The car pulls into the driveway. It’s called an Uber and at first I think it’s the make and model of the car but the driver tells me it’s the name of a car service and although he’s patient and friendly in his explanation, I can feel my face flush red hot in embarrassment. There are so many things I don’t know that I don’t know. The entire world has a steep learning curve for me.
I wouldn’t have recognized the house, couldn’t have picked it out among the others because I haven’t seen it in over sixteen years and the memories are fuzzy because those years haven’t been kind. I’ve been told that it’s the house I grew up in and I nod with no acceptance or conviction because when I think about where I grew up all I can picture is being trapped in a dark and cold basement in a strange location. This house has never once appeared in my mind not even in my dreams.
From the moment the car arrives, people surge out of the front door but they don’t approach the car, perhaps because they’ve been advised not to or perhaps they’re as afraid to meet me as I am to meet them.
I thank the driver as I close the rear driver side door and walk toward the crying and smiling crowd, desperately trying to untwist the constrictor knot my stomach has become. I’m sure they don’t mean to be but each and every one of them is too loud and although they’re careful not to touch me, they’re too close and I want to run. I want to run into the basement and lock the door behind me and go down as far as I can manage and find the darkest corner to curl up into and if that place doesn’t exist, I want to dig a hole into the earth and bury myself in it until the world becomes a quiet place again.
It’s unmistakable, the feeling of warmth and comfort and community that exists in this place and I hate it almost instantly. I’m not supposed to as I’m a human being and we’re known to be social animals but if truth be known the only peace I’ve ever experienced has always been in complete isolation.
Nothing seems right. The sound of people’s voices expressing gratitude and the low volume music in the background blend into some abnormal din that assaults my ears like the opposite of white noise, even though I know that isn’t right because the other end of the spectrum from a combination of all of the different frequencies of sound would be silence and silence would be a welcome change at this point.
Even faces are foreign and I’ve known most of these faces for the first nine years of my life but the arrangement of their features is wrong. Even my own reflection is out of place and unfamiliar. I want to leave, to pivot on my heels and push past this closeness of flesh, flag down a police officer and ask them to take back to where I was found a fortnight ago.
I miss that basement because it’s the only home I know.
I want to back away but there are too many people behind so I push forward looking for a little elbow room, a safe barrier of personal space where I don’t have to feel the nearness of otherness or fight off a wave of nausea when someone’s aura scrapes against mine and makes a teeth-clenching noise like God raking His fingernails across the skin of the universe.
In the crowd I spot a face I don’t know and because I don’t know this woman and have no expectations of the way she must look she appears less odd than the rest. I lock onto her eyes and feel a transfer of knowledge between us. She is like me. She understands the words I’m unable to speak, words that will never be uttered by me in my entire life even if I live for two centuries. I want to move to her, to be closer to her, to stand within the sphere of her understanding but another woman, an aunt, I think, appears from nowhere and pulls me into an unwanted embrace and whispers into my ear with hot breath laced with wine, “You are such a brave girl.”
Brave? I want to say. What’s so brave about being afraid to let myself die? But instead, it comes out as, “Thank you.” I’m not even sure that’s a proper response, I simply need to say something to break the hold and by the time I manage it, the other woman, the woman with the understanding gaze, is gone.
And I’m aware of the people behind me again moving in closer pushing me forward without making contact with me when I come to the realization that their action is purposeful, they’re urging me forward from the front door through the foyer and into the living room for a reason and that reason being my mother and father standing in the center of the empty living room. I step in eagerly, not because I’m particularly glad to see them, I love them but the real reason I’m eager to get into the room is for the space so my soul can breathe again.
There’s this moment of silence and it’s like heaven and my mother takes on the form of Lucifer Morningstar by attempting to shatter paradise with the calling of my name that turns into a shriek that eventually ends in tears and hitching breath. Before I realize what’s happening, she’s on me wrapping her arms around me and lifting me off my feet. I am nearly as tall as she is and outweigh her by thirty pounds easily but this thin woman lifts me as though I was still the same nine-year-old who went outside to play and missed her curfew by more than a decade and a half. My face is buried in her hair and unlike this place that used to be and is once again my home, unlike the matured faces of the people I vaguely recognize as family, the smell of my mother’s hair, the scent of her coconut shampoo smashes through the floodgates of my mind and I am buried beneath wave after wave of memories which scare me and my eyes leak tears because I now realize how much emptier my life has been without this woman, although the world she inhabits still feels alien to me.
I say, “Hi, Mom,” and the word Mom feels distant, like I understand what the word means but the direct connection with it has faded and I don’t want to call her Mom at the moment, I want to call her by her first name but I have no idea what my mother’s name actually is.
She sets me down gently and her arms loosen and slide from around me but her fingers never leave me as they trace sweaty contrails across my back, under my armpits up to my neck where she cups my face in both hands. A move only mastered by a mother. “Hi, baby,” she says and I both resent it because I’m not a baby anymore and miss it because I would give the remaining years of my life for the chance to be nine again in the company of this woman if only for one day.
She calls my father over while carrying on a constant stream of nervous and excited chatter in an attempt to catch me up on all the events that occurred since the last time we laid eyes on each other.
My father approaches with caution as if I come with a warning. He has undoubtedly been told what has been done to me while I was in captivity and probably some of the things I had to do to myself in order to stay alive. He doesn’t know everything because I am the only survivor, there’s no one else to bear witness and I will never tell another soul everything that I’ve been through in order to be here today. And it would break him to hear it so it becomes one of the many burdens I must bear alone.
His haunted eyes are misted with tears that he fights to control as he offers me that sidewinder smile of his–a name Mom gave him because he only smiles and talks out of one side of his mouth as if he’s a stroke victim. “Hi, kiddo,” he says.
All the others unknowingly crowd me and the only person I would not mind that of, my father, does not. He sees it, the invisible property lines that mark my personal space and respects the boundaries. I want to tell him, forget the signposts, just come hug me, Daddy but those are words I don’t know how to speak so I say, “Hi, Dad,” and I manage to dig up a smile from the recesses of some long forgotten happiness. At least I hope it looks like a smile, I haven’t done it in so long, I fear I might’ve lost the knack.
Mom is still babbling away nonstop when she remembers her basic etiquette, “Oh! Are you hungry? You must be famished!” And before I can answer,
“Get her something to drink,” Dad says. “Something cold.” And Mom takes off like a shot into the kitchen.
My father just stands there looking at me, taking in the measure of me. I can’t see the missing years on my mother but on him, I see every second, minute, hour, day, month and year. Beneath his thinning hair, deep wrinkles crease his face. He’s worried and afraid of me and for me but he manages a smile.
In a voice low enough for my ears only, he says, “It’s gonna bother you, what you did, but just know you did the right thing. You ended the man who stole you from us and found your way home again. That’s my girl.”
I’m stunned. Of all the things I expected from this moment straightforward acceptance was never in the running. I rush my daddy and throw my arms around him and break down and cry and he squeezes me tight and all the things that I can’t say and all the things he can’t say, they’re all there, transmitted on a biological level and he doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, doesn’t loosen his grip on me until my body stops shaking, until I have no more sobs and no more strength left.
He scoops me up into his arms and for the second time today I am nine years old again. “I think she’s had enough excitement for one day, so thank you all for coming but now it’s time for us to be alone,” Dad says, as he pushes through the crowd and carries me upstairs to my old room.
He sets me down gently on my bed that’s now too small for me, brushes the hair matted by tears and snot from my face, kisses my forehead and says, “When you’re ready.” and I know exactly what he means.
He leaves, taking Mom with him, assuring her it’s the right thing to do and as their voices get smaller I get up from the bed, lock my bedroom door, draw the blinds shut and crawl until my bed and ball up fetal, relishing the dark and the quiet.
Tomorrow I’ll begin trying to locate the house I was rescued from because although this house is nice, it’s no longer a place for me.
The moon, merely a crescent in the cloudless night sky, shines brightly on the car parked at the corner Acorn and Walmer Streets. It is a 1968 cherry red customized Mustang GT convertible with an ornate sugar skull painted on the bonnet and intricate, colorful dia de los Muertos designs running on the sides, that rides on white wall tires with twenty-inch wire-spoked rims—and it has a name, Sangriento Asesinato, which translates as Bloody Murder.
Despite the car’s garish appearance, to the casual mundane observer, it goes virtually unnoticed because of the obfuscation spell it employs, low-level magicks weaved into the Day of the Dead designs that causes the eye to notice the car but immediately slide off it like July rain off a duck’s back to find something a little more interesting to view.
In Sangriento Asesinato’s passenger seat, Xiomara sniffs the air as her autumn-orange eyes shift left and right down the unnaturally dark and empty street just beyond the intersection.
“Sight doesn’t match the scent, Diya, so this must be the place,” she says. Xiomara is a red fox no bigger than a small dog but should anyone ever be foolish enough to call her a fox, she would rip their throat clean out. She prefers to be called a Vulpes vulpes because it makes her sound like an animal that is all business at all times. Xiomara’s fur, much like the car she rides in, is red, flame red, with a white underbelly, black paws and ear tips and her bushy tail is tipped in white. “And the street is crowded.”
Gennadiya Rodrigues drums her fingers on the chain steering wheel and says, “I’d expect no less. Hopefully, none of them are drunk, high, stupid or trigger happy. I’d rather this be a friendly visit.”
Gennadiya checks her face in the rearview mirror. Eyebrows penciled on, thin, arched and menacing. Winged black eyeliner. Black lined lips with blue-based red lipstick. Cheeks sculpted with a bronze based blush. Jet black shoulder length hair teased to sit off her face, secured by a red bandana with white sigils replacing the standard paisley design. The two studs on her forehead, her third eye piercing, centered between and just above the eyebrows sparkle as they catch the overhead street lamp, as does the moon phase—two gold crescents bookending a full moon—septum piercing. Large gold hoop earrings swing as she turns her head left and right. The look isn’t perfect, not up to her usual standard, but she is in a rush so it will have to suffice.
Reaching past the red fox, Gennadiya opens the glove compartment and places her twin Glock 19 9mm pistols along with a karambit knife, Kubotan keychain and brass knuckles inside before closing the box.
“You’re going in naked?” Xiomara cocks her head to one side, confused.
“No choice, Xio. It’s a sign of respect and I can’t have them thinking there’s any hostile intent behind my visit.”
The driverside car door swings open and Gennadiya steps out into the night air which is cool and dry, smoothing her flannel shirt—just the collar buttoned—with her hands so the open shirt frames the white bustier that accentuates her cleavage. Normally she would hide her breasts under layers of gold jewelry but all the accoutrements associated with this aspect of her persona are back at her apartment and as stated before, time is of the essence. Luckily, she tossed all this stuff inside the trunk along with a pair of dress pants and high top Converse sneakers after she finished the Hell Jockeys gig, so the ensemble is at least ninety percent passable.
She leans on the open door. “You can sit this one out if you want. I’ve got it covered,” Gennadiya says to the fox who raises on all fours. She can tell Xiomara is nervous about being here and wants to give her friend an easy out.
Xiomara snorts and trot-hops off the car seat onto the pavement past Gennadiya. “When have I ever not had your back, Diya?”
“Never,” Gennadiya admits and slams the car door shut.
Acorn Street runs the width of the city from river to river and is widely considered a boring thoroughfare as it lays no claim to fame to any unique or interesting shops, theaters or any other sites that attract tourism and if truth be known, it is fairly boring, which makes it a perfect hiding spot.
Every city, town and community in the world plays host to its fair share of ghost stories, urban legends and unexplainable occurrences and the tiny patch of Acorn that runs between Walmer Street and Readly Avenue is purported by the superstitious subculture to house the legendary Jecrossi Embassy.
The mystical and harmonious city neighborhood gently governed by the Grey Folk—first appearing in the 1944 novel Know No Home by Syrian author Miran Mansour—has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, a permanently happy land, that chooses to isolate itself from the world.
It is said that the Embassy exists within a pocket dimension—a space too small or too easily accessible to be truly considered a separate dimension—which is fine for things like a bag of holding which can contain numerous cumbersome items because it is larger on the inside but becomes unstable when trying to hold a small, secluded world complete with its own ecosystem and lifeforms.
As it turns out, the internet theories are correct and the Embassy is actually situated at this location but it isn’t visible or accessible because the single city block has been magickally shifted left of center one second out of sync with time and space. On her own, Gennadiya doubts she would have been able to sense this place, fortunately for her Xiomara, being a creature of enchantment gifted with an extraordinarily sensitive nose for magick, can smell the displacement.
Xiomara crosses the street, stopping at the curb and sniffs her way in a straight line from the east to west and stops at a point just before curb on the opposite side of the street. “Got it!” Xiomara smiles. “Follow me and stay close in case there are any twists and turns along the way. Some of these things can be like mazes and you can get caught up in them for hours until your air runs out. Others just boot you out but trust me, suffocating feels a whole lot better than having your atoms forced through a sieve.”
Gennadiya is surprised and a little embarrassed at the sense of growing unease, mostly because she imagines all the horrible things that can go wrong, even though she watches as Xiomara trots into the invisible entryway with apparent ease.
The mystic sigils dyed onto her bandana begin to glow as Gennadiya takes her first step and she experiences a sudden dropping sensation, the tarmac beneath her feet seems to fall away as if she is in an elevator, and her next unsteady step is like walking on a boat in choppy waters. She realizes it’s just her internal body clock adjusting to the one second time displacement which on its own would have been manageable if not accompanied by the feeling that she is passing through a veil of nematocysts, jellyfish stingers, a sensation she is all too familiar with after being stung at the beach as a little girl. Despite the sigils allowing her to step into sync with Jecrossi, she feels the nettles firing warnings into her body, thousands of needle pricks that urge her to turn back and leave.
She does her level best to remain upright and follows her friend, who stops at the tricky bits where the invisible entryway breaks into a sharp turn or bends in an odd fashion, and when they eventually pass through to the other side, Gennadiya notices the shift in reality almost immediately. The street beneath her feet is compacted soil instead of tarmac and the sidewalk is leveled natural stone instead of concrete. The air is different, too, nearly dense enough to be liquid and tasting of ozone just after a lightning strike and the scents of this neighborhood are somehow foreign, differing from the rest of the city. She commends Xiomara under her breath at being able to detect anything by smell alone amidst the chaotic fragrances.
“So this is what paradise looks like, huh?” Xiomara says. Sarcasm takes on a whole new flavor when coming from a fox.
But she is right. The Jecrossi Embassy, the fabled inner city Shangri-La, is little more than a magick ghetto. Visually, the street which seems deserted only a block away is bustling with activity and not only because of their arrival. Street vendors exchange their wares, foodstuffs, clothing, home essentials and yes, some enchantments and drugs for odd trinkets that bears no resemblance to any sort of currency on the planet to pedestrians who give Gennadiya and Xiomara strange and untrusting sideways glances.
There are magicks in these streets that emanate from the cracks in the sidewalk and the graffitied tenement walls. Animals that might be mistaken for rats, cats and dogs dart from in between the apartment buildings and the back alley of the restaurant on the far corner. Yet, despite the enchantment that crackles against her exposed skin like static electricity, life is no different on this block than the rest of the city. Dejection and starvation and cruelty exist here, evidenced by the diseased bodies and damaged minds that abandoned dreams of a better life in order to simply survive on garbage scraps and sleeping in cardboard boxes amongst the vermin that are not rats or cats or dogs. Street preachers deliver sermons to these wretches from tattered grimoires that pass in looks but not content to holy scriptures.
“Look at the gaunt faces, Diya,” Xiomara says, her fox voice cracking. “The stories etched on them, stories enough to snap your heart in two.”
If Gennadiya hears her friend, she gives no indication. “We have eyes on us, Xio,” she says, pointing at the stoop of the nearest brownstone where three rail thin and heavily tattooed men turn their faces and whisper to each other. One of them whistles up to one of the brownstone’s windows and makes a sound like a crow’s caw.
“It’s showtime,” Gennadiya says, picking up her pace as she walks in their direction.
Xiomara doesn’t match her friend’s speed, preferring to hang back and assess the situation.
Gennadiya looks over her shoulder and says, “No shame in heading back to the car.”
“Shame’s got nothing to do with it,” Xiomara snaps. “I’m afraid because I’m smart enough to know that we’re walking headlong into trouble.” The red fox quickens her steps to catch up with Gennadiya.
From the brownstone’s main entrance, ten more wiry men with matching skin ink join the lookouts, making it a baker’s dozen. They approach, affecting that badass stroll wannabes wear like a tough guy accessory, pistol grips protruding from the top of their skinny jeans waistbands and for the first time she realizes they’re barefoot and now that she notices it, everyone on the street except for her isn’t wearing shoes. The fingers on all of their hands twitch as if they’re throwing gang signs but Gennadiya recognizes it as the actions of low-level magick users, apprentices, in order to prime the pump—in the same manner that a suction valve in an old water pump needs to be primed with water so that the pump functions properly. The Jecrossi specialize in earth magick and apprentices need to prime their bodies in order for earth energies to flow up into and through them.
GetaDiya holds out her empty hands, carefully lifts the sides of the open flannel shirt and does a slow turn to show she isn’t strapped. “Take it easy,” she says, in as disaffected a manner as she could muster. “Bringing no ruckus. Just need to speak with Ekaterina.”
Because they are all bald and thin and are marked by the same tattoos, the goons look like they come from the same mold with the one out in front being the first cast and the others appearing to have increasing degrees of degradation with each successive pressing. They cautiously fan themselves out until they form a circle around Gennadiya and Xiomara.
“You expected?” asks the lead goon.
“No, but she’ll see me,” Gennadiya says, her eyes locking onto the penetrating gaze of the lead goon standing immediately in front of her.
“Tell then who you are,” Xiomara says.
“Shut your mouth, little doggie, people are talking.”
“Vulpes vulpes!” Xiomara snarls.
“I’m a Vulpes vulpes, not a damned doggie!”
“You’re gonna be dinner if–“
The index and middle fingers of both Gennadiya’s hands go into her mouth. The goons raise their hands ready to cast on her and bring her down to the tarmac. Pushing back her tongue, she whistles six notes sharp and loud in a very distinct pattern, a pattern that halts the goons in their tracks. It is the Six Tones of Order Within Chaos, the call of the Jecrossi.
The goons stare at Gennadiya, disbelieving what they just heard. Then their expression shifts to suspicion.
“How do you know the call?” asks lead goon.
“Like I said, Ekaterina will see me because we go back, long before the likes of you or before she came to this neighborhood,” the sadness in her eyes mirrors Xiomara’s own upon first seeing the state of the people who seek refuge here.
Before the lead goon can respond, one of the middle windows on the top row of the brownstone opens and a brown-skinned woman pops her head out. “What’s going on?” she demands.
Lead goon is about to tell the woman it was Gennadiya who whistled but thinks better of it and opts for, “Someone here to see the boss.”
“Someone like who?” asks the woman.
Gennadiya brushes past the lead goon to step into the street light and calls up to the woman, “Someone like Garota Exilada!”
“And Xiomara!” the red fox barks.
Gennadiya shoots Xiomara a baleful glance but can’t maintain it. “And her companion, the Vulpes vulpes, Xiomara!” she echoes and her scowl becomes a smile.
They are escorted by the lead goon and four of his cronies up to the common room which is uncomfortably larger than the exterior of the brownstone. It reminds Gennadiya of a museum, not just in the space but in all glass-encased artifacts, as well. The floor is tiled in polished sandstone, the walls travertine stacked stone and the furniture appears to be Mesopotamian in design but she can’t be certain on the accuracy of her assessment. Although artwork decorates the walls there are no personal photographs. There is enough room here to house dozens of the homeless outside but this seemingly perfect place is far too cold in its tranquility to feel in any way homey.
In the center of the room stands the brown-skinned woman who introduces herself as Serilda. She, a full foot taller than anyone in the room, points at Gennadiya, “You follow me, the Vulpes vulpes remains here.”
Xiomara begins to argue but Serilda remains firm and insists there will be no audience with Ekaterina if the Vulpes vulpes refuses to remain in the common room. Gennadiya tells the red fox it will be all right and repeats that she and Ekaterina go way back so there shouldn’t be any danger.
Xiomara ponders for a moment before reluctantly saying, “Okay, but if things go sideways just holler and I’ll tear through these clowns like field mice!” She stares directly at the lead goon when she says it and he replies with a mocking growl which makes the red fox’s fluffy tail twitch in anger.
Gennadiya is shown into the adjoining room which is somehow larger than the impossibly large common room, with Serilda in the lead and the goons bringing up the rear. The walls are lined with books stacked in a chaotic fashion on recessed wooden shelves and this indoor library smells of petrichor, the scent of rain on dry earth, which would explain the moisture that dots the spines of all the books. In the exact center of the room is a reading chair that is nothing more than a series of interwoven vines that grow directly from the lush green carpet of dewy grass and in the chair sits Ekaterina, positioned perfectly with a book open to a blank page on her lap, graphite stick firmly in hand and at the ready.
“I’d like to say something clever like all the chickens, even the headstrong independent ones always come home to roost but the fact of the matter is you’ve never been here, isn’t that right, Exilada?” Ekaterina says in a warm but measured tone.
The woman’s alabaster skin and albino snakeskin dress are almost a perfect camouflage within the silky white mist that rises from the grass and snakes around her. She appears to be in her sixties—but Gennadiya suspects she’s much older because she looks the same as when they first met almost two decades ago—and wears absolutely no makeup because only an insecure fool applies foundation on natural beauty. Her pearl hair is oiled back and plaited in a style that should have looked ridiculous on someone her age but she carries it off with authority.
“You always did know how to strike a pose, Kat,” Gennadiya says, attempting a for old time’s sake grin that simply will not come.
“That’s Ekaterina to you,” Ekaterina says as she takes in the sum of her unexpected visitor. “So, tell me a story.”
“What?” Gennadiya shifts uncomfortably in a small puddle on the carpet grass. Ekaterina has caught her off guard, a feeling she never appreciates. “I don’t have any stories.”
“Nonsense, everyone has stories and I collect them, you see,” Ekaterina says, gesturing with a nod for Gennadiya to sit. “Everything is present for a story to exist: a teller, that would be you, and an audience, which would be me.”
The offered seat—a normal metal folding chair with padding—is as much out of place with the room’s décor as she herself is. A reminder, no doubt, that she is considered an interloper. The fact that the chair is bone dry despite the moist surroundings is of small consolation. Gennadiya squirms until she finds the position that affords the least amount of discomfort and says, “Thanks for the seat but still…no stories.”
“No reunion catch up? No explanation as to why you disappeared on me in the middle of the night? Nothing that covers your whereabouts and activities over the years, things we might have discussed had you bothered to remain in contact?”
“I’m not the keep in contact kind of gal, you know that.”
“Well, if you’re not here to apologize, justify your actions and perhaps reminisce a bit, then what brings you to my home?”
“I’m on a case…” Gennadiya pauses because she feels unsure of how to phrase the next bit. “And I need your help.” She expects to be scoffed or laughed at but is instead greeted by nothing but silence.
“It’s a girl,” Gennadiya continues when it becomes clear Ekaterina is waiting to hear more details. “A little girl and I know who took her so I need to do an extraction.”
“Is she here?” Ekaterina asks. “Are you asking my permission before you steal someone from the Embassy?”
Gennadiya shakes her head. “She’s in Megorum. The Clanarchists have her.”
“Again, I ask, what brings you? Your target is a little girl, easy to transport. This should be a cakewalk for the legendary Garota Exilada,” the insult in the way Ekaterina says her business name is plain as day and it cuts slightly.
“Megorum is shielded against me, I can’t get in. I’ve tried.”
Ekaterina shrugs, “Cast a piercer. Why darken my doorstep?”
“I don’t magick.”
“What? After all these years I would have thought you would have picked up something,” Ekaterina says then recalls something. “But they tell me you have a familiar?”
“Xiomara isn’t a familiar. She’s my friend—”
“Best friend!” the fox interrupts.
“…best friend with excellent hearing who should be minding her business and letting me handle mine,” Gennadiya shouts over her shoulder before turning her attention back to Ekaterina. “Xiomara caught the tail end of an enchantment meant for me and got transmogrified into a—” she is about to say red fox but catches herself in time. “—Vulpes vulpes.”
“She was human?”
“Still is, to me, and I’m working on tracking down the slippery bastard responsible for it.”
“Wait,” Ekaterina says. “You said Megorum is shielded against you. Not merely shielded, but against you in particular, that would make it—”
“A blood shield.”
“You can’t cross the barrier because traces of your blood have been intertwined in the incantation but why go through all that trouble, unless—” Ekaterina cuts the sentence short and dismisses Serilda and the goons, who go through the proper etiquette of voicing their objections and citing the possibility of an attack before complying with the request when it is restated as a command. When they are gone, Ekaterina asks, “Who is this girl?”
“She’s my daughter, Kat. Those hijos de putas kidnapped my baby girl and I aim to get her back and put every last one of them in the ground!”
Ekaterina shakes her head and glances over at Gennadiya before turning her sorrowful
gaze to the ground.
“That is terrible news, it really is, and I realize how difficult it must be to come to me asking for help but I can’t help feeling like I’m being played here.”
“Not so much as a single hello exchanged between us in years, yet you knew to find me in this hidden part of the city so you’re obviously aware of the beef I have with the Clanarchists. If I get a sudden twinge of compassion and decide to help you pierce their blood shield—and I’m assuming the same barrier that stops you from getting in, also prevents your daughter from escaping, correct?”
“I’d imagine so.”
“Then the spell we cast would have to remain in place long enough for you to enter Megorum, locate your little girl and escape with her, which means the magick can and will be traced back to us, bringing a war to our doorstep. Where will you be when that happens? Standing at our borders fighting side by side with us?”
“If needs be, then yes.”
“If-then-yes isn’t a definitive yes, which is the problem I have with this situation because if by some small miracle this thing goes to plan and you’re able to get your daughter back, you’ll be grateful, I’m sure of that, but there’s a difference between feeling gratitude and showing gratitude.”
“You’re not catching me at my best here so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t answer with the precise words you need to hear in order to help me, but I’ve got a lot going on in my head at the moment. Allow me to answer the question again: Yes, once my daughter is safe, I will return and help you defend your borders.”
Then the conversation stops and the long silence that replaces it is loaded with the dread of possibility that somewhere along the way Gennadiya said the wrong thing or the right thing in the wrong way and totally ruined her chance to recruit the aid of the Jecrossi leader who was once her friend.
Ekaterina stands and paces around her seat, her eyes cast downward and never making contact with Gennadiya. “This place used to be the paradise you hear about in the urban legends,” Ekaterina says in a low, almost under-the-breath voice as if she is talking to herself. “Built by the Grey Folk, it was meant to be a safe haven for enchanted beings and its doors were open to all, even the likes of me. And as bad as I was, I wasn’t the worst person to gain entry. There were people hungry for power, in love with destruction, nasty killers who didn’t care who or what they slew. And they tried to gut this place. But I and the last of the remaining Grey Folk stood against them and forced them into exile. The effort cost us. We depleted most of the magick within this place, the most powerful earth energy source on the planet. And I’m working with the strongest remaining earth mages to heal it, to return the land to what it once was, but the progress, the healing, is slow. So, you see, this thing you ask of me is no small matter.”
“Kat, I could scream I’m sorry for not keeping in touch, for not being there when you needed me until I’m blue in the face but that’s not going to change the reality of what’s done is done. And there’s no way of me convincing you of the truth that if I did actually have some magick, I would help you restore this place. As it stands, the only thing I have to offer is my life and I would gladly give it to save my daughter but I swear on my little girl’s life that if you help me and pledge to keep her safe in case I don’t come out on the other side of this alive then my life is yours to do as you see fit.”
Ekaterina taps her lips with an index finger. “And you would enter the unbreakable pact of a blood oath?”
“Do you have a blade?” Gennadiya asks. “I’ll slice my palm right here and now.”
Xiomara goes through the motions of conducting an inspection of the room, sniffing this and that, but what she is actually doing is marking everyone’s location in the room and judging distances in the enormous space in order to formulate the best plan of attack and escape should she and Gennadiya need to beat a hasty retreat. Her attention snaps from the foot of a bronze statue of a naked man to the door of the antechamber as Gennadiya and Ekaterina enter. A piece of cloth is wrapped around each of their right hands and a bud of blood blossoms in their palms.
Xiomara races to Gennadiya making a series of brief clucks, her concerned gekkering as she pushes her snout into her friend’s bleeding palm, sniffing and biting at the cloth to remove it. “Are you okay? What happened in there? Let me see the wound! Is it deep?”
“It’s okay, Xio,” Gennadiya strokes Xiomara’s heading attempting to calm her. “I did this so we could get what we came here for.”
“Although the world outside the Embassy is of no concern to us at the moment,” Ekaterina addresses the room in a cool, even tone. “Garota Exilada has sworn a blood oath to aid us and in exchange, we will help her retrieve her daughter who has been stolen by the Clanarchists.”
A grumbling begins to stir amongst Serilda and the goons, one of anger mixed with apprehension.
Ekaterina points at Serilda and the lead goon as she continues, “Serilda and Ozias, you will accompany Exilada and her companion to cast a piercing spell and return them safely to us. Their lives are your responsibility now.”
Serilda nods acceptance. Ozias does as well but it takes him a little longer and he looks none too pleased.
I opened the apartment door performing my famous grocery juggling act, organic cotton bags of the heavier items in each hand with two more sacks containing lighter stuff dangling off my wrists. I could have pulled out the shopping cart and saved myself the hassle of lugging the load from the supermarket, true, but the building’s elevator was on the fritz yet again and I didn’t relish the thought of pulling my arms out of their sockets by dragging the cart up seven flights of stairs one agonizingly slow step at a time. Slamming the front door shut with my heel, I went to the kitchen and flicked the light switch with my nose—and nearly dropped the bags.
There was someone standing in the kitchen.
My husband was at work and Katy was watching my daughter so the apartment was supposed to be empty but there this stranger stood. Terror trapped the scream in my throat and locked my legs rigid. I walked in on a robbery and now there was a very distinct possibility that I was going to die. And even if the burglar didn’t kill me, I wouldn’t be able to identify him. I was born with a visual processing disorder where I wasn’t able to differentiate between certain shapes, letters, small details and facial features. Therapy helped me learn a unique way of processing visual information so it was manageable except during anxiety attacks or when I encountered a sudden visual shock.
The man in my kitchen–I assumed it was a man because the blob was taller and broader than me–appeared to me as nothing more than a silhouette, a thing that didn’t compute, that didn’t make sense because he wasn’t supposed to be here. Still rooted to the spot, unable to move, I tried to calm myself, to focus, so that if I managed to survive I could give the police some sort of description.
And slowly I began assembling and rearranging bits of visual fragments. It was a man. His back was to me. He was standing in front of the under-cabinet mounted microwave, his hands picking at something that sounded like plastic. Then the puzzle pieces fit into place and I knew this man by his brown comb-over with its deep part, the slump of his shoulders in the navy pea coat.
“Caleb! Oh, my friggin’ God! What the hell are you doing lurking in the kitchen in the dark like that? You almost scared the living daylights out of me!” The tension flooded from my body and I was suddenly aware of the weight of the groceries that nearly slipped from my hands as I stumbled to set them on the kitchen table.
“I thought you were a burglar about to kill me or something! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?” I demanded.
“Sorry about that, babe, I should have called,” Caleb said. He was about to put a small bag of pork pot stickers in the microwave but set the plastic pouch back on the counter. He didn’t turn around.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I have to tell you something,” he said and I didn’t like the sound of his voice.
“What something and why won’t you turn around and look at me?” I asked but my heart was hammering in my chest because all I could imagine was that he was going to admit he was cheating on me. All those long hours when he was supposed to be at work–
“It’s about the job.”
It almost didn’t register because I was preparing myself for the worst. When it finally sank in I let out a sigh of relief but caught myself. “Did you get fired?” That was something that absolutely positively could not happen now, not with Elizangela going back to school next month.
“Worse than that, I’m afraid.”
“What’s worse than getting fired?” I asked. After being frightened half to death, the needle on my patience gauge was swiftly approaching the big red E.
“I got–” Caleb swung around and smiled that fantastic smile of his, the one that made the butterflies flutter in my stomach. “Promoted!”
I could feel my eyes going wide. “No friggin’ way!”
“Yes friggin’ way,” said Caleb and he was on me before I knew it, sweeping me off my feet in that wonderfully secure bear hug of his. “And it comes with a hefty, hefty, hefty salary bump!”
I went rigid in his arms. “Wait a minute. Three hefties? Either you’re exaggerating or that’s a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong, honey, I’m not saying you don’t work hard and deserve every penny of it but what’s the catch?”
Caleb set me down gently. “It isn’t like that, babe, there’s no catch. Not really.”
“I knew it. Spill.”
“Built into the pay raise is an insane relocation fee–“
Caleb nodded and continued, “If I can manage to move house and start work by the fifteenth.”
“The fifteenth? That’s only a week away!”
“I know but we’ve always been the #ChallengeAccepted type,” he smiled again but I wasn’t having any of it this go-round.
“Relocate to where?”
“Fort Wayne, Indiana,” he said under his breath.
“Who-what-where? What the hell is in Fort Wayne, Indiana?”
“I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff but the biggest attraction is the relocation fee could cover the cost of our first house. Our. First. House. Our dollar would go a long way and we could spend more of it on Liza to make sure she gets the best of everything, things we can’t afford to give her in New York. Where is she, by the way?”
“With my sister, it’s easier to do the shopping with her preoccupied.” Elizangela was at the Ooo, Mommy, can we please get this? stage in her development which was okay for the leisurely stroll through shops but not so great on the money-is-tight necessity runs.
I looked at him for a long moment. He’d have had to know about this for a while now but he kept it from me even though we made a no-secrets pact and if I brought this up he’d hand me some line about not wanting to jinx the promotion and I’d be upset but I’d know he was telling the truth because he was a big believer in the almighty jinx.
My first instinct was to say no, to fight him tooth and nail, all because he hadn’t consulted me on this enormously life-changing decision. But that would have been petty. Yeah, my feelings were hurt but it would be our first house, something we’d been talking about for years. And a better life for our daughter? I’d be a heinous-monster-worst-mother-on-the-planet if I didn’t set my wounded pride aside and at least consider it. So, I did.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I shrugged.
“Are you serious? I can tell my boss yes?”
“You didn’t accept it already?”
“Of course not, not without checking with you first.”
I gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before leaning in to whisper in his ear, “You big, stupid idiot! I love you, sometimes, you know that?”
Thanks to the internet, finding a house, even one that was seven hundred and forty-seven miles driving distance away was a piece of cake. The hardest part? Ignoring the common sense warnings from our parents and friends who thought our decision was rash, something we’d done because we were bored. But in the end, it was our choice to make and if they still hadn’t liked it after we explained the situation to them, they could just go ahead and lump it.
Online, we managed to locate a real estate agent who understood our situation and was willing to work with us in finding a fixer-upper in our price range, getting the house appraised and coordinating the paperwork so we could close the sale in five days, skipping the entire mortgage credit process by paying in cash.
Elizangela was the biggest shock in the relocating process. I’d have bet my eyeteeth that she would have kicked up a storm having to leave Queens and all her friends behind but Caleb cleverly presented the idea using Duck Tales, her favorite tv show, as an analogy.
“We might solve a mystery?” Elizangela asked, face full of childish hope.
“Or rewrite history,” Caleb answered and joined her in singing the show’s catchy theme song.
And like that, our daughter was sold on the idea and helped pack all her things with nary a complaint. My only complaint? We decided it was cheaper to drive, though it added five hours or so to the trip which Caleb and I took turns behind the wheel of the rental so there was no problem there, it was Elizangela singing the once adorable but now monotonous Duck Tales theme song on a loop for most of the time she was awake that began grating on my nerves.
Our new home pretty much matched the virtual tour we took on the realtor’s website. It was indeed a fixer-upper and would probably take the better part of a year before all the repairs could be completed. The outside was another story entirely. The front lawn was a respectable size, enough for me to create a nice vegetable garden, but the backyard was massive and overgrown to the point I thought we’d have to buy a couple of machetes, like in those old safari films, to hack the tall grass down to a mowable size. The plan was to tame the savage land and maybe build a grilling deck for our eventual summer barbeques and a playset for Elizangela to go on her Duck Tales adventures in and maybe entice some of the neighborhood kids to come over so she could make some new friends. Those plans all changed the moment we came across the graveyard.
I was on Caleb the moment he stepped into the house after work. “Do you want to know why this house was so cheap?”
“It’s a fixer-upper,” he answered, confused and a little more than slightly uncomfortable at the proximity of my face to his own. “We both knew that going into this. Why is it a big deal all of a sudden?”
“It’s not the repairs, Caleb Allen Mitchell,” I whisper-screamed. Even though I was on the verge of hysteria I was mindful not to upset Elizangela who was upstairs playing in her room. “It’s the friggin graveyard sitting smack dab in the middle of our backyard!”
“Graveyard? Did the previous owner bury a pet or something?”
“Pet? There are twelve graves with headstones out back! That’s not a memorial for poor, dead Fluffy, it’s a creepy-as-hell-honest-to-goodness graveyard!”
“Okay, calm down. Let me check it out,” he said trying not to sound skeptical and doing a lousy job at it.
I marched–it was more of an angry stomp-walk that seemed to me at the time to be childish but I couldn’t help myself–him down the foyer, past the living room, through the kitchen and flung the back door wide.
“Tell me I’m overreacting,” I said gesturing at the tombstones.
Caleb trudged over the carpet of tall grass that I spent the better part of the day attacking with the weed wacker and knelt beside the closest headstone.
“These are pretty old,” he said, running his over the cracked surface of the crumbling stone. “The inscriptions aren’t even legible anymore, most likely due to acid rain which means they’re probably made of calcite.”
“How do you know so much about headstones?”
“My dad,” Caleb answered. “My gran died when I was little and I was terrified of the cemetery when we buried her so my dad took me on walking tours of graveyards and told me the truth about what happens when we die and why funerals were important. Sometimes we’d just marvel at the tombstone designs and he could tell what they were made from just by looking at them. Some fathers and sons had sports, me and my dad had graveyards. That may seem pretty morbid to you, but those were some of the best memories of my dad. It was just the guys and he would talk to me like a man.”
“I think it’s kind of sweet in a weird way,” I said and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah, Dad’s always been pretty unconventional,” Caleb patted my hand, stood and dug the cellphone from his pocket. He made several calls, the first being to the realtor who sold us the house. I had to admit, he was good deal calmer and damn sure more polite than I would have been had the roles been reversed.
“No, this is not a crank call,” Caleb said into the phone. “Yes, there are twelve headstones. No, they’re really old, the information on them has been worn. No, I have not dug them up to confirm the existence of dead bodies. How do I know it is a graveyard? The headstones I just mentioned are giving me a strong indication that someone interred their dead beneath them. I can snap a couple of pics and send them to you if you’d like.”
Believe it or not, he had to repeat those answers several times to several different departments and organizations and what we learned was there was not going to be a swift resolution to our problem.
First, we had to contact the Historic Preservation Office to see if the land our house was built on was a former cemetery. Luckily for us, it wasn’t. Nor was there a family plot permit on record with the town Zoning Commission or approval from the state Department of Health.
We were informed there was a possibility the gravestones had been discarded. As creepy as it sounded, some people saw the value of the stones as building materials, but our stones–I didn’t like the fact that Caleb acknowledged ownership when speaking on the phone or that I had come to refer to them in the same manner–were out in the open and not used as part of our house’s foundation. The other suggestion offered was the previous owners might have thought they made for cool conversation pieces during backyard barbeques. Since the only way we could have verified this was to dig up one the graves ourselves–and there was no way in hell we were going to do that–we contacted the police.
To make a long story short, let’s just say the grave markers weren’t for show. Each stone did indeed contain a coffin in which were human remains. When the medical examiners arrived with the local tv station reporters and camera crew, our internet-folly-first-house became a tabloid story and possible crime scene.
A forensic anthropologist was brought in to examine the human remains to establish the identity, or if that was not possible, at least the age, sex, number of individuals present, and other facts. Once it was established that the remains were not part of a crime scene they were turned over to a local cemetery for reburial.
Then we were contacted by the Registrar of Cemeteries and told about the Funeral Burial and Cremations Services Act, which made it our responsibility to fix the problem. Because some grieving or possibly idiotic person choose to bury their dead in the backyard and the realtors hadn’t bothered to check the tall grass behind the house, we had to foot the bill for either reinterring at another site or cremating the remains–hell, let’s just call them what they were, bones–at a price tag that ranged between $500 and $1,000 per body.
That was when I went lawyer shopping, even though the realtor assured us, “The situation can be worked out amicably.” Amicably meant they might accept partial financial responsibility for a clerical oversight. My aim was to make them pay entirely for their screw up with a little extra for the obvious emotional distress. I played that distress up on camera the day I discovered a newspaper reporter lurking outside my daughter’s school waiting to ambush the both of us for an interview.
During the entire ordeal, Elizangela was grace under fire. She got that from her dad. She was full of questions, though, and we answered them as truthfully as we could. The graveyard forced us to introduce the concept of death sooner than we wanted to and she struggled with the same concepts I struggled with when my parents had the talk with me.
“Death is permanent,” Caleb said. “Do you know what permanent means?”
Elizangela shook her head and her bangs danced in front of her eyes.
“It means forever, honey,” I said, taking her tiny hand in mine. “It means once you die, you go away and never come back.”
“You mean move? Like we did from our old home to our new home?”
Calen shook his head slowly. “No, Liza, when a person dies, that means their body stops working. Their heart doesn’t beat anymore, they don’t need to eat or sleep, and they don’t feel any pain ever again. They leave their body because they don’t need it anymore.”
“But that’s other people, not us, right?” Elizangela asked.
What followed was a very long, extremely exhausting everything that is alive eventually dies conversation that ended with our baby saying, “Oh.” No tears, no hysterics, no subsequent nightmares or follow up questions. Just, “Oh.”
After a month or so of avoiding the backyard after the police concluded their business and things in the neighborhood began returning to normal, Caleb and I revisited plans to spruce up the area behind the house. The first order of business was filling in the former graves.
The problem was they wouldn’t stay filled.
The dirt shoveled into the holes the day before appeared by the graves the very next day. Not all the dirt, mind you, but enough to make noticeable piles. I didn’t want to worry Caleb about it, he had too much on his plate as it was with the new position and following up on our lawsuit with the realtor and tracking down the previous owners of the house, so I shoveled the dirt back in and never mentioned a word to my husband. But the following morning, sure as bread fell butter-side down, there the dirt would be in neat little piles.
We had gotten to know all our neighbors pretty well, especially after the tv news coverage put our area in the spotlight longer than most of the residents were comfortable with, but the neighbors to our immediate left, Hannelore and Sean Bogatz were two of the kindest people that ever set foot on God’s green earth. I spotted Hannelore–Hannie, to her friends–one morning when we were both retrieving the morning paper from our front lawns. During casual conversation, I mentioned the grave issue.
“It just boggles the mind why anyone would sneak onto our property and dig up the graves after we fill them? I’d write it off as an animal or something but the dirt is always piled up so neatly.”
“Well,” Hannie shrugged. “It could be kids up to a little mischief they consider to be fun or funny and if you’re leaning toward that way of thinking, I’d take a good look at those Woods boys, always up to no good. Sean and I had a run in with them a little while back that ended the moment we spoke to their parents. Strict as Irish priests in the seminary, Michael and Ella are.”
I had half a mind to pay Michael and Ella Woods a visit but what would that accomplish, accusing their sons with no real evidence? Which meant I needed to gather some. So, later on, after I put the day’s affairs in order, I took a midday nap before I needed to pick Elizangela from school and while she was up in her room, I quickly refilled the holes in the backyard–more scraping dirt into the open former graves that shoveling.
It was hard concentrating on conversations during dinner and the board game during family time because I wanted nothing more than to go out back and patrol the yard. But that had to wait until Elizangela had been put to bed and Caleb’s deep breathing turned into a light snore.
Sliding out of bed slowly and lifting my smartphone off the nightstand, I stepped as silent as I could manage, trying to remember where the creaking boards were located on the hardwood floor, and crept out of the bedroom and downstairs to the kitchen.
The casement window gave me the perfect vantage point to see out over the entire garden and one of the backless saddle stools we used for the kitchen island was the perfect sitting height for me to rest my elbows on the counter beside the sink. Earlier today I downloaded a night vision app–that was actually capable of capturing images at night, not the fake ones that simply inverted daylight images with a green overlay–on my phone in preparation for the stakeout. Not only was I determined to catch the culprit, I was also willing to sit up all night if need be.
I activated the night vision and turned the phone’s camera lens slowly, sweeping the yard. There was movement! Not a body, but dirt flying out of the hole nearest the house! I hopped off the stool, made a beeline to the kitchen door that led to the backyard–and it was unlocked? Had Caleb missed it when he made his nightly rounds securing the windows and doors? It hadn’t seemed likely. We were both native New Yorkers, Caleb represented Queens and I was raised out in Brooklyn, just like the lyrics of that LL Cool J song, and we never went to bed without making sure the house was secured.
Never mind, I would deal with that later. Now, I was racing across the cool grass and ignoring the pain in the soles of my feet as I pushed pebbles and pointy stones into the earth, on my way to gather evidence I could show Michael and Ella about their boys.
I stopped at the edge of the hole and snapped a picture. “I’ve got you now, you little shi–” It wasn’t the Woods boys.
Elizangela knelt in the center of the hole, nightgown pulled up above her knees, dirt cupped in her small hands.
“Liza, why are you playing in the–” I nearly said grave but caught myself and changed it to, “hole? It’s the middle of the night, honey!” Elizangela became upset and started to cry. Was it because I startled her, or made her feel she had been caught doing a bad thing?
I climbed into the (grave) hole and wrapped my arms around my daughter. I held her in silence until sobs waned to tears that quieted down to the occasional shudder.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I just want to know what you’re doing and why you felt you had to sneak around at nighttime instead of just telling me?”
I thought Elizangela was so distraught that she couldn’t answer my question but after a long silence, she said, “Because you and Daddy said we shouldn’t tell secrets.”
“Secrets? Whose secrets are you keeping? Did your daddy tell you a secret?” I became suddenly afraid of what her answer might be, but she shook her head.
“I can’t tell you. I’m so sorry, Mommy,” Elizangela paused and asked, “Do you still love me?”
I was floored by the question. I cupped her small face in my hands and wanted desperately to say something definitive, something that would stick within her always so she never felt the need to ask that question ever again.
“Of course I do,” I answered. “I’ll always love you, Liza, no matter what.” And I meant it but it came out too quickly, sounded too rehearsed, too much like a pat answer.
“Maybe,” Elizangela started, careful not to look at me. “Maybe it’d be okay to tell if I asked them.”
I was about to ask her who they were but she began talking out loud in a funny voice, one I would never have recognized as coming from my daughter. At first, I thought she was talking to herself then I realized she was asking questions to the dirt walls surrounding us, reasoning with them, before she made her request.
My daughter smiled, finally making eye contact. “They said okay.”
“Who said–” I started and then a door opened in my vision, a door that has been hidden in plain sight, most likely for the entirety of my life. A door that could have been responsible for my visual processing disorder. From the doorway emerged ghosts of all ages shapes and sizes. Some of the older spirits carried the essences of babies that perhaps weren’t alive long enough to develop physical bodies.
They spoke to me but not in words. Images flooded my mind, of light and darkness, of peace and violence, each of them a history being forced into my mind, faster and faster until they became a subliminal blur.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw black ink bleed from the grave walls and swirl around me and I was suddenly caught up in a tornado of black. I lost sight of Elizangela and tried to call out to her but my jaw was clamped tight as if it had been wired shut. Electrical pulses shot through my body and deadened my nerve endings. I couldn’t catch my breath as my vision started to slowly fade out.
I found myself in that ethereal realm that occupied the space between dreaming and consciousness and in that space I wasn’t me. Though I couldn’t see myself, I knew that I was in another body, or better yet, bodies, twelve to be exact. The same as the number of graves. I was in twelve different places as twelve different people living twelve different lives at the same time. The histories that had been forced upon me moments? days? years? ago now made sense. I understood these people. I knew who they were, knew their struggles, their loves, their pain, their inevitable fates and more to the point, I knew their names.
The information burned itself into my memory as I lost my footing in the intangible nirvana and slipped toward the harsh reality of the waking world. When I came to my senses, my head was resting on my daughter’s lap and she was stroking my hair the very same way I’d done to her so many times before.
“It’s only like that the first time, Mommy,” she said, smiling in that way that always reminded me of Caleb.
I sat up in the grave. There was no escaping the cold that seeped into my bones and settled in the marrow. Everything felt wrong, not just the cold. There were foreign sounds in my head, voices that weren’t my own, too loud, too busy when all I wanted was a bit of silence, some time to sort things out. And there would be time but it would come later.
I focused on Elizangela with a desperation I hadn’t felt since the day she was born, when I was afraid I knew nothing about being a mother. But my daughter’s eyes were calm and wise. Without saying a word, she told me she knew.
And now I knew, too. The bodies belonged here, it was their land first. They needed to be returned, needed to have their grave markers restored with their names and information to mark their forgotten existence on the planet. Once that was done, they could finally move on.
Now all I had to do was convince Caleb which meant I’d have to give my father-in-law a call for some pointers.
Even though it’s true that I’ve written as far back as I can remember, there were people along the way who either directly or indirectly inspired me to create and as a part of my planting memories in a retrievable location for later use, I’d like to acknowledge as many of those individuals as I can recall, while I’m still able to recall. FYI, this will be one of those long and winding roads to a heartfelt thank you, so if you’d rather move on to juicier posts, I won’t hold it against you.
Some stories are meant for you…this one is meant for me.
I’ve lived with a variety of people and families growing up. My mother was an unconventional woman who lived life the best way she could manage, but that lifestyle couldn’t bear the weight of additional passengers, so I was often the extra bit of her life that she couldn’t quite fit into her travel bag when she was bitten by the wanderlust bug.
I won’t bore you with tales and half-remembrances of the various and sundry family doorways I’ve darkened in my youth—not now, at least—but sometime back in the early seventies I landed in the final household of strangers I’d ever be forced to call family. Don’t bother pressing me on an exact date. My mind doesn’t do date-stamped memories all that well. The family isn’t the focus of this story, the kid who lived across the street is. A kid named Gary.
Gary was several years older than me and how or why we became friends is still a mystery, but we used to talk about superheroes into the night—-in particular, Captain America and Bucky. You see, Gary’s take on the whole superhero thing was that it was actually doable, given the proper dedication to the cause and constant training. In the mind of a normal kid, these talks should have been one of those topics that you explored as a fantasy and laughed about when you bumped into your childhood friend years later on some random street corner.
But bugs have a nasty habit of planting themselves in my brain.
I trained every day, sometimes with Gary, but mostly without, trying to duplicate some of the more physically achievable moves found in comic book panels or mimicking fight scenes from TV shows, especially those Shatnerific Kirk-moves from Star Trek. Yeah, I know, but I was a kid, remember?
And I believed in the superhero cause so much that I began recruiting members, much the same as the X-Men’s mentor, Charles Xavier, in order to create my own Avengers or Justice League. Carefully selected individuals who were kindhearted and often bullied, kids who could be taught to fight back for a cause larger than self. It soon blossomed into a superhero big brother program.
Gary hated the team idea, but to his credit, he stuck around longer than I thought he would have and even trained with us on the odd occasion, but eventually, he hung up his cape and cowl and called it quits. Shortly thereafter he informed me that we had to stop being friends because his mother thought I was a bad influence on him.
She wouldn’t be the last mother to have that impression of me.
I was saddened by his departure, sure, I mean it was initially his idea, but I had a group to run, and our roster was growing. We had the nimble guy, the scrapper, the acrobatic guy, the tagalong guy (hey, he was my best friend and I couldn’t say no, even though he wasn’t truly committed to the cause, he just wanted to hang out), and the leader guy (me), but we were still missing one key ingredient… the muscle guy.
Turns out the acrobatic guy knew someone from school whom he thought would fit the bill perfectly. Enter: Derrick. Hated him from the moment I clapped eyes on him and the feeling was probably mutual. We met at our headquarters. The X-Men had the School For Gifted Children, The Avengers had a mansion, the Justice League had the Secret Sanctuary (inside a cave in Happy Harbor) and we had…the public library.
Our first meeting was across the table in the Children’s section of the library (hey, it was the only empty section after school) and Derrick sat there grunting and throwing bits of paper at me for some odd reason. He was weird, to be sure, but I chalked it up to muscle guy mentality, bit the bullet, and despite my intense dislike of the kid, accepted him into our ranks. Not like I was inundated with candidates for the position.
I don’t know how long we kept it going, my memory being the spotty thing it is, but I think we had at least one solid summer of training for The Superhero Thing. Yes, that’s what we called it. Well, we eventually came up with an official name, but that’s a story for another time.
And since all good things must come to an end, the following summer the group disbanded when all the members moved away to parts unknown. The only person who remained was Derrick. We kept the group alive for as long as we could in comic book form, drawing our exploits as we battled Mugly, Schmultron the Schmobot, Quirst (yup, named after the drink… it was a tragic soda factory accident that set him on the path of evil) and other baddies either based on real people or swiped and modified from the pages of our favorite comics. We’d even sometimes swap pages and continue each other’s stories. Derrick would, of course, eventually grow up and live the life of a proper adult, while I went on to publish comic books for a seven-year stint.
So, a tip of the hat to both Gary (don’t worry, your mom was probably right) and Derrick (stop whining, dude, I didn’t use your last name, so your secret identity is still intact) for providing me with creative outlets. Especially since they’re so very hard to come by these days.
PS. Derrick is the only childhood friend I’ve managed to keep throughout the years. Go figure.
P.P.S. If I may be so bold as to quote Elwood Blues, “I’m thinking of putting the band back together.” so if you were a member of The Superhero Thing and you’re reading this, I’d advise you to brush off the latex. It’s crime fighting time!
My past often crossed paths with my present, but never with the people I desired to see again. Because of this, I’m always filled with an odd mix of embarrassing nostalgia and unwanted reflection, followed by the inevitable introspection. I see where old acquaintances are in their lives and I can’t help but look at where I am in relation to my dreams and aspirations.
No matter if you’re the outgrower (the disinterested party) or the outgrown (the rejected party), neither are comfortable during a random meeting. Also, dealing with people from my past have had the effect of feeling like I was moving backward. As if all the growth I’d experienced after being separated from that person vanished because they’re present in my life again.
And these chance encounters happened in the damnedest places. At the time the incident that is the subject of this post occurred, I was tucked away in a small town in a new state on the opposite coast when I ran into a childhood friend. Well, friend might have been a bit of a stretch. She wasn’t really friends with anyone. Truer to say we ran in the same circles. Even truer than that, we ran in different circles that sometimes overlapped like a Venn diagram of societal misfit kids.
Rough and rugged, tough as nails, she took no shit off anyone, not even her parents. She went her own way, did her own thing, and everyone in the neighborhood, kid and adult alike knew she’d most likely end up either dead or in prison. Some people only left their future open for those two options.
Anyway, I was at the local thrift store when I heard someone calling my name. I assumed it couldn’t be me since I knew exactly zero people in Los Angeles, but as this person kept calling, my curiosity got the better of me and turned to see her: Tamika.
It took me a moment to work out who she was. Not that the years hadn’t been kind to her, it was just that she wasn’t a person I had ever thought about remembering.
She, on the other hand, treated me like we were lifelong buddies. Big hugs and kisses and a smile that could have lit the Hollywood Bowl. Time has a funny way of altering the past. She remembered our relationship very differently than I had.
So, we did what people who hadn’t seen one another in ages do. We shared past stories, gave abridged accounts of our lives since then, and painted the brightest possible picture for our futures. And me being me, I remarked on how I never thought I’d see her ever again. Of all the people, not including those that had passed, she was easily the last person I ever expected to clap eyes on.
She hadn’t taken offense. She knew better than anyone the type of person she was back then and she said she probably would have fulfilled everyone’s prophesy of jail or death if not for Chickie.
Chickie was the only other person who could’ve matched Tammy pound for pound. Cut from the same cloth, sisters from a different mister, they were thick as thieves. And probably would have been for life, had Chickie not met her maker at the claw end of a hammer in a drug deal gone horribly wrong.
That’s when Tam found the way.
My internal groan was so loud I feared she might’ve heard it. I myself am areligious, and though I don’t begrudge anyone their spiritual beliefs, I have a hard time listening to the sanctimony of proselytizing born-agains.
But she hadn’t found Jesus, at least not in that way. Nor had she joined a cult. She claimed she simply hit rock bottom and having no one to turn to, sat down and wrote out a list of commandments for herself. A self-imposed list of rules in which she would like to live by.
And while I wish I could remember the list verbatim–my memory, unfortunately, has a mind of its own–I instead offer up a similar list that contains many of Tamika’s instructions for living a good life:
The 82 Commandments of Alejandro Jodorowsky
1. Ground your attention on yourself. Be conscious at every moment of what you are thinking, sensing, feeling, desiring, and doing.
2. Always finish what you have begun.
3. Whatever you are doing, do it as well as possible.
4. Do not become attached to anything that can destroy you in the course of time.
5. Develop your generosity – but secretly.
6. Treat everyone as if he or she was a close relative.
7. Organize what you have disorganized.
8. Learn to receive and give thanks for every gift.
9. Stop defining yourself.
10. Do not lie or steal, for you lie to yourself and steal from yourself.
11. Help your neighbor, but do not make him dependent.
12. Do not encourage others to imitate you.
13. Make work plans and accomplish them.
14. Do not take up too much space.
15. Make no useless movements or sounds.
16. If you lack faith, pretend to have it.
17. Do not allow yourself to be impressed by strong personalities.
18. Do not regard anyone or anything as your possession.
19. Share fairly.
20. Do not seduce.
21. Sleep and eat only as much as necessary.
22. Do not speak of your personal problems.
23. Do not express judgment or criticism when you are ignorant of most of the factors involved.
24. Do not establish useless friendships.
25. Do not follow fashions.
26. Do not sell yourself.
27. Respect contracts you have signed.
28. Be on time.
29. Never envy the luck or success of anyone.
30. Say no more than necessary.
31. Do not think of the profits your work will engender.
32. Never threaten anyone.
33. Keep your promises.
34. In any discussion, put yourself in the other person’s place.
35. Admit that someone else may be superior to you.
36. Do not eliminate, but transmute.
37. Conquer your fears, for each of them represents a camouflaged desire.
38. Help others to help themselves.
39. Conquer your aversions and come closer to those who inspire rejection in you.
40. Do not react to what others say about you, whether praise or blame.
41. Transform your pride into dignity.
42. Transform your anger into creativity.
43. Transform your greed into respect for beauty.
44. Transform your envy into admiration for the values of the other.
45. Transform your hate into charity.
46. Neither praise nor insult yourself.
47. Regard what does not belong to you as if it did belong to you.
48. Do not complain.
49. Develop your imagination.
50. Never give orders to gain the satisfaction of being obeyed.
51. Pay for services performed for you.
52. Do not proselytize your work or ideas.
53. Do not try to make others feel for you emotions such as pity, admiration, sympathy, or complicity.
54. Do not try to distinguish yourself by your appearance.
55. Never contradict; instead, be silent.
56. Do not contract debts; acquire and pay immediately.
57. If you offend someone, ask his or her pardon; if you have offended a person publicly, apologize publicly.
58. When you realize you have said something that is mistaken, do not persist in error through pride; instead, immediately retract it.
59. Never defend your old ideas simply because you are the one who expressed them.
60. Do not keep useless objects.
61. Do not adorn yourself with exotic ideas.
62. Do not have your photograph taken with famous people.
63. Justify yourself to no one, and keep your own counsel.
64. Never define yourself by what you possess.
65. Never speak of yourself without considering that you might change.
66. Accept that nothing belongs to you.
67. When someone asks your opinion about something or someone, speak only of his or her qualities.
68. When you become ill, regard your illness as your teacher, not as something to be hated.
69. Look directly, and do not hide yourself.
70. Do not forget your dead, but accord them a limited place and do not allow them to invade your life.
71. Wherever you live, always find a space that you devote to the sacred.
72. When you perform a service, make your effort inconspicuous.
73. If you decide to work to help others, do it with pleasure.
74. If you are hesitating between doing and not doing, take the risk of doing.
75. Do not try to be everything to your spouse; accept that there are things that you cannot give him or her but which others can.
76. When someone is speaking to an interested audience, do not contradict that person and steal his or her audience.
77. Live on money you have earned.
78. Never brag about amorous adventures.
79. Never glorify your weaknesses.
80. Never visit someone only to pass the time.
81. Obtain things in order to share them.
82. If you are meditating and a devil appears, make the devil meditate too.
Not being a fan of dogma, creed, or commandments in general, I admit I can find merit in many items on this list as suggestions for people to find their own path in life. Hell, if it worked for Tamika, it damn sure couldn’t hurt giving it a go.
So, sally forth, true believers and blasts from the past, and be making your own commandments and living by themingly writeful.
Fair warning: Thar be mild spoilers ahead, so if you plan on seeing Star Trek Into Darkness and wish to go in fresh, turn back now.
Let me begin by saying I didn’t have high expectations for this film, so I wasn’t disappointed at how much I really didn’t like it. Wasn’t a fan of the first film either. Truth to tell, I’m not big on reboots or reimaginings in general. And that’s all this is. A poor reboot of the far superior film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Don’t mistake my meaning, this isn’t a bash on J.J. Abrams. The man does what he’s paid to do. He puts asses in seats, like a professional carnival huckster. He’s under no obligation to provide a solid, well thought out plot or three-dimensional characters. It’s all about bang for the buck, which this movie has in spades. It meets its quota of fisticuffs, phaser fights, explosions, space battles, and winks and nods to the original series to appease actual fans of the franchise. Abrams certainly knows his way around a popcorn movie, living by the old adage, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”
But instead of dissecting Into Darkness (enough fan sites are doing that already), I’d rather talk about what made Wrath of Khan work. It’s one of two films that I can think of off the top of my head that has a near perfect set up. The other is the first Back To The Future film.
Wrath of Khan begins with the Star Fleet Academy final exam, The Kobayashi Maru, a no-win scenario simulation designed to test the character of cadets before unleashing them into the harsh realities of interplanetary relations. Kirk is now an admiral relegated to training cadets after giving up his starship command. It’s his birthday, so he’s feeling old. His life lacks adventure, so he feels put out to pasture. He has no family, so he feels alone in the universe. The man is miserable, making him the perfect character in desperate need of an arc.
Come to find out Kirk is the only cadet to beat The Kobayashi Maru, but he did it by rigging the test. He cheated because he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario. And that’s what the entire film is, Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru. An adversary emerges from his past, hellbent on revenge for being stranded on a planet that turns hostile. He’s reunited with an old flame and discovers he has a son. And he’s pitted in a battle of wits against a far superior opponent. Even in his most desperate hour, Kirk is enjoying this. It’s what he was born to do. The only thing he’s ever been good at.
And finally, he’s forced to face The Kobayashi Maru consequences. He’s encountered his no-win scenario. He’s at the end of his tether, with no more cards left to play. He’s not only put himself in the line of fire but his crew and new found family as well. They’re dead. Or they would have been, had Spock not sacrificed himself, quoting the Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities (a present he gives to Kirk on his birthday), “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few“.
Kirk finally faces devastating loss, the death of his closest friend, but as he mourns, he witnesses the creation of a world, has reconnected with a family he never knew he had and is once again in command of a starship. At the beginning of the film, he was feeling old, but as the film wraps, he stares at the Genesis Planet and tells Carol Marcus that he “Feels young.”
That’s a proper character arc.
And you won’t find any of that in Into Darkness. It’s a poor photocopy that lacks the richness of history, the depth of character, or a plot that can bear the weight of scrutiny.
I have decided to stop posting the Project #Novel365 2018 story on the blog because it has reached a point where I need to fine-tune and enhance the story so it can indeed become a proper novel–spare me the I-told-you-so’s. It was a stream of consciousness writing experiment that I enjoyed toying with and learned a valuable lesson from.
If you followed along, I hope you enjoyed the bits I shared and I appreciate all the comments that have been made on it.
I now return you to your regularly scheduled Monday short story program.
Cariad was sent an Academy card form to sign and return together with a passport photograph along with college contractual documents and arrival information. Shortly after she received her Candida Isca Academy Single Sign On IT account details, that granted her access to central IT services.
The weeks that followed passed in a frenzied blur as the entire Boerum household prepared for what Rupert called Cariad’s Grand Adventure. Somewhere during the process of Cariad sorting through her belongings to decide what would travel with her and what would remain behind, Ruth passed by the room and spotted her daughter placing her piggy bank into a luggage case.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ruth asked.
Cariad gave her a what does it look like I’m doing stare but answered anyway, “I’m packing Chris P. Bacon.”
“I can see that but why?”
“She’s a good luck charm and I never know when I might need some emergency cash.”
“I plan on giving you a card for emergencies! What kind of mother do you think I am?”
“I don’t know, Mom, the kind that keeps dirty little secrets?”
Rupert appeared in the doorway, shaking his head, “Don’t you ever speak to your mother like that again!”
“But she’s the one who started it, Dad! She barged in here trying to run my life!”
“All I did was try to stop you from burdening yourself with unnecessary things like that silly little bank of yours and these ratty t-shirts,” Ruth plucked several worn and faded novelty tees out of the case and flung them on the floor.
“You’re the queen of chucking out unnecessary things, aren’t you, Mom? Like your daughter?”
“Enough!” Rupert shouted. Cariad had never heard her father sound so angry. He paused, swallowed. “We’re a family, dammit, so it’s about time we started acting like one again! Ruth, let her pack what she wants to pack, she’s going away, not you!” Ruth opened her mouth to argue her point but Rupert put up a hand to cut her off. “And you, young lady, should learn to show a little respect because I know we raised you better than that!”
As he stormed away, Rupert added, “And if you can’t be civil toward one another then the very least you can do is be silent!”
And that was exactly what happened. From that moment there was a temporary ceasefire between Cariad and her mother and calm reigned. When they worked on a project together and speech could not be avoided, they maintained a strained civility and when words were not necessary they shared an icy silence. After the row with her mother, there was something about the act of packing her things and getting her affairs in order that gave Cariad the feeling that she actually was ready to leave home and she carried that feeling with her up until the moment she arrived at the airport and had to say goodbye to her parents.
“No, I’m not leaving,” Cariad’s eyes glistened as she tried to hold back the tears. It was a valiant effort and she put up one hell of a fight but it was a losing battle.
Rupert placed his hands on her shoulders and pulled her in for a hug. Her cheek felt damp and she thought she had started crying but she felt her father’s chin tremble against her and realized the tears were his. This made her hug him even harder.
“Are you afraid of school?” Rupert whispered in her ear.
She shook her head.
“Then it’s alright for you to leave,” Rupert gave her one last tight squeeze then held her out at arm’s length. “Your mother and I will find a way to manage without you for a while.”
Cariad turned to Ruth who held her arms out for a hug but the gesture looked uncomfortable, almost insincere as if it was a protocol that had to be followed, the socially acceptable thing to do in a situation such as this in order not to appear a monster in society’s eye. Instead of the hug, Cariad clasped one of Ruth’s hands and pumped it up and down firmly, politely smiling, “Thank you. Really.”
The air hostess announced the final call for her flight. Cariad turned and picked up her carry-on bag and wiped her eyes as she rushed to the gate. Before boarding, she stopped at the jet bridge and turned to wave at her parents. They smiled and returned the wave. Ruth mouthed words that Cariad read as I love you but she could have been misreading it so she didn’t mouth anything in reply. Her father, while waving, was also tapping his pocket, a gesture she didn’t understand. She was about to shrug What? to him but the air hostess was ushering her into the jet bridge.
Once she reached Candida Isca, there was hardly any time to settle in. Week Zero was filled with completing all the steps of her Academy registration in order to attend her program of study, release her tuition grant from the Student Loans awarding body, activate her University email account, obtain her University Card, print an enrollment certificate, become eligible to take examinations and access her results. When all that was finished her status as a member of the Academy was confirmed.
As she was a first-year undergraduate, Cariad was provided accommodations in the Green-Hart Family House with the understanding that she might be required to move out to private accommodation in her second or third year or she had the choice to share a house with friends.
Cariad was greeted in the common room by RA Cosette who was about 20 but her smooth face and the mysterious carefree attitude made her seem much younger. Her light ash brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she wore blue jeans, boat shoes and a cotton blouse. “My name’s Cosette, welcome to Green-Hart House,” the RA smiled.
Cariad let go of the handle of her rolling travel case, shook hands, introduced herself and because she hadn’t prepared anything in the way of small talk, said, “So, this is my dormitory?”
“We call it a residence hall, but yeah, this is the place you’ll call home for the next year or so. Dea and Burton are out and about somewhere so I’ll give you the five-cent tour.”
“Dea and Burton?”
“The hall director and assistant hall director. You’ll meet them during orientation when they set the ground rules.”
“Oh, you’re not—?”
“Nope, I’m the resident assistant who lives on your floor. Let me grab one of those for you,” Cosette grabbed the strap of one of the bags, slung it over her shoulder like it weighed nothing and led the way through the house.
“All right, things you should know,” Cosette said. “The floor you’ll be on is all first year so you shouldn’t run into too many hassles with upperclassmen. It’s also single gender—which means no guys—and substance-free—which means no drinking and definitely no drugs.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me,” Cariad waved the notion off.
“I’ve been RA for two years, RA supervisor for one and in my experience, it’s always the ones I don’t have to worry about that make the biggest scenes. These next few weeks are going to be Buckle up, y’all time for me because you’re going to break every single rule and make the stupidest mistakes known to mankind. First time away from home is when freshmen need to get the drinking and fucking and all that other free will nonsense out of their systems. So, I’m going to been overly understanding with you in the beginning but keep in mind we’re operating on a three strikes rule. If you try to be slick and can take advantage of my good nature, you’ll find yourself hunting for a new place to live.”
“I’m not like that.”
“Okay, Carrie, prove me wrong, I dare you,” Cosette smiled but her expression was deadly serious.
The shortening of her name hit Cariad like cold water to the face. Her father had called her by a few nicknames that she had outgrown but neither of her parents had ever called her Carrie. She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about it. It was said without contempt so it wasn’t like she was being teased but it was a little too familiar a little too quickly.
Cosette ran through the tour of common areas, kitchens, shared bathrooms and shower facilities fairly quickly, none of which found a fixed space in Cariad’s memory and it ended at a room where two five by three white cards, one bearing her last name and the other that read Guō were push-pinned on a small corkboard beside the door. Cosette gave a little knock and announced herself and entered when a small voice from inside the room gave her permission.
The hall room itself was smaller than she imagined, approximately 12 feet by 16 feet with an 8-foot-high ceiling. Two loft beds were situated against the righthand side wall and beneath the elevated wooden frame of each bed was a small wooden writing desk and chair.
“It’ll seem a little cramped at first but you’ll get used to it and it’s only for your fresher year,” Cosette said, letting Cariad’s bag slide off her shoulder to floor. “The rooms get better year by year.”
“This is your roomie, Bao. Bao, meet Carrie,” Cosette said.
“Cariad, actually,” Cariad corrected. The last thing she needed was for that nickname to stick.
The Asian young lady seated at her writing desk in a plain button-down blouse and linen pants looked up from her laptop and gave Cariad the once-over before offering a lackluster, “Hi.” Cariad returned the greeting with equal enthusiasm.
“Well, now that the hard part’s over, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” Cosette said, patting Cariad on the shoulder on her way to the door. “Once you get settled in, come find me and I’ll tell you about a few of the activities that’ll help you get to know your fellow floor residents and you should make it your business to attend because we’re all about building a community that’s fun, friendly, and respectful.”
Bao’s eyes never left Cariad. She remained silent when their hall door clicked shut and the sound of Cosette’s footstep faded in the distance.
“Since I was raised to believe that honesty is the best policy,” Bao said, carefully enunciating each word, “I’m just going to put this out in the open: I’m very nervous about this dormitory living situation. You know, moving in with a complete stranger, it makes sense, doesn’t it? I’ve been reading way too many dorm-room horror stories online of crazy, nasty, or downright terrifying roommates.”
As she was speaking all Cariad could concentrate on were all the small framed photos hanging on the wall, propped up on the writing desk and even the background of her laptop screen. They were all snapshots of Bao. Not Bao and friends; just Bao.
Cariad’s attention refocused on Bao’s ramblings in time for her to hear her roommate say, “I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to find you standing over me with a knife, do you know what I’m saying?”
After registering to fulfill the test requirement part of her application process, Cariad was called into the office of a member of the admissions staff which she and those who were in earshot found peculiar including members of staff as none of the other registrants before her received this treatment.
The admissions person who introduced himself as, “Mr. McCune,” sat her down in the cramped office that resembled more of a research nook than a proper office and politely asked her a series of random questions which she automatically assumed to be a sort of psychometric test. No, test wasn’t accurate because tests were graded on right or wrong answers. This was more of a verbal questionnaire to discover what kind of person she was in ways that a person wouldn’t necessarily admit to in an interview, with questions designed to expose how Cariad behaved and what motivated her.
When he felt he had gathered enough information to make an assessment, McCune thanked Cariad for her time, escorted her out of the office and asked her father to step in for a moment. McCune closed the door but the latch hadn’t slid into the strike plate so the door remained slightly open. She considered walking away back into the corridor but the opportunity to eavesdrop was a temptation she couldn’t avoid so she loitered at the door.
“Thank you for taking the time, Marco,” her father’s voice said.
“You’re one of our top contributors and a damned fine lecturer, Rupert, so how could I refuse?” McCune replied. “Besides, for a twelve-year-old, she has a top-notch mind as a result of your homeschooling, no doubt, so if she aces her test I’ll make sure she tops the shortlist.”
“I should probably warn you, she tends to be a homebody, one of the unfortunate traits she picked up from me, so her social skills aren’t yet what they should be which means her professors can expect for their hands to be full.”
“What genius doesn’t have social rough patches? I can remember a ruddy-faced freshman who was so full of himself and piss and vinegar when he first attended Uni.”
“Stop exaggerating, Marco, I wasn’t that bad.”
“The hell you weren’t. Do you want to know the best thing that ever happened to you, aside from marrying Ruth and having Cariad, I mean? Meeting me.”
Cariad found that she felt uneasy listening to the rest of the conversation. She had never considered that life her father had outside their family or before she was born and the fact that her father had friends he never discussed with her made her feel envious and left out. Logically they were crazy emotions but she couldn’t help the way she felt at the moment. Something else nagged at her, clearly, she was here because of her father’s connections with Candida so why had he lied to her and said it was Mom’s doing?
The admissions test was pretty much what Cariad expected, a timed, written exam designed to show the academy how she thought: how she analyzed and solved difficult questions as well as how she applied her knowledge to texts or problems she hadn’t encountered before.
The hardest part for her was deciding which course she wanted to study as she could only apply for one course in the same year and time studies, which technically fell under the category of horology or clockmakers, wasn’t presented as an option on Candida Isca’s course list. She opted to follow the path her father had paved for her and selected theoretical physics. Physics did not require written work to be submitted as part of the application process but Cariad completed four papers on Understanding Time as The Fourth Dimension, Traveling Through Wormholes, Alternate Time Travel Theories, and the Grandfather Paradox.
When she received her letter to interview, despite knowing that her father’s friend placed her on the shortlist as a favor, she felt a wave of excitement washing over her. She wouldn’t allow herself to race but she walked at a rate quicker than her normal pace and made the announcement to her parents. Rupert caught her up in a bearhug and nearly squeezed the life out of her so strong was his pride in his daughter. Ruth smiled a genuine smile that somehow seemed equal to the hug and announced that she would be making the trip with Cariad to Candida this time.
The academic interview was not at all what Cariad had expected. She had read up on interview techniques and how to avoid falling into traps on certain types of questions aimed at catching interviewees unawares, but none of it was relevant. Yes, there were four tutors in the room but they were very friendly and simply asked her questions regarding physics and her thoughts on higher dimensions and time travel. Without meaning to, she rambled on for an hour, reiterating things she had written in her papers and the tutors smiled and nodded along in agreement the whole time. Then the tutors presented her with something she hadn’t encountered in her father’s lessons: The Hierarchy problem.
“Why is gravity such a weak force?” Tutor Lefevre asked. “It becomes strong for particles only at the Planck scale, around 1024 GeV, much above the electroweak scale—100 GeV, the energy scale dominating physics at low energies.”
“Why are these scales so different from each other?” Tutor Valdez added.
“What prevents quantities at the electroweak scale, such as the Higgs boson mass, from getting quantum corrections on the order of the Planck scale?” Tutor Abrams inquired.
And Tutor Wood chimed in with, “Is the solution supersymmetry, extra dimensions, or just anthropic fine-tuning?”
The questions came in rapid succession and Cariad realized it was designed to rattle her, which it did. She stumbled in the beginning but began applying the knowledge she possessed to offer solutions. She even asked if she could work the problem out on paper and before receiving an answer began jotting down mathematical equations and when she became stuck at certain points she was surprised to discover the tutors were offering hints to steer her in a direction around various obstacles. By the time the interview had ended, she left feeling rattled but her mother dismissed it as a normal reaction to being verbally tested and suggested she should concentrate on doing something frivolous to distract her until they received word from the academy.
It was just the two of them on this trip, not because her father was too busy or too disinterested to make the trek but because he thought it best that the two most important women in his life get to spend some alone time with each other. Cariad was full of topics she wanted to discuss with her mother including why Ruth wanted her out of the house so badly, what didn’t her mother want her to know about what was going on behind her back, but she refused to make the first move. Her mother would have to initiate conversation first, make an effort to bridge the gap between them because that’s what a mother was supposed to do. It was her responsibility as an adult to own up to her actions, actions that made Cariad feel like an outcast, a burden, an unwanted thing. Her mother should have known something was wrong and if she cared she would have spotted it months ago and done something about it. And since she made no effort whatsoever to reconcile their relationship and Cariad refused to make the first move, the pair travel home in silence.
In January of the following year, the Boerums were notified that Cariad’s application had been successful. This was followed by direct communication from the academy that she had completed all the necessary administrative steps and was given an unconditional offer, which meant her place was guaranteed at Candida Isca, even though the college she would go to had not yet been specified and would not be decided until after her final examination results had been published.
“Should you attend Candida Isca next semester,” the tour guide, who announced herself as Anna, said over her shoulder. “You will find that it has a unique academic structure. Students, researchers and lecturers benefit from belonging both to the academy, a large, internationally-renowned institution, and to a particular house or hall, a small, interdisciplinary scholastic community.”
Anna led the rather sizeable group of interviewees and their parents on the long and winding scenic path to the admissions building. There was a shorter more direct route, of course, but first appearances being everything, a good impression had to be made. And everyone in the tour group was impressed, all except Cariad.
“I know you’re doing this against your will,” Rupert gave his daughter a little nudge. “But you could at least pretend to be listening.”
“To impress who, Dad?” Cariad said. “She’s just a tour guide. I’m saving all my enthusiasm for the interview, I promise. Besides, all she’s doing is reciting the information that’s on their website and I read through that already.”
Which was the truth. Cariad learned online that Candida Isca Academy wasn’t so much a school as it was the academic equivalent of a sovereign state, comprised of 47 financially independent and self-governing learning institutions which related in a federal system to the central academy.
“And if this was really so important, wouldn’t Mom be here?” Cariad said, a little too sharply, revealing more hurt than she cared to admit to her father and herself.
“You know she’d be here if she could, just like you know an important engagement got rescheduled at the last minute, something she needed to handle personally,” Rupert said.
“Yeah, well, it really isn’t that big a deal, anyway,” Cariad shrugged. “You keep calling it an interview but it’s actually registering to take a test as part of my application that has to be submitted by mid-October. Then I’ll have to decide which courses I want to take and send in written works along with my application. If I’m shortlisted, then I’ll be invited to interview in December.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s an interview or registration, it would mean a lot to me and your mother if you presented yourself properly.”
“Dad, I know you lecture here from time to time so I’m not going to embarrass you, okay?”
Rupert put his arm around Cariad’s shoulder and gave her a gentle hug. He went to remove his arm but his daughter held it in place and leaned into him slightly as they walked. She was a good kid, though, strong-willed like her mother which probably explained why they were having difficulty getting along recently.
“There are also six permanent private halls, which are similar to academies except they tend to be smaller and are founded by investors with special interests in specific arts and experimental sciences.” Anna continued. “The academies, halls and houses are close scholastic communities, which bring together students and researchers from different disciplines, cultures and countries. This aids in fostering the outstanding research achievement that has made Candida Isca a leader in so many fields. In fact, the houses, halls and the academy work together to organize teaching and research, and many staff at Candida Isca will hold both a house and an academy post.”
“Even you have to admit that this—it feels wrong calling it a campus, it’s more like a town—is impressive,” Rupert said, brushing hair back from his daughter’s face. “All the libraries and museums cafes and restaurants and bars and nightclubs…and my hope is that when you get accepted—”
“If I get accepted,” Cariad corrected.
“When you get accepted, my hope is that you go heavy on the libraries and museums and light on the bars and nightclubs.”
“No promises, Dad.”
“I mean, it’ll be my first taste of freedom, which means there will be a fair amount of experimentation as I explore the boundaries of free will,” Cariad smirked and that smirk turned into a full-blown smile when she saw the troubled look on her father’s face.