“She’s a straight up, dyed in the wool, city witch.”
“Oh, come on. You’re kidding me, right?”
“Okay, then how do you reckon she’s a witch?”
“Are you blind? She routinely walks a mutated hellhound after midnight, Ubers dragons to get her witchy ass around town, that penthouse suite of hers is made entirely of gingerbread, and all the children in her apartment complex have mysteriously gone missing since she moved in.”
“Sounds more like wild speculation and coincidence than actual proof. You wouldn’t happen to be jealous, would you?”
“Jealous of what? Her unhealthy appetite for our future generation?”
“That perhaps people find her a little more interesting than you?”
“Just because she bathes in the blood of innocents and bakes her bread with human bones, does not make her more interesting than me! Wait, please tell me you’re not thinking about hooking up with her.”
“Would it really be all that bad?”
“Um, did you miss the bit about the missing kids?”
“Well, were they good kids, or, you know…like…the other kind?”
“That shouldn’t matter! Children are sacrosanct!”
“More like sacrificed, if your suspicions are correct.”
“I give up. Do what you want. On your head be it.”
It had been a long and uneventful life, and when the daily drudgery of existence reached a level that threatened to drown her, Amber spent all the bitcoin she had amassed to book a ticket well in advance in order to give her family, friends, and employer ample notice of her departure.
Impatiently, she waited at a forest rail station, which was hidden from all transit maps and only locatable via the dark web, for the train that traveled the timeless roads from the birth of imagination to the apex of dreams.
She knew in her heart of hearts that she would not ever return to this reality in her lifetime.
I watched him discreetly to see how he adjusted and was surprised at just how easily he accepted change. Don’t get me wrong, things were awkward at first.
Normally a surefooted man, he began stumbling into things and tripping constantly. Somehow, the growth of the additional eye must have thrown off his depth perception. This only lasted a few days, though. In no time at all, he returned to his usual graceful self, more so in fact. In recent times, I couldn’t recall him having a single episode of clumsiness.
His innate ability to adapt was a huge advantage and the more comfortable he became with his condition, perhaps the more likely he would finally feel comfortable to confide in me. I knew this wouldn’t happen any time soon because he was preoccupied with the advantages and shortcomings of his newly altered state.
Besides the obviously improved eyesight, his reading skill and speed increased one hundredfold. Magazines that he initially glanced through, the ones instantly bundled for the recycled trash day, he started tearing through, reading them cover to cover no matter what they were–Omni, Scientific American, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan.
Once he conquered magazines, he moved on to books. At first, my little trashy paperbacks and dime novels, but then he moved onto more serious fiction. One time he even polished off Moby Dick and War and Peace in the same night. Many was the night that I tossed and turned to the sound of him in the den flipping through the pages of some book or other at a breakneck pace.
As fate would have it, just when I was beginning to adjust to his third eye, I discovered that his nose had changed. Nothing drastic, just a slight flaring of the nostrils. With this minute alteration came a sensitive sense of smell. Now I thought he’d have no choice but to talk with me about it, but he didn’t, he just became reclusive. It was obvious to me that this was just the beginning—of what? I had no idea. Concerned at this point, I began dropping hints. Asking how he was feeling. If he had an allergy or a head cold. When was the last time he had his eyes checked, surely reading for long periods under that dim reading lamp couldn’t be easy on the eyes.
He began to become irritated with my prying, so I stopped, convincing myself if he could live with the changes then so could I and maybe that would have been true if it stopped at his nose.
His ears were next. First the right and then a week later, the left. Sprouting upward to a point. The result was enhanced hearing. Accompanied by migraine headaches from sounds that even our dog couldn’t pick up.
Then his mouth. Bleeding gums that resulted from a second row of teeth that pushed their way to the surface over his original set. Tongue followed a short time later. Elongating. Forking.
After that, I couldn’t tell you what was next. I never saw him again. Not that he moved or I left him. He just kept himself forever on the other side of a locked door. Part of me was thankful. I was spared the sight of the monster he was becoming. And he was spared the look of revulsion that I could no longer hide. That didn’t curb my curiosity, however. I still peeked through keyholes and drilled tiny holes in the wall. Why? He was changing into a wholly new person and I had to see what the end result was. After all, he was the man I married.
On the few occasions when he caught me spying, he flew into a rage, demanding to know what my problem was. My problem? Like I was the one who looked like an inhabitant from the Island of Dr. Moreau.
And that’s all I know. Whatever loyalty I felt towards him, whatever love I had for him, was gone. Gone the moment I got a clear look at what he’d become and witnessed his potential for violence. I was probably an idiot for remaining as long as I did, but then, love blinds sometimes. All that was gone now. The very next morning I packed a change of clothes in a rucksack, emptied the bank account, gassed up the car and left. Without a backward glance.
And I avoided mirrors, afraid that I had contracted whatever disease afflicted my husband, for it was a known fact that the thing that affected a loved one, affected everyone surrounding it, and I was terrified of looking into the face of my very own transformation.
I awoke to a stranger standing at the foot of my bed but far more unsettling was the fact that he was dead. I was certain of this because I could see the chest of drawers behind him through his ephemeral body.
“Do not be alarmed,” the man said in a soft tone that registered just above a whisper but was perfectly clear in the surrounding silence of the bedroom which had never known this level of quiet before. “I realize my sudden appearance in your home has come as a surprise to you due to the fact that you and I have never met and that I am a ghost.”
Of the million questions buzzing in my hypnagogic brain, the one that bubbled to the surface was, “What do you want from us?” and my voice cracked in a manner that made me sound considerably less brave than planned.
I tried to will my wife awake, hoping that she might collect the children and get them safely out of the house while I somehow distracted this spirit. I even slid my hand beneath the duvet, slowly as not to draw attention, in order to nudge or pinch her awake to no avail.
“Please know that I have no intention of haunting you or bringing any harm to you or your loved ones,” the ghost said.
“Then why are you here?” I replied loud enough to wake my wife but not the children because I couldn’t risk them coming into the bedroom to see what all the commotion was about.
The transparent man smiled, “You may speak as loudly as you please. I have spread a calming essence over your wife and children so that they might rest soundly as you and I converse.”
While I must confess I knew nothing of ghostly lore or a sleep-inducing essence, I sensed the apparition was speaking truthfully. I asked, “What could we possibly have to say to one another?”
“As I explain my situation, I ask that you refrain from pitying me and my circumstances for life is not a gift we keep but one we borrow and must one day return. Death is inevitable as you will one day learn.”
“Pity you? I don’t even know you!”
“Of course, where are my manners? The things one forgets once the embers of life have been snuffed. My name is Hamid Tahan and I am–pardon me, I was an Emirati merchant in Dubai.
“In the latter part of my short existence I had been diagnosed with prostate and esophageal cancer. Sadly, it was discovered in its very late stage due to my laxity in caring for my health. My illness defied all forms of medicine and treatments and according to my physicians I had only a few months to live.
” I am ashamed to admit that I had not lived a particularly good life. I never really cared for anyone, not even myself. All that mattered was my business. Though I was very rich, I was never generous and I tended to be hostile to those around me.
“But when it was far too late, I regretted it all. I discovered that there was more to life than the mere acquisition of money and I knew in my soul that if the universe in its infinite wisdom bestowed upon me a second chance I would live my life in a different, far better manner.
“As my mortal time drew to a close, I willed most of my properties and assets to my immediate and extended family members, as well as a few loyal friends and schools in the United Arab Emirates. I gave alms to charity organizations across the globe, as I wanted this to be one of the last good deeds I did on earth.
“And I almost accomplished the task in its entirety but my health had deteriorated more rapidly than was originally estimated and I lost my battle with cancer before I could close out my final account. This is my reason for contacting you.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I have studied you from the great beyond. I see that you are a good man, a kind and generous man even though you are struggling to keep your lovely wife and beautiful children comfortable in the face of the impending bankruptcy of your company. I can help you with this.”
“Help me? How?”
“I could reveal the location of my final, secret account to you, provide you with the codes and information to transfer the funds into your account. Trust me when I say it is more than enough money to pay off all your debt, provide for your children’s futures and allow your family to live comfortably for many years to come. The only thing I ask in exchange for this life-changing abundance…”
“Ah, the catch,” I sighed. “There is always a catch.”
“…is your life,” Hamid Tahan continued.
“I have come to an arrangement with The Powers That Be that I can be reborn if I performed a random act of kindness on a complete and utter stranger and of all the several billion candidates on the planet, I chose you.
“The only drawback for you is that this gift requires a sacrifice. Now you must ask yourself if you love your family enough to die for them? I have seen what lies in store for you and your family and I could not in all conscience live with myself, pardon my turn of phrase, if I did not try to help prevent it.
“You might be thinking to yourself that this is some sort of hoax or scam but if you reflect on it a minute you will feel the certainty of my offer because it has been classified as a Universal Truth. These truths cannot be forged. They are constructed of unconditional honesty.”
I most certainly believed it to be some form of treachery but true to his word, I felt an overwhelming assurance that his claim was sincere. I opened and closed my mouth trying to form words but none were forthcoming.
“You need not give your answer at this moment,” he said. “But I would advise you to decide before the week has concluded. The money will be of little use to your family beyond that point.”
“Wait! What’s going to happen to my family? If you know, you have to tell me!” I wanted to leap from the bed and take hold of the ghost and shake the answers from him, which was an irrational thought but it didn’t matter because I was unable to move from my spot.
“I apologize that I am forbidden to reveal any more to you. Please think deeply on my offer and despite your decision, know that you and your family are in my prayers. May the universe be with you, sir,” the phantasmal being who was once Hamid Tahan said as he evaporated into the dark shadows of the room.
And as I watched the gentle rise and fall of my sleeping wife’s chest I was left to ponder, if I valued my own life over the financial security of my family.”
I was never what anyone would have called creative by any stretch of the imagination but my parents, my loving mother and father taught me how to appreciate creativity when I encountered it especially when we gazed up at the night sky.
They schooled me on using my imagination, on connecting the dots to form pictures and manipulating those images in my mind to construct the most beautiful art imaginable. I was alive with a raw energy that I could not brush onto canvas or mold in clay. Nor was I able to express in song, speech or written word the joy I felt standing with those whom I loved most dearly beneath a canopy of loveliness brought to life by divine hands.
But that was then.
Now I serenaded the twilight every night, luring stars close enough to be plucked from the sky, one by one, and I saved their beauty in my clutch bag for the day my mother and father, who grew bored with me and succumbed to wanderlust, decided to finally return home.
“Why do you continue doing this thing, Enny?” my neighbor, the Spinster Wainwright, once asked in a tone that was more condemnation than curiosity.
“Because my mother once told me that stars used to inspire wishes,” I replied. “And I will continue to do this thing until my wish has been granted.”
To this, the old woman had no response. She simply stood at my side, watching the night sky grow darker as one by one the stars were plucked from the heavens and placed into my purse, causing galaxies to shudder.
Eventually, our star, our sun would join the others and this lonely existence would be eaten by the dark motes that share my name.
They darken our doorstep, these weak men of authority do, issuing proclamations and threats in hopes of frightening us into submission. How poorly they know myself or my wife.
Were they more observant, able to peer beneath the surface of our supposed marital hatred, if one of these men, made strong only because of their sheer number, were truly bold enough to gaze into my betrothed’s eyes or even mine, they would perchance see into our souls and spot a chemistry that is more than mere butterflies churning in our bellies for our butterflies are bloodthirsty ravens forcing us into an entanglement, a battle for conquest, a contest of champions in which there can only be one victor but when the coupling is concluded, both emerge victorious.
But no, instead they bring their rules and laws, trying to persuade us into accepting that our way of thinking is not right, telling us our mating ritual will eventually end in disaster and in order to safeguard both my wife and myself, we must not only separate from one another but be sent into exile and walk the earth until we see the errors of our ways and are prepared to repent for our sins.
They think our ways foolish and perhaps I am the fool for thinking we could live among these strangers and benefit from sharing our respective cultures, acknowledging our common traits and if not embracing them at least accepting the rituals which divide us.
I state that no one will ever dictate how we live our lives for we are happy and even if their armed horde by some miracle manages to separate me from my wife, they will never succeed in tearing us apart because our hearts are knotted in the unbreakable bond of life union.
I explain that our marriage is built upon a foundation of fighting, for warrior blood courses through our veins and sometimes fighting is right. Necessary. Each dawn, as sunshine glints off our slashing blades in springtime, there exists between us a strange, violent harmony that we call love. But they are not one with understanding in this matter.
So, as they draw their weapons in an attempt to separate us, my wife smiles at me and we brace for battle, accepting their challenge.
The last meal? Declined. Told that I might dine on whatever foodstuffs my heart desired, I found myself wanting nothing that would possibly remind me of the pleasures of this existence. Starvation would be the repast I took to my grave.
Prepared to meet my maker? Not by a long chalk. Religion was a thing that never quite managed to find purchase upon the coral reef of my soul. Mine was a spirit never moved by any diety, higher or lower, so the only salvation available for me once I came face to face with my final fate was to let oblivion enfold me within her inky embrace.
My jailors were informed that I would seek no holy counsel from a curate, as I hoped to spend my last hours in solitude but that request was ignored and a visitor was announced—a woman whose face was unfamiliar to me was escorted into my cell.
She said nothing, this woman, as she sat on the far corner on my bedding, cradling a cup hewn from wood in her delicate hands. Smiling, she offered the cup to me and made a motion suggesting that I drink.
For the life of me—a peculiar turn of phrase considering my position—I could not explain why I accepted the cup or why at her urging I touched its brim to my lips but in my grasp this simple cup was not unlike the holy grail.
It was filled with a liquid that after one sip I somehow knew to be her tears. Tears shed from happiness and from grief, yet when those collected salt drops greeted my lips the flavor was replete with the surprising splendor of the sweet serenity of a loving quiet purpose.
I drank and drank until there was no more and was momentarily reluctant to release the cup. When she left, still proffering that unnaturally kind smile, I realized what she had done. That simple and bizarre act of sharing her fluid with me sparked an ember of faith within me that I had no inkling existed and in that moment I knew sorrow and regret for what I had done and for the life that could have been and for the reward that existed beyond this life whose gates would never be opened for one such as I.
They gather at my wake, my family and friends do, and I am surprised to find they are not alone. For in the crowd of mournful faces I spy the many acquaintances I have made along the way, long lost playmates from my childhood, as well as the beautiful women who I recognize immediately as the pretty girls I loved in my youth, each with children not much younger than we were when we courted.
Each of the assembled grievers tell a story, most of which I remember fondly and some I have forgotten with age, stories that make me laugh at how foolish I had been when I was at my most serious and some touching enough to make the eye water at the perceived kindnesses I bestowed upon others without even being aware.
And when the time for remembrances both affectionate and painful has past, my loved ones—and yes, even the acquaintances are loved now—raise a parting glass to wish me safe passage on my unearthly travels to where I do not know and as I feel myself being gently pulled away from this realm, I swim against the current of my final destiny and pass through each body gathered in this place to leave a personalized vivid memory in an effort to ensure I am not forgotten.
Sadder than any person I’ve ever seen, Madam Ostelinda greets me with a weak handshake before taking the seat across the table and begins to remove the cloth from her crystal ball.
“That won’t be necessary, “ I say. “Your sign out front says you’re a dream interpreter as well, is that right?”
“I am,” says the fortune teller and I’m surprised at how much her accent doesn’t match her garish Roma garb, as if she can’t be bothered putting on the full routine anymore. In fact, her office or workspace or inner sanctum or whatever you call the place a woman in her line of work plies their craft seems a bit underdone, like a cheap curio shop that isn’t ready to open for business because it’s not fully stocked.
“I’d like to tell you about this dream I’ve been having.”
“Whenever you’re ready,” she says, repositioning the deep velvet cloth over the glass orb and locking eyes but still not properly seeing me.
“Okay, so, I’m looking up at this crescent moon in a night sky filled with stars and it’s too big, the moon, like I can almost reach out and touch it, except my arms won’t move. Then I realize I can’t move my entire body because I’m tangled up in some sort of giant spiderweb which for some reason is at the mouth of a cave. And before I can make sense of it, I hear a noise, a scrabbling or scratching sound that’s getting closer and it’s clear that something is approaching behind me and because I’m immobilized I can’t see it but I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it’s the thing that made this web.
“I try calling out for help but my lips and my teeth have these hooks and hollows that have been locked together like a flesh and bone zipper. All seems lost when out of the corner of my eye I spot a pair of scissors stuck to the web near my right hand and if I can only reach it I can cut myself free…but try as I might my fingers just aren’t long enough and the creature is right behind me, and just when I sense it’s about to strike…I wake up.”
I study Madam Ostelinda’s face, who is clearly preoccupied with other matters, and I do not rush her interpretation so we sit in her shabby mystic lair in silence for a long moment until the time the impatience I attempt to tamp down forces a biological urge to clear my throat.
The faux gypsy returns from her woolgathering and asks, “How many times have you had this dream?”
“There have been at least eleven instances in the past two weeks,” I reply. “Any idea what it all means?”
It is now Madam Ostelinda’s turn to clear her throat as she leans forward on the table, lacing her fingers in an academic professorial manner, and explains, “Well, a crescent moon indicates cyclic changes, renewal, and possibly progressing smoothly toward a new life path. The web could either suggest that you’re being held back from fully expressing yourself or you feel trapped and don’t know what to do or where to go. The scissors could denote a need to become decisive and take control in the real world, or you need to cut things or people out of your life.”
“I suppose I can agree with some of that,” I nod. “Not to change the subject but you seemed a little distracted after I finished telling you my dream. What were you thinking about?”
“You noticed that, huh? My apologies. It just seemed familiar to me, that’s all, like I’ve heard something similar to it before.”
“From your daughter, perhaps?”
And there is the look I have been waiting for, the dawning
“Amy?” she says my name and I am triggered, losing my footing in the present and falling back through the calendar of my life to the days when my younger self delighted in having my mother’s undivided attention.
“Hi, Mom,” I say, smiling despite myself.
This woman, who looks nothing like I remembered; who looks nothing like me because I take after my father, struggles to find words and when she eventually does, all she can muster is, “How did you find me?”
“A private investigator. Dad told me it was a waste of money and time but sometimes I’m like a dog with a bone, a trait he says I get from you. It took the private eye a while to find you because you did one hell of a job changing your identity.”
And any satisfaction I thought I’d feel at finally confronting her is lost when ages-long regret strips away the gypsy mask to reveal the sad, small woman beneath.
“You must think I’m a horrible person,” she turns away as she says this as to hide the tears welling in her eyes.
“I did, for a long time,” I admit. “But now, all I want are answers.”
“You’re not going to understand.”
“Try me. And as for the scissors thing, I’m not trying to cut you out of my life,” I say and proceed to ask all the questions a parent who abandons their child dreads.
By the time you read this, this version of me will be dead, but your version will just have been born, but before you become dismayed, know that I have lived a long and prosperous life, just as you had. I realize how unbelievable this will seem to you in your present, but in my past and your future, time travel has/will become a reality. I wish I could tell you more, but although time has opened for humankind greatly, my own time is extremely limited.
There are many blessings to being a member of The Time Guild, but the most important to me has to be the ability to tell you the things I never had the opportunity to say while you were alive. I admire your ability to be both mother and father to me, as well as my best friend, and so I wanted to let you know a few things.
Encouraging me to be an outspoken independent thinker was the best thing you could have done for me. Thank you very much for that. The money that you hide in that ratty old sock in your sock drawer, take a portion of it and invest in a startup company called ReTempus. I know this will put a financial burden on us in the short run, but it will pay off when we need it most. Not to mention ReTempus will eventually become the Time Guild. Please be discreet in your investments as feeding you this information is a strict violation of the Guild’s bylaws, but it should be fine if you fly under the radar.
My final gift to you, embedded in this chronal parchment, is a holographic image. These are your grandchildren, born after you passed away. My daughter is named after you. I am sure I do not have to warn you to keep the letter and its contents hidden from everyone, including me. Just raise me to the best of your ability and time will sort out the rest.