Gone With The Wind
They sit in a box in the attic marked MOVIES. The letters look lopsided, almost flat. Edith marked the box herself whilst her wrist was sprained from all the packing. It is the contents held in that box she thinks of when she hears the evocative hum, with no particular film in mind. It is a questioning noise; low enough to be dismissed, yet present enough to consider its maker.
Edith thinks of the song, "Do You Hear What I Hear?"
From a young age, Edith had been a veritable movie junkie. With the invention of the VCR, hallelujah; she could pause, rewind and replay. According to Edith, this was a giant step for mankind. An original moonwalk. Watching all of her MOVIES multiple times, she adopted the habit of turning the volume way down during the credits while her husband Jerry dozed beside her still clothed in his sweat stained uniform. Listening to the negligible hum coming from the VCR, she was both fascinated and humbled by the desperate unraveling of each and every tape as it came to its end, thrilled when it held, helpless to save one of them should suicide be their demise. Ironically, not one of them ever snapped. Not one. They held. Yet it was her prerogative to feel this unwarranted concern, fearing beyond reason that all good things must and will eventually come to an end.
"What did I miss?" Jerry would always ask the next morning when they were getting ready for work. He loved movies too, but not as much as he loved Edith. She would fill him in and he intently listened. Rolling his own version of a tape created by her words, he would be satisfied. Back then it was 12 o'clock twice a day, but who knew? Other than having to obey the clock for their work schedules and daylight saving time, time was irrelevant. Their bills got paid, and rainy days were not a disappointment. They were always guilt free movie days. Their leisure minutes together in front of the VCR were never enough, and neither of them could believe they would not live on in love with their movies and each other forever. Cheek to cheek, soul to soul, without counting sheep, sleep was a beautiful mid summer's night dream.
Unable to part with her MOVIES, long after the VCR broke, all of the VHS tapes that survived sat in their sleeves on a shelf collecting dust. When Edith and Jerry neared retirement and decided to move out to the suburbs, she still had trouble parting with them in spite of their obsolescence.
"You're not packing up those old VHS tapes are you? Didn't we agree it was time to throw them out? Edith? Please? Edith? Please? Remember what we agreed upon? Remember Honey? Edith, Honey? Out with the old in with the new?"
Jerry needn't ever refresh her memory.
"Yes dear. I do remember." Edith lamented, always aiming to please him, but still, she just couldn't imagine throwing her MOVIES away in the trash, so without further ado they came along for the ride feeling worthy. Aware of the contents of the box, upon their arrival, Jerry put her MOVIES in the attic himself without complaint. Now, in a corner, in the dark, up above is where they remain in their neglect, unusable, as a completely useless aging commodity refusing to accept their fate.
Jerry was gentle with Edith. Always. Like the time she was weak with a bad bout of the flu. He bathed her, dried and combed her hair so tenderly she fell back asleep before he was done. Waking as her fever broke, he was right there beside her ready to wipe her forehead with a soft dry cloth, lifting up a cool glass of water at needed intervals towards her pale dry lips. After smoothing out the tangled covers, he combed her bangs away from her forehead gingerly with his fingers as they fell, where he planted soft healing kisses. Never before had she been so cared for, not even by her mother. Of this she was sure. Exhausted, he sat up till she fell asleep again, refusing his own inclination to close his eyes until he heard the easing rhythm of her breathing, giving himself permission. He lay beside her, in sickness and in health, always in awe.
Edith did not fall for Jerry because he was movie star handsome. Edith fell for Jerry, because he was Jerry. Because every once in a while life gives someone a fairytale, and life gave Edith a love story. Jerry was never jealous, even when she made such a big deal over Cary Grant or any other lead actor in a movie that clearly did not look anything like him. He was so kind, so good, so loving, even if he had a movie doppelganger, there was no need and no reason for her to connect his likeness to any famous stranger as she was habitually known to do. To others, not Edith, Jerry was average. Average looks, average height, and he tipped the scale on the side of husky. His favorite meal was chicken pot pie and she made it for him once a week, usually on a Friday if she wasn't running late from work. If she was, she'd call Jerry and he'd say, "No worries Hon. Let's get take out." Without asking, somehow he'd pick up exactly what she was craving and they would sit together on the couch eating off of their tray tables, laughing in between bites if it was a comedy, and crying should the drama be tragic.
On Saturdays the meat balls were formed early by Edith's hands right after coffee crafted with intentional stale bread, simmered in tomato sauce all day steeped with fresh garlic. Never afraid of a new recipe, trays of baked goods good enough for a crowd popped out of her oven. Jerry could not figure how he had gotten so lucky. She was beautiful, she was kind, she cooked and she picked him?
It was her joy to watch Jerry come back for seconds. Anyway, she preferred a man with meat on his bones. At least that was what she told him and he believed her. Jerry had thick dark hairy arms that might turn some women off, not Edith. After they would make love she would run her fingers up and down either arm, whichever was closest, she had no preference, combing out the curls with her unmanicured nails. The hair on his arms was way too thick for her to see down to his skin, but she knew the goosebumps were there, it was obvious by the way his eyes rolled back as he lifted up his chin back towards the headboard.
Somewhere between turning off Cake Wars and the teapot whistle, Edith heard the curious hum again, foolishly searching the room for the non-existent VCR. Wanting very much to move towards the sound with no sense of its direction, she stepped forward with cupped hands behind both ears. It didn't matter that it did her no good. She had seen it in a movie. Lacking reason she closed her eyes believing it would help sharpen her hearing, bumping multiple times against the adjoining sheetrocked wall as she walked towards the kitchen. It was then that the hum had lost her focus, if it was still there at all, devoured by the teapot signal and the craving for the oatmeal cookies she could no longer avoid.
Inside the kitchen the steam from the kettle lifted up over her head before it landed on a napkin, the counter, and the top side of her breasts. In spite of her age her breasts were still perky or they appeared to be because Edith made sure from a young age to wear a bra with a proper fit; one with ample support to hold up her comparable Jane Mansfield bosoms. It seemed she was packing on the pounds of late, baking cookies and familiar pot pies to pass the time. Quite often she ate alone at the counter continually taking one bite or two, without washing the fork, knowing she'd return for another bite, and another, why bother? She would lose count of her trips into the kitchen, nibbling on and off all day aiming to keep content, always longing in want.
"Just two." She said out loud, blopping two scratch oatmeal cookies onto the damp napkin. Edith was not about to waste a plate and reused her napkins regularly without cause for alarm.
Edith couldn't say exactly what time of day the drone would become most obvious. Was it a week; two weeks; a month since she first heard the hum? Maybe it was just before bedtime when she turned off the television and walked down the hallway to the bathroom. Maybe it was when she turned off her electric toothbrush, turned off the light and crossed over the threshold expecting something else. Maybe it was when she got into bed and struggled, strangled by her twisted loose leg pajama pants. Overwhelmed, doing nothing to help her out of her predicament, blame was irrationally placed upon her cruel cold feet.
"Spoiled little brats," she called them, as if they were the real problem; as if they had a mind of their own conspiring with her pajamas and the thorny rose print sheets to keep her awake listening to an indeterminable hum. Sitting in the closet neatly stacked, a set of smooth white sheets ready to commit taunted her. Eventually she settled and sleep would come on the other side of the bed previously reserved by her husband.
"Why are my feet always so cold?" She asked Dr. Simpson. She wasn't used to driving to the office alone, choosing to leave the radio off during the drive so she could pay strict attention. Every traffic light was seen as a threat even when it remained green without a hint of yellow. A smiling pregnant woman walked into the brick building beside her and held the door for her. Edith thought, "Isn't this supposed to happen the other way around?"
Edith believed her doctor was quite handsome; that he looked like Rock Hudson, although she was certain he wore too much cologne for the seriousness of his profession. In her opinion, she believed all doctors should strictly adhere to smelling sterile or at least antiseptic. Cologne in general, she believed, should be used sparingly, and prohibited in all places of business. She could not fathom an exception.
"Your feet are cold due to a phenomenon called Raynaud's Syndrome. Basically, Raynaud's causes small arteries supplying blood to the skin to excessively constrict in response to cold. It's very common in women your age, but nothing serious, as I explained to you during your last appointment. Nothing to worry about."
"But how can I sleep with cold feet?" She protested, expecting a pill or some other quick fix.
"Wear double socks." He said before quickly ushering her out of the examination room, clicking his pen, avoiding eye contact. Unnecessary office visits irked him. And then he added, "Or move to a warmer climate." Hoping she would. There were other more critical patients waiting for him in the lobby. She left the building feeling dismissed, feeling small, the same way she felt in kindergarten when a boy she called Meany told the whole class not to pick her for dodgeball.
Double socks did not help. At all. Frustrated, she lay in bed again tangled up, wide awake, unable to find the sweet spot, consumed yet again more acutely with whatever it was that she was hearing. From where and what?
"There it is again."
She was unsure if the hum was coming from the front or the back or possibly even under the house. It would just begin to intrude, increasing in volume, sending a signal that somewhere beyond her control there was a festering invader seeking to unnerve. If the hum was more constant she thought she might have a fighting chance to identify it at its source. However, during several trips outside following the direction of what she suspected could be its origin, with each step closer, the hum would abruptly stop.
"It's mocking me." She whispered to no-one under her breath.
"Does it have eyes?"
Eventually, standing alone in the silence she would surrender, turn around, and walk back towards the house questioning if she had heard it at all. Each time, five or six steps removed, the hum returned with a vengeance. She imagined a skeletal hand reaching up and out of a grave flipping a switch to ON. When she turned back to look behind her there would be nothing but the same dry flat ground and a severed fallen branch from a tree pointing in her direction she felt sure she had already picked up.
Back inside the house she busied herself with routine. A load of laundry and a little vacuuming, baking a tray of cookies to be shared with her neighbors all made her feel a sense of relief while listening to the constant rhythm of the dryer and the hand held motor. Both filled her ears with normalcy, temporarily pardoning the alien hum, when suddenly she was interrupted by the doorbell.
She opened the door to find the letter carrier standing in front of her holding a package containing her medication.
"Shush. Listen. Do you hear it?" She said, completely disregarding the reason for his arrival.
"That strange hum out there coming from under the ground. I think. I'm not sure where it is coming from. Do you know if the earth's core makes any noise before an earthquake?"
"Lady, I drive a truck and deliver things. One of your neighbors just asked me if I know how to make meringue. No offense, but might I suggest as I suggested to her that you people google these things? I've got to finish my route and get home to my wife and infant triplets. And no, to answer your question, I do not hear a strange hum, but if I heard a strange hum my first inclination would be to call the gas company. Don't worry, it's probably nothing, but why don't you call out of precaution? Good luck."
"Oh, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry for bothering you. Thanks for the advice and have a nice day."
Edith said this to him while staring at the back of his head as he hurried back to his truck. He turned around briefly and waved which she thought was quite honorable. He looked a little like Marlon Brando. "A Streetcar Named Desire", Marlon Brando, not "The Godfather", Marlon Brando. She always remembered to give him an envelope at Christmas containing twenty dollars. Maybe it wasn't enough. She made a mental note to give him two twenties next year. Looking down at her hands with the door still wide open she realized she was now in possession of the delivered package, even though she had no recollection of taking it from him.
Edith went inside and put the package down on the counter laughing out loud at her foolishness. All this time she had been attempting to chase down the origin of an unfamiliar sound without googling it. Why? Before turning on her computer, she took the letter carrier's advice and called the gas company first, explaining the nature of the odd hum.
And through the phone she heard, "No ma'am. I can't say we've received a call about a strange hum. Do you smell gas? No? Well then you're okay. But I will make a note of your comments for the inspectors just in case. Why don't you call the water company to play it safe and tell them what you told me?"
She thanked the gas company employee for their time and then called the water company right away and through the phone she heard. "You are out in Pittsville? We've had no complaints in the area. Water flowing properly? Yes? Then you're okay ma'am. But hey. Not that it's any of my business but have you ever heard of tinnitus? I've actually got a case of it myself and sometimes it sounds like a symphony of assorted hums in between my ears. Maybe you should get your ears checked? Just trying to help you out. Don't mean to get personal. Process of elimination, ya know?"
She thanked the water company employee very much for their time and then went straight to her computer laughing out loud at herself again. She googled "hum under the earth before an earthquake" first, and really didn't see any connection to what she was hearing and then she googled "tinnitus."
"Oh. You've got to be kidding me. Why didn't I think to call an ear doctor?"
She made a call to the Pittsville ear doctor and during the week leading up to her appointment, the strange hum was becoming ever more constant and obvious. When Edith met up with Dr. Cleary she asked him about the possibility of her having tinnitus. Dr. Cleary was no Rock Hudson. Nothing like Dr. Simpson. He was "Fred Gwynn" gangly with a slicked down gray comb over. She appreciated that he was cologne free; companionable with the sterile environment. After giving her some routine tests for tinnitus, he said, "I can diagnose you by symptoms alone, so it is quite possible that you do have tinnitus, but just so you know, I don't see anything conclusive in your tests. Sometimes tinnitus is just a passing thing due to a stress induced event. Anything stressful going on in your life?"
"Yeah. There is this strange hum that sounds like it's coming from under the ground at my house that won't stop." She didn't tell him about her cold feet or about Jerry. "What's the use?" She thought.
They both laughed. Cold feet aside, having trouble facing reality, Edith really didn't want to tell Dr. Cleary she was still grieving the loss of her late husband, Jerry. Jerry passed away in his sleep during the night after they had watched "Gone With The Wind" for the umpteenth time. It made her happy that he went peacefully. He would have been 81 the following week. It was Jerry that always kept her feet warm. It was Jerry that always made everything right, always knew what to do, and now he was gone.
She didn't dare tell Dr. Cleary at some point she considered that the hum under the ground had something to do with his loss. If she told him she would have to start crying all over again and she really didn't want to do that. Although it crossed her mind, she suppressed the belief that it could be her dead husband sending out some ethereal auditory signal from beyond the grave. What would Dr. Cleary think about that? Although privately she acknowledged her grief, she was also a firm believer that everyone passes in their own time. As they were inseparable, she always knew one of them would go first. And despite her cold feet, she wasn't ready to go just yet, that is she thought she wasn't, up until the taunting hum began to make her life intolerable. She wondered if she should google "can grief drive someone mad?"
After coming back from her ear appointment, Edith sat down in the quiet to relax with a cup of chamomile tea and it was then that she realized in the silence the strange hum was gone! Had Dr. Cleary remedied the situation by setting her mind at ease? Was the noise only in her head all along? Not really there? After she finished her tea, it was so quiet in the house that she noticed the sound of the refrigerator compressor turning on, causing her to look across the room in that direction. It was then that she heard the first obnoxious crack, then another and another coming from the kitchen. She jumped up and into the kitchen to see the floor all around her was beginning to buckle and crumble. As the surface beneath her feet began to swallow her up, on her way down into the abyss she was very pleased about one thing. She knew she wasn't crazy after all. There was some kind of seismic activity happening under the ground around her house. Her first inclination about the strange hum was right!
It was her conscientious letter carrier that surmised she might be dead. She hadn't picked up the mail from her mailbox in almost a week and had always been home when he came to the door with her medication. He told his supervisor about his suspicion when he got back to the office and his supervisor called the police.
When the police officers arrived the partners had to force their way in through the front door. Edith would have been pleased to know the first officer stepping over her threshold was a Paul Newman look alike, "Cool Hand Luke'' Paul Newman, not "The Color of Money" Paul Newman. Once, on a long, very long, longer than long-line-normal-long Walmart checkout line, after staring at his profile for a considerable amount of time, a healthy senior-ish woman behind him became so mesmerized by the likeness, she became utterly starstruck, and proceeded to pass out. Of course he was the closest most equipped individual in the vicinity to come to her aid, summoning an ambulance with one quick click on his phone. When the afflicted woman came to, shortly after her spell, before the medic arrived, the first thing she saw when she looked up was "Cool Hand Luke'' hovering over her, so close, in her diminished state she delusionally puckered up her lips begging for a kiss. Out of reflex, he recoiled into a safer posture. Similar antics had happened to him before in the line of duty. As she became more coherent, embarrassed, the woman tried unsuccessfully to get up. In actuality whatever strength she had left urged her to bolt, but he wouldn't let her move, firmly but gently holding her down by the shoulder blades.
"So sorry to cause a commotion. Must be my blood sugar." She lied to the officer and he was suspicious, although he could not have known at her last check-up her glucose reading was perfectly normal. A concerned woman nearby overheard and quickly presented a cookie. The compromised woman had to eat it, refusing to be seen as a liar, secretly scheming a covert maneuver to snap a picture of her celebrity crush before he got away. Funny thing is, Paul Newman lived to be 83 and had already been dead for years.
The second officer wasn't a looker per se, but had Edith seen him, she may have been able to pigeonhole him into an A-list bit player, a what's his name that people would recognize without significance.
The smell was the first give away for both of the first responders that there was a dead body within the premises.
There she lay, on the perfectly smooth, cold, stone, kitchen tile floor. Edith. Face up. Jerry's Edith.
"Nothing looks out of the ordinary. Said Luke to what's his name. "No foul play here. Probably a heart attack or stroke; poor old woman living all alone here. How odd? Ya know? I've never seen someone die of a heart attack or a stroke or anything else for that matter with such a serene sweet smile on their face."
What's his name was swift to agree and replied,
"Me too. Well at least we can both agree. It looks like she died happy….Wait a minute. Did you hear that hum?"
Never a problem doing two things at once, Luke looked down at his work cell apps, clicked on the ME for Medical Examiner, and began to type, without looking up, replying,
*****Author's name revealed upon request.
“Look, my love. What do you see?”
I blinked several times to get my bleary eyes to adjust. I forced my body to shed its tiredness as I dredged my mind from fatigue’s deep embrace.
Gray coated every surface. Frail blades of grass—warped and twisted—crunched underfoot as Mother and I walked on, stirring up forgotten flakes of ash with each step. The sickened dirt stretched for miles in every direction. Only crumbling headstones broke the monotony of it, and even they were hueless. Color stemmed solely from our vibrant blue robes, enhanced by the white light of the dull sky.
“I see nothing, Mother,” I answered honestly at last. I peered up at her, half in awe and in fear of her response. I searched her face for the slightest crease, any tightened muscle that might’ve conveyed my wrongness. Instead, she smiled.
“Exactly.” Mother inhaled deeply, relishing what I could only assume was the fading smell of smoke. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
I didn’t think I could agree. The world around me was hollow, an odd absence craving to be filled. I didn’t find any charm in the decaying life or extinguished embers. The latter only seemed to stain my trailing robe, muddying its pristine hue with ugly soot.
Mother’s fingers flexed. Red nails sharpened. “Isn’t it?”
Fear traced my spine. I couldn’t lie to Mother. I couldn’t give her my truth either. Instead, I shifted the question to her.
“What do you find so beautiful about this place?”
Mother’s blue eyes glimmering with understanding. “Of course, my love. You are still too young to understand. You see only absence, don’t you? An emptiness that needs filling?”
“Emptiness makes people uncomfortable.” A maroon-stained hand drifted to Mother’s graying hair. “That fact has been proven time after time through my many years. People constantly seek to fill any void they come across. They cram their living areas full of furniture and knick-knacks that might’ve once offered delight but now only serve to occupy space. They’ll flood their blank minds with nonsensical media, their open stomachs with food, or their hollow hearts with fleeting infatuations. They pack their days full of meaningless tasks until they’re sated enough to sleep at night. And when they wake, the cycle repeats, rotating over and over until they die.”
Mother’s face creased. “It’s a miserable existence: constantly filling the void with useless junk and feelings. People waste precious space on cheap consumption or “pretty things.” Potential is prettier than any reality that fills it. Potential needs no host to cover it, no knick-knacks to conceal it. Potential deserves to thrive. The cycle must be broken.” Mother’s fist clenched. “Let the world breathe you miserable—”
I flinched at her harsh tone. Mother instantly took notice. Her stance loosened, and she tucked her fisted hand under an open palm.
“That’s where we are, my love.” Her words flow much softer, a clear river. “We’re at the break in the cycle—the sliver of time between old and new life. Our Coven has achieved its most arduous goal: renewal.”
My fingers drifted to a nearby headstone. The cement is rough, but cool to the touch. Though most of its engraving had fallen victim to cracks and crumble, I’m able to make out three letters: E.N.D. I found them oddly fitting.
“So this is the end of the cycle?”
“And the cusp of the beginning.”
“Does all of Earth look like this?”
Mother smiled. “Our machines have sown the seeds of potential into every inch of this planet’s surface.”
“For the Coven to choose how to fill the absence?”
Mother’s easy expression twisted in an instant. Her claws thickened. “Have you learned nothing, child? Do you think us gods stranded on a mortal plane? Are we no better than the villains we so ardently destroyed?!”
Mother raised a hand, arm winding back. I staggered back out of range. My feet caught on the hem of my robe and before I could catch myself, my back slammed into the colorless Earth.
A cloud of ash rose around me. Whether it was to conceal or suffocate me, I couldn’t tell. I held my breath.
With a shaky sigh, the red bled from Mother’s vision. The glimmer of crystal knowledge returned to her eyes. She lowered her arm.
“We are not gods.” Her voice was low and as rich as the honey coating her words. “We are officiants guiding the Earth to the path it chooses.”
I nodded slowly. “Yes, Mother.”
She motioned for me to stand before facing the other direction. I pushed off my hands to get to my feet.
My fingers snagged on an unfamiliar texture.
I shot a glance at Mother. She’d resumed her spiel, inspiring words drifting through the stale air. I dared a peek at the source.
Green slipped through my fingertips.
It was a sickly green, most faded and withered, but it was life nonetheless. A single leaf, no bigger than a coin, blessed a thin stem.
I cupped my hand around the sprout. Warmth leaked into my palm, traveling up into the rest of my body. An intense feeling gripped my heart, brimming with an odd sense of purpose, fiercer than any resolve I’d felt before.
I must protect this.
“Don’t dawdle, darling. C’mon now.”
Mother’s voice sent a tremor through my body. With several quick blinks, I memorized the plant’s position before jumping to my feet. I trailed after Mother, ash whirling in our wake.
Night turned the Earth’s scape into a true void.
Color had no claim here. The faint, yellow glow of my shrouded lantern did nothing to warm my surroundings, but I didn’t want to risk uncovering it. The Coven house was still close, and I’d figured I’d already tested my luck enough tonight.
Surprisingly, sneaking out had gone better than I’d expected. Usually, the area was heavily guarded, but no one stopped me as I slipped away.
Then again, the Coven’s guards weren’t stationed to keep people in.
I kept my deep-blue robe drawn tight around me. It was the darkest one I owned. Mother forbade us from wearing any other color.
With no moon or stars to guide me, I relied on the terrain alone to find my way. Holding the light as high as I dared, I came across the spot Mother showed me that morning.
Half-a-headstone marked the plant’s home. The same three legible letters embellished it: E.N.D.
They seemed more ironic now than fitting.
Placing my lantern in a dead patch, I knelt next to it. The light found the green before my eyes did. In darkness this deep, the sprout seemed to glow.
I smiled down at it. How the tiny specimen had survived the fires and machines the rest of the world had fallen to was beyond me. Perhaps it was its size that—
A force slammed into my side, knocking me to the ground. Hands flipped me onto my back before covering my mouth. A solid weight pressed against my chest.
My lantern provided just enough light for me to make out a face. Soot smudged the girl’s ruddy skin and matted loose tendrils of greasy hair. A black bandana hid her mouth, but I saw her eyes clearly: a burning blue.
My thoughts flew to Mother, but they faded as the girl spoke.
“Coven scum.” Her voice was piercing, wicked—a stark contrast to Mother’s honeyed tone. “Have you come to destroy the last of all that’s good?”
I wanted to cry out, hoping by some grace of God, there was a chance the guards could hear me. But the Straggler’s grip was too tight. Even as I wriggled underneath her, she held firm.
I tried to speak anyway. Perhaps it would prompt her to remove her hand. She did, only to replace it with a dagger pressed to my throat.
“No.” My voice was a hoarse whisper. “I came to defend what I discovered this morning.”
The blade dug into my skin, steel stinging my neck.
“You discovered nothing. This plant has been here longer than your despicable Coven and the devastation you’ve caused.”
“I don’t want to hurt it—”
The girl scoffed. “Oh, of course not. You just want to ‘cleanse’ it, right? Purify this imperfect life so you can build the world back from scratch.”
“No!” The word came out a gasp. Under her weight, it was becoming harder to breathe.
The girl flinched at my sudden burst. She drew back slightly but kept her blade at my throat.
“I promise,” I told her. “I swear.”
Her face remained hardened, but there was a small give in her eyes. She wanted to believe me.
The girl pulled back fully but kept her dagger aloft.
“Who are you?” I asked as I struggled to sit up.
She hesitated before adding. “And you?”
My chest tightened. I didn’t want to confess that I had no name. Mother had only ever called me ‘love’ or ‘darling.’ The other Coven members had never addressed me at all.
My eyes searched for inspiration. They landed on my robe.
Ash snorted. “How fitting.”
She turned her gaze on the slip of green. In seconds, her eyes lost focus.
“I don’t remember the last time I talked to another person. It’s been weeks, I think . . .”
I tucked my knees close to my chest and stared with her.
“You’re a Straggler, aren’t you?”
“Is that what they’re calling us?”
“Is there another term?”
Ash tilted her head. “But I’m not sure what I’m surviving for anymore. The Devastation took everything. There’s nothing left for me.”
She traced a single finger over the sprout’s leaf. “Maybe it’s for this. Maybe it’s for hope.”
“Have you seen any others like it?”
“I’ve come across two, but they’re several miles from here,” Ash answered. “I spend most of my time going back and forth between the three sprouts to make sure they stay healthy.”
Fragments of Mother’s speech sifted in my mind. People constantly seek to fill any void. They pack their days full of meaningless tasks . . .
“Why don’t you plant the three of them together?” I asked. “It might save you some time.”
Ash’s face fell. “I don’t have much time worth saving.” An odd hollowness crept into her eyes as it leaked into her gaunt face. “Besides, I don’t have the tools or nutrients to do it right. I’d end up killing what little life is left.”
A beat of silence pulsed through the air.
“What if I helped you?” The question kindled a warmth twin to the sense I’d felt that morning. “The Coven has tools and resources. I could grab them for us. We could plant the other sprouts here.”
No expression crossed Ash’s face as she thought. At last, her brow creased. “How do I know this isn’t some Coven trap?”
My mind went blank. I could offer her nothing but my word.
“You still have your dagger,” I said, “If this is some trick and I betray you, kill me. Use my corpse as nourishment for the sprouts.”
Ash made a face. “Okay then . . . sounds like you’re . . . committed.”
“Perfect!” I stood. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
The next day passed faster than any I’d lived so far. Purpose propelled the time forward, turning my minutes into seconds.
I spent every moment outside of my lessons scouring the Coven house for supplies. I managed to piece together a few tools along with a jug of clean water.
Pride sparked in my chest when I saw Ash’s smile that night. Relief melted the harshness of her features, softening into a quiet beauty. I didn’t realize I was staring until she shot me a weird look.
“Sorry.” I sheepishly handed her the tools.
Ash shrugged it off.
“I was worried about the water,” she confessed. “Most of what’s left is contaminated.” Slight desperation tensed her expression as Ash eyed the jug. “Do you mind if I have some?”
I offered it to her. “Take all you need.”
She took several deep gulps.
“At least we won’t need fertilizer,” Ash said as she sat. “The Devastation’s fires took care of that for us.” She laid the other two sprouts down gently. “All we need to do is replant them, water them, and . . . pray, I guess.”
We worked together in tandem, tilling the pitiful dirt and moistening it with water. Silence filled the air, no longer stale, but shifting slightly with our movement. There was a peacefulness in the quiet, not a complete absence of sound, but a calm accented by soft noise.
“My family used to own a farm.”
Her words jarred me. Farm. I tried to piece together what that might’ve looked like, but my mind drew a blank.
“What was it like?”
Ash paused. “Almost like this, just ten times the size.” She set a sprout in one of the holes. “Well, it wasn’t a huge farm. We only grew enough to sell at our village market and keep our family fed.”
When I said nothing, she went on.
“I miss the simplicity of it. There was no great purpose, no gritty survival or desolation. There was just peace. And plants.” Ash smiled softly at her replanted sprout.
She chuckled. The sound hummed through my ears, a beautiful melody.
“I feel like my mother,” Ash confessed, “She would get so excited when the tomatoes ripened. They were always her favorite. She loved the color red as much as she loved the rest of us.”
Ash’s words stirred in my mind, dredging memories from its depths. Images echoed in my head, words rippling through one another.
“You’re meant for a great purpose, my love. You are meant for anything and everything.”
With a red-stained hand, Mother cupped my face.
“The rest of the Coven is old and spent, but you are young and fresh. You’re a smooth slate for the future to mold as it sees fit. Destiny sees no bounds. As you are now, you are limitless.
“My mother is in love with potential.” My breath hitched before I divulged. “I think that’s what she loves most about me.”
I held my breath in the silence, waiting for Ash to reply. If she’d even answer at all—
Ash lifted her gaze to meet mine. Through the smudged soot, I could make out a resolve in her expression.
“We weren’t born to be blank slates forever. Your potential is yours to fill, Blue. You chose a path, even if it limits the others you can take.”
Her words kindled a feeling in me deeper than anything I’d felt before. The warmth extended, filling out the tips of my toes and reddening my face.
I tried to find a way to express it out loud, but the feeling didn’t translate to words. When I opened my mouth to speak, all that came out was: “That’s not my name.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t given one. I made it up.”
Ash observed me for several seconds. She shrugged. “Even better. You’re already blazing your own trail.”
The next week passed the same as that night. We hid our progress, smothering the green with ash in the day, then uncovering it each night to admire the green. The sprouts were growing better than I’d dared to expect. Each of the three had begun to bloom new leaves, stretching to the blank sky.
Their presence made the area by the E.N.D. seem lighter. The headstone had brightened, glowing with pride for the life taking root below it. Ash’s face had softened, its creases fading into clearing skin. My chest expanded, fueled by the steady pulse of purpose, of hope.
But, of course, when things were brightest, they were most susceptible to darkness. Our darkness came in the form of a shadow. It fell in the way of our lantern’s light, blotting out its warmth.
With a swift kick, the glow was extinguished.
A harsh, white beam replaced it.
Ash and I stumbled back. My fingers etched along brittle grass as I lifted a hand to shield my face.
“Sorry, darling, am I interrupting?”
Mother’s voice was a blade to my heart.
Instinctually, I reached out to Ash. Our dirt-stained fingers had barely grazed one another before rough hands clamped down around our arms and shoulders. They yanked us apart, drawing us out of the light and into cloaked shadows. In the dark, our attackers were phantoms, but flapping fabric and gnarled palms manifested them into Coven members.
A series of 'oomphs' and scuffles pierced the air, and I knew Ash was fighting back. I tried to do the same, but I only managed a few weak thrashes before I was fully restrained.
Mother passed the light beam to another Coven member, who aimed it directly at me. She advanced, her steps tracing around the headstone.
“So this is where you’ve been sneaking off to every night.” Mother’s voice flowed cooler than I’d expected. She aimed a pointed glare at Ash. “Or rather, who you’ve been sneaking off with.”
When Mother’s face turned to me, her expression softened.
“You didn’t really think I wouldn’t notice, child.” Mother’s look was almost pitying. “I see all, my love. Every crease in your face, every step you take, every lie you claim.”
At the last word, I flinched. Her eyes narrowed.
“Are you so immature as to be driven to explore these . . . exploits in the dead of night? I thought you were better than this.” Mother wrinkled her nose at Ash. “Better than her at least. She’s filthy.”
“At least you’re still clean,” Mother murmured. When her gaze flicked to my hands she cringed. “Mostly. What did you . . .”
Her eyes widened.
Mother whirled to the Coven member who’d spoken. He pointed a crimson-crusted hand at the base of the headstone, at our garden. It was a single splotch of green against miles and miles of gray. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how small our sprouts truly were. In my eyes, they were the world.
In an instant, Mother’s pale face contorted, reddening with rage.
“My love—” she spoke the term as an insult, spitting malice “—are you . . . growing something?”
There was no point in lying. I lifted my chin. “Yes.”
Her calm voice simmered. “You’re filling space—beautiful potential—with these scraggly weeds?”
In an instant, she spun back to me. Maroon claws latched onto my chin.
“YOU ARE NO CHILD OF MINE!”
Mother yanked me from the Coven member’s grasp. She gripped my wrists, pinning them behind my back with one hand. She kept the other on my face in a skin-twisting grasp.
Mother pitched my face forward to the dirt. She stopped a mere inch above our pitiful garden.
“Look, my love.” Her words came slow and gritted, forced through sharpened teeth. “What do you see?”
Tears welled in my eyes, blurring my vision. They fell, caressing our greatest achievement, our most damnable weakness. For a second, I feared they were too much for the plants’ leaves to hold, but our sprouts stood strong. My tears slipped down their leaves before dripping into the soil.
“I see strength,” I whispered. There was no use lying to Mother. And now, there was no use holding back. “I see life and all the glory it nearly lost to the Coven—”
“You idiot! You fool!” Mother tightened her hold on my wrists, yanking my shoulders back. “You fancy yourself some self-righteous rebel? Some valiant hero for the meek?! Your heart holds nothing but hubris. You are a scrap of prideful scum, no better than the ragtag, soot-faced peasant you call a partner.”
Mother drew a shaky breath. “You’re nothing.”
“No, they’re not.”
Ash’s voice was venom, acid dripping with truth.
The fury in her face matched Mother’s to a tee, from bulging veins to twisting folds of skin. Fires burned blue in their eyes.
I was just close enough to Ash to meet her gaze. Ash’s rage softened for only an instant before it intensified. Lips twisting, she aimed for Mother and spat.
The spit landed close to the hem of Mother’s robe. A splotch of soot stained the rich, royal blue satin.
Mother’s cry echoed with the wrath of a dying sun. Her next words were a screech.
Ash’s dagger glinted as a Coven member freed it from her waistband. In a single swipe, he sliced it through her throat.
The Coven members released Ash’s gasping form. Her hands clawed at her throat in a vain attempt to seal the wound. The motion only spewed more blood through her fingers, droplets spraying across the withered grass.
Her eyes bulged as they met mine. They searched for comfort, solace.
I could offer her none.
I held her gaze; it was the best my crumpled face could manage. I tried to think of something to say, a way to vocalize the feelings swelling inside of me, the love I harbored for her.
I only managed to mouth her name.
Ash . . .
Her trembling body collapsed with a puff of ash. When the cloud cleared, she was utterly still.
Mother’s grip forced my blurred gaze away from my friend. She turned my attention back to herself.
“You’re shedding tears for scum?” Her words fueled a fire in my chest. “She was nothing. You were meant for greatness, a model for the world to shape as it saw fit.”
I remembered Ash’s words. “I am no one’s husk to fill,” I shot back, “I make myself whoever I wish to be.”
Mother’s eyes narrowed. “You could’ve been a monarch. An innovator. A saint. Instead, you choose to fill yourself with warped weeds, a soot-stained girl, and a pathetic hope.”
“Those things are better than hate and destruction. They’re real, tangible, more so than your shoddy attempts at control and your empty hope for greatness.”
Mother’s claws dug into my skin, stinging with swelled pricks of blood.
“You wish to be scum?”
I said nothing.
“Then you shall die like one.”
In a snap, Mother’s hand released my wrists to brace the back of my head. With all her might, she jerked my head to the right.
My neck cracked.
There was a single mercy in my death: I didn’t die facing her. Mother released my twisted form, letting it collapse at the base of the crumbled headstone, where our garden flourished.
Green consumed my vision. From this angle, our sprouts looked large enough to conquer the world.
Written by Madeleine S. Cargile
The 1st Step
Hello my name is Aurora and I’m an Ingression. Don’t know what that is? Basically, I’m a gateway, a portal to another realm. People can literally step through me and end up somewhere else. Sounds cool right? Well it’s not! Can you imagine going through puberty then suddenly random objects start flying out of your naval? Now that was scary. Fortunately, the local healer explained that this peculiar behavior was normal for an Ingression my age. It was still odd though. Neither of my parents had magic anything resembling mine. Mom was imbued with ice magic and Dad can make simple illusions. Mom was obviously the more favorably endowed of the two. Still while growing up, I thought I would get some kind of cool mashup of the two. Like making illusions that freeze people when you touch them. You know something like that. But instead, I got this stupid curse. Some of you that aren’t endowed are probably thinking well maybe it’s not the best magic but it’s still something. Well, I’d really rather have nothing than this ability. This curse has ruined my entire life.
When I realized my magic had finally awakened, after the trip to the healer I was very excited. Once I learned to open my portal on my own the expulsions of random objects stopped (which was a huge relief). When I focus my magic into my navel, I feel the tickle of the portal becoming active. I remember I used to giggle every time I did it. Then I feel a rippling sensation that spreads through my whole body. And... that’s it. People can walk through me to another realm. It’s super basic. And that little bit of hocus pocus is all I’ll ever be able to do. There’s no one that can teach me anything else. Even Zale doesn’t know much about Ingression magic. By the way Zale is my butler. He’s one of those perfect butler types. He can do anything from beat up thugs to pour a perfect cup of tea. Seriously! I mean he’s a strong magician, well learned, polite, a great cook, patient, dependable, and I started to notice a while ago extremely handsome.
Anyway, back to what I was saying, Ingressions are extremely rare. There’s only one other known Ingression in our realm, but not only is he on the other side of the continent he’s also part of the royal family. So, the chances of being taken on as an apprentice is basically zero. So knowing I would probably never be able to be more than convenient transportation for other people was a big letdown. Still, it’s not even close to the worst of it.
As disappointing as this ability is for me it is invaluable for others. A lot of people would pay good money for access to an instant portal. A fact that my Dad was quick to move in on. Discovering my abilities turned Dad into a completely different person. He use to look at me and see his little girl, but now when he looks at me he sees a golden idol. As soon as my portal was stable my Dad was ready with large groups of people ready to pay to go inside me. Wait… ok that sounds worse than it is, but honestly not even by that much! I really felt violated! Just imagine every other day strangers coming up to you with expectation. They already paid for your services so you’d better deliver. Of coarse being 11 at the time I had no say in the matter. That and I felt like I was letting my dad down.
Before I couldn’t do more than 5 people a day. My Dad was furious. “Is that it?!”He asked standing over me. I’d fallen to my knees drenched in sweat after the last customer had passed through. “I thought you said you were practicing!” “S sorry Dad” I panted from the floor unable to support myself any longer. “Hey, am I still gonna be able to go to Nocturne, because I paid extra gold to be able to go today?” “Heh heh, sorry everyone.” my Dad said addressing the four people who were still waiting. “We’re having a few minor complications... I’ll deal with you later.” He growled at me out of the corner of his mouth.
Things seemed to change so abruptly Mom and Dad started fighting. I’d never seen them fight before my magic awakened, but it became an almost nightly event. My Mom was against the idea of making money off me from the start and she only grew more adamant as my Dad continued to change. One night there fighting reached a fever pitch. My Mom was screaming that she would just take me and Zale and leave and he could keep all the stupid money if that’s what really makes him happy. When I woke up the next day Mom was dead. My dad said she tripped on her gown and fell down the stairs. I knew he killed her. So did Zale and the guards he hired to protect the house, so his precious golden goose never gets stolen. What could we say? I was a kid, Zale a young butler, and he was the now rich and prestigious figure that was helping to stimulate the economy in our lonely town. Honestly, I’m sure he knew that we knew he killed her. There was shame in his eyes whenever he held my gaze and at the funeral, he even managed to shed a few tears. I on the other hand bawled like a baby.
For the next several months. I spent the better part of the days crying. When I wasn’t crying I would just lie on my bed hating myself. Why did I have to be an Ingression? If I didn’t have these wretched powers Mom would still be alive. I was too depressed to eat. I pretty much reverted back to infancy. I only ate what Zale spoon fed me and when I’d sob uncontrollably Zale would hold me in his arms and rock me to sleep. My Dad was absent during these months. I stayed locked in my room and he did whatever he was doing. I wanted to hate him. I did hate him. But still as the months past I wondered why he never came up to check on me. I guess I can at least thank him for getting me out of my depressed stupor. One day he showed up at my room and poked his head through the door. “Hey are you ok?” He asked. “Yes.” I responded monotonously. “Good. Someone wants to travel get yourself ready.” And then he was gone.
So I dragged myself out of bed put on decent clothes and waited to receive the latest traveler wondering if I even still had the capability. Fortunately, it was just one guy and the process went as smoothly as if it’d been just yesterday since last opening my portal. After that it was back to business as usual. I’d manage to increase the duration of my portal opening significantly but it still wasn’t exactly easy. This was especially true when there were andragons in the group. Since the average andragon was over 7 feet tall I found it surprising I could even pass them through. There height along with their wide frame meant they would often protrude past my portal space even when taking a wide stance and extending my arms as far as they would go. This always gave me a weird feeling of being uncomfortably stretched and I could almost feel the scales scraping against my translucent body.
Sometimes after these sessions I felt so tired that all I wanted to do was go to sleep, but Zale insisted that I get out of the house for a while for my own good. I had no idea how much I needed it until I was outside. We didn’t go far; we just walked to the town market then came back. Still, it was enough. Just seeing the sky and feeling the wind on my face gave me such a liberating feeling. After that I made it a point to get out of the house every day. Sometimes it was for brief periods after sessions of transporting people. Other days when no one was traveling I would spend the entire day out of the house. I would go on walks with Zale, spend time by the river, visit my friends in town, and browse around the market. For a while this was acceptable. Then Dad started seeing this as a problem. He said it wasn’t safe for me to go be going outside all the time and insisted that I never leave the house without the company of at least five guards. I didn’t see the point of it since we never went too far from town, where we knew everyone. Even if something actually did happen, Zale was always with me and I’m pretty sure he was worth more than five guards. In any case we complied. Having the guards always on our heels definitely put people on edge whenever we came through. That caused us to start spending more time in remote areas. As time went on my Dad grew more and more agitated by our excursions. He would show clear disapproval of my casual coming and going to the point that leaving, even with the required guards, was met with a challenge.
One day when I was thirteen I decided it was a nice day for a picnic. So Zale made us lunch and we planned on going to get my friend Naomi and enjoy our meal amidst nature. As we were heading out the door my Dad asked boorishly, “where are you going?” “We’re going to have a picnic in the dead woods” I answered. Our escort of guards was already forming a line behind us. “Why do you have to go out?” He said “you can have lunch here in the house.” I couldn’t fathom what his issue could be with us going to a location so close to home especially when we were still being escorted by the guards. “Umm well it’s a nice day outside, I stated. And no one is traveling today so I just thought…” “Oh there no travelers today so you’ll just leave huh? Guess you have too much time on your hands fine then, go on go, go!” So we went. He was like that now. He just got angry for no reason.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, he spent the remainder of that afternoon and the next couple of days sending out messages far and wide by any means available. In a months’ time half the continent knew that there was an Ingression in Ozrin. Travelers came flooding in with renewed vigor. Every day there were more people to transport. Where were all these people even coming from? I felt like the entire realm should have been vacant by now! The groups got larger and larger and the breaks in between got shorter. I thought things were at their worst when an entire troop of andragons showed up wanting to go to Yandrasille. That led to an incident Zale had to diffuse, but in the end I was able to transport them all. Things really did hit their worst serval weeks later when I passed out trying to transport a group of twenty six. I made it to nineteen.
It’s hard to remember clear details of that time. I know I had an extremely high fever after that. I mean unnaturally high. The town healer had never seen anything like it. A request was sent for a healer in the capital but he hadn’t seen anything of the sort either. He thought I was dying which was just as well because that’s how I felt. I spent most of the time sleeping having weird fever driven dreams. I remember waking up several times to Zale swabbing my neck and forehead with a cool towel. According to him my delirium led to a few crazy conversations. “Zale”… I’d whisper. “Yes lady Aurora I’m here.” “Could you take my skin off please…” “No my lady I don’t think that would be wise.” “Please Zale? Just for a little while, we can put it back on later. It’s cooking my insides…” another time I thought I dreamed my Dad and Zale were arguing above my bed. I was sure it was another fever dream because I’d never seen Zale so much as raise his voice in anger let alone engage in a full blown argument with my Dad. A few weeks later when I started to recover I ask him if I’d dreamt it. That’s when he told me it really happened. When I asked him what they were arguing about, he said I should focus on finishing my herbal tea, so I didn’t press him on the subject.
It was a slow process but when it seemed whatever it was that afflicted my body ran its course my strength began to return. My full recovery took almost 6 months. I remember in the last month when I was well enough to walk around my room I thought of how nice it would be to go outside. If only there was a way to sneak out of the house so my Dad wouldn’t know I could leave the house without keeling over. I wasn’t sure if I could make it if he made me start transporting people again so soon. But as I gazed out through my window, I realized that sneaking out was not an option. The guards around the house seemed to have multiplied two-fold. I’m not sure what it was but as I watched the guards from my room window it suddenly dawned on me; the guards weren’t really meant to keep people out, they were meant to keep me in. That’s why my Dad had guards following us everywhere we went. And that’s why he always got agitated whenever I wanted to leave. He thought I was going to try and run away. Something else clicked. The picnic. That’s why my Dad went out of control when we were leaving for the picnic. For all he knew our bags were packed with enough food and supplies to make it to the city. No doubt Zale had already figured this out long ago. I scratched my head violently in frustration. I wished he’d let me in on what’s going on sometimes…
This whole thing was ridicules I was fourteen already and my Dad had me under permanent house arrest. He couldn’t keep me here. He had no right to. There were times that I wanted to just tell him off and let him know that, but I always got scared. Since my Dads transformation there’s no telling how far he would go to keep me here. The truth is I always wanted to travel to different realms and go on adventures and stuff. That’s what Mom did. She was part of a guild based in Tiada. Since her death I struggled finding motivation to move let alone go to far off places. But the idea of My Dad tethering me to the house, to himself,… It made me feel like a bird in a cage. I had to get out!
So the obvious question. Aurora, you’re an Ingression, why don’t you just use your own portal to go somewhere far far away. Well that would be because of the extremely unfavorable stipulation that occurs when Ingressions step through their own gateways… their locked out of the realm they traveled from forever. When Zale read me that line in an old book he found after I’d discovered my abilities my stomach tied itself in knots. I had so many questions like what happens if you accidentally fall into your own portal or what if you somehow lock yourself out of all thirteen realms? Unfortunately the book was lacking in details but I decided then that it wouldn’t be a problem because I would never go through my own portal. The thought was just too horrifying. Who would have guessed I’d be contemplating it just four years later.
A few months after I recovered I was back to opening portals. Thankfully my Dad didn’t try to overload me like he did before. Maybe going almost a year without traveler money made him realize if you kill the goose you’re out of eggs. Still even with the more manageable group size it was still largely laborious work and I knew I couldn’t stay here forever. Since I became aware of the guards true intentions it became painfully obvious that they were monitoring my every move and reporting it back to my Dad. I felt stupid for not seeing it sooner. I thought more and more about how I could leave without using my portal but I could never come up with anything that didn’t involve Zale fighting an army of guards. If I was going to leave it would have to be through my portal.
I weighed the options over and over again. In reality there really wasn’t much for me here. My life consisted largely of waiting in my room for the next job transporting people trying not to faint then rinse and repeat. My relationship with my dad was that of a tool and the user, I barely saw my friends, I was monitored round the clock by guards, and it didn’t seem like any of that would ever change. On the other hand if I did use my portal I could end up anywhere with no way of getting back. Even though that wasn’t the most ideal situation I still preferred that to being my Dads portal slave forever.
The biggest dilemma for me was leaving Zale behind. The times that I was actually happy here was because of him. He’d been here with me all this time, even stepping in when my father left gaps. I couldn’t imagine what life would be without him at my side. But I didn’t know how to take him with me. The best I could do is to send him somewhere then follow after him. With my lack of knowledge and experience I had no idea if I would end up in the same place let alone the same realm. One out of thirteen. Not the best odds. There’s that plus, I know Zale would never agree to it. He would never agree to a plan that would leave me in a potentially dangerous situation without his help. He was much more likely to support the plan with him single handedly fighting the small army guarding the house since that plan involved us staying together. That was something I couldn’t agree with. I had no doubt the guards wouldn’t hurt me if I tried to escape. Zale on the other hand was a different story. Dad doesn’t even like Zale. I doubt he would give the guards instructions not to hurt or kill him if things took a turn for the worst. There was no way I was letting that happen. Not after everything Zale has done for me. I refused to drag him down with me.
Zale was the kind of person that could excel at anything. Without me to worry about I’m sure Zale could slip past every guard without a problem. He could live a successful happy life without having to foster me all the time. He would never say it but it was the truth. My situation was a miserable one and this extended to Zale by the fault. Zale would be better off without me. So I continued being Daddy’s little money maker in silence though below the surface I was plotting this best time to escape.
Knowing that I was now guilty of the “plotting” my Dad was already convinced of, was a pretty scary transition. But at least on the surface he did not appear to notice any changes worth increasing his surveillance on me. When I got the opportunity to go to the library (under supervision of course) I would casually add an extra book focused on skill building or survival knowledge mixed in with my usual selection. I dared not touch anything on different realms. Instead, I would try and take advantage of the more garrulous travelers asking them probing questions disguised as friendly banter. Though this did increase some of my basic knowledge of the different realms it was also successful in increasing my anxiety. (Please not Acrid! Land anywhere but Acrid!)
I also got pretty good at reading people. I would pay attention for cues of sympathy or general good nature and use it to my advantage. Sometimes people would walk in surprised that their transporter was just a little girl. Under my dad's watchful gaze, I was an unflinching machine but when he stepped away, I would take advantage of the traveler's sympathy to take longer breaks, and play up my fatigue by wheezing heavily and neglecting to wipe the seat from my brow. A quickly learned that sometimes this could lead to more money as some of the travelers would discretely press a few coins into my hand before preparing to depart.
Once my Dad walked in at the worst possible time while this was taking place. I’d put on a pretty big show of having a mild dizzy spell. The Elderly woman was handing me a whole gold coin when my Dad appeared in the frame of the door. I pretended I hadn't noticed him and excepted the coin. After I finished transports for the day, I presented him the gold coin and explained to him that one of the travelers had given it to me earlier that day. He eyed both me and the coin with a very odd expression before grunting just keep it. Before walking off.
A month after I turned sixteen I was ready. It was hard to tell how much I would need starting my new life in another realm. I figured if 5 gold coins was about a day's wage for someone with a good job, with the amount my Dad gave me after transporting sessions, pitiful as it was compared to how much was actually made, I should have enough to live comfortably for roughly 3 years. Slowly but surely I got around to seeing all my friends again because I knew it would be the last time. I spoke to them in private and let them know just how much I appreciated them. I tried not to get too choked up about the final goodbyes I didn’t want Zale to know what I was planning. He was already suspicious of me though. (Know it all!) I couldn’t help but shed a few tears when I left Naomi for the last time.
The hardest goodbye was Zale. I couldn’t tell him in person or he would try to stop me so I decided on a letter. Every time I started writing I started crying to the point that I couldn’t write anymore. Saying goodbye to Zale felt too real. It was almost too much to bear. It took six or seven rounds before I could finish the letter. Finally, everything was done I was ready to leave. Though my whole body was trembling with fear but also excitement. It was time to go…
but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to but I couldn’t just leave without saying something to my Dad. I don’t know why I still cared but I did. So I wrote another letter much shorter than Zale’s but I still wasn’t able to get through it without crying.
Once that was done there was no longer anything holding me back. I had to leave, and now before I lost my resolve. I’d lived as a bird in a cage for five years. That was more than enough. It was time for this chapter of my life to end. I put on my pack with all my clothes and money, then took my stance. I felt the familiar tickle in my naval as my body responded to the focus of my magic. The rippling grew and spread thought my entire body. I took a last sweeping looked around the room that had been my home for so many years… then I closed my eyes and fell backwards and forwards simultaneously. Into my portal. Into myself, for a destination unknown.
Author Name: D-Reaper
Name: Danielle Hughes
According to Norse mythology Baldr was the most beloved son of Odin and Frigg. Frigg made all creation swear an oath not to harm him, with the exception of mistletoe. Therefore, Loki tricked the blind god Hodur into killing Baldr with a spear wrapped with mistletoe. Baldr’s death marked the beginning of Ragnarok.
Rain drops splashed onto my face. I blinked up at the thick evergreens as rain breached the canopy with increasing force. The summer squall was not a promising start to a camping trip. Looking back maybe it was nature was trying to warn us.
“Loki, hurry up,” Odin called from atop his eight legged steed.
I looked up to see that the rest of my family was already at the crest of the hill. Yanking my boots free of the mud I tried to catch up with. My legs would not cooperate; swathed in my soaked trousers. I slipped, falling to my knees. I scrambled to stand hoping my brothers had not seen me fall. My frenzied attempt caused my feet to go out from under me again. I landed face first, with an audible squelching sound. Thor’s laughter rang in my ears before I could even try to right myself. I wished the ground would swallow me. The only the ground was becoming mud and getting everywhere including in my eyes. I tried to wipe them and only made things worse. I spit trying to rid my mouth of the grit, but I lost that battle too.
“Quick with his tongue but not so on his feet,” Thor said.
I felt tears prick my eyes. The only mercy was that I was fairly sure the tears would not show with all the rain and muck covering my visage.
Baldr frowned at Thor and then started towards me. “There’s no reason to be mean.”
“Ah yes, because Loki is always the kindest soul.”
Odin dismounted spraying mud as he landed. “Thor, help your brothers up here!”
Despite how much I sometimes disliked my brawny, older brother I was glad Odin made him help us because I was pulling Baldr down into the mud much more than he was pulling me up out of it. With one of Thor’s muscular hands around each of our forearms he dragged Baldr and I up the hill to where Odin was guiding our brother, Hodur, down from the horse.
As Thor began unloading supplies, I rubbed my arm trying to get the circulation back. I watched through the raining thinking there was no possible way all the bedrolls would be dry. I had a feeling it would be a long, cold night.
“Loki, watch Hodur,” Odin said as he tied up his horse. “Take him to get firewood.”
I looked at him and sighed. Hunting through the forest for kindling in the rain, with my blind brother, was another reason I detested camping. If we were home in the palace the servants would already have a fire blazing. They would also be watching Hodur, not me.
“I don’t need to be baby sat,” Hodur said as we started off.
“Good, because I don’t plan on sitting you.” It was not that I had anything against Hodur, I just wanted to be left alone. Also, I hated, absolutely hated every being in charge of anything. All that ever happened was something went wrong and I would get blamed for it. Honestly, I was a little surprised that no one had blamed the rain on me yet.
As we ventured further into the trees the rain only found its way through the canopy enough to cause a light shower. Finding a rock, I climbed onto it and shrugged off my drenched outer cloak. Then I pulled out a small leather pouch and unwrapped its contents. I smiled, seeing my spell book was unharmed. Tucking my legs up underneath me I began to read.
“Father will be angry if we don’t come back with anything.” Hodur was standing with one hand pressed against a tree and his other wrapped tightly around his cane, exactly where I had left him. His milky eyes were flickering back and forth.
I glared at him and then, realizing that he could not see me, gave an exaggerated huff and jumped to the ground with a thud.
“This is not my idea of fun either,” Hodur said. He was patting the ground with his cane edging towards me.
“Ah yes,” I took time to secure my book in the pouch, “but a family who is miserable together, stays together.”
Hodur actually laughed and I felt a sense of satisfaction at that.
I rubbed my hands together looking around. I needed to find something Hodur could do independently. My eyes found some plants growing near the base of an oak. “You can pick some bilberries,” I said leading him over to the grouping. “Meanwhile, I will gather firewood.”
“I will not be able to tell if they are ripe.”
“We can sort them back at camp.” He stumbled after me and I left him by the tree.
I had not found much wood dry enough to light when I heard Baldr calling for Hodur and me.
“That is all you found?” Baldr pouted at me once I made it back to where he and Hodur were waiting. “It will take dinner forever.”
I rolled my eyes. “I doubt you will starve.” Though he was not wrong, dinner would be a long time coming.
As if in protest to my statement, Baldr’s stomach emitted a deep growl.
“Was that your stomach?” Hodur asked, his milky eyes rotating towards the sound.
“Yes, it will eat me from the inside out if I do not feed it soon.”
I had a rather twisted mental image of that and tried not to laugh. “Maybe you should let him have some berries.”
“Here,” Hodur held the satchel out in front of him. “There might be some unripe ones.”
Baldr took the bag and then gobbled a handful of berries without even looking at them. He winced. “Ooo, you are right about that.”
By the time we were back at camp Baldr had eaten all the berries.
“I would have liked some of those,” Hodur said.
“I think all of us would have.” I said.
Baldr scrunched up his face. “I was hungry.”
“So are the rest of us.” Honestly, I think the rest of us were more so. I had no idea what Baldr’s part in setting up camp had been, but it most likely had not been labor intensive. At least the rain had slackened a bit.
Odin turned and watched as we approached, his eye finally focusing on me. “Is that all?”
I looked down at the bundle of firewood I was clutching. The wood had become steadily less flammable due to its proximity to my soaked clothes. “Yes.” Odin simply turned away.
Thor came over and took the wood from me. “Did you find anything for us to eat while we wait for the rabbits?”
Baldr shot me a desperate look. “No, nothing,” I lied. Hodur snorted, but Thor did not press the subject.
A little while later the rain stopped, but we were all still soaked and huddled near the cooking fire. Waiting for dinner to cook Baldr kept nodding off.
“Are you alright?” I asked him. It had been a long, wet day but nodding off was a little excessive.
“I am fine.” Baldr rubbed his eyes. “I think I just need to lie down.”
I agreed and did not think much of it, but by the time dinner was ready he had begun vomiting.
“You do not think he could have gotten sick from the berries I picked do you?” Hodur asked worriedly. “Can you get sick from unripe berries?”
I shook my head, more out of habit than a feeling of assurance. “No one gets sick from bilberries. His stomach is probably just upset from travelling.”
Hodur nodded and began feeling his way towards his tent with his cane.
The more I thought about what Hodur said, the more restless I became. It was ridiculous, of course, no one could get sick from bilberries, but Baldr was getting worse.
While the other’s tended to Baldr I made a torch and raced into the woods retracing my steps. I approached the plants I had found, and directed Hodur to earlier, with caution. My eyes were squeezed nearly shut, and I opened one fully and then the other when I got close enough to see the berries clearly. When I saw that the bushes were indeed bilberries, I exhaled so forcefully my torch flickered. I walked around the bushes just to make sure that everything was all as it seemed. It was not until I reached the far side that I saw some other plant growing in with the berries. I looked more closely and realized the other plant was mistletoe. My stomach twisted, my dinner threatened to come up on me. No! No! This was not possible. Hodur had not picked any mistletoe berries. My brother was not poisoned. I would not allow myself to believe it.
“Did you think this would be funny?” I had not known Odin had followed me. I turned and stared up at his one-eyed visage.
“I did not see them.” The tree was pressed against my back, twigs digging into my flesh. I had not realized I had backed up until then.
“Your brother is dying!” Odin’s voice cracked with fury. I cringed.
“I did not see them.” I felt my throat tighten. I knew he thought I was lying, because if I had picked the berries I would have seen the mistletoe when I got to this side of the shrubs.
There had to be a way to explain this without hurting Hodur. I tried to think, but before I had time to come up with a plausible excuse I was in a heap on the ground watching Odin’s feet fade as my torch sputtered and went out. My head was filled with a strange buzzing. Something warm and wet slid down the side of my face.
Sitting up, I finally did lose my supper. It felt like I was falling even though I could feel the ground beneath me. I stayed on my hands and knees until the earth settled and then made it to my feet with the tang of acid still burning in the back of my throat. It served as a reminder of what would happen if I moved too quickly.
When I was confident my legs would hold me I began to teeter forward my hands extended so I did not walk into anything in the deep blackness of the woods. I wondered if this was how Hodur always felt and I could not help but be amazed that he kept his sanity.
Eventually, I made it back to the campsite. The embers were glowing, the tents and provisions were still there, but my family was gone. Our walk to the campground had taken the better part of a day, but Odin would have taken Baldr back on Sleipnir at full speed. In my current state I would not even be able to catch up with Thor and Hodur, who were most likely on foot. I was alone. Making a torch and then putting out the coals, I started for the palace.
Even pushing my body to its limits; the sun had risen by the time I reached the city. The mud on my clothing had solidified into a shell that shattered and crumbled as I walked.
I did not dare make my presence known until I knew that Baldr was alive. He had to be alive. Father would have raced here and the healers would have a cure. Then, I would let my family know I was home. I would explain what happened, and probably get punished, but Baldr, Hodur, and I would laugh about it later. So, I took back passages and old sentry gates, making my way into the palace undetected. It was not until I was crawling up the servant’s staircase to the sleeping quarters that I found my path blocked by two small boots. I looked up to see the rest of the person attached to the boots and found myself staring at a disheveled servant girl.
“Who are you, and why are you trying to break into this palace?”
The girl was pretty, in a frail sort of way, with brown eyes too big for her face and thin brown hair. I noticed she had been crying and my stomach rebelled again sending bile into the back of my throat. “My brother?”
She blinked rapidly and then curtseyed so deeply she nearly fell off her step on top of me. “Prince Loki, I am so sorry, my deepest apologies, you look…different.”
Different, I decided, must have been the nicest way she knew to say that I looked like I had been buried alive for three days. I tried to get up and would have failed, but she came down to help me. She was surprisingly strong. “What’s your name?” Baldr would have known her name. He just remembered things like that. All I knew was that she looked vaguely familiar.
After a pause and a few more random blinks she replied. “Nanna.”
“Nanna, how is my brother Baldr.”
“I…I do not think I should be the one to tell you.”
“You are, because I asked you.”
Her head bowed and I could only just hear her response. “He rests in Valhalla.”
“Then so do I.” She glanced at me, but did not acknowledge the statement. There was no way I would be forgiven for this. I had killed my brother.
When we had reached my chambers I knew I did not need some servant girl hanging around. “Thank you, you can go now.”
More blinking and I began to think she might have a condition. “I should at least draw you a bath.”
“A basin of water?”
I sighed. If I did not let her do something for me she was never going to leave. “Yes, fine.”
She curtseyed and went sprinting down the stairs.
The door clicked shut behind me and I took a deep breath of air that smelled of warm spices. I stared at my bed across the room and wanted nothing more than to crawl into it and sleep. I wanted this to fade into some grotesque dream, but it was not. I had no time for sleep. With more effort than it had taken even to get up the stairs I turned my back on the bed and went to my armoire. Just before pulling the doors open I caught an image in the dressing mirror and jumped. It took a while for my brain to register that the thing being reflected was me. Different, was certainly not the first adjective I would have used to describe my present state.
I walked closer and blinked. My skin was so covered in dirt that it looked a dusty brown. There was a trail of dry blood from my nose and another from my left ear. The hair on my head was caked in dirt, causing it to stand on end. I was very thankful for the water Nanna was bringing. There was no possibility of leaving unnoticed looking like this. It was a miracle I had gotten in with only one servant stopping me.
There was a knock at the door and I turned away from my self-assessment. “Yes?” I closed my eyes hoping that it was Nanna.
“I have your water, and I brought some food as well.”
I took a long steadying breath. “Leave it outside.” Only after she had left did I retrieve the items.
I washed the best I could, wincing as the water stung my wounds. Then I put new clothes on and filled a satchel with some supplies, including the food Nanna had brought. I got my bow, usually only used for competitions, but a weapon was still a weapon no matter how fancy it looked.
I made it outside the palace without incident, and then I heard a scream from above. I looked up and saw a woman about to throw herself over the balcony. Mother! I was about to call to her when her servants appeared, rushing to halt her suicide. She began fighting with them, still edging toward the balcony rail.
Oh, mother I am sorry, so sorry. I wanted to run up and explain everything to her. However, nothing I could say would fix this. No apologies or explanations were going to bring my brother back. I had started crying without meaning to and swiped my eyes furiously. On the balcony my mother continued to fight her servants. She was screaming with a demented fury. Upon hearing that sound a part of me died. I sank to my knees, eyes locked on the calamity above. Then Thor was there scooping my mother up as if she were a belligerent child and not a grief filled queen. As he turned to take her inside he saw me and for just a moment our eyes met.
I jolted to my feet and began running. I could not be caught. Odin would kill me. I knew this as surely as I knew my own name. He had left me injured in the woods because Baldr was sick; now that Baldr was dead I would receive much worse. The road seesawed in front of me. Blood pounded in my ears, blocking out any other sound. I fell into a cart, sending vegetables asunder, but pushed up and kept running, ignoring the pain in my limbs. By the time I escaped the city gates my vision had gone dark on the edges. Breathing sent stinging pains through my torso. Still I willed my legs to keep pumping. Then someone hit me from behind and wrapped around me. I fell, hitting the ground, a jarring pain rippling through my body.
“Off!” I tried to yell, but the word came out more as a gravelly rasp as grass fell out of my mouth.
Thankfully, the thing that had fallen on top of me must have understood because it obeyed. I scrambled to my feet to face my older brother. “What do you want?”
“Hodur told me what happened,” Thor said, as if it were a revelation.
“Make sure he doesn’t tell anyone else.” I said, my tone sharp.
Thor bulked. “But I know it was an accident, if you explain that to father…”
I glared at him. “Like I did earlier when I got abandoned? Oh yes, Odin is so much more likely to show mercy now that Baldr’s dead and not just ailing.”
“This time Hodur will back your story.”
“No,” I shook my head, wincing at the pain the action caused. “It would still be my fault. I was the one who found the berries in the first place. I was put in charge of Hodur. Besides, Hodur would never be able to survive if Odin punishes him. I can take care of myself.” I sounded remarkably confident. I was doing the only thing I seemed good at; lying.
“Is that so?” Thor was staring at my nose.
Tentatively I stuck my tongue out and tasted blood, obviously my nose bleed was back. “Yes, besides, I won’t be missed.” Now I was failing at lies as well.
“That is not true.”
“It was last night.”
“I…I am sorry about that. Baldr was so sick and…”
“It does not matter. I’m leaving; let me take the blame with me. It will be easy. No one likes me much anyway. If you want to help, make sure Hodur keeps quiet.” I turned and began to walk away, refusing to limp, despite the fact that my ankle was sending jolts, which felt like a thousand dagger cuts, through my right leg with every step.
“Loki, please, I do not want to lose two brothers today.”
I stopped and tried to keep my tears from falling and failed. I did not turn around. I could not make my face lie right then and he could never see the truth. “You already have,” I whispered and kept walking. Thor did not stop me.
There would be a thousand versions told of this tale, a thousand times over. Eventually it would come to be known as the beginning of Ragnarok, the death of the gods. It was nothing so grand, but perhaps just a tragic, the death of a family. The was no chance of restitution. No matter what the tales said that came after there was no quest of tears, no call to Hel to return Baldr. Hear is the secret that no god wants their worshippers to know. We are not immune to tragedy, nor can we prevent it. If people looked to their own stories, they would know that. They would stop issuing prayers.
Letters From My Beloved
I started receiving letters from a dead woman about four months ago.
At first I thought it was an error on the postman’s part-- after all, moving is a tangled web of confusion for everyone involved, and letters and parcels can be misdelivered months after new homeowners arrive. Relatives forget the new address, old friends show up to the wrong door during surprise visits while they're in town, and mailworkers are often perplexed to find a fresh face connected to a house that had been on their route for years.
So when a lavender-scented notecard pristinely sealed with a beeswax kiss wandered inside my mailbox, I didn’t think anything of it at first. To whom it may concern was scrawled across the top in calligraphic letters, the ink faintly tinted with a mulberry hue and written with a seasoned hand. What piqued my attention, however, were the two empty corners at the top: there was no sign of a return address or lick of a stamp.
Aren’t letters required to have that before they’re approved to be shipped? I pondered to myself. Unless the writer hand-delivered this letter to me, there’s no way this could’ve made it into my mailbox unmarked.
Feeling the anise breath of October in my bones, I wrapped myself in the wings of my cardigan and bounded inside my new house with the letter. Boxes lazily slept on the floor like bodies as I pushed a big crate aside to make room on the kitchen countertop. After taking another moment to admire this anachronistic wonder, smelling of sweet maplewood and ripened clove, I tore wrapping to shreds so I could finally read the riddle inside.
October 5th, 1985
Hello my darling,
I understand how strange this may seem to you. You’re receiving an unmarked post after moving into your new home in a new neighborhood without any connections to the residents here. I assure you this is not written with malintent, nor is it meant to come across as something intrusive or threatening, if that’s what you were thinking. Rather, this is simply a friendly introduction from someone who’s been here for decades now-- somebody excited for new blood in an overwhelmingly droll part of town.
I saw some of your boxes when you unpacked the other day, and I wanted you to know that Keats and Woolfe are two of my favorites as well. Do you study literature often? I’m inclined to say yes in the hopes that we’d have that in common, but I want to refrain from making judgments lest I get my hopes up for no reason. Just know that you have good taste, at least coming from me.
I hope this letter finds you well, and I especially hope it did not come across as a voyeuristic stalking. I’m simply excited to make a new friend here, and I hope you can find one in me.
Best of luck with the rest of your unpacking xx
I was nonplussed after reading, and rightfully so.
I overturned the letter in my hands like an artifact now, being careful not to accidentally bend or wrinkle any of the corners. The eggshell paper was delicate as the brittle leaves dancing outside, all-over stained with a whisper of amber. Amidst the musk of autumn, I detected notes of a lavender perfume on the letter itself, something I would later recognize as Belle’s signature scent.
All the while a question was pounding in my brain with the rhythm of my heart, a resounding thud that grew quicker and harder the longer I ogled this mysterious note. I couldn’t help but wonder who the hell wrote this, and why?
My immediate thought was that it must’ve come from a neighbor who spotted me unpacking through a window the other day-- someone enthralled by the prospect of a new plaything. If this Belle was a literature student or teacher herself, she may be viewing me as a book to be read, a sentient novel with chapters dedicated to each phase of my life, allusions and symbols ensconced deep in my psyche.
Or perhaps the old owner was a grouch, a curmudgeon-y crone who never put out holiday decor and let their dogs defecate on other people’s lawns. Someone who forwarded ominous chainmail and pretended not to notice when others said hi.
Either way, a part of me felt uneasy. My eyes quickly fluttered across the room, hunting for the culprit, a set of far-away eyes wistfully blockaded by the layers of glass in between the houses. I spun from corner to corner in a frenzy, drawing my shades as I went along, encasing my world in blue chevron fabric at the risk of wandering glares.
After locking away the smoke-colored sky, I returned to the letter once more. A conglomeration of fear, intrigue, and admiration bubbled up inside my gut at the thought of being a secret admirer-- a trope that only seemed to happen in the movies. I could only hope that one day I’d be able to catch this Belle Greenly in the act of delivering her sylvan sweet nothings.
Her letters began to arrive in a steady flow by the third week of October, always signed and sealed with a lavender kiss. After the fourth one arrived I vowed to track her down, itching with an irascible case of curiosity after she began to comment on the intricacies of my life only someone who lived with me could know.
Belle would casually offer reading suggestions as soon as I finished a book, drop the name of a nearby park or garden when she noticed I was spending too much time indoors, and would even comment on how I took my coffee (black, with two sugars). Most people, I assumed, would’ve felt encroached on by such intimate comments, but I strangely found it endearing. Belle had become this sort of pseudo-guardian angel in my mind, an omnipresent being always looking out for me and keeping my best interests in mind. I trusted both her opinion and ability to take care of my mental health when I prioritized other things.
So one morning I decided to bake some sugar cookies as a guise to go around ringing doorbells and gather intel on the elusive Belle Greenley. Scrouncing up the year-old flour and the only baking pan I had, I whipped together an unevenly-measured batch of goods and prayed that they were edible enough to pass as human food instead of dog treats. After plating my goodies in a wicker basket to hide their misshapenness, plucking out the duds as I went along, I adorned myself in my Sunday best and stepped out into the golden light.
My first stop was the house next door.
“Belle Greenly, huh?” An old man who looked like an off-duty Santa Clause scratched his ski-slope beard. “Nope. I don’t know who that is. Never heard the name before. Truth be told, I don't keep up much with who’s living where. I keep to myself mostly.”
“That’s okay. Thank you for your time.”
“No problem, sweetie. I appreciate the cookies.”
Slightly frustrated but with spirits still high, I tried for the house across the street.
“Belle Greenly?” A woman spat the name back at me with venom. “You makin’ up names or something? I’ve lived here for fifteen years and I’d never heard of someone like that. You better not be pullin’ my leg.”
“I’m not. Sorry for bothering you.”
“Wait!” The woman held a hand out as I pivoted to leave. Hoping she was magically struck by some divine intervention, I stared at her with fatuous naivete.
“What is it?”
“Actually, since you’re still here, would you mind giving me two more cookies for my grandchildren?” She stared back at me with a rouge embarrassment. “It’s my job to watch them after school and, uh, I’d be a pity if they came home without a tasty snack.”
Begrudgingly, and appalled by this woman’s unabashed guilt trip, I placed two of the most unsightly cookies into her hands and stormed down the steps with iron rage.
Finally, after making my way down the rest of the block and back again, I tried one final house at the crest of the road in the hopes that its owner would serendipitously exist to provide all the answers. To my dismay, there was a giant foreclosure sign brandished in the window and not an inkling of life stirring inside the wizened Victorian. It ogled me with cracked window eyes, lid-curtains navy and drooping, surviving off the dust-ridden oxygen souring inside.
With a shank in my gut and a near-empty basket, I plodded back home with a crumb-riddled doily, a pair of tired arms, and an intrigue that burgeoned like an unruly weed.
I began to think that Belle Greenley might be a pseudonym of sorts, an identity crafted by a timid romantic too meek to reveal their true identity. But then again, that sort of candied-over fantasy was never more than a chicane troupe created by lovesick writers.
Whatever the case, he or she had to be living somewhere within viewing distance of my house--how else would they be able to comment about what I did at home? But then again, my cookie-peddling scheme revealed that most of my immediate neighbors were over the age of sixty-five, and at that age-- bitter, retired, and probably widowed-- it would be senseless to keep tabs on a thirty-five year-old mouse living in the smallest and most dilapidated house on the street.
I was confused, undoubtedly. Confused, frustrated, and perturbed by the fact that I was catching wisps of feelings for someone I may never be able to meet. I spent the rest of my morning-turned-afternoon picking at the cookie crumbs and wishing I had just picked up a pre-made batch at the store.
I was off on Halloween, so I decided to make a trek to the library to do my own research.
My bike wheels shattered the discarded dried pinecones littering the sidewalk as I cruised to a halt in front of the building. Haphazardly hauling it into the only empty rack, I remember shivering in my faux-fur jacket that day, regretting my sacrifice of practicality for fashion.
Unusually chilly for that time of year, I was eager to escape the wind tearing at my face with a thousand tiny daggers, bypassing my clothes to pierce my flesh and bones with frost. I hauled open the cumbersome double-doors impatiently, eager to be swallowed up by the mouth of the beast, its breath warm and aglow, lined with a hardcover tongue and paperback teeth.
Sheepishly I approached the plump woman at the welcome desk. The paper jack-o-lanterns strewn above her head, smiling exuberantly, were in stark contrast to the grimace plastered on her face. She looked up at me and scowled, clearly upset I had interrupted the novel she was reading.
“Hi, I’m looking for any information you might have about someone named Belle Greenly. I think she used to live around here.”
“You think so or you know so?” The woman’s jowls were drooping lower than the line of beads dangling from her glasses.
“Uh, well,” I chuckled nervously. “It’s actually a funny story.”
“I don’t get paid to hear funny stories, girlie. Why don’t you stop wasting my time and go check the microfiches yourself?”
“Okay. Thank you. Sorry.”
Choking down another awkward social interaction (on my already endless list), I hobbled over to the computer lab and strategically sat behind a pillar so the woman wouldn’t see me. After waiting for what felt like an eon for the PC to boot up, I began to sift through past editions of the local paper until the moisture left my eyes, scanning each clipping meticulously. I couldn’t afford to get lazy lest I accidentally skip over a teensy headline buried at the back of the paper that ended up having all the answers. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was hoping for during my search-- perhaps news of her winning the lottery or surviving a freak accident-- but I was absolutely mortified to find the name Belle Greenley in the obituary section, and only a couple pages later, a small article commemorating her life on one of the backpages of a local newspaper.
LIBRARIAN AND OXFORD HOPEFUL TRAGICALLY PASSES AT AGE 23
THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 1949
Belle Greenley, a long-time Salem resident and Durham Hills librarian, died in her sleep last night from a heart condition she had been battling with since birth. Her parents, Elenor and Jeremy Greenly, say their daughter had been diagnosed with Arrhythmia when she was an infant but never expected the disease to take her life so soon.
Greenley, a well-known figure in her community with a passion for literature, had plans to attend Oxford University in Cambridge next year, making her one of the first American women to attend the ivy league school. Those who knew her said her mind was as brilliant as they come, and foresaw a long and prosperous future for the erudite scholar.
“She was going to change the world,” Ronald Corbin, Greeley’s high school English teacher said. “Belle was one of my brightest students. Better than all the boys, and sometimes, even better than me.”
Greenley, in addition to her academic endeavors, ran multiple after-school reading programs at Durham Hills. The library says they will continue to uphold these programs in the wake of her death and plans to name a reading nook in her honor.
For a while I was trapped in a rigor-mortis shock. Reading that article had rendered me immoble, an ashen marbled statue to be chiseled out of my chair and erected in the front of the library. FROZEN IN TIME, the plaque on the front would read. YOUNG GIRL HARDENS INTO ROCK AFTER READING DEVASTATING ARTICLE.
I remember the picture the paper had chosen to hang over the blurb about Belle’s tragic death; the pasty blank background behind her was reminiscent of a cheap school photoshoot set. In the picture, Belle’s cherubic face was adorned with dainty, feminine features that were complemented by a lush set of lips formed into a pout. Her hair was cropped short and gently curled around her mouse-like ears like inky ocean waves. I remember her being so pretty.
When I was finally able to move again, I scoured the rest of the library in search of this alleged reading nook but came up with nothing. Either my stasis had hindered my sleuthing skills or Durham had failed to keep their word. No matter the case, I left the library feeling like a hollowed-out pumpkin, my innards painstakingly scraped away and the rest of me left to sit on cold concrete through the night.
I spent my Halloween in solitude, too upset to open the door for the trick-or-treaters dressed as Marty McFly. Call me selfish, but I was frankly too distraught to stare into the phantasmal bright young faces of children whose only concern was filing their candy sacks up to the brim. Faking a waxen smile was too laborious an effort, especially now that I knew the truth about Belle.
While I slumped in my armchair reflecting, I realized I had come to know quite a bit about my spectral companion since the first letter arrived in October. Although this wasn’t the first time I’d pondered about my one-way-pen-pal on the nights when sleep escaped me, it was the first time I was able to understand her through the context of her life.
I wondered how Belle took her coffee or if she preferred tea. I assumed the former since she always seemed to comment on my brew of choice. Did she like Charlie’s Angels? She seemed like the type of girl who might be into a show like that if she were still alive. I saw Belle as someone who would’ve probably been an advocate for second-wave feminism if she made it to the sixties, and Charlie’s Angels was a show about strong women kicking ass. The idea of watching a program together brought a tear to my eye.
The truth, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, was that Belle was my solace when the loneliness slithered into the house, slipping through cracks in the windows and underneath doors like an acrid black talon, which was was why her death was the rock smashing the glass of my reverie. My heart, speared with reality’s blade, was quickly bleeding out.
But the next day I received a letter.
November 1st, 1985
I see you found out about me yesterday. Quite fitting that it happened on Halloween, is it not? Anyway, I hope you’re not put off by this revelation. I never meant to lead you on or make you wonder, I was just afraid that revealing my true form would scare you off. Not everyone reacts well to finding out their pen pal is a ghost, you know.
Anyways, I’m delighted that you’re still sticking around to talk to me. I know this means we can never formally meet, but just know that I am with you always, even if you cannot see me. There have been countless moments when I wished I could have been there in the flesh with you. I can imagine going to cafes together and making our own book club, even if it’s just the two of us. Still, though, I can continue to offer more recommendations. I’m so pleased you’ve taken so well to my taste in books.
You know what’s funny? We’ve been talking for over a month now and I’ve yet to learn your name. In the meantime I’ve come up with a few makeshift names for you-- my two front runners are Cecelia and Marilyn. Celia was the love interest of Jonson’s Volpone, which I;m sure you’ll get a kick out of if you get the reference. As for Marilyn, well, I can’t help but think of Miss. Monroe herself. You’re so darling that only a name synonymous with beauty would be fit for you in my eyes.
With love (as always),
Ever since I learned of her true form, Belle started making more of a presence around the house. It began with small things, like messing with the radio to play a song that made her think of me. She introduced me to The Clash on a rainy morning in November, the blare of guitar riffs and synth beats mingling with the pitter-patter of raindrops exploding against the glass of my window and knocking me out of bed. I stood there still half-asleep in my pajamas, just listening, my body tingling with the instinctive desire to let Joe Strummer’s voice twirl me across the floor like a puppet on strings. Shortly after The Clash had my favorite band, and Belle went out of her way to find stations that were playing their music for me in the morning. To this day I get rapt with euphoria every time I hear their London Calling album
When my alarm clock broke in the beginning of December, Belle would knock something over on my dresser to wake me up and make sure I wasn’t going to be late to work. Every night would be a guessing game, predicting what object would fall victim to Belle’s shenanigans the following morning. For whatever reason, the porcelain angel figurine became her personal favorite to taunt-- Even after I raked enough money from my deadbeat job to replace my alarm clock, Belle would continue to push over the angel just to be meddlesome. I’d wake up to her tiny face lying against the tabletop pine, painted eyes ogling the lines in the wood, stretched and spiraled like mahogany plane trails.
I had loads of fun communicating with Belle through objects, yet I quickly found myself with an insatiable craving to probe deeper, to connect with her on a more personal level. I wanted to make her more than just an acquaintance, which was why I decided to invest in a Ouija Board.
I heard about a tarot shop in uptown from the macabre old woman living next door and went to check it out on one of my days off. The place was a dilapidated brick shack wedged in between a defunct dental office and a retirement home. The purple incandescence of the neon sign that read “Bridge Witches” cast an eerie hue on my milky skin as I hobbled inside. I felt horrifically out of place amongst the candied clumps of amethyst on the shelves and the voodoo dolls crucified on the walls.
I hope no one tries to sucker me into a hundred dollar bullshit palm reading, I thought to myself. Because I don’t have the gall to refuse.
Very quickly I settled on a blanched white board with a gothic-style alphabet, eager to buy the first thing that caught my eye to get out of the store right away. The board came with a matching planchette, the tiny circle of glass inside tinted a soft fuschia, giving it an almost make-believe quality. I sheepishly brought the box to the checkout counter and evaded the judgemental gaze of the cashier. She was heavily drenched in neo-punk clothing, the two studs in her eyebrow jutting from her skin like twist-and-pull medicine caps.
“Just this for today, ma’am?” The woman asked coldly.
“Yes.” I said. “Just that.”
“Alright, it’ll be fourteen ninety-nine.”
My wallet cried miserably as I forked over the cash. “Thank you,” I muttered as the cashier eyed me scrupulously.
“You ever played with one of these before?”
“Uh, no. This is my first time.”
“Let me offer you a piece of advice then.” She leaned in close for me to see the smudges of eyeshadow clumping in the folds of her lids. “Be careful with that thing. It’s not a toy, it’s not a joke, and it’s not to be played alone. Do you have any questions?”
“No.” I muttered skittishly. “But thank you for letting me know.”
With that, I snatched the board from the amethyst glass and scurried into winter’s locus, bullets of snow pummeling down on me like a flock of rabid white birds. After wiping a layer from the seat of my bike, I nestled my purchase in my front basket and peddled home with the strength of a thousand men, fueled not by the cold but rather by the quixotic desire to defrost by the fire with Belle by my side.
Against better judgement, I decided to play alone.
I immediately stoked my fireplace, slipped into hand-woven pajamas, and lit two candles to crown the sides of the Ouija board. Although I wasn’t too keen on the smell, I settled on a scent called “Marshmallow Magic” since my only other option was mahogany teakwood-- I figured summoning Belle would require something more saccharine.
Setup complete, I sat criss-cross-applesauce in front of the board and gingerly placed my hands on the small, foreign object. Owning something so overtly occult unsettled me deeply-- especially as someone who grew up in a church-- but I was desperate to have a two-way conversation with perhaps the only person who loved me.
Over the past three months, Belle had become my partner and confidante, my celestial shadow following me around and showering me with floral kisses. She had grown a whole garden on my cheeks in the dead of winter, nurturing glens of lilac and lavender sprouting up from her loving remnants, making me a greenhouse of warmth and tenderness. Even though I lived alone-- something I’d been increasingly worried about when I first made the move-- it felt like I came home to someone every single day. Having a back-and-forth exchange with a woman I’d come to view as my solace and refuge, the soul of my dilapidated house brought to life in the form of a beatnik romantic, was the only thing I wanted to do.
“Belle?” I questioned cautiously. “Belle, are you there? If you’re here with me, move the planchette over to the ‘yes’ icon.”
A draft eddied around my ankles, extinguishing the bite of the fire.
The wooden triangle remained idle, the plate of glass in the center slicing me open with its magenta gaze, a mocking reminder that my own flesh and blood was what separated me from the spirit realm. Belle was somewhere on that other side, lost somewhere in a world of hues, trapped in a house of pink walls and poppy carpet that was identical to mine apart from one tiny detail: she was there and I wasn’t.
“Belle, I know you’re here. You messed with the television like an hour ago. Please say something. I want to talk to you.”
Still, nothing but silence. It slipped into my ears and filled them with the shriek of white noise, drowning out the tick of my grandfather clock or the crackling of logs of the fireplace. The planchette was a coffin under my hands, heavy and unmoveable.
“Come on,” I begged. “Just say something. I’m trying my best to talk to you here. I spent nearly fifteen dollars on this stupid thing and I want to feel like we’re actually chatting.”
At this point, I was just talking to myself. I suddenly felt foolish poring over this phantasmally painted box, possibly suckered into buying something that wasn’t a conduit at all. Maybe the rumors were true and this board was nothing more than a ploy for the gullible, the people so desperate to talk to a loved one that they blindly believed the mysterious hype. After all, Ouija Boards were mass-produced like any other product.
“Screw this,” I said, shoving the thing under my bed.
I went to sleep that night wondering where Belle had run off to. Little did I know that the next letter I received would be the last time I ever spoke to her. From my limited knowledge of all things paranormal, I knew that spirits stuck around on Earth until they accomplished a goal or satisfied a desire that remained unfulfilled while they were alive on Earth. In that regard, perhaps Belle just wanted a friend, or maybe even a lover. Perhaps she just wanted to be happy, but either way I was able to do that for her-- whatever that may be.
All I knew was that I was able to be her person, and she was able to be mine. And when it came down to it, whether that relationship teetered the line between platonic and romantic, I just knew I cared for her deeply. And I always will.
To this day, I still fondly think about the letters from my beloved.
...”And the panel's decision for the first Crosser from our universe to the parallel universe is...”
I could sense Lisa Southerly alongside me also holding her breath in anticipation. Five year's of training, research and experiments, plus testing dozens of highly qualified applicants from within the premier space exploration organisation came down to this moment – who would it be? Lisa was more experienced in space exploration than me, but her personality was more abrasive and unfriendly. More than one team member had made informal complaints about her. In any case, travelling to a parallel universe was more about first contact than about exploring space. Who would we meet? How friendly would they be? I glanced at Lisa, feeling that familiar rush of blood to my face at the sight of her, which even after repeated rejections, I couldn't resist.
She noticed my glance and glared at me angrily and I tried to focus on the lead panelist and control my feelings for Lisa, in anticipation of the pending announcement.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of media interviews, handshakes, congratulations and celebratory backslaps, before I finally got back to my office just before home-time. Lisa was noisily packing up in her neighbouring office and looked up as I returned.
“So, who did you sleep with to get the nomination? I could see the way that the female panellists were making eyes at you.”
I shook my head and ignored the tone of her voice.”A simple congratulations would suffice. We still need to work together to prepare for first contact tomorrow, and afterwards. You're still expected to be the second Crosser.” I held out my hand, but she ignored it and turned away mumbling under her breath.
“Nobody remembers the second person to do anything. Edmund Hillary was the first person to ascend Mount Everest and return. Who was the second?”
I looked blankly and she continued.
“Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space, who was the second? Neil Armstrong was the first person to step onto the moon, who cares about the second? Nobody.” She answered her own question. I couldn't think of anything to say. She was right about how it would be remembered by history. I tried to console her again.
“Well, I value your support and you've pushed me all the way through training to try harder. I couldn't have achieved this without your competition.”
Her eyes looked even darker than usual. “I don't want your fake sympathy, thank you! I intend to complete this mission and I'll do my job, but don't expect any congratulations from me.” She grabbed her bag and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind her, nearly trapping Geoff's hand as he entered as she was leaving.
He smiled at me. We had been good friends for many years.” I see Lisa's not happy about you being chosen ahead of her.” He was laughing as he spoke. We had often discussed our colleague during our free time away from the office. He came over to shake my hand.
“Congrats, hero!” He was smiling broadly now. “Can I have your autograph on our graduation photo. It'll be worth millions for our grandchildren!”
I laughed and picked up my briefcase. “Let's go. I'll buy you a coffee, if you agree to stop teasing me.”
Sleep was difficult that night, wondering about the trip into the unknown. Would I meet myself and how would we react? What about the risk of cross-contamination, or the disruption to the space-time continuum? Some experts predicted that the parallel universe would be made of anti-matter, and hence any contact between matter and anti-matter would destroy one or both universes. There had been some protests outside the labs by groups opposed to any exploration of the parallel universe, but most of the public seemed fascinated by the developments.
Those thoughts were mixed with romantic images of Lisa being disrupted by her shouting and screaming at me. Followed by conversations with Geoff reminding me to forget about her, to find someone better. Telling me to stop torturing myself by waiting for Lisa and to let him introduce me to one of his many ex-girlfriends, followed by my explaining that 'quality is more important than quantity', and I was waiting for one special lady for a long-term relationship, not a series of short-term flings like Geoff. There were plenty of nicer women. I had been single for far too long and in order to realise my dream of a family I needed to find someone else – someone who was a more supportive woman, but my mind kept drifting back to Lisa.
I arrived at the lab early the next morning. Geoff was already at the console with a cup of capuccino heavily coated in my favourite chocolate dust, and hot croissants.
“Heh, hero, your obedient slave has prepared your favourite breakfast!”
I couldn't help but smile. His exuberance was infectious, overcoming the empty feeling in my stomach. The tension in the lab was palpable, and Geoff was a key member of the team, helping to ease the atmosphere.
I sat on the preparation bench and took a bite of the croissant, while the other team members began attaching various probes, sensors and other health monitoring equipment to my body.
“You know, this trip could be dangerous. Then you'll be glad you only helped with the preparation!”
“Maybe, but if you meet the parallel version of me, I bet he won't be so helpful!”
“T-minus 30 minutes.” The computerised voice interrupted our conversations, followed by Hadleigh Summerly, the mission controller, striding purposefully across the open-plan area towards me with his hand outstretched. I stood up shakily, as I had numerous devices hanging off me, and the lab technicians were putting the final touches and checks to the equipment.
“Roscoe! Let me wish you the best of luck!” We shook hands firmly.
“Thank you, Sir. I will do my best. We've been planning this long enough to be as prepared as we can be for whatever I might encounter.”
He nodded, and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Yes, but you are crossing a new frontier in scientific exploration – where no man has gone before etc. You need to be prepared for the unexpected.
“As do you – the LLRoscoe may also be dangerous. You need to take precautions, as well.”
“He could be nicer than you, too!” Geoff joined in, to deflate my expectations.”He might like hanging out in bars and nightclubs and be more fun than you – have one night stands and get drunk occasionally, perhaps!”
I laughed at Geoff's preferred weekend routine.”I'll be sure to ask his colleagues, and maybe I'll stay in their world so you can enjoy the LLRoscoe instead, if he sounds more fun than me!”
“Joking aside,”Hadleigh became serious,”Remember the limited time. You've got an alarm set for 2h50. You must be back in 3 hours. Any longer becomes unpredictable. The calculations show that this close encounter between our universes only happens once every seven years, and after the window closes, we may not be able to boost the confinement beam sufficiently to re-establish the link after the three hours and 7 minutes is up. While the increase in power after that period is still within our capabilities, it will exceed our maximum generation at 3h 21, and you would be stuck there for 7 years 3 months and a few days, so don't get stuck in an elevator!” The last point was accompanied by his infectious grin. Hadleigh didn't make jokes often, and it betrayed his nervousness. If anything went wrong, his neck was on the line not mine, as he was the mission controller – the buck stopped with him.
I nodded. “Yes, Sir. I won't hang around for the capuccino if there's a long queue. I'll be sure to return for another of Geoff's specials before tea-break this afternoon.” I winked at Geoff, and he smiled back.
“T-minus five minutes.” I stepped into my Hazmat suit and zipped it up to my neck.
Hadleigh shook my hand again. “Back to the controls. See you in three hours.”
The technicians moved away back to their controls, to check the remote links were established, although it wasn't expected that there would be anyway to communicate with the LLuniverse, but in any case the data would be stored locally until I returned.
I took a deep breath and walked slowly towards the link chamber. Geoff followed me, somewhat more serious now that Crossover was approaching. Reaching the chamber door, I stopped and turned round.
“Here, take this – for good luck!” Geoff handed me a rabbit's foot. “It's got a location beacon and emergency transmitter built in.”
“Thanks.” I shook his hand and accepted the gift, and placed it carefully in my pocket. “I'll be back for my capuccino at tea break this afternoon.”
“Don't worry, I have one prepared for LLRoscoe – he may need one as soon as he arrives in a few minutes.” Geoff tried to smile, but his concern was clearly etched on his face. I shook his hand again and opened the door to the Crossover chamber, stepped inside and closed the door.
“10-9-8” the final countdown started and I could hear the sounds of generators whirring, lights flashing and a white mist-like gas filling the chamber. I glanced across at the row of technicians monitoring my vital signs, and the last image was of Lisa's look of jealousy, anger and bitterness as the mist clouded my view and I felt the shaking and vibrating of the chamber wall and held on as a dizzy feeling and headache started building. I tried to move forward towards the other door, but my legs felt like jelly, trapped in treacle and my movements felt like they were controlled by someone else not by my mind. The chamber was only three metres long, but it seemed to take an absolute age for my disoriented joints to cover the short distance, holding on tightly to the guide-rails and fumbling through the mist that completely filled the chamber now. I had a vague sense that there was someone else in the chamber with me, but my mind couldn't focus as I struggled to the far end.
I finally reached the other door and the smoke began to clear, as did my head and the headache receded. Before I could reach for the door-release, it opened suddenly and I almost fell through the opening and two people in full Hazmat suits grabbed me and held me upright. The smoke cleared and I could see a room very similar to the one I had just left – rows of technicians sitting behind controls, except everyone was in full hazmat suits, and there was a thick transparent barrier between us. Only the two technicians – one on either side of me – were on my side of the barrier, and they led me carefully into a de-contamination area, where we were all subjected to a high pressure liquid spray, washing us from top to bottom. After a few minutes, we emerged and the technicians picked up some kind of hand-held detector and closely checked all over my body, hesitating by my pocket and indicating for me to remove whatever was in there – I produced Geoff's lucky rabbit foot and they carefully took it from me and opened a nearby solid-looking black box and dropped it in and closed the lid.
“He's clear of explosives, weapons or any dangerous devices, only monitoring sensors.” An electronic voice was clearly audible over the speakers.
“No detectable viruses or other unknown organisms.” Another electronic voice – presumably the other technician – could be heard.
“Bring him to the ante-room, we'll welcome him there.” The voice did not sound as friendly as the words, but I dismissed the thought and followed the two technicians to a door to one side of the barrier. One of the technicians typed a code number onto the keypad and the door silently slid open and I followed them in. The door closed behind them and they then unzipped their Hazmat suits and I copied their actions, stepped out of the suit and followed them in hanging them up. They then turned and pointed guns at me. “Geoff! Lisa!” I recognised the familiar-but-not-quite faces and held out my hand to welcome them.
Geoff looked at my outstretched hand as if it was contaminated dog faeces – a look that I had never seen on his face before, and I had known him for more than ten years.
I turned to Lisa, and was surprised by her look as after hesitating for a short while, she took my hand and shook it warmly and she smiled at me – something that the Lisa from my universe hadn't done since our very first meeting some years earlier.
“Welcome to our universe, Hadstock! How was the trip?” I had to rapidly adjust to the new personalities of my old friends and acquaintances – I had been prepared for the possibility that they could have significanty different characteristics in the LLuniverse, but it was still taking time for me to adjust my expectations after working with them closely for so many years.
“A little dizziness, disorientation and the feeling of losing control of my limbs – like walking through treacle under somebody else's control.”
Lisa nodded. “Consistent with our best guesses. We'll download your medical data and crosscheck your vital signs – assuming your similar to our Hadstock – and then Mr Summerly – our Mission Controller – would like to interview you, are you ready, or would you like some time to recover, or a capuccino, perhaps, with heavy chocolate dusting?”
I had to smile at the thought that in this universe it was Lisa, and not Geoff, who knew my favourite beverage.
“A capuccino with heavy chocolate dusting would be ideal – I can see that your Roscoe and I have similar tastes!” I smiled at Lisa, and was pleasantly surprised by the extended eye-contact and the warmth in her eyes, and the fact that she was still holding onto my hand.She indicated the cup on the table and and I sipped on my favourite drink.
“Enough!” Geoff shattered the friendly atmosphere, and I let go of Lisa's hand as if it had suddenly become red-hot. “Remember your training, Southerly, he could still be extremely dangerous even though we haven't found any explosive devices. We cannot trust him, yet. Handcuff him.”
Lisa put her gun back in her belt holster and withdrew a pair of handcuffs. I held out my hands and she cuffed me.
“Sit down, Hadstock.” Geoff's stentorian and unfriendly tone jarred on my warm memories of our numerous cheerful conversations, and I reluctantly obeyed. Geoff moved behind me and pulled my cuffed hands behind the chair and to a hidden fixing point. He kneeled down and fixed some kind of leg-irons aorund my ankles, to hold me in place.
I had to say something, this was more serious than I had expected. “Why the precautions? I come in peace.”
“Yeah, right!” Geoff was sneering in his cynicism. “We've heard that before. You expect us to believe that you're simply an explorer pushing back the frontiers of science?”
“Well...” I swallowed, “It's true!”
“Nonsense! You could be hiding an explosive device, or maybe it's even you as some kind of biocontamination, or even biobomb.”
I shook my head in disbelief.”I've no idea what you're talking about! You've scanned me yourself – you can see I've not got anything to hide.”
“You had that rabbit's foot with some kind of tracking device and communication link inside – highly suspicious.”
“It was part of our experiments to determine whether we could communicate across the parallel universe boundaries – I doubted it would even work. Geoff – the Geoff in my universe – believed we could bounce a signal off the chamber doorway, through a repeater-amplifier, and that there might be a range of frequencies that could cross the universe-boundaries.”
“He's correct – it can be done. That's how we communicate with our Hadstock in your universe.”
His words made me curious. “So, our universe is not the first time you've encountered parallel universes?” Geoff didn't answer, but his glance at Lisa told me more than words.
“So, how many other universes have you crossed over into? What happened? What did you discover?” My curiosity made me forget the strange circumstances and my restraints for a moment.
They didn't intend to answer, it was clear, and the silence was deafening – broken by the lock shifting and the door opened – Hadleigh stepped in, accompanied by two heavily armed officers pointing their weapons at me. Lisa and Geoff immediately stood up and saluted.
“At ease.” Hadleigh was the consummate general – in full military uniform – not the formal suit I was used to. “Sit down.” Lisa and Geoff resumed their seats and Hadleigh sat at the opposite end of the table from me.
Hadleigh looked at me, clearly appraising the possible risks. “You appear to have crossed over without any health consequences. You must have some questions before I tell you what's going to happen to you.” His words and the half-smile had a definitely dubious implication.
“Yes, of course. Like, why am I being restrained like a prisoner? I am a scientist and explorer, not some kind of invader or robot-explosive. Your scans and investigations must have confirmed this?”
Hadleigh nodded. ”It doesn't matter that we haven't discovered anything, yet. We don't believe your story. The restraints are a precaution.” The pause before the word 'yet' was deeply disturbing and sinister.
“So, how many other universes have you crossed over to?”
“Yours is the seventh.”
I was fascinated by the possibilities. “Are you still in touch with them? What happened? What did you discover? How many re-crossings? What did you do with them?” My questions poured out and I leaned forward, pulling against the restraints as if I could get nearer to the answers by doing so.
“We are a public-private partnership – controlled by the government - but exploiting other universes for financial rewards....”
“What do you mean - 'exploiting other universes'?” I didn't like the tone of his voice, or the direction this conversation was heading. A shiver ran up my spine.
He half-smiled – the same sinister half-smile I noticed before. “We convert the matter in the parallel universes into energy, which we use to power our universe – free, unlimited and easily controllable.”
I was shocked by the implication. “You mean, you destroy other universes for profit?That's despicable – barbaric!” I ran out of words in disbelief.
The half-smile reappeared. “Such a small word – profit. We are simply the more successful businesses exploiting the less successful ones – simply market forces.”
“So, you're planning to repeat this approach with my universe?” The implication was too extreme for me to comprehend.
Hadleigh nodded. “Of course. Your little universe is just above the minimum level of energy supply for conversion – we've given it the nickname of the 'Puniverse'” He laughed at his own joke, and Geoff joined in heartily, but Lisa just looked away. “As we speak, our Hadstock is planting several matter-energy converters inside your laboratory, around the space-time continuum crossover control system. Shortly after he returns, we shall remotely detonate them and....” he moved his hands in a mushroom cloud shape...”Boom – and your universe becomes our next five years energy source. Simply the 'big-bang' in reverse.” The look of satisfaction on his face, deeply troubled me.
My instinct was sending me negative signals. “So, why are you telling me this?”
Hadleigh made eye contact and leaned forwards. “Because, my dear Hadstock, you are not returning to your universe.”
“But what will happen if two of me are in the same universe? Our calculations show that cannot happen – we have to simultaneously crossover, otherwise...” I couldn't finish the sentence, but Hadleigh finished it for me.
“...one of them immediately ceases to exist. Yes – the LL version...” he pointed at me. “You. As soon as our Hadstock returns, you instantly disappear. Simple laws of physics, isn't it? No messy murdering or body to dispose of or anything.” He stood up, as did Lisa and Geoff. “Enough! You will remain here until Crossover.” He glanced at his watch. “38 minutes, to be exact. Would you like another capuccino?” He turned and left, followed by the two guards.
I just sat there in stunned silence, staring at the closed door in complete and utter bafflement and disbelief at what I'd just heard. The idea of the complete absorption, conversion and use of my 'puniverse' into the LLuniverse's energy supply system was too sudden and too huge for me to comprehend. “Yes, please can I have another capuccino.” The words were said on automatic, as if my brain could not function on the macro level, only able to make microdecisions, such as ordering a cup of coffee.
Geoff stood up, almost becoming the Geoff I knew. “Okay, I'll be right back.” He left and locked the door behind him, leaving Lisa and I alone together. I turned to look at her, but before I could say anything, she was on her knees next to me, undoing my leg-irons.
I watched her shiny long hair swaying from side to side, her lips were moist from licking them and her face had a shine from the perspiration, just inches away. I couldn't resist any longer. Three years of obsession and rejection and frustration was too much for me and I leaned forwards to kiss her as she leaned over me to undo my cuffs.
She hesitated and leaned into the kiss for a moment, and as my hands came free I went to wrap my arms around her, but she snapped back to reality and gently pushed me away. “No time for that now – we have to save your universe.”
“Saving the universe can wait, just kiss me again.” I leaned forwards, but she stood up and grabbed my hands, pulling me to my feet. I wanted to hug her, but she shook her head.
“We've only got a few minutes before Geoff returns. The capuccino will be poisoned – some kind of sleeping drug – the first one also, but you didn't drink enough.” I wondered why I felt a little dizzy and not reacting seriously to the dangerous nature of the situation.
“Quick, put on the Hazmat suit – then nobody will recognise you.” I slowly followed her lead, realising the logic of her approach. I had barely zipped up the last zip when the door opened and Geoff re-entered and the door locked behind him. Geoff looked at us hesitated, and put the capuccino on the table. He looked up to see that Lisa was pointing her gun at him and he froze in surprise. “Lisa, no!” and she shot him, 2-3 times – a silent laser burst erupted from the nozzle and he fell backwards against the wall and slid down onto the floor.
Lisa looked at my shocked face, and smiled. “Don't worry, he's only stunned. He'll be unconscious for about an hour – long enough for us to escape.”
“But why are you helping me? You've been part of the system here for many years, surely you support what they are doing?”
Lisa shook her head. “It's a job, but no – I don't agree with the morality of what they're doing, but I decided to stay – as even if I quit, somebody else would simply replace me and maybe strongly support what they are doing. I just kept my mouth shut and got on with the job, waiting for a chance to stop them – your arrival is exactly the opportunity I've been waiting for.”
“So, how can I disable the matter-energy converters before they destroy my universe? Or can you prevent them from being activated from here?”
“No, too many people here. I wouldn't get very far. I need to Crossover with you and locate and deactivate them myself.”
I looked shocked at the idea. “But you'd immediately disappear, because you'd be the foreign Lisa.”
“Unless your Lisa simultaneously crossed over. Tell me about your Lisa – is it likely? Our Hadstock is the supreme womaniser – he's slept with most of the women on the team, including the three on the selection panel – that's how he was chosen ahead of me for the Crossover.”
A thought crossed my mind. “Including you?”
She looked down at her feet and nodded. “Yes, just once. He's the master of one-night stands, but I didn't know that. It was love at first sight when I arrived, and I wanted a long term relationship, family etc, but I didn't want to believe his reputation. I thought I could change him.” She drifted off, looking wistful. I became momentarily envious of the other Roscoe.
“Well, the Lisa in my universe turned me down many times. She's dedicated to the task, cold-hearted, short-tempered and bitter to have lost out to me in the selection for first Crossover. Yes, I think she would be intrigued by your Roscoe. Her personality is incompatible with our team – you'd like our Geoff – he's my best friend, funny, a little wild, but totally loyal and makes a great capuccino. Yes – I think this could work. Could you communicate with your Roscoe to confirm the double-switch?”
“Dangerous – it might tip him off to the double-cross – I think he would be willing to take the risk – he doesn't have anything to lose, as your Lisa would simply disappear immediately if I didn't simultaneously Crossover. He wouldn't explain the genuine consequences to her, he'd lie about it to persuade her.”
“If I could rescue my rabbit foot, then I could send a coded message to my Geoff to encourage Lisa to Crossover – we'd all be glad to get rid of her!” I smiled at the thought.
Lisa was considering my suggestion. “Yes, that could work. But your communication device is primitive – it looked only capable of binary messages.” She shook her head at the idea.
I smiled.”Primitive, yes. We are not as experienced as you at Crossover. Yet. But it works by morse code. I could send a simple message, if you can retrieve it.”
“We won't have much time, between recovering the rabbit foot, sending the message and Crossover.”
“I'll only need a minute. Geoff will understand the urgency. Presumably, they are having the same kind of discussion over there as we are.”
“What about the matter-energy converters. How long before they are activated?”
“We'll have around five minutes, based on our pre-mission discussions. There are three devices located at specific locations around your lab. I have the map. But we wouldn't have time to locate and deactivate them. It would take too long.” Lisa scratched her head in frustration.
“What about the Crossover corridor repeater-amplifier device? Geoff said something about using it to communicate with your Roscoe. Is that how you'll send the remote command to activate?”
”Yes. Yes, if we destroy that before leaving the Crossover chamber, then the activation signal won't reach the devices. We should have enough time to deactivate the devices before they realise what has happened and they replace the amplifier.”
I had another idea. “Could we somehow reverse the effect and destroy this universe instead – to stop them simply repeating the absorption with another universe elsewhere?”
Lisa looked sad, and wistful. Then she shook her head. “No, I can't help with that. While I don't approve of what they're doing, I couldn't take revenge on them in that manner, even if it was possible, no. Two wrongs don't make a right. I've got too many friends and memories here. I'm sorry, I won't go that far.”
I thought for a moment, then had another idea.
“Why don't I go back early. Then your Roscoe would suddenly disappear. I could then encourage our Lisa to Crossover at the agreed time.”
Lisa shook her head. “You don't know how Lisa would think. She'll only Crossover to be with Roscoe, not simply to escape your world. In any case, I don't want to kill our Roscoe, just to get away from him. No, we need to simultaneously crossover together for this to work.
My alarm sounded, and I cancelled it quickly. “Ten minutes to go.”
“Okay. Let's go.” Lisa bent over Geoff's body and removed his ID card and clipped it on my shoulder. “This will activate the doors for you. By the time they realise you're not Geoff, we will be in the beam.”
“But Hadleigh said I was to stay here and surely they aren't expecting anyone to Crossover. Why would they allow the two of us to go?”
Lisa stopped for a moment. “Good point. I hadn't thought of that.”
“Could you access the mission logs and submit new commands to the team, purporting to be Hadleigh? By the time he realised what was happening it would be too late.”
Lisa sat at the console and began accessing the system. “I would need Hadleigh's access code to do that, and I don't know it. “
I smiled. “I do – assuming he used the same codes as my Hadleigh – his son's name, Devereux.”
Lisa looked up at me surprised for a moment, then turned back to the keyboard and continued typing. “Your code worked, I'm in!” She quickly retyped the new mission logs, indicating two people would Crossover shortly, and received team acknowledgements.
“Okay, done. Now to get your rabbit's foot.” She stood up and walked to the door and paused while her ID code was scanned and the door slid open. We both stepped through and the guards saluted. We saluted back and I followed her through the main doors into the Lab area. She went to the storebox where my rabbit's foot had been placed, typed the passcode, opened the lid and reached inside to retrieve the comms device and handed it to me. I turned with my back to the transparent barrier and quickly typed a morsecode message to indicate two people for Crossover and to encourage Geoff to allow Lisa to Crossover as the second person. Lisa turned her back as well and carefully picked up a hammer lying on the workbench and folded her arms to obscure its view.
“T-minus one minute” - the electronic voice prompted Lisa to pull me towards the Crossover chamber and opened the door. We entered and it silently closed behind us.
“10, 9, 8...” smoke started filling the chamber and the feeling of being outside my body and losing control took over as we slowly inched along the chamber towards the other door. Around half-way, I was aware of Lisa moving in slow-motion, raising her arm and hitting a grey flashing box with the hammer, trying to destroy it, but she was not strong enough. Any moment now and the door to my universe would open and it would be too late. I shook my head, to try and focus and grabbed the hammer from Lisa and used all my strength to fight the disembodied feeling and smash the amplifier, finally succeeding on the third hit, and grabbed the wreckage and pulled it off as the door to my universe slid open and we fell out onto the floor.
I was relieved to see that Lisa was lying alongside me and slowly trying to pull herself up and hadn't disappeared. Geoff and Hadleigh joined us to help us to our feet and to unzip our face vizors and helmets and the first thing I saw was Geoff's smiling face. “Welcome home, hero!” and he held out his hand, which I gratefully took with both of mine and shook strongly.
“It's good to see you, too, Geoff, my old friend.”
“So, the other Geoff wasn't as friendly as me, then, old friend?”
Lisa removed her helmet and shook her head, swinging her long hair loosely around her face. “No. definitely not. I had to shoot him!” Geoff looked surprised.
“Sounds like your trip report is going to make interesting reading.” Hadleigh added.
“No time for that. We've got less than five minutes to find and deactivate three explosive devices that LLRoscoe planted around the lab.” Lisa reached into her pocket and produced a map.
Hadleigh and Geoff exchanged glances and nodded at one another.
“LLRoscoe explained they were an improved design of controller for our systems, based on their greater experience. He said it was a gift from the LLuniverse for us, but we were suspicious, so immediately isolated and disconnected them after he left. Looks like we were right.”
Hadleigh turned to Lisa and held out his hand. “Welcome to our friendly team, I hope you will enjoy working with us.” Lisa shook hands warmly and tears were running down her face. I put my arm round her to comfort her and squeezed.
“Now we've saved the universe, can I have another kiss?”
Killer in Blue
“Scuttling?” asked Sitch, confusion etched in his large, childlike face, his brow wrinkling up into his closely cropped brown hair. His deep voice and wide brown eyes belied his demeanor; he was a large manchild, behemoth in appearance and elementary in education. Sitch was kind and unassuming yet dangerous when agitated. No one ever understood him completely. Sometimes something so profound would come from his lips, quietly, as if he was simply waiting for the right moment to unburden his soul. Other times asking him for information was like trying to demolish a brick house with a spoon. He was a gentle giant in every sense of the phrase, but often as dense as Mississippi mud and violent when thrown into confusing situations.
“Yeah, scuttling. Like a crab on a tile floor, or a...a large bug in a shoebox. You know, scuttling.”
“We don’t have crabs here.”
“I know that, Sitch.”
“Or large bugs.”
“Maybe some spiders…”
“You’re getting off topic, Sitch.”
“I may’ve seen a roach last week in the caf…”
“Could’ve been hallucinating, though…”
“Sorry. What did you ask me?”
“Have you heard it?”
“Why do you say, Mazey?”
“Newstead wants verification to check it out. So far, no one else has heard it but me.”
“Yeah, Sitch. Crap.”
“You think maybe you’re just hearing things? Like the voices?”
“No, this isn’t just in my head. The voices sound like I’m listening in through headphones. This is out in the open.”
“Sounds like trouble, then. Bad mojo, Mazey.”
“Keep your eyes out for anything, okay?”
“Sure thing, Mazey. I’ll let you know if I see or hear anything.”
“Thanks, Sitch. I appreciate it. Listen, I’ve gotta get to the lab. You can reach me on coms if you need to, okay?”
Scuttling was a sporadic irritation. Scuttling was something only I could hear. Scuttling was something on the station, rummaging in the dark, avoiding the crew, and keeping me up at night.
Sitch ran his large, meaty hand over his buzz cut and turned down the corridor. We parted ways, him heading north to the cargo bay while I went in the opposite direction towards Med Lab. I had stopped him to ask about the sounds. If anyone would have heard it, it would be Sitch. His childlike mind wouldn’t have missed the nearly imperceptible sounds, especially with his very active imagination.
I needed to keep things together. It was hard enough being the more feminine of the two women on board Gladdus12, but it was another to be the only functioning and socially acceptable psychic on this side of the solar system. Every day was a new challenge against my validity and necessity.
I struggled daily to keep my chin up, to prove myself. Most of the men in the crew were chauvinistic, strictly on the station to expand their monetary take. There was only one other woman on board, along with a non-binary crew member, and we often found ourselves having to remind the men we were human. It was a motley crew. All it would take was one small mistake. One minor flub would remind them of who I was: woman, psychic, on the station... Then I would be ostracized again.
* * *
“It’s Toxic Itch,” I replied as Big K stared at me skeptically.
“Toxic Itch? What the hell is that? Chick-speak for a rash? Don’t they teach you girls real medical stuff back at Central Labs?” He snorted.
I spoke calmly, keeping my chill. “Toxic Itch means you’ve been poking around places you shouldn’t.”
“Oh yeah?” Big K smirked. “Like where? The mess?”
I smiled sweetly. “No, like Margie Rose’s Five Ladies.”
The color drained from Big K’s dark mediterranean skin. Turning to strip the latex gloves from my hands, I continued, “You’re lucky that’s all you got, too. Hanscom told me a buddy of his, some guy he knows, lost important body parts below the belt after the ‘ladies’ were done with him…” I put up my hands to make air quotes when saying ‘ladies’.
While I straightened up the ‘tools of the trade’ I had out, Big K squirmed where he sat. I heard the paper covering scrunch and the pleather creak. I refused to feel sorry for him, so I ignored him, focusing on organizing my right-side drawer. Then he coughed and cleared his throat. I slowly looked over at him.
“Wha--” his voice cracking, making him blush, “Um, yeah. What...what can I do to get rid of it?
“Hmm…” I began, turning to him casually, folding my arms across my chest. “Well, let’s see. You could, for one, stop going to Margie Rose’s place.”
“And you could take Viskalef to take care of the virus. I can give you some Ferenapillin to reduce the inflammation, too.”
“That would be great.” He sighed in relief.
He started. “But? But what?”
“But if you keep up this jerkoff d-bag attitude of yours,” I said, staring him down, “I’ll slip Toxic Itch into every pair of boxers and pants that you have.”
Big K stared at me disbelieving.
“And we’ll run out of meds,” I finished softly.
Big K grimaced. “Alright, alright. Tough bargain you crazy bitch, but I’ll give you my word on it.” He held out a big, grimy paw and spit into it, then stuck it out front. Unnerved by the grubby display, I stayed cool and reached out, gripping his hand roughly and firmly.
Had to show no fear.
Big K smiled - if that's really what it was - and released the handshake. “Guess Central Labs was happy when you left, eh?”
“You could say that,” I said, smirking.
“Listen, this is gonna stay here, right? I mean, the other guys aren’t gonna… You won’t… Right?”
I winked at him. “Sure.”
Nodding, Big K stood up and walked to the doorway. He paused to mumble a “Thanks, Mazey”, then disappeared into the corridor.
“One down,” I muttered to myself. “Six more to go.”
Hours later, after the cargo bay crew had all been examined, I went to the mess to get some chow. It was going to be my first time eating, and it was already dinnertime. I walked in to see our robotics expert, Stevie trying to feed a bite of something brown to 10bit, their Fennec fox. Even 10bit was sticking its nose up at it. Across from them was Jonie, the other woman in the crew and our lone mechanic.
“Great,” I muttered. “Dinner isn’t even edible.” Still, I walked in and sat down next to Jonie at the mess table. I reached across the table to scratch the soft, warm fur under 10bit’s chin. It purred loudly in contentment, then hopped onto Stevie’s shoulder, completing a circle before settling down. Stevie frowned at me.
“I can’t get 10bit to eat anything today.”
“10bit’s not the only one,” added Jonie, picking at the mush on her tray.
“Have you considered the quality of the food?” I replied, inspecting the contents of their tray. “It doesn’t look very edible…”
“You’re not wrong,” Stevie said. They looked tired and sighed.
“Are you feeling okay?” I asked, concerned over our little teenage crew member. Stevie was all of 16 but could get along with the best of them. They didn’t have any notion of being a child, acting more like a young adult and composing themselves accordingly. Their fox, 10bit, was the only family Stevie had beyond the crew. They had found each other before coming here, somewhere back on the Siarnaq station. I wasn’t sure how they came to be together but was still glad they had each other.
“Yeah, I’m just beat. It’s been a long day of programming.”
“I can sympathize. Today was nothing but crew examinations.”
Stevie winced, their long black hair falling over their shoulders. “Big K?”
“Big K.” I replied.
Everyone knew that Big K was a disgruntled bigot. He never seemed to approve of anything that wasn’t a man in charge or a woman in submission. Stevie was non-binary, so they were a mystery to Big K. It was that mysteriousness that put Stevie on Big K’s radar in a big way as something he was scared of, so Stevie tried to avoid him like the plague.
“Guy’s a major asshat,” said Jonie, disgusted. Jonie also bore the brunt of his prejudice because she was both a woman and black. It didn’t matter that she could run circles around the cargo bay guys when it came to machinery on the station, often coming to their rescue to fix loaders and lifts.
“It’s okay, though,” I continued. “We came to an understanding.”
“Oh really?” asked Jonie.
“Yeah. He doesn’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with him.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” replied Stevie.
“Best I could come up with.” I realized I hadn’t asked either of them about the sounds. “That reminds me, what about you guys?”
“What about us?” replied Jonie, still poking at her ‘food’. Her golden eyes glanced up at me momentarily before refocusing on her tray.
“Have you heard anything strange on the station?”
Stevie stared at me, pale green eyes sparkling, a puzzled expression on their pale, alabaster face. “Strange? Like what?” 10bit heard the change in Stevie’s tone and perked up, gazing at me with it’s large cream-colored ears standing straight up.
“Best I can tell you is that it’s like scuttling.”
“Scuttling?” asked Jonie, giving me her full attention now. She was intrigued and her eyes lit up, glowing bright against her rich brown skin. “Like scampering or scurrying or scrambling?”
“That’s a new one,” said Stevie.
“So I’m guessing the answer is no…”
“Nope,” replied Stevie.
“No scuttling,” answered Jonie. “That’s a great word, though. Is it a bug? An insect?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Dammit.”
“Why? What’s up?” asked Stevie.
“I’ve been hearing it in various places around the station, but no one can confirm they’re hearing it, too. Newstead won’t investigate anything without corroboration, so I’m stuck being the lone person that hears it.”
“That’s gotta be awful,” said Jonie, shoving her tray off to the left. “How long have you heard it for?”
“A couple of weeks. Since that last shipment came in from Alpha Centauri.”
“That’s been a while. I’m surprised I haven’t heard it. What are you gonna do?” asked Jonie.
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll try to see if I can record it? I’ve got to get something to Newstead.”
“Yeah, try that,” responded Stevie. “You know what? I can give you one of my CamRecoBots. They’re small and’ll fit into tiny places. You can carry one in your pocket or put it near where you’re hearing the sound. They’ll record the sound and the video for you when they sense any sensory or atmospheric changes.”
“That would be great. How sensitive are they?”
“Something starts making sounds? Recording. Something moves? Recording. Something farts? Recording.”
“Really…? This thing will pick up when something farts?” asked Jonie, clearly entertained with learning about a new bit of machinery on the station.
“Yes,” replied Stevie.
“Ok,” I replied, slapping my hands down on the table. “Sign me up.”
“I’ll swing by with one in a couple hours. I’ve gotta head back to The Box, finish working on the automatons.” Stevie sighed and pushed themselves up, standing from the table.
“No problem,” I said, standing up to meet them. “More programming?”
“Update installs. A couple of ’em need minor tweaks. You know the deal. They won’t fix themselves.”
“I hear ya.”
Stevie and 10bit left, heading back to the robotics lab, a.k.a. The Box, while Jonie headed back to the machine shop. The Box was literally a box, a former cargo container that had been attached to the station for extra space. All of Stevie’s automatons and mechanical needs were there, providing a secure and contained space for them to hole up. Jonie was usually in the machine shop right outside the Cargo Bay, but she would pop by to see if Stevie needed anything from time to time. Jonie kept a close eye on Stevie, probably due to missing her twin sister, Cassie. Stevie gave Jonie someone to care for. However, Stevie kept to themselves in The Box. They had 10bit and the robots, and that seemed to be enough.
I felt a kinship to Stevie and Jonie. Like them, I had something about me that kept me an arm’s length away from most people. Like them, I knew what it was like to be isolated and alone. Even better, they never asked me about my abilities, knowing it might be part of who I am but not what I am entirely.
I needed to see the captain, so I headed south towards the bridge. My footsteps echoed loudly as I walked down the corridor, the metal plating clanging underfoot. Never a short walk, it was roughly half the length of the station from the mess hall to the bridge or about half a kilometer. I could hear crew members in their quarters celebrating the day's end as I walked past. Several ships had recently docked, so I had to maneuver around cargo being unloaded by new visitors. Offices lined the corridor for ambassadors and dignitaries to conduct business, as well as small vendor shops for visiting merchants.
Once I arrived outside the bridge, I found the comms panel and pressed the call button. “Scott here. Permission to see the captain?” I asked.
“Granted,” came the reply.
The door unlatched and slid open with a whooshing sound. Hanscom’s bearded Viking face was there to greet me.
“Hey, yourself. How’s things today?”
“Always better when you’re around,” he said with a smile, his Scottish accent coming through with flying colors.
“You big sweet-talker. Where’s Mack? I need to see him.”
“Right back there,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder. “He’s waiting for you.”
“Anything for you,” he replied, flashing a grin that left me weak-kneed.
I smiled for him, then skirted by so I could head to the back of the bridge and see the captain. Hanscom and I had a flirtatious thing going, and I was nearly positive we both meant it seriously. We had an evening a few months back that I doubt neither of us had forgotten, and how could I? His roguish good looks were only amplified by his chin-length, reddish blonde hair and stunning grey-blue eyes. A girl could get lost looking into their stormy seas, and I certainly did a time or two. He nearly had me wrapped around his finger, and I definitely had him wrapped around mine.
It was too bad we had my abilities between us.
As much as he said they weren’t an issue, Hanscom had difficulty processing what I was capable of. The voices. The physical sensations. The dreams. It was all more than he wanted, often more than he could understand, and I couldn’t blame him. The only difference between me and any other red-blooded woman was that I couldn’t drown my hang-ups in alcohol or smother them with drugs. My abilities made me stand-out in such a negative way that sometimes even I couldn’t get past them.
Headquarters valued my services on Gladdus12, but there were times I would have loved nothing more than to be a normal woman. To not know when someone was cheating. To not be aware that someone was lying or corrupt. I would have loved to not hear the voices, and there was a time or two where I considered having Central Labs cut my Temparocc out of my brain.
In the brain is a region where the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes all converge. This blending of regions controls vision, reading, and reasoning. Within that region exists a pocket called the Temparocc that controls psychic abilities. Not everyone is born with this pocket, and those of us that are can have a surgical procedure to have it extracted. When I was 17, my parents wanted to do this to me, to have my Temparocc removed due to their personal religious beliefs. It was a simple thing: I scared them. Psychic abilities were the devil’s work, after all. I refused and left home, joining up with Central Labs for their Psy-Range program, eventually traveling from Terra into space.
I hadn’t spoken with my parents since.
After spending three years onboard, I had learned more and more about this cast of characters that I had come to call family. Whereas I was in Med Lab and the “Lady Psychic”, many of the crew only came around to see me when something was wrong. Some of the men weren’t to be trusted, like dickhead Big K and Vinnie, our electronics guru. Yet, some of them were trustworthy, like my northern man, Hanscom and the captain, Mack.
Mack was actually a bit of a lone-wolf. Despite his gruff exterior, he was well-respected as an adventurer and a true explorer at heart. He had spent all of his life wandering the known galaxy, and this was just his current port of call. He had never been married, so he had no one to call family except those he was onboard with. I did my best to give him distance but also to be the family he needed, when he needed it.
I approached Mack at the weapons station. “Greetings, Captain.”
Mack turned and smiled at me warmly, his chocolate brown eyes affectionate. He pushed some of his rich brown hair back from his brow. “Hello, Scott. What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Not much, Captain. I was hoping to talk with you for a moment?”
“Sure thing.” He turned to Vinnie, who was working on some wiring in a weapons system panel. “You’ve got this, Santoro?”
“Yes, sir,” Vinnie replied without looking up. His dark blonde hair was blood red in the panel lighting, his wiry figure bent and twisted like a contortionist to get deep into the framework.
I still didn’t know anything about Vinnie, and that alone gave me pause where he was concerned. He’d been onboard for eight months, and it was like he had just arrived. He kept to himself and ate alone. He couldn’t be bothered to associate with anyone, despite invitations to do just that. I had heard that his last station was Io, but the people I knew there said they never heard of him. Combine that with both his vacant stares and his expressionless blue eyes, and you were left with someone incredibly sketchy. All my little warning bells and sirens went off in his presence. I had hoped my abilities would help me glean something about him, but they had been silent.
The one time I needed those damned voices…
Mack gestured for me to lead the way, and I walked across the bridge, over to the side of the shield systems. Despite Hanscom’s proximity, I knew he wouldn’t spread any gossip about me or anything I discussed with the captain. I glanced at him before turning my attention to Mack.
“I need a favor…”
“Oh really?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. I knew that sparkle was going to disappear in a moment.
“Yes, sir. I need you to come down to Med Lab for a few minutes, so I can check your vitals.”
“Oh dammit, Mazey. Not this shit again,” he grumbled.
“C’mon, Mack,” I said, losing the official attitude and shifting into a casual tone. “You know you aren’t an exception. Everyone has to get checked out.”
“You said I could go last.”
“And you are,” I replied quickly.
“Isn’t there someone else that you need to perform your little tests on first?”
“No. I just finished up with Cargo Bay, and you know I always save them for last. Every time. Now it’s your turn.” I gave him a little poke in the chest for emphasis.
“I can’t leave the bridge right now. There’s too much work to be done.”
“Yes, we’re running tests on the weapons systems.” He called over his shoulder to Vinnie. “You almost done over there?”
“Almost, sir,” replied Vinnie.
I heard a noise and saw Hanscom chuckling to himself behind Mack. I glared at him and turned my attention back to Mack. “I see. Nope. You’re coming with me.”
Mack started to reply, but I cut him off. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
“No, I already told you. I won’t take no for an answer.”
More grumbling. More scowling. More chuckling.
“Let’s go, sir.”
“Fine, fine. Let me just get something from my room.”
“Nice try, Mack. The last time you did that, you locked yourself in.”
“No. No pit stops this time. We’re going straight to Med Lab.”
“I hate when you’re bossy like this,” he muttered.
“Good. That means I’m doing my job right,” I replied and gestured for him to lead the way off the bridge.
Mack began to head toward the door, and I followed him, swatting Hanscom on the shoulder as I walked past. He merely winked in response. We made it out the door, hearing it whoosh closed behind us.
Then the voices started.
Mazey… Comms… DARK… BloodBloodBloodBlood… Screams… Dark… EyesEyes… bloodbloodblood… eyes… WALLSwalls… Mazey… Dark… stranger… Walls...EYES...
I doubled over, grabbing my head and groaning. There was always a headache that accompanied the sounds. Mack stopped and reached out to touch me, to see if I was okay.
“Don’t!” I gasped. Quieter still, “Please... don’t…” I struggled to breathe, trying to listen as they came to me. Each voice echoed around my head like a broken speaker pressed against the back of my neck.
Some of the voices were soft, some were screaming. Each was a different pitch, a different identity: a small child crying softly, a lumbering beast roaring, a quiet woman, an angry man, a vile demon... To this day I was still unable to identify any of the voices as any one person or as any one entity. Sometimes the voices were warm, a sense of calm and comfort accompanying them like a soft blanket. Today the voices were freezing cold, leaving me frostbitten from the inside out, burying themselves like icey needles inside my brain and piercing my consciousness.
“What do you need?” asked Mack, concern and worry etched in his weathered face.
“A moment… Just a moment…” I murmured.
The voices were starting to fade, the same words replaying over and over again. I needed to write them down before they faded from my memory, too. Grabbing a piece of paper from my pants pocket, I pulled a pen from the top pocket of my coveralls. Using the floor grating as support, I knelt down and leaned forward to quickly scribble down each word, then slipped the paper back in my pocket.
Taking a moment for myself, I leaned back on my heels and tilted my head back, eyes closed. I sighed, then opened them, seeing Mack was still staring at me, clearly troubled by my exhibition. I leaned forward and pushed myself up, standing to meet his gaze.
“It’s okay. I’m okay.”
“You sure?” asked Mack.
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it.”
I feigned shock and turned to look at him. “And thank YOU very much!”
Mack laughed then. “I’m sorry. I was just worried about you.” He paused, then asked, “You sure you’re okay?”
I smiled for him. “I’m positive. Now let’s get you down to Med Lab.”
“Oh, we’re still doing that?”
I laughed. “You’re not getting out of it that easy.”
“I think we need to make sure you’re okay first.”
“Nope. Come on, Mack. Let’s go.”
I took him by the arm and led him down the corridor, chatting casually as we went. Meanwhile, my brain was still trying to process what I had been told: dark, walls, eyes, blood… These were not typical messages from the voices. Usually the voices were easier to understand, to fit the puzzle pieces together. This was different. I didn’t know what to make of their messages, but I was damned sure I was going to find out.
The Second Chance
Rama was eight or nine years of age. Life wasn’t easy for him. Money was tight at home, as his father was in a very modest job. Their resources in the family was very limited.
Since, his family had little resources to buy him toys and games, he would spent most of his time during the day drawing in his notebook, from the things he sees around him. He would sketch on paper whatever he used to observe around him. His parents and people surrounding him, observed his habit of sketching. They tried to deviate him and divert his attention to studies and other household works, which would make him viable for a successful career in future. They aimed for making him an engineer, so that he can solve his family’s status of deficiency.
They would say to Rama, “Son, do not spend your time in sketching. This will not give you enough money in your life. Try to study hard. By doing so you will gain knowledge to get a good job, which will give you money to survive in your life, in future.”
Time passed by… Rama would still keep sketching, whenever he used to get time from his daily chores and studies. He grew up slowly in this environment of limited resources and boundaries to pursue his passion. He did not like to study. He would just sit in his academic classes to dream of sketching, about whatever his eyes could see. He would observe the trees and birds and people walking on the streets outside the school window and draw them in his notebook. He would hardly devote any time to study, but somehow, he used to pass his exams. After his 10th he has to decide now which stream of studies to pursue. Although his family wanted him to take up science stream, but his scores in his board exam forced him to take up Arts and humanities. Deep down in his heart, he was secretly happy and content with the turn of events. He never wanted to take up Science and go into engineering stream to become an Engineer, as his family wanted him to do.
However, life went on and Rama somehow passed his 12th and then to his graduation in Arts and humanities. He wished to study Fine Arts in his graduation, but due to family and peer pressure, he did not take up fine arts and ended up studying history.
During his 12th standard he met with a girl, Diksha, whom he liked and they would spent considerable time together, apart from their common classes. But as they passed their 12th, and moved to college for graduation, the girl took up different subjects, as she aspired for public service exams. Now they would meet less during the week, as she got busy with her own life, classes and college friends, which was different from Rama’s. Diksha started to spend more time away and detached from Rama, which made him sad and depressed. He started to miss her and miss spending time with her. She was the only source of joy in his hard and depressing life.
As upset Rama was, he then thought of focusing on his studies and his daily chores in his house, to move on in his life from his current circumstances. Just when he was doing so, life has a new setback ready for him. Rama’s father lost his job, due to his physical disability. Rama’s father had one palm with paralysis. With this, the only source of income in his family is gone. Now Rama and his brother cannot stay idle, neither her mother. Since his brother, Shambhu, was too young to start working at that time, Rama and his mother, Supriya, decided to find work. They thought that they have to find a job to survive and feed their family… They thought to themselves, they have to find some job- any job will do, it does not matter what type of job they come across. If it is something that is paying them to get food for their family, it’s good enough. So now, Rama and Supriya, set off to find work for themselves, to earn something… So now, every morning, Rama and his mother Supriya, will go out and come back late at night, after searching jobs for themselves. For the first few weeks, they could only get disappointment and rejection, as no one gave them any work that they could earn something. It was bad days running through the week for them, where they would set off in the morning and return home late at night with empty handed. Slowly as the days passed by all their savings got exhausted, as during that time no one in their family had a job or any earning. So they have to support themselves only through the savings that they had saved for their bad times like this, or some health emergencies. So now, Rama’s family is entering into phase of frustrations and anxiety, thinking how they will survive further after their savings get completely drained out. The only work left now, for their entire family to survive this hard phase, is to pray and try harder everyday…
Somehow, they could see some sunshine when, Rama and his mother got a job at different places. Supriya got a job of sewing in a tailoring shop, while Rama got a job of a clerk in a small office. It brought them hope and joy into their family, during those dark days.
Rama continued his studies from home at night, as he could not manage to attend his classes in college during the day. His little brother Shambhu, continued his studies in school. Days passed by… Every day Rama would go to his job during the day and after coming back from office and completing his dinner, he would study. He is now in college and must focus on his studies to get a graduation certificate. Meanwhile, just to avoid his boredom of his tough and mundane daily routine, he started to take lessons on his old passion – i.e. sketching. On his weekends, Rama would go to this art class in his neighborhood, where he would learn professional sketching skills. And after his dinner time every day, or in some free time he would try his hands in sketching. This continued for some time, and he started to gain professional skills into sketching - from being a beginner, to an expert sketching artist. He made many sketches out of hobby and passion for the art, and this was the only joy he used to have in his tough and mundane life. However, Rama never knew that another shocking turn of event was lying around the corner, for him.
Things were going this way, until one day, Rama’s mother Supriya, suddenly felt a jolt in her head, followed by an epileptic attack in her body. She fell unconscious. It was a brain hemorrhage attack. Rama and his brother had to rush Supriya to the hospital. More so, Rama’s final exams of his graduation was beginning the next day, and he was waiting in the hospital lobby for doctor’s update.
The hospital, to which Supriya was admitted immediately after her attack, could not do much. His mother was referred to a specialist hospital which was for such emergencies and ailments. He had to then take her to the other hospital for immediate damage control. Although he did not get much chances to study for his graduation exams, however, he gathered enough courage to appear for the exams, somehow. He would go for the exams during the day and would rush back to the hospital straight from the exam hall. This went on for few weeks until his exams got over.
However, his exams for life began… he had to continue his office too. For days he would run to and fro from hospital to office and then, from hospital to home. He had to take all the responsibilities of coordinating with doctors and hospital staffs for her mother’s best possible treatment that he could provide her. However, he was running out of funds for her treatment. So now he has to manage funds for furthering his mother’s treatment. He would run from his acquaintances to colleagues, from his office seniors to his relatives, borrowing money for his mother’s treatment. He could manage to collect the entire amount of money by such borrowings and some amount through loan, as well. He has to get the funds somehow to save Supriya’s life, as the doctors prescribed for an early stage major surgery to be done, which was expensive. So now Rama was sitting on heavy debt of liabilities in such a small age. His life is getting tougher. Every day he has to go to the office and then to the hospital for seeing her mother and getting her necessary things and clearing payments for her treatment. Then coming back, he had to do household chores and continue his study somehow. Rama’s own health was getting deteriorated. This routine continued for some time until Supriya was recovered and was discharged from the hospital. However, she did not recover fully. She could barely move and was bed ridden. So now she has to be treated and taken care of at home for the rest of her life. His life seemed to get darker and darker and he was at dismay as to what to do…? Now, Rama was the only earning member in his family. However, he now, has to keep a nurse at his home to take care of Supriya, as Rama will be out in office for the whole day and his brother, Shambhu, is too young to take the responsibility. So, Rama decided to take up some more work to earn some more money to support Supriya’s treatment and also feed his family. He thought of sketching again, with the hope that people would buy his sketches and he could manage to earn some extra cash for resolving his problems and circumstances. He would keep sketching one after the other. He would sketch anyone and everyone’s portrait that he would see or even get the picture of. He would sketch them with his hands and show it to people. He would upload all those portraits over the internet for people to give him orders. It would take him to work at a continuous stretch of hours at a time. He would keep sketching for eight to ten hours at a stretch. His back would hurt, his eyes would be red, and his hands would swell up in pain. But he would ignore all of this problems and keep sketching. He would work in office during the day and would sketch at night time. He would hardly manage to get sleep. So his weeks and months went by without much sleep or rest. This habits kept manifesting in his physical body as it started to look frail and tired. His health was getting deteriorated.
So, now for Rama, life was going on like a fleeting wind. It was a daily routine and everything was tied up in time, right from the beginning of the day until the end of the night. He was getting accustomed with the hardships of his life and slowly he came to terms with them. Earlier, he would complain and whine about his circumstances, but slowly he became silent, and started to go with the flow.
Now Rama would explore opportunities and avenues to get extra income and earnings, which would help him to ease out his burden of debts and liabilities. So, he explored for opportunities over the internet to make some extra cash. While doing so, one day, Rama came across a video in YouTube, where he learnt that making online videos could get the creators earn a decent amount of money. So he started to explore the same in details and learned about making YouTube music videos. He would take the music of well-known music directors and singers in the industry during that time, and would mix it with some motion videos, which he would collect from other websites, and edit and sync them to make music videos of his own. He then would release them on YouTube for his subscribers and viewers to appreciate them, like them and comment on them. In response, he would also collect some criticism and ugly comments too, along with the appreciations and praises, as a part and parcel of the business. But he kept on doing his work, ignoring them all. He would keep taking the latest music videos and blend them with different motion videos or picture videos and release them on YouTube platform. He would also release the same on other social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, etc. for more reach and coverage.
Things went on like this for quite a while… Until, one evening he made a video on a latest music release and uploaded it in the online platforms, and went on to sleep at night. His video cracked the records to have more than a lakh views in one night. The video went viral! There was a buzz all around. He woke up next morning to a new day of beginning… it was the beginning of a bright light – the brightest ray of hope he has seen in his entire life, until then. He was happy! He checked his video stats for his video performance, online. The graphs are on the rise every time he looked at them, in all the platforms, over the internet. He would check his video status every five to ten minutes during that day, and each time he looked at them, he got goosebumps and his heart kept racing. He could not believe that day, such a breakthrough could come to him, and that it has already arrived! On that day he decided that he would keep making more and more music videos and posts. He would do every possible hard work and efforts that is required for him to achieve more such breakthroughs and feats. He was highly motivated since then, to put in all his efforts, energy and time into making more and more such music videos.
So now, Rama continued to sketch and sell them online and offline; and made more and more such online videos for YouTube and other social media platforms. He would make even videos of his live sketches with music, hoping his viewers would enjoy seeing him making the sketches and creating such beautiful and wonderful portraits. His sketches was also giving him a decent amount of revenue. This earnings, made him to think about quitting his job. He has gained a hefty amount of subscribers and followers in his social media accounts and his contents are doing pretty well amongst his viewers. So, Rama finally decided to quit his full time job, which was of a nominal salary that took most of his time during the day, which he believed could be devoted in creating more videos and sketches. So, did he…
By now, he has acquired a whopping 2 million followers in his Instagram account and equivalent subscribers in his other social media accounts, as well. He is getting good return from his videos and sketches, in terms of revenue, for him to earn a good living for his family now. Rama now stayed at home after quitting his job to make more videos and sketches, while taking care of his ailing mother and also doing all the household chores. Now his little brother Shambhu, would go out to school to complete his disrupted education, due to their family circumstances. His brother started to go to high school to complete his remaining studies. So now, things were going well enough for Rama.
He was motivated and made more and more videos and sketches, which was appreciated across all social platforms. However, now he started to observe the market trends and study the social media market behavior. Now each and every minute of his time, during the twenty for hours was precious and important for him. He would work for almost eighteen to twenty hours a day making videos and sketches. Thus, now he must analyze which would be the most profitable work for him to spend most of his time during the day, so that he can fetch maximum return out of his efforts and time, and then work accordingly. He observed that, he was reaping maximum online traffic and engagement of his subscribers and followers in his music videos, than compared to his sketches and portraits. Thus, he started to focus more on music videos, and spend more time on creating them, than his sketches. He would not spend much time on sketches now, as before, and would only sketch portraits if he could get pre-booked orders, that would give him deserving money on his time and efforts spent on making those sketches. He would get good returns from his YouTube music videos and his sketching was slowly taking a backseat.
Things went on like this for a while until one day, during the weekends Rama got connected with a lady, named Jinia. She was in her late Thirties. Jinia sent Rama, a message on his Instagram account and he replied to it. Jinia could not stop appreciating his sketches and his talent of the art that he has. She wanted to talk to him. So she requested for his phone number and Rama gladly shared it with her. Jinia had been following Rama’s work for quite a while, and wanted to connect with him. During that weekend, Jinia called him up and had a long chat. She wanted to know about Rama’s past and his life experiences, as to how he became the artist that he is now? Jinia was fascinated to hear about his story and his journey to become the artist that he is and about his gift of God, that Rama had in him. They talked for a long time and developed a good rapport with each other soon, which developed into a bond of friendship… They would usually connect over the weekends and talk for long hours to discuss on their lives, their work and the projects that they are working on. Later, Rama found out that Jinia also had a difficult life in the past, like him. He also came to know that Jinia was an orphan and an aspiring amateur film maker at that time, and was working towards making her own movie, when she got connected with Rama. She was in her late thirties and had a career change in her life to pursue her passion for film making. Jinia was previously in a promising corporate career, which she left to become a Film maker and a writer for movie scripts. Her story fascinated Rama, as well. Thus they slowly developed a friendship, which was mutual and free. Quite often, Jinia would ask Rama, “What is your goal or aim in life?” Rama would immediately and confidently reply, “To become very rich and wealthy!” They would then both, laugh out loud.
One such weekend when they were talking to each other, Jinia gave Rama an offer of working together. She suggested to create a movie together, where she wants Rama to do all the sketching for storyboarding. For every film making, the director needs to provide sketches of the scenes, planned and scripted, to the entire cast and crew to convey the expectations of the director to the team, enabling best output of performance from all. This was storyboarding, which Jinia thought Rama would do perfectly well. However, since Jinia was beginning her career into films, she will not be able to pay him for his work. However, she suggested that the work would be a great opportunity to explore new avenues of earning eventually, where he can earn and profit from his sketches, rather than making music videos, where everything is uncertain. Also that would keep him less occupied and give him more free time for himself and his personal life. He can utilize that time to do what he likes to do for himself and his wellbeing. Although in the initial stage there would not be much earning, however, after few projects, he would be able to get a good income from sketching for storyboards. She reminded him that it is sketching that was his passion and not making videos, which he was avoiding in the recent times. So, he must pursue a career in sketching than making online videos, taking others’ music compositions.
At this Rama got very upset and turned down Jinia’s offer with anger and disappointment. Rama took everything in a wrong way thinking that Jinia was trying to criticize him and demotivate him for what he does. He fought with her and disconnected her call. After that Rama never spoke to Jinia or taken her calls, although Jinia tried to call him multiple times to explain herself and resolve the misunderstanding. They both fell apart. After the incident, he was silent throughout the day and never spoke to anyone.
On the next day, he went to his friend’s house in the neighborhood and shared with him the whole story. Rama met Vinod, his neighborhood friend, in the art school during his high school days, when he was taking art classes outside his academic education. They connected with each other and became good friends over the years, as they shared the same passion for sketching, and the same neighborhood too. He was amongst the only few friends that Rama had during that time, with whom he can talk to and share his life and experiences. Vinod was also from a similar background and social status. He and his family were also struggling to make ends meet to earn their livelihood. Even though, he also used to make sketches very well, but not as artistic or appealing as Rama.
Vinod heard the whole story and tried to console Rama and make him understand that Jinia was not wrong in her suggestion and her intentions were pure and unconditional. Vinod tried to explain that Jinia was just trying to help him get a good career utilizing his talent for sketch. At this, Rama explained how he disliked the way anyone criticizes his music videos, as those were giving him his earnings and livelihood, with which he was sustaining his life and his family. So he never likes if anyone criticizes or looks down upon them. Seeing that Rama was not in a mental condition to understand neither Vinod’s perspective nor Jinia’s, he decided to let go of the whole situation and silently listened to Rama, pour out his agony and grudges to him about Jinia. After sometime Rama came back home and went to sleep, not feeling like doing anything else for that remaining night.
From the next day, he went on to his usual daily routine work of making videos, and household chores and executing his other responsibilities. He never thought of Jinia again and he hated to remember about the incident, and moved on in his life with his work and errands. He never spoke with Jinia or about her to anyone, after that.
Things went on like this for a while, until one day there was a restraint in one of Rama’s music videos from one of the social media platform. After that, many of his music videos were blocked consecutively, on the grounds of violation of intellectual property rights of the creators, composing those music, and restraint orders were issued for publishing them online without rights. He was shattered and devastated! His life depended on it and now its blur in front of his eyes. He was thinking how would he earn his living? How would he support his family? All this thoughts ran in his head and he was feeling sick. He became silent and still. He would not speak to anyone for days and kept on doing his usual work, because he has to. Although the restraint was on few prominent videos, which were doing well in the current market. The others were free and there was no restraint on them. So he kept working on those music which were not so much viral or trending in the market, during that time. However, his earnings came down drastically and he lost considerable amount of subscribers and followers. The traffic to his videos and Social media accounts also reduced and got limited. He lost his breakthrough moment and came back to his previous times of struggle. Now he must think of something innovative with his videos, which would make them trending and few of them viral again, so as to get back his charm in his videos to draw more attention and footfall of his viewers. He was working hard to get back the previous appeal and attention. He kept on thinking new ideas to make those music videos work like magic. He started to work over time again to make his videos and also continue with his orders of delivering sketches to his customers, for extra money. He again came back to his old circumstances of making both ends meet to earn his livelihood and support his family. It was disappointing, depressing and tiring to fall back on the same tunnel of pitfalls and struggles. He had no one to share this with, as his friend, Vinod, also left his home for a job and relocated to some other city.
Days went by and rolled on to months and years. Rama kept on doing the same work over and over again, but nothing improved. His earnings came to a minimum and he exhausted all his savings as well. He was tired and felt very weak fighting with his life’s circumstances over again.
Things went on like this, and Rama was carrying on with his mundane and difficult life again. Until one evening, peering through his small window Rama saw a big car, which was quite expensive, came outside his small house and stopped. He heard the sound of the car, and was wondering, who could it be? Until now, he never had any of his friends or acquaintances who had such an expensive car. Although few of his relatives had cars, but they are mostly living in other cities and kept no relations or connections with him or his family. Besides, he has no friends or acquaintances now, who would possibly be visiting him to his house. Although he had one friend, Vinod from his art school in his neighborhood, but he went to some other city two years back, after getting some job. After that Vinod kept no connection with him and neither Rama had ever tried to connect with him again. So while he kept thinking who it could be? He heard footsteps approaching his doorway, and there was a ring on the doorbell.
He got up and opened the door, and he saw a tall figure standing in front of him. He was wearing the finest suit in jet navy blue colour that Rama has ever laid his eyes on. It was shining as his shoes. His face was glowing with glory of his wellbeing and affluence. His hair and attitude was both meticulously trimmed and neat. He wore a perfume, the essence of which smelled like money and wealth. Rama knows this guy standing in front of him, holding a big box of sweets and bouquet of flowers.
Rama invited his old friend Vinod, from his art school, to come and sit inside his room. It’s been almost more than two years, he has not seen his friend. He was curiously surprised to see him this way. He made some tea for Vinod and they started to talk. Vinod asked Rama how he has been and listened to his story quietly like before, with lots of patience and calmness. He heard about Rama’s videos and the restraint orders and how he again fell into the pitfall of hardships and struggle. After Rama narrated his whole story to Vinod, Rama was very curious and eager to know and learn about his friend’s success and growth. What made him to change his circumstances, so much? But he would control his anxiousness and showed calm composure from outside.
Looking at his friends face, filled with questions and curiosity, Vinod started to fill the silence. He now started with his own story…
“Did you not wonder why I have brought the sweets and flowers for you?” asked Vinod to Rama.
Thinking for a while, “Well, I thought you wanted to show a good gesture by gifting sweets and flowers, since we are meeting after a very long time, with no contact in between, all these years… isn’t it?”, replied Rama .
His friend smiled, “Well that too. But the main reason for this is to apologize to you!”
Rama was surprised to hear that. “Why exactly?” he asked very quietly, but his voice was overflowing with curiousness and wonder.
At this, his friend started, “Do you remember that lady, Jinia, and your fight with her?”
Rama remained silent.
His friend continued, “Well on that night when you left after narrating your story of your friendship with Jinia and how you two had a big fight over the offer that Jinia made to you… I could not stop thinking about it. I thought it was a brilliant suggestion from Jinia which would have changed your life. But I was not able to understand why you could not see that nor understand her intentions? That night after you left, I kept thinking about it all night and I could not sleep at all. Next day in the morning, I searched her name over the Instagram through your account and connected with her. Since we both are connected through you, it was very easy to find her and share my number with her. Jinia was kind enough to call me, when she heard that I am connecting with her through your reference. She is a very nice lady with a lot of talent and insight into film making and storytelling. I discussed with her the whole story and our discussion that night and I asked her if I can work with her instead, if she needed me? I showed her some of my work samples, and she gladly welcomed me into her team. We started working together on her new project, the script of which she wrote during that time. Although, she already told me that since they are all starting up that time, and that they are very new in the industry, she will not be able to pay me and compensate for the work I do in their project, but they will be taking care of my expenses that I incur, working on the project. I thankfully agreed with the terms and conditions and started to work with her on the project. I made elaborate and extensive storyboard sketches for them, sheets after sheets and they would make copies of those to distribute amongst the entire cast and crew. It helped them in execution of the script perfectly and they could wrap up every shoot very fast and in less time, reducing production cost. The storyboarding helped them plan in advance and think in the right direction, before actual shoot.” Rama kept listening with utter silence and intensity.
Vinod continued, “Although the film did not generate much revenue. But it was a learning experience for all of us, since the entire cast and crew was new and fresh, except for the senior makers. We all did enjoy and learnt to grow. That project kicked started all of our career and never looked back. We then worked in different projects. Although, our cast and crew changed with the projects, but I never stopped working with Jinia. I sticked with her in all her projects till now and we both developed together to grow in our careers. Yet to go a long way, but we have come a long way too. After that project, we did few series and another movie together. We also completed one animation movie together, where I was the lead animation sketch-artist. We were working day and nights without any break or holidays. Although, we would do two projects simultaneously, but we would make sure to make it perfect, for it to do well in the market. We had also made good fortune out of it. Luckily, the movie and the series we made, did extremely well. By now, you must be knowing which movie I meant? You must have seen it in the theatre or online. Isn’t it?”
Rama was wondering and is confused. He was so engrossed in his personal life these days and his work tussles, that he never bothered to see and check out the recent film market. He has not seen a movie for the past few years and had no idea, which movie came in the theatres, did well in the market and which ones did not. He was devoid of any news or worldly affairs whatsoever, as he was too engrossed and occupied with his own life circumstances and problems. Although, Rama dealt with film music extensively, he never bothered to check out about the film makers or its cast and crew.
Seeing the confusion on his friends face, Vinod suggested, “You should go and watch the movie ‘Sara Ka Sara’, if you still have not seen it yet. It did very well in the market and public and fraternity appreciated it a lot. Did you really not hear about the movie? It’s pretty well-known by now. Have you heard the song called… “Lambi sadak, halki si barish, baht sari batein…?” Vinod went on saying all in one go, with intensity and excitement.
Now, Rama got a sudden jerk in his mind. He has not only heard the song, “Lambi sadak, halki si barish…”, but has also made a music video with the song and uploaded it in his social media channels recently. However, he has never bothered to, nor could make out some time to check the name of the movie, or its makers! He just picked up the song and made the video, as he does for years.
Rama kept silent and still, on Vinod’s query. He was speechless and stunned, at the turn of events.
After spending some more time with Rama and after having dinner with him, Vinod went back home. They both felt like before, although none of their circumstances are like before. They both have changed differently, in their individual lives and their circumstances have changed along.
That night Rama could not sleep. He was awake for the whole night and kept thinking. His mind was racing with thoughts. He kept reminiscing his past years. He then thought about Jinia and how he met her. He can’t stop thinking about how he fought with Jinia on her suggestion of working with her. He felt himself to be stupid and foolish. Rama’s heart suddenly filled with remorse and regret, not for his friend’s success though, which he was entitled to on the first place, had he accepted Jinia’s offer like his friend did. But he was repentful for his behavior with Jinia that day, on her suggestion and offer. He kept thinking about all these, while there was morning light. It’s almost dawn with the sky getting clearer with each passing moment. The birds were chirping and it’s a new day standing at the doorstep.
Rama got up and made some tea for himself… Sipping his tea, he still can’t stop thinking about the whole incident that happened last night, and the turn of events in his life. He now wanted to speak to Jinia once again. Could she forgive him for what he did? He then thought to himself, can life give him a second chance? Does life give anyone, a ‘Second Chance’…?
While he had all those piercing thoughts racing in his mind, he decided to give Jinia a call that day. Rama kept thinking, ‘should I call her in such an early morning hours or should I wait for the day to begin?’ But he could not wait to talk to her and tell her so much. But, would she talk to him and would she forgive him…? Rama kept thinking… Until, he finally gathered courage to find out Jinia’s number from his previous chats on Instagram. He had deleted Jinia’s number from his phone after that day’s fight, two and half years back. Finally he dialed her number. Rama’s heart was pounding with inquisitiveness and questions… ‘Is she going to talk to me at all? Will she pick up my call? Jinia is now so successful and popular. Will she talk to me like before?’ while this questions kept racing in his mind, his phone call went on to her number. Jinia’s phone kept on ringing. It rang for couple of minutes, until it stopped and went unanswered.
Rama was quiet and still. He knew well enough that this is the obvious probability that, she will not pick up his call and talk to him again, after what he did and how he behaved with her that day. However, he now understood her side and blamed himself for it, as this is the most obvious and expected response from her, and that he must come to terms with the fact that she will never speak to him, again.
Rama kept his phone on the side and sat on the sofa, burying his face in both of his palm. He remained silent and still, for some time. He tried to console himself and make himself understand. Until suddenly, his phone started to ring…
“Hey, Buddy, how have you been…? I can’t believe you called! It’s me Jinia! It’s been so long…”
Rama could not believe she called him.
He replied… “Hey!...”
They started to talk… and went on talking for some time.
Then she suggested, “Hey listen, Rama, are you ready to work for one of my project in animation? I am thinking of creating something for children. I need someone to do the sketches for me to complete the illustration work. I wanted a pro to work on it, and who can be more appropriate than you?” She chuckled with joy. “So as you’ve said, you are ready for sketch-work now, thought you might be interested… The work is strenuous but the money is good. What do you say?”
Rama was utterly surprised. He could not keep himself from smiling.
Is this my Second Chances…?!
They continued to talk…
Soft stems of grass push around my feet as a cool breeze blows on my face. I open my eyes to a cool orange sky. “Where am I?” I ask myself. I feel gualt’s power deactivate, my body becomes heavy. I feel myself fall to the ground, tears streaming down my face. “Gualt,” I choke. “You sacrificed yourself, gave me your enhancement ability, just to get me out of there.” All I can do is think about our childhood together. Years ago when Rom left the village to search for Vetrix, Gualt became the only person who comforted me. I was the grandson of the third Guardian, Vetrix Rox. My parents died early in my life. They abandoned the Sanctuary to search for Vetrix when I was a child. Rom followed. The only friend I had was you, Gualt.
“You arrived.” A calm femminine voice raises my head. I look up to a cream yellow dress, flowers blooming from the base. Further up I look at her narrow face. Her pointed ears straight back on her head. “Gualt must’ve fallen if you’ve ended up here, Loben Rox.” The breeze blows through her golden hair.
“How did you know about Gualt?” I ask. The woman’s long body makes me think she’s an elf. The elves are said to be messengers from the gods, if not the embodiment of some. So how is she here? “You are right to question me.” She holds out her hand, lifting me from the grass. “I’ve known you for a long time, loben. At least, I know the you in your soul.”
“What do you mean?” I don’t know what she’s talking about. I’ve never seen or met an elf before. The closest to one was my mother, but her ears weren’t that pointed. “Loben,” She continues. “It may be confusing right now, but you and I have met before. In another world, another dream. Or a..”
“A nightmare.” I say without realizing. “What was that? It was so dark I couldn’t see anything.”
“It was a world where you died, and I died. That plain of existence is gone. Now we are here, it may be that we’ve been given a second chance to stop him.” I died? No, that was only a dream. I’ve always had these weird nightmares about death. Every time I would die on some kind of battlefield. Someone would say my name, then I would die. “I don’t understand. Just who are you?”
“You haven’t left the Sanctuary, but still that beast tried to kill you.” A rumbling can be heard behind her. She looks behind her, then turns back to me. “There’s no more time.” She grabs my shoulders and pushes me backwards. A giant crystal golem smashes the trees around her. It grabs her body and it starts to absorb into the crystal. “Find the castle beyond the blizzard, I’ll be in the garden.” The rest of her body is taken into the golem. A flash of white light surrounds us and everything seems to disappear.
I awaken on a blanket of soft ground. The harsh winds blow white blankets of snow with every stroke. My body shivers as I struggle to my feet. This blizzard is so cold. “C’mon,” I take a step through the snow, shifting it around my legs. As I keep walking, the snow rises up my body. Soon enough, my waist is entirely submerged. “Em’ir” I gasp, trying to activate my magic. A small cooked mushroom appears in my hand. I hold it against my chest, knowing I’m too weak to create anything else in this weather. “I can’t die.” I feel tears freeze against my cheeks. “I can’t die. Not like this. I never got to be a proper mage. I didn’t even get to see who the next guardian would be.” My body stiffens by itself. My chest cracks with every slow breath. I’m not going to live. Is this where I die? In this blizzard.
“Oi!!” I hear faintly. A small orange light flickers in the distance. “By the goddess,” My body is lifted from my snow prison. “Please be alive. C’mon stay with me.” Black slowly covers my vision, and I feel my body faint.
I’m back in the blizzard, my sword drawn from my side. In front of me, a giant shadow. I can’t see what it looks like. “Loben,” A commanding voice from my left. “You take that one. I’ll take care of him.” My sword glows blue as I feel my body charge on its own beside the big shadow. I hear a high pitched scream and I’m blown backwards. I feel my body hit a sharp stone behind me. I charge again at the creature. Another screech slams into me, but this time I feel my sword stab into a giant tongue. I look up and see a giant mouth gaping over me. It widens and I am swallowed into it’s dark stomach.
A high pitched screaming wakes me. My body jolts upwards, then freezing pain shoots through my entire body. I groan before falling back into the bed. “Wait.” I rub my eyes before seeing cave rocks. The interior is covered in lamps and sheets. I’m inside a tent with some crates. The sheets move beside me. A man appears before me, his complexion is very young. He’s wearing a snow white tunic with dark brown boots up to his knees. I look up to his face, his silky black hair is struck back behind his ears. His dark pink eyes stare at me in surprise, but somehow I feel calm around him. Almost like I’ve known him for a long time. “Oh thank the goddess you’re awake.” He smiles. He raises a tea kettle in his hand. “I hope I didn’t wake you. Would you like some tea?” I nod. He bends down beside me and pours the tea into a cup.
“Ex..” My mouth freezes. I can’t make a sound right now. The man lifts my head and the cup slowly, before giving me a small drink. It’s very warm and sweet. I can feel my throat thaw out. I try lips before trying to talk again. “Thank you.” I say weakly.
“You’re welcome.” He smiles before placing the cup back down. “I’m surprised you managed to get here. There hasn’t been a gnome in this kingdom in decades.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know where you are?” He looks at me before standing back up. From his height I think he’s a human. I shake my head. “No. I don’t know how I even got here.”
“Well, you’re safe, that's what matters.” He reaches for a scroll on the shelf across from us. He unscrolls it in front of me and I see a big map. “We are here.” He points to a giant white landscape with multiple houses that spans a quarter of the map. “This is my queen’s kingdom of Arindeal. Now here,” He points to a perfectly wihte mass. “Is where we are. The two of us are 100 kilometers away from any town or city. That means 150 kilometers away from the castle. So I want to know, where did you come from?” I look over at the map. I see the white area we are in, a giant ocean separating the left and right sides from us. I turn to the right of the white kingdom. There seems to be a small green swamp. The trees don’t remind me of the ones in Sanctuary though. I look to the right landmass across the ocean. It seems to be mountainous, red streaks flow across the scroll. Next I turn to the left, most of it looks like plains, the grass looks healthy and the forests are vast. Then I see it, the mushroom forest where the secret entrance to my village is. I point to it.
“You live in the mushroom valley?” He looks at me before closing his eyes. When he reopens them, he seems to have understood me. “Do you live around there? Our cartographers haven’t been able to look at that area very well.”
“Uh..Yes.” He doesn’t seem to know about the Woods. “I lived inside the main forest.”
“That’s fascinating. I’m from here.” He points to the swamp outside the blizzard. “It’s called The Basin. There’s a big lake there beside a huge cove that leads out to the ocean. Besides that the forest is very wet and there’s not much to it.”
Hold on. If we’re in the middle of the blizzard, how come this cave is warm and not covered in snow? “How are we still warm?”
“Oh yeah.” He chuckles to himself. “I have a small amount of magic blood in me. I can focus light around us and concentrate it to heat up the surrounding area. Watch.” He extends his arm towards the lamp above us. “Sam'e'mor Asher’adsho.” The light in the lamp starts to glow brighter, the outside of it starts to melt before dimming back down. “It’s not much but it lets me survive out here.”
“Why are you out here anyway?” I ask him. His face lowers before looking back at the map. “My kingdom is dying.” He sighs. He points to the castle in the middle of the snowy landscape. “The goddess of the Basin, Catherine of Balance, has cursed Arindeal. Somewhere between Arindeal and the Basin, there’s a holy temple. That temple is the key to figuring out this curse and freeing our kingdom from being destroyed. That’s why I’m out here. I am here to find that temple and report back to My priestess as soon as possible.” Looking at his eyes, I can see the same desire as Vetrix. He wants to protect his kingdom with everything he has. “How dangerous should this temple be?” I ask him. If this place possesses enough holy power to rival a goddess’s curse, it must be protected. At least that’s what I read back in Sanctuary.
“I have no doubts it’ll be guarded. That’s why I brought this.” The man reaches into his tunic and pulls out a cloth. It looks aged, with stains around the ends with the head tied into a knot. “This is a talisman of a miracle worker.” He explains. “Have you heard of them?”
“Yes.” I gasp. Feeling the power radiating from the cloth. “When the gods left, they imparted on us fractions of their power, one miracle per being.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” He interrupts me. “The gods didn’t leave. They weren’t here in the first place. Mages get power from their will. The magic they imbue is a representation of their family and their beliefs. Sometimes, there are people who perfectly mimic the will of a god or goddess. Thus, that deity transfers their power to the individual. Thus, making them a walking miracle.”
“Transfer of power?” My thoughts immediately flash to Gault. I can still feel his power inside of me. Gault could enhance his and whoever he touches physical abilities. He was so fast he could run across the entire forest in seconds. Now he’s dead.
“Hey are you okay?” The man touches my shoulder. I shake my head realizing I’m looking at the ground. “It’s nothing.” I stand up. My strength seems to be returning. The man turns around and throws a bag onto the bed. “That’s for you.” He smiles. The bag seems quite large. The straps are old and I don’t recognize the symbol on the bag. It looks like a shard of ice covered in black and white snow. “What is it?” I ask.
“Training equipment,” He explains. “That’s my old one from when I first joined Arindeal. It’s got new clothes, a small sword, and a book of simple spells. Assuming you can use the right magic, I’d like you to try learning some of them.”
“How could you tell I’m a mage?” I ask. I can’t figure out why, but being around him reminds of the Sanctuary. He waves his hand towards me, motioning from the bottom of my body to my head. “Your appearance. You don’t carry a sword, nor any type of weapons or protective clothes. Plus, you appeared out of nowhere in the middle of Arindeal’s blizzard. I’m surprised that you’re even alive.”
“Right.” I nodded. I think if I need to I can replicate Gualt’s boost. It’ll take some time to perfect it. I open the book and examine some of the basic spells. “This book seems to be all around nature based attacks.” I say. The man looks back at me. “Oh,” He looked surprised. “That’s not my book. My book was about tracking and disguise.” His voice drops to a low whisper. He shakes his head and takes the book from me. He starts to spill through the pages before giving it back. “Try to read it when you get the chance, but not right now, the magic’s fading from this cave so we better get moving.” He slings two bags over his shoulders and raises his cloak above his head. “I’m ready to leave when you are.”
I hurry to his side as I grab my new bag. “I’m ready, um.” I don’t know what to call him. “What’s your name? I’m Loben.”
“I’m Belon.” He lights a torch with his hands. “I have a feeling the two of us are going to have a fantastic adventure.”
The cold wind tears through my clothes. All I can see is Belon’s torch in front of me. “You okay Loben?” He shouts. The blizzard muffled his voice. “Yeah!” I scream at him. The new coat he gave me is still warm. He said this was his jacket when he joined his kingdom, but how was a human my size? For a human to be the size of a gnome, Belon must’ve been a child. I focus on Belon’s shadow in front of me. “How much further?” I ask. “I don’t know.” He shouts back. I can feel his magic energy flowing into the torch to keep it lit. He must be doing it for my sake. If it wasn’t for Belon, I would be dead already, he doesn’t have to keep doing this. “Loben!” he shouts again. The storm freezing my ears. “I think I found it! Just a little further ahead.”
“Okay.” I focus again on his flickering shadow. The torch light guiding me through the blizzard. I don’t know if I am getting used to the weather, or if it’s getting warmer. A dark gate can be seen in the distance. Belon’s light waves backwards and stops for me to catch up. I stand next to him, the stone wall in front of us looks ancient. “We found it.” Belon pants. He must be exhausted from using his magic for so long. “This must be the temple. There seems to be a lock engraved into the stone here.” He flattens his hand against the wall. As I look closer, the chips in the wall do resemble a language. Is it an encrypted lock? If so I’ve never seen a language like this before. The lines and crosses in the slab make no sense. “It seems like this is a message from the guardian of this temple.” Belon hands me his torch, I can feel his power let go. I try to transfer my magic into the light, but I can’t stop it from slightly fading. He pulls out a small book from his bag and examines the scripture. “This is very old.” he says. The blizzard is still howling around us. He mumbles something I don’t understand. “What?” I ask. He waves his hand behind him. “Nothing,” He seems to be very focused. “I’m trying to translate the writing.”
“How old do you think this is?” I try to look around for any rubble or city. “Based on this writing,” Belon grunts. “I can only assume this temple is from the Old King’s era.” He mumbles something again. “.....Collapse.”
“How long ago was that?” I ask him. Old King? How old is he? “Loben! Come here!” I rush to Belon’s side. I hand him the torch and the flame bursts to life. He slides his book back into his bag. “I found it,” he points to a cross and sketch in the stone. “This is the entrance. I need to repeat the incantation and then flow some magic into the door.” He starts to breathe heavily. “I don’t know how much more energy I have left. Loben, I might need you to flow some of your magic at the door while I speak the incantation. Can you do that?” I nod. Belon seems to be very tired. I didn’t know he used so much energy on the torch light. I raise my hands towards the center of the sketches, I aim the center towards a circular indent. Belon places one hand behind mine. “When I start I will cast a small amount of magic into the door.” he explains. “Immediately, I need you to take over and cast your magic with me. Ready?” I can feel his energy pour from his hands. I start to emit the same amount. I can already feel my magic draining. “Ready.” I concentrate on the flow of magic as Belon starts the incantation.
“A as a er’aha’sak edar arsh erma’re hak’seshog.” The ground starts to pulse and I see my magic mix with Belon’s. His hand starts to glow a dark red, then lightens to a pink that reminds me of home. I watch as the light from my hands glow a bright pink. What type of magic is this? “A oka’kirer raseh’arid orshok’as erma shogak’jo. Esash A Ader’ak.”
The ground shakes and the stone wall starts to slide open. The creaking echoes through the blizzard. Belon pulls me inside and the doors quickly shut behind us. The rocky thud booms through the temple. The torch finally wooshes out and the walls start to glow a dim gray. “What is this place?” I look around the walls, the amount of magic to light up this halfway alone is more than I could ever do. Belon places his stick around his waist. “It seems we’re in the temple of a goddess.” He pulls his book back out and flips rapidly through the pages. “There’s nothing written about this place. We’re just going to have to look around.” He takes the lead and beckons me to follow. The walls seem to be made of a white stone, ice covers most of the ceiling and upper walls. “So tell me,” I need to know more about this place if I want to go home. “What do you know about this kingdom?”
“Well there’s a lot I know about the world.” Belon waves his book at me. “I work for the kingdom of Arindeal. It’s the kingdom that rules this region. Well my priestess hasn’t been on good terms with the Basin, the swamp region to our east across the blizzard. So to try and destroy us, their goddess put a curse on our kingdom.” We come to an intersection, he waves me to the left near a stairway going up. “The curse has infected our mainland, and I fear I may be too late to stop it. The best my troops have done is die from sight.” Troops? By the way he’s talking is he a high ranking officer? He did manage to survive out here by himself.
Suddenly, I am shaken by a dark presence. Belon shoves me next to the wall. “Someone’s here.” he growls. His hand starts to glow a deep red. His hand starts to disappear, extending up his arm. He places his hand on my chest and whispers “Hold your breath.” I take as big of a breath I can and I feel my body lighten. Almost like I’m floating. Belon taps my shoulder and I see him holding his mouth closed and he puts a finger across his lips. I look behind Belon, and black slime starts oozing down the hall. The energy emitting from it freezes my body. My nightmare starts to come back to me. Gault! That mage used this type of magic. Is he here?! No please don’t be here. I quiver as distorted chuckles bounce off the walls. Then, a cane swishes around the corner. I see a black cloak and top hat coming towards us with a giant ball of black slime crawling behind it. The can taps onto the stone with every step. I can feel my body being pulled towards him. Belon’s eyes look filled with rage, do they know each other? Is that the mage who killed Sir Orin? Belon looks back at me and puts his free hand on his chest and gestures to follow him. He tugs on my arm and we slowly approach the shadowy figure as it comes towards us. I keep walking behind Belon and I can’t hear our footsteps, in fact, I don’t think the figure has noticed us yet. We’re right in front of him, is this another one of Belon’s powers? We finally meet side to side with the cloaked figure. I watch the black slime roll and bounce on the hard, stone floor. I look up at the figure, I can barely see behind his cloak. Dark purple eyes with no white around it blink at me! Do they know we’re here? NO. Please don’t see us. I quiver as Belon yanks me to his side. I feel my chest tighten, I’m running out of air. The dark figure continues to stroll away from us. The cane tapping against the stone. Belon rushes around the corner just as I let out a gasp. I hit the wall we’ve been walking against, feeling my head pound. I look up at Belon, he’s sweating and staring down the hall behind us. “Who was that?” I wheeze. I still haven’t caught my breath yet. Belon slows his breathing, and lets out a deep sigh. “I don’t know. There were rumors of an assassin with an undiscovered type of magic. I’m guessing that’s him.”
“How did he get in here?”
“I don’t know.” Belon takes out another book from his cloak. “With a new type of magic there’s infinite possibilities. That mage could have a teleportation spell, a shifting enchantment, or..”
“Or he could travel through dimensions.” I cut Belon off. He looks at me curiously. “What do you mean?”
“In my dream,” I try to think about Sanctuary. “I was in a black world. Nothing except for that black slime. There was no light, even after I tried to create some. And when I tried to cast a barrier spell, it flickered out instantly.” I remember him fighting Sir Orin. How he easily trapped me in that nightmare and killed Gault. “Loben?” Belon puts his hand on my shoulder. “You okay?” I shake my head. “Yeah, I must’ve dozed off. I don’t know what else he can do so that’s all I know.”
“That’s perfectly good information.” Belon stands up and writes in his notebook. “Basically, he must be using a manipulation spell. He’s controlling that black ooze to do what he wants. And if it can stop mages from using their magic.” Belon looks onward. “C’mon,” He heads to the stairs at the end of the hallway. There must be something down there that tells us more about this place.”
The further down we go, the darker the stairway gets. “Sam’e’mor redem’aka” a ball of light hovers above Belon’s hand. The stone walls look darker than the entrance. The glowing walls stopped at the top. We continue descending, now the walls are covered in ice. “How deep do you think we are?”
“We seem to have travelled a kilometer by now.” Belon slides his hand freely off of the ice. “I just hope whatever is down here helps free Arindeal.”
“What exactly happened to your kingdom?” I step down on an icy stone. The weather suddenly got cold. “Arindeal is a kingdom covered in ice and valuable crystals.” Belon explains. “Deep in the blizzard, some sheets of ice, as well as some crystals, were blessed by the miracle workers. These crystals are infused with their magic. If somehow we find any, I can bring it back to the kingdom and use their power to cure Arindeal.”
“You said the power of the miracle workers, but I thought they could only be used by someone who represents their will.” I start to shiver. The ball of light flutters above me and sprinkles a type of dust onto my body.
“We have a miracle worker,” Belon said coldly. He seems to be more focused. “We have an enhancer miracle worker. Using their power, my troops might be able to fight the infection.”
“Infection?” I rub my arms and feel the ball warming me up. Belon keeps walking, brushing his shoulder. “The curse cast by Catherine was a manipulation spell on our magic crystals. They started becoming sentient, attaching to someone’s body and using it as a host to create more parasitic ice.”
“Wait, it’s ice,” I shake my head. “Ice and crystals don’t need any type of nutrients to grow. Why attach to a human’s body?”
“That’s normally how it works.” Belon says. “But not magic ice. This substance is supposed to attach to your magic circuits, and while you use magic through it, like a catalyst, the crystal imbues it with whatever type of energy the crystal has. If you casted a light spell with a fire crystal,” He reaches into his bag and grips a rather large red crystal shard. The ball of light turns a crimson red. The air around us starts to heat up. “It becomes a miniature star.” Belon swishes his hand away as it returns back to its bright color. “The kind of magic a person can use could be amplified when used with the right crystal or talisman.”
“So you’re trying to combine your miracle worker’s power with one of their ancestor’s crystals?” I ask. “But wouldn’t that be catastrophic if we come across the wrong catalyst?” Belon tightens his hands. “We won’t.” He went cold again. His pace seems to have increased. The stairway continues further down, ice now covers the entire hall. I feel a small amount of magic ahead of us. “Looks like we made it.” Belon sighs. “Let’s go Loben.” I nod my head and jog to keep up with his stride. As we reach the bottom of the stairs, we enter a small room. The walls are covered in multicolored ice and the floor is a chiseled stone. The only thing in the room is a stone podium, with a plaque on top of it.
“We’re here.” Belon takes out one of his notebooks. He walks up to the podium and I watch as stone chips off of the plaque. Text and markings appear in front of him and glow a pale gray. He places his hand over them, the energy changes to combine with his magic. “A as a erokah’asak,” His voice echoes off of the stone. “Erma esaka’kesa arsh kakiar’aresh, erma esaka’kesa arsh rerokad’mem, erma esaka’kesa arsh rakekarsh’aka, A okakirer eshik isho. Adrehak esesh kase!” The room rumbles and ice shatters against the ground. Belon focuses his magic into his hand then fires a beam of red light into the stone slab. The ice around us changes colors, glowing from pearlescent to rainbow. The colors shift to blue, yellow, and a bright pink. Belon slams his hand against the podium. The ice shards fall off the walls, floating towards Belon’s hand. They start to become transparent, transforming into hollow crystals. I can feel magic flowing through them, an almost reminicable feeling of home.
Belon pulls out a hand stitched bag and the crystals fall inside. Some of the crystals stall in front of the podium. One of them is cream yellow, another is almost an ocean blue. There’s a green one, reminds me of moss. The next one floats out of Belon’s bag, its color seems to change from white to black, then a very small light blue, then a light red, and finally back to white. A couple more crystals fall off of the wall and float above Belon. The brightest orange I’ve ever seen, followed by a dull gray. Then, the last one, the crystal was pure black. A small purple core blinked light out of the cracked shell. “What are these?” I ask. Belon opens his eyes, he seems to be looking further into the crystals. “Catalysts,” he says. He lifts his hand, allowing the crystals to fall into his palm. “Remnants of magic left by the gods. Like an ember from a scorching fire. These crystals hold pieces of this world’s most powerful mages. The miracles, let alone normal spells casted from these would be extraordinary.” As he places the last crystal into his pouch, Belon’s orb of light flickers out. The area around us fades into shadows, the only thing visible is the stairs. The ground starts to rumble and the remaining ice cracks across the wall. “What’s going on?” I shout, trying to find my balance on the rumbling stone. Belon staggers then throws his fist into the air “Sam’e’mor!” A flash of light hovers to the ceiling. “Loben run!”
I feel my chest pounding. Like something’s grabbed my heart and is squeezing it in their hands. I fall to the ground coughing, watching my vision blur. Belon looks down to me and opens his mouth. If he said something, I couldn’t hear him. Pink light emits from my body, I can feel my skin burning. I feel… magic touching my skin, my flesh melts and pops across my arms. I scream as my own magic reacts, releasing pure energy all around me. The light surrounding me is blinding, I can’t see anything, all I know is the immeasurable power coursing through me. It hurts, I can’t see, my skin is melting, and I’m being overpowered by pure magical energy. My hands sting, shooting wave after wave of energy out of my body. Nothing is working. I can’t get it out. No matter how hard I swing my arms, I can’t expel it. My vision is covered in blinding light. The chill of the stone floor vanish, replaced with empty air.