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.

To be continued…

Text and Audio ©2018 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

We Bought A Graveyard

Old_graveyard,_Copeland_Island_-_geograph.org.uk_-_209117

I opened the apartment door performing my famous grocery juggling act, organic cotton bags of the heavier items in each hand with two more sacks containing lighter stuff dangling off my wrists. I could have pulled out the shopping cart and saved myself the hassle of lugging the load from the supermarket, true, but the building’s elevator was on the fritz yet again and I didn’t relish the thought of pulling my arms out of their sockets by dragging the cart up seven flights of stairs one agonizingly slow step at a time. Slamming the front door shut with my heel, I went to the kitchen and flicked the light switch with my nose—and nearly dropped the bags.

There was someone standing in the kitchen.

My husband was at work and Katy was watching my daughter so the apartment was supposed to be empty but there this stranger stood. Terror trapped the scream in my throat and locked my legs rigid. I walked in on a robbery and now there was a very distinct possibility that I was going to die. And even if the burglar didn’t kill me, I wouldn’t be able to identify him. I was born with a visual processing disorder where I wasn’t able to differentiate between certain shapes, letters, small details and facial features. Therapy helped me learn a unique way of processing visual information so it was manageable except during anxiety attacks or when I encountered a sudden visual shock.

The man in my kitchen–I assumed it was a man because the blob was taller and broader than me–appeared to me as nothing more than a silhouette, a thing that didn’t compute, that didn’t make sense because he wasn’t supposed to be here. Still rooted to the spot, unable to move, I tried to calm myself, to focus, so that if I managed to survive I could give the police some sort of description.

And slowly I began assembling and rearranging bits of visual fragments. It was a man. His back was to me. He was standing in front of the under-cabinet mounted microwave, his hands picking at something that sounded like plastic. Then the puzzle pieces fit into place and I knew this man by his brown comb-over with its deep part, the slump of his shoulders in the navy pea coat.

“Caleb! Oh, my friggin’ God! What the hell are you doing lurking in the kitchen in the dark like that? You almost scared the living daylights out of me!” The tension flooded from my body and I was suddenly aware of the weight of the groceries that nearly slipped from my hands as I stumbled to set them on the kitchen table.

“I thought you were a burglar about to kill me or something! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?” I demanded.

“Sorry about that, babe, I should have called,” Caleb said. He was about to put a small bag of pork pot stickers in the microwave but set the plastic pouch back on the counter. He didn’t turn around.

“Honey, what’s wrong?”

“I have to tell you something,” he said and I didn’t like the sound of his voice.

“What something and why won’t you turn around and look at me?” I asked but my heart was hammering in my chest because all I could imagine was that he was going to admit he was cheating on me. All those long hours when he was supposed to be at work–

“It’s about the job.”

It almost didn’t register because I was preparing myself for the worst. When it finally sank in I let out a sigh of relief but caught myself. “Did you get fired?” That was something that absolutely positively could not happen now, not with Elizangela going back to school next month.

“Worse than that, I’m afraid.”

“What’s worse than getting fired?” I asked. After being frightened half to death, the needle on my patience gauge was swiftly approaching the big red E.

“I got–” Caleb swung around and smiled that fantastic smile of his, the one that made the butterflies flutter in my stomach. “Promoted!”

I could feel my eyes going wide. “No friggin’ way!”

“Yes friggin’ way,” said Caleb and he was on me before I knew it, sweeping me off my feet in that wonderfully secure bear hug of his. “And it comes with a hefty, hefty, hefty salary bump!”

I went rigid in his arms. “Wait a minute. Three hefties? Either you’re exaggerating or that’s a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong, honey, I’m not saying you don’t work hard and deserve every penny of it but what’s the catch?”

Caleb set me down gently. “It isn’t like that, babe, there’s no catch. Not really.”

“I knew it. Spill.”

“Built into the pay raise is an insane relocation fee–“

“Relocation?”

Caleb nodded and continued, “If I can manage to move house and start work by the fifteenth.”

“The fifteenth? That’s only a week away!”

“I know but we’ve always been the #ChallengeAccepted type,” he smiled again but I wasn’t having any of it this go-round.

“Relocate to where?”

“Fort Wayne, Indiana,” he said under his breath.

“Who-what-where? What the hell is in Fort Wayne, Indiana?”

“I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff but the biggest attraction is the relocation fee could cover the cost of our first house. Our. First. House. Our dollar would go a long way and we could spend more of it on Liza to make sure she gets the best of everything, things we can’t afford to give her in New York. Where is she, by the way?”

“With my sister, it’s easier to do the shopping with her preoccupied.” Elizangela was at the Ooo, Mommy, can we please get this? stage in her development which was okay for the leisurely stroll through shops but not so great on the money-is-tight necessity runs.

I looked at him for a long moment. He’d have had to know about this for a while now but he kept it from me even though we made a no-secrets pact and if I brought this up he’d hand me some line about not wanting to jinx the promotion and I’d be upset but I’d know he was telling the truth because he was a big believer in the almighty jinx.

My first instinct was to say no, to fight him tooth and nail, all because he hadn’t consulted me on this enormously life-changing decision. But that would have been petty. Yeah, my feelings were hurt but it would be our first house, something we’d been talking about for years. And a better life for our daughter? I’d be a heinous-monster-worst-mother-on-the-planet if I didn’t set my wounded pride aside and at least consider it. So, I did.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” he asked.

“Okay, let’s do it,” I shrugged.

“Are you serious? I can tell my boss yes?”

“You didn’t accept it already?”

“Of course not, not without checking with you first.”

I gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before leaning in to whisper in his ear, “You big, stupid idiot! I love you, sometimes, you know that?”

***

Thanks to the internet, finding a house, even one that was seven hundred and forty-seven miles driving distance away was a piece of cake. The hardest part? Ignoring the common sense warnings from our parents and friends who thought our decision was rash, something we’d done because we were bored. But in the end, it was our choice to make and if they still hadn’t liked it after we explained the situation to them, they could just go ahead and lump it.

Online, we managed to locate a real estate agent who understood our situation and was willing to work with us in finding a fixer-upper in our price range, getting the house appraised and coordinating the paperwork so we could close the sale in five days, skipping the entire mortgage credit process by paying in cash.

Elizangela was the biggest shock in the relocating process. I’d have bet my eyeteeth that she would have kicked up a storm having to leave Queens and all her friends behind but Caleb cleverly presented the idea using Duck Tales, her favorite tv show, as an analogy.

“We might solve a mystery?” Elizangela asked, face full of childish hope.

“Or rewrite history,” Caleb answered and joined her in singing the show’s catchy theme song.

And like that, our daughter was sold on the idea and helped pack all her things with nary a complaint. My only complaint? We decided it was cheaper to drive, though it added five hours or so to the trip which Caleb and I took turns behind the wheel of the rental so there was no problem there, it was Elizangela singing the once adorable but now monotonous Duck Tales theme song on a loop for most of the time she was awake that began grating on my nerves.

***

Our new home pretty much matched the virtual tour we took on the realtor’s website. It was indeed a fixer-upper and would probably take the better part of a year before all the repairs could be completed. The outside was another story entirely. The front lawn was a respectable size, enough for me to create a nice vegetable garden, but the backyard was massive and overgrown to the point I thought we’d have to buy a couple of machetes, like in those old safari films, to hack the tall grass down to a mowable size. The plan was to tame the savage land and maybe build a grilling deck for our eventual summer barbeques and a playset for Elizangela to go on her Duck Tales adventures in and maybe entice some of the neighborhood kids to come over so she could make some new friends. Those plans all changed the moment we came across the graveyard.

I was on Caleb the moment he stepped into the house after work. “Do you want to know why this house was so cheap?”

“It’s a fixer-upper,” he answered, confused and a little more than slightly uncomfortable at the proximity of my face to his own. “We both knew that going into this. Why is it a big deal all of a sudden?”

“It’s not the repairs, Caleb Allen Mitchell,” I whisper-screamed. Even though I was on the verge of hysteria I was mindful not to upset Elizangela who was upstairs playing in her room. “It’s the friggin graveyard sitting smack dab in the middle of our backyard!”

“Graveyard? Did the previous owner bury a pet or something?”

“Pet? There are twelve graves with headstones out back! That’s not a memorial for poor, dead Fluffy, it’s a creepy-as-hell-honest-to-goodness graveyard!”

“Okay, calm down. Let me check it out,” he said trying not to sound skeptical and doing a lousy job at it.

I marched–it was more of an angry stomp-walk that seemed to me at the time to be childish but I couldn’t help myself–him down the foyer, past the living room, through the kitchen and flung the back door wide.

“Tell me I’m overreacting,” I said gesturing at the tombstones.

Caleb trudged over the carpet of tall grass that I spent the better part of the day attacking with the weed wacker and knelt beside the closest headstone.

“These are pretty old,” he said, running his fingers over the cracked surface of the crumbling stone. “The inscriptions aren’t even legible anymore, most likely due to acid rain which means they’re probably made of calcite.”

“How do you know so much about headstones?”

“My dad,” Caleb answered. “My gran died when I was little and I was terrified of the cemetery when we buried her so my dad took me on walking tours of graveyards and told me the truth about what happens when we die and why funerals were important. Sometimes we’d just marvel at the tombstone designs and he could tell what they were made from just by looking at them. Some fathers and sons had sports, me and my dad had graveyards. That may seem pretty morbid to you, but those were some of the best memories of my dad. It was just us guys and he would talk to me like a man.”

“I think it’s kind of sweet in a weird way,” I said and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah, Dad’s always been pretty unconventional,” Caleb patted my hand, stood and dug the cellphone from his pocket. He made several calls, the first being to the realtor who sold us the house. I had to admit, he was a good deal calmer and damn sure more polite than I would have been had the roles been reversed.

“No, this is not a crank call,” Caleb said into the phone. “Yes, there are twelve headstones. No, they’re really old, the information on them has been worn. No, I have not dug them up to confirm the existence of dead bodies. How do I know it is a graveyard? The headstones I just mentioned are giving me a strong indication that someone interred their dead beneath them. I can snap a couple of pics and send them to you if you’d like.”

Believe it or not, he had to repeat those answers several times to several different departments and organizations and what we learned was there was not going to be a swift resolution to our problem.

First, we had to contact the Historic Preservation Office to see if the land our house was built on was a former cemetery. Luckily for us, it wasn’t. Nor was there a family plot permit on record with the town Zoning Commission or approval from the state Department of Health.

We were informed there was a possibility the gravestones had been discarded. As creepy as it sounded, some people saw the value of the stones as building materials, but our stones–I didn’t like the fact that Caleb acknowledged ownership when speaking on the phone or that I had come to refer to them in the same manner–were out in the open and not used as part of our house’s foundation. The other suggestion offered was the previous owners might have thought they made for cool conversation pieces during backyard barbeques. Since the only way we could have verified this was to dig up one of the graves ourselves–and there was no way in hell we were going to do that–we contacted the police.

To make a long story short, let’s just say the grave markers weren’t for show. Each stone did indeed contain a coffin in which were human remains. When the medical examiners arrived with the local tv station reporters and camera crew, our internet-folly-first-house became a tabloid story and possible crime scene.

A forensic anthropologist was brought in to examine the human remains to establish the identity, or if that was not possible, at least the age, sex, number of individuals present, and other facts. Once it was established that the remains were not part of a crime scene they were turned over to a local cemetery for reburial.

Then we were contacted by the Registrar of Cemeteries and told about the Funeral Burial and Cremations Services Act, which made it our responsibility to fix the problem. Because some grieving or possibly idiotic person chose to bury their dead in the backyard and the realtors hadn’t bothered to check the tall grass behind the house, we had to foot the bill for either reinterring at another site or cremating the remains–hell, let’s just call them what they were, bones–at a price tag that ranged between $500 and $1,000 per body.

That was when I went lawyer shopping, even though the realtor assured us, “The situation can be worked out amicably.” Amicably meant they might accept partial financial responsibility for a clerical oversight. My aim was to make them pay entirely for their screw up with a little extra for the obvious emotional distress. I played that distress up on camera the day I discovered a newspaper reporter lurking outside my daughter’s school waiting to ambush the both of us for an interview.

During the entire ordeal, Elizangela was grace under fire. She got that from her dad. She was full of questions, though, and we answered them as truthfully as we could. The graveyard forced us to introduce the concept of death sooner than we wanted to and she struggled with the same concepts I struggled with when my parents had the talk with me.

“Death is permanent,” Caleb said. “Do you know what permanent means?”

Elizangela shook her head and her bangs danced in front of her eyes.

“It means forever, honey,” I said, taking her tiny hand in mine. “It means once you die, you go away and never come back.”

“You mean move? Like we did from our old home to our new home?”

Calen shook his head slowly. “No, Liza, when a person dies, that means their body stops working. Their heart doesn’t beat anymore, they don’t need to eat or sleep, and they don’t feel any pain ever again. They leave their body because they don’t need it anymore.”

“But that’s other people, not us, right?” Elizangela asked.

What followed was a very long, extremely exhausting everything that is alive eventually dies conversation that ended with our baby saying, “Oh.” No tears, no hysterics, no subsequent nightmares or follow up questions. Just, “Oh.”

***

After a month or so of avoiding the backyard after the police concluded their business and things in the neighborhood began returning to normal, Caleb and I revisited plans to spruce up the area behind the house. The first order of business was filling in the former graves.

The problem was they wouldn’t stay filled.

The dirt shoveled into the holes the day before appeared by the graves the very next day. Not all the dirt, mind you, but enough to make noticeable piles. I didn’t want to worry Caleb about it, he had too much on his plate as it was with the new position and following up on our lawsuit with the realtor and tracking down the previous owners of the house, so I shoveled the dirt back in and never mentioned a word to my husband. But the following morning, sure as bread fell butter-side down, there the dirt would be in neat little piles.

We had gotten to know all our neighbors pretty well, especially after the tv news coverage put our area in the spotlight longer than most of the residents were comfortable with, but the neighbors to our immediate left, Hannelore and Sean Bogatz were two of the kindest people that ever set foot on God’s green earth. I spotted Hannelore–Hannie, to her friends–one morning when we were both retrieving the morning paper from our front lawns. During casual conversation, I mentioned the grave issue.

“It just boggles the mind why anyone would sneak onto our property and dig up the graves after we fill them? I’d write it off as an animal or something but the dirt is always piled up so neatly.”

“Well,” Hannie shrugged. “It could be kids up to a little mischief they consider to be fun or funny and if you’re leaning toward that way of thinking, I’d take a good look at those Woods boys, always up to no good. Sean and I had a run in with them a little while back that ended the moment we spoke to their parents. Strict as Irish priests in the seminary, Michael and Ella are.”

I had half a mind to pay Michael and Ella Woods a visit but what would that accomplish, accusing their sons with no real evidence? Which meant I needed to gather some. So, later on, after I put the day’s affairs in order, I took a midday nap before I needed to pick Elizangela up from school and while she was up in her room, I quickly refilled the holes in the backyard–more scraping dirt into the open former graves than actual shoveling.

It was hard concentrating on conversations during dinner and the board game during family time because I wanted nothing more than to go out back and patrol the yard. But that had to wait until Elizangela had been put to bed and Caleb’s deep breathing turned into a light snore.

Sliding out of bed slowly and lifting my smartphone off the nightstand, I stepped as silent as I could manage, trying to remember where the creaking boards were located on the hardwood floor, and crept out of the bedroom and downstairs to the kitchen.

The casement window gave me the perfect vantage point to see out over the entire garden and one of the backless saddle stools we used for the kitchen island was the perfect sitting height for me to rest my elbows on the counter beside the sink. Earlier today I downloaded a night vision app–that was actually capable of capturing images at night, not the fake ones that simply inverted daylight images with a green overlay–on my phone in preparation for the stakeout. Not only was I determined to catch the culprit, I was also willing to sit up all night if need be.

I activated the night vision and turned the phone’s camera lens slowly, sweeping the yard. There was movement! Not a body, but dirt flying out of the hole nearest the house! I hopped off the stool, made a beeline to the kitchen door that led to the backyard–and it was unlocked? Had Caleb missed it when he made his nightly rounds securing the windows and doors? It hadn’t seemed likely. We were both native New Yorkers, Caleb represented Queens and I was raised out in Brooklyn, just like the lyrics of that LL Cool J song, and we never went to bed without making sure the house was secured.

Never mind, I would deal with that later. Now, I was racing across the cool grass and ignoring the pain in the soles of my feet as I pushed pebbles and pointy stones into the earth, on my way to gather evidence I could show Michael and Ella about their boys.

I stopped at the edge of the hole and snapped a picture. “I’ve got you now, you little shi–” It wasn’t the Woods boys.

Elizangela knelt in the center of the hole, nightgown pulled up above her knees, dirt cupped in her small hands.

“Liza, why are you playing in the–” I nearly said grave but caught myself and changed it to, “hole? It’s the middle of the night, honey!” Elizangela became upset and started to cry. Was it because I startled her, or made her feel she had been caught doing a bad thing?

I climbed into the (grave) hole and wrapped my arms around my daughter. I held her in silence until sobs waned to tears that quieted down to the occasional shudder.

“It’s okay, sweetheart. I just want to know what you’re doing and why you felt you had to sneak around at nighttime instead of just telling me?”

I thought Elizangela was so distraught that she couldn’t answer my question but after a long silence, she said, “Because you and Daddy said we shouldn’t tell secrets.”

“Secrets? Whose secrets are you keeping? Did your daddy tell you a secret?” I became suddenly afraid of what her answer might be, but she shook her head.

“I can’t tell you. I’m so sorry, Mommy,” Elizangela paused and asked, “Do you still love me?”

I was floored by the question. I cupped her small face in my hands and wanted desperately to say something definitive, something that would stick within her always so she never felt the need to ask that question ever again.

“Of course I do,” I answered. “I’ll always love you, Liza, no matter what.” And I meant it but it came out too quickly, sounded too rehearsed, too much like a pat answer.

“Maybe,” Elizangela started, careful not to look at me. “Maybe it’d be okay to tell if I asked them.”

I was about to ask her who they were but she began talking out loud in a funny voice, one I would never have recognized as coming from my daughter. At first, I thought she was talking to herself then I realized she was asking questions to the dirt walls surrounding us, reasoning with them, before she made her request.

My daughter smiled, finally making eye contact. “They said okay.”

“Who said–” I started and then a door opened in my vision, a door that has been hidden in plain sight, most likely for the entirety of my life. A door that could have been responsible for my visual processing disorder. From the doorway emerged ghosts of all ages shapes and sizes. Some of the older spirits carried the essences of babies that perhaps weren’t alive long enough to develop physical bodies.

They spoke to me but not in words. Images flooded my mind, of light and darkness, of peace and violence, each of them a history being forced into my mind, faster and faster until they became a subliminal blur.

Out the corner of my eye, I saw black ink bleed from the grave walls and swirl around me and I was suddenly caught up in a tornado of black. I lost sight of Elizangela and tried to call out to her but my jaw was clamped tight as if it had been wired shut. Electrical pulses shot through my body and deadened my nerve endings. I couldn’t catch my breath as my vision started to slowly fade out.

I found myself in that ethereal realm that occupied the space between dreaming and consciousness and in that space I wasn’t me. Though I couldn’t see myself, I knew that I was in another body, or better yet, bodies, twelve to be exact. The same as the number of graves. I was in twelve different places as twelve different people living twelve different lives at the same time. The histories that had been forced upon me in moments? days? years? ago now made sense. I understood these people. I knew who they were, knew their struggles, their loves, their pain, their inevitable fates and more to the point, I knew their names.

The information burned itself into my memory as I lost my footing in the intangible nirvana and slipped toward the harsh reality of the waking world. When I came to my senses, my head was resting on my daughter’s lap and she was stroking my hair the very same way I’d done to her so many times before.

“It’s only like that the first time, Mommy,” she said, smiling in that way that always reminded me of Caleb.

I sat up in the grave. There was no escaping the cold that seeped into my bones and settled in the marrow. Everything felt wrong, not just the cold. There were foreign sounds in my head, voices that weren’t my own, too loud, too busy when all I wanted was a bit of silence, some time to sort things out. And there would be time but it would come later.

I focused on Elizangela with a desperation I hadn’t felt since the day she was born, when I was afraid I knew nothing about being a mother. But my daughter’s eyes were calm and wise. Without saying a word, she told me she knew.

And now I knew, too. The bodies belonged here, it was their land first. They needed to be returned, needed to have their grave markers restored with their names and information to mark their forgotten existence on the planet. Once that was done, they could finally move on.

Now all I had to do was convince Caleb which meant I’d have to give my father-in-law a call for some pointers.

Text and Audio ©2018 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Breadcrumbing

breadcrumbing

Clive was a dyed in the wool true believer that online dating–the websites (both free and paid) and the process—stunk to high heaven. Not because a great deal of the time was spent sifting through miles of unimaginative profiles that featured photos of celebrities that in no way resembled the actual embittered people who recited a Don’t List of all the things they simply would not stand for in a partner or relationship—well, not mainly for that reason—but merely because he was forced to write a self-summary, also known as his personal kryptonite.

His experiment nearly ended right there.

Primary among the things he hated, in addition to being questioned about any personal information that he would never voluntarily offer up in conversation, was attaching descriptors to himself and/or writing a self-summary. The notion of having to explain the equation of his essence, his being, in order for a stranger to do a quick assessment and chuck him into a labeled box, was enough to make him retch. Not to mention the fact he considered himself boring as hell and had nothing interesting to fill a questionnaire out with if he were keeping it 100, as the young-uns said.

But needs must when the devil drives, so he picked himself up by the bootstraps and scratched his puzzler on the best way to go about creating a self-summary without laying out all his information upfront—like he was actually going to tell a bunch of judgmental strangers anything important about himself, please. Clive was determined to try and reintroduce the notion of courtship back into the dating world and planned to use the interweb to hone his slightly rusty—okay, severely rusty—wooing abilities. One wouldn’t need to be Ellery Queen to suss out the inherent flaws in that plan.

The workaround came fairly quickly and was a no-brainer. Clive was going to summarize himself in short story form, as a sort of coming attraction to ward off them what cain’t be bothered with a bit of good old-fashioned storytelling. This was the result:

One day an old woman stepped directly into my path on the street, stopping me cold, and asked, “Who are you?”

“Pardon?” I was taken aback by the suddenness of the question.

“If you had to describe yourself to me, an absolute stranger, what would you say?” she thwarted my attempt to sidestep her.

“Most likely…nothing,” I admitted. “Since I’m not too fond of the question.”

“Well, what if Nazis held guns to your parents’ heads? What would you tell me then?” she smiled.

Damn. The Nazi ploy.

I hated being manipulated like this, but I couldn’t have anyone, not even this old woman, think that I’m some heartless brute that would allow Nazis to murder my parents in an effort to avoid providing a self-summary.

“And don’t hand me any of that work in progress nonsense, because we’re all works in progress until we give up living.”

“Fair enough,” I nodded in agreement, for it was one of those overused expressions that I can’t stand, just like thinking outside the box.

“Who I am is a born-again optimist. What I believe is that love should not be denied to anyone, even to those born with icy hearts. What I know is that I’m wise enough to accept love as it finds me and not reject it because it doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty package. What I hope is that someday every lonely person will reach out to another lonely person and befriend them so that the word lonely fades from our lexicon.”

“Corny and clumsily poetic…” she eyed me for a long moment. “…but an artful dodge, so I’ll let you get away with it… this time.”

This time? Just who did this woman think she was?

“If you had to write a summary about yourself, would anyone read it?”

 I shook my head. “Probably not.”

The old woman cocked her head to the side, “Why not?”

“Because I’m old-fashioned.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” she asked.

“Simply that I wouldn’t reveal too much. Instead of handing someone Cliff Notes about me, I’d prefer to let that information come out naturally during the course of a one-on-one conversation with the person I was interested in. I don’t think that my life and personality can be compressed into a resume.”

“Is that a fact?” she said more to herself than anything else. “So, what are you doing with your life? Living it…is not an acceptable answer.” She tapped her foot impatiently.

What a surprise. Another question I hated, for how do you sum up passions, goals and interest in a sentence? A paragraph? It needs to be discussed in casual give and take conversation, which I knew would not happen here, so I answered:

“I’m in a creation stage of my life, at the moment. The need to create things is strong in me and I do that utilizing art, writing, sculpture and filmmaking. Some of my work has been published, which has brought me some attention but not anything close to notoriety.”

“Very good…” the old woman said, pleasantly surprised. “I didn’t have to pull teeth that time.”

“And my final question for you today is… what are you good at? I mean, really good at?” the annoyance seemed to melt away from her face, which put me at ease a bit.

“Hmmm…” I scratched my puzzler at that one. “If I had to give you one thing, I suppose it would be my ability to suss out how things work. Not machines and the like, but other things, intangible things… and people, as well. Except for you, that is. You’re a complete mystery to me.”

The corners of the old woman’s mouth curved up into a slight smile, as she nodded “Thank you.” and left as suddenly as she appeared, leaving me perplexed as to what just transpired here.

And with the self-summary written, all that was left was to join a bunch of free online dating sites—who’d pay, I mean, really—and cast his line into the water. But Clive hadn’t wanted to be aggressive about it, so the only two restrictions he imposed on himself were:

  1. He wouldn’t be the first person to initiate contact.
  2. He wouldn’t submit himself to a dating questionnaire when a woman was trying to gather more intel on him. Why make it easy for her to dismiss him based on whether or not he looked good to her on paper without even the courtesy of a flesh meet?

He also had to ask himself an honest question, Was he doing this to find an actual companion, an activity partner—young’uns would only understand this when they were older—or was he just out to get laid?

To anyone reading this, the initial obvious answer was to get laid, Clive just knew it, and he couldn’t blame anyone. When one cleaved through all the bullshit that men did and subjected themselves to, 9.75 times out of 10 sex was the reason, the answer, and the end goal. And okay, maybe that factored in a little bit, but mainly it was to find a companion.

But how could Clive attract the attention of women without contacting them or putting his statistics on display? Naturally, he knew the answer was to blog, but keeping a running online journal of his daily life—wake up, work, watch movies, procrastinate, troll the internet, sleep, repeat—would’ve bored anyone to tears.

No, he’d be forced to resort to the only thing he’d ever been good at in his entire life…

Inventing shit.

To be continued…

Text and Audio ©2017 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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.

Text and Audio ©2017 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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 her as a narcissist, among other things that stung a lot less, in order to step over her shame-ridden body 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, 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 forever more. “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 a 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.”

To be continued…

Text and Audio ©2017 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Passage Through the Graveyard of Earthworms

dead-worms

My monotony needed twisting yesterday, so I went for a stroll, sans iPod. You know, breathe in a bit of city fresh air, clear some cobwebs, that sort of deal.

There I was walking down the street, mind-sifting through character conversations and scene settings when I looked down at the pavement and realized that I was traipsing through what looked like the aftermath of the Great Worm War of 2021. The sidewalk was a battlefield littered with the corpses of thousands of earthworms that coated an entire city block.

Logically I knew how this could have happened. I knew they came to the surface either during the heavy rains–but it’s been dry weather for the past week–or to pair off and mate only to get caught on things that are hard for them to crawl across, like sidewalks and subsequently fry on the surface from sun rays–but that normally occurs during spring.

So, what then? Had there actually been a battle? Warring clans pitched against one another over territorial disputes? Factions in conflict over the claiming of a throne? Families locked in a deadly dispute over an unholy union?

Or was it a warning?

As I stood there, staring at their dried remains, curled into runic shapes, I wondered if they had been somehow gifted with a vision of the approaching apocalypse and had sacrificed themselves in an effort to warn us in the only language they knew. The last Germanic language spoken to them by man before the two species went their separate ways.

At that moment I felt like Indiana Jones in the passageway to the Grail chamber, trying to decipher the worm cadavers’ possible portents of doom, only without the aid of a diary or Sean Connery whispering something about, “Only the penitent man will pass.” or like John Nash without an ounce of the mental code breaking ability.

And I stood there. Longer than I’m comfortable admitting. Frustrated by the limits of my linguistics. Finally, I forced myself to move on, but not before making a promise:

No more outdoor strolls without my iPod.

Loving The Antisocial

There was no denying it all went wrong the day she met The Antisocial. Her marriage, her life, her reality. He stepped into the confidence of her world and slowly altered her polarity, molecule by molecule, turning her into the world’s biggest human misery magnet. How could she have been so blind? He was a super-charged lightning rod of suffering and unrest and she jumped in feet first and grabbed the rod with both hands.

How? The Burning Bush chiseled this question into the stone tablets of her grey matter. How and why? How had it happened with such severity? And, why The Antisocial? He was nothing she had ever been attracted to in her life. He was slight and pale and short. Three things she couldn’t stand in her men. And when they met, she was married. Very married. Endlessly she would extol the virtues of her Husband of the Round Table who sat in the Siege Perilous.

She and The Antisocial even began on the wrong chord. Their first conversation was over the phone. An argument. A full-fledged war of words and attitudes, waged on the fiberoptic battlefield, with no quarter asked and none given. Hatred festered between them, growing like mold on stale bread, infecting whole city blocks at a time.

Then came the inevitable: the first meeting.

She was geared for the worst, armed with a wit-sharpened tongue and poison-dipped fingernails. The Antisocial tricked her. His subterfuge included tactics of kindness and depth. She wasn’t stupid, she kept her guard, but The Antisocial had existed for centuries and knew how to ply his trade well. Exorbitantly, he picked the locks of her defenses and let himself into her heart. She was still Very Married.

The Antisocial never used ordinary tactics. He would insult her, then apologize with poetry. Something her husband had never done. He would put the boots to her during weak moments, and when she retaliated, he simply walked away. She threw herself at him, and he stepped aside. She showed him the knife he drove into her heart, and he twisted it. She threatened to walk out on him, and he opened the door. Crafty, crafty, was The Antisocial. Unprepared, unprepared, was she.

When she first started dating The Antisocial—convinced that she was still Very Married—she was a strong and proud princess of unshakable faith and optimism. The world catered to her whims. Whatever words she spoke became law, and she enforced those laws on everyone around her. Everyone obeyed the princess — except The Antisocial. That was the beginning of her ruin. He had planted the seeds of self-doubt. He confused her with contradictions, battered her with male logic and left her alone to wallow in the mire.

What confused her most were the contradictions. He claimed to love her strength, then proved that strength to be a lie, just to teach her how to be strong. Where was the sense?

The Antisocial also worked on her morality, dragging her down the path of decadence. Once she had assimilated, and even grown to like it, he turned cold and led her back up the path to friendship. What good would simple friendship do her now? She had already begun peeling away the facade of her Very Married home life, hacking rifts into the armor of Husband of the Round Table, besmirching his character so that the Siege Perilous was no longer a safe seat. What good was going back to the old fractured lie that was her fabled life? What good were rose-colored glasses in the pitch dark?

The Antisocial laughed. He knew these truths to be self-evident.

Her life with The Antisocial became a long list of Could-Nots:

  • She could not talk to him unless conversation was pleasant.
  • She could not be in his company unless she was happy.
  • She could not ask him questions that angered him.
  • She could not ask him why he was angry.
  • She could not see him while he was angry.
  • She could not try to take the anger away.
  • She could not expect anything from him.
  • She could not make demands on his time.
  • She could not interrupt his solitude.
  • She could not experience his personal side.
  • She could not include herself in his plans.
  • She could not discuss their future.
  • She could not coax him to make love to her.
  • She could not display intense emotions around him.
  • She could not ignore the things that made him happy.
  • She could not share the things that made her happy.
  • She could not talk to him about anything relevant.
  • She could not love him anytime he did not love her.

She could not take it any longer.

The Antisocial could not have cared less.

She would have left, but it was too late. He had destroyed her, tainted her to the point where no one else wanted her. He had taken her like a lump of mud and molded her into his ideal mate. There was no more of the original her left. She ate the loneliness he fed her and wore the sorrow overcoat he bought her. After a while, answering to the name Mrs. Antisocial had no effect.

They say there was someone out there for everybody, whether that’s true or not, she found her niche… loving The Antisocial.

Text and Audio ©1990 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Loving The Antisocial: I write copiously daily. I’ve learned that if I don’t write regularly with some sort of goal, my writing becomes stale and disinteresting in the process. My current writing regimen, at minimum, is five thousand words every day.

I’ll start a story off with great ideas, excitement, and plans for some sort of magnum opus. The ideas and prose flow along at a satisfying pace until it doesn’t. Then I’m often visited by the bane of my existence, my old pal, writer’s block.

To beat my nemesis into a bloody pulp, I write. Doesn’t matter what, as long as I keep my fingers peck-peck-pecking on the keyboard and them cute little letters keep dancing across the computer screen.

I write silly nonsense and observations, science fiction dogma, horror rhetoric, humorless jokes, movie and television rants or whatever else comes to mind. Just as long as I keep things moving forward. It’s my writing calisthenics. This story was the result of a question:

What does a person do when their significant other begins doing things that are completely out of character?

The Next Now

Next Now

Though he swore to himself that he would never ever in a million years be caught dead doing it again, Clayton Jacobson wound up working late. Nearly four and a half hours past his quitting time, according to the clock, whose disinterested face stared down upon him from its lofty perch above the office door. Which made it two hundred and seventy minutes since his co-workers abandoned him without a second thought, retreating to the comfort of their homes, leaving him to pick up the slack.

Traitors, all of them.

Experts claimed that it was impossible to put a dollar value on a human life. But Clayton knew that to be a lie. He was aware exactly what his life was worth at current market value between the weekday hours of nine-to-six, or better yet, nine-to-ten thirty. He was a salaried employee that wasn’t eligible for overtime pay, so rounded up, his life was worth twenty-six dollars and fifty cents an hour. That boiled down to forty-four cents a second that he collected as he sat at his desk completely inundated with work and wasting his life away doing something that held his interest not in the least. Forty-four cents for each precious second of his life that he had exhausted and could never reclaim ever again. And as he inched ever closer to his own inevitable demise, he couldn’t help but think how cheaply he’d sold a portion of his life to a faceless entity that wouldn’t be able to recall his name in the fiscal quarter that followed his inevitable termination date.

Clayton Jacobson was a corporate cheap date.

As a reward for his continued loyalty, he had been given what was considered to be the reasonable and customary stock options package, which made him the proud owner of five thousand shares of complete and absolute boredom. Every day at approximately this very instant, he cracked his investment portfolio wide and contemplated his stock, and as always, he came to the realization that he was wealthier than he thought. He personally owned more boredom than he knew what to do with.

Cursing himself for being a corporate lackey, he rubbed his tired eyes, yawned, stretched, and began the protocol for closing up shop. It’s not like he could simply get up and leave. His position as office manager included the responsibility of backing up the entire day’s work onto the server, which would cost him another half hour, at least.

While the backup chugged away at its steady pace, Clayton impatiently packed his briefcase with files stacked in his Incoming tray under the guise of finishing the work at home. But he knew all too well that once he stepped foot into his apartment, he would ignore the work like an overdue bill or a random bit of junk mail. Physically taking work home was just a force of habit. It made him feel like he was making a dent, which was the lie he told himself every evening.

After all the computers and office equipment were shut down, he shrugged on his coat, locked the front door and tripled checked that it was secure. That was the one and only OCD that Clayton had. Is the door locked? Did I lock the door? were the questions he would ask himself every time he left the building. And he realized that this problem of his wasn’t founded in reality since never once in all his years had he not successfully locked a door upon leaving a place, but still, he found himself constantly returning to check locked doors. Tonight wasn’t a particularly bad night. He only went back and checked the door three times. His standing record was twenty-seven, which was probably due to the fact that he was not only exhausted that night but also on a heavy dose of cold medication.

Clayton Jacobson did not take sick days.

On his fourth time exiting the building, Clayton lost his footing and hit the concrete pavement like a baseball player sliding home. The briefcase slipped from his grasp during the fall and popped open, scattering files and papers all over the sidewalk. Embarrassed, he looked around quickly to see if anyone caught his fall. Not a soul in sight. Good. He slowly got to his feet, dusted himself off and looked at the spot in front of the building where he had tripped. He half expected to see a patch of ice, grease or something, but there was nothing there.

That’s odd, he thought as he began scooping the papers back into his briefcase. Although it was a cold night, it wasn’t particularly windy, which was a good thing, since Clayton hadn’t fancied the idea of chasing paper down the street.

As he fastened the last latch on his briefcase, Clayton rose to see his bus pull away from the bus stop. He chased after it, hoping that the stoplight at the corner would turn red, giving him the chance to catch up with the bus and plead his way aboard. Usually, the bus drivers were more lenient about picking up passengers outside designated areas after ten o’clock at night. Unfortunately, the stoplight and Clayton were not in accord as it allowed the bus to escape him.

At the bus stop Clayton didn’t even bother reading the schedule because he knew the next bus was a half hour away and it was far too cold to stand out on the street and wait and if he went back into the office, he would get caught up in work and miss the next bus and most likely fall asleep at his desk. Since there were no open coffee shops at this time of night, he resigned himself to walk home. He lived close enough to his job so that walking wasn’t out of the question, which was the only real perk that was associated with his employment. Twenty minutes by foot if he hustled, a half-hour if he took a more leisurely pace. Theoretically, he could have been home before the next bus arrived, so he hoofed it.

At the corner, his nemesis, the streetlight, turned red and he was forced to wait his turn against the traffic. A man sidled up to Clayton’s elbow so silently he could have been a shadow.

“Excuse me,” the man said and Clayton tried to suppress the urge to jump out of his skin. “May I have a moment of your time?”

“Sorry. I have someplace to be.” Clayton didn’t even meet the man’s gaze.

“Surely you have a moment to spare, in one of your pockets, perhaps?” the man’s manner was polite and seemed completely genuine.

“Is this about money?” Clayton shot him a glance.

“No.”

“Cigarettes? Because I don’t smoke.”

“Neither do I. Not for some time now.” A fact the man seemed to find rather amusing.

“Okay, so are you some kind of cop or something? Am I under arrest? Are you looking for sex? Are you initiating into a gang and need to cut a complete stranger? A serial killer cruising for a little late night murder?”

“No, no, no, no, and no.” the man smiled.

“Then what, for God’s sake?”

“As I said initially, a moment of your time.”

“For what?” Clayton spat.

“I think you dropped something.” The man said, pointing in the direction of the office building.

Clayton assumed it was a sheet of paper that he missed when he was scooping up his papers, but what he saw instead was— well, at first he thought it was a pile of garbage. But that wasn’t right. It was a body. Strewn on the sidewalk like a rag doll.

Convinced that his eyes were playing tricks on him, he walked slowly to the body that looked strangely familiar. Well, it ought to have looked familiar, it was wearing the exact same outfit Clayton had on, identical down to the shoes. Even the open briefcase was the same.

“Who is that?” Clayton asked.

“You know who it is.” The man was suddenly behind Clayton again, but this time he didn’t jump.

“How?”

“Heart attack.”

“But I didn’t feel anything.”

“Some people never do. Perhaps you were too preoccupied?”

“Oh come on, is this some kind of sick joke?” Clayton tasted the fear in his own voice. “I slipped and hit my head, didn’t I? And now I’m hallucinating, right? Or maybe I’m still upstairs in the office asleep at my desk, or better yet at home in bed having a bad dream?”

“No, no, no, no and no.”

“Then I’m–” he couldn’t bring himself to say the word.

“Well and truly dead, I am afraid.”

“And you are?”

“Your travel companion,” the man offered Clayton another smile.

“Oh, I get it! You’re going to point out all the wrong I’ve done and give me the chance to rectify it, that’s what this is, right?” Clayton hadn’t meant it to sound so sarcastic.

The man shook his head. “You have not done any wrong.”

“Then maybe there was something I was supposed to do, some potential I was supposed to live up to that I didn’t…”

“No, you lived your life accordingly.”

“So, this is it? No ceremony? No pomp and circumstance? Just heart attack, boom, I’m dead?”

The man seemed confused. “Would you prefer there be a penance? A punishment?”

“Not exactly, but something more than this.”

“Oh, but there is more. Your mind simply has not adjusted to your new reality just yet, which is perfectly normal in the beginning. You are clinging to the shadows of your old life, but all this will fade and you will begin to see anew, once you have accepted the fact that what is done cannot be undone.”

“So, what do I do now?” Clayton asked.

“Travel with me for a moment.” The man gestured at a car that Clayton could have sworn was not there before.

“You drive a car?”

“It is my conveyance. Your mind views it as a car, as that is what you are accustomed to,” the man said patiently. “For your comfort, you may wish to remove your coat.”

“But it’s freezing out here—” and as soon as Clayton heard the words, he felt foolish. “Oh, right.”

“Let me help you.” The man took Clayton’s briefcase, slid the overcoat off his shoulders, and let both items fall to the ground. As they landed, there was a deafening boom, which cracked the pavement and shattered the windows in the surrounding area. Or Clayton thought the windows shattered. When he looked up again, the windows were whole, as if nothing happened.

“I feel so much lighter now.” Clayton bounced on his toes like a little boy.

“You have just stripped yourself of your biggest encumbrances.”

“Which were?”

“Labor and haste.”

This answer made Clayton stop bouncing for some reason and he turned to look at his body crumpled on the sidewalk. “Can we do something about this?” he pointed at his former shell.

“Like what?” the man asked.

“I don’t know.” Clayton scratched his head. “Rearrange it? Move it inside the building maybe? Something more dignified than this. This isn’t how I want people to remember me.”

“Those who remember you will do so in their own manner. You cannot change that,” the man said as he opened the door for Clayton, who looked at his lifeless body one last time with a twinge of regret for not having lived a richer more fulfilling life, before he slipped into the passenger seat.

The man entered the driver’s side and took the wheel. And they drove, so slowly that it seemed to Clayton they were not moving at all, but instead, time moved around them. Not through them, Clayton noticed, around them. There was no time within this conveyance. One moment, the time the man asked of Clayton, was the same as eternity in here.

“Where are we headed?” Clayton asked.

“The next now.” The man answered and said no more. And he hadn’t needed to because somehow Clayton understood. For the first time in his life, or more accurately his death, he understood perfectly.

Text and Audio ©2013 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About The Next Now: One night I was working on a short story that I’ve been toying with for the better part of a year. I was knee-deep in the rising action stage, typing away—and even happy with most of it—when it happened: The Click.

It’s a magical moment. Your pupils dilate. Your breathing slows. The fog in your head clears. Time slows to a crawl. And for one shining moment, everything is perfect. Every sinewy thread of plot comes together. It may be a mess, but it’s all there. It can be fixed and made whole—we have the technology.

And then the world speeds back up and it’s a race against the clock to type out as much as you can before the perfect purring of a well-oiled machine becomes a sputter and you lose something—or worse—the machine takes a great big dump.

That’s this one right here. A simple story about a wage slave that dies, unappreciated. No fanfare, no glorious reward for living his life correctly and doing no harm. A simple leave your things behind and move on to the next phase of your existence, or the next now.

Runt

Kadari hunkered down in the space between the commode and the wall, knees hugged to his chest. He rocked slightly and muttered a prayer under his breath as the sound of heavy feet dragged their way closer to the bathroom. He knew this day wouldn’t end well.

The youngest of triplets, he was the clear runt of the litter and no one ever allowed him to forget it. His brother, Nodj—the creative one—had inherited their mother’s height, while Unane—the prodigal son—was gifted with their father’s strength. If fear and puniness were distinguishing characteristics, then they were Kadari’s stock in trade.

In addition to his innate artistic ability, Nodj also acquired their mother’s affliction. Kadari first recalled being aware of it one summer’s midday when the twin suns spiked through the jostling leaves of a bunak tree. As a hearty gust of wind bent the bunaks back, displaying their bright red bellies, Kadari watched his brother’s sanity peel away like so much dead skin.

Kadari lost something, too, that day. The sun, the bunak trees, even the summer never looked the same, nor held any peace or calm for him.

He felt somehow responsible, Kadari did, so he visited Nodj every day as he convalesced. He brought Nodj’s favorite foods and sat bedside and spoke only happy remembrances and tamped down memories of how his brother had been viciously cruel to him on occasion. He wasn’t certain whether it was his condition that made him tyrannical or just one of the character traits that went part and parcel with being an older sibling. Perhaps a bit of both.

Nodj no longer lived in the house but visited as regularly as his mood cycles and medication allowed. His presence always altered the mood of the regularly somber house. Their parents avoided each other normally. “A kept distance was a kept peace,” his father would whisper when his mother was otherwise occupied. But Nodj required their attention and when they were forced to occupy the same space for great periods of time, the battles began. All the resentment, all the things left unsaid, aired themselves as they traced the roots of insanity down both sides of the family tree in order to assign blame.

Kadari fortified himself against the hatred in the bathroom, holding his head under the running shower nozzle. The high-pitched whistle of the hot water offered him a personal refuge against his parents’ screams. Neither seemed to notice or care that he constantly went missing for most of Nodj’s home visits.

On occasion, they needed a break from one another—his parents—and left Nodj in his and Unane’s care with a list of special instructions if an incident occurred. And as soon as they left the house, so would Unane, who left his runt brother to look after his mad brother with nary a thought to possible consequences.

This wouldn’t have been an issue under normal circumstances, but their parents’ constant bickering stirred an agitation in Nodj that unnerved Kadari, so he retreated to the bathroom and prayed for the best, which in this case was that Nodj’s medication would allow his brother to sleep until someone, anyone came home.

The insistent pounding sounded like someone was throwing slabs of meat at the door and the message was all too clear, Nodj wanted in. He shouted that he needed to use the bathroom, then he pleaded, then he whimpered. A debate waged in Kadari’s mind, caution versus guilt. His brother’s ability to manipulate situations as well as to do mischief to himself and others was legendary but even still, he was no animal and had not deserved being treated as such. In the end, guilt won out and Kadari opened the door.

The realization of what a fool Kadari had been hit him when his brother pounced on him like a starving beast. The runt was once again the mad one’s prisoner.

The sun beat down much in the same way it had all those many summers ago. Nodj marched Kadari out of their home by the nape of his neck. Parked in front of the house—or better yet, abandoned—was an old skip vehicle, a line of sight teleportation car that hadn’t run in years. Kadari avoided it like the plague because of the memories associated with it. Memories of Nodj locking him in the trunk and cranking the engine, threatening to skip the car off a cliff or worse yet, set it to materialize inside a solid object like a tree or boulder. His struggling increased, though it chafed his neck and resulted in meaty slaps to the back of his head, the closer he got to the trunk.

Nodj stopped and made Kadari study the car as the mad one detailed the specifications of the engine which transformed into a rant about technology and how it was slowly murdering the deities. Manufacturers were the assassins of religion and the deities needed proof that their race was still worth saving so a sacrifice had to be made. Fear whispered in Kadari’s ear that he was destined to die today and that no one would ever find his body.

Nodj dragged Kadari to the skip vehicle’s trunk—then past it—marching him over to the park instead. The runt stared at the tager trees and the omye trees that lined the park’s walkway. The tager tree produced the most succulent fruit and its jellied pit was considered a delicacy. The omye tree grew tart figs that were best when dried and ground into spice, though the juice could be used in combination with herbs to create ailment remedies. Not many used it for medicinal purposes since a large amount of figs were required to yield the smallest amount of juice. It simply wasn’t worth the effort.

At the bend in the park path, there was a brackish pond in which nothing lived and from which no creature drank. Nodj flung the runt into the shallow waters and jumped in after him. There were no thoughts only instinct as Kadari’s vision went from trees and sky to briny water. The taste of salt ran through his mouth and nostrils as his head was forced beneath the surface by the powerful thrusting of his mad brother’s arms. Once, twice, thrice. The runt breathed in hard through his nose and then was marched further underwater, deeper into the pond. There was a thrashing of the water and it turned from white to grey before going dark. Kadari felt death. He swallowed it in huge gulps instead of air. Tarter than the omye, saltier than the pond water. He didn’t like it and thrashed harder.

The pressure on the back of his head, where Nodj’s hand had been, suddenly disappeared. Kadari broke the pond surface, coughing up water. When his eyes could focus, he saw the sky and the trees and Nodj holding his bloody lip, curled in a smile.

In his wild thrashing, he must have hit his brother and broke the hold. Nodj laughed and couldn’t stop. Not as Kadari lunged for him. Not as Kadari swung for his face and chest. Not as Kadari pushed him back onto the walkway, forced him down to the ground, straddled him and pounded on his flesh.

Kadari hit Nodj for all the times he had taken abuse, for all the times he was made to feel powerless and afraid, for all the guilt that he carried for a person who cared nothing for him.

“That is enough, Kadari.” A hand grabbed Kadari’s wrist. Unane’s hand. He was also smiling as he pulled the runt off Nodj. “I think Nodj has had enough.”

Kadari’s coughing fit died down. He spat the last of the salty taste from his mouth. His neck hurt, as did his chest, lungs and knuckles. None of this made sense.

Unane helped Nodj to his feet and checked him for injuries. The mad brother assured him he was fine. Hurt, but unharmed. They both stood shoulder to shoulder, their arms folded across their chest, with a strange look in their eyes. A look Kadari had never seen from them before. Admiration.

The youngest triplet’s realization was a rusted, squeaky gate that hung on a broken hinge that opened slowly and with great effort. But it had opened, eventually. And his brothers waited patiently as Kadari sussed it out.

“You think I do not see the fear in your eyes when you look at me?” Nodj asked. “No brother of mine should be afraid of any man, not even his own brother. Do you understand me, runt?”

It took a moment for things to settle on Kadari. It had been some sort of test, a rite of passage, staged by the pair. “I am not a runt!”

His brothers laughed but not in a mocking manner. “No, I suppose you are not.”

They clapped him on the back and walked back home as equals. No, better than that, as brothers.

Text and Audio ©1988 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Runt: The original version of this piece was written back in the dark ages when people didn’t have personal computers. Scribbled in the 80’s in a notebook with a pencil, then typed into manuscript form on a manual typewriter.

It was inspired by my then girlfriend who met up with her two estranged sisters when she went back home to bury her father. She never really got along with any of her family, her sisters especially, but attending her father’s funeral served as some sort of closure for the feelings she had for him.

The youngest of the three, she was constantly abused by her sisters, which is why she left and stayed away, and sure enough, when she returned, so did the abuse. Until she gave back as good as she got. Which earned her a little fearful respect.

I swapped genders, rolled back the years a bit and tried to write a coming of age story. Tried.

Dissatisfied with the result, I put the idea aside for a long time and came back to it only last year. A good friend who is a voracious reader often leafs through my box of regret and plucks a story out.

This was her latest find and she told me that I was being too judgmental and the story was fine as it is.

So, here it is in its original state.

The Trip Back Home

Trip Back Home

Ya Jiji was nestled on the peak of Muntanyes Oraș, a tiny tourist town with one road in or out and that road was always the scene of an accident which meant it was always choked with traffic. Antiquated traffic. Perambulators. Bicycles. Velocipedes. Motorcycles. Monocycles. Boneshakers. Wagons. Go-carts. Scooters. Skateboards. Any wheeled vehicle not pulled by a beast. Skip cars were banned on the winding mountain road that, at its widest was barely two-laned, and at its narrowest, well, where did you think all the accidents occurred? Besides, a line of sight teleportation car wasn’t of much use if you couldn’t see around the never-ending bend.

It was a two-hour trip down the mountain and another hour to Golainbale where the moon jitney traveled to the nearest natural satellite, Waioni. As we left the quaint town, the road—amazingly smooth and unmarked—opened up a bit. Before we left, we hit a convenience store and were absolutely fleeced out of our local currency for heater meals and MREs. At least the clerk did it with style. He was nothing but politeness and smiles before, during, and after he fucked us.

When we arrived in Golainbale there was a great deal of negotiating, which translated to me having to pay. I paid a man, paid the man who knew the man, paid the man who knew the man who knew the man, and finally, I paid the man who employed all the men. Fucking governmental red tape blew dead bears no matter what planet you were on. The first man returned with a wad of receipts and boarding passes, stapled six times. We boarded the jitney and waited for a solid half-hour before being told the rocket was being taken out of service to undergo routine maintenance. I started to argue if the maintenance was routine, why had we wasted half an hour gnawing on tasteless MREs, but thought better of it. We were all so very far from home and running aground of off-world travel authorities was a notoriously bad idea.

So, instead, we hauled ass to board a second jitney scheduled for departure. The boarding staff was nice enough to hold lift-off for us. That last sentence was dipped in heavy sarcasm and spat through a gritted-toothed grin, in case it wasn’t obvious. As we settled in, my travel companions drifted to sleep immediately. I envied people who could sleep anywhere. Sadly, I wasn’t blessed with that mutant ability.

As we reached escape velocity, out of the window I saw bodies that floated in space like flotsam. Men. Women. Children. Pets. So many lined in a row they almost formed an organic ring around the planet. From a seat somewhere rows behind me came a rhythmic muttering. I caught the eye of an older gentleman across the row and chanced a question, “What’s he saying?”

“It’s a song to open the gates of the afterworld,” the old man said. “To allow the souls of the illegal immigrants jettisoned in space to move on to their final resting place.”

“Do you know the words?”

“I don’t speak Shadese. Sorry. I only know about the song because it’s a local custom and I’m here on business often.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a space marshal.”

“You mean…?”

He nodded. “In accordance with the Intergalactic Space Travel Securities Act, I carry out my duty of committing to space any person or persons who illegally board any transplanetary vessel—otherwise known as stowaways—and lack the money to pay for passage and proper identification with which to travel.”

He said it so matter of fact as if he wasn’t talking about human lives like his job entailed nothing more drastic than taking out the trash. There was no challenge in his tone, nothing that suggested that he dared me to question his profession.

My mind was a wasp’s nest of questions and emotions, buzzing to know how this man justified his actions, how he slept at night if he was a religious man and if he was under any delusion that God approved. I tried to express my shock, my outrage, my disapproval, or even simply voice my personal opinion, but the words failed me. I felt my mouth opening and closing, wordlessly.

Stunned and silent I sat back in the chair and stared at all the wasted life that drifted in the inky sea outside. An abyss dotted with stars that once had names like Peter and Elizabeth and Scott, stars that once breathed air same as I had, stars that ate food like me. Some so distant they had to crowd together to be seen in the endless black. Clouds of flesh, oceans of skin. Further from life but closer to the universe than anyone had ever been.

When the jitney touched down on Waioni, the marshal said goodbye. I pretended not to hear.

My travel companions and I checked into our hotel rooms. It would be another eighteen hours before our return flight home. They wanted to spend the time getting rat-arsed in the hotel bar but I went for a walk outside. It always helped clear my mind. I walked off the paved paths, far from the obstruction of man-made lights and checked the sky.

Stars. So many stars. Some of them falling. Making the trip back home.

Text and Audio ©2013 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About The Trip Back Home: A few years ago, I wrote a manuscript which never got published. It was sort of a vacation scrapbook in outer space, detailing the travelogue of a man who hated to travel but got roped into a sweepstakes interplanetary cruise by his best friends. They’d travel in style and want for nothing—once they made it to the starcruise liner that was on the other side of the universe.

As I said, the manuscript didn’t get published. Because it was never quite what it needed to be. Not quite ready.  This aspect needed tweaking, that aspect needed editing.  Two years into the editing process, I decided I needed a break from this manuscript to write something else.  I was too involved with that manuscript.

I have no idea whether it’ll be salvaged or chopped up into bite sized bits and shopped as short stories, or reworked into other projects.

This slice was the first bit of writing that inspired the idea for the novel.