Reality Rip by Elana Gomel
Tagging is exhausting.
Not just physically, though this too. Driving for hours through the faceless highways of the Central Valley, passing feedlots and industrial orchards, being trailed by lines of pumped-up trucks loaded with chicken cages. And then taking a gravel side road, only to end up in a town like Los Molinos or Richfield, population 143, and most of them scruffy dogs. You would think reality was robust enough in such places simply because nothing happened to put pressure on its delicate weave. You would be wrong.
But tagging is also psychologically exhausting. Some of my colleagues went on medication after their first tag. And their careers were over: antidepressants destroyed their ability to see incipient rents and tears in the fabric of existence, to sense where this fabric was dangerously weakening, about to rip. Others—such as my mentor Justin—had been going strong for years, helped only by the occasional bender. Alcohol does not dull your perception, which is fortunate for me. I guess.
The call came while I was contemplating the dismal lunch choices in the gas-station Subway. My vegetarianism means I often go hungry on the road. You would expect the Central Valley, the agricultural heart of California, to have vegan eateries everywhere, but in fact you’d be lucky to find a farm stand. Otherwise it’s all burgers. I used to love burgers. That was before the Red Bluff tag.
My phone buzzed just as I decided on a wilted salad. This time it was a concerned citizen rather than the local police or firefighters.
“Ms. Silva?” asked the ruddy-faced guy on the screen. “Your phone number was in the post office and I thought…”
“Yes, I’m a licensed tagger. What’s the problem?”
“My neighbor, Joe Malley. He is acting strange.”
“Maybe call the sheriff?” ‘Acting strange’ in this part of the world could mean anything from kicking your horse to taking potshots at random strangers.
“He is…getting hard to see. Kinda…transparent.”
“I’m on my way.” I left the salad in place, grabbed a bottle of water, and hopped into the car.
The man who had called was named Carlos Herrera. He lived in a sprawling farmhouse with his wife who unleashed a torrent of excited Spanish the moment I pulled into their driveway. I had to explain, again, that my father was Portuguese and that despite my name, I spoke not a word of Spanish.
Mr. Herrera appeared deeply worried, and I understood why. Rips often expand from their focal point. Sometimes when the main tear is stitched, secondary rips appear in the vicinity. It’s like an old garment: sewing it up in one place weakens the rest, so the more you try to mend, the more tattered it becomes. Reality has become a worn sock.
Most people, of course, don’t see a tear until it’s too late. So I was concerned by Herrera’s report. It must have gone very far if he could notice something wrong with his neighbor. And if the neighbor himself was the focus…there was nothing worse than tagging a human being.
“Where is he?” I asked. On my way to his house, I had not seen another dwelling—just rows of twisted almond trees threaded by irrigation pipelines and a cow feedlot.
“A couple of miles down the road,” he said. I should have known that ‘neighborhood’ was a flexible concept in this place.
We all piled up into my roomy Toyota—Mr. and Mrs. Herrera, myself, and a large dog that smelled of fertilizer. Mr. Herrera was ostentatiously cradling a shotgun. I said nothing. It would not make any difference. You can’t shoot out a reality rip.
“You are kind of young to be in this line of work,” Mrs. Herrera said.
“I’m older than I look.”
Joe Malley’s house was nothing like the Herreras’: a beat-up shack with some unidentified junk strewn around a weedy front yard. I pulled in but told them not to get out of the car while I scanned the yard shimmering in the hot afternoon sunlight.
This shimmer bothered me but with the outside temperature in the 90s, it was to be expected. What else? The once-red paint peeling off the clapboards; the dirty white curtain in one window; the rusting hub leaning against the fence. All normal; all expected. Unambiguous and mundane, totally here, embedded in the invisible matrix we call reality. And yet I could feel it. The roiling in the pit of my stomach. Suddenly I was glad I skipped lunch.
A skeletal cat slunk through the garbage. The Herreras’ dog whined.
The shack’s door banged open and a figure stepped onto the porch.
Herrera yelled something and raised his shotgun.
It flickered and danced in the bright sunlight like a flaw in a video; like a computer screen when the software is going haywire; like a reflection in troubled water. It no longer resembled a man. What was it like? A giant tadpole? A walking scarecrow? A two-headed robot? A headless skeleton?
It was nothing like any of these, and it was like all of these at once. It hurt your eyes to look at it and your brain to think of what it was.
It approached our car—or maybe walked away from it. It was impossible to gauge distance or direction as it randomly swelled and subsided, almost dissolving in the sun glare and then solidifying momentarily into yet another approximate monstrosity. But I squinted determinedly, ignoring the nausea and the sharp pain that burrowed into my forehead. And I could see what I expected—a faint tracery of black lines around it, like a sketchy spider-web radiating from the scuttling spider.
“No!” I yelled. I already had my tagging gun out: a clumsy bright-yellow plastic contraption like a child’s water pistol.
Herrera’s bullet was sucked into the glittering vortex that opened up in the thing’s midriff and I glimpsed… something. There was a furious barking and a scream so close by that I felt it inside my skull.
I fired, and a yellow line of the tag unspooled through the air and punched into the vortex, stitching the reality rip together.
A blinding flare filled my vision with rotating spots, but I was glad it did not spill fire or a wave of freezing cold. People had been killed by a rip’s residue.
I blinked through tears. Wilted grass. Peeling paint. A rusty hub. Everyday reality. The shack looked empty, and was empty, of course, now that its owner had disappeared into… whatever. It was an eyesore but a common eyesore. Not for long. I fired my pistol again, tagging the house and the yard as slated for demolition. The clean-up crews would take care of it.
And then I heard sobs and realized that the tear had not been sewn up painlessly.
Herrera was kneeling outside the car, cradling his wife. Or whatever was left of her: a shapeless mass of flesh, oozing pinkish ichor onto the dry grass.
That night, I decided to get drunk.
I examined my liquor cabinet. A bottle of Russian River red. Some Napa merlot. And a bottle of real Douro Valley tawny port my father had sent me for my birthday.
I eyed the port dubiously. I loved its rich sweet taste, just as I loved the creamy pastel de nata that my Portuguese grandparents had plied me with when we spent vacations in their Porto home. But my grandparents were dead, Porto had had several bad tears in downtown that were poorly sewn up and threatened to reopen any time, and I had not seen my father for over a year.
What the hell! I poured a generous glass of port and lifted it to the light, admiring its deep ruby color. There was something reassuringly real about it: the old wine drunk by rotund British gentlemen making deals with my Portuguese ancestors over a spread of Bacalhau a Bras. Solidly embedded in history.
I lifted the glass to my lips when my phone chimed.
I rolled my eyes but dutifully took the call. Justin was working on the East Coast now, but our relationship remained set in the mentor-protégé mold. Sometimes I resented it, but I valued his advice too much to try to break it. Still, after the Herreras debacle, I was not keen on talking to anybody. Hopefully, he had not heard of it yet.
“How are you holding out, Margarida?”
Turned out he had.
I shrugged. “It was a bad one.”
“Few worse.” Justin pursed his thin lips. He had aged since I last saw him: his face was covered by a network of wrinkles that reminded me, unpleasantly, of the web of reality cracks around Joe Malley.“They are becoming more frequent.”
“Really?” I sat up, my port forgotten. “Nothing about it in the last update.”
“The Bureau is keeping a lid on it. They are not certain. You know how it is; a tear can mess up your perception.”
What I had seen in the Red Bluff rip had seared itself upon my brain. But I was not sure how much of it was real and how much was my own imagination: the dregs of my nightmares mixed with the fear of a gaping wound in existence.
And was there a difference?
“Do you know Mimi Bernard?” Justin went on.
The name sounded familiar.
“A French tagger.”
I had met her at one of our conferences—a petite sharp-nosed woman like a tiny woodpecker.
“What about her?”
“She is in the mental hospital. Sainte-Anne.”
“She tried to walk through a tear.”
I sat up.“What?”
“I know.” Justin dipped his head and I saw a balding spot. It had grown.
At the beginning of our relationship, he had asked for a date and I had said “no.” He had never tried again, and I was grateful for that. I liked him very much, but he was just too old. I did not need a substitute father. I had a real father who had raised me after my mother had abandoned us for the sake of her cult.
I silently promised myself to use my vacation to fly to Porto and see Papai.
“But isn’t it physically impossible?” I asked.
“This is why she is in Sainte-Anne.”
There was something strange in his tone. Was he trying to warn me? Did he suspect that I was slowly going bonkers?
Well, after Red Bluff, I was not going to try to walk through a rip even if there was a huge “Welcome” sign above it.
They said rips were physically impossible when they first appeared. Hallucinations, delusions, hoaxes. When they became too dangerous to deny, the Bureau was set up, the first talents were recruited, and the tag pistol developed. Now the official line was “quantum fluctuations,” whatever that meant.
But I had known they were real from the very beginning.
Our conversation petered off after that. I sat staring at the port in my glass and it sparkled with bloody red, winking at me. I closed my eyes and took a sip. Spicy sweetness slid down my throat.
Things went from bad to worse after that.
I had to write a report on the Herreras incident. Emphasized in red on the online form was the question as to whether Mrs. Herrera had been inside or outside the car when reality shuddered, and squirmed, and tore. If inside, my Toyota may have been compromised and needed to be scrapped.
I fumed as I typed in my answers. Why didn’t they ask Carlos? I was too fucking busy trying to tag the tear while it was trying to eat me up. Nobody knew whether the tears whose focal points had been human retained some kind of intelligence, but most taggers—myself included—believed they did. Only it would be an intelligence infected and perverted by what lay on the other side.
When you focus on a tear, everything else blends into an undistinguished background like a piece of sun-faded fabric. Most people cannot see a tear until it’s too late. Taggers need to be specially trained, but we have the talent; this is why the Bureau is ramping up its recruitment efforts, even scouting schools and kindergartens. Desperate times and all that shit. I was able to see at the very beginning when rips were what you got in your jeans and tagging meant a kids’ game. We were on the beach in Praia de Marinha when I laughed and pointed at something.
“Aranha!” I said.
My parents could not see anything. It had been the last time my mother was with us in Portugal before she moved back to rural Colorado and her evangelical church. She scowled at me, which was her perpetual expression at the time, but Papai bravely squinted into the glare of the sun on the steely water of the Atlantic, almost blinding himself while he tried to participate in what he thought was my game.
I did not remember what, exactly, I had seen but I could imagine. Reality cracks emanating from the focus do look like a spider-web.
I was eight at the time. I was twenty-nine now.
I shook off the memories and returned to the online report. No, I could not tell whether Mrs. Herrera had exited the car prior to the tagging. No, I remained inside a protected vehicle as per regulations. No, I did not see any entity or force emerging from the tear.
That was a joke—how would I see a “force?” But the question itself gave me pause. It had been added to the form since the last time I had to fill it. Until now, it had been a common wisdom that reality rips warped, undermined, and destroyed whatever happened to lie within their reach, organic or inorganic, and that they would spread out from their focal point until they were tagged and sewn up. Occasionally, as the rip closed, it would blast out a wave of heat or cold. There were rare reports of something emerging—something tangible—but it had never happened to me and I tended to regard the idea with a healthy dose of skepticism.
But there was something on the other side. I shuddered when I remembered Red Bluff. And then I thought of Mimi Bernard who apparently had tried to go through. I hoped they kept her on the right meds. How insane did you have to be to walk toward that?
I hit “Send” but thoughts of the report and what it implied kept circling in my mind like desert vultures over a carcass. I went into the garage and examined the Toyota. The mechanism the Bureau had installed was in place. Supposedly, it gave protection, but I did not really believe it. Tag pistols were all that science had come up with to contain the unraveling of reality that threatened to consume Earth.
In any case, my car was reassuringly solid. It did not shimmer, flicker, or dance, no matter how hard I looked. There was no tracery of faint lines surrounding it. I kicked it hard and said “Ouch!”
This expert examination concluded, I drove out of San Jose toward the Central Valley.
Highway 5 winds through the Central Valley like a lazy snake dozing in the heat. In the spring, the almond, cherry, and plum orchards fill the valley with fragrance and color. In the height of summer, it is miles upon identical miles of dryness, accessorized by the occasional green rectangle of an irrigated field and hand-written signs about Jesus the Savior and End Times.
I used to love this attenuated landscape. In the state filled with natural wonders, hardly anybody likes the Central Valley. It is boring, flat, and right-wing. But it had always felt reassuring to me. Not anymore.
I had to drive by the Harris Ranch, which is the largest cow feedlot on the West Coast. The ripe smell of manure filled the car. I grimaced and tried not to look at the black field where cows stood in passive ranks in the sloshing excrement. I had never liked seeing this, even before my turn to vegetarianism. Before Red Bluff.
I had Carlos Herrera’s number, but I did not want to tell him I was coming. I still remembered his inhuman shriek when he had cradled what was left of his wife. People don’t get over such things quickly.
So what was I doing, butting in on his grief? I was not sure. I just needed to see the tagged tear with my own eyes.
I drove on the graveled orchard road, noting that the almond trees did not seem to be doing particularly well. Their narrow leaves were dusty and drooping and the ground was covered with shriveled green nuts, burned to stony hardness by the sun. The irrigation lines were dry. A stench of manure and misery wafted from the feedlot.
I pulled into the driveway of the farmhouse. The silence was deafening: not a human voice or a dog’s bark. What happened to the big dog that had been with us in the car?
There were no cars in the driveway. The door was closed, the windows blind with drapes.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I tried the handle and it swung inward.
The hallway was dim and hot.
I walked into the combination kitchen-living room, noting a rubber duck on the floor and a clutch of family pictures on the side table.
Could they all be in the church? Was the funeral happening now?
“Hello?” I yelled.
No, not nothing. A faint noise like scrunching paper coming from above.
I climbed the wide sweeping staircase leading to the upper floor. A row of closed doors. The noise was coming from the second one on the left.
I pushed the door open.
It was a typical teenager’s bedroom: clothes on the floor, posters on the walls, phone chargers snaking through the chaos of makeup on the dresser. There was a large mirror on the wall. And reflected in the mirror was the source of the noise:
Something like a human-sized insect pupa on the bed, twitching and shuddering, whipping around, its pink hide glistening and bare, bleeding in long scratches. Its face reformed itself even as I watched, blue eyes popping out and expanding into faceted orbs, glossed lips distended by emerging mandibles, contracting hands sucked into the swollen shapeless body…
I looked at the bed. It was empty, the covers undisturbed.
The room reflected in the mirror was changing too, its proportions subtly distorting, the ceiling tilting, the walls inclining toward each other like whispering conspirators…
I was not in the mirror.
I pulled out my tag pistol. The bright yellow line was swallowed by the mirror, but the reflection did not change. The pupa that used to be a teenager—Herrera’s daughter?—was still thrashing on the bed; the ceiling was still riding up; the walls intensified their swaying.
It had never happened before. Tagging always worked. Like a needle and a thread used to stitch a rip.
But what do you do when the fabric has become so threadbare that stitching tears through?
I turned around and ran out of the dissolving room.
On my way back to San Jose, I got a call from my father.
It was the middle of the night in Porto. It took me two tries to accept the call: my voice was so unsteady the phone did not recognize it. I turned on video, but I need not have bothered—Dad was on audio-only.
“How are you doing?” he started with his usual roundabout courtesy. My father seldom went straight to the point, preferring to take a longer but more comfortable way to get where he wanted to go.
“Why are you calling so late?” I interrupted. My experience in the Herrera household had left me too rattled for pleasantries.
He was silent for a long time. I stared into the golden haze of the Californian afternoon, my eyes as dry as the water-starved valley.
“I just wanted to hear your voice,” he finally said. “Things are not great here in Porto. I’m glad you are safe in California.”
My father still had the touching belief that the US, and especially the West Coast, were God’s own country, insulated from the horrors periodically visited upon the Old World. Even the experience of having lived here for almost ten years had not dented his faith in America’s privileged status in the universe.
I did not have the heart to tell him that nowhere was safe.
“What’s going on, Papai?”
“A couple, yes.”
“But you have good taggers! I met some of them: Filipe, Alicia…”
I was trying to convince myself that everything would work out somehow, but I sounded pathetic. I should have known after Red Bluff that nothing would ever work out again.
“They are trying. I’m sure they’ll do their best. And it’s not like downtown is such a great loss…”
Porto’s beautiful downtown with tile-embossed old buildings had been deteriorating for a long time, despite periodic attempts to revitalize it. Too many abandoned houses, left behind in the wake of the 20th-century Portuguese dictatorship and never lived in again. But I suddenly visualized, with painful clarity, the dark-flooded core of the city where reality was unraveling, quietly undoing itself, strand by strand, and things were stealthily coming through, breeding in the dust and the silence…
“Turn on the video!” I yelled. “Turn on the video, Dad!”
“I love you, Margarida,” he said and cut off. My calls went to voicemail.
Reality started to tear because of a quantum fluctuation. This was the science. This was what they had told us during our training. Tag pistols restored quantum stability. The yellow tag, on top of suturing the wound, marked the site that needed to be cleared of extraneous objects to prevent more tearing. All simple and neat.
And a bunch of lies.
I had not understood the science, but I had trusted it. Just like my father trusted the USA. Just like my mother, in her small-town evangelical stronghold, trusted her pastor.
Porto was lost, along with Pamplona, Nice, and Sheffield in the UK. Smaller tears fractured Lyon and Helsinki. In the USA, Estes Park, CO and Albany, NY were gone. And Burlingame, CA, my next-door neighbor. Not that it mattered. Tears followed no geographical logic. They followed something else.
Red Bluff. A medium-sized city between Sacramento and Redding. A faceless downtown baking in the sun. Endless exurbia punctuated by dollar stores and second-hand car lots. Surrounded by ranches and industrial farms.
My tag pistol rested on the passenger seat. I knew it was useless. Stitching one reality tear would only open another. And instead of simply swallowing up pieces of our world, it might disgorge something else. Like the thing that had crossed the deserted Route 5 forty minutes ago as I was driving past the turnoff to the Herrera farm. It was not a ghost. Its swollen body cast a black shadow onto the tarmac: I saw all four of its spindly limbs, spiky joints towering above its nodding head as it hobbled into the soybean field. It was like a huge mantis or maybe an insectoid pteranodon. But its horsey face still bore enough traces of its dissolving humanity for me to want to hail it, to call out to Mr. Herrera and tell him I was sorry. But what good would it do?
The conversation with Justin was playing out in my head, so loud and clear that I tried the radio from time to time, hoping for NPR or CBS or even some evangelical AM station rejoicing in the end of the world in order to silence it. But there was nothing on the radio except white noise and no signal on my cellphone.
“You lied to me!”
“We did not know, not for a long time…”
“Tagging is what causes it. We were just weakening the fabric of reality. Like pulling threads one by one and then trying to stitch it together. Ugly seams, puckered sutures… reality falling apart a bit more every time we tagged. How could you keep it a secret?”
“Tagging does not cause it, Margarida. You are right; ultimately it makes it worse. But what could we do? At least it gave us a temporary reprieve. Twenty years. It’s a long time.”
“So what causes it?”
I did not want to accept his answer. But I knew he was right.
My stomach roiled so badly I almost puked as I jumped out of the car. No surprise: Red Bluff was now a roiling mirage, a distortion so huge it blotted out half of the sky. Not a tear anymore. A gaping wound in reality.
I still clutched my tag pistol as if it would protect me from the thing in front of me. As if any pistol could.
Aranha. A little girl seeing a luminous spider in the sunlight. That morning my father had killed a spider in my room. He had stomped on it, mashing it into a blot on the floor, and then hugged me and told me I was safe. And all over the world, concerned fathers killed spiders and flies, butchered cows and sheep, shot home invaders and took aim at enemy soldiers. To keep their children safe and fed and secure. How could it be wrong?
Maybe there is no wrong or right. Maybe reality does not care for our excuses and self-justifications. Maybe for the Universe the life of a spider is equal to the life of a baby. Maybe the whole thing is as mechanical as the law of tension: when you pull too hard on a piece of fabric, it rips. We had pulled too hard.
That was what Justin had said. Not a quantum fluctuation, at least not the kind physicists understood. But pain. Combined pain of all living things, pulling on the woof and weave of reality until it gave way.
Why here and not there? Who knows? I remembered the scrawny cat in Joe Malley’s yard. And what about the Herreras? They looked like decent folks, but decent folks occasionally kick their dogs, and spray their orchards with poison, and eat meat sourced in a feedlot. And once a rip is there, it will spread at will, zigzagging through reality’s flaws until it is big enough to let something else in.
I walked toward the shimmering cloud that pulsed with eye-warping colors and forms. But occasionally, it stabilized long enough to open up like a funnel and allow me a glimpse of what lay on the other side.
I had seen it the first time I came to Red Bluff to tag a smallish tear that opened next to its meat-processing plant. I was not sure what I had seen then. I was sure now.
Endless lines of men, women, and children, naked, standing up to their knees in excremental sludge, scooping some brownish substance from long troughs and cramming it into their mouths. And indistinct forms in the sickly haze, patrolling the feedlot: spindly and spiky, jointed and many-headed, winged and hoofed. Masters of this realm? Another link in the food chain? Or something else entirely?
I told myself it was stupid to feel guilty about my father, and the beautiful city of Porto, and the golden sweep of the Central Valley. How could I possibly know that the spider my father had killed was the last tiny bit of tension that tore reality apart? It could have been myriads of other things.
But I had the gift. I was a tagger. One of the best.
If a wound cannot be sutured by an ordinary needle, you find a special one. If the tissue is too weak to grow together, you do a graft to strengthen it. And if suffering is too much to bear, you make a sacrifice to alleviate it.
I dropped my tag pistol. And walked into the rip.
Elana Gomel is the author of six non-fiction books and numerous articles on subjects such as science fiction and narrative theory. As a fiction writer, she has published three novels and more than fifty fantasy and science fiction stories in Apex, Fantasist, Zion’s Fiction, People of the Book, Apex Book of World Science Fiction and many other magazines and anthologies. Her latest novel is The Cryptids (2019). She is a member of HWA. She can be found at her website.