Spotless

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Tara Kenway


Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

“I’ve told you a thousand times to clean up, Edward. We’re a hotel, not a train station. The lobby must be spotless. Spotless! Is that clear?”

I nodded.

It was true. Justine had told me many times. Maybe not a thousand but probably not that far off.

“Keep it pristine.”

Pristine Justine.

That’s what we called her. Justine with her perfect hair, perfect nails and perfect uniform. She wasn’t even the manager, although none of us doubted that it’s where she saw herself.

We just saw her as a pain in the ass. I was responsible for the lobby and reception, Sophie had the first floor, Elaine the second, and Roger was maintenance. Justine was on his case even more than ours.

“Quick, quick, Roger! I haven’t got all day!”

The girls got hassled too.

“How complicated can it be?” she’d say, wiping a critical finger along a window ledge or shelf.

“God, why doesn’t she get promoted or get a new job,” Elaine whined one lunchtime.

“There’s no use complaining about it. She’s been here for fifteen years. I’ve told you before, I doubt she’ll leave now.”

That was Sophie. She’d been here as long as Justine and probably knew the hotel even better than she did.

Roger smoked in silence.

“Nothing to add, Roger?” I asked.

“I wish she’d die,” he muttered.

“I say, that’s a bit harsh,” Sophie said.

Roger shrugged and lit another cigarette.

None of us knew much about Roger. A man of few words and many cigarettes.

And me. I was one of us too. Only here for the summer, but that didn’t make any difference to Justine, who was particularly obsessed with the lobby entrance.

“It’s the window of the hotel,” she said, squinting at the floor, bending down slightly to see everything in a different light. “You know, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and the lobby is the window to the hotel’s soul.”

I liked how she tried to make being a maniac about cleanliness poetic.

All of this would make some sense if we were talking about a classy hotel somewhere, but we weren’t. The only reason we had any business at all wasn’t because of our spotless lobby, but the fact that we were the only hotel around. All the tired tourists who’d spent the last five hours in the car with the air con cranked up knew if they didn’t stop here they’d have to drive another couple of hours before coming across another place to stay.

Did the fact the hotel was clean help? Sure it did. But if the lobby really was the window to the hotel’s soul, most people would keep on driving.

This particular day the hotel wasn’t very busy. The weather wasn’t too hot, driving conditions were good and people just kept on, trying to get home rather than stop yet again. Sophie was the first to notice it.

“Have you seen Justine, Ed?”

“Nope.” I glanced at my watch. “Maybe she’s ill?” I flashed Sophie my crossed fingers and she laughed.

“It’s odd. She’s never late.”

“What? You think she’s been kidnapped or something? Too much CSI, Sophie.”

She smiled but still looked worried.

“Look, maybe she had car trouble. Or she’s ill. She’s only half an hour late. There’s a multitude of reasons to be late.”

She nodded and walked over to the elevator.

“Can you text me when she arrives? You better clean that up before she arrives too.” She pointed at the lobby floor.

“Sure.”

Some bastard had traipsed mud straight across the lobby sometime during the night and Justine would kill me if it was still there when she arrived.

I took out the vacuum cleaner and started passing it backwards and forwards. This was a mistake as the mud wasn’t quite dry yet and just smeared and stuck to the vacuum cleaner. Dark reddish smears ran across the lobby.

“Dammit.” Now I’d need to clean the cleaner too.

I put the vacuum cleaner to one side and fetched a mop and bucket.

A few swishes of the mop later and most of the mud was gone. I squinted at the floor, and bent down slightly, trying to see it through Justine’s eyes. I didn’t especially care about doing a good job, but I did like an easy life and cleanliness meant no Justine on my back.

There was still some streaks of mud across the hall.

I went out back to the cleaning cupboard and had a look at the products we had.

*Industrial floor cleaner.*

That could be the bottle for me. I had a look at the label.

Removes all stains from wooden and tiled floors. Mud, oil, even blood!

Well, if that didn’t work, nothing would!

I went back into the lobby and started cleaning. Thank God there was still no sign of Justine. I scrubbed and scrubbed and then passed over the wood with the floor polisher.

I looked at the floor again. Squinted. Bent down.

“Damn, now that’s what I call pristine.”

I turned around.

It was Roger. He was smoking as usual. He went to tap the ash on my floor.

“Come on, man. Gimme a break.” I pushed the bucket of dirty water over to him and he tapped the ash inside.

“Don’t let Justine see you smoking here. You know it drives her crazy.”

“Yeah, well, the feeling’s mutual.” He glanced around. “She not here yet?”

“Nope. Sophie’s worried.”

“Sophie’s always worried.” He dropped the cigarette butt in the bucket. “Let me know if she turns up.”

He wandered off, leaving dusty footprints behind him.

I passed quickly behind him with the floor polisher.

*

The rest of the day passed by and still no Justine. Sophie called the manager and told him Justine hadn’t come into work.

“I’m just worried. It’s not like her. In all the time we’ve worked together she’s not been late. Not once!”

He tried calling her at home but there was no answer. He finally called the police and they went to her house. Still no Justine. That’s when they came to the hotel and started asking questions.

There were two officers. I got a young guy who looked about the same age as me. My mother always said that you knew you were getting old when the policemen started looking young. Jeez, I was only 22 and I was already thinking that.

“Have a seat, Edward. Can I call you Edward?” he said.

“Sure.”

“So, when did you last see Justine?” His pen hovered above his notepad.

“Last night. When my shift ended.”

“And what time was that?”

“Around nine p.m., I guess.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Well, my shift ends at nine p.m., but then usually I leave a little later than that. You know, the time to put everything away.”

“Sure. And you didn’t see Justine leave?”

“No, but then I never do. She always leaves after me.”

“Okay. Is she popular here?” He glanced up at me.

“You’ve already spoken to the others, no?”

He nodded.

“She’s not the most popular. She’s a ball-breaker.”

“Pristine Justine?”

I laughed. “That’s her. That’s why the lobby’s so clean. Windows to the soul of the hotel.”

“She says that?”

“All the time.”

He asked me some more questions about her routine, my routine, my colleagues.

“Do you really think something’s happened to her?” I asked.

“Don’t you?”

I shrugged. “I really don’t know. It just seems a bit crazy.”

“All these things seem crazy until they happen. Then they don’t seem quite so crazy.” He stood up. “Thanks for your time. This is the number where we can reach you?”

I nodded.

I got up and left the office and went back into the lobby. There was a guest waiting at reception. Seeing as no one was there, I checked them in and got their keys sorted out.

“Don’t you have someone to help with my bag?” the woman asked.

I looked around for Roger, but he was still in with the police.

“Sure. I’ll help you myself.” I smiled a big cheesy grin. All my grins were cheesy—it was why Justine didn’t want me working directly with the guests.

“Try sincerity, Edward!”

“This is it.”

“Well, just stop smiling then.” She’d turned on her heel and walked away.

I put my cheesy grin away and took the woman’s bags. God only knows what she had in there but they weighed a ton. I almost joked that she had a dead body in there, but seeing the circumstances I thought it better to say nothing.

I took her up to the second floor. Elaine was up there.

“Room 215?” I asked.

She led us down there and opened up the door.

“Ma’am,” she said, holding the door open.

I put her suitcase down with a thud. Elaine looked at me and I shrugged.

“Thank you. That’ll be all,” said the woman. Not even a tip.

Elaine closed the door behind us.

“Bit of a pain, huh?” she asked. “Who does that remind you of?”

“Have the police spoken to you yet?” I asked.

Elaine nodded. “Same as you. I didn’t see her after my shift ended.”

“It’s weird though, isn’t it? What do you think happened?”

“God knows. Maybe she was having a torrid affair that none of us knew about.”

“Really?”

“Edward, I don’t know! But, come on. Outside of here we know next to nothing about each other. Do you know where I live, or if I’m married? Have I got kids?”

I flushed.

“Don’t worry. I know nothing about you either except that you’re a student. And that’s fine. All I’m saying is that we could all have secrets or a dark side and we probably wouldn’t know.”

“Until something like this happens.”

“Exactly.”

We both stood in silence for a moment.

“So what’s your secret, Elaine?” I asked.

She smiled.

“Well now, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.” She pressed the elevator button for me. The doors slid open. “Back to the lobby with you, Edward.”

And so Elaine had a mysterious side. Who would have guessed? Certainly not me.

When I got back to the lobby, Roger was just leaving the office. He nodded at me as he passed.

The police officers were talking to each other and looking at Roger.

“Do we have any news?” I asked. “I’m not trying to inject myself into an investigation, you know. I know you guys watch out for that. I’d just like Justine to turn up.”

“Well, you’ll know when we do,” one of them said.

And that’s what happened.

Three hours later Justine’s car turned up but still no Justine. The police came back and started talking about a timeline and alibis. All of us were suspects as we were all at work when she went missing, and we weren’t together. It was hard to find out exactly where she had been as she regularly went all over the hotel.

I saw Sophie in the corridor.

“They think it’s one of us!” she whispered, spitting out the words.

“Maybe it is.”

“Edward! How can you even say that?”

“Come on. We were all the last people to see her. And none of us were her greatest fan.”

“Well, I didn’t do it,” she said, looking around her as if someone might be listening.

“I don’t think they’ve bugged the place yet, Sophie.”

She glared at me and walked away.

The police were hovering around the lobby, bending and squinting at the floor.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“This floor is spotless,” one of them said.

“Yes, sir. Justine’s very particular about that. She says it’s the window to the hotel.”

“Does she now?” He kept looking at the floor.

“Did you clean it when you arrived this morning?”

I nodded.

“Of course. It’s always the first thing I do. Plus someone had left mud all over the floor.”

He stood up, and gave a quick glance at his partner.

“Mud?”

“Yes. I had footprints right across the lobby. A real pain in the ass to get out.”

“I’ll bet,” he muttered.

The day continued quietly until the afternoon when Sophie came rushing in.

“Have you heard? They’re questioning Roger and Elaine. Again!”

“Maybe they just had some other questions.”

“No, no. It looked like they wanted to arrest them. Maybe they just don’t have enough evidence for the time being.”

“Like I said before, Sophie—too much CSI.”

At the same time, it did look like the police knew something. There was an urgency to them that hadn’t been there before.

I glanced over at the office and could just see Elaine shaking her head.

“We could all have secrets.”

Wasn’t that what she’d said to me? So what was her secret? Maybe she bumped off Justine. I certainly wouldn’t blame her, although it seemed a bit of an extreme reaction. At the same time, I knew I could get out of here at the end of the summer. Elaine didn’t.

And what about Roger? He was kind of suspicious, but then we all could be.

I sighed. This is why I wasn’t a police officer and they were.

“Not my job, man,” I said to myself.

The police kept them in there for a couple of hours. I sat at the lobby, checking in a few people, watching them as they scuffed my floor, cursing each one of them.

Once everyone had gone I took out the floor polisher again.

It chummed across the floor, making my arms judder.

I was engrossed in the cleaning when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Edward?” It was one of the policemen. “Can you come with us for a moment?”

“Sure. Can I just finish up here?”

“No, leave it.”

“But Justine—”

“I don’t think it’s going to be of a concern to her. You know we found her car.”

I nodded.

“There was an awful lot of blood inside. It’s Justine’s.”

“Oh.”

“Just leave the machine.”

I followed the officers, Sophie peering out the office door at me.

“She’s going to say I did it now,” I said.

“Did what?”

“Kill Justine.”

“No one said she was dead.” They were both looking at me.

“What? You just basically said it. Two minutes ago!” I started feeling a little scared. I didn’t want to be a patsy.

“Have a seat, Edward. We need to talk to you about the lobby. The mud this morning.”

“Okay.”

“You’re sure it was just mud?”

“What else would it be?”

“Could it have been something else?”

“What? Like dog crap?”

He gave a slight smile.

“We’re thinking more along the lines of blood.”

I thought back to the smears.

“We have a theory that Roger and Elaine killed Justine. We found her body in the garden behind the hotel. She’d been hit with an axe and then buried. We found her blood in one of the rooms and some blood on the fire escape stairs. There would have been mud on their shoes. But blood as well. The footprints would tie at least one of them to the crime scene. Otherwise we don’t have much.”

“I guess it could have been blood as well. It didn’t cross my mind. It was just hard to get rid of.”

“Can you show us what you used to clean up?”

“Sure.” We left the office and went to the store room. I showed them the bottle.

“Shit,” one of them said. “That’ll have destroyed everything.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t know, Edward.”

The police gathered their things and left. I guess to try and find a plan B.

We all watched them go.

Sophie sighed.

“The one time you manage to clean the lobby well. Nice job.” She walked away.

“Yeah, nice job, Ed,” Roger said, winking at me.

Elaine took Roger’s hand and smiled at him.

“Pristine.”

pencilEnglish writer and English trainer living in Lyon, France. Likes cats, cinema, reading and running. Has been previously published in TCLJ and has a story called “The Barber” in an anthology. Email: tkenway[at]gmail.com

Philip Knight

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Urvashi Bohra


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

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

‘And this is the famous site where Mr Knight left his footprints before killing himself in the elevator. Any questions?’ the tour guide, Jennifer, asked a group of wide-eyed fans of Philip Knight, the famous but troubled author who was known for his fictional work and untimely death.

‘So you are saying these muddy footprints are his?’ a fan asked, looking at the footprints that had been preserved since the last ten years in the lobby of Hotel Marina West.

‘Yes,’ Jennifer answered automatically like a machine with recorded answers. ‘Please don’t touch it.’ She snapped as she saw the same fan trying to get his greasy hands on the unspoiled footprints.

‘Sorry,’ the fan whispered and got up to hide behind the crowd.

‘Now if you walk with me, we can go to the conference room where you can watch an interview of the last person who spoke to Mr Knight.’

The group of six immediately followed Jennifer as she led them to the darkly lit room. Once they all took their seats, a young man took to the podium.

‘Good evening everyone, my name is Larry and I am here to tell you about the movie you will be seeing now. Before we begin, I urge you to switch off your mobile phones and cameras because the footage here is private and not to be shared by anyone. If you do shoot and share the footage, you will be penalized heavily as mentioned in the contract you have signed.’

Slight tones of phones switching off were in the atmosphere for the next few seconds as Larry waited for them to get ready.

‘Philip Knight, as you all would agree, is this century’s greatest crime and mystery novelist and may forever remain so too.’

The crowd murmured their approval.

‘He had a way with words that formed an image so compelling that one would be hooked from page one. You could never guess how a story could end because Mr Knight had a way of surprising you with his twisted endings and this is the reason why he and his work developed such a cult following. The movie that I am about to show you is an interview with the then-manager of this hotel, Mr Highmore, who was a great fan of the novelist himself and equally saddened to know about his demise. Well, without wasting any more time, I will play the movie now and if there are any questions then we will keep them for the end.’

Larry signaled a man, hidden behind thick glass, to start the projector. The unseen man did so immediately and soon the room was completely dark and the movie started. All the people were now at the edge of their seats as they tried to listen to every word the interviewee said.

The movie started with a picture of Philip Knight sitting in room 505, his favorite room in the hotel that the group had seen at the commencement of their tour. He was sitting next to his typewriter, which is still present in the room along with his other belongings. The image slowly started to fade out and the voice of the interviewer filled the room as he asked his subject to state his name and occupation.

‘My name is Samuel Highmore.’ An old man started to speak as he looked into the camera with big vacant eyes. ‘Before I retired I served as the Manager of Marina West Hotel for 32 years.’

‘Is it true that this was the hotel where Philip Knight used to come to write his famous novels?’

‘Ah! Mr Knight.’ The old man’s eyes shined as he remembered the old days and a hint of smile touched his lips. ‘Such a great fella, always came to greet me whenever he saw me.’

Mr Highmore looked at the interviewer with great joy and the same was gone immediately as the interviewer continued.

‘And you were the last person who spoke to him on the night of December 16th before his demise?’ the interviewer asked unemotionally.

‘Yes,’ the old man said as he looked down in disappointment, which the audience could sense as they sighed along with the man in that square frame looking for words to describe his agony.

‘It was raining heavily that night and Mr Knight always stayed with us during that season. He would always go out in the day and come back late in the evening completely drenched and would go straight to the bar. I had to ask the bartender to keep an extra set of towels for Mr Knight every day.’ Mr Highmore chuckled as he shared that extra tidbit.

‘He would always enter with those muddy shoes that would really infuriate the owner of the hotel, Mr Flinch. But he could never say anything to Mr Knight as he was our most reputed customer. Instead, he would take out his anger on the poor bellboy, Jimmy, who was always forced to clean up after those footprints. Actually, Mr Knight liked aggravating Mr Flinch so he would deliberately dirty the carpets daily.’

‘That night like every other, Mr Knight came into the lobby leaving his muddy footprints everywhere and said hello to me. I asked him how his new novel was coming along and he said that it will soon be finished and he can’t wait for everyone to read it. He was very excited about it.’ Mr Highmore looked into the camera and the audience in the room felt like he was talking to them.

Of course they knew about Philip Knight’s last book, The Stolen Kiss. His unfinished work that sold like hotcakes even though it lacked an ending. People all around the world gave the story their own ending and perception but no one was actually satisfied because the legend himself did not write it.

‘I asked him what he would like for his breakfast the next day, to which he replied that he had not decided. That felt odd to me because Mr Knight always knew what he wanted but I did not take it seriously, unaware of what would follow next.’ Mr Highmore took a pause as he tried to gather the next few words.

The audience waited for the sad description of the events that soon followed.

‘He walked towards the elevator and while waiting for it he waved at Mr Flinch, who smiled back at him and came towards the carpet to inspect the latest footprints. Mr Knight watched Mr Flinch lose his temper once more and after enjoying his frustration he entered the lift. This would be the moment when Jimmy would start getting yelled at but thankfully he was nowhere to be seen. I started to walk towards Mr Flinch to calm him down and suddenly heard a thud noise. I turned around to see that the elevator Mr Knight was in had abruptly stopped. Mr Flinch had noticed the same and we both started to walk towards the lift. It stayed broken for six minutes exactly and in that time I asked the maintenance man what was the issue. He told me that the problem is not external and that it seems that the lift was stopped by Mr Knight himself.’

‘Six minutes later the lift started working again and we all took a sigh of relief. It went to the floor where the bar was and we all resumed our work. The maintenance man called the lift back so he could see what was wrong with it.’

‘I will get someone to clean the carpet, sir,’ I told Mr Flinch who just shook his head. “No, wait. Where is that boy Jimmy?” he asked in a curious tone and I started to look around to find him. Jimmy was standing near the main entrance but before I could call him, I heard a sharp yell coming from behind. I ran to see what had happened only to find Mr Knight lying in the elevator lifeless.’

Mr Highmore sighed deeply as grief took over him and made him feel like these events had happened just a few hours back.

‘I lost a great friend that night. We got his body out of the elevator and eventually it was declared a suicide when the police found a suicide note still in his typewriter. It is still a mystery as to why he killed himself. It seems like he just… gave up.’

Mr Highmore could not speak anymore as he broke down leaving many members of the audience to do the same. The movie then ended as the lights came back on and Larry was back.

‘Intriguing wasn’t it?’ he asked, to which everyone agreed in unity. ‘Any questions?’

A few arms were raised as Larry started with a weeping female fan.

‘Where is his suicide letter now? We did not see it in his room.’

‘The letter was taken by the police and it never was given back to us and since Mr Knight had no family, it remained there.’

‘Where are Flinch and Jimmy now?’ a middle-aged man who came with his wife asked without waiting to be chosen.

‘Mr Flinch, as you all can see, turned the hotel into a memorial of sorts for Mr Knight and Jimmy left soon after the suicide. Why do you ask?’

‘Just curious,’ the man replied while sharing a look with his wife.

‘Were there no cameras in the elevator?’ the wife asked.

‘No. The elevator is an old one and Mr Flinch did not want to ruin its old rustic charm. I think that the time is up and Jennifer will now take you to the last leg of the tour,’ Larry said and Jennifer came from behind as she got the group to follow her again.

This was the part of the tour that everyone was excited about. Their friends, relatives and virtual strangers on the internet had spoken wonders about this part of the tour, calling it the best and a curious ending to the tour. Sadly none of them knew what it was. As part of their tour package, every person was made to sign a contract with the hotel affirming that they would not reveal what they saw, found or heard at the hotel or take anything away from its place, in order to keep it a surprise for the next guests.

The group followed Jennifer with anticipation. They got out of the room and were soon faced with the footsteps of Philip Knight that ended right outside an old two-door elevator. Jennifer begins to address them.

‘This, as you all can already guess, is the elevator where Mr Knight took his own life. As part of your package, we now give you the opportunity to spend exactly six minutes in the elevator, stuck where Mr Knight did. Many have found those six minutes inspirational and spiritual and let’s hope the same for you all. If you could all please enter one by one.’

Everyone in the group got inside the lift immediately, hoping that somehow the ghost of Knight would speak to his one true fan. Jennifer asked the last person who entered the lift, who was evidently a student given his attire, to press the twelfth floor button and as he did so, she closed the outer door of the elevator.

The first few seconds as the rickety lift started to rise went in complete silence as everyone prepared for something divine to happen to them. Suddenly the lift stopped between the sixth and the seventh floor. Although everyone was prepared for it, when it actually happened, they could not help but gasp. A minute passed while everyone stayed quiet, some trying to talk to Knight, while some just looked around to see what all was there. The man who came with his wife was on his phone and suddenly yelled, ‘I knew it.’

Everyone jumped at his voice that now echoed the small space. The man’s wife asked him what happened to which he replied—

‘I put a search on the Flinch guy. He looked very fishy. It seems like he was about to go bankrupt before Knight died but was able to use his death as a way to earn some good cash.’

‘Does that mean what I think it means?’ his wife asked him curiously.

‘You guys seriously don’t think that, do you?’ the girl who was weeping earlier asked the couple in disbelief.

‘Come on, this is so obvious. Knight was murdered,’ the husband replied, not trying to hide his excitement.

‘How could he kill him if he was in the lobby the whole time?’ the man with the greasy hands asked him.

There was a brief silence, as everyone went to their own thoughts.

‘Jimmy,’ said the student who looked up at the husband sharing a look of agreement. ‘Jimmy was always bullied into anything Flinch said, why not this?’

Suddenly everyone started to panic in exhilaration as they all believed what the husband was already sure of.

‘This is what happened. Flinch forced Jimmy to kill Knight and also go to his room to type that suicide note. The police would have not found the fingerprints because he was wearing gloves.’

‘How did he kill him?’ the woman asked in anticipation.

Silence, once again. No one could answer that. The only guy who had not spoken yet about the subject was a 50-year-old man standing in the corner. But that changed now.

‘If we all know Knight and if what you are saying is actually correct then he would not have left without a fight. I am sure he would have left something here to reveal the truth.’

Everyone immediately started searching for clues. The student tried to put himself in Knight’s shoes and the first thing he did was go to the corner with the buttons and started pressing them frantically. When nothing happened he punched the wall in frustration and suddenly a note dropped from behind the socket. Everyone was shocked as the student started to open the paper gently.

The paper contained one word, which took everyone by surprise. There was no way of knowing if it belonged to Knight but they believed it anyway. The one word helped them solve the biggest mystery of their life and the worst part was that they could never tell anyone about it and had to keep it amongst themselves.

No one was ready to go to prison over a murder that happened years ago or pay a fine so huge that it would leave them penniless. Even though the truth was never to be shared, they were happy to be the only ones who knew about it. They felt special.

The note was folded and placed back behind the socket as the lift started to rise to the twelfth floor.

‘That’s why the bastard never got the footprints cleaned. He knew they would get him money and that is why we are made to sign that stupid contract, too.’

‘Shoes,’ the group whispered to themselves, trying to figure out what this word that they read in the note meant. But one thing that was sure was that Knight did not kill himself.

Jennifer greeted the group at the twelfth floor and asked them about their experience to which they replied halfheartedly. She then led them to Knight’s favorite bar spot and concluded the tour.

The death of Philip Knight has always been a mystery to everyone who ever visited the hotel. Many came across the note, and while some believed him to be murdered others claimed that he killed himself. Like the ending of his books, his own life’s ending was the biggest mystery they came across. No one knew why he killed himself, if he killed himself, just like no one knew that Knight never really died in that elevator.

When a writer known for his words finally realized that he did not find any comfort or familiarity in those same words, he knew that he was done. He was embarrassed to admit his failure and when he combined that with his love for mystery, he decided to become a protagonist in the stories of many who came to the hotel.

Now hiding behind a thick glass wall and a projector, Knight waited and saw how his fans enjoyed the one last mystery that he had left for them .

pencilUrvashi Bohra is a recent college graduate with a degree in mass communication. She wants
to live in a world where she can support herself solely through her words and create stories that inspire people just like her favorite writers inspire her. Every day she learns something new about the art of fictional writing and finds great joy in that and hopes to excel in it as much as possible. Email: urvashi.bohra6[at]gmail.com

Nothing Comes From Nothing

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Sarah R. Clayville


Photo Credit: Alexa Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Alexa Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Never, for one moment of your life, lose sight of those you love. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

Abby didn’t promise she would stay in the hotel room.

Rather she promised she would stay out of trouble, and as many television shows and statistics proved, trouble could just as easily be found beneath a hotel bed as it could in the lobby or the courtyard or anywhere else for that matter. Abby’s mother had raised her from a young age to be fearless and stubborn, a terrifying combination for a nine-year-old, but it was a function of their nomad lifestyles. Abby’s mother gave speeches to others about how to pull their lives together, and on the few occasions she had been permitted to listen to them, she had marveled at how hypocritical the entire venture sounded. Nothing about their lives felt much together at all.

The elevator ride downstairs was smoother than others that usually bounced or shimmied up and down the cables. It smelled like cigar smoke and Abby regretted the chalky odor that clung to her when she exited.

Her plan had first been to sneak in and listen to her mother talking to the audience. They would be mostly women, mostly single, and they would all share an envious countenance because her mother wore the fanciest clothes and hired a professional to do her hair and makeup just on these occasions. Often these stylists, out of pity or amusement, would turn to Abby, fluffing her hair, painting tiger stripes on her nails.

“Are you going to grow up to make people feel good about themselves, too?” They would chatter at her, snapping shots with their phones, posting them to social media just the way her mother did. And as soon as the cloud of women would head down to the conference hall Abby would scrub away the colors, give herself one of those looks in the mirror, and flip through the papers scattered across her mother’s bed. Fan letters. Messages of devotion.

They always got two twin beds in their hotel rooms. In fact once her mother had howled at a concierge because he’d given them a king and after her mother Belinda remembered that she was a public figure and couldn’t get away with yelling, she’d said simply that Abby couldn’t be her own woman in someone else’s bed.

Except Abby wasn’t a woman at all, she was a child. And she never promised she would stay in the room, just that she would be a good girl.

You can trick the world, you can trick a camera, but you can’t trick a mirror. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

Downstairs in the hotel, the women worshiped Belinda.

They arrived to the presentation with her book under one arm and tissues tucked in their purses. It was a well-known fact that no one left without shedding either tears of joy or jealousy, frustration or frenzy. Belinda had dragged herself through hell and back and now could prove to the world of hurt women that survival was possible. Pretty, even.

“And tonight you will go home and know that the morning is a gift, that you are a gift, and that I am sending my good energy to each of you personally.” Belinda emphasized the right words, swallowed the weak ones, and stood poised to take over the world.

The crowd erupted with cheers. Belinda started rotating her wrist because she would need to sign each woman’s book, and not just a signature. There would be a note of wisdom, stolen from somewhere else because all of the good things had already been said by people much smarter, much more compassionate, than Belinda. But the notes were part of her brand. And her brand meant everything regardless of what sacrifices and truths had to be played with.

An electronic whine distracted her momentarily, and she buried her phone in the depths of her bag, because Gregory had been texting the entire evening. The messages had started lengthy and desperate, but the more she ignored him, the shorter the texts became until he simply said I’m packed. I’m gone. Belinda smiled, tilting her head to the left because it bred trust in people. She’d taken psychology classes at the local community college to understand how to worm her way into their brains and make them feel special. Loved. Unfortunately this unintentionally worked too well with men, none of whom understood that if she were to marry or publicly date someone, her image would shatter into a million little pieces worth nothing. And she’d been worth nothing to many: first her alcoholic neglectful parents, then her lascivious college professor, and finally a philandering husband.

Worth nothing. Belinda would never hear those words again, and slowly, as her fans flooded her with gifts and emails, the words faded and blurred.

“Could you make this copy out to my ex, Bucky.” The woman wore an oversized jumper and too much blush as if she were unbearably hot or itchy. Her hands smelled of juniper. “Tell him to fuck off. Fuck off Bucky. Love, Belinda.”

This wasn’t the first anti-dedication Belinda had been asked to do, because these women wanted to siphon off just an ounce of the strength she’d used to leave her own husband. The secret to it was that Belinda had no choice, she’d known that deep down either she would leave him or kill him, and she didn’t want to go to jail and wear an orange jumpsuit and eat mushy green beans. Instead she told him one night that he was the nothing—after he’d drunk himself into a stupor—and then she lied and told the world that night he beat her and threw her against a wall and told her he’d do the same to Abby and so with every ounce of courage she’d packed up her daughter and herself and run away to protect them both from the inevitable. Other women took her lead. They tumbled down the rabbit hole with her, even though her story was rife with half-truths, and husbands came home to empty beds.

If you retrace your steps, you’ll only get a front row seat to all of your mistakes. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

The police officer was terrified for the mother.

“These don’t lead anywhere. They’re a threat!” Belinda held Abby’s shoulders firmly as the police ushered them away from the crowd huddling by the muddy footprints. Abby’s feet were notoriously bare.

“It’s a prank. I’ve seen similar before, and often someone is just being ugly. But how did they get your daughter’s shoes?”

The officer knelt down and studied Abby’s toes one by one, as if there was a shred of evidence woven between them. Belinda knelt right down with him and refused to stop her own interrogation.

“Talk to me, not her. She’s clearly traumatized. Speechless.”

Abby nodded three times in agreement with all of her mother’s statements, as she’d been taught.

“It doesn’t matter how he got her shoes. Look at them.”

The footprints were disturbing. The feet were facing the wrong way as if the legs had parted ways and tried to run away from one another. And the mud was a strange dark copper color that made the police officer’s stomach turn because he’d seen mud like this before. Mixed with blood. But it was his job to keep Belinda and her daughter calm and somehow sedate the crowd that fiercely protected the two. A number of them were on cell phones with friends or the press, and he knew that in a matter of minutes things would become more complicated than they needed to be.

Abby sat down on the floor, crossing her legs and inspecting her own feet. The police officer noticed small cuts on the base of her heels and immediately pulled gauze out of his jacket pocket. Even though Belinda was quickly typing on her phone, he knew full well if he approached without her consent she would eviscerate him.

“Ma’am, her feet are bleeding. I need to wrap them, or would you like to?” He held out the gauze as a peace treaty, relieved when she motioned for him to do the job himself. Now Belinda was on the phone with her manager, demanding a private investigator immediately.

“Abby,” the police officer tried, “you look pale. Are you hungry?”

“I’m thirsty.” She broke her silence. “My throat hurts, and I only drink ginger ale or water.”

Her demand amused him, an echo of her mother’s behavior except she didn’t know how to be nasty about it and instead presented her feet for him to wrap. He did it quickly and thought better of asking her more about her shoes because he recognized the exhaustion in her voice, and frankly he was exhausted just watching Belinda let alone living with her. He asked the concierge to bring ginger ale because it was more interesting than water and procured a private room for the two behind the kitchen.

The throng of women tried to follow, but at this point more police had arrived as well as the media and they managed to block one another respectively. “We are investigating,” the officer announced to the crowd. “And the little girl is safe. She was never abducted.”

Somehow his statement made the crowd angrier. They only wanted to hear about the star.

“Tell Belinda not to let anyone threaten her. We support her,” one fan chimed in as if she had a megaphone.

“Those footprints look like blood,” another noticed, and the police officer slammed the door behind him where Belinda stood by a low window counting the vans in the parking lot. Abby was shaking in her chair and still hadn’t put on the socks or anything else brought to her but carefully sipped the ginger ale and watched the officer with the clearest eyes he’d ever seen. He brought the can over to her cup to pour more in, and with her lips still wrapped around the straw, she whispered to him from the side of her mouth this isn’t the first time.

The police officer was terrified for the daughter.

The truth cannot be sacrificed or perverted. It will always claim what rightfully belongs to it. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

Abby and her mother looked at one another, with foreign eyes.

“This is not the first time someone threatened to harm Abby, but it’s the first time anyone did it publicly, and so I am forced to address it publicly. This is no coincidence.” Belinda turned to the crowd and exhaled, ready to reap the rewards of her stunt.

She had brought a chair up next to the podium, and Abby crossed her legs and hugged her knees tightly with bare feet still wrapped in the officer’s gauze, staying within arm’s reach of her mother. The little girl caught sight of herself on a shining tray tipped over at the end of one of the banquet tables and locked eyes with herself, counting silently in her head and forgetting the way the shoes had been pried from her feet.

“I had planned on waiting and announcing this at the gala, but I’ve just accepted a television offer, one that will allow me to spread my message globally. It is something I wanted since I was a little girl. Even though some might be… embarrassed at what I have to say. So much so that they thought threatening Abby would silence me.” Belinda also noticed her smile in the tray that had captivated Abby and couldn’t help admiring the red lips. The curved shoulders. Belinda dominated the room. She didn’t need to demand obedience. It was served to her freely.

The audience refused to stop cheering, despite the media frantically waving their hands to get Belinda to acknowledge them and answer questions. It was the remedy to all the ugly voices in her head, and she knew what she’d done, what had been required to do to get her there was all worth it. Borrowing Abby’s shoes and traipsing back behind the hotel through the mud where one of the stable horses had just given birth. Carefully coating them with a layer of the dirt and waiting until there was a lull in the lobby and the cameras craned their crooked necks away from the poster advertising Belinda’s latest engagement. It all delivered the perfect forum. Everyone in the room would be hinged on who was threatening Abby. The mystery would launch her show perfectly, and all Belinda had to do was keep up the ruse.

“I’m setting us up for the rest of our lives,” she’d whispered to her daughter just before bed, filling Abby’s head with hopes for the future rather than any happiness of the present. “But if you tell, if you let anyone know, someone will come take you away and then we’d both be wrecked. Abby, we are a team.”

Once the reporters were able to make headway through the applause, one man asked Belinda what she thought the footprints meant. Belinda’s heart started vibrating in her chest because she had known this question would be asked. Everything had been orchestrated flawlessly.

“You know, some with darker minds might conclude a darker meaning, but what I see are two paths, going forward or sliding back, and I…” Belinda moved to the grand doors nearby. “I am moving forward, and the truth will be told. All of our truths will be told.”

The officer frowned in the audience, noticing a piece of gauze had loosened and Abby draped it back and forth across the floor. The stains of blood actually looked pretty to her, scarlet butterflies tattooed along her feet, and she suddenly appreciated her mother’s instructions to keep her feet bare even though the air stung the unintentional cuts the glass she’d dropped in the room had carved into her skin. The room was fascinated with Belinda’s show, and the officer secretly moved to Abby’s side and curled the white bandage over her foot.

“Honey, your mom wants me to take you to get your feet washed up before they start taking pictures. You know how important those pictures are, don’t you?”

Abby nodded and liked the way the officer smiled right at her, never looking above or away.

“Mom told me how important it is to do what she asks, for both of us. Or else…” Abby’s voice trailed off, and the officer lifted her to her feet and slipped out the back exit with her to his car which wasn’t a police car at all, and once she sat down next to him in the passenger seat, a seat she was never allowed to sit in with her mother, she pulled the mirror down to smile and make monster faces.

“Abby,” the man said, unbuttoning his old Halloween costume and settling into the grey T-shirt he wore underneath, “what was the or else?”

Abby folded her hands in her lap and played with the frayed ends of her shirt. She trusted the man who had bandaged her feet and listened to every single word she’d said as if all of it was important.

“Or else I’d be taken away.”

The man reached into his glove compartment and handed her a bag of Goldfish and jelly beans because he wasn’t used to children and didn’t exactly know what she might like, but the combination made her smile and so content she didn’t bother asking why they were driving away from the hotel. It had almost been too easy for the man to take Abby with him even though his plan had initially been to confront Belinda and accuse her of the lies she spread, of the parents who weren’t actually alcoholics but just dismissive or the ex-husband who had been so dismissive she’d had an affair with a man she didn’t remember. The Goldfish and jelly beans were meant to be a gift, not a lure.

And Abby and the man looked at one another, with the same eyes, and he believed that if he retraced his steps far enough he’d find a way to keep his daughter and expose Belinda’s mistakes to the world.

pencilSarahSaysWrite. Email: sarah.clayville[at]gmail.com

My Funeral

Alexander Pawlowski
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze


drunk ghost
Photo Credit: miss line

I had never seen my home so busy in my entire life and so quiet all at once. Guests were slowly moving from room to room, softly speaking to one another and sharing their condolences. I knew them by sight if not by name. Family friends most of them.

They’d brought casseroles, a strange tradition that I never quite understood, and some had brought soups and drinks. I suppose it’s a small kindness, to bring something of little value to a wake. Anything big would be out of taste and we’ve all found comfort in food at some point. I doubt it brought any comfort now, however.

Everyone gathered there knew better than to speak to me: a lingering ghost. If my heart grew too heavy, I would not be able to move on. Yet, by simply being there, I made it so much harder for myself and for them to let go.

Guests had taken it upon themselves to clean the house and bursts of magic flashed as stains and dust were cleared here and there. It was mostly just busy work for those who didn’t know what to do with themselves.

“Eva, I’m so sorry.” Marie-Lupus, a woman with the strangest name, burst in by the front door and latched herself to my mother. “I just got back from my vacation and my phone has just been filled to the brim with this horrid news. I am sorry I was not here earlier. Maybe if I had stayed and watched over Anna I—”

“No!” My mother said, all too loudly, eyes turning toward her. She added softly, “No. Do not blame yourself. It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone and if you had been there you might have been hurt. I was her mother; it was me that should have—”

“No, no. Shh.” Marie-Lupus rocked my mother back and forth. “Don’t say anything, ifs and buts will only make the pain worse.”

My mother let herself be comforted, her pale hands limp at Marie-Lupus’s side.

I should have left the house when I died, I knew. Seeing me only made things worse. I couldn’t, I thought, or maybe I wouldn’t. However, I could not see my mother in this state much longer and hastily made my way outside.

It was a bright afternoon, the sun and sky uncaring of the reigning chagrin down below. It was a good day for a get-together but the circumstances were certainly less than ideal. Chairs floated about as guests helped my father set up the yard for their final goodbye to me.

It must have been killing my father inside. No father should plan the funeral of his child. Horribly enough, it should be the other way around.

“That man is keeping everything inside,” commented Beau Lemieux, an immigrant from France I had only met twice. “I would be horrified if my own father shed no tears for me.”

“Hush,” said Barbara Pines, an old friend of my mother’s. “I have known Charles most of life and let me tell you that man is barely keeping it together.”

And how right you are, Barbara, I wanted to say.

I knew every crease, line, and wrinkle on my father’s face and most of them he earned from a lifetime of smiles and laughter. His stoic face was probably for everyone’s benefit, maybe more for mother than anyone else. This wake had to be done and he was going to hold it together until the last guest left before he dared break down and sob into the night.

His eyes turned to me accidentally and we locked gazes for a moment. I smiled, hoping it would be enough for him to know it was all going to be all right. The flicker of anger in his eyes startled me.

“Charles, I—”

A familiar voice spoke out from behind me and my father suddenly appeared directly in front of me. His fist flew and hit the man behind my shoulder.

It was Tom Livington, an old man who had been my teacher for over ten years. Nearly everything I knew of magic, I had learned from him. Most guests there, including my parents, would say the same. Tom’s nose ran with blood, and tears mixed themselves in. He lay still, flat on his back, not caring to defend himself against my father.

“How dare you show your rotten face here, Tom. We trusted you!” Father spat.

“You have no idea how I blame myself, Charles.” Tom’s voice was slow and steady but grief-stricken. He had known me for my entire life and taught me for ten years of it; he might as well have been family.

“Nowhere nearly enough, you worthless hack.” Father’s teeth were clenched, his body very still aside from the slight tremor on his head. If a man’s rage could cause spontaneous combustion, I knew my father would have at that very moment. “You said she was ready to practice on her own. You said it was safe, that she was talented and smart. Well look what happened, Tom! Anna died and it’s your fault!”

Tom made no reply, his gaze never daring to meet my father’s.

“Charley, leave the man be. You know there was nothing that could have been done. These accidents happen.” Uncle Barley put a hand on father’s shoulder.

“Not to us.” My father shook his brother away. “We should have given her more training; she wasn’t ready to practice by herself.”

“One of the most talented in her class and nearly seventeen. There was no reason not to let her. Remember how we practiced in our days? We were barely twelve and had no clue what we were doing. Hell, remember that time when—”

“So we should have died, not her!” Father stomped away and went back inside the house. Barley helped Tom to his feet and conjured out a white kerchief.

“Don’t worry, Tommy,” Barley said as he dabbed the blood off Tom’s nose. “He’s just grieving.”

“I know. We all are,” Tom whispered, tears freely running down his chin.

More people gathered about Tom and gave him all the comfort they could. Most had been his students at some point and cared for him well. I wish I could have comforted him, too. I knew it was not his fault, though, and him blaming himself hurt me more than I thought possible.

That old saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ spoke volumes at that very moment. You meet so many people over your life and each of them showing you something new about the world. It was at that moment I realized how close of a community this group of people had been.

Over at the rosebushes, Barbara Pines pretended to be interested in the blooming roses. My mother’s friend who disliked nature for being dirty and squealed at the mere sight of a ladybug. I barely remembered her; it must have been three years ago when she taught me how to magic away dirt and stains from clothes and carpets. I don’t believe I even thanked her and thought it was a silly trick though I ended up using it more than I could count.

Crowley Small, a tall man ironically, was practically my second uncle. When I had needed a babysitter, he had been first in line to take care of me. When I needed help in school on projects he would stop by and help if my parents could not. If I was ever sick, he came and took care of me while my parents went to work.

I glanced over at Tom, now sitting on the porch stairs with a bloody cloth pressed against his nose. A dear old man, I had always liked him from the first days of school. I wondered if this was the first time he had lost a student. He had taught me everything I knew about the world and magic and I had worked hard to make him proud. It’s a shame things ended this way. A terrible accident. I wished he did not blame himself.

“Let me see, please.” Tom suddenly said as my Mother appeared in the doorway, Marie-Lupus at her heels.

“Tom, I—” Mother began.

“I need to see the place, Eva, where Anna died. If she died because of something I taught her, because of homework or practice, I could not live with myself. I don’t want to see that place but neither can I calm myself thinking I’ll never know.”

It was then I noticed the bags under Tom’s eyes. Poor man must not have caught a wink of sleep all night, spending it twisting, turning, pacing as he tried to convince himself my death had nothing to do with him. I was sorry to see he hadn’t managed to.

“Just past the trees, there.” My mother pointed toward the wild woods at the far end of the property. “She always liked practicing around nature. Said her powers were more in tune there than anywhere else.”

Tom nodded before rising. “Thank you.”

I walked beside him as he made his way to where I had died. He gave me a few glances but his eyes were soft rather than disapproving. I really should have been doing my best to interact as little with them as they did with me but I couldn’t. Not yet.

“I—” He mouthed a few words, unable to say what he wanted. “I know better than to speak to the dead. No good comes out of it. We all wish we could though; it would be nice to have just one last moment. Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to relive the memories in my head.”

That cheating, darling old man. We all knew the risk of my heart growing so heavy that I could never move on from this earth, but still his words spoke to me of his love for me and that gave me some comfort. Even if he had never addressed me, it was nice to be spoken to. Death is a lonely thing.

We stopped at the small clearing, my home still visible through breaks in the trees. It was there that I did most of my magic practice, safe and far from anyone who could get hurt if something went wrong.

Tom gave me a weary look before closing his eyes and studying the remnants of my magic. It was artful the way he did it, precise and delicate, absorbing more knowledge in seconds than most could in an hour.

I knew he wouldn’t find anything. Nothing had gone wrong. I just forgot something and I still couldn’t remember what. It’s strange, knowing you killed yourself without knowing how. I almost wanted to laugh at how absurd it was.

“It collapsed,” Tom said, as his eyes flickered open. “A simple containment field to keep magic confined within it. It’s not even harmful. Unless…” He looked at me, wanting to ask questions but did not. “I don’t know why it collapsed. I’ve seen Anna do it hundreds of times and never has it been done wrong. Even if it had, the odds of death are astronomically small. Did it drain every drop of power from you so fast your mind simply shut down? Could such an impossible accident have taken you from us?” Tom shook his head and started walking back toward the wake. He had found his answer; the universe had conspired against me.

Is that what happened? The universe decided my time was up and killed me in the most unlikely way? How did I even mess up such a simple construct? Had I been in a hurry or perhaps I got lazy? No, that did not sound like me but I must have. I’d done something wrong and here I was a ghost that caused so much grief and pain.

As I returned to the yard, all the chairs had been set in rows and most were occupied by the many guests. Tom sat alone, looking forlorn, and Barbara Pines was sobbing uncontrollably. At the sight of my body, I supposed.

There, on a table covered by a white sheet, I lay with my hands crossed. My mother had dressed me and washed and brushed my hair one last time. It must have been so hard for her. If anything could prove her love and strength, it was how peaceful, clean, and elegant I looked in my white dress. If no one had known I had died, they would have thought me asleep.

My mother approached and looked at my body. She moved slowly, as if not really believing what was happening. No one could blame her.

Everyone waited for her, as she caressed my face one last time. She was going to give me my eulogy, a terrible role for any mother. It should always be the other way around.

“It should have been me,” she said plainly before turning to face the crowd. “What mother would not give her life or anyone else’s for that of her children. We here are all witches, warlocks, wizards, and everything in between. How hard could a time travel spell or a resurrection spell be? Her soul is still with us, I’m sure you all noticed.”

No one but my mother dared look at me.

“But if we have any wits at all, we’d know such things cannot be done without consequence and if any of us sacrifices for her another would sacrifice for us as well—a never-ending cycle of death and grief.”

No one said a word, eyes glued to my mother and her tear-stricken face. I took a step forward but stopped, unable to believe what I was hearing. I wanted to beg her to stop and try to remember the good things.

“The worst of it, is that now I see her dead face here in this coffin and her face staring at me at this very moment. I know she can hear me, and I know she could speak if she chose to. But, Anna has always been a smart girl.” Mother’s tone softened. “She loved school, she loved to learn, and she had a big heart. She would not want us to grieve in anger or to do anything stupid and dangerous to get her back. She understood the costs of magic well and knew how to be careful.”

A few heads nodded in agreement.

“We may never know what happened or why my poor lovely Anna had to die. It was a terrible accident that will be with us for the rest of our lives but I hope she knows that despite our anger, grief, and questions that our hearts will heal though the scar they bear for her will always be remembered fondly until we join her in the heavens.”

It felt like a weight had been lifted over everyone. Her words were brimming with tears and the love she bore for me shone right through everyone that had gathered. Father looked over to Tom and smiled. Tom nodded at the solemn apology.

“Horrible things happen and this horrible tragedy struck home for us. Despite the anger and sadness, I hope my beautiful daughter Anna can rest in peace knowing we will always treasure the memories of her.” Mother’s eyes looked to me and so did everyone else.

I nodded and smiled at them all as I made my way down to my body and with each step felt light and warmth engulf me. Despite my fear of losing my family and their harsh actions earlier today, my mother’s eulogy for me made everything clear. Though the sadness ran deep that no one, even I, will ever understand how or why I died, they would continue to love one another and treasure the life that I had with them.

I found peace the moment they made theirs.

pencilAlexander M. Pawlowski is a Canadian-based writer with years of experience in editing and proof-reading for published and unpublished writers. He writes stories where characters move the plot along rather than the story moving the intrigue. He believes a story is as captivating as its characters and strives to show the good and bad of humanity as they deal with themselves and their environments. Email: alexander.m.pawlowski[at]gmail.com

A Small Miscalculation

Amelia Diamond
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver


Silvery Cube_wb43_6527
Photo Credit: Klaus Riesner

Over the weeks she would occasionally review Mala’s lengthy apology, turning it over in her mind, looking for an emotional response that never came. She should feel hurt, angry, sad, something, anything—but the words that told of the end of their love may as well have been pebbles or leaves or dust. She would come home to her tiny ninety-first floor studio apartment with the bed still out and unmade and the sink full of dishes and stand at the windowscreen, which was always set to show a view onto the beach. Not the bright sunny white sand and crystal blue breakers beach, but always an inhospitable stretch of beach near San Francisco, low grey-blue sky, dull brown sand and jagged grey-brown moss-covered boulders with the smudged dark blue of rain on the distant horizon. As a teenager that beach had been a place of safety and solitude where she could pretend for a little while that the world wasn’t falling apart, that she wasn’t falling apart. She’d sit on one of the many uncomfortable damp rocks and look out across the sea, letting her eyes defocus until everything became a blur of grey light and white noise that she could fade into and, for a few precious moments, become nothing at all.

That was where she’d first met Mala, although it was several years later that they fell in love. Mala, always so curious, had come to that least-friendly of beaches to take samples of the rocks and the seawater as it broke on them. It was a science fair project, asking whether the increasing acidity of the seawater was causing increased erosion of the rocks that in so many places along the northern coast prevented large sections of land from slipping into the ocean. The boulders on the beach being more easily accessible than the sheer cliffs she was really interested in, she had come to that particular stretch of coastline to collect data.

Mala’s curiosity was boundless, even then, and she’d nearly forgotten to collect her samples for fascination with the strange girl she’d discovered meditating on a tall rock whose base was encrusted with barnacles. She looked like she had always been there, like she was a rock herself. Even her skin, pale brown dusted with damp grey sand stretched over prominent sharp bones, matched the surface on which she perched.

Their conversation lasted until the sun was low. Michelle helped Mala to gather her samples and they said good night. After, on the walk home, Michelle realized she had spoken more to the wiry intense girl than she had spoken to anyone in a very long time.

Now that beach was one of the many places that were not safe for people to visit. It had been at least thirteen years since Michelle had felt damp, dirty sand under her feet. She’d been in LA when it all went down, so she’d ended up in Bunker Hill, at first as a temporary resident until it became clear that there really wasn’t anywhere else she could go. So she spent her days monitoring surveillance footage from twenty-six simultaneous camera feeds, watching for anything important. Her knack for spacing out was very helpful; being completely unfocused made it easy to follow all twenty-six feeds without being so focused on one that she’d miss anything on the others. She was considered quite good at her job and was a semi-official supervisor and on-the-job-trainer of other employees.

She spent some evenings organizing and attending munches, strictly vanilla social gatherings for the local kink scene, including one specifically for trans* and gender non-conforming people. She was involved in a rope bondage club that met regularly to practice various knots and bindings on each other. She spent a lot of time on her computer, watching at a distance the lives of her remaining friends and family, some of whom she’d most likely never see in person again, watching cartoons from when she was a kid, and reading depressing and infuriating news articles. And, until a year ago, being with Mala.

There was a time when she’d practically been a celebrity. The wondrous Mala Desai, probable savior of humanity, greatest mind of her generation, inventor of the materials and techniques that made possible the nanotech with which Bunker Hill and so many other arcologies had been created. When an Indian-American lesbian did what no white man had managed to accomplish and halted the collapse of civilization just in time a great many figurative heads exploded.

Michelle, as her androgynous mixed-race girlfriend, was the icing on the cake. Mala always told people that Michelle was her muse, which was sweet but untrue. Mala was her own inspiration. People would occasionally ask her what Mala was really like in person. She’d always give the same answer: “Mala makes me care about things I’ve never noticed. She’ll get interested in something and suddenly it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. You can’t help but go along with her and end up in this place where everything is wonderful and new.” Mala’s personality was as powerful as the ocean and as good for making Michelle disappear.

Mala had ended the relationship suddenly and quite publicly with no explanation. Her reasons became clear one month later, when the President made the announcement. Our efforts to change our ways, to halt the march of climate change and ocean acidification and soil erosion and water pollution and overfishing and all of it had been in vain. A heretofore unknown set of chemical processes had been discovered occurring deep in the ocean, like an alarm clock set by some ancient god with a horrid sense of humor. It was a rapidly spreading set of reactions made possible by the increased temperature and acidity and decreased salinity of the ocean. The seawater was removing more carbon from the atmosphere than before, a discovery that was initially greeted with hope. But then it was noticed that the water was releasing large amounts of hydrogen cyanide, an extremely toxic gas. It was soon discovered that the reaction would continue indefinitely, not reaching equilibrium until long after the atmosphere became too toxic for humans to survive.

Some people were moved to heroic action. There were companies working on giant fans to buy a few more years before the toxic gas sterilized the city, developing ways to make it possible for the fans to survive the intense storms. A space tourism business created a contest: The first person or organization to produce a truly usable design for a permanent orbital colony would receive ten million dollars and a guaranteed spot on the colony after it was built. An artist built a digital clock nine stories tall showing the countdown until the current estimate of when the air would be unbreathable in this part of LA. It was the same all over the world.

Some people dove headlong into hedonism. The munches were suddenly much more popular and needed much more supervision. Every day on the bulletin boards near all the elevators there were new fliers for all sorts of parties and events, most of them involving various combinations of music, alcohol, and sex. Others chose self-destruction. Deaths due to drug overdoses quadrupled. And there were suicides, of course. Some clever person had written IP next to the ‘R’ button in all the elevators; ‘R’ for roof of course.

The giant clock said there were at least two years left. Most people just continued with their lives. Michelle was one of these.

The day the letter had come had been a satisfying work day in which she had alerted authorities to two muggings, an attempted rape, a theft of several candy bars, and a potential heart attack. She sat on her always-unmade bed, comfy on a lumpy pile of blankets. It was five months ago today that Mala had dumped her on TV. It was three-and-a-half since the Announcement, as everyone called it. She opened her laptop and signed in, username Serafine, password SaltPoint. On those rare occasions when she really focused on something she’d tilt her head forward and squint slightly and rock back and forth. Her rocking would have been undetectable except for her shoulder length braids. She maintained them, perhaps unconsciously, at exactly the right length for the frequency of her gentle rocking to set them swinging in a way she found pleasing when she noticed it at all.

Still in her work clothes, comfortable grey linen pants and blouse, Michelle briefly scanned her new emails. There was one from a name she didn’t recognize, apparently a real person. She opened it, read it, read it again, and looked past the screen at her beach, at the ocean that would kill her. Then she read again:

Michelle— I wanted to tell you why I had to let you go. I’ve been writing and rewriting this for weeks. I guess you have a pretty good idea about why we can’t be together anymore. I’m not really allowed to have a private life now. Just work work work and save the world again. Really, they won’t let me see you. Too distracting. They forget I was distracted by you when I figured out how to make arcologies work. But no, there’s more. I needed to protect you. They’ve been talking on the news like it’s a naturally occurring process. It’s not.

Do you remember that first time we met? That science fair experiment? While I was working on it I had an idea about maybe being able to use ammonium chloride from undersea vents and fertilizer runoff to produce sodium carbonate which would help pull carbon from the atmosphere and counter some of the acidification of the ocean too. But I couldn’t see any way to make it work so I just kept it in the back of my mind all these years. With the nanotech we’ve been developing recently it started to seem possible. Imagine if we could have outdoor farms again! No more Category 7 hurricanes. Trees on the hillsides, no more mudslides and flash floods and having to stay inside every day. Imagine if we could go back to that beach in real life.

Last year, June 13, we started our first experiment in a saltwater tank up on Floor 118, and it worked. Michelle, I swear it worked beautifully for months. So we released them, little nanotech robots, I call them chembots. It was very exciting, we shot them out into the ocean with a rocket. And it seemed to be working, with the weather it was too hard to actually get out on a boat and check of course. But the experiment was working so well! Until I popped up to check on it and the whole room smelled like almond extract and my research assistant nearly died.

I don’t know what went wrong. I was sure I’d thought of everything. Can you believe that? I guess I’m the only person who could outsmart me. Of course we’re supposed to spend every moment working on it. It’ll probably get worse, the chembots are made to reproduce and disperse. The truth is, there’s no way to stop it. I think and think and I can’t imagine anything that could even begin to help without being just as bad. Sooner or later it will come out that I did this and I can’t subject you to what will happen when it does. I love you, always will. Wish me luck.

Mala

Michelle sat, doing her best to not exist, until her phone rang. It was Samantha, a good friend who’d moved in for a week to keep Michelle company after Mala left her. Samantha wondered whether Michelle might be interested in seeing a movie this evening with her and her friend Cadence. The movie was predictable and dull and starred some heartthrob white male actor doing dangerous things so he could have sex with some hot white woman who only had three lines. But still, feeling annoyed and marginalized was better than feeling nothing. She went home with Cadence, a petite and fiery woman with green hair spiked in every direction, who lived down on the thirty-ninth floor. Her windowscreen showed a futuristic cityscape of gleaming chrome skyscrapers with sleek curving silhouettes stretching up to the sky. There were flying cars and a park with mushroom-shaped structures covered in fruit trees and grapevines and with benches circling the stems. People walked past on the sidewalks, outside, the way they used to, wearing shiny plastic-looking clothes in bright garish colors or billowy black dresses with hundreds of LED stars. There were even huge video billboards with beautiful Japanese women smiling and holding up objects that might have been kitchen appliances or futuristic weapons while katakana text scrolled across their faces.

Cadence, wine bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other, saw Michelle staring. “Do you like it?”

“What’s it supposed to be?”

“City of the future. Loosely based on Tokyo.”

“Oh. Do people still live in Tokyo? It must be really bad there.”

“Yeah, got a couple friends there I talk to on the interweb. They have a few arcologies. Not as romantic looking as those sexy skyscrapers and no flying cars. I guess there never will be. I guess this is all the future we’re gonna get.”

Later that night as Michelle dissolved into sleep she heard quiet crying. With an effort she came back to herself, remembered where she was and all that had happened and who was lying next to her. She snuggled close to Cadence’s back and wrapped her arms around her, narrowly avoiding being poked in the eye by Cadence’s hair. Cadence immediately rolled over and pressed her face into the space between Michelle’s shoulder and breast. Her warm little body quivered and twitched while she sobbed. Michelle stroked her hair with her free hand and didn’t say anything. She felt every tear as they rolled down into her armpit. Finally Cadence’s shaking stopped and her breathing became deep and slow. Michelle continued to hold her, long after her arm went numb, wide awake for the first time in a very long time.

It was nearly a year later that the secret got out. Riots are difficult in arcologies, there just isn’t any single place with enough room. But groups of violent, angry people wandered around breaking things and getting into fights. Three days later Michelle heard the news that Mala was dead. She’d either jumped or been thrown from the roof. Up until then Michelle had held onto some hope that things might actually work out. The giant fans were up and running, the orbital habitat was under construction, the arcologies were all being refitted to be completely sealed from the outside, with air locks and sealed tunnels connecting to other nearby arcologies. None of those were real solutions, of course, but they were buying time for Mala, who had never been defeated by anything. Michelle knew that without Mala there was no hope. Everyone knew it.

Then Michelle was summoned. She was to go to Level 214, a level which was not accessible to ordinary citizens. When she pressed the button in the elevator, red-and-gold where nearly all the others were blue-and-green, her retina was scanned. The doors opened onto a wide open area with real windows. There were groups of people and equipment in bunches throughout the vast space. A man in a black suit looked up when the doors opened and came over, a grim expression on his gaunt face.

“Miss Deveaux. Welcome. Thank you for coming. I’m Chris Klein, CIA Operations Director for Bunker Hill. Please come with me.”

Chris Klein led Michelle over to a window. She had never seen so much glass in one place. The view was toward the ocean. They were well above the scattered dark clouds that were out on this unusually clear day. Across the ocean the sky looked like a bruise, purple and swollen forever in every direction. Looking down, she could see the outer wall of the massive stepped pyramid she shared with 200,000 other people. Michelle was offered a chair and Chris Klein sat next to her, both facing the magnificent window. Michelle shivered. The room was quite cold. She wondered for a moment whether there even was such a thing as a sweater anywhere in all of Bunker Hill, where the air was always perfectly conditioned to match a normal September day in LA.

“I’m going to cut right to the chase, Miss Deveaux. Just before Mala Desai committed suicide she made this.”

He held up a metal cube that looked like tarnished silver. It looked to be about six inches on a side. He offered it to Michelle, who took it and nearly dropped it. It was much heavier than it looked. She turned it over and over but there were no markings on it. “What is it?” she asked.

“We were hoping you’d know. She left a note. All it said was, ‘Give Michelle the cube. She’ll know what it means.’ So here’s the cube. Are you sure you don’t know what it is?”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea. We hadn’t spoken in a long time.”

“You of course understand how urgent it is that anything at all made by Miss Desai be understood and in our hands?”

“Yes, of course.” She made to hand back the cube, but Chris Klein held up a hand. “Keep it. She wanted you to have it. We’ve been trying to get it open and we’ve gotten nowhere. There are more important things for us to be working on. It’s yours and it could be it’ll only do whatever it’s supposed to do for you. It probably is just a sentimental thing, though; everyone knows she was crazy about you. But if it turns out to be anything other than a big shiny cube, you call me immediately, night or day, you got that?” He handed her a business card printed on thick plastic. “All right now, get out of here. Thanks for your time.”

Riding the elevator down, Michelle examined the strange cube. It seemed solid. Mala had always liked giving Michelle enigmatic little gifts and watching her try to figure out what they were supposed to mean. When Michelle got home she put the cube on the little table next to her bed and sat facing it, leaning on the windowscreen. She focused on a point somewhere in the distance and let her eyes relax, let everything blur into pure texture and let the cube slip unfiltered into her mind. Eventually she returned to herself with no new insights and gave up for the day. The cube sat by Michelle’s bed for six weeks. She mostly ignored it, only occasionally wondering what Mala had meant to say to her. She preferred to lose herself in her daily routine and the cube was somehow jarring when she really paid attention to it.

One Saturday evening Cadence stopped over. They hadn’t seen each other or spoken since that night when Cadence cried herself to sleep in Michelle’s arms. Time was running out and neither wanted to sleep alone any longer. When she came into Michelle’s apartment she picked up the cube and sat down at the foot of Michelle’s bed, next to the windowscreen. “What the heck is this?” she asked as she turned it over and over.

“A very strange gift, I guess. From Mala.”

“Oh.” Cadence stood to put the cube back and to hide her discomfort at being reminded that she was planning to share a bed with the ex-lover of Mala Desai, the woman who’d doomed them all.

“Stop!” Michelle’s barked command startled Cadence into dropping the metallic cube. “Sorry. Please pick it up and then hold still, right there. Please.”

Cadence did as she was bid. She was watching Michelle’s burning brimming eyes, so she didn’t see the windowscreen, where Michelle walked into view carrying the cube and bore it into the water, carefully placing it so that it touched one of the larger boulders. Something greenish began to flow out of the cube as the large boulder seemed to glitter. Then the scene ended and the windowscreen again showed the empty beach.

Michelle stalked up to Cadence and kissed her hard. “You have to go. I need to think.”

Cadence placed the cube back on the table and stalked out, suppressing the desire to break things on the way.

Why would Mala have done it this way? If she found a solution why wouldn’t she just tell the people she worked for? It didn’t make any sense. It couldn’t just be a simple solution, there must be some reason why she wouldn’t have trusted her superiors with the cube. Michelle brought it close to the windowscreen again and watched the scene play out, looking for more information. Then it occurred to her to turn on the volume. Like most people, she normally kept her windowscreen muted. This time, as the scene played, she heard Mala’s voice.

“Trade one apocalypse for another. The problem with our nanotech is that once it’s released, if it spreads there’s no easy way to stop it. These will disassemble the chembots and cannibalize the metals to make more of themselves, maybe even before everyone dies. But of course after that they’ll disassemble other metal things. You can imagine what that means. I’m sorry to give you this choice. Maybe it’s better for us to die than to have to face this. It’ll only work for you. I trust you to make the right choice, if there is a right choice. I love you. Goodbye.”

Michelle switched the channel on her windowscreen to show what she’d see if it were a real window. The sky was dark, low swirling clouds to the horizon. Rain fell in a torrent like a waterfall, nonetheless blown sideways and sometimes even back upwards as the wind gusted. Something large flew by, possibly one of the few cars that hadn’t already been blown away. Huge bolts of lightning again and again struck the many tall metal towers that emanated like porcupine quills from the Hollywood arcology, leaving blue-white afterimages in her vision. It was a typical day in LA and a long way to San Francisco. She guessed she was going to need a raincoat.

pencilAmelia Diamond has worked as a gardener, environmental and agricultural consultant, energy auditor and environmental activist. She produces electronic experimental noise music, occasionally performing live with one of several bands. Mostly she works as a mom of two along with her partner of 14 years. She has been telling stories her whole life but only recently began writing them down. Amelia frequently publishes short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com

 

 

Something Wicked

Jill Spencer
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold


Double Double Toil and Trouble...
Photo Credit: Jeff Hitchcock

“Reenact a scene from Macbeth so that the class better understands and appreciates the play,’” Ailana read from the assignment sheet Ms. Cummings, their English teacher, had distributed in class. “I like that one. What do you think?” She looked at her two best friends.

Eva, who was barely five feet tall, sat at the oversized kitchen table Ailana’s mother had imported from Italy. With her freckles, big green eyes and curly red hair, she looked like a child. Or an elf.

“I don’t know,” Eva said. Just thinking about getting up in front of the class made her queasy. “I was thinking… a board game maybe?”

“Board games are for partners, not groups,” Fern told her. She had already memorized the assignment sheet.

“We could ask Ms. Cummings for an exception.”

Fern pushed up her glasses and frowned. “Yeah, but if all three of us do a two-person project, you know she’ll make us sign contracts for a C or a B.” And Fern wanted an A.

Cummings was the toughest teacher at Great Mills High School. Nobody required as much from students as she did. Making an A in her class was something to boast about in college application letters and scholarship interviews. It was a real accomplishment.

“What about the Shakespeare Festival then?” Eva asked.

Fern shrugged. The festival was a huge project. According to Ms. Cummings, no team had attempted it since 2011. It would be a tremendous amount of work, but if they did it and did it well, Ms. Cummings was sure to be impressed.

“Okay.”

“Host the Festival? Really?” Ailana, who had been staring at the assignment sheet throughout their discussion, slapped the paper onto the countertop and rolled her eyes. “Do you two honestly think that Joss Carter and his douchebag friends would help us? Because they’d have to, you know. Hosting the festival would mean getting everyone in class to cooperate.”

And those assholes never would. Because of her.

Ailana picked up the tray she’d loaded with goodies from the refrigerator and set it on the table with a bang. Just thinking about Joss made her angry. The oversexed bully had picked on her since sixth grade.

At eighteen, Ailana was a knockout—tall, blonde and as long-limbed and lanky as a model. At twelve, she’d simply been the prettiest girl in class, and like lots of the boys, Joss had had a crush on her. But he’d been pushy about it.

Really pushy.

Fed up with his behavior, Ailana had finally confronted him after school one day, explaining in no uncertain terms that she did not appreciate his “attentions,” which included nasty texts and inappropriate touching in the hallway. Besides, she told him, she liked girls, not guys. He understood that, right?

Wrong.

The harassment had gotten worse. For almost six years she had endured the taunts of Joss and his loser friends. Just a few more months till graduation, she told herself, and I’ll be free. But deep down, she feared she never would be free. People like Joss were everywhere.

Fern set one of the bottles of mineral water she’d fetched from the refrigerator in front of Eva. She also gave one to Ailana, along with an “I’m so sorry” smile.

“Right. I hadn’t thought of that,” she told her. “No wonder nobody does the Festival. Oops! We forgot the crackers.”

Fern disappeared into the pantry. She spent so much time at Ailana’s house that she knew the kitchen almost as well as her own. She certainly liked it better. It was big and expensive, with granite countertops, an enormous center island and state-of-the-art appliances. Best of all, Ailana’s mother, a successful doctor, stocked it to bursting with gourmet food and drink.

It was the complete opposite of the drab kitchen in the rundown townhouse where Fern lived with her mother. That kitchen never produced anything beyond dinners from a box. It was also where Fern regularly met a depressingly long line of “uncles.” She usually saw them the morning after, scrounging in the fridge for a cold bottle of brew, dressed in nothing but jeans or the boxers they’d worn the night before.

“No worries,” Ailana told her. “I’d forget Joss, too, if I could.” She accepted a box of sesame crackers with a smile then looked from Fern to Eva. “I really do think we should do a performance. I mean it, Eva!” She smeared a sesame cracker with goat cheese and handed it to her friend. “Just imagine! Act IV, the witches’ big scene—not all of it, of course. Just the start, that’s all! We’d be incredible.”

Ordinarily, Ailana would never push Eva to do something that frightened her. God knew Eva had spent enough of her life feeling scared. But after reading about Wicca online, Ailana had ordered several books on the subject. She’d read each one, studying them, and she was convinced that becoming witches would do all three of them a world of good. They could connect with the natural world, find their own power and use it to improve their lives. Ailana’s eyes went to the dark mark on Eva’s neck. It was the size of a thumbprint. Ailana knew that teachers assumed it was a hickey, but she and Fern knew better. Eva didn’t have a boyfriend. She’d never even been on a date. But she did have an overbearing, hypocritical pig of a father, the Reverend T. Tom Patterson. If anybody needed more power it was Eva.

And a little more juice wouldn’t hurt her or Fern either.

Of course, saying, “Let’s join a coven!” sounded crazy, even to her. And Eva and Fern weren’t ready to hear it any more than she was ready to say it. But playing witches—three powerful, influential witches—could be a way to start a conversation.

Ailana twisted the metal cap off her water, enjoying the lemon-scented spray of fizz against her face.

“It’ll be fun, I promise!” she told them, her eyes on Eva. “We’ll be disguised so well, no one will be able to tell who we are. Thick stage makeup, fake noses, hairy warts, shaggy wigs. They won’t really being seeing us! They’ll be seeing the Weird Witches, bitches! Come on, what do you say?” She took a drink. “Eva? Please? ‘Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’”

At “hairy warts” Eva had begun to smile. By the time Ailana chanted “toil and trouble” in her booming b-wah-ha-ha-ha voice, she was laughing out loud.

“All right, all right, all right! Let’s do it then. I’m in.” She turned to Fern. “What about you?”

Fern, who was eating red peppers stuffed with mozzarella straight from the container with her fingers, grinned back at her.

“Absolutely.” She popped the last pepper into her mouth. Her day planner, flipped open to the “notes” section, was in front of her. A pen was in her hand.

“So… we have three weeks starting today,” she said. “Who’s doing what?”

*

“Dyke bitch,” Joss whispered as Ailana walked past his desk toward Ms. Cummings, who was sipping coffee by the podium at the front of the room. Fern stood next to her, talking a mile a minute.

“Will you keep my glasses for me?” Fern was asking her when Ailana reached them.

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” Fern rubbed her sweaty hands against her pants and grinned. Her excitement was palpable. “This is going to be the best presentation ever!”

“I believe it,” Ms. Cummings said. Her eyes went from Fern’s face to Ailana’s. “You girls look incredible.”

Early that morning they had met at Ailana’s house to do their makeup. In the guest powder room that was larger than Fern’s bedroom, they had affixed prosthetic noses, chins and foreheads with spirit gum, applied putty and face paint and then liberally added coarse black hair and warts.

“Wait till you see our teeth!” Fern told Ms. Cummings.

Ailana had ordered them online. Fern’s and Eva’s were called “Purdy Mouth,” a creepy jumble of short and long square teeth that fit directly over their own.

Ailana was already wearing hers. They were called “Cannibals.” She smiled at Ms. Cummings. “Our wigs are really cool, too!” Ailana had also purchased them online. Eva’s actually had a bird’s nest in it.

Ailana was still laughing at Ms. Cummings’s shocked expression as she and Fern headed for the bathroom where Eva waited for them with the rest of their costumes.

Ailana carried the ingredients for the potion in an Igloo cooler. If Ms. Cummings knew what was in it, she would really be horrified. So would Fern and Eva for that matter. The thought made Ailana smile.

“God, girl. Even without my glasses, you look hot!” Fern exclaimed.

Eva stood in front of the full-length mirror by the stalls, pinning her wig into place. Except for her small stature, she was unrecognizable. Her body, her face, even her gray hair was as twisted and knotty as an old oak tree.

“You’re an Ent!” Ailana laughed.

“A witchy Ent.”

“Come on, we don’t have much time,” Eva answered.

The choir director at Eva’s church had given her three old robes, which she had sown strips of tattered cloth to and dyed black. Then she’d aged them using razors, Borax and sandpaper. She pulled Fern’s and Ailana’s cloaks from a shopping bag and quickly helped them into them. Then she affixed their wigs.

“Now for your hands,” she said. She had already aged her own with putty and makeup, and glued on black fingernails. “But first I have a surprise.” She pulled a funky looking witch’s hat from the bag. “For you,” she said, pinning it to Ailana’s wig. “I made it myself. And for you,” she told Fern, pulling a crocheted spider web from the bag. She pinned it into Fern’s hair. “Another Eva original.”

Standing before the bathroom mirrors, the girls cackled in delight as they admired themselves.

“We’re perfect!” Ailana whispered. “Absolutely perfect.”

Eva was the first to come to her senses. “Shit! I still have to do your hands,” she said. “Come on, hurry! We don’t have much time.”

Ten minutes later, they floated down the hallway to the classroom.

Fern, whose job it had been to design the set and block the scene, had requested that Ms. Cummings ask the class to move their desks into a U with a “stage” in the center. She’d also arranged for Selena and Robin, two girls in the class, to work the lights, sound system and fog machine for them. Fern had borrowed all three from her mother’s latest boyfriend, a drummer in a local heavy metal band. He’d also given her dry ice, which she’d placed in the bottom of the cauldron that morning.

Fern had thought the cauldron would be the hardest prop to find, but Eva had immediately volunteered the black iron pot from the Senior Citizen Center where her father “ministered” twice a week.

“They make apple butter in it every fall,” Eva had told her. Eva volunteered at the Center regularly, not just because her father insisted, but because she liked doing it. Old people were fun.

“It’s huge!” she told Fern. “And it has its own giant stand, so it hangs over the flames just like a real witch’s pot.” Eva laughed. “You know what I mean. Anyway, I know Mrs. Jackson will let us borrow it, no problem.”

Eva had been right. Not only had Mrs. Jackson, who managed the center, let them borrow the pot and stand, but she’d enlisted several old men to deliver it to the school where it now sat center stage in the classroom, shrouded in fog.

“I almost forgot!” Ailana handed a black pouch to each of them. “Your ingredients.”

Eva and Fern didn’t know they were real. During the last three weeks, Ailana had discovered that with enough money and the Internet, she could buy almost anything. And what she couldn’t buy online, she could get on her own.

Her mother had been delighted when she’d offered to help out at the Women’s Clinic. She’d been even happier when Ailana had asked to accompany her on her shift at the hospital. She’d barely noticed when Ailana had wandered off after a few hours to “scavenge” for ingredients.

“They’re numbered,” Ailana whispered, referring to the bags and bottles that she’d placed in the pouches. “Just toss them into the pot in order.”

The girls nodded and looked at each other, excitement in their faces.

“This is it!” Ailana said. “Ready, witches?”

“Ready!”

Fern cued Selena and Robin. As they entered the room, the lights dimmed and the music started.

“Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d,” Fern croaked.

“Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin’d,” Eva howled.

“Harpier cries, ‘Tis time, ‘tis time.’” Ailana’s harsh voice, so unlike her normal voice, vibrated throughout the room, making the students shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Even Fern felt a chill of apprehension. It all seemed so real.

The girls joined hands and began circling the cauldron. As they spoke their lines and tossed in the ingredients, the pot crackled and shook and smoked. An earthy odor filled the room.

“Cool it with a baboon’s blood,” Eva sang out in the high, quavering voice she had used throughout the scene. She emptied bottle number ten from her pouch into the pot. A cloud of red smoke emerged, flattening itself and widening until the entire ceiling was covered.

Fern caught Ailana’s eye. There was only one more line left. They’d done it.

“Then the charm is firm and good.”

On Eva’s words, Ailana threw her entire pouch into the cauldron. Fern looked at her in surprise. That wasn’t in the script.

Screams and a sound like thunder filled the room. The floor shook. A thick, gray mist filled the air.

“Ailana?” Eva called, peering through the mist.

All was quiet except for the hush of running water. The classroom was gone. The girls stood in a clearing by a river. Glowing red smoke curled from a cauldron much bigger than the one from the Senior Citizens Center.

“Where in the hell are we, Ailana?” Eva sounded scared. Ailana’s witch face didn’t look made up. It looked real. She touched her own face with a gnarled hand. It was real.

“The better question is, ‘What in the hell did you throw into the pot?’” Fern shouted.

Ailana stared at them both, the beginnings of a smile forming on her lips.

“Where are we? Do you know?” Eva looked at Fern.

“We’re in Acheron. At least that’s what Hecate called it in Act III.” She looked at Ailana accusingly. “In other words, we’re in hell.”

*

St. Mary’s County Teenage Girls Disappear in English Class

POSTED 9:25 PM, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2015, BY BOBBI MATTINGLY

ST. MARY’S COUNTY, MD. — Three St. Mary’s County teenage girls have been reported missing under unusual circumstances.

Deputies say three teenage girls were reported missing at about 7:00 p.m. Thursday.

Eva Paige Patterson, 18, of Mattapany Road, Lexington Park, is 5’ tall, 100 pounds with auburn hair and brown eyes. She may be wearing black leggings, a pink sweater and boots.

Ailana Adaire Guy, 18, of Rosecroft Road, Lexington Park, is 5’10” tall, 125 pounds with blonde hair and blue eyes. She may be wearing jeans, a green sweatshirt and orange tennis shoes.

Fern Cliona Fenwick, 17, of Knockeyon Lane, Great Mills, is 5’4” tall, 145 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. She wears glasses. She may be wearing khakis and a white top.

At the time of their disappearance the girls were dressed in witch costumes that included black robes, gray wigs and heavy stage makeup.

All three attend Mills High School where they are seniors. Patterson, Guy and Fenwick were presenting a project in English class when they disappeared.

“We thought it was part of the presentation,” English Teacher Cassia Cummings said.

According to Cummings, when the girls did not return to class, she notified a vice principal, who later contacted the girls’ parents.

Investigators believe that the girls staged their disappearance from the classroom using dry ice. How they subsequently left campus is still under investigation.

No foul play is suspected at this time.

“We’re hoping it’s just a senior prank and that Ailana, Eva and Fern return to their families soon,” Principal Arnold Cooper said.

On Friday afternoon a statement from the principal was posted on the school website. In the statement Cooper assured students and parents that the girls’ disappearance is an “isolated incident.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office at 301-485-7007.

*

“I told you I was getting the ingredients for the potion, remember?” Ailana said.

She’d turned her back on Eva and Fern, and was staring out over the river. She didn’t want them to see her face. She wasn’t sure that, even with her new appearance, she could disguise the joy she felt.

“Yeah, but we didn’t think you were getting the real ingredients,” Eva said, sounding more puzzled than angry. Like Ailana, she was more curious than distraught. And strangely hopeful.

“‘Finger of a birth-strangled babe’?” Fern quoted. “Ailana! Why in the hell—”

“For authenticity?” Ailana turned. “To make our project the best ever?” She looked Fern in the eyes.

“Oh, Ailana.”

“I added my own secret ingredient, too,” Ailana confessed. According to her research, bergamot ensured prosperity. “It wasn’t… creepy, just an herb. To make our project successful. I didn’t know it would turn us into real witches.”

Although now that they were, she couldn’t help feeling… free. And more than a little curious. If they really were the Weird Sisters then they must have their powers. And if they did, they could move through space and time. They could see into other people’s minds. And they were wise enough and powerful enough to influence evil men toward their bad ends.

Ailana thought of Joss and his creepy friends. And Eva’s father.

She looked at Eva and smiled in wonder. Eva knew what she was thinking. Exactly what she was thinking. She could read Ailana’s mind. And Ailana could read hers.

Giggling, Eva raised her arms, rose into the air and began to twirl.

“Secret ingredient?” Fern shouted as she paced along the riverbank. “Something wicked, that’s what you added to the pot.” Fern groaned. “What did we need a secret ingredient for? We already had great writing! Shakespeare, for god’s sakes! The magic ingredient for success was already in the spell. Did Shakespeare have to write that in stage directions? No, he probably thought it was obvious, because it is! The magic, the poetry, is in the words and the rhythm. If we’d just followed the script, as written, we’d be getting an A right now instead of standing around in Hell!”

“Or flying around in hell,” Eva called. She stopped spinning and now circled the air above them. “If you ask me, Ailana added something wicked good!”

She landed next to Fern and put an arm around her shoulder. She knew that Fern, being Fern, had had her own strict plans for the future, including college, grad school, a high-profile job and clawing her way to the top. And being Fern, she hated having her plans ruined.

“I know you’re upset,” Eva sympathized. “And I’m upset for you, but… just think about it, Fern! We’re witches. Powerful witches. And I don’t think we’re trapped here.” She took them both by the hands. “In fact, I know we’re not!”

Eva raised their arms and the deafening sound of rushing water encompassed them for a breathless moment.

“There we are.” She dropped their hands and looked around her. “We’re in… a fen, I think it’s called.”

Ailana bared her cannibal teeth and laughed. In the distance, she could hear the sound of Hecate’s leathery wings flapping toward them.

“We’re the Weird Witches, bitches!” She raised her arms and rose into the air. “Yeah!”

“The Weird Witches!” Eva shouted, joining her.

“Oh, fuck it,” Fern muttered. “Why not?” Rising into the air, she joined hands with her friends.

“To the Weird Witches!”

pencilJill Spencer lives in Maryland with her husband Dennis and her life coach Duke, a stumpy-legged dog with personality plus. She teaches English part-time at a local community college and is currently working on her first novel. Email: spencer.jill[at]yahoo.com

 

The Case of the Dropped Case

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
D. Staats


Frame clutch
Photo Credit: ruby-jo

Being from Canada, I am used to snow, but I had no idea how much snow falls on Syracuse until I once spent a week in that not-too-cosmopolitan city. To be accurate, I should say that I stayed in a suite hotel in a suburb on the northern edge of the city. I was there to prepare for and testify in a case which I had investigated on behalf of a defendant who had sufficient funds to employ the—if I say it myself, it is only because it is a fact—rather well-known and well-regarded Hercules Leek.

The trial was to begin on Wednesday, and my flight from Quebec arrived Monday morning. I spent most of that first day in the office of the attorneys who were employing me, leaving them about four to go check into my motel. It was a mild April day, temperature in the forties, not a day when one would expect any substantial snowfall. The signs of impending spring were abundant, including the ubiquitous and unsightly snow detritus on the edges of roadways and around the borders of parking lots, where shrunken mounds of snow were dark and ugly with months of accumulated grit and dirt.

The attorneys were, of course, paying for my accommodations, and I was not entirely displeased with them. At five in the afternoon, the motel was quiet and peaceful. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I turned in a few minutes before ten, reading for a few minutes in a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice to distract my mind before I turned out the light.

My next encounter with consciousness occurred when I was awakened by a tremendous roar followed by a loud thump. A few seconds’ pause, and then a repeat of the roar, followed by a screeching noise, and a metallic clunk. All of this noise was coming from the parking lot. I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

There, below, a rather superannuated and disreputable-looking red pick-up truck with a plow blade mounted on its front was clearing snow from the parking lot. The pestilent thing must either have had an enormous hole in its muffler, or no muffler at all. The driver, a man in his thirties with a full brown beard, had his window down and seemed to be enjoying himself. He would put the plow down and floor the gas pedal, making an ungodly roar as he picked up speed across the lot until, boom, he smashed into the remnant piles of snow at the edge of the parking lot. Then he would raise the plow blade, twist around in his seat, looking out the back window, and floor the gas pedal again, backing up to his starting point. A little correction, of course, so that he was plowing new snow, and he was off again. There were probably thirty centimeters of snow, or as the Americans would say—I had to get used to American measurements for my trial testimony—about a foot.

I went back to bed. I noted as I did so that it was 5:20. That plow had to have wakened every guest in the hotel. You really would think someone would know better.

After another day closeted with the attorneys, I got back to the motel about five o’clock. Being somewhat keyed up from my day’s work, I took a stroll around the outside of the motel. The temperature was now in the mid-50s. As I walked the perimeter of the parking lot, I noticed that the plowboy, as I resentfully referred to him, had pushed the snow with such force that he displaced the theretofore-existing snow piles, and pushed both new snow and old back further, thus exposing the bottom few inches of the old snow piles. These few inches were melting in the mild temperatures. This, of course, was no impediment to my progress, as I wore rubbers to protect my good leather shoes.

I saw in the dark, silt-laden, melting slush a small rectangular outline, which on being nudged with my toe, turned out to be a small, black purse. I picked this up, soggy though it was. It was a snap-frame purse which opened at the top. Inside, the sole object was a tiny pistol, which on my examination, proved to be a two-shot .22 caliber. On my further examination, I determined that one of the two cartridges had been fired, and the empty brass was still in the chamber. Whatever this might mean, it could not be ignored. I had to take this into custody, so to speak.

The next day was trial. I was supposed to go on the stand in the morning, but there was no surprise to me in the fact that proceedings were delayed with arguments of counsel. During one of these sessions, while lead counsel were wrangling, I asked the junior counsel if there had been any crimes in the recent past involving a .22 caliber bullet.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, then his eyebrows rose a full centimeter and he said, “Yes, yes there was a… quite, quite… quite a case.” He told me, in a low voice there in the courtroom, that it had involved a beautiful married woman accused of murdering a man who attended the same church as she. There was no time for more, as the attorneys were coming back from their sidebar conference with the judge.

After court ended that day, all the attorneys adjourned to a quiet restaurant and settled the case. The attorney who had hired me was kind enough to tell me that my testimony had been instrumental in leveraging a settlement favorable to his client. I felt I had earned my fee. And now unexpectedly I had two days free. I had been scheduled on this case for the whole week. As a matter of professional interest, and what might possibly become a legal duty to turn in evidence, I went in the next day to talk with the senior attorney and asked about the case which the junior attorney had mentioned to me.

To sum up what he told me, a thirty-three-year-old married man had been found dead in the parking lot of the motel where I was staying. It was a little more than a year ago and in the dead of winter. In the ensuing investigation, suspicion centered on a woman who attended the same church as the dead man. It turned out that the man had gone to the pastor and confessed to unwanted feelings for this woman, and as a married man not looking for romance, asked for help in dealing with them. The pastor then questioned the woman who said she had noticed the man staring at her and paying close attention to her. She said she had some reciprocal feelings, but neither of them had acted upon them, and in fact, they had avoided one another.

The pastor had decided that each of the two should be counseled by an elder in the church, and had set up appointments for them to go, separately, to confess to an elder and receive the elder’s counsel. This had upset both of the parties who feared the matter would become public and cause them excruciating embarrassment. The pastor also insisted that the man tell his wife, which, reluctantly, he did. To the man’s surprise, his wife supported him and was understanding about his struggle.

Before the date of the counseling sessions, the man and the woman decided to meet to see if they could not between themselves resolve their feelings and clear the air, so as to avoid the necessity for the counseling. They met at the restaurant of the motel in question. According to the woman, it was at first an awkward meeting, but as the two of them talked, they found that their impressions formed at a distance, each of the other, were unrealistic and inaccurate. These impressions gave way to a sense of the other as a real person with faults and a genuine desire to live out the gospel. They each decided that they could manage to maintain a non-threatening Christian relationship and that further intervention would be unnecessary.

They left separately, as they had come. The woman testified that she had driven away before the man and that she saw him leave the restaurant and walk to the parking lot by the motel, opposite from the restaurant parking lot where her car was. She said that on her way home, a giddy feeling came over her. She was very happy, and when she got home, perhaps did behave in a somewhat giddy manner, and was especially joyful that she would not have to tell her husband about the matter.

The next morning, the man was found under a car in the parking lot, frozen stiff and shot through the heart with a .22 caliber bullet. The murder weapon was never found.

At the trial, the principal evidence against the woman was this: she was the last person seen with the victim; she was distraught upon arriving at home that night after meeting the victim; her husband had a .22 rifle and she had access to his ammunition; she had a motive to avoid the disclosure of an illicit love affair.

The jury of five men and seven women deadlocked, seven to five in favor of conviction. The prosecution declined to re-try the case. Many in the community still think she did it, and she leads a difficult existence, employed as a bookkeeper for a small firm.

This cleared up one question. I would have to turn in the purse and the pistol to the police as potential material evidence in a criminal matter. Whether this would result in a re-trial of the matter was unknowable. After a year out of doors in the snow and rain, there were not likely any fingerprints other than my own, which probably covered the entire pistol, being that it was so tiny. Whether there would be any useful ballistic evidence was also uncertain.

Before I turned in this potential evidence, I thought I would see what I could do by way of clearing up the matter. I spent Thursday afternoon in the courthouse, reviewing the trial record. After dinner that evening, I went to see the woman, still uncertain about how I would get rid of her husband so that I could talk to her alone. The address I had for her was in a set of identical two-story apartment buildings. In the dark it took me some time to find the right building.

She answered the doorbell promptly. She was tallish, perhaps an inch taller than my below-average height. She was not so pretty as I had been led to expect. A certain world-weary sadness played about her eyes. Maybe her ordeal had aged her and robbed her of her looks, or maybe I was looking at the ravages of guilt—maybe she was a Dorian Gray without a portrait in her closet.

I introduced myself. I told her I was an investigator who perhaps had new information about the murder of Jason Martel. She let me in but was wary, as, fortunately for me, her husband was not home.

Without any preliminaries, before even either of us had sat down, I took out the small purse, held it in my palm outstretched towards her, and asked, “When did you lose this?”

She looked at the purse, knitting her forehead together, then looked at me with open, innocent eyes. “It’s not mine. I’ve never seen it before.”

“But you know what’s in it.”

“No… no, no, I don’t.”

All right. I put the purse back in my pocket. Despite this gambit of mine, she asked me to sit. I told her what I had learned about the case and asked her to correct any misunderstandings I might have and fill in any information she thought I might be missing. We talked for nearly an hour. She never once smiled. I sensed that if I showed her the pistol, she would start crying, so I didn’t.

I came away feeling sorry for her. Not that I necessarily thought she was innocent. However, if she were acting, she was very good; but then, she’d had a year to rehearse.

Whenever a married person is murdered, there is always a natural suspect ready to hand: the spouse. I had learned that Louise Martel had collected $250,000 in life insurance benefits upon her husband’s death. Whether this could be motive, would depend on what kind of person she was. I made plans to try to talk to her the next day, Friday.

Louise Martel lived in a very upscale neighborhood. Her house was by no means the largest in that neighborhood. However, it was distinctive in that it had been designed—or remodeled—to mimic a Mediterranean villa, with a red pantile roof, a stone wall with an un-doored opening, and a side patio surrounded by trellises. It looked out of place in snowy Syracuse.

I let several minutes pass before I rang the bell a second time. According to my research, she was a self-employed interior decorator, so it was likely that she was home. However, there were no lights visible through the windows, so I could not be sure.

After another long moment, the main door opened with a sound of rushing air as the opening created a vacuum behind the storm door, which clunked as the pressure of the outside air pushed it in tighter against the jamb.

“Yes?” said a woman with dark hair pulled back into a tight pony tail. She was shorter than I and oddly, the level of the foyer floor was a few inches lower than the porch on which I was standing. Consequently, she was staring up at me. She was not unpretty, but she had a peculiar nose, with a bulbous tip.

With age and experience, one does get a sense of people. Instantly I changed my planned approach. Speaking loudly so as to be heard through the storm door, I said, “I think I have found some property which may belong to you—if you are Mrs. Martel.”

She cocked her head and looked at me closely. “I used to be. I go by my maiden name now, Wilson. What is it?”

I took out the purse and holding it between my thumb and forefinger, waggled it as if it were a fish lure. From her reaction, I knew I had her. Getting an admissible confirmation was a matter of using established techniques. It was routine for me.

I flew back to Quebec quite satisfied with my week’s work in the States.

pencilD. Staats is a writer who does not want the reader’s perception of the work to be colored by any description of the author. Would the reader enjoy this story more if he or she knew that it had been written by Anton Chekhov or by Melvin Snodgrass from Podunk, Idaho? Email: d.staats100[at]comcast.net

Wish I May, Wish I Might

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Carole Mertz


Lost: red bobble hat
Photo Credit: Rachel Beer

Bo sits by the window. He’s tired of looking out on snow, but notices the daylight is extending a bit past five-thirty in the evenings. He takes up his newspaper and, after a coughing spell, reads about the robbery that occurred two nights ago in nearby Schoffsburg. I suppose the sluggards have nothing else to do. Someone should put them to work.

He hears Mrs. Gelber shuffling about in the apartment next door and wonders if she will bring him some supper tonight, which she does occasionally. Once she gets started, she certainly causes a ruckus banging those pots and pans about. But she cooks up a fine stew.

At eighty, Bo, a retired coal miner, is not up to much physical activity, but he returns Mrs. Gelber the favor by carrying her daily garbage bags to the dumpster behind the building. Tonight, after her fine dinner, he collects his own garbage and the two bags she has set outside her door. By the dumpster he meets Estelle, little Maribelle’s mother, and wishes he’d collected the garbage minutes earlier or minutes later.

He nods to Estelle, but she doesn’t speak. Well, then, have it your way! A return greeting might not kill you, though. He smiles to himself.

The next morning, Saturday, March second, Bo sets out for the village at nine-thirty. Snow fell during the night, but Bo tests the sidewalk and with his old boots on, and reassures himself he won’t slip. He waits for his cough to subside, then, cane in hand, begins his slow trek to Bander’s Buffet. Not only does he relish his breakfast there, but he also enjoys reading his newspaper and observing the villagers as they drop in throughout the morning. He chooses the second booth past the cash register, near enough to the door, but not too far from the men’s room.

Bo is comfortable here, where he occasionally stops to talk with neighbors. He doesn’t know that within ten days many of the villagers will not feel as comfortable as they have heretofore. He lingers in his booth till a few minutes past noon. Neither the manager nor the waitresses ever complain about his lengthy visits. Not wanting to annoy other customers, he steps outside or into the bathroom if a too-persistent coughing spell overcomes him. His emphysema hasn’t improved since his retirement, but neither has it worsened, he tells himself.

Midway through his biscuit and creamed chipped beef, Bo watches as Maribelle enters with her schoolmate Azure. Maribelle reaches up and hands the clerk two dollars. “Mama wants the newspaper and she says I can have a chocolate bar, too.” The two girls, not sisters, are thought to be related, for they wear identical knitted caps (another of Mrs. Gelber’s neighborly gestures) and usually appear inseparable.

They’ve surely shared some secrets, Bo muses, wiping some cream off his chin.

“Your mama’s sleeping in, then.” The clerk fishes for a bit of information, the way of folk in small communities, but Maribelle only nods.

She’s as taciturn as her mother, then. But Bo realizes Estelle’s talk is more of the behind-your-back kind of talk. He recalls how she bad-mouthed his dear wife before she died, six years ago. And she’d had no kind words for him either, blaming him for his wife’s death.

“‘You could have at least gotten her into the hospital when she needed it.'” Mrs. Gelber reported Estelle’s gossip to him directly, a week after the funeral. Indeed, I hardly knew what my dear Chip needed then, but one thing the doctor had affirmed to me was keeping her quiet and rested at home would do her more good than a disturbing shuffle to Schoffsburg General. The doctor knew her for years, and I’m sure he knew what was right for her. Old Bo wipes a tear from his eye.

He watches Maribelle and Azure on the sidewalk as they huddle together to unwrap the chocolate. The two girls lean toward each other as Maribelle splits the chocolate wedge in two. The two knitted balls atop their caps bob a bit as the girls bend their heads together—Maribelle’s cap a bright red and Azure’s a mustard color.

*

A red fox hurries across the field, then turns left following the field’s edge. Yards ahead lies the wooded area the fox will enter. Its lair is almost invisible, though Jimmy, who frequently treads off the path that runs through the glade, is aware of its location. He knows to skirt the area giving a wide berth to the animal’s territory. Jimmy calls the fox Flare-Foot. He’s seen the black feet trotting. They make Jimmy think of charcoal, as if the fox has run through fire and the ashes have marked his feet.

Jimmy loves the fox, loves its independence and its know-it-all air. “You’re a loner, all right,” he tells the fox, as he spies the animal from a distance.

The teenager lives with his grandparents on a farm about a mile out from the village. He checks his traps in the stream and reassures himself all is in order, then heads back to the farmhouse. He whistles as he goes, watching his condensed breath rising.

“Damn, it’s cold!” A rhyme enters his mind. “‘The wind flapped loose, the wind was still.'” He lets the rhyme float through his being, trying to warm himself. “‘The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,’ how does it go? ‘…shaken out dead from tree and hill.’ ‘cept Grandma knows the whole thing, I’ve only got the first verse.” He lifts the latch at the gate, hurries along and enters the kitchen end of the old stone building.

*

At three o’clock Bo startles awake following a dream. He sits by the window and tries to peer out. His glasses have fallen into the newspaper in his lap. His dream lingers, something about a bright light flashing onto something black and shiny. Only a dream. He looks out and sees Azure and Maribelle. The two clap their hands together in some kind of ritual. Bo can’t hear them, but he sees their lips moving. They clap so rapidly he knows they’ve done this routine before. Clap—together, clap—across, clap—together, then diagonally across. Bo wishes he could hear them. His head droops and he snoozes again.

A knock wakes him. “Pa, I knocked four times. Are you OK?” Josie, his younger daughter, is at the door carrying two large paper sacks.

“You know my door’s always unlocked. Come in, sweetheart. How’s my gal? Have you seen Jennifer? How’s she doing? Here, set your bags down.” He attempts to stifle a cough but has to give in to its five-minute duration as Josie unwraps the kitchen items and stores the canned goods and frozen packages in their proper places. She and her sister visit their dad on alternate weekends.

“Jennifer’s good, Dad. She told me to remind you to call Dr. Bream to renew your prescription. Has your cough worsened?”

“Nah! ‘Bout the same. How was your shift this morning?”

Josie always drives directly from her early shift at the hospital on Saturdays, picking up Bo’s groceries along the way.

“Same as usual. No rest for the weary feet. How’s it going? Anything new in town?” She’d heard about the robbery that took place at the Schoffsburg Gas ‘n Take-Out a week ago. She waits to see if her dad has any news from the villagers. She doesn’t tell her father about the eight-year-old who was admitted that morning following a sexual molestation. Word about the case spread quickly through the hospital.

“I heard from Ned Nelson at the Mart that they’ve installed a camera scan at the rear door of their store. Since that robbery at the gas station, nobody’s taking any chances. Want chicken paprikash tonight or spaghetti and meatballs, Da’?”

“Oh, let’s have the—” Another coughing spell interrupts Bo, after which he flops into his recliner.

Josie begins the paprikash. “It would be nice if we’d get rid of the snow one of these days. And I think you should start locking your door at night.” She pounds the cutlets, flattens them, and cuts them into bite-sized pieces.

Her father sleeps.

*

A week later, March 18th

On Sunday afternoon, returning from Bander’s Buffet with his newspaper under his arm, Bo passes the two young girls. Maribelle and Azure are holding hands and skipping down the center of the street. As they skip, they shout loudly and in a merry sing-song: “Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” They yank their linked hands forward and back.

Wouldn’t their mothers be a wreck if they spied them in the middle of the street! Then again, when have their mothers ever been that watchful of their children? “Here! Step over here,” Bo calls to them. But they are giggling and don’t hear him.

“Wish I may, wish I might.”

Bo walks on down the street. Wonder what I’d wish tonight, if I were wishing. He smiles to himself. Wouldn’t mind having a new set of lungs. He hears a car beep behind him. But now, lost in thought, he shuffles on home, noticing the snow has become slush.

*

Meanwhile, Jimmy is seated at the kitchen table in the farmhouse. His stamp collection is spread before him. He reaches for the magnifying glass, trying to decide where to place the Sri Lankan stamp with its curlicue letters. I wonder what that says? I wonder if I’ll ever go to Sri Lanka?

His grandma places a cup of hot chocolate on the table. “Better set that way over there, Grandma. You know how clumsy I can be.”

“I wouldn’t call a lad who can collect over $3.25 a week on his muskrat skins clumsy.”

Jimmy smiles, pleased that his grandmother recognizes his trapping skills. “I’m lucky Mr. Peters pays me 25 cents each for the pelts.” He reaches for the cocoa. He knows not too many of his classmates would rise at four in the morning to check their traps, but he’s grown used to the chore.

“It’s been a good winter. It’s a wonder old Flare-Foot never wanders by the stream. But he’s too smart for that.”

“Who’s Flare-Foot?”

“He’s a fox I see now and then. I know where his lair is, but I’ve never seen another fox. Only him.”

Jimmy places the pink stamp on a square and considers gluing it fast.

His grandmother sighs. “You’re a good lad.”

“You think Gramps would let me show him the fox’s spot? He never goes into the woods, does he?”

“Your Grandpa knows every inch of this property, I expect.”

*

Maribelle is in the coal bin. She sobs and rubs her dripping nose on the sleeve of her coat.

Azure puts her arm around her. “Don’t cry, your mom doesn’t really want to hurt you.”

“She does, too. She yelled at me and said I could go to that place—she said ‘You can go to hell, all I care.’ Sometimes I wish I had a daddy. A real daddy at home. Then this wouldn’t happen. I bet he wouldn’t let Mommy beat me.”

Azure says, “Yeah.”

They sit quietly, shivering.

Azure jumps up. “Let’s go for a walk!”

The two girls walk to Featherstone Street and turn up Maple to the warehouse at the edge of the village. The afternoon light begins to weaken. They’re used to walking, but have no idea how far they’ve come. In the fields they look back toward the village. The warehouse is far behind them. When Azure realizes how distant it is, she shakes. “We should go back. Maybe it will be dark soon.”

“I don’t want to go back. I don’t ever want to see Mommy again!”

“I don’t like it here. C’mon. Let’s go back.”

Maribelle walks on. She kicks at stones and puts her hands in her pockets, looking steadily down.

“I’m cold, Maribelle. C’mon!” She begs, but Maribelle walks on. Azure sees the woods in the distance and knows she will never go there in the dark. She begins to cry. She looks at Maribelle, then turns to look at the warehouse, now only dimly visible. After a last look at her friend, she turns and runs home.

*

Bo reads the news of the missing child on Tuesday morning. He doesn’t need the paper to inform him, for the report has already spread throughout the village.

The waitress approaches his booth. “Your regular today, Bo?”

“No, I don’t feel much like eating. Just a black coffee, please.”

Bo reads that an investigator was at Mrs. Randolph’s house on Monday and that she had reported the child missing at eight that morning. Hah! She took her good old time. The newspaper reported: “Nothing from the child’s bedroom was missing or disturbed. Mrs. Randolph said she’d never known the child to stay out past dark.” Well, if she did, Estelle would never have known it, the careless bitch! I never saw the mother walk with the child. Always only Maribelle and Azure, Maribelle and Azure. Wish I may and wish I might. Wait a minute! I wonder if they’ve talked to Azure. Bo is deep in thought when the waitress comes to refill his cup. The reporter had titled the article “The Girl in the Red Snowcap.”

That night Bo calls Josie. By now he needs her advice. Should he talk to the police, or not? And if so, whom should he ask for? “I’m not used to this sort of thing, Josie. Suppose I make a fool of myself.”

“Dad, how about if I come over tomorrow, soon’s I get off work? We can go to the station together.”

The next day she’s at his door by two-thirty. “The newspaper said they’re talking to all the neighbors,” he tells her. “But there’s no mention of Azure and so far nobody’s rung my doorbell, either. Yes, let’s go to the station.”

It snows later that night, the day of the spring equinox. The next day dawns spring-like, with temperatures in the mid-forties.

*

Old Flare-Foot, what are you up to now? Jimmy asks of the darkness. The elements don’t feel so quiet in the woods this morning. Jimmy’s on edge. Before checking his traps, he spies something lying nearby. The snow has drifted toward a tree trunk and is nearly melted. Soggy leaves lie there from the prior season. Jimmy turns his flashlight toward the leaves. There on top lies the object. It’s red. Startled, Jimmy runs back to the house. He’s heard about the girl in the red snowcap.

Jimmy wakes his grandpa and together they drive to Schoffsburg. Officers piece together their various reports into one brief document, brutal in its clarity. Maribelle’s body is found on the same day Jimmy discovers the cap. Weeks later the villagers still talk about how Azure and her family have left town.

Bo sits in Bander’s Buffet, his newspaper spread open. “This is one sad story,” he tells the waitress. They shake their heads.

pencilA retired musician, Carole Mertz writes from Parma, Ohio. This is her first mystery, though she has published essays, short stories, and poetry in With Painted Words, The Conium Review, at Page and Spine, and in various anthologies. She won an honorable mention in the 4th Worldwide Intergenerational Storytelling Contest. Email: carolemertz[at]cox.net

Fixies Adrift

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Lou Nell Gerard


133
Photo Credit: Ian Hoar

Autumn

The white pelican thought little about the two bodies slipping into the water and floating away through the canoe path between the sedge reeds. As long as they stayed clear of his school of rainbow trout he cared not about the activities of these wingless land creatures. He was working fast packing away fish before those double-crested cormorants showed up.

Winter

“I still say that is an odd shape for reeds, seems too solid somehow.”

“Well, feel free to head out on that ice to check it out… your snowshoes might help keep you from breaking through.”

“It might just be thick enough this year, but then so am I, thick this year… naaaww… we’ll see come spring.”

“Thank you.”

“Huh?”

“Thick… you’re thick because of my irresistible cooking, right? Don’t tell me that wasn’t a compliment.”

Spring

The reeds had shed their winter snow hoar leaving shining wet and brilliant green against cerulean blue.

Lois and Lonny were enjoying their shore walk sans snowshoes. Soon they’d be bringing the canoe down to its fair-weather dock they shared with the summer folk.

“Look at that heron with pink feet!”

“Herons don’t have pink feet. Grey, kind of a yellow-orangey color I think, maybe black. No, no pink feet. You’ve got that pink-toed tarantula on your mind. It must be standing on something pink. What is it standing on?”

“What do you mean? I’m talking about that one there in the reeds.”

“No no no… look at it. I mean yes, I know you are talking about the one in the reeds. Look, that’s that spot, that odd shape we saw in the snow all winter long. There is something there in the reeds. That heron is standing on something pink.”

“Let’s go get the canoe.”

Raft

As they approached the reeds they squinted and strained to try to justify some of the odd angles and colors they were seeing in the reeds. Finally as they slipped through one of the old canoe channels they saw something pink, probably what the “pink-footed” heron was standing on. They nosed further in and there stood amongst the reeds two bicycles, one of them with a pink saddle. The bikes were aboard a rather substantial raft. Using their lines they fashioned a loop around a corner of the raft and given that there wasn’t much movement of the lake water in this little bay they felt secure stepping aboard the raft, after all, it had overwintered there. This, then, was the “odd shape for reeds” they’d debated about. They felt like children, the both of them, who’d found a great discovery. One bike was a black Bianchi fixed gear bike, the other, also a Bianchi “fixie,” sort of a turquoise bluish color—called “Celeste” they were to learn later. The latter was the one with the pink saddle. Wonder and excitement alight on their faces, they felt as though they were getting a tour of a stage set.

“Fixies on a raft… out here… and look at all the rest!”

All the rest included a picnic basket still propped open and lined with a blue, yellow, and white checked waffle fabric dish towel. There was a quarter-empty jar of pickled walnuts, shreds from a box of some sort—maybe crackers—and a red wax half-shell full of beak marks that very likely came off a cheese. There was a small ceramic knife and a bamboo five-inch by eight-inch oil-stained cutting board and an empty sardine can. Of course nothing edible remained. Whether it had been dined on by humans or devoured by lake dwellers was unclear, although the dish towel did have some distinctly beak-like marks and was in a bit of disarray. Perhaps cormorants and otters got together and dined on the raft. Was heron invited? Ducks?

Centered on the raft, the fixies, held by portable triangle stands, created an enclosure like that of a small sidewalk wrought-iron fence. This framed a light outdoor cafe table and two matching chairs. A floral muslin shawl draped over the back of one chair had slipped and was hanging as if placed “off-the-shoulder” of the chair. It was a delicate creation of pale greens and blues and yellows and pinks, flowers and vines on a cream background. Part of the shawl draped itself on the rough-hewn timber of the raft—the corner just dipped into the water as if taking a sip.

On the table, an empty bottle of 2009 RoxyAnn Viognier, two crystal wine glasses (one of them still bore pink lip prints overlapped as though the drinker rotated the glass to drink from a lipstick-free rim with each sip), and two bamboo fiber and melamine plates in a bright Mediterranean pattern. Lois thought immediately how odd to contrast the delicate breakable crystal wine flutes with the practical but still quite lovely plates. Tucked under the wine bottle was a piece of heavy paper. It looked as though it had a sketch of some kind on it but the melting snow had left simply a pattern of washed-out colors. Had that been a blue elephant? Letters of some kind?

Thirty-eight degrees, still cold even in the full blast of early spring sun. Everything about the scene sparkled. Even the rough-hewn timbers of the raft itself, still wet from snow melt, glistened. Under each chair a pair of shoes sat neatly as if on display. The shawl-draped chair guarded a pair of Jimmy Choo sandals with a spiked four-inch heel, pale green, size 8. No scuff marks, but worn enough that the ‘JIM’ part of the label on the footbed was slightly faded from friction. Later investigation revealed them to be from Jimmy Choo’s 2014 line. ‘Lance’ sandals in Peppermint retailing for around $775.00. These shoes had not been in contact with a bike pedal of any kind. Facing directly, as though in conversation with the sandals, were a well-worn pair of Converse Chuck Taylor “Year of the Dragon” men’s high tops, no laces, size 13. Probably retailed in 2012 for around $90.00. This particular pair did not have an ‘original owner’ look about them. Later close inspection revealed that the footbed was worn in two distinctly different pressure patterns. The bottoms, as well, were worn like they were worn by both a pronator and supinator, and they bore a look of having once been laced frequently.

The table was set with a pale yellow linen tablecloth. A lapis-blue linen napkin was wadded up to the left of the plate belonging to the high tops and the matching napkin was draped across the seat of the Jimmy Choo chair. A silver fork rested tines down at three o’clock on the empty dinner plate. Next to this plate was a tube of Laura Mercier ‘Spring Renaissance’ Crème Smooth Lip Color, in Palm Beach, still sitting upright as improbable as that may seem. Lois reached for the tube, then caught herself just as she was about to pick it up. Luckily, enthralled as they were, they had not yet handled anything.

On the raft itself in the corner opposite the picnic basket sat a Crosley Echo portable battery-operated turntable in a retro red-and-cream case. One vinyl had been playing: Billie Holiday’s All or Nothing at All, 1958 on Verve records. Still in their cardboard album sleeves sat: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, 1959 on Columbia Records and Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, 1958 on the Fontana label along with John Coltrane’s Ballads, 1961 on Impulse! Records. Tucked between the portable turntable and the albums, propped against the side of the lid, was a slim, folded cane. A white reflective cane used by someone who is blind. Magic and wonder gave way to gravity. Two bicycles, one cane. Lonny had been in a marathon once with a runner who was blind; she had a runner guide… could that work for a bike? He just couldn’t visualize it… well, of course, but…

This, the cane more than anything else—the bikes, the shoes, the emptiness of the picnic basket—sent a chill up Lois’s spine. Lois looked at Lonny and they both reached for their phones with grim faces. Adventure and discovery had given way to a feeling neither of them could describe. That feeling when there seems no ready explanation, when time slows and sounds of life like the lapping water against the raft, soft wind through the reeds, the quiet bark of the canoe against the raft, bird song, the occasional splash of a fish or a landing lake bird all disappear and are replaced by a tone of the imagination much like the deep, deep tonals of the throat-singing monks of Tibet. Seeing each other pulling their phones out they each started to demure—then they compared signal strength and his phone “won” or maybe “lost” so Lonny made the 911 call.

“Sir, please don’t touch anything else and get off the raft. Can you paddle to Harbinger’s landing and meet the sheriff to guide him and his team out?”

 

The sheriff’s department launch idled alongside trying not to overtake the canoe. Deputy June Wolmar was wishing she had her pole and line to string along behind… why not grab some trout on duty? She and the sheriff were both fit with winter-tan faces. Both wore Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses, June’s with brown tint—what she called “happy glass”—Dan’s with a dark grey-green tint. She always found that tint depressing while her brown tint added a golden light.

Everyone was quiet, seeming to enjoy the sun, the quiet purr and sputter of the barely-idling outboard, the light splashes of the oars, the occasional knock of an oar against the canoe—winter had deconditioned both Lonny and Lois from paddling smoothly.

When they reached the raft, Deputy Wolmar dropped the bow anchor and took a few pictures with her phone, then nodding to the sheriff, she and Sheriff Dan Markham stepped aboard the raft. Markham called in the forensics team who had been on standby in case of hoax or false alarm. He asked them to arrange for divers too. The team would use GPS to locate and join them. Then he pulled out a pocket spiral notepad and mechanical pencil. Wolmar had grabbed her iPad out of a pack she had thrown on board the launch. They worked well together though their choice of tools was different. Almost back-to-back, they slow-waltzed around each other in silence taking a full three-hundred-sixty-degree view of the scene before starting to take notes. Wolmar periodically used her iPad to take pictures. Markham knew he didn’t have to direct her; she was methodical and thorough. Some people said she was “OCD” as though it were a precursor to the plague or something. Well, fine, he thought, all the better for my team.

Lois and Lonny weren’t sure if they were in the way, dismissed, or witnesses so they sat rather uncomfortably in the canoe and shrugged their shoulders at each other. It was getting cold now that they weren’t moving. After about fifteen minutes Lonny cleared his throat.

“Oh, sorry, can you give the deputy here your names and phone numbers, then you can go for now, we’ll be contacting you later… and please keep this to yourselves?”

“Well, they certainly didn’t come out here in the winter…” June was crouched down admiring the Jimmy Choo sandals without touching them. “When was our last good picnic weather?”

“You are assuming that these people buckled to the types of choices we make—maybe they came out when it was already cold… well… we’ve had no rainfall in a record period, so I’ll grant it was likely dry. Then snow, cold, snow, and now melt. How long? How long?”

“Look here, Dan, attached to the side here.” June had located two punting poles and a paddle snapped into place by a pair of sideways-mounted shovel-and-rake snap holders. “Where did they launch the raft? Did they stop here or drift here after, after whatever? It is a pretty spot.”

“OK, let’s do the list, not much more we can do until forensics and the divers arrive.”

“The bikes, fairly new, expensive-looking; they still have serial numbers. Purchased where, by whom, reported stolen?” June was a fast typist and easily frustrated by her voice capture tool so she madly tapped away in Pages using her onscreen keyboard as they talked.

“What depths do those punting poles work in? Lake depth, can we backtrack and map possible paths for the raft? Any kind of current here, it is a big lake?”

“There are big sections where it’d be nearly impossible to get a raft that size to the lake, we can eliminate those and let’s first focus here on Upper Lake. No candles or lantern, longer day? Oh! And the drawing.”

“No signs of violence, but it looks so awfully like a stage set… that could mean nothing.” Dan, in fact, was thinking about street art but wasn’t ready to say anything. This wasn’t a city building or sidewalk that had been painted, after all. This was remote, where was the audience… no, highly unlikely… it certainly would be an expensive temporary ‘installation’.

“Or everything, everything…” June, too, was thinking of a stage set, a stage set by a perpetrator to make everything look “copacetic.” That’s the word he or she or them would use.

“Where are the clothes? Well, shoes left behind, but no little pile of clothes neatly stacked… it would fit wouldn’t it?”

“Well, something unfortunate happened or someone had an expensive little celebration and walked away or swam or rowed or…”

“Or not.”

Summer’s End

Lois and Lonny walked and rowed almost every day through spring and summer. They often speculated about the raft. The Sheriff’s Department towed it away after a week’s worth of in-place investigation. No information was forthcoming to the folks who found it. A brief flurry of local talk and headlines, then the biggest rainbow trout catches regained their rightful place.

June and Dan, unbeknownst to each other, frequented the archive room, each looking for an overlooked clue, each haunted by questions and their own particular theories. Dan loved the idea of a stage manager or someone like that creating this set for whomever came across it to draw their own conclusions… sort of a three-dimensional Banksy for the great outdoors. In which case it was too bad the raft couldn’t have stayed out there in the reeds for as long as the weather, otters, cormorants, herons, pelicans, ducks, woodpeckers, flickers, and bugs let it stand. Of course, someone would have made off with the bikes and those Jimmy Choos. June was of a less-optimistic mind, but unclear as to details. Neither of them wanted this one to end up “Unsolved.”

pencilLou Nell Gerard is a freelance writer of poetry, essays and short stories. Her essay “Secret Dreams” was published in the Women’s Forum of Rider Magazine. Her enthusiasm for motorcycles, movies, music, plays, paintings, books and road trips are frequent topics of her blog. She lives in Kirkland, Washington with her husband, Klee, and their cat, ShuLien. Email: louge[at]gerards.org

Get Carter

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Lorraine Nelson


Tunnel Sillhouettes
Photo Credit: Jonathan Sanderson

Carter ran until he thought his lungs would burst. His footsteps thudded against the packed earth, sounding like a muffled heartbeat. His nightspecs lit up the dank, cavernous tunnel with an eerie green glow. Far behind him, he could hear a soft, steady hum.

The trailbots were after him.

Carter picked up his pace. No way they were going to catch him. No way they were going to take him back to GenMed. No way. He’d rather die than go back there. His legs churned, eating up the ground under him. Despite his exhaustion, Carter permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction.

He had done it.

After two years of planning, he had finally escaped the GenMed Facility, also known as the Body Shop. The government scientists not only cloned humans for sale to whoever needed unpaid labor, they also used some of their clones for experiments. Horrendous experiments, where clones had their arms and legs removed, to be replaced by animal parts; where brain matter was sliced and diced in order to manipulate personality changes; where animal–human hybrids were implanted in female uteri. Carter had heard stories where sometimes these fetuses would grow enough to tear or bite their way out of the womb. Despite the sweat pouring down his face, soaking his shirt, he shuddered.

No. He was not going back.

The tunnel banked right, and Carter skidded into the turn, his nightspecs picking up the strange, phosphorescent glow emanating from the hard, mud-packed walls. It was through Malachi, a fellow inmate of GenMed, that Carter had heard about the Underground Railroad. It seems that hundreds of years ago, white people in New Cambria, which was then called America, went over the seas to enslave a whole race of people. The black race. Malachi called them his African forebears. They didn’t succeed in enslaving everyone, but it turns out they enslaved thousands over a period of years. They didn’t treat them none too well either. Malachi said his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather had told him stories that his great-grandfather had told him, about how these enslaved humans were treated like property, were beaten and starved, the women raped and their resulting offspring sold off, never to be seen again.

Carter shook his head. Amazing that hundreds of years later, mankind still hadn’t changed. People were still being enslaved. Still subjected to all kinds of atrocities. Only now, it was the Cyborgs, those infernal half-human, half-machine tyrants, who ran the show. Humans were just cattle to be rounded up and used for cheap, disposable labor.

And, of course, experimentation.

But not him. Not Carter. Not anymore. He flexed his right arm where, just the previous day, one of the scientists had lasered his arm off just below the elbow because someone had noticed Carter’s hand shaking when he performed some delicate repairs on a gene splicer. Carter’s mouth tightened as he recalled the agony of the hot beam slicing through flesh and bone. The Cyborg hadn’t bothered to use a pain diffuser. There was no point wasting it on a full-blooded human.

Whatever it was he did to Carter’s arm, when he fused it back again, the shaking was gone. Ironically, he’d made it that much easier for Carter to manipulate the last few alarms before making his escape. Carter’s fists clenched. It was supposed to be their escape. His and Malachi’s. But something went wrong when they were working on the last set of alarms. Somehow, Carter didn’t know how, the guards were alerted. The alarms he was working on all went off at once, and around the facility, titanium doors and windows started sealing off all the entrances, one by one.

There had been no time to waste. They’d made a run for it. Except Malachi couldn’t keep up. He was just too old. They could hear the metal footfalls of the guards clanging off the sleek metal floors, getting closer and closer with each breath. Carter had grabbed the old man, practically hauling him off the ground as he ran. Just a few more paces, and they’d make it. He’d delayed the shutdown in this corridor for a few precious minutes, but time was rapidly running down. Beside him, he could hear Malachi’s ragged breathing.

Almost there. But the guards were almost upon them. Once they turned the corner, all was lost. They’d turn their light-pistols on them, and both him and Malachi would vaporize into nothing more than a pile of ashes.

He’d turned to Malachi, a remorseful grin on his face. “Guess we’re not going to get the chance to use that famous Underground Railroad your ancestors used, buddy. Sorry about that.”

Malachi turned his dark, soulful eyes on the younger man. “I won’t, but you sure will. Goodbye my friend. And as my great-granddaddy used to say, “Godspeed.”

Before Carter could react, Malachi wrenched his arm away from him, and ran back down the corridor, screaming maniacally, “Come and get me, you tin-plated freaks of nature.” He threw an impatient look over his shoulder, his dreadlocks bouncing. “What are you waiting for, you idiot? A goodbye kiss? Go. Go.”

And Carter went. He ran as if there were no tomorrow. He ran until night became day, and the North Star disappeared. And when that happened, miraculously, there was someone there, in the ruins of the Old City, to feed him and give him a place to sleep, and to guide him to the next safe house. That first day of freedom, Carter shut his eyes, curled up in a ball in a corner of a dilapidated factory, and tried to erase the memory of leaving his old friend behind. It’s here, Malachi, he said silently. It does exist. The old route under the night sky. I followed the North Star just as you said. Met my first good Samaritan, who assures me there are others along the way who will help me, just as you said. The Underground Railroad still stands, silent and strong and ready to help anyone seeking asylum.

A sharp pain in his side brought Carter up short. He had been traveling for more than a week now, using the North Star as his guide. And always, along the way, there were people to help. He was underground now, in a series of tunnels that his last Samaritan had said were built as a physical extension to the Railroad, when the Cyborgs gained control. This portion of the route became too dangerous to follow above ground. People who served the Underground Railroad were being caught and killed, so these passages were built in secret. They still followed the North Star, he said, but below ground.

Carter leaned against the tunnel wall, welcoming the cool, damp feel against his over-heated skin. He listened for the sounds of the trailbots, but couldn’t hear anything. Either they had given up, which was highly unlikely, or they were recharging, which didn’t seem possible either. He couldn’t think of any other reason why they wouldn’t be following him. Well, he couldn’t worry about that now. He had to keep moving. He had no idea how far he’d run, only that he couldn’t go much farther. His entire body was screaming out for rest, for water, for food. Hell, he’d even take that synthesized crap the Cyborgs ate.

Carter pushed away from the wall, setting out at a steady jog this time, instead of a full-on run. His legs felt as if they were on fire. His feet felt slippery and hot inside of his work boots, each step a plunge into red-hot coals. He didn’t want to see what the soles of his feet looked like. He kept going until he keeled over, unable to move another step. He lay there on the cool, packed earth, relishing the feel of it beneath his cheek. This is fine, he thought. I’ll just stay here. All I need is to close my eyes for a few minutes. Five minutes. That’s all. Then I’ll be able to go again. Just five minutes. That’s all. Carter’s eyelids fluttered.

Then snapped open.

Someone was there. And whoever it was, was looking right at him.

Carter sprang to his feet, his heartbeat accelerating. What the hell—? He stared at the creature in front of him. It was a relgat. It had to be, with its ghostly-white skin, a smooth small head, huge bat-like ears standing straight up, and large yellow eyes that took up almost its whole pointed face. There was no room for a nose on that face, so it had three small pinpricks in the shape of a triangle, where its nose ought to be. Its mouth was the only thing that looked almost normal, by human standards. The whole creature, from the tips of its ears to its paddle-shaped feet, if you could call them that, stood maybe five feet high, tops. Carter felt like a giant next to it.

“Hel-lo,” it said, raising a right hand, all four long digits extended in greeting.

Carter stared at the pads of its fingers. They were disc-shaped and looked like suction pads.

“Can you speak?” the relgat asked. “Are you simple? Too much cutting in your brain by the Cyborgs?”

“What?” Carter blinked. The thing spoke perfect English. He shook his head. What was he expecting? Broken English in a foreign-sounding voice? Malachi would be disappointed in him. “I’m… I’m Carter,” he said. “Who—?”

“Ahhhh, Carter. Yes. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“We?” How many of these things were there, for shit’s sake?

In answer, a young man, a boy, black like Malachi, stepped out from the shadows. He touched a hand to his cap, and soft light flooded the area. Carter winced and removed his nightspecs, squinting at the light.

“Hey,” the boy said, by way of greeting. “We’ve been waiting for you. I’m Padraig. And this,” he gestured at the alien, “is Sycamore.”

“Hel-lo again.” Sycamore’s hand went up again, his face splitting in what Carter assumed was a grin. Inside his mouth, short, sharp teeth gleamed against his pearly-white skin. Carter suppressed a shudder. Whatever those teeth ate, it sure wasn’t fruit.

Padraig and Sycamore? Terrific. “How old are you?” he asked the boy. In his opinion, the kid was way too young to be involved in something this dangerous.

Padraig lifted his chin. “I’m twelve,” he said. “And if you want to get out of here without being caught or vaporized, you’ll follow me. I know these tunnels blindfolded.”

Carter held up his hands, stifling a grin. “Hey, no problem. I believe you.”

Padraig stared up at him for a second, then nodded. He and Sycamore exchanged a look, then turned back to Carter. They appeared to be waiting for something. A sign of some sort? A secret password? Carter rubbed the back of his neck and smiled at them, thinking that if this wasn’t a dream, it had to be one of the goofiest encounters he’d ever had.

“So? What now?” he finally said, acutely aware that at any minute he would hear the hum of the trailbots behind him.

“Where’s Malachi?” Padraig said.

Carter felt the blush to the roots of his hair. How could he have forgotten to tell them about Malachi? The old man was his only friend at GenMed for the past three years, and already he was getting used to being without him. What was wrong with him?

“He… he didn’t make it,” Carter said thickly. “He used himself as a diversion so I could get away.” His throat closed up, and he snapped his jaw shut, afraid he was going to start bawling like the incubated babies on the third floor at GenMed.

Padraig said nothing, just stared at him with those young-old eyes that looked as if they’d seen everything life had to offer. Finally he nodded, turned away. “We’d better get going. We still have a long way to go and it won’t be long before the trailbots are fixed.”

Sycamore turned, his long loose robe swishing behind him as he trotted after the boy.

Guess that explains why I haven’t heard them behind me for awhile, Carter thought, watching the twosome glide silently down the tunnel. Taking a deep breath, Carter started after them, thinking this must be the oddest trio that ever walked the earth.

For a long, long time, they walked in silence. Carter considered whistling, but dismissed the idea instantly. In these tunnels the sound would reverberate like a sonic drill. But, speaking of tunnels—

“So, can I ask you something?” Carter said, catching up to Padraig.

The boy nodded, casting him a sideways look.

“What do you know about these tunnels? I mean, the Underground Railroad was just a name for the people and safe houses along the route who helped the escaped slaves back in the old days, right?

“Right.” The boy looked straight ahead, his stride never faltering. Carter had to hand it to him. This was one tough little kid.

“So, whose idea was it to build these tunnels?”

“Padraig shrugged. “Who knows? They’re here and they’re handy, so why question it?” He glanced up at Carter, frowning. “Why do grownups have to question everything good?”

Carter laughed. “I suppose that is a fault in grownups, kid.”

“Don’t call me ‘kid.’ My name’s Padraig.”

“Right. Padraig. Sorry.” He heard a sound like water gurgling down a pipe and glanced back. The alien had his mouth open and the gurgling sound was coming from deep within him. “What’s with your friend?” he asked Padraig.

The boy shrugged, but a tiny smile flitted across his face. “He’s laughing at you.”

Carter raised a brow, but refrained from comment. It seemed both the boy and the alien had a sense of humor. Who knew? “One more question,” he said.

Padraig nodded, his dark, solemn eyes watching Carter carefully.

“How come the walls in this tunnel glow? It’s a little… unsettling.”

“My dad told me there are microscopic creatures that live in the walls. He says they emit their own light. They live and die in the darkness, so nature compensates by imbuing them with their own light source.” He smiled at the surprised expression on Carter’s face then, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face. “Those are my dad’s exact words,” he said. “He always used big words when he spoke. He… he was the smartest man in the world.”

“Sure sounds like it,” Carter said, then lapsed into silence.

A long while later, when Carter’s stomach started growling, Padraig called a halt. “We’ll stop here for a bit,” he said. “Have something to eat.”

At the mention of food, Carter’s interest piqued. He glanced at the small bag slung over the boy’s shoulder. Didn’t look like it held much. Well, whatever he was offered, he would take it and be grateful for it. He watched as Padraig took out three small bowls, a packet of some sharp-smelling pellets, and four long water tubes. He handed one to Carter and Sycamore, put one aside for himself, and emptied one into equal portions in the three bowls. Then he split open the bag, dropped a handful of the pellets into each of the bowls, and stirred them into the water. Right before his eyes, Carter watched as the mixture thickened and grew. A cold dread began in his stomach, and he raised his eyes to Padraig, willing the boy to tell him it wasn’t what he thought it was.

It was.

Padraig passed him a bowl, a wide grin splitting his face. “Symplon,” he said, his serious tone belying the delight on his face as he watched Carter grimace. “The food of the Cyborgs.”

Carter accepted the bowl with a muttered “thank you.” His eyes slid to Sycamore, who was already dipping his elongated fingers into the greenish-grey mush and shoveling it into his mouth with a resounding smacking sound. If Carter had had any food at all in his belly, he’d have hurled.

“Eat up,” Padraig said, sitting cross-legged, as he dipped his fingers into the swill. “It shouldn’t be too much longer before we’re back above ground. We can pick up the original Railroad trail again without any problem, once the stars come out.”

Carter grunted as he bent to his meal.

For a while, the only sounds were the soft slurping of fingers, interspersed with the smacking sounds coming from Sycamore.

“Gooood,” the alien said, setting his bowl down and beaming at the others, his enormous yellow orbs shining in the darkness.

Carter wanted to offer him his own food, but the thought of walking for hours on end without the possibility of more food kept him from doing that. As repulsive as it was, at least it was nourishment that kept him alive. And for that, he was immensely grateful.

“So,” he said, glancing up at Padraig and Sycamore. “How did you both come to this pretty important job? A boy and an alien? There’s got be a story there.”

Padraig’s chest swelled noticeably. “You’re right,” he said, licking his fingers. “It is an important job. My father was the contact, the Samaritan. I used to go out with him when it got dark, on nights we knew to expect someone. Sometimes we’d wait in the tunnels all night and no one would come, and we’d know they’d run into trouble, got captured or killed.” He sighed. “On those nights, my father was always so sad.”

He looked at Carter, his eyes shining. “I could actually feel him wearing it, you know? His sadness. He always felt so sorry for the ones who didn’t make it this far north.”

Padraig set his bowl down, licked his fingers one last time, and sat back against the tunnel wall. “Then he got sick. Remember when so many humans got sick and died? My dad said the Cyborgs had a cure, that they had a cure for just about everything, but they didn’t care about us. He said they thought we were inferior beings, because we weren’t as strong as them, or as smart as them, and that we had such short life spans anyway, so what difference did it make to them if we all died?” Padraig sniffed, dragging the back of his hand across his nose. “Then my dad got sick, too. He… he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and he’d send me out there when we knew we were getting runners. He told me it was dangerous work and he didn’t want me out there by myself with those trailbots around, but that people were counting on us, and we couldn’t let them down.” He sniffed again, and Carter held his arms rigid at his side to keep from giving the boy a hug.

“Then he died,” Padraig said softly, staring at a point over Sycamore’s shoulder. “My dad died and it was only me. I was the only one there to help those runners. So, whenever a message came through that someone was on the run, I went out by myself and met them.” His eyes met Carter’s, wet with tears. “And that’s how come I met you.”

Carter swallowed back the lump in his throat. He wanted to swoop the kid up in his arms, hold him tight and tell him he’d take care of him, that he’d be his surrogate father, but somehow he knew the kid wouldn’t agree to that. He glanced at Sycamore, who was watching Padraig with wide, mournful eyes. That’s his surrogate dad, Carter thought. The alien takes care of him. I’ll be damned.

“And you?” Carter asked, clearing his throat. “What’s your story?”

Sycamore turned those huge, unnerving eyes on him. He smiled. “When we arrived here all those years ago, humans were so suspicious of us. Even when we proved that all we wanted to do was trade, they still hated us. The Cyborgs were the ones treating the humans badly, but because they were still partly human, they were not as feared as we were.” He looked at Padraig. “I was working for a gen farm, splicing pig and cow DNA together to create a new breed of meat, when one day there was an accident. The genetic modifier I was working on was unstable, and it exploded. It destroyed half the building. Some humans died, and I barely made it out of there with my life. The only reason I survived was because my skin is so tough. If I were human, I would be dead.”

Carter watched as Padraig reached over and squeezed his hand. The gesture was so simple, yet so endearing, Carter’s heart twisted.

“The farmer went for his light-pistol,” Sycamore continued. “So I ran. I ran for days without stopping. Then I found these tunnels. Quite by accident, since they are so well hidden. I hid out in them for days, and when I finally wove my way around, there was Padraig, waiting.”

“Well, I certainly did not expect to see a young human pup in these tunnels—” Sycamore paused, and cocked his head at Padraig. “Come to think of it, I did not expect to see a human pup at all, so it was very much a surprise when I came upon him.” He smiled at the boy. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Waiting for you.’ Then he turned and led the way out of the tunnels to the home he shared with his father.”

He smiled at Carter. “And I have been there ever since.”

Carter stared back in wonder. “How long have you been with him?” he asked.

Sycamore cocked his head again as he contemplated Carter’s question. “Two years, he said. “I have watched him grow centimeter by centimeter.”

There was a short silence as Carter digested this information.

Then Padraig stirred, yawned and got to his feet. “Time to get you on your way, Mr. Carter.”

“Just Carter,” he said, rising and stretching.

They walked again, for so long that Carter wondered what year it was. He didn’t want to ask how much longer it was before they’d emerge into open air again, but he was starting to get seriously claustrophobic. He’d gotten used to following the North Star. There was something comforting in that. It was always there. Constant. Eternal. It would always be there to guide people to freedom and safety, and he wanted to see it again, to reassure himself it would be there to guide him the rest of the way, however long it took for him to reach safety.

These thoughts were chasing themselves around his overtaxed brain, when Padraig spoke.

“We’re here.”

And the next thing Carter knew, he was back outside again, back in the fresh air. Back to the sound of insects humming, to the cool night air kissing his damp skin, to the soft breeze ruffling his hair. He wanted to spread his arms wide and laugh out loud. But of course he didn’t, since both Padraig and Sycamore were looking at him curiously.

“We’ll accompany you for a few more miles,” Padraig said, “until we meet your next contact in the Railroad chain. Then we’ll say goodbye.”

Carter nodded, his eyes on the young boy who was older and wiser beyond his years. He would miss him. Both of them actually. Without a word, he turned and followed them through the woods, the North Star pointing the way in the clear night sky.

Carter could not believe the beauty of this vast wilderness. Where he came from, there was nothing but sterile white buildings, and once he ran for his life, nothing but cities in ruins. He had not known a place like this existed. He took a deep breath. Even the air smelled sweeter here.

When their contact stepped out from behind a tree, smiling at them, Carter sent a silent prayer of thanks to his old friend, Malachi.

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Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature; Master’s degree in Mass Communications. Grew up in many different countries. Publishing history: Public Relations newsletter editor. Articles for local newspapers. Newsletter editor for regional writing organization for three years. Wife. Mother of two. Volunteer. Reader. Sci-fi geek. Email: lloneriter[at]yahoo.com