant and everyone decides her belly is something they can rub for good luck.

“Excuse me, but I think I should know your name before you feel up my peg leg,” I said, trying to sound jocular.

“I was curious – I’ve never touched one before,” He didn’t apologize, but seemed to feel he should offer something in response. “My name is Puck.” He sat very still, as if waiting for my reaction.

I decided not to comment on the strangeness of the name. I’m sure he had heard it all before. I’d heard stranger names in my time. “My name is Alden.”

Puck smiled. “Did you know it means ‘old friend?’”

“Yes, I did.” I wondered vaguely how he knew—I didn’t have the most common name, either. Perhaps he was a linguist. I stifled a yawn. It was nearly two in the morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I had stayed up so late. It had been years—decades probably.

“So, do you consider it your leg? Or is it just a bit of plastic?” Puck had leaned back in his seat.

I pondered the question for a few minutes. “It is a piece of plastic, but it’s also my leg. It can’t feel anything. On the other hand – pardon the almost-pun – it doesn’t ache like my real leg. I rely on it in the same way I relied on the leg I lost, so I suppose it is my leg.”

“Interesting. So you consider yourself still fundamentally the same?”

“Of course. I’m still me. I just have one less leg than most people. Although I suppose as a result I’m a different person mentally than I would have been if I still had both.”

“What sort of person would you be mentally if, say, you lost both of your legs?” Puck asked.

I paused. “Well, I wouldn’t be driving right now, would I?” I said carefully, wondering where the discussion was leading. I felt nervous, my stomach fluttering. My unease was growing like a cancer. Perhaps being tired would have been preferable. A tiny trickle of sweat snaked its way down my spine.

“Legs are very physical things anyway—I mean, they help you get around, but they don’t change who you are very significantly. But what if you lost something that related to your senses or the way you communicate?”

“What do you mean?” I seemed to be asking this question a lot. I could see the two glints of his eyes from under the cap.

The silence seemed to seep into my very pores. My lungs felt choked with the quiet. I took my eyes from the road and looked over at him, wondering at the heavy pause.

“What if you lost your tongue?” He grinned and stuck out his own tongue, as if to demonstrate. His teeth flashed white in the gloom of the car. His pointed tongue looked slightly speckled in the moonlight.

“I—well, I wouldn’t be talking right now,” I stammered. The tongue in question curled itself behind my teeth. My answers weren’t very creative, either.

Puck laughed. I flinched. My nerves were wound as taut as a guitar string, and ready to snap. Puck’s laughter had not been malicious or spiteful, rather it was playful, and that was even more unsettling. I realized that I was gripping the steering wheel so tightly that my hands were numb.

“Why are you asking these questions?” I hated the quavering note to my voice. I sounded like a plaintive old man.

“Like I said – I’m curious. Why, do these questions bother you?” He sounded amused. He turned his torso towards me and rested his head on his hand.

“I don’t quite understand the reason you’re asking them to little more than a stranger.” The countryside outside seemed very silent, and very empty. The only sign of civilization was the weaving road I sped down. I eased my foot down slightly on the gas pedal; the speedometer inched past 80 miles per hour. It was a quarter after two.

“I ask these questions to a lot of people. The reactions are so varied, so different.” He paused reflectively. “Yet I suppose at its root the reaction is all the same.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“People always ask why I ask them. They never want to actually answer.”

“Maybe you ask the wrong questions.” A sign emerged out of the darkness. The nearest town with a population of over twenty was still nearly an hour away. I brought my foot down still harder on the gas. I didn’t know if Puck was playing a game with me or was serious, but in either scenario I was still the mouse and he was still the cat. My thoughts were running too fast on an unsteady track and my old, creaky self couldn’t keep up.

“Maybe I ask the right questions and that’s why people are too afraid to answer them. Will you give me a serious answer? What would you do if someone snipped off your tongue?” I was frantically keeping my eyes on the road, but I could imagine him staring at my mouth as he spoke.

I took a deep breath, gathering the frayed remnants of my nerves. “Losing my tongue would mean losing a fundamental part of myself—my voice. I speak every day: to my wife, the woman I buy my paper from, the waiter who serves me a cup of coffee.”

“You could still communicate. You could use sign language or write on a piece of paper.”

“I could, but it’s not the same. They wouldn’t hear the nuances of my voice. It’d be like speaking on the internet all the time. I finally bought a computer and I try sending e-mails to my children, but it’s not the same. Too much is lost. I grew up before we became so dependent on technology. Speaking is more than a way of getting through life, like a leg is used for walking. I’ve developed friendships and loves due to this tongue. It’s how I met my wife. It’s the tongue I used to read to my niece and my children before they went to sleep. It’s possibly my utmost means of expression. To lose it would cripple me far more than the loss of a leg.” I spoke very quickly, the tongue in question skittering across the back of my teeth. Perhaps I said too much, or the wrong thing. Puck was quiet for a moment.

“That makes sense.” It seemed as if I had passed an unspoken test of some sort. “Others have answered in such mundane, insipid ways. The younger ones have shown false bravado, saying it wouldn’t affect them at all, or that they’d kill the man who did it. Some have just been confused completely and not been able to answer at all. I’ve heard your sentiment before, but not so eloquently. Well done.” He gave a few soft claps with his hands. “I find it interesting you find the tongue so valuable. The spoken word, and the written one especially, seem to be going down in value as the years go on. And I suppose, Alden, your tongue is how you make friends?”

“Yes. I’ve made—and lost—many friends with this tongue of mine.”

“Interesting.” He lapsed back into thoughtful silence.

I let out the breath I didn’t know I had been holding. My sweaty palms slipped on the leather of the steering wheel. We crested a hill, and lights appeared in the matte darkness, as if holes were being punched out of a sheet of paper. We were reaching a destination, but I didn’t know what it was.

Silence flooded the car again. Puck seemed unnatural. I could not begin to guess at what he was thinking beneath the cowl the shadows of his hair and hat cast about him.

“How did you lose your leg?” He asked.

“World War Two. Landmine in Normandy.”

Puck seemed to fill with energy. “Ah! So you’ve killed people. This raises another perfect debate: do you think taking life takes away a part of yourself?”

I was quiet. The tang of blood and smoke filled my nose and my eyes clouded with visions of men dying. “Yes. It takes away a large part.” I almost whispered.

“You don’t think it adds anything? You don’t feel as if you gain power over those you kill?”

I looked at him, shocked. “No. Nothing but remorse and nightmares.”

“You’re going to ask me why I asked, aren’t you?” He gave a lopsided smile, the skin creasing over his mole.

I had, in fact, been about to demand that. I did not want to seem redundant, as I had a feeling that would annoy him. Instead, I shook my head and asked a different question: “Have you ever killed anyone?”

“Yes.”

I tried not to gulp. In retrospect, that was quite a stupid question to ask. My heart pattered in my chest. I had to keep him talking: “Do you think you gained anything?”

“Insight. We are surrounded by symbols, hidden by them, named by them. They are thrown about frivolously, but at the end, they mean everything.” His statement made absolutely no sense to me, but I didn’t want to ask him to explain himself. Puck stared off into the road, pensive, yet he didn’t seem to be thinking about this statement in reference to me. I left him to his reverie, trying not to even breathe loudly, not wanting to disturb him and bring his attention back to me.

We reached the outskirts of the city. Houses began to pepper the side of the road more, but I knew I couldn’t stop yet. I needed to get to the center of town, where the most people would be. I should try to make sure and stop outside of a bar or a night club.

We neared the town center. My eyes soaked in the welcome sight of human life—lights bled from houses and streetlamps, and music floated out of a late-night house party we passed. I saw a couple walking down the road, holding hands. I wanted to just stop the car, open the door, and run out into the street, screaming. But I could barely walk with my cane, much less run without it, and I didn’t know what Puck had spirited away under his dark coat.

“Let me out here,” Puck said suddenly. A pay phone was on the corner. I stared at it blankly. Hours ago, I dimly remembered Puck saying he needed a phone, but I thought it had just been a pretense. The normalcy seemed incongruous with Puck’s behavior. Who would he call?

I slowed the car, but relief warred with suspicion. The pay phone was not very well-lit. It lay just outside the island of light from the nearest streetlamp. There were no people around. Should I stop it on the hope that Puck would leave my life forever? Or should I keep going to somewhere with lights and life, and risk angering him?

“Stop here.” Puck said. There was a note of warning. I stopped.

I snapped the locks open, but he stayed seated for a moment. The acidic green light of the clock showed 2:59. He looked at me and took off his cap. I finally saw his eyes. They were primordial pools, with dark shapes flitting beneath their surface.

“Thanks for the ride. I won’t forget this.” He made the grateful words seem a threat.  I shrank back from him, aware that I was trapped in my seat. Puck opened the door and slid smoothly out of the car. He nudged the door closed with his hip, stuck his hands deep in his pockets, and sauntered around the front of the car. His languid walk was caught in the headlights as if he were on stage, putting on a show for my benefit. Puck stopped and rapped on my window. A loud group of drunken young men were stumbling down the sidewalk, so I cautiously rolled the window down.

“By the way, old friend, I’m sorry about your Evelyn.”

I lunged at him, but I only managed to grab the edge of his coat, which slipped through my fingers as though it were insubstantial. He jumped nimbly back and stood in the center of the road, laughing. The laugh reached into me and grabbed an invisible stone that let loose an avalanche of pent-up fears. I gave an incoherent yell and stamped on the gas as hard as I could with my false foot. The car screeched as it careened forward, leaving Puck behind me, still cackling. I wheezed and leaned my chest on the steering wheel for strength. My heart was a trapped bird beating against my ribcage, giving its last fight to escape. I sped down the road again, wide awake.

If you enjoyed this short story, please consider purchasing my full-length work, Pantomime & forthcoming Shadowplay. Thank you for reading.

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