It was hard not to fixate on the water below the bridge. The stone bricks elevated the bridge more than was needed above the creek, creating that natural ‘pull’ high elevations did. Water-collection stations were laid along the bridge’s length where roped buckets hung over the ledge, rattling metal against stone in the creek below. Brona rarely found herself in this part of Late Sun. It was more heavily residential, so she more heavily avoided it, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from darting about all the different details of this court. Standing on a bridge was pretty cool. She’d crossed it a few times before, but that was only when Grendt was escorting her. The independence and ability to stare down the bridge without Grendt nagging her to move on was thrilling. Brona imagined this excitement was only a fraction of what she would feel in the world outside of Late Sun. If she ever got to see it.
As Callum went house-to-house, speaking with the Sunnish people about the worst parts of their week, Brona found herself waiting and bored as shit. The best part of data collection day was by-far the morning breakfast, in it being one of the few days Brona could actually count on someone else preparing the meal, but in the latter half of the day, when Callum put on the charm and listened to people’s rambles, it was Brona who was left standing alone through long stretches of boredom.
A statue of a deformed woman sitting on a hoard of spoons smiled down at Brona at the end of the bridge. Callum walked by her no-problem heading towards the first house, but Brona found her presence ominous and stayed further behind Callum’s lead than usual. It was as though the woman was going to come to life and weigh Brona down with her limestone spoons and push her off the bridge in an attempted drowning. Perhaps it was a trick of the fog, but Brona thought she saw the woman move earlier. Brona stepped back just in case one of the Sunnish Distorted the statue to life and she had to book it in the opposite direction to avoid being murdered. Then very clearly, a wooden hand appeared from behind the statue beckoning Brona.
It was a Wood Folke.
This one had a sideways tree stump for a head, but his eyes were round, hollow holes like all the rest. He also had a third hole which Brona liked to call the ‘mouth’ of the Wood Folke, but as they had mentioned to her on many occasions before, they didn’t actually have mouths. The Woodling was about the same height as Brona. He must’ve been young, about one hundred years old based on the number of rings in his face. Brona wondered what he was doing in the Distorter settlement of Late Sun. There weren’t any rules that said that the Wood Folke couldn’t come in, but they usually liked to keep to themselves in the forest.
Brona waved a small greeting, “Hi.”
The Woodling looked her up and down then shot his hands into her cardigan pockets. He rummaged voraciously as Brona was pushed onto her back. She tried to kick him off, but he used every opportunity of her squirming to press closer. Brona didn’t want to use her bare hands to push the Woodling off since it would just leave her with splinters to pull in the evening. His fingers fluttered inside her pockets until Brona spat in his ‘mouth’. The Woodling backed offended.
“What the fuck, man?” said Brona, getting up and taking off her cardigan to dust it off. The Woodling ripped some grass from someone’s lawn and shoved it in his third hole to remove Brona’s saliva. He looked satisfied after the fourth rinsing of grass (even though Wood Folke’s faces were expressionless). He scratched the back of his head staring at Brona, picked up a rock on the bridge and shook it in front of her.
“Oh. You heard about the cool rocks I found in the grass fields,” said Brona, just realizing she had only shared that information with one person so far. “Ew man, I was talking to Grendt about that last night! What were you doing, watching us through the window?”
The Woodling looked to the side and waved his hand in a movement like ‘Pee-shaw’, but he held his pose for too long and started to tremble. The air between the two fell heavy with awkwardness. Brona brought a hand to her pants pocket defensively, tracing the sharp object inside. “I only managed to keep one. The rest were left in the field with the Giant.” A soft sound came from the Woodling’s fingers as his hand clenched and unclenched in a ‘gimme’ type movement.
“We haven’t met before,” said Brona, “I thought someone from your thicket would have told you. Cool-looking rocks are a hard-to-find commodity in the woods. I don’t give them away for free.” The Woodling cocked his head. Brona pulled out a rock shaped like a seashell. “You owe me,” said Brona, throwing the rock to the Woodling. He caught it and immediately hit it against the bridge. It made a sound. The Woodling jumped several times, only stopping to look back down at the stone in his hands like it was the most precious possession in the world. He turned away from Brona without thanking her. Brona didn’t know if he’d ever return the favour, but it never hurt to have another person in Late Sun who held a positive opinion of her. Or was at least indifferent. The Woodling walked past the statue at the end of the bridge and scampered up the hill until he was back in the forest, never once lifting his head.
“Item one, Dornan, two-hundred and twenty-one year old male. Two Task Letters in the past ten days.” shouted Callum returning from the courtyard. His booming voice surprised Brona. The notebook hung by its leather cover from her hand as Brona just barely caught it in a flurry to open it. She found the pen that had rolled out of her pocket on the ground and began writing. “First letter, received nine days ago, told Dornan to rip the wallpaper from every wall in his house. The threat was the death of his flower garden. Dornan did not fulfil the letter’s wishes, and the threat was also not carried out.” Brona was on the word ‘nine’ and was about to ask Callum to slow down when he continued. “Second letter, received four days ago, asked Dornan to sever the relationship with his childhood friends. The threat was the death of his partner, Collun. Dornan successfully carried out the Task by attacking his individual friend’s insecurities with detailed lies, and for those who didn’t believe him, physical persuasion. His efforts were deemed successful by the Tasker and his partner was left unharmed.”
After a silent two minutes, Brona managed to catch up to Callum’s dictation. She felt her stomach tighten. “That letter was really harsh, Callum…”
“Yes it was, witchling. But did you notice something about this particular case?”
Why did scientists ask so many questions? Brona screamed internally. “Nope! Next case?”
“I think the Tasker has mutated, Brona. The task Dornan was asked to perform is perpetual. What happens if Dornan tells his friends that he only attacked them because of the Task Curse and they forgive him? Will Collun still be killed? What happens if I reveal to his friends the nature of his letter?”
That was a solid point. Brona felt bad about making fun of Callum internally. Callum outstretched a finger and tapped Brona’s notebook, “In the margins, Brona, write: ‘To continue for observation.’”
Brona started writing, but her pen started to drag. The pen started to feel heavy, or maybe it was her arm that started to feel fat and slow. “Callum, what happens if more people get letters like that? What if the letters get so bad that the people want to kill me?”
Callum placed his hands on Brona’s shoulders and squatted as low as his sun dress would allow, “That’s why you have Grendt. Trust me, she would kill everyone in this town if she had to save you, and there’s no one who can match her skill level.”
Brona nodded. That much was true. Even drunk, Brona knew that Grendt could topple cities.
Callum continued, “If this gives you some piece of mind, I’ve been trying to detract attention from you, Brona. In my next term, assuming I win re-election tomorrow, I have devised a series of lies that will convince the Sunnish beyond a doubt that the Task Curse was formed by an asshole from Dargun. Some of my contacts there are helping me build ‘credible evidence’,” said Callum using air quotes.
“You’re going to lie to people? Isn’t that…‘illegal’, Callum?” said Brona, using air quotes.
Callum scoffed, “I’m a politician, Brona. It’s in my blood. And might I add, you are a Sunnish citizen yourself. Your safety matters just as much as the rest.”
Scarlet tinged Brona’s cheeks. “Thanks, Call—.” A hand came up to cover Brona’s mouth preventing her from finishing her sentence. As Callum retracted his hand, and Brona was free to speak again, she found herself still hushed and fixated on Callum’s shoes. They were sparkly kitten heels and matched the glitter on Callum’s eyes. Inside and out, Callum shone too bright to look at.
Reopening the notebook slowly, Brona asked, “Did you want to tell me about the other people who got Task Letters?”
Callum straightened and ran a hand through Brona’s hair. “The other Task Letters were typical. Small repetitive acts demanded to be completed in a day. I’ll fill the log with those later myself.” The notebook was closed before Brona with exaggerated slowness. It could have also just been Brona’s brain losing the ability to process information in its exhaustion.
“I think we should get you home,” said Callum, noticing Brona’s inability to process information in an ordinary amount of time. “Things are going to get better for you in Late Sun very soon. I promise.” Callum gripped Brona’s free hand and started pulling her in the direction of her home.
Sooner than Brona expected, they were standing in front of her house. An aroma greeted Brona and Callum as they entered through the back door, the scent of hot garlic and onions. The kitchen table was set for two, then three as an added plate flew from the cupboards and set itself down with a napkin folded overtop of it for Callum. Grendt had prepared a stir fry using the first snow peas of the spring, and a side dish of shaved garlic and spiced imitation meat. Pasta was boiling on the stove as well.