Fate’ Fiery Fist
Benny stood before the flaming throne. He looked around the room into which he had been so swiftly summoned to. Flames of every color flickered upon every surface—the golden tiles making up the mosaic on the floor, the columns of brass emblazoned with the mighty embers, and even the planes of polished bronze of the ceiling. The room seemed to be designed to reflect, augment, and amplify the ever-present blaze that suffused the room. The multi-colored flames seemed alive, moving about and flickering brightly. Only the ground where Benny stood clear of the great conflagration. The warmth surrounded him but it did not scorch him, though he felt that he was truly at its mercy.
He turned his attention to the being which resided over this realm on this awesome throne. He looked up into a face of fire. The inferno he wore; the fire he commanded. Benny peered closer at the blazing visage, squinting in the face of this great force. The face was impossible to see as the fire burned brightest in its presence. The flames dimmed and Benny was able to see the two great eyes that belonged to this blazing being. He sought to see intent in those eyes as he had done so many times with others. In the eyes, he only saw himself, a small green-eyed halfling in large clothes and a fedora. Who was he to appear before such a powerful force? He had nothing to his name, save the clothes on his back and a few coppers left in his pocket. What could he give to show his respect for such a being?
The room shook. The being spoke as if reading Benny’s mind. “Your story.” Those two words contained more authority than Benny had heard in his life. Suddenly, the fires around him started to shift, and he found him watching the events of the past few days.
Benny stood on one of the many roads in the city of NeverWinter, the city where he had lived his whole life. He was helping unload the cart of a merchant in exchange for a few coppers. He carefully set down the last box and wiped sweat from his brown mop of hair. The merchant rose from the seat of his wagon where he was laying. Grumbling, he counted out three coppers into Benny’s hand.
“This is half of what we agreed on,” Benny exclaimed indignantly.
“And it took half the time it should have,” roared the merchant as he slapped Benny across the face.
“Are you punishing me for working hard?”
“No. I’m punishing you for cutting my break short. Now take it or leave it,” and with that, the merchant stomped off into his shop, stroking his elegantly groomed mustaches, and leaving the pittance in Benny’s hand.
Benny fumed. He could have put a little into his savings if he had been paid the original price. Now he would be forced to spend all of it on his next meal. He stormed back to his home.
Nash was waiting there for him when he did. The muscular young man claimed to own the small cluster of makeshift shacks where Benny was currently residing. He turned to Benny and grinned in his wolf-like manner.
“You haven’t paid yet, Benny.”
“Yes, I did Nash, and you know it.”
“You’re behind on payments Benny. My protection might expire if you don’t renew your debts soon.”
Benny seized a single copper out of his pocket and thrust it at Nash.
“There you go. Now let me through.”
“Payments have gone up since last time Benny. You still owe me another copper. Now pay up.”
“Two coppers to stay in an alley. That’s outrageous.”
A quick punch knocked Benny off his feet and slammed him against the brick wall that marked the boundary of the shack city. Benny stood up again.
“You’ll get these over my dead body.” He held up both the coins… and swallowed them.
Nash raged. “Why, you thiev’n son of a granged goat.”
Nash leaped towards Benny and proceeded to pummel him with his formidable fists. Benny felt lots of pain. He started to black out. A bark rang out.  In the split second that Benny had, he rolled away. He saw the massive form of Japp, his dog. Nash paled and growled at Benny.
“I’ll get you next time when your dog isn’t around to save you.”
Nash finished abruptly and started sprinting down the courtyard for Japp was soon upon him. Benny walked up to the massive mastiff and petted his snout as that was as far as he could reach. When he swung himself up onto Japp’s mighty back, a mighty grin covered his face.. He looked down into Japp’s trusting brown eyes.
“Look what I’ve got, Japp.” He displayed three coppers. “I snitched mine back from him when you showed up. Good dog. Let's go home. I have something I need to pick up.”
Benny rode back to his alley. He unlocked and opened an old rotten chest. He pulled out a set of very worn but nice clothes. He put them on and walked out of the alleyway.
And with that brief command, he started off to the road where he had worked for the merchant. He arrived in a few minutes. He ducked into an alley. There, he pulled out a piece of broken mirror and looked into it. He recalled the face of the 10-year-old child of the late Mayor. Slowly, he watched as his features shifted and rearranged. He remembered the first time that he had used his gift. He had pondered its origin for many days and nights until he came upon the conclusion that it had been inherited by a parent. He did not know his parents and he never did. He had decided that one of them was a changeling, a race with the ability to change their appearance at will. They had no true form, and as such only could borrow one from another. Benny was not like this. He was born a halfling and always defaulted to his halfling form. He figured that one of his parents was a changeling and one was a halfling. This would explain the many inconsistencies that his power had compared to other changelings. He could not remain in another’s form for very long, he couldn’t grow his size beyond four and a half feet, and, for some strange reason, he could not grow facial hair. As such he could mostly just shapeshift into children and other halflings. As his transformation completed, Benny smiled; the merchant was in for a nasty surprise.
On his way out of the alleyway, he slipped on a slip of paper. As he cursed, he realized what it was. It was an old arrest warrant for the Mayor’s assassin. That had been a scare. Normally, changelings were distrusted and hated by a few, the reason that most of them—including Benny—choose to hide their identities as such, but that had brought the entire city down on them that time. Benny had had to flee several districts before he had escaped the Watch. He was innocent of course, but they didn’t know that and were more prone to engaging first and asking questions later. Benny had been even more careful about his shifting after then. He ripped up the paper and walked into the merchant’s store. He saw that it was a bakery. He also saw that it catered to the rich. The fine marble tiles and gilded counters gave him proof of that. All the better. Benny was going to enjoy this. He walked up to the counter. The merchant looked down and saw the richest, most influential child in the city. He quickly composed himself and started speaking. He sounded a whole different man when he was in the presence of a superior.
“Little Monsieur, what can assist you with. Please give me this opportunity to help such a wealthy patron… I mean such a handsome young man. If you desire anything, merely name it, and it will be provided for your excellency.” Benny grinned inwardly. This was fun.
“Give me your most expensive items,” Benny curtly replied.
“Why, most certainly your excellency. You need merely speak and the renowned Poifar will act.”
Benny sat at the largest table and watched as the merchant alternatingly gathered pastries and stroked his mustaches. Benny observed him gather a very expensive plate and start laying his delicacies upon it. Benny grinned again. This was going to be very fun indeed. There were a great many patrons in the shop at that hour, and all were waiting for Benny’s order to be filled out. Benny grinned even wider as the tray was set before him, the pastries arranged in the shape of a lion, the symbol of the Watch. Benny took one and bit in, savoring its rich and bitter flavor. He spit it out onto the merchant.
“What garbage is this?” Benny yelled. “I don’t know about you, but we feed stuff like this to the animals at my house. Are you trying to poison me? Are trying to disrespect me because my father isn’t with us anymore.”
Benny swept the dish off the table. It shattered when it hit the ground. He then stood up and ground his foot into the remains of the pasties and fine china. The face of the merchant grew red with anger. He quickly composed himself and stroked his mustaches even more furiously.
“I am sorry, most wonderful patron. I did not mean to disrespect you or your most illustrious father. I merely sought to serve you to the best of my ability. Allow me to make it up to you in some way.”
The crowd looked on with disgust with this grown man groveling on the ground before this child until they realized who the child was. They quickly vacated the shop, most leaving without paying for the pastries that they had purchased which were suddenly unfit for human consumption.
Benny now stood alone with the groveling man.
“Now that you think of it… my birthday party is in a week.”
“And you would like me to cater to such a great crowd of high-bred gentlemen. It would be an honor.”
“No. You have done enough already. I do not wish to poison my guests as well. However, you may be able to help me in a great way. It is a costume party. I need a mustache for my costume, but I have not been able to find one that suits me. Now I have. Your mustache is needed for a higher purpose. Donate it.”
Dismay fell upon the merchant’s face.
“Surely… not this, sir.” He lovingly stroked it.
“Yes, now hand it over. I need to be gone.”
Reluctantly, the merchant sliced off his fine mustache. He mournfully handed it over.
“Thank you, good man. Now get me a drink of water. I must wash that horrible taste out of my mouth.”
The merchant turned and entered his kitchen to supply this need. While he was turned around, Benny gathered up the remains of the half-eaten, deserted food on the tables around him. He stuffed them into his jacket. He looked longingly at the ones behind the counter but didn’t take them. That would be stealing. That wasn’t right. The food he was going to throw away already was fine. The fresh stuff wasn’t. At least this would feed him for a day or so. He snatched part of the ripped up warrant and a piece of charcoal out of his pocket. When the Merchant returned, all he found was an empty room, crumbs, and a slip of paper. It read… “Karma.”
Benny stood in the alleyway next to the shop. He was shaking from uncontrollable laughter. He knew the trick was risky and that he might not be able to take the form of that young noble again, but the trick was worth it. The merchant got what he deserved. Benny was merely the agent of such a great catastrophe.
He gazed out into the street beyond. The city whisked past him. He watched great men pass by. He watched poor men pass by. This was NeverWinter, the City of a Million Faces, and he, Benny, had them all. He held the piece of glass to his face and watched as his features melted back into their normal shape.
He lowered the glass. He saw a shocked expression gazing at him. He saw the gold and black uniform of the Watch. He saw those features shape into a visage of hatred. The robed uniform was pushed back and a hammer drawn. Just like the last time. Benny saw the irate Watch Officer pull back and swing. Benny ducked. The hammer rose up and came crashing down. Benny was always a nimble one, but now, before the onslaught of blows, he could not dodge a single one. Benny was slammed into the wall for the second time that day.
He rose quickly, feeling the massive bruises in his side. He ran up to the back of the alley. A barrier of brick and mortar stood between him and his freedom. A dagger spun through the air and impaled his fine clothing, a few centimeters from his neck. Benny desperately shrugged off his cloak and swung himself up on the dagger, over the wall, and onto the other side. He found himself in a schoolyard full of children of about his height. Shoken, Benny rapidly shifted his features to a child that he had seen many days ago. He mingled with the growing crowd of children, appearing to be one of them in his fine clothing.
The Watch Officer hurdled the wall. He looked around and witnessed the courtyard. The children clapped and peered up at the Watch Officer who gallantly protected their city. “Form ranks,” he barked and the children hastened to perform his curt command. Benny watched as he examined each child in turn. He arrived at Benny. He bent over and peered deep into Benny’s eyes. He saw nothing there, just the earnest gaze of a schoolchild trying to please a revered elder. He moved on.
After he had gone through all the ranks, he whipped around and grabbed the child next to him. The young girl screamed. Her teacher ran outside and demanded that her student be let go at once. The Watch Guard ignored her. “Do you want this child to die, Changeling? Do you want her blood on your hands? Choose now…or suffer the consequences.”
Benny turned and ran. The Watch Officer ran after him.
Benny spun out of the courtyard, feeling a mighty blow severing the air behind him.
He heard a low snarl behind him. “Stop in the name of the law. You are under arrest for suspicious circumstances. If you continue, you will be guilty of resisting arrest and given a two-year sentence. Stop in the name of the law”
“I didn’t do anything. You were the one who assaulted the child.”
“If you weren’t guilty, then why are you resisting arrest?”
“Because you have a hammer, and you are swinging it at me.”
“That's what they all say. I’m afraid that we’re going to have to do this the hard way.”
Benny ducked as another knife whistled past his head. He kept up his break-neck pace. He was tiring. He had short legs and could not keep this pace forever. He must get to shelter. The innumerable crowds of the Great Square would provide him just that opportunity.
Another serrated knife spun through the air, this time ripping off the shoulder of his jacket. Benny dashed through an alley to his left, avoiding the throngs of people that were beginning to congregate around the chase.
He saw the Great Square in front of him. Just a few more yards. Suddenly, black surrounded him.
Benny’s head swam, he heard a knife clatter to the ground behind him. He stumbled and rushed on.
In the Great Square, the Watch Officer turned around. He saw many people. He saw many children. He saw many well dressed children. He saw a well-dressed child without a sleeve. He grabbed this child with a wicked smile. He looked into the face of a child he didn’t recognize. The child’s father, an extremely fat man with the most impressive mustachioed face, rushed out and slapped the Watch Officer. “What are you doing with my son?” he demanded. “If you want trouble, I’ll give you trouble.” Furious, he slapped the Watch Officer repeatedly. The Watch Officer left, clutching his hammer and cradling a wounded head. The Father smiled as he bent down and unstrapped boxes from under his feet. He conspiratorially looked down at the child and slyly handed him a copper. The child stared in amazement as his father changed into a boy of his height. “Just keep your mouth shut, ok. That’s what the copper’s for.”
Swiftly, Benny slipped out of the Great Square, thanking the fates for his luck and the merchant’s mustache.
Benny walked calmly into an alley, but his mind was a whirl of chaotic thoughts. That was too close. Benny knew that they would come for him now. He knew that he couldn’t hide forever. He had to flee the district; just like so many others. It was different this time. The officer was ruthless; Benny knew that he would stop at nothing to catch his quarry. Benny had been almost captured and taken away to the dark cells that no changeling ever came out from. He could not be taken there. Benny started sprinting back to his ‘home.’
Meanwhile, the Watch Officer stood in a black and gold building. A lion towered above everything in the room. This was the building of ultimate justice. The innocent depended upon it. The guilty trembled in its mighty presence. Kendrik was merely a vassal of its magnificence. He was ushered into a side room, a room where his superior waited for him. He sat in a gold-colored velvet chair and gazed across the black desk, gilded in the corners. An agreeable face waited on the other end.
“I hear that you’ve had some action today, Kendrik.”
“Yes, I have. That's my job—To protect the weak, uphold the innocent, and smite the unjust. That is our motto, is it not?”
“It is, and no one could accuse you of doing what you thought was wrong, Kendrik, but however…the methods you use, are…unsatisfactory.”
Kendrik had sensed that the man was about to say ‘illegal.’ He bristled at this obvious accusation.
“I had every right to arrest that changeling. He was engaging in suspicious activities. He ran when I told him to stop. He was breaking the law.”
“I have no objection to your actions, Kendrik. Your methods are the problem. I have twenty eyewitness reports that you held a child hostage. This is not an act becoming of a Watch Officer. You cannot endanger lives over a resisted arrest.”
“The changeling would have harmed the children. It was better for me to flush him out at the cost of a scare.”
“What of the second child? You cannot arrest people for no reason. Besides, your previous search had shown that the changeling in question could disguise himself beyond your recognition. I see the father gave you… a talking to.”
Kendrik rubbed his head where Benny had seen fit to give him a thrashing.
“May I have men to flush out this threat to the city. I understand that the Anti-Shifter squad is on furlough. Could I reform them?”
“No. Kendrik, you must understand. Resisting arrest and suspicious circumstances are not grounds for a search party. The Anti-Changeling act is now over, you can’t just do that anymore.”
“But he was a changeling. Possibly the one who murdered our beloved Mayor.”
“I understand that you have a past with that race of shifters, but I can’t spare any resources right now. The Archon Case is still open and we haven’t caught the serial killer from the Caremor series. You are dismissed for the week, Kendrik. You may come back on dawn of the 7th day of the 6th month.”
“May I pursue on my own?” asked Kendrik, carefully concealing his rage.
“No. You have no legal authority beyond your Watch Position and you will not have that until you come back.”
Kendrik started towards the door.
“Stay out of trouble. Think about your family. What would they do if you lost your job?”
Kendrik stormed out of the office in a wave of rage. He fumed as he walked out of the building. He had always hated the Captain. He stopped when Kendrik would start. He let rules and regulations get in the way of pure justice. Justice must happen no matter what. He heard the Captain’s last words echo through his mind, “What would your family do if you lost your job?” He was right. If Kendrik pursued and was discovered, he would most definitely be without a job. Was it worth it? Revenge for all of those years ago, was it worth it? That fateful night—both his parents were killed, with no one to mourn them but Kendrik. Rage burned in his heart against any and all Changelings. He would stop at nothing to make sure that they got what they deserved—Death for all of them. That would be true justice, an unwavering verdict, carried out to the ultimate end. It was life’s work, even more so than his family. He must proceed. He knew exactly where to go for that.
Kendrik entered the Tavern of the Bloodied Wolf. He walked up to the bartender, a man with yellow teeth, a sharp eye, and a vicious expression, and began to speak.
“I’m starting the hunt tonight. Tell my wife that I won’t be home till late.”
“The child’n being v’ry disappoint’d, Kendrik Changeling-Slayer.”
“You know there is no other way.”
“Ey, there is the only w’y. The path o’ blo’d. Follow it to yer last breath.”
He handed Kendrik an amulet.
“This’ll guide ’e. The inner wolf’ll do the rest. The pack will follow”
Kendrik stepped out of the tavern. The chase was on. The hunt had renewed. The prey was waiting. Kendrik howled and dashed down the street.
Benny stood panting in the alley that he called home. He quickly gathered up his meager belongings, grabbed his small savings, and mounted Japp.
“It's time to move on, Japp. We’re on the run again.”
He fed them both a scrap of fine pastry. He knew that this was the way he must live, the way his kind were fated to live. He started Japp at a trot, and they started their next phase on the long journey.
Night fell while Benny and Japp were on the road. Benny looked up at the sky. The moon was full. The stars twinkled down at them. No matter where he went, the stars were the same; the same stories being played out again and again, dancing and unfolding across a stage of milky black. The star of misfortune shone bright, its red gleam growing steadily. Benny turned around. A breath of wind? An animal? Benny could not see far in such darkness. He turned and shouted a challenge. A shadow in an alley moved. Benny turned towards it.
“Do you not remember me?”
The words came as a snarl behind his back. Benny jumped back and spun about to face this unknown beast. What he saw was beyond nightmares.
A bipledaled form loomed over him, its form hidden and distorted by the black cloak it wore. It tossed this back in contempt, letting it slide to the ground. What Benny saw was almost too horrible for words. The thing was covered from head to toe with gray fur. Claws grew out of its hands. Teeth jutted out from every angle. Its face was mostly covered by a mask, crimson and gold. Benny could see its eyes. There was almost no humanity in them. Beastial instinct ruled this thing. Its eyes were colored yellow. The claws and teeth were stained red. A wolf’s head amulet glowed red at its neck. It threw back its head and howled. Other beasts circled around, each throwing off its cloak and howling in turn. The sound was horrific, almost as horrific as the beast themselves. The sound penetrated the mind, rended the soul, and tore the heart. Benny turned around seeing as more and more of these things surrounded him.
“Do you not remember me, Changeling? If not, then stand and know that I am the killer of your kind, slayer of Changelings. I feast on flesh. I deal out justice, I let none more be harmed by your actions. I am Kendrik Gothemfree, Officer of the Watch. I am Kendrik Wolfspath, follower of the Wolf God. I am Kendrik the husband, Kendrik the father. I am Kendrik the dealer of justice, and without my protection this city would fall. I am Kendrik, the sworn enemy of all Changelings. Hear my name and TREMBLE.”
Benny kicked Japp in the side, urging him onward. With a mighty leap, Japp cleared the circle of beasts. Japp’s claws scraped the cobblestones as he changed directions and tumbled through another alley. The beasts followed behind, tearing through the streets, muscles rippling, claws straining. Sparks lept from where their claws met the street, revealing the hellish nightmare that followed. Benny urged Japp onward as the wave of beasts tore towards them, crawling on top of one another in their haste to kill and feast. They grew closer, teeth nipping Japp’s paws. He turned again. For a moment, it seemed as if the pack would have difficulty making the steep turn. They just flooded ever closer.
Japp was tiring quickly. He knew that he would not have enough strength to escape the onslaught. With one final burst of strength, he threw Benny on the nearest roof.
Benny rose from the tumble and watched as his friend fought off more and more of the hideous beasts. Benny watched as his friend was slowly torn apart by gnashing teeth. He watched as the beasts feasted on the flesh of his only friend. Kendrik laughed,
“If this is what we do to a mere beast, what will we do to you? Run. Hide. We will be waiting for you at every turn. Your beast’s sacrifice will not protect you for long.”
Benny turned and ran through the rain.
Tears streamed down his face. His constant companion, his only friend, his protector, gone. What would he do? Why continue? What was there to live for? Japp had died for him. He must not let that go to waste. He would live as long as he could.
Benny set his jaw. He hadn’t gotten this far by being weak. He would be strong to the end, strong for his friend. Benny selected the spot for his final stand.
On the ground, the waves of beasts grew by the second. They circled around the building on which Benny was now standing. Benny started to climb even higher. He would stand there and look death in the eye. There was nothing else to do. There was nothing he could do. Benny reached the top. He stood, slipping on the slick surface. Lightning struck the building next to Benny, its sudden glow revealing the hordes climbing to their prey. Benny set his jaw and pulled a knife from his boot, the very one that was hurled at him by Kendrik that fateful day before. He lowered the brim of his hat. He prepared himself for his last stand.
A massive beast leaped onto the roof landing on all fours. It stood, the lightning revealing its cold, blood hungry eyes. Rain poured down on the faces of a vicious beast and a desperate halfing.
“I see that you have courage. It will do you no good. Have you not wondered about that day, the day when this all began? Have you not wondered why I am set to destroy your kind? My parents were killed by a Changeling. There was no public outcry, just a small boy mourning the death of the only people who had ever loved him. I grew, as did my hatred and desire for vengeance. Then I found the Order of the Wolf. They shared my hatred, and I quickly rose through the ranks. I was selected for a task that would change the whole city of NeverWinter forever. I killed the Mayor, sparking the public outcry which swelled our ranks and let us move about, completing the good work, keeping this city safe. It was better that a few men die than more being slowly killed. So, this is where it all began. The place where your troubles began. And this is the place where you will meet your end.”
Kendrik dove at Benny. Benny sidestepped the attack and met it with a blow of his own. Kendrik merely laughed, the cold glow of lightning illuminating his cruel snarl, his wet fur, his bloody teeth, his blood hungry eyes. Benny stood on that rooftop prepared to fight to his last breath. Japp would not have died in vain. Benny circled his opponent. Lightning struck. Benny caught a glimpse of the hoard below him. The echo of thunder rang out, resounding as a true trumpeter sounding the cry of doom, for indeed, doom was certain.
The howls rose, giving voice to a rage unheard of by any mortal. The hunt was nearing its close and Benny prayed that its end was not the same as his.
Lightning raced down from the inky, majestic sky. Benny thought that would be his last vision, the lightning racing down towards him, silhouetted against that polar backdrop dotted with the finest stars. Benny prepared himself for the strike. The bolt split above him. Benny gazed up at the dome of blueish energy which now spanned the air above him. The bolts finally struck the earth all around him. Fire rose up around him. Igniting the city, they rose, a colossal conflagration of heat, an immense inferno of flames, a symbol of power. There was also beauty in the flames. Benny snapped back from his cogitation. Kendrik looked down at his hoards in shock as they were rapidly dispersed by the flames.
“I do not need the cowards to complete our mission. They can flee the flames. I will win this last battle.”
Kendrik dove towards Benny, knocking the knife out of his hand.
“That feeble weapon won’t help you now. Face me and know that there is no hope.”
Throughout the very depths of his being, Benny felt despair. He could not conquer this foe.
The fire raged around them, throwing itself at the wall of the roof of the Mayor’s home where the participants of the battle stood.
Suddenly, Benny heard a great voice speak out of the flames.
“Hear me well, little one. I am one of and with the flame. I can offer you protection if you so wish it, but you must make the leap, the leap of faith. It is not an easy thing to do. Do you see the destruction that I cause? You can not lightly leap into the arms of such a great power. I have destroyed civilizations. I am the righteous flame, the good and beautiful fire. I will not harm you, but it is you who must decide whether I can be trusted. I can give you a better life and save the one you have now. You need only take that step of faith. Leap.”
Kendrik lunged again. Benny spun out of the way. Kendrik dove. His teeth sank into Benny’s back. Pain ripped through Benny’s mind. He stumbled back under Kendrik’s hateful gaze and gnashing teeth. Benny had no choice. He fell backwards through the fire.
Benny watched as the fires around him melted away. He looked up at the stoic being.
“There you have it. That's my story. I’m a nobody, born from a line of nobodies. We don’t have anything, not even names or faces to live with. Why did you save me?”
The flames melted back on the being of fire. He finally spoke, each word resounding like thunder.
“I am the good and righteous fire. I must help those who are in need, or I would cease to be. It is who I am.”
“Why me? There are many in the city I live in who need help more than I do. Why did you choose me?
“I choose one who would accept my help, one who would trust when all hope had given out. You are that person.”
“I have one favor that I want to ask of you.”
“What is that, little one?”
“I wish to know what happens next.”
“Then I will show you.”
The flames swirled again and another scene played out before them. The flames showed the Watch Office. In it, two men were arguing. One wore the uniform of a High Watch Officer, the other wore common clothes and a wolf’s head amulet. The former spoke.
“I warned you Kendrik. I told you this would happen. I gave you every piece of advice, every bit of guidance, and still…still you have failed. What will your family do now, Kendrik? What will they do when they discover that their father is a murderer?”
“I never did anything that was wrong. I dealt justice, and I protected the people of this city. I rid it of a curse, a scourge. I brought a menace to justice.”
“We have laws for that, Kendrik,” the Officer’s voice rose to a bellow. The flames seemed to rise with his anger. “You of all people should know that. There are ways for criminals to be brought to justice. That is why we exist. The Watch is here to bring people to justice. We protect. We don’t form groups of vigilante murderers. We don’t deal in black magic to kill even more ruthlessly. We don’t murder.”
“I never murdered anyone. I killed to protect.”
“You killed for vengeance, Kendrik. You slayed for revenge. That’s forty years, Kendrik. You are going to have to serve them all.”
The flames stirred again, this time showing a group of changelings coming out of jail for the first time in years. A man stood smiling as he ushered them out, announcing in a loud voice that they had been freed on account of extreme bias on their prosecutor. They laughed as they looked at the sun, the great ball of fire in the sky.
The flames flickered as the scene shifted yet once again. It showed a family. They were broken. Their father had been taken from them. A husband was taken from them, not by the Watch, not by the court, but by the monster that he was. The warmth of a sole comforting flame lit the room. The flames into which Benny was peering dissipated. The being looked down at him with a smile.
“These things I have shown you. Now it is you who must decide what to do with them.”
Benny’s head spun. What would he do now? Where would he go? What would he do about his loss?
“What is it that you want to do most?”
“I want to eat a mountain of chocolate cake.”
The being roared in laughter. The fires around him seemed to shake with him.
“I have no doubts about that, little one.” He suddenly grew serious. “What is your motivation? What would you do with your life?”
Benny grew quiet, his mind pouring over a thousand possibilities.
“I want to help others. I wish to keep people from going through the ordeal that I did.”
“That is a wise choice. It shows your age beyond years. I will help you. You shall learn the Way of the Fire. You shall be a comforting candle in the dark. You shall be a raging inferno to the ones who would hurt others. But before I grant you this boon, answer me but one question. What makes you different from Kendik? He also thought he did right. He also could be gentle. He also could be a vicious tornado to his enemies. Why would you be any different?”
Benny sat down. He started to protest but then he realized the validity of the question. What would make him different? What would keep him from going down the same path that Kendrik did? He saw that he could easily go down that path, reaping vengeance on the ones who had and would hurt him.
“You would stop me, sir.”
The being laughed once again.
“You are discerning, little one. You speak the truth. If you went down that path, you would find that all of your fiery arcane might would be stripped from you in an instant. However, that is not a good enough reason by itself. Why wouldn’t you follow the Way of Vengeance, the Way of the Wolf.
Benny searched his mind, soul, and heart. He knew that he must give an answer. He knew he must give a good answer. Benny racked his mind trying to find a clever reply, ransacked his soul for an honest one, and shook his heart for a convincing one. He discovered the truth.
“You can’t know that. You must trust, just like I trusted you to get here. I don’t wish to cause undue harm. You realize this for sure. I do desire vengeance. I am only a man. I will work to quell this loathsome impulse. I will try with all of my heart, all my soul, and with all of my mind. You will help me, because I can’t do it alone. I know you will.”
Booming peals of laughter filled the flaming room.
“You have audacity, little one. You have courage, you have hope, and now you have my trust. I will help you to the utmost degree. Sometimes you will not realize it, sometimes you will, but I will be there every step of the way, helping you.”
The fires spun and swirled, entwining into a beautiful dance. They flew through the room and entered into Benny. The power was intoxicating. The fire filled him, the flames fed him, the inferno ignited his passion anew.
“Now go forth, my noble servant. Go forth, and aid the suffering, help the hurting, and give grace to all men. Go.”
The Price of Love
The last thing August wanted to do was run downtown to the local ‘witch’ shop so his little sister could get some herbal tea.
“Why can’t you do it?” He asked as he turned the page in the book he was reading.
Sarah crossed her arms with an annoyed huff. “I got a speeding ticket, and Mum won’t let me use the car- and it’s too far to walk.” She walked across the room to sit next to him on the couch. “Please.”
August set the book down, his thumb in between the pages. “You’ll get the keys back in a week; you can wait for tea.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “If you go, I’ll make dinner and pay for gas,” she offered.
He stared at the girl, he could tell she wasn’t going to let this go.
And that’s how he ended up at the Charmed Lotus, the store that would change his life.
The bell rang and August felt immediately uneasy as he walked through the door. From the sweet scent of the dried plants and occult atmosphere, he wanted to leave as soon as he could.
Enchanting music played faintly in the background and August realized he had no clue where anything was; this was his first and last time in the store after all. After scanning shelves filled with everything from herbs to potions, he decided to ask the employee before he wasted any more time.
“Can I help you?” The girl asked.
She had long, wavy auburn hair and pale skin coated in freckles; the opposite of what you’d expect for a witch. With her army green high-rise shorts and sunflower patterned shirt. She looked a bit out of place yet perfectly blended in with the shop.
For a moment he thought that maybe she was just a normal girl working a part-time job. But from the wand and sunflower adorned pointed hat tossed aside on the desk, and the collection of crystal jewelry she wore; there was no denying what she was. A witch.
“Hello?” She asked as she waved her hand in front of his face when he didn’t respond.
“Sorry,” August said with a final glance at her name tag: Hazel. “I’m picking up an order.”
His eyes wandered around the shop once again as Hazel skimmed through a large book of handwritten order forms.
“Sarah?” She questioned.
“My sister,” August answered with a bit of annoyance in his voice.
She nodded and stood up, “Your package is in the back,” she said with a smile before disappearing through a door.
Every fiber of his being felt off as he stood alone in the store. Shelves lined with love potions, voodoo dolls, tarot cards, and decor skulls; August was more and more aware of their presence with every second.
He tried to focus on something else as he absentmindedly twisted the fidget ring on his middle finger and wondered how much of a fire hazard the large, open flame wax candles that dripped onto the wooden floor were.
“That will be twenty dollars.”
“What?” August said as his attention snapped back to the desk, he didn’t even notice her return.
“For the tea,” Hazel stated and slightly raised the paper bag in her hand. “That will be twenty dollars.”
He shook his head, “Of course.”
What kind of tea cost that much?
Hazel pressed a few buttons on the antique cash register and took his bill.
“This isn’t your type of shop, is it?” She asked politely, although it sounded more like a statement.
August didn’t respond.
“Religious?” She questioned again.
“Catholic,” he said plainly.
She merely nodded and placed the bag in front of him. “Fair enough, witchcraft isn’t everyone's cup of tea,” Hazel said with a slight laugh at her own joke.
“I prefer real things.”
Hazel’s expression turned to mild annoyance as her eyes gazed across the shelves; as if she were wondering which of their many products she’d like to use on him for his comment.
“It is real, if anything your beliefs should confirm that,” She said plainly, her arms crossed.
August rolled his eyes. Part of him wanted to leave this place as quickly as possible. Another wanted to prove her wrong.
“Please, anyone with common sense knows that all this is,” he said with a gesture to everything around him. “Is nothing but mislabeled herbalism and creepy decor. There’s no way that it’s possible to curse people with dolls or see the future with a deck of cards. There’s no proof for any of it.”
Hazel leaned over to a box on the floor and pulled out one of the many circular jars as he continued his rant. She uncorked the lid and held a finger up for silence as she took a sip.
“What are you-”
His sentence was cut off as the boy jumped away from the desk, green flames blown in his direction. There wasn’t any sign of the fire on any of the wooden objects around them but August could have sworn he felt the heat.
Hazel calmly put the top back on the glass container and returned it to the box. “Care to explain how that wasn’t real,” she said in a sweet voice that dripped with sarcasm.
August grabbed his sister’s tea and left the shop without another word. He locked the car doors and grabbed the rosary from the rearview mirror the second he was inside.
He would never go to the shop again.
* * *
“Did you get it?” His sister asked the second he stepped foot in the house.
August tossed the paper bag on the table. “I did and don’t ever ask me to go there again.”
Sarah chuckled at his response.
“I’m serious, how did you even find that place?”
“Mrs. Anderson shops there because it’s all natural and the essential oils are on the cheaper side. I tried the tea at their house, and she told me where to buy it,” she said simply as she stirred whatever was cooking on the stove.
“I’m sure you could find something cheaper online,” August said plainly. He never wanted to be asked to pick something up for her anytime soon.
Thankfully the rest of his night was uneventful. Their mother came home from work at the usual time and some movie that was recently released on DVD played on the TV while they ate. Just what August needed to get that Witch out of his mind once and for all.
However by morning no matter how hard he tried to ignore it he couldn’t forget the eerie feeling the Charmed Lotus gave him. The witchcraft they openly sold and the lack of people, other than him and that girl, in the whole shop was off putting. The Catholic was glad that it appeared as if they had very few customers; however shops were supposed to be busy, not dead.
August sat in his parked car, every fiber of his being wanted to turn the key and leave, but he couldn’t get himself to do it. The boy accepted defeat as he unbuckled and entered the building. One stop, just to get it over with.
Hazel once again sat behind the large wooden desk, the only visible worker in the shop. She smiled as she conversed with an older woman dressed in all black, but they quickly wandered off to another part of the shop.
August’s legs moved on their own as he approached the register.
“Ah, if it isn’t the HevBe. Anything I can help you find today?” She greeted him sarcastically.
“What have you done to me?” He demanded.
She rolled her eyes as she leaned against the counter. “Am I supposed to know what you mean by that?”
August struggled to keep his mind straight, his thoughts had been all over the place ever since he first entered the shop.
“Did you spell me? Slip me one of those love potions or something?”
Hazel couldn’t help but laugh, “please, even witches know those are nothing but scams.”
“You have them on your shelves,” he countered.
She shrugged, “have to sell something to the tourists.”
August froze, what if he had it all wrong? What if the shop simply was a joke, nothing but a scam because they knew they could make money off of it.
“Don’t worry, I know exactly what’s cursing you,” she said, her fingers messing with the wand where it laid.
She hummed in response. “Curiosity. You’re intrigued by what I do, but you’re too convinced that it’s wrong.”
August opened his mouth to tell her she was wrong, but she kept speaking as she stood up from her seat.
“Lucky for you, you came at the end of my shift. I’m free to answer all your questions.”
He blinked at the girl in disbelief; was she serious?
Hazel walked around the shop and blew out all the open flames, readjusted some shelves here and there. “There’s a nice park nearby we could go to, otherwise we can stay here.”
As much as he hated the idea of going anywhere with her, the thought of staying at the Charmed Lotus after hours was even worse.
“The park’s fine,” he answered.
“Perfect.” Hazel threw her wand in a small wicker basket and put on the sunflower coated witch hat. “Let’s go.”
“You can’t be serious.”
It was one thing to call yourself a witch, but to wear the hat as well?
“You’re the one who wants answers,” she countered.
Hazel flicked the lights off and locked the door on their way out. August mentally questioned the store hours; why would they close at 3:00PM and open again from 9:00PM - 2:00AM.
“Have to make sure we have availability for the morning and night witches,” she answered as if she could read his mind. “It’s a common question,” she added.
The park was a couple of blocks away and not much conversation was made on the way there; none that he could focus on anyway. He felt like all the attention was on the two of them and prayed they didn’t run into someone he knew. The last thing he needed was to be seen with a witch.
A few kids came up and greeted Hazel as they approached the playground. She smiled and handed all of them picked flowers or stuck the stems in their hair, every now and then she would whisper something that made them laugh. Some showed off their new clothes or how well they were able to cartwheel for a few minutes until the kids got bored and went back to their games on the playset.
“Sorry about that,” she said as she brushed the dirt off her skirt from where she was kneeling.
“Don’t be.” He didn’t expect her to be so good with children.
They walked a bit farther on the beaten path until they reached a less crowded area of the park.
“So, what’s your first question?” Hazel asked to break the silence.
August thought he’d start off easy, “what was in that bottle yesterday?” He could still vividly picture the green flames she blew in his direction and the heat that followed.
She smiled and shook her head, “I don’t think you’ll like my answer,” she joked. “Have any ideas?”
He shrugged, “dyed alcohol and a hidden lighter?” It was the only thing that might make sense.
Hazel shook her head again.
“What was it?”
“A fire-breathing potion. If you get on my good side, I might let you try it.”
He should have suspected an answer like that. He was speaking to a witch after all.
Hazel sat down and gestured for him to do the same. He hesitated but eventually joined her in the grass. She placed the small basket in front of them and started to pick the flowers that covered sections of the field. August picked at the plants as well, unsure of what else to do.
“How did you become a witch?” A simple, serious question that would put a stop to his curiosity.
“I made a deal with the devil and signed my soul away at thirteen,” she answered, her focus still on the flowers.
No matter what assumptions he made, that was the last thing he expected to come out of her mouth. More flames would have surprised him less.
“Would you prefer I say that I was born into it? The Savaunt’s are one of the few witch families in the area.”
“Your entire family practices witchcraft?” He questioned in disbelief.
Hazel nodded, “everyone in the bloodline. It’s no different than families who share the same religion.”
It was one thing for the girl who had to have been in her early twenties to try and practice magic, perhaps a little too into fantasy and dissatisfied with reality. But everyone else she was related to, through how many generations? He never thought the Charmed Lotus would be a family business.
“So they were all fully aware that God exists and chose to follow Satan instead?”
She nodded once more, “yep.”
How could people know full well they were going to Hell and just pass that on to their children? This family might as well be part of a cult.
Hazel picked up a dandelion from the mix of colored petals. “Look at it this way; should this go in the basket?”
“I’ve been picking flowers, should I pick dandelions as well?”
August stared at her, unsure of what her point was. “If you’re fine with taking home some weeds, go for it.”
She added the weed to the top of her pile. “Taraxacum are full of vital micronutrients, help strengthen the immune system, and can even be used to get clearer skin.” Hazel picked another one and held it up, “yet all most people see are ‘weeds’ that should be removed from their lawn.”
August grabbed the plant from her. He had heard dandelions carried health benefits but he never thought much of it since they were the cause of his sister’s allergies.
“How come the one who can see the beauty and resources in God’s creation is the one that follows the devil?” She questioned.
He didn’t have an answer.
August tossed any flowers he held in the basket as he moved to get up. “I should get going.”
“Have I made you uncomfortable?” She asked. “We can discuss something else, if you’d like.”
He hesitated but slowly sat back down. “What did you have in mind?”
Hazel shrugged; her fingers no longer picked dandelions for her to save but started to weave them together. “How about family? I know you have a sister since you picked up her tea; any other siblings?”
He shook his head as he thought back to Sarah, the only reason he had met the witch in the first place. Because she wanted herbal tea and didn’t like the stuff online.
“Just her and our mom.”
“And your dad?” She questioned.
“Deceased,” August answered as he nervously rubbed his arm; it had only been a few years since his passing. “What about you?”
“Technically an only child, my brother died before I was born, and my parents own the shop.”
The two continued to talk about random things like where they grew up; August’s family moved here a few years ago and currently stayed with them while he was home from college, Hazel had never left the area. Favorite colors, hobbies, and other stuff like that. As much as August wanted to deny it, he enjoyed talking to the redheaded girl who wore her witch hat with pride.
Hazel tied off her chain of weeds and placed the flower crown on his head with a grin before he could refuse. “It looks nice in your hair, really sticks out against the brown.”
August couldn’t help but chuckle; maybe he started to enjoy spending time with the girl.
They stayed in the park until the sun began to set; August walked her back to the shop and where his car happened to be parked. The two of them exchanged numbers before he got in the vehicle.
“In case you have any more questions,” Hazel smiled.
He did the same, a genuine smile.
She disappeared behind the closed door of the Charmed Lotus, and he was left with his thoughts on the short drive home. Maybe he was wrong about the young witch.
His sister greeted him the second he walked through the door. “Where have you been?”
He set his keys in the dish with a quick glance around the room, their mom seemed to be at work still. “I was out with a friend.”
Sarah nodded, her eyes glued to her phone. “So, a date?”
“What?” It wasn’t a date, far from it, but why did she think that?
She tilted her device down as she gave her explanation. “You didn’t give a name, so it must be someone new but you also didn’t say that,” she went back to scrolling. “So what’s her name?”
“It wasn’t a date,” August insisted.
“I just want to know who my brother’s seeing, what’s wrong with that?”
He rolled his eyes. He knew she wasn’t going to let it go anytime soon and the last thing he needed was her spreading rumors to their mom.
“Hazel, but it still wasn’t a date.”
August gave her a questioning look, why did she need to know that? “Savaunt.”
She was quiet for a few seconds. “The witch?”
He stared at her in disbelief, “how could you possibly know that?”
“Her social media.” Sarah tilted the phone so he could see the open page. Sure enough the profile picture was of Hazel, sunflower covered hat and all. Her bio was mainly an advertisement for the shop with a few emojis and the hashtag ‘#YourFriendlyNeighborhoodWitch’.
“She’s the last person I expected you to hang out with,” Sarah said, but there wasn’t any judgment in her voice.
“How did you even find this, it only took you like five seconds,” August asked.
She looked at him as if to say ‘are you serious?’. “I’m a woman, I can find anyone online.”
He didn’t ask anymore questions and just accepted the answer she gave him, however ridiculous it sounded.
* * *
Over the next couple weeks, a majority of August’s time was spent with Hazel. From texting practically all day, to even a few official dates (she asked him out first). The Charmed Lotus no longer made his skin crawl whenever he was there but slowly started to feel more like a second home to him.
Neither of them had met any family members, but he didn’t mind, there was no rush. August did tell his mom about her, however he thought it would be best to leave out the witch part for now.
The bell rang as he entered the shop and August smiled at the familiar faint creak of the floorboards. He waved hello to Miss Jeanette, who popped in every few days to buy potions for her memory.
He looked around the shop, but he didn’t see Hazel behind the desk or hidden among the shelves. He glanced over at the staff door and its sign that read ‘knock for service’ instead of ‘do not enter’. With a quick knock August turned the handle to the room he had recently been allowed access to.
Hazel sat on the floor in front of a large cauldron as she poured the translucent liquid into glass bottles. Her witch hat was crooked, and he noticed the small break she took in between each jar.
“Are you tired?” August questioned as he sat down next to her.
She nodded, “I've been up all night brewing for tomorrow’s restock, I still have two potions left to make,” Hazel yawned.
He looked down at her wavy hair, streaks of black mixed into the auburn locks. Something that happened when she used too much of her magic; part of the contract and the reason most witches were depicted with pitch black hair.
“You should take a break.”
She merely laughed as she boxed up the now finished potions. “I’m almost done.”
“You’re exhausted,” he countered.
Hazel labeled the box and stacked it amongst the others but shook her head. “I’ll be done in an hour or two anyway.”
August glanced at the potion book on the floor, the last recipes tagged with half of a green sticky note.
“What if I made them?” He suggested, “it can’t be too far from cooking.”
She smiled, “I appreciate the offer, Love, but HevBes can’t make potions.”
August tilted his head at the nickname, something that had started as some sort of insult and slowly transformed to a pet name she occasionally used but never gave an explanation for.
Hazel turned from where she gathered ingredients for the next recipe and leaned against the shelves, glass bottles in hand. “It means Heaven Bound, a term used for those with a saved soul,” she informed.
August was a bit relieved to hear that. Even though he still went to mass on Sunday and prayed every day, he had started to worry about how much time he spent at the shop and how he didn’t want to admit he had fallen for the witch. No one could say for one hundred percent certain where he would spend his afterlife, but perhaps someone without a soul could know a bit more than him.
“If you’d like to help you could read off what I need?” She suggested.
August nodded and opened the book to the first tab. “Eye of newt?” He read uncertainly once she had confirmed the potion name.
Hazel held up a small bottle with a laugh, “Mustard seed. Spell books were written with false names in case anyone got their hands on them.”
He nodded once again; that made sense, and he was sure he had read something similar online. “Wool of bat?”
“Toe of frog?”
August continued to read of the odd sounding names that definitely added to all the stereotypes in fictional magic, however there wasn’t anything fictional about this. He watched as Hazel threw ingredients into the boiling water of the newly cleaned caldron as he read out the steps; even if she did seem to act a few seconds before he started the sentence. He got to help be a part of creating something that did help people, even if it wasn’t the traditional ways one would expect. It felt good and he wanted to continue.
It may have only felt like a few seconds but the potion had finished brewing by the time he had voiced his thoughts. “I wanted to practice witchcraft.”
Hazel dropped the metal spoon she was using to stir at his words, too surprised that they had come out of his mouth. “What?”
August took a deep breath and pushed aside the tiny speck of doubt. “I want to help you, actually help you with things around the shop. I want to do what you do.”
She inched over to him from where they sat on the ground and placed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. “No.”
“No?” He had thought she would be thrilled.
Hazel stood and brushed the nonexistent dust off of her clothes. “You’re not thinking clearly. I refuse to be the reason your soul is doomed for all eternity.”
“But it’s my choice,” he countered.
She shook her head. “We both know you would never willingly sign the contract.”
Hazel held open the door to the storefront and August left without another word.
* * *
They didn’t speak for a few days, and both of them realized they needed to take a step back.
They texted every now and then, but it was nothing more than sending memes back and forth. She did ask him one day what animal he’d want to be if he could choose, and some other random get to know yous. Hazel seemed pleased when he said a cat or bird, but he might have been playing into the witch aspect a little bit with his response; not that he really had an answer anyway. After that they slowly made it back to their normal conversations.
A week later he decided it was time to go visit her at the shop; he wanted to see Hazel in person and was honestly starting to miss being at the Charmed Lotus with her.
The bell rang as he pushed the door open and August smiled at the familiar sound. He really did feel at home here; the previous chill of unease was long gone. His feet quickly brought him to the corner of the building where his girlfriend sat behind the wooden desk, a large spell book in front of her.
Hazel looked up and smiled at him, “hi, Love.”
He leaned over the counter to kiss her head before moving to sit next to her. “What are you reading?” He asked.
She messed with her wand. “One of the family books…I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
“About learning magic?”
She nodded. “I don’t want you to sign a contract- I’ll do everything I can to keep you from doing that.” She took a deep breath, “but I think I found an alternative.”
August looked up, his attention fully fixed on her. Was there really a way for him to learn without selling his soul? “What is it?”
Hazel pointed to the page she was reading; although he did his best to read it, most of the words scrambled around the page whenever his eyes reached them. Magically protected from non-witches.
“If you become my familiar, I can share my magic with you and you’ll still be a HevBe,” she explained, her voice a bit quieter than usual.
He didn’t hesitate, “let’s do it.”
She looked a bit uncertain. “Are you sure? Once we do this, there’s no turning back. Your family might not accept you anymore.”
August didn’t care, he honestly didn’t. “Positive.”
Her eyes scanned over him as if they were searching for any sign of doubt but there was nothing to find. She picked up the book, “All right. Let’s get started.”
The shop sign flipped to ‘close’ with a wave of her wand and they disappeared into the back room. She grabbed jar after jar, handing them back for him to hold; he didn’t recognize any of them.
Once everything had been found, she drew two connecting circles filled with sigils on the wooden floor in chalk and instructed him to sit. It would be a long spell but there wasn’t much he could do besides wait.
Hazel placed a cauldron between them and sat down in her own circle. It filled water as she threw ingredients in, Latin words falling from her lips. August starred entranced as the chalk started to glow. By the time she handed him a glass, he didn’t know if it had been minutes or hours, but he knew he could watch this all day.
“Are you certain this is what you want?” She asked, her hair slowly turning black.
He nodded and took the glass. He wanted to be a part of this. He wanted to help her. He loved her.
The room glowed a violent red as he took a sip, and his head started to pound. She took the glass before he could drop it and set it down; still reciting the spell as if it were second nature. His entire body ached, his vision flashed in and out. The entire room seemed to grow as he screamed in pain. He wasn’t sure if he would pass out. But soon everything died down and his screams were nothing more than weak cheeps in their ears.
August Lucado no longer sat in the spell circle, instead a small sparrow took his place.
Hazel picked him up and rose to her feet; there was barely any red left in her hair. She placed her forehead against the bird as tears rolled down her cheek.
“I told you I would do anything I could to keep you saved- I couldn’t risk you making a contract on your own.”
August’s mind screamed at him as he tried to fly out of her grasp but she held him close. He should have thought about this or asked her to explain- Hazel should have told him this is what would happen. But it seemed so obvious now; witch’s familiars were always animals. He should have known. He should have questioned.
But he was so charmed by this world, learning about everything he was too scared to discover. And this girl that he had fallen for, all because his sister whom he would never see again wanted some tea, gave him an option that he stupidly accepted. He was now trapped as a bird.
“I’m so sorry, Love…”
He had fallen in love with Hazel Savaunt, and this was the price of loving her.
How many weeks has it been? Five, seven, eighteen? Everything is blended together. The forest looms over me, stalking me through the twilight. This game.. Though it’s only a game to them. The grass sways between my legs as I walk, the wind calling out as though a lover returning home. The wind brings along a familiar scent. No, no no. How? It hasn't been too long has it? My feet patting against the soft earth couldn’t drown him out from thundering not too far behind me. I reach the edge with a staggered halt. There’s two options. Only one ending with it being my own choice. “DON’T YOU DARE BITCH!” He calls after me. I turn to see he’s a couple feet away now. Plummeting I wait for the sweet release, yet nothing comes. Rising to the surface I look up to find those eyes looking down on me. Sloshing through the ridged water, I refrain from looking back. “YOU’RE DEAD! WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU, YOU’RE GOING TO WISH YOU DROWNED!” He shouts from the cliffs above. Never ceasing in pace, I reached the shore line after what felt like an eternity. I should keep moving, but my legs must be full of cement, for they refused to budge. Laying on the sand I watch the clouds dance within the sky. Never bound by masters, pain or punishment. Forever they remain free. Envy takes control of my eyes and fists. Not being able to bear it longer, I regain some strength to flee. The question remains, where do I go now?
Speed never fails to call my name, beckoning me to reach higher depths. Though my other companions have some concerns. “Is that why you like riding your motorcycle so much?” “Yes,” I respond, “To me, that's what freedom feels like. Fast, thrilling and makes you blind to the world around me. More or less just bliss.” I answer. “You’re crazy,” they retort, “Yeah, you’re going to get yourself killed one of these days.” The other chimes in. “Well, I'd rather die living my life to the fullest, doing what makes me happy. Plus we can’t all live forever.” I snap back. Laughing erupts among our group. “Nope. Not me, I’m going to live forever!” “Oh yeah?” I ask, teasing a smile. “Mhmm for sure. I will be immortal and rub it in all of your faces.” They say with shining eyes. “Well I hope you’re not bothered by bones because that is the only thing that will be left of us.” More laughing ensues. They’re ridiculous.
Why did that memory have to come to light now? Following the water my feet continue to leave small imprints on the sand. Occasionally the faint shouting rings out through the trees, startling me, with no other options I continue. The sun sets low, bringing out their lover, the moon. Only tonight she is in her full glory for the world to see, being envied by the stars dancing alongside her. Reaching the edge of the water bank my descent begins into what lurks below the hillside. With nothing but my shorts and t-shift the realization begins to set in. Shit. Stealth is my only way through this alive. Ever so slightly I take a look at my surroundings, only ensuring I cannot see the light from those disgusting ravenous men.
The sun peaks out from beneath the skyline to wish adieu to their lover once again in their never ending cycle. Welcoming the light from above the world around be stirs. "WE HAVE TO BE CLOSE!" "YEAH WE DIDN'T STOP ALL NIGHT, SHE COULDN'T HAVE GONE THAT FAR." They call between their hunting party as they make their way through the trees. Pinned at the base of some brush under a fallen tree, I brace for their shrieks and cries finding their sacred prize. Though after being with them for so long, I doubt that is a description that defines me anymore. Still nothing comes, without a breath I scurry deeper within the brush. Shouts fade into the distance which seems to be east of here, hopefully. The wind picks up almost as if it wanted to carry me away, far up into the clouds. Pushing the ifs deep within the recesses of my brain I forces myself from the embrace of the foliage and due west.
The greasy balding meatball of a man ushers me forward. "Now up you go, and if you try to run or fight us again, you are going to be punished far worse than the last time, you hear." He hotly huffs into my ear. With a slight nod, he takes me to the stage on the left where the smell of cigars and whiskey slither through the curtains. "Up you go now. Remember my warnin' child." He coos as he opens the curtains. Following the sickly faded markers I end up at the end of the stairs. "Wait there for fifteen seconds, then head on up. Make sure you pause, ya hear? They don't want to have show overlapping." His words echo through my skull, leaving my ears ringing. One foot right after the other I stand tall and walk onto the blindingly bright stage. "And here we have gentlemen, one of our newest pieces of our collection. Almost right out of her mothers womb, untouched and as pure as they come." The announcer directs me to a spot on stage for all to see. Looking out most of them wore suits and wore painted faces of excitement. Only one who wore a mask. His emotion was unrecognizable, which lead my fear to worsen. "SPIN FOR US SWEET HEART!" One shouted, laughing erupted. "STRIP, WE WANT A TASTE OF THE MERCHANDISE!" Another beckoned. The announcer with no remorse held out his hand to take the little clothing I had left. Begrudgingly I slid off everything but my heels. With a plastered smile and a full hand he backed away. I spun softly on the ball of my foot, holding every last tear back. Hoots and hollers never stopped as the announcer began the auction. I have never seen so many grown men move so fast other than to eat their weight in food. With one final swish, the bidding ended. Thirteen point seven million rang out on the projector. "With that gentlemen out closing piece has been sold, which means its the ending of the evening. Those who have auctioned pieces, please enter the lounge to the right and those who have not, please head to the exit on your left. Thank you and good night." The announcer's closing speech echoed in the background as I entered the next part of the building. Guards ushered me into a small room to put on what little clothes I was allowed and I was instructed to wait on the chair in the corner. After what seemed as though a lifetime had passed the door opened, wafting in a stench I will never forget due to it's odor being scorched into my nose. He stood before me, my new owner.
Grass lapping at my heels made me yearn for summers at my grandparents house. Running through the fields, picking flowers, being scolded for staying out past dusk. With a sad heaviness, reality was not my friend. Rushing water chirped through the sway of the trees. Edging forward, though my feet bare no desire to, I meet the water as an old friend. Daring me to enter, forever leaving this pain behind. No, I can't. Everyone must be waiting for me to come back home, I can't leave this world so voluntarily. Looking out past the water, a flat strip of land breaks through the tall grass growing in front of it. What could it be? An old fort? A trap? Leaving the heaviness I felt moments before I journeyed to the far part of the water bank. Clanking rustles beside me as I run my fingers along its face. The scent of old pennies rings through my nose. How can I get over? I need to see if anyone can help me...if they'd help me. Weariness glosses over my eyes. I can't survive going back, I will never go back to that man.
Quickly moving towards the building I hear faint laughs and chatter among those who linger within its walls. Inching to the closest window I squint inside. Two planes seek refuge inside, while those who seem to be their pilots stand below. A handful of men and women. Glancing over my shoulder I see a familiar face among the grass not too far from where I am positioned. No, no no no. How? My hands clutching at my sides, he raises his hand with his hand open, calling for me. Please, no. Forgive me. The wind whips me through the grass long the far side of the building. Echoing in the distance behind me, his actions no longer soft, but rather aggressive and demanding. Fear reaching through the depths of my throat I squeeze through the propped open door way. No words escape my mouth. "WHOA WHOA! STOP RIGHT THERE!" One started to shout at me. Tears streaming down my hot cheeks I collide with one of them. Clinging to them the others begin to hear the him outside. "Please. Please help me." I sob into their uniform. A soft pair of hands rest on my head and shoulder. "GET THE GUNS AND RESTRAINTS." One shouts to the rest. The others scramble about in the distance as the one I clung to guides me away from the chaos.
"Hey, finally you're awake." A soldier sits next to me perched on a chair. Standing, they offer me some water and what seems to be a piece of bread with jam. "I apologize for the food, but its hard to get the higher ups to send actual food down here." They sheepishly sit back down before taking a deep sip of their own drink. Without looking down at the contents I begin to chew on the bread and sip the warm water. "You slept for quite some time you know, " they start, "When you rushed into the building it was a quarter to two, now its almost nine thirty." I finish both of my refreshments and set the cup down on the side table, making them look at me. "Those men, do you want to know what happened to them?" Finally meeting their gaze, I became unable to wield an answer. "Well, they tried to break into our facility which ended up with our troops arresting a bunch of them. The others that managed to escape were tracked back to a small camp. We are planing to overtake that soon enough and then from there we are requesting to search the rest of the surrounding areas for any other camps or even just people we managed to miss during our initial sweeps." Their words flow from their mouth into the dense air around us. Swallowing the lump in my throat, "D-did you.. did you catch a big man?" I squeak out. The person sitting before me looks at me with questions plaguing their eyes. "A big man?" Nodding, I answer, "Y-yes. He...he has a scar on his belly..it almost looks like a fish." A saltiness fills my mouth, shocked dry heaving takes control. Several minutes and several cups of water later the dense silences engulfs us again. "Do you have a name?" No one has asked me that in quite a long time. It has always been piece, prize, slave, bitch, pet, just names of ownership. "Beth." I look them in the eyes again, but this time I am met with a deep wave of sadness. "Beth.. Its nice to meet you," they reach out their hand, "I'm Miranda." Unsure of the action, I never take their hand in mine, understanding Miranda retreats to the safety of their chair. "I am going to go discuss things with my captain, so I will be back a bit later. Try to get some more sleep Beth, I promise to not let anything happen to you while you're here." Miranda states walking towards the door and closing it behind them.
Light dancing along the floor, reaching ever so slightly onto Beth's face. Miranda edges closer to the bed before Beth jolts awake. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry Beth. I truly didn't mean to startle you." Beth pushed her self into the corner of the room as tightly as she could. With her breath slowing, Beth inches back over to the center of the bed. "After speaking with my captain, we are going to fly you home on our next charter going out. The authorities are going to be waiting for you stateside. Beth, you're going home." Miranda shines her teeth with excitement. Beth dazed nods and proceeds to stand, readying herself for her journey away from this hell. "Whoa, hold on. Before we leave, I got you some things." Miranda makes her way to the door, leaving it open, she enters again with a pack. Both sit while Miranda begins to take out the contents. Laid before Beth is a new shirt, shorts, a pair of socks, undergarments and running shoes. "Why?" Beth starts, "Why are you doing this? I'm not worth anything to you, so why are you helping me?" Shocked Miranda stares at her for a moment. "Beth you're not an object that has some kind of value to it. You're a person and you deserve a lot more than what you have been given so far in life." Tears stain Beth's cheeks, uncertainty infiltrates her thoughts. "So now, we are going to go to the showers, get you cleaned up and then by the time we're finished, the plane will be ready for departure." Miranda stands again, reaching her hand out to Beth. Looking at her, Beth is too tired to fight. Taking her hand they leave.
Upon entering the washroom, Beth cowers behind Miranda. "Hey," she whispers, "Beth, its okay. This is where we shower and go to the bathroom when needed. The guys have a different section of the building to do so." Miranda walks over to the far side of the room and turns the handle half way to the right. Warm water flows through the end of the spigot just above Miranda's head. "Come here." Beth from only understanding commands follows in toe. "So you are going to strip, hand me your old clothes and then use this soap to shower," Miranda points to new soap on the counter, "Oh shit, here are some shower shoes." She places a small pair of flip flops on the ground. Beth looks at her curiously, "w-." "Its so you don't get any foot fungus. Do you have any other questions?" Miranda asks turning around and stepping six feet ahead of her. "no." Beth whispers. Taking off the old torn cloths Beth steps under the running water. When was the last time I showered? Beth thought. Has it been long? Using the new soap she cleans off all the grime and shame, even though its been branded on her bones. Turning off the faucet and turning to Miranda she is greeted with a fluffy towel. Miranda while stiff facing the other wall, "Use this to dry off, then use the lotion in the bag, then get dressed." Miranda instructs.
Following Miranda down a dimly lit corridor Beth holds her breath. That old, chalky smell brings her back to the auction rooms. Shuddering Beth walks into Miranda. "Okay Beth, we are going to be taking that plane back to stateside." She instructs Beth to follow her through the hanger and up into the belly of the plane. Beth takes her place while Miranda locks her harness into place. "I will be right back." Miranda whispers while pulling another bag tight to her hip. Disappearing within the bundles of cargo and other soldiers Beth is on her own for the first time since she arrived. "NO WAY!" A voice boomed, "YOU'RE REALLY HER!" A man half skipped, half waked over. "You're Beth Walters right?" Alarmed Beth attempts to free herself from the tight harness. "Hey, Beth!" Miranda calls running over. "Hey its okay," Turning her attention to the thin loud man, "Ronny what the fuck? Didn't I tell you not to interact with her?" Miranda's tone could cut glass. "Chill out, she doesn't mind, do you Beth?" He asks putting up his sunglasses. Beth looked at Miranda pleadingly, "Yeah no, fuck of Ronny before I cuff you to the cargo we're dropping later." Miranda picks him up by the sleeve of his shirt, shoving him away. "Ah alright jeez, I just wanted to show her the article and ask some questions." Ronny whimpers. Beth shoots a look at Ronny, "What? What are you talking about?" She asks quickly. Ronny almost instantly makes his way back in front of Beth. "Oh haven't you heard? You've made headlines for five years since you disappeared!" He exclaims pulling out his phone. "Five? Five years?" Beth gasps. Miranda shoves Ronny back again. Beth rips at the straps of her harness. "Beth, hey Beth," Miranda grabs her hands and Beth's eyes snap to her, "FIVE YEARS?" She yells. Miranda's head slowly dips. "Yes, you have been missing for five years Hun. You're parents never stopped looking for you." Miranda sighs standing up. "We are about to begin our flight, please hold on to your questions until we get back. I am not position to fill you in on the situation, nor is Ronny." The thin man briskly walks away after acknowledging his mistake.
Beth's head never ceased to stop pounding. Five years? I thought it was only a couple of months. She thought. Coming to a rough stop the plane finally stops moving. As the hanger opens Beth is greet with familiar faces. Mom and Dad.
I have long fallen in love with my cozy little cottage, sitting just right outside the skirts of a lively, bountiful forest. Softly humming a little tune, I thinly slice the freshly baked loaf of bread sitting on my kitchen counter. The toasty smell wafting in the air summons deep rumbling sounds from my empty stomach. My mouth waters as I spread a generous amount of light, velvety butter on my bread
Just as I am about to wolf down my buttered bread, I hear panicked shouts right outside my door. Slightly disappointed, I snatch a slice and rush out the door.
A young boy, anxiously crouched over the limp figure of what appears to be a young girl, is desperately crying out for help.
Upon noticing that the two children are severely malnourished, I rush forward and crouch down. I am shocked by the cuts and bruises covering their thin, tiny bodies, but I am forced to collect myself to address the most pressing matter at hand.
I look into the boy’s eyes and give him a comforting nod, “Don’t worry, I’m here to help.”
Upon hearing the word “help”, the young boy promptly faints with relief written all over his face.
What a strong, caring child.
With as much strength as I can muster, I carry each child into my humble abode. I slowly trickle some water into their mouths until both of them regain consciousness, “Shh, shh. Don’t speak, please try to stay calm and just eat.”
I use two fingers to pull off bite-sized pieces from my fluffy bread and gently stuff each piece into each of their mouths, one at a time.
“There we go, you guys are doing great!”
At last, the color has begun to flow back to their faces.
I lift the children into my bed, and I quietly tuck them in. The muffled cries of my grumbling stomach and the lonely, half-eaten loaf of bread end up forgotten as, overcome with exhaustion, I collapse onto the ground.
The body sitting on my back and resting on my back feels as light as a corpse. I’m even more worried about the fact that Em hasn’t said a word for the past few hours, behavior that is drastically different from her usual talkative self. But her silence is understandable, considering our circumstances. Only a few days ago, we both decided to run away from our orphanage without so much as a morsel of a plan in mind.
We may be starving and looking death in the eye but I don’t regret my decision at all, and I’m certain Em feels the same. The “orphanage” was more like a match factory disguised as a home for orphans; the “caretakers” trained all of us how to handle the matches without regard for our safety at all. Em and I would’ve been able to endure it all if not for the horrendous disease that was rapidly spreading throughout the den. They called it phossy jaw. And little Mary was the very first victim. The sight of her violently shuddering on the floor with a swollen, decomposing jaw before drawing her final breath has been burned into my mind, haunting me to this very day. I refuse to let Em fall victim to the same demon. She was my ray of sunshine, my only source of comfort in that hellhole.
Despite the burning pain flaring up from my bony feet, I trudge forward one step at a time, telling myself one step forward is one step closer to freedom. When I see the distant lump sticking up from the ground gradually enlarge as I step forth, adrenaline rushes into my veins and I muster what little strength I have left to sprint towards it. My heart is thudding fast and loud as a drum, and I haven’t had enough water to sweat but I can feel the heat rising to my head.
As I near the door, I pause mid-step.
Wait a second. I don’t feel her breaths anymore.
Up until now, Em’s soft breathing had tickled my neck like a feather, and my notice of its absence sent my heart six feet under. I slowly set Em down on the ground and I check for heart beats, breathing, anything indicative of life. My heart drops even further.
No, there’s no way. We’ve already come so far. It can’t be…
I cry out in anguish and let out a guttural scream, a desperate plea for help.
As if to answer my cries, an angel descends from the heavens and gifts me the comfort of her aid, ““Don’t worry, I’m here to help.”
Please. Please save us. Please save Em.
And my world is suddenly sucked into a pitch-black darkness.
“Please, Miss Jane, let us help out around the house!,” I plead, “You already let us stay here free of charge, and you refuse to accept so much as a few words of gratitude, the least we can do is pull our own weight!”
Em eagerly nods in agreement, eyes full of energy and brimming with joy, “You’ve taken such good care of us for the past few days, and you’ve even offered us a place to stay, we are more than willing to offer our aid!”
Flustered, but evidently pleased to see the improvement in our health, Jane gives us each a light pat on the head, “Well, if you two insist.”
I grin, “You won’t be sorry, miss, I promise we’ll be useful. We’re willing to do anything if it means we can help you!”
Jane laughs, but I catch a hint of worry in her eyes, “My dear children, while I appreciate your help, you mustn't make such promises to just anybody.”
“Oh, but Miss Jane, you aren’t just anybody!”
Jane affectionately ruffles my hair with a warm, glowing smile, “That’s nice to hear, dear Ren, thank you for your kind words.”
But it’s true.. you saved our lives.
At this moment, I make a solemn vow.
To protect Jane, no matter the cost. To protect every hair on her head, from her fireplace smile to her cheery little hum.
It’s only been a year and I’m already used to living with my two little helpers, Ren and Em. They fill my little home with so much life and joy that it feels as though they have been here from the very start. I absentmindedly wrap my fingers around the wooden handle of my pitcher to fill some glasses with water, and end up pouring out some air.
I sheepishly turn my head to look around only to discover that both children have witnessed my embarrassing slip of the mind.
I sigh, “Please forget what you just saw.”
Ren and Em, visibly suppressing giggles, vigorously nod several times and burst out the door with half-eaten loaves sticking out of their mouths. I can hear their giggles passing through the door to dance in my ears like a musical tune, and I can’t help but grin.
I slide a rope through the handle of the pitcher and secure the two ends in a tight knot, then slip on the makeshift necklace.
I call out, “Ren! Em! I’m heading into the forest to refill the water, alright?”
Em rushes back in through the door to cling onto me with a hug, “Miss Jane, why don’t you let Ren and I do it? You should stay here to rest!”
I pat her on the head, “Thank you for the offer, but I can’t let you two do all of the work, can I?”
Upon seeing words of protest beginning to form in Ren's mouth, I quickly hush him, “Besides, it’s quite unhealthy to stay inside all the time. I’d like to get some fresh air every once in a while. Don’t worry, my dears, I’ll be back in no time!”
Humming, I lower the mouth of the pitcher into a gurgling stream and wait for a rush of cool water to flood in.
I notice some movement out of the corner of my eye but I choose not to pay it any heed, dismissing it as a wild creature or gust of wind.
I should gather some berries for jam…
With more water slipping out than rushing into my pitcher, I set it aside and cup my hands to drink straight from the stream.
The sensation of cool, refreshing liquid blessing my dry throat only leaves it begging for more.
A sharp pain abruptly pierces my chest and my body is thrown backwards into the rough bark of a looming tree. A concerningly dark cloud of smoke is emitting from the throbbing point of pain on my chest and my vision blurs as I start to feel a little woozy.
I shudder in response to a booming voice in my head that shakes my soul to its very core, commanding me to “SLEEEEEEEEEP.”
The light, tapping footsteps approaching the door spark excitement in my heart, and I dash over to the door to greet Miss Jane.
I creak open the door and run, barefooted, through the dirt to throw my arms around her neck, “Miss Jane, what happened? It’s pitch-black outside and we were worried sick!”
A sickeningly sweet voice trickles out of Miss Jane’s mouth, and a shiver runs down my spine, “My sweet, sweet child, there’s no need to worry about me. I assure you, I am perfectly fine. Look, I have the water right here!”
Something doesn’t feel right.
“M-Miss Jane? Are you sure you are feeling fine?”
Come on, Em, what’s wrong with you? How could you even think of doubting Miss Jane?
I shake my head at myself, but I fail to control my shaking limbs.
Miss Jane smiles and puts her hands on my shoulders, “Of course. My dear Em, why don’t you call me mother? I don’t mean to impose but I truly see you as my very own daughter.”
I freeze in shock, and a warm fuzzy feeling starts to melt away at my irrational suspicions, “Miss Jane…”
I hear a soft creak behind me and the smell of Ren’s chicken soup fills the air. Ren must’ve overheard our conversation, because he’s standing in the doorway with his jaw dropped.
My stinging cheek causes tears to uncontrollably well up in my eyes. The warm, snug feeling that had filled my heart slipped out through the fresh cracks.
I look up in disbelief with a hand on my cheek, “M-Miss Jane?”
Ren put himself between me and Miss Jane, “Miss Jane, please calm down and let us right our wrongs. What have we done to anger you?”
“Please, call me mother,” replies a sugary voice dripping out from a twitching smile.
“M-m-,” Ren starts, but is interrupted by a harsh outcry.
Miss Jane, doubling over as though she were punched in the guts, let out a soft groan, “GO AWAY! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!”
I-I can’t control my body. It feels as though I’m a stranger in my own body… and my presence is being forced aside by another one.
This other… “being”... seems to have access to the entirety of my past memories…
The demon in me is dragging my feet forth while lugging along the increasingly light pitcher of water, leaving a wet trail behind.
Though I remain a spectator of my physical form, I can tell that the perpetrator is becoming increasingly comfortable in my body, a disturbing thought that further alienates me from my own flesh. I can sense the demon’s intense craving for life essence, as the energy is gradually sucked out of my soul.
And then it hits me. Oh god. The children. I have to protect the children. I have to fight for control.
I struggle and try to wrestle down the conflicting presence in my mind, and I must’ve taken it by surprise because, to my elation, I am able to take back control. My excitement and relief is unfortunately interrupted by the excruciatingly painful sensation spreading throughout my body at an alarming rate. My momentary display of weakness gave the devil a chance to snatch back control, and so I am once again a mere witness of my corpse.
I fight with all my might but can only gather enough strength to regain control for mere seconds at a time.
As my home comes into view, I am forced to make a decision.
If I use my short moments of control to explain my situation or tell the children to run away, they will only insist on staying to help me out. I refuse to put them in such a dangerous situation. I must scare them off so they will run away of their own accord.
Em, with her sweet but wary smile, cautiously approaches Jane with a steaming hot cup of honey lemon tea. The sweet and citrusy fragrant is soothing but also acidic, like the calm before a storm.
“M-mother, Ren and I made this tea just for you!,” Em accidentally trips over a crack in the floor, causing some of the hot liquid to spill over the edge of the delicate cup, into her quivering hands.
“EM! Are you alright!?,” I dash to her side and cradle her hand in mine, “Let’s run it through the cold stream.”
Jane’s head whips towards our direction, “YOU CLUMSY, FILTHY BRAT! You better stay here to clean up the mess!”
Em, slightly trembling, wobbles into my arms and starts to sob, “R-Ren… what did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, Em, you didn’t do anything wrong,” I tightly wrap my arms around her and lightly stroke her hair to calm her down.
What went wrong? We’ve already gotten this far away from the match factory. So why? Why haven’t we been freed? What more must we do to secure our freedom? Our safety?
I should’ve known it was all just a facade. The whole situation was simply too good to be true. I was a fool to think that Miss Jane would be any different from the other adults. She only wants us here to work for her.
It pains me to see the devastation and betrayal swimming in Ren and Em’s eyes, but I must force myself to harden my heart if I am to save their lives.
I am using every single drop of strength I have to keep the devil in check, but I can feel its growing thirst for the young lives that are constantly within arms’ reach. So far, the devil has resorted to countering my efforts by using honeyed words to convince the children to stay. But such trickery can only go so far. Love and trust must be earned, and once they are lost, they are not easily regained.
The thought relieves me, but it saddens me all the same. It seems I still have a long way to go before I become selfless enough to completely close off my heart. Despite knowing that everything I am doing is for the sake of the children, the selfish side of me just wants to spend what little time I have left in control of myself with them as their mother.
Though, ironically, the idea was devised by the devil to fool the children into staying, I found the idea rather endearing after giving it some thought. Truly, Ren and Em are like my very own children, and I love them with all my heart.
Oh, what I would give just to hear them call me “mother” one time. Just once, for real and to me.
Sigh…I’m getting weaker by the day. My body is increasingly slipping out of my control… I have to think of a solution before I am forced to give in to the devil…
A little voice that I have long pushed to the back of my mind called out, “Oh but there is a way to protect the children.”
I know… I know what I must do, but I can’t bring myself to do it…not yet… not while there’s still hope.
Snuggly huddled in bed with Ren, I turn to face him, “Ren, I’m scared.”
“Me too, Em, me too…,” Ren sighs, and I can hear the exhaustion in his voice, though it’s too dark for me to see his expression.
“Did something happen to Mi—I mean mother?,” I ask in a shaky voice, “She was so kind and sweet before…”
“No, Em. She was never kind or sweet. It was all an act.”
I try to hold back my tears, but I can’t hide the tremble in my voice, “D-do you really believe that?”
I can hear the regret in Ren’s voice, “Oh Em, please don’t cry, everything is going to be alright, I promise.”
His words of comfort only serve to break my fragile dam, and the falls come pouring out.
To my astonishment, rather than embracing me in an attempt to calm me down, Ren joins me, and we mourn together.
All of this started the night Jane came back from the forest with the pitcher of water…I wonder what possessed her to show her true colors. Perhaps she felt that after gaining our trust, we wouldn’t dare to leave her side no matter how poorly she treats us. She speaks sweet nothings to us and hands them out like candy, but I refuse to be fooled.
I let myself get lost in my thoughts while drowning in silent tears until I finally drift off to sleep.
I am met with a blinding flash of light and the silhouette of a strangely familiar figure slowly emerges from the curtain of radiance.
I see Jane comfortably seated in a soft field of grass while affectionately watching Em, who is grinning from ear to ear, jumping and twirling in circles without a care in the world. Em enthusiastically runs into her arms, and giggles in glee, “Mother, why don’t we collect some flowers to make some tea?”
Jane crouches and lightly squeezes Em’s hands, “That sounds wonderful, Em.”
A hooded figure with black feathered wings suddenly flickers into view and wraps its arms around Jane’s waist.
Jane’s eyes widen and she aggressively kicks at the mysterious abductor. The towering wings begin to flap and Em wails as she grips onto Jane’s hand so tightly that her knuckles turn bone-white. Despite her efforts, Jane’s fingers inevitably slip out of Em’s hands. As the two approach the clouds, Jane closes her eyes as though resigning to her fate.
I break out of my frozen stance and yell, “Mother, come back! You’re getting too close to the sun!”
The stygian figure shoots up with Jane in their arms, and the wings burst into flames. In the blink of an eye, the two descend in the form of ashes raining down from the sky.
I’m running out of time. I’ve been stalling for long enough.
The shimmering, teardrop stars spread across the dark veil over the once sunny skies call me forth, into the abyss.
I wrap my feeble life force around my soul to bind it to my body once more. The burning flames scorching my soul are nothing compared to the feeling of having my heart shattered into innumerable pieces.
I crack the door open as quietly as possible, but pause a half-step out the door. In spite of better judgment, I slip back into the house and step across the floor on my toes to peek into Ren and Em’s room.
They look so peaceful.
I smile melancholically as I watch the bodies slowly rise and fall with each deep breath. And then I notice their tear-stained eyes and soaking wet pillows. The sight of their sorrow tears apart my heart but it also steels my resolve.
Without further hesitation, I step out the door and fall under the mercy of the night sky. In a trance, I return to the home of the devil, heading deeper and deeper into the looming trees. My bone-deep pain continues to grow as I near the stream where I was cursed.
I step into the burning cold of the running water and I follow the direction of flow. It feels as though I am walking on a trail of sharp shards of ice, but each step lifts a ton off my shoulders and lightens the load on my shredded heart.
The devil is fiercely clawing at me from the inside, but I have never felt so at ease. I hum softly with the whooshing water and harmonious chirps that pinch the biting cold of the air and cut through the otherwise dead silence of the night.
I can tell that I’m nearing the end when I start to hear rushing water crash into the rocky earth far down below. The rumbling drums tell me the falls are waiting for my arrival, and I quicken my pace to reach them.
I sprint with the current as I am drawn in by the chasm beckoning me forth. When my feet finally reach the edge, I curl my toes and free my soul.
At last, my fallen heart has been gifted the wings to soar once more.
Part I. The Village
Welcome to the Village, home to a steady population of 15,000 people within the Tower walls. Everything here was perfect: the food and water was always perfectly rationed, the labor was always guaranteed, and the access to information was kept scarce to allow villagers to focus on their life’s purpose, productivity. According to the state’s calculations, there had been no starvation or workplace incidents in hundreds of years thanks to careful planning and good citizens coming together to act as one unit in service of their state. Everyone has what they need, theoretically, and not a drop more. The villagers were conditioned to be eternally grateful to — and passively resentful of — the upper-class in the soaring Towers who they were told so carefully created this system.
Each new year that the state successfully continues executing the Solution is another year that the villagers should thank the gods for their riches. After all, there was once a time when people were not guaranteed a place to rest and eat between shifts. People must have lived like barbarians back then, either balancing dozens of priorities and bills in their heads or losing their homes and jobs. The unemployment rate was and has always been 0%.
Carlo was a simple man who appreciated the simple life that had been built for him. He never had to face any difficult decisions or questions, no existential crises thanks to the state laying out his path for him. He worked as a mechanic in the food processing factories while his wife, Rhea, worked in the labeling line. They had changing, opposite shifts so Carlo would get home from work just in time to kiss his wife good morning before she left for her shift — and vice versa. This was far from unusual, as every pairing was assigned differing shifts to “even out the distribution of labor” and, more importantly, to keep the villagers in a constant state of disorientation and disconnection. Limiting rest and leisure time to only what is strictly necessary to support life was an excellent way to keep the wheels of society turning.
Rhea was expecting their first of the mandatory two-child quota and had been awarded a temporary allowance of daily breaks as a result. Carlo saved part of his daily meal ration, a dry nutrient biscuit, to give to his wife each day. No matter how much she protested, he insisted on sneaking it into her pocket and she stopped arguing after seeing her thinning hair and protruding bones in the mirror. When the hut’s roof started leaking and they were denied maintenance resources for the year, Carlo was forced to instead save his biscuits to barter with the neighbor, who was placed in construction. The neighbor arrived at night to patch their roof with a piece of factory scrap metal so that the Enforcement wouldn’t cite Carlo for an unauthorized repair or the neighbor for theft of state property.
Despite all this, Carlo and Rhea were happy, or at least as happy as they knew they could be. However, they heard bits and pieces making the rounds in the Village’s gossip circles about the lottery, which gave one villager each year the opportunity to experience the life of the Tower elite. The lottery hinted to them that there was a chance to be even happier. All able-bodied villagers currently assigned to a job were eligible for selection, which the state proudly marketed as a chance for renewal and self-development. Carlo desperately needed the chance to catch up on years of sleep debt, and he was intrigued by this opportunity to become an even better worker — not that he had any choice in the matter, as participation was mandatory.
They had heard that the people in the Towers lived in fully glass-walled homes that touched the sky and they ate a different meal every single day. Carlo dreamed of walking into one of the fancy stores and trading polished silver coins for an entire bar of chocolate. Rhea’s favorite thing in the world was enjoying the small, foil-wrapped chocolate square that the state distributed on people’s birthdays. He never had much of a taste for sweet foods and always gave Rhea his square on his birthday. Rhea dreamed of walking into the shop and buying her husband an entire block of the sharp cheese he liked so much from the weekly rations so he could finally enjoy a treat on his birthday.
Together, they dreamed of an opulent life in the Towers, looking down at the little people zipping around in the sand like ants. They dreamed of looking out at the other side and seeing green pastures filled with plump livestock and blooming flowers. The Solution that built this society promised that in just a couple more generations of committed compliance, the Village and the Towers would unite and take their talents back outside to a hopefully renewed land. The Ancient War gave them this utopia, razing cities around the world to the ground to eventually result in nothing but the glass-walled dust bowl they called home.
One day, a hand tapped Carlo on the shoulder while he was fixing machinery at the factory. He was handed a piece of paper with a gold star on it by an Enforcer with a grin almost as wide as his generous waistline. The Enforcer slowly explained that his identification number had been selected in the lottery, and he would be sent to the Towers very shortly. He had just a few minutes to run home and hug his wife, his head swirling with excitement. He managed to give Rhea a quick peck on the lips, but he was so distracted by the news that it didn’t hit him until then that he might actually miss his child’s birth. His heart sank, but it stayed afloat with the thought of bringing back legendary stories to tell his son and unimaginable wealth to support his new family.
Part II. The Towers
The Towers themselves are essentially a massive, circular building rising above and around the Village, similar to what one may have called a skyscraper — or in this case, more similar to an entire block of them — hundreds of years ago. A total of 5,000 people lived and worked their whole lives in the Towers, able to see only through the glass walls comprising the exterior of the circular Towers at the barren fields below. The bleak sight contrasted with the convenience and artificial sense of purpose was enough to keep them in line.
The Enforcement occupied only the bottom and top floors of the Towers, and those on the top floor were fortunate enough to be able to look down and out at the whole system in action. Those on the bottom floor worked throughout the system to keep it secure and compliant with the Solution, those on the top floor only ever deigned the Lower Floors with their presence for occasional entertainment.
Theo and his wife lived on the twenty-fifth floor of the fifty-story structure. They both worked in the Resource Operations service line, Theo in the finance department and Hera in the packaging design department. Like most people in the Towers, they each worked the standard shift, commuting separately to their respective departments on different floors and returning home just in time to share a quiet meal and go to sleep in their adjacent sleeper pods. They rose and fell asleep together under the dim light of the tinted exterior windows, feeling every day vaguely foggy and discontent from the lack of vitamin D and natural light.
Theo would occasionally stop by the store on his way home from work to pick up the chocolate biscuits his wife loved. He hadn’t done so lately. He didn’t mean to stop, it just slipped his mind for a week and then a week turned to months. Hera had started taking the long way home from work to go to the store and get ingredients for dinner, with a pack of chocolate biscuits snuck in below the loaf of bread. She missed the gesture from Theo, but she was too busy wrapping her mind around the deep pain that would sit heavily in her chest most days to even think about the biscuits. It was a crushing and cold weight inside her, dense nothingness and a feeling of being totally directionless in this pre-set life. She longed for warmth and change, and that small change to her routine felt like an act of rebellion.
The people in the Tower had heard stories about the ruling class that lived in the village. They heard that the inner walls of the Towers were not just tinted safety glass but actually one-way mirrors that the state used to keep tabs on all of the residents from their comfortable mansions below. They had food just handed to them, and everyone was guaranteed a home. The stories lacked detail on the quality of the food and the home, however. Enforcement did nothing to quell the rumors because they kept the worker bees buzzing along under fluorescent lights, foolishly dreaming about a future where they had everything they needed. The villagers dreamed about the same fantasy.
Like the villagers, the people in the Towers also had an annual lottery to look forward to during the daily grind. Their eligibility was automatic upon passing the yearly physical exam that confirmed their capacity to contribute to the success of the Towers. Their consent was implied and their participation, if selected, was mandatory. The winner got to experience life in the Village, which the people in the Towers gossipped about in hushed whispers.
One person told Theo that the Village got its name from the villas that its residents lounged around in all day. Another person told Hera that the Village had gilded roads and gold-trimmed residents who ate as many exotic fruits as they desired. Hera wanted to win so she could feel the sunshine on her face and the grass beneath her toes. Theo wanted to win just so he could feel something after a mind-numbing lifetime as a good drone for the state. He didn’t care if he had adventure, or riches, he just wanted a day where he had no tasks in his inbox or predetermined itinerary to follow.
One dull day, Theo was hunched over the stack of papers on his desk with a limp sandwich in one hand and his red pen in the other. He didn’t know what came over him, but he suddenly felt the urge to introduce a little chaos. He just wanted to do something, anything, to break the chain and release the restless energy that was rising within him. He dug the tip of his pen into his notepad, pushing harder onto the page as his uneasiness grew until the pen was stabbing through layers of paper. Theo threw the pen down and caught his breath.
His electronic inbox beeped and startled him. His heart dropped in dread at the next pending request which would be just as boring as the last, then bounced back up when he saw the subject line: “Congratulations.” The message had the same word on a gold banner followed by a line announcing his selection as the lucky winner who beat out the rest of the Towers for a coveted role in the Exchange Program.
The beige room seemed to melt away all around him. All he saw was himself walking on the fabled golden road and drinking from the flowing fountains of wine that he had heard stories about. Then he remembered that he wouldn’t be alone and snapped back to reality. Rage was building inside him from the thought of the upper-class in the Village that he had been raised from birth to resent. Theo spent the rest of his workday fantasizing about climbing to the top of the tallest villa he could find and hurling golden coins at the elite class below.
Theo didn’t even bother staying past the end of his shift like he did every day. He had wanted to get noticed for the promotion he was up for in five years that came with a more comfortable office chair to support even longer hours in the office. Now, none of that seemed to matter. He printed out the message with the golden banner and ran home to show his wife. He burst through the door to their flat and made a beeline for Hera, who was in the kitchen unpacking groceries.
Hera had noticed that Theo was feeling extra low lately and had brought back extra food from the shop to help cheer him up. Before he could say anything, she proudly presented him with the extra-large bag of spiced potato crisps that used to make him smile. She kissed him and told him that she had carefully planned out all of these larger portions so neither of them would have to stop by the store for another month.
Theo grinned for a moment before his face fell. He pulled the crumpled print-out from his pocket, handed it to his wife, and replied with a tremble in his voice that he didn’t think she would need the extra-large crisps after all. Her brow furrowed in confusion and then shot up in excitement for her husband once she read the page. She wrapped him in her arms and cried, but couldn’t tell if it was out of joy for him or out of sadness that she wasn’t going to be the one to feel the warm sunshine on her face.
Neither one of them had read the electronic message too closely. The gold banner had an asterisk leading to fine print at the bottom of the printed page that warned that the Exchange would begin at the end of the shift. They finally realized what was happening when the Enforcement came barging through the door to collect Theo. Hera gave her husband a quick but passionate kiss as he was whisked away to an unknown land.
Theo had snuck his pen in his pocket before he was taken away. He didn’t give it much thought, clearly, since he would’ve brought something more useful or sentimental if he had more time to think. His base instinct subconsciously told him that he would need something to write down his thoughts. Writing things down always helped him sort out his thoughts, and he figured he was going to have a lot of confusing ones racing through his head very soon.
Part III. The Exchange
The time had come after a day in the Subject Stabilization capsules, which were intentionally kept painted all-white and completely bare to neutralize subjects’ thoughts before the Exchange. The men had been brought into the Corridor, a series of passageways and lifts that only the Enforcement could access, and led to a thick metal gate. Though largely ill-prepared, both men had more than enough time to sit with their thoughts in the brief time between the announcements and the arrivals. They both thought in detail about what the gold would feel like in their hands and their pockets, each expecting the other to be dripping in luxury. It was hard to tell who was more surprised when the gate rose.
Theo took in the sight of Carlo. Carlo wore denim pants stained with grease and covered in years of patchwork. His hands were covered in calluses, not gold rings. When Theo met his gaze, he flashed a smile that reached all the way to the corners of his eyes. Carlo was amused at the clothes his Tower counterpart wore and wondered if perhaps the upper-class had sent out this poor man on laundry day. Theo wore a clean but crumpled linen shirt and beige slacks with a red stain seeping out from his left pocket. He hadn’t even noticed the stain until he saw Carlo staring at it. Hopefully the Enforcers would think it was just an old stain and wouldn’t find his hidden treasure.
Theo realized then that he hadn’t read much information or asked any questions about the details of the Exchange. He turned to the Enforcer by his side and asked him when he would get to come home. The Enforcer kept his eyes forward and simply replied that he was not at liberty to discuss the details of the Exchange Program. Carlo’s eyes welled up with tears. He hadn’t given any thought to how long he would be up there in the Towers. His wife was only around a few weeks away from giving birth, he thought. He hoped that he would return in time.
An alarm announced the order given from nearly 150 meters up. The Enforcers on each side pushed their respective Exchange assignments past the thick red line painted at the edge of the Towers and the gate slammed closed.
Carlo’s bare feet stepped onto the cool steel floor. Theo’s scuffed loafers tumbled onto the sand. The men were brought to their new workstations, each adjacent to a small room with a cot, the essence of a bathroom, and a food storage unit. They didn’t know it, but they would be in the same service line that their counterparts had previously been assigned to. This was established in the Solution to ensure an equal balance of labor throughout the system.
In a separate quadrant of the Towers, Hera was visited by an Enforcer while she was sketching a new label. Rhea was approached by another one at her point in the assembly line. They were both told to resume their daily lives while their husbands spent their time on the other side. They were not to speak about the Exchange Program, and they would be reunited with their husbands soon enough once Enforcers came to collect them for the return. No congratulations, no condolences.
Months passed with no news. Rhea had her child, a son with his father’s goofy smile, while her husband was in the Towers fixing a paper jam in his department. He was the only person in the entire service line who could so much as identify a wrench. Carlo, like the rest of the villagers thanks to the Solution, lacked a strong comprehension of time beyond the next 24 hours. He knew it had been a while since he had left home, but couldn’t have answered if it had been weeks, months, or even years.
One day, an Enforcer appeared by Carlo’s side. He told him very matter-of-factly that he was now a father. The happy bubble of ignorance he occupied was broken. Despite all his anguish, Carlo was doing significantly better than Theo.
Unlike Carlo, Theo had a good grasp on the concept of time that drove him to insanity with each passing day. He felt like he had been banished to and sentenced to die in this dust bowl. Every day was exactly the same here: wake up, prepare for work, work, go home to recharge for work, and repeat. There were no days off, no more simple pleasures to take solace in like occasionally sleeping in or even having a warm, non-beige meal. He missed Hera terribly and had no way of so much as sending her a message. He wished he could trip over her shoes at the door or watch one of her silly picture shows. He wished he could fast forward to the day he was allowed to go back to his life.
This was not the luxurious adventure he had signed up for — not that he had ever signed up for this. He cursed himself for never even questioning the stories that turned the Village into an impossible fantasy of a world draped in the finest silks and jewels. He longed for the relative luxury that living in the Towers afforded him, even if it was utterly and mind-numbingly predictable.
He had held onto his red pen, the cheap one with the broken cap, because it gave him something to hold onto in the absence of hope. He was glad he had kept it hidden when they came to take his Tower clothes on the first day. Something about the dark nothingness in the Enforcer’s eyes told him that he was meant to be quiet about the other world.
The loudspeaker in the makeshift home started blaring just minutes after Theo got back to his unit after his shift. It roared that due to an unforeseen illness, he must report to his station in just an hour. His jaw clenched and his fist trembled. He raised his hand to take out his frustrations on the wall but realized it was made of some sort of hard concrete made from the same coarse sand that lay beneath him at all times here. He lowered his fist and laughed. He could not escape the sandy Village even in this supposed refuge between shifts.
In the Towers, Carlo was running through his list of tasks like the good worker bee he had become. The Enforcer had dropped the news and quickly left about an hour ago. The air was cool here, just like he had dreamed. He felt a pang of melancholy that he couldn’t explain. It was for his own good and by design that he did not hold onto thoughts or memories long enough to let them hurt him.
He was collecting the mail that had accumulated for sorting and delivered a stack of golden envelopes to the Resource Director’s office. The light was off but the door was cracked open, so he stepped inside only to find an empty room. He set the envelopes down in the incoming task tray and was turning to walk back out when the speaker buzzed on.
“This is an announcement for all in the Management service line. Thank you for your dedication to ensuring the success of the Exchange Program. We will be making this year’s placements permanent due to your excellent selections and training. As a reward, we will toast to your efforts at tonight’s dinner party.”
Carlo dropped his mailbag as his knees shook. He understood enough of the message. The word “permanent” echoed in his mind. He felt too numb to move. He heard the dying gasp of an old printer in the next room and shuffled over, seemingly on autopilot. His bubble had completely shattered.
He entered the room and found a printer that had been abandoned in frustration and had now erupted in flames — one last act of defiance. He looked at the bright red lever with a painted flame symbol on it in the corner of the room, then looked at the fire that began to consume the room around him. What was the point anymore? He could never go back. He let the flames take the table, the surrounding walls, and finally the floor beneath him. He was born from the dust and would die in ashes.
That evening, Hera heard her neighbors discussing a fire that had broken out at her husband’s department. Thankfully, it had been reported that there had been no casualties. She was glad her husband was away on Exchange so he was safe and sound. She longed for his arrival and his warm embrace. She missed her husband and the days when he would bring her those silly chocolate biscuits she loved. Soon, she told herself.
Dark Side of Love
Countless stories have been written about the darkness in mind. The dark, in both film and books, has always held an oddly fascinating, if not perverse sense of delight in people.
The darkness can cause you to lose your way, or stumble over an object you never knew was there until too late. Perhaps finding something that would shock or terrify you, causing a scream to erupt; that sense of cold fear washing through you, and your bladder flies free without permission.
The darkness holds sounds you never pay attention too, that is unless it’s past midnight while walking to your car, walking faster, and glimpsing behind you to see if anyone is following; or at home, and every noise you hear has you on edge.
Perhaps you are being followed, and in one swift moment, a scream is choked from your life, whittled away to a gurgle, then a gasp, that last surge for life, and the last thing your dead eyes see are the eyes of the one who took your life.
The darkness holds many things. The expression on lovers face’s. Thieves relish the darkness, allowing them to prey on unsuspecting people and places.
The darkness is many things to many people.
Darkness is an unexplored world of dauntless fear, never knowing what may be around the next corner, a darkened alleyway or even in deepest slumber.
Fear has a way to heighten one's phobias. Grating on nerves. Fear is a four-letter word ever powerful as the word love. For even love can leave a person lost and become a fool in believing love can make the world go round when in truth, fear is the cycle that changes all things.
There are thousands of people who work in the darkness in cities all across the world. Some have important work to be done, others, not so important. Police and fire-fighters, air-traffic and underground railway controllers, hospital staff; all important.
Strippers, hookers, junkies, and the homeless, not so important.
The waitress trying to support two kids on her own: to her, important.
To me, I see her as just doing her job. It all depends on how you look at things, at people, at what they do.
Tonight, however, isn’t a book. There will be no movie to attend. Tonight, will be like any other night when the moon is high and full, and the night sky filled with tiny sparkling lights.
If you live in the country, the night holds sounds of whistling wind, chirping sounds of whippoorwills, the hooting of an owl, and every now and then, a car passing by unseen, except for its twin eyes of brightness.
If you live in the city, the noises are many. Passing cars that roar by in egotistical fashion, horns blaring, cab drivers cursing, other people yelling or laughing, a gunshot somewhere signaling the end of a life, all while walking the streets in the darkness.
Many businesses open all night; the restaurants, corner stores and gas stations, night clubs; everything lit up in bright lights, conducting business as usual, and why shouldn’t they? They are there to make money; not to be concerned about anything else that happens in the darkness surrounding what they do.
It is on a night such as this that invades the lives of strangers. Those people you don’t know, people you would never meet, at least not right now. You may come across them in the shadows of another night, and that, would be a pity for you, but a blessing for me.
Linda left Happy Burger just past eleven like she always does on weekend nights and was making her five block walk home like she always did. Like always, she was so glad the weekend was over so she could relax tomorrow, maybe sleep in late, and later she would tend to her small flower garden.
Linda has no personal life. Late forties, heavyset, not all that attractive, and truth be told, her social skills left much to be desired.
On this night, as with all other nights after work, she crossed over Mullen Drive to McVey Street, walked past an alleyway, only this time, she thought she could hear heavy breathing as if right next to, or behind her. Stopping long enough to take a quick look around and not seeing anything and heard nothing more than her own breathing. A bit taken aback by this, she managed to shake it off and continued her walk home.
After going another thirty feet, she felt, rather than heard, a shudder in the air, and thought she saw a shadow float past her.
Not daring to look back this time, she quickened her pace, fearful there may be an attacker close by. Her hand reaches inside her purse for a small spray tube of mace. Her eyes were filling with fear, but she knows not to run, afraid of giving herself away.
She starts to breathe a sigh of relief when she reaches the block where her apartment is. Linda is only five houses away when she hears a voice come from behind her.
“Why do you fear the dark? Why do you fear me, Linda?”
Such a calming voice.
Linda stopped. She didn’t recognize the voice, but the voice knew her. She turned and looked at the face of the voice. A face somewhat shrouded in darkness.
“Do I know you?”
“No, but soon, you will. Look deeply into my eyes, Linda. Step closer. Do not be afraid. Tonight, you live for me.”
At first, Linda was frightened, but there was something about this man that set her mind at ease. Her hand released the tube of mace and it fell to the sidewalk. She smiled at him.
Although this man was dressed differently from other men she has seen, she felt compelled to do as he requested; or was told. She wasn’t sure which. It didn’t matter. Linda stared intently into his eyes.
His eyes held her rooted to one spot. She could feel her chest rising and falling in an unexpected lustful expectation of what was to come. The next timeless moment found her with her arms stretched out in anticipation, of longing, and all of her private desires that never happened to her in real life, came out to finally be fulfilled.
“That’s it, release yourself. Come to me, Linda. Bare yourself that I may taste freely of your desire for me.”
Linda walked right up to the tall man with jet black hair, whose clothes were just as black, and his eyes piercing her soul. She pressed her two-fifty-pound frame tightly against him.
He pulled her hair away from her face and neck and stared intently into her eyes as if searching for her soul he wanted to save, to control for himself. Searching out her soul to destroy. Searching out her soul so he may live.
Leaning against her, he opened his mouth, baring his teeth, his black dead eyes locked onto the white thickness of her fleshy throat, and he clamped down hard and began to draw out the life force energy, the bitter-sweet nourishment he has craved for untold centuries.
Linda’s sex life had never been that great with only a total of three men she had ever been in bed with. This time, she gave out a faint gasping sound, but not from pain, but pure sensual pleasure. She felt as if she had encountered the best sex imaginable and didn't want it to end.
He tasted her for several more seconds, then released her. Placing his hand over her neck, he covered the twin marks of his passion with his dark powers of magic, and then vanished.
When Linda came out of her trance, she felt strange, almost giddy, and wondered why she was standing in the middle of the block when her apartment was but a few short feet away.
Never remembering she dropped her tube of mace, she continued home. After she showered, watched a little of the news, she went to bed.
Her dreams were filled with the most satisfying sex of her life, which, truth be told, was never all that enjoyable.
That night, she also dreamed of a tall, powerful man in black.
Linda became one of many in a new line of power.
The night continued to move on when he brought three more to his fold as he had Linda. They were to be part of a new legion unlike anything seen, felt, or heard of before. A power no mere mortal, no physical power on earth could stop.
Sitting atop a tall building gazing out over the lights that held an unsuspecting city, he marveled at the sheer simplicity of it all.
How easy this has been for me. I have been nothing more than a story, a piece of fiction to many, a fairy tale conjured up by the mind of that drunken, drug-filled demented writer, Stoker, who thought me to be an excellent way to garner him a career as a writer and gain fame. Strangely enough, it did.
Then he screamed out his rage.
“I am not fiction! I am of Life after Death! I control what others cannot. No, these humans have no true knowledge of what I am genuinely like. Wooden stakes driven into the heart? Hardly. How can the walking dead have a beating heart? Light only weakens me in small ways, but it cannot burn away my flesh and turn me into ashes, and the crucifix? I did not believe in life there was a God, and in my present state, I believe even less. If there were a God, he wouldn’t allow me to have lived thousands of years as I have.
"Once, I was a child born to a poor set of struggling parents who barely had food for one yet alone an entire family. It was then I lived in a terrible darkness I didn't know how to get away from.
"Once, I was a petty thief, stealing scraps of food to just survive. Hoping one day to make a name for myself. To be someone important and looked to for guidance. That day came but not how I expected it to be. The glamour died the day the baby was born.
“It was that child. That child who rained down this curse over me. I was nothing more than a thief then. It was late, and not very many people were nearby when he was born. A few shepherds and the boy's parents There were small trundles of incense and gold lying just within the barn and within my reach. It was my ticket to wealth. I grabbed them quickly and ran. How was I supposed to know this child was to be the Son of God?
I crossed a line that night I could never change. From that moment I was both doomed and damned, but I adapted.
“This is my torture for that single moment. No, I can never die, never be killed, that is, not until all the blood in the world has been emptied into my veins, or, until the final days of the world arrives.
“That which mankind calls God has punished me in a way no human should be punished. I have become a messenger of death. I am the true macabre.
"How so? The very first night, the craving for blood was strong. So strong, I took the lives of my parents, two brothers and a sister, I feasted and when I didn't think I had enough, the urgency returned and took the lives of stranger's. It didn't matter who they were or their stature.
“But I am creating a new legion. I am the apocalypse. This is how I see myself. One day, those who follow me, shall see me as their ultimate savior to a never-ending life for thousands of years to come.
God changed me and only he can put an end to all this, but he stays far away from me. It's as if he fears me more than I do him. It's both sad and funny. He has the power to end all this and yet, he allows me to do as I w3ish. As I choose. Free will. Free choice.
“If mankind knew the truth, they would surely tremble. I am the true vampire of the night who walks among you by day. Many countries around the world same my name in their language. My personal favorite is Drakul, a Serbian word.
“I am the reality of all words written about me, and I shall be forever, until forever dies.
“My passions, my desires, all flow through the blood that comes in those few sweet seconds when my thirst is satiated. Those I choose will help me to maintain my desires. They will be as I, but forever in my bondage of blood-wielding lust. They will be my eyes and ears both day and night. They will be where I cannot. They too shall feed on the many I cannot reach. They will also become my reserve to feed off of, when my hunger strikes deepest.”
Looking down at the city night, he spies another who stands on a corner.
“She shall be most fitting. She walks the night as I do, in search of pleasure, but hers is found in money. After tonight, money will no longer matter.”
And he went to her, and she readily gave into his demonic desire as he took from her flesh and feasted with willful gluttony.
Her name was Goldie. Goldie had been a hooker for almost twelve years. When the man dressed in black appeared in front of her, she thought nothing of the way he was dressed, or his soothing accent. Over the years she had had a great deal of strange customers. She did, however, find him extremely handsome.
Goldie didn’t understand the truth of his looks until it was too late. By then she no longer cared.
Tonight, and every night to follow, every customer she picked up would be hooked. She coined a new phrase for what she was about to do.
“Once bitten, but never, ever shy.”
Several more women were separately linked into the new legion that night. Each had a special purpose with their new lives for their Master to live.
"Even the drunkard's were at my mercy. Once I feasted, the only thing they wanted to drink was the blood from other unsuspecting fools."
Before the moon waned away, he sat on the edge of a tall building, looking down with the most sinister of smiles, nodding his head lightly at this new beginning, his army.
As light surfaced, as a warm orangish sun crept atop other buildings, he sailed effortlessly to the city streets and transformed his appearance from the black of night into that of a blind beggar. He always felt a twinge of weakness during this time, but by shielding his eyes with dark sunglasses, his life would continue.
His eyes were the only weakness by day. Behind the sunglasses, they would provide him protection from the sun’s rays, and he wouldn’t lose his power to control.
For the rest of this day, he would just sit against a wall, beg for money, and read the thoughts of passerby’s. Read those minds who were the weakest and visit those few tonight.
What of tomorrow?
Tomorrow he would begin in another city, then another and another until he has infected the world. Then he shall have his way at will.
This is real. This time the end of life is at hand. This time, life is beginning to end, and he knows he cannot be stopped.
He is the biblical Armageddon. He is the Apocalypse.
Night after night passed from cities visited, and in every city he began anew. Hundreds are already doing his bidding, adding thousands to the countless new legion building.
He believed this to be the true wealth. Where once he struggled for survival, now he can relish in knowing he has conquered and mastered all the things that went wrong in his life and that his time is at hand.
Though not seen, the handwriting is on the wall and make no mistake, he has but one commandment. Do unto others, over and over.
How bittersweet is this moment. Driven by a passion greater than mankind could ever fathom.
Blood flowed between his pale lips, and he savored each drop.
His eyes burned with a power no one could ever defeat.
He is coming for you one day to lift you from a life of despair and false hope.
Beware, Desmodus Draculae lives.
You won’t when he comes for you. And you will thank him for your new life.
Whatever fears you had, will vanish. Whatever expectations you envisioned will disappear. The road to a dead life is the only life you will come to cherish and that will be the only thing you love. The only thing you will need.
All you have ever learned, ever been taught will be far, far away. surrounded in forgotten dreams and hopes
Remember and never forget what I give you. A true everlasting life without worry, without care. No ridicule, no fear.
Embrace what is to come and become one of the true sons and daughters in the fight to have that which you can find nowhere else. True abiding life lived like never before.
Do as I ask, and all your fears and worries will be left behind you. Fail me and I will drink your existence away until all that remains is the dust of your flesh scattered with the winds of time.
No, there are no other choices when I bring you in the fold. I am the only truth, the only light you will ever see in the darkness.
Walk with me and you will be rewarded.
Desmodus Draculae is your true father.
The Roe-v-Wade Home for Unwed Mothers
“Patient pregnant, being seen as out-patient; living at Roe vs. Wade Home for Unwed Mothers.”
I considered the paradox of her residence with befuddled amusement as I confiscated the car keys that hung so unprotected in the cupboard.
I darted for the door. As often as I had dreamt of tearing off in Ava’s Piranha, I had realized that I’d know just when that time would be—and this was definitely the time. I popped out of the side door of the house that opened into the carport where the red and brown sports car sat, hopefully the battery still at the ready. Four doors in a “sports car,” I thought; some racy. It was pretty ugly, actually, but did look fast. And heavy. It was perfect for the predatory streets of this alternate world, but would sink like an anvil in the Amazon where its namesake inspired its verve. Its front grille was an expected design for a car so named. Its vertical chrome shafting did look like long, slender, sharp teeth. The hood release was through this dentition, which was bound to make any serviceman a little nervous when sticking his hand into the mouth of this beast.
The rain was heavy enough to spray in through the sides of the carport. I got my back wet as I entered the car at the driver’s door. The engine began turning over so loudly I almost expected the Ava here to come running out to stop the rip-off. It strained as stale batteries often cause an engine to do, and I began to sweat when my doubts started, but luckily my frequent trips to the carport paid off as there was enough juice to finally get it started. I prudently buckled up and then pulled backward down the wet driveway. The rolling water raced me down the gentle incline toward the curb. I reversed the car into the street, and when I was in the drive straightaway I took off, occasionally spraying a curtain of water to the left or to the right as I plowed large street puddles that had been collecting for the last few hours.
My Abby awaited me; she would get her surprise tonight at the Roe-v-Wade Home for Unwed Mothers. I couldn’t wait and my driving showed it.
During my time at Ava’s, I was grateful I had at least looked around outside once in a while. I had noted vehicular protocol. I knew which side of the street to drive on from my attention to this detail, as it had been months since I had last been at the helm in traffic. In addition, there was no traffic here in which to flow this late at night, so this knowledge proved crucial.
I knew the way to the Roe-v-Wade Home, because I had seen the TV commercials for it so often. It was on Esplanade Avenue, a once lovely street in bygone worlds when stately mansions, the same as were characteristic of the Garden District, stood proudly, defining the street’s milieu. Now the thoroughfare was dotted with gas stations where the ghosts of the homes were, a few bars languishing among them at points. The surviving houses needed work, no longer kept up so meticulously as in nicer worlds ago. The oaks, with their draping moss, seemed their only protection now.
The Expressway of New Orleans was terrifying enough, and when a passenger for this part of the ride I always just closed my eyes. This time, I was driving, I would have to take the Expressway in full view, in pouring rain, taking that exact route backwards until Esplanade presented itself as my destination instead of my starting point.
It’s funny that as many times as I had been down the street, I had never noticed the home for unwed mothers. From the pictures on the commercials on television, which was how I was familiar with it, it had an unusual front that involved a lot of burglar bars.
It was an easy drive to the Expressway for the car but not for my mind. The mist that inundated the torrents cloaked me away from what I knew was outside. As the Piranha sliced dreamily through the inclement night air, lulled by the distant sirens of this world, it only seemed to protect me. The reality was that it announced me—made me stand out as an invader into the alien realities and machinations here. The false sense of serenity of the closed-in climate-controlled cabin was claustrophobic.
Only an occasional car was encountered, typically gaining on me rapidly from behind and then firing past me. When I was able, I tried to identify the model. One car had lettering shaped like flames along its side that said Aghasteroid. Beneath these letters it boasted “electronic cruel-injected.” Another one that flew past me quickly had a customized license plate with too many letters crammed together that read, DYING ANYWAY. I was glad to see that one go, for I knew he had nothing to lose. I never did see a posted speed limit but felt safer breaking the minimum rather than the maximum. I went fifty-five.
An evil-looking vehicle came up on my left and then used its brakes to match my speed. It was black and had fins and spikes all over it and wore at least five differently-sized antennas. I nervously looked over repeatedly but couldn’t see because all of the windows were darkened. This guy must have taken his car out of gear or played with his clutch in such a way as to rev up next to me while moving alongside. I declined the challenge by slowing down further. This was obviously annoying, for he swerved in front of me, making me hit my brakes hard to avoid a collision. He began to slow more, drawing me provocatively into his harassment. I was very panicky by this point and searched the console for a button that would signal my emergency flasher. Maybe that would work, I thought. There was still no letup in the rain, and I strained to be watchful for his brake lights ahead of me.
Unable to readily identify the flasher button, I fumbled open a panel of shellacked hardwood and saw a set of hidden controls. One of them was a button labeled, AUTODIGESTION. What did I have to lose?
I figured it was only a matter of time before I got myself PincerLocked or worse, so I punched the button. It must have been important, because to do this I had to flip up a little hinged rod that lay over it, obviously designed to prevent accidental use. It was time to see what a Piranha could do. If mainstream America could afford cars with PincerLock or whatever, then I was curious to see what a car like this could muster—a car that a rich guy could afford.
The message on the dashboard screen read, ARE YOU SURE? I hit it again, quite sure.
By this time we were crawling on the Interstate, occasional cars whizzing past, saluting our imminent confrontation with horns. I patiently waited for autodigestion, whatever that was.
All at once I heard a grinding creak, a straining of metal against metal. Then, as I was least expecting anything like dislodging, I was stunned when the entire passenger compartment snapped upwards. My head hit the roof when this happened.
This thing was opening its jaws!
The car lurched forward on its own. I couldn’t see a thing, the top of the hood angled upward as it was. The digital tachometer faded away and a diagram of my victim appeared in the soft glow of the green monochrome screen. A schematic of the vehicle, actually depicted as moving in real time, was labeled PHASE B HADEAN AVATAR, ALUMINUM/TITANIUM: CAN BE DAMAGED, CAN BE SORRY.
Even the steering wheel went rigid as it was locked on target. I rechecked the firmness of the connections of my seat belt. Abruptly the whole front of the car clamped down. It felt like a collision, and with the hood down again I could finally see. My car was taking a bite out of his car! It must have been something for him to see, my car opening its jaws and then chomping down.
So, O.K., how do I disengage? I wondered.
Enough was enough, and I didn’t want to miss my exit. The Piranha had other plans. Up I went again, down crashed the hood again. I was bouncing wildly as my car chattered its grille on its prey. I could hear the clanging of loose pieces of tailpipe and bumper knocking under my car as I rode over them. Up and down I repeatedly was jolted by the couple of tons of machinery that so valiantly defended me. The rumination ended as the car seemed to punch its delicacy away with a final blow not unlike spitting it out. The controls, that is, the steering and speed, were once again returned to my control. I saw the other car, the Hadean Avatar, run like hell, its tail end unable to be placed between its legs, because it was a horrible twisted mess of both shredded metal and dangling naked bulbs.
I pulled my car over to the shoulder and got out. I got soaked, but this wasn’t bothersome. I was surprised, and yes, proud to see that the ol’ Piranha had only lost a couple of teeth. I paused to reflect that it felt good, for once, to be the one doling out the beatings. I had left the motor running, because I didn’t want to take a chance on the car not re-starting. The Piranha seemed to share my pride, its running motor idling at varying speeds which gave it a growling sound.
I was back at fifty-five in no time, and a mile or so after the biting attack I took my exit. I passed the old cemeteries now—the really old ones. All of those little white houses sat unsinking on the reclaimed marsh that was New Orleans, because something as narrow as a buried casket had no chance of avoiding the eventual bobbing back up. They surrounded me as I slipped onward, now rolling down City Park Avenue toward my eventual destination of Esplanade.
The rain was finally letting up enough to put my windshield wipers on an intermittent setting. I thrilled at the chance to hold my Abby again.
About a mile or so later I was deep into City Park itself, knowing I must be crazy to be there by myself at such an hour. I pressed on. There were no boogeymen, or if there were, they respected my hungry vehicle. I was finally on Esplanade, moving slowly toward the river, the French Quarter coming up on my right, the lower French Quarter approaching on my left. The Roe-v-Wade Home for Unwed Mothers would be soon, I hoped. It was late and I was rattled, my eyes shifting right and left to catch a glimpse of that austere building’s facade of mail that enwombed its unwed mothers. As it turned out, I didn’t need such a keen eye, because the riot pointed the place out splendidly. It was on the other side of the street. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was wild.
There were hundreds of people, mostly women it seemed, jostling about with each other. There were police cars authenticating the incident, even paddy wagons. I made a U-turn at the end of the avenue, where Elysian Fields met it, crossed around the neutral ground, and approached the site by creeping along the street until the fighting got in my way. The Piranha lay perched at an angle determined by the crowd, not in any way subscribing properly to any correctly designated parking spaces.
I jumped out of the car to tell a non-pregnant woman that that was no way to treat someone who was. She was handling her rather roughly, and I hated to see it. I saw the blows these two were dishing out. And this brawl was not the only one. There were dozens going on. But this was the one that I could stop or so I thought.
“Ladies! Ladies! Stop! C’mon, break it up,” I shouted as I made the mistake of getting between them. They both grabbed me and threw me right into the on-coming policeman.
“Oomph!” he blurted at the time of my impact.
“Hey, watch it, fellah,” he said. I kept myself from falling by catching on to him. He helped me and then eased away as I caught my balance. I was somewhat beaten up myself and the policeman assumed my swelling and lumps were from the issues being entertained here.
“Look, you gotta stay out of it. These women’ll kill you.”
“Trouble here?” I asked.
The cop looked curiously at me. “Yea, well,” the policeman explained in good faith, “the union’s at it again.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
We both backed up a little when the mob extended for a moment toward us, then retreated back like some hostile amoeba. The policeman was in black, with one of those bullet-proof vests on his chest. He wore a helmet that hosted several skulls on it to indicate how many times he had done something apparently extreme in the line of duty in this terrible place.
“The union,” he repeated. “The abortionists’ union.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” I admitted, only half-way paying attention as I spied every pregnancy I could for signs of Abby, all the while praying she was not in this free-for-all.
“The abortionists’ union,” he said again. Just then a pop bottle flew past both of us at head level. We ducked. “See this clinic right here next to the home?” he asked, pointing to the green single-story facility where we stood curbside.
“Yes,” I answered, still searching the faces.
“Well, that’s the abortion clinic here.”
“Right here?” I asked, temporarily halting my search. “They put it right here, right next to a home for unwed mothers? That’s a bit tacky, isn’t it?”
“Actually, Mister, you’ve got it backwards. They put the home right next to the clinic, and not the other way around.”
“Who did?” I asked him, as I was still confused. Another projectile went past. We ducked again.
“The abortionists’ union did,” he answered me.
“The abortionists’ union put up a home for unwed mothers?” Now I was really baffled.
“This is a movement of the last wave of ’em who went on strike about a year ago. You know, the abortion workers wanted more benefits, went on strike; the corporation fired them, hired scabs; you know the story. Typical union fare.”
“And their plight became a national concern, then a shit-in-the-fan movement, and now if they all ain’t getting themselves pregnant just to make a statement.”
“Abortionists? Getting pregnant just to make a protest?” I was astounded.
“Oh, sure,” said the cop. “Right-to-lifers all the way. They know the clinics hate that shit with a passion.” He paused to regard the fighting, and then he spoke again. “It’s kind of beautiful in a way. If it weren’t for abortion, these babies that’re gonna be born of these ladies here would have never been.”
Somewhere, maybe even here, this might have made sense.
“So what’s all the fighting about? It sure makes it harder, 'cause I’m looking for someone who’s pregnant.”
“Then you came to the right place. This here’s the Roe-v-Wade Home for Unwed Mothers."
"Yea, yea, I got it."
"It was put up by the national chain owned by the sympathizers for the abortionists’ union. It’s the place they put you, right here next to the clinic, when you’re protesting. Of course, you gotta be knocked up. And ya gotta need to protest.”
“And that’s why the hostilities,” I surmised.
“Sure,” he agreed. “It’s great. We break up one of these things two or three times a month.”
“But it’s almost dawn. What time did they start this?”
“Are you kidding? This’s been going on for a couple days now. It’s a good one. What’s really great is when sometimes a couple of the abortionists’ll hijack one of the knocked-ups outside on the sidewalk and drag her fightin’ and screamin’ into the clinic. And they’ll say, ‘Whoops, accidentally aborted another one.’ It’s hilarious if ya stop to think about it.”
A bullet shattered the picture window of the clinic, the putty around the edges of the window still not having been razored away properly from the last installation. The policeman reflexly hit the dirt with the sound.
“Look out,” he warned as he stood back up, “it’s gettin’ pretty serious.” He stopped talking for a moment while he seemed to be looking for anyone with a gun. “And then sometimes,” he finally continued, “one of the clinic hopefuls’ll get kidnapped by the home and you never hear from her again.” He chuckled. “Not until you hear her in the beauty of natural childbirth. From up there.” He pointed up to the top of the home, three stories up, where towels were hanging out from an attic window to dry.
The pregnant girl in the fight closest to us finally retreated away from her opponent and toward us. She was bleeding on her knees from where she had been pushed down. In our protection, she sat on the cement, cursing the clinic in front of her.
“Excuse me,” I said to her.
“What!” she yelled.
“Uh, I’m looking for a pregnant lady named Abby.”
“Who are you calling a lady, you life support system for a scrotum.”
“Not you, that’s for sure,” I answered angrily.
“Oh, and I suppose we, as ‘ladies,’ have to live our lives as defined by you, huh?”
I could tell she was still a little upset by her fight. The policeman loved it. She continued her diatribe.
“You worthless gun barrel for that ‘contribution’ fired out of you. Look at me!” she sneered, referring to her enlarged abdomen. “This is true existence—that I can do this. Not you. You’re a ghost, mere fertilizer!” She seemed satisfied that she had made everything clear to me. I considered her “true existence.”
“Ah, yes,” I taunted, “but you still can’t do that without me.”
“Oh yes I can,” she beamed. And that’s when she stood up to slap me hard. I reacted before I could think; I pushed her.
“You want to be autodigested?” I threatened. Then the policeman slapped her back.
“Answer the man,” he commanded her. “Who’s that you’re looking for?” he asked me.
“Abby. Abby Bentley or Bartley or Brinkley or something like that. Or maybe even Ava or Ana.” I sure sounded stupid, and they both knew it.
“Yea,” she said as the cop held her elbow in that hurting way taught taught at police academies. “We have someone like that. She wasn’t even union, just a knock-up. She went to stay at her boyfriend’s apartment just this morning. She said she’d come back to us if the sonuvabitch ever showed up there again.” The pregnant girl eyed me up and down. “You’re him, aren’t you?” she asked, with some newly found respect. “You’re the sonuvabitch she hated.”
“Uh-oh,” murmured the officer.
He feared the mob that was moving our way. We backed up farther and farther until it was obvious they were stopping to encircle Ava’s Piranha. They began rocking it back and forth attempting to roll it into the front of the clinic. The clinic supporters, the scabs, considered protecting the building with themselves, to be ready to catch the car and rock it back. They reconsidered, however, and dismissed this plan, but not all at the same time, as several got themselves pinned by the vehicle. From under the car, lying on its side on bricks and glass and them, could be heard their shouts for help.
“Forget it!” shouted one of the pregnant women. “We just aborted you!”
“I love it,” shouted the policeman. And then to me, jab in my ribs included, “Women, who can figure ’em?”
It would be a twenty-minute jog to my apartment, to my Abby who was still carrying my child. I was thrilled, which distracted me from this whole insane episode. My movement was in leaps, in spite of how sore I was from my fight while out-of-body as well as between the women. I couldn’t believe I pushed that woman, I thought, as I rushed on. It was just a shove, but still I couldn’t believe I did it. Men hurting women—was I at home here? I cried.
Demoted to pedestrian status by the riot, I ran to my building. I sprinted down Decatur, crossed Canal Street, and was nearing Riverscape. I thought of the real Ava. She had been on her own, I figured, in her own mission to find her Ralph. I could feel her wishing me luck the way I wished her the same. Real me, real her...just the typical fare when sliding between alternate realities.
I continued my run. I ran faster than I’d have ever thought possible. Injured as I was from my hovering knock-down drag-out in my out-of-body experience earlier, my bruises haunted my jaunt. Before too long I had developed a definite limp, but I pressed ahead, driven by my desire for Abby, although I could have had some help from the internal combustion engine of a Piranha.
Finally...finally I reached my penthouse-turned-condo-turned-apartment-turned-tenement-turned-slum. The elevators, well...forget it. Although exhausted, I ran up the stairs, flight after flight. On a particular landing was a heap of human wretchedness that at one point in my travels had been Mr. Robinson, my neighbor. Father of a banker way back when, I last saw him as the homeless Mr. Robbins. Now he lay crumpled in handicaps, one-legged, apparently blind, speaking nonsense out loud to no one.
“Mr. Robbins,” I called to him, leaning over him with a hand on his shoulder. His beard was matted. His skin was yellow.
“Rubens. The name is Rubens,” he corrected.
“Of course. Mr. Rubens, you’re sick. Isn’t there anyone who can help you?” He smiled with his whiskered cheeks, seemingly enjoying the onset of a lucid interval.
“Just you, my boy, whoever you are,” he said, not joyful for a possible rescue, but panhandling.
I felt like someone who had run over a dog in the street while late for an important appointment. Should I stop and find the owner? Should I scoop up the poor thing and carry him to the vet? Should I just run him over again so he doesn’t suffer?
But this was deterring me from my mission. Why should this be my problem? Why should his impairments be my concern? I wasn’t the one with handicaps; I had my own life to live and my own problems to deal with.
I kept going.
Guilt? That was almost completely gone by the time I had reached my apartment. I tried the key, but it didn’t fit. I tried the knob and to my relief it turned, the door easing open.
The slow creak was an unwelcome announcement. As soon as I had enough of an opening, I stuck my head in as if it were the most unimportant part of my body.
It was my place, alright, even though it was different, as expected. I wondered about me, though, because the place didn’t look half bad. The plastic covers on the lamps were gone. The whole place had an art deco motif that could be considered either hideous or stylish, depending on this alternate world's most recent Southern Living issue. There were no lights on, but the dawn light filtered through windows throughout the layout.
I was home.
My universe was shrinking, and I would soon feel it's walls pressing against me. Alone, without Abby. Again--what you get when you travel like I had. My worlds were getting worse and worse. I wondered how many more I'd have to go through until I landed in one where God Himself didn't exist. Seemed like not so many more.
The pacing had gotten worse. Night after night my father anxiously traversed the rickety old hallways of the top floor. It was a stress-induced habit of his that only got worse after my mother passed away. He would wear the floors raw on sleepless nights, the echoes traveling through the floor into my bedroom. Relentless pacing. The new house made it even worse. The old wooden beams creaked and groaned with every step unlike our old home’s carpeted-floors. After the accident, my father could not stand our old house and every night he would pace his soles raw. I thought the move would be a new start and that his household promenades would cease. Yet, his pacing had never sounded more furious. Back and forth. Back and forth. A symphony of steps crying out each night as the clock struck midnight. Closing my eyes, I drifted off listening to the ever-constant rhythm of his walk.
That morning brought about the usual. My father stood in the kitchen expressionless as he conversed with my younger brother, Mathew. He thought he could fool us acting as though he were fine. However, both my brother and I knew his secret. We heard his secret. The pacing. His poker face was slipping and we knew his biggest tell. Mathew and I played along with his little façade. Smiling back at him, the pit in my stomach grew larger. Mom’s death. The new house. It was all too much, for all of us, but he never said anything. I feared that little by little life would chip away at my father. I needed to say something, but I could never find the right words or time to call his bluff. Sighing dejectedly, I gave one last smile to my father and sat down for breakfast.
We had not been a perfect family. My parents would argue and insults would be flung at one another. There were seldom nights that my brother and I would huddle together in my room drowning out the shouts and screams from their fights. It was usually over money or some other superficial substance. But it was rare. We used to be the weird family of our old suburban middle-class area. A teacher and his gardening wife along with their two extroverted children. My mother, the neurotic genius, was the uptight one while my father could not sit still for five minutes without cracking a joke.
When we moved into our old farmhouse when I was little, the inside was in shambles. We all slept in the same room for a year. Some may find it odd, but, in retrospect, it was so wonderfully weird. We would always go to bed at nine p.m. with the intention of sleeping; however, our conversations would last long into the night. Joking, laughing, wheezing. My mother would try and settle us down, yet, she too would get caught up in our “shits and giggles” sessions. As cliché as it may be, my parents completed each other in every way. We were not a perfect family, but, God, we were pretty damn close.
That afternoon was blistering. The summer warmth scorched our driveway as heat weaves danced above the pavement. I wiped the sweat from my brow as my shovel penetrated the soil beneath my feet. Our new house came with an old flower garden. Weeds and the dead remnants of past plants littered its fertile soil. My mother loved flowers. Before she died, our old yard was littered with roses, lilies, and dahlias. She adored dahlias. She spent hours every spring tending to their every want and need. I missed the warm colors of our old home that blanketed the yard. She would always trudge into the house hand on her hips and force my brother and I outside to help. As much as I whined and complained, the garden held some of my most cherished memories. My father may not have wanted any reminders of his wife at this house; however, I wanted something of her here. I needed something of her here and so as I waited for my brother to return from school, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden bringing my mother back to life with shears and a shovel.
Dinnertime finally arrived. My father stood lifelessly at the stove absentmindedly poking the contents of his plate. The staircase roared to life as my brother charged down the steps eager to eat. Once Mathew reached the age of thirteen, his appetite seemed to triple. My mother used to call him a “human garbage disposal.” Walking into the kitchen, he dramatically collapsed into a chair with a sigh. However, the smile soon fell from my brother’s face as he gazed upon the weary form of our father.
“Sooo what we having for dinner?” Mathew said while eyeing my father.
“Shit on a shingle,” he said softly.
“Ah, man. We had that last-”
“That sounds great Dad. Thanks,” I said glaring at my brother. “How was school?”
Small talk. The only thing we engaged in as family nowadays.
“Eh. It was alright. The usual crap. I got an A on my math test,” Mathew said while staring at my father. The overwhelming want for approval just about exploding in his eyes. My father continued to eat unbothered by the conversation.
Desperate to change the subject, my brother turned to the gossip of the day. Apparently, two of his married teachers, Mrs. Crawford and Mr. Fawkland, were sleeping together.
“Holy shit. Aren’t they both married?” I said my eyebrows raised in shock.
“Yeh. But that doesn’t seem to matter to them.”. Sifting through the scattered mess of meat, Mathew glared at his food with a less than hidden disdain. He was more reminiscent to a toddler than a teenager.
With nothing left to say, the noiseless void blanketed us in its awkward presence. My brother started to fidget as I began to eat faster. The silence screamed the words that remained unspoken amongst us.
“The flower garden starting to look real nice. The dah-” Mathew started in hopes of ending the deafening quiet.
My father harshly slammed his food on the table muzzling my brother mid-sentence. Jumping, I gripped the table as my brother redirected his attention to the floor. Quiet. An awkward silence descended upon dinner. The feint noises of silverware scraping upon porcelain was all I heard.
“By the way, while you both are here, I don’t care who it is, but y’all have to stop moving my stuff,” my father said slowly eyeing us both.
“I didn’t,” my brother and I said in unison. Glaring at him, I continued to anxiously eat.
“Well, like I said, I don’t care who did it, but y’all have to stop. My books were scattered on the floor yesterday and half of the silverware is missing,” my father spoke sternly. With one last glare, he returned to his lifeless eating.
That night I laid awake as sleep would not come. Before the accident, sleep was my constant companion; however, my mother’s death seemed to have frightened my friend away and something worse settled into its place. Insomnia. I tried everything to rid myself of it. Pills, therapy, meditation. Yet, nothing seemed to coax my old friend back from its hiding spot. Since I lost her, I laid awake at night missing the past and grieving for the future my family had ripped from us. Looking at the clock, the pit in my stomach reappeared as I saw the time. 11:58. As usual, my father would resume his post upstairs and tread the floors until dawn. Rolling over, I closed my eyes pressing the pillow to my ears in hope of drowning out the noise.
Two hours. I had listened to his constant relentless pacing for two hours. Groaning, I flipped over in my bed as I tried to hold in my tears. My father was broken and for good reason; however, this had gone on for long enough. I could not let him continue this unnerving behavior. Flinging the off my duvet, I shot from my bed and out of my bedroom. Climbing up the stairs to his study, my ears were flooded with the sound of pacing. Step. Step. Step. Step. It was maddening. The creaking of the floor. The clacking rhythm of his soles. I reached the study door and my hand hesitantly grasped the knob. Slowly twisting the brass, I swung open the door ready to put an end to the constant clicking of his heels. The noise stopped as the door opened and I looked inside. Gasping, my eyes widened in horror and my clammy hands started to shake. No one. The room was completely empty.
Suddenly gifted with Hermes’ winged shoes, I flew down the stairs almost missing the last two steps. Eyes watering and heart rapidly beating, I rushed down the hall throwing myself into my father’s master bedroom. My breathing had become harsh and ragged. I was hyperventilating. Through my tears, I could make out the silhouette of my father’s sleeping form atop his bed.
“Dad! Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.” I said over and over while harshly nudging his side. Each push becoming rougher and more urgent. Groaning, he slowly turned over to face me. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, my father angrily stared at me as he rose from bed.
“What the fuck is wrong?” he said angrily. However, the longer he looked at me his anger melted away into worry. At this point, my entire body was quivering as I struggling to breath. I was not one to scare easily and he knew that. Now alarmed, he quickly stood up grasping my shoulder with his hand.
“Talia, what happened?” he said his voice now filled with concern.
“Just breath,” he said while softly holding my hand.
“I was upstairs. I heard pacing. I thought it was you so I went to stop you. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Talia, I was never upstairs.”
“It was so loud and wouldn’t stop. When I opened the door, no one was there!” I said as I buried my face in to his chest sobbing.
“Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
“No! I’ve heard this shit for the last few weeks. I thought it was you.”
“Talia, I haven’t been upstairs since we moved in.” he said slowly sitting back down on the bed.
We both stared at each other unable to find any words. I was horrified and confused while my father just stared with a concerned quizzical expression. This was the most we had talked in weeks. I would have rejoiced if it had not been for the circumstances. At this moment, I was in the arms of the man that used to be my father. The hug. The comforting words. Nevertheless, there was doubt dancing within his eyes.
“Dad, I swear to you. Something was upstairs.” I said silently pleading to believe me.
“We’ve all been stressed out lately. You probably just-”. He was interrupted by a noise. The pounding of footsteps had resumed their nighttime march. Shooting up from the bed, my father dashed to his closet pulling out a gun. “Stay here,” he said dashing out of the room towards the stairs. However, ignoring my fear, I quickly exited the room racing after him.
On the stairs, I crept behind him as we ascended. Too focused on the haunting noise, he barely noticed my presence. As we reached the door, the echoes of the wood seemed to rise into the air consuming us. The marching had reached its crescendo. The walls of the house seemed to breathe along with the ghostly rhythm. A soft glow emanated from underneath the study’s door. Even with the noise, I could hear my father’s breathing. Ragged. Harsh. I could almost hear the rapid palpitations of his heart. The fast tempo of fear.
As I had done before, he slowly turned the knob nudging the door open. The noise stopped. My father gasped. All that I heard was the thud of his gun smashing against the wood floor. Peering around his tall form, I anxiously looked into the room. Yet, this time the room was not empty.
“Who the hell are you?”
A dark figure stood in the corner of the study holding an object I could not quite make out. Their face shrouded in shadows. My father and I watched as the entity slowly dissolved in front of our eyes. The object fell to the floor. My mouth agape, I turned to my father expecting to see horror, shock, disbelief. Something of that manner. However, gazing upon his features, all I could find was sorrow. The stress lines on his face seemed to be illuminated by the rays of moonlight escaping from the study window. In the light, I could see his pupils drowning in a pool of tears. He was crying. Confused, I reached out to place my hand on his shoulder. Before I could make contact he slowly walked over to where the figure had been. Crouching down, he picked up the mysterious object quickly shoving it in his pocket.
“What is-”, however, before I could finish my question, my father violently wiped his face and turned to descend back down the stairs without a word. Confused, I chased after him.
“Dad!” I said. “What the hell was that?!”
“Nothing.” He said curtly.
“Bullshit! Who the fuck was that?”
He continued to walk down the corridor to the master bedroom. How could he so nonchalantly walk away? We reached his door and so I attempted one final desperate plea for him to explain himself.
“Nothing. It was nothing. You and I are both tired. Now go back to your room,” he said.
“Fuck you! Don’t gaslight me. What the hell was that?”
“TALIA, GO THE FUCK TO YOUR ROOM!”
The walls seemed to shake as my father violently slammed his door. Jerking away, I tripped falling back onto the hallway floor. He never yelled like that. Sure, we had argued in the past just as any child would with their parent. However, looking down at my shaking hands, I realized this was different. Running back to my room, I slammed the door sinking down to my carpeted-floor. A snakelike feeling coiled around my chest constricting the air from my body. I could not breath. My vision became blurry. In a fetal position on the floor, my body heaved as I tried to regain my breath. However, suddenly, I felt something. A warm wet sensation dribbled down my cheeks. I was crying. I was fucking crying.
As soon as the realization hit me, the dam that once held back the lake of my sorrows collapsed and a flood ensued. My hands violently grasped the carpet as sobs echoed through me. Gasping, crying, coughing. I had not cried in six months. When she died, my body seemed to shut down. I was numb and unable to sooth my screaming heart. However, there, on my bedroom floor, I released it all.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” I said between sobs.
Like a child learning how to speak for the first time, I called out for my mother. Yet, after months of mourning, I finally realized she was never coming back. It seemed that the child within me could not bear to finalize her death. Every morning I would wake up hoping and praying it was all a bad dream. However, those prayers were never answered. I still woke up every day without seeing her, hugging her, talking to her. I couldn’t think as my sobs morphed into wailing. I laid on the floor consumed in sorrow until the early rays of morning peaked through my window.
Breakfast was horrible. My brother sat across from me eating his cereal as I lifelessly picked through my food. I looked and felt as though a truck had run over me. After passing out from exhaustion, I slept on the floor haunted by the images of my mother and the mysterious figure. My chest still ached from last night and my eyes were puffier than the omelet I was eating. Mathew set down his spoon and for the first time this morning, looked at me. His eyes widened with concern as he opened his mouth to speak.
“Don’t ask,” I said.
“You look like shit,” Mathew said.
“Wow, thanks munchkin. Love you too.”
“Seriously though, are you alright?”
“Yeh, we’ll talk about it later.”
I quickly ended the conversation as I heard my father’s footsteps on the staircase. I still loved him; however, last night rattled me more than I would like to admit. As he entered the kitchen, my eyes stayed focused on my unsatisfactory omelet. He greeted my brother and I as he sat down with his morning tea. My father hated coffee unlike my mother and so he always started his morning out with matcha. I used to love breakfast time. My parents would cook together on weekends as my brother and I watched morning cartoons. Being curious, I would always sneak glances into the kitchen only to see my father whispering to my mother as she blushed swatting his hands away. I never heard what he would say to her, but she would laugh until tears streamed down her face. The mornings consisted of the crackling of bacon, smell of pancakes, and colorful conversation. Now, as always, my brother and I sit across from my father drowning in uncomfortable silence. No whispering. No laughing. Just silence.
We never talked about her. She was absent from our lives and conversations. Every time I attempted to reminisce my father would change the subject or just leave. Her clothes, photos, and belongings were all packed up away from sight. I know he had a hard time looking at me. Even though my personality was almost identical to my father’s, I looked so much like my mother. Long, dirty-blonde hair that my mother affectionately called “my horse mane” and green eyes that almost seemed blue in sunlight. He had packed away everything that had reminded him of her except for his children.
My brother and I lost our mother; however, when we received that phone call, it seemed as though we had become orphans. Our father died along with our mother. She had been hit by a drunk driver while coming home from the store. The roads were blanketed in ice and the already inebriated driver lost control. She died on impact. We had to have a closed casket at the funeral. The body was apparently too disfigured to be recognizable. The funeral was horrible. A painful memory I wish to forget. My father, a veteran, had always been a strong man. However, as they carried her casket towards the grave, he collapsed falling to the ground below. My brother clutched onto my side as we both helplessly watch our father, our hero, break into pieces before our eyes. I will never forget the noises that escaped his mouth. Painful, primal, gut-wrenching cries. He lost his wife, his lover, and his best friend.
As I sat staring at my omelet, I mourned for my father. His body still inhabited the Earth; however, I felt as though his soul wandered off lost within the bottomless void of his own grief. I looked up from my plate and stared at him. A sliver of hope filled my body at the sight. His eyes were red and puffy. Like mine. He had been crying. My father had been fucking crying. A small smile graced my face at the realization. Overwhelmed with the realization, I hopped up from the table and went outside to do my daily gardening.
As I was changing, our Australian shepherd, Bubble, a name my ten-year-old-self coerced my mother into choosing, started going crazy. She was perched up at my bedroom window barking and whining in an almost giddy fashion. Confused, I glanced out of the window. I could not believe my eyes. There, in the middle of the garden, stood the shadowy figure from the study. Shocked, I turned and ran out of my bedroom. Breathing heavily, I threw open the house’s backdoor to confront this mysterious shadow. However, yet again, there was no one there. The garden was empty. Flabbergasted, I walked each and every row of the garden and yet, I found nothing. However, as I turned to walk back to the house, something caught my eye. On of the floor of fifth row laid a flower. Crouching down, I picked up the flower with trembling hands. It was a dahlia called “April Dawn”. My mother’s favorite flower. My hands shook, my fingers tracing its soft lavender petals. It was such a beautiful flower; however, one that I had certainly not planted in this garden.
One that showed up right where I saw the figure.
Gently holding on to the flower, I ran back inside. My hands continued to shake and my heart beat erratically. My father, still sitting at the table, glanced up as I entered the kitchen. He looked at me quizzically as I just stared back speechless. What could I say? There was no reasonable explanation for what I had just seen and experienced. Silently, I walked to the table never breaking eye contact with my father and gently placed the flower onto the smooth hardwood of our kitchen table. My father stared at the flower as though it were a bomb. Silence consumed the room as both of us just stared at the flower. Hurt, confused, and dumbfounded.
“Where did you get this?” my father asked slowly.
“The garden.” I said in reply.
“I specifically told you not to plant this one!” my father said as his voice rose with each word.
Before he continued to yell, I negated his accusation recounting what had just occurred. The dog. The figure. The flower. His face became weary and he slumped farther into his chair. Finishing the story, I fell silent expecting him to respond. However, much to my dismay, he simply stared one last time at the flower, rose from his chair, and began to walk away. Something inside of me snapped. I was sick and tired of being ignored. Marching over to my father, I placed both my hands on his chest violently shoving him back into his sit.
“You don’t get to just walk away! What the fuck is going on?” I said furiously. My father stood up from his sit until we were eye to eye. His face matched my raging expression as his nostrils flared at my challenge.
“Do. Not. Fucking. Touch. Me.” he said.
“What am I supposed to do, huh?! There is something fucked up going on and you won’t sit down for one God damn moment to even talk to me.”
“Oh, fuck you. Don’t patronize me. You and I both know that something is going on. Does it have something to do with mom? Is that why you won’t fucking man-up and talk about it?”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At the thought of my mother, my father shut his mouth, turned, and walked away. But, he was not getting away this time. I was sick and tired of his shit. He may have lost his wife, but we lost our mother. It was time to suck it up and get it all out in the open. I followed him as his went upstairs berating him the entire time. His absence. The new house. The dark figure. I was chomping at the bit and everything I had held back for the past few months was escaping from its prison. It was a full jailbreak. Reaching his bedroom, he walked in still not engaging with my verbal assaults. Frustrated, I decided to hit him where it hurt.
“Mom would be disgusted with you,” I said inwardly wincing at my own comment. Turning around, my father directly met my eyes for the first time since the kitchen. Rage. Sadness. Hurt. If the eyes were truly the window to the soul, my father’s soul was no longer in one piece. The man that stared back at me was shattered beyond all repair.
“Get out,” he said.
“No,” I replied raising my chin in defiance.
“Talia, please leave,” he said. To my surprise his voice cracked at the end of his demand. As I stared closer, his eyes seemed to shimmer from the light leaking in from the bedroom window. He was crying and did not want me to see.
“Dad, just talk to me,” I said in a much gentler tone. “Please,” I begged.
He turned away to hide his tears. I could see his shoulders slightly shaking as he silently sobbed in front of me. Guilt pooled within my chest. Slowly, I walked over to face him. He, now, was sitting atop his bed hands clutching the sides of his face. Sitting next to him, I said nothing as I reached over and wrapped my arms around my father. His body stiffened at first; however, after a few seconds, he relaxed. Turning towards me, he looked up and I saw those blood-shot eyes for the first time since my mother’s funeral.
“Please, just talk to me,” I said as my own eyes began to well with tears. He wrapped his arms around me and for the first time in months, let himself go. My father sobbed in my arms. His entire body shook as his cries echoed throughout the room. We sat there for twenty minutes as he released all that had been imprisoned since my mother’s funeral. Nothing could be heard except for the broken sobs of my father’s shattered soul.
“I’m sorry,” my father said still breathless from crying.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“No, it’s not. I love you and your brother. An-and I haven’t been there for you all.”
“Dad, you’ve had a lot on your plate. Just don’t shut us out.”
“I just miss your mother so-”
“I know, Dad. We all miss her.” He smiled softly and rose up off the bed. Walking over to his dresser, he pulled open a drawer and removed an object. A flower. The same type that I had found in the garden.
“This is what I found upstairs in the study with that person. As soon as we entered, I knew what they were holding,” my father said.
“What the hell does this even mean?” I asked.
“Honestly, Talia, I have no fucking clue.”
Gently, he placed the flower back into his dresser. Sitting back down on the bed, we both just sat in silence as the sun continued to rise into the sky. However, this time the silence was different. It did not scream of unspoken words and frustrations. What had been a cold, harsh silence was now a warm embrace void of noise and worry.
That evening my brother and I settled down on the couch to watch our weekly movie. This had been our routine for the past couple months. He and I would put on one of our favorite movies while my father sat silently in the kitchen nursing a class of bourbon. For the night, wanting to set a light-hearted mood, we decided on Spaceballs, one of my mother’s favorite stories. She never admitted it to others saying that her favorite was actually Bringing Up Baby with Carry Grant; however, we had always known the truth. Curling up with the dog I laid on the couch while my brother sat in the lounge chair as the opening credits flooded the screen. I heard my father’s footsteps as he entered the living room. Turning my head, I saw him standing in the doorway softly smiling at the television screen.
Internally, I begged him to sit down and watch with us. However, I chose to remain quite turning back to the television. After a minute or two, my father slowly made his way across the room sitting down next to me and the dog on the couch. As he sat, it took everything within me not to smile. It had been months since he had watched a movie with us. My brother looked at me with a quizzical, yet excited, expression. Shrugging, I just smiled and buried myself further into my blanket. All three of us, as a family, sat for the next two hours laughing and joking without a care in the world.
That night I laid in bed readying myself for the nightly march. However, midnight passed and I could hear no noise. One and then two hours passed void of the creaky pacing I had grown so accustomed to. Smiling, I could feel my eyelids droop as sleep decided to encompass me in its soft blanket. My old friend had returned and I hoped it was for more than just a one-night.
Three weeks had passed since I had last heard the pacing. My nights were now filled with deep heavy sleeps that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. My brother says that sometimes he can even hear my snoring from down the hall. My father had taken a turn for the better. It was not perfect; however, each and every day he seemed to try a little more with my brother and I. We had unpacked all of the photos with my mother of which my father spent an entire day meticulously placing all through the house. He, along with my brother and I still had our bad moments; however, now we were trying to get through these harsh times together and not in solitude. The garden had turned out to be such a success that my father even got in on the action. Everyday after coming home from work, he and I (and occasionally my brother) spend our afternoons in the summer sun creating a sanctuary for my mother’s memory. Dahlias fill the entire plot and we dedicated an entire row to the “April Dawns.” This afternoon we would finish planting all of the flowers finally completing the garden. Shovels in hand, my father and I walked out into the garden eager to cultivate the petals of my
By MK Barnes
By Shaivi Gupta
Please comment if you read
Four friends, JOHN, ROSE, ALEX, and DAPHNE, are sitting in JOHN’s apartment in New York City. They are all 15 years old. JOHN is a laid back teenager dating ROSE, a brilliant perfectionist. DAPHNE is rather stupid but nice, and ALEX is always trying to find a way to make a quick buck. They all get in rather stupid scenarios but have fun along the way.
ROSE: So, JOHN, I have a tea party thing and I need a date. It’s on Saturday.
JOHN: Why do I have to go?
DAPHNE: Because you are her boyfriend. This is one of those things you signed up for with the verbal contract.
ROSE: Thank you, Daphne. You really keep this relationship together
DAPHNE: I am the cream cheese
JOHN: Excuse me?
DAPHNE: You know, you, JOHN, are the bottom of the bagel, Rose is the top of the bagel, and I am the cream cheese that holds your relationship together.
ALEX: Where do I fall into this scenario?
DAPHNE: Um you know the little nuts and seeds on the top of some bagels? Some have little onions. The part that no one really cares about, but they make a nice touch.
ALEX: I’m honored
WILLIAM ATWOOD and JOHN’s DAD, ERIC, are sitting in ATWOOD’s apartment talking about ATWOOD’s fiancee, Nella.
ATWOOD: Have I shown you Nella’s wedding ring yet?
ERIC: No, you haven’t shown me.
ATWOOD: Well it's right here
He puts his hand in his pocket and there’s nothing there
ATWOOD: Well it was right there. It isn't there anymore.
ERIC: When was the last time you saw it?
ATWOOD: I don’t know when I put it in my pocket this morning. Nella’s going to kill me. She told me my only job was to have the ring, something about how I can't be trusted with anything.
ERIC: Well I can understand why.
ATWOOD: What do we do? I’ve been all over this stupid city since then.
ERIC: We’ll just have to start at the beginning and trace your steps.
ATWOOD:Okay let’s start at my apartment. Oh I’m going to be murdered my own fiancee. I’ll make the local news.
Alex is sitting with a bagel in his apartment. He is picking off the nuts and seeds on the top and eating them.
Barbie, his mother walks in.
BARBIE: What are you doing?
ALEX: Eating the me part of the bagel.
DAPHNE is sitting in her apartment with her mother, ANNA, a hard working mother of three.
DAPHNE: Mom, I’m so happy you’re off! This is so exciting.
ANNA: I know. I never sit around. What do I do first?
DAPHNE: Nothing, we just sit and relax.
ANNA sits and looks at the wall
ANNA: Okay, this is kind of boring.
DAPHNE: You should watch some TV.
She puts on the TV and sits.
They watch for a minute
ANNA: You know what I should do. Fold laundry. I can watch TV and Fold laundry at once.
DAPHNE: You never sit still do you?
ANNA: I can't, it's a problem.
She runs and grabs some laundry.
ANNA(Off camera): You know what we’ve never done? Organized the shoe closet.
DAPHNE: Yeah, and let’s keep it that way!
Barbie and Alex are sitting on their sofa
ALEX: You know, Mom, I was thinking. Remember when we went to your friend Darla’s house in Detroit.
ALEX: Well they're selling their house aren’t they? Darla and Matt.
ALEX: Remember that door they had? The really nice wooden one. But it wasn’t the main door because behind it there was another one, the boring plain one. Well no one really needs two doors, so I was wondering if we could take the interesting door and um sell it.
BARBIE: Alex, why would they give us their door?
ALEX: Yes, but they don’t need two doors. We could have one.
BARBIE: Okay, Alex, for some reason if Darla decided to give you her door, fine. But she already sold the house. To someone else. And how are you supposed to get a door from Detroit to Manhattan anyway?
ALEX: I have it all figured out.
He picks up a big poster board. It’s pretty big, not as big as a door, but big. He holds it out in front of him so his arms are straight and he is holding it straight out in front of him. He starts shuffling sideways
ALEX: I will shimmy
BARBIE: You are going to shimmy the six hundred miles from Detroit to New York. With a door!
ALEX: Well I was hoping to get a train somewhere on the way.
ALEX: I mean think about it. That was one hell of a door. The basement is loaded. We could make some big bucks here.
BARBIE: Alex, honey, I love you, and please don’t take this the wrong way. Where did I go wrong?
ALEX: I am going to get that door, I will give it my all. I will get that door.
BARBIE: And I will take a nap.
ATWOOD AND DAD are in the hallway of the apartment discussing where they left the ring and GERTRUDE AND LUKE overhear. GERTRUDE AND LUKE are teenagers, GERTRUDE is a huge gossip and LUKE a hypochondriac.
ATWOOD: If Nella finds out, she’s going to kill me.
DAD: Oh my gosh she’s not going to find out.
ATWOOD: I’m so nervous.
GERTUDE(whispering): Oh my gosh, I think he’s cheating on her.
LUKE: ATWOOD wouldn’t do that.
GERTRUDE: You heard him, he literally said that if Nella finds out she’ll kill him, what else could that mean?
LUKE: Look, they're leaving, let's follow them.
GERTRUDE and LUKE follow ERIC and ATWOOD out of the building.
ATWOOD:I was at the department store this morning. Maybe I left them here.-
ERIC:That's like fifty blocks from here.
ATWOOD:We’ll take the subway.
GERTRUDE(whispering): I don’t have any money for the subway do you?
LUKE: No, I left my wallet at home. And I refuse to ride the subway, it’s disgusting. You know how many people touch those seats and railings. There is no way I am getting on that train.
GERTRUDE: Then you’re out of the mission.
LUKE: Oh fine, screw it.
LUKE: But we still have no money
GERTRUDE: Wait, I have an idea.
She runs into a cafe and comes back with two empty coffee cups, handing one to Luke.
She then starts singing opera surprisingly good.
A couple of people drop change into their cups.
GERTRUDE: Oh my gosh it worked.
LUKE: I didn’t know you could sing like that
GERTRUDE: I don’t tell everyone everything.
LUKE: That’s a huge lie
GERTRUDE: I know
They walk into the subway station following ATWOOD and ERIC
ATWOOD: I can’t believe I’m doing this. I mean what’s wrong with me, how could I be so stupid?
ERIC: I know I keep wondering that
LUKE: Does he have no shame? Poor Nella! What would she think of all this?
GERTRUDE: I wonder who she is. His side girl. How old do you think she is?
LUKE: She’s got to be young.
GERTRUDE: Do you think she’s pretty?
LUKE: She can’t be prettier than Nella.
GERTRUDE: Nella is very pretty.
ERIC: I’m very uncomfortable, I feel like someone is following us.
GERTRUDE and LUKE exchange scared looks
Rose and John at a big tea party. Rose’s parents are there with many other people. They are all very fancy.
JOHN: Okay, here we are. At a tea party. What do I have to do?
ROSE: Just smile, shut up, and put your pinky in the air when you drink.
JOHN: You know, just because I’m your boyfriend doesn’t mean I always have to listen to you.
ROSE: Not always. But it can’t hurt once in a while.
Daphne and her mom
DAPHNE’S MOM: Why aren’t the twins awake? Should I wake them?
DAPHNE : No
ANNA: Okay um I organized the closets, did the laundry, dishes, refilled the hand soap, and waxed the kitchen floors.
ANNA: What do I do now?
DAPHNE: I dunno, sleep?
ANNA: I can’t sleep. There has to be something productive. When was the last time the smoke detector batteries were changed?
DAPHNE: Never. Those things don’t work anymore.
ANNA: Great, now I have something to do.
She gets a screwdriver out of the drawer and goes to change the batteries.
ANNA: I’ve never had a day off before, is this what people do?
DAPHNE: Not in a million years
Alex’s house, he is on the phone, the scene cuts between Bob’s office and Alex’s house as they each speak
ALEX(On the phone): Hi, this is Alex, you don’t know me. Is this Bob Balakin, the real estate agent?
BOB: Yes. Why Are you calling, may I ask?
ALEX: Well, a couple weeks ago. You sold a house for Darla and Matt? Um 673 River Street? Well there was this door that was part of the house and I want it.
BOB: Excuse me? I sold the house, why do you want the door for?
ALEX: You know I could sell it for big bucks.
BOB: Well I already sold it.
ALEX: You sold the house. I just want the door.
BOB: Well the door is part of the house. I’m sorry I really have to go.
ALEX: Well I was just wondering if you could ask the owners if I could have the door.
BOB: No I can’t.
ALEX: Fine, I’m just going to have to get it myself.
Rose and John’s tea party. ROSE, JOHN, and ROSE’S PARENTS are at a tea party. They are eating biscuits.
Rose’s Dad: This is awful
ROSE’S MOM: Shut up, someone’ll hear you.
ROSE’S DAD: Am I wrong?
A woman comes by serving tea
She pours tea for everyone
JOHN takes a sip and chokes. Rose hits him
JOHN: You know that really disgusting cough syrup you have to take when you're sick as a kid. This tastes like that mixed with old socks and seaweed.
ROSE’S DAD: John’s not wrong.
Her mom is hanging up pictures on the wall, cooking, and talking on the phone all at once.
ANNA: I can’t believe it either! Okay so you move to managing, and send Lauren downstairs. No! She quit? Okay um what about George? I forgot he’s in Miami! No! Yes, go ahead.
She ends her phone call.
ANNA: Okay, Daphne, what do we do now?
DAPHNE: There’s nothing left for you to do.
The phone rings again.
ANNA: I miss one day of work, and everything’s falling apart.
DAPHNE: I hate to break it to you, but I think a national insurance company is going to be okay if ANNA YANG doesn’t come in one day.
Alex’s house, he and Barbie are there
ALEX: Okay, Mom. I am going to Detroit.
BARBIE: There is no way on this planet I am going to Detroit to get a door. Why do you even want this door?
ALEX: It’s pure wood. You know how much that could sell for? Over 150 bucks.
BARBIE: Paying for transportation, me missing work, paying someone to remove that awful door, don’t you think that’ll cost more than $150?
ALEX: No. Because I have figured it all out. The school band is taking a trip down to Detroit to perform. I just hop on the bust with them, pretend I play the tuba or whatever. Once I’m there, I run to Darla’s old house and ask the new residents for the door. I’ll bring a drill, grab the door, shimmy down to the school bus, and voila bring it back home.
Barbie puts her head in her hands
Alex sitting in his house, later in the day
He dials up the phone
ALEX: Hi, Bob, this is Alex again. I was wondering if you got any progress on the door?
BOB: I told you no! Now stop calling, kid!
DAPHNE: Hi, you got any flour.
She goes to the pantry to look and grabs some.
DAPHNE: My mom’s baking. She’s bored out of her mind, she’s never been off before. She cleaned every closet, tightened every door knob, and did every puzzle in the house. So now she’s baking cookies for the soup kitchen.
ALEX: Well I am going to Detroit to make big bucks. I am so smart
DAPHNE: All the words I think of to describe you right now, smart is not one of them.
DAPHNE: So basically you will go all the way to Detroit. Go to this woman’s house, you’ve never met her, but you’ll go to her house. And ask for her door. Which you will bring back to New York and sell here.
ALEX: Yep. I am a genius, Daphne.
He pats her head.
DAPHNE: You’re shirts backwards, Alex.
DAPHNE: How is your mom even letting you do this? Go to Detroit.
ALEX: Well honestly I think she’s just happy to get me out of the house and have some peace.
An auditorium. The band is sitting there, Alex in the corner with a tuba. Everyone starts playing really nice. Alex plays a really awful note and everyone stares at him
TEACHER: Okay, are we all ready to go to Detroit? ON the bus everyone.
Everyone goes outside and boards a bus. Alex sits next to a pretty girl.
GIRL: Are you in band? I’ve never seen you before.
ALEX: Oh yeah, I just normally sit in the back. Alex.
They shake hands.
ALEX: You’re very pretty.
BIRDIE: Thank you
They start making out
Barbie is coming home. She starts reading a book. The phone rings.
BOB: Hi, this is Bob. Is Alex home?
BOB: Okay, well when you see him please tell him I am changing my number, and I will not get him that door.
Nighttime. Daphne is asleep in her bedroom. The fire alarm starts going off. She wakes up with a jolt.
She gets up and meets her parents in the living room who are carrying crying twins.
DAPHNE: What’s wrong?
ANNA: No idea, but we better get outside
Cut to everyone in the apartment sitting outside.
The firemen come out of the building.
FIREMAN: Nothings wrong. There is no fire. Something was wrong with one of the fire detectors. Someone put the wrong batteries in.
ANNA: That may have been me. Sorry everyone
MAN : I have to get up at five am tomorrow, thanks for ruining my sleep.
The next morning.
ALEX is waking up at a hotel.
He gets dressed and leaves.
Him outside DARLA’S house.
ALEX lady opens the door:
LADY: Hi, can I help you?
ALEX: HI, I’m ALEX LABUDDE. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. But my mom’s friends used to live in this house, but they sold it to you. Anyway, I want your door.
LADY: Excuse me?
ALEX: Well you have two doors. This one and another one inside. I just want the outside door. It has no purpose for you. I want it. And I’ll even pay you. $20 seems fair?
LADY: Okay, listen I don’t know who you are, or what you want, but please leave.
ALEX: I will leave with that door.
ALEX: Let’s just talk. That’s an amazing door.
LADY : I know. It’s also attached to my house.
ALEX: I could fetch I don’t know, 200 dollars for that. How about I pay you 50.
LADY: How about you leave before I call the police.
ALEX: $100. I will give you $100. That’s not bad.
LADY: Honey! Come downstairs please!
A guy comes down.
LADY: This kid wants our door. He says he’ll pay us a hundred bucks for our door. Make him leave please.
ALEX: You don’t understand, I don't want both of your doors. Just one. You don’t even need two doors. I’ll just take this one and go.
Her mom is playing with the twins.
ANNA: Isn’t this nice. Me and my three daughters. Maybe I should just be a stay at home mom.
DAPHNE: No! No offense, Mom, but if you stayed at home much longer you’d have cleaned every closet in Manhattan.
The phone rings
SHe picks up
DAPHNE’S MOM: Hello?
MAN: There’s a big problem. I’ve been working here for six years, and never had anything like it.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. What does he want? How much? Never anything like it.
DAPHNE’S MOM: There’s a kid in Detroit, who wants the door off a house we sold last month. He’s very persistent.
DAPHNE: Oh my gosh.
ATWOOD: I can’t believe it! They’re not here! Oh my gosh
LUKE: “They’re not here” There’s more than one girl!
GERTRUDE: I mean I know Atwood’s good looking and all, but more than one!
LUKE: Shh listen.
ATWOOD: I can’t believe this. I’m calling Katherine. She better answer. Hello? Katherine? Where are you? Not here? What do you mean Miami? You have to tell me wherever you go! You’re not allowed to leave the city! No I’m not trying to sound controlling I’m just saying. Oh my gosh well what about Marissa? She’s with you too? Oh my gosh.
GERTRUDE: He’s leaving Nella for a Marissa and a Katherine.
Luke: This is bad.
JOHN and ROSE sitting in Rose’s apartment
ROSE: SO the party didn’t suck
JOHN: Obviously we have different definitions of “didn’t suck”
ROSE: It wasn’t that bad.
JOHN: Who has tea parties anyway. I mean we’re not in 1714 England anymore here. So now I’m your boyfriend, I’m obligated to go to these kinds of things.
ROSE: Yep. It’s the rule
JOHN: You know that’s a stupid rule. I mean a couple of people get together all of a sudden there's all these stupid rules. I don’t remember signing any kind of contract.
ROSE: It’s more of a verbal agreement.
JOHN: Okay, so tomorrow I’m watching the twins, after school, because Daphne’s mom is going back to work, so because of this verbal agreement you should have to be there with me.
ROSE: Yes, but see, this verbal agreement doesn’t work if the other person is extremely busy.
JOHN: And are you extremely busy?
JOHN: Doing what?
ROSE: I don’t know, I’ll think of something
Cut to Alex getting ready to board the bus.
He sees a free ugly chair outside someone’s house and picks it up and loads it on the bus.
He sits on it in the aisle of the bus. He sees the girl he kissed before.
BIRDIE: Hey, why do you have a chair?
ALEX: Well funny story. I actually came here for a door and then
BIRDIE: You are a complete weirdo. Who lies about band to get a door!
She shakes her head and starts talking to another girl.
ANNA: This is fun. I can’t believe I have to go back to work tomorrow. Maybe I should just take a week off.
DAPHNE: NO! Look, mom, I love you a lot. But please go back to work. You're going crazy here. And taking everyone with you. I mean most of us are already there, we were there long ago, but still. You need to go back to work. For the sake of America. Please. I am begging you.
ANNA: I am going crazy here. I mean there’s just nothing for me to do. I’m used to being so busy and always working. I just feel so bad, you girls are growing up and I want to be here.
DAPHNE: MOM, you are here. Every night. But you know you have your work and home and you have to balance it. Not overdo too much of either.
ANNA: You're right. Gosh, you smart.
DAPHNE: There’s a sentence I’ve never heard before.
Alex getting off the bus with the chair. A teacher talks to him.
TEACHER: I heard you playing trumpet. Please never come back, you’re horrible.
ALEX: I won’t. Between you and me I never was in the band I was just pretending.
TEACHER: What are you doing with a chair?
ALEX: Well it’s actually a very funny story.
Rose and John are sitting around.
JOHN: Oh, I almost forgot next week I am touring the sewage plant and I would hate to go alone, and don’t worry I know you’re free because your plans were to hang out with me.
ROSE: You win! I give up! Screw the verbal agreement! Okay, happy you win!
Alex getting off the bus with the chair. He shimmiess from the best stop to his apartment.
Cut to ALEX coming home
He rings the bell
MOm: Hi sweetheart, you’re home!
ALEX(Shimmying with the chair): Shimmy, shimmy, shimmy shimmy shimmy
MOM: What happened with the door?
ALEX: Well apparently the lady didn’t want to give it up. So I took this free chair.
MOM: Why is it so um ugly?
ALEX: It is not. It’s beautiful. And it’s got to be worth something.
Cut to: JOHN’s apartment the four are sitting there
A: So this guy is threatening to send me to jail, so finally I give up and grab this free chair. But the good part is I got a chair and I kissed a girl. The bad part is I didn’t get the door and I broke up with the girl.
J: Why, ALEX, why?
ATWOOD and DAD are in the elevator, Gertrude and Luke join them.
ATWOOD: I can’t believe Marissa and Katherine aren’t here.
LUKE: You’re cheating on Nella? With this Katherine? Nella’s going to kill you.
ATWOOD: I’m not cheating on anyone. I lost Nella’s wedding ring. Katherine and Marissa are girls I bought the rings from. I need to buy another one.
GERTRUDE: You lost the rings? Nella’s definitely going to kill you now.
The Corpse Flower
By Nick Stephen
What happens when humanity steps out of line and defiles the sanctity of nature? Will nature stand still, not responding? or will it retaliate in frightening ways? This story serves as a cautionary tale to respect the boundaries that nature has set. Disturbing those boundaries may have some dreadful consequences.
Long ago, there was a village named Kayung. It was a quaint little village that accommodated around fifty people or so, located near a lush rain-forest. The abundant forest provided the people of the village plenty of wood for all their needs. Not only that, there were lots of different types of resources that were contained in the forest. It became a valuable resource for the village and its people who made their living through collecting and processing the forest's resources.
The woodcutters would gather the wood from tall trees with their axes. It usually took around two or three to cut one down. These logs would then be transported back to the village, where they will be processed by carpenters. They were responsible for creating almost everything in the village—from furniture to housing materials. Thus, they were the most highly paid profession in the village.
The aforementioned jobs were usually filled by men, but some women also did them. Although there were some women who were woodcutters or carpenters, a majority of them took less physically taxing jobs. For instance, weaving crafts out of leaves. Wood wasn't the only thing to be extracted from the trees. They had wide leaves that could be converted into beautifully handcrafted items—baskets, hats, mats, the list goes on.
Through this great gift, the village thrived for generations, becoming the biggest producer of wood in the land. Naturally, this would attract other villages. They would regularly visit to buy wood; and not just wood, but also handcrafted items. It started off with a couple, but then word would start to spread, attracting more and more people. Increase in demand—along with the growing population—jacked up resource collection. The forest was being extracted for resources almost to an excessive degree. Trees were being cut down at a faster rate than they were being planted, disrupting the careful balance on which the forest was maintained. For the people who were selling these resources, this seemed like a non-issue. More resources meant more products, and more products meant more income. But to a significant portion of the people, this pillaging of resources concerned them.
One such person was a woman named Maya. Standing at almost six feet tall, Maya was certainly one mighty woman. Athletic, energetic, and caring, she would certainly make a solid impression to anyone who met her. While she might be a little rough around the edges, one thing that she kept pristine was her black hair. It usually was in braids, keeping her from getting steamy in this warm climate.
She worked as a woodcutter, a rarity for women in this village. Being a woodcutter was one of her targets in life. She didn't feel that a lot of the jobs that the women usually do were suited for her; precision work was never her strong suit. But her wish to become a woodcutter was shortly interrupted when she had kids with her husband Banja.
Her husband Banja used to be the woodcutter of the family because she was too busy taking care of their two boys, Maul and Walat. She always wanted to help Banja because she could see that he wasn't physically suited to be a woodcutter. He was a lean man with skillful hands that were more suited to crafting. When their kids got older—16 and 15 years old respectively—and learnt how to take care of themselves, Maya stepped in as the family's woodcutter. Meanwhile, Banja became a carpenter—a profession that suited him much better.
Despite pushing towards her 40s, Maya liked being a woodcutter, it kept her fit and let her explore the forest. Though, she was concerned at the amount of trees that were being chopped down. It felt like more and more trees were being cut and none replanted. Keeping the balance between cutting down and replanting was important. Ever since the village started utilizing the forest, they kept this practice in mind. Nowadays, that seemed like it was irrelevant.
Her concerns weren't unwarranted. The forest looked a lot more bare than it was back when she was a child. A lot of older people also noticed how bare the forest was compared to before. She was a bit distraught at the waning of the forest. So much so that she took her concerns to the village head. "Sir, I have a few concerns regarding the forest," she stated.
The village head looked on with intrigue, "Oh really, what is it?"
"I'm worried that we might be cutting down too many trees. You have to admit that the forest is looking a lot more bare than it once was."
The village head seemed to understand her concerns, but he reassured, "Look Maya, you can put your worries aside. I have it under control."
This response didn't seem to quell her worries. "We really need to start slowing down our wood production if we want to restore the forest," she added.
"Maya, trust me, I'll have this matter taken care of." With the village head giving nothing but lip service, Maya returned back home. It was clear that changing things would take more than just a plea. She was also tired from a long days of work, so it would be better for her to rest and wait for tomorrow to sort things out.
At home, she was greeted by her husband and two kids. They have already took the liberty of preparing dinner. Banja was cooking some haruan fish while Maul was making the sauce that consisted of onions, garlic, chili peppers, tamarind, along with some salt and sugar. The smell was quite aromatic, the spices blended perfectly to create a spicy, sweet and sour flavour. Meanwhile, Walat was preparing some rice. After finishing, they set up the dinner table—putting down the haruan fish, rice, and some sauteed fiddleheads.
As they dig in, Banja asked her, "So, how did it go with the village head?"
"Awful to say the least," she bluntly said, "You know how dismissive he is." Her disappointment with the village head was shared by a lot of other members of the village. Unlike his late father—may he rest in peace—the current village head was not quick to take action, even to his own father's disappearance. His father didn't die in the usual sense, rather he seemingly vanished mysteriously.
One day, his father and some other men went to go survey the forest. After an entire day, none of them came back. Days had passed and still no sign of them. At that time, the village head was only 14 years old. One would think that the disappearance of his father would greatly impact him to be extremely attentive to any issues lurking in the village, but no. In fact, quite the opposite. His father's disappearance might have left him feeling hopeless in the face of any issues—thinking that they would most likely take care of themselves one way or the other. The inevitable culling of the forest might just be one of them.
The next day, Maya met with the village head once again. She pleaded the same case to him, with more vigor this time. "As this village's head, you need to be responsible for our greatest gift," she asserted, "Without the forest, our village would be nothing." She thought that her passionate plea would finally convince him to take action, but he still wasn't budging.
"Maya," he said sternly, "While I appreciate your passionate plea, I'm the one who you should be pleading to."
His words struck a chord within her. She's been pleading her case towards the wrong person. Even if the village head wanted to push back production, the countless woodcutters who work on said production wouldn't. This was their livelihood after all; they weren't just going to halt their income. Maya herself was also a woodcutter, her livelihood would also be affected by this change. The rising demand from the other villages also impeded it. It was becoming very clear that a strongly worded plea wasn't going to cut it. They needed to rework this entire system—something that couldn't be done alone.
In order to give the village head some insight into the situation, she suggested for him to come with her and see the forest first hand. Seeing the issue up-close would maybe help him decide what to do going forward. They could also try convincing some of the woodcutters to help their efforts.
When they were at the forest's entrance, they spotted something special. A flower was growing near the entrance—a big one at that. What made this flower special was how rare it was. Only a few have been recorded to exist in this forest, one of them Maya had seen long ago. It was probably around a meter wide, sporting five big petals. Those petals had reddish-brown coloration; along with white spots that were speckled about. In the center was a cavity that hosted its reproductive organs—reminiscent of a gaping mouth. Last but not least, the smell that emanated from this flower resembled rotting flesh. Its distinctive smell has earned it many names—"The Stinky Lily"; "The Rotting Blossom"; or to be more morbid, "The Corpse Flower".
The flower's beauty could not distract from its putrid smell. Many woodcutters avoided getting near it as the smell diverted their focus. Extended exposure to this flower's scent might lead to headaches, according to some woodcutters. But since it was possibly a rare specimen, nobody dared to get rid of them. Even if they wanted to, it would be an unpleasant process. The smell alone made it hard to get close without feeling sick. Other than that, because of its size, the flower was heavy; a lot heavier than flowers usually were. These flowers were only an inconvenience to the woodcutters since the grew deep in the forest, covered by the canopy. It was unusual for it to grow near the forest's edge.
As they went past the flower, Maya and the village head delved into a particularly busy part of the forest. There, the village head could see how much damage the forest has endured. Usually the gaps between the trees could barely fit an adult human, but now, it could fit two people stretching out their arms. The stumps were also removed to be used as fuel. Hardly anybody was replanting these trees, maybe a couple here and there, but not enough to replace the ones that have been cut down. On top of this, the vibrant green grass that covered the ground had withered away from all of the stepping.
A look of great sorrow was plastered all over the village head's face as he witnessed the once great forest—now a shell of its former self. He could not deny any longer; something must be done to stop this forest from deteriorating any further. "All right," he said, facing Maya, "Its high time we fix this." She could not be more thrilled to hear those words. Finally, they were going to restore this vast swath of vegetation to its former glory.
A committee was formed to analyze, investigate, and solve this problem. First off were the countless woodcutters who would need some sort of reimbursement, maybe a reassignment to another job while the restoration was ongoing. They could take up other manual labor jobs that needed to be done.
Then there was the actual restoration itself. A surplus amount of seeds were readily available for use, so plenty of trees could be restored. While the tree's trunk may be gone, the roots were still intact. This could make growing new trees a lot easier as they could connect to the already existing root system.
Last but certainly not least, something needed to be done about the loss income due to the halting of wood production. The forest has been this village's main source of income for quite some time. This may be a good chance for the village to reduce their reliance on the forest. They could expand their horizons to other areas nearby. There was a floodplain near the village that has a whole host of different resources. One of them was fertile farming land.
With a plan in hand, this restoration was shaping up to be a success. All they needed to do was survey the forest. Unfortunately, some other news would greatly impede the restoration.
Tomorrow arrived and the sun was shining down upon Kayung. It was looking like a wonderful day. While Maya was getting ready for the day, a knock could be heard from the door. She checked to see who it was, thinking that the village head might be coming over to go over the plan a bit more.When she opened the door, she was surprised to see that it was one of her neighbors—a young woman. She lived next door with her husband.
She looked distraught, almost like something bad had transpired. "Maya, have you seen my husband recently?" she said with a touch of worry in her eyes.
Maya was confused as to why she would be asking that. "No, I haven't seen him. Why do you ask?" she replied.
"It's just that he hasn't come back after going to work at the forest yesterday." Alarming, to say the least. No woodcutter would ever dare spend the night in the forest without equipment. At night, the forest would almost be pitch black. So, most of them would call it a day when the sun was still up.
Maya relayed this news to the village head. He was talking with the committee about the survey when Maya brought the missing woodcutter to his attention. Surveying the forest would have to wait until this man was found. A search party was formed, consisting of three people. They were properly equipped to venture out to the forest. Since their supplies would only last up to a week, they were ordered to return after a week, even if they didn't find him. Most of them were hopeful that the man would be found, but their hope was gradually whittled away after a week had passed and no one returned. Day by day, they waited on their safe return, but nobody was coming back. Now, they had another crisis in hand; four people had gone missing in the forest.
The survey seemed like it was going to be delayed indefinitely, but the village head decided to press on ahead anyway. Maya had some apprehensions about this decision. She felt that it didn't feel right to go on with the survey while the people were still missing. The village head wanted to convince her by suggesting that maybe they could help search for them while surveying the forest. So in addition to the surveyors, they will be another search party joining them, led by Maya. This time, everybody had to leave the forest by dusk—no exceptions.
Joining the search party was Maya's second son, Walat. At first she didn't want him anywhere near the forest, but because of his persistent, she allowed him to join under the condition that she would be watching him at all times. The entire search party was ordered to keep an eye on each other so that nobody went missing. To be frank, most of the members of the search party didn't have high hopes on finding them. They would likely have run out of supplies. If they managed to find a sustainable food and water source, then maybe survival was possible. Of course the chances of that happening was still pretty slim. Maya was probably the most hopeful out of the group. She clung on to the small chance that they may have survived. At the very least, they could find their bodies to give them a proper burial.
They headed out to the forest first thing in the morning, hoping to make full use of the sunlight. Not a single second should be wasted. They got a good 12 hours before they had to return. The forest itself was very empty that day. The disappearances deterred a lot of people from going into the forest, less they also disappear.
While 12 hours might seem like a lot of time, being in the forest really messed up their sense of time. One minute the fresh morning air was permeating the forest, the next minute, it was the sweltering afternoon, and yet they still made no progress. They hadn't come close to finding any semblance of the missing people.
At that point, most of the members of the search party were ready to return. The surveyors had already left, so it was a matter of time before they did as well. Of course there was still one person that was still determined to find them. Maya hadn't given up yet. She was going to keep searching until the bitter end, or at least until night. Walat on the other-hand, was over it. Even though he persisted on joining, he was expecting for it to be more eventful.
Maya was none too pleased at him. "Are you serious? You were the one who kept on badgering me about joining. Now you're just going to leave?" she said furiously.
"Face it mom, we're never going to find them," he retorted.
The nerve, the gall, the audacity for him to be saying this when he was the one who insisted on coming. It was hot and humid, she's completely drenched in sweat and Maya just had enough of it. "Well you can take yourself home because I didn't raise a quitter. I'll do this myself," she yelled out.
"Fine," he yelled back. Walat stormed away furiously as Maya watched. This search effort went wrong in every possible way, but Maya was not willing to give up. Despite all of the signs that this was hopeless, she kept on going. Although, something was going to make her leave—if she wanted to or not.
A few minutes after Walat stormed off, a scream could be heard echoing through the forest. Maya heard this shriek and immediately recognized who it was—Walat was in danger. She rushed towards the direction of the scream, avoiding obstacles with great agility. This forest could not stop her maternal instincts. Nothing except for the safety of her son was in mind.
After some time running, the scream stopped as quickly as it started. Maya stopped to catch her breath and reorient herself. She checked out her surroundings to find that flowers were all over the place, one type of flower to be specific. Corpse flowers were littered all over the place, on the ground and trees. The thought of being around all of these flowers was already enough to make her hurl, but weirdly, the smell wasn't what it usually was. Unlike the usual smell of rotting flesh, this smell was more metallic. If the corpse flower usually smelled like a decaying corpse, then this smell was like the blood.
Maya was understandably disturbed by it. This smell was even more unpleasant than the usual. Enough to make her a bit lightheaded. Her vision began to blur and when she felt like she was about to faint, she heard a voice. It was faint, but she could clearly hear it—almost like it was inside her head. She looked for where the voice was coming from. While it may seem absurd, she thought that the voice was coming from one of the flowers.
She approach said flower. inching closer and closer until her face was in front of the flower's cavity. The voices kept getting louder—now a cacophony. In the midst of her daze, the cavity looked like an empty abyss. She kept staring into the abyss, still confused. Eventually, she spotted something—a face. Her blurred vision didn't let her recognize who it was, but she would soon as the face got closer. Not long after, it was clear as day. The face was none other than Walat, looking lifeless with completely whited out eyes. Blood started spilling out the flower as Maya's eyes widened in horror. A few seconds of silence preceded a moment that she would never forget. "Leave this place," the face said in a ghastly voice. Immediately, Maya screamed in terror. She bolted away from the flower, desperately trying to escape the forest. Her mind was filled with a mixture of fear and sorrow, contemplating the loss of her son and complete utter terror.
The other members of the search party were unharmed, while Maya was irreparably psychologically damaged. Her love for the forest had turned into a debilitating fear. She couldn't bring herself to attend her son's funeral.
In other news, the restoration project was definitively cancelled. The corpse flowers have taken over the forest. Turns out that these flowers were parasitic, feeding on the plants they grew on. The forest was closed off to the populace and would not be opened up ever again. Obviously, this had major ramifications for the village. They now would have to set their eyes on new horizons. Several lessons were learned that day, but the most important one was—Don't Fuck With Nature.