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.

 

Maurine, Maureen, Part 1

two sisters twins posing, making photo selfie, dressed same white shirt, diverse hairstyle friends, lifestyle people concept

Maurine hadn’t thought of herself as a narcissist, who would, really, unless someone went out of their way to mention the possibility, which is exactly what Shelly McIntyre did. In front of her coworkers and the rest of the staff, Shelly, her supposed office bestie (a title Maurine never laid claim to at any point in time) denounced Maurine as a narcissist, among other things that stung a lot less, in order to step over her shame-ridden corpse and into a corner office promotion. Maurine hadn’t known how to reply, so she remained silent, letting the accusation register properly, which she supposed could have appeared to her superiors as an admission of guilt. Guilt? Over what? Truth of the matter was she had no idea what the word narcissist actually meant.

At home, she looked up the word online and found to qualify as a narcissist, an individual needed to possess:

  1. A pervasive pattern of grandiosity
  2. The need for admiration; and
  3. A lack of empathy

which surely did not apply to her, but she called her mother, just to be on the safe side. After the requisite pleasantries, Maurine asked the question.

“What a bizarre thing to ask,” her mother said. “Did someone tell you you were?”

Maurine didn’t feel like rehashing the events of the day, so she simplified it by answering, “Someone made an off-comment in passing and I became curious to learn if people viewed me that way, that’s all. Like, am I giving off some sort of vibe or something?”

“Well, I may not be the best person to ask…”

“Why? Are you a narcissist, too?” the words slipped past Maurine’s lips before she could catch them.

“No,” her mother chuckled, sounding confident in her answer. Far more confident than Maurine herself felt. “I may not be objective, is what I’m trying to say. As a parent, all children seemed to be filled with a grandiose sense of self-importance, which is a beast we feed, I suppose. As a young girl, did you exaggerate your achievements and talents and fantasize about unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, and ideal love? Of course, you did, all children do.”

Even though she could see her mother’s point, Maurine knew this conversation was not going to lead her in the direction she needed in order to confront her office bestie in the morning. So, she thanked her mother, made her excuses for cutting the conversation short, and promised that she’d call more and visit more often and would definitely make the trip down to the coast to celebrate the holidays with the family this year. Most of which she knew to be a flat-out lie.

Maurine didn’t feel much like cooking or eating for that matter, so she slipped on a comfortable pair of flats and went for an evening constitutional to air out her thoughts. So lost was she in the events of the day, she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going and bumped into a person walking the opposite way. When she looked up to apologize, the words wouldn’t come. And the other person, to her surprise, was equally dumbstruck…for they looked exactly alike. Not similar in the way that people with the same hair and eye color and facial bone structure reminded you of the other person. These two women were identical. Mirror images sans glass. The only differences were the hairstyles, Maurine wore her shoulder-length hair up while her twin stranger’s hair framed her face, and their outfits were roughly the same style business skirt suit but in different colors.

Maurine, still mute, slowly lifted her hand to the other woman’s face and touched it gently. The other woman hadn’t flinched but Maurine, for a split second, swore she felt her fingers on her own face. Then she was overwhelmed by the urge to kiss this woman, this stranger, so she did. She nervously pressed her lips to the woman’s mouth and it was soft and warm and somehow strangely familiar and before she knew it, her tongue was slipping into the other woman’s mouth, probing, exploring. And when her poor thrumming heart couldn’t bear the passion any longer, Maurine broke the kiss and felt instantly ashamed.

“I—I’m sorry,” Maurine said, finding that she could no longer meet the woman’s eyes. “I don’t know what came over me. I just…”

“I wanted to know what I tasted like,” the other woman said, which was exactly what Maurine was feeling. “It isn’t every day you run into your doppelgänger.” The woman extended her hand, which seemed so silly and formal after they had just frenched. “My name is Maureen, by the way.”

“This—no, this can’t be happening. I’m Maurine, that’s my name.”

Maureen dug her ID out of her clutch and held it up for Maurine to examine. Maurine laughed and presented her ID as well. “Same name, different spelling. How Twilight Zone is this?”

“The better question is how much more Twilight Zone will it get?” Maureen reached out with her thumb, wiping away the lipstick smudge around Maurine’s mouth.

Maurine returned the favor, saying, “I don’t live too far from here. Care to head back to mine for a coffee and a chat? Promise I’m not an ax murderer.”

“But what if I am?”

“You know, I think I’ll take that chance,” Maurine smiled and took the hand of a stranger who wasn’t quite so strange at all and led her home.

Over coffee, they compared life stories trying to spot as many similarities as they could to keep the fascinating coincidence of a single entity living parallel lives in the same reality alive for as long as they could and there were many. Choices that one made that the other hadn’t that took them in different directions. And when they were satisfied they were the same person that had somehow branched off to live separate lives, the conversation stopped and the pair sat on the couch until the wee hours, silently touching and exploring each other’s bodies. Neither spoke the words because it wasn’t necessary. They felt an instantaneous attraction for one another the moment their eyes met.

When they awoke the next morning, Maurine mentioned her apprehension about going to work because of Shelly’s accusation.

Maureen took the nervous woman’s face in her hands and with a look of fierce determination said, “Maybe this Shelly-person is right.”

“What?” Maurine almost said more and stopped herself because she realized it was far too early days for her to be appearing vulnerable and overly sensitive.

“What I mean is even though we just met, I believe you are special and should only associate with high-status people or institutions! You should demand excessive admiration and have a sense of entitlement that demands favorable treatment and automatic compliance for everything you do! Shelly, who I must point out was interpersonally exploitative and took advantage of your kind and trusting nature, must be placed at the very top of your To-Do list as you give as good as you’ve gotten and absolutely lack empathy when you crush her like the bug she is. In fact, you should quit your job, right now!” Maureen reached over to the nightstand and snatched up Maurine’s smartphone, shoving it at her. “Do it! Show them who’s in control of your destiny!”

“But…” Maurine started, taking the phone but not dialing. “But I need my job. I need the money.”

Maureen shook her head and laughed, “Oh, honey, no you don’t. I have more money than you can imagine and if you’ll have me, everything that’s mine is yours.”

Have her? There was nothing more that Maurine wanted than to have this magnificent woman in her life from now ’til forevermore. “I—I can’t take your money like that.”

“You’re not taking anything. I’m giving it to you. You know what? Hand me your phone,” Maureen put out her hand.

“Why, what are you going to do?”

“What needs to be done,” Maureen gently plucked the phone from Maurine’s loose grip and scrolled through the contact list, stopping at the entry marked Michele McIntyre. “Shelly, I assume?”

Maurine nodded and started to object but Maureen pressed a finger against her lips as she tapped the Call button. After a moment, “Shelly? Hi, this is Maurine,” Maureen’s tone was so over the top sweet it nearly gave Maurine a toothache. “I don’t remember if I did it or not yesterday but I just wanted to congratulate you on your promotion. There is one thing I need you to know, though I absolutely forgive you for the underhanded way you backstabbed me in front of the entire company and I wish you nothing but the best, I am subject to caprices. Since we’re such office besties I wanted to advise you to keep looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life just in case I decide to change my mind and be less forgiving. Oh and don’t worry about taking any disciplinary action against me at work because I quit. Byeeeee, bitch!” Maureen tapped the End Call button and tossed the phone on the bed.

“I—that…” Maurine struggled to get the words out.

“Yes?”

“That. Was. Incredible!” Maurine leaned forward, throwing her arms around the smiling woman. But she broke the hug and held Maureen at arm’s length, a worried expression playing on her face. “Wait. Did you mean what you said…”

“About the money?”

“What? No! About us being together.”

Maureen took her face by the chin, “I’m yours, honey. And whether you want it or not, the money is too.” They kissed and fell back into the bed. It would be hours before they rose again.

Maurine mentioned how much she liked her house, so Maureen arranged to move in with her and despite all the odds for a love at first sight relationship lasting and remaining healthy, they were happy. Any arguments or disagreements were minuscule compared to their love and were resolved almost immediately. Both their parents had raised them not to go to bed on an argument and they both had the marvelous knack of talking things out to the minutest detail until clarity existed on both sides.

When the laws changed and same-sex marriage had been legalized in both their city and state, they both took turns in proposing to one another. Neither Maurine nor Maureen considered themselves lesbian or bisexual because gender wasn’t an issue in their relationship. They weren’t sleeping with another woman, they were one person sleeping with themselves, a point that made its way into their wedding vows. To their surprise, Shelly showed up at the service, contrite and presenting them with the most expensive gift from their bridal registry as a peace offering.

Married life hadn’t dulled their affection for one another but a few years in, Maurine felt as if something was missing. During one of their nightly pillow talk sessions, an idea formed and turned itself into a desire which slipped past her lips before she realized what she was saying.

“I want a baby.”

Not The End…

Joey Mac and the Pearlescent Unicorn Uniform (Part 1)

image

His job made Joseph MacDonal II, Joey Mac to his pals, the enemy of the world and a target for assassination. He was one of the few people on the planet trained and licensed to butcher unicorns and prepare their meat for consumption. This also put him at odds with PAUTU (People Against the Unethical Treatment of Unicorns) who accused him of unicorn genocide.

The thing that stuck in everyone’s craw, more than selling unicorn steaks, chops, and burgers, was the butchery aspect, though that was the bit they all had gotten wrong. Yes, Joey was technically a unicorn butcher, but the proper definition was:

/ˈbo͝oCHər/ – NOUN
A person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.

which he did. What most folks failed to understand, though it was a matter of public record, was that his license hadn’t included or even allowed the hunting or slaughtering of unicorns or any other animals. In fact, Joey never killed a thing in his life. Insects that crossed his path were the subject of a strict catch, relocate and release system.

At this moment, Joey sat across from a field news reporter undergoing makeup in preparation for the live broadcast. He found her cute in a cable news presenter sort of way, and probably would have been more attracted to her if she hadn’t had that I’ll-make-my-bones-off-this-story hungry look in her eyes.

She ignored him completely, even brushing off his initial “Hello” until the cameraman counted her down. When the station anchor threw to her, the field reporter beamed a smile so unnaturally white, that it would have stood out in a blizzard.

“Thank you, Sylvia. I’m here with noted unicorn slaughterer, Joseph MacDonal,” the field reporter said, finally locking her predatory eyes on him.

“Actually, I’m a unicorn butcher…”

“Same difference, isn’t it?”

“Actually, there’s a big dif–‘

“What made you decide to embark on this horrible profession?” she interrupted.

***

The economy had been in the crapper since before God talked to Moses and Joey hadn’t worked in forever. And even though he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to do what analysts suggested and set aside six months’ worth of salary in a high yield account before he was made redundant at the meatpacking plant, now going on his tenth year, all that money was little more than a distant memory.

A Christian in name more than practice, it had been years since the soles of his shoes touched the floor of a church and that time was his best friend’s wedding, a wife twice removed. To say Joey was out of practice with the proper act of prayer would have been an understatement. His first attempt came off as more of a bitch session, with him blaming his parents for his rotten upbringing and lambasting society for its prejudice of gingers, which, he reckoned, was the chief reason for his being kept down by the man. Surprisingly, he saw no results.

His second attempt at prayer was akin to a letter to Santa, in which he listed all the positive things he’d ever done in life and expected a little compensation for his good behavior. Again, results were not forthcoming.

Third time was the charm, however, when he realized that he should have admitted his sin, expressed thanks for the things he had, and humbly requested the one thing he needed most: a job.

He put no expectation on the prayer and went about his normal daily existence, when, a week later, he received a phone call. Seemed that a friend of a friend knew a guy who knew a guy who had a roommate who was related to a woman who owned her own business was looking for someone in his line of work.

Joey arrived at the interview, résumé in hand, and launched into his well-rehearsed spiel when the businesswoman waived him off and ushered him into a small kitchen area.

“Show me what you can do,” she gestured at a section of the animal carcass, a shank, by the look of it, that rested atop a butcher block countertop.

Joey inspected the meat before touching a utensil. Not beef, pork, nor lamb, the texture was something he had never encountered before. A grain-like beef, yet soft to the touch like flan, and it shimmered without a light source as if it were bioluminescent.  “What is this?” he asked.

“Are you interested in the job or not? I don’t have all day,” she drummed her fingers on her crossed arms.

Joey sighed, selected a knife from the butcher block and approached the slab of meat, much in the same manner a sculptor would a block of marble, envisioning the cuts before blade touched flesh. With no idea what type of animal he was dealing with, there was no way of telling how this woman expected it to be prepared, so he simply followed his instincts and let the meat talk to him. And in a way, it did.

Every time the stainless steel edge portioned the strange meat, Joey thought he heard a high-pitched tone, like the sound of a moistened finger running along the rim of a crystal goblet. A sound that broke his heart. But in the aftermath, when the tone was just about to become inaudible, he heard a voice inside his head. It said two words:

forgive you

and he felt a permission was granted. This had not relieved the wave of guilt that flooded over him but it gave him the desire to do something with his own life worthy of this unknown animal’s sacrifice.

When he was done, the businesswoman nodded her approval, “Every bit the professional you claimed to be.” And it was a professional job. Every cut was perfect, none too generous, nor too small, and there were absolutely no scraps. He utilized every last bit of the meat.

“I’m curious, what type of meat is this?”

“Unicorn,” she said very matter of factly.

“Uni-excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“I don’t get the gag,” Joey inwardly chastised himself on his tone. If his dumb mouth cost him the job, he’d…

“I’m quite serious,” the woman took him by the upper arm in a grip tighter than he was comfortable with and led him through a maze of stairwells and corridors, down, down, so far down beneath street level that he expected to see passage markers scratched into the walls by Arne Saknussemm.

Their destination was a room designed to look like a field, complete with grass, trees, and rocks. Had he been blindfolded and dropped here, Joey would have sworn he was outside. The room was so vast, he couldn’t see the far wall. The only telltale sign this was, in fact, an indoor facility were the track lights that provided sunlight, positioned incredibly high overhead, but even they were mostly obscured by the clouds of the room’s self-contained weather system. But as fascinating as all this was, by far the most mindblowing thing were the unicorns grazing in the field.

“They’re real?” Joey asked.

The woman couldn’t suppress her chuckle, “Our organization, as advanced as it is, isn’t able to manufacture live unicorns.”

“But how is this possible?” Joey took a cautious step into the room and felt the spongy grass beneath his shoe. He moved slowly as not to spook a unicorn no more than ten feet away. The unicorn paid him no mind.

“Some trapper with an overabundance of dumb luck caught the last pair in existence by accident. Fortunately for him, and us, they were a stallion and mare. We made him a very wealthy man in order to breed them in captivity.”

“For food?” there went his tone again, but this time he didn’t care.

The woman shrugged. “There’s nothing else we can do with them. You can’t ride them. Young, old, virginal, virtuous… it doesn’t matter. They simply won’t allow it. Utilize the horn for its magical properties? It’s only magical for the unicorn, there’s no transference of power. Grinding down the horn and ingesting the powder for immortality? Turns out the human body is unable to digest the powder.”

“Then why not let them go?”

“Not until we recoup our investment. And we can’t risk one of our competitors getting hold of them and creating a revenue source we haven’t managed to think up ourselves… yet.”

“This is going to sound strange,” Joey said. “But I don’t know if I can do this.”

Not The End…

Home, At Long Last

girl returning home to high roofed house

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 me 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 others 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 are standing in the center of the empty 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 my measure. 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 to 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 the 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.

I want to go home.

Tiny Stories: Entropy Be My Name

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

I was never what anyone would have called creative by any stretch of the imagination but my parents, my loving mother and father, taught me how to appreciate creativity when I encountered it especially when we gazed up at the night sky.

They schooled me on using my imagination, on connecting the dots to form pictures and manipulating those images in my mind to construct the most beautiful art imaginable. I was alive with a raw energy that I could not brush onto canvas or mold in clay. Nor was I able to express in song, speech or written word the joy I felt standing with those whom I loved most dearly beneath a canopy of loveliness brought to life by divine hands.

But that was then.

Now I serenaded the twilight every night, luring stars close enough to be plucked from the sky, one by one, and I saved their beauty in my clutch bag for the day my mother and father, who grew bored with me and succumbed to wanderlust, decide to finally return home.

“Why do you continue doing this thing, Enny?” my neighbor, the Spinster Wainwright, once asked in a tone that was more condemnation than curiosity.

“Because my mother once told me that stars used to inspire wishes,” I replied. “And I will continue to do this thing until my wish has been granted.”

To this, the old woman had no response. She simply stood at my side, watching the night sky grow darker as one by one the stars were plucked from the heavens and placed into my purse, causing galaxies to shudder.

Eventually, our star, our sun would join the others and this lonely existence would be eaten by the dark motes that share my name.

Strong Roots Amongst The Clay

Clay Boy

Content Warning: This story contains violence and relationship abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

Once there was a kindly woman who was known all about the town as Lovely Lucy, not so much for her appearance, for she was endowed with plain features—which wasn’t a bad thing at all—but she was called this because she was arguably one of the sweetest people who ever walked the face of the planet. The only parts of her life that suffered were her love life and her inability to bear children.

One morning, Lucy went to market and spoke with the town sculptor, who made statues large and small, some for himself and some which he sold. Lucy hadn’t much money so she explained what she wanted to do and begged the sculptor to spare some clay and promised to pay him another day. The sculptor remembered how Lucy had brought soup and sat by his bedside when he had taken ill, and gladly gave her as much of his special clay as she could carry, free of charge.

Thanking the sculptor for his kindness, Lucy rushed home and began working on a life-sized statue of a boy, aged five. She made the little boy perfect. His reddish-brown features depicted an unblemished beauty and innocence such as no real boy had ever possessed. Although she had no skill at sculpting, she crafted the statue with such love that upon first glance it seemed to be a live boy standing still. She took great care in painting her little angel, making his eyes blue like the sky, his lips and cheeks pink like the sunset and his hair black as twilight.

Lucy marveled at her creation. She held his little clay hand, kissed his rosy cheek, and told him many times a day how much she loved him. When she went out to market, he was always in her mind, and she searched for presents for him – flat, smooth rocks for skipping across the lake, seashells for tooting like horns, and twigs and vines woven into a ball. She bartered her baked goods for hand-me-down children’s clothing and dressed him in different outfits each day. She even brought him a puppy from the neighbor’s litter for company while she was away.

Lucy was not able to manage the other part of her suffering as easily. For reasons unknown to anyone, she attracted the wrong sort of suitors and was far too kind of heart to dismiss them, despite their many transgressions against her. It pained the townsfolk to see a woman so intelligent in all other respects remain so foolish in love.

Her most recent failed relationship was with a traveler who suspected her of being unfaithful one day when she had gone out to market, so he barred her from her own house and drew obscene pictures of her and posted them about town. Lucy begged and pleaded with the traveler and after a week or so, he changed his opinion and let her back into her home to be reunited with her clay boy.

That evening the traveler fixed her dinner and his mouth was sweet with words of love and a possible reconciliation. Cautious at first, Lucy finally let her guard fall, assured that his feelings and his intentions were genuine. That was the last thing she remembered before she awoke the following afternoon, face down in her bedding. She felt groggy and her body ached in unspeakable places as though she had been violated. She knew she had been drugged.

Lucy reported the incident to the authorities. The traveler confronted her in public, on the road from the market, after the authorities questioned him. Wishing to avoid an argument, she simply turned to walk away. Her next waking recollection was being bound to a chair in her home. The traveler had struck her a cowardly blow to the back of the head. She was helpless as he raged against her with rock and branch. But fortune smiled upon her when a neighbor heard her cries of anguish and contacted the authorities. This time, he was imprisoned.

From his prison cell, the traveler requested an audience with Lucy, and she, having a forgiving nature, went to visit. And his tongue was dipped in honey and he spoke sweetness and there was yet again talk of a possible reconciliation, which she honestly considered.

All was calm and happy between Lucy and the traveler when he was once again a free man. They sat together and talked, went out to the seashore and walked, and the traveler also lavished attention on the clay boy. All seemed right with the world and Lucy’s life was as close to being perfect as it had ever been.

Until one night she bolted upright out of a sound sleep and found the traveler standing over her, eyes doused in rage.

“I know you play me for a fool!” He spat through gritted teeth. “I know you have taken a lover! Who is it? The neighbor? The sculptor? Tell me who it is or you will never know a moment’s peace ever again!”

When she did not answer, he stormed out of the room and Lucy hoped he would leave the house but instead the sound of his thunderous footsteps headed in the direction of her private room—the room where the clay boy lived.

“No!” she cried as she dashed from her bed.

In the private room, she found the traveler with the wood axe resting over one shoulder. He stood next to her perfect little boy.

“Shhh,” he said. “If you wake him up, I will have to kill him.”

Lucy hadn’t a clue what to do so she started begging for the statue’s life, whispering as not to anger the traveler.

“What can I do?” she kept asking him. “What can I do to make this right?”

The traveler commanded her to her knees and she did this without a second thought. “Down on all fours.” And she complied. Then he made her crawl from the room backward, back into her bedroom.

“Now, on your knees,” he said, closing the door behind him. “Close your eyes and smile.” She was nervous, of course, but she obeyed. The next thing she felt was the ax handle as it smashed into her mouth, shattering her front teeth.

“Your life is mine! Your sad statue is mine! You both will cease to exist if I so wish it!” the traveler ranted.

She felt his foot on her shoulder, pushing her over, toppling her flat on her back. She wanted to look at him but was afraid, so she squeezed her eyes shut as he straddled her and beat her. Her head swam with pain, but Lucy knew she couldn’t scream for fear of this madman destroying her little boy, so she took the beating until she passed out.

Lucy dreamed that she was an eagle soaring through clouds misted with morning dew above a river where children frolicked and although she was too high to hear the sounds of their tiny voices, she knew they were happy and having fun. But something tugged at her tail feathers like a dragging weight, pulling her back down to a place she did not want to go, a place of pain and sorrow—

When she woke up, regaining consciousness piece by piece, she was surrounded by the sharp claws of searing pain that pawed at her like a hungry animal. As her mind struggled for clarity she wondered where she was. In her bed? But how did she get there?

All around, the walls were covered in blood, so much blood. Too much to be her own. Then she saw the bits and pieces. Parts that belonged at one time to a whole, red soaked clumps of the remnants of the traveler. Divided from one another and from life itself by the wood ax buried in the man’s severed head.

She looked at her hands. Had she done this terrible thing? Then she heard a voice, tiny tingly, that chirped in song, “Not to worry, not to fear, everything is fine, Mama, I am here.”

She stared at a living boy whose eyes were blue as the sky, cheeks the color of the sunset and hair as black as twilight.

He hugged her neck and kissed her cheek and whispered, “I love you, too.”

About Strong Roots Amongst the Clay: As a kid I never had much interest in fairy tales. In fact, I hated them. My mother told me that someone had given her a book about Squanto, also known as Tisquantum—the Native American of the Patuxet tribe who assisted the Pilgrims after their first winter in the New World—thinking it was a book of fairy tales. And where Mother Goose and The Brothers Grimm failed to put me at rest at night, the adventures of Squanto did the job nicely.

And I wouldn’t fully appreciate the cultural richness and power of fairy tales until revisiting them in the 1980’s. For the longest time I searched for something to spark an idea for a fairy tale story that I probably would never bother writing—there’s a difference between the wanting of a thing and the doing of a thing.

Then one day a violent true story was relayed to me by a coworker at a retail job that I absolutely hated (the job, not the coworker) and the first thought that popped into my mind—after showing proper concern for my coworker, of course—was to incorporate elements of her story (with her consent, naturally) to give my fairy tale story a spin.

At the time I wrote the story, I wasn’t a fan of the fairy tale narration. I didn’t like reading it and I didn’t like writing it. I’m still not a big fan of a lot of the story’s voice,  but finally sitting down and writing a fairy tale piece taught me appreciation of it.

I’m still not sure if I like the ending or not. There’s a fine line between chilling and cheesy and I’m not sure which side I’m on.

Tiny Stories: The Wooden Cup

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

For the want of a meal, I have committed heinous crimes.

No pride or shame attached to the deeds. Eating is a necessity and needs must when the devil drives and hunger calls. The irony? Now I am permitted to dine on any foodstuff my heart desires. I decline, of course. I have no need for reminders of the pleasures of existence. Starvation is the repast I will take to my grave.

I am urged to repent and give myself wholly to my maker. This will not happen by a long chalk. Religion is that ever-elusive thing that cannot find purchase upon the coral reef of my soul. Mine is a spirit unmoved by any deity, higher or lower. The only salvation made available to me when I confront my ultimate fate is to allow oblivion to enfold me within her inky embrace.

“I seek no holy counsel from a curate,” I inform my jailors. “I wish to spend my last hours in solitude.”

This request is ignored.

A female visitor, not a member of the clergy to my knowledge, is ushered into my cell. Her face—beautiful, though not for her features—is unfamiliar to me, but the light in her eyes and the gentle warmth radiating from her tell me all I need to know. She is no threat.

She says nothing as she sits on the far corner of my bedding, cradling a cup hewn from wood in her delicate hands. I do not profess to be a learned man but I know my letters and the shapes carved into the sides of the cup are of no language written today.

Smiling, she offers the cup and makes a motion suggesting that I drink. For the life of me—a peculiar turn of phrase considering my position—I cannot explain why I accept the cup or why at her urging I touch its brim to my lips but in my grasp, this simple wooden vessel is heavy with importance, rich with history, and my will, while I am in contact with it, is no longer my own.

The cup is filled with a liquid that after one sip I somehow know to be the tears belonging to the kin of my victims, shed from pain and loss, anger and grief. There are even tears of empathy, which I believe come from this woman, herself. And when those collected salted drops greet my lips the flavor is replete, not with revenge, but with the surprising splendor of the bittersweet serenity of a loving quiet purpose and a hint of forgiveness.

I drink and drink until there is no more and am momentarily reluctant to release the cup.

Purpose fulfilled, the silent woman, still proffering that unnaturally kind smile, is escorted from my chamber. Her simple and bizarre act of sharing those tears sparks an ember within me, a dormant faith I had no inkling existed, and now I know sorrow and regret for the things that I have done. I am also granted a glimpse of the path of amendment, redemption, and peace I shall not live to follow.

Unskilled in the workings of asking for and receiving mercy and forgiveness, am I and for this reason, I fear the gates of the reward which exist beyond this all too limited flesh will undoubtedly deny me entrance. But waste not your prayers on my unworthy soul, for by the time you come to read this missive, I shall no longer be.

Oblivion is to be my final destination after all.

Tiny Stories: One Last Thing Before I Go

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

They gather at my wake, my family and friends do, and I am surprised to find they are not alone. For in the crowd of mournful faces I spy the many acquaintances I have made along the way, long lost playmates from my childhood, as well as the beautiful women who I recognize immediately as the pretty girls I loved in my youth, each with children not much younger than we were when we courted.

Each of the assembled grievers tells a story, most of which I remember fondly and some I have forgotten with age, stories that make me laugh at how foolish I had been when I was at my most serious and some touching enough to make the eye water at the perceived kindnesses I bestowed upon others without even being aware.

And when the time for remembrances both affectionate and painful has passed, my loved ones—and yes, even the acquaintances are loved now—raise a parting glass to wish me safe passage on my unearthly travels to where I do not know and as I feel myself being gently pulled away from this realm, I swim against the current of my final destiny and pass through each body gathered in this place to leave a personalized vivid memory in an effort to ensure I am not forgotten.