How Lacey “Linked-In”
To be honest, her co-workers were a little tired of hearing about Lacey's "artistic" abilities. Everyone in the factory knew Little Lacey Lockhart, though she had long since grown out of the “Little” sobriquet, and was now just Lacey, mostly. Many of those she worked with had known Lacey her whole life. After all, Jefferson was a town of only 13,000 people, and the Lockhart girls were a staple at Lacerno’s Manufacturing. Both Lacey’s mother and her grandmother had also toiled their lives away in this factory. Big Lacey was one of the originals, in fact, having started way back when Old Man Lacerno first got the government grant that allowed him to mass produce socks and gloves for the boys in the war; a necessary if not very profitable commodity, which explains the change.
In defense of her co-workers, Lacey had never in her life exhibited to them any talent for anything whatsoever, artistically or not, so who could have foreseen her change? Being Southerners, they were too polite to laugh when Lacey said she wanted to be an artist, but she stopped saying it all the same, because what they did was worse than laughing. They ignored her. They looked at her like she was daft before returning to their trivial conversations, as if she hadn’t said anything at all. What they didn’t know however, what none of them could know, was that Little Lacey Lockhart did indeed have an artistic bent. Funny thing was, she herself did not yet know what her special talent was, but she was certain that there was one hidden inside her, and that it would eventually manifest itself. The people around her did not believe in her just yet, but they would soon find out, for the fates were ready to reveal that Lacey’s confidence was well placed… in an off-hand sort of way.
The eight-to-four factory shift was a drudgery that, like everyone else at the factory, Lacey suffered because she must. There is nothing exciting, nothing fun about manufacturing surgical gloves, but the only other option in these parts was to work ten hour days in a cotton, or rice field. Most of those employed by Lacerno had already been there and done that; many of them still carried the scarred hands and wrinkled faces to prove it. Even still, despite the lack of better options, Lacey hated the factory. She hated the smell of the melting latex. She hated the loud machinery. She hated the thin strips of rubbery plastic that littered the floors and were impossible to sweep up with a broom. She wondered did anyone upstairs in the offices really believe that a tenure badge paper-clipped to her apron was motivational? Lacey Lockhart was neither blind, nor was she an idiot. Here she was, a young woman killing herself working overtime hours down on the hot factory floor while there were big shots were sitting right upstairs in their air conditioned offices raking in company cars and bonus checks! Lacey could hardly even muster the will to drag herself in to work most days, but the ugly truth was that she needed this job. There was nothing better. And so she suffered the humiliations of sprinting full speed through the front doors every morning until she was made into the break room laughingstock, always late to punch the time-clock. The “Coaching and Counseling” sessions were adding up. Lacey was down to her final, Final Warning when The Lacerno Manufacturing Company, “Lacerno; Shaping Latex for Your Future” announced the start-up of a new division. When construction on the new wing began the rumors flew, everyone being curious about what products they would be making, and what changes would be coming from those products (there is nothing so dreadful to a country person as change, which is the true reason they are so interested in the weather). The workers watched wide-eyed as newfangled, automated equipment was brought into the new wing and assembled there, until soon the giant, empty space was cluttered up with gleaming chrome conveyors, and contrivances. Once that was done, the speculation of hours-upon-days turned to the equipment's many possible functions and purposes. This guesswork continued right up until the announcement was finally made. To Lacey’s amazement it was the most unbelievable of the hundreds of rumors that was true! Lacerno was about to begin manufacturing sex toys for women. Finally, something in this shit-hole place that even a lowly quality control girl could get excited about!
Surprisingly, her transfer request to the new division was accepted. Lacey assumed it was because “Fucking Margaret” her supervisor wanted to get rid of her, but it didn’t matter why, did it? Not when there was finally something to show up to work for besides Hawaiian shirt Friday, or the quarterly pot-luck luncheon with it’s six crockpots full of the same Piggly-Wiggly beanie-weenies.
From this point, Lacey’s transformation happened so fast it was startling to those other tenured employees who knew her so well. The cause of the change they suspected, although it was not as obvious as it appeared on the surface level. There were some chuckles at first, of course, but the chuckles didn’t last, because no matter the reason behind it the change was real. Little Lacey, after years of indolence, had suddenly become engaged in her work. She was motivated. She was no longer the laughing stock who sprinted through the doors at 8:10 am just to keep her job. She stopped calling in sick. Her long bathroom breaks ended. She started making time for her training, wanting to familiarize herself with the new machinery, and their new procedures. She even began caring about the things most of the other workers on the assembly line considered trivial bullshit; like higher efficiency, safety, and that ethereal ideal of “the bottom line” that everyone always heard about, but no one ever saw. But the truly amazing day for them, the day that stunned them all, was that morning pep-rally when Lacey, the quietest one on the line, began pitching in some ideas. Lacey Lockhart spoke up! She did so, and soon afterward an even crazier thing happened. To the astonishment of everyone at Lacerno Manufacturing, worker and supervisor alike, Little Lacey Lockhart got promoted!
What the others didn’t know was that it was not the product itself that sparked the change in Lacey, as they all suspected, but rather it was her disappointment in that product. Lacey’s order was one of the very first ones taken by Lacerno’s mail-order department. The girls in Shipping and Receiving had snickered when they saw Lacey's name on the outbound printed shipping label, but the snickers quickly died as those who were snickering secretly plotted orders of their own.
For her part, Lacey‘s heartbeat pounded to a stop when she arrived home from the factory that day to find the plain, brown package waiting on her apartment’s landing. Embarrassed at what she had done, she grabbed it up before the neighbors could see, and she hurried inside with it, lest they guess what the package contained. She had a creepy feeling, like she was being watched, as she cut the tape on the outer shipping box. All the while her anticipation was increasing, but to add to the already palpable suspense, before opening it she set the package down on the coffee table and hurried off to the bedroom, where she kicked off her shoes. Next off came her t-shirt, her jeans, and what little was underneath them. She flung on her bathrobe, and hurried back to the living room, although she was still unready to give way to her excitement. She figured she’d might as well make an evening of it, so instead of tearing it open she headed into the kitchen, where she filled an antique, colorfully striped iced tea glass with straight vodka over ice. Finally ready, she took a few steeling sips before perching herself on the very edge of the sofa, giving her pounding heart a moment to adjust to the titillating gift that Lacerno Manufacturing, of all the unlikely gift-givers in the world, had sent to her front door... for a small fee.
She removed it from the packing paper slowly, carefully, as if it was fragile (which of course it was not) and held it gently in both of her hands. To be perfectly honest, it’s appearance left something to be desired. It was smooth, almost industrial looking, and as colorless as the surgical gloves she had spent the past four years inspecting for faults. She rubbed her fingers along it’s length, her guilty shame forcing her to check the window blinds as she did so. It felt cold, lifeless in her hands. She sighed, already a tad disappointed with her new “toy” before she had even put it to it’s intended use. She set it back on the table and picked up her vodka glass. She watched it laying there as she drank; a dead, plastic thing. The vodka seemed more alive, and was touching her deeper inside than the plastic phallus, so she took a larger gulp, a gulp large enough that she picked the thing back up with a renewed, and inebriated determination. She parted her legs, letting the bathrobe fall away off to the sides as she closed her eyes. She rubbed the tip of it against herself, and was soon breathing differently; slower, deeper. Twenty minutes later Little Lacey was neither satisfied, nor disappointed, but she was not elated, and she should have been elated. She deserved that, didn’t she? Some elation? Yes, it did function; the thing did what it was supposed to do, but then so could the handle of her hair brush have done that, or a hundred other things lying around her apartment were she gross enough to use them. It was then that Lacey had her epiphany. She looked at the sorry looking dick for a long while, feeling the change happening within herself, waiting to find out just what it was that was happening to her as a new determination filled her insides, finally settling itself as firmly and deeply in there as the vodka had. It was right here, in her little apartment, alone on her couch, her robe tussled under her bare bottom, buzzed with vodka and exhausted by a hard earned orgasm, that Lacey Lockhart’s calling finally struck her. ”Don’t worry,” she said to it as she set it back in the box. “Momma knows what to do. I swear to God, I am going to either turn you into something worth the money I shelled out for you, or I am going to kill myself trying!” If only Lacey had known how prophetic those words would prove to be for her, just as they would be for her new ”little friend”.
Lacey knew what to do, what she didn’t know was how to do it. The guys in “Casting” were surprised when Lacey Lockhart, the newest and least likely supervisor at Lacerno, started hanging around their shop after her own shift was over. “I am interested in what you guys do, is all. Teach me.” So they did. They showed her how to make the clay molds, how to heat the latex, and how to pour it. The work had to be done in reverse, like looking into a 3-D mirror, but she quickly became adept. Learning new skills is easy when there is love in the labor. She started hanging out longer, and longer still, loving the design challenges the molds provided. She was doing their jobs for them, so the boys were happy to let her stay. She was a sponge, peppering them with infernal questions, questions they themselves did not know the answers to, but they did notice that, ever so slowly the shape of the final product was changing. It developed natural looking folds and veins, and a larger ridge down it’s center. She gave it girth, contour, and a smooth, contoured head. They were more-so visual improvements she added, rather than practical, but Lacey knew that they were improvements that would add to the overall experience, none-the-less. The guys found it amusing, watching as she did their jobs better than they could. They jabbed each other with their elbows and smirked at her test products, but Lacey had learned well from her own escapade, and what she had learned was that a girl wants something naughty to peek out at her when she opens that box; not just a tool to do a job. What a girls wants is the fantasy, and the tool to help her realize that fantasy. What a girl wants is some shock and awe when her Jack-In-The-Box pops. She wants to feel a little bit naughty, dirty even. She wants it all, she wants to be swept away in her risque moment alone. A girl wants a pleasurable experience that was created just for her.
Once she had learned all the boys could teach her about casting the molds, Lacey made her way over to Research and Development. “We have sold over 800 units now,” she told them as she gathered the team around her. “How many of the buyers have we surveyed about their, uh, experience with the product?” Her question was met with crickets… just as she suspected. The three women and two men who made up the department looked sheepishly at one another, avoiding Lacey’s eyes at all costs. After all, who wants to be the one to survey a customer about how well their new dildo worked?
“Not one of them?“ She asked incredulously. “So we have no idea if our customers enjoyed using our product? Well, have you at least tried the product yourselves, then?” The women’s faces grew red, and the the men’s redder still. “Come on, people! Are you being serious? You haven't even tried them out? You are Research and Development, for Christ’s sake! Try the damned thing! Everyone, right now, pick one up! Feel it! Touch it! Put it in your mouths! What are you waiting for? Go on! Do it!”
She wasn’t their boss, but Lacey was a supervisor… and she wasn’t wrong. They were Research and Development. It was awkward, but Lacey picked one up with them, leading them by her example, so they followed her. Together they held the toys up and touched them. Lacey had each of them stroke theirs, and lick it. One woman even tried rubbing hers lovingly against her cheek, as she did at home with her husband. The giggling slowly died out as the room took on a more serious, more experimental vein.
"Ok, people! So what does it feel like?”
”It feels cold and hard, almost like metal,” the one who had rubbed her cheek offered with a smirk.
”Exactly, Kendra! Guys, what do you think? Does it feel like your own?”
They shook their heads in unison. “Why not? What is wrong with it?”
”Kendra’s right. It’s too cold. It doesn’t feel like skin.”
”Especially not like hot skin!” The other guy on the team blurted out, and then buried his face in his arms.
”No, Eugene! Don’t be embarrassed! You are absolutely right! Well. There you go then, boys and girls. Fix it! Make it feel right!” And she left them to it, thrilled at the clamorous sounds of excited activity she was leaving behind her. The team in Research and Development was on a mission! She made a mental note to stop in tomorrow to check on their progress. “Who ever knew,” she wondered to herself, “how much fun work could be?”
The Human Resources Office was one room that Lacey was more familiar with, one she had visited many times before, back when she was still making surgical gloves; back in a time that she now thought of as her “past life” when she bothered to think of it at all. Their initial reaction to her when she entered came as looks of surprise, and approval. Gone were her jeans and t-shirt. In their place Lacey wore a business suit, and sensible, shiny, work appropriate shoes. The office was small, but she noticed that they had already slid in a third chair for her. “So,” Lacey thought to herself. “They are prepared.”
Well. So was she! She set the box she brought in with her down on the floor next to her feet.
”Lacey!” Maximilian Lacerno, Jr.’s voice boomed in the little room. “Just what is it y’all are up to down there? What is happening to my… ummm… to our product? I can hardly recognize it anymore, as it has taken on a vulgar shape, and tone! We are a Christian company, Lacey Lockhart! Where did y‘all get approval to make these changes, and who is going to pay for them?”
”Well, Mr. Lacerno. You did make me a supervisor. When you did so, you empowered me to make changes that would improve profitability, did you not?”
”Profitability, yes! Design, no! My God Lacey, you even have them changing the packaging? Do you have any idea how much all of this is going to cost? I must ask again, who approved these changes?”
”I did, sir.”
”You did? Our newest, and lowest ranking supervisor approved a million dollars worth of changes to a product that had a million dollars worth of research in it already? Lacey, I knew your mother. She’s the reason why you have this job, bless her soul. But this is preposterous! What do you think she would say about this new design? It is indecent! She would be mortified if she was still with us! Just what do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to figure out a way to inject color, Mr. Lacerno.“
It needs a pinkish tint. A hard dick is full of blood. It is a thing alive; not a sickly, pallid yellow. It needs blue in the veins, and purple on the head, muted colors, of course. Do that, and we will sell millions of units… not thousands. We will have to convert the glove wing into another one for dildos, just to keep up with demand. That is what you should help me do! That is what I expect you to do. Do that and revenue won’t just double. It will quadruple. Isn’t that what we all are here for?”
”Lacey, we cannot do this.”
”Mr. Lacerno, we can do it. Most of it is already done. Let me show you something.” Lacey picked the box up from the floor, and set it on the desk. Mrs. Winslow, the HR Director, had stayed silent up until now, but she leaned forward as Lacey removed the lid from a pretty box made up of leather and lace, the kind of box a girl might want to keep close to her nightstand. Inside, two dildos lay side by side, one a pallid yellow dork, the other, although slightly exaggerated in size, was so life-like that it nearly pulsed out at them from the box.
“Oh, dear Lord!” Mrs. Winslow’s palm went over her heart, as if to prevent it’s stoppage. Mr. Lacerno said nothing, but neither did his eyes leave the box.
”Mrs. Winslow? If you could order this one for twenty dollars, or this one for fifty, which one would you purchase?”
”Oh, my Heavens!” Mrs. Winslow’s expression was one of mortification, and shame.
“Mrs. Winslow? Are you all right? Calm down, Sweetie! It isn’t real. Look, it’s only a piece of plastic.” Lacey pulled it from the box, and held it toward Mrs. Winslow for inspection. Being less taut than the lesser model, almost pliable, the dick warbled ever so slightly in her hand, while still maintaining it’s erect shape. Lacey waved it around in front of them, to demonstrate it’s elasticity.
”Ooooohhhhh! Please don’t, Ms. Lockhart! Please stop!” Mrs. Winslow waved her palms at Lacey, apparently ready to cry. Lacey set her dick back on the desk, where Mr. Lacerno then reached out for it.
"Lord no, Mr. Lacerno! Not you, too!" Mrs. Winslow pushed her way through the crammed-in office chairs in a race for the restroom, for any escape from this lewd Hell that she found herself in.
"Nevermind her, Lacey. She was against this venture from the start." Mr. Lacerno turned it in his hands, holding it up close to his glasses. He set it back on the desk and bent his large frame over it, his mind going a million miles an hour, and in a million directions. He tried to imagine his wife with this... thing. A thing which no longer had the clinical appearance he had imagined, as though it were merely intended as a stress reliever, but it now held the naked appeal of raw sex. He wondered if his Nancy would like it? It was fairly large, bigger than he was, which was disconcerting to him. But was he being a ninny? It was a sex toy after all, not a "stress reliever". Perhaps he should take it home and let Nancy see it... maybe she could even try it? The thought actually brought a spark of jealousy with it, which tickled him so that he chuckled out loud, and without even realizing it. But he trusted his Nancy's moral judgement, as well as her business instincts.
"Ms. Lockhart, no matter what decision I make concerning this, you have done some amazing work here." He spoke as he continued his inspection.
It was time for Lacey to make her pitch. "Research and Development surveyed two-thousand women. 94% preferred the realistic model. This was in the Deep South, mind you, Mr. Lacerno. The Bible Belt. We are certain that the numbers would be over 98% in a more liberal part of the country."
"Really?" Mr. Lacerno straightened up from the desk, and leaned back in his seat.
"80% of those surveyed said they would purchase immediately."
"Hmmm. 80% of two-thousand!" She had his attention.
"At fifty dollars a unit."
"Fifty dollars! That was double what they were currently marketing at. The numbers raced through his head, and were startling."
She didn’t stop there. "Engineering is working on an ergonomic, attachable handle that will allow a woman to rest comfortably on her back while using it. They are getting close, but we could use some guinea pigs."
Guinea pigs? Where in the world would you find guinea pigs for this?
Lacey read his expression, and smiled politely at his naivety. "Don't worry. We'll find volunteers when we're ready." There were plenty of women right here in the factory asking her for a free product sample.
We are also working on a "pillow". We call it that for lack of a better word. They are designing the new handle’s mechanics so that it will also attach to a silica "body", something that a woman can place on her bed, and that will hold it erect, and will actually let the woman mount it. That was Eugene’s idea, and it was not a bad one. The whole team in R&D has been fantastic. They have been working with engineering, and some of the other departments. They have really bought all in!"
“Now,“ Mr. Lacerno mused to himself, “she is throwing in add-on sales revenue.” what was supposed to have been a "behavioral correction" conversation with a rogue employee was turning into quite a product pitch. "Lacey, how are you at sales? Do you think you could personally go into a convention and sell this thing?"
"I am passionate about it."
Maximillian Lacerno made up his mind. He was sold! Lacey Lockhart was indeed passionate. He felt that. Passion was something rarely seen in the business of rubbers and plastics. Her passion was so undeniable that it was spreading to him. He drummed the table with his fingers, a habit he had while thinking. He reached into a desk drawer, and pulled out a business card.
"Well then, Let’s call you “Vice President” Lockhart for the time being. Figure out the dyes.” He handed the card across the desk to her. “Here is the name and number of someone who might help. Let me know the cost estimates before you agree to anything, but otherwise I will leave development in your capable hands. There is a show in Las Vegas in February. We are going to find out just how passionate you are, Miss Lockhart. You have certainly sold me. Why don't you hire and train two assistants to take with you? It will be too much for you to do alone. We'll talk about your new salary and bonus structure when I have had the opportunity to play with the numbers, but if this thing takes off, it will be commensurate.
Now, if you don't mind I will be leaving early today. I feel like celebrating! I suddenly find myself with a bright outlook for the future, and think I can afford an afternoon on the links. I will be taking this sample with me, to gather some, uh, research (wink) on my own with. I want to see what Mrs. Lacerno has to say about it.”
"I am sure she will enjoy it, Sir."
"Let's say nothing of that. Nice work, Ms. Lockhart. It sounds crazy, but I leave you in charge."
The Porsche Carrera was even whiter than the winter cotton that waved wildly in it’s slipstream as Lacey raced along the return highway from Memphis. It was the first thing Lacey did upon landing, was to take a taxi to the luxury car dealership. The car was her reward: her reward for her success in Vegas, her reward for the inspiration that got her there, her reward for stepping up to the plate and believing in herself. She thought of her mother as she drove, and her grandmother, and of all the women who toiled unrecognized in all the factories of the world, and then went back home to toil again in their unfulfilling bedrooms.
She wondered what Big Lacey would think of her now, if only she was alive to see it; alive to see that her grand-daughter had lived up to the Lacerno motto of, Shaping Latex for the Future, and to see that it was her own Little Lacey Lockhart, the quietest girl on the assembly line, who now swung the biggest stick at Lacerno's!
The Acorn Child
Showered, towelled dry, and dressed, Theo stuffed his crusted bed linen into the washer-dryer under the stairs and turned it on. Waiting for the cycle to finish would mean being late for school, but that was nowhere near as embarrassing as his mother seeing the tell-tale stains.
There was a new boy in Theo’s class that day. He seemed familiar, though Theo was certain he’d never met him before.
Walking home that afternoon, the boy fell quietly into step beside him. They didn’t speak. There was no need to. It felt to Theo as if he and the other boy had been friends all their lives.
At the corner of Theo’s street the boy stopped.
All he said was, “Later.”
Then he turned around and headed back the way they’d just come.
“Wait!” Theo called. “What’s your name?”
The next morning, Theo woke up with no clear memory of his dreams, but needed to launder his sheets again. That afternoon, he and Dion walked home from school together, just like they had the day before. When they reached the corner, Dion didn’t stop, but kept walking until they reached Theo’s house.
Upstairs in Theo’s bedroom, they undressed without saying anything. Theo couldn’t explain why, but being naked with Dion just felt right. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Dion had more hair from his navel down than Theo might have thought of as normal. But what was normal?
They lay down on Theo’s bed. Their hands and mouths exploring each other.
They slept like that. Locked together. It was late when Theo finally woke to find himself alone.
The next morning, Dion was there at the corner; waiting.
Cradled in a valley between wooded hills, Theo’s village was hundreds of years old. He wasn’t sure how many hundreds, exactly, but the village church dated back to the fourteenth century. The same families had farmed the land for generations, and before the farmers, shepherds had grazed their flocks in summer pastures.
Occupying Romans had built stone bridges over the river to join their hill forts. And nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers had left behind cave paintings of antelope, and auroch, and mammoth. Celebrating a successful hunt, or praying for one.
Nobody laughed at the village drunk when he told them how, as a young man, he’d found the ruins of an ancient temple, its pillars broken and fallen and overgrown with ivy.
For as long as people had lived in the village, they had left offerings in the wood’s sunlit glades jewelled with wildflowers. A fresh baked loaf of bread. A new set cheese in an earthenware pot, infused with lavender, or drizzled generously with honey. A bottle of virgin-pressed olive oil. A flask of wine. The ripest tomatos from their garden. The sweetest apricots from their orchard.
No-one had ever been lost in the woods, not truly lost. The soil on the sloping hills was too thin and full of stones for the olives, pines, and oaks to grow too closely together. Sometimes the very old or very young might become disoriented, but they always came back, and always with the tale of how a beautiful youth had taken them by the hand and led them home.
Ask anyone in the village and they will tell you: The woods are a wild and magical place.
It was into the woods that Dion led Theo. Past swathes of blazing jonquils that bowed their heads, not in mourning for their too fleeting beauty, but in reverence. A god walked among them.
“We’re going to be late for school,” Theo said to Dion’s profile, getting no response. “My mother already thinks I’m some kind of delinquent. Where are you taking me? Don’t say much, do you?”
The sun warmed them. Theo began to sweat. Dion picked a peach from a low hanging branch and gave it to him. The peach blushed at Theo’s touch.
“When the green woods laugh,” sang Theo, “with the voice of joy. And the dimpling stream runs laughing by. When the air does laugh with our merry wit. And the green hill - ”
Dion stopped, regarding Theo quizzically with his head tilted to one side.
“Not a fan? Okay. I’ll shut up.”
It was only then that Theo realized how far into the woods they had come. He looked around for anything familiar. A tree. A rock. A stream. Something. He wasn’t frightened. He could never be, not with Dion. He was simply wondering where they were. A weathered piece of fluted column caught his eye. Then another. Then a block of limestone that was much too regular in its form to be natural.
“Who are you, really?” Asked Theo. “What are you?”
“Your servant,” said Dion.
“I don’t need one. I have a mother for that.”
“Theo Acorn Child.”
“I’m not a child.”
“It is time.”
“Time? Time to go home?”
Theo checked his watch. It was only 11:40.
“It is your time.”
Dion put his hand on Theo’s cheek and gazed deep into his eyes. “Theo.”
“Look, we’ve been through this. I - ”
“Theo..... It is time.”
And suddenly Theo knew: Everything.
“I..... I’m not ready.”
“Three times I lay with you,” said Dion. “Three times I scattered my seed on your earth.”
“I think I liked you better when you didn’t talk dirty.”
“In three days you will be ten summers and six.”
“Yes, I know when my birthday is. So?”
“In three days time I will die.”
“What? No! You can’t..... Don’t say that!”
“I will die,” said Dion, “because you will kill me.”
“Uh-uh.” Theo shook his head. “No way!”
“I swear, if you call me Acorn Child one more time - ”
“It is who you are.”
“No, I’m not. I’m Theo Pellier. My father is Georges Pellier. My mother is Mariette Pellier. I won’t do it! I won't! ”
“But the woods. The village.”
“Fuck the woods!” Theo screamed. “And fuck the village! I won’t do it! And you can’t make me!”
Theo ran. He was sure Dion would chase him. But when he looked back, he was still sitting on his haunches in the middle of the clearing, staring at the sky.
There was no wet dream that night. Dion wasn’t waiting at the corner the next morning. And he wasn’t at school. Theo didn’t sleep, couldn’t sleep, his head was too full of questions he had no answers for.
When his father picked up the phone after only the third ring, Theo said, “Tell me about the woods.”
Total silence. Then the line went dead.
Three minutes later Theo’s phone rang.
All his father said was, “You know.”
“Yes. No. Tell me. You grew up here. You must know something!”
“The Acorn Child.”
“Not you, too!”
“Why are the woods so special? And what does the village have to do with it? Who’s Dion? Why does he come to my room and - ”
“I was hoping it wouldn’t be you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ve been chosen. It’s your time.”
“You’re not helping!”
“Didn’t you ever wonder why the people in the village leave gifts for - ”
“It’s just some dumb old superstition.”
“I wish it was,” said Theo’s father, “but I think you know better than that.”
“I can’t explain it over the phone. I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll talk more then.”
“You’re coming here?”
“Yes, of course. But, Theo?”
“How many times have you ah.....?”
“Tomorrow,” said Theo.
And pressed disconnect.
Theo ran into his father’s arms. “Please, don’t make me do it, Papa!”
His father hugged him tightly.
They stood in front of Theo’s house, crying on each other’s shoulder.
Inside, upstairs in his room, they sat on Theo’s bed.
Georges held his son’s hand.
“Tell me everything.”
“You first,” said Theo.
“Nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine years ago the village was almost wiped out by the Black Death. There was no one to work the fields. The few who’d survived the plague were starving. The village priest knelt in a field at the edge of the woods for two days and two nights, flogging his back and shoulders with an oak branch until they bled, and all the time he prayed for a miracle. On the morning of the third day, at dawn, his prayers were answered. But not by the christian God.”
“A creature came out of the woods. Not much more than a child. Half boy half goat. The priest thought he’d summoned the Devil himself. But he was a practical man, and any kind of help was better than no help at all. A deal was made. The priest offered his immortal soul as payment, but the goat-boy shook his head. A dead man was no use to him, he said. Let the blood that has soaked the earth around you be sacrifice enough.”
“In return the goat-boy - ”
“Hmm? Yes. Dion. Is that what you call him?”
“In return Dion asked that every three-hundred-and-thirty-three years, on the third day of the third month, the village priest - whoever that might be - must choose a handsome youth, someone who wasn’t a child but was not yet a full grown man, to perform the ritual of re-birth.”
“I’m not handsome,” said Theo.
“No,” said his father, “you’re not. You’re so much more than that. You’re the most beautiful boy in the world.”
“You’re my dad,” Theo said, blushing. “You have to say that.”
“It’s true. Even more so because you can’t see it.”
“My nose is too long.”
“My ears stick out.”
“My feet smell.”
“Yes, they do.” Georges laughed. “But you’re still perfect.”
“Stop saying that.”
“You’re special,” Theo’s father told him, “because you don’t know how truly special you are.”
“Right,” said Theo. “I’m so special, I have to kill the only person I will ever love.”
“Well, yes..... And no..... Not really.”
“The ritual of re-birth isn’t about death, or dying. It’s about living. Giving new life. New growth. A way of making everything.....good.....again. Not just here in the village. Everywhere. For everyone.”
“So, now I’m supposed to save the world?”
“If anyone can,” said his father, pulling Theo close and hugging him. “You can.”
“I don’t have to get pregnant, do I?”
Georges laughed so hard tears rolled down his face.
Leaving his father sleeping, Theo went to the village church. He hammered on the vestry door.
It opened slowly. Father Benoit regarded Theo with a flicker of uncertainty.
“Why?” Asked Theo. “Why me?”
“Faith in you, Theo. Faith in you.”
Dion met him at the edge of the temple clearing, taking both of Theo’s hands in his. “I knew you would come back.”
“Let me guess,” said Theo, “because you had faith in me?”
“You are a good person, Theo Pellier. You have a pure heart.”
“I didn’t think it was my heart you were interested in.”
“Your heart always,” said Dion. “How could my sacrifice truly be a sacrifice if I did not love you?”
Theo sat down in a patch of sweet smelling clover, pulling Dion down with him.
“What’s your name? Your real name.”
“Some call me Satan,” Dion chuckled. “Or Bacchus. The Greeks called me Dionysus. I always liked the Greeks.”
Theo rolled his eyes. “I can’t imagine why.”
Dion actually laughed. “I think you can, Theo..... Acorn Child.”
“What are you?”
Dion shrugged. “I’m me.”
“My father said you were some kind of beast. Part goat.”
“I am,” nodded Dion. “And we both know which part.”
“Tell me about the ritual.”
“You must bleed me.”
“Do you see that tall tree?” Dion pointed. “It is the Sacred Oak. It grew from an acorn that broke away from the branch the first priest used to beat himself with. It has stood there for a thousand summers.”
Theo could believe it.
“Tomorrow night the moon will be full,” said Dion. “You must come here, to this grove, alone. And there, under its spreading branches, you will slit my throat.”
“Can’t I just prick you a little bit?”
Dion shook his head. “If I do not die,” he told Theo, “the world cannot be reborn.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“That is a selfish thing to say, Theo Pellier.”
“But you will do it, won’t you? You will come?”
“And if I don’t?” Asked Theo. “What’s the worst that could happen? Drought? Floods? Famine? War? Some kind of global pandemic? All those things are happening now!”
“Yes,” said Dion. “But for all the sorrow and evil in the world, there is more good. You are proof of that. Without you all that is right, and just, and light, will vanish. Leaving only darkness.”
Theo hugged his knees to stop the shiver that ran through him. He looked at Dion, but couldn’t hold his lover’s gaze, so he stared, instead, at the Sacred Oak.
Then he said something he’d never told anyone - Ever.
“I don’t like the dark.”
Theo still had questions. So did his father.
Georges drove them to a secluded spot a short distance from the village, where they wouldn’t be disturbed.
“You first,” said Theo.
“Tell me about Dion.”
“As much as you’re comfortable with.”
Theo recounted his strange awakenings. The afternoon he and Dion had had sex. He told him about the temple ruins in the woods, and what Dion had said, and that he’d run away, so scared and sick in the stomach he’d thought he might vomit. The waiting, praying, needing, aching for Dion to come to his room again. The feeling of being more lost and alone than he’d ever felt in his whole life when he hadn’t shown. Going back to the glade. The Sacred Oak. The ritual. The village being more than just a village, but the world, and everyone in it. Promising Dion he’d be there, at the next full moon. The bleeding.
“The rest you know,” he said. “But what did you mean by Dion wouldn’t die? Not really?”
“Do the math,” said Georges. “Why didn’t Dion die six-hundred-and-sixty-six years ago? Maybe that Dion did, and another took his place. Or maybe..... ”
“He was reborn!”
“If a jewish carpenter could do it,” said Georges, “why not a being older than time? A god with a small g is still a god.”
“Do you think he regenerates like Doctor Who?”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Theo’s father asked him. “Can you do it? All of it? Right to the end? Even the bleeding?”
“I don’t want to,” said Theo. “I have to.”
“I feel sorry for Father Benoit. All that responsibilty.”
“Twenty years ago,” said Theo’s father. “He was just Luc Descartes. Always had his nose in a book. Smart, like you.”
“He wasn’t a priest then. He was my best friend. And the only one I ever told.”
“Where is this going?” Asked Theo.
“One morning, a week before my sixteenth birthday, I woke up and my pyjama bottoms were gone. I didn’t remember taking them off. I found them on the floor next to my bed. They were..... Anyway, the same thing happened the next night. I don’t know why Luc wasn’t at school, maybe he was sick, but there was a new boy sitting at his desk. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He looked so..... Our house was at the top of the valley, halfway up a hill. It was a long way to walk, but there was a shortcut, through the woods. He was waiting for me. I’d never..... But with him it felt..... Your mother interrupted us. She wasn’t your mother then. She was the prettiest girl in the village. I’d always loved her, secretly, but I was never brave enough to..... One minute the new boy was there with me..... And then he wasn’t.”
“I never saw him again.”
“I guess I failed the test.”
“Regret it? No. How could I? We were married in the village church, your mother and I. Luc flew back from Rome to be my best man. Then you came along. We were happy..... For a while. But I guess I failed at that, too.”
“Not a total failure,” said Theo, kissing the tears from his father’s cheek. “You had me.”
“Yes, we did,” Georges smiled. “The best thing I ever did. Or ever will do. And now you have Dion.”
“Do you think.....? After..... Will he know me? Want to be with me?”
“I hope so. If anyone deserves to be happy, you do. God knows the two of you will have earned it.”
“There is no God,” said Theo. “Only a god with a small ‘g’. And an Acorn Child.”
Father Benoit disagreed with both of them.
“The existence of other deities doesn’t necessarily exclude God,” he told Theo. “He was there before the creation of the universe, and He will still be there when the sun’s light is nothing more than the dying flame of a candle, soon to be extinguished.”
Georges had stopped to visit his old friend on their way back to Theo’s house. They sat in the rectory’s small study, Georges in the only chair, and Theo squatting on a stack of books there was no room for on the already crammed, sagging shelves, while the priest stood at the open window, smoking.
“And you were never chosen, Georges. The timing was wrong. You were..... How do the English say? A bit of crumpet.”
“I’ve spoken to several men and boys from the village, and they’ve all had similar experiences. Some only the once. Others frequently and regularly over an extended period, depending - it seems - on how ‘agreeable’ they were.”
Theo tried to imagine only having sex every three-hundred-and-thirty-three years. He couldn’t blame Dion for wanting a bit on the side.
“But, isn’t it a sin?” Theo asked Benoit. “I know the Church doesn’t exactly encourage homosexuality.”
The priest ashed his cigarette out the window and shrugged. “We’re all human, Theo. Confession is about forgiveness. Haven’t you ever said sorry for something you might have said or done? And didn’t you feel better afterwards? It’s the same thing.”
The woods were dark. Theo didn’t like the dark. He stood at the edge of the trees and waited for the promised full moon to reappear from behind a cloud. It was the ides of march, spring, but the night air still gnawed at him with the teeth of winter.
It was all planned. Theo’s father would take Theo’s mother out to dinner, to reminisce, and keep her out for as long as he could. Father Benoit would hear Theo’s confession, bless him, and walk with him as far as the Archambaults’ peach orchard, where he would later return to wait for him. Dion was going to meet Theo at the old stone bridge, and from there they would go to the temple glade together. It had all sounded so simple.
Only, now, it wasn’t. Theo was alone. And he was scared. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow,” he sang to himself, “don’t be a - ”
“Where are your clothes? Aren’t you cold? And why don’t you look more like a faun? You are a faun, aren’t you? Why don’t you have a goat’s legs? And hooves? Or a tail? Mister Tumnas had a tail.”
“I appeared to you first in a form you would find more acceptable. More pleasing. Would you like me better if I had a tail?”
“It might be cute,” said Theo. “And uhm..... you know.”
Then, as if it had been there all along, and Theo had simply not noticed it before, Dion had a tail that he twitched from side to side alluringly.
A large bonfire was burning in the clearing. Dion handed Theo a horn of mulled wine.
“What is it?”
Theo sniffed. “It smells funny.” He sipped at it. “Urk! What are the green bits?”
“Herbs,” said Dion. “They will give you strength. And courage.”
Thinking he’d need all the help he could get, Theo closed his eyes, held his nose, and emptied the horn in one long swallow.
A loose sheaf of clean wheat-straw had been spread out on the temple ruins’ mosaic floor, and on it was piled every kind of produce the village was famous for, fruits and vegetables, breads and cheeses, oil and wine.
“Eat,” said Dion.
“I’m not hungry.”
Theo picked at a bunch of grapes.
“Okay! Okay! I’m doing it. See?”
Theo didn’t argue.
“I just thought of something,” said Theo. “I didn’t bring a knife with me.”
“You do not need one.”
“But, how am I.....?”
“With this,” said Dion, reaching behind the stump of a broken pillar and holding out a shard of polished, black flint. Not just flaked to form a wickedly sharp edge, Theo saw, but fitted with a wooden grip or hilt that had been carved into some kind of.....
“What is it? A horn of plenty?”
Dion shook his head. “Turn it over.”
Theo did. There was a scene of the crucifixion on the reverse side of the haft. Only, instead of a cross, Jesus was nailed to an oak tree. He could tell it was an oak tree because the crown of thorns had been changed to a wreath of leaves and acorns.
“Did you make this?” He asked Dion. “It’s beautiful.”
They made love under the silver-frosted, new-budding branches of the Sacred Oak.
Theo would have sworn he’d caught the gone just as quickly flicker of a burning torch out of the corner of his eye. There it was again, but closer now, and another, and then a third. More. A dozen. Twice that number. A ring of orange light. Surrounding the glade. Encircling them. Drawing ever nearer.
“Do you have the blade?”
The honed edge of the flint knife, clenched white-knuckled in his fist, sliced cleanly through skin and muscle, tendon and artery.
Theo gagged. His throat was full of hot, scalding vomit. He forced it back.
It was done.
Dion lay sprawled, dead.
In the spreading crimson.
The white-blossomed clover.
The dispassionate, defiled, derelict moonlight.
Strong hands clamped around Theo’s right arm. Bren Archambault. A scowling, grizzled bear of a man. His son, Mattias, had hold of Theo’s left. They hauled him to his feet and half carried half dragged him to the trunk of the Sacred Oak. Suddenly, Theo was weightless, hoisted over Bren’s shoulder as easily as a sack of grain. Then up, with a jerking motion, and up again, and Theo saw the wooden rails of a ladder sinking into the loose soil under their weight as Bren climbed higher.
Theo’s back slammed against the trunk.
A voice: “Gently!”
Archambault’s left hand pinned Theo’s wrists together, lifted his arms over his head, held them there, bone grinding against bone. The man grumbled something unintelligible around what was clenched between his nicotine stained teeth.
What were those? Were they..... Nails?
A hammer in Bren’s right hand.
A nail spat into the fumbling fingers of his left..
Theo rag-doll. Helpless.
The hammer swung.
Distressed rungs creaked as Archambault descended.
His spittle splashed Theo’s right foot.
His left hand gripped Theo’s ankles.
Another swing of the hammer.
Archambault’s rasp, like gravel sliding out of the rusted bed of a truck, calling to the men and older boys from the village who’d gathered around him. “See the Acorn Child! See how he takes upon himself all the weight of the world’s suffering!”
A new face. Mattias had climbed the ladder. Tears streaked his sunburned cheeks. He placed a wreath of woven oak branches on Theo’s brow.
“Be brave, Theo. It will be over soon.”
Morning. Three women from the village entered the glade, followed by Father Benoit and Georges Pellier, carrying a ladder between them. The two men worked silently at prising the nails free. Theo was beyond pain. They lowered him carefully, step by step, to the ground, where his mother, Mariette, wrapped him in a shroud of linen.
Half of me
It was a brisk winter morning by the lake the last time I met the demon.
He appeared as he always did: unexpected but with the subtle, foreboding twinge of cold twisting my stomach. Shivering, I pulled the heavy uwagi coat tighter over my kimono--the demon offered his Montbell down jacket. I declined.
Following the creaking bamboo grove on my left and keeping the demon between myself and the reflections of the orange sunrise over the lake to my right, we shuffled along the marked trail, our breath misting the air and mingling between us. With falling snow coating our tracks behind us, we walked a good hour in silence before his graveled voice carved through it.
"Do you still hate Japan, Naomi?"
Fear didn't grip me. Instead, my chest tightened with nervousness, my throat with shyness. I kept moving forward, one foot in this world and the other in the next. Snow danced in a breeze, powdering the slumbering pines, barren cherry and plum trees, and my wrinkled face, which began to match the paleness of the demon's own.
Folding his arms, he again broke our silence. "Japan has insulated coats, you know." He frowned. "You'll freeze out here in a kimono."
"I'm fine." I rubbed my hands together. Paper-thin and dappled with dark liver spots contrasting with my slightly lighter brown skin, they were numb to the cold. "I brought something to warm me up."
The demon sniffed; a sly smile parted his lips just enough to see one scraggly fang. "That's why I came."
"That's why you always come."
"Tell me again why you let me."
"You help me understand things."
"Is something troubling you?"
In a sense. But I wasn't ready to let him know that. Instead, I unwrapped a red furoshiki cloth and handed him something I had kept out of my world for so long: a piece of cornbread.
He snatched it and scarfed it down. "I haven't had this in years."
"Brings back memories, doesn't it?"
"I wish they sold these here."
"I'm baking it again because I finally understand what I am."
"Took you long enough."
"Do you remember how many times you tried to tell me?"
"I can't quite recall." His quiet smile said differently.
I bowed my head, clutching the furoshiki to my chest like armor. "Three times."
As snow gathered upon his hair of matted snakes, he listened to my memories float in the breath connecting us, the lake's rolling waves lapping away my words.
In the schoolyard
"Hey, Naomi. Hey! Wait up," the demon said, his high-pitched nasally voice needling into my ears. He sidled up to me, sniffing the hardened leather randoseru on my back like a stray dog.
"Got any left? Gimme some."
The demon liked cornbread. Throwing him a piece usually got rid of him. Rummaging through the cloth pouch hanging off my side to pick through the lunch I wasn't planning on eating anyway, I averted my eyes so I wouldn't have to look at the wriggling mass of worms piled atop his head and his inward-turning fangs. But mostly, to avoid looking into his fiery eyes or seeing his dark skin.
"Give it over, Naomi."
I fumbled out the entire cut of bread and handed it to him. Our hands brushed as he took it; the two tones of our skin briefly matched shades: chocolate-brown against a light bronze. The sun had shaded his, unlike mine, which had been dark since I was born. He could be as pale as a lily if he wanted to, but spending so much time out of the world he should have stayed in had tanned it.
My teeth ground together at the thought.
"Where do you get this bread anyway?"
"My mom makes it." I bowed my head and swiftly jogged toward the iron gate of the school.
Catching my sleeve, he forced me to face him. Crumbs dappled his shirt as he gobbled down the last of the bread. "Why're you leaving?"
Frustration pierced my throat hard enough to shove an answer through my clenched jaw: "Because I hate Japan."
"But you've never lived anywhere else."
"That's exactly it!" I bolted.
Reaching the front gate, I jerked it open just enough to slip through. Now I was free of stares, sniggers, classmates' nagging to stroke my curly hair, their giggles when I struggled with words and insistence that I wasn't one of them. Even though I was--sort of. My father is Japanese.
Well, they wouldn't "other" me anymore. Especially not Yui and her horrible group. For the rest of today at least.
Though the demon shouldn't have been able to leave the school grounds, he wiggled his way through the gate, grinning. Cornbread mash filled the gaps in his teeth. "Yui again?"
"Leave me alone."
Skipping ahead of me, he delighted in getting in my way and making my steps falter. "They get to you 'cause you let 'em, you know."
"I don't let them. They attack me."
"You're putting a target on yourself." He pointed to the woven Shinto omamori--talisman--hanging off my randoseru and then to the golden cross around my neck. "Two targets, really."
"Three if you count my skin." I buttoned up my top button to hide my mother's birthday gift.
"If you hide that you'll get teased more."
"It doesn't matter. I can't hide my skin."
The demon snort-laughed. "You could, you know, like a mummy."
"How do you ignore them? The stares and the name-calling, I mean."
The demon shrugged, his pointed shoulders bending skyward like two orange traffic cones. "I guess they don't bother me as much as they do you. The others don't see me as I am because I don't let them. That's all."
"Maybe they're blind," I said. "Or you are."
"I am, now!" He shut his eyes tight and stuck his arms straight out, shifting from foot to foot as he shuffled around me. Pointed nails on the end of his fingers swiped playfully at the air.
I turned and ran. He gave chase. Then I chased him. Then we chased dragonflies until we both collapsed from exhaustion beneath a huge stone torii gate leading to a shrine to Omi Hachiman--whoever that was.
Sweating, he sucked on my thermos while I caught my breath. Above me, a thick twisting rope--shimenawa--dangled between the gate's stone columns, and hanging off it, four strings of zig-zagging folded paper--shide--swayed in a breeze. Made of a strip of paper folded into several uniform rectangles that looked stuck together at the corners, the shide had a curious quadruple Z-shape. The rectangles seemed to fight against each other as the wind lifted the paper at the angles, but they didn't tear away.
"Praise and lies may be snakes and spies so find the clear path between them."
I cocked my head at the demon. "What?"
"You asked how I ignore bullies. That's what my Dad tells me to do."
Advice from Enma, the King of Hell, himself. "Does it help?"
"Sometimes." He handed my thermos back. "But it's easier if I just focus on me, you know?"
I didn't know, and his smirk told me he knew I didn't.
"Nao, you're so hung up on what you are, you can't see who you are. But we're sixth-graders now. Almost adults. We can't hide what we are, not to ourselves or others, so just be what you are and find who you are."
"I know what I am!"
"I dunno. I like butterflies and the color orange."
The demon laughed. "You're not saying it. It was hard for me to say 'it,' too. We're different, you and me. You gotta see that. My Dad told me I had a truth I couldn't embrace, and everything got better when I could. I mean, when I could embrace my truth, the difference between me and them, then people saw me for me."
"What does that mean?"
"Embrace? It's like a hug. You gotta give the thing you hate the most a big ol' hug. Or you know, you'll always be sad or angry or something."
What kind of demon was he, anyway? Hug the things you hate?
"Who do you hate right now," he asked.
"Yui." And there was no way I was going to give her a hug.
"She makes fun of me. Calls me 'burnt girl' and 'dirty.'"
"Because of your skin."
"Do you hate your skin?"
I nodded harder. "If I had skin color like everyone else--"
"You don't. And who gave you your skin?"
"My mother. She's not Japanese."
"Do you hate her?"
I folded my arms. It was her fault I was who I was.
But hate? Hate? Bunching the fabric of my collar, I clutched the golden cross I had hidden.
Mother knew me as well as she knew the color of her own skin--black, and two shades darker than mine. Her skin drew her away from America. She wanted to live in a world where she would have a clearly defined reason to be an outsider, not just because of her skin. She chose Japan and struggled with its language, culture, and ideals. But her struggles made her stronger. She said it would make me stronger, too.
I doubted that.
The demon frowned. "Do you, Nao? Do you hate her? You gotta say it if you do."
I toed the gravel underneath my feet. Whenever I had a problem, her smile was a warm tea on a cold morning, and her hugs tight. "I can't hate my mother." She gave three gifts to me, after all. Life. A cross, though Father didn't believe. And her skin. "I don't."
"Then you can't hate yourself. Because that would be like hating your mom."
"Did your father say that, too?"
The demon's grin became fire. "Yup. If you can't hug your skin, go hug your mother. I do. I give my dad loads of hugs."
I smirked at his casual admission of affection, but he just grinned harder.
"Embrace your truth, Nao."
"They'll still make fun of me."
"They still make fun of me. Because being different in Japan is like being a wolf in a flock of sheep. Except the sheep eat you." He gnashed his teeth and growled. Cornbread bits spotted the torii gate. "We are strong wolves, though, right? We can't let the sheep see that, or they'll get scared off. I don't want to be scary. There's nothing wrong with wolves living with sheep, you know."
"What if I want to be a sheep?"
"You can wear their wool if you want, but you'll look silly."
"Are you saying, 'just be myself?'" I wrinkled my nose at him. "Being yourself" didn't work here. Japan wasn't an American after-school special.
His eyes darkened as though insulted, but he just laughed. "No. That's stupid." He squinted his eyes up at the crooked paper shide above us. "If those paper things there were straight, they'd be boring, huh? But they're not. They're cool. They know they have to zig and zag, or people wouldn't think they're cool. And what if they were straight?"
"But they can't be straight. Shide aren't made that way."
"Right. And if they were, people would yell and scream to change them back. So why try changing what they are?" He stood and stretched. "Being crooked is cool. And if you try to fix yourself, people will see right through it. Got it? My dad says, 'Don't worry about being yourself.' You will be, even if you try not to be. People make fun of you if you try not to be you, right? But if you be what you are, that won't matter. First, you gotta know what you are."
"Your dad is pretty smart."
"He sure is. So you gotta know who you are. So who are you?"
"And what are you?"
I wrung my hands. "Half. Half-Japanese. Hāfu." I slurred out the English loanword with the thickest accent I could muster.
The demon's brows furrowed. "No, you're not. You're not half of anything because your mother wasn't born here. You are Japanese. Like me."
"The shide is Japanese because of the way it's folded. But it's still just paper." He shoved a pointed finger into my chest, striking my cross and making it dig into my skin. "You. Are. Japanese. A bit crooked, but that makes you cool, Nao."
He ran off, leaving me under the torii, embarrassment prickling my cheeks.
My wedding day
Cheeks stained black with running mascara, I stood in my street clothes between two chairs, glaring at the cursed garments I had to wear: an ivory white wedding dress with satin fixings and lace and an equally white kimono embroidered with nigh-invisible bleached cranes. They draped over the backs of each chair like the dead and gutted hides of a pure animal.
A heavy hand settled on my shoulder, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Furiously sniffling and rubbing my eyes, I turned, expecting my husband--only to be confronted by the demon, his lizardlike hands cradling a half-eaten cut of cornbread.
"You're not supposed to be here," I said.
"Relax." Then, as though sensing my disdain at his crime, he crammed another mouthful of bread into his gob. "Stole it off the catering cart. Want some?"
"No. Get out."
"I can't just leave a bride crying in her dressing room, Nao." He adjusted his bow-tie, adorning it with a smattering of crumbs. "Why aren't you dressed?"
Because seeing both dresses laid out before me reminded me of my split culture? Because I can't disappear into the white fabric of the dress nor wear the pasty white makeup the kimono requires without accenting my darker features? Because it feels like I have to choose one culture over the other? What would a demon know, anyway?
"I don't know." I sat on the floor, refusing to look at his pallid complexion and brows furrowing in infuriating confusion. "I guess it feels like I'm being forced to choose between two things that don't fully make sense and one thing I thought I was so sure of."
"It's tradition to wear multiple dresses."
"But why this dress?" An accusing finger directed at the western-style wedding dress pointed my ire.
"It's still a tradition, even between Japanese people who don't have the culture behind it. Didn't you pick it out yourself? Your husband is excited to see you in it, too, you know."
My eyes dropped to the floor where a twisting pattern of grey and red in the carpet seemed to suck my soul right into them. I could be there, between the patterns, pounding at teardrop bars, screaming, and nobody would hear me. Maybe it would be safer to lock myself away.
"Do you just want to wear the kimono?"
I shook my head. "It's not about the dresses. Am I doing right by myself, marrying a..." My eyes began to wet again. "A..."
The demon smiled. His teeth glistened as though drinking in my misery. "Another hāfu?" He laughed. "Uma wa umadzure--horses prefer the company of horses, Nao."
"Birds of a feather flock together," I translated into English, heat tipping my tongue. "That doesn't mean I can't think about everyone who would expect something like that from... someone like me. And be ashamed by it. Does that make me a horrible person?"
"No. Those thoughts really define you. A zigzagging paper shide, Japanese, in all respects."
I glanced at both dresses again; the demon cradled his head in one hand, sucking in a slow breath between the gap in his fangs.
"You're torn between two things," he said, "but not entirely. You speak your mother's language, but you know less of her country than your own. That makes you Japanese with a few perks."
"Does it?" I narrowed my eyes.
"Teenage mutant ninja what?"
I shrugged. "Kōga?"
"Turtles, Nao. Your mother would say that without a beat. But could she name all the ninja clans of Japan?"
"Japanese with a few perks." The demon winked at me then indicated the dresses. "Your husband wouldn't appreciate you doubting your marriage, you know."
"I wish I could walk confidently between two cultures as he does."
"So do it. You eat curry and rice, but you aren't Indian. You drive a Mercedes, but you aren't German. Cultures merge and cultures change. There's no shame in being a part of two different cultures. Nor choosing the best parts of several others to make them your own."
"Because struggling with the choice is what makes you, you, isn't it?"
"It gives me the chance to still be unsure. To still choose the path that's right for me."
"Nao, you don't have to choose anything. Just be you."
"What about your choice to live in your world or ours?"
"To hell with choosing in which world. I chose to live. You did, too, Nao."
I hugged myself, pulling on my sleeve to hide a ragged scar on one wrist.
The demon knelt by me and placed a soft hand over mine. "By forgiving our wrong choices and extending love to all will rid our mind of evil and thoughts of separation. It's not you against yourself, Nao. Or us against them."
"It feels like it is."
"It does, sometimes. Let them think their thoughts and live in their world. But shine your love upon them, anyway. Isn't that what your little man on the cross tells you to do? Shine into the darkness so that you may wake from dreaming a nightmare of life."
My cheeks again prickled with tears.
"I can stop this marriage if you desire. Right now, with a snap of my fingers." He held up his saw-toothed index finger. "If you need more time--"
"No," I shook my head, then stood and snatched up the wedding dress. "Getting married is the only thing I truly feel sure about. This one?"
The demon laughed, then picked up the kimono and draped it over my empty forearm. "The duality of life is in your arms, Nao. If you focus too hard, you will only see a single point."
The demon cleared his throat, his muffled footsteps in the snow slowing. "And the third meeting?"
"Right here. Right now. You, the cold, and the lake."
He glanced out toward the island in the center of the lake, where a spindly cherry tree craned upward, stretching its crooked trunk toward the sky, catching snowflakes. "So, you need me to help you understand one more thing."
"No. I need you to understand."
The demon cocked his head; snow crystals fluttered to his shoulder.
"I've had a hard time understanding what I am. It's given me great pain."
"A pain we both share, as you know."
I nodded. "Pain is like kintsugi, filling in the cracks of a broken bowl with gold, creating something altogether whole, but shattered on the inside."
"But more beautiful than before the bowl was broken in the first place. And stronger, too, Nao."
I smiled. "I guess you already understand."
"I might, but I'm not in your head, you know. All I know is that pain hurts, but how we deal with it becomes our inner strength. And we all deal with it differently. Because we're all different, no matter the color of our skin or where we were born and raised."
"We are against a world that holds hopelessness and hope, ignorance and knowledge, happiness and sorrow. Love and hate."
"Darkness and light." His gaze centered again on the cherry tree.
I stopped and tilted my head up, letting the falling snow melt on my face. "If I focus too much on one thing, like whether I am Japanese or American, or something else entirely, the pressure of all my other choices becomes too much to bear." I took the demon's hand in mine.
He squeezed tight. "Nao, you know I've always said--"
"Be both. But I can't. The choice of one or the other makes me, me. I understand, now. And I want you to as well. I don't have to be Japanese. I don't have to be American. Or both. Or neither. I can be Japanese. Or American. Or both. Or neither. I can always choose whenever I want, anytime I want. I don't have to be defined by what I am, because I can always change what that is."
"Are you avoiding choosing?"
"No. My choice is that I don't have one, and that makes me strong."
A grin gnarled up the demon's face.
"I hated Japan for so many years. Until I saw it as part of me, not as something to strive for. Or an adversary. That's why you and I are different. I am not bound by trying to live in two cultures or worlds at the same time. If I want fish for breakfast, I'm having fish. If someone chides me in English, I'll give them snark right back. If someone calls me foreign in my own land, I can just smile. Because I know what I can be. And that's ever-changing."
The demon's hand slipped out of mine, and his features melted from sharp and ragged, returning to the soft, confident tones of my husband. "Figuring this thing out they call hāfu is so difficult. I'm glad I could spend so many years with you working through what it means. But I must ask, what spurred your sudden answer, Nao?"
"Cornbread. For our grandchildren. I want them to know what they are before they start to question who they are. Because, ultimately, knowing who they are takes a lifetime. Knowing what they are shouldn't."
"And what will you tell them?"
"That they're beautiful. And that even if the blood flowing in them is different, they are Japanese." I winked at my husband. "With a few perks."
"I'll take those perks, too." He held out his hand for another piece of bread, which I gladly offered.
He paused, the cornbread halfway to his mouth, glancing at his white skin peeking out from underneath his down jacket sleeve. He pushed his sleeve back to reveal his skin and the faded, almost invisible scars crisscrossing his wrist, then scarfed down the bread.
"You'll catch a cold."
"Maybe. But I'm choosing not to hide anymore, either." He laughed. "It feels good to get rid of that demon, doesn't it?"
I laughed with him. "It'll be back when doubts creep up on me. Besides, everyone is married to their demons. Only ours can smile back."
The Nature of Heroes
Jak Owinsson stood upon the edge of the forest looking down on the military encampment below. He had finally made it. After two days of travel, he had found the camp of the Battlehawks; the most respected mercenary company in all of Kendar. He would finally be able to join the war and leave his boring farm life behind.
In his sixteen years of life, he had always dreamed of becoming a hero like the ones from the stories. So far, it had been an uninspiring beginning. On his two days of walking from Harnan Vale, he had encountered no bandits, no damsels in distress, not even so much as a wagon stuck in the road to start Jak on his way to herodom. But, then again, he supposed not every story had to begin with epic action and auspicious signs. At the very least he had left Harnan Vale and Erryl Crick far behind.
Not that there was anything wrong with either place, Jak supposed. It was all fine for men like his father, simple men with simple goals in simple lives. Men who wanted nothing more out of life than a farm and a family. Well, anyone who wanted such a life was welcome to it, but Jak meant to be something more. Something special.
All his life, Jak had been the biggest strongest boy in Erryl Crick, maybe even all of Harnan Vale. He routinely beat the other boys in wrestling and sparring with sticks. Even if they were not much in the way of competition, he had still shown himself to be worth more than a simple back country life. He could feel it in himself, something great waiting to come out. He knew deep down he was meant to be like one of the great stories. Maybe even as great as Cedric the Charmer himself.
And true, in all likelihood, he would not marry a princess or some high lady, but it would certainly still be better than what waited for him in Erryl Crick. His mother had had her heart set on him marrying Ethel Cooper from Tares Hill, farther up the valley. Now, Ethel was nice enough, but she was gangly as a stick figure and had hair like straw. Jak had had enough of straw for his lifetime. Plus, her teeth were crooked. No, he knew he could do better; especially once he made a name for the bards to sing.
Jak started down the hillside toward the camp. Green and white tents sat in rigid, precise lines in the fields around the hilltop that sat across from the fords of the river Wendle. A palisade surrounded the larger tents on top of the hill. Likely, that was where the officers of the company had set their command. Earthen works and a long ditch protected the rest of the camp. Open spaces were visible between sections of tents where men could gather and practice the arts of war. Jak could not wait to join them there and prove himself. He joined the line of men that stood out from the entrance to the camp; a slim bridge of earth over the ditch that led to a small breach in the earthen works. The whole point of the camp’s position here was that this was the only place to cross the Wendle for almost twenty miles in either direction.
Jak stood there for what seemed like forever. Finally, he found himself standing before a small desk of oak, behind which sat a large man with a bored expression, writing in a large ledger. When Jak reached the front of the line, the large man barely glanced up before asking for his name and his credentials. Jak tried to be bold when he spoke but found he was stammering out something about Erryl Crick and this being his first time joining a military company. The man simply gestured told the open field to his left and muttered about presenting himself to the sergeant there.
Jak walked over, a little in awe of what was going on around him. This was a real military camp. These men were soldiers, hard men who fought for glory and loyalty and their own place in the stories.
He reached the field and his awe died quickly. There must be some mistake, the men, no boys, he saw around him were not the stuff of stories. They flailed around with wooden swords and blunt spears. They barely landed blows and the ones they did land were soft and almost listless.
This was not where Jak belonged.
After asking around a bit, Jak found the sergeant, a man called Baric. He presented himself to the man and tried to sound confident about it. He was dismissed almost immediately and told to join a group that had an odd number of trainees.
Jak joined the group he had been told to join and waited with the others. None of them seemed interested in talking. Half seemed too nervous to look anywhere but their feet; the other half stared around haughtily, as if everyone else were scum under their boots. Jak hoped he did not seem like either sort. In the stories, the heroes were always confident, but no aloof. Courteous, but not shy nor meek. He stood with his shoulders back and his hands tucked into his belt, doing his best to affect an air of confident placidity.
A man soon approached them. He was a tall, lean man, with a pointed black goatee and bored looking eyes. The man was named Sint. Jak was not sure if that was his first name or his last, but it seemed to suit him somehow. He spent as little time as he could explaining the exercises they were to perform, where to find their practice weapons, and how long they were to keep at it (until they were told to stop, as it turns out). After that he simply stalked off, his mouth twisting as if finally done with some unappealing chore.
When Sint was gone, one of the other boys finally spoke, “You all know who that was, right?” He looked around expectantly at the rest of them.
“Who?” Jak asked when no one else seemed likely to do it.
“Sour Sint,” the other boy replied, staring back at Jak as though he expected the name to scare him. When Jak made no motion of recognition, the boy added, “He took four knights prisoner by himself at the battle of the Kriltop. Didn’t even ransom them, just executed them after the fighting was done.” He looked around with a leer on his face as if looking for a reaction to pounce on.
Two of the nervous looking boys paled at the mention of the act, and the first boy’s leer grew. He looked as if he was going to say something new, but another boy spoke up. This boy was almost as tall as Jak, though much heavier and not with muscle.
“Enough,” he said in a voice that was too high for such a large boy. “We had better get started or we’ll have the sergeant to worry about.”
After that, they went to one of the equipment wagons that ringed the field, donned their practice gear, and began to run through the drills. When the sergeant finally called an end to training for the day, Jak hated how relieved he was to find his assigned tent and sleep the night away.
The next week followed much the same pattern. A morning meal of hard bread and harder meat. Hours of training followed by another meal of hard bread and harder meat. More training followed until sundown, when they were allowed another meal of slightly softer bread and slightly better meat.
Jak learned more about his training mates over the course of the week. The first boy, whose name was Tef, turned out to not be as bad as he had seemed. Tef liked to talk, mostly of how his father had been a soldier and his destiny was to continue the family business of war. The fat boy, Mully, was nice enough and extremely focused on training. He worked as hard as anyone and after a week, he had lost a noticeable slice off his belly. One of the nervous boys was named Loring. He also had a father who had been a soldier, but unlike Tef, his father had hated war and raised his son to find another line of work. Unfortunately, Loring was not good at any of the trades he had tried, and finally, he had given in and joined the Battlehawks.
After a week of training, all across the training field the wild swings and soft taps had turned into, if not precise, certainly more accurate jabs and hacks. Even the more reticent of the fighters was putting weight and effort into each swing. Jak still considered himself above most of these trainees, but he was no longer certain he was the best of them. Tef was a tenacious fighter and he would often leave bruises bone deep, whether he struck armor or not. Mully, despite being large and slow, was a patient fighter who waited for the right opportunity to land a heavy-handed blow that make a man’s head ring for days. Even Loring proved himself capable of at least competency, though a lot of that had to do with the strategy of fighting that they were learning.
Jak had always thought of fighting as one man against another, a battle being made up of hundreds of these little fights. But what they were learning was different. They fought in pairs against pairs, each trainee paired with a shield mate. One would bear a large shield called a wall shield, while the other used a spear or sword from behind. The shield bearer would defend and the spearman would attack, when presented with an opportunity. The jabs and hacks they were taught were crude, if incredibly effective and easy to execute. It was not the picture of gracious sword fighting he had always pictured from the stories.
On the seventh day, Sergeant Baric began walking between groups of trainees, speaking to several of each trainees, and then moving on. When he reached Jak’s group, he watched them drill for a few minutes before pointing to Jak, Mully, Tef and Loring and motioning them aside.
“You four,” he began as soon as they were close enough to him, “are ready, or at least as ready as you’re like to be. Report to Spear Company Four before dinner.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and strode off to the next group.
Jak hardly listened as the other boys began to talk excitedly as they walked off the training ground. This was it, the time for Jak to begin his real story. His own legend was beginning now.
They reported to their new commanding officer, a Lieutenant named Alric, He was a man of average height, average build and above average age. His face was craggy with wrinkles, the lower half covered by a hoary thatch of a beard.
The food here was better than the fare during training, and for once the boys were happy for more. After his second plate, Tef tapped Jak on the shoulder[MW1] , jittery excitement lighting up his face.
“Come on,” he whispered, eagerly. “You’ve got to see this.”
Jak looked at Mully and Loring, wondering why Tef had singled him out. Loring was tucking into his third serving of dinner and Mully was half asleep over his mug of ale. Shrugging, Jak got up and followed Tef. They strode past the section where their company camped and toward the center of camp. They approached a campfire with a smaller circle sitting around it, but a large crowd standing around them. Jak wondered if there was some kind of fight or contest going on, but when he got closer he was even more surprised.
“Galen Greenspear!” Tef whispered again in his ear. Not that Jak needed to be told who this man was. Galen was seated across the fire from where they stood. He was a tall, well-built man, with long dark hair, flowing to his shoulders. His face was clean-shaven and his eyes glowed with merriment and confidence. This man was on of the most celebrated heroes of the last ten years. Jak had not even known that he was riding with the Battlehawks. Next to him sat a dark-skinned man with a shaved head and two sword hilts sticking up over his shoulders. There was only one man in Kendar with that shade of skin; this had to be Toren Dal. The stories said Dal had the fastest sword in all the Southern Sands.
Jak mentioned this quietly to Tef, who nodded quickly and pointed to the man on the other side of Galen. “Lowen the Loser!” Jak noticed the lion engraved on the man’s breastplate and knew Tef was right. Lowen was one of the most renowned knights in the land. Once he had been called Lowen the Lion, but his penchant for choosing the wrong side in any battle had overshadowed his own personal prowess.
Galen was in the middle of telling a tale when they arrived. As he approached the end, Jak realized it was the tale of Killian Kingkiller. A fine story about one of the best knights of the last half-century who had killed the current king, Crestor’s, father, who had been a terrible despot. Of course, the story left out how that act of heroism had sparked the current war of succession between Crestor and his brother, Polac. A minor detail anyway.
Galen had just finished the tale with the usual line of “Killian, a true hero!” when another voice spoke up from the near side of the fire.
“A fine hero, and dead before thirty, like all those other heroes.” Everyone turned their attention to the man, most of them sneering at his comment. It turned out the speaker was their own company Lieutenant, Alric. Galen did not seem at all put out by the interruption, however.
“Ah, Alric,” he said almost condescendingly, “always the same stance on these tales. Always knocking brave men for their great deeds.” He smiled around at the onlookers, as if indulging them in a shared joke.
“Its not the deeds I knock, it’s the foolhardy ways they spend their lives in the doing of those deeds that I take issue with.” Alric spoke well for such a ragged looking man. “All I mean is a little prudence would have served those men better than their eagerness to earn their place in history. I have no objection to bravery when it is called for, but foolishness will always earn my scorn.”
Galen’s smile slipped a bit at that. He seemed close to saying something biting in return, but instead, he smiled again. “Bravery when it is called for you say? And what would you know of bravery, Alric?” He looked around at the crowd again. “Alric here,” he gestured to the bearded man, “had run from more fights than any man here!” The crowd burst into laughter at that, as Alric’s face turned red.
“If I’ve run from so many fights its ’cause I’ve lived long enough to see so many.” Alric said it simply, not as a retort, but a mere statement of fact. But Galen seized on the admission.
“He does not even deny that he runs when the battle turns against him!” Galen trumpeted, smiling broadly, though the smile no longer seemed so nice. If he expected Alric to back down, he was to be disappointed.
“Aye, I’ve run,” Alric said, “when the battles were hopeless. All those heroes you love, they fought past the point of sense, past the point when the battle was unwinnable. All for a place in the songs.” He glared around the fire daring a man to call him wrong. “But I’ve also stood when the fight was hard. I held the line with Toric the Elder and Younger Toric after him. I held it with Honig himself, before he was Headless.” Some men around the fire were nodding along now, seeing the sense in what he said. Jak found it hard to disagree but he also had a hard time believing any of those heroes he had worshipped his whole life were fools.
“Yes, you held the line,” admitted Galen, standing now to look down on Alric. “And here you are, still in the line, while all those better men went on to glory and now their names are sung across the land.”
“Aye,” said Alric, standing himself, though he still had to look up to meet Galen’s eyes. “They went on. To glory and an early grave. Personally, I’d rather be late to mine.” He stared at Galen for a beat before stalking off into the night.
Once Alric was gone, Galen and his entourage moved away as well and the onlookers were left to seek their beds. Jak and Tef went back to their own tent, neither saying a word. Jak was surprised by the pensive look on Tef’s face. He’d never considered Tef to much of a thinker. They hit their cots heavily, Mully and Loring already snoring away, and fell quickly into sleep.
The dawn came fast, and the trumpet call to arms came soon after. Jak and his tent mates donned their new armor, given to them the day before, and hurried to join the ranks as they assemble along the field between the ditch and the fords of the Wendle.
The ranks of Spear Company Four found themselves along the eastern edge of the ford. The enemy ranks were already marching toward the ford on the other side of the river. There were at least several thousand. The Battlehawks fielded almost two thousand foot and another five hundred cavalries. The cavalry would not be needed unless the shieldwall failed to hold the ford. This was unlikely. It was plain to Jak that they held the better ground. They were uphill and out of the water. The enemy would have to fight uphill in muddy ground after making their way across the unsteady footing of the ford.
The battle started faster than Jak had expected. The enemy simply came on despite the unfavorable field. Jak was several lines back of the front line. It would be some time after the first clash before his line was called forward to relieve the men in front of them. The sun was rising on their right as the two front lines met. Tef was several men down the line, Mully was directly to his right, with Loring on his left as his shield mate. It was difficult to see what was happening over the head high shields of the ranks in front of his.
Time seemed to pass strangely, one minute he was standing, almost bored, and the next his rank was being called forward. The horn sound for the rotation of men came loud across the morning air and they were thrust into the front line. The fighting was almost to the water line now. The ground was all churned mud now and the enemy were right there in front of him. He relied on his training, trusting his shield mate, waiting for his openings before stabbing out with his spear. The first time it came back red he almost retched. But he reminded himself this was war, fought down his gorge and willed his stomach to stillness.
Before Jak knew it, the horn call sounded and his turn was done for now. He rotated out and allowed himself to breathe. It was hard, trying to keep his spear out of his line of sight so he would not see the gore and blood on it. His turn came again and again as morning turned into afternoon. It was not the glorious warfare he had anticipated; it was more like butchery than anything else.
Suddenly, another horn call rang out, but it was not the Battlehawks horns. It came from the east. Orders rang out for the ranks to turn east, but Jak, in his inexperience, was caught between staying to face the enemy and turning with the others. Tef was suddenly beside him turning him east. Over the rise, a long line of heavy cavalry rode down on the invested infantry of the Battlehawks.
Chaos reigned. The infantry ranks shattered. Jak found himself standing amidst the thundering horses and dying men, wondering how he had ever wanted any of this. A man standing next to him was spitted on a spear by a passing horseman, at an angle that pierced the ground and left him propped him up like a blood-covered scarecrow, his eyes goggling at the three feet of spear haft sticking out of his stomach, the light slowly leaving them.
He headed for the forest to the west. The forest that would hide him as he fled toward home. He could not fight it any longer. All he wanted was to go home. He dodged horses and men, occasionally swinging his spear or throwing up his shield to protect himself; but mostly he ran.
The thundering sound of hoofbeats sounded behind Jak, seeming to follow him no matter how he zigged and zagged. At last, he turned and threw up his shield, hoping to catch the oncoming blow.
But the blow never came. The horseman flashed past him and was gone; no spear in his hand. Jak looked lowered his shield to see Alric standing in front of him, a spearpoint standing out of his chest.
“R-run, boy. Run” Alrics rasped out before falling to his knees, dead eyes still staring at Jak. If it were not for the chaos and death around him, Jak would have kept staring at Alric’s dead body, but he took the dead man’s words to heart and turned to run again.
As he ran, he saw other horrible sights. Mully dead from several gaping wounds. Loring pierced with arrows. Tef trampled into the mud; hoofprints littered his back. He saw Galen atop his horse surrounded by pikemen who eventually pulled him down and he was lost in the mud and blood. Toren Dal fighting several men at once with great skill, until a spear thrust through the knee hobbled him. He was dead seconds later. Lowen the Loser lay in the mud with blood pouring from beneath his helm. A glance over his shoulder showed the command tents on the hill being abandoned and a group of several hundred horsemen fleeing to the south.
Against all odds, Jak reached the edge of the woods, the exact spot he had been standing on when he first looked down on the camp. With a last look he turned and fled deeper into the trees. As he ran, he thought about what Alric had said about heroes, coming to the conclusion that there were Heroes and heroes. Galen was a Hero. He died young and the songs would sing of his deeds. But were those deeds any greater than Alric’s? Alric had saved his life. He was a hero. No songs would sing of that.
But Jak would always remember.
The only thing left to ponder, was what would Jak do now?
He would go home. Go home and become a farmer and live a simple life. Maybe even marry Ethel Cooper. After all, she wasn’t bad looking. Sure, she was skinny, but strong too. He’d seen her hauling water enough time to know, hadn’t he? Her hair was like straw but in the sun light it glinted like gold, didn’t it? And her teeth weren’t crooked exactly. Not even, but still charming in their way.
Yes, he would go home and live a simple, safe life.
October 14th, Arrival, Afternoon.
We made it to the cabin with no trouble and luckily with little of the perma-snow getting into our boots. Sitting on a tree stump that I’m using as a make-shift seat-- while pine needles try to find their way into every crevice of my clothes-- I can see what Jed meant when he said that everything is clearer when you’re up here. The sun pierces through the clouds and illuminates everything around us, enhancing the changing color of the leaves, the branches on the ground and even turns the greyness of rocks into a happier hue. The air is colder up here, but that just seems to make it more bracing. Wind whistles through your clothes and grasps at you, almost like an embrace, so pure that it seems to get rid of all negative thoughts, even ones that you don’t fully feel like you could ever forget.
The snow provides the canvas, the nature provides the color is what I feel like you would say if you were here.
Jed, the park ranger, hiker extraordinaire, adventure guru know-it-all as it is, already told me all of this in his long ass speeches about how beautiful the location is,, how I must “pack warm” and “layer up,” but I’ll be damned if I give him the satisfaction of saying that he is right. He is also currently hollering at me to get off my ass and help him unpack the sleigh. Crates need to be unloaded, food put away and blah blah blah. I still don’t think it is enough food for two weeks, but again, he is the know-it-all, so who am I to judge his extreme wisdom?
I was never the adventurous type, I barely got to First Class in Boy Scouts before throwing in the towel; I still don’t know how Jed convinced me to come out here. But at least the area is beautiful, and journaling to you may help me pass the time, or at least keep me sane.
October 14th, Night.
I thought the sun itself was beautiful, but that sunset was something else. Violets and oranges that you just can’t get in the city.
We got everything unpacked into the cabin, our food supply just perfectly fills up the kitchen, looks like Jed was right again, might even have to admit that I was wrong. Sometimes I wonder if I ever had a correct thought in my head, you and Jed always seem to prove that everything I say or think is wrong.
The cabin is beautiful. If you were here, I know you would absolutely adore it. It’s entirely made out of logs from the surrounding trees. Consists of two stories, the first floor being dedicated with a seating area that contains a fireplace, a fully decked out kitchen, a dining table, and a bookcase filled with books about wilderness survival, boring info about the flora and fauna and even more boring info about the location. Upstairs is smaller, but still just as nice. It’s a half floor, with a small little hallway/banister that allows you to look at the floor below. The only actual room up there is the bedroom, but with its queen-size bed, wicker chairs and window that faces the east, it more than makes up for being the only thing upstairs.
I’m also glad that I decided to bring more jackets and blankets than Jed said I needed, it's bloody colder than I was expecting. We have propane heaters, and a fireplace in the sitting area stockpiled with God knows how much wood, and an axe to go out and chop more, but even that doesn’t seem to combat the chill that has begun to seep into my bones. Wood floors and walls look nice, but would it have killed them to add SOME carpet!? Anything to add some dormant heat in this place?
Jed is taking the room, leaving me with the couch. I asked Jed if we should sleep in the same bed to preserve body heat. He hit me, I think I deserved it.
October 15th, Morning.
Morning arrived earlier than I expected, and earlier than I wanted it to be. I am not a monk, this rising-with-the-sun shit is not for me. Luckily Jed was already up and made me a cup of coffee, its smell waking me up before he could. I’m starting to think he actually cares for me, or maybe he just doesn’t want to deal with cranky morning me. It's probably the latter. He probably remembers pre-coffee me from when we were freshman roommates, but still, it’s the thought that counts.
No real plans for the day. Jed wants to hike around and show me the area. We are bringing the .22s in case we come across any small game. I think that's the real reason we are hiking; Jed needs to shoot something and he wants me to share in the experience of killing small rodents. I think coming with him is a bad idea, I’m more likely to shoot him than the game, but my cries don’t sway him. I asked Jed if he could just shoot me instead. I don’t think he appreciated that, probably still thinks that it is “too soon,” considering what had happened, considering its the reason we are up here. I know you would have liked it though.
October 15th, Afternoon.
No luck with any game, but the area sure was pretty.
October 16th, Night.
We’ve only been up here for two days, yet I’m already bored. Sure the area is pretty and nice to walk around, but that's pretty much it. Jed has me playing card games with him once the sun goes down, but it's not like there are a lot of games that you can play with just two people, and after my upteenth game of Go-Fish, I finally addressed these frustrations to Jed. He just scoffed at me though. Boring is good, he says. Boring means that nothing is going on, and that means there is nothing we have to worry about. He may like boring, and maybe I am just a city-slicker, but I could go for some excitement. I know all of this would be easier if you were here though, but writing these feels like I am talking to you, like you are actually here, which is the best I can get right now.
But I’ll take anything.
October 17th, Morning.
It feels like the days are beginning to get colder, and the clouds look heavier than they should; it seems like night is refusing to give way to day. Jed says there is nothing to worry about, that I’ve spent too long reading the books in the cabin and am just getting scared of stuff that I don’t fully understand. Apparently it’s just regular mountain weather, and I quote him here, “Nothing to get my panties in a twist about.”
I really can’t help but worry though, I’m getting the same sense of foreboding I got when… you left, the feeling of being in the eye of the storm, where everything is calm, right before the rain blinds you and pulls you in to drown.
I wish you were here, I know you could ease my nerves better than Jed ever could.
Snow has started to fall. Jed still says it is okay, but I think I see a small glimmer of worry in his eye every time he turns away from looking through the window.
Two feet! Two feet of snow, according to Jed’s estimation. He says that it's fine. Mid-Autumn snows like this are apparently common up here, the books that I love so much (according to him) say the same thing. Plus, a little extra snow never hurt anyone according to him. I don’t know how he can call this little. The clouds haven’t let up either. I asked Jed if we should cut the trip short, but I am still being told not to worry. We can still get off the mountain anytime we want, and while we may get more today, it won’t last long. He also claims that while he could get down right now, I would not be able to easily trek down the mountain while walking on two feet of snow. And if I cared to read the books a little bit more than I cared to bitch, I would also see that the snow will melt just as quickly as it came. I hope he is right about this all, but I’m starting to doubt it.
The snow started back up again. Jed still says that it is fine. I’ve started to read any book now that mentions the snow, or survival in the snow. It isn’t doing anything to alleviate my fears.
24 hours later and the snow still hasn’t stopped. My worry is turning into panic, and Jed isn’t masking his worry anymore, I can feel his nerves penetrating around the cabin, washing over me like a wave, colder than the snow. He says everything is fine, but I know he doesn’t believe it himself, that it's just some line he thinks he has to sprout for my benefit, even though I was the one who brought up the concern in the first place. He’s also begun to pace around the cabin, and I think he is muttering something to himself, or planning something by himself.
The wind is also beginning to start up again, and whenever I go outside to use the outhouse it won’t embrace me like it used to, instead I can hear it in my thoughts, whistling its sweet melody in my brain, whistling like you used to do.
The wind has picked up and, surprise, the snow hasn’t stopped. Jed advised that we begin to ration food. When asked if it was possible that we just leave everything and get off this forsaken mountain, he said no. The storm would impact our vision and we may never find our way down. Plus with how cold it is getting and how slow moving it would be, we wouldn’t be able to get down before night, and who knows what hypothermia or other cold-related afflictions will we get when the sun goes down.
I snapped, told him that we should have gotten off this mountain earlier, to which Jed replied by locking himself in the bedroom. I don’t give a fuck about his hurt feelings though. I know I’m right, and through the whistling of the wind, I hear you agree with me.
October 22nd? Maybe the 23rd
I can feel you in my mind more now, the whispers that I heard before have changed to full words, spoken in your voice. Maybe it’s just an echo of you, me clinging to your remnants so I have someone to talk to, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to keep me sane.
I can tell that you’re not always here, sometimes you leave, and no matter how much I call, you don’t respond. Even when you are here, I feel like you can’t hear me, even when I speak aloud, but I can hear you. But while I can’t see you, I know you can see me. This journal is proof of it. Everything I write in you respond to. Maybe it has taken the shape of a reverse Ouija board, one where you speak, and I write.
Maybe I really am going insane.
I can tell that Jed doesn’t like the fact that I continue to write in this journal, he scoffs every time I pick it up. But with how much time he is spending up in his room now, those scoffs are few and far between. Even if we couldn’t communicate with it, I know I would keep doing it, just to piss him off, because even though he is one of the last people I could imagine wanting to see right now, he is the only person I can see right now, and bitter scoffs are better than no human interaction in my opinion. Plus, he got us into this situation, he can deal with my journaling.
What do you think?
Yeah, I thought so.
I’ve Lost Count
The snowfall has stopped, but we are still in no condition to go anywhere. It is piled so high that we can barely walk through it. This morning I think the door was actually frozen shut, it took Jed banging against it multiple times to finally open up, and his efforts were rewarded with a wall of snow. We can still get to the outhouse, but only barely. And if a 100-foot walk takes minutes, I can only imagine what going down the mountain would be like.
Food is running low; I don’t know how much longer it will last. Wood supply is also running low, and due to the snow, we are in no position, nor even have the morale, to chop down more.
Two more inches of snow, because apparently we didn’t already have enough
I agree, this is all Jed’s fault. He is the one who wanted us up here. He is the one who didn’t take us down when it started getting bad. He is the one who didn’t pack enough fucking food. And now with the snow starting up again for the who-knows-how-many-time, who knows when we will get off this fucking mountain.
Oh, and this even harsher rationing of food, where does Jed get the balls. We only have three days left of food if we continued with half rations he says, but I don’t buy it. We had at least a week left of food if we ate at a normal pace when the ration started, how are we already down to three days of food at half rations. I’ve only been eating half rations, how are we down this far?
No, Jed wouldn't be eating more of his share, he can’t be. He’s an ass, sure, but he is better at this than I am. He wouldn’t break the ration rule, even if it would spite me. You’re wrong, you have to be wrong.
But are you?
Where are you going?
I think I can see you, out in the snow. You’re always out of sight, and always leave right after I see you , but it has to be you. I don’t understand why you’re out there, maybe you’re finding us a path so we can get off this mountain, maybe you’re just embracing the weather, you always did love the cold. We can leave Jed behind, he deserves it. I hope you get back here soon though, we can’t talk if you're not here reading this, and I miss you.
I can feel my stomach eating itself
I am so hungry, I don’t remember the last time I ate, when the food ran out. Do you remember?
I thought so.
Jed is jealous of us, I can still see it when he looks over here, he is just mad that he doesn’t have a wife by his side, someone that would be by his side even after their death, mad that he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. It’s not my fault he stopped talking to me, I tried. Its not my fault that he is so fucking uptight. That he spends more time in the woods than with his wife. It’s not my fault that she left him. We’ve tried talking to him, you know we have. But every time we speak up, he just looks away. When you were away, I tried to go into the room, I swear I did, but he wouldn’t open the fucking door.
Oh? You were able to go up there when I was asleep? What did you guys talk about? What do you mean you guys didn’t talk?
What do you mean he was hiding something?
The day (and night) of splattered blood
I did what I had to do right? You agree with me, it was justified. I did what had to be done, no one can fault me on that. He deserved it.
He was smuggling food. I knew that we weren’t running out of food that quickly, that we couldn’t have been going through the rations, that ration that he implemented, that fast. You were the one who told me that he was hiding food from me. You have to realize what my reaction would have been when I found out you were right. Bags of beef jerky, cans of chili, some oranges, all tuck away, out of sight and out of mind, in a room he locked me out of, since the beginning. He never wanted me in that room, even during the first day. I was condemned down to the couch, while he slept like a king, all tucked away from the lowly peasant that he must of thought I was. Was this the plan all along? Finally grew tired of me weeping about you, so he decides to bring me up here and starve me out, as some sort of sick, slow killing torture?
You weren’t here for this obviously, you were out there again, trying to find a path down I’m sure, but you must have known how I felt. He tried to defend himself, that it was just for when things got even worse, so he could cheer me up. As if. How much worse could it get? I’ve been without food for days, and yet not a word from him. You told me that he was smuggling it away from me, why would I believe him when I have you.
And nobody can fault me for what happened next, it was to be expected, it was natural, survival of the fittest, retribution for my wrongs, getting rid of the weakest link. I am justified! Anyone would have done the same, you would have done the same right? You wanted this to happen right? Why else would you have told me? You always wished that I took charge more, and now I finally have.
I still don’t know how the axe got into my hands. Maybe you came back and put it there, to usher me forward on what I had to do. The .22’s sat in the corner, using them would have been kinder for Jed, but the axe, oh, the axe; the feel, the heft, the power in it, it was the best feeling I’ve had since our wedding. Yeah, the axe felt right. He screamed and screamed and screamed, so loud that you must have heard it, so intensely that it would have broken the confines of this journal, but I didn’t care. He brought me up here so no one could hear my cry, and that sword can cut two ways.
I’ve never been one for hunting, you know this. The thought of killing another animal always made my stomach turn. I was a hypocritical carnivore. I could eat the meat, just couldn’t stand to acknowledge where it came from and how it got here. But bringing that axe down rendering through flesh, was ecstasy. The blood gushed from the ruin of his arm, flying so high that it splattered into my laughing mouth, and oh, it was nice. Tasty. He stopped pleading and tried to defend himself, but I was in control now, and I would allow no quarter to be given. I brought it down, again and again. First into his other arm, then into his leg, my screams of excitement joined his scream of fear, creating a haunting melody, the perfect soundtrack to his ruin and my ascension. Again and again I brought it down. Flesh and bones, fingers and toes flew off and around me, a perfect storm of red to forget the insufferable storm of white. I don’t know when his screams stopped, all I know was until I walked out of the room, a wealth of food items in my hands, mine never did.
Oh it was a feast. Juice running down my chin, the taste of jerky in my mouth, the feeling of chili warming me up from inside my belly. His body sat slumped in the corner where I drag it, the holes where his eyes once were watched me the entire time, but what about it. He tried to rid me of my rations, so now he got to watch me feast.
Rations are running low
I knew you wouldn’t have blamed me for what happened, that you saw the justice in me killing him. And you’re absolutely right about the current situation, the remaining food won’t last much longer. And he is already in pieces.
It really would be a shame to leave his body
Rations filled back up
The snow preserved what I couldn’t eat. I never knew that flesh could taste so good. The blood that sprayed into my mouth during my justice stirred up my appetite for this without me even knowing, and finally indulging myself in him, oh that was a treat. Beef could never compare. I don’t know why we aren’t offering this in restaurants everywhere, it’s practically the same as cow. Rarer, stringier, juicier cow.
I wish you could eat some, you could experience what I am tasting. Remember that fancy steakhouse that we went to for one of our anniversaries. You got the veal, you said it was the best thing that you have ever eaten, I took a bite, and I agreed with you.
This doesn’t even compare. Nothing will ever compare.
There isn’t enough, not enough to last me. I need to get off this mountain, but was Jed right, was there no way off, was it still too dangerous?
No. Jed was weak. He succumbed to our situation, to his hunger, to my fury. He knew he couldn’t get off this mountain, but I can. I have you Cecilia, you’ve been looking for a way off this mountain. You’re out there right now. You’ll find it, you’ll save me.
And then, we can be together again.
I see you out there, beckoning. Could it be possible that you found a way off this mountain, for us to be together. I can see it in your eyes, it seems like you actually can hear me. Is that true? It is!? Do I no longer need this? I’ve been writing in it for so long, I can see your arms, beckoning me to move faster, but I must write this down, this is how I started my journey, and it’s how I want to end it too. There is no time to put on a jacket, or to put on shoes, you need me now, you’ll protect me, you’ll lead me away from this mountain
We can finally be together again.
The owl always came at night, when the moon filled the endlessness that floated in on the breeze and rippled through the tall trees. Its feathers nearly completely white except for the streaks of amber brown, it perched on the branch closest to her bedroom window and shrieked its eerie call, beckoning her from the solitude of her bed. Thus each night, Luna rose and walked on bare feet to the open window to search the barn owl’s piercing golden eyes, as if therein lay some deep-seated and powerful omen that would bring her fulfillment of desires for which she did yearn.
Tonight was no different; the owl was there, calling to her yet again. His echoing screech reverberated through Luna as she watched him from where she leaned against the windowsill, the sheer curtain a whimsy film that fell behind her, silhouetting her slim figure in the dim light. In amusement, the faintest smile flickering upon her lips, Luna whispered the word ‘hello’. The owl twisted his head completely sideways as if attempting to return her greeting and sweet smile. In response, Luna’s smile grew, and she watched as the massive bird straightened and plumped his feathers, seemingly immensely pleased by her warm welcome. With one loud shriek of apparent joy, the owl spread his wings wide, lifted from the branch, and flew off into the night. She followed the owl’s beautiful image against the backdrop of the full moon until she lost sight of his flight. This owl was undoubtedly exceptional, both in appearance and apparent intellect, and Luna had to admit that the bird made her feel quite special when he returned night after night as if eager to visit her in the stillness of the moonlight.
Slowly, she retraced her footsteps to the bed and lay upon its softness, pulling the covers to her chin to ward off the chill that had crept into her slender frame. It had been a rather strange day, and she had not felt herself in many ways. It was unusual for her to leave dishes on the table from a scarce eaten dinner, but she had done so, telling herself that she would clear them in the morning. Next to the dishes lay an array of colorful flowers she had picked from her spring garden that afternoon but had not managed to place in the antique porcelain vase on the table’s center. Her strength had waned, and despite the desire to do much, Luna had instead sought the comfort of her bed earlier than usual this warm spring evening.
Immensely tired, she drifted off to sleep again, thoughts unbidden of the mysterious owl filling her dreamlike state. Was he indeed truly a bird, she wondered? A fierce predator of the night? To her, he seemed to be much more like a mythical creature of endearing beauty and affection that Morpheus sent to her window each night to fill her aching soul and need for love in her less than satisfying, solitary world. Luna released a sigh through tender lips and hugged the pillow. Instinctively, she knew that the owl had returned and watched her from his perch on the branch outside, as if to guard her as she slept. A soft smile upon her lips, contentment filled her as sleep invaded, and she dreamt a dream that arose from long held, deep desires.
Luna was walking barefoot through the forest as the brilliance of a full moon rose in the sky and lit her way in the stillness of the warm night. It was as though her name had foretold of the promise of such a magical time. With each step, she could feel the coolness of the earth beneath her feet, her toes sinking into the blades of grass. A colorful plethora of flowers spread across the ground and shrubbery, into the woods as far as the eye could see. Her fingers lightly trailed the tops of the foxgloves and ferns that grew all about as she wandered. It was such a beautiful, mythological world of enchantment that her heart swelled with a peace she had long forgotten. She did not know where she was, but she knew she had no desire to return to her former abode. There was no doubt that this was heaven, and she was well pleased to remain here in the cradle of nature’s welcoming hand. She had never felt more at peace or more at home in her twenty-four years.
She came upon a clearing in the splendor and quiet of the forest, the moon shimmering to reveal a multitude of freshly bloomed bleeding hearts and sweet woodruff blossoms. She inhaled deeply of their fragrance and spun about in elation, her sheer and filmy dress mimicking her movements in a dance of visual delight. Growing a bit light-headed, she paused in her celestial dance and became suddenly alert as instinct and nothing more told her she was no longer alone. She saw no one and nothing, but nonetheless, she knew someone watched her. Her breathing escalated as she continued to peruse her surroundings in search of whomever it might be.
In silence, she stood for several long minutes, the sound of her rapid heartbeat the only thing that filled her ears. Then, of a sudden, an eerie sound abruptly broke the stillness of the moonlit night; a screeching echo, a foretelling of promises not yet fulfilled. Her heart beat faster still as she continued to search, but to no avail for who or what had made the high-pitched noise.
Suddenly, the leaves behind her rustled, and she pivoted swiftly to watch as a perfectly formed, beautiful creature appeared to leap from the trees high above to land only a mere foot before her. He was tall and lean although he gave an overall appearance of being massive at first glance. He was fair in color with hair the shade of fine-spun gold amidst streaks of amber and aquiline features in a face that was quite appealing to any observer. His eyes, a deeper gold in the night, watched her with an unabashed intensity that made her breathing labored and her heart beat faster still. His stare seemed to pierce her with an all-knowing awareness, and she shivered beneath his intense regard despite the warmth of the evening.
The quiet hung betwixt them for long moments as the moonlight hovered all around, swirling and whispering echoes of greeting in the night. Eventually, Luna managed a faint nod and the hint of a smile. “Hello,” she whispered, her voice softly lyrical as it floated across the dew-filled air.
The stranger seemed to straighten to an even more impressive height at her lightly spoken greeting, as if immensely pleased by the timbre of her voice. He stepped nearer still, the intensity of his gaze never faltering as he turned his head to the side as if to gauge her all the better. Oh, but he was a handsome creature, as though derived in golden beauty from the Gods above!
He stood only mere inches before her and continued to watch her without interruption. His lips eventually curved in a broad smile as he straightened his head and returned her greeting. “Hello, Luna,” he murmured with a deep voice that was as silky as the most expensive woven fabric. “I have been awaiting your arrival.” He swept his arm from his broad chest as if to welcome her to his forest.
Luna managed a small laugh at his words. “You’ve been awaiting my arrival? How so when even I did not know I would be arriving?”
He smiled again – that ever glorious smile that only served to enlighten his already appealing visage. “My dear, time foretells all things, and your arrival has long since been foretold.”
Not giving her a chance to fully understand the words he spoke, he began to move past her, lightly touching her hand to encourage her to follow. “Come, my child of the moon. You must meet Aurelia and all the others. They, too, have been anxious for your arrival.”
Without a doubt, she was mesmerized. Mesmerized by this man’s appearance, his words, and even his lithe movements. Without hesitation, she quickly followed, noticing his stealthy gait as he moved swiftly through the brush and forest. It was nearly as though his feet hardly touched the ground, so precipitous were his movements. He seemed to be flying unlike her whose feet crossed the earth to move. It was a struggle at best to keep up with his steady gait.
Questions surfaced in the back of her mind. Where was she and where was he taking her? Here she was, blindly following someone she did not know to a place about which she knew absolutely nothing. Had she lost her senses? No, she did not think she’d lost all reason. Instead, she felt a pull beyond understanding to accompany this beautiful nymph of a man through the forest to wherever he might lead. He had mentioned someone else. What was that person’s name? Aurelia? Who could Aurelia be and why was she awaiting her arrival?
“Sir,” she called after him. He paused in his pursuit only slightly and cocked his head to peer back at her as he continued on his path.
“Yes?” he inquired without stopping.
“Whom might Aurelia be?”
He smiled back at her. “She is one with the forest and with nature. You will be most pleased to make her acquaintance, as will Aurelia be to make yours.” He gave her a small wink with his words, as if there was a promise of more secrets yet to be divulged. Or perhaps more so to assure her that there was nothing to fear. “Come, we must hurry, Luna.”
He continued to call her Luna. How on earth did this beautiful creature know her name?
“Sir, might I impose upon you to ask yet another question?” Luna’s breath was labored now in her efforts to keep up with his quick pace.
At this point, the man stopped, so suddenly that Luna nearly collided with his broad chest as he turned about to face her. He cocked his head to the side again, his amber eyes alert, to emphasize his word. “Yes?”
Luna rocked back on her heals and attempted to steady herself, gather her thoughts, and catch her breath all at once. “Good sir, you know my name, but I fear I do not know yours,” she finally managed, keenly aware of his continued and intense perusal.
“Indeed, you are correct,” he said with a bit of humor now lacing his words. “We have not been officially introduced. My name is Strix for I am a creature that inhabits the moon filled night. Yet, my dear, are you quite sure you do not know me?”
Luna observed the golden creature of a man before her as he continued to watch her as if to further gauge her reaction to the words he spoke. She studied him closely, peering into his amber colored eyes, overcome by the darkness in their golden depths. Suddenly, she gasped aloud. Yes, she did know him. Here and now, before her in the flesh of a man’s body, stood her nocturnal visitor, the beautiful barn owl. “You?” she managed to whisper, her voice filled with wonder and delight at the realization of who this beautiful creature actually was.
At her recognition, the smile on his face grew, and Strix broadened his chest to its full breath and scope. He was obviously quite pleased by her realization of the truth.
“Come, we must go,” he said after only a moment, taking her hand before he turned back about, beginning to move without delay toward his destination again. There was no doubt that this was his home, and he knew exactly to where he was going even if she did not.
Luna could not diminish the smile that filled her face as she continued to follow behind her owl - or behind Strix. Sheer delight filled her to the brink until she thought she might burst. Her special owl was here in the moonlight, with her, and he was embodied in the guise of a man. And such a beautiful specimen he was! It was nigh unbelievable. She had always known that there was something incredibly special about the barn owl that visited her each night, but little had she known that he was a mythological creature who lived in a forest of enchantment. Nor had she realized that one day she would be introduced to his wonderful world and be able to converse with him as she would any other.
After walking a good distance, they reached a large clearing. The moonlight was bright in this spot and easily filled its perimeter. Strix halted and pulled Luna a bit closer to his side. “Do not be frightened,” he said reassuringly as he watched her survey her surroundings. She nodded. She felt his nearness and felt secure, unafraid. His touch was an oxymoron; firm and yet silky soft, offering the reassurance he intended.
Looking around, Strix made a small sound, much like the familiar shrieks she had heard before, but this time, it was much softer than she'd ever known it to be. Within mere seconds, the leaves began to rustle and the branches of the trees and shrubbery moved to reveal more than a dozen woodland creatures emerging from their hidden depths. Leading them, was the most illuminating, beautiful woman Luna had ever seen. She wore a sheer, creamy gown that gleamed bright white in the moonlight. Her hair fell to her knees and was nearly white as well, and she shimmered with a silver aura. Flowers filled the woman’s hair and also created a wreath about the top of her head. She moved with a delicacy born of woodland nymphs and fairies that flutter about the flower strewn English gardens. Luna was transfixed and could look at none other save this beautiful enchantress of a creature emerging from the depths of the forest. This must be Aurelia, their queen. She was most certainly one with the forest and the earth, and she was thoroughly divine and most enchanting.
Aurelia smiled a brilliant smile as she walked toward Luna, stopping before her and leaning to press a kiss upon Luna's cheek in greeting. The sensation from her lips moved through Luna’s body and warmed her as much as any sun-drenched afternoon in the throes of summer.
“Hello, Luna, you are most welcome. We are delighted that you have at long last joined us in our enchanted world. Our home shall always be your home, my dear.” As she spoke, Aurelia placed a wreath of lily white flowers upon Luna’s head. “You are so lovely, my child,” she said as she stepped back to survey the fruits of her handiwork.
Luna was transfixed, nearly forgetting to breathe. “Thank you,” she managed to say, feeling awkward and inadequate with her words. She had never met the queen of the forest before, after all. Here was someone and something so unreal and unimaginable that she wanted to pinch herself to assure she was not dreaming. She had thought herself beyond further surprise after meeting Strix, but she could not have been more mistaken.
Aurelia smiled at her. “You are not dreaming, Luna. We are all quite real and present in this very moment of time. Come. You must meet our friends for they are your friends, too.”
Luna realized her thoughts were no longer solely her own and that here, everything was known to all, or at least to Aurelia. Still, she eagerly accepted the hand that Aurelia extended, and they moved to meet the woodland friends that filled the flower filled clearing.
Aurelia took her to a multi-colored creature. The creature was lovely and appeared light as a feather; she was unlike any other. “Here is Flutter, one of your garden’s loveliest butterflies. She speaks so fondly of your gentleness, Luna. And this is Quodora," she continued, pointing at another multi-colored creature. "She is the sweet little hummingbird that flits about your garden and drinks of its flowers’ nectar nearly every spring day.”
Wide eyed, Luna could only stare in abject wonder as Aurelia continued to move with ease about the clearing and woodland creatures, introducing all those that she known in different forms at her previous home. They were now well-suited to their humanlike forms, living deep in this forest, and Luna recognized each and every one of them. More surprisingly, they were all welcoming her to their enchanted playground. She met Lepus, the little brown rabbit that she had watched hop through the fields day after day. He was famous for eating her garden’s vegetables on a regular basis. There was also Equis, her beautiful black stallion that loved to roam the meadows. As she met him, he bowed his head in a bid for an affectionate touch. And there, upon the clearing’s edge, was Luce, the grey wolf that she always saw in the far distance across the fields. The wolf was still just as imposing in his new form, but there was no fear of anything or anyone here in this wonderful place. It was a world ripe for newly discovered pleasures and creatures, and there was nothing but love, joy, and accord amongst them all.
While there was a vast array of woodland creatures, there were also those creatures that were mostly composed of the earth’s elements and features. There was Peony, Fleur, Bumble, Estrelita, Ripple, and Lumina, whose sheer radiance embodied the glow of the sun. There were other owls in addition to Strix with names like Tuto, Ule, and Otos, but none was as handsome as her special one. Strix was without a doubt more breathtakingly beautiful than the fairest bird or any other creature she’d ever seen.
After speaking with many of her woodland friends, Luna helped herself to a cup of aromatic wine and turned to wander about in search of Strix. She found him at last, lounging nonchalantly by a massive tree on the edge of the clearing, staring at her as he had done since he’d first come across her in the midst of her celestial dance. Indeed, she wondered if he ever paused in his reflection of her, so intense was the look he gave her each time she spotted him from afar. She smiled a bit shyly and moved to stand beside him. He cocked his head in that now very familiar way and returned her smile. She searched her mind for the right words to say to him. There was so much within her heart.
“I wish you’d brought me here sooner,” she finally spoke before sipping of her wine, her nerves aflutter with something akin to exultation as she stood so close beside him.
“You weren’t ready,” Strix replied without elaboration, still watching her.
Luna nodded. “You may be right, but I am ready now. I am so very ready,” she said with an astute awareness as she returned the intensity of his amber gaze.
Luna knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the world she’d left behind no longer held an appeal for her. No, she could not leave this incredulous woodland family now that she’d come to know them - they were simply too wonderful. It would prove to be sheer devastation to return to her previous life for it held nothing of importance any longer. She could not begin to think upon it, so great was her fear that tonight would end and tomorrow she would find herself back in the grasp of reality, alone again in her former, solitary life. No, it would not do. She could not – would not – leave this enchanted world. Here was the family that she craved with her entire soul and that she felt she’d always known. Here was heaven and it was perfection personified. Peace filled her and a contentment she’d never experienced rose up inside, sufficing her face with a new, brilliant light.
At her words, Strix reached out a long, lean finger to lightly touch Luna’s chin, lifting it ever so slightly as he watched the light that filled her eyes and covered her face with a new brilliancy. She was glowing, and at long last, truly a child of the moon. His golden eyes shone with a deeper intensity and undying affection. “Yes, my sweet child of moonlight. I believe you are at long last ready.”
With those words, he pulled her into the crook of his arm, as if covering her with his widespread pinions, and Luna knew she was home at last and precisely where she longed to be. Here was her beautiful and unique owl who would always protect her, never leave her, and reside fiercely by her side forevermore.
It was late in the afternoon, on the brink of twilight, the following day when Luna’s sister, Moira, happened by her sister’s cottage to visit for a short while. It had been weeks since she’d heard from or seen Luna, and the sister was beginning to worry that Luna was not well. It was not unusual for her sister, a dreamer, to stick to herself, but nonetheless, it worried Moira when she did not have any interaction with her sister over extended periods of time. After all, Luna had not seemed herself since her husband’s passing two years earlier, and Moira was repeatedly concerned for her sister’s well-being. Thus, this day, she had imposed upon her kind neighbor to watch her young children for a brief period while she checked on Luna, Moira hurried along to the cottage in hopes of reassuring herself that Luna was well and simply enjoying her solitary life in contentment as she usually did.
As Moira entered the cottage, she noticed that there was an assortment of dishes and food upon the table. It was evident that Luna had not finished her meal nor had she tidied up after partaking of the little she’d eaten. There were dying flowers lying on the table as well. Lightly Moira touched the flowers, aware that they had been plucked from the garden only a brief day or so before. The place had a look of being nearly forsaken. Worriedly, Moira made her way up the steep, narrow staircase, calling her sister’s name all the while. Her eyes were full of concern as she continued her search, hoping to locate her missing sister and find that all was well.
Moira came upon Luna’s bedroom and found the door slightly ajar. With increasing trepidation, she eased the creaking door open and then gasped. There upon the bed, in the twilight, lay Luna, a smile upon her still and lifeless face. Moira hurried to her sister's side and lightly touched her cold forehead, unable to believe her eyes. From outside the open window, she was suddenly startled by a shriek of seeming dismay. Quickly, she went to the window where she found a handsome (the only word that came to her mind as she spied him) owl perched just outside on the tall tree’s branch. The owl peered at Moira with a look of inquisitive curiosity and continued to shriek his eerie cries, as if echoing the sorrow he saw reflected upon Moira’s face.
Finally, with one loud shriek, the bird turned his head sideways before it abruptly lifted and took off in flight. Moira watched the bird, transfixed by its majestic beauty despite the dismal situation she had just uncovered. The owl flew high in the sky creating a silhouette against the fullness of the rising moon. The moon, the beautiful full moon. Luna's mother had named her child for the moon, and Moira was sure that her sister was now at peace and one with the moon’s everlasting glow.
Moira quietly leaned out the window, tears streaming down her cheeks and whispered, “Fly away my beautiful, Luna, with your handsome owl. Fly across the meadows and fields. Fly high above the trees with your precious friend to the enchantment of what lies ahead. I pray you find eternal love.”
Eventually, Moira lost sight of the owl as it disappeared in the far distance. She gave a final glance at the fullness of the bright moon and then gently pulled the window shut and closed the curtains. Instinct told her the owl would not return. Moira wiped at her tears. It wouldn’t do to linger here or to wish for things beyond her ken. She had to trust that Luna was now in a place that would bring her much deserved joy and peace. Thus, with surety of purpose, she began to do what must be done.
With a thump, Sara Water’s heeled-boot fell to the pavement. Woozy, she exited the cab, grateful to be back on solid ground. She was used to LA traffic, but these Parisian roads were a different beast. She straightened her blazer while the driver fetched her suitcase. They exchanged bag for tip, then he quickly sped off, disappearing into the throng of cars.
The sweet scent of cherry blossoms pushed away the acidic smell of cigarette smoke and gasoline. She turned to the towering hotel before her, taking in its grandeur. The statuesque building seemed to touch the sky. The stunning architecture and art-deco influence awakened her spirit, sending a coursing energy through her body, despite the almost eleven hour flight. She knew what to expect, of course — most hotels were similar, when you got down to it. Her room would have a bed and a dresser. There would be a closet with empty hangers and a bathroom with miniature, plastic bottles of toiletries. The first floor would have a bar where she’d spend a majority of her evenings. There would also be many, many conference rooms where she’d spend most of her days.
The mundaneness of hotel-living did not quell her excitement, for this was the French version. The rooms would be French rooms, the bar would have a French bartender (probably). Even the hallways would have French paintings on the walls, the elevator a “lift.” When Sara looked out her window, she’d see thousand-year-old buildings and Parisians going about their French lives. In the morning, she’d be awaken by the smell of French pastries — she had Googled bakeries nearby on the plane ride over, between her romantic movie marathon. She found a delightful looking one only five minuets away between watching “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Along Came Polly,” and couldn’t wait for breakfast.
Sara gave a small shimmy on the sidewalk, trying to shake off the last remnants of her flight. This trip was a big one. All the branches from her international company were here. She brushed off lint from her blazer and trousers. This would be the first time since the pandemic she’d get to see everyone — in person and from the chest down.
Nervously, she made her way up the marvelous marble steps. Normally, she wouldn’t care this much about her appearance after an eleven hour flight, but her fellow American colleagues had much shorter flights and were already checked-in, probably already at the bar. She had sprinted to the ladies room after de-boarding and hastily exchanged her hoodie and leggings for an outfit suitable for a business meeting or associates’ dinner. Most of her colleagues were men and wouldn’t understand the need to “freshen up.”
Sure enough, as soon as Sara entered the grand foyer:
“SARA!” Bob Newton’s baritone boomed across the lobby, causing the concierge to give him an ugly look. The lobby was really a decadent salon, with the bar tucked in the far corner. The fact Sara could even hear Bob was truly impressive, the fact she could hear him so loudly and clearly was a token of the Chicagoan.
He jumped from his stool and wrapped her in a bear hug, almost knocking her suitcase to the ground. “’Bout time,” he complained. “We’ve been here for hours!” His pink-tinted cheeks shown in the bar light.
Sara shook hands with all her fellow branch managers; John Ryan from Boston, Bill Weaver from Milwaukee and Mike Johnson from Pennsylvania. When she got to James Marsen (New York), Sara felt her cheeks flush. He lifted his drink to her and gave her his signature shy smile.
James and Sara has gotten to know each other very well over the past several years. She started at the New York branch only a year or two after he did. They bonded over the fact they were the youngest in the leadership teams, her at 29 and he at 31.
All the other managers who attended conferences like these had at least 10, if not 20, years on James and Sara. The two often found themselves together, giving each other pointed looks whenever a fellow manager made a dated reference or used a phrase that had fallen out of favor. They once spent a meeting, before Sara had moved to LA, discreetly Googling ’70s movie references just to impress the CEO. They also had a jointly held irritation at being called “kid.”
“Whatcha drinking, kiddo?” Bob asked Sara. She bit her tongue, and saw James hide a laugh behind his glass. She clocked that all the men were drinking dark liquor, so she ordered an Old Fashion.
“How’s that dinky LA office?” Bill asked good-naturedly. Sara scoffed in mock outrage. Out of the corner of her eye, Sara noticed James had stopped smiling.
The LA branch was tiny. The company wanted a “west coast presence” and expanded into LA three years ago. Not many wanted to move across the country, but Sara jumped at the opportunity. She was the manager of the sales department, a big promotion from her position in New York. Though she loved the Big Apple, Sara knew the fastest way to get that promotion was to move; it would have taken years in the boy’s club of the New York branch. If she played her cards right, in a few years time, she could become manager of the whole LA branch, like Bob and Mike were of their respective branches.
“Sara is doing a great job,” James said from across the bar. Sara and James had discussed the LA opportunity at length, usually over late-night Chinese food back in the New York office. James had even considered applying himself, but decided against it at the last moment. Last year, he had been promoted to “Assistant Head of Sales,” meaning he was also in line for a branch management job.
“You know, sometimes I’m still surprised you actually did it. Moved, I mean,” James said, loud enough for only Sara to hear. He had moved seats to sit next to her.
“California’s actually pretty nice,” Sara said. James pulled a face. “It is!” She protested. “The weather, the beach —"
She gave him a sour look. “I’m not missing out on anything by being in LA. It has everything New York had.”
“Except Broadway. Museums. You know, culture?”
“Rats. Germy subway cars. Snow,” she countered. James shook his head, a crooked smile tugging at his lips.
“Dinky or not, we owe Miss Sara a toast,” Bob announced. He held his drink high above his head, the liquid sloshing in its glass. His words were only slightly slurred. “For posting the highest sales numbers this quarter! Impressive for a young branch. And young kid!”
The other men raised their glasses as well. “Watch your back, Marsen!” Bill yelled, causing everyone to laugh.
James had been the rising star of the company before Sara arrived. It led to some healthy competition between them — and a bit of teasing via email and chat messages.
“That’s right!” Sara said, pretending like she had just remembered. “How much did my branch beat yours by, again?” James rolled his eyes.
“It’s always New York or Chicago, and now LA?” Mike lamented. “The rest of us are just trying for fourth.”
“Philadelphia will never make the top five, let alone four!” Bob shouted.
“I don’t know,” James said. “I heard their new manager, Lindsey Frank, might give Sara and I some competition.”
The group finished their drinks and made plans to meet back downstairs in an hour to find a spot for dinner. Sara went straight to the receptionist desk and finally checked in. James waited for her. He was staying in a different hotel across the street from this one. More employees than ever had wanted to come on this trip, and the company obliged them. After two years of being stuck at home, people were itching to travel, even to a boring conference.
“Hey,” James walked Sara to the lift once she was checked in. “Watch to ditch the old guys? There’s a restaurant nearby that’s got great reviews.”
Sara agreed, then went up to her room to drop off her bag.
“Bummer they had to put us in different hotels this time,” James said as they climbed into the cab. Sara had met him on the street where he was holding a taxi for them.
“Yours is, like, ten steps away,” Sara said with a laugh. “It’s not like it’s on the other side of the Channel.”
“I know,” James trailed off, looking out the window of the cab. The city lights streaked by as the cab picked up speed. Sara pulled her eyebrows together, unsure why James cared.
She ordered Pot-au-Feu, the national dish of France. At least, that’s what a quick Google search in the cab told her was the national dish of France. The waiter’s exasperated expression left her afraid she had committed an Ugly American crime. Oh well. She had done the same thing in London a few years ago, ordering Bangers and Mash, and planned to do it again at the next city she was privileged enough to visit.
Since Sara won the sales game, the bill was on James tonight, as per tradition. They had played this game back when they both worked in New York as well. However, it was less fun now that Sara lived almost 3,000 miles away. Sending one another a victory meal via a delivery service simply wasn’t the same.
James ordered a bottle of Champagne to toast to Sara’s win, again. Sara loved Champagne. She watched the bubbles swim to the top of her glass before taking a long, slow sip. She allowed the liquid to wade over her tongue, like waves in the ocean, kissing a sandy beach. She savored the dryness of the Brut before swallowing; She was no sommelier, but thought she tasted a bit of apple.
“Congratulations on your ‘win,’” James teased, bringing her back from her musing. He used one hand to form air quotes around the word “win” while the other kept the glass held high. “Even though I beat you — handily — last quarter.”
It was true that she barely edged out James for the title this time. But her branch was still a baby — a toddler — she explained.
“Besides, next year, I’ll crush you,” she said, flipping her hair over her shoulder.
James pretended to look scared, his eyes lingering on her exposed neck. “I guess I better watch my back,” he joked.
James looked down at the table, fidgeting with the forks and napkins. Sara’s eyes followed his movements. For the first time, she noticed some gray mixed in his tousled brown hair.
Once the Champagne was gone, they moved on to wine. James ordered the house red — neither needed to order a bottle based on region or grape. They simply weren’t sophisticated enough.
Sizzling beef signaled the arrival of dinner. The delectable scent of beef stew and roasted potatoes made Sara’s stomach ache and her mouth water. She dug in.
The conversation left work and turned to families and friends. James’s brother planned to propose to his girlfriend of less than a year.
“That seems quick,” Sara said, her spoon suspended in midair. James shrugged. “I guess when you know, you know.
“Better to act than to miss out,” he added. Sara sensed something behind his statement. He was nonchalant, neither his expression nor his tone giving anything away. But he had stopped mid-cut into his chicken, his knife dividing the two pieces. The space between the two supple hunks of meat seemed miles apart, and James seemed — that couldn’t be right, Sara must be misreading his expression — angry?
Sara, inexplicably nervous all of the sudden, changed the subject back to work. James lightened. He rolled his eyes while admonishing her laser-focus, calling her a workaholic.
“In the now infamous works of Kim Kardashian, if you want to succeed, you’ve got to ‘get off you ass and work,’” Sara said in her defense, teasing him again.
James blinked. “Huh?”
Saved waved him off with an amused smiled. “Never mind.”
She found James’s disinterest in pop-culture charming. He wasn’t appalled by it, just genuinely not interested. He was a fan of the classics instead and had introduced Sara to some pretty great films. Whenever he made a reference to something she didn’t understand, she made a point to watch or read the source material, if nothing else, but for a reason to text him.
After dessert of Mousee au Chocolat, and finishing the bottle of wine, Sara and James disembarked the restaurant, and based on the hostess’s annoyed look, not so gracefully. The warm spring day and turned into a chilly night. James put his jacket around Sara’s shoulders before hailing them a cab.
“Hey, how about we head to my hotel? For some coffee?” James asked as he held the cab door open for her. “I bet the guys are back and at the bar again.”
Sara was acutely aware of how close she had to pass James in order to get into the cab, and thought maybe she should just go back to her room and call it a night. Something had changed, a shift in the air, a quake in the Earth. She couldn’t quiet place exactly what it was.
James was probably right though — the other guys would, indeed, be back at the bar, wondering where she had disappeared to and begging her to join them again. She had a presentation to give to the big wigs tomorrow — tips and tricks so everyone can post better sales numbers — and coffee now might stave off a hangover…
“Come on,” he added, draping his arm over the backseat. “We’ll thank ourselves in the morning.”
She looked at his warm brown eyes and felt a flush creep from her cheeks to her neck. Had he changed? Maybe it was just the wine. Either way, she relented.
If she was being completely honest with herself, she wasn’t ready for her night with James to end.
The two stumbled up the stairs to James’s hotel, laughing and teasing each other about their presentations tomorrow. They were both blissfully unaware of the group gathered on the corner of the street, armed with picket signs and megaphones.
Lounging in the salon, Sara and James had finished two cups of coffee and were working on large glasses of water when an announcement from hotel management came over the loud speaker. Since they didn’t speak French, they had to wait for the English announcement to begin. The crowd gathering outside were protesting labor wages, peacefully, but management “kindly requests all foreign guests” stay inside the hotel until the protest was finished. Sara and James had assumed the raucous outside was simply Parisians enjoying a Friday night, but could now make out the undeniable sounds of chanting and faint police sirens in the distance.
“Are they asking us to shelter in place,” Sara asked.
“Sounds like it.”
“That’s exciting.” Despite living in LA in 2020, Sara missed the vast protests over the summer, instead only seeing them on TV or reading about them in the paper the next morning.
James witnessed the protests in New York first-hand, and watched the ones in Portland on TV. He also remembered the French striking against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms a couple years ago.
“Unless they picked these hotels because of the international business conference,” he said, his eyes fixed on the protesters. “We should head up to my room.” James reached out for Sara’s hand to help her off the lounge chair. He then placed his hand on the small of her back, almost absentmindedly, leading her to the lift.
James’s hotel room was bigger than hers. He had room for a small loveseat and coffee table, where a coffeepot and two mugs sat on a pewter tray. Sara sat on the loveseat while James went about making a pot of coffee, saying they may as well have another mug. “Who knows how long this will last.” He had a similar desk tucked into the corner of the room that she had, except his desk had been taken over by his laptop and briefcase. Sara saw a yellow legal pad full of notes, no doubt for his presentation tomorrow. He must have been going over them before he met the guys downstairs, something she now wished she had be able to do.
A ball of linens peaking out of the closet caught her eye. She allowed herself to look at James’s bed, something she had been trying to avoid. It was the same single queen she had, but the pillow cases and duvet didn’t have a very French design. As a matter of fact, they looked rather plain.
She gestured to the bed. “Still?”
“I’m telling you,” James said, handing her a steaming mug. “Don’t watch that documentary.”
Sara laughed. “Never!” She ripped open a sugar packet and stirred it into her drink. She couldn’t remember which city they were in when she learned of James’s germaphobic tendencies. Baltimore, maybe? Apparently he had made the mistake of watching a documentary before that trip, the kind where they looked at hotel rooms with a blacklight. She was sure if she looked into the bathroom, she would see that James had brought his own towel from home as well.
James sat next to her on the loveseat. Sara tensed. Once again, she felt a shift in the atmosphere. She brought the mug to her nose and took a deep inhale. The bitter scent of hot coffee always relaxed her. Except tonight.
“It’s going to be okay,” James said, misreading her discomfort. He put his arms on the back of the loveseat, just as he did in the cab. Sara went rigid, so as to not accidentally brush up against him.
“So, how’s Bachelor Party planning?” Sara asking, trying to defuse the tension, but her words came out more rushed and timid then she intended.
“I haven’t even thought about that. Ugh. That’ll be depressing at 31.”
“More depressing than attending the wedding of your younger brother?” She teased.
“I’ll have to find a hot date. Hey, maybe you’ll be in town. And bored enough to come with me?”
Sara gulped. Butterflies danced in the pit of her stomach. She was surprised by how…exciting that sounded. A hot date. Had he really meant that?
Was this the change? This subtle, paradigm shift in their friendship.
What are you doing, she wondered. Why are you here, in his room? They were co-workers, friends, competitors. They teased and mocked, but they didn’t flirt, didn’t ask each other out on dates.
Sara didn’t want James to know how excited she was at his proposal. But, she also didn’t want to close that door just yet.
“It’s a date,” she said, clinking her mug to his. She prayed the statement was light enough to be taken as a joke, in case he wasn’t serious.
The sounds of French police sirens grew louder, their blue lights shinning into James’s room. They looked out at the street below. A couple more cruisers had arrived, but not many. The crowd, however, had grown larger, random passerby joining the fray. The chanting intensified.
They sat in silence for a moment, sipping their coffee and watching the commotion outside.
“Sara,” James said, breaking the silence. “I’m in love with you.”
Stunned, Sara froze. She stared straight out the window, watching the protesters hoist their signs higher, refusing to look at him.
The hints and clues she pretended she couldn’t see surfaced, slapping her in the face. The crush she tried to ignore all these years roared now with a vengeance.
“No, you’re not,” Sara said, finally turning to him.
He frowned. “How would you know?
“Because. We don’t fight for each other.”
Outside, the sounds of chanting had gown fiercer. Police cars were arriving in droves now. The blue flashing lights illuminated James’s face as he looked down at her.
“What do you mean by fight?”
She sighed, exhausted. Between the flight, the drinking and now this, it had been a long day. She allowed herself to lean back on the loveseat, her head resting on his arm.
“Why didn’t you say anything before I moved?”
James scowled at the wall. “I…I almost did. When we talked about the LA job, and you were making a pros and cons list, I asked if there was a guy you might stay for. Remember? You didn’t hesitate before saying ‘no.’”
Sara did remember. She remembered scoffing at the very idea of sacrificing a career opportunity for a guy, offended he thought her so weak.
“That’s not the same thing,” she said defensively.
“You’re right. It’s not.”
“And,” she continued. “If I had known you were talking about yourself —"
“Would it have changed anything?”
Sara bit her lip.
“James, are you willing to move to LA?”
She watched him think. “It’s just…my entire life is in New York.”
“Exactly. And now mine is in California. And I really like the sunshine,” Sara smiled sadly. “If I came back, we’d be competing again, vying for the same job. And if one of us got it over the other—"
“I’d be happy for you.”
“But also disappointed.”
“I’d get over it.”
“What about jealous?”
“I’d. Get. Over. It,” James said, pausing between each word for emphasis.
When Sara didn’t respond, James leaned in closer. “Sara, do you love me?”
She put her mug on the coffee table. James’s arm slid from the loveseat to her back. She closed her eyes, savoring the feeling of his touch. This wouldn’t be easy.
“I think I do,” she finally answered. “But, I don’t know if that’s enough.” James looked confused, so she continued.
“It’s just…when you’re in love, aren’t you supposed to act crazy? Irrational, even? Willing to risk everything you’ve built on a chance?”
James smiled. “When you’re sixteen, maybe.”
Sara stood. She walked to the desk and leaned against it, placing her palms on the cool wood.
“Be honest with me,” she said. “Are you willing to give up your career, your home, for me?”
James mulled over the question. “That seems like a tall order, Sara. Especially now. Shouldn’t we try first?”
“I’m not willing to sacrifice my career or home either,” she said, ignoring his question.
James looked frustrated. “Where is this coming from?”
Sara laughed. “Every rom-com I’ve ever seen. Every romance novel, ever love song. It just seems like, when you fall in love, everything else takes a back-seat, willingly or not. It seems like nothing else matters. And it shouldn’t, right? Not if it means being with someone you love, someone who makes you happy?”
The crowd outside started yelling. The National Riot Police had arrived and the crowd wasn’t pleased. From this vantage point, Sara could see officers lowering their shields, preparing to advance on the crowd.
James got off the loveseat. He walked to Sara, coming level with her at the desk. He placed both his hands on her waist, just above her hips. She didn’t protest.
“Hon,” he said gently. “I don’t think that fairytale stuff is real. I think it’s just a marketing scheme. Real life, real love…it’s just not that simple.”
Sara looked into his eyes. “It’s a nice scheme though, don’t you think?”
The air in the room thickened, the sounds of the crowd muffled.
James raised two fingers to Sara’s face. Brushing her skin, he pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“I don’t want to sacrifice everything I’ve built to be with you, and I don’t want you to sacrifice anything to be with me. That won’t make either of us happy. I don’t know about some all encompassing feeling, but I do know that when I am with you, I’m happy. Happier than ever. I even look forward to virtual meetings, because at least I get to see you. And I really, really want to give this a shot.”
“What about a local girl? One who makes you happy and lives next door?”
“I don’t want anyone else.”
Sara blushed. The sounds of rubber bullets filled the air, but the shouts and screams barely penetrated their bubble.
James took Sara’s face in both his hands. She melted at his touch. James pulled her close, and Sara closed her eyes.
And explosion rocked the Earth, forcing them apart. The sky outside illuminated a fiery orange. A protester had thrown a Molotov cocktail, causing chaos among the clashing police and protesters. Tear gas canisters launched into the crowd. James dropped his hands. He took a few cautious steps to the window, trying to make sense of the mayhem.
Sara felt as if she’d awakened from a dream. She grieved the lost of their moment.
“It’s working, I think,” James said. “For the police, I mean. The crowd is running.”
Sara nodded. She went to gather her purse and blazer from the coat rack by the door.
“What are you doing,” he asked.
“They’ll probably let us leave soon,” she lied.
“James. I think I should go.”
James looked crestfallen. He moved toward Sara, who took a step back. He stopped. His hand, which had been extended toward her, fell limply to his side.
Sara had to tear her eyes away from his hand. She wished the fingertips were still caressing her face. She forced herself to look into his sad eyes. Her mouth went dry. She gulped.
“I like fairytales,” she said.
When he didn’t respond, Sara turned to leave. Her hand fumbled on the doorknob. James’s voice stopped her.
“So…that’s it? I’m too late?” He hadn’t moved, hadn’t taken another step. He seemed stuck, lost. Sara looked at his tousled, graying hair, the pink flush on his cheeks. She saw a small, glimmer of hope still shinning in his caramel eyes. She didn’t know what to say, so she decided on the truth.
“I don’t know.” She turned on her heel and ran from his room.
The Cost of Freedom
At what point do you know what fear truly is? And what I mean is, fear in all of its means and iterations. Terror, horror, dread, creep, anxiety, and all possible ways of describing one of living nature’s most primal senses. Most attempts at understanding fear only go so far as to cheaply replicate its effects by cheaply imitating its triggers. Drawn up pictures of grotesque beings, fiction written from the point of view of corrupted minds, numerical statistics of cancer likelihoods and death tolls. Even as these come close to the true root of fear, many choose to walk free of them, the societal machination in which they are born in offering many avenues to turn away from their natural calls to the void. To them, fear stems from the pettiest of life’s wants. Are they going to find love, a successful job, live a long life, understand the vast complexities of the universe. All basic things that make it seem that fear only stems from the absence of want.
These fears bore me. Nothing but another speck of dust in the very blowing dunes of existence to a collector such as myself. What someone like me is after are the fossils. The remains of the dead buried in life’s blowing wind, their suffering forever memorialized in a set cast of their misery. Aren’t they just the most magnificent things to behold? Pain woven right into the foundation of where we lie today...
My apologies, it seems that I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. I find it hard to contain myself when talking about such… visceral material. My position has allowed me ample time to find the beauty in decay, a fascination that I hope to share with you all now. Because understand this. Suffering is an inspiration that many of us jerk and stray away from. It seems everyone now is far too eager to numb all of their senses, especially fear, for the minuscule net grain of pleasant contentment. You all don’t get to see what I see. Feel the lifetimes that I have walked through. But now you will learn not only my name but what my own experiences have brought me. I’m here to awaken you, to widen your eyes, make you focus, and feel the pain all around you.
My name is Graven, and these are my accounts.
This was one of the first stories I collected, a fitting intro for my volumes. It’s a personal tale, one of a young boy who simply wants some independence in his life. A coming of age story if you’re an optimist or eyeless romantic. And like all inspiring stories, it blossoms from a dying prostitute in a crack house. In the arms of one Tyler Bindweed.
Before you go casting judgment on our young boy here, one must understand how hard it would be to be your own man at sixteen. But young Tyler was actually handling it well. Of course, the normal connotation of well is not exactly the best fit for the situation here. No one could be well after running away from their orphanage. Or having an abusive drunk father that threw more bottles than the number of times his checks bounced. Or having survived a religious nut mother tried to gore out the demon in their soul. No one could say anything was well in that scenario. The connotation of Tyler’s entire life is needed to make sense of all this senselessness and for that, one has to start at the very beginning.
Tyler had never felt truly free. From his birth, he felt controlled. His cage was the clogged up heartland of the American east coast, Kentucky bluegrass country, the sentencing date being April 13th, 1973. It was directly from the maternal womb of his mother to the whipping belt of his father. What had once been a hard-working family man was now a violent drunk. The long-standing family business was going under and his father was handling it about as well as he did apple pie moonshine. A man at his kind of low point just wants to put hurt out into the world, and too often Tyler was the closest outlet. That was only because the mother was out bible thumping.
Carrying Tyler had been a labor of love for his mother starting out. Then by month eight it had turned into a labor of unspeakable anguish. Tyler was a late arrival and his actual delivery was difficult. To come out of all of that to return to a crumbling home and drunk husband, reasonable to see why she went as mad as she did. Her sudden discovery and devotion to Christ from a dream was considerably less so. Her rare atheist upbringing made it all the more special and unhinged. But when the ground below your feet falls away, there’s only one place to look toward and that’s up into the sky. And people love pulling things out of clouds. The clouds seemed to have told her to start badgering her neighbors and calling her only son a relative of Satan. The reason for all of the family’s troubles. A burden put on earth for her by God to test her newly found faith. Parents usually put a lot on their kids though so that was par for the course.
This all came to a head when the father was somehow even more sloppy with his drunken beating and hit Tyler in the face. One good shiner was all that was needed to confirm the long-held suspicions of Tyler’s school teachers. Soon Tyler was pulled aside, interrogated, and put in a little safe room while the teachers called the police. They had always worried for Tyler, his more-than-quiet behavior and odd ticks were a point of concern between them. Now their nativity was leading them to believe that local authorities would be enough to stop the anguish of this poor boy. It would soon turn out to be the subtle flap of the universe's butterfly wings.
The cruiser pulled up to the lonesome house, not even bothering to see if anyone else was around the property. The two cops on patrol that day were very aware of the Bindweed family, their father causing more than enough scuffles in the town bar to warrant his own corner in the stations holding cell. They expected the father to be out on his ass drunk watching something on T.V. An easy arrest. However, by the time the officer had arrived, the school was already let out. That meant Tyler should have been home. His father was not one to miss out on time spent with his favorite punching bag, so he knew something was up. The sound of car tires pulling up on the dirt road was all he needed to get out his shotgun.
The police sauntered up the dilapidated porch, not prepared for the double-barreled welcome waiting for them. They were chuckling to themselves, taking guesses at what slurred excuse the father would have for them this day. It was their own snickering that covered up the sound of two shells being loaded into the father’s break action. The senior officer’s knock was the opening sting to the orchestra of buckshot being fired through the door and into the policeman. His partner deafened and stunned at the sight of his mentor being torn apart like apple mash. He stumbled out of the way of the second spread of red hot pellets. The father’s aim, unlike his paranoia or rage, was not helped with whiskey. Neither was his footing, as the father tripped over himself trying to swing his spent weapon at the remaining officer. The opening let the remaining officer take out his revolver and fire right into the father’s chest, followed by three more as the rabid drunk’s body dropped to the ground. As the downed man’s blood seeped into the rotting poach wood, he reeled thinking he had ended the evil of the damned home.
A returning matriarch would cut short any chance of closure. She was right outside, returning from yet another failed conversion session when her new reality soon hit her. Instead of the usual treat of another bill taped to the front of the home, what was there was her deadbeat husband truly dead and beaten. One in the shoes of a long-abused wife might find this sight horrifying yet relieving to a certain extent. Yet this woman had one thing she hated more than her drunk and now dead husband: Police. Men and women acting as the arms of a long and corrupt creature of sin. Just the mere sighting of one meant that more godless creatures would come into her home. It would be like a plague. One that could have only been brought on by a wicked curse. One that was created inside of her. One who too conveniently did not seem to be there at the house at the very moment.
If the policeman thought to see his partner get shot was the low point of the day, I’m sure having his cruiser jacked by a screaming lunatic of a woman was at least the strangest one.
The mother peeled away from the house, determined to rid the world of her own perceived demon. Meanwhile, the secretary leaving Tyler’s school was probably just determined to call a plumber to finally fix that leaky pipe under her sink. It would be the secretary leaking out on the pavement after the mother arrived and plunged her dagger deep into her chest. That sacred dagger mimicking the spearhead that stabbed Jesus finding its way into the chest of a secretary called Mary. What was once a powerful example for the mother to pull out and show others the personal sacrifice Jesus had made for humanity, now a great image of irony.
Those teachers witnessing said stabbing probably didn’t have the clairvoyance to appreciate the coincidence however. The mother hadn’t any mind for it either as she broke through the front door of the office. Her eyes snapped toward and her feet stomped right over to her terrified little hellspawn. Tyler was in the back of the room, chair facing what was sure to be his death. But as the mother made her charge toward Tyler, the football coach of the school had come up from behind and tackled her to the ground. Soon everyone rushed to dogpile on the crazy mother who was now screaming and flailing around, all the while in a locked stare down with her boy. Her bloodstained face and howls forever etching themselves in the heart of Tyler.
Was it any wonder why then after all of the death and screaming and demon-labeling that the kid didn’t turn out to be quite the talkative type? Tyler became a practical mute after the incident, the entire country soon being made aware of this crazy family. The people ate it up. The perfect American town turned upside down. Nothing gets the masses more wound up from the comfort of their couches and air conditioning. Tyler, on the other hand, was being passed around from psych office to psych office, any therapist worth his salt wanting the fame of helping the most troubled boy in all of America. But Tyler was a clam, not even offering so much as a crayon drawing to show the things he was put through. The world asking for your story when all you want to do is to try and process it all is a tough thing. Eventually he was shipped off to some orphanage on the other side of the state. Some people realized all the microphones and cameras might hurt the poor boy’s mind. But trying to save it was a lost cause.
Tyler was once again thrust into a horror house with strangers that should have been caring for him but instead were just causing him pain. So, he decided to fall back on what his dad had taught him best to do. Run. Run and hide. In the dead of night, he escaped the orphanage and just ran with some granola bars and water bottles all to his name, carrying in the same backpack he had when his mother tried to kill him. The next morning, of course, there was another roundabout the news circuit on the disappearance of America’s favorite trauma boy. There were search parties sent around the area, though the local police were well and truly tired of this whole Tyler fiasco. Still, they tried with some measurable amount of effort to find him but to no avail. But it was because he was not in the town dumpster or lost in the woods huddled in a cave somewhere as everyone presumed. Tyler was in a long thought abandoned house full of local drug addicts and dealers.
The ’70s were a great time to deal heroin. It was as popular M*A*S*H. Even with the colorful characters drugs usually tend to attract, it can be said with certainty that the people dealing heroin did not expect a 10-year-old boy to show up on their doorstep. Tyler had only come there because it was the only place the caretakers at the orphanage told him not to go. Installing the fear of a creepy and decrepit house would have probably worked on any other child. Home didn’t carry the friendly and inviting connotation in Tyler’s mind so busted out windows and dangerous people were just par for the course. He knew it’d be the last place anyone would look for him so it was a fantasy land in his eyes. All he had to offer, however, was his hands for work and some of his stolen granola bars. Thankfully the happy heroin dealers took him, mostly because they were high at the time and thought it would be cool to have a “celebrity” in their dilapidated home.
So for the next five years, Tyler’s life was that old home. He started out as just a lookout for the dealers. He was still a mute at this point, so he carried around an old cowbell as an alarm. That soon became his calling card among the dredges of the town, calling Tyler the name Bell instead of his own. He didn’t mind of course. If anything it was another thing that put him away from his past. He would be Bell and that would be it. No more questions. No more demands. No more family ties besides the nightmares in his head.
But he would see a whole lot of other family troubles. In the ever disintegrating shack he now called home, the dealers would bring in buyers to “sample” products. These interested investors ranged all over the moral spectrum. Some defunct workers from local coal unions faced the hardest of hard times while others were widowed wives seeking an escape from all of life’s troubles. And some were just completely corrupted shitbags you could not believe were once human.
It’s why Tyler would never touch the product. Despite the near-constant egging on from his dealer counterparts, Tyler would simply shake his head at any pass of the needle. Same thing for liquor or marijuana. His dad would say he drank to change, to get rid of all the pain in his life. Tyler had seen that experiment fail in front of his eyes. He figured people were just meant to carry heavyweights in their hearts. Just like himself, everyone in the house had already given up and was beyond redemption in their own eyes.
But one always stood out to Tyler: An older girl in her 20’s, who was simply called Tink. That’s because whenever she was high any can or light metal object would be subject to her finger pecking. That sound was the only thing she would make when she was strung out. Soon one day when Tyler was just hanging around, Tink got a good look at his bell and fell in love. At least when she was strung out. And Tyler didn’t mind because Tink, even whacked out of her mind, was easy on his eyes. Plus she never asked questions unlike everyone else. It was just about the only relationship Tyler could ever think of having long since given up facing the general public. He didn’t care if she was a prostitute or higher than a weather balloon. It was nice for the two months they knew each other… until it wasn’t.
One day Tink entered the home crying. She fell into the arms of Tyler, going on and on about how her most profitable client had given up on her: That client being a hot-shot mayor of the county and a soon-to-be candidate for Kentucky governorship. A younger man who was quickly climbing the political ladder, was using Tink as a human stress ball, giving her most of the money she would spend on heroin. However as the races finally started to heat up, he decided it best to leave his golden girl. It was a loose end he could not afford in his mind. This left Tink devastated. Once feeling like a princess picked out of poverty was now thrown back into the common, plebeian gutter. Cut off from her source of happiness. This tragedy, of course, all took place on top of a 20-year old mattress, covered in more human fluids and sadness than a handkerchief in the pocket of the world’s busiest funeral director.
But her bawling would stop when one the dealers found out she still had enough money for another shot of her medicine. After the initial high, she was soon in a familiar stupor. The other dealers told Tyler if she couldn’t pay for another round to just dump her somewhere. Before they left, however, Tink looked deeply into Tyler’s eyes and asked him to get more money for her; the man who wronged her would be at a nearby trailer home visiting his grandmother before going off on the campaign trail. And, if nothing else, maybe just a few more minutes with his Bell. Tyler simply looked down at her completely glazed face, planted a kiss on her lips, and left his cowbell at her side. He then stepped out of the home with only an aluminum baseball bat.
Tyler walked seven miles needed to reach the trailer home’s location. For the entire walk, Tyler seemed to be in a trance. The way he dragged the bat behind him left a clear trail in the dry dirt road for anyone to follow. But no one was around on this road. It seemed to be clear for this day’s walking manifestation of rage and revenge.
Eventually, Tyler reached the park that seemed to match Tink’s vague description. He moved through the seemingly abandoned park till he reached the mobile home farthest out from everyone else’s. There in the front was a campaign lawn sign of the offending politician. Tyler studied the grinning face on it for a while until his focus was drawn to the mobile home door. There was a sweet-looking old lady who smiled down at the disheveled Tyler. She was none the wiser to Tyler’s murderous intent. Hard to be observant when you’re partially blind. Instead, she started to talk about how the politician was her grandson and that she was so proud of his progress in the polls. Proud grandma jabber. She would have talked Tyler’s ear off for the next hour about the politician’s plan to reform schools, a crackdown on drug users, and the promise to return the state to the center of the American spirit if Tyler hadn’t cracked her head wide open.
Now while he was by no means a tactician of a superior strategic mind, Tyler had seen enough sketchy drug deals go down to know the meaning of the word bait outside of a fishing context. Not taking mind of the blood trail, he dragged sweet nana’s corpse back into the trailer home and waited for his real target.
Through the window blinds after an hour’s worth of waiting, he saw a truck seemingly ready to rally a march onto Washington pulled up to the mobile home. It was covered with campaign stickers and posters, all containing the blinding grin of the politician Tyler was set to kill. Soon the man himself stepped out of the truck in boots too nice to have ever been worked in, wearing a button shirt that was exactly the kind Nashville country would eventually kill. All topped off with a grin more plastic than the buttons pinned to his chest. It Seemed Tyler guessed right on what a politician would look like.
This politician in question slowly strode up to the home, calling out for his grammy when he was only a few steps away from the door. He had gone there alone, wanting some quality time with her after being gone for so long at the state capital. He wanted to pay respects to the woman who raised him when his own parents couldn’t. When the vacant rocking chair on the small porch finally caught his eye, something deep inside started to sense the off nature of the situation. When he neared the front of the home, the blood trail leading to the door sent him into an immediate panic. Reason would dictate that the last thing one should do is follow a blood trail into a confined space but family wasn’t a rational matter for this all too honest man of the people. He quickly rushed to the door, arm stretched out and reaching to fling the door open. Before he could see any more of his grandma’s spilled blood, he was subject to the spilling of his own.
Tyler barged through the trailer door, completely catching the politician off balance. He fell to the ground with a dirty thunk, catching a momentary glimpse of Tyler’s face before his eyes were thunked into the back of his skull. It was a gruesome scene, involving enough bat swings to kill a bison let alone a pencil-necked politician. But Tyler would not let up, keeping up the pounding to the face, body, and eventually the truck of the now firmly deceased campaign runner. It was just a whirlwind of rage finally coming out of Tyler. He released every ounce of hatred he had for his father, mother, therapists, dealer bosses, and the entire world all at that moment. His guttural scream was the first thing he vocalized ever since being damned by his mother so long ago in that school. It was one based on the feeling of anger and then release. Release of all that controlled him. For so long he had felt tied to the sins of his family: Always being told what to do by his father, what to believe by his mother, how to feel by the therapists, how to live by the dealers. Him taking that bat to the temples of that old shitbag politician was just about the most freeing thing Tyler could have ever felt. Because it was he who was spilling the blood now. He who was giving out pain. He who was doing things for the one he cared about.
As all of this was finally channeled out, Tyler caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection of the shiny truck door he was smashing. He saw a glimpse of what had become of his face. He rushed to one of the side mirrors to get a clear picture. It was sunken in like he was an understuffed teddy bear. He had a scraggly beard that demanded to be shaved. His eyes as red as the blood splattered across his face. It was the epitome of a nightmare state of being. But Tyler didn’t feel shame at all for his look. One sentence slipped through his dry and cracked lips.
“No one will recognize me…”
With that, he stopped his assault on the truck, looked back down at his previous handy work, and walked off into the open road. Some say he was never caught and just kept walking until he dropped from dehydration. Others claim they saw him as an aimless drifter, still carrying that bat of his. The police claim they shot him down while he was trying to rob a convenience store. Any of these tales simply aren’t worth noting down in detail. It changes nothing of what Tyler did. None add clarification to the meaning of all this unholiness. And it’s not like it should. Not in my eyes at the very least
Say No More
“Sir, I know this is difficult.”
“Now that’s a good final phrase.”
“Shut your goddamn mouth about final phrases! I have plenty of phrases left!”
He forced the words out of his mouth and over the counter towards the employee.
The he is named Seymour. Works in an advertising firm and makes enough to not be completely underwater in a small city apartment, three floors up from ground level and three floors down from the top. He licks his index finger before turning pages and hasn’t drunk a glass of water since last August. Seymour writes his name in all uppercase, so in a sense, none of it is uppercase and one could say he doesn’t capitalize his letters at all. Breakfast consists of coffee. Lunch is coffee yet again. Dinner is typically found as over-salted meatloaf, easily heated in a microwave oven, and cheap booze. His favorite movie is How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The War and his favorite book, in an ironic sense only, is the Bible. Saturdays are spent at the park, Sundays with his mother. When he was nine, he gave a bag of lentils to a girl, ran away, and cried. This was his first and only love. Marcia. She lives next door to his mother. Seymour dislikes cats, his favorite color is purple, and he believes Nietzsche is God.
The man on the other side of the counter remarked, “I’m afraid it’s fewer, around two thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven words, to be exact.”
While two thousand is a large number, please keep in mind, the average male says around seven thousand words daily and eight hundred million in a fifty-year span. In a world where every word counts, people can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea of conservation.
Patience and thoughtfulness are virtues, and waste is the greatest sin, but is the most human thing. From birth, they are instructed to live wisely; to count their words and make their words count. Save their words for the important moments, but yet, they waste it, and that comes at a price. So they live a life where out of every hundred words, maybe only three counts, but this life isn’t so different or unworldly from our own.
Seymour snapped at the man, “Again, that’s impossible! There is no way in hell-”
“Two thousand nine hundred and seventy.”
“-I’ve run out! Is my average shorter? Did something happen along my lifespan to shorten my number? Did I make a mistake? Are you shitting me right now? I only have three thousand words?”
“Two thousand nine hundred and thirty-four.”
“Two thousand nine hundred and thirty-three and have a nice day. Next!”
The redhead with the wide hips stood up and took his place. She passed him with a wink. The ladies behind her commented on Seymour as he stood there in disbelief.
“My nephew’s word count dropped, and he passed after a month.”
Seymour looked back towards the redhead, snapping himself out of the fog the ladies’ gossip had put him in by the tapping of her shoes. He traveled from the heel of her foot to the top of her skirt all the way out the door.
Everything seemed louder than before. It might have been his sudden realization that the time he had left on this earth was up to his discretion. Or the fact the tamale cart blocking the entrance to his building was half off this Wednesday, but either way, the sounds that used to harmonize with his phone calls and discussions with friends now carry the shrill snap of a belt. But that’s in two thousand nine hundred and thirty-three words. That’s a large number. That’s plenty of-
“Large Caramel Mocha.”
“God damn it, Mom!”
“Hey… Seymour again. Did you see my call?”’s, and by then it’s been ten minutes and he’s down sixteen words. Those could’ve been a handful of phrases to describe the ineffable. Phrases like-
and, “Good morning Hope.”
However, Seymour ignored the parameters given. Seymour wasted a few more words than just the sixteen before. He, in fact, wasted five hundred and sixteen, and then the clock chimed six on a Sunday. He wasted five hundred and sixteen words just sitting on his alabaster white couch for a few days.
That couch was surrounded by some boxes of stuff from his mother’s and two driftwood end tables. In the back was a small, barren kitchen and through that the bathroom. Then back through the living room/dining room/office was Seymour’s bedroom. Seymour’s repulsive, sodden with some…. something? just an overall grotesque bedroom. It might have been fine, slightly damp, but fine bedroom if you could ignore the piles of useless literature from David Hume to John Stuart Mill that gave Seymour an ego and “intellect” to shame, and the overwhelming stench of spoiled, canned espresso, but this is nowhere near important.
What’s important is Seymour’s dismissal of the idea of brevity. What’s important is Seymour’s irresponsibility and ability to lie to himself and others. What’s important is Seymour’s belief that beauty is held in the form of a woman who makes Miss America look like a mockery. In his words. His only interaction with her was the exchange of lentils and a throat full of tears.
Marcia’s gaze was marked by a scarlet lust. The way she threw her hair over her shoulder seemed to say, “and I love you! I swear that’s true,” but only a fool would believe that.
Seymour is an absolute fool. For more than just that one reason. Some of those reasons being he never actually closes the lid on the milk container and doesn’t wear matching socks. But it doesn’t matter. This man is a fool beyond any doubt. He’s the type of fool to write sappy, but shitty, love stories and cry over the music he first heard as a child. He’s the type of fool to never buy a present for his friend’s birthday and say every time they meet, “I left it at home!” He might be smart, but he’s in no shape wise. The type of fool to not just like something, but always let it consume him. He’s the type of fool who says he’s happy, yet wears a smile full of heartbreak. (But can one feel heartbreak, or sympathize, if they’ve never been in love?)
Seymour, as a child, used to believe that plants were psychic. Something that intricate and beautiful couldn’t look that way without paying the price. The pain of secrets. He respected each flower, shrub, and sapling separately, for they each had very important jobs and positions in whichever garden, park, or yard they inhabited. Corsican Mint, a little green, viny thing, always stood out amongst the rest, though. Its small, little curls and details choked out the violets and hyacinths in their battle for beauty. The plant replicated an artist’s brushstroke, the scenery for a landscape of heaven. His mother’s backyard was covered in them. They snaked from under the deck onto tree roots and then on to invade the neighbors’ yards. They blanketed the walk from his building, through the park, to his mother’s and Marcia’s. On the walk to his mother’s, noticed Marcia had cut them all down.
His mother’s brisket was bad and so was cards. The cards would flit over his fingertips like the heartbeat of a scared kitten. King of Hearts. Seven of Diamonds. Jack. Ace. Two. Queen. Queen. Five. Seven again. Some afternoons he swears he can see his heart lost in the shuffle, jammed between the gray cards. But no one wants to think about the neighbor girl while discussing office issues and playing cards.
God, did he not want to think about her and her thirteenth birthday. He wasn’t invited. She wore this tight, purple top. It might have had a lace-like embroidery at the top. He never got close enough and will never get close enough to tell. He remembers seeing her at homecoming. He would’ve killed to be her date. Rumor states that she and David MacCaffee ditched junior year to attend a frat party, and that’s how David got arrested. Or about how Seymour found a photo of her in the-
Back to the cards and his mother. He explained the situation to his mother, leaving him at two thousand and four words. The rest of the afternoon was silent except for the ring of the teakettle. He left his mother’s with one word less.
Then, passing Marcia’s, muttered three more words.
“I love you.” At least, he thought he did. There’s a difference between someone feeling like the sun and someone feeling like an LED light that attracts every fly and mosquito. With hair that blonde, she could be nothing more than an LED light.
A bit of background might be necessary. When Seymour was nine, he went to the farmer’s market with his mother. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and lentils. The bag of lentils he gave the girl. The bag of lentils he gave Marcia. This was when life couldn’t be harsher than a hug. But nostalgia is a dirty liar that insists things were better than seemed. Nostalgia painted Marcia as a being like Aphrodite, a deity amongst men. It was almost unfair the way Seymour saw her. To be put on such a pedestal is difficult, especially living up to it. She wasn’t human.
But that doesn’t matter because Seymour loved her, or his idea of her. He was so infatuated with this burning love for Marcia that he never read the phrase written on his cup by the girl at the coffee stand in the park. His love threw that poor little cup and that poor little phone number into the trash right in front of her. “718-000-4301. Call me :) -Hope.” Let’s just say her hope was crushed. But that’s the funny thing about Hope. She never stopped trying. Four weeks went by and every Sunday afternoon on the way back from Seymour’s mother’s, she would hand him a styrofoam cup with a little poem or sentence scrawled on the side, each week a little bolder than the next. On the fifth week, though, he didn’t finish his coffee in the park. Seymour carried it all the way up to the third floor and set the cup down in front of his alabaster white couch. He does not use coasters.
Seymour returned from the grocery store on a Tuesday afternoon with seven hundred words left. It doesn’t matter how he got to seven hundred words. It doesn’t matter how he got to his original three thousand words, or why anyone would have just three hundred words until the end of their life. Yes, it might be confusing, but that isn’t the point. The point is to tell the story of Seymour, not explain a word count. All that matters is what happened with his three thousand, two thousand nine hundred and thirty-three, or seven hundred words.
Seymour sat his bags on the counter and found his place in front of the television. He had nothing better to do with his time. He quit his job to save himself quite a few words or else he never would have been alive to place the cup from Hope on the table in front of him. But he did. He placed the cup on the table Sunday afternoon and now, two days later, he picked it up to throw it away. “I want to spend the rest of my sunsets with you. -Hope.” She was pretty bold at this point. Hope thought that he would never actually read them.
Seymour chuckled. He couldn’t place Hope if she was in a crowd. She searched for him in crowds. Seymour and Marcia were more alike than Seymour would ever dream. The only difference is Seymour was Hope’s sun. This is the closest they would ever be.
Sometimes people tire of being lonely. Seymour wouldn’t mind Hope for a while. Everyone needs a bit of Hope and that need consumed her. Killed her. But not everyone deserves it.
The next Sunday, on the way back from his mother’s and Marcia’s, he walked up to the coffee stand with his phone number in hand and a five-dollar bill. He left with a lukewarm cup of black coffee.
“Hi… Is this Seymour?” No response. Well, he can’t give one. That would be wasteful.
“Um, would you like to go get lunch sometime, or maybe we can go grab a cup of coffee? Less shitty coffee?”
“Sure.” Five hundred and eighty-nine words left.
“Okay, um, does Thursday at three work? I can meet you outside your building. I, uh, I see you go there every Sunday. I can only assume it’s your place, I mean. I sound stupid. Sorry. I’ll see you there at three?” The tapping of her foot could be heard through the phone. For a society with few words to waste, she sure says quite a few ’um’s.
“That works.” Five hundred and eighty-seven.
He sat down three words lighter and hoping to prompt some jealousy out of Marcia. The worst part about her is the fact his mother had her over every afternoon to gossip and discuss all the mess Seymour has gotten himself into recently, whether it be financially or with the grease fire from last month. But this means that it won’t be more than a few days before Marcia knows he’s finally gotten over her. It might have taken thirty-two years. And he might not be over her, but she doesn’t know that. Surely she doesn’t give in to him because she likes the attention. After all, that’s how women work. What would her reason be to not want Seymour’s company? There is not a single rational reason! Now that she will know Seymour doesn’t want her, she will just have to want him.
Seymour was disappointed to see Hope doesn’t drink coffee. Why work at a coffee stand if you don’t like coffee, let alone ask someone on a coffee date? But that was the only issue he could find with her. Hope talked a lot. It filled the silence in his head. She talked enough for both of them. Hope liked to just wander in silence with him sometimes, and that was just as nice. The coffee date turned into dinner dates and picnic dates and the movies and downtown and her apartment, but he had hope that Marcia would come around. He would hold Hope until Marcia came around.
Sometimes Seymour forgot about Marcia. Hope would sit across from him discussing her “insufferable bitch” of a coworker, and he would look at her. He would look at the way she clenched her hands when excited or infuriated. His eyes would follow the piece of hair that falls in front of her face as she laughs and he could feel himself forgetting Marcia. Hope became lazy smiles, warm hands, old shirts, running down staircases, and he was terribly, absolutely, irreversibly infatuated with her. But because he had hope, he still thought of Marcia. Hope was always an afterthought, something taken for granted.
Quite a few months had gone by. He had said fifteen words in total to Hope. However, he had said four hundred and thirty words over those few months. With each word of his, she returned with an average of thirty-two. She knew he didn’t have many words left. Her uncle passed not too long ago from the same loss of words. It isn’t uncommon. Hope never knew how many words he wasted on everyone but her. A hundred and forty-seven words left.
The phone rang.
“Hey! I was just wondering if you are still open to going to my mom’s on Saturday? You don’t need to say anything, just, just be there? Okay, thank you, bye!” but before she hung up, a few words slipped out. A few that she couldn’t keep in. These would’ve been a waste if left unsaid.
Seymour sat there. He couldn’t say it back. He wouldn’t say it back. So he hung up. Ten words, three dates with Hope, and two days later, the phone rang again.
“Hi. Seymour, correct?”
Marcia’s voice sang through the speaker, and Seymour sat dumbfounded. A wash of guilt covered him. He felt as repulsive and disgusting as someone feels after touching the damp food conglomerated on the side of the sink after washing the dishes.
“Yea, so the church is having a potluck Saturday and your mom asked me to remind you. I’m over helping her with the casserole.”
“I’ll be there.”
“All right, thanks, and uh, have a good afternoon, Seymour.”
No matter how disgusted he was with himself, hearing her say his name melted him onto the floor into a puddle of vomit and bile heavy with the scent of want. He didn’t need hope anymore. He had Marcia. He didn’t need Hope anymore. He had Marcia! Saturday couldn’t arrive any sooner. He walked himself into that church carrying a steady stature and one hundred and forty-four words.
Seymour tried to talk himself into her heart all day. He showered her with words he kept and cherished. Words he had been saving for someone he loved. Each word got him ahead of himself and Seymour forgot the girl who made him forget Marcia. Every so often he could see his Hope. Seymour realized far too late that he had five words left. Seymour realized he had three words left when he saw Marcia’s new boyfriend and heard her introduce him to the congregation. Guilt has never felt heavier. He felt alone. He had nothing. He needed some Hope. He had had hope. He took those three thousand words wasted on everything but Hope and put them on paper, well, napkin. These words were a waste.
The phone rang again, but this time he was calling her.
“You’ve made your choice, Seymour, and there’s nothing I can do,” she yelled. “I don’t think you want me in your life anymore. I don’t think you wanted me in your life at all. I was just. God, Seymour!” As angry as she was, she still talked enough for the both of them. “And I will have to find a way to live with that. You said, what did you say? You said nothing! I tell you I love you and you say nothing! I don’t want to be a bandage. I don’t want to be a mere courtesy, Seymour! You won’t hear from me again Seymour and don’t you worry--” her words faded out and all Seymour could hear was the pounding of the tear-speckled, ink-marked napkins in front of him. It’s difficult to love someone when you have never been in love. To navigate it is a nightmare.
To the girl who wonders if I think about her,
I do. I will tell the stars about you.
This is difficult to write. Hell, this is difficult to think about, but I’m brutally in love with you. I mean, I think I am. All I know is I hate myself because I wasted myself and it wasn’t on you. I was a coward and an idiot.
I remember when you meant nothing to me. I wasn’t aware of your existence, but now you are the reason I have these awful bags under my eyes. I stay up till 4am thinking about you, but I never could acknowledge it. It’s bizarre how the mind works. I needed you, but I never wanted you. People always say that it hurts at night and apparently screaming into your pillow at 3am is the equivalent of heartbreak and the feeling love leaves you with. But sometimes it’s 9am on a Tuesday and the sound of the toaster and the smell of earl grey tea that leaves you unable to move your hands. I wonder… I wonder if I was drunk in a room full of all the people I’ve loved whose arms would I run into. I would bet a two-dollar, large, black coffee they would be yours.
Those who dare to have Hope
“--about me because I will be okay. I have to be! I can’t sit here waiting for the day you get over that obsession and finally crawl back to me! I can’t be a fuckin-”
“God damn it!” he cried and suddenly he had zero words left.
His mother hand-delivered the letter to Hope. She wasn’t sad. She was numb and numb, she knew, was somehow worse. Granted, she was simply Seymour’s experiment. His lesson on love. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The girl crumpled him up and tossed him into the trash can before her shift.
The him was named Seymour. Worked in an advertising firm and made enough to not be completely underwater in a small city apartment, three floors up from ground level and three floors down from the top. He licked his index finger before turning pages and hadn’t drunk a glass of water since last August. Seymour wrote his name in all uppercase, so in a sense, none of it is uppercase and one could say he didn’t capitalize his letters at all. Breakfast consisted of coffee. Lunch was coffee yet again. Dinner was typically found as over-salted meatloaf, easily heated in a microwave oven and cheap booze. His favorite movie was How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The War and his favorite book, only in an ironic sense, was the Bible. Saturdays were spent at the park, Sundays with his mother. When he was nine, he gave a bag of lentils to a girl, ran away, and cried. This was his first, but not only, love. Marcia. She lives next door to his mother. Seymour disliked cats. His favorite color was purple, and he believed Nietzsche was God. And he forgot, then lost, Hope.
Friend or Foe?
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*THIS WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THE BOOKSHELF BELONGING TO MY ORIGINAL PROSE ACCOUNT: Notebook (27 Year old living in Philadelphia, PA) HOWEVER I FORGOT MY PASSWORD AND SO IT IS BEING POSTED ON MY CURRENT ACCOUNT (stickynotes).
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FRIEND OR FOE?
Sometimes a fiend is just a friend without the "r".
My father taught me everything I would need to know.
Truth was, I never knew what I was in for.
After years of training, I concluded the final combat assessment without so much as a sweat. My father was there to congratulate me. Despite how far technology had come and how much times had changed, he always measured my performance to where he was at my age. Although I had finally come to surpass his expectations, he was quick to remark how I still fell short of his own father, Grandfather.
Being the son of the City’s Founder, my father was more than proud to be appointed as head of its police force. Even as the City began to fall apart following the uprising of its incarcerates, he tended to the needs of its citizens. As the City's infrastructure was left neglected from their strikes, the population fought over basic necessities. To alleviate the need for water, my father and his force began excursions to the Outside. One day, ambushed and forced to watch their hard work dumped onto the pavement to run down the drain, my father urged Grandfather and his council to devise an evacuation plan in hopes to salvage what remained.
I was born in the first shelter erected Outside. Although Grandfather had been present then, he was absent forever after, as he soon left to retrieve something from the City but failed to return. Haunted, my father vowed he would train me to return to Grandfather's City to find him.
1st Memory: The Heir to Grandfather's City
The assignment undertaken was urgent, but it’s the duty of any hero to save a child in danger. As our eyes met, I knew I needed to save him. Not just from enemy attack, but on a deeper level. He appeared only half my age but his eyes were dim and his body was emaciated. As he turned toward me his shark eyes glint. Without us exchanging any words he had me figured out. Steadfast, I took in his intimidating countenance, remembering my father’s saying: “Every enemy deserves respectful resentment."
A Weimaraner trailed the boy. Stray domestics were characteristic of the City’s fallout. Before the distance closed between boy and beast, I intervened, drawing my blade. I hadn’t expected anything organic to be a match against my steel, yet the enemy’s tenacity took me off guard. Despite my strike the beast charged on relentlessly and gorged deep into my arm. Suddenly, where it had struck, a benign burn flared against a malignant chill. This resulting adrenaline peak fueled my second strike and terminated combat.
Applying ointment to the wound, I looked around for the boy. He could not have gotten far for he needed me to protect him from further harm. During combat he had taken the opportunity to hide. Suddenly, in the periphery, he emerged from a manhole. Rather than casting the cover aside, he positioned it in front of himself--braced for an attack. Despite my assurance of my intention to protect him, he remained adamant in remaining where he was. When that failed to persuade him, I gestured to my wound as further evidence. By then the ointment had caused the flaring pain to burn out.
“You’re done for,” he stated matter-of-factly. Having proceeded to set the skin adhesive, I hadn't realized he had crept closer. Despite being disdainful his expression was undiscernible. Upon standing, I succumbed to anemia. Could I still protect him while carrying out the mission? I struggled to shift my balance to one side. Although I was sweating, I felt cold. My dilemma was just as bone chilling. Forcing my thoughts aside to drive away the fear, I glanced at the boy. Observing my stoicism, wonder flashed across the boy’s face, betraying him.
“Who are you?” he demanded. In response to my reply, he glared at me viciously, putting his hand on his hip. “You’re lying! I’m the true heir to this city! I know everything there is to know about it. I've never even heard of you before.”
Without the chance to respond, his tirade continued.
“Listen man, you can’t claim a place as yours if you’ve never even visited! Do you even know anyone here?!”
Displeased with my loss for words, he interrupted my silence with a sharp jab.
“I know what you’re thinking… Listen, I didn’t need your help! I can handle myself and get where I want! You didn’t do me any favors at all…You just wound up hurting yourself!”
Daring to return his glare, I inquired as to whether he knew where the City’s central statue was. Surely, somebody who knew their way around could answer that. He smirked.
“Exactly! You have no idea where you are. Everybody knows the central statue, our city’s founder, whose bloodline went out of fashion long ago. Grand-Dad saw to that!”
Without waiting for my response, he began in the direction we would go.
2nd Memory: The Upbringing I Never Had
Despite the boy's detestable disposition, saving him turned out to be the right decision. Although nobody to him, he welcomed me to “his city” with open arms. Taking my anemia into consideration, he ushered me into an elevator. As we descended the City became alive. While the landscape above had been reduced to ruin, the underworld agents had revived a new one underground. Figures, as villains prefer to live in an underworld, a place far from the light and far out of sight. But to the Outside, this was unfathomable. After much consideration, I thanked him for inviting me to the “Understory” of his city.
He shrugged: “Why are you so surprised? I’m nice…just not friendly.”
Despite my anemia, my heart pounded as we exited the elevator fifty feet beneath the surface. Rather than a colony of scattered ants, the Understory was a colony of teeming termites. It became apparent that the boy held a position of power in this colony, as he exchanged tacit acknowledgement with two passing gargantuan rhinoceros beetles. Then, he turned and gestured to me, only to conceal his surprise when he realized I had maintained close proximity the entire time. Did the boy see me akin to a bodyguard? Was this why he had been so welcoming all this time?
I asked him whether he felt safe.
"Not anymore." As he turned his gaze away I could not figure him out. I inquired as to where his parents were.
"My parents are gone…I wasn't strong enough, so they didn't deserve me."
"Don't tell yourself that. No one deserves that."
"Actually, Dad did tell me that. 'You don't deserve us,' he said so after he did what you just did--got hurt intervening in my personal affairs!"
I had to look away. I could not bring myself to look him straight in the face. As we arrived at the boarding strip for the train, I tried committing everything to memory, only to realize the periphery was darkness. As a permeating sense of vulnerability began to pound in my ears, the ambient surrounding became muted out. It wasn't until the boy grabbed my wrist to pull me onto the train that I realized he had been speaking.
"…If only they had trusted me and realized how strong I really am…If only Mom had known how well I knew my way… then she wouldn't have gotten lost looking for me… and if only Dad knew my secret plan--how I always have something hidden in my back pocket… then he wouldn't have tried to pick my fights and win them for me!"
At that moment I could only stare at him, trying to figure out what I might need to know later. He was talking more to himself than to me.
"…They're wrong! Just because I'm young doesn’t mean I'm weak! Being young means I can only get stronger and wiser, which is why I was made the heir to this city in Dad's stead!"
The situation was more dangerous than I anticipated it to be. The Understory was an organized society. But why choose to be lead by someone so naiive as this young boy? Without maturity and wisdom wouldn't he come to rely too much on the advice of others? Did they really hold him responsible for his decisions?
For the rest of the ride, the boy couldn't stop thinking out loud, and so it went without saying that my questions would be answered in time.
3rd Memory: Seeing Eye-to-Eye
As we found ourselves waiting at yet another station to transfer, I had begun to worry about the time. By then the anemia had subsided, yet the apprehension remained. The boy had not stopped talking to himself.
Suddenly, he turned to address me.
"Since I'm doing a better job at running this city than Dad do you think he's proud of me?"
He resumed his train of thought before I could respond.
"If Dad were angry he'd have sent lightning to burn buildings down…but it's only been raining!"
The boy explained how the City was reliant on rain, as water left to pool in the streets became polluted. He went on to mention how, forced to resort to old stores of soda and spirits during times of drought, the Understory had come to love the rain and loathe the sun.
Upon reaching our destination and ascending the Understory, I spotted a flooded pothole to fill my water purifier. Within seconds the oily fluid lost its iridescence and I took a sip before offering it to the boy.
"Aw man! This tastes better than rain! If only we had this before. A long time ago there was this old guy who wanted water so bad that he even slashed Dad across the face to get it!"
Suddenly, reminded of the wound from earlier, I raised my sleeve to discover that the ointment had managed to heal it. Astonished, the boy asked to examine the ointment. I grew alarmed as he slashed his forearm to prepare for the procedure. As the topiary sizzled, he didn't so much as wince. Then, it healed without a trace of a scar, as if nothing had happened. Casually flexing his arm, the boy tossed the ointment back at me.
"With this, nothing's a match for me! Well, now that there's nothing to worry about--let's make it straight for the statue." He was smiling for the first time since we met.
As we emerged from the shadows of the back alleys the sun was low on the horizon. The boy assured me that taking the "straight" route would have us arrive before nightfall. On route, the boy informed me about the City and in return I divulged about life Outside. We realized we had been conversing for some time when the streetlights turn on. Shortly after we arrived at the central park.
Until we arrived at the park fence, I hadn't realized why the ointment had been necessary. Heavily fortified with razor wire and electric current, the fence was the final barrier we would need to surmount to get where we needed. Having devised a strategy, the boy scaled the perimeter with alacrity and ease. After halting the electric current, he called out to me. Recalling his route, I rejoined him. While I had accrued little injury, he had not been so fortunate. It was evident that the electric current had hurt him, for he was applying the ointment to a debilitating burn along his arm. When he had pilfered the ointment was beyond recollection.
Noticing a scratch on my face, the boy offered to return the ointment, all the while grinning like a devil. Offering genuine gratitude, I let him know he could keep it. Victoriously pumping a fist using his recovered arm, the boy then implored to hear more about the Outside.
Then a shrill screech pierced the silence and the moment was over.
4th Memory: Friendship but Farewell
The monster had me defeated before I even had a chance to realize it. Its harsh screech was shrill enough that it reverberate through my teeth. As its salty, scarlet tones disgust my palate, I drew my gunblade. Before it could throw a jab, I beat it to the punch and severed its appendage, only for it to pounce back with renewed vigor. Leaping directly into my line of fire, I discharged my weapon directly into its maws. Merely enraged from its wounds, the monster fought relentlessly. As I began to wear down, the monster proceeded to fight like a fiend, forcing me to retreat into the shadows.
From the periphery I ascertained that the boy had evaded the monster's initial attack for he had realized our adversary for what it was from the start: a machine. One whose heart of steel spares it from fear or pain. The boy, who had only his fists and a small blade, wasted no time taking cover. Realizing it was unable to locate either of it targets, the machine began to pump voltage into one of its appendages. Exposed by the glow, I could see that I had severed all but one of its supports. It was on it's last leg.
It found the boy first. Its back turned to me, I took advantage of my position and took aim at the joint connecting its remaining support. Just as I pulled the trigger, it lunged in reverse to take me down. Although unhinged, I hadn't expected this and had no choice but to brace for its coup-de-grace.
Suddenly, as though lightning, there was a flash of illumination and then nothing. Although brief, the flare afforded insight into our circumstances. In retreat from the machine, I had taken refuge behind the Founder's Statue, and the boy, or what could be none other than the boy's body, laid between me and the machine, having intercepted its final assault.
Only someone so young could be so reckless. Although he had only lived for ten years he risked them all for me, someone who had lived long enough to live his life twice. Had he been able to comprehend all that had just happened? As though raising his soul, he was weightless as I laid him to rest against the statue. Life draining from his wounds, the boy violently shivered; his fiery passion finally extinguished.
Although the boy tried hard to hide behind one of his witticisms, he could only grimace. Hoping to offer solace, I reminded him of all there was to look forward to once everything was over. When I began to mention resuming life Outside, he stared back at me in disbelief.
"I've been through worse before," he reassured me. "I know I’ll be fine--It's as though the pain is fading away..."
Then, through his eyes I saw him leave.
It was the beginning of the end... or perhaps it was just a new beginning. When our eyes met, blue to brown, a relationship had planted itself in my mind; as my father said: a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet. After the boy opened his mouth, however, I knew he was going to be the end of me. In fact, I knew it was he who had started it all along. My father's favorite phrase: as one door closes another one opens, I rest my case only to open another: What was to come?
5th Memory: The Final Foe
Forced to leave the boy behind, I proceeded to finish the mission on my own. By penlight I scoured the statue but I found no trace of Grandfather having been there. Where else could he have gone?
Then, a blow was dealt from behind. As the light flickered out felt myself succumb to the mercy of my assailant.
I woke to raindrops falling on my face. Despite the rain I could still make out the statue. Leaning against it was a man with a jagged scar across his face. As he had been studying me for a long time, he didn't react to my awakening . Having me figured out, he turned his back to retrieve something behind the statue. Pleading with my body to respond, I could only remain as I was: shackled.
"If only it had been raining that day…then perhaps that old man wouldn't have given me this scar...If only he hadn't wanted water so desperately…"
Satisfied with what he retrieved, he casually began toward me. At that moment, I wondered whether my father would despair over what became of me as he had when Grandfather failed to return. Would he, too, be lured into returning to the City? Then my thoughts came to reflect on the fate of the boy whose story only I knew. Were we destined to end the same way?
Then it appeared.
Amongst the haze an apparition emerged. Defiant, it stood statuesque, grounded with resolve. Taken by its omnipotence, the man was forced to concede as the spirit positioned itself between us. It is said that souls which suffer tragic ends are granted mercy in forgetting their final demise. Angry to find his body missing from where it was laid to rest, the specter emerged from the miasma before me, blade in hand.
Clemency granted, my shackles fell away. The boy smirked. At last he had me where he wanted me: I owed him one. Without waiting to see my reaction, he darted back into the mist, leaving his blade at my feet.
Then the rain became torrential. The man submerged himself in the storm's murky depths, awaiting his chance. Suddenly, a flash of lightning divulged his whereabouts, ruining his preemptive assault. Deafened by thunder, I laid in wait for the next lightning strike.
Then I heard the boy's voice reverberate through the storm.
"Stop! Don't hurt him! I hurt myself!"
Thunder erupted and a flash--I sidestepped, evading a fatal blow.
"Dad, please--Why didn't you tell me you were alive?"
Drawing insight from the flash and cover from the rain, I sought the refuge of Grandfather's statue. His spirit embodied in stone, he braced to cover my back.
"Wait--He was only trying to protect me!"
As if struck by the bolt and not the man, Grandfather fractured. The man had my gunblade, forcing me to bring the fight to him. Nicking my fingers, I drew the boy's knife. Blindly rushing towards where I had last glimpsed the man, I braced myself, for I knew I gave him his shot.
Then the lightning struck and it was over in a flash.
Upon reminiscing, I touched the niche in my left shoulder, something Grandfather's statue and I held in common. Then I glanced to the boy on my right, who was no longer a boy, but as old as I had been that night.
″…And that is how you became one of the most legendary duos in history.”
“Yes, we were dynamic.”
“Before he met you, he and his family used to rule with disregard to life--the boy not knowing what ‘friendship’ was.”
“Yes. Myself, being the son of the police chief, knew I wouldn’t be harmed even though I had an affiliation with him. My father trust me.”
"And who came up with the new plan?"
"My father and I. We had anticipated stragglers but upon finding the Understory it was apparent that compromise was in order. Warfare would have left us too vulnerable."
"What were the terms of compromise?"
"Our terms were that the Colony would serve us as arms and laborers, in turn, we would provide them with healthcare, education, and necessities."
"Were they amenable?"
"Yes. They trust the boy as he had been born among them. Furthermore, his generation held us no strife as they had no recollection of the days of uprising. If they had known of the Outside, it had not concerned them."
"In the end, did you find your Grandfather?"
"My father did. It turned out I had not known Grandfather well enough. My father had only to glance at the statue. Concealed in its lapel was an SD card containing the City's Constitution and its archives. We believe that Grandfather intended to remove any means of restoring order to the City and to use the information to reestablish the Outside."