My name’s Alex Whalen and I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games. I’m also a writer, so I end up going overboard on backstory to the point of writing actual stories. Now I’m sticking them here.
My name’s Alex Whalen and I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games. I’m also a writer, so I end up going overboard on backstory to the point of writing actual stories. Now I’m sticking them here.
Total Word Count: 214,804
Total Stories: 47
Shortest Story: 537 words
Longest Story: 19,173 words
Average: 4,570 words
Scraps 20 MINUTE READ
It was a just a collection of corrugated metal and boards in a ditch outside the railyard, but that night it was home. Texas Blue Jay picked her way down off the rise next to the tracks with two shadows. Mayella, a weedy Korean girl with a bad cough, waved her hand around her face.
“Smells like jackpot,” she said, voice raw.
Tom Cat, a white boy with bad dreads and about five miles of skinny leg, shook the half-full bottle of Tennessee Honey in his fist. “And we’ve got goods to trade.”
“Gimme another pull a that before we do,” Jay said. By the time they stumbled into the little camp together the bottle was lighter and Cat was exasperated, but Jay felt just fine. Past the first shanties was a fire pit dug into the side of the ditch. Someone had taken a hatchet to an old desk and was feeding laminated particle board piece by piece into the growing blaze.
“Hey-o,” said a man at its edge. He pointed at the bottle. “That for sharing?”
“Depends,” Mayella shot back. “Is the weed?”
“Depends,” the man echoed. He looked them over. Mayella was a slip of a girl, probably sick with something bad, not much of a fighter. Tom Cat was tall but wiry and one of those on-and-off hoppers. When he got off a train in San Diego he had his head buzzed and went home to eat with his suburban parents. But Jay was another story. She watched him watch her.
Texas Blue Jay had been on the rails since she was fifteen. At nineteen she was mean-looking. Her hair took to locks naturally, and hung around her face in tendrils threaded with her trademark blue string and embroidery floss, dotted here and there with cracked beads. Her skin was dark and pocked with scars. Years of hopping and fighting and picking up odd jobs for food had given her muscle Tom Cat couldn’t seem to hold on to.
Jay grinned at the man by the fire, making the whites of her eyes real big in her face, and shook the bottle. He tracked the sloshing of the liquor.
“Waitin’ on you now,” she said.
The man nodded towards the woman across from him feeding the fire. She stopped to pass over a crushed Mountain Dew can and a dirty Ziploc bag. Mayella took it eagerly and plopped down with her pink Bic lighter in hand. Jay passed the man the bottle and sat next to her.
“Zanzibar,” he said by way of introduction as he screwed the lid off. He flicked a finger at his companion. “This is Sara-Lee Finey. Where are you three headed?”
Mayella lit a little pile of weed over the screen punched into the can and inhaled. She passed it on to Tom Cat and held the smoke in her lungs. Her exhale was dreamy as she leaned into Jay’s side.
“Mayella, Tom Cat, Texas Blue Jay,” she murmured, tilting her head to assign the names, voice smoother than before. “Trying to get the fuck out of Pennsylvania. You talk to the yard staff?”
“There’s a train in an hour headed towards Illinois,” Finey said. “After that, nothing for a half day.”
“Then we need to be on that train,” Tom Cat said. He offered the can to Jay but she waved him off. Mayella was relaxed and handsy and the bottle was coming around. Tom Cat surrendered the weed back to Finey.
“We got time, though,” Jay said, flicked Mayella’s nose, then shot Zanzibar a look over the girl’s head. “Is it stopping here or just passing through?”
“Passing through,” he said. After Finey got a pull he gave her back the bottle. “You got something more substantial to go with this fine spirit?”
Mayella started to say something but Jay gave her hip a squeeze. Tom Cat scooted closer to Jay’s other side. The two cans of food they had between them rested heavy in the bottom of Jay’s bag against the small of her back. She gave a tight little laugh.
“Been a long while between jobs and good scrounges,” she said. “We’re just about picked clean.”
Zanzibar leaned forward. “You ain’t checked.”
Jay’s knife caught him by surprise an inch under his nose. He froze with his hand half in his pocket. Tom Cat kept Finey in place with his own blade, a ridiculous Bowie knife his dad gave him when he first took off. Mayella sat serene.
“I ain’t have to,” Jay said, enunciating clearly, voice low. “Now it’s up to you how this hour’s gon go. I suggest y’all sit back and smoke. Takes a while to die of hunger and you ain’t died yet.”
Zanzibar sank back into his seat and Finey shrugged. Tom Cat put away his knife immediately, naïve boy, but Jay sat back with hers still flat against her thigh. Mayella made grabby hands towards the bottle. Somewhere in the shanties someone snorted hard in their sleep. Everyone around the fire twitched a little.
“Keep the bottle moving,” Zanzibar finally grunted. “It’ll be a long hour elsewise.”
“I hear that,” Jay said.
Tom and Mayella were well and truly crossfaded by the time the train to Illinois started making vibrations far down the tracks. Jay was on the edge of sober, starting to shake, and antsy. Zanzibar had banked the fire and claimed a shack with Finey just a few minutes ago. It was down to Jay to get them moving.
“Off your asses,” she said with a hard nudge to both of them. “Ride’s here.”
“We’ll get the next one,” Tom Cat mumbled, tugging her down by the arm, trying to maneuver her between him and Mayella. “Come back to bed.”
“You’re sleeping on dirt and dog shit, not a bed, Mr. Suburban Dream,” Jay said. She gave him a harder shake. “Up!”
“Come on,” Mayella mumbled as she pushed herself upright and yawned. “I wanna get to Roswell for the festival this year. We gotta go.”
She dragged the last syllable out, laughing, as she and Jay each took an arm and hoisted Tom Cat to his feet. The train’s whistle sounded. It wasn’t far.
“Up by the tracks but out of sight,” Jay ordered. “Go, go!”
They waited in scrub brush until the engine roared past. Someone emerged from the shanties, looked at the train, then shook their head and ducked back inside.
“What is he, chicken?” Mayella yelled to be heard over the train, then laughed for no reason. “Ha! It’s jumpable!”
“I don’t know,” Tom Cat called, swaying on his feet. “The bolts…”
“You and your bolts!” Jay yelled. She eyed a series of ladders on the side of a car coming up. “On three…”
Two more cars passed in the blink of an eye.
Texas Blue Jay flew. Strong legs propelled her up and onto the ladder she’d aimed for with a painful thud, but she was on it. She hooked sore arms through the rungs and jerked her head around against the wind to find Tom Cat and Mayella. They were on the same ladder a few down from her, just barely. Mayella had a one hand grip near the bottom and Tom Cat reached up to climb higher and make room. His depth perception was screwed. He made one pass for a rung, then another, each time missing by inches.
“Get on!” Jay screamed, clutching her ladder tighter like it might make him do the same. Tom made another pass. He almost got the next rung so he opened his hand.
The wrong hand.
The wind swept him down onto Mayella and around the back of the car like decompression yanked people out of planes in the movies. There was a scream, Jay didn’t know whose, and a crunch. Blood splattered the edge of the car.
"Tom!" Jay screamed. "Mayella!"
Nothing. There was no answering shout of alarm from the direction of the engine, either. No squeal of brakes. The train rattled on. Jay’d heard it a thousand times from the older crowd but never thought to learn it personally:
The train don’t care.
She forced herself up the ladder and into what proved to be an empty coal car. She sat shaking for a long time. It was well dark but she couldn’t sleep. Especially not in a coal car. Too big a chance of being crushed by a load or having the bottom open and dump her into one to suffocate under the next. She had to keep watch.
The train didn’t care.
She couldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Everything in the forest was silent and watchful as Jules cleared a deadfall like a hurdle, bounced over a boulder, ran into and pushed off from unexpected trees. There was a sound like whispering gathering at her back, punctuated only by the running footsteps of the people behind her.
Not people. That wasn’t right. Their eyes were black under direct light and the only thing in their heads was a consciousness older than the woods they chased her through. Not people. SCPs.
“Jay,” Garza and Singh called, at the same time, voices flat and ringing out from either side. Jules bit back a scream of rage and pushed herself to make it out of the tree line. Had it been the water? Had it spread through contact? Why was she spared?
Nothing else had been. She kept catching sight of things out the corner of her eye. An owl on a branch that didn’t so much as twitch a feather when she charged past. Its head just swiveled to watch her. A badger that dove from brush to trip her. The flashlight hanging from her wrist by a strap made strange shapes in the dark, swinging as she ran. With every arc of light Jules saw a new set of dead, black eyes.
The trees seemed to part unwillingly. Once she was out from under the thick canopy of leaves the air grew colder and the sky proved a sickly, mottled gray-purple. A doe stood in the center of the clearing and all was hushed around it. Long grass bent out and away towards the forest and the people emerging from it on all sides. A tightening circle of agents. Jules shined her light. The doe’s eyes were brown and ringed with white. Unpossessed.
Her belly hung heavy between her four legs. The circle closed. Jules ran.
The doe seemed rooted to the spot. She made some helpless noise when Jules shoulder-checked her to the ground but she didn’t try to run. She kicked, thin legs ridiculous around her swollen middle, but Jules shrugged off what she couldn’t dodge. She tasted ozone. All the hairs on the doe’s belly were standing up.
Another helpless noise from the doe as Jules’ kukri sank in. Hot blood gushed over her dark hands, steaming in the cold air. The grass bowed lower around her and her short hair crackled with static. Something was pushing at her mind, testing her walls, knocking softly to get in. Jules ignored it and dragged her knife down the doe’s belly. The stench of shit and bile hit her as she perforated the intestine. Her last, jagged slice forced the uterus out. It fell almost into her lap.
Inside, through murky pink layers of organ tissue, was the fawn. It was slick and small and alien-looking with a large head and spindly limbs. She cut through the uterine wall as footsteps approached. Its eyes were massive under near-transparent, underdeveloped eyelids. She shined her light.
“Wait,” Kaminsky called out. His voice held no inflection.
“Stop now,” Roberts said. “Would you kill all of us?”
“Your leader?” Petroika asked.
"Your teammates?" Jung asked.
“Your friends?” Garza added.
Black pits in the eyes of the fawn. In her brain it had not stopped knocking.
“You’ll kill me,” she said.
“No,” the Fawn said in the voices of all ten members of MTF Tau-13. “I will help you rest.”
Jules sobbed. The doe stopped kicking but she was still warm.
“I can’t rest,” she said.
“You can,” Singh said. “You can, we are all resting now. All of us, so busy, resting now.”
Jules looked down at the Fawn. It was too small to live. Everything was too damaged to sustain it. Even if she folded it back into the strips of ruined tissue she’d sliced apart, pushed it back into the doe’s body cavity, sat and sewed the slit hide shut. Too damaged. The knocking had stopped. She experienced the surreal feeling of something peeking in.
“Do you remember what it was like to sleep with someone else?” Rawlins whispered into her ear. Jules screamed and jerked away. Her flashlight swung over his dark face, picked out his darker freckles, fell into those black pits.
“You can be in the middle again,” Jackson said. He crouched on her right with an empty, intent face.
“Warm,” Carlisle said.
“Safe,” Jung said.
“We are so small now,” the Fawn said in three voices, a concert in the clearing. “We can be bigger. And you can be in the middle.”
Garza and Singh knelt behind her and placed a hand each on either side of her neck.
“Remember,” they said as they forced her down. She gagged a breath away from the placenta. The smell of the clotting blood was smothering. Their hands were insistent. The air seemed to be pulling inward, compressing into her lungs as she took a breath, making her light-headed as the first layers of tissue parted under her teeth. Singh and Garza pushed down. The Fawn crept further into her head. Just one bite. The darkness was closer now but it was warm and full of soft sounds. Wouldn’t it be so nice to rest?
“It’s time to come home,” her MTF whispered.
The kukri went into Singh as smoothly as it had the doe. Every living thing in the clearing stuttered a breath with her as she collapsed sideways. Jules spat gore onto the stunted Fawn and yanked her knife free to bury it in the throat of a stunned Garza.
“Why?” Jackson asked, with no particular urgency. Jules lashed out and snapped Rawlins’ knee with a hard kick.
“Wrong words,” Rawlins answered. Bone jutted from his leg but there was no pain in his voice. “Wrong appeal. We will try again.”
“Like hell,” Jules snarled. She yanked her knife out of Garza’s throat with a spray of arterial blood and cleaved the Fawn’s swollen head from its underdeveloped body. The clearing drew close again for a split second. Jules’ skin was too tight and the air pressed in painfully on all sides. Then, with a sigh, the grass swayed back upright and bodies began to drop. The prickling on Jules’ scalp evaporated. Out of the dissolving body of the Fawn a rough black stone emerged. Jules used a torn-off piece of her shirt to pocket it.
She crawled to Jackson and rolled him over. Pits where the eyes should’ve been, but now it was literal. They had exploded outwards. No pulse. Same for Rawlins. No one else stirred. Garza and Singh leaked blood but their whole eyes reflected the night sky. A cricket chirped, breaking the silence. The wind made noise in the grass again. The power had left this place. All that remained was the smell and the blood.
Petroika’s radio crackled.
“MTF Tau-13, report.”
Jules waited and wished but Petroika didn’t pick up.
“MTF Tau-13, report,” came the radio again. Jules forced herself to her feet. Petroika’s stern gray eyes were gone too. Jules reached down under her loose white hair and yanked the radio on the shoulder of her vest free.
“This is Agent Jules Doherty,” Jules said, weaving on her feet in the cool night air. “The anomaly has been contained.”
“Sometimes when I’m just waking up, I think I’m going to open my eyes in Dallas,” Jules said.
“And why is that?” Dr. Estelle Wu asked. She wrote in long, slow strokes and didn’t so much as blink behind her bifocals. Jules fought the impulse to cross her arms over her chest.
“Because my life has been surreal,” she said. “The traveling, the missions, the things I’ve seen… After a hard night’s sleep it’ll feel… transparent. I’ll wake up. The AC will still be broken. ‘Netta will peek in and tell me I have to get up. My… my track uniform will still be hanging on the bedroom door. None of this…”
Jules bit her lip. Wu was writing just as slowly as before but Jules knew, she knew her notes were getting more urgent. The words wouldn’t stop, though. Not on command. Not here.
“Or, if I’m in a car, I’ll expect to find a train. One of the good ones: clean, empty boxcar. Walls to keep off the wind and a solid floor and May… maybe somebody. Somebody to keep watch.”
“That’s hardly unusual,” Wu said. “Occasional dissociation from reality is a functional coping mechanism as long as it isn’t indulged full time. The important thing is that you recognize immediately what your reality is and choose every morning to get up and face it again.”
“Harder and harder, lately,” Jules murmured.
“My condolences on the loss of Agent Summers,” Wu said, lowering her voice to match Jules’ as she looked up from her notes. Her eyes were dark and lined and kind, though as shuttered to deeper thought as most people at the site.
“I asked for a punishment and got a promotion,” Jules said. “I… I don’t even really understand why I did what I did but now they pinned a medal on me? And putting me in charge of the damn team after that, I’m not…”
“I’ll tell you what I told you after Tau, Jules,” Wu said. “You’re a capable woman. What you have to do in the moment to get the job done doesn’t reflect on you. You don’t have to carry it.”
“There was a real reason for Tau. This time I didn’t even get the target I was hell-bent on gettin’.”
Jules looked down at her hands. She spread them out-- scar-flecked fingers, pale palms, blunt fingernails.
“I—I just worry,” she said, “that I’m not as in control of myself as I used to be.”
“Speaking of not being in control of yourself,” Wu said, without preamble, all sympathy—feigned or otherwise—gone. “Thirty-Eight.”
Jules straightened up in her seat. “Thirty-Eight is a valuable field asset and integral to the function of Epsilon-7.”
“That was incredibly rehearsed,” Wu said, “and, I think, let me see…”
She flipped through a few of the file folders on the table next to her. Jules frowned and crossed her arms as she noted the familiar format of her after action reports.
“Yes, here we go, page four of this one, ‘she is a valuable field asset and meshes well with the current makeup of Epsilon-7.’ I’m sure you see my point here, Jules.”
“I don’t see that I do, ma’am.”
Wu looked up from the report and snapped it shut.
“When you came in for psychiatric counselling you specifically requested ‘no bullshit,’” Wu quoted. “You see, I’ve got a mind for quotes. I key on repeated phrases especially. Even the absence of phrases. Patterns. It’s not hard for me to see one developing. And contrary to the popular belief circulated among the low-level staff in the cafeteria, the Foundation isn’t stupid.
“Something has developed between you and the SCP assigned to your MTF. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. I don’t have to tell you, of all people, how ill-advised that is, do I?”
Jules stared out the window. “Absolutely not, ma’am.”
“Then why is it that I’m sitting here doing exactly that?” Wu asked. “I’ve seen in your latest medical records you’ve requested extra-sensory influence screening four times. A pass each time, or you wouldn’t be at this site, but still. You’re obviously concerned.”
“I come here to vent,” Jules said, getting aggravated, “and for advice. Not to hear what I already know parroted back to me.”
“Jules, I’d like to think after all this time I can say I know you. You care. You carry things even when I tell you not to. You’re looking for something—”
“—‘lookin’ for something,’ really? That’s what you—”
“—and you’re not going to find it in some new lost—”
“—venting and advice, Dr. Wu, not this—”
“Fine,” Wu said, setting her pen down on the stack of file folders. “You want advice? Start investing in people you can actually save.”
All the air in Jules’ lungs left through her nose in one long, vicious exhale.
“If you’ll excuse me,” she said, “I think we’re done here.”
“Yes,” Wu said, looking up at her with undisguised pity through her glasses, “I think we are.”
The sound of the woman writing her last notes followed Jules out the door for a long time.
The descent was long and the preamble was tiring and the fight was thrilling, but what it came down to was this:
An ancient horror set free. Fire, everywhere. Nearly everyone in the MTF hurt and bleeding. Jules on her last leg herself. ‘38 clutching her head and screaming, God, her screaming. It cut through any noise. Jules rushed over though she knew she probably couldn’t help. There were so many battles she had to fight herself, locked up in her head. Jules caught her hands, tried to keep them from tearing at her hair, her skin, her eyes. But after a few moments the woman's hands stilled. She pulled away and stood.
"How annoying,” Thirty-Eight said. “You really think you have a chance against me? Pitiful."
Jules jerked back. “Thirty-Eight?”
"You took what I held dear,” she continued, tonelessly, eyes gliding along the floor. “Now it’s my turn."
She bent down to pick something up. Jules clambered to her feet and grabbed for her arm. There had to be a tattoo. Jules didn’t know why she had to confirm, had to see it on ‘38’s pale skin, had to behold the proof of her failure to keep her safe writ in ink. ‘38 wasn’t her in her face, her eyes, her anything. And then the gun came up.
God, Jules thought, I really fucked up now.
Heat. That’s how it always started. Just heat until she saw the blood and the pain came. She staggered back to the sound of Tali screaming and Zak and Luke yelling at once and ‘38, ‘38 just standing there with the gun steady and nothing in her face.
Then it was dark. The darkness was warm, and there was sound in it.
But cold came just as Jules was sinking, cold on her face, cold in the shape of a hand pressing down. So cold. Colder than those nights in an open train car going through the Mojave in winter when even the moon was gone. Colder than anything. She screamed and it came from a throat she’d let go, it tore its way out. Her eyes opened and through the film of death she saw the horror. It was pressing down, and it was doing this to her, and she had been so close to rest.
“Please…” she croaked. “Let me die… No, please…”
But the cold was in her now and it compelled her throat to close again and her legs to stand. The cold frosted the film over her eyes. Through it she could just see ‘38 looking back at her. At them. At the cold.
But it wasn’t in her anymore, and that warmed Jules more than she could ever have said.
‘38 dragged her eyes to the floor as she spat, “That’s enough!”
The cold could not and did not care to respond. It awaited instruction. ‘38 twisted the grip of Jules’ katana in her hands once, twice, then she was walking forward with purpose, shoulders hunched, head bowed. The bite of the blade was fresh heat and it overwhelmed the cold.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 2015 | REHOSTED 7/12/2022