An ON TIME Excerpt: “Dust in the Jail Cell” by Madison McSweeney

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Enjoy an excerpt from Madison McSweeney’s “Dust in the Jail Cell” featured in our newest anthology ON TIME.

I know not where I am, nor what year it is. The man who confines me calls me “Lenore,” but I feel it was not the name I was born with.

I have only faint memories of before, all indistinct and seemingly contradictory. I remember horse-drawn carriages along cobbled streets; I remember skyscrapers, bright lights, and fantastic flying machines. I remember starvation, disease; I remember eras where such things were unheard of.

As for where I am kept, I do not know. My chamber is that of a castle keep, walled with grey stones and filled with opulent furnishings. I have a desk, stocked with writing implements and jar of ink, which never runs low. There is a shelf with books of innumerable eras—chronicles of ancient Egypt on parchment that crumbles at the touch; the Necronomicon of Alhazred; the complete works of Poe; the science fiction of Wells, Clarke, and Gibson; the poetry of Dickinson and Ginsburg; treatises by the great politicians of history. A small bed with white sheets sits before a gaping window.

Somehow, we do not seem stationary. 

Some mornings, I look out the window to nothing but mist below, outcroppings of rock, and the outlines of hills in the distance. Other days, we seem to be submerged in the deepest and darkest parts of the woods. Occasionally, I can look out onto the sea, blue and sparkling, or churning ominously under grey skies. Some nights, nothing but the darkest void of space, or horrendous vistas that make me loathe to sleep in view of them. 

And what do I know of the man who keeps me? Not much. His name, or at least the name he gave to me, is Oddworth. He once told me he came from Boston; however, tales he has told point to other places of birth. He fears a man named Crow, who pursues him through time and space; some nights, I wake to find him cowering in a corner and rambling in the strangest of languages…

***

Jackie put down the slip of paper, folded it, and slipped it into her desk drawer. The letter went on for several more paragraphs, but nothing within made any more sense than what had come before. 

Jackie’s first reaction, the standard she applied to any perp with an outlandish story, was to scoff. But something about it gave her pause.

Today’s business had been strange, undoubtedly. A beat-up mobile home had been abandoned in the middle of Main Street, blocking off four lanes in the middle of rush hour, causing a miles-long jam and several collisions. As police approached the vehicle, a young woman had stumbled out the back door, screaming incoherently and assaulting the officer who’d tried to calm her down. They still had no idea who she was, nor how she had managed to maneuver the trailer through downtown traffic. 

The girl hadn’t spoken a word since arriving at the station—just silently passed Jackie the letter through the bars of the holding cell. But even that wasn’t so unusual—plenty of offenders took their right to remain silent to its most literal extremes. Jackie had seen far stranger in her seventeen years on the police force. But something about the letter itself made her pull it out and unfold it. 

The paper seemed to tremble between her fingers, although her hands were steady and there was no wind inside the station. She glanced down the hall towards the cell and back at the letter. 

The girl looked like they all did when they ended up behind bars. Her collarbone jutted prominently over the top of her spaghetti strap tank top; her cheeks were hollow, and her eyes sank even deeper. She’d made a half-hearted attempt to apply make-up, a thin coat of mascara clumping her eyelashes together and a layer of blush that tried and failed to bring a semblance of life to her face. She was, for all appearances, the standard junkie.

Then again, Jackie had never seen a junkie with such impeccable handwriting. 

She re-read the note. The whole thing was written in a neat copperplate, the type of calligraphy they’d teach to Victorian schoolgirls. The language was old-fashioned, with a few somehow anachronistic lapses into modern diction. On the whole, though, it was consistent; whatever the prisoner’s reason for concocting such a bizarre story, she was committed to it.

Jackie walked across the room to the cell. The prisoner splayed on the metal bench near the back wall, asleep or passed out. Jackie rapped on the bars. 

“Hey, wake up.” 

The girl stirred, like a corpse rising from a slab. She looked up expectantly, her eyes startlingly green. 

Jackie held up the letter.

“This Oddworth guy, where is he now?”

The girl shrugged. “I have no way of knowing where he is at any point in time.”

“I’m getting a bit tired of the vague explanations here.”

The girl adjusted the strap of her top. “Believe me, so am I.”

Jackie spun around. “Have it your way. Just so you know, if you think this time traveller act is going to get you out of a fine, you’re sorely mistaken.” 

***

Feeling impotent, Jackie dialed one of her colleagues at the scene of the incident. After several rings, he picked up. 

“Hey, Mike, how’s it going over there?”

“Strange. We’ve blocked off the street and re-routed traffic, and not particularly well, I must say.” He had to shout to be heard over the cacophony of honks and squealing tires. “It’s a nightmare out here.”

“We couldn’t have towed the trailer out of the road?”

“It was on blocks.”

Jackie squeezed her eyes shut, not interested in speculating on how a trailer on blocks had ended up parked in the middle of the street. Any attempt to do so just led her to the outlandish claims of the prisoner’s letter, and she wasn’t prepared to take that seriously. 

“Listen, the girl mentioned something about some guy named Oddworth, claims he was keeping her prisoner. Any sign of him?”

“The girl was the only one we saw come out of the trailer.”

“Could he still be in there?”

“Dunno. We sent O’Grady in half an hour ago.”

Jackie grit her teeth. “And no one thought to report back to me?”

“Well, he’s not out yet.”

Jackie froze.

“We’ve been radioing, but no one’s been able to get through to him,” Mike said. “It’s the strangest thing…” 

The line went dead, and someone tapped Jackie’s shoulder.

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Madison McSweeney is a Canadian author and poet with an interest in the macabre and fantastic. She has published horror, science fiction, and fantasy stories in outlets such as American Gothic, Cabinet of Curiosities, Rhythm & Bones Lit, and Zombie Punks F*ck Off. Her poems have appeared in Bywords, Cockroach Conservatory, Pussy Magic, and the Twin Peaks-themed anthology These Poems Are Not What They Seem. She also blogs about music and genre fiction at www.madisonmcsweeney.com and tweets (mostly about heavy metal and horror movies) from @MMcSw13.

ON TIME is out now. Get your copy at AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, or the exclusive hardback at transmundanepress.com.

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