(content warning: violence, but it isn’t described)
The need hit Greg suddenly. At first he didn’t know what it was, if he was yearning for some unknown sensation or if he was just tired. Weary. He knew he was that. He moped and he dwelled on it – as anyone looking on would say. He would say rather, that he was examining it. What he came up with after a long solo drinking session was: community. That’s what he was yearning for.
It made him laugh, just a little, to realize it. Probing so intensely, feeling out the shape of the hole he detected in himself. That answer seemed so elementary. Like the answer in a PBS kids’ show bit. Still, he couldn’t deny it. His life had never been much of a communal one. He’d had friends, sure. Had known the names of one or two neighbors over the years. But he hadn’t lived in places where neighbors interacted: cul-de-sacs where home was a curtain to hide behind to rest before going back to work, apartments where everyone kept to themselves. And, however much sitcoms may make of them, offices and retail centers were not families. Not the ones Greg had ever worked in, at least.
There was a process to addressing the kind of ache he felt. Step one: mope-and-probe to identify it. Next, complain and nurse the hurt. His few friends could see him doing it, and it annoyed them. How could he say, that “nursing the hurt” was part of the planning stage? That he complained because he was digging his hands deep down into his soul so that he could lift it up from the inside and turn it in the direction he wanted it to face? That meant drilling holes in himself, tearing his soul out from the soil in which it had deep roots. Maybe he lost his filter a little along the way, so what.
Step three was to try. Newly reoriented, Greg found it in himself to look up clubs and get-togethers. If he couldn’t have community in his sad apartment then maybe he could reach out a psychic limb and attach himself to some other space. And he tried. He at in on book discussions, made sandwiches for the poor, gave money to local projects and went to donor breakfasts.
It wasn’t that he disliked everyone at all those, or that he wasn’t willing to put in the effort. His psychic limb just wasn’t connecting.
He chided himself a lot, after a few months of that. You’re being impatient, these things take time. You don’t have enough empathy, otherwise this would warm your heart. You’re just a curmudgeon. You’re being stubborn; you could really be part of something if you actually let yourself.
Greg figured along the way that he’d felt the need, that absence of community, for about two years now. In that time he lost touch with his friends, his family, connections in and outside of work. That was no great loss; none of them had shown him much compassion when he hurt. But it made the ache worse. What little community he’d had, now it was all gone.
Still, he kept trying. Attending events, making commitments. Trying to be one on whom others depended and vice-versa. He was well aware that he was crabby, impatient, out of energy. Sometimes he was asked to leave.
Such as at the writing group. He wasn’t much of a writer, had only taken it up to try a club. Which was fine. But it fell apart when his feedback to others began to reflect his state. When he struggled to be constructive or to say anything at all, so that other members dreaded being paired with him. He wasn’t happy when they urged him to take some time away, but on reflection he realized he had never learned anyone’s name anyway.
Since that group met close to his apartment, he had walked. This night was chilly, he could see his breath. The pale gray winter evening made colors stand out, such as the bright red arm straining for a grip underneath a bush.
Greg wasn’t sure what he was seeing at first. It wasn’t a color he would expect in an arm, or a place he might see one. And somehow, even when he recognized it, he didn’t think it moved quite how it should. But he still took the hand and pulled.
Below the leaves he could see the arm’s shoulder, reaching out from the frosted soil. A second hand broke out from there as well, and Greg took it too. A small, bald head, the same red as the rest. Were those…horns? The bush rocked and lifted, but was not uprooted when the entire diminutive figure came free. As though the red body had emerged from a much smaller space than it seemed like it should have occupied. Afterward, Greg had no word to describe the thing that lay, gasping and shivering on the sidewalk, except “imp.”
He stood for a long time, unsure what to do. Now that he saw the whole creature, its knobby joints, inhuman brow, sharp teeth and long fingers, he didn’t know how safe it was to touch. But he shook that off and helped the imp stand.
The thing aimed huge, slit-pupiled eyes at him. As confused as he was, Greg thought. It tried to run, but only fell again. Greg held it by the sides, tried to say something. It gibbered, made sounds unlike any a human mouth could produce. Glanced in terror at the halfway exploded copse from which it had emerged.
Greg thought he understood. He hefted the imp and tried to think of how to get it somewhere safe undetected. It was almost breathless now with panic.
Then the shrub tore out of the earth completely. Soil and bushes fell into a cone-shaped depression below it, at the bottom of which shown a bright bluish light. Greg stared at it, paralyzed. The things that climbed out of it made him stagger back with their mass and scent, their presence.
Stagger back, but not run. The imp screeched now and struggled, but Greg was too spellbound to make any move, even let go of it.
The warriors were like the imp in their roughness and their horned flesh. But they were large, muscular. They bore blades and cudgels, wore studded armor, were decorated with paint and piercings. Emerging was no struggle for them. Each bore a sign on its forehead, a simply-drawn horned skull. The idle one pointed a thick, cruel finger at the imp, eyes on Greg. It growled a single word Greg had no hope of understanding.
The imp strained and kicked and fell limp. Its eyes pleaded. Greg held it for a long interval, the other creatures’ wicked eyes heavy on him. Then he presented it to the warriors.
He didn’t have the stomach to really perceive what they did to it, but there wasn’t much left after, except something hung from the leader’s belt. The warriors turned back their portal.
Greg, in a fit of clarity, leapt in after them.