The Shave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Emma Williamson


Photo Credit: Chris Michaels/Flickr (CC-by)

Quarantine ends tonight, and my husband has decided to celebrate by shaving his beard.

I watch as he sits on a folding chair underneath the old oak tree, balances the shaving supplies on his lap. His thick, full beard gleams reddish brown in the rich afternoon light.

Our three acres grew unchecked during the year of quarantine. Sprawling wild rose bushes climb the sugar maple; untended grass and shrubbery tangle in the field. The overgrown copse of cedar to the east shimmers in the August heat. And up high in the branches over my husband’s head is the papery husk of a wasps’ nest that I was supposed to destroy, swaying gently in the breeze.

I frown, hoping he’ll sense my distress. Tell me he’s changed his mind about the beard.

Instead he stares at himself in the tiny hand mirror. He pulls at his beard, sets his jaw. Turns his head this way and that.

“Just tell me why,” I say.

He angles the mirror with one hand, maneuvers the scissors with the other. Hacking away at his beard, a sound like so many whispering blades.

“It’s itchy,” he says.

He rubs his chin as if to prove it to me.

“But you know how much I love it.”

A breeze ripples the foliage, tall grass brushing my bare legs. My arms prickle with the sun’s heat.

“I just want to,” he says finally.

“You just want to.”

He splashes his face with water from the plastic bowl.

“Yeah, I just do. Okay?”

He pumps shaving gel into one palm and rubs his hands together to get a thick lather. Then pats down the remaining bristles.

“Look, Anna. The pandemic is over. We start work in a couple of days. Everything is going to go back to normal.”

“So?”

“So,” he says, “I can’t fucking stand this beard anymore. I want it gone before I go back to the office.”

I press my lips together, thinking of my own return to work.

The drive: forty minutes in my aging Toyota Camry, travel mug of coffee beside me. Talk radio blasting opinions on how the government fucked up its response to the pandemic. The death toll. What to do with all the bodies.

The office: dull cinderblock walls and fluorescent lighting that make my fine lines look like trenches. Tupperware of soggy greens and cherry tomatoes, a listless chicken breast.

And the people: Karen and Maude, constantly asking me why I’m not pregnant yet, and James, my lecherous boss, his eyes sliding neatly to my breasts. Irate customers beaming their misery directly through my headset into my brain.

And I can’t forget the other banal details of living. Obligatory pedicures during sandal weather, monthly trims and root touch-ups. Scrolling through the endless glossy posturing of social media. The bright beep of each grocery item as it moves from the conveyor belt into my cloth sack.

The rest of my life.

“Where’s the razor?”

“What?”

“The razor,” he says. As though I don’t know what a razor is.

“I’m sorry, I forgot.”

I can feel his eyes burning into my back as I walk through the yard toward the house, tall wild grass tickling my forearms.

Sunlight flashes on the upper windows as I reach the back deck, like the house is blinking its glassy eyes. I’ll miss the way our home comes alive with light as the day unfolds.

Then I imagine it—the house—waiting for me to return from my cubicle every day. Like a barren womb, empty and useless. Waiting to be filled with life.

*

Inside the house is thick with hot, stale air, the loamy scent of earth and foliage. I’ve stopped caring, but it’s impossible to ignore. With a day of air conditioning and a wipe-down with lemon pledge, maybe it’ll go away.

The razor is in the medicine cabinet, as expected. A straight razor, gleaming in the daylight filtering through the bathroom blinds. The drugstore sold out of the plastic ones early on. This is all we have.

I unfold it and press the blade to my finger, watch a thin line of blood seep out. I’m not sure how the razor is this sharp when he hasn’t used it in months. He might cut himself.

That might not be a bad thing. Maybe it would force him to reconsider the shave.

I find myself opening the vanity drawer, where last year’s used pregnancy tests sit. Row after row, all negative.

That’s when he’d started working late. Looking at me as though I didn’t exist.

I close my eyes, watching as his long, achingly romantic text message history with the other woman unfurls behind my eyelids from memory. It still hurts, all these months later.

But I know it’s all over now.

After all, she’s dead.

She was one of the first to die, bringing back the disease from a girls’ weekend in Miami. I read about it on Facebook. There wasn’t even a funeral because gatherings were banned at the time.

I never told him about her death. I assume he knew, though. Shortly after the woman’s mother posted her obituary, my husband went completely blank. He didn’t eat. Barely slept. Once I heard him sobbing in the shower.

I waited for him to get better with the patience and commitment that only a wife can provide. I continued snapping the tomatoes off the vine and chopping them for the salad and barbequing the fish he’d caught and smiling and stroking his beard and massaging his neck. Eventually we started having sex again and I forgot all about her.

Other than wondering where her body would be stored until the morgues re-opened.

I squeeze the blood from my finger, watch it drip into the sink and slide slowly down the drain.

I remember his beard from the early days. When we first started dating. The pleasant roughness when he kissed me, my lips raw and aching afterwards. Its scrape against my skin when he moved down my body, pleasure throbbing at the edge of pain.

When his scruff started growing a few weeks into quarantine, I swallowed my excitement. My husband breaks anything I love too much. Better not to mention it at all. But I longed for that beard under my fingertips. In bed, I gripped it in one hand, pulling him in. Eyes closed, so he wouldn’t see how greedy I was. How much I needed him.

*

My husband strokes the razor down his face as I hold the mirror. I gulp the swampy air, trying to dispel the pressure building in my chest.

There are so many lasts.

This is the last day I’ll wear that old embroidered caftan from my college days. The one he hates me wearing in public.

The last day I’ll let my hair dry into wild, beachy waves.

My tan will fade.

There will be no more long, leisurely suppers by candlelight. No more fish from the river, no more evening games of Scrabble. No more silence.

He’s already disappearing from me, bit by bit.

The power’s supposed to be up and running by tonight. By tomorrow morning we’ll hear the hum of the combines from the neighbour’s field, distant strains of morning traffic from the highway. Our charged phones will bleat with text messages sent months ago. Grass will be mowed. Stores will open.

I’m teetering on the precipice of a world that I will never be able to escape.

“What do you think?”

I snap to. It’s worse than I expected.

I’m staring at a stranger. His cheeks are gaunt and sunken, his brow more pronounced without the balancing effect of his beard. All these months of eating no processed food, of hiking and fishing. He’s lost weight, maybe ten pounds.

I make a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“It can’t be that bad,” he says uneasily. “Hard to do it in front of a hand mirror, but I think I did a good job.”

This was the face she saw. She looked into this shorn face and she pressed her hands to these bare cheeks. And that smooth, hairless chin pressed between her legs as he fed upon her.

You see me like no one else does, he had written to the other woman.

Was that true?

I’ve always wanted to ask him that. Is that true, what you wrote?

“You missed a spot,” I say, pointing to his throat. It’s a tiny patch, no bigger than a quarter.

“Aw, shit. Really?” He moves to feel it.

“No, don’t touch it, it looks sensitive.”

“Ok, can you hand me the mirror?” He sits down, motioning to the tray.

“I’ll do it for you,” I hear myself say.

“Thanks, babe,” he says.

He sits back down, and I stand before him. He hands me the straight razor. It sits heavy in my palm, the metal warm from his touch.

A wasp investigates, possibly drawn by the shaving cream’s cloying scent. The cream has melted into the bowl of water, leaving a scummy sheen on its surface, but the smell still hangs in the air. Or maybe it’s us, our bodies ripe with sweat. The insect buzzes lazily around my husband’s head. He swats at it aggressively.

“You’re making it angry,” I say.

“I thought you said you got them all,” he says nervously. “Do you have my epi-pen?”

“It’s in my pocket,” I lie.

“Can I have it?”

“Hold still.”

I pat water on his neck, watching as his jugular pumps blood steadily, wondrously. I prod his springy flesh. I marvel again at the fact that we didn’t get sick, that we are still here. So fully alive.

“Well, come on,” he says. “What are you waiting for?”

I swallow. “I just want to make sure I do this right.”

“It’s not rocket science, for fuck’s sake.”

My fingers itch to feel it again, that bristly tuft of hair. What I’ve held onto all these months of quarantine.

I press the razor to his skin, trying to get the angle right. And I see myself—like I’ve skipped a few slides ahead in the film reel of my life—plunging the razor deep, watching the blood spurt from his clean-shaven neck.

His eyes are huge, terrified. His fingers paw at his throat, slippery with blood. His mouth opens in a strange sort of grimace. The metallic smell of his blood mixes with the heady floral scent of the yard.

I could do it. It’d be easy. He trusts me. Perhaps then he would understand how important the beard was, how much it mattered.

He raises his eyebrows, gesticulates. As if to say I should get on with it.

“This is the problem with you, Anna,” he says. “You take forever to do anything.”

I stare back. I don’t know why, but I’m thinking about the Polaroid tucked into a picture frame by our bed. My husband and I on our wedding day, framed by a silky-looking Jamaican beach. I wear a pure white slip dress, hair loose; he’s in khakis and a white collared shirt. It’s always bothered me, that photograph. His smile is wide, earnest, his cheeks pinked with sun. To any casual observer, he looks happy.

But if you look closer, you can see it.

His body, his hips, are angled slightly away from me.

The razor trembles in my fingers. His artery pumps. I am standing outside of myself, looking down at him. I’m floating, fading away. The sun moves from behind a cloud, drenching my body with light.

I see my long wave of hair, the light cotton caftan skimming my knees.

I see my hand held to his throat.

And I watch as the wasp circles him, me, us, its buzzing violent and electric, like the thrumming of my heart. Almost as though it’s deliberating which one of us should kill him first.

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Emma Williamson is a Canadian lawyer turned emerging poet and fiction writer. She is a graduate of Queen’s University, the University of Toronto School of Law, and the Humber School for Writers. Emma is working on a novel and several short stories, and was recently long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Alice Munro Short Story Prize. Emma lives in Toronto with her husband and son. Email: emmawilliamson23[at]hotmail.com

Morning Run

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Justine Gardner


Photo Credit: Corey Butler/Flickr (CC-by)

The fragrant main dish lies steaming on the restaurant table: a cat, whole and deep-fried, and still alive. It purrs when she pokes its crackling skin with the knife—

Something nudges her, leaving a moist slick to cool on her chin. She rises out of the dream, gasping, fingers in her cat’s fur. Listens to its purrs. Her husband’s congested snores that move his body, the bed, with every inhalation. She counts the seconds between his breaths, measuring his need for oxygen. Her watch says it is five-thirty. A glance at the monitor shows the baby smooth with sleep.

She gets up. She pads to the bathroom, then the kitchen, feeds the cat before taking her own half-cup of thin coffee. Her ten almonds, the bite of dried fruit. The jar of apricots is nearly empty. The snip of sky out the kitchen window is dark, but tinged with the early glow of sunrise.

She pulls on leggings, a tank top, straps on her phone. She slips out the apartment door, easing it closed behind her. The hall is ripe with the smell of the overflowing trash closet. The super has been sick, she heard. She hasn’t seen him since last week. Or is it the week before? She can’t quite remember the last time she spoke to a neighbor. The last time she heard the children crying from 6D.

She adjusts her mask, her hands already in their latex gloves, and takes the stairs. Fifth, fourth floors quiet, the lights out on both landings, the bulbs smashed. On the third floor, she smells fried fish through her mask and she thinks of that purring, crusted cat from her dream, feels the sour sip of coffee at the back of her throat. On the first floor there is a man sprawled in the stairwell, mask half slipped from his face, a bottle of vodka spilled from his hand. She does not recognize him as she steps over his prone body—but then there are so many people in the building it is hard to know for sure. He could be a stranger off the street; it wouldn’t be the first time.

She walks briskly through the lobby, pushing open the glass doors with her elbow. The air feels lighter outside; it moves with a slight breeze. The streetlamps are bright against the indigo sky. She breathes, as deeply as she can through the mask, feeling it tighten against her face and then bowing out on the exhale. She smells her coffee breath. And then under that, the rich, moist stink from the garbage bags piled at the base of the thin street tree. Soon, she thinks, there will be a wall of trash. A rat burrows through one bag, looks at her as she looks at the trash and then digs back in, stringy tail the last thing she sees.

She starts to run, slowly at first, letting her muscles warm themselves. She is sweating already. At dawn the air is cooler but it is still August, it is still eighty degrees at six a.m. She runs, faster now, catching sight of the park, the park she cannot enter—not since June—so she will run alongside the stone walls, imagining herself within.

Leaves crunch underfoot, making her think for a moment of that crackle of fried skin, the purring cat. She keeps running, her pace growing comfortable, her legs feeling their place in the usual rhythm. She adjusts the face covering, keeps it from sliding too far forward, although part of her wants to let it slide all the way, untie it, and throw it in the gutter with the bags of spilled trash and let the heavy August air encase her. Maybe she’ll take off her gloves, her clothes one piece at a time as she runs, dropping each item on the curb, her crumb trail home, until she is naked and sweating, pores open, ready to absorb everything around her.

She keeps running, the mask in place, counting off the red posters set intermittently on the park’s low walls. She can read only a bit as she passes each one, but she knows what they say: Closed until further—by order of—the Department of Health—and Mental Hygiene—Do not enter—Penalty can include a fine and—or arrest.

She doesn’t want the fine, or to be arrested, although that last part she knows is a lie—the jails were emptied out months ago and not by an order from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As for the fine, they would have to catch her to give it.

She smiles, considers this as she runs, approaching the nearest entrance. There is no way to seal it, not completely. A police car will be stationed there, waiting to stop anyone trying to slip through with their dog, their toddler, their bottle of vodka.

But there is no one at the entrance—no police car, no soldiers. The barricades are open slightly as though someone pushed against them, sliding in. She pauses, looks left, right. The streets are empty. She wonders: has she seen anyone at all? Not a single car driving down the avenue, not one siren heard crying in the distance.

She slips between the barricades and runs, faster now, across the main road toward the glinting flash of lake. How long has it been? Three months? She can’t remember. She can’t think of the last time she went this far from their apartment—this far alone, even. But now that she is here, inside the park, she feels something brighten within her, wake up. She runs, enjoying the pound of her feet against the pavement as she nears the water.

The lake is still, and barren. Where are the geese? The birds? And then she remembers: they’d been removed by the same force behind the red posters. Known and probable vectors. She runs faster, the mask slicked to her face with sweat, her throat dry. Still, she runs. Who knows when she can do this again? Who knows if they will catch her, return her to the apartment, to her sick husband, her baby, her—

A cat streaks past on the path, a wiggling kitten in its mouth. She jumps, startled, and stops, panting, hands on her thighs. She watches the cat dip into the brush and vanish from sight. A cat is alive. A cat is alive in this park where the birds are all dead and the humans forbidden.

She starts running again, around the edge and down the steep hill. She catches a smell through her mask, something deep and chemically sweet. There is a fog rolling at the base of the hill, the sound of a motor; she sees a truck’s shape through the cloud. She stops. Backs up, watches the slow progression of the gray vapor as it seeps up the hill, creeping toward her. She turns back the way she came, running now, the mask slipping from her face. She pulls it up, holds it to her nose, her throat burning with that sweet, too sweet smell.

She crosses the road, races out the park entrance and crashes into the armored chest of a soldier.

“What are you doing here?” the soldier yells through their gas mask, eyes wide behind their goggles. “Didn’t you get the order—” They clip something at their collar. “We have a civilian at the east gate—”

She runs, faster than she has ever run before, her legs flying over the concrete. She runs and runs until she is at her building and up the stairs, panting and coughing her way over the body of the man and his vodka, up and up and up until she is at her front door, pawing for her keys in her pocket. She sheds her clothes on the doormat, there in the hall, leaving everything, even her underwear, her sports bra in a heap, and slams the door behind her.

It is a long time before she can breathe normally again. Ten minutes? Twenty? She leans her bare skin against the wall, feeling the searing in her chest, her trachea sandpapered and salted. Finally, she takes in air, a gulp, then another. But the smell is on her, that sweet, sweet smell.

She lurches toward the bathroom and runs the shower, standing under water that is too cold, scratching at her skin with the thin piece of soap.

She emerges, eventually, wrapped in a towel, shivering in the air-conditioning, her throat burning. She enters the bedroom, her husband just sitting up, looking at her with sticky eyes.

He points to the window, toward the tips of the park trees they can just make out over the roof of the building opposite. They are glowing, gold, orange—they’re burning.

She sits down on the bed next to him, watching the flickering, the rising smoke. He coughs, and leans against her. She puts her arms around him, kisses his cool forehead. Behind her the baby cries out on the monitor.

She thinks of the cat, the kitten it carried. She wonders if it knew before she did that it was time to run.

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Justine Gardner is a former dog trainer, past pizzeria proprietor, and current freelance editor and writer. She was born, reared, and still resides in Brooklyn, NY, along with her husband, young son, and two cats. Her story “Nature Will Provide” was a finalist in Regulus Press’s 2018 Literary Taxidermy Competition and published in the contest anthology, Telephone Me Now. Her story “Blood, Bone, Feather” appears in Issue 51 of the quarterly NewMyths. Follow her on Twitter @JBGrumpstone. Pronouns: she/her. Email: justine.gardner[at]gmail.com

Staring At The Sky

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
C.A. Rowland


Photo Credit: John Brighenti/Flickr (CC-by)

Sarah’s gaze was drawn to movement outside the window. Dawn had broken, but there were still more shadows than light among the oak trees that were beginning to fill out their branches with delicate light green leaves.

She’d looked up from the sewing machine where she was adding the last stitches to a face mask. A child-size face mask of bright colors of oranges, yellows, and greens, which she hoped would help banish some of the fears and illness that had swept through Virginia, as well as the rest of the world.

What Sarah had seen outside was more substantial than the waving of a branch when a bluebird launches itself into the air. A spotted brown deer maybe, since they wandered early in the morning hours, seeking out the moist leaves of the deep green hostas that had burst through the soil to reach for the summer sun.

As she watched the trees and shrubs, nothing else moved. She hadn’t yet opened the window after locking it for the night since her nearest neighbor was half a mile away. Still, she should have been able to hear a few birds singing in the new morning.

She brushed off the feeling of unease, attributing the movement to the shadow of a large bird soaring about the treetops, which were twice the height of the three-bedroom house she lived in. Sarah got up and moved to the window, wondering if maybe Al had been right about curtains.

He hadn’t cared that they were surrounded by woods or a hundred yards from the county road, he wanted windows with coverings. To reduce their utility bills, he’d said. She’d removed them shortly after he died, but she now realized that anyone could see inside if they wandered the property. See her and that she was alone, four years now and counting since he’d passed.

With each minute, the light filtering in through the dark bark of the pine and oak trees strengthened until it warmed and cheered her, chasing away any thought of what might have been there. She moved back to the sewing machine and the rhythmic hum of the needle moving up and down, piercing the fabric and then pulling out, lulling her into calmness.

Sarah looked up, her aching back and the growing stack of face masks, letting her know it must be close to noon. As with all her quilting circle friends that were home sewing as well, she’d stocked up on food for the next two weeks. She was well inside the virus’s target zone of those over sixty-five, although she had no underlying conditions that the virus might use to weaken her system. A ham and cheese sandwich with a few chips was on the menu today.

Sarah moved to the kitchen, where she busied herself. Over the sink, a small square window looked out over the backyard and the rust-red stained deck. She and Al had searched for several months for a green aluminum table and rocking chairs that would blend into the surroundings. They’d spent many a summer evening outside around that table.

As she turned back to the sink, her arms filled with the lunch makings, she looked out, her mouth dropped open, and she jumped, spilling everything from her arms to the floor. For just a quick second, Sarah had thought Al was sitting here. Much as he’d done when he was alive, basking in the sunlight while drinking a cold glass of tea.

The man sitting there was not Al. He was skinny like Al but seemed bonier, almost like a drug addict or someone deep in the throes of the last stages of cancer or other disease. His head was turned toward the forest behind the house, with a beige cowboy hat shielding him from the growing heat of the day.

His camouflage backpack sat beside him, leaned up against his blue jean-clad legs. He seemed relaxed.

What the hell was he doing there? Would he leave on his own, or would she have to run him off, or maybe call the police?

Who was he? A drifter?

Sarah remembered her grandma telling her stories of the Depression. If there was anything Granny knew how to do, it was stretch a meal. Six kids and an alcoholic husband who didn’t always have work, she pinched pennies. She also had an open back door for those down on her luck.

With three growing boys, she’d had no worry about any stranger getting out of line back then. Most had just been grateful to partially fill their bellies and move along. Was that what Sarah faced now? Someone just down on their luck as the pandemic fears caused businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs or worse?

The man seemed cleaner than Sarah expected. If he had no home, it hadn’t been for long, or he had a few resources to call on.

Times had changed. Last year, a man had been seen wandering the woods behind several houses after he lost his home to foreclosure. There’d been break-ins before he was caught. That was when Sarah began sleeping with the pistol underneath Al’s pillow.

Sarah hugged herself. She’d been raised by Granny to help those in need. Was this her time to step up, or would going outside to confront this man be foolish? She wished Al was here. He’d know what to do. No doubt he’d step outside and talk man to man with the person.

Could she live with herself if she failed to act? She might never know if one gesture from her might make a difference. Or would he just leave?

Sarah looked around. Safe in her house. Making face masks for unseen recipients—safe from the disease ravaging the country. Safe. Safe. Safe.

What would her mother do?

She’d been a child of the Depression, and it had had an impact. Her mother saved every penny and spent as little as possible.

But her Granny—there was no doubt that she’d lend a hand if she could. She wasn’t stupid or careless, but she never turned down those in need, even when it meant she went without.

Sarah had always hoped she’d be like her. Now, she had the choice to step up or not.

She watched the man for another couple of minutes. Then she picked up the food she’d dropped, stalling as she struggled with the decision.

Sarah turned and headed down the hall to the master bedroom. This room had no curtains on the windows either. She grabbed some jeans and a long sleeve shirt to replace her thin t-shirt and shorts.

The closet was the only room that didn’t have a window, so she changed there.

Exiting, she stared at the bed for a moment before she moved to Al’s side. She stared at the pillow.

She’d never liked guns. She’d never wanted to own one.

Al had insisted when they bought the house. Too many animals around that could be a threat. Plus, their neighbors were even further away back then. Al wanted her to be able to handle any situation. Now she was glad she’d been to the range to shoot. She still hated the idea of killing anything, but she was on her own and wanted to think she could protect herself.

She removed the gun. Checking that the safety was on, she tucked inside her jeans in the center of her back, the cool metal sending chills up her spine. She pulled the shirt tail over the top of her jeans. She might not be able to get it out as quickly as she needed, but Sarah was still quick for being sixty-eight years old, and she could run if she needed to.

Sarah headed back down the hall and out her back door onto the deck. She closed the door with a click so that the man would hear her coming. Sounds carried in this area of the county.

She took a few steps forward and approached him from the other side of the table. Keeping her distance, both for safety and because the last thing she needed was to be so close to someone, she could catch the virus.

“Can I help you?” Sarah asked.

The man’s movements were slow as if he was aware that she was being careful. He turned and lifted his head to stare at her.

“No, ma’am. Just stopped to rest my feet a while. I’ve been traveling some through the night. Didn’t mean to bother you.”

Sarah wasn’t sure whether she could trust that. At the very least, he was polite, although knocking on her door to ask permission would have been the ordinary courtesy.

“That’s fine,” Sarah said. “You from around here?”

“Was.”

That wasn’t so helpful.

“Planning to move on?”

“Sure.”

The man reached down to pick up his backpack. He looked back up at Sarah as if to ask her if she meant right now. His stomach growled.

“Have you had anything to eat today? I was about to make myself a sandwich. Making two is no trouble.”

“I’d appreciate that, ma’am.”

“I’m Sarah. I’ll be right back.”

Sarah turned to walk back to the kitchen, her nerves on edge. This was her most vulnerable time with her back to him.

“They call me Leon.”

She smiled, and her shoulders relaxed a bit. Names were important to know.

In the kitchen, Sarah quickly made two ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches. Each went on a paper plate with some potato chips. She grabbed a bottle of water for him as she took the plate out to Leon.

Still careful, she laid the plate on the table with the water and stepped back.

“Thanks.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, this seems like a bad time to be traveling,” Sarah said.

Leon reached across the table and dragged the plate so that it was in front of him. He lifted the water and took a long drink.

“That sure tastes good.”

Leon took a bite of the sandwich.

Sarah waited. Her Al had been like this. Slow to answer and precise in what he said. He’d loved to tell a story, but you had to get him talking first and in his own time.

“Had a room in a house down the county road. I’m a day laborer, and the work dried up. She and her husband had lost their jobs, and they were barely able to put food on the table for the family.”

Sarah frowned. She knew times were terrible, but the folks who were her neighbors wouldn’t usually put someone out when everyone was struggling. Still, she could detect no guile in his manner.

“Sit as long as you like. There’s water from the spigot on this side of the house, from the well, so it’s fresh and cold.”

Leon nodded and took another bite.

Sarah turned and headed back in the house, placing her feet carefully, her back rigid with some tension still left.

Inside, she ate her sandwich standing up at the kitchen window.

She watched Leon finish his food and drink the last of the water. He set the bottle on the paper plate and stared off into the woods.

Sarah made sure the kitchen door was locked and headed back to sew.

A few hours later, she headed to the kitchen. She had some left-over chicken salad she’d planned to eat for her supper.

She checked the deck. Leon was still sitting there. She sighed. She’d hoped he’d have left so she didn’t have to face him again.

A man down on his luck. She’d seen a few in her lifetime. Al had brought a few home to work around the house, helping him with projects that were more than one man could do. Sarah had fed them all. She could do no less now.

She filled two paper plates with the salad and grabbed another water bottle. Sarah headed outside.

“I was fixing myself some supper. I expect you’re hungry as well, so I fixed a plate.”

Leon turned toward her and smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but it seemed genuine enough.

“Ma’am, thank you. It’s been a few days since I’ve had more than one meal.”

“You’re welcome. You mentioned you’d be moving on.”

“I will. I’m wondering if you’d mind if I spent the night on the deck. I’d be no bother. It just beats being in the woods.”

Sarah swallowed hard. She’d hoped her hint would mean he’d move along.

What could it hurt?

“I guess that’d be all right.”

Leon nodded and began to eat. Sarah picked up the lunch plate and water bottle. There were only crumbs on it, but feral cats, raccoons, and foxes might be drawn by the smell of food. She’d be back for the supper plate once Leon had finished eating. No sense asking for trouble.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah realized that if Leon attacked her or tried to steal from her, no one would know about it. She headed to her sewing room, where her phone was beside the machine.

She texted her best friend, Linda.

Sarah: A man stopped at the house today. I’ve fed him. He is sleeping outside on the deck tonight.

Linda: What? Who is he? Are you safe?

Sarah: I think he’s harmless and down on his luck. I’ll call you in the morning. But if I don’t call, call me just to make sure nothing’s wrong. If you don’t reach me, call 911.

Linda: I don’t like this. Should I come over and stay? Should I send Jeffrey?

Jeffrey was her neighbor. He was ten years older than both of them, and a turtle would win in a race with him. But he was a good man who’d do anything for Linda.

Sarah: No. Just being careful. Doubt anything will happen.

Linda: I’ll be calling at 7.

Sarah laughed as she put the phone down. Just a few texts and she felt better already. Someone would be checking on her if they didn’t hear from her. Not entirely safe but a bit of net, just in case.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah looked at the window and saw Leon had finished his meal. She went outside and picked up the plate.

“Need anything?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. I’ll just bed down here for the night. Gonna be a clear sky with stars. Better than any T.V. show.”

“All right then.”

Sarah headed back inside and locked the door. She checked all the windows and doors to make sure all were secured and walked to her bedroom.

She knew most of the sounds that the house made, but she quickly realized any noise was going to keep her awake. She turned on her book reader and scrolled through the unread novels. She needed something light, so mysteries and suspense were out. A soft light on the other side of the room was on, and she decided to leave it that way. She’d slept with it on before, and she’d do that now.

In the end, Sarah found an old favorite classic and began to read.

*

For the next three days, Sarah and Leon kept up the routine. She fed him lunch and supper each day. He sat on the deck during the mornings.

In the afternoons, he’d wander the property. He had a few pruning tools in his backpack, and she saw that he understood plants. A clip here and a clip there.

Sarah understood. Just like Al and a lot of the men she had known over the years. Unwilling to take a handout unless they found a way to pay their way. Leon was paying her for the food in the only way he could.

Every morning and evening, Sarah checked in with Linda.

Each day, Sarah got her mail and ran an errand or two, which took her away from the house. She checked to make sure the doors were all locked, and that nothing had changed each time she returned.

Linda: When is he leaving?

Sarah: Don’t know.

Linda: I don’t like this. I’m going to come over with Jeffrey so he knows you aren’t alone.

Sarah: No. I’m fine. I’ll ask him to move on.

Linda: Tell me when you do that.

Sarah headed out at lunchtime with a hamburger and chips.

“Seems like someone might be missing you. Don’t you think you should be contacting them or going to see them?”

Leon looked up at her from under the brow of his hat. He shook his head.

“No. Nobody to contact. But sounds like I need to be moving on. Tomorrow okay with you? Looks like its gonna rain.”

“That would be fine. I have a tent in the garage. Why don’t I get that out for you? You can use that to keep some of the wet off you?”

Leon smiled.

“That would be very kind of you.”

Sarah headed back inside, kicking herself for making the offer. She knew almost nothing about this man. He’d probably spent many a night in the rain throughout his life. Why on earth did she say that?

Because she liked him. In Leon, she saw what she’d loved in Al—the slow movements, his respect for her, and his paying her for what she was doing for him.

Sarah realized she was sad and a bit lonely, but not so lonely as to do something stupid like bringing him into the house.

In the garage, Sarah located the camping tent and a sleeping bag. Al had been an organizer, and she’d left it all where he’d carefully placed things. The tent and bag were dusty from being left in storage, and she shook them both, the polyester bright blue waving like flags in the wind.

When she took out the supper meal, she made a second trip with the camping gear.

“You can put this up in the grass if you’d like. Anywhere back here is fine.”

“I’ll do that shortly. Maybe by the garage so that the house breaks the wind.”

“That would be fine.”

Sarah pulled out a rocker and sat down.

Leon looked over at her.

“I come out most nights to watch the sunset. Thought I’d join you if you don’t mind.”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t realize I’d kept you from seeing the sky.”

“I don’t always do it, but with the storm blowing in, I thought I’d sit a few minutes.”

Leon went on eating.

Sarah realized it was peaceful, partly because she knew this was the lull before the rain and wind would arrive.

In the end, she got up and picked up the plate.

“Good night, Leon.”

“Good night, Sarah.”

Sarah closed the kitchen door and locked it. She headed down the hall to her bedroom, which shared a wall with the garage.

Sarah: I’m headed to bed. Leon is leaving in the morning.

Linda: I’m relieved. Text me when he leaves.

Sarah: Will do.

A few minutes later, she heard Leon pounding the stakes into the ground to hold the tent in place for the night.

She found her book reader and clicked it open to the novel she was reading. She’d always had trouble sleeping during storms.

Sarah sat up straight in bed, realizing she must have dozed off. Her reader was dark, but the light across the room was still on.

“Dammit, get off me. You bastard, I’m gonna kill you.”

It was as if the shouted words were inside the room. Sarah realized that they were coming outside the walls.

A man screamed.

Leon.

Sarah was up, grabbing yesterday’s jeans and shirt.

Pulling them over her flimsy gown.

She jerked the pistol out from under the pillow.

Jamming her feet in shoes, she ran down the hall.

Grabbing her phone.

Through the kitchen she ran, hitting the light switch that turned on all the outside lights.

Down the pathway to the garage area.

Around the corner of the house.

Sarah could see the tent was askew. As if something had attacked it.

The wind?

No.

Leon was on the ground outside, with two of the largest raccoons she’d ever seen around him.

They snarled, and he was fighting them off.

Sarah clicked off the safety and shot the gun in the air.

“Out. Get out,” she yelled.

Four sets of gleaming eyes turned to look at her. Then they turned back to Leon.

Sarah could see scratches on his arm where they had gone after him. The pants on one leg looked to have a large wet spot—from the rain or something worse.

Sarah moved so that she could shoot away from Leon.

She aimed and fired near one of the animal’s legs.

The ground poofed where the bullet hit.

She aimed again.

Fired.

The raccoons ran.

Sarah fired again—behind them but making sure they didn’t return.

She hurried to Leon’s side, leaning down to check for wounds

“Where are you hurt?”

Leon moaned and leaned back on the ground, his arm over his eyes.

“Those damned raccoons scratched my arm and leg. One bit me. Shit, that hurts.”

“You need a doctor. I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No.”

Leon almost screamed the word, and Sarah fell backward.

“What?”

“They’ll take me to the hospital. They’ve got the virus there. I’ll die if I go there.”

Sarah had heard there were such fears. Linda knew someone who had a relative die because they wouldn’t seek treatment.

“You need bandages. I’ll be back.”

“No ambulance. You hear me?”

Sarah ignored the words. She’d already risen and was hitting typing the numbers on her phone.

In the kitchen, Sarah pulled out dishtowels and some plastic gloves. She headed to her sewing room, grabbed scissors and an old bedsheet she used as a foundation for quilt blocks.

As the operator answered, Sarah gave her address and told her what had happened. She had hung up before she was back out through the kitchen door. Leon was getting help whether he wanted it or not. Raccoons didn’t attack unless they were rabid. He needed a doctor.

Back around the house, Sarah dropped everything on the ground. She pulled the gloves on—the ones she used while washing dishes. Not ideal, but they’d have to work.

Sarah cut the bed sheet into strips. Leon had lowered his arm and was watching her.

“Your arm is bleeding. I’m going to put a towel over it and tie it off. I’m going to need your help.”

Leon nodded.

Sarah folded the red-and-white checked dishtowel and placed it on his arm where the deepest scratch was. Leon held it in place while she tied it off with a strip of the bedsheet.

She moved to his leg. It was by far the worst.

Sarah picked up another dish towel. She stared at it.

“What’s wrong?”

She shook her head.

“Nothing. It’s one my mother embroidered for me.”

Sarah laid on it on the leg. It couldn’t be helped. A man’s life was more important than a keepsake.

She slid a bedsheet strip under his leg and brought it to the top. Tying it off, she moved to his chest and side.

“All of these need to be sterilized and treated. I’m not a nurse. I can only do so much,” Sarah said.

“No doctors.”

Sarah continued to put towels over his wounds and add some pressure to try to stop the bleeding. Leon laid still, his breathing labored from the battle he’d fought, and his eyes closed.

As the first sounds of the ambulance siren rang through the night, Sarah wondered what had brought the raccoons out. She hadn’t seen any signs that they were rabid.

Lights flashed as the ambulance turned into her driveway.

“Dammit. I said no doctors.”

“Raccoons can carry rabies, which is much worse than the virus. I had no choice.”

Leon opened his eyes.

“There’s always a choice.”

“You’re on my property. I’m not willing to let you die or become sick because I didn’t do anything.”

Doors slammed, and two uniformed male attendants hurried over.

“What happened?” a tall, young blond-haired man asked.

Sarah explained the situation.

The second man leaned down and began examining the wounds, pulling up the dishtowels to see below.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” Leon said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” the blond-haired man
said.

“No.” Leon took a swing at the dark-haired attendant with the unscratched arm.

The dark-haired man opened his case and pulled out a syringe.

Stuck it in Leon’s arm as he continued to struggle. Then he went limp.

“We’ll be taking him to General Hospital. You can follow us if you want, but with the virus, you won’t be able to come in,” the blond-haired man said. “We can give the hospital your phone number if you want.”

“He’s only passing through. I won’t be going there.”

The two men nodded.

They pulled a stretcher from the back of the ambulance, placed Leon on it, and loaded him inside.

As they pulled away, Sarah wrapped her arms around her waist. She stared at the vehicle until it turned onto the county road and drove away.

She walked back to the house and washed up, throwing the gloves in the trash. What had happened outside while she slept?

Sarah walked back to her bedroom, knowing she’d never get back to sleep. She took a quick shower and sat on the bed, staring at the wall.

A couple of hours later, as the sun streamed in, Sarah changed into her clothes for the day and headed back outside. She took a new pair of gloves, just in case. The tent and sleeping bag would still be there.

As she rounded the corner, she caught her breath. The grass was torn up. The tent had deep tears down one side as if someone had cut it with a knife. Likely the raccoon’s claws. But what were they searching for?

Sarah took a couple of steps closer. Two empty tin cans were at the cloth door of the tent. Leon’s backpack was open, and more tins were inside the tent and in his pack.

What were they doing there? They reeked of days’ old chicken.

Not five feet away was her trash container. Why hadn’t Leon thrown them away?

All her care in making sure no trace of food was left on the deck, and he was storing these cans?

That might have been what drew them. It was like he’d sent out a smell invitation for the animals.

It didn’t matter. He was gone. Sarah needed to clean this up.

She moved to the waste container and threw the top open.

She gathered up the cans, the sleeping bag, and the tent, and tossed them in.

She slammed the cover shut.

Sarah had saved the backpack once she removed the tins. It held other things of Leon’s that he’d likely want, including the pruning tools he’d used on her plants.

Which meant he’d probably be back.

And none too happy with her.

Sarah picked up the backpack and raised it to her nose. Still smelled of food.

She took it inside. The last thing she wanted was to violate his privacy, but it couldn’t be helped. She emptied it and made sure it was washable.

Sarah texted Linda while the backpack churned in the washer.

Sarah: He’s gone. Had a run-in with raccoons and he went to the hospital.

Linda: There’s a story there. Are you okay?

Sarah: Yes. Just sad. He was scared.

Linda: But you couldn’t do anything else.

Sarah: I know. Still feels awful.

Sarah signed off and went to sew. She’d always found that her mind cleared when she sewed. Today, she kept wondering whether Leon would be back, and if so, how angry would he be. She’d decided to put his backpack on the aluminum table on the deck once it was dry. She’d leave it out all day, bringing it in each night.

Sarah didn’t sleep well that night or the next one. Not knowing if Leon would come back angry left her with keeping the light on at night and reaching out at times to make sure the pistol was there under Al’s pillow.

Two days later, Sarah returned from grocery shopping. As she placed her cloth bags on the counter, she glanced out the kitchen window, just as she had several times before.

The backpack was gone. In its place was something white. Sarah headed out the kitchen door.

The white was a dish towel with some light red stains, but it was clean. She turned it over, and a shiver ran up her spine. The towel was embroidered. Leon had returned the towel her mother had made for Sarah.

Sarah looked around, wondering if he might be watching from the woods. She figured she’d never know. What she did know was that Leon had forgiven her for sending him to the hospital. She knew he’d had to travel ten miles to return the towel, as well as he’d taken the time to wash it. No one did that who held a grudge.

She looked up at the sky and smiled. She wasn’t sure she could handle anything or anyone that came her way, but she knew she’d never question meeting a challenge like this again. She could stick to who she was and wanted to be, and be able to meet whatever came from that.

Sarah hoped Leon found his way to another who would help him, a place where he could watch the sky and was safe. That’s what she’d be doing tonight on her deck—watching the stars and the sky.

pencil

C.A. Rowland is a recovering lawyer turned writer. Raised in Texas, she now calls Virginia home—a place of history, folklore and inspiration. She’s published short stories and non-fiction articles and her first amateur sleuth mystery set in Savannah, Georgia, “The Meter’s Always Running,” is being published in June 2020. She has stories in the Fiction River anthologies, Spies and Stolen. You can keep up with Ms. Rowland’s upcoming fiction and travel adventures at carowland.com Email: carolyn94549[at]gmail.com

Small Town Magic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa


Photo credit: atmtx/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“When are you going to tell him that you don’t like magic?” Dot questioned as she flipped through the channels. Dot sat, as always, cross-legged on her beloved ottoman.

“I am not sure that is something he ever needs to know.” Maggie and Sam were a new item. Maggie had fallen in love (well, strong like) with Sam for his hangdog expression and, in part, the sheer geekiness of his embrace of legerdemain. She loved rescues, just not the animal variety.

“Why is he in small town Easton if he is trying to get his career going?”

“He is honing his craft.” Maggie replied as she sank into the sofa opposite Dot.

“He is honing something.” Maggie threw a pillow at Dot and dug into the kettle corn that Dot had brought back from the Farmer’s Market.

Maggie and Dot had been roommates for long enough to have been through a few Mr. Rights for both. They were waiting tables in Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the Kitchen Table, a new restaurant in town. Maggie was taking classes at Chesapeake College for the time being. Sam had joined the circle when he came on as a cook at the Kitchen Table. After watching the news recap, Maggie and Dot got ready for work.

On the way in for the dinner shift, the three wandered into the Gallerie de Folie, one of Easton’s ritzier boutiques. They giggled as Sam re-arranged what appeared to be ceramic Lego people. “Which hand is it under?” he said in traditional magician patter.

The salesperson was not amused. “Kindly do not touch the objets d’art,” she commanded. The three philistines left the store duly chastened, almost not laughing at all as they headed to the Kitchen Table.

“Did you see the price on those? One hundred dollars each! Insane!” Dot remarked.

Colleen had started the Kitchen Table as an homage to home cooking. Easton was a small town full of retired people who love to eat out. It was a good place to launch a business, but could be risky in the long term. The Kitchen Table was a little kitschy—avocado refrigerator laden with magnets and children’s art near the entrance, waitresses in robes and moccasin slippers. Her concept might have sold better with a slightly younger demographic but things were coming along. Thursday nights were meatloaf night—a popular night. Her staff rolled in at 3:30 and started their prep work.

As they worked, Maggie and Sam grinned at each other over the counter separating the actual kitchen from the front of the house. Colleen and Dot rolled their eyes at each other. Colleen went over the specials based on what she had found at the Farmer’s Market that day.

Around 4:30, people started shuffling in. And then more and more. Soon they were in the weeds and the side conversations stopped.

Maggie enjoyed working with most of the customers. She figured the small talk and smiles were good practice for her future as a nurse. Having a fun group to work with made it that much better. A busy night did not just mean extra money; it meant the time rolled by faster.

As the evening wound down, Officer Smith strode into the restaurant. Dot looked up as the door swung open. “Officer Wiggum. How are you today?” Officers were given complimentary coffee to encourage their presence.

“Is that a comment about my superior physique,” Officer Smith said, patting his slight paunch ,”or my superior intellect?” Middle age was starting to soften the edges of Officer Smith, and as tough as it could be on his vanity, he found he liked himself a little better as a person for it. He walked in and helped himself to a cup of coffee at the counter. He chuckled as he added milk from the full gallon of milk from the refrigerator. He smiled at “You guys do really capture the kitchen table experience.”

“We aim to please,” called Colleen from the kitchen.

“What’s new in the law and order business?” Maggie asked.

“Actually, we have a case,” Smith announced.

“In Easton?” said Maggie and Dot in unison.

“Pickpocket at the Farmer’s Market.”

“No way,” Sam said, walking out of the kitchen to get himself a coffee.

Three people had reported their wallets stolen this afternoon. Sam made an exaggerated reach for his back pocket. “I still have my wallet but all my money seems to be gone,” he said brandishing the empty wallet with mock horror.

“You didn’t have anything there to start with,” retorted Maggie.

“Oh, right,” said Sam as he retired to the kitchen.

“Pickpocketing seems to fit with your skill set, Mr. Magic,” said Dot archly.

“Sure, blame the new guy,” he shot back.

“You are stealing too much of my roommate’s time,” complained Dot. “That alone makes you a thief.”

The conversation took a turn toward other pressing Easton gossip as they cleaned up and closed up for the night. Their laughter echoed on the empty street as they headed home. All talk of the robberies was forgotten. The magic of a quiet, small town night was restored.

“Check it out,” Maggie announced the next day as she was entering the apartment with a copy of The Star Democrat. “There has been another robbery. One of the objets d’art from Gallerie de Folie. I don’t know if I feel safe living in Easton any more. I mean, the crime.”

“Like you have anything to steal. Wait, you mean the shop we were in yesterday?” Dot scrutinized Maggie’s face. Maggie could feel herself blushing. She knew exactly what Dot was thinking: Sam. But there was no way that awkward, bumbling man-child was a stone-cold criminal. No way. She rolled her eyes and went back to her homework.

Later in the restaurant, Colleen broached the subject awkwardly with Maggie after Maggie could have sworn she saw a glance fly between Colleen and Dot. “So, how much do you know about Sam?”

“We’re not getting married yet,” Maggie shot back a little more aggressively than necessary. She looked at Colleen’s worried eyes peering out under salt and pepper bangs. The concerned scrutiny made her squirm guiltily. How much did she know? But then, how much did she really know about Colleen or Dot or even herself? Maggie’s thoughts ran in philosophical rivulets, allowing her to evade the question at hand momentarily.

“Did you know that Sam is not even his real name?” Colleen’s question yanked Maggie back into the practical, concrete present.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that it is not his first nor middle name. It is not even a version of his last name—McGill.”

“How odd,” said Dot entering from the kitchen and staring pointedly at Maggie. Maggie kept rolling silverware in napkins.

Since Sam was not working that night, and the restaurant was slow, the thought was able to fester and send noxious tentacles into Maggie’s thoughts. Her mind developed labyrinthine plots that alternately indicted and exonerated him.

Sam showed up to walk Maggie home. Dot had left early since it was a slow night.

Why do you go by Sam?” Maggie asked hoping to sound casual, as if she had not spent the last four hours trying to decide how to ask.

Sam blushed. “Well, I adopted it as a kid because I thought I should have a stage name.”

“Why Sam?”

Sam hesitated. “It is so geeky. I thought I was being clever. It stands for the Society of American Magicians.”

Maggie’s laughter rang out against the brick walls. Her relief made her want to applaud as if he had just pulled off a masterful sleight of hand. Then she felt ashamed at the thought of the wasted anger and fear of the past few hours spent inventing reasons simultaneously to fear Sam and to be angry at him. All was right in her little world.

The following Wednesday was Sam’s stage debut at the Avalon Theater. Maggie sat next to Dot in the small theater, and the newly minted girlfriend was possibly more nervous than the performer. With her eyes, she followed the art deco design up the wall along the stage and over the stage and down the other side. Circle, triangle, flower… how do people generate these random designs? Do I even like these colors together? How did they pick the colors? What if he is awful? Should I be honest? I really don’t even like magic, and I am picky about comedy. Her thoughts fluttered around like leaves, unable to cluster and form a critical mass needed to start a conversation.

Mercifully, Dot excused herself to go to the restroom. Maggie could just sit and let her mind spin for a few minutes. Conversations ebbed and flowed around her. A classmate called and waved from the balcony, and Maggie managed a wave and smile. When would this show start? When would it end? Dot made her way back across the room. Maggie could see her wiggling her way through the conversations straddled across the aisles. Then Dot was back, and the house lights were going down.

Sam tripped onto the stage. Literally. That was part of his thing. Every ounce of his awkwardness was poured into his stage persona. Tricks went horribly awry to emerge as a different, still awesome, trick. And there was a collective holding of the breath as the audience decided. Maggie could not hear his spiel. She could only feel the room deciding. She almost held her breath. There were a few awkward, pity laughs. And then suddenly, magically, roars of laughter and the occasional gasp and round of applause. They had decided. They liked him. And she could relax and enjoy the show.

Maggie and Dot had planned to meet Sam at the bar next door after the performance. Maggie watched Sam work through the crowd over to them. He shook hands with people congratulating him on his show, remarking on some random detail they had in common, and asking fruitlessly how he performed this or that trick. He grinned at her. She grinned back and raised her wine glass.

Meanwhile, near the bar there was a disturbance. A woman was yelling ,”I know I had my wallet. Somebody here stole it! You need to check them.”

“Ma’am, I can’t search everybody at the bar,” the police officer was calmly explaining. “Are you sure you didn’t leave it at home accidentally?”

“I think that is our cue to leave,” Sam said, arriving at Maggie’s side.

“No kidding,” agreed Dot.

The three headed out the back door into the relative quiet of the night time street. Maggie enjoyed that hush, that release of pressure on the ears that always accompanies leaving a crowded bar. She was not really a crowd person and was glad her compatriots had been ready to leave. But later in her bed she wondered—had Sam had an ulterior motive for wanting to leave?

A few days later, Maggie got back to her apartment from jogging to see an officer on her stoop. “We are asking you to come down to the station; we have a few questions.”

Maggie panicked. “Like this?”

“It’s not a fashion show.”

Maggie grabbed her purse and followed the officer. She answered the questions that seemed to be about everybody from the restaurant. She giggled a little at the thought of grandmotherly Colleen pickpocketing the well-heeled gentry of Easton. The officer did not seem amused. It just seemed so absurd that anybody in her circle could be involved in the recent spate of robberies — Sam’s skill for sleight of hand notwithstanding. But they kept circling around to questions about Sam. And Maggie couldn’t help feeling that they knew something that they were not telling her. If he was a risk, shouldn’t they tell her?

On the way out, Maggie saw them escorting Sam in. He gave her a sheepish shrug. She spent the ride home deconstructing that shrug. Does he know something? Was he admitting guilt? Did he just assume as Maggie did that the whole thing was misguided?

Maggie went home and showered and sat glumly at the kitchen table trying to study. Dot came in and slumped across from her. “So, they questioned you, too?” She asked.

“Yes. It just seems unreal.”

“Small towns are magical, aren’t they?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing. I kind of like it. Finally, something interesting is happening here. Maybe thanks to your boyfriend.” Dot flounced off to the shower.

Maggie sat drowning in confusion and terror. Sam texted her and she ignored it. What am I supposed to think? She asked herself. She tried to convince herself to study and stared unproductively at her text books. For an hour. Then another hour.

Suddenly, there was a loud banging on the door. Maggie answered it to find a sea of police officers.

Confused, Maggie assumed they were there for Sam. “I swear he did not do anything. And he is not even here.”

“We know. It’s Dot.” They were already swarming past Maggie ,”Dorothy Detrich, you have the right to remain silent.” Maggie watched feeling underwater as officers flooded her apartment.

“We had you all under surveillance from early on,” explained Officer Smith, the one friendly face in the swarm. “And we really thought it was Sam, but then a review of some of the surveillance tape showed that Sam was not even at the Farmer’s Market on one of the days with the most thefts. Luckily the tape surfaced because he did not have an alibi. You were in class. We checked with your professors.”

“How…” Maggie’s jaw yanked on its hinges as she watched the officers pull the stolen items out of the ottoman, the very ottoman Dot sat on daily. Maggie consciously closed her mouth and stared in amazement asking silently how her roommate had done it, seemingly right in front of her.

“Ta da,” announced Dot, taking an awkward bow as they led her away in handcuffs. “It’s magic!” And Maggie’s mind went through all the times her mind had attributed guilty motives to Sam when Dot had done or said the same things. Sometimes it was Dot herself misdirecting like any good magician. What a trick.

Maggie’s phone lit up with another text from Sam: Why aren’t you answering? Are you okay?

“Hard to say,” she thought as she watched her roommate leave in cuffs.

pencil

Jennifer is a teacher, mother and wife who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where she arrived by way of New Jersey,  France, Indiana, Florida, and Louisiana. She has been published once before in Toasted Cheese.  Email: jpantusa[at]talbotschools.org

Fetch the Tuna

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Jason Porterfield


Photo credit: petrr/Flickr (CC-by)

Gordon Charles always tried to make an immediate impression whenever he stepped out in front of an audience. It mattered to him if there was a crowd, and it mattered to him that their eyes turned to him.

He dressed for the attention. A purple cape spilled from his shoulders to nearly brush the floor. His suit was the bright orange of a roasted butternut squash and clashed gloriously with the scarlet fedora that crowned his stringy dark hair. Tiny bells concealed in the cape jingled as he swooshed in and assumed center stage.

Today’s stage happened to arrive at Belmont, southbound for Fullerton and onward through Chicago’s Loop, to Chinatown and Hyde Park before terminating at 95th Street. Not that he would go that far on the Red Line. He usually got off after the train left the Loop, sometimes at Roosevelt, sometimes at Chinatown. Every now and then he would go all the way to 35th Street to catch the crowds going to White Sox games. He called the run his Mobile Baseball All-Star Magic Show.

Gordon didn’t always make it down that far. Sometimes riders were indifferent or outright hostile, jeering at his card tricks, his vanishing scarves, or at Little Gus, the fuzzy black cat who rode on his shoulder and played a key role in the show. Or riders called the police on him. Or train operators called the police on him. Or the police simply happened to be around and noticed him.

It was hard to hide while wearing an orange suit and a purple cape. If they didn’t notice the colorful attire, officers were sure to hear the bells. He became swift and agile in moving from car to car, weaving through the crush of passengers and up the stairs to the street.

He always called these brushes with law enforcement his greatest trick, announcing it to his audiences the minute he spotted law enforcement on a station platform.

“My last trick is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!” he would declare to the riders, whether they put a few dollars in the fedora and applauded or booed and threw things at him. Then through the doors, whether the main ones or one of the forbidden, between-car passageways to elude capture. Up and out. Swift and nimble. He was home-free as soon as he hit the street.

In the months he had worked this route, he had never been caught. There were some close calls, and there were times when he had to retreat from the Red Line in favor of the Brown or Purple lines on the elevated tracks. A cop almost grabbed Gus once, but the little cat ducked out of his grip. Another once blocked the stairway in front of Gordon, only to have the magician winkle under his grasping arm, the cape fluttering up into the cop’s face and causing him to lose his balance. He had sacrificed more than one of his props over time. They could be replaced and new tricks learned.

His favorite working time was four p.m. The trains weren’t yet crowded with work commuters. Instead, the riders were mostly tourists or people going to or returning from some attraction. Or they were fans going to games or leaving games. He liked the tourists best. It was easy to get children interested in his cups as he played the game out on a little folding table that he would extract from the depths of his cape. They followed the ball from one to the next, never spotting the moment he palmed it and always amazed that it wasn’t under any of them. Gus would purr on his shoulder.

He had one trick he perfected with Gus. Patience and long hours of hard work were required before they got it right, and there were still times that it didn’t work right.

He called it Fetch the Tuna. He would place Gus on the El car’s floor and call out “Fetch the tuna!” and the little cat would scamper through the car, all the way to the back. Even people who weren’t engaged in his cups or his cards would turn to watch the cat’s progress, giving the magician several seconds in which to slip wallets out of the back pockets of any standing riders near him. His subtle touch never failed him. The wallets disappeared into the folds of his cape before anyone noticed.

Gus would return from his charge through the train car to leap high into Gordon’s arms. The magician would exclaim “Good kitty!” and proceed to pull a long scarf decorated with a fish-print pattern from the cat’s ear to general applause. Even hostile audiences were typically impressed with that one. It usually functioned as the show’s finale and he would get off at the next stop. There was no point in hanging around long enough for the lucky riders to realize they had been robbed.

“It keeps you in wet food, little friend,” he would tell Gus. Gus didn’t really need Gordon to justify the trick. Gus was fine with the cat food, litter, catnip, and assorted toys that their riches brought them. “It’s just until I land myself a stage show. We’ll be under the lights, in front of a paying audience!”

Fetch the Tuna was turning out to be a lucrative trick. Gordon didn’t always have a chance to stage it due to police activity, hostile riders, or Gus’ occasional recalcitrance. If Gus refused to run, Gordon would produce a cat treat from his pocket and use that to tempt the cat into his arms. The trick could then proceed as usual, but without the pocket-picking that made it so worthwhile.

It was following one of those incidents that Gordon had his first talk with Benny Chain. He and Gus pulled off the abbreviated Fetch the Tuna, the audience applauded them he picked up a hat laden with coins and bills when a nicely dressed man standing nearby introduced himself.

Gordon was initially unnerved. Benny Chain had been one of his prospective marks. Gordon had already noted the position of Chain’s wallet (right rear pocket) shape (slender bi-fold) and speculated on its contents based on Chain’s suit (gas station card, platinum credit card, loyalty card from a yuppie grocery, ID, insurance card, and $320 in cash that would be used to tip valets, waiters and doormen). At first he panicked, wondering if Chain somehow read his thoughts and was about to pound him into a brightly colored paste. But Chain was smiling broadly and offering a broad, manicured hand to shake.

Gordon extended his own, noting the number (three) and size (huge) of the jeweled (diamond, diamond, ruby) rings on Chain’s fingers and the gold watch (Patek Philippe) on his wrist as they made contact. Chain’s hand was soft and his grip strong, that of a man who worked out in the gym and wore gloves while hitting the weights.

A card sharp, Gordon decided. A fellow tradesman whose fingers were sensitive enough to detect subtle bumps on the back of each card in a deck, distinguishing suits and values based on their pattern.

Chain introduced himself and Gordon returned the favor, while Gus took up his usual position on Gordon’s shoulder.

“You’re a talented man, Mr. Charles,” Chain said as Gordon tucked his little table, cups, and cards into his cape’s many pockets as the train pulled into Grand. The hat probably had $40 in it, he calculated as he stuffed the money in place. Not terrible for a five-stop ride without the full Fetch the Tuna. “How do you feel about getting paid for a little private performance?”

Chain had Gordon’s full attention at “paid.”

“How private?” he managed to ask calmly as he passed through the doors and into the station with Chain at his left elbow.

“It’s a very exclusive party,” Chain said, dropping his voice to a low whisper. “These are people you want to know. They can open doors for you.”

Visions of entertaining appreciative audiences who actually paid at a box office to see magic danced through Gordon’s mind. He could scarcely imagine what it would be like to not have to board trains, dodge the police, and pick pockets to get by. He and Gus could shop for real, without most of their excursions to the grocery store serving as opportunities to shoplift desirable commodities such as fresh broccoli and cans of tuna. Maybe he could move out of his basement apartment, the one that his landlord had illegally rehabbed in a building that certainly wasn’t adhering to the latest dictates of the city’s building codes.

Success means different things to different people. To Gordon, it meant living a little further away from the ragged fringe of society and paying his utility bills on time.

“I like this idea, Mr. Chain.”

“Benny. You call me Benny and we’ll get along great. You call me Mr. Chain and I’ll start looking over my shoulder to see if my gramps is behind me.”

“Okay, Benny. I am very interested in your proposal. I am, as you see, a working magician. Every magician wants to be noticed. We want bigger audiences. You saw where I perform. The idea of doing magic in a place that doesn’t move really appeals to me. I would appreciate this opportunity very much.”

Chain beamed. “Magnificent!” He clapped Gordon on the back. Gus clung to the cape as the blow pushed Gordon forward. Chain handed him a business card. “Call this number tonight. You’ll receive detailed instructions. They’ll also give you a quote on a fee for your services. It will be generous. I recommend that you accept it without haggling. Remember, these people can open doors for you.”

Three days later, Gordon stepped out of a hired car and onto a sidewalk with a briefcase containing his paraphernalia. Gus rode on his shoulder, as usual. The driver glared at the cat as they got in, but didn’t say anything. Or he could have been glaring at Gordon, who was dressed exactly as he ordinarily would for one of his El performances. Half of the money for the show had already been wired to his bank account. He had already made more on this show than he often made in a year. He wouldn’t let these people down.

He was in Lincoln Park, not far from the Red Line that kept him fed. The lake was east, its harbor full of boats that cost as much as homes in other parts of the city. This street was steps from the park itself, with its lagoons, nature areas, and zoo. He wondered if this job could eventually lead to him living in a neighborhood like this, alongside doctors and lawyers and bankers.

The home he was performing in was aggressively modern, its three-story facade a ringing endorsement of natural stone and reflective, polarized glass. A man with a polo shirt emblazoned with a logo matching the one on Chain’s business card ushered him inside and through a long hallway to a room that in more formal times would have been called a ballroom. Gordon gave in to the old habit of noting exits as he walked through, his eyes taking in the edgy abstracts lining the walls and the sculptures on every surface.

A quick mental headcount told him there were more people milling about in this room than could fit comfortably in three El cars. He brought his things to what appeared to be the front, where his back would be to the French doors leading out into the backyard. A phalanx of Benny Chain’s associates were preparing food and serving drinks out there as guests drifted in and out, enjoying unfettered access to the patio.

He set up, checked his equipment, and glanced at his watch. Three minutes until showtime. Gus nuzzled his neck and he gave the little cat a treat from up his sleeve. He noted Chain’s associates ushering people into the room and the chairs lined up on the floor. Definitely more than three train cars of people. Maybe a whole Friday afternoon train’s worth of people. Gordon experienced a small flutter of nervousness that he quickly repressed with visions of not having to filch wallets and groceries.

The watch ticked down to seven p.m. Everyone was seated. The French doors closed. He was pretty sure Chain’s people were locking them. A more captive audience than usual, he mused. Chain’s people ranged around the room, standing against the walls and in front of the doors. Some were in the halls. He watched one remove a painting. Another pair hefted a bronze statue and began dragging it down the corridor toward the entryway.

The nervousness returned and congealed into dread. He had been recruited into a robbery crew.

“How’re we gonna play this, little friend?” he whispered to Gus. Gus nuzzled him again. More treats, he seemed to be saying. The best way to handle adversity was to eat more treats.

“Good thinking, most valued assistant!” Gordon told the little cat. He rang his bell and all eyes turned forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be dazzled!” he announced. His voice boomed in the massive room. “You will see things tonight that you will never see again!”

He performed with fluid grace, the cape billowing and the orange suit seeming to glow as cards flashed, cups moved and items vanished, only to reappear. Fetch the Tuna worked like never before, as Gus made a circuit of the vast space, the audience and the workers alike following the cat’s progress and giving Gordon ample time to unlatch the door behind him. They roared their approval as Gus leaped into his arms and he pulled the scarf from his assistant’s ear.

“Oooh boy, this cat has some serious fish breath!” Gordon announced. “Maybe it’s time to clear the room. What do you think?” They applauded. He took a deep breath. “This one is called ‘The Magician Vanishes.’ Enjoy!”

The lights went out.

Gordon was sprinting east to the lakefront when they came on again, Gus secured inside his cape. He didn’t hear the roar of applause, or the murmur of confusion that followed when he didn’t reappear. He didn’t see Chain’s people scramble around, looking for the vanished magician. Nor did he see the event’s host realizing that the caterers were trying to make off with millions in inscrutable art, or the cops coming in to arrest Chain and the crew.

No one remembered anything about the magician, other than the colorful clothing.

They slowed at the lake. Gordon took Gus from his pocket and the little cat assumed his usual position on the magician’s shoulder.

“Maybe we’ll try one of those improv theaters that hosts talent nights next, little friend,” he said to Gus. “It was nice to be still for a while.”

Gus nuzzled his neck and was rewarded with a treat.

pencil

Jason Porterfield is a journalist, researcher, and writer living in Chicago. He is still looking for the ace of spades he made disappear when he was in elementary school. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com

One of Wyeth’s Two-Hundred-and-Forty-Seven

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jay Bechtol


Photo credit: Heather Phillips/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Their indifference thickens. A kid in the back row shouts an insult. Nothing too clever, something about a rabbit. Or maybe how the rabbit escaped. Doesn’t matter. The party magician is paying more attention to the minute hand on the big grandfather clock in the corner. It crawls toward the six. Three minutes to go.

He pulls the two ropes between his thumb and forefinger, ensuring they show equal length, and snips one in half.

“Can’t wait to see him put it back together,” comes from the back row, the sarcasm as obvious as the trick he is performing.

The scissors, six inches of curved stainless steel reflect the purpling sky coming in through the open French doors. All of the adults outside in the garden drinking, getting a break from the kids. He snicks the blades apart and looks across the pond of young faces. Folding chairs holding the young birthday party attendees hostage. Most sit hoping the juggler is better, a few watch with interest. A line of tweens in the back push smirks onto their faces. He scans the back row trying to figure out which of the young punks is the heckler, chooses the girl in the middle, the one with dark braids draping down either side of her head onto the shoulders of her grey turtleneck. Her smirk seems a little more… practiced.

A grin of his own appears and he locks eyes with her. Without checking his ropes, he snaps the scissors closed. Swiftly and cleanly. Slicing through the first knuckle of his pinky finger and spraying the seven-year-olds in the front row with blood.

He is happy to see the smirk on the girl’s face vanish.

*

My head is starting to hurt. The way it does when things aren’t in order. “Where’s the finger?”

A young officer not much older than some of the kids from the birthday party leans forward.

“Right here, Sir… um, I mean Ma’am… uh, Detective.” He holds up a ziplocked baggie. He may be trying to hide behind it. The red rising in his face almost matches the pink fluid sloshing in the bag of ice.  He adds, “I poured in some milk.” From around the edge of the baggie he smiles at me hopefully as if that will make up for his inexperience.

It doesn’t. “Milk?”

“They told us at the academy that if you put the… the parts… in milk it makes it easier to attach later.”

“You think we’ll be reattaching this soon?” I was young once, but Jesus, some of these kids coming out are dim.

I turn away, leaving the kid stammering, without having the heart to tell him what he can’t figure out for himself. The finger is fake, just part of the magic trick the guy created to make the heist that much easier. The blood, the screaming children, the fireworks, the whole thing. A huge performance piece. Pretty clever, really.

I hate it when I’m impressed with the bad guys.

*

He waits for the kids to start running, which they do almost immediately. Knocking each other over to get out of the living room. Or parlor. Or however these self-obsessed idiots were describing rooms these days. One of the blood-covered seven-year-olds trips on a folding chair, knocking it sideways, and sprawls to the overly polished wooden floor. The child screams. In terror or pain, he isn’t sure. Besides, the more screaming, the more chaos.

Most head for the open doors that lead into the grand backyard garden. Where all of the parents are gathered. Some run in circles.

He steps over the sprawled child and navigates the other hurdles. Red still drips from his right hand. He reaches the staircase with the mahogany bannister, its wood matching the floor in the room below. He’s up the stairs, two at a time.

At the top of the stairs a corridor leads past a sentinel of closed doors. He ignores all of them, speeding toward the door at the end of the hallway. The door into the Treasure Room, as described by the magazine article.  He doesn’t hesitate and brings his foot up, his full weight behind it, perfectly placed just to the right of the doorknob. The jamb gives way with a loud crack and splinters fly into the room at the end of the hall. The door slams open.

*

I pull out my badge. Again. It’s bad enough when men want verification that I’m the detective in charge. It’s embarrassing when women do it.

“Gretchen Skyler?” the woman reads skeptically. Her eyes move back and forth between me and her husband. He is staring at me more intently than necessary.

“Yes, Mrs. Devonshire, I’m Detective Skyler. I’m glad you and your husband and children are okay.”

“And I assume you know my husband?” Her words escape through a smile is as thin as her waist. It’s hard to determine if there is anything else behind the question.

“Yes,” I nod. “I know the councilman. Our paths have crossed from time to time.” I give him my professional smile. He’s still staring at me a little too intently. I extend my hand, “Good to see you again Councilman Devonshire.”

He takes my hand and shakes awkwardly. His hands are smooth.

The throbbing in my head increases. As soon as I get upstairs, get some alone time with the crime scene, some order will restore. The psychologist at the precinct thinks I carry too many secrets. What the fuck does he know?

I push forward, “Neither of you saw the guy? The one you hired?”

The councilman has the wherewithal to act a little sheepish, his wife not so much. “The party planner we hired took care of all of those things,” she speaks coolly, like she’s accustomed to explaining things to the help. “Came highly recommended. So, no,” she puts her hand inside the councilman’s arm and pulls him closer, almost defiant, “no, we did not know The Charming Chaz, or Clarence the Juggling Clown, or any of the servers, or…” she trails off and raises a condescending eyebrow.

I nod and uncharacteristically my own judgement leaks. “Maybe rethinking that decision to have your home highlighted in Home & Garden a few weeks back? Your gardens and statues and treasures upstairs?”

Her thin lips somehow compress even tighter.

I glance at the councilman; he appears to be studying something on the carpet. “Okay,” I say, trying to get back on track by summoning my inner compassionate detective, “can you run through the whole thing again for me?”

*

In the room at the end of the hall there’s a large clock on the wall made from the steering wheel of a sailboat. The minute hand touches the six. The clock looks to be the cheapest thing by far. He is only interested in the paintings that fill the wall with signatures like O’Keefe, Wyeth, and Winslow. He knows the value, each painting potentially worth hundreds of thousands.

Somewhere behind him explosions begin. Whistles and howls of colorfully wrapped chemicals, spewing sparks and fire. He clinches his right hand and smiles. The party planner had been right, the fireworks start right on time.

He pulls the steering wheel from the wall and begins smashing it against the only window in the room. Double-paned sheets with no latches or sashes. On the eighth strike, one of the pane cracks. In two more blows the steering wheel bursts through. His arms ache, even after such a short workout. Red liquid splashes against the wall.

The alarm is going off, barely audible behind the curtain of sound produced by the fireworks echoing in the backyard.

He clears the last of the glass and peers through the window. Dusk is giving way to night and his eyes follow the roof’s slope, down to within about eight feet of the statue garden on the side of the house. Fifty yards past that are trees and he can just make out a hint of red that is a parked car on the street running between some of these mansions in the hills looking over the city.

The fireworks continue. Fireworks. For a seven-year-old’s birthday.

He turns back to the wall of paintings.

*

I have my peculiarities.

I usually take a half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes at the crime scene. All to myself putting the pieces in place. Until my head starts to feel better. I’m pretty sure there is something I’m missing on this one, it’s too simple for my head to be hurting like it does.

The story has come together. This guy reads the Home & Garden article, does a couple of searches online and gets hired as a last-minute replacement magician. He bores the kids for a while, sprays some fake blood everywhere, grabs a painting while the preset fireworks are going off. In the pandemonium, he’s out the window and gone. No one even heard the alarm going off.

I turn slowly in the room at the end of the hall. An antique gun rack, a closet door, a vintage writing desk, several sculptures, a broken window, twelve paintings… eleven, and one space where a painting used to be.

Mrs. Devonshire told me it was the Wyeth that was taken. Probably the least valuable painting in the room. Her expression made me think she was glad it was gone.

Two things are still fueling my headache. Of all the pieces to grab in this room, why that particular painting? There are certainly more valuable things, worth so much more on the black market. I wander to the window. The steering wheel clock sits on the roof tiles with crystals of broken glass. The finger is the other thing. Not the trick specifically, figure anyone can buy a kit these days, but something about the finger still pokes my brain.

It’s strange standing in this room, in this house, a year removed. It only happened twice but those smooth hands, I can still feel them on my neck. On my hips. We had been on a city commission together for a couple of months. I made the first move, the councilman made a clever comment, and I put my hand on his knee. I regret it now, but it happened.

I wonder if his wife knows.

I try to refocus. I look at the guns. Examine the desk, probably a Chippendale. I slide the drawers out. Empty. Just a trophy.

Why the one painting?

I stare at the spot on the wall where the painting hung. There are some drips of red goo on the floor, Jesus, how much fake blood did the guy make? Really wanted to sell the trick I guess.

Why this painting? It had been featured in the Home & Garden article, but so had most everything else. He would know the value of it…

I turn and look at the closet door. Likely as empty as the desk.

I pull the door open and in an instant my headache vanishes.

The closet is almost entirely empty, as I expected. It’s not very big. Against the back wall is the missing painting. Leaning there. The woman’s face turned away and her nude image sitting on a stool. I don’t remember much about Andrew Wyeth, but I’m fairly certain the woman in the picture is named Helga. Charles, my husband, would know. He loves art.

How had no one opened this door to check? I suppose the Devonshires would not have bothered, imagining it to be empty. But why hadn’t one of the uniforms popped it open? Would probably have cleared things up right away. I will need to have a little talk with the boys later. Explain to them the finer points of police work.

It hadn’t been a burglary after all. Something else entirely. And I have drastically underestimated the fill-in magician’s sleight of hand. How clever he really is. I realize why the pinky finger is tickling my brain.

Another burglary solved by detective extraordinaire Gretchen Skyler.

All of this goes through my brain in a flash. I open my mouth to speak, but I’m not sure any words come out.

*

He crouches in the closet waiting. Knowing that when the door opens it will be over. He hopes he has anticipated correctly.

He has.

The door opens and he lunges upward, driving the shears into her midsection under her ribcage. Into her beating heart. His arm goes around her back and he pulls her close, pressing their bodies together. He sees her eyes. There is almost no surprise in them. Just understanding. He hears her breathe out. A labored gurgle as blood fills her lungs.

“Hello, Gretchen,” he whispers into her ear and lowers her body to the ground.

He sees her jaw moving, maybe trying to speak, maybe trying to scream. Her eyes are still alive, watching him. He sees the sorrow there. Meaningless now. He slides the scissors out of her body. The blood from his own severed finger mixing with hers. He holds his hand so she can see it and fully understand what’s about to happen in her last moments.

Her left hand has gone limp. He cuts through her left pinky with the shears, severing it where he had severed his own.

He drops the scissors and stands above her. Her jaw still flexes and he can see her eyes searching for his.

Detective Skyler likes her time alone at the crime scene he knows. There is plenty of time to get out the window, through the trees and to the car waiting for him. The other cops will be out front or waiting patiently downstairs. No one would dare disturb her. He’ll have an hour head start. At least. But even then, he might not make it far enough away.

He climbs through the window, his shoes crunch in the broken glass. He is surprised to feel tears.

*

I stare into the face of the man who has burst from the closet and stabbed me. Helga’s face in the painting behind him turned away to avoid seeing. His magic trick far more spectacular than I originally imagined.

“Charles…” I say, but again, no words come out. I can’t imagine how he found out.

I met him in college, we would walk on the beach and talk of the future. We were young. When he asked me to marry him, he didn’t give me a ring. He was a starving artist and couldn’t afford rent, much less a meaningless piece of metal.

From the floor I can see his hand now. His pinky finger is missing and I realize my mistake. He slices my finger off. I don’t feel it. I can’t feel anything.

I try and call to him, tell him I’m sorry, but he is out the window.

My world is going dark. But before it disappears completely, I see us on the beach. The sun is setting. “I want to marry you,” he says. “I want to love you for the rest of my life.” I see me, sitting cross-legged next to him. “I want the same thing,” I say. “Forever and ever.”

He intertwines my little finger with his own.

“Pinky swear?” he asks.

“Pinky swear.”

pencil

For the last thirty years Jay Bechtol has been a social worker helping children, adults and families navigate the world of mental illness, substance misuse and trauma. Jay has learned that everyone has a story, and more often than not, several stories. That experience has influenced many of the things he writes. Some more than others. Jay can be found online at JayBechtol.com and @BechtolJay, and in person in Homer, Alaska. Email: bechtoljay[at]gmail.com

Answers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, he would know.

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

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

Maybe he would have one now?

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

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

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

*

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

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

Getting engaged had changed that.

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

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

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

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

He went inside and sat opposite the investigator.

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

“Yes. How can I help you?”

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

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

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

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

James nodded, uncertain.

“Have you applied for your birth certificate?”

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

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

“And, if that fails?”

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

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

*

Houghton had.

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

“Bostrom? You know who I am?”

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

“That’s brilliant.”

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

“Really?”

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

“I thought you said Bostrom.”

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

“Grandfather?”

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

“Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

No lights switched on. Nobody came.

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

He hammered the large brass knocker against the door.

Still no response.

He hammered again, shouted.

Nothing.

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

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

He had to get inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, he found the nursery.

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

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

Could Houghton have been wrong?

James slapped the door as he exited the room.

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

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

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

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

Stairs creaked as he descended them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the—?”

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

He leant towards it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was going mad! He was going mad!

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

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

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

What the hell had his grandfather been doing here?

He stumbled back and looked around.

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

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

Then, he began to hack at the tree.

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

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

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

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

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

The scent of gas reached his nostrils.

It had begun here and it would end here.

He was ready when the end came.

pencil

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

The Silver Wrens

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Alex Grey


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

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

*

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

“I adopted you when you were a baby.”

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

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

“I’m your mummy now.”

“What about daddy?”

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

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

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

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

“I found you under the mulberry bush.”

“You were abandoned on my doorstep.”

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

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

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

“Why do we have to move again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her mother waved at the map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Felicity

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

xxx Mummy

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hand grasped her shoulder.

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

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

“Daddy?”

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

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

He smiled, pleased that she had recognised him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continued, stroking her hair gently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

Interdependence

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Deana Zhollis


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many hours of rest do you need?”

Raven chose the number nine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you hold a secret? Yes. No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“But we want to tell you a secret.”

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

Nothing happened.

She tapped again. But still nothing.

Did the app freeze?

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

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

She slowly lifted her finger. Did she pass?

She pressed Yes.

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

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

The question disappeared and a white screen was shown.

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

“The package is waiting, Raven.”

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

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

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

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

She raised her finger slowly, and then quickly tapped.

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, hello?” Raven answered.

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

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

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

Raven had almost forgot about that.

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

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

The creature smiled. “We know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven laughed and Cerasee continued.

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

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

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

Interdependence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interdependence’s workforce was for life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Step inside, please.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerasee stood still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

The Devil’s Take

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Joshua Flores


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Father…”

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

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

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

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

Rafa opened the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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