Answers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer


Photo Credit: Herry Lawford/Flickr (CC-by)

Twin beams of light thrust their way across sparkling, frost-rimed gravel as James swung the car off the road and onto the lengthy drive, revealing ranks of stark winter trees on either side.

James blinked sleep from his eyes. It had been a long journey, but it was nearly over; there was a nervous optimism alongside the tiredness he felt. Tonight, he hoped, he would have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his identity. Tonight, he would have answers.

Still, crawling up the drive, stones crunching beneath the car’s tyres, he felt a tremor of trepidation, as he recalled what Houghton had told him. What would he learn? Would he wish he’d stayed in ignorance?

No. No matter what he learnt, he had to know. He needed to know everything, to assemble all the pieces. No longer would he feel the shame of ignorance.

He remembered, as if it were yesterday, his cheeks burning with shame at school, his classmates’ laughter, when he showed his project on his ‘family tree’ with just his name on it, the exasperated tone of his teacher as she dismissed it.

“Not very good, now, is it, Jamie? More of an acorn than a tree.”

As if he were supposed to produce a family tree out of nothing!

James slammed his hand on the wheel with a grunt of anger.

Well, he would know.

Ahead of him, the black, unlit bulk of Lander House rose from the darkness. Had he know about the house then… he could imagine the other children’s envious faces. If only…

Growing up in what they called a ‘group home’, a small orphanage, effectively, James never had known a home of his own, never had a ‘forever family’, not even a foster one. Unwanted, ‘odd’, he’d slipped through the gaps, forgotten and ignored, without an identity.

Maybe he would have one now?

The drive swung around in front of the building, the headlight beams revealing that Lander House was constructed from a dark-red brick across which twined tenebrous vines of ivy. James parked before its main doors.

All the windows were black; no lights turned on at his arrival.

Slowly, he climbed out of his car and stood before the house, wondering if it held the answers Houghton had promised him.

*

Six months earlier, James had knocked hesitantly on the door to Houghton’s office.

All his life, James had assumed he’d been found on a doorstep, or dumped like trash in a bin, had never thought he would know who he really was. Had never thought he could find out.

Getting engaged had changed that.

“You should hire someone to research your past,” Jane had told him, brushing aside his protests. “Don’t talk about costs, darling, I can see it eating at you, no matter what you say.”

It was true. A wedding was as much about family as the two people getting married, driving home to him just how alone he was, no matter how welcoming Jane’s family were to him.

He’d taken her advice, bringing him to the man’s office. Christopher Houghton found people. His job was half-genealogist, half-private investigator, tracing beneficiaries of wills and missing persons.

“Come in, come in,” called a voice from the other side of the door.

He went inside and sat opposite the investigator.

“Hello, I’m James Eastleigh; I have an appointment.”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I was abandoned as a baby. I want to know who my parents were, where I came from.”

Houghton nodded. “What do you know of your birth?”

“Practically nothing. Once I was old enough to ask, all the carers in the group home would tell me was that I was named James after the local MP and Eastleigh after the hospital I was taken to. They couldn’t tell me who my parents were.”

“Unsurprising,” said Houghton. “That was often the case. Sometimes the care staff just wanted children to accept their lot and not ask questions. At other times, the parents may have requested anonymity. Of course, things are different now.”

James nodded, uncertain.

“Have you applied for your birth certificate?”

“Yes, I did, and when I got it, both parents were missing from it. I believe I was dumped.” James sighed. “Is it even possible for you to help me?”

“Tough, Mr Eastleigh, but not impossible. Just because your birth certificate is blank doesn’t necessarily mean nobody knows who your parents were. The first thing I will do is request your records. If any of them are sealed, we will ask for them to be unsealed. It’s possible their names are in them, somewhere. If they aren’t, I will check newspaper archives for reports of your discovery, see if it points to your parents or if any other news stories offer us clues.”

“And, if that fails?”

“DNA comparison—we might find relatives on one of the databases out there—or, we can try a public appeal. Somebody out there knows who you are, Mr Eastleigh, and it may be that someone will recognise a family resemblance.

“Of course, it is possible, we may only find dead-ends, but I promise you, I will follow every possible avenue…”

*

Houghton had.

“Yes, you were a tough case, Mr Eastleigh. Or, perhaps I should say Mr Bostrom.”

“Bostrom? You know who I am?”

“Yes. Well, close. A DNA test will be necessary to confirm it, but I am certain of your identity.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Only, it’s a little complicated. Indeed, yours is a peculiar case. A proper mystery.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. I had to dig—pull together disparate strands. But, I got there in the end. It all began with a call to the police from a Mrs Clarke.”

“I thought you said Bostrom.”

“She wasn’t your mother. She was your grandfather’s housekeeper.”

“Grandfather?”

“She worked for Andrew Bostrom of Lander House. Forty years ago, she called the police, saying her employer was behaving madly, threatening her. Then, the line cut off. The police arrived to find her dead and a baby crying in the nursery.”

“Me?”

“Yes. Recently born, unregistered. No sign of your mother, presumed to be Bostrom’s daughter, Cecilia, nor of Andrew Bostrom himself. Little was said in the papers, some vague talk of an ‘incident’ at Lander House, implied to involve an intruder. You were placed into the care of the local council and your grandfather reappeared in official documents a couple of years later, as if nothing had happened.”

Houghton shrugged. “He’s a rich man; probably paid somebody off to stop asking awkward questions and assume it was an intruder who killed Mrs Clarke. As for his daughter, nothing.” Another shrug. “That’s it.”

“You say he is a rich man—he’s still alive?”

“He would be about ninety, but there’s no record of a death. The taxes on Lander House are up-to-date. The obvious inference is that he still lives there.”

“Then, I guess I ought to go see him.”

Nodding, Houghton said, “If you want any more answers, James, Lander House is the place to look. That’s where it all began for you…”

*

There was an old-fashioned bell-pull beside the door of Lander House. James had only ever seen one in movies before. He pulled it and thought he heard a distant jingle from somewhere within the vast building.

No lights switched on. Nobody came.

As he waited, James hugged himself: The night was chilly and he only had on a light jacket. He hadn’t expected to be left standing on the doorstep like this.

He hammered the large brass knocker against the door.

Still no response.

He hammered again, shouted.

Nothing.

Was his grandfather really inside waiting for him? Perhaps he was dead. Or, maybe, he’d left long before. James wondered if he were wasting his time.

Should he come back? Would he find his answers if he did?

He had to get inside.

Using the light from his phone as a torch, James slowly circled the house, wary of tripping on something unseen in the night. Perhaps it was a relic of the days when the Welsh Marches were a wild, lawless place, but the building looked like a fortress with windows high up and both the front and kitchen doors thick and bound with iron.

“I guess grandpa didn’t like visitors.” James wished the muttered joke hadn’t sounded so weak in the darkness.

There was an old glasshouse, an orangery, maybe, at the rear of the building, built with an iron frame and thick panes of glass that had a milky texture and were grimed with years of dirt.

James considered trying to break in that way, but smashing the old glass seemed extreme and he doubted his grandfather would appreciate such destruction of his property.

There were outbuildings near the house and he was able to smash the lock off the door of one with half a brick. Inside, he found a ladder.

He dragged it over to the house and leant it against the wall, before climbing to an upstairs window. Through it, he could see a room that was empty except for a large, dark wood wardrobe.

James used the half-brick to break a pane, then reached in and unhooked the latch, opened the window, and slipped inside. He checked the wardrobe, but it was empty.

He paused beside the door and listened; the house was silent.

He exited the room. The hallway was in darkness and he felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the chill. The light of his phone made little impression upon the blackness and he felt as if it were pressing in upon him. He shouldn’t have come here…

He searched around and found a light-switch, flicked it. The hallway lit up and he winced at the sudden brightness. Illuminated, the hallway no longer seemed spooky and he gave a shaky laugh at his foolishness. A grown man shouldn’t fear the night!

Still, the light told him there was power, which meant the house wasn’t completely abandoned. Not that it meant anyone was home.

“Hello,” he called, but there was no answer, only silence.

He tossed the half-brick from one hand to the other as he considered which way to go; it didn’t seem to matter much.

Slowly, James made his way through the upper floors of the house, but it appeared to have been abandoned for years and many of the rooms were empty or contained furniture covered in dust sheets. There was a bedroom with a rather grand four-poster bed, but the blanket was dusty and he doubted his grandfather had slept in it for a long time.

Then, he found the nursery.

The room was large with a cot in the middle, ornate with legs like the trunks of trees that rose to support a shade decorated like a canopy of leaves. Art Deco-style branches were painted twisting across the walls of the room. James had never seen anything like it.

Was this where he’d slept as a child? Where the police had found him crying on that fateful night? Maybe he was being naive, but he’d expected to feel something, some frisson of familiarity, but he’d felt nothing within Lander House, not even here.

Could Houghton have been wrong?

James slapped the door as he exited the room.

It might have been where he was born, where he was found, but, if it were, there were no answers, nobody to tell him about himself.

If anything, the tantalising hint of an identity was worse than knowing nothing about himself.

He found the stairs down. The top of the stairs was where the police report the investigator had dug up said the body of Mrs Clarke had been found.

Looking down at the spot, James had to wonder what could have driven his grandfather to murder his housekeeper. He could imagine no reason. Had the man been insane?

Stairs creaked as he descended them.

James explored the ground floor. Still, there were no clues to his identity, not even in his grandfather’s office when he used the half-brick the smash the locks on the bureau and a desk drawer, nothing to tell him who his mother was, what had happened to her.

Was she dead as well? Had his grandfather killed her?

What mad family had he come from? Was he better off not knowing the truth?

James sat on the bottom step of the stairs and put his hands over his eyes and sobbed. He’d hoped for so much, like a fool. He should’ve known better, just accepted that he was a cipher, alone in the world.

Shaking his head, he stood. There was only the glasshouse at the rear of the house left to explore, and it wasn’t as if that held any secrets about him.

He stepped towards the front-door. At least, he could leave without having to clamber awkwardly down the ladder.

Pausing with his hand on the lock, he looked back. Had he heard a noise, or was it the echo of some memory nagging at him? For some reason, he felt the need to visit the orangery. Or, maybe it was just a compulsive need to complete his search.

James felt like a fool as he stood there, grasping the lock. He knew there was no reason for him to go back there. There was nobody in the house, nobody hiding back there, and it wasn’t as if his grandfather had left any paperwork amongst the ornamental shrubs, or whatever had been growing back there, doubtless long dead, if they were untended as the rest of the house.

There was no point to it, but he let go of the lock and began to walk towards the rear of the house. He felt as nervous as he had when he first stepped out into the dark hallway upstairs. Ridiculous.

He could almost taste the damp air on his tongue as he entered the glasshouse. The orangery was full of plants. Clearly, there were automated sprinklers keeping it watered.

There was no sign of a light-switch, forcing him to proceed by the light of his phone, pushing past shrubs that had overflowed their pots. Before the place was abandoned to go wild, he could imagine it had been quite beautiful, probably his grandfather’s pride. But now, it was a mess.

At the centre of the glasshouse, where the roof peaked, there was a single tall tree that towered over everything else that grew in it, so tall that it pressed against the glass ceiling and bent to one side.

James approached it and shone his light over its dark, wavy leaves.

At about head height, he could see a single fruit, the shape of a rugby ball and a little larger. It seemed to shudder where it hung.

“What the—?”

He went closer, studied it. There was something moving within the fruit, pressing against the membranous skin.

He leant towards it.

Something pressed through the skin, defining features—something like a face peering out at him. James recoiled and swore.

Yes, it was definitely like a face. He couldn’t believe it.

Mould—yes, that was it. He’d read about mould spores making people hallucinate and this place was damp and bound to be full of them.

Only, he knew it wasn’t mould, knew that what he was seeing was real. Real and yet quite impossible.

He reached out to it, touched the slick, waxy skin. It pulsed beneath his fingertips.

A split appeared in the skin of the fruit and spread, so that it practically burst open. Inside the fruit he could see the tiny form of a newborn child, covered in slimy pulp, like blood. Its tiny arms reached out towards him.

James stared, unable to quite believe what he was seeing, yet unable to look away, to dismiss it. He felt as if he were about to vomit.

He was going mad! He was going mad!

The more he looked at it, the more he was reminded of a photo in his file of himself as a baby. It was like looking at himself as a child.

A torrent of thoughts flooded through his mind as he understood the meaning of what he was seeing, why people had always found him odd, why nobody had wanted to adopt him, why even Jane had said he wasn’t like other men she’d dated as she looked at him sideways.

Had he had the DNA test Houghton had suggested, what would he have found?

What the hell had his grandfather been doing here?

He stumbled back and looked around.

“My family tree,” he laughed, tears in his eyes. He’d always wanted to know where he came from and, now, he knew—and, wished he didn’t.

Spotting a hatchet, James seized it and struck at the child in the fruit, burying the blade deep in it. The child wailed in pain and James screamed, wishing he could silence the sound as he struck it again and again, obliterating it into a pulpy mess.

Then, he began to hack at the tree.

But, it wasn’t enough. It was too large.

He ran back into the house, to the kitchen and threw open every cupboard until he found lighter fuel and kitchen oil. Pausing only to turn on the gas from the cooker, he ran back out to the glasshouse and threw the fuel and oil over the tree, before lighting if, sending a coruscating sheet of flame up its trunk.

James stood, watching the flames engulf the tree, which seemed to shiver as it burnt. Flames spread to nearby vegetation, despite the dampness. Above him, the glass ceiling cracked from the heat, then shattered and began to rain down about him like a fall of snow.

He couldn’t return to Jane, not now, not knowing the truth about himself, where he came from. He just prayed his grandfather was dead, unable to continue the mad course he’d taken.

James watched the tree burn, the heat painful against his skin.

The scent of gas reached his nostrils.

It had begun here and it would end here.

He was ready when the end came.

pencil

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hinnom Magazine, ParABnormal, Ravenwood Quarterly, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor) and a comic horror e-novelette, A Trip to the Middle of the World, available from Alban Lake through Infinite Realms Bookstore. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

The Silver Wrens

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Alex Grey


Photo Credit: Sarah Horrigan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The ancient yew tree stood in the Fraser family graveyard. Dense, dark leaves absorbed the weak winter sunlight, making gewgaws of its red berries and silver wren pendants. Family legend said that the tree had watched over the clan for a thousand years. The dead lay tranquil in its shade. The living prospered, the clan’s assets expanding as surely as the great yew’s girth.

*

Felicity stormed out of the house three weeks after her birthday, slamming the door hard enough to shatter the glass. She heard her mother cry out, but Felicity’s anger could not be soothed with words. She needed to run. She didn’t know how she could ever look her mother in the face again—her mother, yes, her actual mother, her real flesh and blood mother.

“I adopted you when you were a baby.”

Her mother had been telling her this lie since Felicity had been old enough to understand the concept.

“Where are my real mummy and daddy?” Felicity had asked when she was three years old.

“I’m your mummy now.”

“What about daddy?”

“My husband died a long time ago. You were only a baby when he left us.”

Sometimes, when her imagination was alight in the darkness before sleep, Felicity remembered a sly, handsome face with a clever smile, reading her stories in a melodic golden voice.

“He didn’t have time to read to you. Your mind is just playing tricks.”

Once she started school, Felicity’s curiosity about her real parents grew. Every year on her birthday, she asked her adoptive mother about her real parents.

“I found you under the mulberry bush.”

“You were abandoned on my doorstep.”

“They left you in a shelter, they didn’t leave their names.”

“They died in a car accident, there’s no one left to find.”

Felicity might have wondered why her adoptive mother changed the story every year. But she had no time to wonder about anything; she spent her childhood energy adapting to moving home every few years, learning her way round new cities, finding new friends and settling into new schools.

“Why do we have to move again?”

“Because it’s better to be a bird on the wing than a tree stuck in the earth.” Felicity had seen her mother clench her hands, heard her muttered monologue. “Roots in the earth, going where they don’t belong, grabbing what isn’t theirs.”

So they’d moved, always living in characterless concrete tower blocks. Felicity never got to play in a park. Her mother made strange warding gestures every time they passed a tree. Her childhood had been filled with hard greyness.

It’s too easy for you, thought Felicity, you’re not an orphan. She became determined to leave home as soon as she was old enough and start laying down roots of her own. Her mother had told her that she was adopted, that there were no ties of kinship between them—Felicity didn’t owe her anything.

On her eighteenth birthday, Felicity excitedly tore open the DNA test kit she’d bought. On impulse, she had bought one for her mother too, not that her secretive mother would have agreed to take part. Felicity had obtained saliva from her mother’s toothbrush and hoped that it would work.

Felicity ran blindly on the rough pavements, stumbling as she recalled opening the test results that had arrived that morning. She’d opened hers first. Her ancestors were Scottish Celts, going back for generations with very little genetic variation. The results included a map which showed the familial matches they’d found on their database. The stars that marked her family’s location looked like a new and wonderful constellation. Her relatives were scattered all over the world, but one relative was very close to where she lived now and then there was a cluster in the far north of Scotland.

Felicity took out her adoptive mother’s results. At first, she thought she’d got the papers mixed up. But no, the results were almost identical. In that moment Felicity knew that the woman who had claimed to be her adoptive mother was her biological mother.

They’d had a colossal argument when Felicity confronted her mother.

“You stupid girl! All these years I’ve protected you, hidden you. All my efforts undone in a moment.”

Her mother waved at the map.

“See these stars? This is their way of finding the people who dared to leave. Now we have to fly again. Why couldn’t you just let it lie? Why wasn’t my love enough for you?”

“Lies aren’t love!” Felicity had yelled. “What sort of mother pretends not to be a mother? What sort of twisted life is that?”

“I had to. You don’t understand the danger. Give me five minutes to explain, but then we have to get away. You need to pack some things. Quickly!”

“I’m not listening. Everything you say is a lie; you’ve lied so much you don’t even know how to tell the truth anymore.”

Felicity rewound their argument over and over as she ran. She lost track of time, but suddenly became aware of the chill air cooling her sweaty body. She looked around. There was an inviting coffee shop on the corner.

As she sipped her hot chocolate, the flickering film reel of their argument coalesced into a single tangible image—her mother’s face, full of love and terror, reaching out to her. She sat there for an hour, hoping the steamy warmth of the cafe would thaw her icy confusion. Eventually, Felicity realised that whatever came next, she would have to go home first, gather her things and move on, either with or without her mother.

Felicity hadn’t appreciated how far she’d run until she stepped out of the coffee shop and realised where she was. She recalled her mother’s fear and almost called an Uber to take her home, but she preferred to walk, using the time to clear her head.

She saw the reflections of the actinic blue lights from around the block. As she turned towards her home, she saw an ambulance and a police car. The front door was open. Just beyond, her mother lay unmoving as a paramedic shouted “Clear!” Her mother’s body jumped as the defibrillator discharged. She saw the paramedic check her mother’s vital signs, then shake his head. She heard him call time of death, a knell that drowned out the police officer’s voice, asking her if she knew the deceased. As they led her inside, Felicity glimpsed, in the distance, a strangely familiar face, a good-looking man with a clever smile. She blinked, but when she looked again, he was gone.

Although the police quizzed her for many hours about the broken door and the argument with her mother, they could find no evidence of foul play. The inquest recorded death by natural causes, a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of the conflict with her daughter. Felicity hated the pity on the coroner’s face.

Felicity inherited a comfortable amount of money. Her mother’s will was clear, especially about being cremated rather than buried. The solicitors managed the paperwork efficiently and impersonally, though Felicity had to sign for one envelope, a letter from her mother.

Dear Felicity

I hope that when you read this letter we will both have enjoyed long and happy lives. I hope that you have made your own family and are surrounded by my grandchildren. If you are young, then it means they have found me. I beg you to flee, use the money to travel, get away, find a new identity. Families are what you make rather than what you inherit, never forget that.

xxx Mummy

Felicity fingered the pendant that had accompanied the letter. The exquisite silver disk showed a perfectly sculpted wren, every detail chased into the metal with delicate skill. She could feel the individual feathers with her fingertips, metal cold but somehow alive to her touch. There was a curious golden chain attached to the pendant, too small to be a necklace. Felicity turned her mother’s letter over. There was no explanation.

Although her mother had urged her to use her inheritance to travel far away, Felicity had only one destination in mind. The clustered galaxy of stars on her DNA map drew her to Scotland.

*

It was Christmas Eve when Felicity arrived in Aberdeen airport. The wild and robust landscape was a world away from her cloistered urban childhood.

It had taken a few weeks to follow up on the DNA test results, but she was relieved when her relatives had enthusiastically agreed to meet her. They’d invited her to join them for Christmas. A cousin had picked her up from the airport, loading the two suitcases that held all her possessions into the back of his truck and driving her to their ancestral home.

She held on to the bag which contained her mother’s ashes—her new uncle had asked her to bring them, suggesting they could be laid to rest in the family graveyard. He’d also asked her to bring the silver wren, telling her it was a precious heirloom.

Felicity was astonished when her cousin parked the car in front of a castle. There was no other word for it, though it was no fairy-tale confection of turrets. This building had stood firm against war and weather for a thousand years and looked set to endure for thousands more. The grand hall was palatial, but Felicity couldn’t see beyond the throng of her extended family as she was greeted and hugged exuberantly. She wept as a deep feeling of belonging filled a space in her soul that she never knew existed. Her uncle shooed the flock of cousins away and asked a servant to show her to her room. The tartan-draped walls were cosy and comforting; the roar of the fire in the hearth lulled her to sleep.

Christmas day passed in a whirl of feasting and song. Felicity delighted in her family’s lively energy. Her uncle had fiery red hair and was clearly the king of the castle. Her many aunts bore a striking resemblance to her late mother. She seemed to have a legion of cousins, some already working on the next generation with babies due the following spring. They swept aside her apologies, accepting, without rancour, her explanation that her mother had kept them a secret. She felt embarrassed when the family gathered to open the gifts lavishly piled under the Christmas tree. She had prepared a few thoughtful tokens for them, but was overwhelmed when her uncle handed her a carved wooden box. She removed the silk and velvet wrapping and found a newly minted silver wren, identical to her mother’s.

“The wren is an ancient family emblem gifted to just one daughter in each generation. We thought the family had lost the wrens forever when your mother disappeared. To have you back amongst us is a gift beyond your comprehension.”

Felicity stuttered a reply. It was hard to perceive herself as a gift when her family had heaped such unearned generosity on her.

She woke early on Boxing Day. Her uncle had invited her to the family graveyard at dawn. He said that she could be part of an important family ceremony and she could lay her mother’s ashes to rest. He asked her to bring both silver wrens.

The castle was silent as she walked down to the breakfast room. It was still dark, so she knew she wasn’t late, yet the horde of cousins was nowhere to be seen. The housekeeper served her strong tea and bitter salted porridge, smiling at her protests. There would be a raw wind at the churchyard; she would need this traditional fuel to keep her warm. As the first light blushed the crystal dark sky, the housekeeper ushered her toward the nearby churchyard.

A low granite wall surrounded the cemetery, the natural stone glowing as the sun’s rays shimmered across them. Felicity walked in through the iron gates and threaded her way between the gravestones towards a dark shape in the centre of the graveyard. The ancient yew’s dark green leaves absorbed the rising sunlight, providing a stark contrast to the reflected luminosity of the bright red berries and the silver wren pendants hanging from its branches. Felicity was enchanted by the tree’s beauty as the sun’s radiance filled the graveyard with colour.

A hand grasped her shoulder.

“This is a moment that I have dreamt of since your mother took you from me.”

A honeyed voice wrapped the words around her. She turned, knowing that she would see a man with a sly, handsome face and a clever smile.

“Daddy?”

“Do you remember me?” His voice was melodic and soothing.

“You used to read me stories. Sometimes I couldn’t remember your face, but I would know your voice anywhere.”

He smiled, pleased that she had recognised him.

“Where is everyone?” Felicity asked, looking around the empty graveyard.

“They stayed in the castle, out of respect for me, and this divine moment.”

They stood for a while and then her father snapped his fingers. The sound echoed jarringly among the gravestones.

“Come, this ceremony must be completed before the sun is fully risen. Are you ready, little wren?”

Felicity nodded, but she had no idea of what to expect.

Her father pointed at the abundance of tiny red berries adorning the yew.

“These are not strictly berries, they are arils. The seeds sit at the bottom of tiny cups of sweetness. The fruit keeps the birds alive in winter. We must offer a gift to the tree in exchange for its bounty.”

He gestured for her to hang the two wren pendants from the branches. The golden chains looped perfectly around the fine-needled branches. The silver birds settled smoothly, blending harmoniously with the green leaves and the red arils. Felicity felt a strange flutter in her chest, the birds looked so peaceful on their perches, but her mother had never wanted this. She felt a sudden urge to grab the wrens and fly away, but then she flushed with fear at the thought of losing her cherished new family.

Her father looked at her curiously, then turned to thank the tree as he picked a handful of arils.

“Now we must share this fruit—this ritual binds us to the family tree. Let the fruit dissolve in your mouth then swallow. Do not chew the seeds inside the arils as they are poisonous when broken.”

Felicity hesitated, but couldn’t resist her father’s invitation to join the family. She saw him place a handful of arils in his own mouth and swallow them with relish. She put a few arils in her mouth. Their sweet flavour was delectable, but the flesh dissolved into a sticky slime that was difficult to swallow. She resisted the urge to chew the seeds, and was grateful when her father offered her his hip flask.

“This is mead, made from our own honey. It will help to wash that down.”

The sweet drink melded deliciously with the fruit, though the spirit burned her throat as she swallowed.

“There, we have completed the first part of the ceremony, now we must welcome you home.”

He gestured at a small hole that had been dug nearby.

“Return your mother’s ashes to the family tree where she belongs.”

Felicity knelt and poured the ashes into the ground, her heartbeat loud and urgent in her chest. She supposed that the emotion of meeting her family, of saying goodbye to her mother, was finally catching up with her. She lifted her hands to wipe away the tears that were blurring her vision, but her eyes were dry. Her arms trembled, overcome with weakness.

She looked up, surprised to find that she was now lying beneath the tree. The silver wrens sparkled in the branches above her. She felt strangely warm and comfortable as her father knelt to cradle her head.

“Rest. The yew seeds that salted your porridge this morning will soon do their work. You will not suffer, I am sure of that. I did not let your mother suffer. We were distant cousins and childhood friends. We married young and I loved her, even though she was marked as the wren. We could have had a long life together; the tree is patient. But she tried to escape her fate and forced the family’s hand.”

Felicity looked at her father’s clever face. She felt cosseted by his mesmerising voice, even as her mind wrestled with his words. She did not understand what he was saying, could they have had a life together, been a family? Her body was weighed down with sadness and regret.

He continued, stroking her hair gently.

“This tree has safeguarded our family for a thousand years. As it thrives, so do we. As we nurture it, so it cares for us. All it asks is a sacrifice, a wren on the feast of St Stephen, one in each generation to bind the family to the tree. Your grandfather chose your mother to be the wren, but she was afraid that I would choose you in the next generation. Her love for you transcended her love for our family. However, she was the wren of her generation, there could be no other. I knew that we would find her one day.”

Felicity felt her father lift her unresisting body. Her heart was fluttering frantically now, like a captured bird. The family tree blurred into shimmers of silver, red, and green, festive tinsel colours. He lowered her gently into the shallow grave that had been hidden behind the yew’s vast trunk.

“We had not chosen the wren for your generation. In the olden days, we could rely on pestilence and plague to choose the sacrifice, but now we have to be more direct. It is a difficult decision, though the wrens can choose to live up to fifty years before the tree demands their lives. We were about to choose your generation’s wren when you turned up, a stranger to us. Your arrival was a blessing. Now we can let you go before we have time to love you and suffer the pain of your loss.”

He stayed with her as her heart faltered and stopped. Felicity’s cousins emerged from behind the gravestones and covered her body with earth.

Back at the castle, the family celebrated the sacrifice that would bring them prosperity for another generation. Felicity’s possessions were burned—no one would come looking for her.

In the graveyard, the yew’s fine, questing roots covered Felicity’s body with its downy filaments, binding her, bone, joint and socket, to the family, forever.

pencil

After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate—it’s a sweet life. A number of her poems and short stories have been published in the horror ezine Siren’s Call. One of her comic poems is also available via a worldwide network of public fiction dispensers managed by French publisher, Short Edition. Of her horror writing, Alex’ best friend says ‘For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted! Email: sue[at]collavoce.co.uk

Interdependence

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Deana Zhollis


Photo Credit: Richard Bennett/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Raven dropped down on her couch while balancing her mug filled with hot tea. The steamed liquid swirled sharply before settling down when placed on the wooden end table. She gathered her black braids behind her head and secured them with a hair band before picking up the tea again to take a sip. With her free hand, she scrolled through her options for a TV series, for something that could fill the silence of her apartment. She chose a storyline that didn’t entail too much interest so that she could look up from time-to-time and still know what was going on in the series. She would have enjoyed watching a Korean drama or a vibrant, colorful fantasy, or some anime adventure, but that entailed reading subtitles since she hated listening to the dubbed versions. A childhood fantasy adventure would do, since she had seen every episode decades ago, and relived one or two from time to time over the years. This one was about an apprentice wizard where each episode was him learning a new spell that involved helping someone or finding an ancient relic to add to his arsenal.

Satisfied, she sat back, grabbed a pillow to balance on the armrest and placed her tablet on top of it.

“And let the questions begin,” she sighed, as she double-clicked on the familiar icon, and read the next one out loud. “Do you prefer a lot of rest before starting your day? Yes. No.”

Raven figured she would answer a few more questions before taking a shower and then finish up the next few hours answering more, that is, if she was able to make it that far. And so far, she’s been able to continue for two days.

She was now comfortable enough with the questions and had an idea on what was needed to answer. For a job, she should answer ‘No,’ since there may be times where she would need to have little sleep to complete a project. However, this test sometimes had another agenda.

She chose ‘Yes’ and then the next question appeared.

“How many hours of rest do you need?”

Raven chose the number nine.

“What type of bed do you prefer to sleep on?” Five images appeared displaying different backgrounds and shapes of beds. She chose one with a contouring shape. One must have lumbar support.

“What type of lighting do you need for sleeping?”

Raven wasn’t sure why this endless, unnumbered sequences of questions were pertinent for job employment, and she most definitely didn’t understand why it had been a total of six hours for the past two days. However, countless people of had tried to qualify for this famed company, but many had failed—as much as ninety percent. The contender would know they were not qualified within the first two hundred questions. It was that probability that made Raven not even try, though anyone, world-wide, could try. A candidate is only given a single chance before being declined from ever trying again. Not even the smartest of hackers could get around the questionnaire’s protocol. It always seemed to easily identify those who had already taken the test, even if they put in a person’s name who hadn’t.

The company’s logo of two worlds interlocked and its name, “Interdependence,” was on the top of the screen, while the next question with choices hovered in the middle.

“Choose between these melodies.” Raven press the buttons, listening to each one, before placing a check underneath the one that was quite lovely to her ears.

“Can you sleep while listening to this song? Yes. No.”

Raven had earlier stated that she didn’t need complete silence while sleeping, and that she favored music to sleep with. Now, she was being asked what types of music she would prefer. She had been asked about different colors that were pleasing to her eye yesterday, and the types of animals that she liked. Before that, it was about physical activities and roller coasters.

“Can you remember your dreams? Yes. No.”

Raven sighed. “From sleep to dreams.” Yes, she dreams in color. Yes, there were some dreams that she would still remember from time to time. Yes, sometimes the dreams reflect her day, and yes sometimes they didn’t. Yes, she believed in dreams. And, yes, she thought they were fun.

Six hours. She had been answering questions for six hours over the last two days, and she was beginning to think that this was all a joke. Interdependence promised the best job one could ever imagine, where one would be completely happy to do, and enjoy doing, the job, and with a salary to match it. These opportunities were given to some in their sixties and some as young as sixteen. It didn’t matter the background or place of living. Alarmingly, even someone on parole could apply. There were no standards. The only thing one had to do was to get access to download the app, and answer the questions.

“Do you like to kill in video games? Yes. No.”

Actually, she didn’t like shoot-’em-ups. Puzzle and adventure games were more her style. And, of course, that was the next question. She answered more questions related to how she enjoyed playing a game, and how long would she play one.

“Do you prefer mornings, afternoons, or evenings?”

The random, off-topic question would appear now and then, and it would proceed from there before going back to its main line of questioning.

“How many stars do you enjoy seeing in the night?” This question came in relation to her choice of preferring evenings. Several images appeared and Raven chose one. Then questions related to celestial bodies, which transitioned to spiritual questions, and went back to similar questions from two days ago, about teamwork, meeting goals, handling stress and mistakes.

“Can you hold a secret? Yes. No.”

Raven thought about it. Should she be honest? Yes. So, she answered No.

“Do you believe a secret should not be told to you? Yes. No.” Yes.

“Do you believe a secret should be shared if told to you?” Yes.

“Do you want to know a secret now? Yes. No.”

Raven laughed. At least this part of the questionnaire was interesting. She answered No.

“But we want to tell you a secret.”

Raven stared at the screen. There was no selection to choose from. Slowly, she tapped the tablet’s screen.

Nothing happened.

She tapped again. But still nothing.

Did the app freeze?

Suddenly, “Will you allow Interdependence to run interference in your life? Yes. No.”

Raven sat up on the couch. “Wait. Am I being offered an opportunity?”

She slowly lifted her finger. Did she pass?

She pressed Yes.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She raised her eyebrows at that question. Mental institution? Why would Interdependence want to do that? She thought about the many interviews of those who had been accepted by Interdependence and how each beginning was a bit different from the last. At the time of acceptance, candidates were secretly transported out to avoid the swarm of people. Once inside Interdependence, each were individually trained on whatever job that would make them at peace for the rest of their lives. But, she never heard of a beginning that started with lying to family and friends.

The question disappeared and a white screen was shown.

“Oh no.” There wasn’t anything about time sensitivity!

“The package is waiting, Raven.”

Raven froze as she reread the sentence, before it blinked out and the previous question returned.

“Will you allow Interdependence to contact your job and family and tell them you have checked into a mental health institution, and will not be allowed to speak to anyone for at least three weeks? Yes. No.”

She didn’t realize how fast her heart was racing. Was this an opportunity? What if she answered the question wrong?

She knew she didn’t have much time. This had to be time sensitive.

She raised her finger slowly, and then quickly tapped.

Yes.

The screen went blank, and stayed that way for what seemed like minutes. She didn’t want to close her eyes. She just couldn’t miss the next question.

Then, “Please meet the delivery person downstairs. They will be standing with a sign that says, ‘Game.'” It blinked and then went to the Interdependence logo.

Raven jumped, grabbed her keys, and went out of her apartment. She needed to check to see if it was true, and was shocked to see a woman standing in front of a parked town car, holding up a sign indeed with ‘Game’ written on it.

She went back to her apartment, her mind racing: When did the driver get there? When was I accepted? Was the driver out there when I grabbed my tea? Who should I call? Should I call anyone? This is just too good to be true!

She picked up the tablet and double-checked the app to make sure it was legitimate. It had to be. She didn’t understand the reason why Interdependence wanted to proceed in this way, but she thought perhaps it was another test, like the hours she took taking the questionnaire.

Making a decision, she jiggled her keys, and went to the waiting car.

*

The cube was the size of two shoe boxes and its smooth surface emitted a warmth that was comfortable to touch, but just a few degrees from almost unbearable. Raven was glad that she had a short walk back to her apartment on the first floor, since any longer it would have been a bit too heavy.

She sat it down on her coffee table and stared at its glossy black surface. She wasn’t given any instructions; the driver simply handed it to her without saying a word, and now she couldn’t find anywhere on how to open it. She wasn’t even sure if she sat it down on its correct side.

Grabbing its warm sides, she turned it over, looking for some kind of button or latch. After examining it, she then began rubbing it, as if it would produce a genie. Then she tried voice commands, but none of it worked. Going back to review the app didn’t help either. Only the Interdependence logo remained.

Finally, she gave up. It had been an exasperating night, and she hadn’t taken her shower yet. The thought made her yawn, as she headed to get ready to settle down to sleep.

In the morning, she decided to take another look at the cube with a fresh pair of eyes, only to be greeted by a holograph of a creature with three twirling tails sitting on the edge of the cube with legs crossed. She wore a knee-high dress, and had ears that swept back along both sides of her head, tips touching. Hair grew in the center of the ears and draped down her back, and her skin sparkled with a hue of blue.

Large black eyes and lavishing eyelashes turned her way as she said, “Good morning, Raven.” Her voice was rather pleasant, with a welcoming tone of someone who was genuinely happy to see you.

“Uh, hello?” Raven answered.

The creature laughed. “I know. I’m quite amazing to look at, aren’t I?”

The comment made Raven chuckle. “I would say, quite unexpected.”

“Well,” the creature said, “you weren’t planning on going to work today, were you? You did accept the agreement to allow us to intervene in your life.”

Raven had almost forgot about that.

“The calls will be made, as soon as work hours begin, and then to the rest of the people in your life.”

Raven meekly asked, “How do you know who is in my life?”

The creature smiled. “We know.”

This is Interdependence. They had global and major resources everywhere. Especially with all the talent they had in all walks of life. They all contribute back to Interdependence in some way or another.

“My name’s Cerasee,” she said with a bright smile. “How do you do?”

Raven nodded towards her, still laughing at the idea of talking to a hologram. “How do you do?”

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Cerasee stated, “and I hope I can answer just the few major ones in my introductory speech.” She cleared her throat. “Are you ready?”

Raven waved the floor to her. “Go right ahead.”

“Yes, I am completely interactive. No, I am not programmed with standard answers. Yes, you can ask me anything and I will try my best to answer your questions as much as I could. Why did we choose you? Because we enjoyed watching your thoughtful expressions before answering. And because of your honesty and bright answers. Yes, we will really contact everyone and tell them you are in a mental institution, and if anyone becomes a bit aggressive with wanting to speak to you, we will provide them with a fake video of you inside a mental ward, and being provided a treatment of meditation and a vow of silence in order to help you regain your balance in the world. No, you will not be able to see this video as we have far too much to do in the next few weeks. And why did we choose this route for you?” She leaned forward, and dramatically whispered, “Because you can’t keep a secret.”

Raven laughed and Cerasee continued.

“Yes, this is really Interdependence and it is happening for you and for real. From this point forward, Interdependence will be responsible for your every meal, your health, your social environment, and simply.your entire being. Starting today, you will be a member of Interdependence and we leave as soon as you have completed your morning routine. I will only answer any remaining questions during our travel to our destination. You should wear a comfortable outfit like when going for a walk in a park, but no tennis shoes, please. Sandals or comfortable strapped shoes would be preferred. No perfumes or jewelry or makeup, please. Lotion and deodorant are acceptable. Breakfast will be provided.”

Cerasee smiled then, quite proud with her presentation. “Well, what are you standing there for?” She waved her hand towards Raven’s bedroom. “Get ready!”

Raven moved with the climb of excitement that made the night sky turn into glimmers of wonder and dawn into shimmering gold. She was quick with soaping her brown skin, being careful not to allow too much water underneath her shower cap as she bent down to quickly clean from her knees to her toes. As she showered, she thought of the many questions that she wanted to ask Cerasee.

Interdependence.

It was not just a company that people’s first thoughts were its profitable revenue, but it was tied to making a cherished way of life come true. And somehow, she was one of the ten percent to hold such an opportunity. Or would testing continue once they reached the next stage of this reward? However, Cerasee had said she was already a member of Interdependence. After all of the hours of answering needless questions.. Was it really this simple?

Raven was ready to go, wearing a light sundress and flat sandals. She didn’t use makeup much, so that was not a concern for her, but she did miss her earrings and rope chain necklaces.

The same driver was waiting and helped Raven place the black cube into the town car, still not speaking a word. Raven sat in the spacious passenger compartment, separated from the driver by black sliding glass. She immediately recognized how minimal the outside sounds were as they drove off.

Cerasee appeared again, wearing the same outfit that Raven had on. “I will be with you at all times during this part of your training. What training, you ask?” The small creature didn’t wait for Raven to speak. “We will find that out once we reach Interdependence. For now, please enjoy breakfast.” She waved her hand towards a drawer under the facing seat. Inside, were warmed pancakes, Raven’s favorite, scrambled eggs, and link sausages. “Please eat while I continue.”

Raven picked up the gold fork (she had never eaten from one before, only silver) and listened carefully to Cerasee’s speech.

Though surrounded with a lot of verbiage, the rules were rather simple—follow and do whatever Cerasee asks of her to do. If a continuous defiance occurred, then Raven would not reach the full potential that Interdependence could provide for her. She would be given a manageable and uncomplicated life.

“Like this driver and courier,” Cerasee indicated to the front of the car. “I’m not demeaning, mind you. She is quite content with her life, but she refused to grow for whatever personal reason she wished upon herself. And we will not interfere with that, but will continue to provide until death do us part.”

Interdependence’s workforce was for life.

Cerasee continued to speak, providing information Raven already knew about Interdependence, which was all positive and dreamy-eyed fulfilling. She watched the streets and then the highway, predetermining their destination, and that was the nearest facility outside the city limits. Interdependence owned a 500-acre campus, designed so employees wouldn’t have to go beyond its borders during the course of their work days. From numerous dining options, retail services, health care and child care facilities, there wasn’t anything that the campus couldn’t provide.

IDs were scanned numerous times as the town car made its way from the outside borders of the campus to the interior roads. They drove up a coiled ramp when they entered a garage and exited on level five, with three more levels above. Raven didn’t see when the handle and wheels appeared on Cerasee’s cube, as the handle telescoped to a height easy for her to pull. Interdependence was top in technology.

From walking from the garage to the entrance door of the same fifth floor level, there was more scanning of fingerprints and facial recognition, which included Raven. As Raven pulled the cube, the driver led her down a carpeted hallway, passing several secured doors before stopping at one. Raven scanned her face and the door opened. The driver left.

Inside, was a comfortable studio apartment playing music that Raven had chosen from the app. A kitchen to one side, a king-size bed on the other, and a reclining chair with a swing-away table in the middle. Sitting near the bed was a six-panel dressing screen displaying the silk flowers of a plum blossom tree, an actual moving image swaying gently in the wind. But what really caught Raven’s attention was the black oval contraption towering to the ceiling next to windows displaying the forest bordering the Interdependence’s campus.

“We call it Raindrop,” Cerasee’s voice broke through Raven’s mesmerized eyes. “It’s what will be your life for the next several weeks, and more. And all of this,” she waved around the studio, “will be your dwelling. A chef will come at mealtimes and prepare all acquired substances.”

“What is it?” Raven said, letting go of the cube’s handle and walking towards the device. Its black surface looked identical to Cerasee’s cube: shiny, but with no reflection.

“It’s where we start,” Cerasee said. “There’s a suit behind the dressing panel. Please put it on and we will begin.”

Remembering the rules Cerasee had provided in the town car, she did as instructed. Behind the dressing panel was a three-drawer dresser. A black, shiny jumpsuit sat on top. Raven undressed and didn’t notice the footies and gloves were incorporated into the suit until she held it up. It had a hood and mask as well, with translucent coverings for the eyes. Her entire body would be covered with this suit, zipped without metal interlocks, but pressed together making it almost seamless. Raven left the hood resting on her back as she came to the front of the dressing panel.

“You must have everything covered before entering Raindrop.” Cerasee pointed at the hood.

“Is this some kind of protection against dangerous rays or something?” Raven looked at her arms and hands covered in the black suit, which actually felt quite light, almost as if she was wearing fine silk.

“Nothing like that,” Cerasee said, now also wearing the same suit Raven had on. “Hood please. We have a lot to cover.”

“Okay,” Raven breathed in and pulled the hood on, sealing it closed around the neckline.

“One hand on Raindrop, please,” Cerasee extended her hand, indicating what Raven should do next, and Raven complied.

A part of the contraption melted away, displaying only darkness within.

“Step inside, please.”

Raven tried to see what was inside, but couldn’t make out anything. She looked back at Cerasee and she was standing up on the center of the cube.

With curiosity rushing to its peak, Raven stepped inside, and all light was sealed away.

Raven didn’t hear her own breathing as she stood in the darkness. Then, a small light appeared and grew, until someone was standing in front of her, unclothed. She recognized herself.

“Oh my god!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

She heard Cerasee, but she couldn’t find her projection anywhere.

“This is your avatar. Unfortunately, you will not be able to dress her until you’ve acquired the skills. Fortunately, the weather isn’t harsh, so being unclothed while you learn will not be a problem.”

Raven continued to look at herself as if a real person stood right in front of her.

“This is the only time you will be able to see yourself, until you acquire all the items necessary to have those types of luxuries like shelter, clothing, mirrors, etc. Though food can be sought anywhere, since we can only eat fruit.”

The avatar disappeared and a wave of colors filled the air around her, like seeing the smeared rainbow colors in bubbles.

“Here we go!” The excitement in Cerasee’s voice filled up the contraption.

The colors finally stopped, to change to white and yellow sharp spears of light, and then were replaced with sounds of a forest and the cool light of the sky.

Raven looked around to see strange trees with trunks that twisted up to branches with dark green leaves. The ground was covered with the fallen leaves and grass hinting small flowers at their ends. Looking up, she could see a large sun and two moons. One of the moons had a ring.

“Oh my god.” Raven didn’t know she spoke as she noticed that not only could she see, but she could feel wind, and hear creatures, and smell the fresh scent of air.

“Are you okay?” It was Cerasee’s voice behind her and she looked to see a being of her same height, looking as real as her next door neighbors.

She was completely naked, and Raven could see where her three tails stretched from her sides and lower back to make gentle curves that rose above her head. Her smile didn’t contain teeth, but cartilage, blending with the same color as her skin. She had five fingers, but no opposable thumbs. And her blue skin had specks that looked like colorful glitter.

“Are you okay?” She repeated, slightly tilting her head.

Raven was speechless, as her mind went to: Where are we? To: What is this place? To: How can I smell and feel the air? To: What’s going on?

Cerasee laughed as she completely understood. “This is Heofon. The sister world of Earth. You will learn how to live here and, in turn, how to also live on Earth. Everything you do and learn here is a mirror to what you can complete on Earth.”

Raven continued to look around, seeing and hearing the leaves wrestling and some colorful birds flying in the air. “This is some simulation.”

Cerasee laughed. “Your essence, your soul, is using the avatar. Now come, we must work on the first lesson.” She walked towards one of the trees. “You must learn how to speak.” She tapped the tree’s trunk.

Raven look at Cerasee and then at the tree. “You want me to talk to a tree?”

Cerasee nodded. “They have the most patience for teaching those not native to Heofon how to speak, especially those from Latter Ages where life is not capable of enlightenment.”

Raven grasped what Cerasee was softly trying to explain to her, while trying to minimize any insult. “You mean, like Earth.”

Cerasee stood still.

Raven continued to elaborate, in order for Cerasee to know she understood. “Where we’re violent towards each other, at so many levels.”

Cerasee changed the sad subject. “Please place your hand here, and try to empathize with the tree.”

“Empathize?” Raven chuckled lightly. “With a tree.”

“This particular tree,” Cerasee patted the trunk, “is a bit perturbed because it must wait for that other tree to move in order to move itself. It wants to change places, you see?”

Raven looked and saw in the distance a tree slowly moving, its roots lifting it up and dragging along the ground.

“Okay, trees walk here.” Raven took a deep breath. “There is so much I have to learn.”

Cerasee’s tails twitched. “We are one language here. Once you master it, you can speak to any living thing on Heofon.”

Raven placed her hand on the tree’s trunk and thought of how to empathize. To have to wait for so long for another to move in order to move itself. She understood that type of frustration, especially when the other didn’t quite care for your own predicament.

A voice drifted into her mind. She/he did care, but was enjoying her/his walk, thus taking a long time to settle into place. One must allow the joy of others in order to then enjoy oneself.

Raven lifted her hand away from the trunk. “I—I think I heard it.”

Cerasee gave a huge smile. “Yes! Yes, you did! We just knew you would be able to adapt quickly here!”

Raven stared at her hand where she could still feel the impression of the tree. “This place is real.” It was a statement. A fact. It was something she knew to be true.

“Yes, it is,” Cerasee said. “We bring all candidates here, but majority only see it as a simulation. And they bring what they learn back to Earth, a spark of light from Interdependence, one member at a time. But then there are candidates like you, who will learn and, with time, come to stay on Heofon, once your body is slowly transformed by the meals we prepare for you, so that you can actually live here.”

Raven turned to Cerasee. “Why? Why are you doing this for us?”

Cerasee grasped her hands. “Because our worlds are tied to one another, interdependent, where one has more light, and a little dark, and the other has more dark and a little light. We exist in contradictory opposites, but are inseparable. The gateways between our worlds have always existed, but we pass through to each other in different ways as the ages change. In the past, it was through stone gateways monitored by mystics and sages. Today, it is through entertainment and challenges.”

A white horse galloped by with its proud tail curved upward. Its horn caught the rays of the sun and sparked as it spread its massive wingspan and caught the air. Raven watched in awe as the uni-pegasus flew in the direction of one of the moons.

Raven whispered to herself, figuring out the Old English terms she remembered from an anime show. “Eorthe. Earth. Heofon. Heaven. Helle.” She turned to Cerasee.

“Oh, Hell,” Cerasee said. “Its gateways are on the underside of Earth, and handled by a different division of Interdependence. But, we don’t talk much about that world here.”

pencil

Fairy Tales have always been a favorite of Deana Zhollis, along with folktales. Yet when she set her eyes on the movie Gargoyles (1972), her young mind began drifting with romance and/with the inhuman. And so the storytelling began, first with dolls and paper dolls, and on to writing Science Fiction and Fantasy—even before she knew what it stood for! Engulfed in the genre, she dreamed over and over of that Happily Ever After, in the adult life, with a fashionable twist. Email: penvizion[at]gmail.com

The Devil’s Take

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Joshua Flores


Photo Credit: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Unspoiled vegetables cost too much, almost thrice the price of moldy ones. Rafa picked through the rotting wares.

“Father, why can’t we have fresh carrots for a change? Oh, and some meat?” Samuel pleaded as he pulled on Rafa’s threadbare grey woolen coat.

“Shush now. Devil of a time putting a few pence together. What, with me working all day digging black rock from the ground. Be glad we have something in our bellies tonight and hush down.”

The stall’s owner—a wizened hag—cackled at him to get a move on. Finding a few tomatoes, carrots, and other random provisions with a bit of crunch left to them and very few spots which he could cut away, he paid the crone her blood money.

Vegetable stew then for Rafa and his son tonight. Unless luck was with them and they came across a dead animal on the way home—even a juicy rat would do. Been months with no meat on the table.

Samuel kept pulling on Rafa’s coat as they walked in the middle of the street, avoiding horses and carriages that paid no heed to those in their path. Despite the risk of being trampled, walking on the streets was safer. Never knew when a flying bucketful of human waste and filth would be dumped out a window right onto you if you kept yourself on the side paths.

“Father. I want some milk tonight. Can we get some? Maybe a sweet? Please, Father.”

Rafa sighed. “Sorry, son. None of that for ya tonight. Maybe another day. We have to make do with what we have. Can’t let the Devil get us before our time, eh?”

Samuel pouted but stayed silent as they trudged along, keeping an eye on the gutters for any chance of having meat in his stew. After a few minutes, Samuel tugged on Rafa’s coat again.

‘Father, why don’t you hunt for meat? You were a hunter you told me. You can go out and get a goose, or a duck, maybe even a grouse.”

“Aye, I was a hunter. I hunted all types of game, Samuel. Not all of them were wild animals either. You know why I can’t hunt.”

“But Father, I want some meat.” Samuel’s protest was causing passersby to take notice.

“Hush boy. The forest is owned by the King. He doesn’t give leave to us for hunting. If caught, the penalty for poaching is death. That’s the why, boy. Now keep an eye out for a dead rat.”

 

Rafa and Samuel entered their home. Rafa couldn’t help but think it had seen better days when Maria was alive. She kept a clean and tidy home. She even patched things up when they needed repair. Now, piles of dirt and debris, webs and tiny insects littered the place. Rafa had to get up when the sun rose, take Samuel to Old Lady Veronica, then head to work in the dark mines digging for coal. He pulled out a few lumps from his bag. Part of his daily pay. He placed them in the stove and stoked a fire. He filled a pot with water and placed it on top of the stove. He then washed off the black powder which covered him from head to toe while the house warmed and the water boiled.

Freshened, Rafa sat at the table near the stove. He added salt and some dried herbs he had picked from the roadside to the pot of bubbling water.

He set to work on cutting off the bad bits from the vegetables, placing them into the pot to simmer. He heard a skittering and without a pause he threw his knife, skewering a rat against the corner. “Samuel. We be having meat tonight after all.” Rafa retrieved his knife and bounty.

Samuel looked up from his cot. “Father, when will supper be ready, I am starving.”

“We only just arrived, boy. Be a few minutes. Make yourself useful and sweep a bit, eh? Looks like the Devil blew through here. Could use a bit of tidying.”

“I’m tired, Father. Had to work on maths today with Miss Veronica. She’s a mean one, she is. Made me work hard.”

“Samuel, ya don’t know what tired is. Tired is where you work until your back is bent and your bones are crackling. Now get up and clean for ya supper.”

“I never knew Mother. I know others have mothers who clean and cook and look after them. Where is Mother?” Samuel asked trying to distract his father.

“We live in terrible times. What, with witch burnings, lynchings, and plagues killing people off. It is how we lost your mother, may God rest her soul. One day she was all cheery-eyed, the next she fainted with fever. Few days later, it took her. Had to raise ya by myself, I did. You were just a babe swathed in cloth then. Been seven years now. We managed to survive alright.”

“But Father…”

“Clean I said. Or may the Devil take you.” Rafa realized he had let his anger come out, but before he could apologize, there was a knock on the door.

Samuel stopped reaching for the broom and looked up at his father.

Rafa put down his knife. He had finished skinning the rat and had started butchering it. He washed the gore from his hands in the wash basin. Another knock.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Rafa answered as he kicked some of the clutter into a corner.

Rafa opened the door.

An old stately gentleman stood at the door. He removed his bowler hat and gave a slight bow. “Good evening. Mr. Rafa I presume? I am here to accept your offer.”

“Who are you? What offer might that be?”

“Ah, please forgive my manners. I go by many names: Scratch. Old Nick. Or, your favorite, the Devil. And the offer for me to take your son, Samuel, of course.”

Rafa’s unshaven face wrinkled in disbelief. “The Devil you say? I flirted with you most of my life and I must say, you don’t look like much. So please forgive me if I don’t believe you. Now if you don’t mind, I am making supper for me and my son.” Rafa began closing the door when the gentleman’s cane shot out and blocked it.

“Oh, I am definitely the Devil. I can prove it too.” The old man tapped his cane on the hard dirt floor three times and in an instant the house was clean, repaired, and tidied. A roasted grouse was sitting in the middle of the table with all the trimmings and sides. The aroma wafted over to Rafa. His mouth watered. Samuel ran to the food and was about to grab a leg when Rafa called for him to stop.

“Well, whether you be the Devil or a witch, matters not. I cannot allow you to take my son. I made no offer. So you best be gone.” Rafa straightened himself up to show he meant every word.

“You did make the offer. Heard it myself as I was walking past your place. You said ‘May the Devil take you.’ I may and I will.”

Rafa’s countenance darkened. “’Twas said in frustration and anger. There was no offer being made. Now, you don’t want to make me cross. I am not a nice man when I am pressed.”

“Rafa the Bloodhound. Rafa the Hungry Hunter. Rafa the Shadow. I know you. You have earned your way into my realm many times over. I have many who have entered it thanks to you. You are indeed a formidable man. But you are no match for me. I am not a man. Nor am I mortal. Come, let us partake of the feast I prepared while we come to terms?” Scratch’s arm outstretched towards the table as he tilted his head.

“I think not. You are not welcomed in my home. Take your favors away. We don’t need them.”

“Father. But it’s grouse. A proper roasted grouse. With potatoes and look, gravy! Oh and cranberry jam. Father, I am hungry. We have never eaten like this. Please let us eat?”

The food did smell good and Rafa’s belly was aching to get some into it.

Rafa opened the door wider to let his visitor enter. He allowed the visitor to take his chair while he sat in Maria’s. Samuel stood near his cot, not sure what to do.

“Samuel, come boy. May as well enjoy this food. Our benefactor won’t be staying long.” Rafa motioned for Samuel to take his seat. The boy did so.

Rafa carved the bird, giving Samuel a leg and a wing. He gave Scratch a breast and himself two thighs. Samuel piled potatoes, gravy, and cranberry jam onto his plate. He also poured himself a glass of milk. Rafa also filled his plate up. Scratch served himself some cranberry jam. He then dipped pieces of meat he delicately sliced off the breast in it before sending the fork to his mouth. He chewed quietly but with a smile. Several minutes passed as each of them ate without speaking.

Finally, it was Samuel who broke the silence. “Father, why is the Devil wanting to take me? You didn’t give me away as he says.”

Rafa released a low grunt and responded. “That I didn’t, son. Don’t you worry, you aren’t going anywhere. I will make sure of that.” Rafa’s fork stabbed a thigh, piercing it all the way through, releasing squirts of pink juice. He lifted the thigh and took a large bite out of the meat.

“So Mr. Scratch. Why not chalk this one up to experience and leave us be? We are a struggling folk, trying to survive in troubled times. My son has not yet ripened into a man. Has not discovered the curse of drink, the promise of love, nor the guilt of fight. He has a lot to do before he moves on from this Earth. All he needs is time. You have plenty of that. You don’t need him now. You can afford to wait for him when his time is done. Just like you are waiting for me, I suppose.”

Mr. Scratch finished chewing and swallowed. He then smiled showing bright white teeth.

“My dear Mr. Rafa. Your son is an innocent this is true. And you are not. But will he grow to be like his father? There is no guarantee of that. I don’t want to break up your home, but I must remind you, it was you who uttered the offer. I didn’t come to you unbidden.”

“Then I rescind the offer. No contract has been made.”

“You cannot rescind. There was no contract terms given when you offered. You didn’t ask for anything in return for Samuel.”

Rafa stood up, knife in hand, nostrils opening wide. “You. Will. Leave. Us. Alone.” His voice held steel, his eyes flashed the red of molten metal.

“Now. Now. Mr. Rafa. I’m a reasonable being. Perhaps we can substitute one offer for another?”

Rafa’s body relaxed and he allowed himself to sit down.

“Speak.”

“Your old life was, let’s say, profitable to me. When your wife passed, you made the choice to leave that path so you could take care of little Samuel here. You have done a marvelous job of it too, haven’t you? So you took to working menial jobs to help feed you both. But you miss your old life don’t you? I know you still practice to keep your skills honed.”

“That is not my life anymore. I no longer hunt people. For anyone. Not even you.”

“Here is my proposal, Mr. Rafa. You can keep your son. He can grow into a man and do all the things you envision for him. He will make his own decisions and decide his own fate. But you, you have to work for me. Hell has grown so much over the years, so much so that we have occasional misplaced souls. I am certain they have made their way up to the Human Realm. I want you to hunt them down and return them to me.”

“My son needs me. I cannot disappear for long periods of time hunting your sinners.”

“Also, in return for your services, you will be rewarded with enough gold to move from here to a bigger manor and have staff to watch over Samuel. Who knows, you may be able to woo a young lady to become his mother and care for him while you are away working.”

Rafa looked over to Samuel. Gold. Samuel could have meat every night. Fill out into a man of strong and sound body. He could have proper tutors. He could have a future much better than the one currently promised..

“Father. What does the Devil want you to do? I don’t understand.”

Rafa sat for a minute. “He wants me to hunt again. Not animals but people. Like I used to before you were born. He offers me good pay for it too. And, I must admit, I miss that life. It is in my blood.”

Scratch’s smile grew just a bit more. “So do we have a deal?”

Rafa looked at his son. Samuel’s eyes were wide, hopeful.

Rafa returned the Devil’s smile, albeit with yellowed teeth. “We do.”

pencil

Joshua Flores manifested in Chicago with Spanish as his first language, the struggle to learn English well lead him to read. He devoured comics and men’s adventure novels. Eventually, he exchanged Doc Savage, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes for authors. He scoured thrift stores and used book stores for Poe, Bloch, Beaumont, Ellison, and Bradbury. Horror wasn’t a specific genre but whenever Josh found it, it never failed to draw out raw emotions. Those emotions beckoned Josh to write. At ten years old, he two-finger-pecked short stories on an old electric typewriter. He hasn’t stopped writing since. That scares Josh. Email: Squarehopper[at]gmail.com

Risk Assessment

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Annie Percik


Photo Credit: NASA/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Captain Zheng Gan of the Terran Exploration Alliance flagship, Lapsang, raised his sandwich to his mouth to take a large bite.

“You’re going to die!”

The holographic form of the ship’s Virtual Engine for Risk Notification (VERN) materialised at his shoulder. It appeared as a slender white man in a dark suit and bowler hat, carrying a clipboard. Some programmer’s idea of a joke. The way it screamed right in his ear wasn’t particularly funny.

Gan didn’t even glance at it. “Why this time, VERN?”

“That white bread will spike your blood sugar and eventually all your limbs will have to be amputated! And then you’ll die!”

Gan wished he hasn’t asked. But past experience told him it was always worth checking with VERN before dismissing its warnings. The system’s settings were way off and desperately needed adjusting. But the technician working on the problem had died in the epidemic when the ship’s doctor had ignored VERN’s apparently paranoid rantings about a possible alien pathogen in the air vents. So now they were stuck with it.

To demonstrate his disinterest in VERN’s warning, Gan raised his sandwich and took a huge bite. As he did so, the ship’s proximity alarm sounded piercingly, making him jump. The bite of sandwich shot to the back of his throat, blocking his windpipe completely. He dropped the rest of the sandwich and reached out an arm in supplication, unable to draw in any air or make a sound.

VERN, still at his side, waved its hands frantically. As a hologram, it was unable to assist with the Heimlich manoeuvre.

“The captain is dying! The captain is dying!”

After Gan failed to respond to VERN’s panicked yells, Commander Janet Harcourt looked round from her station, took in the situation and sprang into action. She made two quick strides to the captain’s side, hoisted him up in front of her, placed her hands in the required position under his sternum and jerked backwards. On the third attempt, Gan felt the lodged mass of bread and chicken break free and shoot out of his mouth. It flew in a high arc over the pilot’s shoulder and landed with a squelch on the communications console.

As Gan bent over, gasping and coughing, Harcourt’s arms still steadying him, he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye. Struggling to regain control of his breathing, he tilted his head to look at the view screen, which showed the wide-eyed face of a Tlagan, staring at him in horror from the bridge of one of their standard battle cruisers. The yellowish tint of the lizard-like alien’s leathery skin told Gan it was a male. The Tlagan opened its mouth and a stream of enraged hissing spewed out. The Lapsang’s translator kicked in.

“How dare you disrespect my people in this way! I will spare your puny vessel, but only because the importance of reporting your egregious disregard for the terms of our erstwhile peace treaty allows for no delay.”

The screen went black.

Gan looked over his shoulder at Harcourt, having difficulty processing what had just happened. The Tlagans abhorred physical contact of any kind—they reproduced by parthenogenesis—and had originally declared war on Terra after witnessing the multitude of ways in which humans used touch to communicate in everyday life. The conflict had been long and bloody, and had only ended six months previously. The Terran Exploration Alliance (TEA) had been founded in the wake of the peace treaty, with the Lapsang launching its maiden voyage to celebrate the new opportunities for exploration without fear of attack.

And now, after the Lapsang’s first encounter with another ship, they were apparently at war again.

VERN flailed its holographic arms. “You’ll all be court martialed! Unless you all die first!”

Gan thought fast. For once, VERN might be right. The TEA was still a branch of the military and High Command was going to be less than impressed with them being responsible for war breaking out again.

“Follow that cruiser, Lieutenant,” Gan called out to the pilot.

Lieutenant Kozlowski turned in his seat and stared at the captain.

“You heard me, Lieutenant,” Gan said, wishing his voice sounded less hoarse. “Get after that Tlagan ship right now. Don’t let it get too far ahead, but try not to attract its attention.”

The Lapsang might not have much weaponry, but it was fast and agile. They ought to be able to keep up with the battle cruiser without drawing its fire. Kozlowski capitulated and turned back to his console, tapping in commands. The starfield visible through the view screen shifted perspective as the ship came about. A small dot far ahead denoted the cruiser’s progress.

“What are you thinking, Captain?” Commander Harcourt asked.

Gan answered her question by issuing more orders. He spun to face the communications console.

“Lieutenant Commander Owusua, can you jam any outgoing signals from the cruiser?”

She looked at him gravely. “I should be able to. Yes, sir.”

“Do it.”

Owusua regarded the sticky glob of ejected sandwich and carefully gave it a wide berth in executing Gan’s order. “Signals jammed, sir.”

“It’s all very well stopping them getting a message out now. But what are we going to do when they get back to Tlagan space?” Harcourt wanted to know. “We can’t follow them all the way home. And if they decide to confront us, we’re toast.”

“I’ve just bought us some time,” Gan said. He had no idea how to solve their dilemma, either. “I’m hoping someone will come up with a plan before things get worse.”

“You’re all doomed!” VERN wailed. “The situation is hopeless!”

“Thanks, VERN. You’re a ray of sunshine as ever.” Gan looked round at the rest of his bridge crew. “Does anyone have anything more constructive to offer?”

Blank, worried faces looked back at him. Strategic planning was meant to be his department, but instinct had only brought him so far. They were hurtling towards what was now enemy space, with no hope of surviving a direct conflict. And, if they turned tail and went back to Earth, they would probably be thrown in prison. He would have to hope something occurred to him before they reached the point of no return.

The atmosphere on the bridge was tense, as Kozlowski worked to keep the Tlagan cruiser in sight and the Lapsang off its radar, while Owusua kept any announcements of the renewed war from escaping the jamming field she had extended around the cruiser. Gan noticed the rest of the bridge crew throwing anxious sidelong glances at him every now and then. But inspiration refused to come.

Eventually, Lieutenant Kozlowski announced, “We are approaching Tlagan space, Captain. What do you want me to do?”

Gan opened his mouth but nothing came out. He was an explorer, not a soldier. How was he supposed to know what to do in this situation. But before the silence dragged out to an embarrassing length, Owusua broke it.

“There’s another ship coming at us fast. From the direction of the Tlagan homeworld.” She turned wide, frightened eyes on Gan. “It’s an elite battle cruiser.” Those were three times the size of the standard ones. “And it’s hailing us.”

Gan felt what little of his sandwich he’d managed to eat turn over in his stomach. They were for it now. VERN was right. He had led his entire crew to their doom. He glanced round the bridge to make sure nobody was touching anyone else. There was no sense in exacerbating the problem even more. Then he straightened his uniform jacket and took a deep breath.

“On screen.”

The starfield was replaced by a larger and fancier version of the other cruiser’s bridge. This time, the purple tint of the captain’s skin denoted a female.

“Greetings, Lapsang.” The translator turned her hisses into a very cheery-sounding salutation. “You’re a long way from home.”

Gan stared at her. Was the jamming field still in effect? Had the other ship not managed to alert this one to the changed war status?

The Tlagan captain continued. “And I see you’ve brought us a present. We appreciate the assist.”

What on earth was she talking about? Gan looked at Owusua, who looked straight back, as baffled as he was.

“Um, you’re welcome…” He trailed off, not wanting to reveal his complete ignorance of what was going on.

“I have to admit I’m surprised that a human ship with little to no offensive capabilities would be willing to risk attack from one of our battle cruisers.” The Tlagan captain’s eyes shone with admiration. “I’m impressed that you humans are taking the peace treaty so seriously. To risk yourselves just to track a rogue ship and broadcast a distress signal on an open frequency to let us know where you were…” She shook her head in amazement. “That took some guts and could easily have gone very wrong for you. But we’ve been looking for this crew for weeks and haven’t managed to track them down. So you’ve done us a huge favour.”

“Um, you’re welcome…” Gan repeated, swallowing hard.

When it became clear he wasn’t going to say anything more, the Tlagan captain nodded. “Right then. We’ll take it from here. We’ve got them secured in a forcefield so they won’t get away from us again. Oh, and I’ll send a communique to Terran High Command to commend you for your actions. I think you’ve just strengthened the peace between our two peoples considerably.”

The screen went blank, leaving Gan opening and closing his mouth like a fish. He turned to Owusua.

“What distress signal?” he asked. “You didn’t send out a distress signal, did you?”

Owusua shook her head. “No, sir. That would have been insane. Anybody could have picked it up and come to find us.” She gestured at the screen. “Just like they did.”

“So what was she talking about?” Gan felt like he was seriously losing the plot. He jumped as VERN appeared at his side again. At least this time, he didn’t have anything in his mouth.

“I sent the distress signal,” the hologram said. “The ship was in imminent danger of destruction! So I called for help! Any kind of help, from anywhere that was listening! It was the only way to save you all!”

Owusua scanned her console, her eyes alighting on the chewed up piece of sandwich. With a grimace of distaste, she flicked it away with her fingers to reveal a bright, flashing yellow light. The distress beacon. It had been going off the whole time.

“You can switch that off now,” Gan told her, then turned to gape at VERN. “I don’t believe it. You actually saved us.”

The hologram adopted a superior expression that actually matched its prim and proper appearance for once. “Of course,” it said. “It is my job to identify risks and protect the crew from danger.”

Gan collapsed back into his captain’s chair and wiped his hand over his face. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions.

“Lieutenant Kozlowski, plot a course for Earth. It seems we’ve averted a war and now we have commendations to collect. Let’s go home.”

pencil

Annie Percik lives in London with her husband, Dave, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website, which is also where all her current publications are listed. She also publishes a photo-story blog, recording the adventures of her teddy bear. He is much more popular online than she is. She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time. Twitter: @APercik | Email: annie[at]alobear.co.uk

The Empty Mirror

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Mirage Lin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Gripping the phone tight between sweaty fingers, I close my eyes, breathe in the heavy air and say, ‘Thank you for letting me know.’ My voice sounds thin and tinny.

The voice reassures me that he will be in touch again soon. He reels off the digits of his direct extension along with a helpline number. ‘In case you need to talk to anyone.’

It’s a while before I realise that I am still clinging to the phone, the dial tone buzzing in my ear. I try to picture the person belonging to the voice, wonder what he is doing, now he has ticked off this awkward task from his list.

I stand and stretch and head to the bathroom where I splash cold water over my face then stare into the chipped enamel sink. Slowly I raise my eyes and turn, catching the mirror only obliquely, passing a glance at the image which is never quite what I expect.

In the kitchen, I half trip over the curling lino. Sun streams through the glass; it bounces off metallic surfaces, blinding me and threatening to turn the strain behind my eyes into a full-blown headache. For weeks the heat has built with no relief, mirroring my inner tension, as if I’ve been half-expecting something to happen.

I make a cup of coffee, splash in some milk, then cradle the mug between my palms, warming my hands, which seem to have retained a sensory memory of that time outside time, those clock-stopped days.

I gear myself to call my parents, wishing I could postpone, knowing that nothing could excuse a delay of any kind. Relief battles with frustration when the answerphone kicks in. I cannot blurt out my message, so instead I stall: ‘I’ve got some news. Please ring me back.’ I picture them listening and knowing instantly, the way that I did.

Good news or bad? Dad always asks that. It is hard to say.

This all happened long ago and I have pressing things to do, working from home no excuse for slacking. I return to my home office and sit in front of my laptop and manage to spill my gone-cold coffee. I try to re-immerse myself in the figures which fill my screen, grounding myself in the present, filling the crevices of my brain with facts, trying to force out the voice pounding in my ears.

Your sister has been found.

That morning…

The shriek of the alarm sliced through my thumping head. Emma groaned. It would have been so easy to curl up and drift back down; I was determined not to. I rolled towards the kitchenette. Emma was doing her best to feign sleep and I nudged her with my foot. ‘Come on Ems. Rise and shine.’

She opened her eyes. Her face seemed to mirror my own, looking every bit as crap as I felt. ‘What time is it?’ she asked, the same question every morning.

‘Time to get up.’ My same-old reply.

‘We only just got to bed.’

We’d crashed on the pull-out sofabed four hours ago; it seemed better not to spell that out. ‘We need to get there early.’ Rising with the sun was worth it—surely—to enjoy the early morning quiet on the slopes. ‘This is our last chance.’ We’d been travelling for several weeks now. Time had slipped past and we’d arrived at our next to final day.

Released from exams, the two of us had one last summer of freedom ahead of being shackled to the confines of office life. Friends were heading for salt-white beaches. Lazing in the heat and avoiding sunburn held no appeal. ‘What about skiing?’ I’d said.

‘Skiing? In summer?’ Emma replied.

‘Sure. There are plenty of places where you can do that. It’s just a question of going up high enough.’

As usual she was willing to follow my lead.

We plotted a train route, joining the dots between major European cities, stopping off at smaller places with hiking trails in between, but the highlight of the trip—literally—was Zermatt, the traffic-free town in the shadow of the Matterhorn, with ski lifts whizzing you from the alpine flowering meadows up to the glacier, snow covered twelve months a year.

Emma was unenthused about my insistence on up-with-the-lark starts. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be relaxing and enjoying ourselves?’ she said.

‘Come on. We can nap this afternoon. It’s never the same once the hordes get going.’ Plus the ski lifts closed at two, before the snow turned wet and heavy. I scooped generous measures of coffee into the pot, added water and put it on the stove. I started pulling on yesterday’s clothes, postponing till later the daily battle with the shower which cycled through from scalding hot to ice-cube cold. Emma finally stirred herself, giving in; she looked nine-tenths asleep as she took two steps to the bathroom, moving more slothfully than was necessary, a token protest. The rich aroma of coffee filled the apartment, promising wide-eyed alertness.

Outside, the air was sharp enough to cut lungs. I anticipated the usual progression whereby we experienced the four seasons in a single day. The ice of early morning would give way to two hours of a perfect spring, the sun warm on skin, the snow soft, exertion building up a sweat with fleecy layers needing to be discarded; later back at base the heat would build, the thin air strengthening the sunlight, so even though the temperatures were significantly lower than Geneva, we’d risk our fair skin burning if we weren’t careful; then though the evening would remain light, the warmth of the day faded quickly and it would feel more like autumn.

Freshly risen sun reflected off newly smoothed snow up above and dazzled my eyes. A brisk ten-minute walk would bring us to the lifts. My leg muscles were stiff from the accumulation of our daily exertions, first on the slopes and later on the dance floor. They’d soon loosen up. Neither of us had much to say, and we didn’t force it, content in our individual silences.

Approaching the chairs, we appended ourselves to a group of dour-faced people in luminously bright clothes, all speaking rapid German.

‘No Joel.’ Emma said it for me.

I shrugged, trying to deny the inner letdown.

It was from Joel that I’d taken this idea of early starts. Our first evening here, he happened to be seated on a table next to ours in the cheapest eatery. Instantly, I had him sussed: young and single-minded, carelessly conscious of his athletic beauty, his sun-tinted unkempt hair and sun-kissed skin, wearing the right casual gear in a vibrant array of matching colour, a cool Aussie accent.

‘New Zealand actually,’ he corrected me. ‘Lots of people get that wrong. Don’t worry about it.’

‘I wasn’t planning to.’

We slipped easily into casual conversation, with Joel keen to provide the insider tips for ski runs, eating places and nightlife, acting as if his hanging out here for several weeks made him some kind of expert. And though his easy chat could have been flirtatious, I knew it wasn’t, that I would never be his type.

He wasn’t my type either.

The following morning, I ensured we were at the chairlifts early. Sure enough, he was in place ahead of us and I hoped he didn’t imagine us being there was due to anything but the promise of clear slopes. He greeted me and Emma with a lazy ‘Hey,’ which I flipped back, feeling the rising flush, hating myself for the way he seemed to make me feel about fifteen.

‘What’re your plans?’ he asked.

This became the pattern. We’d exchange our itineraries and his always sounded vastly more thrilling. Emma and I had built up intermittent experience from childhood holidays, and we got up to speed on blue runs then progressed onto the reds. As the days went by, I was keen to go for black, wanting to press further, faster, pushing ourselves to our limits; Emma remained cautious. Each morning, Joel managed to convey how ordinary our ambitions were, in the nicest, yet most condescending way. He found the graded slopes too prescribed, too overused, too restrictive. Turned out he had skied all over the world and almost always headed off-piste. Not always harder, but certainly more satisfying, he said, his smile self-deprecating, seeming to imply the option was open to us too, if only we shared his spirit of adventure. Nothing like the pure expanse of the unknown. Even here, a popular area, often he could ski for hours and hardly see anyone. Just him alone in the mountains beneath the sky.

‘Awesome,’ he said, and I smiled tightly and mimicked the word sneeringly in my head. And just as he was getting into his swing, the chairlifts would come to life with a heavy clunk. He’d barely finish his sentence before turning, intent on claiming his place, focusing on what lay ahead, rather than lingering in timewaster chit-chat.

Out of sight, and Emma and I would disappear from his thoughts, while my mind still hummed with thoughts of him. And though the mornings passed well enough, I felt frustrated by the tameness of our chosen slopes, by the accrual of the middle-aged along with their precocious kids, all of them churning the snow up into criss-cross ruts. Today, I needed one last glorious morning to fix in memory, to help me through the dullness that was to come as I returned to England to embark on my fast-track civil service career.

Waiting in line, my mood was beginning to dip, exhaustion refusing to be shrugged off. I’d expected to see Joel and finally win some small measure of his respect. Instead, I had nothing but a conjured-up image of his supple limbs intertwined with those of the dark-haired woman I’d seen him with last night.

Not that it was any business of mine.

And not that I needed to see him. I had his ideas committed to memory, the most straightforward of the off-piste routes. No more difficult than many of the official ones. His claim echoed in my head.

This was our final chance.

The weather forecast was pinned up at the entrance to the ski lift: clouds bringing heavy snow were due to blow in from the West. Difficult to believe with the sky currently pale blue and clear, just as it had been all week. ‘Not looking good,’ Emma said.

I cut in fast. ‘Fine for now though. We’ll knock off early for lunch.’

It was almost time and I was muscle tense, waiting for the squeak and clank of well-oiled machinery, the passing moments before an officious Swiss official would open the gate barrier and bark at us and let us through. The group ahead took the first cable-cars. Close behind them, Emma and I moved forward towards the moving seats, choreographing things to settle ourselves and our paraphernalia of poles and skis and bags before the bars descended and locked us in, ensuring we could not slip out as we soared high above the soft cushion of white below, heading ever higher up into the mountains. I loved this. The stomach-drop moment of that initial swooshing upwards. The repeating stomach lurches whenever we bumped over one of the tall towers holding the whole thing up. I never fully acclimatised to the precarious feel of our high-flown transit, but that was part of the experience, the glorious aliveness which inhabited my body, fear mingling with exhilaration. Emma closed her eyes and tightened her fingers around the bar for the entire trip. She never managed to relax into it, or learned to enjoy the hammering of her heart.

The bars started to lift as we reached our destination and we jumped off. The Germans were still faffing around. I headed away from them and Emma tagged on behind.

I explained the route for the tenth time with Emma frowning at me; she never did have much of a sense of direction, choosing to rely on me, rather than putting the effort in herself.

‘And you’re sure you know what you’re doing?’ she asked.

‘Wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t.’ I tried to exude certainty, because confidence is a mind-trick, act it out and it’s there. ‘Just follow me.’

I adjusted my ski boots and checked the fastenings. I lowered my visor, positioned myself and then pushed away.

Images from the previous night kept flashing. Emma and me, dopey from afternoon snoozing, dressing for the evening in floaty cotton, taking turns in front of the cracked mirror as we applied make-up, intent on improving the canvas of youthful skin. Heading out to a cheap eatery and filling up on sizzling rösti washed down with wine. Moving onwards to a club, the hangout for youthful travelling types, and I’d never have admitted it to anyone, but part of me was on the lookout for Joel.

As always, he seemed surrounded by an adoring host of women. His fan club.

He came over, asked about our day, told us about his. Time slid by as we drank and laughed. Emma sipped the same beer for some kind of forever. Mid-evening and Joel drifted off, disappearing into the throng, and I allowed myself to coast with the crowd and anyone watching me would have figured that I was having amazing fun. But as I tripped the light fantastic out on the floor, unleashing an alcohol-fuelled lack of inhibition, inventing feverish dance moves amidst the swirl of coloured lights, despondency was taking hold. I caught passing glimpses as Joel paired up with a wispy looking girl with long dark hair and olive skin, the photo negative to my fairness, and though it was nothing to me, not really, somehow I minded. And the discontent lingered as we headed out into the snow that morning. I had no reason to believe that Joel would care, or even know about today, but I wanted to prove myself to him in the face of his casual dismissal, my mind forming the misconnection: I had lost out romantically; I was not going to miss out on adventure.

Slowly my mind cleared, unwelcome thoughts swallowed by the close-to-perfection scene. Unblemished white sparkling in soft early light. The thrill of the steep but manageable slope. My skill with the poles which had gained fluidity in the ten days we’d been here. I wouldn’t get far ahead, but I longed to immerse myself in the utter aloneness of the wild. To absorb myself in the pure tranquillity of the moment. A presentness untainted by past disappointments or future worries.

I assumed that Emma was close behind.

I felt the faintest pick up of the wind; a trickle of soft flakes melted on my lips and swirled in front of my eyes. Not enough to worry about. I heard nothing but the rustle of my clothes, the whish of skis slipping along the crust of snow, the whisper of my out-breath. Slowly the flakes built in size, in density, in churning momentum, building to form an encompassing cloud, casting a strange ethereal light, heightening my awareness of self, of existing within a time-stopped moment, a perfect harmonious dance of near-weightless body, mind and landscape.

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped and looked behind me for Emma. How long I waited, my serenity turning to an irritated disguise for fear. How long before I pierced the silence to call her name, listening to the rustle of wind in trees and no reply, before I started to walk clumsily up the slope. How long before I began to panic. Before I realised how alone and helpless I was. Before the weather closed in deeper and I could barely see the back of my gloves. Before I decided the best, the only thing I could do was carry on down and get help, my mind frantically constructing a scenario in which she must either have overtaken me, or turned round and taken the chairlift. She’d be waiting anxiously for me at the bottom, of course she would, and over a boozy lunch somewhere warm, we would turn the events to anecdote, an amusing tale to retell our friends.

 

The screen full of figures glows at me, the data failing to order itself and divulge its meaning, my mind struggling to make sense of the story, those crucial aspects that I have always kept secret.

My sister died in a skiing accident. It is so long since I have seen the need to tell anyone this. She got lost in a suddenly descending snowstorm which forced the two of us apart, in an area where snow sometimes formed a thin layer over deep crevasses in the glacier. Her body remained unfound. None of this version of events—the version I told the police, the journalists, our parents, various therapists and the people I have met and tried to be close to since—is untrue, in the same way that a mirror neither hides nor reveals things fully. I tell people of the hot-cold panic of waiting, those unreal days of searching, of my struggle to describe the route we had taken, everything blurring as if seen through a blizzard.

‘Your sister has been found,’ the man on the phone said and for one heart-soar second I pictured her alive. ‘Some skiers discovered her body where the glacier has melted.’ Perfectly preserved, perfectly frozen, stuck in time. And needing someone to make arrangements for repatriation and burial.

‘Can I see her?’ I asked.

‘Think it over. But yes, of course, if you want to.’

Time passes and outside the sun burns ever hotter, burning through the glass, scorching my skin. My screen has put itself to sleep. The phone rings, startling me from reverie and perhaps it is my parents, or possibly some journalist has got hold of the story. I make a move towards the phone and I catch my reflection in the blackened screen and imagine staring into a frozen mirror. Staring at the clock-stopped face which will stare back, the image of the self that was lost to me twenty years ago. The face of my much-loved twin. Youthful. Hopeful. Light still dancing in her eyes.

pencil

Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, literary journals and online. She has been shortlisted by the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been awarded prizes by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work is also included in several Unthology volumes, Best New Writing and Shooter Magazine. She started her career as a theoretical physicist before moving into economics and policy advice. She and her husband live in Welwyn Garden City, UK. Twitter: @Sarah_mm_Evans

Dirty Secrets Make for Orderly Lives

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amberdawn Collier


Photo Credit: Ruin Raider/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

There was a gentle buzz as the phone screen lit up, but Bebe didn’t spare it a glance. She continued methodically shaving the onion into paper thin slices. Her husband looked over from his pile of haphazardly diced pepper.

“You know, there are filters for spam texts,” Dominic laughed. “Unless you want to check out prices for roof replacements in Ohio.”

The knife slipped across onion into flesh. “Ah!” Bebe hissed, dropping the blade and heading over to the sink.

“Are you ok?” He grabbed the little first aid box from the junk drawer.

She nodded. “It’s nothing, just a tiny cut.”

He frowned as he handed her the antibiotic ointment. “How many times have I said that you don’t need to cut the onion so fine? We aren’t cooking for Iron Chef, Bebe.”

“I like to follow the recipe instructions exactly, Dom, unlike you. Those diced peppers are a tragedy,” she muttered, her hand shaking slightly as she took the bandage.

He kissed the end of her nose. “I know you like doing everything perfectly. But you don’t have to try so hard; I already think you’re the best.”

“You’re sweet,” She rested her chin on his shoulder, but her gaze was focused on her phone. “You’re still re-doing the peppers, though.”

“What do you want?” Bebe’s voice was a whisper though she was a good twenty yards from her house.

The voice on the other end of the line snorted. “Well, hello, to you, too, sister.”

Bebe exhaled impatiently. “Cece, I don’t have time for games. I still have the kids’ lunches to pack, and I need to get at least five hours of sleep to function at work tomorrow.”

“Ouch! So, just because I’m not a control freak who plans out her life down to the second, I should have to take care of this by myself?” she asked angrily.

“I don’t even know what this is yet,” Bebe looked down at the daylilies, frowning. Gardening was not her favorite pastime, but everyone else in the neighborhood had lilies, and she didn’t like to stand out. She began furiously plucking off the dead blossoms. “What is going on?”

Cece didn’t reply. Bebe waited, bending to pull an emerging dandelion, grimacing at the dirt that gathered under her classic French tips. The silence stretched, and dread settled in her limbs. She sat down on the grass. “Well?”

“You need to come home. As soon as you can. Plan to stay least ten days,” Cece’s words came out rapidly, tripping over one another in a garbled mess that only a sister could decipher.

“Does that mean—” Bebe began.

“Yes,” Cece cut the question off. “Look, I’ve got to go, and so do you. Just get there by Wednesday.”

“Fine,” Bebe replied, though the call had already disconnected. Chaos was creeping towards the edges of her carefully cultivated life. A wave of dizziness enveloped her, and she fell back on her manicured lawn, breathing in the humid Washington air creeping out of the woods bordering her backyard. It was an old, dark smell, too wild for her to enjoy. She rose, smoothing out both the creases in her pants and the panic in her chest before heading back to the kitchen.

“Sylvie, you need to clean your room before you watch any cartoons,” Bebe lifted her eyes from the laundry pile.

“Mom!” Sylvie pouted. “I just cleaned my room yesterday! What about Josh? His room is a bigger mess!”

“Then he can clean his room, too,” Bebe leaned over and took her son’s Nintendo Switch out of his hands. “I want your rooms in order before I leave tomorrow.”

“Nice throwing me under the bus, Sylvie,” he snapped. “Mom, seriously, you think our rooms are filthy if we have one sock on the floor.”

She ignored his comment and gave him a stack of neatly folded shirts. “It wouldn’t hurt either of you to have a little less screen time. Take a break and put these away.”

Josh started to pull the clothes from her hands, but she tugged back. “Not like that, Josh! I just folded them. You’re wrinkling them all over again.”

“Just because you’re going to a lame technology detox retreat in the woods doesn’t mean we should have to suffer, too,” Sylvie groaned. “I want to watch Netflix.”

Dominic entered from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “Breakfast is ready, guys. Laundry and clean rooms can wait. Let’s have a good last day together. No bickering.”

“Then tell Mom not to be a psycho about our rooms,” Josh grumbled.

Bebe flinched. “Having an organized living space creates an organized mind.”

The kids both rolled their eyes as they went toward the dining room. Dominic caught her arm.

“Don’t be upset. No kid likes to clean their room or put away laundry. It’s nothing personal, sweetie. They love you; they’re just grumpy that they’re going to be stuck with lame ol’ Dad for two weeks.”

She tried to shake the hurt. “What’s so awful about wanting a nice, orderly home?”

“Nothing,” he reassured her. “And trust me, a week from now, when Josh can’t find his tablet, Sylvie has lost her third pair of soccer pads, and they’ve been eating peanut butter and jelly for lunch instead of your gourmet fare, they will be begging me to fly to Maine and hike three hours to your wilderness retreat to get you.”

Bebe pulled back, looking up with worry on her face. “Will you be all right without me, really?”

“Not all right, but we’ll survive,” Dominic grinned, cupping her cheeks and kissing them both. With the air of man defusing a bomb, he eased the shirts from her grip and set them neatly on the coffee table.

He put an arm around her waist and led her to the dining room, pulling out her chair. “Seriously, hon, I think it’s a good idea. You haven’t had a vacation in forever. Though, I have to say the whole wilderness, no technology is a surprise. Are you sure you want to go to the middle of the woods and commune with nature in the middle of summer? You spray yourself down with repellent to walk to the mailbox.”

Bebe smiled tightly. “It wasn’t my first choice, either, but apparently my friend Vivian from college swears by it for ultimate relaxation. Honestly, it isn’t exactly roughing it. The place has plumbing and central air. It will be a good opportunity to re-connect. And being away from phones and computers and television for two weeks won’t kill me.”

“Mosquitoes might though,” Sylvie snarked as she poked at her food. “They carry Ebola or something.”

“Or ticks,” Josh added, his mouth full of oatmeal. “You could get that citrus disease.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Bebe replied automatically, though her face blanched of its color. “And it’s Lyme Disease with a ‘y,’ not an ‘i.’”

“Stop harassing your mother, you two.” Dominic put his hand over hers and squeezed. “Don’t worry. I already put three kinds of bug spray in your luggage.”

 

Sunny’s Diner had seen better days. The majority of its business had shifted three miles west to the travel plaza just off the newer and much better paved four-lane highway. Most of the remaining customers were older locals who preferred the winding two-lane country road, plain black coffee with no fancy flavors, and the crispy hash browns of John, the fry cook of thirty-five years.

Bebe parked her rental car and took a steadying breath. She stared at the peeling yellow paint on the bricks. The smiling sun logo was missing an eye. How like this tiny town, she thought, to be half-blind.

“Bebe Carter!” a booming voice greeted her the instant she walked through the door. “We never thought we’d see you again!”

She pasted a friendly, non-committal smile on her face. “Miss Maryanne,” she murmured, nodding her head respectfully at the waitress, noting that all the heads in the diner had turned her way.

“Table for one?” the older woman looked toward the parking lot. “No one with you? No husband?” her eyes locked onto the golden band on Bebe’s left hand.

“My husband couldn’t get time away from work,” Bebe answered. “But Cece is meeting me.”

“Heaven have mercy!” Maryanne’s grin faltered as she placed two laminated menus on the tan Formica table. “I was real sorry to hear about your mama.”

“Thank you,” she replied quietly.

“Hmm,” Maryanne hummed as she poured two steaming cups of coffee. She placed them on the table, along with a small ramekin of milk. “You still take cream, right?”

Bebe nodded. “Yes, thanks.”

Maryanne leaned down, her yellow uniform smelling of homemade buttermilk biscuits and bacon grease. She put an arm around Bebe’s shoulders, not noticing how she tensed at the touch. “I know she was a hard woman to love, but she was still your mama. It’s ok to cry.”

Bile and angry words rose in Bebe’s throat, but she was saved from exposing her bitterness by Cece’s entrance, grand as always. Her younger sister threw open the door, sending the bell above into a frenzy of jingling. Cece was wearing ripped acid-wash jean shorts, scuffed army boots, and a paint-stained Alice in Chains T-shirt. For a disorienting moment, Bebe worried she had traveled back in time to high school.

“Good Lord, child,” Maryanne had rushed over to Cece, crushing her to her chest. “You didn’t clean up at all in twenty years.” She ran a finger over the dried blue splotch on Cece’s shoulder. “Still messin’ around with paint? Didn’t you ever grow up, girl?”

“Cece is a successful muralist. Her work earns her an excellent living,” Bebe felt compelled to come to her defense, though she had made similar comments about her sister’s appearance.

Cece winked at Maryanne. “Hear that? I have Bebe’s seal of approval. I clearly must have grown up, because she is a serious adult.”

Maryanne’s broad bosom heaved with laughter. “Too grown up for blueberry pancakes and sausage links?”

“Never!” Cece sat down. “Give Bebe the same.”

“No, I don’t eat gluten,” Bebe called out, louder than she’d intended. Everyone turned to stare at her again. “Fine. A small stack,” she mumbled, her fingers tracing an ancient crack in the table top.

After Maryanne had entered the kitchen, she turned to her sister. “This was a horrible place to meet.”

“What? You weren’t feeling nostalgic?” Cece took the milk, pouring the whole container into her cup.

“Hey! Some of that was for me,” she protested.

Cece shrugged. “Too bad, so sad, my Bad Bitch,” she taunted.

“You know I hate that nickname,” Bebe grimaced.

“With a name like Bebe, I couldn’t not give you an awesome nickname, sis. You’re just jealous you never came up with a good one for Cece, because you don’t have any imagination, just like our mother.”

That stung, and she was suddenly twelve again. “I do so, you… Cackling Chicken!”

Cece made a choking sound and slapped the table. “Oh my god! How long were you holding on to that one? It was even lamer than I imagined!”

“I was wrong, you didn’t grow up at all,” Bebe used her napkin to wipe up the few drops of milk that dripped from the ramekin, then began the futile task of scrubbing at a stain worn deeply into the table’s surface.

You were wrong?” Cece said in a tone of faux shock, her eyebrows arching toward her hairline. “I should have recorded that.”

Bebe’s temples began to throb. She wrapped her hands around the mug to keep herself from cleaning the entire table. “How long will this take?”

A serious expression settled on Cece’s face. It looked out of place. “Apparently, she pre-planned her funeral years ago, right after Dad died. So, most of that is handled. She has a plot next to his, and they’ll have everything ready for the burial tomorrow. I put a notice in the paper yesterday.”

“How many people do you think will come?” She put her spoon in her black coffee, stirring vigorously and aimlessly all at once.

“Hard to tell,” Cece chewed her lower lip. “On one hand, our mother alienated just about everyone in town at some point in her life. On the other, she was the main source of entertainment before streaming video.”

“So, you think the only people who will come are gossips and the ones who want to spit on her grave?” She tried to make a mental count and gave up.

Cece’s laugh was a mix of camaraderie and mockery. “I know—that’s half the town, right?”

To Bebe’s relief, the turnout was closer to twenty people. The guess about their motivations was spot-on, though. A dozen or so were faces she recognized from long-standing feuds with her mother, while the remaining mourners included the local conspiracy theorist and a woman who papered her study with obituary notices.

Bebe had never loved her sister more than when Cece announced loudly that there would be no reception after the burial. Bebe didn’t even mind the normally unbearable looks of judgment from those assembled. Cece put an arm around her, and she leaned in without hesitation, grateful to use the body language of grief to convince others to leave her alone. They stood side by side as if frozen in the summer heat, silently staring at the open grave as the cheapest coffin was lowered slowly into a cleanly cut rectangle. Time passed, all the cars pulled away, and finally, a backhoe began to fill in large clumps of earth.

“I forgot to throw in my rose,” her voice broke as she glanced down at the flower in her hand. All its thorns were gone, and putting a flower without defenses on her mother’s grave seemed cruel.

“Me too, except I didn’t forget,” Cece tugged on her sleeve, moving her a few steps over. “Dad would appreciate the flowers.” She bent down and placed the roses on the slate gray tombstone.

“Do we have to go there?” Bebe asked quietly. “Can’t we just pay someone to burn it down?”

Cece laughed bitterly. “I’m seriously impressed that you suggested that, but if she had been worth going to prison for, I would have poisoned her vodka twenty years ago.” She glanced over and grinned. “Speaking of vodka, I stopped at the liquor store. Want to go back to our crappy motel and get plastered?”

“No,” Bebe said tiredly. “Between the red eye flight and the time change, I just want to go back and sleep.”

“Fine, but stop by my room in the morning for an Irish coffee—I think you’ll need a shot of something before heading out.”

Bebe settled for the motel lobby coffee, which was foul and terribly weak. She wasn’t sure how anyone could make what was basically water taste burnt, but the Good Rest Inn had managed the feat. An inquiry about the room cleaning and linen replacement schedule had revealed that those services were only provided every other day, for the good of the environment. Fighting back nausea at the thought that the room she’d slept in hadn’t actually been properly sanitized, she sat down in the tiny breakfast nook and forced down a dry serving of corn flakes because there was no milk. Cece came in a few minutes later, holding a large silver thermos. Her face was mostly covered by large, reflective aviator sunglasses. She was wearing old, stained clothes, a red bandana over her hair, and a grumpy expression.

“Here,” she held out another bandana. “You are definitely going to want to cover that three-hundred-dollar blow-out.”

“It was only one hundred,” Bebe replied defensively. “And I was going to my mother’s funeral. I needed to—”

“Look perfect?” Cece cut her off. “I’m well aware of your compulsive need for projecting a perfect image. You’re going to regret wearing that perfect little yoga outfit, though. I have a feeling you’ve never actually sweat in it before. Come on, we need all the daylight we can get.”

During the short drive from the motel, Bebe tried to prepare herself. Nothing worked, though, and her chest filled with a deep ache as Cece turned beside a clump of poison oak that obscured all of the mailbox save the little rusted red flag. The winding drive was more purple coneflowers and goldenrod than gravel, and even the light sound of long grass brushing against the side of the Jeep was torturous to Bebe’s already frayed nerves. Cece steered toward a pile of wood and stone that had once been a stand-alone garage and parked.

Bebe stared in horror through the windshield at the structure. As unlivable as it had been during their childhood, this was worse. Part of the roof was sagging dangerously, and a mantle of ivy, moss, and algae had covered most of the siding. A front step was missing, as were several porch supports. “Are you sure this place hasn’t been condemned?”

“The county inspector was terrified of our mother, just like everyone else. I think she threatened to set him on fire once.” Cece pulled a large sack from the back of her Jeep. “Look, no local company will come to clean while there are biohazardous materials inside. We just need to deal with a few areas, and then we can make plans for other people to clean and fix up the rest. Then we can sell it and never worry about it again.”

“Is it really worth fixing?” Bebe asked doubtfully. She watched Cece reach back again and pull out a large blade. “Is that a machete?”

“Yep,” Cece replied. “Don’t give me that dirty look. I’m not going to hack you to pieces. The police trampled down a few spots, but we still need to cut a path. Unless you want to wade through a sea of weeds and a million chiggers to get to the front door.”

“What’s left of the front door,” Bebe could see from fifty feet away that the main door was missing a quarter panel in the lower left corner and tilting at an odd angle. She tried to disregard the mention of chiggers, but her fingernails began to spontaneously scratch at her arms.

Cece handed her a bucket with a roll of heavy trash bags, cleaning spray, paper towels, a packet of latex gloves, and a giant pump container of hand sanitizer. “You’ll need this. Follow me.”

“Wait!” Bebe grabbed a can of bug repellent out of her purse and sprayed it all over her body, then offered it to her sister, who took it without hesitation.

“Do you have a spray to protect against a breakout of childhood trauma?” Cece joked, but neither woman laughed.

Even though Cece thought she had no imagination, Bebe’s brain was excellent at self-harm, and by the time they had reached the front door, it already had convinced her that she was covered by thousands of tiny bugs despite the spray. She fidgeted nervously as Cece set down her things and lifted the door sideways.

“It was off the hinges?” Bebe asked. “Why?”

Cece groaned at the weight of the door, and Bebe rushed to help her. They propped it against the siding, waiting to see how far into the moss it slipped. “The police took it off when they came out to do the welfare check.”

“How long was she—” Bebe swallowed, taking the latex gloves out of the bucket and pulling them on with a snap.

“The coroner’s report said a few weeks,” Cece reached down and put a pair on as well, then stepped through into the dark hallway. “You’d better get your phone out and use the flashlight.”

Bebe hovered at the threshold. “I didn’t bring my phone.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t bring your phone? Who doesn’t carry their phone these days?” Cece griped.

“I told Dominic I was on a technology detox retreat in Maine. I’m supposed to not have a phone,” she confessed, waiting for her sister’s scoffing censure.

But Cece only turned on her own flashlight app. “Just stay near me,” she muttered.

Bebe still hesitated, unable to force her feet into the house. Fear was spreading upwards from the soles of her feet, burrowing into her skin like chiggers, releasing the toxins of a thousand bad memories.

Cece’s hand snaked out, grabbing her and pulling her forward. “Don’t give her any more power, Bad Bitch. She’s dead.”

“It still smells like,” Bebe gasped as she stumbled against her sister, breathing through her mouth, not wanting to complete her thought.

“I know. We should’ve brought Vick’s and face masks,” Cece shone the light forward, revealing the precariously towering stacks of newspapers, cardboard, clothing, empty food containers, plastic bags, and other miscellaneous junk cemented together with cobwebs and twenty-five years of dust, grime, and cigarette smoke. “Do you remember the way through to the living room?”

Bebe closed her eyes against both the acrid smell and the memories rushing toward her. “Straight until the Dennis the Menace doll with the missing arm. Turn right, then left at the baby gate covered in broken Christmas lights. Don’t forget to duck by the stack of Good Housekeeping—there’s always a spider web there.”

“Yes, exactly,” Cece nodded, her voice low and shaky. She coughed, then continued, her normal sarcastic tone back in full-force, “Who could forget Dennis? That little shit has given me a lifetime of nightmares.”

They walked slowly through the winding path, turning sideways at times, crouching at others. Bebe had always compared going through her mother’s house with playing a giant game of Twister in which it was entirely possible to break a leg or worse with the wrong step. The last time she had been here, the day she’d packed her bag for college ten states away, she’d cut herself on a broken ceramic Precious Moments angel figurine, the jagged edge of its praying hands catching her thigh as she’d hurried past to the waiting cab. At the school health clinic, she’d gotten a booster for her tetanus shot, but her clumsy attempt to use butterfly tape to close the wound had resulted in a raised, silvery scar. When Dom had run his gentle fingers over it, she told him she’d gotten it by slipping against an open locker after swimming in the college pool, the first of many lies she had told him.

In the living room, the light was a little better. The windows had curtains, but they were in tatters, and the piles of debris hadn’t made it fully up to the top of the casement. There were only two spaces cleared. One was in front of the hulking television set purchased in 1990 where about forty grimy cigarette cartons balanced like filthy Jenga blocks. The other was a small area around the dry-rotted recliner, heaped with blankets, a stack of empty popcorn canisters depicting happy Boy Scout faces propping up the broken left armrest. The blankets were soaked in a black, slimy sludge that made Bebe think of a toxic oil spill. It smelled terrible; the stench intensified with the heat.

“Is that where she was when they found her?” She looked away quickly.

Cece nodded in reply, putting down her bucket and pocketing her phone. She opened one of the heavy-duty trash bags and handed it to Bebe. “Hold this steady.”

Her sister had always been the brave one, Bebe knew, but the amount of fortitude needed for this job seemed impossible. Cece grabbed the top blanket, folding the edges inward to lift it. Her arms strained, and she grunted. “God, that’s heavy.”

She dropped the bundle into the bag, and Bebe clutched at the plastic as it slipped out of fingers from the weight. A blend of fetid cigarette ash and death rose to her nostrils and she gagged, her burned coffee water emptying into the trash bag.

Cece snorted. “You just threw up on Mom.”

Wiping her mouth with the back of her gloved hand, Bebe lifted her chin defiantly. “And I’m not a bit sorry.”

“Excellent,” she hefted the next blanket. “That’s the attitude we need to get through this.”

 

As soon as they got back to the motel, Bebe took the bucket of cleaning supplies into her room and scrubbed every surface, including the walls. She stripped the bedding and took her rental car down to the local laundromat, which was across the road from the liquor store. Generally, her limit was two glasses of white wine, but today was exceptional in every awful way. The clerk raised his eyebrows at the five bottles.

“Having a party?” he scanned the items.

“A pity party,” she answered with uncharacteristic honesty. He was a stranger she would never see again, and she had to tell at least one person the truth or her moral compass might rot away completely.

Unfazed, he bagged her purchases. “Right on. You might want to add some solo cups for easy clean up.”

She retrieved the clean linens and stopped by a gas station to get air fresheners. It was beginning to concern her that she would never stop smelling her mother’s liquid remains. After hanging the cardboard pine trees from the wall lamps and doorknobs, she remade the bed and took a scalding shower, using up her entire bottle of peach-scented exfoliating scrub. Her skin felt raw, but marginally cleaner. The clothes she had worn earlier went into one of the black trash bags.

There was no chance of her trusting the water quality of the motel’s ice maker, so she mixed herself a room-temperature margarita. She was sipping on her third when there was a knock on her door. Cece came in, her shoulders hunched, her eyes downcast. Bebe was reminded of how her little sister had once made a secret path between their rooms, a tunnel too low and dark for their mother to notice, their own little battle trench in the world war that was their home.

“I saw a roach in my room,” her voice was hardly audible. She glanced around. “All your cleaning probably scared it out of hiding.”

Bebe handed her the cup she was holding. “You can sleep here. I made margaritas.”

Cece took a deep drink. “Thanks.”

By the time the bottle of mixer was gone, and they had started on straight shots, the normal, abrasive Cece had returned. “I thought I was the bad child. I still can’t believe you told everyone at college that our mother was dead.”

“I was just so sick of people asking if I was going home for the Thanksgiving break. It came out, and then I couldn’t take it back.” Her words came out in a belligerent slur, then dipped into a mournful sound. “I promised myself I would never step foot in that house again.”

“Yeah,” Cece threw her head back to take another shot. Her bleary eyes met Bebe’s accusingly. “You left me behind in that shit show for two years alone.”

There was nothing she had done that pained Bebe more. Tears immediately began to stream down her face. “I know,” she leaned toward Cece, her body flopping sideways as she tried to hug her. “I’m so sorry, my little Cackling Chicken.”

“Whatever,” Cece said gruffly, but she moved into the hug. “Pain makes for good art.”

“Then you are definitely a world-class muralist,” Bebe murmured, her face hidden in her sister’s hair. It smelled like the overly floral motel shampoo, with an underlayer of ever-present turpentine.

“Did you tell them I was dead, too?” Cece asked in a whisper, her own cheeks wet now.

She shook her head so hard the room began to spin. “No. I put up every piece of art you sent me. Dominic and the kids are always asking when you will come out to visit, but I know you’re really busy.”

“How old are they now, your kids?” Cece wiped at her face with her T-shirt.

“Sylvie’s twelve, and Josh is ten,” Bebe answered, grabbing a tissue to blow her nose. “They’re good kids.”

“You dodged a bullet for them by never subjecting them to our mother,” Cece grinned, then added, “I bet you make them clean their rooms every day.”

Bebe opened her mouth to protest, but Cece raised a hand. “I’m joking. Well, like forty percent joking.” The smile left her face, her voice beginning to waver again. “I don’t doubt at all that you are a great mother, Bad Bitch. You were a great mother to me, even when you were just a kid.”

Bebe began to cry harder, her shoulders shaking. “No, I wasn’t. I didn’t take good enough care of you—I left you behind.”

“Hey!” Cece grabbed her by the shoulders. “You mastered the art of making macaroni and cheese on a camping grill when you were seven. You cleaned my clothes in the creek, even in the winter. You stole baby wipes and washed my hair so I wouldn’t smell bad at school.”

“I should have taken you with me,” Bebe sobbed, snot mixing with her tears.

“No. You had a chance to get out, a scholarship; you had to take it. I got my chance, too, just a little later,” Cece murmured, handing her another tissue. “And I’m going to visit this Thanksgiving, on the condition that you don’t make me clean my room while I’m there.”

Bebe’s laughter was a wet sound, but happy. “How about you have to make your bed, but I’ll do your laundry?”

“Deal,” She lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s to the death of mom and the rebirth of our sisterhood.”

“Here’s to Bad Bitch and Cackling Chicken,” Bebe smiled, bumping her cup. “May their reinvented past clear the way for a brighter future.”

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Amberdawn Collier is an adjunct professor of English at Ohio University. She earned an M.A. in English Education at City College, CUNY. She loves story-telling in all its forms and enjoys the challenge of writing prompt-driven stories that push her creativity in new directions. Email: acollier00[at]gmail.com

Tulips

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Felicia Sanzari Chernesky


Photo Credit: mwms1916/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Elle had started saving them the summer Dad died, just before the start of school.

This morning, to celebrate another return to household peace and quiet, she was counting up the cash she’d set aside from emptying her pockets of change at each day’s end. Rolling those coins and turning them in for paper money twice yearly, standing before bank tellers who lately seemed to grow younger with every exchange, was a tradition she’d kept a delicious secret since she was a teenager.

Tucking the bills into one of an ancient pair of rainbow toe socks stuffed in the back of her unruly underwear drawer was half the fun. They never amounted to a figure so big it provoked guilt—but big enough to treat herself to something special that could also go unnoticed. This year Elle was planning to buy bulbs.

Not the common kind packaged in a big colorful bag sold at the local Home Depot, but “rare and unusual” Dutch bulbs purveyed by one of the oldest and most prestigious flower bulb importers in the country, who also happened to run his small storefront two towns away.

These were pedigree-bearing blooms with names like “Black Parrot” and “Kingsblood” and “Tulipa Kolpakowskiana,” whose fantastical size, shape, and hue were nothing short of spectacular. And nothing like the sturdy pink carnation service station bouquets Jay sometimes picked up for $9.99 on his way home from work.

“I hate pink and I hate carnations!” she’d confessed to Mom over the phone after another stressful day managing the wellbeing of Linny and the twins, all under the age of four at the time. “I’d rather he do a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher.”

“Well, I for one would never complain if a man brought home flowers,” Mom had chided, “especially after a hard day’s work as the family breadwinner.”

Grinding her teeth, Elle vowed she’d never confide in Mom again.

Things shifted a little after she and Dad came to live with them, after Dad got too sick to work and they could no longer manage the house or cover their bills. Surely Mom could see for herself that juggling a house, spouse, kids, church, community, and volunteer commitments today wasn’t as easy as it might look. Not to mention navigating the current perpetual strident invasive flood of information without drowning in it! Even packing a school lunch now meant taking a stand on saving the planet—or furthering its destruction. Despite helping Elle with the cooking, Mom took Jay’s side in every household activity that she and Dad were now direct witness to or integrally involved in, from child-rearing to car care. After all, “what man takes in his wife’s parents with such gracious calm?”

In reality, it’s the little things that build you up or break you. Elle had just initiated a step-by-step return to pre-kids career, the plan being to add some welcome funds to the Bank of America account and make a little more head space for herself. The move-in turned life upside-down. Now Elle was responsible for five children, her newest charges proving disruptive and unmanageable. Adding chauffeured library and specialist visits to Scout meetings and acro-ballet lesson runs, appeasing demands for favorite brands and special care items, listening to daily La-Z-Boy diatribes on the fallen state of the union, telling nightly bedtime stories, Elle tried to block out the sound of Fox News blaring from a back room all day long. She’d even become an intruder in her own kitchen! Life came from every direction—and all too much at once. But Elle kept those thoughts, like so many others, tucked away.

Instead she’d grown addicted to acquiring authority status on carefully selected household plans and projects, in this instance planting a bed of tulips that would bloom brilliant and strong each new April.

She’d read every word about selecting and storing the heirloom bulbs on the importer’s website. She had researched bulb size and horticultural zone hardiness, which meant when to plant the bulbs. Even more important to blooming success, however, was preparing the plant site. Never plant bulbs in previously diseased soil! Never use top dressings (compost) and soil additives that are not PH neutral! And above all never cut stems for bouquets! If they are happy where planted and left undisturbed many tulips will bloom year after year. The secret was to create a separate bed, to be replanted yearly, for cutting tulips in bloom.

Off with their heads!

As Dad always proclaimed, knowledge is power. And it was empowering to know what to do, but Elle also knew not to bother talking to Jay about separate beds, planting depth, fertilizer, or fall mulching. If she wanted to see these bulbs she was planning to buy actually sown, this meant a few holes dug where there was room in the front yard, after the mowing and weed-whacking were painstakingly completed, dropping them in—at least make sure they’re planted pointed end up!—topping them with lawn dirt, a healthy dose of H2O from the garden hose, and Que sera, sera.

Elle had learned to accept that that was the way things worked most peaceably at 49 Maple Lane. Most days she felt that for the sake of peace and general prosperity that she had given herself away, piece by piece by piece. But how could she complain? She had made these choices of her own free will. And as Mom often pointed out, few spouses went about their day as cheerfully as levelheaded Jay. The neighborhood loved him. Part of her delight, therefore, was derived from something other than the secrecy of saving coins. It came from educating herself in the things she wanted to know. So what if it was “useless” knowledge. In the long run, she often asked herself, how much of what we have, or know, is essential anyway?

Think about it, she’d argue, in a day and age when we know what the latest duck-lipped debutante eats for dessert—hell, we can even watch her ingesting it—we are gorging ourselves on the information available to us in every platform imaginable. I might as well take the opportunity to learn something that matters, so what does it matter to you if I steal a little time to learn some classical Greek or how, properly, to prepare paella or wallpaper a tiny half-bath?

What does it matter? Elle found herself asking a hundred times a day.

“It doesn’t” seemed to be the answer—as long as it doesn’t

  • cost too much
  • take up too much time
  • conflict with other plans
  • cause the eyebrow raise—

meaning: “Keep it under the radar, Elle.” Which was getting harder and harder to do.

Hence the increasing joy delivered every time Elle was able to keep her secrets truly secret.

Too bad her secrets were so ordinary. Jay wouldn’t blink an eye about the tulips, apart from questioning why she’d go to the trouble and expense—what’d it take, a quarter tank of gas for the trip?—to handpick some finicky bulbs when the Depot has them on sale for $17.99 a bag?

Mom would have agreed with Jay, which only made Elle miss Dad, frequent ally to her “impractical” way of thinking, even more.

Ah, what does it matter? Elle mused. He’s gone now.

But ways and habits linger. Elle thought about how what she kept hidden in the other toe sock started when Dad died, after Elle helped Mom clean out his things from the first-floor rooms she and Jay had converted into a bedroom and living room for them when they moved in. Keeping that secret had been so easy she’d gotten good at it—especially when Mom started getting “frustrated.” Eventually it was the only action Elle took that made her feel powerful. And it had become the only thing that made her feel safe.

Elle recognized the irony of it. Despite her “frumpiness” (Mom’s term), Elle had never been the type of girl to stash sweets. Her only journal was stored on a shelf inside her head. But this was a secret indulgence she knew to be so dangerous it could destroy everything and everyone who cared about her.

Or maybe not.

“For heaven’s sake, you’re not the center of the universe, Elle,” Mom still reminded her, when she could remember.

She could already picture the autumn “discussion” about the bulbs she hadn’t even bought in the worst withering heat of late summer.

“If we keep putting it off it will be too late, Jay. Don’t forget I have to run to Independent Living Manor at 3:00 to check on Mom.”

“All right, Elle. It’s just that I promised Tucker I’d help him work on his shed this weekend. Joanie’s been after him to finish it so he can move all his summer tools and make room for her car and the snow plow in the garage.”

“I understand all that, but you’ve been promising to help me plant those bulbs for over a month. Soon it’ll be Halloween and—”

“I know, but there’s always so much to do and never enough time.”

“You know what, Jay, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Elle, don’t be that way. Do you think we can get it done in an hour? That way I can make everybody happy.”

Just once, Elle sighed, angry months in advance, I wish he wanted to make me happy most. And then she felt rotten. Jay was a great guy. He helped everyone. I made my choices. I have everything I need, she reprimanded herself. What’s wrong with me that I can’t be more grateful?

And content, Elle heard Mom adding.

She was just about to back out of the driveway when her cell rang. It was the school nurse’s office.

“I’m glad I caught you, Mrs. Salter. Linny has a slight fever. Can you come pick her up?”

Elle sighed and cranked up the car’s AC. The best laid plans of mice and mothers of school children…

Once a droopy Linny was buckled up in the back seat, Elle handed her the stainless steel water bottle she’d originally filled for herself.

“I’m tired,” Linny whimpered, “and my tummy hurts.”

Elle put a hand to Linny’s forehead. Definitely warm, but not burning. “I’m sorry you’re feeling icky.”

Linny was prone to fevers—and weeping, as Mom often pointed out. “You really do have to be extra careful with a sensitive child, Elle. Don’t indulge her displays of emotion. She needs to toughen up. Of course, you’ll do what you think best, but that’s the approach Dad and I took with you.”

Elle climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. She was about to back up but stopped to study Linny in the rearview mirror as she took a long sip of water, then lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She seemed to fall asleep instantly, her lashes fluttering like dark feathers above her rosy cheeks.

Elle’s heart swelled with love for her daughter. And then, at the school exit she decided to turn left instead of right, which would have led them back home. It’s a fifteen-minute drive, Elle reasoned. If she wakes up, I’ll turn the car around.

When she pulled into the bulb importer’s small gravel lot Linny was snoring. Elle parked in the space facing the building’s double French doors, which had been thrown open wide to showcase the array of bins containing flower bulbs in a tempting range of shapes and sizes.

Elle turned off the car and waited. In the rearview mirror she could see that Linny continued to sleep. Elle had never left a child in the car, although many of her friends confessed to running into a shop or back into the house—for just a moment!—with a napping infant or toddler strapped in a car seat. Yes it was a hot day, she could already feel her armpits dampen and sweat bead at her hairline, but Elle intended to be only a few minutes. She had parked so that she could see the car from inside the shop. Plus, the register was on a counter just inside the doors.

She cracked the windows and got out, locking the car with one more backward glance at Linny.

Elle had planned to savor this clandestine excursion, stopping to examine the varieties of bulbs, asking questions of the helpful and informed clerk, choosing her selection with shape and color and hardiness in mind. Instead, like on so many shopping trips, her nagging conscience rushed her through the aisles. Picking out hurried handfuls of bulbs with only the most cursory glance at name—price and varietal details neatly chalked on signs attached to each bin—Elle raced to the register, mumbling yes, thanks, when the clerk asked if she’d found everything she needed.

“Do you have any questions?” he added, handing her change and her bag of bulbs.

Can you tell me how to stop feeling squeezed out of my own life? Elle thought, chirping “No—thanks again!” instead.

Back at the car Linny was awake and sobbing softly. “Where did you go, Mommy? Why aren’t we home?”

“I’m so, so sorry, honey. I just had to pick something up. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you shut your eyes?”

On the road, once she was certain Linny had fallen back asleep, Elle cried until her nose ran.

Selfish, Mom huffed, and didn’t even offer her a tissue.

Linny awoke just as Elle was pulling into the driveway and threw up violently. “Mommy!

“Stay put!” Elle cried, stopping the car. She jumped out and ran to grab the roll of paper towels she kept in the trunk. Throwing open the passenger door she tried to clean and calm Linny, who was covered in pink vomit and wailing.

I hate throwing up!

“I know, Linny, I know. Let’s get you tidied up, and then you can have a bath and climb into bed. How’s that sound?”

“Can I have ginger ale? With two straws?”

“Absolutely.”

Elle dashed back in a sweat to the open trunk, frantically rooting for her stash of yellow ShopRite bags. She needed two—one for the sodden paper towels she’d dropped on the driveway, the other for Linny’s spew-soaked clothes, which Elle would throw in the wash after she’d gotten her daughter settled.

Sweat dripped off Elle’s nose. Despite the heat, she’d just have to worry about cleaning the car thoroughly later. Why are my hands shaking? she kept wondering. Jay was not the type of husband to stress about keeping a car’s interior perfect. He was understanding when it came to the kids. So why can’t I swallow my panic? Elle could not stop thinking about what she had hidden in the other toe sock. Nevertheless, she couldn’t hide the true answer from herself: She didn’t want Jay to find out. She didn’t want Linny to tell her father that her mother had gone to buy flower bulbs instead of taking their sick child straight home. Linny would not have thrown up in the car if you weren’t so self-absorbed—

Stop!” she cried aloud in a voice so harsh it halted the elderly neighbor padding past the house in her tracks.

Oh my goodness! Do you need some help?”

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin. “Oh, Mrs. Blieck. I’m sorry for startling you. My daughter just got sick in the car. I’m trying to clean up the mess.”

At the risk of being rude, Elle ran back to Linny, still slumped and buckled in her seat.

Mrs. Blieck followed after Elle, her cane making gentle but deliberate clicks on the driveway. She stood and watched as Elle struggled to clean the fussing Linny before peeling off her soiled, now stinking shirt and wrapping a weathered beach towel she’d found in the trunk around her shoulders. “You also have twin boys, yes? Ah, I remember those days.” Mrs. Blieck’s accented voice sounded wistful.

You never had a sibling, Elle. I would think you’d be grateful to have three children, Mom added.

Elle could only manage to nod.

Mrs. Blieck studied Elle. “You know, I just had nineteen inches of my colon removed.”

Elle stopped to stare at her, unsure of how to respond.

“I was on my back for several weeks. I was so tired! I admit I felt like giving up. My son had to come from the city to take care of me. But then Dr. Cohen said, ‘Ruth, you need to get up and start taking a little walk. Every day. You have more living to do.’”

Tears made their way down Elle’s burning cheeks.

Mrs. Blieck continued speaking. “And so I realized that he was right. If Hitler didn’t succeed, why let a little sickness stop me?” She turned to address Linny. “Not feeling well?”

Linny smiled shyly. “I just threw up all over.”

“I can see that,” Mrs. Blieck commented. She looked back at Elle. “You know, no one talks much about the Dutch apart from Anne Frank, but that bastard tried to get rid of us, too. We had to hide my husband under the floorboards.”

Elle wiped her eyes.

“And we only had electricity for a few hours every day. We never knew when it was going to go out, or for how long. But the worst of it was that my milk dried up. I had nothing left to feed my babies. Imagine what it was like, listening to them cry from hunger in the dark! There was nothing for anyone to eat. I was so skinny after the war I had to have all my teeth pulled. Every last rotten one.”

Linny was now staring open-mouthed at Mrs. Blieck, who paused to smile at her. “But you know what?” she whispered conspiratorially.

“No,” Linny leaned forward to whisper back. “What?

“We got him,” Mrs. Blieck cackled. “He’s gone, and we survived! And here I am today, Oma Ruth—an old lady with false teeth, minus nineteen inches of my colon. I guess I didn’t need it.”

Elle watched Mrs. Blieck continue on her walk, a tiny steel-plated survivor impeccably dressed in white cardigan, linen slacks, pearls, and sensible shoes. She seemed undeterred by her recent surgery or the dog day August heat. Elle waited, but Mom had nothing to add.

Elle thought repeatedly of Mrs. Blieck after their encounter. She had managed to restore order that day—moving the twins from bus stop through chores and homework, tending to Linny, who vomited three more times, even walking and feeding Millie, taking a cool shower herself, and calling Joanie before Jay returned from work in time for a home-cooked dinner—although it took multiple cleanings to get the stain out of the car’s upholstery.

Jay never complained about the lingering smell.

And now, almost two months later, they were finally planting the pricey Dutch bulbs she had decided to buy rather than bring a queasy Linny straight home from school. It was just Elle and Jay. He had dropped Luke and Noah at soccer practice and it was too early by several hours to pick Linny up from Aliyah’s birthday sleepover, then run to sit with dozing, distant Mom.

Elle considered this her last act of a specific kind of daring—doing it right under Jay’s nose. From now on no more toe sock secrecy. She had already enlisted the kids to help decorate a coin jar. The growing collection would go toward a family outing—based on a private vote—although no one else in house was any good at keeping things to themselves.

She and Jay had decided over morning coffee that he would dig the holes and she would place the bulbs—root-side down so the budding stems would break through the surface of the dirt and bloom in the right direction. Then they would fill the holes together.

“Ready to roll?” he’d asked, kissing her forehead. “I told Tucker I’ll help him finish his shed tomorrow.”

Now, before placing a bulb in a hole, while Jay wasn’t looking Elle would reach into her pocket, pull out a few of the pills she’d been sock-stuffing since Dad died, and drop them into the dirt. She’d forgotten whose household prescriptions were whose, and for what condition, illness, or injury, but she had continuously figured, particularly in her wildest and most desperate moments, what does it matter? As long as once planted and watered the pilfered pills, though varied in shape, size, and color, did their collective job. But Elle understood now that she never needed to stash and plan to swallow them all at once. The only thing left in her pocket was the card listing the date and time of her next visit with the counselor Joanie recommended the day Mrs. Blieck had shown her a way to hang on, move forward. What mattered was that Elle wanted to see the tulips bloom next spring.

And the spring after that.

pencil

Felicia Sanzari Chernesky is a longtime editor, published poet, and author of six picture books, five of them rhyming, including From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! (Albert Whitman, 2015) and The Boy Who Said Nonsense (Albert Whitman, 2016). Email: fchernesky[at]gmail.com

99 Words of Sorrow

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Maureen Rostad


Photo Credit: Sarah/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Jeremy died on December 21, five years ago to the day.

Raindrops hung in the air almost like nature was hanging them on an invisible Christmas tree. The forecast told of a massive rain torrent later in the day, an uncharacteristically warm winter. Her heart felt much the same as the humidity, and unshed tears hung around her neck.

A brain aneurysm, the doctor said. Dead before the ambulance could navigate through the narrow roads of rural Pennsylvania, up the side of the mountain and down again to the gravel road that eventually led to her house in the middle of nowhere. She remembered cursing that house then, hating the little rundown farmhouse on a little rundown farm, their diamond in the rough. How unfair it was, she thought, as she wept beside him, while she was silently aware of the seconds that passed, knowing that no doctor could revive him after so many. The true anger at the house came later when projects piled upon her, a leaky faucet here and a door that refused to latch there. Several walls still had imprints of her fist through the drywall, another project incomplete.

Jewel knew that she needed to move on from his death. The logical part of her brain knew that her life, being replayed over the same way each year like Groundhog Day, was not normal. Like she went through the motions 364 days per year only to live one day. But some unknown, some obsessive need or grace or whatever made up the cosmos, told her to keep doing it.

She found herself outside of the local electronics store, drawing the curious eyes of those entering as she hugged herself. The air smelled raw, scrubbed out like a toilet. A rarity that this store, when so many other locally-owned ones failed, would stay in business, and yes, even thrive. The owner was kind of a celebrity, some gamer, winner of some huge online Xbox thing, said he always wanted to own an electronics store that catered to other gamers. Like D&D meets Best Buy.

Jewel tended to avoid this store, preferring to go out to the strip mall even though it was a longer drive, because she normally had to dodge hopeful gamers buzzing around the store like mosquitoes to a mudhole. The owner runs some kind of gaming podcast, and if some gamer does something fantastic, whatever that means, he doles out fifteen minutes of fame. Or, more exactly, a podcast hour.

But this store was the first stop.

She stepped through the automatic glass doors, still hugging herself. She was immediately assaulted by a young girl dressed like an elf, her nondescript brown hair clinging to her green Santa hat with static electricity. The elf smelled like freshly-baked Christmas cookies. Jewel briefly wondered if it was a perfume. The girl handed Jewel a postcard and then walked away to descend upon another customer, feet jingling all the way.

Jewel looked at the postcard.

Christmas Contest!!!!! Win a brand-new Nikon D850!!!!! Sponsored by J&J Jewelry Store!!!!!

Despite the morbidity of her mood, Jewel smiled to herself. Five years ago, almost to the hour, her husband had picked out a Nikon camera, an earlier model to this exact camera. Her Christmas present.

J&J, huh? she thought. Jeremy would have liked that.

Tell us why you should win in 100 words or less, the postcard said. The best reason wins this award, a fabulous high-end digital camera. See fine print for details.

“It’s my Christmas gift, five years late,” she wrote, scribbling out a short story about her dead husband’s brain aneurysm in 99 words. 99 words of sorrow on a card, she thought. 99 words of sorrow, take one down, pass it around…

She looked around for the elf.

Jewel went about the rest of the morning perfunctorily, her legs deadened down like coal filling a stocking. Out for breakfast—the super special: two eggs, any style, toast, bacon, and pancakes—a second place set for him. She received more than one sympathetic look from other diners who thought she was being stood up.

If you only knew, she thought.

Then to the jewelry store. “Jewels from your Jewel,” she said to him, every year, as she handed him a watch, all wrapped up. Even though he knew what was inside, he still managed to act surprised.

“I love it!” he would say, and then he would kiss her.

As she paid the bill on a man’s watch, her cell phone made a blip to notify her of a text message. You’re the winner of our Christmas Contest!!!!! Stop by the store before closing to claim your prize!!!!!

The woman behind the register waved the receipt for the watch in Jewel’s face, letting out a short breath.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” Jewel said to herself, as she turned around and walked out of the store, forgetting the receipt.

The clouds begin to threaten the horizon by the time Jewel pulled into the electronics store’s parking lot, and fat, angry raindrops splattered onto her face as she rushed through the glass doors, making her look like she was crying.

Jewel had to make some sort of statement about how wonderful it was that she won a brand-new Nikon DSLR camera. For the podcast. She was not sure about announcing Jeremy’s death to the world, despite the fact he had been gone for years. But the deadened part of her stomach, the blackness inside of her, dissipated just a little as she told the microphone about his death. By the time she was done, that part of her was not gone, but she felt a little better. The store owner was gentle, asking her only a few questions, and he gave her a hug when she was done. She cried on his shoulder. To her surprise, he handed her a business card. With his cell phone number handwritten on the back. A few moments of awkwardness passed because she had no idea what to even say to that. She stuffed it inside of her pants pocket, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and briskly walked away before he could, or rather, she could, respond.

The temperature had dropped while she was in the electronics store. A light dusting of snow clung to the parking lot, but the rate of snowfall threatened even the most frenzied of last-minute Christmas shoppers. They walked quickly to their cars, dashing around like reindeer.

The snow is a new beginning, she thought, as she, too, galloped to her car.

Ten minutes later, Jewel plugged her phone into the car cigarette lighter. Her car inched along the only real road the township where she lived had, barely half a mile from the electronics store. It moved with all the other shoppers who were unfortunate to get stuck in a surprise snowstorm. She briefly thought about turning around and asking to bunk inside the store, but she was scared that the owner might have already shut everything down, and then she would be stuck even further from her house. She was even more scared that she would have to talk to the store owner.

Since she was not moving, she dug around her middle console until she found a power converter, a noisy device that let her plug in regular three-prong plugs into the second cigarette lighter. She managed to open up the camera box, find the battery and the charger, and plug everything in. Her car only moved a foot. Might as well capture the snow, she thought. Since it’s going to take me a year to get home.

Jewel predicted several feet of snow, given that they had been expecting so much rain. She again cursed living out on a farm. Fortunately for her, Jewel stockpiled almost everything, including wood for a fire. Not really a farmer, but more of a homesteader, she learned her lesson long ago to always be prepared. Especially about the snow. The last time they had this much snow, she was holed up for two weeks without power. It was their first year of marriage, and she thought they would starve before she could get to the nearest store.

She looked outside. The wind battered against her car and created snow flurry cyclones. She looked at the Nikon’s screen. A slight charge—the battery must have been pre-charged. She waited until she could pull off to the side of the road, since the car was not going anywhere. She grabbed the camera and went outside.

Jewel almost abandoned her mission when a force of cold air hit her in the face, making her feel as though her sweater had a million holes and whipping her hair around her face. The man behind her lurched forward to take her place in case she changed her mind, blaring his horn and giving her the finger. She aimed the camera and took a picture of him. Click, click, click. She was almost afraid that he was going to get out of his car and wallop her, right here on the side of the snow-pummeled road, but he seemed to forget her as he looked forward, his fists grabbing the wheel as if he would lose control of the car going less than a half mile per hour. Her eye wandered towards the trees on the horizon. She looked at the screen between every series of photos.

She turned around and faced her car, and she turned the camera around too. Click, click, click. She missed herself completely. Click, click, click. She got the top of her head. Click, click, click.

There! She got herself.

And something… else.

Her blood momentarily warmed her torso as her fight or flight response kicked in, but it faded as she tried to puzzle out what was in the camera LCD screen. A shadow? No. The sun glinting off the snow? No. Some kind of brightness, but it was undefined. Not shaped correctly for a flash, and it was too bright for a flash anyway.

As if, instead of casting a shadow, she cast a light.

Was that even possible? A weird aftereffect of all the snow?

She twisted around, almost slipping on some stray patch of snow, but nothing was there. She frowned. She could barely lift the camera back up because her fingers were shaking from both the cold and the fright, but she slowly went through the pictures again. Yes, something was definitely there. What was it? A spot on the lens?

She scrolled through the earlier pictures, trying to figure out if the lens was bad, but whatever it was only showed up next to her selfies.

She tried again. This time, she tried to have her face off to the side of the screen. Click, click, click. Yes, something was definitely there. And it was still near her face, not in the same spot as it was previously. Not the lens. Just to make sure, she snapped several, random photographs. Nothing.

Must be the sun hitting the snow and my face at the correct angle, she thought. Whatever it is, I can’t stand here all day.

Taking a long look at the wintry scene around her, willing it to give her answers, she went back inside her car. Several people honked at her as she navigated back into the lane, but she ignored them, her mind on whatever she had in the photographs.

The wind picked up speed, creating noises against her car like ghosts in a scary black-and-white film. Jewel was momentarily blinded as she crept along, the brightness of the snow sending dancing sparks around her vision.

The brightness faded as the clouds blotted out all natural light, as if God himself did not want to witness the ensuing blizzard. By the time she reached the mountain pass, almost all the sun had been drained off the winter wonderland. Her anxiety increased in the same measures. She turned on her high beams, but they were useless. The snow came down faster than the lights could melt it. Her windshield wipers were on the fastest speed possible, but they were not fast enough.

Her fists were knotted up on the wheel just like the man she made fun of earlier. Her house was less than a mile away, but she felt that she would never get home. She turned off the side of the road momentarily to cry, windshield wipers matching her frightened breathing.

After several long breaths and wiping the tears that continued to fall, she gave the car some gas.

The wheels spun.

She tried again, and the wheels spun some more.

She knew that she was on the verge of a full panic attack, but she did not know what else to do. She gave the car some more gas, this time almost flooring it. The car rocked back and forth, and out of whatever snow pile she was in.

Just as she let out a breath that she did not realize that she was holding, the car skidded. She instinctively grabbed the wheel and turned it to the right, away from the rock face. The tires had a mind of their own, and she head-on collided with the mountain.

Jewel did not know how long she sat in her car, confused. Her breathing bordered on screaming until she realized that she was, in fact, screaming, and she had to force herself to stop. She realized that 911 would be just as useless today as it was five years ago. She would die here in this very spot because no one could, or would bother to, transverse the mountain pass. Her mind obsessively fixated on her body, found two weeks from now, frozen solid even as the snow melted.

She could no longer feel her own feet, and she realized with renewed panic that the heat in the car had escaped faster than she thought it would. She spotted the camera, thrown onto the passenger side floor. She took several minutes to grab it, the cold inside of the car acting as a wall to her inertia. Her body screamed at her, what left she could feel of it.

When they find me, the camera will be frozen to my fingers, and they will have to throw it out. This thought made her giggle inside of her head, a morbid thought spiraling out of control just like the situation she was in.

I better move, she thought. Otherwise I’ll die here.

Jewel grabbed whatever she could: her cell phone, the camera, an extra blanket she found in the back seat. She used her feet to push open the car door against the snow that had piled up outside. The top had not frozen yet, and her feet landed, compacting the snow as she put her weight on them. She cautiously made her way to the trunk, the rational part of her mind that was left demanding that maybe she had something else warm that she could wear. Yes, she had a coat. She stood in the middle of the mountain pass, snow wailing down on her as she put it on.

Jeremy’s old college letter jacket. It smelled like him. Instead of the overwhelming sadness that she got, the kind of sadness that made her rest against a wall with her hands on her knees because it punched her stomach like an MMA heavyweight champion, she felt happy. Safe. Jeremy was helping her get home.

She looked around, but everything was blanketed in white and cold, and she had a renewed sense of panic because she did not know what to do now. All at once, tears fell again, fat droplets of water like the raindrops earlier. She scrubbed them away, thinking that they might freeze inside of her eyes.

He’d want to record it all, she thought, almost gleeful over the absurdity of taking a final picture of herself before she froze to death in the middle of the road.

Her mind would not let that go, and not knowing what else to do since she did not know where she was, she gave in to her own insanity.

Jewel fiddled with the settings until she found the delay timer and the burst shot. She carefully set the Nikon on top of the trunk. Pressing the buttons, she hopped over to the edge of where she hoped the road was, and she smiled at the camera. She waited a few seconds, not hearing anything, and started to go back towards the camera when it finally clicked. She went back to her spot, pasting another smile on her face. Let the police figure that one out.

She slushed her way back to the car, retracing her own footsteps, and checked the LCD screen. She almost dropped the camera, the strap catching on Jeremy’s jacket buttons. preventing it from sinking into the snow or smashing against the car. She made a wet, strangled sound. She waited almost a minute, the LCD screen shutting off on its own, convincing herself that she was spooked because it was December 21.

She tried again, picking up the camera by its strap and turning the screen back on.

She was in the photos, as she expected to be, but the background was not the frozen ice land of the Ninth Gate of Hell. Rather, it showed a spring background, right before the trees bloomed, the wisps of grass and leaves evident.

She thought perhaps the camera had some kind of mechanism to trade pictures, like a built-in Photoshop effect, but beside her was the same whitish figure. Perhaps a person? Whatever it was had its own light source, as the sky was fading as if on an electric dimmer. Not bright like a flashbulb or a lampstand, but it was definitely glowing, like a lit paper lantern floating down the river during the nighttime Toro Nagashi festival.

“Jeremy,” she whispered. She grabbed for something to steady her, a sharp jerk momentarily startling her as she hit the car, a wash of overwhelming sadness hitting her.

Jewel sat against the car, turning on the screen every time it blinked off. Her fingers long ago had lost any feeling in them, and they felt almost like stubby pencils instead of living flesh. Just to spook her some more, her headlights suddenly blinked, then faded out. She was left in the ensuing darkness.

She stared at the springtime scene, so vivid against the vanishing light of her current situation. It was like a guiding post to safety. With sudden comprehension, she understood that she was looking at her house in the background scene of the photograph, a very short distance over the edge of the road.

She got up from her half-crouch. She steeled herself with fake confidence, breathing in and out with deep, steady breaths. The cold air filled her lungs, washing away her panic. Jeremy had sent her this camera to let her know that he had not left her. He was there, inside of the camera. And he was helping her get home.

She looked out toward her house. She saw a small bump that passed as her roof even though she did not recognize anything else because of the snow. Everything was white, white, and more white, with only trees sticking up from the ground to announce that they still lived even in the cold.

I have to jump, she thought.

Flicking on the camera, she tried to figure out if she would make it, or if she would die from a broken back. She debated the two choices, follow the road until it led her to her house, or jump and trek across the field, the more direct route. Looking down at the camera gripped in her hand, she took a picture.

“You led me this far, Jeremy,” she said to the camera. “Tell me what to do now.”

In answer, the camera showed her the snowy bank.

She aimed the camera up the road, the longer way home, still unsure. A black screen. As sure a sign as any.

“Okay, Jeremy.”

Jewel flicked the Nikon dial to “movie mode” and pressed the button to start recording. She wanted Jeremy to guide her the rest of the way home. Or to record her death as she fell off the side of the road.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled. The only answer was the camera adjusting itself, auto-focusing whatever it was looking at. The snow. Maybe the white would burn out the camera’s bulbs.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled again. She wanted nothing right now but to be back within her house, the holes in the walls be damned. She would take her unloved house in disrepair over this snow.

She wrapped her blanket around herself, hugging herself. The air smelled sweet, as if it knew that the snow raging around her would melt away her sorrow. She shifted the camera to her left hand, sticking her right hand in her pocket momentarily to give it some warmth.

Right before she jumped off the side of the road, she curled her hand around a business card.

pencil

Maureen Rostad is a freelance writer and attorney based in South Central Pennsylvania. You can follow the daily adventures of her and her dog, Joe, on Instagram. Email: miheui[at]gmail.com

Eidolon

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Laurent Sauvebois/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was subtle. Rerouting her commutes to and from work. She considered her routing as a means to avoid road construction, school bus stops, garbage trucks on pick-up day, the mainstream uptight crazy traffic, or simply enjoy a scenic route. Of course, now that it was dark on her way to and from work, she couldn’t rationalize “scenic” anymore. She considered being able to enjoy a full episode, rather than mere snippets, of Rufus Roundstone’s Noir In the 21st Century as a side benefit of, rather than the reason for these extended commutes.

Beryl loved film noir but was often too tired after getting home from work to stay awake through a movie. A friend suggested podcasts during her commute. Beryl was skeptical. How could a podcast recreate lighting, Dutch angles, haunting tendrils of cigarette smoke—all essential in creating noir’s ambience? Nevertheless, she decided to give it a try. She was surprised at the abundance of noir podcasts available. She tried a few but Noir In the 21st Century was the clear winner. Rufus Roundstone’s voice was the voice of noir. Imagine a voice that combined the timbre and characteristics of James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and George Sanders. The content varied. Re-imagined classics (The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe, Spade), neo noir, interviews and special intros with the likes of Noir Czar Eddie Muller. Perfect.

She normally struggled against the onset of winter, but now she welcomed the drives in the dark and the rain. It helped make up for what she considered the limitations of audio only. The quiet metronome of her fore and aft windshield wipers blended with the foley work in the podcast. She was in her own private little theater complete with a heated seat. The extended trip home helped ease the transition to what she considered her weaker side. Beryl was an extremely talented designer and she knew it. At work she was strong, independent, decisive. Once “outside,” in public, even at home, it all seemed to fall away, a superhero stripped of her powers. She was prone to anxiety attacks. Decisions almost shut her down.

*

Hec had not noticed that Beryl arrived home later each day. First, that was Beryl, born fashionably late. Also, the seasonal switch flipped. The shorter days of winter made him feel perpetually late. Leaving work late, getting home late, eating dinner late. So, he dismissed Beryl rolling in after dark as part of his own perception of lateness. He wasn’t overly alarmed—until their daughter asked, “Hey dad. ‘Sup with mom?”

“What do you mean, Abb?”

“She’s, well…” Abby looked around in an exaggerated manner. “Um, not home yet, right?”

“Abby, it’s not that late, just your perception now that it’s cold and gets dark early and—”

“And almost nine o’clock, Dad.” She shoved her watch up under his nose.

Hec looked at Abby’s watch. He checked his own. His face didn’t match the reassuring words. “Ah, Abb, you know what a workaholic she can be. She’s probably on some kind of a roll with this latest design project of hers.”

“Ya, well, she better not be late Thursday.”

“What’s Thursday?”

Abby made fish mouth and her eyes rolled, feeling her dad was a little clueless. “Only their big annual gala party? The one we’re invited to? The one where she’s getting that surprise doodah thing?”

As Hec watched his daughter’s gestures he lamented to himself, she’s been watching too many teen sitcoms and melodramas. “Right, right, right! They are giving her the Imagine Design Award. More than just a doodah, Abb. They don’t give those out lightly. This is the first in five years.”

*

The morning was dark with gusts of wind that rocked her Nissan Leaf a bit. The wind gathered the rain and pelted the car making percussive splashes. Perversely, by noon it was unseasonably sunny and warm. Beryl took advantage of the weather to run her car through the wash and vacuum it during her lunch break. She wanted to get in the habit of keeping it nice, and though still new, the dash had collected dust and she’d started to detect a faint, unpleasant odor. If she didn’t know better, she’d say there’d been a smoker in the car. She shrugged her shoulders thinking, “Maybe a salesman or someone on a test drive? How rude. But then, why am I only just noticing it?”

She enjoyed the conveyor ride through the car wash; the rainbow-colored foam sprayed out and ran down the windows, the wax had a familiar and reassuring scent, and the jet blower sounded like a small jet engine starting up. The conveyor spit her and the Leaf out and she rolled across the lot to the quarter vacs. She wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this unprecedented, balmy day. Beryl got out and admired her first new car. She’d chosen the Deep Blue Pearl exterior with black cloth which was shot through with blue threads, a nice complement to the exterior color. She opened all doors, took out the floor mats and hung them on the available clips. “That’s odd,” she thought, as what looked like bits of cigarette ash floated out and off the front and back mats. She plopped her Ziploc bag full of quarters near the coin slot, dropped several in and began to vacuum. She started whistling music from The Barber of Seville. She ended up singing lyrics from the Rabbit of Seville.

She had to use her fingernails to unweave some long blonde hairs from the cloth upholstery of the back seat. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had anyone with hair that length and color in her car. Abby was the only one she remembered sitting in back and she had inherited the dark red hair of her mother. She shrugged and decided it must have been there from some other customer, maybe took the whole family on a test drive, maybe the smoker’s family. “Still,” she thought, “you’d think the detailers would have cleaned up better before handing over the keys.”

*

The drive home that night was under a clear sky, but the coldest yet. As soon as the sun had set, the temperature dropped like a hammer blow. Beryl shivered as she felt the contrast of the cold with the rapidly warming seat. She pulled out of the parking lot and decided to take the route around the lake, then started episode six.

The sound of rain, a car door thud. Beryl swore she felt the car shift slightly. She wondered if the gusting winds of morning were returning. She imagined she smelled wet wool.

“OK, so you found me Delilo, what’s the score anyway?”

“You coulda shaken your hat off before getting in at least, Dill, you used to be a gentleman.”

“Well, this gentleman doesn’t appreciate being strong-armed into a car, although I do appreciate being outta the rain and I thank you for that.” A groan. “Where’d you get those guys anyway? A heavyweight two-for-one sale?”

“Distant cousins needed a leg up with employment.”

“Does their parole officer know what they’re doing?”

“Don’t get cute, Dill. You’re no good at comedy. Got a little job for ya.”

“I don’t do your kinda job anymore, Delilo, you know that, trying to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“Yeah, well, do this one last job for me and we’ll forget about that debt your wife is building up at my place. By the way, try to keep her out, OK? I’ve never seen a dame so unlucky. Kinda makes me feel sorry for her.”

“You never felt sorry for anyone, Delilo, not even yourself.”

Sounds of shifting and a stubbled chin being scratched. She thought she smelled a faint scent of some aftershave, like something her grandfather used to wear.

“Didn’t realize I was so impressionable.”

Beryl grinned to herself, enjoying the added sensory experience her imagination was creating.

“It’s an easy enough job for you, Dill. Walk in the park.” A wood match striking, the scent of cigarette smoke. “This dame’s not even spilled milk, no one going to cry over her… passing. One of those spoiled rich dames likes to go slumming. Enemies in both camps. Cops want her on a murder rap.”

“Let ‘em have her.”

“Uh-uh. Knows something she shouldn’t.”

Beryl heard breathing, the sound of cigarette smoke being blown out—she could smell it, then it seemed a bit of smoke wafted into her peripheral vision. She felt the car shift a bit.

“So, the whole debt forgotten? Can, oh, what’s his name…” A finger snap. “Biegler! He still your mouthpiece? Can he write up an agreement, call it an insurance policy for me that’ll stick?”

“Biegler can do that in his sleep. But you gotta keep your wife outta my place, or let our bouncers keep her out. We usually keep the hands off the ladies.”

A snort. “She’s no lady. Not since she got that ring on her finger… sure had me bamboozled. Be my guest, toss her out, better yet, don’t let her in. You know what she’s like after a few drinks… or at least you oughtta. She is still your sister, you know, or had you forgotten?”

“Half-sister.”

“Don’t quibble.”

*

At home, Beryl got out of the car. When she turned to close the door, she noticed a damp-looking spot on the back seat. She opened the back door to pat it, assuring herself it was probably a shadow, but no. The seat was damp. There was a small puddle on the floor mat too. An almost electrical spike of fear shook her from the inside out; she felt a bit of a chill. She took a few deep breaths to shake it off, but that brought the scents of aftershave and stale cigarette smoke. She backed away shaking her head. Her heart was racing and her hands shook so she almost dropped her phone. “No, no, no. Come on, be rational, Beryl. Maybe there is a weakness in one of the window seals that the car wash breached. Take a deep breath and start a list for the dealer.”

*

Hec was in the kitchen when she entered. It seemed overly bright to her. She squinted and blinked a little.

“Hey Hec, where’s Abb?” She hoped he wouldn’t detect the quaver in her voice.

“Fed and in bed, Beryl.”

“Not our Abby? It’s only—”

“It’s 9:45, Beryl. Abb and I’ve had dinner. Your plate’s in the warming drawer. Glass of wine?”

Beryl checked her watch, the clock on the oven.

“Hec, I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I was down in my zone on that new design.” She was ashamed at how easily the lie came.

Hec shrugged, turned toward the wine glasses and asked again, “Glass of wine?”

“Uh-huh, thanks.”

*

During the drive into work the next day Beryl was running a bit late, but managed fifteen minutes of the next episode. That night, a filthy, relentlessly wet night, she picked up where she had left off:

A woman’s voice. “But, you don’t know me.”

“I don’t need to know you.”

It was Dill.

“What have I done to you?”

“Me? Not a thing, doll. As far as I know you are a perfectly swell dame—though outta my league. Seems like a waste.”

“Look can’t you put that thing away? It might go off.”

“It will go off darlin’.”

“Why, why?”

“Better ask Delilo.”

“Raimy?” A little snort and bright chuckle of relief. “Some kind of joke, huh? OK, buster, what’s the hook?”

“No hook.” Gun blast.

Beryl jumped. It surprised her how loud it seemed. She heard echoes of a muffled sound, a female “umph” and the rustle of someone slumping, only it didn’t come from the speakers. The smell of cordite wafted from the back seat, then the sound of a wood match and the acrid smell of tobacco. She checked her rear view mirror. There was an ember and a column of smoke. She swerved onto the shoulder, hitting the brakes, eyes snapping forward. She felt and heard that deep drone, like the throat singing she experienced with her panic attacks. One side of her neck and jaw tightened; she could hear her own heart pounding; she struggled to force herself to breathe. She forced her eyes up.

She felt herself talking, but didn’t quite believe it. She didn’t recognize her own voice.

“Say, put that out mister and don’t toss it out the window either.”

She felt something cold against her neck; she assumed it was a gun. Her hair lifted. Someone blew on her ear. Her hair dropped back down. She shivered, felt the cold sweat of fear in her armpits, yet her palms were relaxed on the wheel.

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a lovely neck?”

She started to nod and tried a furtive glance in the rear view mirror.

“And don’t get any ideas, get rolling again and keep those green eyes on the road and we’ll all be pals, Irish.”

“How far we going?”

“Not as far as I’d like.”

Her voice sounded more familiar to her now. “My husband and daughter. They’ll be worried.”

“I’m sure they will, darlin’, but by the time they get around to doing anything about it, you’ll be on your sweet way home, no harm done. But, you sure you wouldn’t consider forgetting that family right now and coming home with me, Irish? No? Too bad. I’m a sucker for red hair, green eyes, and those freckles. Take this turnoff down Five Mile Road. Wanna guess how far Five Mile Road goes?” He chuckled.

Beryl slowed and veered right, slowed some more as the roughness of the road surprised her. Her teeth were chattering but she didn’t feel cold. Her hands were now shaking. Her insides were doing flip flops—forget butterflies, she felt like some alien was about to emerge though her abdomen.

“OK, check your odometer, in three miles you’ll see a turnout on the left. Use it for a U-turn but stop before you get back on the road. Watch the edge, it’s steep.”

She did as she was told. When stopped, she tried to get a look in the rear view mirror.

“Careful now.”

She felt the cold barrel of the gun at the back of her neck again. She closed her eyes, wished she was practiced at prayer.

“Hey.” The gun tapped against her temple gently. “You better try breathing. Just keep your eyes forward and your hands on the wheel.”

She heard the rear door open, some sliding, a thud. The car shifted with a weight change, shifted again. Whoever was in back slid across to the passenger side. Footsteps on gravel and something heavy being dragged, then nothing but the wind outside the open door. Footsteps headed back to the car. Another weight shift, the rear door closed. She heard heavier breathing.

“Dame didn’t look to weigh that much. I guess death is like the camera, puts on the pounds. OK, you can head home. I’ll tell you where to drop me and remember, eyes straight ahead, in fact, let’s see you cock that rear view mirror to the side. Thatta girl.”

“Who are you? What are you?”

“Eidolon.” The voice, bored, carried a ‘no more questions’ finality.

Eidolon. It rang a faint bell. Where had she heard that before? She heard a voice saying it, a different voice, not the voice from the back seat. Professor Dorelle. Yes, Ancient Greek Lit. Homer, Euripides, Helen of Troy, Trojan Horse, all that. A shade, a spirit-image of someone dead or alive. She felt a chill. It was all she could do not to look back.

“OK.” The voice from the back made her jump. “Know where the Greyhound station is?”

Beryl nodded.

“Drop me there.”

*

Back home, Beryl pulled silently into the garage. She sat staring.

The door from the house to the garage burst open.

“Beryl, what the hell? I was worried sick. Abb, too. I looked for your phone. What were you doing way out on Five Mile Road? Listen to me, like a fishwife. Come here, you.” Hec pulled her to him and squeezed. Rubbed his nose in her hair, sniffed deliberately a few times then pushed her back to look her in the eye. “Did you start smoking?”

Beryl shook her head; her lips were quivering.

Hec figured she was cold and led her into the house. “Here, go put on your flannel-lined jeans and a big sweater, I’ll flip the basking machine on—you can eat near the fire. I kept your dinner warm—again—had to feed Abby. She’s in bed but I’m sure she’s not asleep. Better go assure her. She’s still a little girl in a lotta ways, you know.”

“OK, Hec. I’ll wash my hair before I eat.” Her voice was low and rather monotone. She paused without looking around said, “I’m not smoking Hec. You know me better than that. I had to meet someone after work, chain smoker.” Another lie.

She tried to use the shower to come ’round. “Buck up, girl. Something has just triggered your vivid imagination in a powerful way. Remember the make-believe murder mysteries you used to solve as a kid while all your friends were playing with dolls? Creepy dolls.” She shuddered and grinned at the same time. “I’m talking out loud to myself. If it happens again, I’ll go see a trick cyclist.”

She knew the water and steam in the shower was hot, still she shivered deep down. Finally gave up trying to stop shaking. Grabbed her big towel, then climbed into her hooded Turkish towel robe.

*

Beryl went directly to work the next morning, no scenic route, no Noir In the 21st Century. She tuned to a favorite internet radio station. An eclectic university campus non-profit.

*

“Daaa-ad?”

“Yes, Aaaaaa-Abb.”

“D’ya think you could take me shopping after school today? For a-a d-dress or something?”

“Ah, you want to dress up for Mom’s award dinner? A dress, Abb? You? Really?”

“Don’t make fun, Dad. Yes, I-I d-do, I think it’s im-important.”

He felt bad, teasing her. He should have known how hard it was for her to ask. Her normally well-controlled stutter had resurfaced. “Sure, sweetie.” He put one arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll cancel office hours with my students today. Meet you at the car after final bell?”

“Yip!” She launched herself at her dad and wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his legs—used to be hips. Hec marveled at how quickly he went from having a little girl to a long tall beauty.

“Want to go over to Anya’s for a hair trim and a blow out too?”

“You’re th-the b-best dad ever.” She squeezed, then hopped down, giving him a peck on the cheek. “B-but she b-books up like crazy. What if she can’t f-fit me in?”

“Remember, she’s also Auntie Anya, I’m pretty sure we can work something out. In fact it might be better—get your dress first, see her after the salon closes. She might want to check out your dress before styling your hair.”

*

On the way home, Beryl dismissed her reluctance to continue the podcast. The night was cold and windy, a freezing hard rain, with intermittent hail. She turned right, to the proverbial dark side of town and beyond, not left toward home. She checked her clock and figured she still had time to listen to one episode, get home and ready for her team’s big gala that night. She’d arrive fashionably late, she grinned—it was almost expected of her now. She resumed the podcast. She felt she’d lost her place somehow. There was the sound of hard rain and wind being thrown against the windows. At a stop, the rear driver side door opened. A gloved hand covered her side mirror, the car shifted as someone got in… aftershave… the door closed, the light turned green. Beryl sat frozen.

*

Brenda put on her white gloves and polished Beryl’s award. She admired it from several angles trying to decide which direction it should be facing for the unveiling. Settling on something she liked, she draped a plush deep blue velvet cloth over it. Brenda was proud to be on Beryl’s team. This was the highest award their company offered and it was rare. This was a design award, awarded by designers.

“Oh Brenda, Mr. Halliday wants to be sure Beryl has no inkling she’s getting this tonight.”

“Not as far as I can tell, Lucas, and I never thought of her having much of a poker face.”

“…and she will make it tonight?”

“She won’t be on time, but yes. I’m certain she’ll be here.”

“OK, we’re doing the presentation between dinner and dessert service. She should be here by then.” Lucas looked around the banquet room. “Looks good.” He nodded, “Well, the band has arrived, sound system is a go, I’ll just go peek in at catering.”

*

“Don’t attract attention now, Irish. We’re this close.”

“Close? Close to what?”

“You tell me, doll, you tell me. I’ve got ‘em bound and gagged just like you wanted. What’s next?”

Beryl chilled from the inside out, her heart raced, her head felt like it would implode. “Who? What do you mean ‘like I wanted’?”

“We arranged it this morning. Don’t you remember? Your kid and that husband of yours…”

“What do you mean? This isn’t happening, Beryl. Pull over, deep breaths, turn around drive straight home…”

“Hey, Irish, I thought you said it was you and me from here on out… ‘straight down the line’ you said… anyway, rigged it so his car broke down on their way in to school… funny him teaching in the same school she attends. Along comes me, a good Samaritan, to give ‘em a lift, right? It was real smooth. Your kid, she’s sharp… had to move and talk fast to stay ahead of her. She knew my ‘shortcut’ wouldn’t work, had to pull off sooner than I wanted. Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

Beryl went from chilled to flushed, she wanted to fling off all her clothes as she felt them tightening around her and such burning heat. “You’re not real.” Her voice cracked.

“Hurts to the quick, Irish. I feel real enough, that kiss last night was real enough.”

“You yourself said ‘Eidolon’. No, no, no, Beryl. Don’t make him more real by talking to him. Turn off the podcast. Sing something. Sing something. Music heals me. Rabbit of Seville, come on.” She was pulling off the road, couldn’t even come up with a tune, her hands were shaking, her whole body was shaking, tears dropped from her chin onto her chest, she could hear her heart pounding. “Hec, oh Hec, what have I done, Abby, my baby, you’re OK, this isn’t real.”

She felt a warm hand pull her hair back behind her right ear, a caress lingered on her neck just below the ear, the familiar scent of aftershave, she felt her shoulders relax, her hands released the wheel. She leaned into the caress, took in a deep breath, she relaxed and a smile spread across her face. Her head pressed into the warm hand, she rubbed her own cheek in his palm, then reached across and put her left hand over the back of his, kissed the palm. She rubbed a stubbled cheek with the back of her right hand. “Ah Dill, Dill.” She felt herself talking. Heard herself, but her voice sounded sultry, husky, like a smoker’s voice. “Gimme a drag, huh?”

Dill pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, turned it around and slid it between her lips at the side of her mouth. She took a deep drag, blew upward; a long spiral of smoke smashed against the headliner of the Leaf and spread out like a thunderhead. “You sure no one will find them?”

“Sure I’m sure, doll, but you decide. They can starve in each other’s company for all I care.”

“We could get some cash for ’em… Dill, our money won’t hold out forever… I bet Delilo isn’t as hardhearted about his half-sister as he makes out. Hec’s family is filthy rich and they adore that granddaughter of theirs.” She pulled out onto the highway.

“Isn’t that a bit risky? You know, they might have a harder time pinning it on us if we all just disappear. Blackmail, doll… I dunno.”

“Blackmail beats murder. We go for the payoff, then disappear. Never to be heard from again. You and me, Dill, straight down the line.”

*

The annual dinner carried on as these things do. Brenda, Lucas, and particularly Mr. Halliday kept a watch, at one moment on the door, at one moment on their watches, at one moment on the lovely sculpted award hidden under the cloth, at one moment on the three empty chairs where Beryl, her husband Hector, and daughter Abby were to be seated. The empty seats, the unused place settings were an irritation to Mr. Halliday. Beryl was often late, but this, this was rudeness, the annual gala. Of course, she didn’t know about her award so she couldn’t be blamed for snubbing it. The surprise was that Hector hadn’t managed to get her there and he knew about this award. He always managed somehow to deliver Beryl at least “fashionably late.”

Finally the plates were cleared and the speeches had begun.

Lucas bent down to whisper, “Mr. Halliday, Brenda and I have both called Beryl’s and Hector’s cell phones multiple times. We get no answer. I’m a little worried. I hope they haven’t had an accident or something. This really is not like them.” Lucas was, in fact, considering calling the police or local hospitals.

Brenda squatted down to add, “Mr. Halliday, if they don’t arrive, I suggest you unveil her award anyway. The art department put so much into it, it is a lovely design in and of itself. You can make a joke about her tardiness. It’s practically a signature for her…”

Dan Halliday nodded. “Fine, fine.” He made a whisking motion as though batting at a gnat to dismiss Brenda and Lucas. He could not disguise his irritation.

*

“Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too… that long slow death you’re trying avoid. Though I hear that hypothermia can be pleasant after awhile, after the first phases of cold they feel warm, even flushed, they start taking off their clothes and even try to burrow into a small dark space…”

Beryl pulled into an access road for a campground closed for the winter.

“I’m a city boy born and bred, Irish, what are we doing here?”

“Don’t get cute, we gotta make a plan, I mean, how do we ask for the money? How do we arrange the pick up?”

“We don’t have time for cut-out letter ransom notes. Phone calls? Too easy to trace.”

“Unless… how about we use a burner phone, even two or three? Make the calls from them. Have the money transferred via phone into, I dunno… your wife’s account is too obvious. Can’t use Hec’s either.” Beryl started to tap her nails on the steering wheel.

“Biegler.”

“Biegler?”

“Delilo’s mouthpiece. He might do me a favor… for a cut.”

“Why’d he help you burn Delilo?”

“Honor among thieves, doll? Really?”

Beryl shrugged her shoulders.

“I bet I can get a nice little packet from Biegler. Burner phones, credit card account in some name or other ready and waiting, IDs, offshore bank account. We could get outta the country, and still get the money. Delilo will be quick. He’ll also be ready to retaliate. What about your in-laws?”

“They’ll need time to access their accounts, I guess, I dunno how their money is locked up, bonds, stocks, bank. Probably need a day. So… you know how to contact Biegler?”

“Know where he lives. Head back to town. Just before city limits, take Majestic toward the lakes. Slow down, you’re not driving a race car you know.”

Beryl grinned, feeling she had the upper hand. “You’re not scared are ya, Dill? I just love the twisties, although you’re right, this isn’t the car to do this road justice.”

Just then she hit some black ice, her Leaf spun and slid. The air bags didn’t go off for some reason. Her head hit the steering wheel hard. When she came to, she felt blood on the side of her forehead, grabbed a tissue. There was blood on the passenger window which she couldn’t figure out. She didn’t recognize the road she was on or her direction. The freezing rain didn’t help.Thoroughly disoriented she shook her head to try to clear it, then grabbed her phone to pull up directions for home. The shoulder was only slightly canted and it was easy for her to get turned around and back on the road.

She smelled cigarette smoke and aftershave. It puzzled her. The rain had completely given way to hail that was bouncing off her hood like ping pong balls. As she entered known streets and landmarks, she saw Hec’s car on the side of the road. She smiled, he was out looking for her. She pulled up behind him and jumped out into the hail. As she got up to the driver door she saw no one inside. She felt the hood of the car, cold. She felt a deep chill, heard the voice from the podcast: “Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

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Lou Nell Gerard’s, “Derecho,” placed 3rd in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (September 2018). “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org