Lumentation

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Mark Neyrinck


Scattered colored bokeh on a black background. The lights are mainly white on the bottom of the image, blue and turquoise in the middle, and gold at the top. At the far left, there is also some pink and green. The bokeh overlap, with some being brighter and closer to the camera, and others being farther back and more transparent.

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

The salmon and turquoise wall-lights irritated Elton at first, but his mind grew accustomed to them. The man in front of him, in crisp, perfectly fitting sky-blue shorts and a yellow polo shirt, cleared his throat. The man’s headband effused a matching yellow and blue stream of lights suggesting sparkly warmth. His hand was outstretched, and Elton shook it.

“Jake, Crypto Team Lead.” He rolled his head around to indicate the room around them. “Pretty nice, eh?”

Indeed, the niceness of the room was palpable. Wooden cubicles, set off against the black chairs and trim, looked as comfortable as could be expected, and well-calibrated.

“Yeah,” Elton said. “The lights are—”

“Oh, you noticed those lights, too? Wow. Even I never did. You’re not just a cryptography star, but nice attention to detail! Won’t be able to slip anything past you,” he chuckled, and multicolored lights swirled madly around his headband, engaging in hijinks.

He started to lead Elton down the hall, but looked back with a smirk. “Elton Fucking Bishop. You don’t smile much, do you?” He pointed to Elton’s headband. “I can still tell from your activity you’re excited. Let’s go down to HR and see if we can dull that a bit.” The lights on his headband swirled again.

They walked in silence for a minute, but Jake stopped. A turquoise pattern wavered on his headband. “Tell you the truth though, it does make me a little nervous to work with someone who hasn’t been wearing a headband very long. I saw you’ve been working on a very promising crypto framework though, and you seem cool enough.” A little red swirl-flourish on his headband. “What was it like to be a headband-holdout?”

Elton had practiced the answer to this question many times. It was an obvious one at Lument, the company that had first introduced neuro-headbands several years ago.

He had decided to basically tell the truth. “Well, of course, I felt isolated,” Elton said. “My best friend finally gave in, and it started to be hard to interact even with him. And people avoid you on the street now if you’re not wearing them. But yeah, I’m still getting used to it, even after a year.”

“Yeah, man, it takes a while,” Jake said, resuming the walk and talk. “I had to get up to speed quickly, ‘cause my girlfriend was an early adopter of the headband. The connection you can get with your partner’s light-patterns is amazing. That was even before they got to be pretty much subliminal for me. You’ll never pry this baby off my head!” The headband sparkled with white fireworks. “And of course you practically can’t get laid without it nowadays, except with another… holdout.” A red and pink counter-streaming wiggle on his head, probably indicating that he had nearly used the word “shut-head” instead of “holdout.” He peered at Elton’s headband. “Whoa, sorry to bring up a sensitive subject!”

Jake was probably fully aware of Elton’s (lack of) romantic history. He slapped Elton’s back. “Just tryin’ to get to know you!” Green dots on his headband wavered and merged together into a green band, which turned solid indigo. He peered again at Jake’s headband. “You look a little overwhelmed, sorry. And you look like you have a question for me.” He stopped walking, and turned his head in invitation.

Elton took a deep breath. “I’m a little surprised myself that I’ve made it to this point of the interview process, as a holdout. There are other cryptographers that could do just as—nearly as—well, with more unquestionable brand loyalty to Lument.”

Jake nodded, and the indigo beam around his head broke into paler dashes that marched from the front of his head to the back. “Someone must have said this already, but we’re really looking for diversity in our employees. We want to bring people in who were hesitant to adopt the technology, so we can understand their perspective, and respect it—or, even try to convince them it’s as great as we know it is. It can really bring people together. And, a little cynically, I think bringing you on board would give us some credibility among previous holdouts.” He paused, surveying Jake’s light display again. “You still look dubious.”

“I’m also concerned you’ll take my true-quantum-random crypto technology and run with it. As I’ve said, I want to be on-board in its implementation, so I know it’s done ethically. No government or corporate back-doors.”

“Yeah, you’ve said so. Yep, that’s another reason we’re so interested in you; we really think the stuff you’re developing is amazing. And we’re totally committed to customer privacy, above all else. I hope you’ve gotten adept enough to tell I’m totally telling the truth!” Indeed, the soft blue background of his headband was almost impossible to mimic except by actually telling the truth.

“Thanks for the reassurance.” Elton thought he might as well ask his biggest question, directly. “What about transparency? Will the thought-to-light algorithm that you use to turn brain signals into light patterns ever go open source?”

There was only a momentary yellow throb in Jake’s light pattern. “Well, that’s not exactly my department, but I personally think we should release a lot more about how it works. You must know, though, that mimicry is a problem, and we can’t just release it all. People make their own illegal electrode skullcaps that go under the headbands… criminals and con artists could fake truth-telling and trustworthy patterns. We have to change things up from time to time to keep up with all that. We officially don’t even admit that we change things up in the algorithm. I hope my telling you that helps you to trust us!”

“Yes, I do see that point of view.” It was well known that they “changed things up in the algorithm,” so Jake wasn’t giving him anything he didn’t already know. Elton started walking again. Passing a Dali painting (maybe original?), he could see, reflected in its glass, dancing green lights on his head, probably broadcasting his incomplete satisfaction.

Jake’s headband went deep blue and steady. “I do like someone around who challenges me. Do you want the job or not? We already pretty much decided we wanted you, but I wanted to meet you and see you’re not a psycho!” A vigorous red swirl.

*

Elton was surprised at his relief, and even joy, as he left the building with his new job at Lument. The street commuters were, oddly, much more appealing than before. On his way home, random men and women, total strangers, waved at him, and offered thumbs-ups and even high-fives. They didn’t know he had just gotten a job, but could they read that he was particularly happy just from his headband signals? He had scoffed at this behavior before, seeing other glad-handers, but he felt affection to them, now. He even had trouble disconnecting from the joy in his head, and summoning his usual cynicism. He had to concentrate a bit even to notice that there were some shut-heads making their way along the sides of the crowd, some of them even hooded, heads without light.

On his way out of his building to head to the interview, he had seen a homeless man dealing with an apparently decades-old cash register, the man’s headband displaying tranquil forest-green. As as he walked by this time, the homeless man, still cash-registering, looked up at him. The man’s pattern turned to flashing blood-red, and Elton, repulsed, hurried into his building.

*

As his first few weeks passed at Lument, Elton slept amazingly every night. The efforts he was being employed for were going wonderfully. It did seem it would be possible to integrate essentially unbreakable, quantum-random encryption into their products. Even more, his bosses were refreshingly hands-off, and seemed to agree with everything he was doing. He was also getting along great with his co-workers, making friends, and there were maybe even a couple of romantic possibilities. He knew better than to pursue those, but still, the flirtation contributed to some remarkably happy weeks.

One day, as he was packing up to go home, he was surprised to find a slip of paper under his keyboard, with writing in his own handwriting, and a little Texas flag. “Remember the Algoro!” it read. He had no particular relation or affinity to Texas or the Alamo, but the joke did help to remind him that he had in fact written this himself. He was reminding himself to check up on his concerns about the algorithm. Overcoming some resistance, he removed his headband. He took a deep breath, which helped assuage the discomfort his head was experiencing from not wearing the headband. He scratched vigorously where the headband had been, displaying for anyone looking an excuse to take it off besides just not wanting it on. He thought he detected the lights in the room around him turning a bit blue, and caught a whiff of lavender.

He poked around on the system to see if he had any access to anything related to the thought-to-light algorithm. He got a sense of déjà vu from the exercise. But he had no access. As a new, maybe not entirely trusted employee, all he had access to was some encryption and security code they had used a couple of years ago to fiddle around with, trying to connect that to a suite of new quantum-random chips that he had worked with before, that they had installed in the data centers. His security department was entirely sealed off from the department that dealt with the algorithm that turned electrode signals into light displays. He put his note back under the keyboard.

As he made his way out, he tried to join the commuting throng on the street as usual, but they weren’t having it; people edged away from him or didn’t seem to see him at all. He wasn’t feeling as great as he had the last few weeks, but still felt good enough that it shouldn’t repel anyone. But then he suddenly felt the nakedness on his head. He quickly got the headband out of his bag, and put it on. Some eyes immediately went to him, and he felt a burst of inclusion.

In the happy commuting throng, he caught a woman’s eye. She smiled, and his mind fluttered with the rush of her stunning pastel green and pink headband light sequence. It was like a Beethoven (of whom he was a big fan) concerto. The interaction was soon over, though. He wondered if the headband pattern he managed to produce was nearly as attractive as hers. He scoffed at a serious thought he had, of practicing headband patterns in front of the mirror. He knew that lots of people did that, and it had always seemed a ridiculous waste of time. But as he cleared his thoughts, he now found himself in front of a mirrored window on the street with a few others, watching his headband light pattern. He shook his head and continued home.

*

Maybe a week later, after lunch, he found a different slip of paper under his keyboard. Written on it was the name of a directory on their system, and an apparent password. He wasn’t sure if it was his handwriting.

He explored what was there, and was shocked to find what seemed to be the thought-to-light algorithm. His head throbbed. In the screen’s reflection, he thought he could see a discordant brown and green pattern jerking across his forehead.

It was a surprisingly small code. Much of it was impossible for him to parse. One thing he was curious about, based on conspiracy theories that he occasionally found plausible before he convinced himself otherwise, was that the ostensibly totally passive electrodes that read the brain signals were capable of feeding back, influencing people’s brain signals in return. He found some hints of code that might be able to do that, but like objects in eye-corners, once focusing on them, he could find nothing of the sort.

He did find some other odd things: hints that the code could rewrite itself, which had been prohibited by the anti-artificial-intelligence charter. But again, when he looked closely, these hints evaporated. He resolved to look at it further, but instead he felt his eye drawn to a file that included “random-top-secret” in its name. This file was totally legible to him. It contained the random-number generating code. It was a bleeding-edge pseudorandom-number generator, but as far as he could tell, it was still entirely deterministic. In the quantum-random chips he was an expert in, there was a truly indeterministic random-number generator based on the random emission of light from fluorescent molecules in the chip. This meant that, unlike the pseudorandom code, even with access to all the code and specs, it was impossible for anyone or anything (except God? ha) to predict the random number the chip would report.

The existing pseudorandom code was ordinary enough that he couldn’t believe it was actually top-secret. As the holder of a random-number-generating hammer in constant search of nails to apply it to, he had immediately had the thought to replace this pseudorandom code with one incorporating the genuinely random chip. Before he was fully conscious of it, he was already well along in his plans to enact this replacement, with the new code nearly finished to interface with the random chips.

“Nice pattern there, Elton!” he heard a female voice behind him. It was Jenny, a colleague in the cryptography group, with glittery hair, carefully spiked to accentuate her headband. Her voice often oscillated quite a bit in pitch, but he had gotten used to it. The voice was closer now. “Whatcha working on?”

His mind jerked back and forth, at first dead-set against sharing his activities, but he found his mind acquiescing, as he peered at her headband and found it a calming, safe, deep green.

He started to speak, but had to clear his throat. He was hungry. How many hours had it been? “Oh, I found this…” he said.

“Oh, thought-to-light code,” she said. Her voice was more monotone now. Then suddenly high-pitch: “Cool!” with an orange headband-swirl, then back to the original pitch. “I’ve looked around in there. Management might actually appreciate some code-tweaking there.” She walked away abruptly.

This was against anything management had said; they were highly secretive of this code. Although her hair would have been considered super-wild several years ago, before Lument headbands, that hairstyle was pretty common now. He never got the sense that Jenny was at all rebellious; no reason to doubt her encouragement was truthful.

Before he knew it, he had finished the code to integrate his chips, and had pushed the changes. It all felt inevitable.

Jake came by; today’s polo shirt color was green. “Nice job on the cryptography integration! We thought it might take a year, but it just took a month! But don’t worry, there’s still a lot we need you to do around here; you basically have a permanent job here. But I’m gonna take the last few hours of the day off, and we should celebrate tonight. Still figuring that out; I’ll text you. See ya there!”

Jenny passed by just then, too, giving a thumbs up to the celebration idea. “Woo! Go Elton!”

What? He was working on that, but he himself thought there could be months left on the cryptography project, with all the tests that remained to do. He tried to call up the code that he was working on, but his password wouldn’t work. This was of course quite alarming, and he had an urge to call someone about it. But as he found himself mesmerized by his screen’s reflection of a forest-green light-waver that was happening on his forehead, he calmed down. Instead, he made a call to install more quantum-random chips, since the load on them was probably already too high. All this was more than a day’s work, and he got up to go. The walls throbbed tranquil blue and green.

Again, he was excited to join the commuters on the street, and head home to prepare for the celebration tonight. There were fewer than before, but today he saw absolutely no one without a headband. Now, instead of a cacophony of erratic light-patterns on each head, their light-patterns all streamed together, a glorious flow-symphony of blue, salmon, and outbursts of glitter-green. He set off a happy orange throb on his own head. People were arm-in-arm, and some of them kissing. It was like a war had just been won. He probably kissed a few himself on his way home. As he arrived at his building, he did see an antique cash register out of the corner of his eye, but failed to remember the homeless man that he had seen fussing with it.

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Mark Neyrinck does some research, art, and writing related to science!  Email: mark.neyrinck[at]gmail.com

The Cloudrider

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robert Hanover


A black-and-white landscape. The sky, with scattered clouds that get denser near the horizon, fills most of the image. Mist obscures the foreground on the right hand side and envelopes the promontories on the left. The promontory in the bottom left corner is overbuilt with a large, irregularly-shaped stone structure with many small windows that steps up the cliff. A tower extends from the top.

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

Oren’s steed galloped over the river shallows, racing the sunrise. Clouds coated the night sky. In this, the early stage of his journey, he knew to follow the river. With luck and the wind at his back, he would reach Altilia in time.

Just one hour earlier, Oren stood in the great hall of his family’s manor, roused from a warm bed long after nightfall, listening to Commander Rykan of the palace guard reveal to Oren’s father a horrible truth. The king was dead. Killed in his chambers. Stabbed in the chest while his guards lay slain in the hall, their blood licking the stone walkway as the king’s blood seeped into his bedclothes. The perpetrators escaped, but Commander Rykan knew who did it. The king’s brother, Pyran, next in line for the throne after the untimely death of the prince the previous winter. All over a squabble with a neighboring king.

Oren’s home, the kingdom of Gildamar, bordered the land called Altilia to the east. Upon visiting Gildamar one summer, the Altilian king, a man named Minar, fell in love with a noblewoman named Reen, and she with him. The Gildamarian king’s brother, Pyran, had his own sights set on marrying Reen, but she left Gildamar with Minar when he departed. Upon their return to Altilia, Reen married Minar. She became the queen consort. Her firstborn child would one day be the ruler of Altilia. None of this sat well with Pyran, and he begged his brother, the Gildamarian king Benquo, to attack their neighbor and bring Reen home. Benquo’s refusal became his death warrant. In the haze of his lust for Reen, Pyran would not be stopped.

“He’s ordered the army of Gildamar be assembled,” Rykan said to those standing in the great hall. “He plans to launch an offensive in the coming hours. Perhaps sooner. He’s ordered the palace guard on full alert. He intends for us to accompany him to Altilia and fight alongside him as he wins back Lady Reen.”

Oren’s father, Hydrel, listened but did not speak. As Rykan spoke, Hydrel stroked the long gray beard that hung from his chin and ended in a thick braid. Oren watched to see how his father would react. He would have his own beard one day, when he grew older, and he wondered if his own fingers would find it in moments of great distress. He imagined they would.

Rykan continued. “The moment Pyran summoned me from my chambers and told me of his plans, I knew I could not follow him. I knew our already uneasy alliance with Altilia must face no strain. We cannot allow an unprovoked surprise attack on our neighbor. I had to disobey Pyran. I had to tell someone of his plan. He left me no choice.”

“And what, pray tell, do you suggest we do, Lord Commander? If, as you say, Pyran has control of the army, then stopping him would be impossible. What he has set in motion will not be easily halted or even delayed. If he means to win back Lady Reen by starting a war, who am I, but an old man in the twilight of my life, to try to stop him? You need soldiers, Lord Commander, not ancient wizards.”

Oren winced at his father’s response, for he knew the true reason Rykan sought help from their family. Hydrel knew it too, but Oren understood why his father might play dumb in an attempt to ward off the coming request.

“You are correct, Lord Hydrel. We cannot stop the plan Pyran has started, but we can warn the Altilians of what’s coming. We must. Someone among us must ride to Altilia. If Gildamar launches an unprovoked attack and catches the Altilians by surprise, King Minar will send out their dragons, and every man, woman, and child in Gildamar will be burned to ash. You must help us, Lord Hydrel. You’re the only one who can.”

At this, Hydrel scoffed, turning his head away from Rykan but never letting go of his beard.

“In another age, perhaps you would be right, Lord Commander. Perhaps I would be the most sensible choice to put an end to this senseless violence before it gets started. But, as surely a man of your experience can see, I am not the man I once was. I possess none of the thirst for heroics anymore. That thirst was quenched long ago. It saddens me to say it, but I can no longer ride the clouds.”

“Your service to the kingdom will remain in the annals of our history for as long as the kingdom stands, Lord Hydrel. But the time to rise is now. Your son, Oren, can ride the clouds. I’ve seen him do it. Oren can warn the Altilians and save us from certain destruction.”

Oren watched in horror as every eye in the room focused on him. Sure, he’d ridden the clouds before, but only in his training. Never when he had to. Never with his life on the line. Or the lives of others. It made sense Rykan would want a cloudrider to make the trek to Altilia. With the goblinlands between the two kingdoms, no one else could complete the quest alone. But…

“…I’m not ready,” Oren said. “I can’t go.”

Oren studied his father, waiting for some reaction to Rykan’s suggestion, unsure what his father would say. Hydrel stood beside a burning lantern. The flickering light cast shadows dancing across the wrinkles on his face. When he spoke, his voice sounded gentle but firm. Like always, everyone in the room gave him their full attention.

“Sometimes, actions that must be taken do not take account of a person’s readiness. They announce themselves and demand to be heard. You can do it, Oren. The question is not in your skill or ability but in your willingness and confidence in yourself. Are you willing to take this challenge on?” He paused. When Oren didn’t respond, Hydrel continued, “You’ll have to pass over the goblinlands. No other route will allow you to reach Altilia in time. You’ll have a head start on the army, and a single rider of your skill will outrun the sun. You can be there before morning if you leave immediately. You can ride my steed.”

Oren nodded, hoping his nervousness would not be evident to those nearby. Before he could raise any further objection, Rykan hustled him from the room and to the stable where his father’s faithful steed awaited a rider.

“I wish to ride my own steed,” Oren said. “Over there. Windracer.”

Rykan glanced from steed to steed and then to Oren. It was clear he trusted Oren’s father and his judgment. He wouldn’t have sought Hydrel out for this most important task otherwise. He was also a man who followed orders. Oren feared his request might be denied. Instead, Rykan led Oren to the steed he preferred, his own steed, Windracer.

“Tell the Altilians all you’ve heard tonight. Hold nothing back. Tell them I sent you. And tell them to brace for attack but respond in kind. I am hopeful a proper warning and time to establish a defense will preclude the use of their dragons. I pray to the gods of war that I’m right.”

Oren saddled Windracer and climbed on. Rykan slapped the steed’s hindquarters, and together rider and steed took flight into the darkened countryside with nothing but the land and their wits guiding their path.

Before reaching the goblinlands, Oren eyed the clouds overhead. With so much of the sky covered, he had plenty of targets. Wishing to test his magic before he needed it to survive, he lowered his head, closed his eyes, and recited the incantation. One hand held Windracer’s reins. The other gently stroked the steed’s mane. Oren waited to feel the lightness. When it didn’t come, he opened one eye and felt dismayed to see his steed still on the ground. It would be a short journey once they reached the goblinlands if they couldn’t ride the clouds. A short trek with a grisly end. Oren rode on, more unsure of himself than ever before.

The goblinlands that lay between Gildamar and Altilia owed no allegiance to either side. Centuries earlier, the goblinlands stretched from sea to sea, encompassing the land now called Gildamar and the land now called Altilia. Over time, the Gildamarians claimed more and more land to the south while the Altilians claimed more and more land to the north, squeezing the goblins into the land in between. For many generations, the goblins survived on their own, living off their remaining land and the occasional highjacking of wandering travelers. What happened to those travelers often served as a warning to others not to pass through the goblinlands on your own. Dismembered bodies were sent back to their kingdom of origin, their hideous remains a sign of what could happen to the next wayward traveler.

The first goblins Oren saw came from a cave near the roadside. Where there was one, there would be many. Swarms would descend on Oren if he couldn’t escape to the clouds. For the second time that night, he closed his eyes and whispered the words his father had taught him, the words uttered by generations of cloudriders before him. His idle hand reached out and caressed his steed’s neck. He felt himself growing lighter. Wind whipped through his cloak. Afraid to break the spell, Oren kept his eyes closed. But he was doing it. He was riding the clouds.

He didn’t get very high on this, his first cloudride outside the training grounds behind his family’s manor, but he reached far enough into the sky to escape detection by the goblins. For the first time that night, he felt like he might actually be able to complete his quest. He might actually be able to save Gildamar and Altilia from all-out war. He continued to feel that way, right up until the moment he reached the top of Mount Fidal and the final pass of the journey to the valley that held the mighty kingdom of Altilia.

Standing atop Mount Fidal, Oren looked down on Altilia. What he saw shocked him. The city was burning. There were fires everywhere. Huge black plumes of smoke reached up to the clouds. Oren didn’t know what to do. With what had happened in his own kingdom of Gildamar earlier that night and now this, it was clear something more was happening. Something terrible. He had made it this far. He kicked Windracer’s hindquarters, and he and the steed descended the mountain.

Inside the city, Oren realized the situation was far more dire than he saw from the top of Mount Fidal. Entire city blocks were burned to ash. Buildings large and small lay in ruin. The smell of burning wood filled his nose. He found no survivors.

As he wove through city streets strewn with the wreckage of whatever awful thing had happened here, he had one goal on his mind. He had to get to the castle and—if she was still alive—he had to save Lady Reen.

As he rode, he scanned every house and shop for any sign of life. As the minutes passed, the horrible truth that their entire world was under some sort of attack became apparent. But from what force? And why? He got his answer when he spotted between two clouds a dragon diving toward the city with flames bursting from its mouth.

Oren kicked Windracer into a higher gear. If Lady Reen had not been killed already, Oren knew only he could save her. He’d never ridden the clouds while carrying another before, but he knew it could be done. His father had done it once. To save a younger Oren when a cave troll attacked their caravan. Of course, the clouds may not be the safest place with a dragon flying amongst them. Even if he had to go the whole way back on foot, carrying Lady Reen on his back, he would do it. He would not leave a fellow Gildamarian behind.

At King Minar’s castle, Oren found the front gate toppled. He raced into the courtyard, where he found many from Minar’s palace guard burned and dead. They would’ve stood no chance against a dragon, but they died defending their king and their home. Who would do this? And why didn’t the Altilians unleash their own dragons in defense? Perhaps, Oren thought, the attack caught them by surprise the same way his father and Rykan feared an attack by Gildamar would. But this was more than an attack. This was destruction.

Inside the castle, Oren found the first door in Altilia still standing. The door to the castle’s keep. Oren dismounted his steed and pounded his fists against the door. If anyone survived the attack, they would be behind that door. From his own time spent in castles during his training, Oren knew the keep as the last refuge during a siege. He had to get inside, where he prayed he would find Lady Reen.

“My name is Oren, son of Hydrel of Gildamar. I come in peace. I mean no harm.”

He heard movement behind the door. As it swung open, Oren braced himself for attack. Despite his reasons for being there, Gildamar and Altilia still had a complicated history, and the response to a Gildmarian trying to access the keep of the Altilian king would almost certainly be met with bloodshed, even in a time of so much bloodshed.

When the door finally opened, Oren stood face to face not with surviving members of the palace guard or even with Lady Reen. Instead, he stood face to face with the king himself, King Minar, whom he recognized only from memory of having seen him once long ago during his visit to Gildamar that set many of the night’s events in motion.

“Your majesty, you’re alive?” The words blurted out before Oren could think to bow. The king didn’t seem fazed by this. He held a short blade, which he extended immediately toward Oren’s throat, nearly piecing his skin.

“What in the name of Atil are you doing here, Gildamarian?”

Oren realized in sudden horror that the king may think this the very attack Oren had ridden to warn him about.

“Your majesty, I assure you Gildamar is not responsible for what happened here tonight. For what’s happening. We have no dragons in Gildamar. You know this. I don’t know who is responsible, but it isn’t my people.”

Minar watched Oren carefully, finally lowering his sword and stepping back into the keep. Over his shoulder, he said, “But it is your people, Oren, son of Hydrel. The one riding the dragon over our heads, the one destroying the great kingdom of Altilia, is originally from Gildamar. She’s also the queen consort of Altilia. You likely know her as Lady Reen.”

Oren and King Minar talked for several more minutes, each learning more of what the other knew before coming to the same awful conclusion. This was a coordinated attack, years in the making, between the new king of Gildamar, Pyran, and the woman he loved, Reen, to destroy Altilia forever.

“What about Altilia’s other dragons?” Oren asked. “You can ride one. You can stop her.”

“The others are dead. She made sure of that before she started her assault. There’s no one left to defend Altilia. No one can take down a dragon from the air. How would you even get up there?” Oren looked at the king, who didn’t seem to remember Oren’s lineage.

“Your majesty, I might be able to help.”

Together, they laid out a plan. Minar even offered Oren his family sword, but Oren refused. He had his own blade, while not as sharp or well made as Minar’s, it would get the job done if he could get close enough.

He rode out. Back in the courtyard, he heard the dragon before he could spot it. And, for the first time, he spotted Lady Reen riding atop it. The dragon dove at the castle, flames hotter than anything ripping through stone. Oren closed his eyes and recited the words he knew now he’d always feared growing up. For whenever he spoke them, it meant his life was in danger, that he needed to act to save himself and others. But it was his calling. He was a cloudrider. One of many in a line as long as time. He could do this. He was ready.

The dragon rose back up to the sky. Oren followed. Windracer danced over the clouds.

Oren thought they might get behind the dragon, attack before Reen saw them coming. He twisted the reins and maneuvered them to make an attack. At the last moment, Reen looked over her shoulder and spotted them coming. The dragon dove, turned, and came back up facing them. Oren braced himself for the flames. He hugged Windracer’s neck and told her he was sorry for bringing her here, for what was about to happen.

The dragon opened its mouth. Oren felt the heat of the flames. Windracer rose higher. The fire shot out but below them. Windracer whinnied. They were safe.

With newfound courage, Oren gripped the reins tighter and urged Windracer even higher into the clouds. They rose and rose until the dragon appeared beneath them.

“Trust me, old friend. I know what I’m doing.”

Oren leapt off Windracer’s back and plummeted toward the dragon. As he fell, he drew his sword. Lady Reen grew larger in his sights. He was close.

He landed on the dragon. The impact knocked the air from his lungs. He nearly dropped his sword. Reen turned to face him. She looked shocked to see anyone alive. That shock was the last thing she felt. Oren buried his sword deep in her gut.

“For Altilia,” he said, and he meant it. No longer would their two peoples, whoever was still alive, allow petty squabbles to separate them. They would be one. And when the history books told of this day, they would tell about the one who saved it.

The cloudrider.

pencil

Robert Hanover writes horror and fantasy fiction. He lives in Pennsylvania, where he works by day and writes under the darkness of night. Email: rhanover158[at]gmail.com

In for a Penny

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Susan Smith


Corner view of a room with high ceilings. On the left side is a tall multi-paned window with inside shutters and window seat over a radiator. A book is open on the window seat. The walls have wide crown molding and wainscotting. On the right side, maroon draperies cover the wall from below the molding to the floor. Part of a chandelier is visible in the top right corner. A pale blue upholstered armchair is in front of the draperies. Behind it is a rocking horse tricycle. An upholstered ottoman with a blue blanket and pampas grass tossed on it is in front of the chair. The chair and ottoman are on an area rug with a pattern that looks like tile. The floor is unfinished wood.

Photo Credit: Sweef/Flickr (CC-by)

“Hey, hotshot,” Mike was already there when I arrived, several drinks lined up on the table. He handed me a glass as I sat down. The bar was busy that night, electro-pop thumping through the speakers, neon strip lighting oscillating between red and blue.

“So?” he asked. “How is working for the Magic Bureau? Did you have to wipe any warlock arses yet?” He gave me a dig in the ribs, causing me to spill half my drink.

“Ew. No, I told you, I’m just in the records department. No meeting of the actual powerful and mighty.” Something I was grateful for. The thought of coming face to face with one of them filled me with more than a little dread.

“Still, you’re rubbing shoulders with the elite now.” He threw a shot back and slid one across the table to me.

“I haven’t finished this drink yet,” I protested, waving the now slightly-emptier glass at him.

“Well, speed up!” He threw a second shot back.

I drained my first drink and he gave me a joking thumbs up.

“Go on then—any gossip?” he slid his chair conspiratorially closer to mine. “Did you hear any rumours about what any of them are up to?”

“I can’t tell you that!” I picked up my first shot, swirling the lurid green liquid around the glass.

“Come on, I can see it in your face. You found out something pure gold, right?”

I struggled to hide a grin. In truth, reading through some of the personal files had been more than an eye-opener. “Okay, okay,” I lowered my voice. “This is just between you and me though, right?”

“Sure.”

“I’m deadly serious.”

“Scout’s honour.” He smiled.

 

The following morning my head thumped in rhythm with the buzzing of my alarm clock. I slapped at buttons until it fell silent. Midweek drinking was never a good idea. I groaned and, knowing that calling in sick on my second day of work was not an option, dragged myself out of bed.

Forty-five minutes later, my shoes squeaked across the polish-scented floor. The sight of the atrium was never going to get old. Sunlight streaming in through the thirty-foot-high windows, spiralling colonnades stretching up to the ceiling.

I made my way towards the elevators, pinching myself that I was actually working there. It had taken four years of evening classes to get the relevant qualifications and then another two before I was successful at an interview.

As the elevator door slid open, I was met with the impassive stare of a tight-jawed security guard.

“Good morning,” I offered, stepping to one side to let him out.

He didn’t move, but instead reached forward and took a tight grip behind my right elbow, leading me inside.

“We ask that you don’t make a scene.” He kept his voice low and calm, but he had an air about him that suggested non-compliance was not an option.

I watched as he hit the button for the top floor—the executive suite.

“Is—er—everything okay?” I ventured, my stomach flipping from more than just the speed of the elevator.

The look he gave me suggested it wasn’t.

The bell pinged as we reached our floor, and as the doors glided open, I found myself frog-marched down the thick pile carpeted hallway.

“We’ll take it from here.” The company CEO in her several-thousand-dollar power suit and shoes ushered me into her office, where two other executives were already sitting behind the long dark oak desk I’d been interviewed at only three weeks before.

“Sit.” She pointed to a chair in the centre of the room.

I sat. Somehow I got the impression they weren’t about to offer me a promotion.

“Trust,” she began, seating herself directly opposite me. “Trust and discretion is at the forefront of this company. And you,” her hands clenched into fists, “have betrayed us in one single goddamned day.” She spun her laptop round, showing an array of headlines plastered across the internet.

Ancient Warlock Family Legacy Lie

The Great Galdini’s Half Human Heritage Revealed

Fraud—Purebred Propaganda

“Posted anonymously late last night, picked up by the media first thing this morning.” The CEO slammed her laptop closed, a murderous look in her eyes. “As you are the only person to have accessed his file in the last six months, do you care to explain?”

I felt sick. I knew exactly what had happened. How could Mike have done this to me? “I didn’t…” My voice faltered. Whether by my hand or not, it was my fault. “Are you going to call the Police?” I asked meekly instead.

“And ruin our reputation by revealing where the leak came from? No. This has been dealt with internally.”

“Has been dealt with?”

“Mr Galdini asked who was responsible, and we told him.”

“You—you told him it was me?” A literal boulder lodged in my throat.

“I would suggest you relocate.” She gave a justified smile. “Though I’m not sure even the moon would be far enough.”

After that I was escorted off the premises, my whole body numb and heavy. I had to get out of the city. My mind flitted between fear of what would happen if the warlock found me and anger that Mike had leaked what I’d told him. He’d deny it, of course, but come on. I tell one person outside the company and suddenly it’s headline news? There’s no way that was a coincidence. I cursed him out loud. When I got somewhere safe, we’d have more than words.

I could feel myself beginning to panic. I had nowhere to go. Maybe my cousin’s house in the north? But then would that be putting them in danger? I leant against the wall of the Bureau for a moment, the cool of the bricks sending a shiver through my body. My future was screwed, that was a certainty. The job I’d worked so hard to get was gone. Calm down, think. I took two deep breaths. Then two more. First step, I’d need supplies.

Thirty minutes later and laden with a large bag of food, I shouldered open my apartment door. Fifteen minutes to pack essentials, then I’d be on the road. I kicked the door shut behind me, wondering how many changes of clothes I should take.

“Good morning.”

I froze in horror as the warlock melted into view in front of me.

In desperation, I threw the bag of groceries straight at him, then turned and grabbed for the front door handle. As my fingers took grip, the metal of the handle began to liquefy, dripping between my fingers and seeping through the gaps in the floorboards.

I fought the urge to vomit as I turned back to face him.

He pointed me towards the armchair. “If you’d be so kind as to take a seat?”

I obliged, picking my way between the scattered food and supplies now littering the floor. As I sat, it occurred to me how much I’d never liked the chair, with its faded blue and white pattern, threadbare armrests. But I’d had little money when I’d moved in and the people across the street had been throwing it out. And now, it was the chair I was about to die in.

Mr. Galdini stood and regarded me for a good minute, his eyes burning into me. “Have I wronged you in some way?” He said at length. “Caused you to hate me? To seek revenge?”

“No,” I mumbled, not daring to meet his gaze.

“Then why?” he snapped, the room seeming to reverberate with his voice.

“I’m sorry,” I gabbled. “This was all a big mistake. If I can just explain, you see, it wasn’t—”

He held up a hand for silence. “My reputation is ruined. Not only am I the laughingstock of the whole world, I am now deemed a half-breed. Do you understand what that means?”

I nodded. It meant ostracization from both sides. I glanced towards the window and the fire escape beyond it. Could I make it if I ran? Could I get the window open in time?

“You won’t make it.” He seemed to read my mind and a moment later, invisible cords started winding around my chest, binding me to the chair. I struggled against them, but with no avail. It was one thing to accept that you couldn’t untie knots, it was another thing entirely to not even be able to touch them.

“Any other secrets of mine you’re planning on exposing? Any further humiliations?”

“No, I swear.”

“What else did you learn about me?”

“Nothing.” The cords were making it hard to take more than shallow breaths.

He considered for a moment. “I can’t take that risk.”

“You’re going to kill me?” The words came out barely above a whisper.

“That would be far too merciful.” He knelt down in front of me.

I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or more scared. “Then what?”

“I’m going to wipe your memory. Stop you from doing any more damage.”

“My memory? Of working at the Bureau?” Losing only a couple of days wouldn’t be so bad.

“I’m going to wipe the lot.” He reached forward and clamped his fingers painfully tight on my temples.

“What? Please, no. Please.” The thought of knowing nothing, of losing everything I’d ever been terrified me.

“Be quiet, I’m concentrating.” He began murmuring a spell under his breath and black tendrils of fine smoke began to encircle me.

“Please don’t,” I begged. The room began to grow darker as the cloud of magic grew thicker. My thoughts scrabbled for a way out of this. Losing my memories was as good as dying. There has to be something. And at that moment, one treacherous idea came to mind. A bargaining chip. “Wait! Stop!”

“I can do this with you unconscious,” he growled.

I spoke quickly. “You know Magda the Invulnerable? You have a feud with her, don’t you?”

“I do. She is someone I hate more than you.”

“Well, it—erm—turns out she’s not, you know, invulnerable.”

He gave a half-smile and the black mist began to fade as he let go of the spell. “I’m listening.”

Two hours later and a hundred miles down the road, I heard the news break on the radio, the excited chatter of yet another exposé. I switched stations, flicking through until I found one that still had music playing. I cranked the volume up and sang along as the endless green blur of the rolling hills streamed by.

Integrity, I decided, was overrated.

pencil

Susan Smith is a graduate in Creative Writing from the UK, with a passion for both reading and writing science-fiction and fantasy.

Goldilocks

Fiction
CL Bledsoe


Close-up of a dog lying down. The shot frames its head on a diagonal with the nose at bottom left. The dog has a black nose, golden brown eyes, and variegated thick fur in brown and black with a streak of white between the eyes. The dog's eyes are turned toward the photographer.

Photo Credit: Oscar Gende Villar/Flickr (CC-by)

Big Daddy and Momma June had been locked in their room for three days, watching the same two damn VHS copies of movies they’d dubbed from TV—watching one while the other rewound in the tape rewinder they’d bought when the movie rental place went out of business—when Tawny decided she’d had enough. She’d run through all the food in the house, including the slightly rusted can of tuna, even though it was in oil, and the only thing she hated worse than the fishy tuna taste was the consistency of the oil. She’d finished off the saltines with that yesterday. This morning, she’d eaten only a can of cranberry sauce—opened it and spooned the red gloop directly into her mouth. It had taken her till today—till the hunger and boredom overwhelmed her fear of Big Daddy’s sudden, inexplicable rages at being disturbed—but she’d been in to bang on their door more times than she could count since the cranberry sauce with no response, other than a grunt the first time. It was damned infuriating.

She tried one more time—banged on the door and was met with not even a grunt. She returned to the kitchen, tried all the cabinets and opened the fridge again to reveal spindly, bare shelves. There was a pot of honey on the scarred table and nothing else in the room. Then she went to her room and got her Bible from beside the bed, opened it to Leviticus where the twenty dollars Grandmother had given her was nestled, and dropped the book on her bed without another thought. Grubby light filtered in through the window above her headboard; she could get the screen off in no time and fit it back in from outside, but she thought, screw it, and went out the front door, letting it slam behind her. She stood under the sagging eave, listening, but no angry bear charged out to yank her back in, so she set off.

The driveway was a dirt track that crossed a ditch on two two-by-fours. She walked across one of them and emerged on the ugly asphalt of the highway. There were no cars. The sun was hot and rising toward the center of the sky.

She’d been walking for maybe a half-hour when she heard the three-wheeler approach. She’d been hearing the thing all day, going back and forth, and it wasn’t like three- and four-wheelers were particularly rare in those parts. She glanced back when it was still pretty far away, saw it coming down the highway, and stepped off onto the grass but kept walking. The thing thundered up behind her and seemed to hesitate to pass—she refused to look. After a moment in her blind spot, it pulled up into her peripheral vision and quieted some, rolling beside her as she trudged through the grass. Whoever was riding it wasn’t saying a word. She wouldn’t look, but she was working so hard not to that she didn’t look down, either, and stumbled over a clump of grass.

“Why don’t you just go on by so I can get out of this grass?” she said.

“Ain’t nobody stopping you from walking on the road.” The voice sounded slick as oil, low but not scary low. Confident with a hint of annoyance.

“I don’t wanna get hit.”

The three-wheeler shuddered to death and was silent. She stopped walking, and before she could catch herself, turned to look at him. He was skinny, dark-eyed with a thin mustache that managed to make his upper lip look dirty. His skin was the creamy yellow of not enough sun, which was strange, seeing as how he was out riding that thing around without a shirt on.

“You ain’t even s’posed to have that on the road,” she added.

“You gonna arrest me?” There was no hint of a smile, just innocent eyes. She shook her head, and there came the smile, spreading his lips to show his teeth. “I was just kidding. Where you going, girl?”

“Get me something to eat.” She looked down and focused on a clump, pretending it was the one that’d tripped her earlier, and kicked at it.

He looked down the road. “Five miles to Forrest City.” He turned back to search her face, like he thought she might not know this.

“Yep.” She sighed and started walking again.

“How ‘bout I give you a ride, Goldilocks? Unless you’re scared of this big, bad wolf?”

She laughed. “You ain’t that big.”

“But I’m bad.”

The laugh was real, this time. “How old are you?”

“How old are you?”

His eyes were playful and her feet were already bothering her.

“I ain’t got no money for gas,” she added.

“Me neither.” He kicked the three-wheeler back to life, and she came over and climbed up behind, wrapping her arms around him. His smell crept into her nose, a little bit sunshine and grass, a little bit musty dog. It was comforting, like an old dirty shirt she wanted to sleep in.

The roar of the thing made it hard to talk, so she kept her face down so no bugs hit her anywhere important and eyed the scenery as well as she could. The scrub on the side of the road gave way to pines that didn’t look to be much older than her. Trash caught her eye more than anything, and she resolved to bring a bag to pick up cans next time. She could sell them to the recycling center, which they happened to be passing right then. It was such a good idea, she cursed herself for not thinking of it before, and almost asked him to take her back.

After Mr. Bershrom’s trailer, where everybody took their recycling, there was another stand of trees and then the gas station that marked the real beginning of town. The boy pulled up to the parking lot and cranked the thing off.

She climbed off.

“There you go,” he said. “Name’s Wolf by the way.” He offered a hand.

“Really?”

He nodded and grinned, hand still out.

She took it. “I’m—“ she started to say, but he cut her off.

“I know you. You’re Goldilocks.” He pointed at her hair.

“Tawny,” she said. She started off, away from him, toward the gas station, not hesitating until she heard the crunch of his feet on gravel jogging after her. She picked up her pace as he settled in beside her. She didn’t look at him; she imagined him straining to come up with something to say, his mouth opening and closing, which explained the quiet throat-clearings and grunts, exhales and subtle lip smackings. It was exquisite. She savored his awkwardness until she got to the door and realized he wasn’t following anymore. Then, surprise got the better of her, and she turned to see him grinning.

“Reckon I’ll hang out till you’re done.”

She shrugged and went inside. The bell dinged, and the air was a different kind of dusty in there. She found a barely-functioning red basket near the door and went down the aisles, filling it with cans of Vienna sausages and a sun-faded box of saltines. There was a crash from somewhere in the back, and she glanced up long enough to see Ms. Watkins, the heavyset woman behind the counter, head into the back to investigate. There was a rack by the register with marked-down and damaged items, and she found a dented can of potted meat and one of black-eyed peas that she added to her basket. There were some homemade baked goods on the counter. She selected a large chocolate chip cookie, moved it to the center of the counter, and stacked the rest of her purchases neatly beside it. Several minutes passed. She glanced toward the back room, and then again, and then called out, “Ms. Watkins?” There was no answer, so she looked around the empty store and moved toward the door to the backroom until the front door dinged open, and she turned and saw Wolf, grinning. He sidled up to her without missing a beat.

“I like your basket,” he said.

His words were rushed like he was out of breath. Maybe just nervous, Tawny thought.

“I’m waiting on Ms. Watkins. She went in the back.” She pointed.

“Why don’t we just go?” Wolf licked the side of his mouth like he was trying to dislodge something stuck there.

“She knows me.”

“Did she see you come in?”

Tawny searched her memory. She hadn’t spoken to the woman, had just come in and started shopping. “I don’t think so.”

Wolf shrugged. “So let’s go.”

Tawny looked toward the back and then to Wolf. He was already turning, heading toward the door. She watched him until he put his hand on the handle, and when she heard the bell ding, she turned back to the counter. “Wait,” she said, but he was through the door. She slid her selections to the side and launched herself over the counter until she could reach a plastic bag, grabbed it, and threw her things into it. She hesitated for a moment and grabbed a second cookie and ran for the door.

Outside, Wolf was astride the three-wheeler and stomping on the starter. She ran across the gravel, forgetting decorum, and hopped on behind him as he got the thing started. He spun a wide, sliding wheelie in the gravel and headed back out of town.

After about a mile back up the highway, he took an abrupt left into the desiccated scrubland.

“Where are you going?” She screamed into his ear, but he didn’t respond. She repeated it, and when he again ignored her, she stuck her finger into his ear. He slapped it away but didn’t slow or answer her. She glanced to the ground, which was passing quickly. They were on a gravel road, which looked too potentially painful to dive off into. Also, she wasn’t sure she could clear the three-wheeler well enough. So she settled in, and when they took another sudden turn onto a dirt track, she reconsidered diving off. But now, the gravel was replaced with trees and the occasional log. She didn’t want to get stabbed.

Finally, they left the pines and crossed a clearing. At the far end, was a blackened fire pit which seemed to be their destination. They pulled up to it and slid to a stop in the grass and dirt. Tawny climbed off and backed away as Wolf hopped up onto the three-wheeler and twirled around to smile at her.

“My lady,” he said, offering her a hand.

“What?” Tawny said, not approaching.

Wolf jumped, pulling his legs close to his chest, and cleared several feet to the side of the vehicle. “Thought we’d have a picnic.” He stared into her eyes, intense in a way that made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and then spun around and moved to the fire pit.

Or rather, the blackened, bare area where fires were mostly relegated. A thick log, thicker than any standing tree in the area, lay on one side. On the other, nearer side, a stump from a different tree served as a less-comfortable-looking seat. Wolf headed right for the log.

“Too hot for a fire,” he said as he sat down.

Tawny didn’t know this place, but she knew they weren’t far from home. And then she had a thought: she didn’t actually give two shits about going home, back to where her dad and his girlfriend were doing whatever they were doing. She approached, and as she got almost to Wolf, she saw, past him on the edge of the tree line, an old, moldy mattress, sheltered somewhat by the trees. She paused, but didn’t let it stop her, came and sat beside him.

“What’ve you got?”

She dug out some Vienna sausages and offered them to him, but he wrinkled his nose and shook his head. She shrugged, opened the saltines and pulled out a sleeve, and arranged these things on her lap.

“Want a cookie?” She offered him one.

He hesitated, his fingers curling and uncurling until he reached and gingerly took it from her proffered fingers.

“Oh,” he said. “Is that chocolate chip?” He shook his head. “I’m allergic.”

She dug out the other—a peanut butter one—and offered it.

He carefully unwrapped it, taking time to find the edges of the shrink-wrap plastic and separate them. She found it mesmerizing, but she was also starving, so she pulled the tab on her can of Vienna sausages and drained the liquid out, tore the plastic of the saltines open and laid the sleeve on her leg. When she was munching her first Vienna on cracker, she noticed Wolf was still unwrapping his cookie.

“You need help?”

Wolf shook his head, distracted, and finally got the plastic off. He then shoved the entire cookie in his mouth with ravenous noises that dropped Tawny’s jaw. He chewed with his mouth open, bits of cookie falling out, and the thing was gone in a moment. Tawny swallowed and turned back to her own food as Wolf smacked his lips.

“That smells like shit.” He tossed the empty plastic into the fire pit.

“So don’t smell it.”

“Too strong. I can’t avoid it.”

“Well, go sit somewhere else.”

“It stinks so bad, I’d have to drive about a mile away to not have to smell it.” He looked at her with a scolding face.

She dug another pale, pink Vienna out with her fingers, set it on a cracker, and bit it in half.

He sneered.

She chewed demurely and swallowed, and he seemed to remember his manners, because he looked down.

“Why do you eat that stuff, anyway?”

“Hungry,” she said. “No food in the house.”

“Why not eat something better?”

“Can’t afford nothing better.”

He pondered this as she finished the last of the meat products. “But you didn’t actually pay for it. You could’ve gotten anything you wanted.”

“I didn’t notice the already-cooked steak and potato, did you?”

Wolf chuckled. “I mean, you could’ve gotten more cookies or some chips or something.”

“I need protein.” She stuffed another cracker in her mouth and coughed a little, wishing she’d gotten something to drink. “And I did get that second cookie.” She produced it, and he watched with hungry eyes as she ate it. Finally, after a couple bites, he turned to stare at the woods and the sky and anything else.

His hair was a rich brown that spilled down over the back of his neck to his shoulders, parted at the bottom in a thick ducktail. It was a pretty shade that reminded her of a dog her cousin had, named Gunner. Her folks wouldn’t pay to feed a dog, or a cat, or anything else, hardly even her, so she’d had no pets. She’d always loved that dog, and used to make any excuse she could to go to her cousin’s and see it. It didn’t hurt that her cousin’s family was so much better off, lived in an actual house instead of the trailer Tawny’s family rented, and always had food in the house. Her cousin had a three-wheeler, too, come to think of it. When they became illegal and everybody else was upgrading to a four-wheeler, they’d picked it up cheap from some boys near Marion. She’d even ridden it a few times, though never driven it, since they were so difficult to steer. She glanced at the three-wheeler.

“Where you live?” she asked.

“Around,” Wolf said carefully.

“I ain’t seen you before.”

“You with the census?” he asked.

She laughed. “What’s that?”

“It’s…” he waved his arm. “I don’t know. It’s something my dad says.”

“I’ve heard it before,” she said. Had it been from her cousin’s dad? She carefully finished her cookie. “He nice, your dad?”

Wolf shook his head. “Always yelling. Made me sleep outside.” He glanced at her, shyly. “You’re nice, though.”

“Thanks,” she said because she didn’t know what else to say. And then, “I’m all right.”

He shook his head, looking at her seriously. “No, you’re nice. Always have been. Not like that Darla. Her heart waxes and wanes like the moon.”

Tawny rose to her feet, the sleeve of crackers spilling into the dirt.

“How do you know Darla?” she asked.

“Same as I know you. From around.”

She shook her head in slow half-arcs. “I never seen you before.”

He smiled with a twinkle in his eyes. “You have. You just didn’t know it.”

“I want to go home, now. Take me home.” The part of her mind that ruled curiosity was locked down dead, replaced by a cold worry that was quickly shifting to fear.

Wolf held up his hands, smiling again. “Hey, everything’s cool. We can go back, if that’s what you want. Or we could talk a little more.” He squatted down, palms still up toward her, and picked up her crackers and offered them to her. She’d backed toward the three-wheeler, and when he stepped closer, she backed almost into it. He stopped and simply held the crackers toward her.

“What you think’s happening, here, Goldilocks? We was just talking. No need to get antsy.”

“Where’d you get the three-wheeler?” she asked.

“It ain’t mine.” She raised an eyebrow when he said that, so he added, “It’s my dad’s.”

“Who’s your dad?”

A pained look spread over his face like a cloud shading water and was just as quickly gone. “I don’t rightly know his name,” he said. “I just call him Dad.”

“What’s his last name, then?”

He opened his mouth and closed it. “Wolf,” he said. She narrowed her eyes, so he added, “Wilkins.”

“Bullshit.”

“It’s true.”

“I’m a Wilkins. How come I never heard of you?”

“I’m adopted.”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “You know me, but I don’t know you. How could that be?”

He shook his head.

She glared at him and then turned and walked past the three-wheeler and on up the dirt track.

“I’ll give you a ride back,” he called after her.

She didn’t stop or even turn her head. She heard him kicking the thing started. It sputtered and then roared to life. She heard it throw dirt, and soon, he was rolling beside her. She crossed her arms and kept walking, refusing to look at him.

“Did I say something wrong?” he yelled over the engine.

She kept walking and didn’t answer. He jerked the thing forward and then braked. She kept walking, and he did it again. She was pretty sure it would stall out if he kept doing that, but maybe he was trying to get her to say that or talk to him, so she kept going.

“It’s a couple miles,” he said. “We don’t have to talk, just let me give you a ride. I got your things.” He held out the bag of food she’d forgotten behind her.

She walked a few more steps while he rolled along beside her, and abruptly stopped. She still didn’t speak, but the look on her face said that she’d decided something. He sat up, and she stepped over and climbed up behind him. They sat there for a moment, then he handed her back her food. She clutched it in one hand, wadding it up tight in case she needed to hit him with it. He cleared his throat nervously and she tensed, ready to bolt. He jerked the three-wheeler forward and thundered up the track.

“Not too fast,” she said.

He slowed, which made her feel a little better.

She smelled his musk, which really did smell like dog. His hair was thick and looked soft, also like a dog. It was a funny thought, one she might’ve had when she was a kid. It felt good to hold on to the thought for a moment. She imagined throwing something and seeing if he’d dart after it, maybe whistling to see if he went stiff. They left the trees behind and hit gravel and then, soon after, slowed as they emerged onto the highway. He looked long down one way and the other, clearly stalling, until she nudged him and he pulled out and went left.

“Good boy,” she muttered, pretty sure he didn’t hear her, but it made her giggle anyway.

It wasn’t long until her trailer loomed up. He pulled up to the little bridge and stopped short, killing the engine. The funny thoughts were gone, now. Tawny climbed off as he turned to watch her describe a wide arc around him.

“You sure you want to go back in there?” he said as she stepped onto the bridge.

Maybe two feet below her, a trickle of ditch water flowed. When she was a little kid, she used to fish in it with her mom, before things went bad. “What the hell else am I gonna do?” Tawny muttered.

“Come with me.”

She turned with a smirk but held her tongue because the look on his face was tender. Vulnerable. She opened her mouth twice and closed it before finding something soft enough to say. “What’d you say your name was?”

He winced. “Wolf,” he mumbled.

“Right.” She wanted to say more, but her face was already flushed. She wasn’t quite ready for it to live in the air outside her mind. “Wolf,” she repeated. “Who’s adopted by my aunt and uncle but I never met before.”

He looked down.

An idea was trying to voice itself in her head, but she still couldn’t say it. So, she turned and crossed the bridge.

“There’s nothing worth having in there for you,” Wolf tried again.

She spun on her heel, angry. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she said, full red in the face, now. So bothered she couldn’t even say why.

“I’m just trying to help you,” he said.

“I don’t need help.”

“Of course you do.”

“I don’t know you. You shouldn’t even be here,” she said.

“You do.” He nodded, slow and wide-eyed. “You just don’t believe it.”

She shook her head.

“You know me. And I know you,” he said.

“Gunner?” she whispered.

“Call me Wolf, now,” he said, grinning.

That made her ball her fists up. “You’re a dog,” she yelled. “A fucking dog.” He winced, but she kept going, drunk with the thrill of speaking it. “Not even one of them purebred fancy dogs, either. Just a mongrel. And you stole that three-wheeler from my uncle.“ She pointed. “Should’ve fucking known.” The tears came, which made her even angrier.

“How could you know?”

She looked at him, wanting to chastise him for thinking he was so smooth, but the words died on her tongue as she realized the warmth of his tone.

“I’m sorry I deceived you,” he said.

“What kind of fucking dog talks like that!” she yelled. “’Deceived?’ Fuck does that mean?” She knew her words were idiotic, but the anger seemed like her best option, so she went with it.

“It means to lie—“

“I know what the fuck it means! I ain’t stupid! Why the hell wouldn’t you just say lie?”

He was quiet, and so was she for a long moment.

“Should’ve known the only person, the only boy that would take any interest in me would be a damn dog.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Wolf said.

She scoffed.

“Really. You think you ought to be like them in there?” He nodded toward the trailer. “Want to know what they’ve been up to? I can smell it, all chemicals and sadness.”

“I reckon I can figure it out.”

“Your uncle, he’s not a good man.”

She looked in Wolf’s eyes, which were suddenly full of anger, but he didn’t elaborate.

“But you were kind,” he said. “You always scratched me behind my ear.”

That made her laugh a little, and it was good to get some of the tension out.

“You’d rub my belly.” The way he said it was almost plaintive.

It reached to something deep inside her she’d never shared with anyone else, a vulnerability she’d forced down in this world of razor blades. “How?” she asked. “How’d you do it?”

He shook his head. “Not how, but why.”

She looked back to the trailer then to him. “What are you saying? You want me to move in your doghouse with you?” she snapped. “We gonna live on squirrels you catch?”

“Don’t you like squirrel?” He grinned.

She wanted to grin, too, which made her mad. He had those sad eyes on her, so she revised her question. “I mean, you got a people house or something?”

“I’ve got some money,” he said.

She put her hands on her hips. “How’d you get money?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We could go someplace nice. Someplace new.”

She shook her head, looking back to the trailer.

“We could have some fun,” he added.

She crossed the bridge, afraid to look back at him.

“What are you going to do tomorrow, when they’re still locked in that bedroom? Or the day after?” he said.

She got to the door and paused with her hand on it.

“You can be happy, now. I can make you happy,” he said.

She pulled the door open.

“I don’t know if I can come back,” he said. “I don’t know if I can… stay… without you.”

Everything in her ached to look back at him. But she didn’t.

“Don’t, then,” she said, quiet, but she knew he heard. She pulled the door shut and dropped to her knees. After a long while, she heard the three-wheeler start up and spit gravel as it raced away.

pencil

Raised on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, CL Bledsoe is the author of more than thirty books, including the poetry collections Riceland, The Bottle Episode, and his newest, Driving Around, Looking in Other People’s Windows, as well as his latest novels Goodbye, Mr. Lonely and The Saviors. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter. Email: clbledsoe[at]gmail.com

Grow

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Tierney Acott


Image of Sydney red gum trees looking up through the gnarled branches and leaves to the sky. The branches are reddish, the leaves yellowish-green, and the sky pale blue. Low sunlight on the left is casting shadows on the branches and leaves.

Photo Credit: Bea Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The surf rolls in on a beach in a suburban stretch of coastline. Pinks and yellows streak the sky as the sun dawns over the ocean. A few surfers on the beach stretch and wade into the water. At the end of the strand is a small cove, surrounded by sandstone rock face. At the foot of it, three brown-skinned, brown-eyed children are pulling on snorkels and fins. The small girl, Zara, about six, is fastest and plops her way to the surf. Her brothers, Ollie and Leo, follow her.

She twists through the surf, torpedoing through each crashing wave, bubbles tickling her face and chest. A school of small, glittering silver fish pass beneath her and she waves to them, making a note to look them up in her brothers’ book. She swims all the way out until she’s level with the breakwall with the red and green lights at the end, then she pops up, searching for her brothers.

Her eyes are then drawn to another pair: atop the sandstone cliff face, amongst the bush vegetation, are two majestic, twisting Sydney red gum trees. Little white flowers cluster among their branches. She sees them every morning from her bedroom window, but in the golden glow of early morning, they look ethereal, bursting with magic.

A swish of saltwater into her open mouth brings Zara back to the present.

She swims back to shore, riding each tumbling wave.

“Hey, where are you off to?” asks Leo.

“I forgot something at home,” she calls as she passes them.

On the beach, she tugs her feet out of her fins, collects her flip flops, and scrambles up the overgrown path to the coastal road, barefoot and hobbling to avoid pebbles. She dips and dodges branches on this practiced route. She walks on the curb, balancing, until she stops in front of the Sydney red gum trees.

She gingerly runs her fingers along the trunk of the taller red gum tree. The bark of the tree is peeling away. She breaks off a piece. The tree shudders, sighs, and a few flowers fall to the ground. Then, a face emerges from the patterns in the bark on the trunk. The eyes from dark spots in the bark, and the long sloping lines gave the face a gentleness. Zara’s eyes widen.

“Oh thanks, mate,” the tall tree says with a sigh. “You’ve no idea how long that was itching. Almost makes you jealous of the trees with termites.”

“Careful what you wish for,” the shorter, more gnarled gum tree answers. It has a craggy face, like Zara’s father and his friends: skin cooked and shriveled from the sun and the fires they fight.

Zara laughs nervously.

“Look at the giggling little ankle-biter,” says the tall tree. “Oh! Manners. I’m Poppy and this is Summer.” Poppy gestures toward Summer with one of their branches.

“I’m Zara.”

“It’s great to finally meet you, Zara,” says Summer. “We’ve seen the way you treat creatures.”

Zara nods importantly. “I try not to hurt anything.”

“We’ve noticed,” says Summer, gently. “Which is why we want to give you a gift.”

“For me?” asks Zara.

“For you,” says Poppy.

The three of them stand looking at each other, Zara with her goggles pushed up on her forehead and snorkel dangling from her ear. A breeze makes its way from the scrub vegetation to the south and toward them. An aliveness sweeps across the cliffside as bushes and trees dance in the wind. When the breeze hits Summer and Poppy, they both shimmy and a flower falls from each of their trees.

“Whoa.” Zara bends down to pick them up. Attached to the flowers are seeds. “Can I plant this?”

“It’d be our pleasure.”

“We like dry sandy soil, you know, a good loam,” says Poppy. “You can take a few scoops from the sand here.”

Zara, clutching the flowers in one hand, darts across the coastal road to a red brick house with a white gate and a tall bottlebrush tree in the corner of the garden. She drops her flip flops and fins on the path and snakes round to the garage, which is filled with toys: surfboards, diving gear, a dinghy on a trailer. She finds where her mum stores the gardening stuff behind the dinghy. It is dark and shadowed—redback territory. She moves slowly, carefully. She finds a small ceramic pot and a trowel. She extracts them carefully, so as not to disturb any nesting spiders.

Then she quickly carries the pot, trowel, and flower back to Summer and Poppy.

“I found a pot!”

Zara carefully takes the seeds out of the flowers and sets them on the ground. Then she fills the pot two-thirds with sandy soil. She gingerly plants the seeds. She fills the rest with sandy soil and pats it gently.

“Ar, great work there, Zara,” says Poppy.

She sets the flowers down on top of the soil as an ornament. Then she stands suddenly. “I’m going to go water it now,” she says and turns to leave.

One of Summer’s branches swoops down and stops her running off. “Hold on there, little lady.”

Zara turns, and Summer’s branch retreats.

“You can water it, but don’t water it too often.”

Zara nods.

“Don’t like too much water,” says Summer.

“Makes us feel bloated,” Poppy says and chuckles.

 

Winter passes without its usual storms. Shelf clouds still approached from the south, dark grey and blue, and lightning still cracked and forked down to the ocean, but only a light drizzle ever fell to the earth. All the fanfare of years past, but none of the satisfying restoration. Zara, too young to remember the heavy rains of an east coast low, asked if it was going to rain anytime dark clouds blotted the sun.

Now, along the coast, the trees were brightening into a dull green and the sun a strong, golden hue. Zara, in shorts and a singlet, reads The Lorax on her bed. A sapling sits in the ceramic pot on the window ledge, watching Summer and Poppy out the window. This is Charlie.

“I want to be big and strong like those trees outside,” says Charlie, pointing at Summer and Poppy.

Zara looks up from her book. “You can’t rush it.”

Charlie winces, trying to grow faster. “Maybe if I eat more…” says Charlie.

She squints up to the strong summer sun basking through the window. Though it is late morning, the sky is not blue, but a hazy white.

Zara giggles. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Why not?”

“Well, those trees are big and strong because they grew slowly and well.”

Charlie harrumphs, sulking for a few seconds before asking, “Can we go out and see them?”

Zara closes her book and slides her legs off her bed. “Sure.”

Zara picks up Charlie and together they go downstairs and out the front door. The air is still, hot, and dry. Even with the hazy sky, the footpath is roasting and Zara hops onto the grass, crunchy from the heat.

Charlie is bouncing in excitement. Zara pats her soil, so she doesn’t fall out.

“Look!” exclaims Charlie. “There’s a bird.”

The bird caws. It’s a magpie.

“It sounds like one of Ollie and Leo’s droids,” says Charlie.

Zara laughs. “It totally does.”

As Zara crosses the street. Charlie points to the bottlebrush tree, which is in full bloom. Every branch is covered with thick clusters of vibrant, red needles. Charlie, in awe, shouts, “It looks like it’s on fire!”

Zara clamps her hand over the sapling.

“Shh!” says Poppy.

Summer hears and whispers conspiratorially, “We don’t say that word.”

“What word?” asks Charlie before— “Whoa! Look at the ocean in real life!”

Poppy and Summer exchange relieved glances.

“I want to live here when I grow up and be just as big and strong as you.”

Zara holds Charlie up to Poppy. Charlie’s little sapling leaves reach over and touch the trunk.

“Oh, wow,” says Charlie. Then she touches her own trunk and gets all misty-eyed.

All of a sudden, apropos of nothing, Summer perks up.

“Oh, oh! It’s coming,” she exclaims, then turns to Charlie. “Get ready, little Charlie.”

Poppy joins in on Summer’s excitement, the surface sand at their roots hopping with anticipation. Out in the ocean, the texture of the surface of the water sharpens and grows dark. It approaches them.

“What? What’s happening?” asks Charlie with a thinly-veiled nervousness.

“It’s the Southerly!” says Summer.

“The what?”

“It’s the Southerly wind that comes from Antarctica,” says Zara matter-of-factly.

“Oh, I’d love to go to Antarctica one day,” says Poppy.

“It seems pretty cool,” says Summer and winks at everyone.

“It’s definitely the perfect temperature. Cools us off on a beautiful hot day.”

Zara looks at the trees as if they’re out of their minds. “You know Antarctica is a land entirely of ice and—”

“Here it comes!” shouts Summer.

The Southerly wind floats across the scrubland along the coast, rippling branches as it makes its way toward them. When it hits Summer and Poppy, they dance and rollick, whooping and cheering. Charlie giggles and joins in. Zara holds Charlie’s pot high above her head, so she can get as much breeze as possible.

“This feels amazing!” says Charlie.

“Doesn’t it?” says Summer.

“It’s the best part of every day,” says Poppy. “Especially the scorchers.”

 

In the biggest window of the house, a Christmas tree is visible. Handmade ornaments hang on the branches. Zara and her brothers open the gifts scattered at the base of the tree. Outside, Poppy and Summer watch the festivities. Halos surround the morning sun and the sky is orange and hazy.

That afternoon, as the sun slides west, it takes on a red glow. The front door squeals open and Zara steps out. Her brothers run out in their swimmers and head down to the ocean. Zara pulls the door closed and hurries over to Summer and Poppy, holding something behind her back.

“Summer, Poppy. What are you up to sarvo?” says Zara.

“Happy Christmas, sweetheart!”

“Thanks, you too!”

Summer leans down to murmur to Zara. “Tell me, Zara. Why do you have a decapitated tree in your living room?”

Zara’s eyes widen, then her face crumples in confusion.

“Means the Christmas fir tree,” says Poppy.

“Oh. It’s fake.”

Summer sighs in relief. “Oh, thank God.”

“I have gifts for you.” Zara reveals what was behind her back: a pair of red ribbons. “They’re ribbons,” says Zara.

Poppy and Summer swoon, flattered.

“Oh wow,” breathes Summer. “Gorgeous.”

“They’re beautiful,” croons Poppy.

“I gave Charlie a little one too. See?” she says and points to her window. Charlie sits on the windowsill of Zara’s bedroom looking outside. She has a small red ribbon around one of her little branches. “That way, no matter what, even if she’s still in a pot inside, you guys know that you’re family.”

Zara ties the ribbon around a branch of Poppy’s. Then she ties a ribbon around a branch of Summer’s. Summer gets emotional. Red sap oozing from her bark. It looks alarmingly like blood.

“Don’t go weeping, Summer,” says Poppy. “We need all the water we can get.”

Zara frowns. “I thought you hated water.”

“We don’t like a lot of it,” says Poppy. “But we haven’t had a rain in months. We’re parched all the time.”

“I can help!” says Zara and runs back across the street to her house. She goes around the side of the garden, where the hose lies coiled on the ground like a red-bellied black snake. She turns on the tap and runs across the street, dragging it behind. She stands in front of Summer and waters her roots. Summer gasps and sputters as her roots drink the water up. Zara begins to do the same for Poppy. Poppy also feverishly drinks the water.

The front door bangs open. Zara’s mum, a woman with dark hair and brown eyes, looks aghast.

“Zara!”

Zara innocently turns toward her mum. The stream drifts away from Poppy.

“Wait, no, bring it—” gasps Poppy.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” says Mum through gritted teeth as she marches across the garden. She pushes open the fence gate with enough force it swings round and slaps the other side. When she reaches Zara, she takes the hose from her and folds it in half, stopping the flow.

“We’re in Level 3 water restrictions!”

Zara’s eyes fill with tears.

“You can’t be using the hose for anything! Only Tuesday and Saturday mornings. That’s it,” says Mum. “Do you understand me?”

Zara nods.

“We can get in serious trouble. Lucky none of the neighbors saw you.”

Mum takes the hose back across the street. Zara turns to Summer and Poppy.

“I’ll come back Saturday morning.”

“Ah, don’t stress yourself over it, love,” says Poppy.

“Just make sure the little one gets enough water,” says Summer.

Zara sighs and slumps down next to Poppy. She leans against her trunk.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” says Poppy.

Zara looks down at the waves crashing below.

Mum turns around when she reaches the fence. “Zara, this is not okay. No bickies, sweets, or TV for a week.”

Zara’s lip trembles, but she nods.

“You know better,” says Mum.

Zara draws in the dirt with a stick while Debra, a blonde-haired, tan woman and neighbor, passes by in front of the house and stops to talk to Mum across the fence.

“Happy Christmas!” says Debra.

“Oh, happy Christmas to your family too! Lovely day isn’t it?”

Debra registers the hose in Mum’s hand. “Hey, you’re not watering, are you?”

Zara looks over at Mum. A few drops of water fall from the end of the hose. Mum hides them from view with her leg.

“Oh, no. No, I wouldn’t do that. Just tidying the lawn,” says Mum.

“How’re your plants doing? All of mine are dying.”

“Yeah, the hydrangeas are looking quite pitiful. Can’t seem to hold a bloom.”

“Your parents are down near Victoria, right?” asks Debra.

“Mm. Yeah.”

“How’re they doing?”

“They’re safe at the moment.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s just hard because if it were to sweep through, you know, how fast can they evacuate?” says Mum.

Debra clucks her tongue. “I know. It’s awful. Henry’s dealing with the same thing. His parents are up near Byron. They’re in a care home. I don’t think they’ll try to evacuate at all.”

“Oh, that’s awful.”

Behind Zara, a magpie flies and lands on one of Summer’s branches. It calls out, drowning out the end of Mum and Debra’s conversation. Zara looks at the bird. It has brought food back for its chicks. She watches the parent feed the three little birds.

Poppy whispers. “Do you like our new tenants?”

“As long as they don’t swoop me,” says Zara, eyeing them warily.

“Nar. We’re teaching these magpies not to swoop. They’ll be nice magpies.”

“That’s good,” Zara says, watching Debra wave goodbye to Mum.

The magpies keep calling out to their parent, who flies away for more food. The three chicks jump around in their nest and practice flying. One falls out of the tree. It shakes its head clear, then trots over to Zara. She holds out her hand and it hops onto her palm. Zara winces slightly at first, but then relaxes.

A few minutes later, the parent magpie returns home. The chick tries to fly back into the nest, but misses it and careens into the brush.

Zara, Summer, and Poppy gasp. A moment later, the bird flies up and lands in the nest.

“He’s a wild one there,” says Poppy.

“Ah, but isn’t it gorgeous watching him take his first flight?” says Summer.

 

Zara wakes up. She waters Charlie with the cup on the windowsill. Charlie writhes around in the pot. She looks out the window at Summer and Poppy and the coast beyond. The sky is orange; the sun, still low in the sky, is shrouded in an aura. A few tankers troll past on the horizon. Zara checks the calendar on the wall: Saturday, December 28.

She runs out of her room, out of the front door, and around the corner of the house. She turns on the hose tap and hurries across the street, dragging the hose behind her. When she gets to the red gum trees, she unleashes a sparkling spray of water.

She waters Poppy first, then Summer. They both feverishly drink up the water. They are massively dehydrated.

After a few moments, Summer says: “Right. That’s plenty.”

“You sure?” asks Zara.

“Yeah,” says Poppy. “We don’t want to take more than our share. We’ll soak up the rest of this water over the next day or so.”

“Okay,” says Zara.

“Thank you,” says Poppy.

“You’re a real lifesaver,” says Summer.

“It’s alright,” says Zara with a shrug.

She takes the hose back to the house and puts it away. Inside, she flicks off her flip flops and walks around the corner to the kitchen. Mum sits at the breakfast bar reading the newspaper and drinking a coffee. Ollie and Leo eat four Weet-Bix with a dazed, sleepy look on their faces. Zara sits down at the table, plunks two Weet-Bix in her bowl, and uses both hands to pour milk from the carton. She looks out the kitchen window at the trees in the backyard and the clothes drying on the line. She chews methodically, wondering if those trees are alive too. Are they also thirsty?

The sky begins to darken. Zara doesn’t notice it at first, but eventually, she asks: “Is it going to rain?”

Mum continues reading the newspaper. “No, I don’t think so.” She turns the page. “Wish it would.”

Her phone sits on the countertop. It buzzes silently, hidden underneath the newspaper. On the screen is a NSW government alert: Evacuate immediately. If you don’t, you will die.

“Luckily the Southerly will keep the fires west of us,” says Mum and turns the page of her newspaper.

Moments pass.

Ollie wrinkles his nose, frowns. “The smoke smell is really bad today.”

Mum abruptly looks up from the paper and out the open window. She registers the darkness in horror. Her coffee spills as she leaps from her stool and staggers to the patio door.

Outside, a fiery blaze dances on the hills on the horizon. Charcoal black smoke rises above it, blowing toward them. The scrubland and trees on the hill are heard crackling in the heat. There are high pitched noises followed by explosive booms.

“Mother of—”

“Are they bombing the fire?” asks Ollie, stepping out onto the patio.

Mum turns around. “Get in the car. Now!”

Ollie pivots and legs it out of the kitchen while Leo and Zara scramble out of their chairs. At the front door, Zara hurries up the stairs to her room. She hears the front door open and realizes how thirsty she is. Parched like Summer and Poppy. Zara lifts Charlie’s pot from the windowsill.

“Zara! Now!” Mum calls from downstairs.

Zara’s throat is sticky and she can’t call back. She rounds the corner of her bedroom door as Mum shouts again, more frantic. “You can’t bring anything! There’s no time!”

At the bottom of the stairs, Mum takes her free arm. “Hurry!” says Mum.

Zara turns toward her flip flops.

“Forget the shoes,” says Mum, pulling her out the front door.

They run out of the house to the drive. Leo and Ollie sit in the red station wagon. Zara climbs in the back. Mum reverses out of the driveway.

“Mum,” says Ollie. “You left the front door open.”

“I know,” Mum says, doing her two-footed dance switching to drive.

Zara twists around in her seat to see Summer and Poppy. They are blowing, keeling over in the strong west winds, which are sweeping black smoke out over the ocean.

“Where are you going?” shouts Summer over the roar of the wind and bushfire on the hillside.

“Take us with you!” shouts Poppy.

Zara’s eyes well with tears. She clutches Charlie tight. Finally, she manages to choke out a few words and says in a whisper, “I’m so sorry.”

The red station wagon speeds along the coastal road. It drives up a hill just outside town. As they crest the hill, they see a long snake of cars with burning red rear lights. The car slows to a stop. Mum looks to the west where the fires are quickly moving down the hillside to the shore. Embers blow well-ahead of the fires. Houses and trees distant from the fire line ignite into a battalion of smaller ones. A rogue ember blows as far as the coastal road and slides across the windscreen.

“Mum?” whispers Leo, his eyes glued to the ember where it floats out over the cliff faces. Mum chews her lip, but says nothing.

The sky grows even darker. Cars file in behind them. People honk. Zara holds Charlie close to her and watches in horror as the small fires join to make bigger fires, like water droplets on the walls of the shower. Mum squints ahead. Amidst the ever-darkening sky, she begins to make out fresh smoke plumes ahead, on the other side of the traffic jam.

She curses. Her feet tap in panic as she reverses the car and accelerates down the coastal road.

“Are we going back home?” asks Leo, his voice cracking from fear.

“We’re going to Plan B,” says Mum.

“When there’s not enough time?” asks Ollie.

“When there’s not enough time,” says Mum.

Leo and Ollie are terrified into a wide-eyed silence. Mum brings the car to an abrupt stop in front of their house, in between Summer and Poppy.

“Are you back for us?” asks Summer.

“Get out of the car,” says Mum in a frighteningly calm tone of voice. “Hurry.”

Zara exits the car and follows her brothers.

“How bad is it?” asks Poppy.

Zara stops to answer, but Mum takes her hand and pulls her ahead. She nearly drops Charlie. Zara and Mum follow Leo and Ollie down the overgrown path to the beach.

“Zara, we need to hurry,” says Mum as Zara trots two paces behind her.

Up ahead, Leo stops his running, clutching his side. “Mum, I have a cramp.”

“Keep running.”

Zara struggles to keep up, falling further and further behind. She is barefoot and she keeps stepping on rocks. Mum backtracks, picks her up, then Mum runs down the path to the beach with Zara looking over her shoulder, watching the fireline approach the house. Leo staggers next to Mum, massaging his side.

When they reach the sand of Cove Beach, Ollie stands there, sweaty and timid, as if he had shrunk. There are a few other families down on the sand. The fear is nearly as thick as the smoke. Mum, still holding Zara, and Leo jog to the end of the path and meet Ollie.

Mum, panting, says, “To the breakwall.”

They trot and lurch down the length of the beach toward the breakwall. The boys cough, and Zara can hear a wheeze inside Mum’s chest.

The sky is now so dark it could be night if it weren’t for the glow of the inferno approaching. Loud bangs echo across the water as trees on the hillside explode. Zara watches as the magpie family flies toward them. Two fall from the dark, smoky sky, and into the surf. Two more pass overhead. They do their droid call. One of their wings is singed.

When Mum, Zara, Leo, and Ollie reach the breakwall, they travel the length of it, hopping from large boulder to large boulder. They stop at the end next to the maritime red and green light. They pant, cough, sputter. Soot and sweat cake their clothes. Mum sets Zara down and wraps her family in a hug. Ollie begins to cry—first a whimper and then as involuntarily as breathing.

They watch the fires. The fire line engulfs their house. And like a monster with an insatiable appetite, it continues. It approaches Summer and Poppy. Embers shower them. They try to lean away from it. Their red ribbons are sucked toward the fires. Their branches bow in the wind and vacuum created by the bushfire.

Eventually, the fire captures them. Zara cries and shields Charlie’s eyes as Poppy and Summer are burned.

Still the fire doesn’t stop. It sweeps down the scrubland and the overgrown path to the beach, where it stalls. The families on the beach run out onto the breakwall.

The temperatures are hellish. Everyone is sweating and covered in soot. Leo steps down onto a submerged rock to cool down. Zara watches as both Summer and Poppy’s trunks explode. She cries even harder, her tears ploughing streaks on her dirty face. She blocks Charlie’s view, so she doesn’t see.

Ash from Summer and Poppy soars into the atmosphere. It floats over the breakwall. It floats higher, across blue seas, infecting blue skies. Across New Zealand. Across the breadth of the Pacific. The ash begins to fall near the tip of Cape Horn and the Drake Passage. It lands on the Antarctic Peninsula.

 

Zara, a few years older, digs a hole. She is in another coastal region of New South Wales. It has a similar overlook of the ocean, but lower to the sea, without the bluffs. Next to her is a large pot with a small tree in it. Tied around its trunk is a red ribbon: Charlie.

“Is it hard to dig a hole?” asks Charlie, bending over to look in the hole.

“There are harder things.” Zara pants. After a few moments, she stops and asks, “Ready?”

Charlie nods. Zara uproots her from her pot and plants her in the ground. She pats the soil down around the trunk.

“What do you think?” asks Charlie, standing straight.

Zara smiles at her. She reaches up and, like a fussy mother on the first day of school, tightens the ribbon on Charlie’s trunk.

“I think they would approve.”

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Tierney Acott is a writer primarily out of compulsion. She has written many feature and short length scripts, several of which have been shortlisted in various Los Angeles and London-based writing competitions. These include “Coupla Kooks”, a feature finalist for several festivals and selected as a table read for the Richard Harris International Film Festival 2020, and an independent comedy pilot, “The C Word,” which was inspired by Tierney’s experience with thyroid cancer. Her first novel, I, Frances, was written for her M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin and was longlisted for Britain’s Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition in 2016. Her latest novel, Nigel, was longlisted for Britain’s Comedy Women in Print 2020 Prize. Email: tierney.acott[at]gmail.com

Remembering Beth

Fiction
Sarah Turner


Image of a woman in a knee-length red raincoat and knee-high black boots walking on a rain-slicked sidewalk toward the photographer. A red bag is slung over her right shoulder. Her left hand is tucked into her pocket and her right hand holds the handle of an umbrella. The umbrella, along with the top of her head, is out of frame. Her face is obscured by shadow. The background cityscape includes other people carrying umbrellas on the sidewalk, vehicles including a yellow taxi and white van on the street, and tall buildings on both sides.

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

Frank had said it in passing, but I couldn’t let it go. I stood up, paced to the window and said, ‘I don’t think that’s fair. Our mother was very fond of Beth.’ It was an understatement and as soon as I’d said it, I wanted to say more, but my chest was tight with the weight of everything I was feeling about Beth and I was struggling to stay calm. Frank was a stranger, I reminded myself; he had no right to make judgments like this about my family. Besides, it was years since he’d really known Beth. All the same, he had said it with so much authority, I couldn’t shake it off.

He was watching me closely as I turned back and he must have seen the agitation in my face, but he didn’t soften his tone. He said, ‘Fond? Oh yes, I’m sure she was, but one tends to expect more from one’s own mother. Beth did, anyway. She needed more.’

Our eyes met and I wished I hadn’t come to see him. It was too soon after Beth had died. Frank pushed at his glasses, closing his eyes for a second behind them, and focused on me again, rearranging a strand of white hair, as though suddenly conscious that I was watching him.

‘You know, Beth had no confidence when she first got to New York,’ he said. ‘At home, she’d always been the black sheep of the family.’ He had given the phrase ‘black sheep’ an ironic emphasis, suggesting that it was the kind of thing I might say, but that he would not. For a moment, I was almost amused by this assumption, but then it occurred to me that when he talked about Beth to people who knew nothing about us, this was how he would explain it. Beth’s family had been repressive, he would say; we had stifled her.

‘That isn’t true,’ I said. ‘Mum was proud of her. We all were.’

I’d turned to him as I said it, but I looked away almost immediately, because the half-amused, half-saddened smile on his face annoyed me as much as anything he’d said. He was toying with my memories of Beth, making me feel as though I’d hardly known her.

He turned his hand over with a slight yawn, examining the blemishes on it. His face was more angular than it had seemed in Beth’s photographs. He sat back in his chair with his legs crossed and swung one of them forwards from the knee repeatedly. It was the first sign I’d seen that he was not quite relaxed.

‘Oh sure,’ he said. ‘Everyone was proud in the end. But it was different when she was just starting out. She had no self-belief. She would’ve stopped acting altogether, I think, if Lucy hadn’t given her a little confidence.’ His eyes passed over me, to the window. ‘Lucy was a mother to her, as well as a friend.’

‘Beth already had a mother,’ I said.

He didn’t reply immediately. Outside, in the December sunshine, a crow landed on a rooftop with a twig in its beak. I watched as it dropped it and felt for it again. Frank sighed and carried on talking in the room behind me.

Beth had felt like a failure until she was in her mid-twenties, he said. ‘Your mother was so academic. It was important to her. But Beth—she just wasn’t like that.’ He shrugged, explaining that his wife had felt an immediate connection with Beth, that she’d talked to her endlessly, discussing her plans. She, more than anyone Beth had known up to that point, had given her confidence, convincing her that she could become an actress. ‘Helping her was one of the things Lucy was proudest of,’ he said. ‘Beth had so much potential. She just needed someone to unlock it, it had been buried so deep at home.’

All the time he was saying this, I wanted him to stop. He was pushing the past into a shape I didn’t recognise, relentlessly lifting and dropping it like a garden worker turning earth, shaking my sense that I had been close to Beth. I tried to gauge from his face why he was saying these things, but his expression was perfectly composed and I could see no emotion in it. He was talking in a measured way, as if he was listing simple facts. I glanced at the clock and wished again that I hadn’t come.

Ironically, it had been my mother who had asked me to visit Frank while I was in New York and I’d agreed because he’d been so good to Beth. Frank had not been able to come to Beth’s funeral. He had been too fragile, after an operation for prostate cancer, to take a transatlantic flight, but he’d sent a letter that brought Beth back to me more vividly than any of the other cards or notes we’d had at the time. Most of the letters had upset me; it had struck me as peculiar that people should outline Beth’s qualities in them, as though they were trying to justify our grief to us. My sister had died before she was forty. I didn’t need anyone to justify the way I felt.

Frank’s letter had been different: he had not attempted to sum her up, but had simply described his strongest memories of her, beginning with her as a shy young woman meeting him for the first time in their apartment, when she’d come to talk about the nannying job. He had written about her long hair falling over an unbelted raincoat, the mini-dress beneath it, and the sudden, magnetising smile she’d given when his daughter first appeared. He’d described the long conversations she’d had with his wife late in the evenings, after he’d gone to bed, outlined the intense friendship that had developed between them, and then described the first time he’d ever seen her on stage and realised just how talented she was. ‘Hard to believe it about someone you know,’ he had written. ‘But there was no denying it. I miss her. Please look me up next time you’re in New York.’

His letter had been concise but extraordinarily detailed. I’d liked him instantly, on the strength of it, and had looked forward to meeting him. I suppose I’d thought he would reinforce my memories of Beth in some way, or that talking to him would bring me closer to her, giving me access to the years she’d spent here, away from us.

Remembering this now, I softened and said, ‘She enjoyed her time here. It was important to her.’

He nodded, but though he smiled briefly, the expression was quickly replaced by a thoughtful severity. ‘It was very important, I think, because it was so good for her. She started to develop here—it was like she hadn’t been allowed to before. My wife understood Beth so much more clearly than her own mother had.’

My heart beat faster—my mother had adored Beth—and when I looked down at my hand, I saw that it was clenched. I let my nails dig deeper into my palm and deliberately calmed my tone,

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ I said. ‘My parents wanted Beth to get some qualifications so she’d have something to fall back on, but really, it was just accepted: she wanted to be an actress and we all knew she would. No one tried to hold her back.’

He didn’t seem to have taken this in; he was nodding as I said it, but rather distantly, looking at the light that was flooding in through the upper panes of the window.

‘Oh, I’m sure you’re right,’ he said eventually, in a remote, distracted way. ‘In retrospect it must seem like that. But at the time it was different. Beth was always negatively compared to you. She had very little confidence when she first arrived.’

He had looped back to the beginning of our conversation, repeating what he had said then almost word for word, as though he had taken in none of what I’d told him. His certainty about my family annoyed me. Beth and I had been close, and I knew she hadn’t come to America to run away, so much as for the opportunities she’d thought she might have here. Her letters and calls from that time were energetic and enthused. Just before she’d left for New York she’d been excited, blissfully optimistic, planning it all out in the kitchen with my mother. She would attend acting classes here, get to know people who could help her. All of us had gone out of our way to help her prepare.

I told Frank some of this, and he explained, in his careful, roundabout way, that it couldn’t be true, and we went on like this for another ten minutes, both of us eager not just to make our point, but actually to make the other admit that they were wrong, until I gave up and, in a depressed attempt to change the subject, asked him how his own children were. He glanced at me and hesitated. For a moment, I thought he was so determined to talk about Beth that he wouldn’t let himself be diverted, but then he shifted in his chair, shrugged, and began to tell me about his daughter, who was an attorney in Washington, and his son, who worked for a magazine downtown.

It was difficult for me to focus; I was still distracted by what he’d said about Beth. I thought of my mother holding my arm at Beth’s funeral as we followed the coffin into the church, her lips pursed, and her eyes entirely blank. Nothing any of us could say could help her. Her own brother had been killed during the Second World War, and when they’d received the news, in the tiny Northumbrian village where they lived, her mother had pushed her arm away as she’d tried to comfort her and flatly said,

‘I have nothing to live for now.’

It had been the largest, most devastating rejection of my mother’s life, and she didn’t repeat those words to any of us as we walked into the church, but I thought that perhaps she’d understood them for the first time: they were there in her eyes and in her shattered face.

Frank couldn’t have talked like this if he’d seen her then, I thought, but he hadn’t come to the funeral—he’d only seen her composed, punctual reply to his letter. It had been restrained and dignified, but I suspected that he’d seen only coldness in it, a lack of feeling that confirmed everything his wife had told him.

I wanted him to stop talking, so that I could begin the story with him again and make him see how loved Beth had been, but I couldn’t find a way to start, and I knew I wouldn’t convince him, in any case. He was saying that his son came over to see him often, that his children were a comfort to him, now that his wife had died. I said again how sorry we had been to hear that news. It was a little more than five years since it had happened. Beth had been extremely upset. He nodded, rubbing his left eye with a finger beneath his spectacles and glanced past me, at the window again.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well, there we have it. We’ve both been through it.’

I recognised the sparseness of his reply. He was shutting himself off just as I had done after Beth had died, when what I’d felt had been so devastating and at the same time so commonplace, that I hadn’t found a way to discuss it with anyone.

We sat facing each other for several minutes without speaking. Eventually, he asked whether I’d like more coffee, and then said, tentatively, as though he was suddenly conscious of the tension between us,

‘I have some photos—of her time here. I don’t know if you’d like to see them?’

It was the kind of thing I’d hoped for when I’d first called him. ‘I’d love to,’ I said.

Frank disappeared into a room off the hall, closing the door behind him. When he came out, he was carrying three photograph albums and he gestured towards the sofa, indicating that I should join him there. As he lifted the cover of the first album, I was almost nervous. I suppose I was afraid that I might cry. I bit the inside of my cheek, hard.

He showed me all the photos quickly, starting with the early ones of his children before Beth arrived—the little girl already walking, the boy wrapped in blankets in his mother’s arms—but didn’t comment on them, glancing down at the pages with a self-conscious detachment, as though these photos had very little to do with him. I wondered briefly whether that was how it seemed to him. Beth had given me the impression that he’d seen very little of his children when they were small, and I was careful, as he turned the pages, not to ask anything that might hurt him, now that his wife had died, or remind him of things he would rather forget.

‘Ah, here we are,’ he said. ‘This was Central Park, and quite early on. Look, you can see she’s still wearing English clothes.’ It wasn’t clear to me how he knew they were British—she was in a skirt and boots that could have come from anywhere—but I let it pass. Beth’s front foot was angled sideways in front of her. Her hair was down across her shoulders and the big smile on her face was for Nicole, who was waving at her from the top of a climbing frame.

It was some time since I’d seen a photo of Beth at this age, and the excited rush of recognition it brought back to me was quickly followed by sadness. There were more photos of her with the children; one of her looking serious, painting with Nicole at a small easel, and one of her sitting reading on a bed with both children. They were leaning against her, laughing. He paused at a photo of Beth and an older woman sitting in deckchairs amongst pots of geraniums, staring at it for several seconds before he could go on.

‘That’s Lucy—on the roof of the apartment we had then. They used to sit out there a lot after the kids had gone to bed. That would’ve been the first summer Beth was here. I was working a lot at that time.’

I scanned the photo several times. Lucy had short, very dark hair. She was in a knee-length skirt and sandals with a cigarette raised to her mouth, frowning at the camera. Beside her, Beth had been unexpectedly disturbed in conversation. I’d forgotten how she’d moved her hand like that to make a point at that age; it was a gesture she’d had for a while, and then discarded. She looked happy. I looked at her face for some time, trying to work out what she’d been feeling, and why she’d talked about her family in the way she had.

I’d seen very little of Beth while she’d been away. The first year she was in America she’d come back twice, once at Christmas, and again in July, but I’d been away myself in the summer, and in the second year I hadn’t seen her at all. She’d seemed different when she’d moved back, it was true—more determined, more sure of herself—and I wondered, thinking about what Frank had said, whether there had also been a new absence in her.

Coming home had marked the beginning of her success as an actress, and I wondered for the first time now whether she’d had to make some sort of mental break with us in order for that to happen. I hadn’t been conscious of her doing that at the time, and I stalled on that fact, not letting myself think further. I looked at her face again, and turned the page quickly, but though I sat with Frank for another half an hour and though the conversation moved on to other subjects, I couldn’t stop thinking about Beth.

As we talked, I told myself that he was wrong, that all of us had been close to Beth, but as long as I knew he thought otherwise, I couldn’t convince myself that it was true. Even as I left I was regretting the fact that I hadn’t been able to make him admit he was wrong. I walked across Lexington and Fifth avenues to the park preoccupied, wanting, in short, angry bursts, to go back to his apartment and make him go through it all again.

The morning frost had melted in a bright sunshine and the streets were full of people. I threaded my way amongst them, waiting at the edges of pavements for the lights to change, but I barely saw anything; my mind was still on Beth. When I got to the park I walked for a long time, moving quickly until, circling back towards the lake, I remembered that Beth had walked here often, and a sudden, vivid, memory of her as she’d been then made me feel calmer.

The lake was empty and very still. There were leaves on its surface and here and there, around the edges, there were patches of ice. I climbed onto a rock next to it, looking across at the buildings opposite, trying to work out why I was in this state.

I stood still, wanting to deal with this easily. I reminded myself that Frank was still grieving, too. It was important to him to preserve his memories of his wife, important to believe she’d helped Beth more than anyone else, but it seemed to me that Frank had distorted my memories of Beth, pushing her further away from me. He’d raised issues Beth and I could never resolve. I wished I could forget everything he’d said.

I went on for a long time, until I had circled the lake completely, and was walking south, past the horse carriages and the hotels by the time I realised that thinking like this had unleashed something in me and I was remembering Beth more clearly than I had for some time. Incidents I thought I’d forgotten were flooding back to me now, and they made her seem fuller, more real, than she had since she’d died.

At the skating rink, small groups of people were circling the ice. I stood in the sunshine, where it was warm, watching them, focusing especially on two little girls in matching hats and scarves who were holding hands, laughing together at something one of them had said. It didn’t seem long since Beth and I had been that age. I stood watching the skaters until long after the girls had gone, thinking about Beth—the whole of Beth—and piecing my memories of her together again.

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Sarah Turner studied English at the University of Oxford and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is working on her first novel, This Is Not a Confession. Email: sarahturnerfiction[at]gmail.com

The Photo

Fiction
Victoria Kemsley


Image of an abandoned prairie homestead consisting of several woodframe buildings. A two-storey house is the largest building on the left, with two smaller buildings to the right of it, and another to the far right partially obscured by trees. A foreground of green grass and scrubby trees makes up the bottom third of the composition; above it is a darkening sky with a hint of sun peeking out from gathering clouds. The slanted sun casts a warm glow on the homestead.

Photo Credit: Jeff Wallace/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“No, Hugh. No.” Melvina fell into a coughing fit. She signaled with her hand to wait. Hugh waited. “I’ll not have my children remember their mother like this. Sick, skinny, coughing. No.” Melvina wiped the blood from her mouth.

“Your children will remember you for the loving, beautiful mother that you always are. Come outside and have your picture. The whole family. We have never had a photograph with the whole family.” Hugh pulled Melvina’s Sunday dress out of the cupboard and put it on her bed. “That Resilient Realistic Pictures fella is not going to be here forever.” Hugh started to put the dress on her as gently as he could.

She shook it off again.

“I get the feeling… Hugh… that… you are not listening to me.” She started to cough again.
This argument had been going on for near on a week. Ever since they heard that an itinerant photographer was coming to Starling County. Such excitement. All their neighbors were chattering about what they were going to wear, and getting haircuts, and comparing notes about the best place on their properties to pose for the picture. There was no other topic on the streets in town. Just yesterday the good ladies of the Women’s Institute had been over to the farm for their bi-weekly visit. They about drove Melvina to put a pillow over her ears.

“I think my blue hat, don’t you, Cilia?” Mrs. Jones checked out her reflection as she swept the kitchen floor.

Mabeline, the teenager that worked for her, held the handmade dustpan. “No hat for me, Mrs. Jones. My curly hair will be piled high with a ribbon. The wind will be the ruin of the entire picture. Pray for me.” Mabeline was almost as pretty as she thought she was.

“It’s going to be fight getting my boys into a bath in the morning. I’m going to take my bath the night before so I can be ready. He won’t be at my house until Thursday, so there’s time for them to get used to the idea.” Mrs. Jones shouted more than spoke. Probably due to her years in that factory in Calgary before Tim Jones convinced her to make her life as a farmer.

“Hand me down that flour, will you, Della? This stew is like weak tea. I’ll stop by after supper, Mabeline, and wind the rags in your hair tomorrow. You can sleep in them, and take them out gently, mind. Your long hair will just flow like a river. You are so lucky.”

“I’m tempted to wear my wedding dress,” Sally Ferrell declared. “I really am. May as well get two uses out of the darn thing. That is a fine looking stew, Lily. Nothing like your fine rabbit stews, Melvina, but just dandy.”

“First thing I ever learned to cook on my own.” Melvina sat up and tried a little smile. “He was senior cook just before I came away. He declared that he was afraid that my new husband was going to starve to death if he’d had to survive on the state of my cooking. Non-cooking really.”

The ladies talked of nothing but the photographer for near on the whole hour of the visit. They never stopped working, though. Sweeping, cleaning the windows, freshening her sheets, cooking up a big rich meal for the family, complete with biscuits, cake, and pie for tomorrow, beating the one rug the McLarens owned. Young Mrs. Lawrence took all the dishes off the shelves and scrubbed them down while declaring herself too ugly to have her picture taken at all. Melvina was exhausted by the time they left. Nice though. So much happy life in her house.

Hugh was never much of a talker, but he stayed determined to have his way on the photo session. He had met his match in Melvina though. Other wives did just what their husbands said to do. Melvina knew her place to be a full partner. In this, and so many matters, she stood her ground.

“I want a nice picture of my husband and my babies. Right here on my table. I can look at it all day long. I’ll hear you outside and just look at you. Sandy’s new sweater is all finished now. Slick their hair down, Hugh.” Melvina still had enough energy to sew on the last of the cardigan’s buttons.

“You will be in the picture. The end.” Hugh stacked the wood by the stove.

“Helen can dress Phyllis if you can manage Jeannie. Helen can wear her little church dress. It’s a tiny bit small, but will look just fine if she wears that pretty apron that Jean Guilliame gave her last Christmas.” She bit the button thread off. “Do this for me, Hugh. I need my family right now. Will you do this for me?”

Hugh stopped arguing. She was right, of course. She did not look like the beautiful girl in that portrait she had sent to him during the war. Inside she was the same, but the outside was pale and boney and would break your heart to see.

“They want a photograph of their mother.” Hugh fed the stove to get it roaring for supper.

“Hand me my English box, please, my good Hughie. You know the one.”

Melvina’s mother didn’t write her very often, but once Dahlia came to accept that they were never coming back, she started sending little treasures over. The wooden box was Dahlia’s most prized possession. Lady Winston had uncharacteristically given the staff gifts on the occasion of the King’s coronation in 1911. Chinese boxes were all the rage then. Dahlia used her little box to hide her treasures and Melvina continued that tradition. At the moment it held the princely sum of $2.17 that it had taken her nearly a decade to accrue. The most recent $1.50 coming from the last sweater she had been able to knit. It was not a perfect fit despite Lesley Wilson declaring it to be.

“I believe he said two dollars, didn’t he, Hugh?” Melvina opened her little box.

“I have the two dollars. You don’t need to…” He started to shut her little box.

“I know you do, my husband. But let me do this with my own money, will you? Then you can tell my children that their mother gave them this gift. That will be better memory than a picture of a weak, sick and sad woman.” She carefully counted out all the pennies and nickels and one true dollar bill.

Hugh put the money in his pocket and left her to finish his chores.

When the day came for the photograph, Hugh decided that the picture was to be taken with the wide open prairie for a background, not the house or the barn as some people chose. He wasn’t so house proud yet. The boys wore the matching sweaters Melvina had made. Archie’s was, of course, worn by Sandy first. Melvina combed everybody’s hair one by one and had a quiet moment with each of them before they went outside.

“You’ll give your biggest smile, won’t you, Helen? You have such a pretty smile, my big girl. If you smile, your sisters can’t help but join in.”

“Jeannie, sweet girl, you are going to make a picture today with your Daddy, won’t that be fun? Then your pretty picture will sit right here on my table. I’ll look at it all the time, even when you aren’t here. I like that idea. Do you like that idea?”

“Yes, Mama.” Jean was just a toddler, but she could feel that this was a big moment. She started to cry. She snuggled with her mother until the last minute.

“Archie, don’t be frightened. It doesn’t hurt to have your picture taken.”

Archie squirmed as his mother gently combed his hair while he perched on her bed.

“You see my picture over there, Archie? I had to sit still, still, still. I’ll tell you a secret. Do you want to hear a secret just between you and me?”

Archie nodded.

“See how my arm is set across the front of me? Would you believe it? That is hiding a big pole that I had to put my chin on so I wouldn’t move. Isn’t that funny? See how my other hand is hiding the bottom of my chin? That’s hiding a metal platform. Mama’s whole chin sitting on a platform?”

Archie started to smile a little with the thought that he had a secret just for him and Mama.

“Back in those days you had to sit still for hours it seemed. But aren’t you lucky? You can just stand big and tall on the McLaren farm without a pole and smile like you heard a good joke. Can you do that, Archie?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“It’s up to you, Sandy. You are my big boy. My firstborn. I couldn’t be more proud at how big and strong you are growing. Almost as big as your Daddy now! You will show the others how to act, won’t you? Big and strong. Stand tall, my handsome son. I want to see if you can be taller than Daddy in the picture. I bet you will be. Let’s not tell him until we see the picture next week. It will be our secret.”

It was no good. They stood there, tall and straight as they promised. Everyone clean, shaved, combed, ironed, but sad. No one could smile knowing that Mama was waiting in her bed. Listening carefully for what was happening outside. They all tried to muster a smile like they said they would, but when the photographer came back the next week with the picture, it was clear. Hugh held Jeannie in one arm and the other two little girls leaned up against him. The boys stood on either side of him, staring at the camera suspiciously. Not a smile between the six of them. This was a sad family. With a missing mother.

“Well, look at this!” Melvina exclaimed when she saw the photograph. “My fetching family. You boys look so grown up. I don’t believe it! You look like a mirror of your father. I imagine when you grow up no one will be able to tell the difference between you.”

“Thank you, Mama,” Archie managed to squeak out before he ran out of the house.

“I can make you a frame if you want, Mama,” Sandy said.

“My goodness, Sandy. My cup runneth over. Thank you. Don’t neglect your chores though, or your Dad will have my head. I will put the photo with your nice frame right here on my table that Uncle made. I’m so lucky.”

The three little girls were curled up on her bed. They stared at the photo, not really understanding what was happening. Helen thought she was in trouble somehow. She didn’t know why, but the picture was not quite right. She had seen pictures of herself at school, this was not the same.

“Melvina…”

“It’s just fine, Hugh. This is my family and I’m proud to have the photo. Thank you for doing this for me.” With that she had a coughing fit, and the girls were scrambled off her bed and out the door. When she settled back on her pillows again, and she was alone, she took a real and true look at the photograph. She brought the photo to her chest and the tears came then.

Uncle crept up to the door of the little house to look in on Melvina, as he liked to do, then just as quietly backed out. He waved Hugh off when he saw him coming back into to check on her again.

“Leave her be, Hugh. She’ll not want to disappoint you.”

Hugh took a few paces back from the door and waited.

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Victoria Kemsley teaches writing to seniors at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. She follows the ‘Learn then Teach’ philosophy. But sometimes it’s ‘Teach then Learn’. This piece is part of an anthology called Prairie Stories, that traces the life of her Grandfather and Grandmother who homesteaded in Delia, Alberta after the first world war. Email: victoriakemsley[at]gmail.com

Initiation

Fiction
Kathryn Bashaar


Black-and-white image of a group of elementary-school-age children, a dozen or more, in a crosswalk marching toward the photographer. The girls and boys are dressed in 1970s-era casual clothing, mostly short-sleeved shirts and pants in various styles and patterns; a few of the girls wear short skirts or dresses. In the background, a large leafy tree fills the right side of the photograph, a utility pole and "WALK" light are directly behind the children, and to the right, a semi truck and trailer is in the street. The street slopes gently upward and houses and trees dot the hill. Utility poles line the street and a few 1970s-vintage cars are parked on the sides.

Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr (CC-by)

Marky Murphy had lived more than twice as long as the doctors expected at his birth. I took my frail mother to the funeral home, where she hugged his tiny, comma-shaped mother. Mrs. Murphy wiped her eyes and shook her head, speechless with grief.

I approached the casket and gazed at Marky, whom I hadn’t seen in almost fifty years. Wisps of gray hair on his round head. The slanted eyes, the stubby fingers, the look of complete peace—and the scar. He still had it, a white slash above his right eyebrow. Ancient guilt stirred in my chest.

 

The neighborhood where Marky and I grew up was dominated by two enormous families: the Connors and the Santinis. Mrs. Connor and Mrs. Santini reproduced prolifically, an average of a child per year, sometimes delivering twins, so that each of them had five children between the ages of six and ten roaming the streets and woods and terrorizing the rest of us, and two or three more still confined to the yard, preparing to terrorize our younger brothers and sisters.

They were clannish, mean, bossy and capricious. One day you were allowed to join their games, another day not, for obscure reasons. The rules of their games changed to suit them and if you didn’t like it, too bad, go home, they still had more than a baseball team between them and you’d hear them enjoying themselves while you, a member of the rejected rabble, listlessly played with paper dolls in your room or jumped rope alone on the concrete patio.

But I don’t think they meant to hurt Marky.

One summer, they had a clubhouse in a small wood near the Connor home, a sprawling ranch with a two-car garage, bigger and grander than the average house in our neighborhood. There was a path to the clubhouse from the Connor yard. They’d built the clubhouse out of soda-pop crates and some wood scraps that their dads had around, and they had a cigar box which they were very mysterious about. I desperately wanted to know what was in that box. They referred to it often, in vaguely threatening tones, hinting that the box contained objects of great power and possible danger.

Other than the path from the Connors’ yard, the only way to the clubhouse was through a particularly brutal thigh-high stand of thorny underbrush which we called “jagger bushes” or just “jaggers.”

I raced my bike around the Connors’ dead end one blinding summer morning two weeks before my tenth birthday. The sun was high, white and jagged in the hard, blue sky, and the concrete sidewalk radiated heat. I looped the dead end languidly, hoping a Connor would emerge from their house and invite me in to play. For all that her children were the terrors of the neighborhood, Mrs. Connor was very particular about being disturbed by other people’s children. She didn’t like children who came to the door too early in the morning, or during meals, or who came in wearing dirty shoes or who “made pests of themselves” by coming too often.

I pretended not to notice when Sandy Connor emerged from their spacious garage on her own pink two-wheeler, until she started riding beside me, blonde ponytail swinging, trying to cut me off. Finally, trying to avoid her, I wobbled to a stop and put a foot down. Sandy stopped in front of me.

“Patsy Place!” she called, although I was right beside her.

“Yeah.” My heart fluttered a bit.

“What are you doing here?”

“Riding my bike.”

“This is our dead end.”

“Other people can ride on this street if they want to.”

“No, they can’t. My dad said. The street in front of our house is our property. You can’t be on it unless we say. It’s a law.”

“I see other people riding here,” I argued.

“Because we say they can. We didn’t say you could ride here. And you can’t come to our club unless we invite you either.”

“Well, can I?”

“Can you what?”

“Can I come to your club?”

“Maybe. I’ll have to ask everybody. We’d have to have a vote. Come to the woods after lunch and we’ll have the vote.”

“Okay.” I smiled ingratiatingly. “See ya later.” And I rode off, in case what she said was true, about the law.

 

On my way home, Marky was in his front yard playing with his pet rabbit, Din. As I passed, he called out to me and waved me into the yard. I laid my bike in the grass near the curb.

Marky poked a carrot through the bars of Din’s cage, smiling at me. “Din,” he said, handing me the carrot and indicating that I should try feeding the rabbit. We laid on our stomachs in the prickly, summer-dry grass. Grasshoppers popped around in front of us, and ants crawled on our sun-warmed legs.

I tried poking the carrot at the rabbit. Din ignored me at first, but then I waved the carrot under his nose and he took a nibble.

“Ayesh!” Marky cried approvingly. Marky said some regular words, but he also had a language of his own; that was why Din had such a funny name. “Ayesh” meant that he was either very happy or very upset.

We vaguely knew that Marky was different from the rest of us. When his parents allowed him to come out and play, we included him. We were casually cruel to him, but only in the same way that we were cruel to each other. We made fun of his cries of “ayesh!” just like we made fun of Jane Mulvaney’s lisp, or like the Santinis taunted me when they caught me picking my nose one day. Mrs. Murphy was protective, though; she usually kept Marky in the yard.

She came out the front door now, to check on us. Her worried brown eyes rested on me and relaxed a bit. “Hello, Patsy,” she said.

“Hi, Mrs. Murphy,” I replied, not looking up, still waving the carrot at Din.

“Din,” Marky said to his mother, pointing to the cage, making a gesture like rocking a baby, and then pointing to me.

“You want Patsy to hold Din?”

Marky nodded. “Ayesh!”

“Would you like to hold the rabbit?” Mrs. Murphy asked me.

I nodded, and she opened the cage’s latch. Marky fetched Din out very gently, his mother hovering over him, and handed the rabbit to me.

“Hold on to him,” Mrs. Murphy warned.

I’d never held Din before. He trembled in my arms, his pink nose twitching.

Marky smiled and nodded at me, making a petting motion.

I cautiously held the rabbit in one arm, and petted his back with my other hand. His black-and-white fur was very soft.

Marky nodded again. “Nice,” he said.

“He’s so cute,” I said. “I wish I could have a rabbit.”

“You’d have to ask your parents about that,” Mrs. Murphy said. She took Din from me. “I think he needs to go back in his cage now.” She dropped him into the cage and closed the latch.

“Bye, Marky,” I said. “Thanks for letting me hold Din.”

“Come back any time,” Mrs. Murphy said.

“Bye, Patsy,” Marky called as I picked up my bike and pedaled home.

 

I had a baloney sandwich, a glass of milk, and a plum for lunch, my thighs zipping off the sticky vinyl chair when I rose from the kitchen table. My mother was cleaning my little sister’s face and didn’t look up, just said, “Be back in time for dinner.”

I jumped on my bike, pedaled to the Connors’ and shyly rang the doorbell. They had the fancy kind of screen door, with their initial in wrought aluminum.

Sandy came to the door. “We’re still eating,” she said. “My mom’s mad. It’s rude to come to the door when people are eating.” She had a half-eaten Oreo cookie in her hand, a treat we were never allowed at our house, and her teeth were flecked with black crumbs.

“Okay,” I said humbly. “I’ll wait.”

“No, just meet us at the woods.”

“Okay.” I started towards the path that led to their yard.

“No, not that way.” Sandy opened the screen door and poked out her head. “You have to go in the other way.”

My stomach twisted. The other way led to the jaggers. But one did not disobey a Connor.

I waited where the path ended in jaggers for what felt like a very long time, and was ready to give up and go back home to my paper dolls and my jump rope when the Connor-Santini clan appeared on the other path, bearing the cigar box.

When they had gathered behind their barricade of soda-pop cases and scrap wood, Sandy called out, “Patsy Place, do you want to be in our club?”

“Yes,” I called back.

“Who votes that Patsy Place can be in our club?”

Petey, the biggest boy, replied, “I vote that she should have an initiation.”

“Who votes for an initiation?” Sandy asked.

Ayes came from all the Connors and Santinis in attendance, from Petey down to six-year-old Anna.

“It’s voted,” Petey declared. “The initiation is that Patsy Place has to come to the clubhouse through the jaggers.”

My heart raced and my baloney sandwich heaved in my stomach. Between me and the clubhouse lurked a five-foot-deep, two-foot-high snarl of thorny scrub. I was so close to being in the club. But I hesitated.

“Patsy Place, do you want to be in our club?” Petey called.

“Yes,” I quavered.

“Then you must walk through the jaggers,” he decreed.

I bit my lip and lifted my right leg as high as I could, stamping a section of jaggers under my red, rubber-soled Ked. It was harder to lift my right leg and tramp down the next section. I felt the prick of the thorns on my inner thighs. But not until I contemplated my next step did I understand the trap I was in. As soon as I lifted my right leg again, the jaggers behind me would spring back up and trap me from behind. But some pride or determination or abject desperation drove me on, and I lifted my right leg again.

My red knit shorts were now pinned by half a dozen thorns from left, right and behind, but I was halfway there. I patiently detached the branches from my shorts, drawing pinpricks of blood from my small white fingers, and took another step. I felt the sharp scratches on my legs and refused to look down. The jaggers were a little higher here towards the barricade. My shirt and shorts were both caught and the bushes were too high in front of me to tramp down. But I was almost there. I moved forward. I could feel my clothes snagging and ripping. The jaggers tore at my arms and legs like tiny, vicious teeth.

I emerged at the barricade with a branch stuck to the front of my shirt and another one in my hair. When I looked down, I saw that my arms and legs were covered with small gashes, some of them with thorns still embedded. My shorts were a fuzz of snags, my white cotton shirt had a large tear and dozens of pulled threads. One fingernail burned, a thorn embedded beneath it.

Petey was laughing. “I can’t believe she actually did it!” he said to his sisters. To me, he said nothing.

“You’re bleeding,” Anna observed.

“So, am I in the club?” I asked.

“Who votes that Patsy Place can be in the club?” Sandy asked.

Ayes all around again, and I sat down on one of the soda cases. I didn’t notice the pain in my fingernail any more.

“That was funny,” Petey said. “I can’t believe you did it.”

“You’re going to be in trouble when our mom sees your clothes,” Kim Santini warned.

“No, I won’t,” I lied. “So, what do we do in the club?”

“We don’t have to do something every single time,” Sandy snapped. “Sometimes we don’t do anything. It’s just a club.”

“What’s in the cigar box?” I asked.

The mood turned somber. “You have to promise not to tell anyone,” Kim said.

“She won’t,” Petey said, “because if she does, I’ll beat her up and take her pants off and she’ll have to run home naked.”

Everyone laughed except me.

“Okay,” Petey said, “show her.”

Kim slowly lifted the box lid to reveal a bone nestled in dead leaves.

“We think it’s a human bone,” Sandy whispered.

“We’re going to find the rest of the body and then we’re going to find the murderer,” Kim added.

“Maybe it was you!” Petey yelled at me suddenly, and then laughed at my startle, slapping his knee repeatedly. When he finished laughing, he said, “Okay, meeting adjourned for today. Same time, same place tomorrow.”

I proudly trailed after them down the path that led to the Connor yard. “Bye, see you tomorrow, good meeting,” I called as I ran to the other entrance to retrieve my bike.

 

I went to the Connors’ door after lunch the next day. Sandy came to the screen door again. “My mother says you’re making a pest of yourself. Wait in the yard.”

I hung around in the Connor’s yard for a while, wishing to be invited in for Oreos and admiring the litter in their yard: dented bikes, seam-ripped baseballs, hula hoops, jump ropes, scratched metal trucks, and a couple of naked, disheveled Barbies with glitter nail polish chipping off their hands.

“Don’t touch our toys,” Davey Connor warned as the Connors flooded out of their house.

“Come on, let’s go,” Petey said, and we all ran into the woods, where the Santinis were already waiting for us.

Freddy Santini passed around a bag of Wise potato chips and everyone took big handfuls. I was on the end and got mostly crumbs. I licked my fingers and plunged them to the bottom of the bag to draw up the greasy remains of salt and potato.

“Ewww,” Kim exclaimed, pointing at me. “She got her germs in the bag. I don’t want any more.”

Although I longed for more crumbs, I put the bag down.

“The meeting will now come to order,” Petey announced. “First order of business: new members.”

My heart sank. I was enjoying the distinction of being the only non-Connor, non-Santini member of the club.

Freddy’s hand shot up. “I know who we can invite: Marky Murphy.”

“I don’t think we should invite Marky,” I said. “Isn’t he… retarded?”

“That’s a bad word,” Sandy scolded.

“Yeah, you shouldn’t say ‘retarded,’” Freddy agreed.

“All in favor of asking Marky Murphy to join our club say aye.” Petey said.

I reluctantly added my aye to the chorus.

 

The next day, rather than make a pest of myself, I wandered through the Connors’ toy graveyard, right into the woods where the Santinis and Connors already waited. Sandy, Petey, Marie, Jill, Nicky, Anna, Kim, Debbie and Tommy were in the clubhouse. Freddy stood with Marky on the other side of the jaggers.

Nobody greeted me or seemed to notice that I had arrived. They were milling around with an air of excitement and agitation.

“Shh, shh, shh,” Petey said, then intoned, “Marky Murphy, do you want to be in our club?”

Marky grinned and yelled, “Ayesh.”

The girls giggled.

“Then you must walk through the jaggers,” Petey commanded.

Marky looked confused.

Freddy explained, “Just walk through the jagger bushes to the clubhouse. Then you’re in the club.” He took one step forward, then stepped back and nudged Marky forward.

Marky frowned, folded his arms and shook his head.

“C’mon, Marky!” the girls yelled. “Please! We want you in our club.” They beckoned to him. “Pleeeease!”

Marky shook his head again.

Freddy gave Marky a shove. “C’mon. It won’t hurt you.”

Marky was bigger and stronger than Freddy, but he was caught off guard. He went down on his hands and knees. “Ayesh!” he wailed. His T-shirt and shorts were caught and his face was marked with a dozen scratches. He panicked and began to flail, trying to escape, lost his balance, and went into the brush head first. When he rose back onto his hands and knees, blood streamed over his right eye.

“He put his eye out!” Freddy yelled.

“Jesus Mary Mother of God!” Petey said. “Get out of here! Everybody out of here!”

We ran. I found my bike in front of the Connors’ house and raced home. I ran to my room, leapt into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and cried into my pillow.

I should tell, but then Petey would beat me up and take my pants off. Somebody would go looking for Marky pretty soon, and then the dads would know how to get him out of the jaggers. And he only lost one eye, so at least he wouldn’t be blind. That wasn’t really so bad.

Finally, I stopped crying and realized that I had to tell my mother, even if Petey did beat me up and take my pants. Just as I was getting up, my mother stormed into my room. “Patricia!  What did you kids do to Marky Murphy?”

I started to cry again. “It wasn’t my idea! I was going to tell you, just now!”

“Those Connor kids said it was your idea.”

“No, it wasn’t! It wasn’t me! It was Freddy!”

My mother sighed. “I can believe that.”

She sat on my bed. “What in the world were you kids doing in the woods anyway?”

“It’s a club,” I choked. “You had to walk through the jaggers to get to the club. I told them not to do it.”

“I see,” my mother said, glancing down at my own scratched legs and arms.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. But at least he’s not blind. At least he still has one eye.”

“What?”

“Marky’s eye. He put his eye out.” The tears started again.

My mother put her arms around me. “No, honey, no. He didn’t lose an eye. He was just scared and scratched up. The Connor kids told their mother and she called the fire department.”

“Are we going to jail?”

“No, no, the fireman had to cut through the brush.”

“I feel like I should go to jail. I feel terrible. I’m sorry, Mommy.”

“I know you are. But I want you to think about what you did and take a lesson from it. You’ll have to apologize to the Murphys. Your father and I will talk about whether there will be any other punishment.”

She rose to leave. “I think you’d better stay in your room until your father gets home.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and nodded, eyes and nose still running.

I wiped my face on my arm, crawled back under the covers and pulled them back over my head, although it was a hot day. I would rather anything than have to face the Murphys. Rather go to jail, rather if my father would spank me every day for a year. I would rather be yelled at by every teacher in every class every day for the rest of my life, rather have leprosy, rather be kidnapped by Communists, than apologize to the Murphys.

The Murphys were nice people. Everybody else in the neighborhood only had little kids, but Marky was the younger brother of two pretty, friendly teenage sisters who wore miniskirts and mohair sweaters and babysat the little kids sometimes. They gave me chewing gum and their old issues of Girls’ Life magazine. Mrs. Murphy was easy to talk to and had a candy jar. She was friends with my mom and came up for coffee and sometimes brought coffee cake that had crumbly cinnamon sugar on top. She had pleading dark eyes, especially when Marky was around. I would rather go blind myself than ever have to look into those eyes again.

 

That same evening my parents marched me two doors up to the Murphys’ little ranch house. The teenage sisters weren’t home. Mr. and Mrs. Murphy sat on the couch, Marky between them. Mr. Murphy was a city policeman and it occurred to me that he might still send other police to arrest me any time.

I stood in their dim, silent living room, with the candy jar on the coffee table, flanked by my parents, hanging my head.

My mother nudged me. “What do you have to say for yourself, Patsy?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Murphy,” I burst out, sobbing. “We didn’t mean to hurt him!”

“I’d rather if you directed your apology to Marky,” Mrs. Murphy said gently.

“I’m sorry, Marky,” I choked out. My eyes were squeezed shut. I couldn’t look at them. My head hurt. The room was warm and felt like it was swaying gently, like a boat.

My worst fear was that they’d ask me why I did it. I didn’t know why. But, instead, Mrs. Murphy said, “That’s all I wanted to hear. I know you’re a good girl.”

Mr. Murphy didn’t say anything. My parents ushered me out into the evening’s waning heat.

“Bye, Patsy,” Marky called.

 

My punishment was to play only in my own house or yard for a week, no friends. I didn’t want to go out, anyway. I played house with my little sister, jumped rope, drew new clothes for my paper dolls, read Nancy Drew mysteries. It felt just that I should be cloistered like a nun. It felt safe.

The second day I was allowed out, a Red Rover game was starting in Jane Mulvaney’s yard. Jane had cousins visiting from Ohio and so we had a respectable number to play even without any Santinis or Connors. It was after dinner. Cicadas screamed and fireflies blinked lazily in the blue evening light.

We were sorting ourselves into sides when Marky approached, smiling as usual. He took a place beside me, raised his arms and cried, “Ayesh!”

Chuckie Siebert laughed and nudged the boy beside him.

I froze. The chatter of the other kids receded and the world again began to tilt like a ship at sea. I felt like ants were crawling around right under my skin and I wanted to run back home, but something kept me rooted.

“Do we have to have her on our side?” Chuckie whined. He jerked his head towards one of Jane’s cousins. There was something wrong with her. She was skinny, not normal skinny like me, skinny like a starving person. Her glasses looked huge on her bony, big-toothed face. She looked around nervously.

Jane folded her pudgy arms. “My mom said we have to let Tracy play.”

Chuckie rolled his eyes and puffed out an annoyed sigh.

“There’s something wrong with her,” Alicia Smith whispered to me. “What’s wrong with her?”

Jane heard her. “There’s nothing wrong with her,” she insisted.

“Come be on our side, Tracy” I said. I could hardly believe I said it. As soon as it was out of my mouth, the ants were back under my skin and my stomach felt fidgety.

“Oh, great,” Alicia muttered. “Now we’ll definitely lose.”

“Come be on our side,” I repeated, and beckoned to Tracy.

Tracy looked around as if seeking someone’s permission, then walked across to our side of the lawn. She took Marky’s hand at the end of our line. Marky patted me on the back. “Nice,” he said.

“You’re going to lose,” Chuckie taunted.

“Let’s just play,” I retorted. I took Marky’s hand and squeezed it hard.

 

I looked down at Marky now, the man who had beaten the actuarial odds, the boy who, at age ten, had surpassed me in courage and character. I kissed my index finger and lightly touched it to his scar, then knelt to say my prayer.

pencil

Kathryn Bashaar‘s first novel, The Saint’s Mistress, is published by CamCat Books. Her shorter work has been published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Civil War Times and the literary journals Metamorphosis, PIF, Grand Dame and Persimmon Tree. My story “The Girl From Bethel Park” will appear in the anthology Children of Steel later this year. Email: kbashaar[at]gmail.com

Chopping The Vegetables

Fiction
Swetha Amit


Image of chopped tomatoes on a wooden cutting board. A whole tomato is in the bottom left corner and a white bowl of chopped tomatoes is at the top. On the right, the tip of a chef's knife blade and fingers of a woman's left hand are visible. Light from a source behind the camera casts shadows on the tomatoes, etc.

Photo Credit: Su-Lin Lee/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. You stand there in the kitchen chopping the vegetables, listening to the sound of raindrops dripping on the window. The rainy winter of Northern California seems to have instigated your appetite. You peel the carrots, slice them along with the onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. You take a step back and look at the vibrant display of shades in front of you, wishing you could add some color to your dreary life like the color of the plate of vegetables. You feel a tear roll down your cheek. And it’s not because of the onions. You wipe it away and glance at your reflection on the glass of the cutlery shelf above you. A pair of brown eyes on a dusky complexion with straight black hair stares back at you. The sky rumbles, and for a flinching second, you think you catch sight of an older version of you. You blink in disbelief. It cannot be! And yet it feels like it’s her.

 

Exactly a year since she went out of your life. Your world had come tumbling down with that phone call. You remember the last words of your mother before she left in her car. See you soon, she said, stroking your hair just like she always did. You were hoping to spend that weekend with your parents and talk about your future after graduating from UC Berkeley. You didn’t expect to see your mother lying still with her eyes closed at the hospital. That image continues to haunt you even today. Her face strangely looked peaceful. How could she leave you so soon? She had promised to listen to your plans, share your heartbreaks, shop with you for your wedding and change the nappies of your babies. Why, mom, why? You feel betrayed and shudder when you think of that voice over the phone that February evening: “Is that Amrita? I am afraid your mother has met with an accident and is in the hospital.” It was raining just like it was today. You dropped your phone, screaming for your father. You dialed his number with trembling hands several times until he picked up with an impatient Hello? You mumbled as tears flowed down your cheeks. At twenty, you sounded just like your eight-year-old self who was afraid of the dark. Vulnerable, petrified, and helpless.

You decided to take a break for a year. All you do is brood and visit the kitchen multiple times. A place that keeps you connected to your mother. You cling onto her memories of your moments with her here. It’s the only way you keep her alive. That scene at the hospital flashes in front of you. “It’s too late,” the doctor had said. “Severe head injuries and little chance of survival.” Her car had collided with another on the highway. The front glass was smashed, and the steering wheel was dripping with blood and droplets of rain. You prayed to God, hoping for a miracle. What wouldn’t you have done to see your mother open her eyes and smile at you as she always did? You saw nurses and doctors working on her, trying their best to save her. Those crooked lines eventually turned into one straight line accompanied by the beeping sound of the monitor. You open your mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. Your father’s hand on your shoulder fails to reassure you. He is clearly upset but strangely calm, knowing he had to be that anchor to help you combat this storm that had wrecked your sanity.

You recollect a strain in their relationship before your mother’s death. You could notice being the sensitive person you are, even if you were away from them. But they dismissed it whenever you broached the topic. “Busy with new contacts and deals,” your father, who worked at a venture firm, said. Your mother’s voice sounded tight and guarded. “Just a lot of reading and new releases,” she shrugged. A reviewer for a literary journal, she was constantly surrounded by books. Their nonchalant behavior nagged you to a point, compelling you to visit that weekend, citing the excuse of wanting to discuss your future academic plans. Your mother appeared to be flustered and in a hurry that afternoon. The door slammed after her, and the sound echoed in the hall. The aroma of cinnamon, cloves, and spices wafted in the air. You walked towards the kitchen and saw that she had cooked vegetable biryani—your favorite dish. Next to it was a bowl of raita.

You remembered those times when you and your mother would cook these dishes. It was a regular ritual every Sunday. As a little girl, you’d enjoy watching her smoothly pierce through the carrots and onions. The sound of the knife on the cutting board reverberated throughout the room. Chop chop chop, they’d go, sounding like musical notes to your ears, accompanied by a soft humming sound from her lips. Her eyes shone with pride, seeing the deluge of colors, shapes, and sizes as she cut them into small pieces. Sometimes you’d see water in her eyes. You’d ask why she was crying. “It’s from the onions,” she’d laugh through her tears. Then there were times she’d carve faces out of the leftover vegetables and arrange them neatly on a plate. “Mom, why do you do that?” you’d ask.

“Just for fun. I always indulge in creativity outside my writing. Try to make mundane things look interesting.”

“How?”

“In whatever ways you can.”

You would watch her sprinkle the colorful little pieces into a bowl of curd that she had whipped with a spatula to make it smooth. She would then garnish it with coriander leaves. When you were twelve, you learned this art. You felt all grown up to be holding that knife. Over time you mastered this craft and spent several joyous times with your mother. Your father would jokingly remark about not wanting to interrupt the women bonding. “My two lovely and talented ladies, you could give Julia Child competition,” he’d say fondly. There were times they’d drive from their home in the suburbs to the city. You would all gape at the view of Land’s End, stroll around Golden Gate Park, and picnic at Shakespeare Garden. Together you’d discuss Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello while munching on sandwiches and cookies. Those good old days and moments that felt like a different era were still close to your heart. You even remember those torrid arguments and tantrums with your mother. Over messy rooms, your bizarre piercings, tattoos, your choice of clothes, your mother’s spacing out resulting in her lack of attention towards you sometimes, her critique on your writing, expecting high standards from a schoolgirl. There were times when you felt she didn’t understand you. Like when you dated that boy she didn’t like from your class. Not your kind, she’d said. You called her a snob. Later she’d apologize and exuberate the warmth of a mama bear, embracing you in her arms.

Your father tried his best to be supportive and patient. Even those nights when you’d wake up screaming. Even when you refused to go back to school. Even when you weren’t interested in talking to your friends. Even when all you wanted to do was stay in the kitchen the entire day, chopping vegetables. “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” the doctor had said. “It’s tough. Give her time and always be there for her.” You feel grateful for your father’s support. Even though you knew he was hurting inside. Once, you even saw him crying silently. When you tried to comfort him, he said it was due to the onions he’d tried chopping earlier. You felt like a part of your body had been chopped off. You look at her photograph numerous times. Sometimes you almost feel like you see her standing in that kitchen, her slender build silhouetted against that marble slab, chopping the vegetables, and talking in her soft voice. One thought constantly troubles you. Where was your mother going on that Friday afternoon in the rain? Why was she in such a hurry that she couldn’t stop and chat with you?

 

Just then, you hear the door open and shut. Your father is home. You hear his footsteps coming towards the kitchen. “Smells good. Just like how Mamta used to make it,” he remarks. You smile weakly and accompany him to the living room. His newly-acquired beard makes him look older than his age. You spot the spurts of grey and the tired look in his eyes. Even though he hasn’t been working as hard as he used to.

“Were mom and you happy?” you blurt out.

Your father looks up and thinks for a while.

“Mamta and I shared a wonderful relationship.” His eyes had a faraway look. “There are times when certain things happen. It makes you wonder if you were at fault. I often think I was spending too much time at work. Did you… did you ever feel neglected by me at any point, Amrita?”

You look at the door wordlessly, recollecting your mother’s last words at that same place. Her black dress, silver earrings, lip gloss, and pulled-back hair looked different. Quite a contrast from her usual flowery, bright-colored dresses and equally bright shades of lipstick. Your thoughts are interrupted by your father’s voice.

“Tell me, Amrita.”

You shake your head. He smiles with relief, but a look of concern immediately flashes on his face.

“Amrita, I am worried about you. I mean…” He pauses and gently pats your shoulder. “I was twelve when my mother passed away. My older brother and I pulled through because my father became a pillar of our strength till his death a few years ago. It’s hard…” he pauses and wipes a tear. “My extended family offered their support but…”

You knew what he was about to say. Your maternal aunt invited you over to Dallas, where she lived with her husband and two sons, for a change of scene. You declined. You weren’t up to meeting anyone. Not your paternal uncle who lived a few miles away with his family. Not your maternal grandparents in India. You didn’t want sympathy. You couldn’t bear the thought of looking at their eyes oozing with false concern accompanied by sighs. You look at your father and nod.

 

It was sometime during the Labor Day weekend when you started detecting some sort of tension. You were visiting home and excitedly making plans for Christmas and Thanksgiving. The lukewarm response by your parents left you baffled. Christmas vacation turned out to be a quiet affair. You all drove up to Mendocino, where your mother would spend afternoons scouting the bookstores for new releases at the bookstore. There were times she’d get phone calls in the middle of dinner. Your father would bite his lip, and your mother would look around apologetically. “Sorry. Just an emergency at work,” she’d say. The phone calls came around the same time, and she’d go outside to attend to them. Why couldn’t she talk in front of us, you’d think. You remember that one instance at the bookstore where you and your mother spotted the bookstore cat named after a famous classic. Your mother excitedly clicked a selfie of you both with the cat. It purred, and she stroked it. “Maybe we should get a cat someday,” she said. Being an animal lover, you instantly agreed, while your father wasn’t too ecstatic about the idea of a pet in the house.

 

You checked your phone to see if you had that photo. It was probably on your mother’s phone. For the first time after her death, you wonder about her belongings. What happened to her wallet and phone after her accident? You almost ask your father, but you stop. What holds you back? You aren’t sure. You want to try and look for it first. It’s dinner time. Your father eats the biryani and raita. “Nice,” he says. That Julia Child remark accompanied with that wide grin is missing. You remember the initial few months after your mother’s death.

 

Despite the house swarming with relatives, it felt empty. Your eyes were as red as the tomatoes, and it felt as though you had been cutting a thousand onions. You refrained from any social contact, and your teachers were understanding. When you visited her study and stood by the door, the smell of books wafted into your nostrils. Her desk was as tidy as ever. You imagined her sitting in that chair, her face buried into the pages of a book or typing away on her laptop. All those images would make you burst into tears and run down the stairs to the living room. One day, you decided to carry on making biryani and raita. Your mother would have wanted this. There were times you’d make it on other days besides Sunday. You hadn’t eaten properly for weeks except for an occasional nibble. Your father’s pasta seemed to taste like rubber. Somehow the rice and its yogurt accompaniment managed to elicit your long-lost appetite. It was the only remnant of your mother’s recipe. Not that she didn’t make other varieties. But the biryani and raita held a special place. It was probably because it was your first introduction to the culinary world.

 

Your father clears the table and loads the dishwasher. He retires to the den to do some work before bedtime. All he does is immerse himself in work. You go upstairs to your mother’s study and turn on the light. The laptop is on her desk, and her books are arranged neatly on a shelf next to it. You see a book next to the computer. You pick it up curiously and read the title. Ctrl Alt Del by Aditi Chaubey. What a unique title, you think. You find it strange as your mother wasn’t too much into self-help books. You study the synopsis and profile of the author on the back cover of the book. She worked at an IT firm in Mumbai, where she lived with her husband. Majored in computers. Hmm. Why did the name sound familiar? Did your mother mention anything? You wrack your brain while the clock on the desk ticked seconds. As you browse her desk, you come across a list of Indian authors. Now you remember! Your mother once mentioned how there seemed to be a surge of Indian contemporary authors across genres. She said Ctrl Alt Del was unlike the other self-help books. You flip through the pages and read the lines she has underlined. If I didn’t try to start afresh, I’d have dissolved in my own pool of sorrow. I would have been embroiled in the quicksand that I could never get out of. Was it easy? No. Every step felt as though I was carrying a massive rock on my shoulders. What did that mean? Why did your mother underline these sentences? Was there a hidden meaning?

The room was devoid of any dirt, thanks to the cleaners who came in every fortnight to deep clean your three-bedroom two-level house tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Silicon Valley. Downstairs is the large living room with French windows and a spacious open kitchen that overlooked the backyard where your mother had a small garden. Along with her death, the plants lost their luster. You moved here at the age of seven after living in a cramped apartment in the city for three years. After your father got a job with a venture firm, you all decided to move to the suburbs, where life was more peaceful.

You open your mother’s drawer and find her car keys and a mobile phone inside. You gingerly touch the car keys wishing they had been misplaced on that fateful day. If only you could turn the clock back. If only you had stopped your mother from driving in that rain. But your mother weathered various such storms, including driving on the highway with the rains lashing furiously on her shield. “It’s so mystical,” she’d say, and her eyes would shine like gems. You take her phone and try switching it on. Of course, the battery was drained. You immediately put it on the charge, watching the battery’s red bar gradually convert to green, just like the traffic signal lights. Did someone jump the signal? you wonder. The driver in the other car was injured, but he had survived. Life is not fair, you think. Why couldn’t he die instead? The other driver, a middle-aged man, had exceeded the speed limit as he was in a hurry to get to a meeting. He was fined, and he apologized profusely after being discharged from the hospital. No amount of apology or money would bring back your mother. Your mother’s car still stood in the garage, looking as new as ever after the repairs covered by the insurance. If only humans could be repaired as quickly.

Fat blobs of salty puddles form on the keyboard. Your eyes are blurred as you switch on your mother’s phone. You see some unread texts and WhatsApp messages dated a year ago. Some forwards and personal messages. You go through her photos and check for that picture you were looking for. It’s there. You, your mother, and the adorable black and white furry cat. Her smile is as radiant as ever as it always is whenever she is surrounded by books. You send that message to your phone, hoping to print it and frame it. Just then, you spot a few other photographs. You feel lousy prying, but curiosity gets the better of you. These were photos of her office get-together. How different your mother looked! More poised and sober.

And then you see something that creates a nauseous feeling in your tummy, just like how you feel every time during the car ride up the hills. You see this bespectacled man with mousy brown hair dressed in a suit with an arm around your mother. It’s a group photo and looks like a harmless, friendly gesture. But deep down, you feel something. You aren’t sure what. Was it the way your mother was smiling? She has had men acquaintances before, but this man piqued your curiosity. You scroll down and see more photos of him, some of him and your mother at another get-together where she is wearing a navy-blue dress. Sophisticated and stylish. It almost feels like she’s someone else. Your mother wouldn’t change for anyone else. A person who talked about embracing creativity never bent their rules for anyone. So why now?

You check her messages. Sorry, mom, you mumble. You cannot help it. Guilt pricks you like a hundred pins in one corner of the head. Curiosity nags you on the other side. Your head feels like a zone of tug of war. You suddenly sit down feeling weak. The exchange of messages sounded like more than just a friendly exchange. You look at the name. John! Who was he? Was he the same man in those photos? You check her emails. This time you don’t feel sorry. John Silver. You see a flurry of emails from this name. They appeared work-related, but a couple of times ended up with ‘see you tonight.’ Did your mother meet this man after work? Was it the office get-together he was talking about? How did it all start? Were you overthinking? But those text messages. Nobody sent their colleague sweetheart or missing you my love messages. You scroll down again to see the dates of those messages. Your heart stops a beat. They were sent during their Christmas vacation at Mendocino. The last exchange was on the day of the accident. This cannot go on, John, your mother had written. There was a phone call dated on the same day. Did your mother go to end things with John? Did your father know about this? Was John married? Did he also have a family? Were your parents unhappy? Did he get to know? Why didn’t they tell her? Questions swarm in your head like a hurricane. You want all this to be just a bad dream. You shake your head and stare listlessly at the pile of books. Nothing makes sense to you. How you wish your answers were in those books. You clutch the phone. You type John Silver on Google. Images of the man in the photo show up on the pages. It was the same one, you think. He was the Editor in Chief of this literary magazine, divorced with two kids in his ex-wife’s custody. You shut the laptop and the light. You quietly go to your room.

You look outside the window, and the inky black sky stares at you. The droplets of rain on the trees make a rhythmic sound. You look at the image of your phone. Why mom? Your eyes are blurred with those salty tears as you taste them now. The barrage of waterworks wouldn’t stop. There is no one you can call. No one you can trust. You feel like someone has stabbed you with a knife. Your head hits the pillow, and you drift away to sleep. Nightmares of your mother’s laughing face, John’s smiling one, and your father’s sad one haunt you. You wake up to the sound of rain, and nature seems to be crying with you. You glance at the clock. It’s nine in the morning.

Your father pops his head in and looks concerned. “Not feeling well, Amrita?” he asks.

You shake your head. “I am fine,” you reply.

“Come down for breakfast then,” he says.

The only sound is the clink of spoons against the bowls of porridge. You look at your father and feel sorry for him. And then a sudden thought crosses your mind. It seemed bizarre. But your head isn’t in the right place. Did your father also like someone else in his workplace? You put your hands on your head.

He looks up and frowns. “Are you really ok?” he asks.

You nod.

He looks unconvinced. He receives a phone call and excuses himself out of the room.

You lose your appetite, and your legs drag you to the study. You look at the photos and the emails with a heavy heart. You replay your father’s response in your head, “There are times when certain things happen. It makes you wonder if you were at fault.” Did your father blame himself for your mother’s affair? Did he find out and chose not to confront her? Was it possible that John was in love with your mother and not the other way around? But what about your mother’s sober appearances? The mother you knew would never try and change herself for anyone. Did you ever know her at all, you ask yourself? Were those moments with her an illusion? Find creativity in the mundane things, her voice echoes in your head. Had her marriage become so ordinary? You were so absorbed in your thoughts that you didn’t hear your father calling for you. Nor do you hear those footsteps coming up the stairs. You are suddenly taken aback to see your father standing behind you. He stares at you and at the phone in your hand. Both your eyes meet. They elicit a certain sadness and unspoken words that bring out the ugly truth.

“Did you know?” you ask, trembling.

He just stares.

“Did you know?” Your voice shatters the frames on the walls.

“Amrita…”

“How could you not tell me?”

You feel betrayed. Who wouldn’t?

Your screams are louder than the ones when you saw your mother breathe her last. Your dad tries to explain. His long hours of work. Your mother feeling neglected, her tantrums, their endless arguments, her withdrawal, his discovery of the affair, a showdown, sessions with the therapist, her guilt, and the conscious decision of not letting you know lest it disrupt your mind. You aren’t convinced and cannot bear to stay a minute longer in that house. House. That’s right. You can no longer call it home. You feel a certain numbness. You can’t find a rational explanation. You feel sorry and angry at your father at the same time. How could they not tell you? You are enraged, hurt, disappointed.

You rush to the kitchen, grab that knife, start chopping the carrots, tomatoes, and onions vigorously. Chop chop-chop. The noise drowns your father’s pleas and attempts to explain. Chop chop-chop. You feel a strange sensation of slicing the oranges, cutting the carrots. You don’t stop. Water trickles from your red eyes. You are blinded and unable to see anything. But you keep chopping and don’t stop. Not even when you accidentally cut your finger and see the splats of red on the cutting board. You chop till a gentle hand steers you away, washes your finger, and bandages it.

*

A year later, you chop the vegetables in your own kitchen at an apartment by the waterfront. Chop chop-chop. You look at the array of colorful cut pieces. You dump the chopped vegetable pieces in the bowl of curd. You carve eyes and nose on three carrot sticks and place them around the bowl of frothy white liquid. You inhale the aroma of spices from the biryani. You arrange some garnished almonds and walnuts in the shape of a heart on top of the rice. Then you look at your reflection in the glass cabinet. You see a face with hair dyed red and eyes wearing grey contacts. Almost a stranger. The phone rings. The word Dad flashes on your screen. Chop chop-chop. The sound of the kitchen knife merges with the calls. At one point, you close your eyes and converge with the sound, tapping your foot. Try to make mundane things look interesting.

The phone continues to ring.

pencil

Author of “A Turbulent Mind—My Journey to Ironman 70.3,” Swetha Amit is currently pursuing her MFA at University of San Francisco. She published her works in Atticus Review, Oranges Journal, Gastropoda Lit, Amphora Magazine, Grande Dame Literary Journal, Black Moon Magazine, Fauxmoir Lit Mag, Poets Choice Anthology, and has upcoming pieces in Drunk Monkeys, Agapanthus Collective, JMWW Journal, Full house Literary. She is one of the contest winners of Beyond Words literary magazine, her piece upcoming in November. She is also an alumni of Tin House Winter Workshop 2022 and the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop 2022.
Twitter: @whirlwindtots Email: swetha0627[at]gmail.com

The Case of the Missing Princess

Savage Mystery Contest ~ Third Place
Sue Seabury


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

Princess Poppycock is missing.

To be sure my message gets broadcast as quickly possible in this emergency situation, I speak directly into the communication device. “Repeat. Princess Poppycock—

“Missy.” Ashlee, the part-time supervisor who shows up on Friday nights, shouts up the stairs. For someone who is so into her phone, she can be remarkably low-tech at times. “Go back to bed.”

“But—”

Now.

“No need to shout,” I mutter exactly the way Ashlee does.

The empty princess canopy bed inside the antique dollhouse mocks me. I count as high as I know how (three, exactly my age), then turn down the volume on the communication device and make my move. Who knows how long Princess P has been missing? There’s no time to waste.

Mickey Mouse gives me a boost over the bars. I make a soft landing on the rocking chair and gather my troops. I take Bear-Bear, T. Rex, Cowie and Buzz Lightyear because you never know what craziness you might encounter out there. Then I head out the door, already lining up suspects inside my head. Three come immediately to mind.

My first suspect is sprawled suspiciously across the hallway. Woofers has the habit of napping by the heating vent, but he could be faking. I taught him everything I know. Woofers is a yes man if there ever was one. Walks, ball tosses, and even baths, he gets excited about it all. You might think Woofers is too nice to steal a princess. That’s where you’d be wrong. Promise him a bone-shaped treat and you can rope him into doing anything. He’s what’s known in the biz as a ‘fall guy.’

Woofers gives me a big lick. I am aware that this is his usual diversionary tactic, one he uses regularly to score free peanut butter or icing off my cheek, but he’s terrible at hiding the evidence. No matter how many times I tell him to be sure to get all the crumbs, he always manages to miss some, usually right on the end of his nose.

“Princess Poppycock is missing,” I whisper into his big, floppy ear. “Where is she?”

He just gives me another lick.

“Don’t even think about skipping town,” I warn, then continue on my way, leaving Cowie behind to act as muscle and keep an eye on the louche pooch.

One suspect down, two to go.

Next up, Jackie, alias: Cutie Pie. Don’t let the baby face fool you. Behind those big blue eyes lurks the soul of a demon who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants, be it cuddles or cake.

“Jackie. Wake up.”

“Gah?”

“Spare me the small talk. Where’s Poppycock?”

“Goo-goo-ga?”

“Don’t give me that nonsense. Hand over Poppycock and nobody gets hurt.”

“Ga-ga. Ha-ha!”

I don’t waste any more time with the nice-guy routine, but a thorough search of Jackie’s crib turns up nothing. I leave Bear-Bear next to the nightlight and Jackie’s communication device.

“If he tries anything funny,” I instruct Bear-Bear, “gimme a holler on the squawk box.”

Bear-Bear salutes. He’s a trustworthy soldier. So long as you don’t ask too much, he’s your man.

“And you.” I fix Jackie with my sharp eye. “If Princess P doesn’t show up soon, you’ll be hauled in for a second round of questioning.”

“Ha-ha, goo!”

Jackie plays the role of a carefree innocent, but we’ll see how he holds up under the interrogation lights in the bathroom. As collateral, I take his binky. Jackie cries in protest.

“Now you know what it feels like to lose the one you love!” I shout over my shoulder.

Next up: Bruiser a.k.a. my older brother Billy. He’s my top suspect. I was hoping to avoid having to interview him because he’s a tough negotiator, not to mention bigger than me. How am I going to pull this off?

A flash of inspiration strikes.

I do a one-eighty and stealthy as Santa Claus steal down the staircase to the living room. A light is on, which is bad, but my prize is in view.

I don’t see any legs sticking out from the easy chair or couch. Quick as an elf, I’m in and out, spoils in hand.

I take a few practice swipes on my way back up the stairs. I’m a good multitasker.

Before entering the danger zone, I count to three, listening carefully.

Silence within.

Maybe I can get lucky, rescue the princess and effect a clean getaway without Billy even knowing.

I use the tip of the sword to poke open the door. A dim light glows from the far corner of the room. It’s where Bruiser games, and also where he lies in wait for unsuspecting siblings who are innocently searching for lost toys. But this time I’m ready.

Jackie sure is making a racket down the hall. Maybe taking the pacifier was a tactical error.

Another count of three, then, diamond sword held high, I lead the charge in for Operation: Royal Rescue.

I only make it a few feet before being pelted by bullets. A diamond sword is minimally effective against a battery-operated Nerf gun.

“Out, nerdball. You’re supposed to be in bed anyway.”

“Hand over the princess and I’ll clear out lickety-split.”

He lets off another couple of rounds. I block some with the sword and a few others go wide. Bruiser is a very wasteful criminal. “You’ll get your hiney back into your room or I’ll tell Ashlee.”

No honor among thieves, and this one’s the worst of the worst. Anybody who would steal a cookie wouldn’t hesitate to steal a princess.

“I’ll give you one last chance to return Princess Poppycock and then—”

Ashleeee! Missy’s out of her room!”

“You will pay for this.”

“Can’t wait.” Bruiser gives me an evil grin, made extra evil by the missing front tooth. He claims a fairy took it. Right. We all know he traded it to the devil in exchange for total dominion over our parents. “Gimme my sword too, goofball.”

“You asked for it.” I fling the sword at Bruiser’s head, along with Buzz Lightyear because he’s hard plastic. He’s also Bruiser’s, so I don’t care too much if he gets dinged. (No offense, Buzz. We’re still pals, right?). Both missiles fall short but they leave a clear message: Mess with Missy and heads are gonna roll.

“Missy!” Ashlee’s voice echoes up the stairwell. “You’d better be in your room. I’m counting to three. One…”

A couple of good things about Ashlee: one, she’s totally addicted to her phone. Half the time she forgets her threats before she gets a chance to carry them out. And two, she’s super slow at counting.

Brandishing a fist at Bruiser, I threaten in my best Terminator voice, “I’ll be back.”

I dive through the door to my room before Ashlee even gets to ‘two.’ Told ya she was slow.

Note: Ashlee did not say I had to get into bed, only into my room. Some might say I am splitting hairs. I say I am adhering to the letter of the law, and Ashlee isn’t even a bona fide lawmaker in this kingdom. If anything, she’s merely a temporary tyrant-for-hire. But rental tyrants still hold sway in my mercenary parents’ eyes.

The situation is getting dire. I can’t sleep without Poppycock. She’s like my guardian angel, and I am hers. We’re like twins, fraternal ones. People ask all the time if we’re related. I think it’s the matching dresses.

Poppycock has been known to get a craving for a little late-night snick-snack. While the plates of fried eggs and whole fish wouldn’t be my choice for a midnight nosh, to each her own.

I do a second visual sweep of the dollhouse: kitchen, living room, dining room, study, the bedrooms and the attic, but to be doubly sure, I dump the contents onto the floor. Then I check the empty house for secret passages, in vain. Why does this always happen when the Finders-in-Chief go AWOL??

In desperation, I interrogate everyone in the room.

“Gronkle, did you see anything suspicious?”

The sweet yet intimidating dragon gives me nothing. Neither do any of the others in the room.

Tears threaten but crying never solved anything.

Think, Missy. Think. If you were the most beloved, desirable princess in the whole wide world, where would kidnappers take you?

To Disney World, obvs.

But how am I supposed to get there?

My Personal ATMs have made vague promises about Disney World, but so far have yet to come through.

A terrible thought hits me: would they have taken Princess P to Disney World without the rest of us? Could any jailers be so cruel?

I race to the top of the stairs.

“Ashlee—”

“It’s way past your bedtime, Missy. Your parents are not going to be happy if they come home and find you still up.”

“That’s my question! What time will they be back?”

“Eleven.”

“What time is it now?”

“Ten-fifteen. Now back—”

“To bed. I know. Just tell me one more thing. How long is eleven?”

“Less than an hour.”

“How long have they been gone?”

“About two hours.”

Three hours. That’s not long enough to go to Disney World and back… or is it?

“Missy! Bed!” Ashlee’s dyed blond hair shines in the hall light. Her fake tan and pale pink shimmery lipstick make her look like a photo negative, or something. In theory, her hair and shape and frilly skirts should add up to a princess. But somehow they don’t. She just looks trashy. More trailer park than Park Avenue if you know what I mean.

Nonetheless, she’s the only sheriff in town right now. I give her the thumb’s up. “Right-ho!”

Ashlee does not smile. “Give Jackie back his binky too.” She uses a long, daggery nail to point.

Curses! The incriminating evidence dangles from my neck. Might as well be a noose.

“Whoopsie, not sure how that happened.” I give a congenial uncriminal chuckle for good measure.

“Sure you don’t. Get a move on, Missy.”

I really don’t care for her tone.

A quick detour to Jackie’s room to drop off his gross binky and collect my troops, but now Bear-Bear is missing too!

“Missy! You’d better be in your room! One…”

Foot steps on the stairs.

I fly down the hallway to where Woofers was. He’s gone! And so is Cowie!

This is beyond catastrophic.

I can’t count that high, but I can tell Ashlee has come up more than three steps. I know because one of the middle steps makes a funny squeak like an elephant being tickled, and she just stepped on it.

Flinging myself at my doorsill as if a cliff is crumbling away from beneath my feet, I make it safely inside my room before Ashlee gets any further than ‘one.’ Yet another thing to like about Ashlee: her slowness.

First Princess Poppycock, then Bear-Bear, and now Woofers and Cowie. All gone.

Where could they be? Is it a conspiracy? Is there a party somewhere and I’m not invited?

Ha. Impossible.

Ashlee’s pointy nose crosses the threshold of my domain.

“Yes?” I inquire imperiously.

“You’re not in bed.”

“You didn’t specify.”

She lifts an eyebrow that looks like it was drawn on with a brown Sharpie, which is my least favorite color of Sharpie. (The Royal Keeper of the Pens has currently imposed an embargo on Sharpies, but it’s just a temporary injunction, I’m sure.) “Missy. Don’t make me put you in bed.”

She’s right. Ashlee inflicts the cruelest tickles when she puts you to bed. In a previous life, I’m sure she worked for the Spanish Inquisition.

I hustle over to the rocker and with a nimble leap, show compliance with her unreasonable demand—then I pause, balanced on the top of the bars.

“Or else?” I inquire.

“Or else?”

“What are you going to do if I don’t do as you say? Did you already punish me? Did you make a preemptive strike, as it were?”

“What are you talking about?”

Enough is enough.

“Where is she? And Woofers? And Cowie and Bear-Bear? Are you holding her ransom?” Curses, my voice wobbles. Not what you want when you’re interrogating. Like Winston Churchill advised: Always negotiate from a position of strength.

Ashlee scrunches her nose. Not an attractive look on her.

“Woofers is in his crate. I have some bad news about Cowie. You didn’t actually give Cowie to Woofers, did you?”

I invoke my Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer.

“As for ‘she,’ who do you mean?”

I glance around the room, looking for backup. Why did I sacrifice my best men? Note to self: next time, start with the second-stringers. I don’t trust myself not to cry and continue exercise my Fifth Amendment rights.

“Are you talking about Princess Poppycock?”

“Maybe,” I hedge.

“Oh, Missy. C’mere.”

Without ceremony, she scoops me off the railing as if I’m an escaped plastic bag or a baby or something.

She drags me into the bathroom. I practice holding my breath in case she decides to go with waterboarding.

“Did you forget that Princess Poppycock wanted to take a bath? Silly girl.”

Of course! The one thing my otherwise perfect antique dollhouse is missing: a bathroom. People must’ve been really dirty back in olden days. Sounds like fun.

Princess Poppycock lies in state in her special Tupperware. The bubbles have mostly popped, which means Princess P is looking too much like Lady Godiva for my taste, and undoubtedly for hers.

“Poppycock!” I screech and make a break for it from Ashlee’s arms. “What about Bear-Bear?”

“I don’t know. Where did you last see him?”

Humph. It’s like Ashlee knows I left him with that pint-sized scofflaw, Jackie. I busy myself finding Princess Poppycock something clean and dry to wear. She has a delicate constitution and catches cold easily.

Once Princess P is fit to be seen in her fluffy pink robe that matches mine, I say, “I may have spotted him guarding Jackie’s jail, uh, crib.”

“Let’s go look.” Ashlee takes my hand. She’s not always awful. “Here he is.”

Bear-Bear fell down on the job, and behind the nightstand. Like I said, he does his best work when you don’t ask too much of him.

“Come on, Princess,” Ashlee says. “Time for bed.”

I must say, Ashlee makes an excellent conveyance. Maybe if she behaves, in her next life she’ll come back as a Tesla.

Princess Poppycock safely in my arms, I drift off to the pleasing sound of Ashlee picking up doll furniture. She’s a decent picker-upper. She might also come back as a vacuum in her next life.

But all of this is mere conjecture. One thing that is certain is that the Case of the Missing Princess is solved.

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Email: sueseabury[at]gmail.com