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(548 Words, free to read)

1st Tale: The Paper-Man

by Koray Birenheide

Series: The Hollow Man and His Daughter

The girl skipped across the alley pipe-ways, the hollow metal reverberating beneath her steps in tiny quakes. Moon beams struck the tarnished sheen at multiple angles, reflecting off of steep and jagged walls, covered in more pipes. The shapes of buildings, tall and small, and the rare glimpses of interiors hinted that the pipes merely covered structures built from stone and metal, but to the girl, there wasn't much to see but innumerable curved paths of tin that made up the ground-world.

But she was a world of her own. As she skipped, the moonlight struck her from this and that angle, always casting escalating shadows that grew out of control and took on lives of their own... Creatures the size of dogs with butterfly wings and little trunks like anteaters fluttered in her wake, and ephemeral people followed in her footsteps.

"You can say something if you want," she spoke into the empty alleyway ahead of her as her bare feet briefly stopped on the chill metal.

None of them replied. She heard the fluttering, heard the steps behind her come to a stop briefly after her own, yet none would speak.

She lifted her left foot and stepped forward again, walking slowly now.

"What would you like me to say?"

Without warning a tall figure was suddenly in her way, their massive silhouette blocking all of the narrow path in front of her. The moonlight was so scarce now that she could barely make out any features. She thought she could see a wide grin, far too wide for a human face. But only because the teeth were so white and gleaming could she make them out. The rest of the figure remained obscured by shadows. The girl looked up and swallowed. "You... are a world too?"

The figure quavered as though shaking with a giggling fit, yet their motion seemed stiff and unnatural to the girl. "I'm a human, of course. A world, are you? You're not much to look at, if you ask me..." The figure mused.

She felt the presence of her own shadows more strongly then, as though they were protesting. "Father says that sometimes that is important," she admitted quietly.

"He doesn't like to look at you then?"

She shook her head. "He just says that it is important. It makes... him cry. To say it."

"I'm not much to look at either. It is what it is," said the figure. "Why does he not put you in the pipes?"

"He is making a shoe box for me."

The figure let out a strange sigh. "It has been a while since I've held a shoe box. I thought the shoe maker went out of business... Can't have shoe boxes without shoes. "

"Why not?" the girl asked hesitantly.

"Well," the figure bent down slightly, conspiratorially, "thing is: They're shoe boxes because there are someone else's shoes inside. Initially, at least. If you want to put a world into a shoe box, you have to take the shoes out and walk in them."

"So that is why Father has so many shoes..."

The figure quavered again. "Sounds to me like he has plenty of shoe boxes to put you in. Why not be done with it?"

"I'm not much to look at. Only the perfect shoe box will do. That's what he says."

"Heh-heh, and if it is the shiniest shoe box in the world? What does it matter when you can't stick it in your head and drink the world inside? People don't step into shoe boxes anymore and walk around the worlds within. Why be in one world when a million worlds can be in you? Get in the pipes girl, see who wants to drink you up."

The girl stared up at the darkness above the unflinching grin. Then, she cast her gaze over her shoulder at the strange and wondrous creatures behind her and at the people she knew so well because they lived within her. They were fading now that she stood so still. She looked back at the figure. "Would you like to hear a story?"

"Pass," the figure said. Their occlusive shape shifted, tilted, and suddenly it stepped around the girl, shuffling onward in the opposite direction.  The girl could see a sunken, sickly creature with spindly arms and legs and tattered clothes, pushing a huge shape made from cardboard in front of them. They were human.

The girl shook her head and moved on towards the end of the alleyway. The time to the morning twilight was running out and she had to return home before Father woke. He wasn't supposed to know she wandered the city at night...

As the pipe-covered main street opened up before her, moonlight bathing her face in pale white, the voice of the figure echoed over from the distant other side of the alleyway: "See you in the pipes, little world!"

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©2017-2023, Koray Birenheide

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