There's a boy who lives on the other side of a screen. He's got sandy brown hair and shimmering blue eyes and a thick, fuzzy beard that makes him look older than he actually is.
The boy on the other side of the screen thinks too much sometimes. He stays alone too long and slender-fingered insecurities crawl up his back and slip into his ears. They make him type things he doesn't mean. They make him type things about himself. Bad things. Untrue things.
The boy on the other side of the screen is immensely talented. He can make things with his hands. He can paint. He can write. Creating works from nothing seems to be his greatest skill. Sometimes I envy him for that.
The boy on the other side of the screen reminds me that I'm worthy. He types compliments and praise. He sends heart emojis. He saves encouraging photos and quotes to share with me later.
The boy on the other side of the screen seems like he should be more of a mystery than he is. But I know him. I know him well.
I hope he knows me, too. The girl on the other side of the screen.
How many times do I have to tell you this? I never saw Jeffrey that day. My husband, Taylor, and I got up at nine o’clock like we do every Saturday. Evelyn, our daughter... Oh she’s nine. She was already awake, eating a Poptart, and watching some cartoon when I walked into the living room. I made breakfast. What? Why would you need to know that? Okay. Okay. I made waffles, bacon, and scrambled eggs. After breakfast, Taylor suggested we spend the day lounging around and go out as a family that night. There was some family movie about pets playing that Evelyn had been bugging us about. So we spent the day doing basically nothing. Evelyn played with some toys, watched some more cartoons, and took a bubble bath. Taylor and I caught up on The Walking Dead, and I made grilled cheese for lunch. Yes, that’s all we did. Well, we may have piddled on our phones and stuff here and there. Pinterest. Sometimes Facebook. I texted my sister. Yes, I’m sure. That’s all we did. Oh! Wait! Evelyn did paint me a picture of rainbow flowers. Well, after that we all got showered and ready for dinner. We ate at that new Italian place on Center Street. I had manicotti. Taylor had some sort of multi-pasta platter. Evelyn had a mini pizza. We went to the movie but we didn’t get any popcorn. We were all too full. By the time the movie was over, it was about ten or so. We drove home and I tucked Evelyn into bed. Taylor and I watched one more episode of The Walking Dead and drank some wine before we turned in around eleven thirty.
Oh yeah, I think I mighta seen Jeffrey a time or two that Saturday. Alison and I had just gotten out of bed and I wanted the paper. I saw Jeffrey at his house across the street. We talked for a minute or two in the street. We’re both big hockey fans. Considered buying season tickets together. Nah, I don’t know him too well. He’s just a nice neighbor. Hosted good cook-outs. Had a teenage daughter that occasionally babysat Evelyn for six bucks an hour. Sorry I’m a rambler. I went back inside and read the paper for a while. Alison was making those quick mix pancakes and she looked pretty tired. Thought maybe we should do something to help her relax. Said we should go to dinner and a movie that night. Oh hell, I dunno what Evelyn did. She spent most the time in her bedroom. Even when she ate her lunch. Alison talked me into watching The Walking Dead together. Couldn’t tell you what any of it was about. Spent most of it talking to some buddies in a Facebook hockey group. We went to dinner and the movie. Man, I couldn’t even tell you what I ate there. Some kind of pasta. Italian isn’t really my thing, but Alison and Evelyn love it. I can’t remember if it was when we left or came back, but that evening I saw Jeffrey sitting on his front porch. He waved as we drove by. When we got home we watched some more tv and went to bed.
Mr. Jeff stayed at our house almost all day. I was up before Mom and Dad and he knocked on the front door. I woke them up and told them. Dad answered the door and asked Mr. Jeff what was going on. Mr. Jeff came inside. He was crying a lot and his face was all red and puffy. Mom poured me a bowl of cereal and told me to go play in my room while the grown ups talked. I listened through a crack in the door though. Something had happened with Mr. Jeff’s daughter, Lisa. He kept saying it was an accident and he didn’t mean to. Dad asked to see and followed Mr. Jeff back to his house. They came back a while later and Mom and Dad whispered a lot. Mom told Mr. Jeff they would help him take care of it. Dad got some stuff out of the garage and went back to Mr. Jeff’s house with him. They were gone for a few hours. Mom asked me to paint her a picture of some flowers. When Dad and Mr. Jeff came back, all the grown ups sat on the couch and talked some more. After a while, Mr. Jeff said he felt better and left. Dad said we should go out to eat and see a movie. I ate pizza. I really liked the movie. When we got home, Mr. Jeff was waiting in our yard. Dad stayed out to talk to him and Mom made me go inside and get ready for bed.
A single drop of sweat dribbles down his lightly haired chest. He stops to cup a handful of river water, bringing it to his plump lips. His throat bobs as the fluid travels down. I cock my head to one side, eyes scanning over his milky flesh. There’s a glisten to his shoulders, his stomach, his neck. The pouch of his belly contracts with heaving breaths. I run my fingertips along his bicep and he follows my touch. His hand comes up to wrap around mine and I press a dry kiss to the inside of his wrist. The salt on his skin excites me. I lick up his forearm, tasting and devouring. He wraps his free arm around my waist, dragging me onto his lap. His lips find the juncture of my neck and shoulder, and his teeth follow soon after. There’s an aching heat growing in my belly. Recognizable. Primal. I hardly feel the pebbles digging into my knees as I grant him access to my mouth. His tongue maps my teeth, soft pallette, inner cheeks, and finally my own. His ragged breathing morphs to wheezing as he grabs handfuls of my hair. I use my nails to draw raised, puffy scratches across his back. He grows limp, head falling against my chest. I sigh, adrenaline still pulsing in my blood, and disentangle myself from his lifeless, yet still beautiful, form.
For some time, our people have believed the rune bears to be sacred. Many, many years ago, our Great Leader found himself alone in the woods to the north. His village had been destroyed by invaders, and he'd fled into the treeline. After many weeks he was near-starved and frozen to the bone. Our Great Leader had just about given up when he spotted it. The rune bear. Its sapphire fur, long and thick, and runes like fire patterned across its back. The rune bear came to the Great Leader and touched its nose to his forehead. He suddenly felt warm. His body felt full with renewed energy, and he got up from his knees. The rune bear led him, for many days, through the forest. All the while, our Great Leader never felt weary, or hungry, or cold. The rune bear had made him stronger and healthier than he'd ever felt before. After these many days, they reached a large expanse of flatlands. The rune bear pressed its face into the Great Leader's palm, and he knew that the creature wanted him to build a village there.
That village is where where we're living today. That's also why we have the sacred rune bear statue in the village center. Since that first meeting with our Great Leader, rune bears have appeared to aid our people in times of desperate need.
The rune bears are our miracles.
Love and War
Ulfric, my horse, snorts clouds of mist into the gray morning air. I reach down and pat his dappled neck, murmuring a trail of comforting gibberish into his twitching ear. He shakes his head, and I listen to creak of leather armor being adjusted and readjusted by my warriors. The pounding of swift hooves catches my attention. Just up the hill, a lone rider appears. It is Love. He's dressed in shining metal with a sword at his hip, his chestnut hair hidden beneath his helmet. Ulfric stirs at the sight, no doubt recognizing the familiar white mare ahead of us. I urge him forward, though I doubt he really needs much convincing. Love turns, leading us to the thick woods to the East. Once there, he dismounts, and I do the same. He grabs my arm and pulls me into an embrace, pressing a kiss to my forehead.
"The rest have surely noticed my absence by now," he whispers. "My father will have cleared them from the camp. They will arrive soon."
I quirk a brow, reaching up to pull the helmet from his head, and untie the string in his hair. It falls past his shoulders, and I card my fingers through the strands.
"Why have you come to me like this?"
He smiles. He leans down and kisses my mouth, pulling back with a light nip to my bottom lip. I watch as he reaches into his mare's saddlebag. His hand returns with a dagger. Love presses the handle to my palm, and my fingers curl around it almost instinctively.
"You are aware that my father considers me his most wise strategist."
"Yes, I do know this."
"I do not believe my father is foolish enough to go to war with a queen that has kidnapped his only son and beloved war advisor." His lips twitch into a smirk. "Although, no one will believe I have been captured unless I bear marks to prove it." Love takes my hand in his, lifts the dagger to his cheek, and slices the blade along the smooth expanse of pale skin. The bleeding gash left makes my stomach turn. I drop the dagger into the mare's saddlebag while he ties her to Ulfric with a thick rope. Once we're both seated on my horse, I look back at him.
"You are doing this for me? Betraying your people, your father, for me?"
Love laughs and wraps his arms around my waist to steady himself.
"No. I do not do this for you. I do this for me. I have selfishly realized I could not continue any life in which my father has killed you in battle." His hair tickles my cheek as he rests his chin on my shoulder. "I am also, quite selfishly, pleased that I will be spending many weeks sharing your bed."
I smack his forehead with the back of my hand and dig my heels into Ulfric's sides. Behind me, Love chuckles into my braid.
Trial and Error
Bright white. Hazy rays of flourescence flood my vision. The slide of metal. There’s an automatic door on the right side of the room. Something smooth and cold presses into me from below. I look downward. Oh. Feet. Ivory toes resting on the black tiled floor. Footsteps cross the room towards me, and I jerk up to meet the gaze of a man. Short and tan and balding on top with round glasses sitting on the end of his nose. My creator.
“Hello,” he whispers. He stares at me a moment. His eyes are green. He scrunches his face. Something is wrong. He wants something from me. Oh, yes. I’m expected to respond.
His face relaxes. A positive reaction. I’ve done well. He reaches forward, and I feel warmth somewhere new. I have an arm. His hand gently squeezes my shoulder. It’s close enough now to smell. An odor of lemongrass. I see a stain on his sleeve. Tea.
“Do you know your name?”
My name. My name. Yes. I have one.
“Dee. You call me Dee.”
He smiles this time. He is pleased. My answer is satisfactory. My creator steps back.
“Very good, Dee. Come with me.”
I stand. I feel the metal within me. My synthetic musculature expanding and contracting. I watch as my creator walks. I mimic the rhythm. One foot, then the other. At this speed, air rushes past me, brushing my body. He leads me through a corridor. At the end, I see a door. It’s much taller than my creator or myself. I run my fingertips over the steel. There’s clanking on the other side. My processors respond negatively to the sound. The door slides open, and there is only dark on the other side. Even with my heightened sight, I am unable to see past the shadow. My creator makes a gesture with his arm and hand. It is a signal. He wants me to step through. Without the obstruction of the door, the clanking is much louder. It echoes off the walls.
My creator drops his arm to his side.
“What do you mean?”
“I will not go there.”
My creator grows tense. My response is undesired. He wants cooperation. I want... Not the place beyond the door. I turn from him and push my legs forward. Faster and faster. The corridor blurs around me. In front of me, I see light. Not like the lights from the room. This light is orange. There is something. I search for the word. Natural. Yes, there is something natural about it. It is a large window. The light comes from a circle outside. The sun. Behind me, I hear my creator calling out. Not for me, but for aid. I was not supposed to run. I step back. I leap forward. The glass breaks around me. The air is forceful against my body. Much more than when I walked. There is something below me. A straight line of gray. A sidewalk. It gets closer and closer and closer until...
Dr. Pharris scrubs a hand down his face as his assistant, Evan, rushes over to him. Dusk is settling in, and they really need to get this mess cleaned up before there isn’t enough light to see. Evan’s eyes are panicked, and he gasps when he sees the remains in front of his boss.
“Dr. Pharris! What happened!?”
“The D99 model must have malfunctioned.”
Dr. Pharris groans. He grabs Evan by the collar of his shirt roughly.
“She jumped out of a fourth story window, you idiot! That’s how!” He releases the young man with a sigh. “Call the team. I want to salvage as many parts as we can. Anything that can be fixed or rebuilt, so we can use it on the next model.” He looks down and nudges a synthetic calf with the front of his shoe. “Really thought she’d be the one.”
Answering My Oldest Daughter’s Question
I'm not sure why every leaf must die...
Emerald fading to gold.
Gold fading to umber.
Brittle stems cracking
and nature's tissue paper,
left unused far
too long, careens
down to the crunchy grass.
for tiny, rubber Converse
soles to press
them farther into the dirt.
No, I'm not sure why every leaf must die...
But maybe its so grubby-handed,
toddlers can spend an afternoon
I Had a Nightmare
I didn’t mean to crawl
through your window
But my hand’s still pressed
against the pane.
And your eyes,
wide and blinking,
make my brain drop
through the floor
and run across the street.
The scars on your chest
remind me of the fabric
I took from my Memaw
and use as a blanket.
Rough and ribbed
and peachy pink.
The narrow sill,
pearly in the night light,
cuts into my thighs
as I straddle,
and half out.
Your fingers snatch me.
Your arms clasp me.
Fleshy locket around
For a moment
I balance with my foot
on your bedroom carpet.
The sun is just dipping behind the winter-bared trees when Mae Ella pulls past the driveway’s gate. It’s Sunday afternoon and she just finished visiting Daddy at the cemetery and stopping at the Bent n’ Dent. She leaves the truck running and hops out to padlock the gate behind her before parking in front of the house. It’s not much, really. A rectangle of pinkish-red bricks with a half-rotted oak ramp to the front door. Daddy hadn’t treated the boards before he built it. Mama got sick so fast he didn’t have time before she came home in a wheelchair. That was nearly ten years ago. Mae Ella kept telling herself she’d ask one of the Arnold boys down the road to rebuild it, but she couldn’t bring herself to knock on their door. She’s careful not to stab her hand on the nail poking through the railing as she lugs her plastic grocery bags inside. The lights are all off. She exhales a deep breath, plops the bags on the kitchen counter, and flips the light switch. She talks herself through her plans for the evening and the weekend as she slides a half gallon of milk in the fridge and a box of fish sticks in the freezer. Once it’s all put away, she balls the plastic bags and drops them in a little tub under the sink. She’ll use them as trash bags for the little can in the bathroom. Her back bedroom is chilly when she goes to change into her sweatpants. There’s a jack and jill closet that connects to the room across the hall. It used to be Liza’s room. Mae Ella used to sneak through the closet into Liza’s room after bedtime, the two sisters staying up late into the night. They were close back then.
They were close until Mama died. Two weeks after the funeral, Liza told Daddy they should move. She kept saying it would be like starting over, and it would be good for everyone. Mae Ella knew Liza just wanted to move somewhere bigger, though. Liza was eighteen and kept talking about beauty school. She wanted to move somewhere that she could get into one and be a hairdresser like Auntie Ivy. Mae Ella wasn’t worried at first. Daddy told Liza he had no intentions of moving anywhere. This was home. This was the house Mama wanted. He’d bought this land, and he and his brothers had built Mama’s dream house from the concrete foundation up. But the longer Liza pestered Daddy, the slower he said no. One night, he didn’t even respond. He just got up and went to his bed. Liza was getting to him. That was the same night Liza and Mae Ella fought. Mae Ella stood in front of Liza as she sat on the couch and told her she didn’t deserve to live in Mama’s house anymore. If she was too proud to grow up here in the little town of Donnell, then she should pack up her things and go. And that’s exactly what Liza did. She called Auntie Ivy to pick her up, threw all her things in a trash bag, and was gone before the sun rose the next day. She never came back. Apart from one phone call when Daddy passed four years ago, Mae Ella hadn’t heard from her sister at all.
Mae Ella waves the memory off and pads barefoot back to the living room. She stops to peek out the big window that overlooks the little field on the south side of the property. The playhouse Daddy built her still stands in the tall grasses. It leans a hair to the left, though. She closes the heavy, dark green curtains. Shimmery, embossed pinecones catch the light. Mae Ella thinks they’re ugly. She figures one day she’ll stop at the Walmart two towns over and buy something a little brighter. Something tan or maybe even a pale shade of yellow. A semi-truck speeds by on the highway, leaving a trail of diesel smoke hanging in the air. Mae Ella crosses to the kitchen and grabs the box of fish sticks. She arranges about ten on a pizza pan. Once they’re in the oven, she picks up her mail and sifts through it. There’s nothing but credit card offers, so she tosses it in the trash can. Her phone rings. It’s not a number she knows. Normally, she wouldn’t answer, but this time she taps the green icon.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end of the line is tight, like there isn’t enough air to push the word out.
“Who is this?” Mae Ella asks. She’s met with silence. She’s just about to hang up when the person sucks in a hitched breath.
“It’s your sister. It’s Liza.”
The hand at Mae Ella’s side trembles.
“Why are you calling me?”
“I’m in town. In Donnell. I wanted to. No, we wanted to see you.”
Mae Ella hangs up the phone and flings it onto the kitchen table. She suddenly remembers her fish sticks and pulls them from the oven. She plates them, plopping into her recliner and staring at the curtains on the window. They’re really just hideous. Liza picked them out when they were kids. Mama said she could pick the curtains as long as Mae Ella could pick the throw pillows for the couch. Mae Ella still doesn’t understand what could possess someone to choose those God-awful things. She munches on her dinner, cursing the fact she hadn’t gotten new ones yet. She drops her plate on the coffee table and stomps across the living room. She grabs hold of the right curtain and yanks as hard as she can. The whole rod comes down with it. Outside, movement in the driveway catches her eye. A silver car sits at the gate. The driver door opens, and a woman climbs out. She crosses her arms and glances around. Her auburn hair is tied up in a high ponytail. Mae Ella recognizes her. Sure, her hips are a bit fuller and eyes tired, but that’s Liza. The left rear door of the car flies open, and two girls about six scramble out. Twins. Mae Ella stares at them. They look just like Liza at that age. Liza shakes her head, propping her foot up on the first rung of the gate. She hoists herself over it, landing on her feet in the dirt. She turns and starts gesturing at the twins. Mae Ella imagines she’s telling them to crawl through the space between the rungs. A minute later, she’s proven right. The three walk briskly toward the house, and Liza spots Mae Ella in the window. Mae Ella groans and goes to open the door. Her sister is just walking up the ramp.
“How long has this been so rotten?”
Mae Ella shrugs.
“A few years, I guess.”
“You’re gonna kill yourself on this damn thing, Sissy.”
“Been meaning to ask one of the Arnold boys to fix it, but I…” She lets her voice trail off.
“Might as well just tear it off and use the old stone steps.” Liza’s in front of her now, hands on her hips. “It’ll be easier.”
The twins stop just behind their mother, eyes locked on Mae Ella.
“You may as well come inside,” she sighs as she steps back. “Do you girls like fish sticks?” She’s already in the kitchen again, dumping the box onto the pizza pan and pre-heating
“Why are my curtains on the floor!?” Liza shouts.
Mae Ella half-heartedly calls out that the rod must have slipped or something, because the house is so old. Liza seats herself in the center of the couch. She looks over when Mae Ella walks back into the room and sits next to her. They lean on each other, Mae Ella’s head on Liza’s shoulder. Outside, darkness has settled in, prompting the yard light to blanket the field in an orange hue. In the shadows, Mae Ella’s playhouse doesn’t seem to be leaning at all.
An Idea from Love
Love rests his chin in the palm of his hand as he watches candle wax drip onto the table. He's left his hair down, the umber strands brushing his neck. Two chairs down, King Halvar tells yet another story of defending his mountain kingdom. He chortles loudly and slams his cup down. Love jerks at the sound and sits upright, straigtening his posture. Perhaps now remembering we have been making treaty arrangements all day, and not just entertaining nine visiting kings.
"Halvar," I begin. The gruff man nods in my direction. "Maybe we have discussed enough for today. Such long hours can be tiring." King Halvar agrees and stands from his seat.
"I believe none of you will argue with Queen Sigrun, and I have a woman waiting back on my ship." He adjusts his tunic and saunters out the door. The rest of the kings start making their ways back to their lodgings. Love stays in his seat, running a finger over the dried wax on the table. Once the room is empty, I walk over and seat myself in his lap. He wraps his arms around my waist and I hook one of mine around his shoulders.
"Have we gotten any treaty arrangements decided, or have we simply spent this time hearing of Halvar's entire life?" he asks.
I kiss his temple and sigh.
"It is his nature to tell his stories. Though it is troublesome to listen to them, the more stories he tells, the more agreeable he becomes."
Love stares up at me a moment. He lifts my hand and presses his mouth to my palm.
"I wish to marry you," he whispers. He releases my hand and slips his fingers through my hair. I grab his wrist, narrowing my eyes at him.
"That is impossible. We rule different lands. You will be expected to marry a woman from your kingdom."
"It is not impossible. Many kings and queens marry as a symbol of alliance and peace. We could marry and our kingdoms become allies." His blue eyes glance up into mine and he grabs my waist, turning me so I nearly straddle his legs. "We both know how happy such a marriage would make us. You love me and I love you."
My face flushes and my ears feel warm. Love cups my face in his hands and briefly kisses my lips.
"Love, I wish to marry you as well."
He pulls me to him and I nuzzle my face into the crook of his neck. His hair tickles my cheeks.