Vacancies, Vacancies Everywhere, Yet None of Them For Me

no-vacancies

My secret self—the bit of me that hides in plain sight just behind a corner of reality—has been wandering my memory palace of late, searching for an empty room in which to steal a bit of solitude for I sometimes need to swaddle my internal dialogue in silence when even the quietest place on earth can offer me no rest.

You might have surmised correctly that I’ve been met with very little success.

Oh, there are rooms aplenty in which I enjoy the occasional lounge-about, each filled with bric-à-brac I’ve accumulated along the way. Items or concepts or vagueries that may or may not find their way into a story, plot germs that piqued my interest for one reason or another, displayed neatly on shelves beside those things kept precious, but each of these pieces of me gives off unique vibrations that assault my mind’s ear like anamnestic tinnitus.

A few of my unused characters who can afford the steep rent have made the suggestions that I either choose my favorite among them to room with or take turns bunking with every one of them for short periods as not to overstay my welcome.

But that really isn’t my style. I like the idea of knowing where characters are so that I might visit them and engage in brief social interactions when I’m in the mood, and leave them to their own devices when I’ve had my fill. And although I am quite capable of being alone in a crowded room, I cannot find solitude with people around, not even the people in my mind, the ones that I have breathed life into.

My irritation at not being able to claim residence in a place that I have been constructing since childhood is beginning to infect other areas of my life. My current location annoys me. My inability to write annoys me. The presence of other people annoys me. The sameness of the day annoys me. Even my annoyance at everything annoys me.

And so Sunday comes ’round and I am attempting to build a new foundation for the memory palace extension on the lone and level sands of ground-down ideas, in a new territory where the old housing rules may not apply. Eventually, when my hoarder nature reveals itself and this section of the palace becomes filled with miscellanea most likely better left forgotten…

I’ll repeat the process. Search for my own patch of solitude. Light a candle and still curse the darkness. Build another room. And fill it with possessions that squeeze me to the point of eviction.

The Choosing Field

Umoja The Choosing Field

The Centria planted its feet atop the announcing mound and parted its lips slightly, a hairline fracture in a granite face that could not easily have been identified as either female or male, yet the sound it released rang out, dominating the mesonoxian air. The melodious octave, a tone lower than any being of flesh could detect unless at the precise moment of their birth or death, spread across the fields drowning out all other sounds. It was not merely a song though, it was an experience of music, one that incited a childlike fascination and curiosity within the listener but unlike a siren song that was an alluring appeal, The Centria’s aria was a command to be in attendance.

However, one tiny essentia who had named herself Umoja, declined to go to the ceremony. On outward appearances she was simply sitting in a field, plucking recall-me-not flowers and braiding them into a wreath. Internally, it took every iota of will to resist The Centria’s call. She strained her newly acquired imagination into picturing a giant hand of stone reaching from the ground and holding her as tight as it could, anchoring her to her favorite spot beside the ruminating pond. She did not appreciate being made to do things, especially things that brought her no pleasure. Truth be known, she did not much care for the gathering as she was not competitive like the others and with such a large crowd she was certain she would hardly be missed. So engrossed in her thoughts of rebellion, she hadn’t noticed the arrival of Custodian.

“Did you not hear The Centria calling for you, Umoja?” Custodian’s face, androgynous like The Centria, was pleasant and its tone gentle as always. No one had ever seen it be otherwise.

“I-I-I,” Umoja endeavored to hold onto her rebelliousness, but it evaporated in the presence of Custodian’s warmth. “I am not needed there.”

“Not needed? Why would you think that?”

“I am never chosen.”

“You are in pending status.”

“What?”

“It is another way of saying not yet. Never is an infinite word and is inaccurate in this case. You should have said I have not yet been chosen.”

“And I never will be.”

“That word again,” Custodian chuckled softly.

“I am not good enough or strong enough or loved enough.”

“Do you actually believe that?” Custodian took a knee, wrapped arms around Umoja and pulled her close. “Everyone here is equally good and equally loved. And as for being strong, you resisted The Centria’s call. I cannot remember anyone else in history ever doing that and my memory is long and infallible.”

“Really?”

Custodian nodded. “You should try being less hard on yourself. You are still forming and are not nearly what you will one day become.”

“And you know what that is?”

“How could I not? Your destiny is written all over your beautiful face.”

Umoja sprang to her feet, ran to the pond and studied her reflection. “I do not see anything.”

“Because you have not developed that sense yet and despite what you currently believe, I doubt you will remain here long enough to see what I see.”

The essentia spun back to Custodian, wide-eyed, “What does it say?”

“What does what say, dear?”

“My face! What is written on it? Please tell me! Please?”

“You have positioned me between the things I must say to you and the things I want to say. Sadly, I will not reveal your writings for one should never know their fate.”

“But what if I do not like my fate? How can I change it if I do not know what it is?”

“It would be foolish to attempt to outwit the plan you were destined for.”

“But…”

“If we are to continue this conversation,” Custodian interrupted. “It will have to be at a later time because I do not know about you, but I would rather not have The Centria vexed with me, so I am heading to the Choosing Field. Will you join me? I would appreciate the company.”

Umoja still did not want to go but Custodian had been so nice it would have been rude to refuse, so she nodded and placed the recall-me-not wreath on her head. Custodian scooped Umoja up and folded itself around her. They flew over the sea of emotions, past the knowledge trees and through the imagination mountains. She held on as tight as she could manage, occasionally nuzzling Custodian’s essence. She had never been this close to anyone before, felt this safe. She would not have traded this moment and wanted it to last forever, but the problem in a place where time has no meaning, where eternity is equal to an instant, is that treasured moments disappear within the blink of an eye. No sooner had Custodian lifted Umoja, they arrived at the Choosing Field.

Self-doubt played across Umoja’s face as she looked up at Custodian who was now surrounded by a light so bright one had to squint for risk of being blinded by its radiance. But within that light, there existed a warmth and comfort that Umoja wished she could take with her. Custodian leaned down to adjust Umoja’s recall-me-not headdress and smooth her rough patches. Her essence no longer fit her properly, it felt loose and saggy in places as if she had shrunken too small to fill it all the way. Every rejection seemed to take a bit from her and if things continued this way soon she would be little more than a husk.

The land was packed with preborns, essentias like herself yet uniquely different, as far as the eye could see in any direction. With a gentle nudge from Custodian, Umoja made her way down the aisle and squeezed in between a row of preborns, settling for a spot in the center of the crowd instead of taking a place in front which was her right. This gathering was her twenty thousand four hundred thirty-ninth which made her the oldest preborn in attendance, something that many of the essentias never failed to bring up. They questioned why Umoja had been overlooked so many times for so long. The inquiries weren’t born of malice, the new arrivals were merely curious but being the focus of unwanted scrutiny and speculation was never easy for her. Sometimes it was downright painful. But she bore it with all the grace she could muster, offering shrugs and smiles as answers.

The Centria’s song continued at a lower pitch, fading into the background when Custodian moved to a position before the crowd and began her speech.

“We are here to acknowledge and celebrate you magnificent preborns and the journey some, perhaps most, hopefully all of you are about to take. For the chosen, you are about to enter a new world filled with things beyond your imaginings. Some wondrous, others less so. Know that you come from a place of love, a place of hope and your arrival will be the cause of much joy. It is important that you keep within you, tucked away deep, the knowledge that you are not nor ever will be truly alone. You will not understand the importance of this yet, but I ask you to have faith, especially when faced with adversities you cannot even begin to fathom as of yet.”

The preborns nearest her watched in amazement as Umoja silently mouthed the words as Custodian spoke them. “You are life. You are the keepers of the secret knowledge of the universe. As such, it is expected that you will not speak of this place or this process. For most this will not be an issue since you will be unable to properly communicate upon arrival at your new homes. You must learn how to operate your new body which has an extensive learning curve as well as learn the language which is different from our form of communication. By the time you have fully acclimated, the knowledge of this place will reside in a place not reachable by your conscious mind. Since there are exceptions to this rule, we ask that should you remember, please respect our rules and keep the secret from those who might sabotage our way of life.”

Speech done, Custodian asked the first row of preborns to line up in front of The Centria, who began singing a different tune, more complex, covering a vast span of notes in rapid succession. That was Umoja’s problem, the reason she had been held back. She studied the notes and practiced them repeatedly whenever her schedule was not occupied with other important matters, but she found it impossible to change notes swiftly and seamlessly, unlike the first row of preborns who had not struggled even slightly as they sang along with The Centria matching notes until they were in perfect harmony. One by one they faded from this place, transported to their new homes. Row by row the preborns took their places before The Centria and blended their voice perfectly with the melody and departed.

Finally, it was her turn. Her place in line put her directly in front of The Centria which only made her already anxious heart beat faster. Just behind the vessel of the sacred song, Umoja saw Custodian, in violation of the rules during the ceremony, offer her a secret smile. Her anxiousness began shifting to excited hopefulness. She could do it. Custodian had faith in her and perhaps that would be the little push that helped her go all the way this time. The Centria began the song and Umoja’s first note was so off-key it drew stares from the preborns in line with her. If she returned their stares, she would have been done. This would have been her latest, her greatest disappointment and perhaps her final opportunity. How many more chances would they have allowed her before giving up completely?

Instead, she closed her eyes and thought of her deepest desires. The desire to have a home. The desire to belong to a family. The desire to be loved. The desire to build a life that demonstrated just how thankful she was to have been selected and given a chance to make a difference in the world beyond this world. Umoja opened her mouth and instead of forcing herself to hit the notes in unison with The Centria, she sang her own song which tasted sweet on her tongue yet made tears fall from her eyes. Suddenly it no longer mattered whether she could mimic the birthing song, all she wanted to do was sing her song forever, feel the happiness that was born of a sorrow that was now understandably necessary. She had finally accepted herself and her place in the workings of all things.

She opened her eyes and was prepared to stand off to the side to make way for the next row of preborns when she made eye contact with Custodian who also had tears rolling down its cheeks. Custodian mouthed the words, “Outwit your fate” as it beamed the brightest smile Umoja had ever seen and gave two thumbs up. Umoja was confused by this but returned the thumbs up only to notice her hands were turning translucent then transparent.

She had done it! Somehow she managed to sing the birthing song correctly. She wanted to run up to Custodian to give it a big hug and thank it and tell it that she loved it but it was too late. She had completely vanished.

The transition was a bizarre one. She could feel numerous types of sensations entering her presence. She was about to be born. She closed her eyes and prayed to be placed in the body of a girl. There had been stories of preborns that were birthed into bodies of genders in which they did not identify and the difficulties that resulted from this. Umoja had always identified as a girl and she wanted ever so badly to be placed within a girl’s body, so she made the biggest wish she ever made and closed it with the chant, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.” But soon into the process, she realized this was not the case. There was an oddness to her new body that she could not identify outright but she somehow knew that she had been placed into the body of a boy. And for a moment there was a twinge of disappointment but it was short-lived. She was successful in her endeavor to be born and she felt healthy and she would make the best of the situation with nary a complaint and live the best life possible for all involved.

But in the back of Umoja’s mind, a tiny voice chanted, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.”

Picture Yourself Being A Better You!

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So Close, Yet So Far Away

“So, you’re telling me I’m dead?”

“Yes, Lonnie Hatch, the life you grew accustomed to no longer exists.”

“How’d it happen?”

“What is the last thing you remember?”

“Um, it’s all sort of a blur but I’m getting images of a freshly baked bagel…”

“Correct.”

“Death by bagel?”

“No. By fire hydrant.”

“Why would a fire hydrant want to murder me? Surely if it held a grudge it would be against dogs, right?”

“Dogs?”

“You know, the urination and all. I’d imagine you’d get pretty pissed off by getting pissed on all the time.”

“The fire hydrant bore you no ill will.”

“That’s a comfort, at least. I’d hate to think that inanimate objects were capable of holding grudges and exacting revenge, even though I never knowingly did anything to a fire hydrant personally. Well, I might have propped my foot on one to tie a shoelace once or twice in my life.”

“You were walking to a delicatessen outside of your neighborhood despite the fact that there was one closer to your apartment…”

Deliadora bakes their bagels on-premises instead of having them trucked in. I know that bread makes you fat and all and I should have a low-cal muffin instead but muffins are too cakey for me and nothing beats warm bread first thing in the morning.”

“Be that as it may, while en route to Deliadora, a driver lost control of his taxi cab, swerved onto the sidewalk, and struck a fire hydrant, damaging it just enough for the water pressure to blast the heavy metal bonnet straight into your face.”

“Ouch.”

“Death was instantaneous. You felt no pain.”

“Small consolation, I guess.”

“The press will label it as a freak accident, but that moment had been planned from the instant you drew your first breath. It is written beside your name in the Book of Life.”

“Is that a fact? Huh, how ’bout that. Um, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“I tried to live a righteous life, and I think I pretty much succeeded, so shouldn’t I be greeted by Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates? Unless that’s who you are, then I meant no offense. I just didn’t expect you to look like a giant wheel with spokes covered with eyeballs.”

“I am of the Ophanim, the Third Order of Angels who occupy the First Sphere of the Celestial Hierarchy and serve the uprightness of Divine Justice.”

“Ah, okay.”

“Your entry into the Kingdom has been postponed because Heaven requires your assistance.”

“You need my help?”

“Heaven does, yes.”

“Heaven, a place where I can only imagine anything is possible needs help from me, a regular old run-of-the-mill human with a limited skill set?”

“As you are well aware, the Earth has been greatly impacted by the pandemic, and while this is certainly not the End Times, the scale balance has tipped in a way not favorable or conducive to Our Cause, and We are now looking to hire, for lack of a better term, a staff of volunteers with excellent credentials to return to Earth in completely new identities to assist in the de-escalation of the devastation to come.”

“Whoah, that’s a lot to unpack.”

“It is Our sincerest hope that you join Us in Our efforts to help both the Earth and Heaven, if not return to status quo, then at least usher in a new, more manageable normal.”

“Just curious, what if I were to say no?”

“Declining to return to Earth will not affect your acceptance into Heaven.”

“That’s a relief.”

“But volunteering does have certain benefits, none of which I am at liberty to discuss at the moment.”

“Because you don’t want to sway me.”

“Precisely.”

“Wanna know something? This wouldn’t be a hard choice if I were still alive. I would’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps and got on with the work that needed to be done.”

“Why do you find it difficult now?”

“Because I’ve never been this close to Paradise, being able to finally rest. You have no idea what an enormous temptation this is. Waitaminute! Am I being tested?”

“Tested?”

“Yeah, you know, like that final exam question that determines my grade and decides my placement in Heaven, Limbo, or Hell.”

“We do not perform tests of that nature.”

“Oh really? Have a Bible handy? I can point out a few instances.”

“This is not a test.”

“You actually need my help?”

“Yes.”

“And if I say no, I still get to go to Heaven?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but riddle me this: let’s say I go back to Earth but I slip…”

“Slip?”

“I fall short, muck up your grand plan…”

“Are you asking if will you still be admitted into The Kingdom if you sin?”

“Essentially.”

“You will not be granted a free pass. You will be judged according to how you live your new life.”

“So, my current life or past life or whatever…are you telling me it was all for nothing?”

“Not at all. It afforded you the opportunity to be of service to the grand plan, as you called it.”

“Sorry for all the questions but I gotta know: The Book of Life…does it contain a map of my entire life, even after death?”

“It does.”

“So, you basically knew my answer before you even asked the question?”

“I did.”

“Then why ask?”

“Free will. You could have said no.”

“So, will I be sent back as an adult? Different ethnicity? Different gender? Will I be rich, or better yet, influential? And what about these benefits you were talking about?”

“The answers to all your questions can be summed up in a human phrase that has become popular amongst the Celestial Hierarchy.”

“Which is?”

“No spoilers.”

Love Over Time

“Cranford-upon-Reslington is not the sort of place that attracts tourists and I can tell by the way you carry yourself that you are not local, so what brings you to this place?”

“You are Miss Eleanor Fetsbury, are you not?”

“I am. And you are?”

“A simple observer sent to bear witness.”

“You speak in riddles, sir.”

“I am bound by a code.”

I have neither the time nor the interest—”

“To know your future?”

“You have chosen your victim poorly, sir. I am not the sort to fall prey to street mountebanks.”

“I would hold no respect for you if you were, madame.”

“You respect me?”

“How could I not respect a single mother who is extremely unpleasant in the most pleasant manner possible, deeply spiritual in an atheistic fashion, and so very fortunate in a There-But-for-the-Grace-of-God-Go-I sort of way?”

“Single mother? You have tripped yourself up, charlatan, for I have no children.”

“Not yet, but soon. And although you will show that child not one ounce of affection because you love to be hated and hate to be loved, you will battle a regiment of armed soldiers single-handedly in order to keep him safe.”

“Stuff and nonsense.”

“And that child will love you enough to break temporal codes to travel back in time to try to prevent your untimely demise.”

“And you claim to be—”

“Hello, mother. It has been a while.”

Don’t bother searching for meaning. This is just me trying to get back into the swing of writing by playing with dialogue. Move along, nothing to see here.

The Overpayment

“Thank you for calling Human Existence, my name is Afriel, how may I assist you today?”

“Hi, I received a notice today informing me that my LIFE (all in capital letters) under my current case will be DISCONTINUED (in capital bold letters) beginning September 10, 2022.”

“May I please have your name and LIFE Case Number for verification purposes?”

“My name is Jody Christensen but I don’t know my case number.”

“You will find your LIFE Case Number in the upper right-hand corner of the notice.”

“Are you talking about the symbols and squiggles? I can’t read those.”

“You can. It is the basis for all languages in the universe. All you need to do is look at sigils, soften your focus and let your subconscious do the rest.”

Jody sighed but she did as instructed and after a long moment, her mouth began forming shapes on its own accord and her vocal cords issued a series of squeaks and tones not heard since Existence was in its infancy.

“Thank you. One moment, please, as I take a look at your account,” Afriel said, and after a brief silence, returned to the line. “According to our records, the discontinuation of your LIFE Case is due to the fact that you have received LIFE as part of another Case. Notice of this LIFE change was sent to you under separate notice.”

“I received no such notice.”

“I do apologize for that. We can have the notice resent—”

“Can’t you just explain it to me while I have you on the phone?”

“Of course, one moment, please,” Afriel said over the sound of typing on a keyboard. “Here we go. It appears that your former LIFE case was closed when you choked on a piece of steak at 7:56pm on September 10, 2022. When you were revived, a new LIFE case was opened for you.”

“When I was revived? I remember choking at dinner but I performed the Heimlich—”

“Pardon me, but for legal reasons, it is now referred to as abdominal thrust.”

“Okay, then, I performed an abdominal thrust on myself and dislodged the food.”

“Be that as it may, our records indicate—”

“Your records are wrong. I was conscious the entire time, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to perform the maneuver on myself.”

“I see,” Afriel said and after a lengthy silence, “Then that presents a new problem.”

“What sort of problem?”

“Well, if your former case was never closed—”

“If I didn’t die, you mean.”

“That is not a term we are allowed to use, Miss Christensen,” Afriel said. “If your former case was never closed, and you were issued a second LIFE case—”

“Yes?”

“That means you are in receipt of a LIFE overpayment.”

“I have an extra life? Like in a video game?”

“This is not a matter to be taken lightly, Miss Christensen. I need to advise you that if the overpayment is not paid back immediately, it will be referred for collection, and you do not want that, trust me.”

“What, are you going to send some repo man to take back the extra life?”

“Not a repo man, a reaper man. And I can guarantee it will not be pleasant.”

“But why is that necessary? This is your screw up! Why not just close the new case and cancel it out?”

“Because we cannot be certain that in canceling your new case, will not cancel you in the process, which would place our establishment in legal liability.”

“Well, before my account goes into repossession—”

“Reapersession.”

“Whatever, don’t I have the right to ask for a Conference or a Fair Hearing, or something if I don’t agree with your decision?

“A reapersession notice was automatically placed on your account the moment the LIFE overpayment was spotted. The only way to halt that process is to make immediate repayment.”

“But how do I do that? I can’t just shake extra life out of my pockets!”

“I cannot assist you in that matter, Miss Christensen. All I can do is inform you that if you are unable to make the repayment at this time, you will receive a notice indicating the date and time of a reaper’s arrival.”

“Let me speak to your supervisor.”

“I assure you that I am able to assist you with any concerns you might have.”

“You can’t stop a reaper from coming to steal my life from me so how the fuck are you able to assist me?”

“If you continue to use language like that, I will end this call. I am doing what I can to help you, but if you speak to me like that again, I will end this call.”

“I apologize. Can you please put your supervisor on the line?”

“I assure you that I am able to assist you with any concerns you might have.”

“Stop the customer service bullshit and put your supervisor on the phone! This is my fucking life we’re talking about here!”

Click.

“Hello? Afriel, are you there?”

Not. The. End.

ReFilling Emptiness

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

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

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

“I’m ending our contract,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You told me you loved this body.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For fear you would have ReStocked me sooner.”

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

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

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

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

A Daughter’s Lament

It’s times like this, in the wee hours of the night that I wonder if it’s wrong that I love my mother? And that love is wrapped in tinfoil, placed in Tupperware, and buried deep in the soil of my soul, hidden with all the other loves I’ve had that I will never admit to, even under the threat of death.

The conflict comes from the fact that I shouldn’t love her at all. She tried to kill me three times, which is three times more than anyone on the planet, even my worst enemies. The first time was when she sought a medical option to terminate her pregnancy. For some reason, it hadn’t worked, and she was offered a surgical option but turned it down because she figured I was fighting to live. That’s what she always called me, her little fighter.

The second time was when I was a tween and she caught me stealing money out of her purse because I wanted to buy some stupid Woolworth’s lip gloss kit that all the popular girls were wearing, something I knew my mother would never have wasted money on. When she walked into the room, it took her a moment to process what she was seeing but the moment it clicked, she flew into a rage and lunged at me, catching me by the throat, and forcing me back toward an open window. We were poor, money stretched beyond snapping limit, so poor that we couldn’t even afford a window fan. Wide open windows without safety guards were our air conditioning during the summer months. And here I was, thinking only of myself and trying to appear cool to strangers that couldn’t have cared whether I lived or died. I thought about that as I was desperately clutching the window frame, trying to stop this five-foot, wiry berserker machine from shoving me six storeys down to the pavement below. When the rage eventually subsided and she pulled me into a hug, I realized I had learned a valuable lesson: Never steal from mom.

The third time happened the night before heading off to college. I was dreaming about floating in the vacuum of space without a spacesuit and not being able to breathe and I woke up to my mother straddling me, arms pinned to my sides, with a pillow pressed against my face. I wriggled and bucked frantically and fortunately threw her off before I lost consciousness.

I have never before told this to anyone, but I imagined if I had they would have told me what they would have done if they were in the same situation, but it was all hypothetical, reactionary nonsense, because the truth of the matter is that you never know what you’re going to do when the unexpected happens until you’re in the moment where you have to make a decision.

The truth is we sat there and said nothing to each other. My mother was on the floor crying into the pillow she tried to smother me with, and I sat on the bed trying to piece everything together, trying to find the logic of the situation, trying to rationalize my mother’s actions. Was she jealous because I was going to get out of a world she found herself trapped in? Was she afraid that I would leave and never come back and she couldn’t stand being alone? This is an answer that I will never get because after minutes turned into hours turned into the time to leave to catch my flight, I left. Never saying goodbye, never looking back, never contacting the police, never getting her the mental health she obviously needed, never speaking to her again.

Today I received a telephone call that my mother had passed away in a retirement home. My telephone number had changed several times since I walked out on my mother, always unlisted and I patrolled the internet to keep as much of my personal data personal, so how the home was able to reach me was anyone’s guess, but apparently, I was listed as next of kin.

After years of compartmentalization and tamping down every memory of her, now that she’s no longer alive, I think about her all the time and can’t stand it or the roiling shame spiral for all the birthday and Mother’s Day cards that were never sent and all the holiday home visits never made.

Now, I lay in the dark with a pillow pressed against my face, hot tears soaking the pillowcase, and I act out our final night together only with a different ending. I confess to her that I wish it wasn’t a secret that I love her. I apologize for being such a bad daughter. And I press the pillow hard against my nose and gasping mouth in a vain attempt to finish what she started.

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

woman killer

The moon, merely a crescent in the cloudless night sky, shines brightly on the car parked at the corner of Acorn and Walmer Streets. It is a 1968 cherry red customized Mustang GT convertible with an ornate sugar skull painted on the bonnet and intricate, colorful dia de los Muertos designs running on the sides, that rides on white wall tires with twenty-inch wire-spoked rims—and it has a name, Sangriento Asesinato, which translates as Bloody Murder.

Despite the car’s garish appearance, to the casual mundane observer, it goes virtually unnoticed because of the obfuscation spell it employs, low-level magicks weaved into the Day of the Dead designs that causes the eye to notice the car but immediately slide off it like July rain off a duck’s back to find something a little more interesting to view.

In Sangriento Asesinato’s passenger seat, Xiomara sniffs the air as her autumn-orange eyes shift left and right down the unnaturally dark and empty street just beyond the intersection.

“Sight doesn’t match the scent, Diya, so this must be the place,” she says. Xiomara is a red fox no bigger than a small dog but should anyone ever be foolish enough to call her a fox, she would rip their throat clean out. She prefers to be called a Vulpes vulpes because it makes her sound like an animal that is all business at all times. Xiomara’s fur, much like the car she rides in, is red, flame red, with a white underbelly, black paws and ear tips and her bushy tail is tipped in white. “And the street is crowded.”

Gennadiya Rodrigues drums her fingers on the chain steering wheel and says, “I’d expect no less. Hopefully, none of them are drunk, high, stupid or trigger happy. I’d rather this be a friendly visit.”

Gennadiya checks her face in the rearview mirror. Eyebrows penciled on, thin, arched and menacing. Winged black eyeliner. Black lined lips with blue-based red lipstick. Cheeks sculpted with a bronze based blush. Jet black shoulder length hair teased to sit off her face, secured by a red bandana with white sigils replacing the standard paisley design. The two studs on her forehead, her third eye piercing, centered between and just above the eyebrows sparkle as they catch the overhead street lamp, as does the moon phase—two gold crescents bookending a full moon—septum piercing. Large gold hoop earrings swing as she turns her head left and right. The look isn’t perfect, not up to her usual standard, but she is in a rush so it will have to suffice.

Reaching past the red fox, Gennadiya opens the glove compartment and places her twin Glock 19 9mm pistols along with a karambit knife, Kubotan keychain and brass knuckles inside before closing the box.

“You’re going in naked?” Xiomara cocks her head to one side, confused.

“No choice, Xio. It’s a sign of respect and I can’t have them thinking there’s any hostile intent behind my visit.”

The driverside car door swings open and Gennadiya steps out into the night air which is cool and dry, smoothing her flannel shirt—just the collar buttoned—with her hands so the open shirt frames the white bustier that accentuates her cleavage. Normally she would hide her breasts under layers of gold jewelry but all the accoutrements associated with this aspect of her persona are back at her apartment and as stated before, time is of the essence. Luckily, she tossed all this stuff inside the trunk along with a pair of dress pants and high top Converse sneakers after she finished the Hell Jockeys gig, so the ensemble is at least ninety percent passable.

She leans on the open door. “You can sit this one out if you want. I’ve got it covered,” Gennadiya says to the fox who raises on all fours. She can tell Xiomara is nervous about being here and wants to give her friend an easy out.

Xiomara snorts and trot-hops off the car seat onto the pavement past Gennadiya. “When have I ever not had your back, Diya?”

“Never,” Gennadiya admits and slams the car door shut.

Acorn Street runs the width of the city from river to river and is widely considered a boring thoroughfare as it lays no claim to fame to any unique or interesting shops, theaters or any other sites that attract tourism and if truth be known, it is fairly boring, which makes it a perfect hiding spot.

Every city, town and community in the world plays host to its fair share of ghost stories, urban legends and unexplainable occurrences and the tiny patch of Acorn that runs between Walmer Street and Readly Avenue is purported by the superstitious subculture to house the legendary Jecrossi Embassy.

The mystical and harmonious city neighborhood gently governed by the Grey Folk—first appearing in the 1944 novel Know No Home by Syrian author Miran Mansour—has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, a permanently happy land, that chooses to isolate itself from the world.

It is said that the Embassy exists within a pocket dimension—a space too small or too easily accessible to be truly considered a separate dimension—which is fine for things like a bag of holding which can contain numerous cumbersome items because it is larger on the inside but becomes unstable when trying to hold a small, secluded world complete with its own ecosystem and lifeforms.

As it turns out, the internet theories are correct and the Embassy is actually situated at this location but it isn’t visible or accessible because the single city block has been magickally shifted left of center one second out of sync with time and space. On her own, Gennadiya doubts she would have been able to sense this place, fortunately for her Xiomara, being a creature of enchantment gifted with an extraordinarily sensitive nose for magick, can smell the displacement.

Xiomara crosses the street, stopping at the curb and sniffs her way in a straight line from the east to west and stops at a point just before the curb on the opposite side of the street.

“Got it!” Xiomara smiles. “Follow me and stay close in case there are any twists and turns along the way. Some of these things can be like mazes and you can get caught up in them for hours until your air runs out. Others just boot you out but trust me, suffocating feels a whole lot better than having your atoms forced through a sieve.”

Gennadiya is surprised and a little embarrassed at the sense of growing unease, mostly because she imagines all the horrible things that can go wrong, even though she watches as Xiomara trots into the invisible entryway with apparent ease.

The mystic sigils dyed onto her bandana begin to glow as Gennadiya takes her first step and she experiences a sudden dropping sensation, the tarmac beneath her feet seems to fall away as if she is in an elevator, and her next unsteady step is like walking on a boat in choppy waters. She realizes it’s just her internal body clock adjusting to the one second time displacement which on its own would have been manageable if not accompanied by the feeling that she is passing through a veil of nematocysts, jellyfish stingers, a sensation she is all too familiar with after being stung at the beach as a little girl. Despite the sigils allowing her to step into sync with Jecrossi, she feels the nettles firing warnings into her body, thousands of needle pricks that urge her to turn back and leave.

She does her level best to remain upright and follows her friend, who stops at the tricky bits where the invisible entryway breaks into a sharp turn or bends in an odd fashion, and when they eventually pass through to the other side, Gennadiya notices the shift in reality almost immediately. The street beneath her feet is compacted soil instead of tarmac and the sidewalk is leveled natural stone instead of concrete. The air is different, too, nearly dense enough to be liquid and tasting of ozone just after a lightning strike and the scents of this neighborhood are somehow foreign, differing from the rest of the city. She commends Xiomara under her breath at being able to detect anything by smell alone amidst the chaotic fragrances.

“So this is what paradise looks like, huh?” Xiomara says. Sarcasm takes on a whole new flavor when coming from a fox.

But she is right. The Jecrossi Embassy, the fabled inner city Shangri-La, is little more than a magick ghetto. Visually, the street which seems deserted only a block away is bustling with activity and not only because of their arrival. Street vendors exchange their wares, foodstuffs, clothing, home essentials and yes, some enchantments and drugs for odd trinkets that bears no resemblance to any sort of currency on the planet to pedestrians who give Gennadiya and Xiomara strange and untrusting sideways glances.

There are magicks in these streets that emanate from the cracks in the sidewalk and the graffitied tenement walls. Animals that might be mistaken for rats, cats and dogs dart from in between the apartment buildings and the back alley of the restaurant on the far corner. Yet, despite the enchantment that crackles against her exposed skin like static electricity, life is no different on this block than the rest of the city. Dejection and starvation and cruelty exist here, evidenced by the diseased bodies and damaged minds that abandoned dreams of a better life in order to simply survive on garbage scraps and sleeping in cardboard boxes amongst the vermin that are not rats or cats or dogs. Street preachers deliver sermons to these wretches from tattered grimoires that pass in looks but not content to holy scriptures.

“Look at the gaunt faces, Diya,” Xiomara says, her fox voice cracking. “The stories etched on them, stories enough to snap your heart in two.”

If Gennadiya hears her friend, she gives no indication. “We have eyes on us, Xio,” she says, pointing at the stoop of the nearest brownstone where three rail thin and heavily tattooed men turn their faces and whisper to each other. One of them whistles up to one of the brownstone’s windows and makes a sound like a crow’s caw.

“It’s showtime,” Gennadiya says, picking up her pace as she walks in their direction.

Xiomara doesn’t match her friend’s speed, preferring to hang back and assess the situation.

Gennadiya looks over her shoulder and says, “No shame in heading back to the car.”

“Shame’s got nothing to do with it,” Xiomara snaps. “I’m afraid because I’m smart enough to know that we’re walking headlong into trouble.” The red fox quickens her steps to catch up with Gennadiya.

From the brownstone’s main entrance, ten more wiry men with matching skin ink join the lookouts, making it a baker’s dozen. They approach, affecting that badass stroll wannabes wear like a tough guy accessory, pistol grips protruding from the top of their skinny jeans waistbands and for the first time she realizes they’re barefoot and now that she notices it, everyone on the street except for her isn’t wearing shoes. The fingers on all of their hands twitch as if they’re throwing gang signs but Gennadiya recognizes it as the actions of low-level magick users, apprentices, in order to prime the pump—in the same manner that a suction valve in an old water pump needs to be primed with water so that the pump functions properly. The Jecrossi specialize in earth magick and apprentices need to prime their bodies in order for earth energies to flow up into and through them.

Gennadiya holds out her empty hands, carefully lifts the sides of the open flannel shirt and does a slow turn to show she isn’t strapped. “Take it easy,” she says, in as disaffected a manner as she could muster. “Bringing no ruckus. Just need to speak with Ekaterina.”

Because they are all bald and thin and are marked by the same tattoos, the goons look like they come from the same mold with the one out in front being the first cast and the others appearing to have increasing degrees of degradation with each successive pressing. They cautiously fan themselves out until they form a circle around Gennadiya and Xiomara.

“You expected?” asks the lead goon.

“No, but she’ll see me,” Gennadiya says, her eyes locking onto the penetrating gaze of the lead goon standing immediately in front of her.

“Tell them who you are,” Xiomara says.

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

“Vulpes vulpes!” Xiomara snarls.

“What?”

“I’m a Vulpes vulpes, not a damned doggie!”

“You’re gonna be dinner if–“

The index and middle fingers of both Gennadiya’s hands go into her mouth. The goons raise their hands ready to cast on her and bring her down to the tarmac. Pushing back her tongue, she whistles six notes sharp and loud in a very distinct pattern, a pattern that halts the goons in their tracks. It is the Six Tones of Order Within Chaos, the call of the Jecrossi.

The goons stare at Gennadiya, disbelieving what they just heard. Then their expression shifts to suspicion.

“How do you know the call?” asks lead goon.

“Like I said, Ekaterina will see me because we go back, long before the likes of you or before she came to this neighborhood,” the sadness in her eyes mirrors Xiomara’s own upon first seeing the state of the people who seek refuge here.

Before the lead goon can respond, one of the middle windows on the top row of the brownstone opens and a brown-skinned woman pops her head out. “What’s going on?” she demands.

Lead goon is about to tell the woman it was Gennadiya who whistled but thinks better of it and opts for, “Someone here to see the boss.”

“Someone like who?” asks the woman.

Gennadiya brushes past the lead goon to step into the street light and calls up to the woman, “Someone like Garota Exilada!”

“And Xiomara!” the red fox barks.

Gennadiya shoots Xiomara a baleful glance but can’t maintain it. “And her companion, the Vulpes vulpes, Xiomara!” she echoes and her scowl becomes a smile.

***

They are escorted by the lead goon and four of his cronies up to the common room which is uncomfortably larger than the exterior of the brownstone. It reminds Gennadiya of a museum, not just in the space but in all glass-encased artifacts, as well. The floor is tiled in polished sandstone, the walls are travertine stacked stone and the furniture appears to be Mesopotamian in design but she can’t be certain on the accuracy of her assessment. Although artwork decorates the walls there are no personal photographs. There is enough room here to house dozens of the homeless outside but this seemingly perfect place is far too cold in its tranquility to feel in any way homey.

In the center of the room stands the brown-skinned woman who introduces herself as Serilda. She, a full foot taller than anyone in the room, points at Gennadiya, “You follow me, the Vulpes vulpes remains here.”

Xiomara begins to argue but Serilda remains firm and insists there will be no audience with Ekaterina if the Vulpes vulpes refuses to remain in the common room. Gennadiya tells the red fox it will be all right and repeats that she and Ekaterina go way back so there shouldn’t be any danger.

Xiomara ponders for a moment before reluctantly saying, “Okay, but if things go sideways just holler and I’ll tear through these clowns like field mice!” She stares directly at the lead goon when she says it and he replies with a mocking growl which makes the red fox’s fluffy tail twitch in anger.

Gennadiya is shown into the adjoining room which is somehow larger than the impossibly large common room, with Serilda in the lead and the goons bringing up the rear. The walls are lined with books stacked in a chaotic fashion on recessed wooden shelves and this indoor library smells of petrichor, the scent of rain on dry earth, which would explain the moisture that dots the spines of all the books. In the exact center of the room is a reading chair that is nothing more than a series of interwoven vines that grow directly from the lush green carpet of dewy grass and in the chair sits Ekaterina, positioned perfectly with a book open to a blank page on her lap, graphite stick firmly in hand and at the ready.

“I’d like to say something clever like all the chickens, even the headstrong independent ones always come home to roost but the fact of the matter is you’ve never been here, isn’t that right, Exilada?” Ekaterina says in a warm but measured tone.

The woman’s alabaster skin and albino snakeskin dress are almost a perfect camouflage within the silky white mist that rises from the grass and snakes around her. She appears to be in her sixties—but Gennadiya suspects she’s much older because she looks the same as when they first met almost two decades ago—and wears absolutely no makeup because only an insecure fool applies foundation on natural beauty. Her pearl hair is oiled back and plaited in a style that should have looked ridiculous on someone her age but she carries it off with authority.

“You always did know how to strike a pose, Kat,” Gennadiya says, attempting a for old time’s sake grin that simply will not come.

“That’s Ekaterina to you,” Ekaterina says as she takes in the sum of her unexpected visitor. “So, tell me a story.”

“What?” Gennadiya shifts uncomfortably in a small puddle on the carpet grass. Ekaterina has caught her off guard, a feeling she never appreciates. “I don’t have any stories.”

“Nonsense, everyone has stories and I collect them, you see,” Ekaterina says, gesturing with a nod for Gennadiya to sit. “Everything is present for a story to exist: a teller, that would be you, and an audience, which would be me.”

The offered seat—a normal metal folding chair with padding—is as much out of place with the room’s décor as she herself is. A reminder, no doubt, that she is considered an interloper. The fact that the chair is bone dry despite the moist surroundings is of small consolation. Gennadiya squirms until she finds the position that affords the least amount of discomfort and says, “Thanks for the seat but still…no stories.”

“No reunion catch up? No explanation as to why you disappeared on me in the middle of the night? Nothing that covers your whereabouts and activities over the years, things we might have discussed had you bothered to remain in contact?”

“I’m not the keep in contact kind of gal, you know that.”

“Well, if you’re not here to apologize, justify your actions and perhaps reminisce a bit, then what brings you to my home?”

“I’m on a case…” Gennadiya pauses because she feels unsure of how to phrase the next bit. “And I need your help.” She expects to be scoffed or laughed at but is instead greeted by nothing but silence.

“It’s a girl,” Gennadiya continues when it becomes clear Ekaterina is waiting to hear more details. “A little girl and I know who took her so I need to do an extraction.”

“Is she here?” Ekaterina asks. “Are you asking my permission before you steal someone from the Embassy?”

Gennadiya shakes her head. “She’s in Megorum. The Clanarchists have her.”

“Again, I ask, what brings you? Your target is a little girl, easy to transport. This should be a cakewalk for the legendary Garota Exilada,” the insult in the way Ekaterina says her business name is plain as day and it cuts slightly.

“Megorum is shielded against me, I can’t get in. I’ve tried.”

Ekaterina shrugs, “Cast a piercer. Why darken my doorstep?”

“I don’t magick.”

“What? After all these years I would have thought you would have picked up something,” Ekaterina says then recalls something. “But they tell me you have a familiar?”

“Xiomara isn’t a familiar. She’s my friend—”

“Best friend!” the fox interrupts.

“…best friend with excellent hearing who should be minding her business and letting me handle mine,” Gennadiya shouts over her shoulder before turning her attention back to Ekaterina. “Xiomara caught the tail end of an enchantment meant for me and got transmogrified into a—” she is about to say red fox but catches herself in time. “—Vulpes vulpes.”

“She was human?”

“Still is, to me, and I’m working on tracking down the slippery bastard responsible for it.”

“Wait,” Ekaterina says. “You said Megorum is shielded against you. Not merely shielded, but against you in particular, that would make it—”

“A blood shield.”

“You can’t cross the barrier because traces of your blood have been intertwined in the incantation but why go through all that trouble, unless—” Ekaterina cuts the sentence short and dismisses Serilda and the goons, who go through the proper etiquette of voicing their objections and citing the possibility of an attack before complying with the request when it is restated as a command. When they are gone, Ekaterina asks, “Who is this girl?”

“She’s my daughter, Kat. Those hijos de putas kidnapped my baby girl and I aim to get her back and put every last one of them in the ground!”

Ekaterina shakes her head and glances over at Gennadiya before turning her sorrowful gaze to the ground.

“That is terrible news, it really is, and I realize how difficult it must be to come to me asking for help but I can’t help feeling like I’m being played here.”

“Played?”

“Not so much as a single hello exchanged between us in years, yet you knew to find me in this hidden part of the city so you’re obviously aware of the beef I have with the Clanarchists. If I get a sudden twinge of compassion and decide to help you pierce their blood shield—and I’m assuming the same barrier that stops you from getting in, also prevents your daughter from escaping, correct?”

“I’d imagine so.”

“Then the spell we cast would have to remain in place long enough for you to enter Megorum, locate your little girl and escape with her, which means the magick can and will be traced back to us, bringing a war to our doorstep. Where will you be when that happens? Standing at our borders fighting side by side with us?”

“If needs be, then yes.”

“If-then-yes isn’t a definitive yes, which is the problem I have with this situation because if by some small miracle this thing goes to plan and you’re able to get your daughter back, you’ll be grateful, I’m sure of that, but there’s a difference between feeling gratitude and showing gratitude.”

“You’re not catching me at my best here so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t answer with the precise words you need to hear in order to help me, but I’ve got a lot going on in my head at the moment. Allow me to answer the question again: Yes, once my daughter is safe, I will return and help you defend your borders.”

Then the conversation stops and the long silence that replaces it is loaded with the dread of possibility that somewhere along the way Gennadiya said the wrong thing or the right thing in the wrong way and totally ruined her chance to recruit the aid of the Jecrossi leader who was once her friend.

Ekaterina stands and paces around her seat, her eyes cast downward and never making contact with Gennadiya.

“This place used to be the paradise you hear about in the urban legends,” Ekaterina says in a low, almost under-the-breath voice as if she is talking to herself. “Built by the Grey Folk, it was meant to be a safe haven for enchanted beings and its doors were open to all, even the likes of me. And as bad as I was, I wasn’t the worst person to gain entry. There were people hungry for power, in love with destruction, nasty killers who didn’t care who or what they slew. And they tried to gut this place. But I and the last of the remaining Grey Folk stood against them and forced them into exile. The effort cost us. We depleted most of the magick within this place, the most powerful earth energy source on the planet. And I’m working with the strongest remaining earth mages to heal it, to return the land to what it once was, but the progress, the healing, is slow. So, you see, this thing you ask of me is no small matter.”

“Kat, I could scream I’m sorry for not keeping in touch, for not being there when you needed me until I’m blue in the face but that’s not going to change the reality of what’s done is done. And there’s no way of me convincing you of the truth that if I did actually have some magick, I would help you restore this place. As it stands, the only thing I have to offer is my life and I would gladly give it to save my daughter but I swear on my little girl’s life that if you help me and pledge to keep her safe in case I don’t come out on the other side of this alive then my life is yours to do as you see fit.”

Ekaterina taps her lips with an index finger. “And you would enter the unbreakable pact of a blood oath?”

“Do you have a blade?” Gennadiya asks. “I’ll slice my palm right here and now.”

***

Xiomara goes through the motions of conducting an inspection of the room, sniffing this and that, but what she is actually doing is marking everyone’s location in the room and judging distances in the enormous space in order to formulate the best plan of attack and escape should she and Gennadiya need to beat a hasty retreat. Her attention snaps from the foot of a bronze statue of a naked man to the door of the antechamber as Gennadiya and Ekaterina enter. A piece of cloth is wrapped around each of their right hands and a bud of blood blossoms in their palms.

Xiomara races to Gennadiya making a series of brief clucks, her concerned gekkering as she pushes her snout into her friend’s bleeding palm, sniffing and biting at the cloth to remove it.

“Are you okay? What happened in there? Let me see the wound! Is it deep?”

“It’s okay, Xio,” Gennadiya strokes Xiomara’s head attempting to calm her. “I did this so we could get what we came here for.”

“Although the world outside the Embassy is of no concern to us at the moment,” Ekaterina addresses the room in a cool, even tone. “Garota Exilada has sworn a blood oath to aid us and in exchange, we will help her retrieve her daughter who has been stolen by the Clanarchists.”

A grumbling begins to stir amongst Serilda and the goons, one of anger mixed with apprehension.

Ekaterina points at Serilda and the lead goon as she continues, “Serilda and Ozias, you will accompany Exilada and her companion to cast a piercing spell and return them safely to us. Their lives are your responsibility now.”

Serilda nods acceptance. Ozias does as well but it takes him a little longer and he looks none too pleased.

Not The End…

Duchess and the Anecdote

Duchess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haven’t you sussed it out yet?“

“No… I’m scared!“

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

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

“Open your paws, let it fly off.”

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

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

“Why?“

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

And just like that, she was gone.

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