Todd Fahnestock is a writer of fantasy for all ages and winner of the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teenage Award.
His bestselling The Wishing World series began as bedtime stories for his children, and his epic fantasy series include: “Threadweavers,” “The Heartstone Trilogy” and “The Whisper Prince Trilogy.” His time travel novel, “Charlie Fiction,” was a finalist in the Colorado Authors League Best Science Fiction of 2019.
The following is an excerpt from “Charlie Fiction.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
The follow excerpt contains strong language.
So the world is going to end because a runaway flashed her breasts to two sixteen-year-old boys. God, it sounds so stupid when I say it. And you’re laughing. I know you are. But it’s not funny. She was barely older than us, and she didn’t know. How the hell could she know? How could anyone?
Vincent killed her. Just killed her. Because he hated how much I wanted her. I felt it then, the end. I didn’t know how it would all happen, what it would look like, not like I do now. But I felt the doom coming. I knew Vincent, and I knew what he could do.
The memories swirl around me like leaves, each shaped like a little puzzle piece. The starkest memories fit together first. Charlie, of course. I remember her scream and my anguish at failing to stop Vincent. I remember feeling like my heart had been punctured, gushing hot and horrible guilt inside my chest.
On the coattails of that come the sweet memories of Charlie, the ones that happened just before. Our instant connection. Her stomping dance down the canyon. Her flirty smile. Her tight top fluttering to the ground.
Do you know where this path goes?
I grasp at the leaves, try to fit them together. The more bits of me I can keep, the more real I feel. Some stay, but I am less than I was before I jumped. I always am. Time-jumping strips your memories, but I’ll get to that later. Right now, I’ve got to focus, try remember why I’m here, try to pull myself together.
Where am I? When am I?
I’m in an apartment. It smells like someone has recently taken a shower: fresh deodorant and humidity.
The main room has a couch that faces the open space. The back wall is a kitchen with a tall, Formica counter separating it from the main space. To the left are two doors—bedroom and bathroom—and the humidity is emanating from the bathroom. I touch my hair. It’s wet. Okay, I’m the one who showered. There’s a towel draped across the chair next to me. I’m wearing sweats and a T-shirt. No shoes.
Behind me is the front door and a large window that shows the balcony walkway with its steel rail and flaking burgundy paint. I’m on the second floor. Across the street is a three-story apartment building, also with burgundy rails. Beyond lies an urban sprawl of single-family houses mixed with the occasional larger building. In the distance, mountains with snowcaps loom beneath a darkening sky. The sun’s last rays turn the clouds dark purple and the sky a slate gray.
The mountains pull more memories within reach, and I hang onto them. This is Denver, Colorado. There we go.
The memory leaves bring more pieces, all clicking together like a puzzle forming a picture. Vincent’s going to use us—all of humanity—like bludgeons on each other. The Husk Wars will cut us down to a hundred thousand people worldwide. Less than one percent of us will survive, and those will only survive for another fifty years before devouring each other.
And everything links back to Charlie’s death. It was Vincent’s defining moment.
The end of the world should have started with a dirty bomb in L.A., a mutant strain of small pox bursting loose in New Orleans, or some AI that released spores engineered to sterilize the human race. It should have been any one of those scenarios we expected. But it didn’t start that way. It started with a girl.
She had black lipstick, tumbling black hair, a light accent, and she smelled like dust and musk. She said her name was Charlie Fiction. A fake name, but I didn’t care. She was a light in the darkness. When I looked at her, I suddenly knew who I was.
Do you know where this path goes?
That was the first thing she said to Vincent and me, and I was spellbound. Her swagger captivated me. Her confidence thrilled me, like she had worked out the problems of the world and had the answers. I fell in love with her instantly.
I remember every detail. The scars on her leather jacket. The way her tall boots fit her legs and had eight buckles each, straps winging out to the side like thick fringe. After we made love inside the cave, I remember her getting dressed again, spinning when she saw Vincent pick up the hammer. Her expression is a hot blur on the back of my eyelids: the furrowed eyebrows, the open mouth, the betrayal. She screamed as the rocks fell. Their grinding and crunching cut off her last sound. It still echoes in my mind.
I wanted to stop him. I couldn’t. I was too weak, and the moment washed away like a thousand others that followed. Vincent’s will was the ocean, and I was the sand, coming apart in tiny flecks, dragged into his vastness.
I twitch my head. I can’t think of that. What’s important is that I stop Vincent’s vision from consuming us. I’m the only one who can.
I can’t save Charlie Fiction, but I can save the world.
He wants to kill me now. He’s looking. Oh, he’s looking with every resource he has. He wants to drop me down the long hole to no-when, push my metaphorical face into the dirt, and let me suffocate.
He had me under his thumb once, but I broke free. He’s scared because I’m smarter than him. But he’s stronger. He has a longer reach. The Flickers are here, and they will find me. I have to get myself together and do what I came here to do.
What year is it? That hasn’t come to me yet. Numbers are harder to hang onto than feelings. I have a fear of time-jumping for the last time and finally losing everything, just arriving and sitting as a mindless drooler with no memories at all. I’ve already jumped too many times to remember everything; I’ve been running from Vincent and his Flickers forever, it seems.
But I never do things without a reason, even if I can’t remember why. So I have a purpose here. This year, whatever it is, is important.
The sun is bright and hot, and the breeze blowing through the open windows is cool. It whispers springtime. What important happened in the spring in Denver, Colorado?
A knock sounds on the apartment door, and I twitch. Fear floods through me, but it’s not the Flickers. The Flickers don’t knock. They just eat you, strip you to the bone. Thoughts, memories, every piece of you.
Doom fills the apartment. Have you ever felt doom? I feel like I’m about to suffocate, but I step to the door and open it.
I told myself to be ready for anything. My own death. The end of the world. But I’m not ready to find Charlie Fiction standing there.
No, I’m not ready for that.
I stand, stunned, as Charlie Fiction stares at me. I want to run, but if you run from your fate, it always finds you. That’s what fate does.
Her hands rest on her hips, and her head cocks slightly to the side. She has the same knee-high leather boots, eight buckles stacked down their length. She has the same black jeans, the same belt with metal studs, the same open leather jacket with nothing underneath.
Seeing her grabs the heart of my sixteen-year-old self, scared and unable to think of what to do. My vision blurs, my heart moves up into my head and pounds like a hammer. I clench the door handle.
“Been a while, Danny Boy.” She walks past me, scoops the mail off the short table by the door and throws it in the trash, then walks to the couch. There’s a mirror on the wall over it. She lifts it, then drops it. It falls behind the couch, and I hear the glass crack as it hits the floor. She turns, and flops on the cushions like she lives here.
I stare at the blank wall where the mirror had been, then at the trash can, but she snaps her fingers and my focus goes back to her. “You don’t look happy to see me,” she says.
“Thanks for the reminder.”
Charlie Fiction was larger than life during the forty-two minutes I knew her. She was a sleek and dirty goddess, and I was only sixteen. I fell under her sway from the very first moment. The shape of her body. Her smooth skin. Her confident swagger. Her spark lit the world on fire, and she looked into the center of me and saw my spark.
She’s exactly the same now. Her curves are wrapped in tight jeans, and there’s a dirt streak on one of her slender hands. The bumps of her hips peek over the top of her belt, and her large brown eyes are narrow. She gives me a tight smile, looks like she wants to stab me in the face.
“You’re a ghost.” I swallow, slowly closing the door. I concentrate on her, trying to see if I can see through her. I can’t. She seems as solid as I am.
“As brilliant as ever, Danny Boy,” she says.
“Why are you here?” I manage to say.
“Straight to the rude this time?” she asks.
“I’m not here to hurt you, if that’s what you think,” she adds. “So calm down.”
“How did you know I’d be here?”
“I know more than you do, Danny Boy.”
“My name is Daniel.”
“You liked the nickname well enough when we were fucking. Not good enough for you now?” she says. “How about Murderer?”
“That was… I didn’t want for—”
“Save the apology.”
She leans back on the couch, arms along the top, and her jacket opens wide enough that I can see the curves of her breasts.
I clear my throat. There’s a collared dress shirt draped over the chair next to the one with the towel. I grab the shirt and throw it to her. “Here, you can wear this—”
The shirt floats through her and settles on the couch cushions beneath her.
“Ghost lesson number one,” she says. “Dead girls don’t change. I don’t put on clothes. I don’t take off clothes. What I had on when you killed me, that’s what I get to wear. Same shoes forever.” She thumps her heels on the ground with a ba-dump-bump-bump.
“Can…everyone see you?”
“Only you, Danny Boy. We’re married, you and I. Just like you wanted.”
“I didn’t say that…”
She rolls her eyes.
I clear my throat. “If you’re not here for revenge, you’re here for—”
“I’m here to put him in the ground.”
“No, the pope,” she spits, eyes flaring.
There’s more happening here than I know. When you lose memories, you have to roll with it. But rolling with Charlie takes a lot. “He needs to be stopped.”
I feel like I’m backing up, tripping over every piece of furniture. I’m confused; she’s certain.
“I can’t kill him,” I say.
“No.” Fear spikes through my body like lightning. “I won’t do that.”
She narrows her eyes. Her teeth are clenched so hard that muscles stand out along her jaw. Finally, she sits forward.
“One step at a time,” she says, beckoning to me. “Come here, Danny Boy.”
I hesitate. She radiates such fury it’s like a bonfire. I don’t want to come any closer.
But she is my fate, and your fate always finds you. It’s not because there’s a trio of women stirring a pot and boiling your destiny, not because God has a plan for you. It’s because of what we have done, the connections we’ve made to other people. Fate is the scars of our past binding us to our purpose. It’s made of the strands of ourselves, our triumphs and failures, woven into the fabric of our identity. Charlie and I changed each other. She wove herself into me, and you can’t run away from yourself. That’s what fate is.
She would have been something amazing had she lived, a bright stroke across the canvas of the world. She could have been a dozen different amazing things, but Vincent ended that. Now she’s just this fragment of a person, a slash of lingering hate.
I kneel in front of her, bow my head. “I’m so sorry,” I say in a hoarse voice.
Her hands are cool as she lifts my chin. “Sorry does fuck-all,” she says. “Do something.”
“Don’t try, Danny. Kill him.” Tears well up in her eyes.
“Why are you crying?”
“Shut up.” She leans down and kisses me. I jerk, surprised, but her hand holds the back of my neck. The blanket fell through her, but somehow she can touch me. I feel like I should know how this works, how a ghost can make herself solid, but if I ever did, the memory has slipped away.
The kiss turns gentle, and I feel a wash of tenderness for me. Her lips are soft and cool—
A jolt runs from her mouth to mine, vibrating my teeth. I yank back. Blue electricity crackles between us. She’s brought the Flickers!
Fear, pain, and betrayal course through me. This must have been what she felt when the rocks came down on her. It’s nothing more than I deserve. I stood by while Vincent murdered her.
But I never would have guessed that she’d side with him, bring his electric henchmen to destroy me. The only thing I’m certain she hates more than me is Vincent.
She grins like a skull. Her lips pull back and her teeth clamp on a blue thread of lightning that is connected to me through my mouth, down my throat, and lodged in my heart like a harpoon. The thread pulses, blue hairs of electricity dancing around it.
I try to shout through my clenched teeth, the gargling wail of an animal. I pull, frantic, but I can’t get my jaws open.
She pulls, too, and the room pulses. Blue light splashes the walls like a strobe. The harder we pull, the more frantic the electricity.
The line snaps, and I careen backward, crash into the wall, and sprawl on the floor. A six-foot whip of blue lightning writhes in the air. It quests about like a snake, seeking, then it starts toward me.
I scramble backward.
“It’s yours,” Charlie says, sounding exhausted. She slumps over herself, elbows on her knees and head hanging between. She’s translucent now, faded, looking like an actual ghost for the first time.
The electric line slithers toward me, forcing me backward, but I have nowhere to go. It coils in my hand. I hold it, shaking. It doesn’t attack me.
“What is this?” I ask.
“You made it. To fight them.”
She slumps backward. “You know who.” And then the dead girl collapses on my couch.
I lay there, a pulsing whip of energy in my hand and Charlie Fiction in my apartment. It all began with her. Forty-two minutes of love changed into a nightmare.
If I could live there, live within Charlie’s embrace, live within those forty-two minutes…
It could have been so different. It started so perfectly.