Paper Future-Tellers & Elder Gods
– Fiction by L.J. Longo, Art by Ian Welling –
Bridger Hahn, mail carrier to the cosmos, noticed the hole in the sky as soon as he crested the hill near the Retirement Community for Elder Gods. He made the most adorable annoyed sound in his throat.
The edges were maddeningly straight. Very geometrical. Diamonds and triangles kept opening to reveal more diamonds and triangles. Opening and opening, but never revealing any secrets.
The mail carrier slowed before a mailbox, made his drop, and only looked away from the weirdness in the sky to finger the next stop.
This particular hole-in-the-sky reminded Bridger of those origami future-tellers from middle school. He snorted without nostalgia, remembering the chalk-dusted halls and the weird yellow halogen lights. The crowds of girls with loose hair clips and crooked teeth pushed around his desk and thrust colored paper into his hands. They demanded origami from him. He had tried to explain he was not Japanese—undoubtedly at the top of the Asian coolness scale—but Vietnamese, which was certainly near the bottom. This particular nuance was lost on them, and they demanded future-tellers. And because he’d seen them made and Bridger wanted to give everyone whatever they asked of him, he painstakingly folded and creased the thick paper.
For the morning, he was the most popular boy. They’d smiled and complimented him, pulled each other’s hair to get nearer to him, held his hand and purred while more paper was brought, chased him to kiss him when he held the last of the future-tellers. He laughed like his heart would break.
Which, of course, it did. At lunchtime, when the girls crowded around him to eat. Even at that age, Bridger knew his power over them was about to be destroyed. He had no idea what his mother had packed inside. Maybe he’d get lucky, and it would be a pretty Bánh giò, a dumpling folded into a little banana leaf tent. Maybe it would be a normal peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He remembered praying that it was something un-intrusive. Chicken and rice. Badly made spaghetti. Bahn mi.
He closed his eyes as he opened the lunch box.
The girls gasped.
Bridger opened his eyes and looked at his lunch. His lunch stared back. Grilled fish wrapped in a banana leaf. One of his favorites. His mouth watered a little at the delicious smell of the garlic and chili.
One of the girls—the one who wore sparkles and black and had written ‘will marry Bridger’ as all of the possible futures for her future-teller—screamed in his ear. And that was the last time he’d ever been confused for cool.
Bridger parked and locked the LLV in the Retirement Community for Elder Gods loading zone. Then he hoisted the packages and the relay of mail into his satchel and tilted his head far back to take another look at the weird hole in the sky. The future-teller’s diamonds had gotten more specific. He could see numbers on the folds. But not simple ones like his harem of little girls must have written. Complex numbers with weird symbols over the top and other littler numbers next to them. It hurt his sanity to try to understand, so Bridger shook his head like an old man with a yard full of hooligans. He trudged into the Retirement Community for Elder Gods to deliver to the cluster. The sliding glass door winked like the future-teller and let him slip between the folds.
The lobby was not normal. I mean, of course, it wasn’t. It’s the lobby of an eldrich retirement community. Normal is subjective. However, I will grant you that the lobby was less itself than usual. Crayon circles and childishly scrawled messages about the future buzzed past his head. The front desk melted like ice cream, and the door attendant looked up from her newspaper, comprised of butterflies holding very, very still.
“Morin’, Mr. Hahn.”
There was a beautiful woman behind the front desk, where there had never been a person before. She looked like a normal human woman, all things considered. I mean, there were the extra eyes. Still, she had very carefully balanced the eyeshadow on all of her lids, so she was quite pretty. Her name tag said ‘Sheryl,’ but something about it made Bridger’s teeth squirm.
“Hello there, Sheryl.” He smiled professionally as if he saw her sitting there every day. He gestured to the floating smoky door leading to the mail clusters. “You in charge of the redecorating?”
“No, not me.” Sheryl giggled.
Bridger leaned on the counter a little, accidentally flirting with the door attendant. It was practically part of the job, after all. “Oh, some dummy staring too long into the abyss and getting one of the residents fired up?”
Sheryl rolled all four of her eyes and scoffed. “My guess is a middle-school math teacher. Things have gotten very out of—”
A plastic pony gallops across her desk with the Pythagorean theorem chomping at its heels.
She shrugged. “Well. I’m sure the power will balance again once the sacrifice is finished. The mailroom is unbearably disgusting, though. Sorry.”
Bridger glanced where he knew the cluster of mailboxes awaited his rusty arrow key. The wall of slots was fish heads, jaws slackly waiting for him to push letters in, eyes glistening and waiting to be keyed open. The numbers of the residents were still legible, glowing even above the stinky fish. Bridger put his master key to the lock, ready to swing the whole wall open, but he heard a hungry growl and the churn of mysterious depths behind the wall.
Instead, he delivered the letters and magazine by sticking his thumb into the fishes’ mouths and opening their gullets wide. They gulped and wiggled, stuck in the wall, helpless to resist the mail he fed them. When they swallowed, it made the same dry metallic clink of a letter professionally delivered.
The whole room smelled like lime, chili, and grilled banana leaf.
Sheryl very kindly had a sanitary wipe ready for him when he emerged from the mail room. “You’re a trooper, Mr. Hahn. A real live, everyday hero.”
“Just a mail carrier.” He took the napkin, rubbed the scales and fish spit off his thumb, and looked at the stairwell, which was bouncing. “What kind of sacrifice are we talking about?”
“Human,” Sheryl said sweetly and held out a small trash can to take the used wipe. “I think the teacher made a life debt or something. Wanted to reach his students… or control them better. Maybe it was PTA he was fighting.”
She leaned forward on the desk and batted her four eyes at Bridger. “I don’t remember. Are you going to take the elevator to deliver those? I could give you the key.”
The elevator looked perfectly innocent. It was drawn in chalk on the wall, but the doors pinged open reliably. The light inside didn’t even flicker, and it seemed perfectly safe.
Which is why he took the stairs. “Naw, thanks, though. I gotta stick to protocol.”
Sheryl’s smile was unfailing. “Alright then.”
Bridger could feel the rattling of a truly bonkers brain beating around him as he hopped and skipped up the quivering staircase. Distantly, he heard the sounds of little girls laughing— probably as they chased someone to kiss him— and screaming in that fake, shrill way that little girls have when they start to form a pack against someone they aren’t going to kiss.
When he opened the door to the complex’s second floor, instead of neat, orderly apartments, he stared into the chaos of a middle school hallway. Maybe it was recess, maybe it was lunchtime, maybe it was the kind of free-for-all that haunted teachers’ nightmares.
Either way, Bridger Hahn would make his deliveries and keep on schedule. He wasn’t a hero, just a mail carrier. It wasn’t his job to sort out reality or to save a gaggle of little girls from a demonic math teacher.
At first, the little girls didn’t notice him as he walked by with the packages firmly under his arm. He strode through the hallway towards the door that said 205 with the confidence befitting an employee of the United States Postal Service. But when he rapped his knuckles on the door and called professionally, “Delivery,” every lopsided ponytail flickered.
Ladies love a man in uniform.
Bridger scanned the package, left it on the doorstep, then continued down the hallway to 210. The little girls circled around him.
“Hey, Mr. Postman,” One of them stood boldly in his way and licked her braces. “Do you have a letter for me?”
“No.” Bridger swallowed hard. He was terrified of little girls at this age. Of being liked by them. Of not being liked by them. These tiny females had all the power of a fully grown woman but none of the control. A grown man could not bargain with a little girl. She giggled and bashfully swung her hips and looked at her friends for their support.
Bridger walked crisply around her and straight to Room 210. He rapped on the door and called, ‘Delivery,’ then stuck the package a little into the mail slot where it was sucked in with a sound like his mother slurping a noodle soup.
The girls all giggled, and Bridger saw they had formed a single-file line behind him. One of them, all golden curls and pink spandex, offered him a purple square of construction paper. “Mr. Mailman, can you make me origami?”
He backed away from her cuteness and her innocent insistence. “We… We prefer mail carrier these days.”
She glared at him, and Bridger felt himself shrinking under the burden of her disapproval. The mailbag filled with small parcels was too heavy for him to shoulder. Even when he shortened the strap as far as it could go, the bag lay limply on the floor.
The little girl pushed the purple square at him again. “Make me origami.”
The crowd towered over him now, and Bridger squirmed in his too-big jacket and tried to pick up the oversized satchel. He saw anger in their eyes and heard the gnashing of their bracelets. “Um… okay, but you have to do something for me first.”
“Kiss! Kiss!” The girls screamed.
Bridger ducked his head under his too-large sleeves. “No! Play mailman with me!”
The girls talked amongst each other, debating this request.
He tried to sweeten the pot and waved his sleeve at the satchel. “I make a great origami swan. But I can’t take a break and play until I deliver my packages.”
The little girls very neatly dealt with this impediment by grabbing the packages. They made a game of running to deliver them first, and they moved so quickly that Bridger barely had time to roll up his sleeves and pant legs.
He’d just decided to run for the fire escape instead of bolting for the stairs when the girls all reached their doors. They rapped professionally with their knuckles and called “Delivery” just as he had.
Each door was opened, and a multi-colored cloth tentacle reached out to take the package. Then a second tentacle emerged from each door and circled around the girls’ waists. The children screamed as they were pulled into the air and fought the monsters trying to devour them.
Screams and cries of “Help!” and “Don’t eat me!” and “I’m too pretty to die!” filled the air, and Bridger knew there was only one way to save the little human sacrifices.
He ran away. “Sorry, girls. I’m late for my math test!”
As he ran, Bridger folded the paper. After his brief flirtation with celebrity, he had learned to fold paper. Bridger had learned to create just about anything with a square of paper, except something impressive enough to erase the memory of his lunch box. He could make just about anything with a square of paper, but what he made was not a swan or a future-teller. It was a throwing star.
“What is this ruckus!” The voice of Bridger’s fifth-grade math teacher boomed through the hallways.
Even the stretchy tentacles stiffened and put down the little girls. The little girls stepped clear shamefully, put their hands behind their backs, and stared at their shoes.
“All of you into the classroom right this instant. And open your textbooks to page forty. No recess or lunch until you finish questions one through ten thousand and twenty-five.”
Bridger joined the group of children filing obediently into the room, and for a moment, he was as taken in by the elder god as the little girls. Just as small and humiliated. Just as desperate to please the tyrant by giving the correct answer, the right equation.
When he sat at his desk and pulled on his satchel, Bridger looked in. Amid the broken pencils and ripped paper, right next to his overstuffed lunch box was the pocket for outgoing mail.
That’s right. Bridger Hahn was a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. He had to finish his deliveries and get back on schedule. He was part of a union.
The math teacher snapped at the chalkboard, and the tentacles under his prim jacket wrapped around the legs of a little girl who had answered incorrectly.
Bridger sucked in a breath and stood tall. He unrolled the sleeves of his uniform to cover his arms as they grew large enough to fill out the shirt again, and he adjusted the satchel’s strap until it fit again. He was not going to be cowed by some insane elder god. Not when he had just started earning vacation time and sick leave.
He threw the paper throwing star directly into the eyes of the math teacher. He knew his aim was good, but he never expected the throwing star to slice through the top of the teacher’s head. The man’s skull slipped like a bad toupee, and raw calculus gushed out.
“Yikes.” He exclaimed. “I didn’t think it was that easy…”
The fount of math flooded the room in minutes, numbers and symbols clinking together and almost making logical sense. The little girls stood on their desks and looked at Bridger for help as their uncertain perches began to bob and float in the sea of bloody integers.
“Mr. Mailman, what do we do?”
Bridger reached into his satchel and pulled out sheet after sheet of construction paper. He folded paper swans, paper boats, and paper airplanes, and they grew as he pushed them across the swirling math to the girls. The little girls piled onto the floating paper until they were a flotilla of glitter, bangles, and scraped knees.
“This way.” Bridger paddled towards the door, cutting his fingers on imaginary numbers. “If we can get down the stairs and out of the building, you can all fit in my mail truck, and I’ll take you back to the real world. Y’all from Atlantic City?”
The little girls started paddling, too, some faster than others. But they didn’t head towards the door. They circled him.
“Kiss! Kiss!” Some of them started to scream as their eyes began to multiply.
“Kill! Kill!” shouted some of them as their fingers turned into long strings like jump ropes and tangled around him.
The one with golden curls and pink spandex giggled behind him. “You know heroes taste better? They make the best human sacrifices.”
“Damn it.” Bridger snorted at his stupidity as the scrunchie-soft tentacles circled his waist and began to crawl into his skin. “You’re that chick from the front desk. Sheryl?”
The little girls melted into the sea of numbers and drew together into a weird many-head woman-monster who—of course—cackled.
“I am—” And she said her name, which had the power to drive a normal mortal to sanity and death.
But as I said, normal is subjective.
Bridger let the insanity wash over him—by this time of his career, he’d seen a lot worse—then scolded the elder god. “Why don’t you go back to your room? You’re too old to pull this shit, and no one will wake you from your ancient slumber to worship you.”
The little girls hissed at him in unison, flailed their long fingers, and glared with multiple eyes. They took up their chant of ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kill! Kill!’ and drew nearer and nearer.
Bridger couldn’t get out of the soft cotton she had wrapped him in. He couldn’t pull himself free, couldn’t tear the elastic band, could not untangle— then he realized he didn’t have to. He knew how to scare off the most tenacious of little girls.
He reached into his satchel and pulled out his lunch box.
The pungent smell of the chili, lime, and garlic spread like a disease as soon as he opened the lid. The numbers churned and roared away as all the little girls grimaced in disgust. He pushed the grilled fish into their faces, and it was his turn to laugh.
“What’s wrong? It’s delicious! I thought you were hungry.”
The elder god shrieked in dismay and cringed away. The little girls, the math teacher, and the sea of numbers all shrank back into her as she fled. “Eww! Get away! That’s icky!”
She whined and slithered into the hallway, where she promptly raced to her room and closed the door behind her.
At once, the Retirement Community for Elderly Gods returned to its normal state. Though, once again, normal is subjective. It looked the way Bridger Hahn expected. He settled his uniform and his satchel and jogged towards the stairs. He checked his cell phone to see if it had survived the sea of numbers and the tentacles. It seemed fine, but still, he decided to get back to the LLV before he reported the incident.
Instead, the phone buzzed in his hand. His boss’s crackling, toneless voice interrupted the ring since they were too impatient to wait for Bridger to answer. “Regulation two thousand twenty-eight! Don’t look at holes in the sky, you moron.”
“Sorry, boss. It won’t happen again.”
And Bridger Hahn sat in the back of his LLV and enjoyed his delicious lunch alone.
L.J. Longo is an award-winning Romance author, a queer geek and feminist. She writes a medley of dark romance (which can be found through Evernight Publishing), magical realism, weird sci-fi/fantasy, and very implausible creative non-fiction. In 2019, L.J. won an honorable mention in the Horror Category for Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards for her short story “Knife and Needle.” Follow her on Twitter @ljlongo.
Ian Welling is a surrealist artist with a touch of psychedelia thrown in. He creates art that explores the subconscious and the otherworldly spaces that exist behind our narrow perception, and our shallow grip on reality. Ian has shown in galleries in Miami, Thailand, Denver, Tampa, and Chicago. He studied fine arts at the Denver Academy for Arts, although he is largely self-taught.