The story behind Vayland Rd.

As always, Vayland Rd. is for my Dad. It’s not a subtle story, or graceful, or maybe even good — but I like it.

I originally wrote it as part of a fundraiser for prostate cancer research, which was the goblin Dad was fighting at the time. The prognosis was bad, but the end result was a full remission.

Since then, he’s fought another tribe of the little bastards, this time involving surgery around his mouth. He won that one, too.

He turns 60 today. We have the same birthday, actually.

Strong connections. Better than a silver needle in the collarbone any day.

So, on his birthday, I’ll say the same thing I said to him when I wrote the first draft of this silly, simple little story:

“You keep swinging, old man, and I’ll keep handing you the big sticks.”

Kate’s wanted to see this story for awhile, and kept asking about it, so in a way this revision is for her.

It’s also for Chuck, who reminded me of the goblin/cancer connection a few months ago.

Here’s a list of links to each part of the story, in order.

… and with that, I’m taking the day off.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

Vayland Rd. [9] — The End

~ The End ~

How do I end a story like this?

We got home with the sun coming up.  By the clock in the kitchen, my part in the whole thing had been only about twenty-four hours.

It seemed longer.

Dad was, if not ‘all right’, at least ‘alright’ in the stoic, bull-headed parlance of the Midwest. He’d survived, he wasn’t talking about it much, and I suppose I understood why as well as anyone – maybe a little bit better.

We’d made it through, and that was it. Tomorrow might be better.

Might be worse, too. Life rarely works out the way a story would, and almost never like a fairy tale.

We don’t usually get a Happily Ever After.

But we don’t have to settle for The End, either.

Vayland Rd. [8] — The Fall

~ The Fall ~

One of the real people walked up to him. He was limping, and had a


gun in his off-hand.  There was a big stick in the other.

”It’s time to go home, Dad,” the young man said.

Steven looked up at his face, with its hurt eyes, and frowned.

”I think that he will stay here.” Churkk’s voice was the same as always.

The real person glared. “His choice, not yours.”

Churrk grinned. “Or yours.”

The man scowled at this, but nodded. Steven could feel Churkk’s surprise that he


understood that much; that he –


Steven looked up.

”I’m here.”

is he?

”Can we go?”

Do you dare?

Steven shook his head; a tiny movement that seemed to pull the strength out of the younger man.

Churkk chuckled into the silence. It sounded like someone with a collapsed lung. “Seems ‘e might stay with me.”

The man glared again, his hand squeezing knuckle-white on the club. “He can do what he likes, but I’ll still cave your fucking head in.”

“The end result‘s the same,” Churkk wheezed. “What d’you think, Stevn?”

Churkk was doing more than asking. Steven could feel the needles pulling.

But the man, the real person, reacted to it too, stepping forward and starting to lift the club. ”You let him –”

“Sean.” His voice sounded

like Churrk

tired. Unused.

The man jumped. “Dad?  Are you–”

”Give me that stick.” Steven’s head was very heavy. The weight of the needles pulled at him.


“Give it to me.”

Sean did. Steven accepted it, and let it hang at his side, dragging in the dirt. One of the other people behind Sean make a noise… not even a word.

It was Churkk that finally spoke. “He understands, Sean.” There was a dry rasping sound as it licked its lips. “You’ll understand too, someday, I think. Heh.”

”Damned if I will.” Sean said flatly.

Steven’s head came up.

Damned if I will.

Steven swung as he turned, hard as he could.

Sean almost killed a cow with this goddamned stick one time, when he was fifteen; s’why he only got to use it around the bulls after that.

He only swung once.

After that, everything was quiet.

Vayland Rd. [6] — The Needles

~ The Needles ~

I stood on the edge of Vayland, looking down into a ravine. Silver pain pulled at a single point in my body, dredging up memories.

When I was a kid in the first house my family ever lived in, my room was next to the living room and, thus, the television.  After bedtime, whenever I heard the television and no conversation, I would slowly open my door, crouch down next to the floor, and slide into the room on my stomach. My door was right next to the foot of the couch back then, and sat directly between the couch and the T.V., so if I was quiet, I could curl up on the floor and watch TV while my Dad lay not three feet away on the couch.

Some nights, I would fall asleep while watching. What happened next depended on who found me; regardless, I would always wake up in my bed the next morning, like magic, but if my mom had found me, I would get a lecture during breakfast about needing my sleep.

Dad never said anything. I suppose he thought that, between the floor and my bed, I’d gotten enough sleep.

He understood; that much was clear.

When I opened my eyes, we weren’t on the road anymore.


The cage really wasn’t all that difficult. There were no locks, only tie-downs, which weren’t a problem if you ignored the burning of the mud. He’d driven seven loads of winter wheat to town while running a temperature of a hundred four; if he really wanted to, he could get the damned cage open.

Eventually, he proved himself right, although the sweat in his eyes burned almost as badly as his skin.

He slipped past the smallest number of huts possible to get to the edge of the camp, not knowing where he was going except away.

Just past the last hut, it got difficult to walk.

Twenty paces later, the needles started to burn like over-extended muscles. It felt as though he was trying to pull a truck with chains attached directly to his body.

”Stevn,” came the phlegm voice. He was too focused to jump.

”Where are you going, Stevn?” The voice was right in his ear, it seemed.

”The hell… away…” Steven didn’t even know if that was an answer or a command.

”What if there’s no one waiting for you?”

The thought bored right to the base of his brain and waited for him to give. He wasn’t going to. He knew if he could just get a few more steps, he’d be free.

But what then?

What if…

When blunt fingers wrapped around his arms, he was already on his knees, looking up at the sky.


Brock was standing at my elbow. Somehow, the smell of him didn’t seem overpowering anymore.

It’s not. Here, it fits in. It doesn’t clash.

I shook my head, partly to clear it. “Sorry, what?”

He watched me for a few seconds. “How’s the pain?”

I started, suddenly sure I’d lost the needle, and felt for it just below my right collarbone. Still there. Still there? I frowned. “There isn’t any pain.” I looked at him. “Not that I mind, but you said the pain would pretty much stay constant.”

Brock looked at me, then glanced over his shoulder as Bhuto emerged from the gray-green scrub where he’d gone scouting. “I was wrong.”

I wanted to ask what else he might have be wrong about, but the look on his face made me think better of it.

We started moving. The way they’d explained it, we’d still have a long way to go even after we came through. Now that I was here I knew that was true; I knew exactly where we needed to go. I had no idea what lay between here and there, but I could point out the direction we needed to travel with my eyes closed.

I did, and we walked into the land of the fae.

Hours passed, during which the ache in my legs and feed subsided into a dull burn, giving me a chance to take in the sere landscape and starry sky. “Are there territories?” I asked of no one in particular.

Brock glanced around. “Here?”

I nodded.

“Aye,” he said, “we’re nowhere near a friendly place or one of those princess palaces they put in those ridiculous fairy books, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“You should read one of those books.” I let my expression convey what I thought of his guess. “I have, and I wouldn’t go near one of those palaces.” I rubbed sweat out of the corner of my eye. “Why aren’t there any friendly territories around here?”

He shrugged, looking around. “Dirt-eaters lose most of the fae wars. The losers get driven to the hinterlands, and these are they, no offense.  Even on your side of border, it’s nothing but violent winters, vicious heat in the summers; it’s the worst of all the worlds in one place. The things that survive here…” he broke off a branch from a bent tree that seemed to have grown up in the middle of a high wind. “They don’t have much choice.”

I frowned, feeling like I should be on the defensive. “At least they’re strong enough to take it.”

“Oh, aye.” Brock grunted. “That’s why the dirt-eaters want ’em.”

I didn’t understand what he meant, but Bhuto hissed a warning before I could say anything.


They let the thing that used to be Ted Schafer out of his cage that morning. The clouds weren’t a complete shroud over the camp, but it didn’t really improve the light; the sky was the wrong color to begin with.

There weren’t any helpers to clear away muck and detritus from Schafer’s body; it wasn’t necessary. The last batch of muck — Steven understood that that meant the third batch — was left on until it was absorbed almost completely, over the course of weeks. The camp then waited to see if the captive lived or died. In Steven’s opinion, Schafer had been unlucky.

There weren’t even any needles left to remove.

The tall creature stood before the Schafer creature in the center of the gathering and spoke in its gurgling hiss. “You have lived.”

The Schafer-thing wobbled its head.

”You are part of us now. We are part of you. I am Churkk. You are Zef.”

The thing paused, cocking its head as though listening to a distant sound, then nodded. “Zef.” It swayed slightly, and several of the creatures came forward to help it to a hut.

Churkk turned towards Steven’s cage. “It is the third day.” It gurgle-growled, and its smile returned.

This time, Steven fought.

Vayland Rd. [2] – The Road

~ The Road ~

Churkk scowled.

“I like night, Churkk.  Dun like day.  Dun like heat or light or pantin’ or th’ way groud puffs up dust atcha when ya run.”

Churkk’s scowl deepened. He liked the night as well, but it irritated him to agree with the creature skulking alongside him.

“Night is cool.  Night is good.  Wraps us up and lets us come out of the cracks and up to see things.  What I think is the best is –”



“Shut it.”

Jek did, looking suitably cowed.  He still walked alongside, however, and Churkk swore even the runt’s feet slapped on the ground different than anyone else.  Everything about Jek was annoying.

The light from a house poked through the trees at them, but rather than turning to go around it, Churkk took them in closer without explaining.  Slowly, they crept up to the corner of the building, then along a wall to the lit window.

Jek started to whisper a question, but stopped short when Churkk smacked him in the middle of his forehead without even glancing back to aim.

Inside, Churkk could see a people-room with things to sit on.  The woman sat on one, but didn’t see his long, mud-caked face at the window or the light glinting off his beady eyes, because she was crying — great, shaking sobs that shook her bent shoulders and moved her whole chair.

Churkk watched this for some time.  It made him smile.


I lie to myself when I say nothing ever changes back at home — nothing ever seems to change in a place you lived for twenty years — but there were always fewer houses. Farming was a dying profession; every time I drove into familiar territory, the wide open plains seemed wider, flatter — less and less to do with people.

The road was mostly straight, rolling over gradual hills in what could often be an infuriating exchange of Passing and No Passing zones. It would start to wind soon. I knew this area; could still recite the mileage between every major and minor landmark for a hundred miles in any given direction, even landmarks that didn’t exist anymore, such as the old country school house that had apparently been torn down since my last visit and whose absence nearly made me miss my turn onto Vayland Road.

After a few miles, the curves began.

The farmland my family owned was on the high side of the county, raised above the lower, eastern half by a ridge of hills that Vayland Road crept along, curling around cuts in the earth that were somewhere between narrow valleys and broad ravines, filled with thickets and brush that by local wisdom wouldn’t even let a breeze through without a couple of good scratches. Gullys. That was the word.

I’d grown up riding in cars along this stretch of highway, then driving it myself, then driving away. The blacktop lead right past the farm’s driveway.

Mom was out on the front step before I got out of the car.

No one else was there.

Vayland Rd. [1] – The Call

[What follows is the first part of a short story I’m working on revising. The rest will follow over the next however-many-days-it-takes. I might put some editing notes in the posts’ comments. If you’re looking for such things, look for them there.]

Vayland Rd.

I remember, when I was a kid, riding in a car with green, leathery seats that got very hot in the sun. The car was green as well, although a different shade, and it seems to the me of my memories that most of the cars back then were that color. It was a popular trend, or maybe my child perception was skewed.

At any rate, the car was green, the seats were green, it was summer, the sun was hot, and the seats were hotter. We had the windows open to let the air in and my mom was driving to town on an errand.

The road was a winding black hardtop that looked down into sharp ravines between the hills; drops that seemed (to me) to go down and down farther than anything in the whole world. Every drive, I would look down and out from the tiny back windows of the two-door and think about what it would be like to go sailing off the road and into the ravines, tumbling over and over and finally exploding at the bottom, like on TV. A little morbid, but we lived a long way from any other kids my age — I had to make my own fun.

So, with the sun beating down and my boredom rising, when I saw a goblin shambling along the bottom of a ravine with an old, rusted sword balanced across his shoulders like the yoke of a wagon, I didn’t bother mentioning it to my mom. Even at that age, I assumed I’d imagined it.

I believed that for the next 23 years.


~ The Call ~

My cell phone rang while I stood in line for lunch, the screen showing OUT OF AREA instead of a number. I thumbed it open to stop it from ringing and muttered a terse “This is Sean” into the mouthpiece, which usually clears up wrong numbers in a —

“Hey bud, how’re you doing?” My mom was only person in the world that called me ‘bud’, a lukewarm leftover from my preteen years that she tended to drag back out when she was feeling down.

“Hey, I’m good. What’s up? Something wrong?”

“Oh, you know…” Her voice wavered a little bit. A bad sound. I stepped out of line and headed for the door. “Been a little crazy here the last couple days.”

“What’s going on?” I didn’t try to keep the frown out of my voice; it wouldn’t make her feel any better if I did.

“Well, we can’t seem to track down your dad.”

I stepped into the watery sunlight and pressed the phone against my ear to block the white noise from passing traffic. “I lost you for a second. You can’t track down Dad’s what?”

“No, we can’t find him.” I heard her set something metal down on something solid. She was wandering around her kitchen, fiddling with things. It was a Tuesday. She wasn’t at work. “It’s been two days.” She paused. “Or four, I guess. Three and a half.”

I scowled at the pavement. “I don’t understand what you’re telling me. Is he traveling?”

“No, he’s been home for a couple weeks.”

“Did… what happened? Did you get in a fight or something?” It sounded surreal even as I said it.

No, of course not.” She, the properly-raised Midwestern wife, sounded vaguely insulted by the idea. “I went to bed a few nights ago and your dad stayed up watching TV. When I got up he wasn’t there. I thought he’d gone out to get some work done before it got hot.” I heard her move something else across the counter. “But he wasn’t.” Her voice crumbled, and she took a breath that sounded like a series of tiny gasps – the kind you hear little kids make between knee-scrape sobs.

She sniffed into the phone. “You still there?”

“What? Yeah.” I shook my head. “Quit… quit moving things while you’re on the phone — you can never find them later.”

“Okay.” Her voice was small and sounded further away than it should.

I let my eyes move from the sidewalk to the sky. “I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon.”

“Are you sure?” She sniffed again. “I know it’s a long ways.”

“Yes.” I made sure not to hesitate, but let my answer stand for both of her statements.

“Okay. Where should we pick you up?”

I started down the street, heading for the back parking lot. “You won’t, I’m driving out.”

“Oh honey, you can’t.”

“It’s the only way I can,” I replied, unable to keep the tightness out of my voice.

“It’s such a long ways.”

I checked my watch. “I need to get moving if I’m going to make this happen today. Okay?”

“Okay.” She’d given up arguing, which told me more about how bad it was.

“Call me if you find anything out. Be careful,” I finished, and ended the conversation wondering why I’d said it.

Several hours later, filling overnight bag and leaving messages with various people about an unspecified family emergency, I still didn’t know.