The King of Wretches

I do not have a favorite season, per se, but whenever summer rolls around, my head swims with near-endless possibilities of how I can alter not only my reality but the reality of existence itself so that I am finally able to live a life in which my head falls on the pillow with no worries and I awaken in the same manner.

But at this moment any life other than my own would be an improvement. You must understand, when you live in the gutter, climbing up onto the pavement can feel like reaching Shamayim, the first heaven, but there is not much chance of climbing that high. My wings, or what is left of them, have not been able to bear my weight for quite some time now.

And I am not alone. I lie here amongst the other bodies that convulse on a human Richter scale that makes it impossible to pray and have those prayers heard. My lips, dry and cracked haven’t kissed another in a century of lifetimes, though I myself have been kissed by a fate who cruelly calls my name and announces my presence, the King of Wretches Among Wretches. This fate who comes down from on high feigns love for me, lifts my head slightly, and kisses me deeply and passionately before abandoning me without uttering a word.

So here I exist, an enemy of sleep as I am cursed to remain awake and endure, trying to mask my terror because I was instructed to know no fear but I feel my reserve crack and my secret dreads are beginning to seep through. Left for dead but not truly dead, I sometimes raise myself to my full height and threaten to leave but Those Who Know realize this is an empty threat. My soul is anchored to this spot and even though I can beseech the wind to lift away this all too fleshy carapace, what would I be without that which makes me unique? What sort of life would a soulless one be?

Alas, I am far too proud to beg, even for mercy. Accepting charity never seemed quite fitting to me, which means I stay in anger and at the dawn of each new day I let the carrion pick away at the bits of me that have gone necrotic from disuse. I curse the fact that when they take to the sky they never steal away the bits that made me the monster that led me to be in this predicament in the first place. It is as if the universe believes its very own balance is better with me assuming this role.

The sad truth is that not all dead are buried in the field with the flowers. Some lie rotting away to nothing, slowly dying from wounds that never heal. The minor injuries you suffer repeatedly every single day that rip the scabs off to bleed you anew. It is the slowest death imaginable. Where you die a little more on each anniversary.

And in time these injuries celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, and even holidays. And you cry outwardly until the tears no longer come, then you cry inwardly and when people cannot see you weep, they assume that you have moved on and think it is acceptable to pretend the bad thing never happened and things can return to normal, without realizing that there is no longer a normal to return to.

The parent of dead hopes and dreams never stops being a parent in their hearts. And you spend the rest of your life gathering the leftover pieces and remnants of a future life well past its sell-by date and inhume it in the backyard of years gone by in a specially constructed box of disappointment.

A Tin For Tinder

Tinderbox 1

Houses live, despite being constructed with inanimate objects and once-living-now-dead materials, and only at night, when the humans who inhabit them quiet down and seek refuge within the secret fears and hidden desires of dreams, do they make their presence known. It comes in the throat clearing pipe rattles and the eerie creaks and moans as the domicile stretches from its support beams to the rafters before settling down upon the foundation once more. And somewhere in between these growing pain noises, I hear you through wooden slats, insulation, and drywall.

You are busy conducting your nocturnal activity of burning bridges. You do this when you think I am asleep, which I pretend to be for I do not know how to confront you on this matter. Although I have never caught you in the act, I discovered the place in which you secret your tinderbox, that rusty lozenge tin containing pieces of flint, firesteel, and the charcloth you use as tinder.

But it is not physical bridges you set fire to, it is connections. Human connections. At first, you severed ties with your coworkers. When that supply well ran dry, you turned your attention to the neighbors, both long-standing and new. My family was next, which should have been easy for you as you never considered my kin an extension of your own. To my surprise, yours followed shortly after. Now, it is only you and I, and I hear the striking of flint and I know without a doubt that I am next. I should get out of bed, should stop you, but I do not because I do not know how to process the reality that you no longer desire me in your life. I tell myself my love for you is strong enough to withstand your attempt to distance yourself from me, but the truth of the matter is, as I hear the charcloth catch fire, I can feel the grasp of my love for you beginning to weaken.

I had not realized until I felt the radiant heat as you approached with your flame, that our connection was a living bridge, a spiritual combination of the northeast Indian tribal root bridges, which are formed by training the roots of the banyan tree to grow across watercourses, and the Japanese Iya Valley bridges, constructed using wisteria vines woven together when they grew long enough to span the gap.

I am surprised at how very hot and very slow-moving the fire is. It creeps at its patient pace, causing destruction to the fruits of our happy memories, the flowers of our passion, and the buds of future events in the making. The fire chars through the vines’ bark to consume the cambium layer beneath, the thing that is essential for the growth of the vine’s vascular tissue; and without it, the vines die.

I shed tears, though I no longer know why, for when you return to the bedroom, smelling faintly of smoke and slip under the covers, I move away from your touch for I do not know you. All the memories created in this place are ghosts that have evaporated like dreams upon waking. In the morning I will leave of my own volition, never to return and the only thing I will carry with me is your precious tin for tinder. I am filled with the sudden need to divorce myself from all human contact.

The Man

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In the beginning of what most believed in their heart of hearts to be the End of Days, there was The Distant Signal. It came in the form of a definitive and verified multi-language message broadcast to all the countries of Earth simultaneously.

What should have been a moment of joyous acknowledgment that we were not alone in the universe, was tainted by a subliminal signal that triggered an automatic flight response in all the various and sundry life forms on the planet.

Dubbed The Great Terror by the media, it opened the door to speculation about the global impact alien contact might have on world governments, organized religions, stock markets, and most importantly human existence.

Then came news of the one person on the planet unaffected by the subliminal signal.

His business card was made of carbon-fiber-reinforced thermoplastic. Laser etched in red on the back was his phone number, four digits, no area or country code, because it wasn’t needed. The number could be dialed from anywhere in the world, toll-free. The front of the card delivered the most accurate message any business card ever had. It told the bearer exactly who he was in two simple words:

The Man

Normally slang that referred to either the government, an authority in a position of power, or a drug dealer — which he had no issue with, as he had allegedly been all those things in his youth — it currently served as a term of respect and praise.

The Man had no official credit rating, never owned a bank account, and his fingers never knew the texture of cash. His currency was the Boon License, a service performed, payable by a service at his behest.

The Man never advertised his services, and thanks to a universal binary code, he wasn’t searchable on the internet. His legend was viral, spread word of mouth from those who benefited from his services. The downside of this Chinese whispers campaign were all the old wives’ tales that attached themselves to his accomplishments like gossip remoras:

  • He was incapable of telling the truth and he gained supernatural powers by winning a bet with the Devil in a liar’s competition.
  • He thrived on the broken hearts of virgins after he stole the purest form of love from them.
  • He was born without a soul.
  • He was a genetic engineering experiment using stem cell materials that haven’t been able to be duplicated.
  • He was born with one hundred percent brain capacity and as a result, has all the information stored on every computer and the internet in his brain.
  • He averted World War Three by winning the jackpot in a poker game with the world’s superpowers.

For a person who bartered in boons, how could he resist collecting favors from the entire planet? But when The Man accepted the offer, he scoured governments, both domestic and foreign, for help, with absolutely no success.

Once The Man signed the contract, he was elected to make first contact, and the world leaders resigned from their posts and contingency plans were underway to build underground shelters. He could not find a government, nation, country, or individual to stand by his side.

The final extraterrestrial message contained a set of coordinates for the rendezvous point. Although no one would stand by him, he was able to call in several favors to arrange transport to one of the remote volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunha.

The alien armada arrived like a meteor storm, ships of shifting geometrics burned through Earth’s mesosphere and parked themselves in the stratosphere around the entire planet so that they blotted out the sun.

Plunged into darkness, The Man stood his ground as a lone, illuminated craft, smaller than the other ships, descended to the rendezvous point and touched down on the soil light as a feather.

The ship altered its form and peeled itself away from its passenger and repurposed itself into a ramp. The alien glided forward. It existed on the outer fringes of humanoid description but The Man found its features and its form somehow alluring.

The alien handed him a card with strange markings and upon contact with his skin, the card pricked his thumb and took a DNA sample. The markings changed, cycling through alphabets until it hit his native earthbound English. When all the letters were in place, it simply read:

The Woman

The alien smiled.

The Ennui of This Moment

He really did try his damnedest to live his life in a productive manner, the only bit of advice he retained from his absentee father before he faded like the memory of a dream upon waking, but despite his efforts, it seemed as though he hadn’t made one definitive move in the right direction. There had been baby steps, to be sure, all down the vaunted paths less traveled, but for every baby step forward, life managed to push him two adult paces back, which racked up a ton of negative miles on his life odometer pushing his right direction destination so far forward it blinked out of existence on the horizon.

He heard that knowledge was power and he was very knowledgeable in the fact that life was what happened to you when you made other plans but of what use was that now? What was the answer? To grin and bear it? To roll with the punches? To play the hand he was dealt? Not exactly proactive, was it? And when he discovered knowledge did not necessarily mean answers, he was left with another riddle to heap upon the compost mound of riddles he accumulated over the course of his misbegotten life: When did the real answers come? Answers that counted for something?

Did they come in the middle of the night, when the pillow whispered his dreams back to him or was the house creaking an Aramaic Morse code about his destiny as it settled each night? Or was everything realized the moment he awoke from a nightmare, in that flash second when he didn’t know where he was or what was real from what was an illusion and the fear gripped him like a tangled, sweat-soaked bed sheet?

Then he began to suspect the answer didn’t exist within us, not singularly, anyway. What if each and every human being contained some small piece of a larger puzzle and all it took was the connection of communication to fit the pieces together? There was a saying acquired from a passing acquaintance that went, “You were never more than five minutes driving distance from an absolute stranger that had the ability to care for you, perhaps they could not offer love unconditionally, but they honestly cared about what happened to you.”

But he destroyed that somewhere along the way. He made strangers out of relatives and friends and instead of concentrating on what made people alike, he focused on what made them different. And there really wasn’t a great love for people who were different from the vision he had of himself.

He wasn’t what anyone would call a spiritual being, nor did he reside anywhere in that neighborhood, but he knew that there was tremendous energy that existed at this moment. Right here. Right now. He just couldn’t seem to tap into it. He was far too busy shrugging off the past and contemplating the future to focus on how he was feeling in the moment, or alarmed at the lack of what he was feeling at present. And perhaps that was the real issue. Perhaps he overthought his existence instead of simply existing.

But who wanted to merely exist? To live life on cruise control? He wanted to be consumed in a fiery passion of–of…well, therein lay the problem. He didn’t know what he should have been passionate about anymore. It was like someone or something blew out the pilot light of his passion so that even the things that used to fascinate him barely held his interest anymore. It was like he outgrew his old life and emerged into a void. Waves of ennui assaulted him daily and though he realized that he must accept thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations as they came (accept, surrender, observe, and then, let go)…this didn’t change the fact that this existence, in this incarnation, had grown tiresome.

The ennui of this moment was overwhelming. He had the urge to deaden his senses with the mindless distraction of television, but instead, sat silently and surrendered. He submitted to what was. He allowed himself to feel himself; to truly experience the exactness of this infinite moment without judgment or ridicule. The difficulty of this task reminded him of a college professor’s eloquent analogy of The Tao:

“The current in a river carries you. If you try to swim upstream, you break the flow, you struggle. If you see a rock and you attempt to hold tightly onto it, the water will shove, thrust, push against you until your arms weaken and your body aches. Work with the current and the current works with you; work against the current and the current works against you. The only way to avoid the struggle is to simply flow; allow the river to carry you, surrender to all that is, and your course – even when rough – will be tranquil.”

He needed to learn to give up the struggle. Or rather, he knew to give up the struggle, now he needed to practice doing so. Upset by what was, angered by what wasn’t, worried about what would be, and anxious about what strife may come, he couldn’t even see the now, let alone feel it, taste it, touch it and live in it.

He couldn’t just flow. He couldn’t stop swimming upstream or clutching to all that was inconsequential.

No matter how hard he tried.

A Scrapbook of Daydreams

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That kind of relationship is doomed before it even begins,” her mother warned. “His type… they can’t be faithful, it isn’t in their genetic makeup.” But Alison paid no heed and fell headfirst in love with the living embodiment of a daydream.

She thought she’d made the right decision. What did her mother know? And in the beginning, Alison felt vindicated because he was always there for her, never once realizing that was the normal way daydreams functioned, recurring whenever the mind was idle.

The daydream held her in bed and distracted her with his essence so that she drifted off to sleep without the usual brain clutter that triggered her chronic insomnia, and made sure he was the first sight Alison saw when she woke up. He never slept. What use would a daydream have with sleep? He simply watched her and waited until she began her cute pattern of soft snoring, before taking a stroll through her mind.

He never spoke. He preferred instead to flash images in Alison’s mind. Naturally, he knew exactly what he was doing. Knew he owned the keys to her heart and soul and, as often was the case with the person in control in a relationship, he doled out his attention and affection in small doses. She tried, really tried her best not to be greedy and not to demand more, but that, like most things, was easier said than done.

Then one morning, after he laid her head on the pillow to rest the night before, as he had done numerous times, he was gone. No note that indicated where he was off to or when he would have returned.

Then began the dark times. Seconds, minutes, hours stretched into the forever period of withdrawal, where Alison was crushed beneath the pressure of constant craving when her heart sat within her chest like so much dead weight.

And after the craving stage had crept along at its snail’s pace, along came the self-examination stage to fill the void. What had she done wrong? Was she too needy? Smothering? And when she grew weary of guessing, of trying to rewrite the past as if that would have somehow altered the present so that he was still here with her, Alison tried to find a place for him in her past. A drawer or compartment where he could have remained tucked away until such time as she was stronger and more capable of dealing with the memory of him.

Forgetting him might have been much easier if not for the images he filled Alison’s head with, the stories weaved through pictures. They remained and were strongest when the dawn approached. That must have been when he left.

When her mother visited, she asked, “Why can’t you look me in the eye?

I don’t want to do the whole I told you so thing, Mom.” Alison replied.

When have I ever done that?

You don’t say the words, but I can see it in your eyes.

That’s a lie and we both know it,” her mother said. “The truth is you don’t respect me, maybe rightfully so.

Respect you? You’re a drunk, Mom. I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say it.” The words were out of Alison’s mouth before she could stop them.

I’m a recovering alcoholic…

Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. I mean, why would I take advice from a woman whose life is a shambles? Your drinking didn’t only wreck your marriage, it destroyed my family! So, how are you wiser than me when it comes to affairs of the heart?

Her mother exhaled slowly. “I understand more than you realize. You think you’re the only one who’s ever gone through what you’re going through, and that’s not necessarily your fault. When you’re young, you always feel that way.

But I’m here to tell you, kiddo, you’re not the first or only person to fall in love with a daydream. Not only did it happen to me, but I convinced him to marry me and we had you.

Dad?

Yeah. You think your father left because I drank, and that’s my fault because I should have explained it to you, but I didn’t know how. The truth is I started drinking when I felt him slipping away. I tried to hold on the best way I knew how but the inherent problem with a daydream, even a recurring one, is that they’re never meant to stay in one place for very long. They’re born to stray.

Oh. Mom… !” Alison hugged her mother as tightly as she could. She hoped somehow her mother could feel just how sorry she was about everything that happened between them over the years.

Realizing what a fool she had been, and instead of living in a past relationship and trying to hold her life together with spit and string, Alison chose to work on rebuilding the relationship with her mother, a woman who was stronger than she ever realized.

And every now and then, when there was that familiar twinge in Alison’s heart, a fast but powerful thought of her wild one, her mother helped her collect the stories in a scrapbook of daydreams. But Alison hadn’t done it for herself, she did it for the little one who would be arriving any day now.

Her daughter deserved to know about her father.

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Beached

At first, his world was consumed by the sounds of the sea. Rolling waves smashing against rocks. The shrill caw of seagulls from somewhere high above. Then a noise. A song? Four repetitious notes that began on the lowest frequency sound perceptible to the human ear that rose to an ear-splitting wail. Roland was pulled into consciousness sometime around dawn. His eyes fluttered open and he thought he was blind for a moment, his vision refusing to cooperate, but as sight gradually returned, for an instant he wished for darkness again. Emerging from the haze of blurry blobs and shapes were the aftereffects of a shipwreck, thrust upon the shore by the relentless crash of waves.

He pushed the wreckage of broken wood and fabrics off of himself and stood unsteadily in the scattered aftermath that was once a vessel. The morning mist began to burn off and Roland could see for miles in the sunlight reflecting off the sea. The beach was quiet and uninhabited, polluted with ownerless possessions, jagged spires of twisted metal and wood pointing at odd angles towards the sky.

Combing through the debris for other survivors, all he uncovered were bloated bodies clustered in puddles of black blood. It felt like a long, sharp blade slowly being driven into his heart. A great weight of hopelessness settled on him, getting heavier and heavier. Although he was the only living thing on this deserted strip of an uncharted island, he felt like he was dead. No, it felt like he was dying, over and over again. Unliving forever.

He was lost. Roland wasn’t a mariner, the furthest thing from it, stranded without a map, without the slightest idea where the waters had washed him, without a means of communicating to another living soul. He was surrounded by gritty sand that irritated his already raw skin, a few trees that bore no fruit, and a great body of water that uttered waves of mocking laughter at his uncertainty of it being safe to drink. At first, he collected containers of seawater and strained it through fabric, but he soon acknowledged he didn’t know what he was doing and truth be told it was too time-consuming and he had always been an impatient man, even with so much time on his hands. If it was salt water, so be it. Better than dying of thirst.

He was lonely. Over the course of several days, remnants of the ship washed ashore. He tried to occupy his mind by building a makeshift camp from flotsam and foliage. He also created signal fires from bits of wood he placed in the sun to dry and spelled out giant SOS messages in stones on the sand, but none of this was enough to dull the ache for companionship that swelled within him and nearly outweighed his ever-increasing hunger.

During the early mornings before the sun set itself at the hottest point in the sky, forcing him to find shade, Roland explored the shoreline and picked through the mostly useless debris. It was a futile effort and he wasn’t sure why he kept at it. Most of the litter had been committed to memory, but on the morning he swore to himself that he wouldn’t explore any longer—

Roland came upon an enormous whale beached on the surf.

Elated that his food worries were over, he scrounged around and found a bit of metal with a sharp enough edge to be used as a knife and wrapped a length of cloth around the other end, fashioning a handle that ensured he wouldn’t cut himself in the process. But before Roland drove his blade into the beast, the whale regarded him with its great eye, and something in that momentary exchange of glances struck a strange sort of empathy in the man’s heart. It turned out his need for a companion outweighed his need for sustenance.

Roland gathered up all the cloth he could lay his hands on, dipped the fabrics into the sea and draped them over the cetacean. He then dismantled his shelter and rebuilt it nearer to his new island mate. It was the hardest relationship he ever had to maintain, constantly gathering water in containers to keep his friend wet and spearing fish to feed it, most of which he was forced to eat when his friend declined. But it was worth the price of not being alone. Of having someone to talk to, even if the conversations were all one-sided.

The following day Roland heard a sound. A vocalization of four notes that registered on the borders of his perception. He wasn’t sure if it was whalesong, wasn’t sure that whales possessed the ability to speak out of the water, but whatever it was, it was a sound. And the whale made it.

Among the many things he knew nothing about, whalesong ranked high, but somehow he understood what the whale attempted to communicate. It had said to him:

let me die

Saddened by the prospect of being alone again, Roland argued with the whale, tried to reason with it, pleaded his case. The whale did not respond, apparently resolute in its decision. He had no choice but to abide by his friend’s wishes and formed a pact with the massive marine mammal not to leave its side, not to eat until the whale died.

For two days the man recounted the story of his life. He spoke of accomplishments and regrets in equal measure and tried to calculate the good he had done in the world and the legacy, if any, he would have left behind. And at the end of the second day, when all the stories worth telling had been told, the whale, skin dried and cracked rattled the notes for:

thank you

And died.

Roland mourned the passing of his friend and tried to no avail to commit the whale’s body back to the sea. His appetite never returned.

One morning, a week or so later, he spotted a ship on the horizon. He dragged his weakened frame across the sand over to the kindling of the signal fire and set about to light it but paused instead and looked over his shoulder at the decaying whale.

“Don’t think they’d be anxious to take you along, would they?” he sighed. “No. I guess they wouldn’t.” Roland turned his back on the ship and returned to his shelter.

He released his grip on life that very same evening.

***

A commercial fishing trawler, more rust than boat, bobbed across the heavy chops of the sea. The hard, beaten-faced crew hoisted up nets filled with their catch. A shadow suddenly fell over the deck and the fishermen looked to the vast spill of stars in the night sky and for the briefest of moments spotted the silhouette of a man riding on the back of a whale against the waning moon.

ReFilling Emptiness

He sat by the window, his gaze meandering across the verdant countryside. Despite the pleasantness of the day, his disposition was anything but sunny.

“We need to talk,” said a voice behind him.

“Not in the mood for another of your lectures,” he said, not even bothering to look at her.

“I’m ending our contract,” she said.

This forced his head to turn, and a concern that rose to fear crossed his face. “Why?”

“You’re not living up to your end of the bargain.”

“I told you I just need a little time to adjust.”

“It’s been three years, I think I’ve been more than patient.”

“It’s not my fault that I still remember my last body and the life that came with it.”

“And it shouldn’t be my problem that you agreed to be ReFilled before you were ready.”

“You told me you loved this body.”

“I do. That body fits perfectly with me. Luckily your brooding hasn’t put too much wear and tear on it which is why I’m not asking for a RePlacement, just a ReFill.”

“So, you aim to keep the body, just not the person currently occupying it,” he shook his head. “I’ll appeal.”

“Your appeal grace period has passed. You had a six-month window, it’s been three years, remember?”

“I can try—try to be the man you want me to be, need me to be.”

“It’s too late for that. I’ve already filled out the paperwork. You’re being ReStocked tonight and I’ll have a brand new ReFill by morning. I thought I’d give you some time to prepare yourself. And don’t even think about being petty and damaging that body, self-harm restraints have been activated to prevent any vindictiveness.”

“Even if the safeguards weren’t in place, I wouldn’t have done that. I’m not a vindictive man.”

“I know. It’s just a precaution. None of this would have been necessary, you realize, had you just opened up to me.”

He considered that a moment before asking, “Have you ever been ReStocked?”

“No. Original body and soul going on forty years now.”

“Then you don’t know what it’s like, being ripped from a warm body and placed in any icy limbo queue with other souls who moan incessantly about the lives they left behind, on and on for what feels like an eternity, until the memory purge takes place and all the souls become ReConditioned and ReTurned to factory settings.

“But sometimes the process doesn’t work, sometimes a soul remembers what it had, what it lost.

“In my case, I had a wife who I loved more than anything in the world and two precious little girls who were carbon copies of their mother. I would have died to keep them safe, and I did.

“There was a break-in in my home, in my previous home. An intruder made a noise that woke the girls and the girls came and woke my wife and I. I told them to go to the bathroom, it’s the most secure room in the house, in case you didn’t know, and I told them to lock the door and stay there until I came to get them.

“There were no weapons in the house, my wife and I wouldn’t have a gun in the same house as curious children, but I played golf, I bet you didn’t know that about me, so armed with a golf club, I crept downstairs but I must have made a noise because the burglar was waiting for me with a gun. He shot me at point blank range and the gunshot made my girls scream.

“The burglar climbed the stairs and kicked at the bathroom door until it gave in. My wife put the girls in the bathtub and stood in front of them shielding them with her body as the burglar raised his gun…

“I pounced on him trying to wrestle the gun away. Ignoring the pain of my wound, I struggled with all my might to pull the gun muzzle away from my family and I managed to get the gun between us when it went off.

“The bullet killed the burglar, but his first shot and the excessively bleeding that followed proved to be my undoing.

“That’s why I couldn’t be what you wanted me to be, because in my mind I’m still married to a woman who has probably moved on, and I couldn’t bear to cheat on her. I would have traveled to them, my family, but it seems the memory purge was successful in wiping out their names and location. The memory fades slightly each day and my hope was that it would have faded enough to give you what you needed from this body, but it seems I’ve run out of time.”

“Why couldn’t you tell me all this before?” she asked.

“For fear you would have ReStocked me sooner.”

She took him by the hand and led him to the bedroom. The plan was to make their remaining time together pleasant for both of them but he wasn’t ready for that level of connection, so they climbed into bed and fell asleep in each other’s arms until day turned to night.

He woke to her nakedness. She was sitting astride him and to his bewilderment, he was naked too. Pinned beneath her, he closed his eyes and gave into her control of the situation but in his mind, he was with his wife, a woman whose name he could no longer recall and whose face was clouded like a steam-misted bathroom mirror.

After she reached the pinnacle and collapsed into his arms, he said, “You don’t look forty in the least.”

She raised herself on her elbows and pressed her lips to his but by that time the body that fit so well with her own was in the process of being ReFilled.

Garota Exilada 1 – The Big Ask (Diya y Xio)

woman killer

The moon, merely a crescent in the cloudless night sky, shines brightly on the car parked at the corner of 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 the 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.

Gennadiya 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 them who you are,” Xiomara says.

“Shut your mouth, little doggie, people are talking.”

“Vulpes vulpes!” Xiomara snarls.

“What?”

“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 are 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.”

“Played?”

“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 head 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.

Not The End…

Duchess and the Anecdote

Duchess

They come from miles around, my characters do, traveling the great distance from the fringes of my mind’s eye, some even making the long and arduous haul from my childhood, just to sit and talk. They do this whenever I’m alone.

As they gather ’round, I cast an eye upon their many and various faces and can’t help but feel the slightest twinge of remorse. Being in my company, locked within the confines of my imagination, is not wholly unlike a purgatory for them. A holding pattern, a waiting room, where they converse amongst themselves in voices audible only to myself, trying to catch my attention in the slimmest hope of being set free. Birthed into a story.

Some are fresh meat, the rest lifers, each easily spotted by the differences in their appearance and the strength of their voices. Fresh meats are gossamers—newly formed characters, little more than a stack of traits—who shout in whispers. Lifers, on the other hand, are as fleshed out as you or I, perhaps even more so, who have acquired the proper pitch and turn of phrase to catch me unawares during the times when my mind idles.

Before the talks begin–serious conversation, not the normal natterings they engage in–a flying thing the size of a butterfly, jewel-toned blue stripes, greenish-gold spots, with flecks of silver on the wings, lands in the palm of my outstretched hand.

“What is that then?” a childlike voice asks from somewhere deep in the crowd, low to the ground. I recognize it instantly.

“It’s an anecdote, Duchess. Come see for yourself.” I reply as the creature’s wings beat softly on my palm.

The throng–my personal rogue’s gallery whose roster includes reputables and reprobates alike–part like the Red Sea, making way for the noblest of all serval cats, The Duchess.

“An antidote? Have you been poisoned?” The Duchess queries as she saunters into the open space, a dollop of concern gleaming in her vivid blue eyes.

I try to not laugh, partly out of respect, but mostly due to the fact that though she is the eldest of my unused characters, she is technically still but a kitten. “No, Duchess, it’s an anecdote, as in a short, amusing, or interesting story about a person or an incident.“

“I know full well what an anecdote is, thank you kindly. I was merely attempting to lighten the dreadfully somber mood with a bit of levity.” Not her best faux pas cover, but it was swift, which should count for something. As casually as she could manage, the kitten turned to see if anyone found amusement at her expense. No one did. They knew better. “May I hold it?”

I hesitate and stare at the leapling. Created on February 29th all those many years ago, it was my rationale–on paper–for keeping her a kitten, seeing as she had fewer birthdays, she would naturally age at a decelerated rate. The actuality is I have an affinity for kittens. For full-grown cats? Not so much. And now the dilemma is if her kittenish nature should come into play, and without meaning to, cause injury to the anecdote, then all this would be for naught.

Her eyes plead with all the promise of being good and I have no choice but to relent. “It’s fragile, so be gentle. Take care not to crush it.” I gently place the anecdote in her cupped paws.

“Why does one need an anecdote?” The Duchess of Albion asked, her nose twitching whenever the creature moves its wings.

“To tell a proper story,” I answer. “More than just a sequence of actions, anecdotes are the purest form of the story itself.“

“But I thought characters are at the heart of every great story?“

“They are and anecdotes connect the hearts and minds of those characters to a story.” I try to feign calm but I can see the kitten’s body tensing up. Her eyes, those glorious baby blues, are studying the creature closely. Was I wrong in my decision to trust that she rules her instincts and not the other way around?

“They also add suspense to your story, giving the audience a sense that something is about to happen. If you use them right, you can start raising questions right at the beginning of your story—something that urges your audience to stay with you. By raising a question, you imply that you will provide your audience with the answers. And you can keep doing this as long as you remember to answer all the questions you raise.“

The kitten’s breath becomes rapid and her paws close in around the anecdote and I want to cry out, urge her to stop, but it’s far beyond that point now. She is in control of her own fate. Canines bare themselves, paws pulling the creature closer to her mouth.

“No!” she shakes her head violently. Her ears relax and her mouth closes as her breathing returns to normal. Then, the oddest thing happens…

The Duchess begins to vanish. All the characters look on in dazed silence, uncertain how to react.

“What is happening to me?” she shoots me a panicked glance as cohesion abandons her form.

“Haven’t you sussed it out yet?“

“No… I’m scared!“

“Don’t be,” I smile. “Look around you. You’re at the heart of a story. You’re free.“

“Truly?” she is suddenly overwhelmed with delight, her expression priceless. “But — but what do I do with the anecdote now?”

“Open your paws, let it fly off.”

She unfolds her paws. Tiny wings beat their path to freedom. Then someone from the back of the crowd gives The Duchess a slow clap. Soon, others join in, building into a tidal wave of applause.

The now translucent Duchess waves a tearful thank you to the crowd, before turning back to me with a request, “Say my name.“

“Why?“

“Because you always simply address me as Duchess and I want to hear you call me by my full name one last time before I g– —“

And just like that, she was gone.

I bid you a fond farewell, Your Grace the Duchess of Albion Gwenore del Septima Calvina Hilaria Urbana Felicitus-Jayne Verina y de Fannia. Enjoy your journey. You will be missed.