“Do you even have the faintest idea why you’re still single?” my mother asks. Questioning me out of the blue is the way she offers her unsolicited and always unwanted opinions.
“I don’t know, Mom, because I just watched The Exorcist and cried through the entire thing?” And this is the way I try to dodge the conversation. “I mean, I know how it’s going to end and I feel terrible for Pazuzu. When it’s all over, Chris has Regan, Father Karras and Father Merrin ascend to heaven but what does Pazuzu get? Bupkis. Nada. Nothing.”
“You’re an odd duck.”
“A sentimental odd duck, let’s not overlook my ability to empathize and emote.”
Mom doesn’t take the bait. “I just want you to find someone so badly. You’re such a wonderful, albeit weird person and you deserve to meet someone really special,” she says.
And then, on cue, Dad pokes his head into the living room and in true man-fashion, tries to fix the problem.
“You attract more bees with honey than vinegar, pun’kin. Maybe if you spruced yourself up a bit,” he says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with the way you look–“
“Shut up, George!” Mom punches Dad in the arm.
“What? I’m just saying some fellas need to see the car polished before taking it out on a test drive, that’s all.”
“You want strangers test driving your daughter?”
“No! Of course not!” Dad waves the notion away as if it was a wasp. “What I mean to say is would it kill you to maybe wear a dress and some makeup once in a while and socialize with actual people in the real world in a social setting instead of throwing your youth away on the internet in chat rooms?”
“Dad, I know you mean well but you’re old–“
“And that’s ancient, so is your way of thinking. Women shouldn’t have to gussy themselves up–“
“I never used the word gussy.”
“–in order to attract a mate.”
“We’re not talking about mating we’re talking about dating.”
“Same difference, Dad. If I met someone and we were into each other we might just hook up. It’s only sex.”
“Not in my house, it’s not! There’ll be no it’s only sex happening under my roof, young lady!”
“Which answers your question, Mom, as to why I’m still single.”
“What?” Mom looks confused. “How did this come back on me?”
“Not that it’s any of your business but I still have my V card.”
“She’s still a virgin, George.”
“Well, thank Christ for small miracles, I suppose,” Dad breathes a sigh of relief.
“And if and when I hand in my card, I want it to be with someone who gets me, someone on my level and I want it to happen in a place where I feel safe and that’s here, with you guys.”
“You’re not asking us to watch, are you?”
Mom punches Dad in the arm again. “George!”
“Ewww, Dad, don’t be gross!” I decide to make one last attempt at explaining my reasoning. “This place isn’t the fanciest but it’s lived in and it’s filled with love—your love for each other and for me and my love for you. I want my first-time love to exist in the same place.”
“Seeing as it will be your first time, it might not be filled with as much love as you think,” Mom says under her breath and it’s Dad’s turn to punch her lightly on the arm.
“Hey,” he says. “Don’t spoil her fantasy.”
“So,” my voice turns sheepish. “Do I have your blessing?”
They stare at each other for a long contemplative moment and to my surprise, Dad is the one who breaks the ice. “Yeah, kiddo. It’s okay.” And Mom nods in agreement.
“Great!” I snatch my laptop up as I bound off the sofa and race past them and upstairs to my room.
“Where are you off to?” Mom asks.
“To get ready! Tommy’ll be over in a little while and we’re totally going to do it tonight! You guys are the best!”
Mom turns to Dad, “Who’s Tommy?”
“Dead meat if he knocks on this door,” Dad says cracking his knuckles.
Kymmie Blanchette, now Kymberly Marshall had a life plan instilled in her by her parents which she followed to a T. She was a good kid, did well in school, had a core group of parent-approved friends, and enjoyed spending time with her parents even as a teenager. She grew to be an outstanding adult, a high functioning, informed citizen who contributed positively to society and her parents’ careful planning led her down the predictable path of a solid career and a faithful marriage. She was a devoted mother to two children who also grew up to be successful in their respective fields.
But as her body became tender to the touch and the constant pain once relegated to the background stepped to the forefront and her body cooled and the pattern of her breathing began changing frequently and spontaneously—a delirium clouded her mind and she slipped down the corridor of her youth, back to her only bout of rebelliousness, back to the randomness of being 16.
A few days after her birthday, Kymmie made a friend all on her own, secret from her parents and other friends, secret from everyone. Insomnia—birth name Ines—was everything Kymmie never had the courage or confidence to be. She was what her grandfather would have called a spitfire, who always spoke her mind to teachers, her parents, everyone. She constantly went toe to toe with the abusive jocks and snarky queen bees without ever flinching or backing down and couldn’t care less about people’s opinions of her.
Why they became such close friends was anybody’s guess but they first met when Kymmie caught Insomnia secretly watching hentai in AV Club. Somni—her nickname of choice—cool as a cucumber said, “You got me dead to rights. Ball’s in your court so what’s it gonna be? Narc me out or become otaku?” Kymmie had no idea what otaku meant and she really wasn’t into animated tentacle pornography but this raven-haired edgy girl had given her something no one else had up to this point: a choice.
Kymmie became Somni’s sidekick, her partner in crime and together they tried all the challenges—the cinnamon challenge, the choking challenge, the salt and ice cube challenge, the fire challenge—they even hotwired a very large Oldsmobile in a Walmart parking lot and took it for a joyride with nary a driver’s license between the pair of them. And down by the abandoned factory they took turns surfing on the hood, roof and bumper of the car while the other drove. Kymmie did more driving than surfing but Somni gave her props for making an attempt.
One day they even raided Somni’s parents’ medicine cabinet for unused prescription pills, created a drug cocktail and washed it down with cooking wine and cough medicine in the basement.
When they were properly buzzed, they began to talk, about themselves, about their feelings, about how lonely life can be sometimes, how hard it was to bridge gaps between the people you liked most in the world. People who weren’t blood related but were closer than family. And Somni, usually tight-lipped when it came to expressing emotions, opened up a little and shared her secret wish to be a vampire so she could exchange blood with another being and become one with that person.
Was it the drugs or the cooking wine that made Kymmie brush the hair away from her neck as she told Insomnia, “Ball’s in your court so what’s it gonna be? Whine about your loneliness or become one with me?”
“You’ve got no clue what you’re doing,” Somni said.
“Neither do you, which is why you had to get high in order to tell me how you feel about me.”
“Who said this is about you?”
“It’s not about me? Then why are we in your basement, Ines?”
“Don’t call me that!” Insomnia snapped.
“Why not, it’s your name, isn’t it?”
“It’s my mother’s name!”
“No it’s not, your mom’s name is Brenda.”
“That’s my stepmother, bitch! My mother left to be with some asshat and his family because we weren’t enough! Because I wasn’t enough!”
“I-I’m sorry, I had no idea,” Kymmie said. “But you not being enough…that’s just crazy thinking. I don’t know her but if she abandoned you like that then your mom is the real asshat here.”
“No, and you can’t make me.”
“What are you going to do…hit me…beat me up? Go ahead, if that’s what it takes to get it out of your system. I’m not afraid of you.”
“Really? Why are you shaking, then?”
“Because you terrify me, not because I think you’ll beat me up because I don’t think you will, at least I hope you won’t. You’ve terrified me from the moment I first saw you.”
“Hey, I’m straight.”
“So am I, I think, but does that mean I can’t be in love with you? I mean, something’s there and I know you feel it, too,” Kymmie said. “Even if this doesn’t end well, we have to air it out before one or the both of us hurts ourselves by keeping it in.”
“What part of I’m straight don’t you get?”
“This isn’t about sexual preference. Somni, so stop freaking out about labels, I mean you of all people, you should know better than that.”
“I just don’t want you getting any wrong impressions. You’re cool to hang out with and all but, you know, as a friend.”
“Oh my god, why are you so guarded right now? A minute ago you were spilling your guts to me…”
“Yeah, well, a minute ago I wasn’t under a lesbian microscope.”
“I’m not calling you a lesbian, we’re not doing labels, okay? I just want you to admit you feel a certain way so that I don’t feel like an absolute loser for feeling the same way.”
“What way do you feel?” Somni asked.
“Really? Are we doing the whole ‘No, you go first’ thing?”
“You started this.”
“No, you got all vampiry and wanted to suck my blood so you could feel closer to me!”
“I’m the psycho? How about the person who doesn’t like to be touched always being so affectionate with me? You let me lay my head in your lap and stroke my hair when I need a nap. You sit on my lap and whisper secrets in my ear.”
“That was one time.”
“Okay, but you still did it!”
“Why don’t you just woman up and tell me how you feel, you drunk lesbian.”
“I’m not a…okay, so maybe I’m a little drunk, can you get drunk off of cooking wine? or high off the pills, what did we take again? anyway, I don’t know what I am because i i haven’t been with anybody yet but I’m not attracted to girls. It’s just you. Whenever you’re around, I just want you to notice me.”
“Of course, I notice you, doofus, we hang out all the time.”
“I think you’re my soulmate.”
“Okay. That wasn’t awkward.”
“Can you be soulmates with a same sex person? Does being a soulmate mean you have to be a sexmate, too?”
“Okay, we need to sober you up because it’s time for you to leave and I can’t send you home like this and risk you narcing on me.”
“I’d never narc you out.”
“Not intentionally, maybe.”
“And why aren’t you as fucked up as me?”
“Not my first time at the rodeo,” Insomnia draped an arm across her shoulder and helped Kymmie to her feet. “Coffee time. Let’s go.”
“No,” Kymmie resisted.
“I’m not going anywhere until you kiss me.”
“You heard me. On the mouth. Right now. Let’s go. Take the leap. I dare you. What are you, chicken? Bwak! Bwark! I double dog dare you!” Kymmie continued to squawk like a drunken chicken.
“Keep this up and I’ll street you and let you find your own way home.”
The taunts came to a halt and for a moment Kymmie seemed to sober up, “Please. Somni, please. I have to know. It hurts so much. Show me you care. Make me feel wanted.”
What went on in Insomnia’s mind, Kymmie would never know but her friend relented and the two girls kissed. It lasted only a few seconds before Kymmie broke the wet kiss and wiped her mouth, saying, “Uh-uh. No, no.”
“That’s what I’m been trying to tell you, asshat!”
“I’m not an asshat, your mom’s an asshat!” and what could have been an uncomfortable and awkward moment was broken by the two girls bursting into a fit of uncontrollable, uproarious laughter that was only interrupted by Kymmie throwing up the entire contents of her stomach.
“You are such a fucking mess,” Insomnia said as she pulled Kymmie’s hair back and led her to a small rusted metal trash pail. “But I love you.” The words were said in a soft voice that was hard to make out over the din of her own retching but Kymmie heard them clear as day.
They remained friends after that, never discussing the basement conversation again and continued doing stupid random teenage things that should have led to one or both of their deaths several times over but sometimes God watched over idiotic teenagers so they managed to pull through unscathed. Then, near the end of the year, Insomnia’s parents were forced to move because of the scarcity of job opportunities and the girls tried keeping in touch but long distance relationships required an attention that adult life seldomly permitted.
Kymberly chuckled at the memory which appeared more as a rasping cough to those sitting bedside and as the end approached, she whispered “Goodbye” and her family thought it was meant for them but she was actually saying farewell to her old friend.
By the time you read this, this version of me will be dead, but your version will just have been born, but before you become dismayed, know that I have lived a long and prosperous life, just as you had. I realize how unbelievable this will seem to you in your present, but in my past and your future, time travel has/will become a reality. I wish I could tell you more, but although time has opened for humankind greatly, my own time is extremely limited.
There are many blessings to being a member of The Time Guild, but the most important to me has to be the ability to tell you the things I never had the opportunity to say while you were alive. I admire your ability to be both mother and father to me, as well as my best friend, and so I wanted to let you know a few things.
Encouraging me to be an outspoken independent thinker was the best thing you could have done for me. Thank you very much for that. The money that you hide in that ratty old sock in your sock drawer, take a portion of it and invest in a startup company called ReTempus. I know this will put a financial burden on us in the short run, but it will pay off when we need it most. Not to mention ReTempus will eventually become the Time Guild. Please be discreet in your investments as feeding you this information is a strict violation of the Guild’s bylaws, but it should be fine if you fly under the radar.
My final gift to you, embedded in this chronal parchment, is a holographic image. These are your grandchildren, born after you passed away. My daughter is named after you. I am sure I do not have to warn you to keep the letter and its contents hidden from everyone, including me. Just raise me to the best of your ability and time will sort out the rest.
My father died when I was young and I was the last person in the family to find out. Everyone thought they were protecting me, shielding me from the bad news and the sorrow and pain that would follow, but I knew something was wrong, even though I didn’t know what had happened. It’s like Nana Bettie used to say, I felt it in my waters.
When my mother finally broke the news to me, I didn’t cry, trying to prove that I was a big girl. I just shut down, and I think that scared my family more than if I had gone into hysterics. I didn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, refused to go to school, and ignored every therapist that came to see me. The brilliance I had once appreciated in life began to fade, colors running together like a painting left out in the rain.
I was wasting away, and not just physically. My soul had begun to atrophy to the point where no one or no thing held interest for me anymore. And that was when my body finally gave out and I collapsed, finding myself falling, falling through stages of grief, which was actually like falling back through time, back to when my father initially sparked the kindling that would ignite the flame that would eventually become my passion.
I landed on a white beach with sand soft as clouds and an endless aquamarine ocean, and standing at the very edge of the shoreline was my father. The entire universe lay open before me.
“Is this heaven?” I asked.
My father laughed and said, “No, sweetheart. Paradise is much cooler than this.”
“Is that where you live?”
“Can I stay there with you? I promise I’ll be good.”
“You will one day, but not until you’re older, much older.”
“It’s not fair!”
“Life isn’t fair sometimes,” he shrugged. “But what if I make you a promise?”
“What kind of promise?”
My father held up his right hand. “Do you see this? It may not look like much to you, but I promise this hand is strong enough to protect you all the days of your life. So, while you may not be able to see me, you can trust that I’ll always be with you.”
And before I could plead my case to stay with him again, he leaned down and gently kissed my forehead, and I woke up in my bed, eyes filled with tears and surrounded by my family. I never told them what I saw because I didn’t want them to try to explain it away.
And whether you believe me or not, there have been times in my life where I survived circumstances that were impossible to bear because I felt I was in the grip of the protective hand of love.
The Universe expanded just wide enough to allow worlds to form. And those worlds were meant to spawn beings. And those beings were meant to learn the ways of the Apparatus Universi in order to keep the universe running, for The Universe was not a living thing, as most intelligent races postulated.
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Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that was removed and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.
The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, as patient as the lamb she was in life.
She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that was mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.
Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure — she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture — getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in heaven.
While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little of the time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.
Finally, an angel arrived, tall and thin with black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he no longer needed. A remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.
The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the uns — undertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.
“Hi, I’m Modestine.” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.
Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.
Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you…” and she tried her best to match the noise he made… but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.
Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”
Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?” she asked.
“Heavens no,” Phil replied. “That’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”
“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”
“I’m here to take you to class.”
“Oh, okay.” Modestine followed behind Phil, a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.
Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.
“Here you are.” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.
“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”
“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh look had a sting.
“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”
“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.
“Oh, no… no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”
“It’ll come to you as you need. Heaven’s cool that way.”
“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”
“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”
“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.
The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”
Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.
“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”
The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.
The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several icebreaking games before the class broke for recess.
As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.
“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.
“Just Modestine, and, yes… ?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.
The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”
“You’re not? Then who… ?”
“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”
Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch… what is it you want?”
Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”
“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”
“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”
“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”
“And do my superiors know you’re here?”
“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”
Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.
“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”
“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may ask me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”
“Just Modestine, and why me?”
“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you.” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat and read the agreement more thoroughly. Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word “No”. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.
His job made Joseph MacDonal II, Joey Mac to his pals, the enemy of the world and a target for assassination. He was one of the few people on the planet trained and licensed to butcher unicorns and prepare their meat for consumption. This also put him at odds with PAUTU (People Against the Unethical Treatment of Unicorns) who accused him of unicorn genocide.
The thing that stuck in everyone’s craw, more than selling unicorn steaks, chops and burgers, was the butchery aspect, though that was the bit they all had gotten wrong. Yes, Joey was technically a unicorn butcher, but the proper definition was:
/ˈbo͝oCHər – NOUN
A person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.
which he did. What most folks failed to understand, though it was a matter of public record, was that his license hadn’t included or even allowed the hunting or slaughtering of unicorns or any other animals. In fact, Joey never killed a thing in his life. Insects that crossed his path were the subject of a strict catch, relocate and release system.
At this very moment, Joey sat across from a field news reporter undergoing makeup in preparation for the live broadcast. He found her cute in a cable news presenter sort of way, and probably would have been more attracted to her if she hadn’t had that I’ll make my bones off this story hungry look in her eyes.
She ignored him completely, even brushing off his initial “Hello” until the cameraman counted her down. When the station anchor threw to her, the field reporter beamed a smile so unnaturally white, it would have stood out in a blizzard.
“Thank you, Sylvia. I’m here with noted unicorn slaughterer, Joseph MacDonal,” the field reporter said, finally locking her predatory eyes on him.
“Actually, I’m a unicorn butcher…”
“Same difference, isn’t it?”
“Actually, there’s a big dif–‘
“What made you decide to embark on this horrible profession?” she interrupted.
The economy had been in the crapper since before God talked to Moses and Joey hadn’t worked in forever. And even though he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to do what analysts suggested and set aside six months worth of salary in a high yield account before he was made redundant at the meatpacking plant, now going on his tenth year, all that money was little more than a distant memory.
A Christian in name more than practice, it had been years since the soles of his shoes touched the floor of a church and that time was his best friend’s wedding, a wife twice removed. To say Joey was out of practice with the proper act of prayer would have been an understatement. His first attempt came off as more of a bitch session, with him blaming his parents for his rotten upbringing and lambasting society for its prejudice of gingers, which, he reckoned, was the chief reason for his being kept down by the man. Surprisingly, he saw no results.
His second attempt at prayer was akin to a letter to Santa, in which he listed all the positive things he’d ever done in life and expected a little compensation for his good behavior. Again, results were not forthcoming.
Third time was the charm, however, when he realized that he should have admitted his sin, expressed thanks for the things he had and humbly requested the one thing he needed most: a job.
He put no expectation on the prayer and went about his normal daily existence, when, a week later, he received a phone call. Seemed that a friend of a friend knew a guy who knew a guy who had a roommate who was related to a woman who owned her own business was looking for someone in his line of work.
Joey arrived at the interview, résumé in hand, and launched into his well-rehearsed spiel when the business woman waived him off and ushered him into a small kitchen area.
“Show me what you can do,” she gestured at a section of the animal carcass, a shank, by the look of it, that rested atop a butcher block countertop.
Joey inspected the meat before touching a utensil. Not beef, nor pork, nor lamb, the texture was something he had never encountered before. A grain like beef, yet soft to the touch like flan, and it shimmered without a light source as if it were bioluminescent. “What is this?” he asked.
“Are you interested in the job or not? I don’t have all day,” she drummed her fingers on her crossed arms.
Joey sighed, selected a knife from the butcher block and approached the slab of meat, much in the same manner a sculptor would a block of marble, envisioning the cuts before blade touched flesh. With no idea what type of animal he was dealing with, there was no way of telling how this woman expected it to be prepared, so he simply followed his instincts and let the meat talk to him. And in a way, it did.
Every time the stainless steel edge portioned the strange meat, Joey thought he heard a high-pitched tone, like the sound of a moistened finger running along the rim of a crystal goblet. A sound that broke his heart. But in the aftermath, when the tone was just about to become inaudible, he heard a voice inside his head. It said two words:
and he felt a permission granted. This had not relieved the wave of guilt that flooded over him but it gave him the desire to do something with his own life worthy of this unknown animal’s sacrifice.
When he was done, the business woman nodded her approval, “Every bit the professional you claimed to be.” And it was a professional job. Every cut was perfect, none too generous, nor too small, and there were absolutely no scraps. He utilized every last bit of the meat.
“I’m curious, what type of meat is this?”
“Unicorn,” she said very matter of factly.
“You heard me.”
“I don’t get the gag,” Joey inwardly chastised himself on his tone. If his dumb mouth cost him the job, he’d…
“I’m quite serious,” the woman took him by the upper arm in a grip tighter than he was comfortable with and led him through a maze of stairwells and corridors, down, down, so far down beneath street level that he expected to see passage markers scratched into the walls by Arne Saknussemm.
Their destination was a room designed to look like a field, complete with grass, trees and rocks. Had he been blindfolded and dropped here, Joey would have sworn he was outside. The room was so vast, he couldn’t see the far wall. The only telltale sign this was, in fact, an indoor facility were the track lights that provided sunlight, positioned incredibly high overhead, but even they were mostly obscured by the clouds of the room’s self-contained weather system. But as fascinating as all this was, by far the most mindblowing thing were the unicorns grazing in the field.
“They’re real?” Joey asked.
The woman couldn’t suppress her chuckle, “Our organization, as advanced as it is, isn’t able to manufacture live unicorns.”
“But how is this possible?” Joey took a cautious step into the room and felt the spongy grass beneath his shoe. He moved slowly as not to spook a unicorn no more than ten feet away. The unicorn paid him no mind.
“Some trapper with an overabundance of dumb luck caught the last pair in existence by accident. Fortunately for him, and us, they were a stallion and mare. We made him a very wealthy man in order to breed them in captivity.”
“For food?” there went his tone again, but this time he didn’t care.
The woman shrugged. “There’s nothing else we can do with them. You can’t ride them. Young, old, virginal, virtuous… it doesn’t matter. They simply won’t allow it. Utilize the horn for its magical properties? It’s only magical for the unicorn, there’s no transference of power. Grinding down the horn and ingesting the powder for immortality? Turns out the human body is unable to digest the powder.”
“Then why not let them go?”
“Not until we recoup our investment. And we can’t risk one of our competitors getting hold of them and creating a revenue source we haven’t managed to think up ourselves… yet.”
“This is going to sound strange,” Joey said. “But I don’t know if I can do this.”
My mother warned me to guard the things I held precious by keeping them hidden inside me. The only thing I held precious was her and I found it impossible to place her inside my body. I was too young to understand she was talking about love. Too young to save the best parts of my mother’s love in my heart. Too consumed by the hate caused by her leaving me on my own. Too young to accept that death comes to us all.
It was hard to hold onto her love. Hard because I watched her body decay and rot away to nothingness. I watched to see the precious things she kept inside her and where she managed to hide them so I could do the same. I never found them. I watched as I picked vermin from her flesh and fought away carrion from her decaying form, until the day she was unrecognizable to me.
In particular, I watched her heart. Who knew what was inside there but I knew it was fragile because my mother spoke many times about how it had been broken. She said, “Sometimes you have to break a heart to find out how strong it really is.”
But when her heart became visible, I couldn’t see any cracks. I watched it as it bruised like an apple and disintegrated away. Nothing inside it but emptiness. I was hoping to see love—even though I had no idea what love looked like—or at least be privy to some secret that would explain the world to me. I found none of those things.
Her heart was a chamber for maggots. That was what my mother kept precious. Little disgusting creatures that fed off her body. They were everywhere. Stripping my mother of her beauty.
It grew harder to remember her face. I tried to recall the last time I saw her eyes or her smile but that memory was too distant in the past, lost in the forest of forgetfulness.
Occasionally I dreamt of my mother, standing in a room somewhere I had never been but yet felt so familiar to me, her face was a storm. Clouds roiled where features should have been. When she spoke, her voice was a swarm of black bees the drained the life of anything it touched. The bees blotted out the room and ate a pet dog I only had in dreams and never in real life, before coming for me.
I would run from the house and through the trees, down a dirt path that led to a black pond of brackish water. The water called to me and I was torn for the water was frightening, but so too were the bees who devoured trees on their way to eat me.
No real choice at all, I dove into the pond and discovered the water was actually tar and I was being pulled in, just as other creatures foolish enough to make the same mistake, the same fear-based choice as I had.
My nose and mouth filled with hot thick liquid, bitter molasses that scorched my insides, and melted me like butter on the griddle.
I woke alone in the dark, choking for air, my chest weighted with the heaviness of fear. My breathing was a thick, wet noise like someone sloshing through mud — or tar! — and I no longer felt safe in this world, so I did the only thing I could think to do.
I crawled inside the remains of my mother’s body and wrapped her tight around me so that I could be the thing she kept precious.
I burned my soul to ash but the pain paled in comparison to the terror that struck my heart like a match, anticipating her arrival and the tirade she would carry in tow. An unwarranted fear, as she was calm when she saw what I had done. Calm and nurturing. Soothing my pain with herbs and aromas, and each early morning during the hour of the wolf, she laid an ear on my back and listened as my soul mended itself.
She never spoke the words of disappointment aloud but it registered in her eyes. Although residing within my body, this wounded thing, this unwanted soul, did not belong to me. She had laid claim to it many years past, and in my despondency, I had taken liberties with her property and attempted to destroy it. Again.
The first time, I threw my soul into a sinkhole and allowed the ground to swallow it whole. I made her acquaintance when she plucked it from the soil like a tattered tuber. “I saw what you did,” she said. “And since you would so recklessly toss this precious thing away, it is no longer yours, but mine, agreed?” I nodded and she handed my soul back to me for safe keeping.
I honored our pact for a few years, caring for it within my limited capacity, but during a particularly nasty bout of depression, I tied heavy stones to my soul and pushed it off the sea wall. For a second time, she appeared, fishing my soul from the waves and scolded me, “You are charged with protecting this thing that is mine, do you understand?” Again, I nodded. Again, I lied.
“Why do you want this worthless soul when it has been crushed by the earth? Why do you want it when it has been drowned in the sea? Why do you want it when it has been set aflame like so much tinder?” I searched long and hard yet found no answer in her silence.
During the day, when she thought me preoccupied, she secreted herself in the shadows and slept. One day I followed her into the darkness and watched her body twitch from dreaming and listened as she muttered,
One more soul, once buried deep.
One more soul, in ocean steeped.
One more soul, by fire burned.
One more soul, of air returned.
Under her care, my soul grew healthier and it frightened me. I was pitilessly plagued and badgered by the phrase, One more soul, of air returned, that repeated in my mind’s ear until it turned dogged and cacophonous. But she was unaware of my inner torment, in fact, she was in an exceptionally good mood today, her voice almost a song, “I know you don’t see it, but you are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”
Today was the day. I felt it in my marrow. Something was destined to happen, something I most likely would not survive. I should have embraced this eerie premonition, for it was no secret that I did not want to continue in this manner, broken, detached and alone. But the choice of how and when I departed this wretched life was mine to make and mine alone. So, I stalled by distracting her with trivialities. “May I have more broth? Have you seen my shoes? No, not that pair, the other ones? Can we go for a walk?” If she knew my plan, her expression never showed sign. No request was too large or small on this day. She granted them all.
We strolled along the pathway in the park that led to the duck pond, a place we visited often during my convalescence. Picked, naturally, as not to arouse suspicion as I searched for the proper diversion in order to make my escape. But I was so wrapped in my own thoughts, I failed to notice that she was walking slower than usual today. “Can we rest a moment?” she asked as we neared the benches. “I am a little short of breath.”
Her breathing became a labored and raspy thing before it hitched and became lodged in her throat. When her face went dusky blue and she slid off the park bench, I panicked. The opportunity had presented itself and there I stood like an idiot, frozen. Entangled in the decision of whose life to save, or more accurately, whose death I could live with.
There was no real choice.
Her breathing was a trembling, liquid sound as I pressed my mouth to hers and exhaled, but instead of me breathing air into her body, I felt her sucking air from my lungs, and not just air…
I tried desperately to pull away but her thin, vise-like hands clamped down on the nape of my neck and held me firm in a kiss that was collapsing me. My hold on life became dim and futile, but before I slipped away into emptiness, I noticed the oddest thing: her belly began to swell.
Every fiber of my actuality was drawn into her, and my soul, the object I had forever been so reckless with, was systematically being stripped of concern, of negativity, of identity. I fell further and further into a darkness that pressed on me from all sides. So tight, so constricted. I was still unable to breathe but the sensation was somehow different now.
At the very moment when it seemed the darkness was about to claim me for eternity, there came a burst of light so bright as to cut my eyes. Thankfully something soon blotted out the light – a face, slowly coming into focus but I knew her before I saw her. From the moment I heard her soft cooing, “You are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”
About Of Air Returned: Delusion can be a scary thing, but it can also be wonderful at the same time. This piece was written in the early part of 1988, during a period when I swore I could do no wrong—it’s fine, you can laugh, I’ll just cringe quietly in the corner. I was heavily into both science and speculative fiction and had recently rediscovered the works of The Brothers Grimm, so I was determined to create my own collection of fairy tales for the—then—modern age.
Applying fairy tale rules, I could introduce the fantastic or the bizarre into any story with little or no explanation, and have all the characters in the tales accept everything as normal. Wishes as deus ex machina. Love as the ultimate cure-all. All the good stuff without all the fuss. Genius, right?
It would take the better part of six months for me to discover I wasn’t the groundbreaker I imagined myself to be. On the plus side, I followed my then idol, Harlan Ellison’s advice and was able to churn one of these puppies out a day.
Of course, most of them are unreadable. This one teeters on the edge. I kinda like it and it kinda embarrasses the hell out of me, but it was one of the three Rhyan Realm tales–yeah, I created my own sub-genre name for them, what of it?–that actually saw print… after 10-some-odd rejections.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss a few minutes goodbye.