The Next Now

Next Now

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

Traitors, all of them.

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

Clayton Jacobson was a corporate cheap date.

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

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

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

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

Clayton Jacobson did not take sick days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“Cigarettes? Because I don’t smoke.”

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

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

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

“Then what, for God’s sake?”

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

“For what?” Clayton spat.

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

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

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

“Who is that?” Clayton asked.

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

“How?”

“Heart attack.”

“But I didn’t feel anything.”

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

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

“No, no, no, no and no.”

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

“Well and truly dead, I am afraid.”

“And you are?”

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

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

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

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

“No, you lived your life accordingly.”

“So, this is it? No ceremony? No pomp and circumstance? Just heart attack, boom, I’m dead?”The man seemed confused. “Would you prefer there be a penance? A punishment?”

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

“Not exactly, but something more than this.”

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

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

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

“You drive a car?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Which were?”

“Labor and haste.”

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

“Like what?” the man asked.

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

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

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

“Where are we headed?” Clayton asked.

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

©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Runt

Runt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©1988 & 2017 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here it is in its original state.

The Trip Back Home

Trip Back Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know the words?”

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

“What do you do?”

“I’m a space marshal.”

“You mean…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2013 & 2017 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

 

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

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

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

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

Eulogy For Gurgi

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A man died today, a man whose name I never knew. We were given codenames, you see, and they became our identities. I was Eilonwy, named after the princess in my favorite book at the time, The Book of Three from The Chronicles of Prydain. And he was called Gurgi. I was a little girl when we met and the things I first remembered about him were that he always opened doors for me and he always carried a gun.

I never touched a door when Gurgi was around. He opened them when I approached and also as I exited. He spent a great deal of his time with me standing by doors or shooing me away from windows. I was too young to understand at the time that he was saving the life of a hot-tempered, stubborn and resolute little girl who happened to have royal blood coursing through her veins.

A fit man, ramrod straight back, dressed in a neatly pressed grey suit that he wore like a uniform, Gurgi was always polite even when I tested his patience demanding to play with his guns. He had so many of them. Mostly revolvers, with the occasional pump shotgun or automatic rifle. His belts were decorated with bullets and small pouches, compartments that held first aid kits, anti-venom and antidotes for most known poisons.

Gurgi would talk with me after the room had been secured and measures put into place so that my safety was insured. He told me of his many professions before finding employment with my father. A physician on his homeworld, he was unable to secure a medical license on Earth and forced to find work as an electrician, a skill taught to him by his father. A skill that introduced him to my father.

After being properly vetted, Gurgi was hired to rewire our home and during that time, the house came under attack and I was separated from my family. Men came to me, to hurt me, to abduct me, to possibly even kill me. Thankfully I never had the opportunity to discover which, as Gurgi happened upon the men who happened upon me and dispatched them. He took a gun off one of my attackers and shot them all until they no longer moved. A skill taught to him by his mother. A skill that impressed my mother.

On the rare occasion, he spoke about the life he left behind. His wife, whose name I sadly couldn’t remember, was famous in their colony for the roast she prepared for the Feast of Xoncha, a planetwide day of life appreciation. She roasted bamen but never relied on shop-bought, insisting instead on raising her own from pups that were well fed, cared for and loved just shy of becoming pets. Gurgi’s role in the process included rendering the bamen incapacitated, exsanguination, scalding and dehairing, evisceration and dividing the carcass in half longitudinally. The last one weighed five hundred and sixty kilos and was simply too large for his wife to handle alone.

I asked him if his wife served the bamen with its head.

“Of course!” Gurgi replied. “The tongue, cheeks, and ears were served as the appetizer with dipping sauces made from blood and innards.” I crinkled my nose and he burst into raucous laughter. It was the only time he both laughed and saddened when he reminisced about his life before me. It would be years before I understood that only love and nostalgia had the power to make you feel both happiness and sorrow at the same time.

He took breaks between the tellings to smoke. Out of necessity, not habit. In order to exist in our atmosphere, his lungs required an intake of a combination of elements that could only be found in the smoky by-product of a chemical reaction. He always made sure another man stood guard as he left the area to light his pipe, even though I told him I was quite capable of taking care of myself.

One recent evening when Gurgi stepped out into the garden to prolong his life, a number of people disguised as guards cut power to the house, slipped through father’s security systems and attempted to kidnap me. Gurgi hadn’t finished tamping down the compound in his pipe before he whirled to the sound of my muffled cries.

Glass exploded as two shots ripped through the sliding patio door and tore jagged wounds into two of the faux guards, one in the neck, the other in the eye. Gurgi crashed through the door in a shower of broken glass and before he could react, a baton from his blindside whipped down hard on his forearm and his gun went spinning across the floor.

He flung his arm back brutally as he spun, a wild swing — and a lucky one. His elbow smashed the nose of the attacker behind him who dropped like a stone. A heel to the Adam’s apple made sure the intruder stayed down.

Gurgi turned and locked eyes with the woman who held me by the throat and used me as a shield. He assessed but didn’t move. His stance was wide, his hands flexed.

My captor wrapped my hair around her hand, balled it into a fist, yanked my head back, and placed the muzzle of her pistol on my exposed neck. Gurgi dove, tackling us both to the ground. A shot went off before the gun skittered out of the woman’s grip.

The woman was agile, nimble. She spun away from Gurgi, and they both scrambled to their feet and faced each other, circling. The woman drew a knife from her belt and with cat-like reflexes leapt forward. The blade caught the light as it arced down and sliced into Gurgi’s arm.

I scurried to a corner of the room and grabbed a gun and aimed it in the direction of the two circling shapes in the dark, unable to get a clear shot and not wanting to shoot Gurgi by mistake.

“Run!” Gurgi yelled through a tight throat. He hadn’t smoked his compound so every breath he took now was slowly killing him. “Go!”

I hesitated, my heart pounding painfully, worried that I’d make the wrong choice. Too afraid to pull the trigger, and resisting the urge to turn and run.

The moment Gurgi shot me a sideward glance, the woman feinted to the side, then spun around, using her canted balance to put weight behind her thrust as she lunged. Gurgi grabbed her knife hand but the momentum of her pivot crashed her into him. They slammed into the wall with teeth-rattling violence, furiously grappling. The woman drove a knee into Gurgi’s midsection. He exhaled a grunt and nearly fainted.

She struck him with her free hand, a backhanded fist to the temple and followed with another knee to his stomach. Gurgi’s legs crumpled beneath him. The woman pounced on top of Gurgi, straddling him. He blocked her fatal knife thrust, but the blade bore down directly over Gurgi’s throat.

The pair were locked in a death embrace, but the woman had the advantage. She pressed her body on the blade and Gurgi struggled beneath her. Slowly, inexorably, the blade inched down until the tip pierced his skin and drew blood.

With the last of his strength, Gurgi bucked and threw the woman off balance. I panicked and slid the gun to him. The woman recovered quickly and brought the knife down on him again. A shot rang out. The back of the woman’s head exploded outward. She blinked once in disbelief, tugged weakly on Gurgi, then dropped to the floor.

I ran to Gurgi, who shivered and convulsed, as he fought every instinct to draw a breath. I fumbled through the compartment on his belt where he kept his pipe. It was empty. The garden! I raced outside and scoured the grass until I found where he had dropped the pipe. When I returned with it, it was too late. He was dead.

He will be sorely missed—both by his family and by his many friends, like me, whom he helped and inspired. But as he rests from his life’s long labor, this great bodyguard and friend should know that he made this princess proud. The world was most definitely a better place because of a man I only knew as Gurgi.

©2011 & 2017 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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About Eulogy For Gurgi: This started as a very vague idea ten years ago, after reading a novel in which the heroine was forced to undergo a transformation after the loss of her protector. I wondered what would make someone of royal blood want to become a bodyguard? It was such an unusual status/occupation that the idea stayed with me for years.

The idea simmered in my unconscious mind as I read piles of crime novels. It toyed with me as I watched the myriad twists on the crime procedural genre play out on television. It teased me mercilessly until I decided I wanted to take one of the twenty story snippets I had laying around and finish it. The princess bodyguard idea emerged from the pile and demanded a fairy tale happy ending suitable for a princess.

I wrote fast and ended up with a first draft with a gaping plot problem. It took me a month to figure out how to fix it. I was sitting in a meeting at work when the solution suddenly popped into my head. I scribbled the idea in the margin of my meeting notes and re-wrote the first chapter that night.

It will be a novel someday.

This is the teaser I wrote to get my juices flowing.

Wishing White

Woman-face-black-and-white-283819715

Connie screamed and hurdled down the flight of stairs like she was on fire. She made a run for the front door, fingers frantically fumbled at the night latch, deadbolt and lockset. Head on a swivel, she tossed panicked glances over her shoulder at the middle-aged black man bounding down the stairs toward her.

The final lock tumbled, she grabbed the knob and tugged but the man rushed up from behind and slammed the door shut. He spun the whippet-thin woman around as if she weighed nothing, took her by the shoulders and pressed her against the door. Connie let out an ear-piercing screech that he cut short by clamping his massive hand over her mouth.

“Stop it, do you hear me? I’m not trying to put on a show for the neighbors, so I need you to stop screaming. Just. Stop.” He held her there for a long moment and leaned in uncomfortably close so she could see the seriousness of his intent. When she calmed down a bit, “I’ll take my hand away if you promise not to make a sound, deal?”

Connie nodded her blonde head helplessly. The man removed his hand and she stifled the urge to yell again. She tried to back away from his face that was far too close for her liking but there was nowhere to go.

“L-let me go. Please, let me go.” Terror cracked her voice.

Still pressing her against the door, the man reached over and secured the locks. “You can’t leave, not yet.”

“Don’t hurt me, mister! I-I’ll cooperate…do anything you want, I swear!”

Connie flinched in revulsion when he reached for her and lightly brushed the hair from her face. His expression softened. “You don’t have to be afraid of me, Sarah, I would never hurt you.”

“Sarah? You’ve got me mixed up with somebody else. I’m Connie, Connie—“ she struggled to remember her last name. Tip of her tongue. Something that began with a W.

“No, you’re Sarah. You were born May 4th, your favorite color is plain yellow though you tell people it’s chartreuse, your favorite book is Beloved, you love okra, God knows why, and you have a birthmark on your—“

Connie struggled with this. The things he said, the things she could remember were true but how did he know? And why couldn’t she remember her last name? W-I– it just wasn’t coming. “Look, mister, I don’t know what’s going on here, but—”

“Stop calling me mister, my name is Kurt.”

“Kurt.” She spat his name out like a curse.

“You know, maybe you’re right. Maybe you don’t know what’s going. I didn’t consider all this might be new to you.”

“What are you talking about? What do you want from me?”

“You said you’d do anything for me. Did you mean it? Anything?”

Anything suddenly seemed like a dangerous concept her. “I don’t know you and I’ve never done anything to you. Please don’t hurt me.”

“Don’t you see you don’t have to be afraid of me?” Kurt scanned her eyes, searching for something. It unnerved Connie. “It’s not what you think. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want you to do me a favor.”

“What kind of favor?”

“My wife, she’s sick, very sick. I mean, she’s been sick for a long time, only I didn’t know it, but now it’s worse…and I’m so lonely.”

No. This was going someplace bad. “What? I can’t—‘”

Kurt took hold of her tiny wrist and pulled her to the staircase. “Yes, you can. Come with me upstairs.”

“No, please–!”

“You promised to do anything I wanted as long as I didn’t hurt you, right? Have I hurt you?”

“No.” At least she didn’t think he did. Surely she would have remembered that, right?

“Then do what I ask and I’ll let you go. But you can never tell anybody about this, understand?”

“But you’ll let me go? You promise?”

“You have my word.”

The two walked up the flight of stairs, Kurt in front dragging a reluctant Connie behind.

“Where are we going?” Connie asked although she guessed the answer.

“To the bedroom.”

She thought she could be strong, go through with it, let him have his way, but the closer they got to the bedroom door, the more Connie resisted. “I don’t want to go in there!”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t belong here!”

“Yes, you do. And if you quiet down and listen to your inner voice, it’ll tell you you’re doing the right thing.” Kurt opened the bedroom door with his free hand and gestured inside.

“But–”

“Step into the room.” He gave her a gentle shove.

The room smelled of the instant after a lightning strike, the air rich with the scent of ozone. Connie entered cautiously and froze. The man hadn’t been lying. There was someone here, a black woman in the bed, roughly her same age, wearing an identical sundress. She would have thought the woman dead if not for the slight rise and fall of her chest. “Is that–?“

“My wife,” Kurt nodded and closed the door behind him, guarding it.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Hate,” he grunted.

“I don’t understand.”

“She was the victim of a hate crime.”

“What happened?” Connie asked.

“She was on her way home from work one night,” he answered. “It was late and normally I meet her at the train station, but that night I got caught up running errands. What’s funny is I remember not being too worried about it. I mean, it’s a quiet neighborhood and nothing bad ever happens here. But that night, she ran into four white teenagers on a stroll, who, I guess, were just looking for trouble.”

Kurt’s face flushed, his hands clenched and unclenched in an unconscious gesture of pure rage. “And they beat her. For no good reason other than the color of her skin, they beat her. She never hurt a soul in her life and they beat her to the point where I barely recognized her. They beat her…and they left her laying in the street like she was trash.”

“Oh my God, mister, that shouldn’t happen to anybody and I’m sorry it was your wife, really I am, but I don’t understand what this has to do with me.”

“Look at her. Can’t you see it?”

“What, that she needs medical help and maybe you do, too?” She regretted the last part before it finished clearing her lips.

“I was hoping seeing her up close might clear things up.”

Connie glanced at the woman’s face. “No. I’m still in the dark.”

“And me? You don’t remember me at all?”

“I’ve never laid eyes on you before.”

“Then how do I know so much about you?”

“I don’t know, maybe you’re a maniac-stalker-psycho with a taste for white meat?”

“Don’t. Don’t say that,” Kurt grimaced.

“Why? Because the truth hurts?”

“It’s not true!”

“Then why am I here?” She asked.

“Look around you. Doesn’t any of this bring back memories?”

“Why should it?”

“You lived–we lived here for years. I’m your goddam husband.”

“What? I – I would never marry somebody like you.”

“Meaning what?”

“You’re black,” she said, not bothering to spare his feelings. She couldn’t help how she felt.

“Sarah! Stop it! Stop. Please, stop. I can’t take this right now.”

“I told you before, I’m not Sarah! My name is Connie, Connie Wil- Wilk–”

“Wilkinson, that’s your maiden name. Your middle name is Connie, and you hate it. You were named after an aunt you hated because she beat you when your mother wasn’t around.”

“I don’t have an aunt named Connie.”

“In fact, Sarah isn’t even your birth name. It’s Bonnie. And that was just another reason to hate your middle name. Going through school with the name Bonnie Connie was torture, so you used the name of your favorite aunt, Sarah, and legally changed it when you were old enough.”

Connie waved it off. “This is ridiculous. I’m leaving now.”

“No, not just yet!”

“You said I could leave once I did what you wanted me to do. You wanted me to see your wife. Well, I saw, now I’m gone!”

“No, you didn’t really see, otherwise you wouldn’t be acting like this. Maybe– maybe you need to look closer…at her face.”

Connie stared at the woman and this time something nagged at her, something familiar.

“Your face, my thane, is as a book…” Kurt recited.

The tiniest fraction of a memory tickled her mind. “What was that?”

“You know. Finish it.”

As if an unseen force had taken control of her mouth, Connie spoke. “Your face, my thane, is as a book, where men may read strange matters.”

“Shakespeare. You used to say that all the time because I have a horrible poker face.” He smiled. “You remember that, don’t you?”

“No. Yes. You’re confusing me!”

“All right, let’s forget about that for now. I’d like to ask you a question, though, before you leave. Is that okay?”

“Ask.”

“Do you believe in wishes?”

“What, you mean like genie-rub-a-lamp type stuff?”

“I mean the power of a wish. Do you believe that a person could make a wish with all her heart and soul and if she left no room for doubt, not one iota, that that wish could come true?”

“I don’t know, maybe. Depends on what she wished for.”

“To be white.”

It took a moment for the scope of it all to register with Connie. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. You don’t think that I’m–“

“The physical embodiment of my Sarah’s wish.”

“That’s crazy.” She shook her head.

“Crazy? Okay, where do you live?”

Connie pondered that a moment, another fact that eluded her. “I’m not telling you!”

“You can’t tell me because you don’t know. Come on, ask yourself, if you don’t live here, then why are you in this house? How did you get here?”

Again, memory was not her ally. “I don’t know. You’ve got me all spun around and nothing’s making sense right now, including this bullshit story about your wife wishing herself white. I mean, what sense does that make? Why would she want to be white? Aren’t you people big on that pride thing?”

“You people?”

“Yeah. Black, colored, African-American, people of color, whatever you’re calling yourself these days.”

“I can’t believe you come from Sarah.”

“Because I don’t.”

“It’s like everything that made her unique was just stripped from you. Not only her color but her heritage as well.” Disgust played on Kurt’s face. “And she thought being white might entitle her to a better life.”

“Why?”

“I wish I knew. She took the attack hard, hell, we both did. But even after her body healed, her spirit and her mind never did. She began to see the world as an ugly, hateful place, especially for people of color. She started to pull away from me and became more and more distant. And in the depths of her despair, she made a wish.”

“To be white. To be me, essentially, right?”

“Look, I don’t blame you for not believing me, I probably wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes.”

“Seen what?”

“Sarah make the wish. I stood here and watched you rise up out of her body like steam. And as insane as it sounds, you became solid right before my eyes. You simply popped into existence, took one look at me, and ran out of the room screaming bloody murder. I’m lucky I caught you when I did. If I’d been one second slower, you would have been gone, probably forever.”

“Okay, let’s approach this from a different angle. Even if I were to believe you, which I don’t…so–?”

Kurt was confused. “So?”

“So, your wife made the wish, right? I mean, no one forced her, am I correct?”

“No, no one forced her.”

“And you said yourself, it’s what she wanted, right, with every iota of her being?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you holding me here? If this is God’s will, if this is her wish–“

Tears flowed down Kurt’s cheeks. “Because she’s going to die soon, I just know it. I was hoping that maybe with you in the room, she’d wake up long enough, for me to tell her that I love her, for me to say goodbye.”

Connie wanted to console Kurt, but it was difficult, strange and uncomfortable for her. “Hey, hey, don’t do that, okay? I’m sure she knows all that and who knows, maybe she’ll get better? We can call a doctor or something.”

“Why don’t you just go?” he said, turning back to her. “Go live your half life.”

“Half life?”

”Not even that. You’re just a shade of a person. You’ve got no family, no ties in this world. Because it’s not your life, it’s hers. And mine.”

“Then we’re done here? I can leave now?”

“Sarah…“

“Connie,” she corrected.

“I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to my wife. I know she’s in there somewhere and if you can hear me, honey, you’re wrong for thinking that being white will entitle you to a better life,” he said over his shoulder and walked over to the bed.

“You think this body’s going to have an easier existence? Good luck to you. You’ll need it because the very best part of you is lying on this bed. And when my Sarah passes, you’ll be none the richer for it. You’ll discover a gaping hole in your soul that you’ll never be able to fill even if you live a hundred lifetimes. So yeah, we’re done,” Kurt said in a low voice. “Now, why don’t you get the hell out of my house.”

Kurt sat beside Sarah in bed. He held her hand gently and leaned in close to her face. “You’re not the only one with a wish, you know. I wish that I could turn back time to that day and make it so the attack never took place. I’d convince you to call in sick and we’d play hookie and spend the entire day in bed and I’d do my best to show you how much I really love you. But there’s no chance of that one coming true, is there? Because unlike yours, it’s not my one true wish. You are.”

Connie made it as far as the doorway before she stopped and sighed, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

For reasons she couldn’t explain, Connie found herself kneeling on the side of the bed opposite Kurt. “One wish. All my heart and soul. No room for doubt. Not one iota.”

She took Sarah’s free hand and knew at once it was a mistake. Pain split her head like an ax. Her vision swirled and swam in streamers, her stomach clenched and heaved sending a surge of bile to the back of her throat. Dots of light raised from her exposed skin like goose flesh. She screamed and the bedroom exploded in a white light bright enough to cut the eye. When it faded, the scent of ozone filled the air.

Connie was gone.

Sarah’s fingers twitched and slowly wrapped around to squeeze Kurt’s hand. “Your face, my thane, is as a book, where men may read strange matters,” she said in a quiet voice.

Kurt looked up into Sarah’s face, her eyes slightly opened.

“Are those tears for me?” she smiled, struggling to sit up.

“Sarah? You’re back?”

“I never left. Because you wouldn’t let me go. You stopped me from making the biggest mistake of my life. I’m so sorry I hurt you. I–“ she sighed. “Thank you.”

Kurt pulled his wife into him and held her with every ounce of love he possessed. But he couldn’t push reality out of his mind. He had seen a side of her that he never knew existed. A contempt, the seed of racism she held, and he knew it wasn’t over by a long shot. It would happen again. And for the first time, he wasn’t sure his love was greater than or even equal to her self-hatred.

But in this moment, he made the decision to let that future take care of itself. He was happy to have her back home, warts and all.

©2001 & 2017 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Wishing White: This story originally began life as a short screenplay I wrote during my brief stint hanging around a small group of actors and crew looking to shoot their own material.

One of three shorts that were written overnight, I can’t tell you how inspired I was to produce new material on short notice. The air was rich with creativity.

It was also filled with petty squabbling, some of which I sadly was the cause of, so this was one of the projects that were rehearsed but never shot.

It came into being because of a conversation with a friend that remained in the back of my mind, in which she said, “I wish I was white for a day just to see how it felt.” Which of course sparked a conversation.

While I don’t necessarily agree with her thought process on the subject, I can respect that it was her wish and she felt comfortable enough to share it with me.

As she explained her logic to me, this was the scenario that ran through my mind.

Strong Roots Amongst The Clay

Clay Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©1989 & 2017 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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

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

Then one day a story was relayed to me about a coworker at a retail job that I absolutely hated and the first thought that popped into my mind—after showing proper concern for my coworker, of course—was to give my fairy tale story a spin.

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

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

Beached

Sky Whale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roland came upon an enormous whale beached on the surf.

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

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

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

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

let me die

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

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

thank you

And died.

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

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

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

He released his grip on life that very same evening.

***

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

©1988 & 2017 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Beached: Growing up I created my own characters for my favorite TV shows and fantasized about how I could make the story different and in some cases better. When I returned to reality, the characters and plots were radically different from where I had begun.

There was a teacher I had a crush on, I didn’t have her in any of my classes and I can’t recall how we became acquainted but she always made time for me between classes. Anyway, she once told me there hadn’t been a new plot created in over two thousand years, but it’s the way the writer perceived the plot and created the characters that made the story unique.

Most of my work is inspired by the wisps of dreams and despite keeping a dream journal—that I don’t update quite often as I should—I don’t remember the precise details surrounding how I’m immersed in the story I wind up writing about. If I’m able to remember anything at all it’s usually only one aspect or detail that vividly sticks in my mind.

This single aspect becomes a what-if question that I strive to answer—the what-ifs of life are the basis of the best stories every told.

So, I do with my dreams the same as I did with the TV shows, in this case, I took a dream about being stranded on a strip of sand out in the middle of nowhere and this is what it became.

One Hell Of An Offer

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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.

“What? Why?”

“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…”

Modestine nodded, “Underprivileged kids. Twelve years.”

“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.”

“From Hell?”

“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.”

“By whom?”

“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…

Sally forth and be weighing out your options ’cause heaven ain’t for everybodyingly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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The Folds of Love

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When the delivery truck pulls up outside the shop, neither of us look out the window ’cause we know exactly who it is. 12:15 pm on the dot means Department of Tissue Waste Removal. Light load today. Driver only schleps in one body bag.

“You’re up, Mickey.” Jhonni nods my way. “Snag ‘n tag salvageables and dip the rest.”

Mickey. Only other person to ever call me that was my pops. I hated when he did it and I damn sure hate that my boss somehow exposed that raw nerve. He only does it to get a rise outta me, but I ain’t bitin’ so I let it slide this time. My mistake? Tellin’ baldilocks here I prefer bein’ called Michelle.

Snag ‘n tag means I gotta dissect the corpse for salvagables, which are any organs that ain’t completely shot to shit and dip whatever’s left over in the chemical vat for DNA repurposin’ — usually either cosmetic skin grafts, lifelike mannequins for movie stunts or some other bioengineerin’ bullshit I don’t really understand.

I sigh, chuck the rest of the deck onto my game of solitaire — cards weren’t cooperating, no how — and walk over to the body bag. I ain’t squeamish about dead bodies or puttin’ the blade to ’em, but I do have one hangup…

I hear myself mutterin’ before I have a chance to stop it, “Don’tbeadudedon’tbeadudedon’tbeadude…” and when I unzip the bag, guess what? A dude. So’s we’re clear, I gots no prob flaying a man, it’s just that chick thing that does me in. You gals know what I’m talking about.

Every man a woman meets, she sizes him up and decides if she’d throw him one. Sex, I mean. Young, old, fat, skinny, short, tall… alive or dead, you rate ’em. Would you do ’em, could you do ’em and under what circumstances? A dare? Boredom? For the story? Only me, I got this vivid imagination, see, and when I come across a mutilated dude, I see myself having sex with him. And no, I ain’t no nekkidphiliac, they’re very much alive in my scenarios, just all banged up, pardon the expression.

This one, Ethan Garner, by the toe tag, was tore up from the floor up. Anythin’ worth savin’ would be an innard and not one that’d bring high market value, either. Somethin’ nickel and dime like an appendix, spleen, or some shit.

The fluorescents buzz overhead and sweat breaks out on my forehead as I hear Ethan groan beneath me in my mind’s eye. Think of a dude I know, think of a dude I know. No good. Where’s my iPod? I need a distraction.

The cause of death is listed as Industrial Misadventure which meant poor old Ethan was mangled by machinery, probably one of them press and fold jobbers. His body looks like a bedsheet fresh out the package, tucked up all tight into a tidy square. How the hell am I going to get inside to harvest organs?

I put a little elbow grease into it, dig my fingers into a crease — an armpit, maybe? — and try to pry it apart. Bones creak and skin pulls apart from skin with the sound of moist velcro. I’m sweatin’ buckets now, cause in my head, Ethan is givin’ me the workout of a lifetime, only I can’t see his face so it’s like doing it with a Hot Pocket with a hard-on. Focus, Mickey! Focus! Damn, now that bastard’s got me doin’ it.

With the back of my blade, I scrape away the dried blood, which there’s plenty of, and I find a seam. That’s right, a goddammed seam! Now, I wasn’t exactly top of my class in Biology, but I’m kinda certain the human body don’t come equipped with seams. But I’m curious about this so I make my first cut along Ethan’s unnatural hem.

My fingers move into the cut and part skin. I tilt the swing arm lamp to get a better view and the light catches somethin’ that makes my stomach hitch. Whoever bagged this on scene fucked up big time, which I suppose is kinda-sorta understandable, given the unusual nature of the cause of death, but if I reported it, it’d probably cost that slob their job. The Office of Forensic Affairs forgives a ton of infractions, unfortunately, body count ain’t one of ’em. This was incorrectly listed as a single, when Ethan here, is wrapped around a whole other body.

The second body’s a smaller one, a girl, judging by the tiny pink-painted fingernails, and in the middle of a splatter of brain matter is a child-sized tiara, pressed between them like a flower in a book. The sex visions with Ethan stop instantly and my stomach heaves as I try not to hurl.

My jumpsuit is dripping with sweat and it clings to my clammy body to the point it makes my skin crawl. And then my trusty dusty brain, with its wonderful imagination, kicks into overdrive and I play the story of their final moments.

Ethan works — worked — works in laundry services. It’s bring your daughter to work day. Maybe he’s a weekend dad that doesn’t get to spend enough quality time with his baby girl and he fights the court order and pushes for this until he’s able to negotiate terms.

So he brings her to his job and she insists on wearing the little princess halloween costume, the one with the tiara, and he can’t say no because she is his little princess. Things are going great and he tells her to be careful and stick close to him, but he gets distracted for a moment, maybe by his boss about special instructions on a rush job or somethin’.

The little girl tries to be good and listen to her daddy, but curiosity gets the better of her and she climbs on a piece of machinery she shouldn’t climbin’ and Ethan’s dad-alarm goes off and he spots her, losing her balance and he runs for her… runs and dives with no care for his own safety and he manages to grab hold of her but it’s too late and they both fall into the machine before his coworkers can hit the shut off switch.

So, Ethan does the only thing he knows to do… he wraps himself around the little girl and folds her in his love, as the machine does what it’s designed to do.

It probably ain’t even in the same neighborhood as the actual events, but even though my story is most likely bullshit, it’s still real to me. it’s what I choose to believe.

And it breaks my heart ’cause that’s how I wish it was with me and my pop, but after moms died, we can’t be in the same room for ten minutes without it breakin’ into some big production. I know he means well, but who the hell is he to give me instructions on how I should live my life? Holder the Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition Lifetime Achievement Award, is who.

I carefully harvest the tiara and clean body residue out of every nook and cranny. Then I place the plastic jewelry on a towel and carefully fold it into the best presentable package I can manage.

“Fuck’re you doing over there, Mickey?” Jhonni says over his shoulder.

And suddenly I can’t do this anymore, not just Ethan and this nameless little girl, but any of it. I peel the sopping wet jumpsuit off me and throw it at my boss. “Quitin’ is what I’m doin’.” Correction, my ex-boss.

I take the tiara package over to the phone and search the directory for Forensic Affairs. “And it’s Michelle, by the way, you fat piece of garbage. Call me outside my name again and somebody’ll be unzippin’ you from one of those bags.”

I expect a response, an argument, a something… but he just sits there and takes it quietly. Makes me think this isn’t the first time somethin’ like this has happened.

I dial the number. Do I feel sorry for the person about to lose their job? Sure, but fuck ’em. There’re more important matters at hand. There’s a family that needs reunitin’.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make another call after this one. It has been a while since I spoke to the old man, after all.

Sally forth and be folding them what you care for into your lovingly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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Love’s Love Lost

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Once, in the gloomy and perpetually rainy City of Alphabet, there was born a girl who was said to be the living embodiment of love. From the doctor’s first slap, the girl giggled instead of crying and flushed the neighborhood of all its gray. Her smile was a bottomless thing, its roots branching up from her soul, and it beamed so brightly as to cause blindness if it caught you unawares. Her large jade eyes radiated an innocence so pure it momentarily took your breath away. Given her birthright, she was destined to have but one mate throughout her lifetime and that person would live a charmed life ever after.

Or so the story went.

An urban legend to most, Tyrone, son of William, believed the girl existed and based on the age of the story’s telling, surely had to be an adult now. He also was convinced it was his mission to locate the girl and put an end to love, once and for all.

Tyrone worked fingers to the bone for years and all the wealth he amassed was spent on all the matchmakers who claimed to have an in with the living embodiment of love. Most were scammers, of course, the rest were simply delusional and bestowed the honor upon the wrong women. Only one woman was genuine. She knew the embodiment’s true identity and so deep was her jealousy that she gladly agreed to arrange a match if it meant obliterating the anomaly from the face of the planet.

When Tyrone met the matchmaker in a single occupancy room off Delancey Street, he thought of all the people he had ever encountered, this woman was the flipside of the living embodiment of love’s coin. Emaciated with a rat’s nest for hair, her features were packed together tightly as if God had pinched her face when she was born and left it to set that way.

“Your fee has been paid in full. Why have you not set up the introduction?” Tyrone asked.

“You are not ready.” the matchmaker spat the words like a cawing crow. “As long as you wear your true intentions like armor, she will dismiss you outright.”

“If I pretend, she will spot the ruse instantly. I am sure she has developed the ability to detect friendly facades. I will approach her as a man scorned, which is the truth, and win her over from there.”

“Interesting. And how do you mean to kill her?”

“Those were not my words. I mean to put an end to love.”

“The difference being?”

“I intend to woo her, make her love me, and when she is at her happiest moment, I will argue with her, break her heart with harsh words and hurtful actions. And I will not let her leave, and I will not stop, not until the shine dulls in her eyes and the smile becomes a rootless tree, and even then I will continue until she withdraws, from our relationship, from her happiness, from the world.”

“That will take years if it ever happens at all.”

“It will. I am patient.” Tyrone said.

“But I doubt you are strong enough.”

“Then refund my money. I will find her on my own.”

The matchmaker leaned in closer and eyed Tyrone head to toe. His nose was full of her scent, decaying food left to stew in its own rancid juices.

“A deal is a deal,” she said. “So we are clear, I will make the introduction and my part will be done. Should you fail in your attempts, there will be no returning of the fee paid, understood?”

Tyrone nodded and she led the way out of the room on Delancey. Under the cloak of night, they dipped down into a subway station marked, Closed For Restoration. Past the turnstile and empty platform onto the train tracks. Tyrone masked his apprehension as he gave the third rail a wide berth and occasionally peered over his shoulder at the sound of distant train rumblings.

Between stations, they encountered a society of people, homeless and long abandoned by the surface world, who barred their path. Tyrone thought he would have to fight his way through, but the matchmaker had things well in hand. She mumbled something at the leader, a password perhaps, and pulled a tin of potted meat from her handbag and placed it in his hand. They carefully waded through a field of displaced people’s bedding and cooking stations until they finally reached the service passageway that led to a room not much larger than the one they just left.

In the room were two chairs that faced each other. The matchmaker sat in one and gestured for Tyrone to sit across from her.

“If this is some sort of trick…”

The matchmaker waived off the threat. “She will be here, I promise.”

“Why here?” Tyrone asked.

“There is an interesting story behind that.” The matchmaker cleared her throat and spat a gob of phlegm to the side. “It seems the gift of unconditional love that Arianna was born with — that is the name of the woman you seek, Arianna — the gift that flowed freely from her, the gift that touched everyone within her sphere of influence and filled them with ecstasy, proved too much to bear for most people.”

“Are you telling me people fell too much in love?” Tyrone asked.

“To the point of delirium. It drove them mad. Imagine the feeling when you have loved someone or something in your life, more than anything else in the world, loved it so much that it hurt. Now multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, even. Never any hatred, or indifference, only a love for everything that increases exponentially the longer you remain in Arianna’s presence.”

“I never considered that.”

“Most do not.”

“So what happened?” Tyrone leaned forward in his seat.

“Nothing like a good story, eh?” The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth curled slightly. “Arianna’s parents, immune to her gift, fearing for their daughter’s safety as well as their own, moved in the small of the night to parts unknown, somewhere far removed from society at large, and remained in seclusion.”

The matchmaker stopped talking. Tyrone waited, thinking she paused for dramatic effect, but after nearly ten minutes of silence, asked, “Is that it?”

“All the true bits. The rest is apocrypha. I figured that would not interest you.”

Tyrone shrugged, his disinterest unconvincing, “Since we are here…”

“Well, the way I heard it, the family managed to get along fine. True they were isolated but they were also together and safe and Arianna’s constant state of happiness helped the situation be less stressful. Their lives remained uneventful… until the day their daughter reached puberty.

“On the twenty-second day of the seventh month of her fourteenth year, Arianna began growing distant, her once innocent eyes darkened and the luster faded from her smile. The gift once thought to be good was slowly transforming from its former sham and ruse into the corrupt curse it truly was.”

Tyrone’s brow knotted. “So she is not actually a child of love?”

“Why would you think that? Arianna is the physical embodiment of love. At birth, she was the love that was new and innocent and when she entered womanhood, she became the other side of love, the dark side none of us admit to feeling or acting upon.”

“Whichever side she represents when I make her mine, I will cause it to wilt away to nothingness.”

“Do you have an alternate plan?”

“A what?””Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”

“Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”

“The only way she would find out is if you tell her…”

“Oh, I will not have to tell her anything… you already have.”

It took Tyrone a few moments to piece together her meaning. “You are… ?”

The matchmaker spread her arms wide. “The genuine article.”

“But you are…”

“A hag? Not at all what you expected? It is the only bit the urban legend got wrong. I was born an ugly child, but people viewed me through the eyes of unconditional love, so my looks did not matter.”

“You tricked me!”

“How? Hello, Tyrone, I am Arianna, pleased to meet you. Consider yourself introduced. Now, live up to your word.” Arianna said as she moved from her chair and sat on Tyrone’s lap. “Woo me and put an end to love. I dare you.”

Tyrone wanted to push her off, but perhaps he hadn’t really wanted that at all. Up close, Arianna wasn’t that horrible to look at. Her mottled skin was actually clear and smooth. Her nose once bent and crooked, appeared aquiline now. Her lips, full and delicious. Her build, athletic.

“Something the matter?” Arianna asked.

Tyrone’s heart beat in his throat. “What are you doing to me?”

“Giving you a taste. I can control the power now. Love, hate, passion, jealousy, to greater and lesser degrees.”

Tyrone tried to scowl but his face wouldn’t cooperate. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Offer you the opportunity to become my mate,” said Arianna. She climbed off his lap and drew her power back into herself, allowing Tyrone to see her in her true form again. “If legend is to be believed, a charmed life awaits you.”

“And if I decline?”

“Then you join the loveless.” Arianna gestured toward the door.

“You mean the people we passed… ?”

“Men and women, not much different than yourself, unable to deal with heartbreak or rejection. Selfish people who, being denied love, sought to prevent others from experiencing it.”

“Why do they mill about below ground so lost?” Tyrone asked.

“They were unable to fulfill their supposed heart’s desire of removing my influence from the world and refused my offer of companionship. Once you turn your back on love, what else is there?” Arianna drained the dark room entirely of love and let him ponder the notion as he sank deep into loneliness and wallowed in abandon and despair.

After an eternity of brooding silence, Tyrone spoke up, “I… accept your offer. I will become your mate.”

“And will you woo me, make me love you, and when I am at my happiest, will you break my heart and make me withdraw from the world?”

“That I will indeed, even if it takes the rest of my life.”

“Challenge accepted.” Arianna shook the man’s hand firmly.

Contract sealed, he put his plan into effect by telling the living embodiment of love his story. Of the woman he loved, that he did nothing to deserve but was blessed with nonetheless. Of their happiness together. Of the sharp knife of cruel fate that cut their time short. Of the anguish that swallowed him whole the instant her body was committed to the ground.

And when his tale was through, Tyrone, son of William, pulled her into his embrace and kissed her with every ounce of his intent and Arianna was forced to admit she felt a slight tingle. They battled for years in this game of hearts, each giving as good as they got, and if he actually succeeded putting an end to her, it was with kindness. Despite the competition that continued to their dying days, the couple wound up living happily ever after.

Oh, and they had one child, who was said to be the living embodiment of peace… but that’s a story for another day.

Sally forth and be careful that the love you kill isn’t your owningly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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