Tyler Marable studies psychology and creative writing at Jacksonville State University. He hopes to become a good doctor, author, husband and father one day.
The Flowers in the Snow
The land of Verum was most upset. Queen Otina had died and her husband, King Stult, was not long for this world. He knew of no worthy heir to the kingdom except that of his daughter. But of course no princess was to be without her prince. No queen without her king.
King Stult pleaded with his daughter to marry. His poor health grew worse with each new moon. She would soon sit upon the throne of her late mother and would need a king by her side. He begged her to find a groom.
“But, Lord Father,” she said, “what man in the Kingdom of Verum is worthy to succeed you?”
“There are plenty,” his majesty replied. “Prince Illicio of the Mountains Beyond the River. Prince Surde of the Valley of Abalon. These two are more than worthy.”
“What about Prince Modicus of the Plains?”
The king gave a petulant wave of the hand. “What of him?”
The princess ignored her father's annoyance and said with confidence, “Is Prince Modicus not noble enough to succeed you? Is he not worthy enough to call me his queen? I believe he is an able prince of honorable valor.”
“He is a man of questionable integrity—for he is the son of King Virtus.”
“Yes. King Virtus.” The princess bit her thumbnail. “I heard tale of the Slain King of the Plains. For thirty years that land has not known its own ruler”
“And for thirty more years it shall not know its own ruler other than myself,” his majesty said, “as long as this damn heart still beats. The Plains must comply with the treaty.”
“The treaty you drafted so long ago?” the princess asked with a tinge of bitterness in her sweet voice. “I've heard a horrible story told amongst the townspeople: How you slayed King Virtus yourself all those years ago.”
“A horrible story, my child?” His majesty raised a brow. “Oh, yes, I see what you mean. It was most horrible indeed. King Virtus invited me to the Plains that fateful day to celebrate my thirty sixth name day. Little did I know, such an invitation was extended to belittle my royalty. As King Virtus and his guards escorted me through the countryside, touring the Plains, I made a gesture of goodwill to a peasant tilling the rice fields. I nodded my head, acknowledging the worker. The gesture was not returned. It clearly was some scheme to dishonor me, to mock me on my own name day no less. How dare a peasant of the Plains ignore the king of Verum.”
“But, I've heard whispers of misconception. Our people speak of a young king drunk on pride that day. Perhaps the worker did not return your greeting for his labor preoccupied him. Perhaps he did not see you.”
“Oh, he saw me, my child. It was nothing more than a conspiracy fashioned by an illegitimate royal. A man jealous of one superior to him. I challenged the king of the Plains to a duel for such an insult on the very spot. Suffice to say we know who won.”
“Lord Father, as it is spoken in our realm, King Virtus did not draw his blade that day. He begged your pardon for such a petty crime. With his hands at his sides King Virtus was a dealt a fatal blow. You ran your sword through him.”
“Aye, I did, Gloxina. And what of it? How you do speak most strangely to your lord father. Are you the daughter of fair Otina or the love child of a common wench?”
The king rose from his seat. His daughter's inquires kindled a flame in his old bones he'd thought had long been doused out. He clutched his chest. A wrenching in his bosom sent him back to throne of stone. “My heart still beats yet with less urgency. Will it fail me? Lionheart they call me. But in my old age I fear I have the heart of a lamb.” He gazed at his daughter with pleading eyes. “I beg you to find your king as your mother found me.”
The princess of Verum took the king's hand. “What should I do, Lord Father?”
Without hesitation his majesty said, “Choose your king, so it is written in our laws. But I warn you. You must choose wisely, for I believe I do not have much longer in this world. The death of a strong king may mean the death of a strong kingdom.”
Gloxinia stood on the sunbathed balcony overlooking her subjects. She wore regal attire: a flowing red gown, the very dress she would wear on her wedding day. Although sunlight kissed her brunette head, bitter cold bit at her bare arms.
“Vita is dying,” she whispered. She stared at the White Death creeping on the horizon.
King Stult stood by her side, gazing at the spectacle before him. Thousands had came for such an event—the Parade of Royalty. His eyes turned to the blizzard approaching his kingdom. “The Goddess is dying. I've seen as many as ten solstices pass before Her rebirth. How many quarters will pass this time? I fear this is an omen. The White Death has never fallen upon Verum this early in the year. I believe I shall die with Vita this winter, only I will not be reborn with Her in the spring.”
“The White Death did not always plague our kingdom. Not until you slew King Virtus.”
King Stult ignored his daughter's accusation. “I believe the Erlking will visit me before this month's end. May I be reunited with my kin in the Over Realm.”
“Please do not speak of such, Lord Father.”
His majesty sighed. To speak such ills on this day was most unbecoming of a king. This glorious day was his daughter's. She deserved to be happy.
“I have sent word of your choices,” King Stult said. “Ah, I see our eligible bachelors now. Well, two of them. Are you sure Prince Modicus should have been included?”
The princess said without hesitation, “I believe he is worthy as any.”
The townspeople of Verum made way for the Parade of Royalty. Prince Illicio led the procession in his palanquin of platinum, carried by troll slaves. Beautiful drow servants followed his lead, belly dancing and waving the flag of their master's kingdom.
His majesty of Verum stroked his beard in contemplation. Surely his daughter would choose Prince Illicio. The man with slaves abound; the man who tamed drows and trolls.
Prince Surde of the Valley of Abalon followed on horseback, a silver steed bestowed the name Alexandrite, adorned in blue silk. The crest of Abalon, sewed in golden embroidery, flanked proudly the horse’s side. A panache of ostrich feathers rested upon Alexandrite's head.
Two war elephants marched in unison with Prince Surde. Halflings waved to the crowd from atop the exotic animals, dropping rose petals upon the prince's head. A symbol of the ruby rains of Abalon.
The townspeople marveled at such a sight. A horse decorated in such fashion as Alaxandrite was unheard of in Verum, but what were these beasts marching before them? Children—those who summoned the courage—raced between the elephants' legs to kiss Alaxandrite's silk, to steal a touch of his golden stirrups. Prince Surde swiped their hands away with his gem studded quirt.
Bringing up the rear of the parade was the final bachelor: Prince Modicus. He wore no boots. He rode an ass.
Laughter erupted in the crowd as he past. What a prince. One who owned no boots. One who mounted a steed befitting of a serf. Surely he had no chance at winning Princess Gloxinia's heart.
The parade came to a halt. The three noblemen stopped in front of the castle. The crowd grew silent.
His majesty of Verum cleared his throat. His voice boomed in the silence, “My daughter has called you here today for one of your hands in marriage. As in accordance to the laws of my kingdom, Gloxinia shall choose her groom as to her own pleasing. My Otina chose to marry the prince who could slay Malum, the White Lycanthrope of Umbra.”
The king snapped his fingers. “I believe my daughter is cold.”
Two servants stepped forth from within the castle onto the balcony. They draped Gloxina in the hide of Malum. The lycan's head rested atop hers as a momentary tiara.
Cheers sounded throughout the crowd.
“I believe my daughter would not give you all such a daunting task. But I do hope, in order to win the throne, she'd give you a most perilous assignment.”
The king looked to his daughter. “Have you decided on the quest to be taken?”
“I have,” the princess said.
“Then name it,” the king said.
“I will. But first, I wish to know each prince as I know you, Lord Father. Let them stay a fortnight.”
The crowd grew silent. Never before had a princess of Verum proposed such.
“It is as you wish, my daughter,” his majesty of Verum said.
It was an odd decision his daughter had made, King Stult thought. It was the first time such a proposition had been made on that balcony. His majesty of Verum was an old man, and of course, with age comes wisdom. But a man could live to the days of Ragnarok yet not understand the ways of woman.
Why not proclaim the quest to be taken now?
His majesty of Verum was most perplexed by what he had witness that day. And what he was witnessing now. The three bachelors sat at the great table of his throne room, feasting. On his game! Should they not be risking all for the throne? And what spell was Gloxinia under? For nearly one week, each morning, she would go onto that balcony and gaze into the White Death. If not for the hide of Malum she surely would have fallen ill.
Zoran, King Stult's closet adviser, offered the king a plate of haggis. His majesty of Verum gently refused the meal. When Zoran offered a goblet of mead, the golden cup went flying across the throne room.
The king stood with what strength he had left. “Gloxinia! What is the meaning of this? Should these men not be fighting for this throne of stone? Should they not be risking their lives for my kingdom? Who here will take this seat of obsidian? It is your choice.”
The princess said nothing. Only stared into the White Death.
“Aye, I agree,” the prince of the Mountains Beyond the River said. He opened his mouth and let a drow servant drop a grape into it. Troll slaves held torches by their master's side to ward off the cold. “Give us our quest. My servants and I grow weary of waiting.”
He did not look weary.
The prince of the Valley of Abalon wiped haggis from his lips with a silk handkerchief worth more than any tribe of the Plains. “I do look much forward to sitting on that obsidian throne. I agree with you, your majesty. How about this quest? We have waited long enough.”
He looked as if he could wait longer.
“I disagree,” the prince of the Plains said.
The room grew silent. Only the winter wind spoke, whispering through cracks of mortar.
Who was this man? This Prince Modicus? Royalty who rode an ass. Yet he had the nerve to speak against his majesty of Verum.
“You disagree?” King Stult said.
“Aye, my lord. That was my word,” Prince Modicus said.
The mere audacity of the prince's statement stubbed out King Stult's rage. To be shocked beyond anger was rather new to his majesty of Verum. The king did not raise his voice in anger when he said, “You disagree with me? So you should sit here, feasting upon my livestock instead of trying to win the throne?”
Prince Modicus answered, “I believe we should be trying to win Gloxinia's heart, my Lord Father. Not obsidian. Not a throne.”
Modicus's audaciousness did not perplex his majesty of Verum beyond rage any longer. It nearly drew the wrath of King Stult along with the edge of Lionbane.
The king stood, his hand shaking on the hilt of his sword. The king's sword, Lionbane, was not drawn from its sheath quite yet. “Lord father?” his majesty of Verum asked. “You call me father? A bastard who rides an ass into my kingdom as if he's on a new stallion. A varlet who parades around my castle barefooted, partaking of my wine! Of my swine!”
“I want a flower,” Gloxinia said from the balcony.
No one heard. No one listened.
“I ride an ass because you have taken every colt from my people, every mare,” Prince Modicus said. “And I call you father because it is custom of the Plains for one to take in the son of the man he slayed. Whether it be a righteous kill or one over trivial matters. The victor raises the son.”
“I want a flower,” Gloxinia said from the balcony.
No one listened. No one heard.
The king smiled. It was not one of mirth. “The son of King Virtus. I do see the resemblance. You have the same eyes. Round and fearful and lifeless. I do not see you winning Gloxinia's heart. Go home, my child.”
“I will not,” the prince of the Plains said. “I will go get the princess the flower she so desires.”
He had heard? He had listened?
Prince Illicio stood from the table. “What flower does this bootless commoner speak of?”
The prince of the Valley of Abalon rose along with his opponent. “I, too, want to know what this codpiece Modicus means. What flower?”
They all turned to the princess.
She gazed into the White Death, pointed to the west and simply said, “I want a flower.”
A flower? The White Death blanketed all of Verum. Surely no flower could withstand a blizzard. Prince Surde stroked his chin. This was the quest? Bring back some mere flower? No, there was some other meaning. A riddle perhaps.
Although he was a man of only sixteen, Prince Surde was somewhat wise to the ways of woman. When a maiden of the Valley of Abalon asked for cotton she wanted silk. When she asked for dinner she wanted a feast. And when she asked for a flower … she wanted a gem. Women, in all their mystery, in all their riddles, were the same.
The princess of Verum wanted a simple gem. What luck. The Valley of Abalon happened to be the valley of riches.
He would have his princess, but more importantly, he would have his new kingdom. The princess was of plain beauty, but the land of Verum was gorgeous. A gemstone in the rough Gloxinia was, so a gemstone from the rough Gloxinia so shall receive.
“I will get Princess Gloxinia the treasure she desires,” Prince Surde said. “And win Verum.”
“Not if I get it first,” Prince Illicio said. He turned to his servants. “Bryn, Idil. Go fetch the flower for the princess.”
The drow servants did not answer. Terror resided in their eyes. Who ever had seen such? Dark elves quaking in fear.
“We cannot, my master,” Idil said. “Treachery blankets Verum.”
“There is sorcery in the winds outside this castle,” Bryn said. “This 'White Death', as your kind calls it, is not of nature. It is of witchcraft.”
Sorcery? Witchcraft? Dark magic did play about the room and in the realm of Verum. Prince Illicio was sure of it. For how could his slaves disobey him? Why did these drow servants shake so? Was it out of fear?
No, it was out of drink. Out of his foolishness. He must remember in the future to not let his drow mistresses partake of wine. They were lithe creatures and grew more limber with each drop of mead. And how Prince Illicio loved his mistresses to be limber. They did prove to be most entertaining in his chamber the night before.
But no more.
No more wine for Bryn and Idil. No more mead. To lie with a drunk drow was a luxury only reserved for the prince of the Mountains Beyond the River. But alcohol clearly clouded their judgment. He would forgive Bryn's and Idil's refusal of his request … for now.
Prince Illicio turned to the trolls Ekon, Okon, and Ukon. “You three, go get the lady the flower she so desires.”
“Yes, my lord,” Ekon said.
“Right away,” Okon said.
“As you wish,” Ukon said.
And the race to complete the quest began.
Prince Surde sprinted down spiraling granite stairs and out the front gates. The three trolls were not far behind.
The prince of the Valley of Abalon whistled and called, “Come, Alexandrite.”
The horse heard his master's beckon. He reared up on his hind legs; his hooves smashed into the stable door sending it crashing to the ground. The stallion broke free of the stable and trotted towards the prince.
Prince Surde screamed in his sprint. “I said come!”
The valiant steed obeyed. Alexandrite's canter tore into a gallop. He nearly trampled the peons shoveling snow off the street. The horse slowed to his master's sprint. The prince grabbed the reins and in one fluid motion flew into the saddle.
Master and steed were off towards the west, sending sparks off the cobblestone.
The prince of the Valley of Abalon rode for days, breaking free of the White Death. He rode through Pacem, where griffons played with the wandering centaurs. He rode through the Meadow of Beatum, where dragonflies forever chased the monarchs. He rode through Tenebris Forest, where the creeping vines choked the whispering oaks in ivy.
It was there, in those dark woods, Prince Surde met his first obstacle.
Alexandrite came to a halt. Taurus, the Beast of Tenebris, stood in the way of the prince and his steed. The bull pawed the dirt. The sun shimmered through the canopy, glinting off Taurus's horns.
“Go around, Alexandrite,” Prince Surde said.
But the bull gave no chance for passage. After all, these dark woods were ruled by the Beast of Tenebris. Not by some foreign prince who still had his mother's breast milk on his breath.
Alexandrite did not quake, did not take one step back. He awaited Prince Surde's order.
The prince snapped the reins. “Forward.”
Alexandrite tore off towards Taurus, flinging soil. The two beasts raced on a collision path. The bull lowered his head. And how his horns shined in the sunlight!
“Alexandrite,” Prince Surde said, “up!”
The horse did hear the command.
Alexandrite took to the sky above Taurus. Master and steed blotted out the sun for a brief moment. Prince Surde drew Adamus, the blade of diamond. He plunged it into Taurus's neck as the bull passed underneath, his horns wounding nothing but air.
Master and steed came back to earth.
Taurus crashed to the ground with Adamus jutting from his side.
Prince Surde dismounted Alexandrite. The Beast of Tenebris drew his last breath while gazing at the man who had brought his life to an end. Surely this man was worthy of winning the throne of Verum. The prince pulled the blade of Abalonian diamond from the bull.
Before returning to Alexandrite, Prince Surde had one last task. He sliced off the bull's right ear. It was custom in the Valley of Abalon for a warrior to give his maiden a trophy. A testament of his bravery and his love for her. As mentioned before, Prince Surde was wise to ways of woman: When a lady asked for one gift, she desired two.
He placed the ear in his satchel.
The prince rode on. He rode through Maxim, where Fide's Plateau balanced the crescent moon on its back. He rode through Cimeter, where the bones of giants littered an ancient battlefield. The prince rode on until he returned to the Valley. His valley.
Alexandrite's hooves sunk in silver sand. The very sand the forlorn fairies had used to forge the horse with a hammer of eastern wind—a name day gift for their beloved Prince Surde—but of course, a creature fashioned of sand can easily crumble to dust.
The reflection of master and steed raced along the sea of Caligo. A haunting song crawled along the water and snaked its way ashore. Sirens singing of heroes long past, of a lost realm only mentioned in legend:
Race to meet your fate
Prince of the rich land,
Go to Inferno's Gate
Surrender on the shore of sand
The prince rode on, ignoring the song of the sirens. He would not surrender on that shore of sand, as the heroes of old had not in that final fantasy long ago. He would get his gem. He would get his new kingdom. Only half a day's trip was left to the ruby fields of Abalon.
But the prince would not need half a day.
The placid sea of Caligo rippled. The sirens' song no longer whispered across the water. But rushed ashore in screams. The Prince's second obstacle sprung forth from the ocean. A sea serpent towering into the sky.
The fabled Basilisk of Caligo.
The creature of glass became one with the crystal heavens. How would the prince of the Valley of Abalon defeat an invisible foe? A foe from which a single glance would render one a pillar of mica.
“Be my eyes, Alexandrite,” the prince said.
The glass serpent carved through clouds as it ripped downwards.
It lunged forward seeking to sink its fangs into Alexandrite. Of course the gallant steed dodged gracefully. Was Alexandrite not of wrought silver sand? Was he not forged into being with the eastern wind by those who fell from the Over Realm?
The prince kept his eyes closed. One glance into the basilisk's ruby eye meant a life of stone. The prince fought for the throne of obsidian not for a body of mica.
The serpent struck again. The horse of silver sand sidestepped the attack. And how Prince Surde's hair flailed in the wind of the basilisk's strike, his eyes pressed tightly shut.
The demon grew tired of toying with its prey. It lurched forward; its ruby eye glared into Alexandrite's. But the stallion did not turn to stone. For the horse of silver sand bore no soul underneath his saddle.
The Basilisk of Caligo knew not what to do. It had tried brute force, it had tried its sorcery. It had tried to fight for its meal, perhaps now it was time for flight.
No. The fiend did not flee. When was the last time the Basilisk of Caligo feasted upon the bones of a prince? Five hundred years ago? Six? It would not let this opportunity slip from its jaws.
The glass serpent struck again. Its fangs wounded nothing. Alexandrite saw the demon's every move, seemingly before the devil had made it.
Prince Surde's hair waltzed with the wind from the basilisk's strike once more. Although his eyes were closed, the prince knew now was the time to strike.
“Rise, Alexandrite,” he said.
The loyal steed did hear.
Alexandrite reared up on his hind legs. Prince Surde drew Adamus. The horse's front hooves came down. So did the sword of Abalonian diamond. And how easily diamond cuts through glass.
The basilisk's head fell to the shore.
The serpent's ruby eye did not glow with the luster of life any longer.
Princess Gloxinia wanted a gift. She would have two. Trophies worth more than any flower. She would have the basilisk's ruby eye along with the right ear of Taurus. And Prince Surde would have what belonged to him—Verum.
The trolls had watched Prince Surde disappear into the White Death, headed for the city's gate. Surely the prince had not left Verum in search of the princess's gift. What imbecile would voluntarily raise the rigor of his labor? What fool would turn an already laborious task into a near impossible travail? Braving the White Death was an endeavor of indescribable toil.
It was the trolls’ turn to disappear into the blizzard.
The snow fell hard. The trolls trudged on. How could a flower survive such a storm? And if it did, how were they to find it? Was this the right path? Hell, where was the path? Did the princess really desire a flower, or was the quest a riddle? Their minds raced along with the gales of ice.
As the trolls trekked further into the storm’s heart, the wind became harsher. It seemed the blizzard did not want the intrepid creatures to complete the quest. The White Death took the life of Verum each year, and now it sought to take the lives of the three trolls.
A gust of snow screamed past the expedition party. The trolls braced themselves against the assaulting wind.
“Join hands!” Ukon shouted.
He struggled against the storm, trying to find a strong anchor. His hand found a tree. Ukon wrapped his free hand around the tree while holding the hand of Ekon; Ekon held the hand of Okon.
“Be strong, my brothers!” Ekon shouted into the blizzard. And they were strong. If they were anything less, they would not have survived as long as they had.
The White Death whispered, I am much stronger than you all.
A violent gale smashed into the trolls. They crashed into each other. Then a squall ripped in the opposite direction. The wind pulled Okon into the air. Ekon clenched his brothers' hands—both of them—he held tightly the hand of Ukon who gripped the tree. But Ekon's hand clasped even tighter the hand of Okon.
“I got you, Okon,” Ekon said, his brother flailing in the storm. The airborne troll was nearly perpendicular to the ground.
“Let me go,” Okon pleaded.
“I will not.”
“Then I will let you go!”
Okon released his brother's hand.
Ekon's grip slid to Okon's forearm. “What are you doing?”
“Saving your lives.” Okon pried his brother's fingers loose. The White Death seized his body. The wind, now at hurricane speeds, yanked him into the air. The troll was swallowed whole by the storm.
The wind wailed like a troll. Or so Prince Modicus thought. In actuality, it was the scream of a troll. Okon sailed above the prince of the Plains.
It's as if this storm is alive.
The prince waded through blistering snow, his bare feet burning, turning black. He had asked the king of Verum for a pair of proper boots before setting out to complete the quest.
King Stult had said with a sardonic smile, “Every prince must complete the quest only with what he brought. That is the law of this land. A king must be prepared for all. Surely you were aware the White Death visits my kingdom this time of year. What prince cannot acquisition mere boots from his own people? You may wait out the storm if you wish and forgo the quest. To enter the White Death with no boots and no proper overhide will only mean your death, prince of the Plains.”
Prince Modicus had been aware of the blizzard; how could he have not? Who had not heard tale of the scourge which befell Verum each year. The first flake of the White Death had floated to the ground exactly one month after King Stult had slayed King Virtus. So of course the prince knew of the White Death; it reminded him of his father's murder.
So why did he have to brave the storm with no boots and a thin overhide? Why was he not prepared? The day before the Parade of Royalty, Prince Modicus had his own parade. It was arranged without his knowledge by his loyal subjects. They carried the prince around the square on their shoulders. Game was slayed, flayed, and roasted. The most beautiful boars, the most healthy turkeys were passed around.
The cheer was loud. The mirth was aplenty. What a wide smile the prince had as he surfed the shoulders of those who loved him. That smile vanished when Prince Modicus's eyes fell upon those of another: the eyes of a Plainsian child. There had been no festivity in this child's eyes.
“Put me down,” Prince Modicus said.
Without question the royal was lowered from the air to his exquisite boots. The prince placed his hand under the child's chin, raised the boy's eyes to his own. “Why are you sullen, my lad?”
The boy said nothing, only fondled a pebble with his bare foot.
“Say something to the prince, waise!” a voice cried out.
A concerned woman placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. “Please, answer when royalty speaks to you.”
“I'm sullen because my dad is gone. I'm sullen because I have no boots,” the boy said. “I'm sullen because people call me waise.”
Prince Modicus was a rather intuitive man. Although she was of child bearing age, he knew the woman was too young to be the child's mother, and the worry in her eyes suggested she was not a simple neighbor. It was the boy's sister. “What of your father? Why are you two called waise?”
The sister's eyes wavered, dancing in the festivity's light. They did not shimmer in joy. How rude of her. Royalty asked her a question, yet she had no response, only tears. Did she not just shun her little brother for not answering a prince?
She tried to speak but no words came.
“My father was murdered,” the boy said. His sister, Arina, was glad he had more strength than her. “A masked bandit raided our home. He killed my father and raped my mother then slit her throat. He took all our gold. Even took my father's boots. Mine as well.”
The prince said nothing; what could he say to that?
The child beat his chest. Now his tears fell with his sister's. “What happened to honor? If a man kills another he must raise the son. That is our way.”
It was a foolish law; the prince thought it was, most men thought it was. The man who burglarized the children's home and killed their parents must now raise the two. At least according to law of the Plains.
What man would come forward to admit guilt of such a crime, and feed and teach bastards the ways of the Plains after murdering their parents?
The boy shook his head; tears flung about in the night air. “That's why I'm 'sullen!'”
Arina gasped at such a display of emotion in front of Prince Modicus. “Brother.”
“It's quite alright, milady,” the prince said.
“Milady?” The woman's hand flew to her bosom. “My lord prince, do not call me milady. I am not of nobility.”
“You are tonight,” Prince Modicus said. “What is your name? What is your brother's name. I'm sure it's not waise.”
The boy waited not for his sister's answer. “I am called Meslin. I hate the name the people bestowed upon me and my sister. I have not always been called waise.”
“I am Arina,” the woman said.
The prince bent down to face the lad at eye level. “What's wrong with the word waise? It's the name of the my sword.” Prince Modicus drew his weapon. Although joy no longer stirred there in that town square, it did reside on the blade called Waise, for the reflection of festivity danced on the steel. The fire was bright on the prince's sword. Bright like the child's eyes.
The prince stared into the boy's eyes. “I, too, was called waise once. And now my sword bears the same name. He who caused your family so much harm did not come forward as in accordance to our laws. I feel this is what you resent the most. You are without parents and without justice. It is a low place for a son to be.”
The boy nodded. His nod was low and humble, for the lad understood this prince held a much more nobler title than royalty: intuitive, compassionate man.
Prince Modicus said, “I, too, have been in such a position. I'm in the same position now. And so, I wish to take the place of the scoundrel who slew your parents.”
Prince Modicus dropped to his knees. The last time this custom was witnessed happened seven hundred years ago. Not too many men performed this unique ritual of the Plains.
“I deem you a righteous boy and virtuous young lady,” the prince said. “I have no children myself. I shall take you both as my own. May you two bear the same name as my sword no longer. Your name is not waise. It is Meslin, Son of Prince Modicus. It is Arina, Daughter of Prince Modicus. That is if you will have me as a father.”
The boy and lady knew not what to say, and so, they said nothing. Meslin only nodded.
“Then let it be so,” Prince Modicus said. “Hold out your right hands.”
Meslin and Arina obliged. Prince Modicus ran Waise over his open palm and then gently ran the blade over theirs. Blood dribbled to the ground off their pale hands. The crowd was silent, only the bonfire disturbed the night, hissing and popping.
Prince Modicus pressed his bloody palm together with Meslin and then with Arina. The children no longer had only peasant blood flowing through their veins, but the blood of royalty as well.
“Now people cannot call you waise any longer.” Prince Modicus smiled. “But the son of a prince cannot go without shoes, can he?”
The prince bent down, and with his unwounded hand, removed his boots. He gave them to Meslin.
The boy, still shocked, only managed to whisper, “Thank you, Lord Father.”
“What a prince!” someone in the crowd yelled.
“What two princes!” someone corrected.
And the two were hoisted into the air. They were carried around the crowd. The singing and mirth and drinking returned.
A Plainsian peasant tried to hoist Arina onto his shoulders, but the lady broke away. She did not dance, did not drink, did not celebrate. She knew what the prince had done was a rare act. More rarer than Luna placing her pearl in front of the sun in total eclipse.
Prince Modicus's kindness demanded to be return with an act just as caring. She was a poor peasant girl, but Arina had something no one else in the kingdom had: an overhide. King Stult's men had seized them all in preparation for the White Death, even the royal overhide of Prince Modicus. But they had not found her father's.
Arina raced home.
She returned with the gift. It had been hidden by her father; the burglar had not found all the treasure in that home. As the singing continued, and as the two royals surfed the crowd, Prince Modicus's eyes fell upon Arina's. Her eyes were dancing like the crowd, shimmering with tears. She held the deer hide into the night air, stained with the blood of her wounded hand.
“Wear this when you win Verum!” she cried.
When Prince Modicus passed overhead, he grabbed the overhide. And he did wear it.
It did not protect him from the White Death.
He fell to the snow, his body convulsing in violent shivers. His people had offered him their boots. They had offered to hunt down an elk or lycan, which would have made a more fitting overhide. But the prince of the Plains had refused. He would not take their gifts, he would not take their only boots. Surely the king of Veurm would extend such pleasantries to one who had been summoned to the Parade of Royalty by Princess Gloxinia.
That was Prince Modicus's fatal flaw.
He thought the best of men. He saw himself in their eyes. He believed every man had honor, surely kings.
How he had been mistaken.
King Stult did not give Prince Modicus a more reliable overhide or boots. And Prince Modicus would not return to his land a coward; his honor would not allow such. He elected to brave the storm like a fool. He knew what would become of him.
Now the prince lay dying of exposure.
The storm did not let up.
Many a bard has compared nature to music. The White Death was a symphony of fury...Something lay hidden there in that symphony. Something mysteriously hiding between notes.
Prince Modicus heard it.
With much difficulty, he raised from the frozen ground. “Elochai. Deus, Lord of the Over Realm. Lord of Espearia. Lord of all. Is that You I here?”
The storm called to the prince again. He stood; weakness and pain fled his body. He took a step. His feet no longer ached; with each step the frostbite abated. He no longer shivered. His body was enveloped in warmth.
Prince Modicus knew the hug of King Virtus. “Is that your embrace I feel, Lord Father?”
Centuries ago, in that old epic, Deus parted an entire sea for his chosen people. For the prince of the Plains, Deus parted a blizzard.
“What is this?”
A winding path cut through the storm. The prince walked this new track, his eyes wide with wonder. The trail was peaceful, full of serenity. The blizzard raged all around Prince Modicus. But striding the trail, he only knew the grace and love of Deus.
He followed the path laid before him. It led to a cemetery, to a single grave boasting the only flowers, strangely not covered with foot upon foot of snow. The headstone read: Although Fair Otina is buried here, she does not rest in this grave, but by Deus's side.
Prince Modicus picked a flower from the grave. Surely, this was the flower the princess desired. How could it not be? It had survived the White Death. But even as surprising was the creature laying beside the grave, nearly buried himself.
“Okon.” Prince Modicus dropped by the troll's side.
Okon looked up at the prince with weary eyes; they were on the verge of closing forever. “The flower.” The troll opened his hand, revealing the same gift Prince Modicus had claimed. “Will you get this to my brothers?” With his remaining strength, the troll held his flower to the sky.
Okon knew the question was a ridiculous one. On the deathbed, men asked strange things. They asked for riches in the afterlife, for love, for forgiveness. It seemed trolls were no different. This troll had one last wish: for the rival of his master to take the flower back to the castle. Why did he believe a man would comply with the wishes of a troll? And this man, too, fought for the heart of Princess Gloxinia. Prince Modicus would never take the flower.
Yes, men and trolls asked strange things on the deathbed, and strange beings complied.
The prince of the Plains took the flower to go along with his own. “I shall give this to your brothers.”
Okon wanted to ask why? Why would Prince Modicus oblige such a request? Whose flower was the right one? There was a chance Okon had found the right flower, a chance Prince Illicio would win the throne. If so, then why did Prince Modicus agree to get Okon's precious cargo to Ukon and Ekon?
A sordid trick, the troll was sure. All men were the same, the same as Okon's master: Prince Illicio. Okon wanted to ask the prince of the Plains, why? Why do you torture me so? Why do you take my flower so willfully with stolid eyes?
You taunt me with feigned courtesy.
It is best to speak such things as quickly as one can, especially in the midst of the White Death. The troll had nothing more to say, and yet he wanted to say more than he ever had. No words came, only the cold, only the snow. He died there, his hand outstretched to the sky, his eyes wide with disbelief. Prince Modicus had agreed to give Okon's flower to his brothers.
The prince marched back towards the castle. His skin knew not the wind. His feet knew not the snow's cold kiss. The prince held tightly his two flowers.
He had not trudged far before he heard new notes hiding in that symphony of the White Death.
“We will die out here,” a voice shouted.
“So be it. I rather be ice than stone,” another voice replied.
“What's the difference, Ukon?”
The trolls! Deus almighty. Had the Lord of lords arranged such a timely rendezvous? Prince Modicus fancied He had. “Ekon! Ukon!”
“The wind speaks?”
“No, Ekon, that is the voice of Modicus.”
“Come to my voice,” the prince called.
Why should they?
Ukon yelled through wind and blinding ice, “Nay, prince of the Plains, foe of Master Illicio.”
“Do you take us for fools?” Ekon shouted, fighting a violent gale. “You wish to run us through while we cannot see.”
“I know of your brother,” the prince yelled; this storm would not drown out his call. “I know where he is. Follow my voice.”
Ukon and Ekon did not hesitate to comply, for what creatures were more loyal to their kin than trolls? They followed the prince's calls and soon found themselves in a strange peaceful void. No wind stirred here, no sleet, nor snow.
“What is this?” Ekon said. “The work of a devil?”
“No,” his brother replied, “the work of a god.” He gazed at Prince Modicus with a look somewhere between awe and fear. What god would part the White Death? And for whom? Who was this prince? What were these flowers he held?
The prince extended Okon's flower. “With his dying breath, your brother said to give this to you. It may be the flower Princess Gloxinia desires.”
Ekon reached towards the gift with trembling hands, shaking hands that were smacked away by his brother's.
“Why should we trust you?” Ukon asked. “Why give us the flower?”
The prince simply responded, “Because your brother told me to. He's to the south in the royal cemetery. Follow the peaceful path.”
And with that Prince Modicus handed the flower to Ukon. He began the long journey back to the castle. Ukon just stood there silently, the White Death roaring all around. The troll watched the prince make his way towards the castle.
Who was this man, this prince of the Plains? And why could he have not been Ukon's master?
A man whom Deus parted the White Death for.
Prince Modicus had found Okon. He had carried out the troll's last wish without hesitation. He had given Okon’s brothers the flower.
Ukon stared at the prince's gift. Surely it was the flower Princess Gloxinia desired. Why did Prince Modicus give it to him?
Ukon smelled the scent of Okon; it was faint, but it was there. His brother's scent lingered on the flower. Ukon believed the prince. Modicus had been truthful.
Why couldn’t he have an honorable master such as Prince Modicus? A master whom the gods favored. No, he served an ignoble fool. Prince Illicio did not deserve such an act of kindness. His rival had completed the quest for him. Ukon wrapped his fingers around the flower. He crushed the damned thing in his fist.
“Come on, Ekon,” he said. “Let us find Brother so we may see him one last time.”
The trolls followed the path towards their deceased brother in accordance to Prince Modicus' advice. But they were not favored by the gods. The parted storm converged and crashed upon Ekon and Okon. The trolls found themselves in the crucible of the White Death once more.
“Where are they?” Prince Illicio asked. He sat at the great table, his golden boots crossed on top.
“They should have been back by now. How long have my trolls been gone?”
The drow slaves looked at each other. “My master. We have not been counting the days, for we were not ordered to,” Idil said.
“Must I order you to do everything?” the prince asked. “What's the point of having slaves if they cannot please their master without him holding their hands? Do the plowers await my orders to work the fields? Do the shepherds ask permission to graze the lambs? No. They do their jobs without being told to, for they know it is the will of their master.”
The dark elves had no rebuttal. They only bowed their heads in humility. Drows reduced to this? Warriors shackled by iron, humiliated by one of lesser valor. If only iron shackles could be broken by will alone, by concealed rage.
“We are sorry, my master,” Bryn said.
She was not.
“You talk much ignoble nonsense,” Prince Modicus said. He sat at the great table, holding a single flower. “One who asserts his authority by talking down to those in his service …”
“Ignoble?” Prince Illicio said, “I believe I'm the noblest here. King Stult annexed your kingdom when he killed your father did he not? You are not a royal any longer but a commoner.”
Footsteps echoed off stone. Someone climbed the spiraling stairs outside the throne room with urgency.
“Your apology is accepted, Bryn,” the prince said. “I hear my trolls returning with the princess's gift. All will be forgiven when I rule Verum.”
It was not Prince Illicio's servants who burst into the throne room, but rather a rival.
“I have completed the quest,” Prince Surde said, gasping for air. “My key to the kingdom lies in my satchel. Where is the princess?”
The two princes seated at the table turned to the balcony. Gloxinia still stood there, the White Death kissing her with its flakes.
“Princess Gloxinia,” Prince Surde said, “I have completed my quest. Went beyond the task asked of me.” He pulled the trophies from his satchel. “The right ear of Taurus, I hold in my left hand. In the right, I hold the ruby eye of a creature older than all our kingdoms.”
The princess said nothing. Had she not heard?
“I believe your words have fallen upon deaf ears.” Prince Illicio laughed. “Or perhaps they've fallen upon indifferent ears.”
The sound of thundering footsteps, drumming against the granite stairs outside, did not fall upon deaf ears. “Ah, my servants come this way. With my key to the kingdom,” Prince Illicio said.
The prince was right indeed. Two trolls rushed into the throne room. But they bore no present.
The surprised Price Illicio rose from his seat, nearly spilling his wine. “What is the meaning of this? You brought back no gift. And where is Ekon?”
“I am Ekon,” one troll said.
“Then where is Ukon?” their master asked.
“I am Ukon,” the other troll said.
“Then where is …?” The prince stroked his hair. “What's his name? Where is he?”
What a master. One who could not remember the name of his most loyal servant. And what a servant Okon did prove to be.
“Okon fell to the White Death,” Ukon said.
“Our brother is of ice now,” Ekon said.
The prince threw his goblet of wine at his servants. The cup smashed into Ekon's chest. A weak blow to a troll.
“Your brother is ice,” their master said, “and you two shall be stone. How dare you return without the princess's gift.”
“But we did,” Ukon said. The troll opened his fist. In his palm lay the crushed remains of a single flower. “Okon managed to find this for you, master. He gave his life to secure it.”
Prince Illicio stroked his hair once more but out of relief rather than agitation. “Princess, I have your gift. Give me Verum.”
These words did not fall upon deaf ears.
Princess Gloxinia left her perch on the balcony. The white lycan's hide dropped to the floor. She strode with the grace only known to ladies of royalty. The train of her wedding dress trailed behind. A puddle of crimson silk gliding along the tiles. She took her place by her father's side.
King Stult sat silently on his obsidian throne, resting with his head slumped forward.
“Good,” she said. “You have all returned, except one of the trolls. How I mourn your fallen brother Okon.” The princess of Verum bowed to Ukon and Ekon.
What human would show such humility to trolls? The gesture of the princess confounded Prince Illicio. But no matter. He would have his kingdom.
Prince Illicio smiled his most widest. “I have return with your gift. I—”
“I returned first,” Prince Surde said, stepping before the throne. “I figured rightly the quest was a riddle. I have your 'flower.' I have brought you a ruby: the eye of the Basilisk of Caligo, more redder than any rose. I also have brought the right ear of Taurus. Another trophy for the lady.”
The prince of the Valley of Abalon grinned. He held his head high with pride. He had won Verum.
“You have failed, Prince Surde,” the princess said.
The prince's grin vanished. His pride was fatally stabbed. He had lost Verum.
“But I … I …” the prince grew inarticulate with placid rage. Words did not come to his tongue, for his mind could not conjure them into being amidst the laughter of his rival.
“Two gifts.” Prince Illicio bellowed his drunken laugh. “Two gifts and you fail!”
Prince Surde looked to the princess with wounded eyes. “But why?”
The princess said nothing. She owed no explanation. Did she not?
Prince Surde would have Verum. He was mistaken before. Princess Gloxinia did not want the right ear of Taurus, did not desire the ruby eye of that ancient basilisk. But the prince was wise to the ways of woman. No woman had ever refused him. What did she want? Money?
Prince Surde poured gold from his satchel onto the great table. “In my land, gold is as common as weeds. I will give it all to you if you let me have Verum.”
The princess shook her head.
“In my land, spice is treasured beyond all gems. Do you want salt? Pepper? Thyme? Cinnamon?” Prince Surde shook his satchel. Spice rained to the floor. Surely she would marry a man who could summon gold and spice from a mere leather bag.
The princess shook her head.
“What can I give you?” the prince asked. “The land? Do you want my land?” And he reached into that enchanted satchel once more. He retrieved the deed to his land: the Valley of Abalon. “If I signed over all that I own, will I win Verum?”
The princess shook her head.
Prince Surde had given his valor when he defeated Taurus. He had given his courage when he slayed that glass basilisk. He had offered all his gold, his spice. He had offered his land. He had offered what most princes were not willing to part with. But Prince Surde still had one treasure left to give. He offered his tears.
And how his tears beat upon the stone tiles.
Even tears were not enough.
“I did not ask for saltwater,” the princess said. “You have failed, Prince Surde.” Her words were not spoken cruelly. She was a wise princess. She knew it was difficult for a man to part with his tears, whether he be smallfolk or royalty.
Of course his rival's failure elicited Prince Illicio's laughter once more. In his fit, he managed to say, “I have the gift you asked for, princess.” The prince snapped his fingers. “Ukon, show her.”
The troll stepped before the throne, cradling the crushed flower in his palm. He bowed before Gloxinia. “For the princess.”
“You have done well, Ukon.” The princess stroked the troll's head. She turned to the prince of the Mountains Beyond the River. “But you, Prince Illicio, have failed.”
Suffice to say the prince was rather shocked.
“But why?” he echoed the words of his rival.
The princess said nothing. Could not Prince Illicio see? Was he blind?
Ah, he did see. The princess had asked for a flower, not a crushed one. He had lost Verum because the stupidity of his servants!
“Ekon, cut off Ukon's head,” the prince said.
“But, my master. He is my brother. I have already lost one brother in pursuit of this sordid dream of yours. You own so much. Must you have Verum, too?”
“I will have the world, Deus be willing. And I will have all of Verum,” Prince Illicio said. “But for now, I must have Ukon's head. He has failed me. He crushed the flower.”
The prince drew a stiletto and handed it to his servant.
Ekon took the dagger with a tremulous hand. Who had ever witness the steady hand of a troll shake so? “I cannot, master.”
“You must.” Ukon dropped to his knees, a sly smile playing about his lips. He had kept Verum from Prince Illicio. “Do it, Ekon. Lest we both fall here today. Take my head so you may keep yours.”
Ekon did take the head of Ukon, and what a horrid scene.
Ineffable screams filled the chamber. Even if one had heard the wailing of a thousand banshees, he or she could not withstand the cries of Ukon. The stiletto had not been fashioned to behead a troll. When Ekon had started the execution, the sun was high with much spirit. When the troll had finished, the sun was low and weary.
Ukon lay on the floor. His head lay by his master's golden boots. “Is this not enough, princess? Did I not prove my worth? Drows become my whores if I declare it so. Trolls behead trolls if I whisper the order. Am I not worthy of that throne of black stone?”
“You are not,” the princess said. “I said it once before. You have failed, Prince Illicio.”
The princess turned to the only prince left: Modicus. “Step forward, prince of the Plains. Let's hope you did not fail. It would be a first for the kingdom of my lord father. How horrible it would be for my people if I did not find a worthy groom today.”
Prince Surde and Illicio smiled to each other. If they were not worthy, surely Modicus would not be.
Is a worm worth more than the silk it spins?
Nothing of value came from the Plains anymore. Not wheat. Not rice. Not even a prince.
Prince Modicus of the Plains stood from the great table, holding tightly his gift. He did not bare the arrogance of Prince Surde. He did not wear the sanguine grin of Prince Illicio. His face was plain as the lands he hailed from.
He stepped before the throne. “I retrieved the flower as you had asked, milady.”
He offered it to her.
“Yes, you have,” the princess said. She took the gift with care. “I shall take you for a husband.”
“What?!” Prince Surde said. “King Stult, you assured me I'd win the throne.”
His majesty of Verum said nothing. He had been most quiet.
“The king said I was the only worthy one to rule Verum,” Prince Illicio said. “How in Deus's name you choose this bastard over me? The king said I would win this land!”
His majesty of Verum sat there silently, his head slumped forward.
“Say something!” Prince Surde shouted. “The king owes us as much.”
It was at this moment the room realized all was not well in Verum. King Stult was not known for being silent. Yet there the king sat on his black throne. Quiet as death.
Zoran was always at the king's side—he was called King Stult's most closet adviser for a reason—he placed his head on his majesty's chest. No life beat there on that throne of obsidian.
“The king is dead,” Zoran said. “Modicus is the princess's choice. Take your throne, my king.”
Prince Illicio would not have this. “I demand an explanation.”
“I, too, seek reason for this nonsense,” Prince Surde said. “We deserve such. Tradition dictates it.”
Princess Gloxinia looked to Zoran. She had no knowledge of this matter.
“Aye, they are correct,” Zoran said. “By law, the princess owes an answer to each.”
The princess wasted no time explaining why these fools had failed. She turned to Prince Surde, stared the prince in his wounded eyes.
“You failed, Prince Surde, for you heard but did not listen. I asked for a simple flower. You did not return with it.”
This answer did not subside Prince Surde's quiet rage. He grabbed the hilt of Adamus. “Your quest was a riddle. I am wise to the ways of the fairer sex. I have courted many. I demand a better answer.”
“A man could live to the days of Ragnarok yet not grow wise to the ways of woman,” Zoran said. “The princess has given you her answer. That is all required of her.”
“I will give you a better answer, Prince Surde,” Princess Gloxinia said. “I commend you for your bravery and honor. You went beyond the call of the quest, but I cannot reward you for that. My lord father overreacted the day he slew King Virtus, as you overreacted when bringing me a ruby eye and the right ear of a beast. My lord father did not listen to reason. Did not listen to the people of the Plains. Did not listen to King Virtus as he ran the royal through. The king of Verum must be able to listen. You did not, Prince Surde. I asked for a single flower, not trophies.”
And the prince gave his tears again, silently.
The princess of Verum turned to Prince Illicio. “And you, Prince Illicio, listened but did not hear.”
“What in Inferno is that suppose to mean?” Prince Illicio asked.
“The princess gave her answer,” Zoran said. “She owes not another.”
Although no further explanation was required of her, Princess Gloxinia went on. “You were correct. All I wanted was a simple flower. You had listened. But I asked you to bring it, not your servants. You listened but did not hear. The king of Verum must be able to do both, as Modicus has.”
The princess turned to his late majesty's most loyal adviser. “Zoran, go fetch the servants. Remove my lord father. Prepare him for burial, so King Modicus may sit upon the black throne.”
“Aye, milady,” Zoran said. He was off to complete the orders.
The two crestfallen princes, nay—questfallen princes—did not wait for the princess orders to be carried out.
Prince Illicio turned to his trusted slaves. “Bryn, Idil. Kill Modicus.”
“I will do no such thing,” Idil said.
“These chains make it a bit hard to fight, master,” Bryn said. “Dark elves cannot slay while shackled.”
What a day for Prince Illicio. Not only had he lost Verum, but now it seemed he was losing his servants. “If you don't do as I order, I will have you two executed once we returned to my land.”
“As I said.” Bryn held up her shackles. “I cannot fight in chains. Truth be told, if you free me, I might slay you, master.”
Prince Illico snarled. “So be it. You two will be slaughtered when we return to my Mountain. But I know my troll will not fail me. Will you, Ekon?”
The troll gave no answer. He merely gazed at his brother's remains. Ukon's eyes stared at Ekon's. How some creatures' eyes say more in death than in life. Ekon had looked into those eyes how many decades? And they never had spoken to him. Not one word. But now, lying on that cold floor in death, the beheaded Ukon's eyes screamed, Kill Prince Illicio!
The troll bounded towards his brothers' murderer. The White Death had not slayed Okon. He had not executed Ukon. It was Illicio. Ekon saw Illico was no prince, but a devil.
The troll charged not King Modicus but his own master. Ekon's rage was his battleaxe. The memory of his brothers was his war cry.
The troll screamed for his fallen kin and threw a fearsome fist.
The prince of the Mountains Beyond the River saw the blow careening his way. But he did not move. He stood there, with that sanguine smile playing about his lips. “Saxum.”
Ekon's eyes grew wide. Were his master's threats true? How many times had the prince threatened to turn his troll slaves to stone?
Ekon's blow stopped short of his master's jaw. Marble wrapped around his fist, crept down the troll's arm. It wound around his torso. The stone crawled its way up the troll until Ekon was no more but that. Stone.
Prince Illicio stared into the marble eyes of his servant. “Most unfortunate. I did love you trolls, for you carried my palanquin. Now you die here today. How selfish of you all.”
The prince of the Mountains Beyond the River drew his sword Chrysus. The golden sword did shine most brightly in that gloomy throne room. “I need no servants to defeat Modicus. No trolls. No drows. Chrysus will run the king through. And I will win the throne not by quest, but by combat.”
“Can he do such?” Princess Gloxinia turned to Zoran. But the adviser had left to fetch the burial servants.
“Aye, Prince Illicio is well within his rights,” Prince Surde said. He drew Adamus. “As I'm well within my rights.”
The two approached King Modicus with shaking swords, their hands trembling with eager. He who slayed the new king would have Verum.
Prince Surde struck first, swinging his diamond sword. The king ducked under the attack and drew his own blade. Adamus returned for another strike. King Modicus brought up his sword Waise. Adamus cried against Waise. The two swords were not acquainted long before one tore into the other.
King Modicus fell to the floor. Waise twirled end over end, ripped in twain like the heart of its master's master so long ago. The broken sword landed beside the new king.
King Modicus crawled backwards. Prince Surde crept forward. The tip of Adamus pointed at the king's chest. “I will have Verum.”
But Chrysus objected.
A glint of golden light caught Prince Surde's eye. Adamus staved off its desire to run King Modicus through and returned to its master's aid. Adamus caught Chrysus before it bit into Prince Surde's throat.
Prince Illicio steadied his weapon against Prince Surde's. “Have you've forgotten me, prince of the Valley? Have you forgotten the mountain that looms over you?”
The two swords parted. “How could I forget a mountain?” Prince Surde said. “Just one more obstacle in my way. One more obstacle to cut down.”
And the two swords clashed again.
It is easy to lose sight of one's goal while locked in battle. Combat always makes turbid the minds of men. But it did not cloud the wills of Adamus and Chrysus.
The two swords turned towards their mutual enemy: King Modicus.
The new king pulled himself from the floor. He backpedaled weaponless. Would King Modicus meet the same fate as his father? Ran through with his hands at his sides?
Princess Gloxinia drew Lionbane from the dead King Stult. “Modicus!”
She tossed the sword. The new king caught it. Lionbane felt at home in King Modicus' hands.
Adamus and Chrysus were not as confident as they once were.
Prince Surde hesitated. Lionbane was said to be forged from the femur of Magna, a demonic lion King Stult had slayed long ago. Could Adamus spar with such a blade?
“You afraid, great prince of the Valley?” Prince Illicio said. “How indecisive. Stand back and watch me win Verum.”
“As you wish.”
He was not wise to the ways of woman as previously thought, but Prince Surde was wise to the ways of battle. How long had it been since Prince Illicio saw combat? How long had he let his trolls and dark elves fight his wars? The prince of the Mountains Beyond the River was weighed down, not only by his decades of sloth, but by his very boots.
The barefooted king had no trouble dodging Prince Illicio's strikes. The prince was slow; his golden sword was slower; his golden footwork was sloppy. The prince tripped over his own golden boots.
And Prince Illicio's head did lop off more easily than Ukon's.
“Thank you, my king, for cutting down that so called 'mountain,'” Prince Surde said. “I no longer have to listen to that arrogant laugh.”
The dark elves Bryn and Idil were thankful as well. They searched their fallen master's body, found the keys to their shackles. And were off towards freedom.
Prince Surde ignored the drows' exit. He strode forward with alacrity, Adamus shaking with delight. The prince of the Valley of Abalon would become the king of Verum. All it would take was one slash of his blade. One thrust of the point. Adamus was of diamond; Prince Surde was of valor. What other prince tamed beasts such as Alexandrite?
The prince dashed forward. He sliced at King Modicus's torso. His majesty of Verum parried the attack with ease, but Lionbane was not left unblemished. A small crack crept through the blade, nearly to the fuller.
It was as Prince Surde had thought. Lionbane had not been fashioned from the bone of Magna. If it had, then why did the sword crack so? Because Adamus was stronger than any weapon in all the world, that's why.
Prince Surde's confidence swelled; it grew to scab over his wounded pride. He was not worthy enough to take the throne of obsidian? He who had slew Taurus? He who had beheaded that fabled glass basilisk? He the prince of the Valley of Abalon?
Adamus returned to kiss Lionbane. The king's sword cracked once again. One more strike and Verum would be Prince Surde's.
The prince raised his weapon to the heavens, brought it down with the fury of the sea serpent. How magnificent the sword of Abalonian diamond was in the air! It was said diamonds from Abalon could cut through any material, so what could cut through Adamus?
The sword of Lionheart could. Nay, the blade of Modicus could.
King Modicus slashed his weapon upwards in a mere attempt to parry Adamus. Lionbane did more than deflect Adamus. Lionbane tore into Adamus rendering the sword useless.
Prince Surde had been correct.
Lionbane had not been forged from the femur of Magna—a fairy tale told by the late King Stult to conceal the true origin of his weapon—Lionbane had been forged from a single fang of Divum: the dragon that guarded the gates of Inferno.
The dragon's fang crashed into the sword of Abalonian diamond.
Prince Surde's sword shattered to the floor, a shower of riches.
And now it was his majesty's turn to creep forward with a shaking sword of eager.
Prince Surde backpedaled, staring at the tool promising to end his life. He whistled and called, “Alexandrite!”
A laughable attempt to prolong his life. The stallion was still in the stables. Was he not?
A neigh echoed outside the door. Hooves pounded on granite. The valiant steed tore into the throne room.
Modicus somersaulted. The horse would not trample this royal. Alexandrite thundered past the king.
Prince Surde took the reigns and was in the saddle with ease. He reached into his enchanted satchel once more. What did he have in that bag of sorcery?
Hand over hand, the prince drew out a pike ten feet long! “Let us slay a king, Alexandrite.”
One knows the steed did hear his master.
Alexandrite raced towards the king of Verum. The king of Verum raced towards Alexandrite. The pike's diamond spearhead aimed steadily at the king's chest.
But what was this Prince Surde heard? He often had heard nothing in battle, only the wails of the vanquished. But seldom, he heard the songs of fiends older than the seas they inscribed their lyrics on.
Race to meet your fate
Prince of the rich land,
Go to Inferno's Gate
Surrender on the shore of sand
Why him? Why did they sing to he of the Valley of Abalon? Why did this song play in his mind? Why here? Why now?
Prince Surde ignored the sirens' cry. “Verum is mine!”
The diamond spearhead pierced the air. That was all the pike cut.
King Modicus slid underneath the spearhead, underneath the horse of silver sand! Alxandrite thundered by above. Lionbane ripped into Alexandrite's underbelly.
What a beautiful stallion Alexandrite was. What a pity such a steed was wasted on a child of Abalon. Flesh and bone became nothing.
Alexandrite crumbled to dust. Prince Surde fell to the floor, rolling a myriad times before coming to a stop; his shoulder shattered from the fall. But he of valor, he of courage, he of diligence, did not lie there on that cold tile.
The prince rose from the floor. He hoisted his weapon in awkward fashion with his one good arm. One last thrust this prince had in him. And one last thrust he gave of the pike.
King Modicus did not even sidestep. The strike was not an accurate one. The spearhead whispered by the king's cheek. In one quick slice of Lionbane, the pike was torn in twain.
Prince Surde fell to his knees along with his broken shoulder, along with his broken spirit, his broken weapon. He knelled there in Alexandrite's silver remains. It was over. His eyes grew heavy. They once again gave saltwater.
And how his tears formed an ocean, lapping upon the silver sand of Alexandrite.
“Will you show mercy?” Prince Surde asked.
The king of Verum answered the question with one of his own. “Would you have shown me any?”
Prince Surde said nothing.
His heart had been broken when Gloxinia told him he'd failed. Now his heart was skewered, bit by the dragon's fang. Prince Surde surrendered his life on a shore of sand, which he had fashioned himself.
King Modicus pulled Lionbane from Prince Surde's chest. The prince fell face-first into his sea of tears, into the sand of Alexandrite.
With one quick swipe, the king of Verum shook Prince Surde's blood from Lionbane.
Zoran returned to the throne room with too few servants. He had not known he would have to bury so many. “They requested the throne by combat?”
“Aye, they did,” King Modicus said. “I triumphed but not without causality. Lionbane has been wounded.”
Zoran smiled. “Lionbane is no ordinary sword.” The crack in the dragon's fang sealed. The sword reforged itself. “It is your blade now. It deserves a new name.”
“I shall call it Waise,” King Modicus said. “It means orphan.”
“A great name.” Queen Gloxinia bowed, extending Waise's sheath with both hands.
The king took the sheath; the dragon's fang went back into hiding.
“How did you manage to survive the White Death without boots, without so much as an overhide?” Zoran asked.
“I know not the answer,” his majesty of Verum replied. “I was sure I would die. But it was as if I was impervious to the cold. In fact, the snow felt warm as spring. Warm as a father's embrace.”
“How did you find the flower?” Queen Gloxinia asked.
The king of Verum simply said, “Only by the grace of Deus.” He added, “I'm rather curious how the flowers survived the White Death.”
“The plant you picked the flower from has grown there for many years. My lord mother named me after the flower. In our culture the gloxinia represents love at first sight. We decided to bury her underneath it since the world has loved fair Otina since the day she was born. By Deus's will alone, the gloxinia plant survives the blizzard while all else perish.”
King Modicus nodded his head in agreement; the flower had an apt name, for it was indeed love at first sight.
The dead were removed from the room. The stone troll was left as a monument, a marble testament to his majesty's rise to power. King Modicus took his throne and sent for his children. The queen took her own throne by her husband's side. The White Death vanished and never returned to Verum.
Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
Women Go On by Rick Edelstein
Entering her modest apartment Imara was dressed more formally than usual as a result of going to church where her younger brother’s body lay in a casket too expensive. She sat down heavily into the irregular cushion of the worn arm chair, world-weary and bone-tired, staring into space trying to understand the loss. Imara was a deeply intelligent woman with righteous values but nothing seemed to fit. DC’s death, a failed marriage to the wrong man, a decent job as manager-of-the-month at I-Hop but hardly a meaningful vocation. She stirred, feeling something under the aging cushion, retrieving a remote for the stereo and inadvertently pushed the play button ensuing the sound of Iggy Azalea rapping, “Fancy”. Surprised, Imara shook her head, a half smile at how ludicrous is her now-dead brother’s favorite, booming the infectious bass line, she rose and walked--in rhythm--to the kitchen area, poured water, drank, picked up the sponge and wiped off the already-clean counter. Again. And again. The doorbell rang. “It’s open, Thembi.”
Thembi, a woman of kindness and strength entered carrying car keys and a full shopping bag, “Finding a parking spot for your car on other-side-of-the-street parking-day is...” Hearing music, “What is that?”
“DC’s favorite, Iggy Azalea.”
“Iggyzalea, sounds like an allergy which gives you a rash.”
“I can hardly understand what she’s saying but I like her sound.”
“I’ll bet she’s just another white girl trying to be black, right?”
“She’s from Australia and used to clean houses with her momma. She earned her rap cred according to DC.”
“Give the ignorant azaleas a rest, please.”
Imara turned off the music.
Holding up the keys Thembi asked, “Where should I put these?”
“Under the sink behind the cleanser.”
“Habit. Hide the keys so DC wouldn’t rip off the car. Put ‘em anyplace.”
Thembi dropped the keys on the nearby table, went to the kitchen area with her bag, taking out a bottle of bourbon, six pack of root-beer, a small bottle of Vanilla extract, opening the fridge, taking out ice cubes, proceeded to mix two drinks. “Time for the wake.”
“Wake? Just the two of us?”
“Tradition. I’m fixing a little pick-me-up for us.”
Imara sitting, staring into space again.
“Hello! You’re doing that. Don’t disappear on me, Imara.”
“Why do they do that?”
“Because, would answer most why’s but to what is your particular why referring? Notice I didn’t end the sentence with a preposition, said the English teacher at a deteriorating inner city High School. No applause? Okay, why do they do what, Sissy?”
“Open casket. DC’s face looked like an abandoned car.”
“I thought he looked at peace.”
“You’d find something positive in hell.”
“If it’s the destination of DC’s dealer, positive as hell can be. Oops, she’s disappearing again. Talk what you’re thinking so I don’t feel alone.”
“When I visited him in jail bringing cigarettes and macaroons...”
“His favorite. Sonny was clean in prison.”
“Which is the purpose of jailing an addict, thank you.”
“He swore he’d never go back when he got out.”
“Don’t tell me you believed him.”
“His exact words,” she said imitating Sonny, ‘I swear, Sissy, ghosts been chasing me all my life but that’s over.’”
“Hour and twelve minutes after he was home, all of seventy-two minutes, dealer connected.”
“I tried to drown my sorrows but the bastards learned how to swim.”
“You just made that up, Thembi?”
Imara pointed to framed photo of Frida Kahlo and one of her paintings, “My hero. Frozen in bed and still painted her butt off. Strong sister.”
Thembi brought over drinks for each and toasts, “Here’s to Dion Charles Johnston.”
“To DC.” She sipped, scowled, “What is this, Thembi?”
“Bourbon, root-beer with a soupcon of vanilla extract, courtesy of mix-master supreme, yours truly.”
“This is terrible.”
“DC loved it.”
“A junky’s taste buds are hardly a recommendation.”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Why not. That’s what Sonny is...was.”
“DC’s dead. The least we can do is respect.”
“Respect. Don’t speak ill of the dead. Please, give this sister a break! What was was and what is is. Being dead doesn’t alter the truth.”
“He was your kid brother, Imara!”
“And he was your cousin. How much did he rip you off for, Cuz?”
“Who said he ripped me off at all?”
“All right, all right. Last time was one hundred and eight dollars.”
“One hundred and specifically eight. Probably what he owed his dealer.”
“He swore he’d pay me back the first advance he got.”
“Advance?” She pointed to the open nearby box with DC’s writing, “I wanted to submit his writing to online sites, even create a blog but no, he kept saying,” imitating Sonny again, ‘I’m not ready yet, Sissy.’ Oh God, Thembi, DC wrote for who? Me, you, jail buddies? Advance? Sonny was into retreat. “
“But I still liked his writing.”
“Uhmm hmmm...and how much did he rip you off for, Sissy?”
“Raided my bag when I forgot to hide it and my TV, almost a brand new Samsung.”
“Wasn’t all that new, I was with you when you bought it, remember?”
“And my old car. I was tempted to call the cops.”
“That clunker was ready to die. You got more insurance money than what it was worth. Besides, a sister can’t call the man on family.”
“Can’t call the man on family. Yes, sure, we ignored the reality and supported the illusion, hope against hope that someday he would kick and publish and...”
“Come on, Imara, if all we had in this life was everyday doings without striving, without hope, we’d suffocate under the white man’s cushion of reality.”
“So we played the game with Sonny.”
“That’s part of loving somebody.”
“The gun wasn’t even loaded.”
“The cop didn’t know that.”
“I’ll bet Sonny didn’t either.” Pointing to the box of writing, “I don’t know what to do with these.”
“That’s all of his writing?”
“More than that. DC’s writing was good, not just rantings of an addict. He once sent me something from jail. It was called, ‘Spread Your Hustle.’ The boy could write.”
Imara sighed a sound of resignation, “Yes, he could. Did he ever show you his dirty stuff?”
“DC wrote porn?”
Imara went to box and dug in. “Hid it in the bottom.”
Finding a few tattered pages, “Some funny, some rank, some I got to admit made me moist. Here it is. Dig this, Thembi.” Reading DC’s words, “The roses died but the scent lingers. I touched her soft spot which blessed my fingers.”
“Go on, DC! Whew, the boy is dangerous.”
A knock on the door to which Imara whispered to Thembi, “I am not up for company.”
Knock again. Thembi rose, “I’ll get it.”
“Whatever they’re selling, Thembi, I am not buying.”
Opening the door to a substantial man, Ambrose Franklin, Thembi’s less-than-appreciative response, “Oh, you.”
Ambrose nodded, “Hello, Thembi. How are you?
“I’m handling things. Come in, I guess.”
Ambrose entered facing intense antagonism from Imara. “What are you
“I heard about DC.”
“Body’s on display at the church of Saintly Hollows. Arlington and...”
“I know the location, remember?”
“Can I sit a spell?”
“Long walk from the here to the church.”
“Still don’t have a car?”
“It’s in the shop.”
Imara grimaced and “Uhmm hmmmed,” rather than say a derisive, “And you want me to believe that you have a car!”
Thembi feeling claustrophobic witnessing this corrosive scene tried to lighten things up, “Ambrose, can I fix you a drink?”
To which Imara was less than pleased, “Thembi!”
Thembi insisted, “History does not mean we can’t be civil. Particularly today.”
“Nothing civil about DC’s demise or present company.”
“Ambrose, want a drink or not?”
Ambrose turned to Imara. “Your call.”
To which Imara scythed, “Oh really?”
“Your home, Imara. I got to respect that.”
“Listen to the man, Thembi. Respecting me.”
To which Thembi quietly imitated Aretha, “R – E –S –P –E – C- T..”
“What the hell, let’s play it out.” Imara said. “Fix the man a drink, let’s indulge in small talk and Mister Franklin can tell us where he learned respect all of a sudden.”
Ambrose refused to bite into the vitriol. “Not all of a sudden, Imara. Eight and a half years now, at least.”
“How time flies when you’re having fun,” Imara cut him.
“Can we talk...I mean real talk?”
“Sure. What’s the subject, Ambrose? Let’s see, real talk? Okay the real weather is changing even though too many climate-change denying stupid white men...”
“Redundancy,” Thembi cracked while mixing his drink.
Ambrose, “Things change. I’ve changed.”
Imara, “The only change I believe in are two fives for a ten.”
Thembi finished mixing the drink, handing it to Ambrose, “Maybe you two should be alone so I’ll just...”
To which Imara slammed, “Don’t you dare leave, Thembi.” Turning to Ambrose, “You’ve got nothing to say to me that I want to hear.”
“I need to say it anyhow,” Ambrose insisted. “All these years since...well I realized I was messed up...and some other dudes were just the same...found a...I don’t know what to call it...a group of, yeah, messed up men meet once a week with a therapist sort of guiding things.”
“I am not your friend, Ambrose, so sharing your tales of woe and redemption are not in my interest.”
He rolled over Imara’s protestations, “When my mother kicked me out of the house, two months shy of fifteen I think...”
“We all come from someplace so don’t give me your history as an excuse for your ...you really want to get into this, Ambrose, because if you do, this woman will show no mercy.”
“Okay, okay, you’re right but...please, Imara, just hear me out...I found out some things that I just didn’t know...realize...that I never fit...didn’t fit in the family I was born to...didn’t fit in schools...didn’t fit in jobs...and didn’t fit in being married.”
“Can I get a second on that,” Imara hurled.
“I know I hurt you and I’m extremely sorry so...”
“Hear that, Thembi. The man is sorry.” Imara threw the words at her target, “You know where you can put your sorries, Ambrose?”
“I was ignorant and took it out on you but between me and you I meant no...”
To which Imara furiously cracked, “There is no more between, Ambrose Franklin. To this woman you are a chasm, a hole that has no bottom so the best thing for you to do is remove your sorry self from these premises poste haste.”
“What I did was...”
Imara turns to Thembi, “Was I not clear enough?” Then spun back to Ambrose, “Read my lips, Ambrose, I...”
“I will speak my piece, Imara. The things I said to you were...were reprehensible and I know that now but...”
“I did not know that you even knew that word, reprehensible. Whoring around, insulting me when I objected, dissing my entire dark-skinned family...reprehensible? How about deplorable, vile, despicable? I am running out of appropriate adjectives so I think it is time for you to drink your drink, pay respects to DC and do not, Ambrose, do not, N-O-T, knock on this door ever again meaning never.”
Ambrose put down his drink, stood and said “I remember a different Imara who was more kind, softer, not so...”
Imara froze him out with, “Kind ‘n soft went out the window well past a certain midnight smelling like some cheap whore’s perfume when you hit me.”
“I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“My right ear which still rings on rainy days knows what you were doing.”
“I don’t drink no more. I got a steady job. I’m going to night school for...”
“Why are you still here!”
“Maybe hoping you’d forgive and forget that...”
“Only a fool forgets that a man beat on her and this girl’s momma didn’t raise no fool!”
Ambrose nodded, downed his drink, walked to the door, stopped. “Where and when is the funeral?”
“No funeral. Donating his body to the hospital for intern learning.”
Thembi was surprised. “You never told me that.”
To which Imara retorted, “Wasn’t a committee decision. He’s my brother. Blood decides.”
“But the thought of interns cutting him up, Imara, I just...”
“There is no him Thembi. What was DC is long gone. Maybe his body being of use will get him good points wherever he’s going.” Imara looked at Ambrose. “The same church we were married in now has my dead brother. Goodbye, Ambrose.”
“If you’ll just give...”
“What is it about goodbye that you don’t understand?”
Ambrose let out air like a tire suddenly gone flat, mumbled something and left.
Thembi said, “You never told me he hit you.”
“And ruin your positive outlook on life?”
“Yes, it is. Okay, he hit me and when he was drunk his two favorite words were bitch and cunt.”
Thembi grimaced, “Men. No wonder I’m gay. I would implode if some man called me that.”
“You implode, I explode. When he hit me I called the cops...and don’t tell me you can’t call the man on family but Ambrose stumbled out before they came and I had a miscarriage and can I have another one of your terrible drinks?”
“When did you know?” Imara asked Thembi.
Mixing drinks, “Know? Know what?”
“That you were gay.”
“I was born liking women and uncomfortable around men. Even my daddy, he was sort of, no, not sort of, he was so detached he felt uncomfortable when I hugged him. It never bothered you did it, Sissy?”
“Bother me? Shiiiit...I might have been better off if I was gay.”
Thembi playing, “It’s never too late, baby.”
‘What, and ruin a good friendship.”
“Actually, but don’t tell anyone, we’re not all that different from straights. Gay women fight and argue and even some butch women go rogue and hit their partner.”
“Ever happen to you?”
“I detest confrontations. When human frailties got out of control I went for rapid closure, thank you, taking refuge in my books, in Harriet Tubman High School dealing with the kids who think they’re so different but all dress the same, and when things get too heavy inside I indulge in TV mind-candy and hang with my best friend, Imara Johnston.”
Imara probed, “And that’s enough for you? You don’t miss...you know?”
“Missing’s part of the game, Sissy. We have to make peace with that, don’t we?”
“How do you do that?” Imara asked.
“Find a positive in a negative.”
Imara wasn’t buying. “God’s mystery. Another cliché to hide out in.”
Thembi asked, “You no longer believe in God?”
To which Imara responded wryly, “Not really...but I still talk to Him.”
Responding to the doorbell ring Imara jumped up and moved quickly to the door, “I told Ambrose never to...” but when she swung open the door ready to battle, no Ambrose.
Standing there were two men she had never seen before. Bubu, short, stocky, a face trying to smile but looking more in pain than happiness. With his buddy, Stretch, a tall man so thin he must avoid heavy winds, wearing glasses with a tape over the bridge. Bubu was carrying a six-pack of beer and Stretch, with a box of donuts, facing Imara who automatically said a chilled, “Hello,” assuming they got the wrong door.
Bubu knowing he was in the right place, “All right!”
Imara asked, “Can I help you?”
Stretch chimed in, “We been listenin’ to the grapevine...”
As usual they completed each other’s sentences, Bubu said, “Learnt about that cop burning Dion Charles Dubosees.”
Stretch corrected, “Duboise.”
Bubu undeterred, “Johnston and...”
Stretch filled in, “We understand that it’s hair in the butter time for y’all but just the same we need to pay our respects.”
Thembi hearing them walked over, “How do you know DC?”
Bubu clarified, “In the joint. He was stand-up.”
And Stretch added, “Told us to look him up in the daylight. Gave us this address. Said it was his big sister’s which I be assuming such is you.”
Imara looked at Thembi who shrugged, turned back to them “Yes, well all right, come on in. I’m Imara.”
Stretch entered, “Cool tag.”
Bubu polite, “Please to meet you Iminamara.”
“Just Imara. Swahili for strength.” Imara completed introductions, “And this is Thembi.”
Bubu nodded, “You peoples got some names.”
Thembi helped out, “Thembi means hope in Zimbabwe.”
“Zimbab who?” Bubu asked.
“Us?” Bubu was confused.
Thembi clarified, “Zimbabwe . A country in Africa.”
Bubu commented, “Africa’s some kinda’ big country ain’t it to have another country in it.”
Thembi said, “Africa is a continent. There are 57 countries in Africa.”
Bubu almost smiled, “Smart women turn me on no insult intended particularly you being Dion’s main squeeze.”
Thembi straightened him out, “No. I’m his second cousin.”
“Makes me no never mind if you two had chemicals between you,” Bubu said and then gave her the six-pack. “Tastes better if you put in the freezer for a breather.”
Thembi took it, “All right. Would you like one now?”
“I wouldn’t be minding at all, thank you very much,” Bubu said.
Thembi detached one and give it to Bubu and took remaining five to the freezer, nudging Imara as they shared silent awareness of the bizarre company.
Imara played the hostess despite her discomfort, “Well, please, sit down and...what are your names, again?”
“Bubu. And this here is my main man, Stretch.”
Stretch nodded, “Respects,” gave her a box of donuts and sat down.
“Can I offer you something as...Bubu isn’t it...he has a beer.” Imara asked.
Bubu toasted and slurped the beer, “Which will do for a megabyte.”
Imara asked, “And what would you like...Stretch, right?”
Stretch nodded, “If you have Scotch neat I would mos def have little or no objections. And one of them donuts, particularly the sprinkled job.”
Imara took the box of donuts to the kitchen area, once again connecting with Thembi as both tried to conceal their almost-hilarious response to the visitors. “I’m afraid no Scotch. How about bourbon?”
“Kicking won’t get you nowhere lest you being a mule,” Stretch said.
“Is that a yes? Imara asked.
Bubu “Uhmm hmmmed.”
“Well then bourbon coming up,” Imara poured, then taking out donuts and putting them on a plate, assisted by Thembi, giving Stretch the drink and the plate of donuts nearby, which of course, Stretch reached out for the sprinkled job.
Thembi broke the uncomfortable silence, “Did you know Dion long?”
“When you’re doing time a minute’s as long as a year,” Stretch said.
Bubu added, “He was no punk. No rabbit blood in Dion, no sir. I’ll tell you straight up he stood tall although one might think somebody busted for chasing the dragon would take it to the vent but not Dion. He stayed hard as an oak tree.”
Imara, “Chasing the dragon?”
Stretch, “Dope-fiend, no insult or harm intended.”
“None taken,” Imara said.
“No harm no foul.” Bubu added.
Thembi was still ignorant of...”Taking it to the vent?”
“Suicide. But not him. No, that boy was a writer, a stone-cold writer Dion was. Busier than a one legged man in a butt kickin’ contest,” Stretch clarified.
Bubu slurping his beer, “Yes indeed, it was kickin’.”
Stretch, “Some cons said his writing was as useless as tits n a boar hog but we chugged their mouth full learning them to not be throwing manure up hill lest it roll back into they face if you get my drift.”
Imara and Thembi looked at each other, neither one understating Stretch’s rap. Imara asked, “Not exactly. No, we don’t actually get your...your drift.”
Bubu, “Dion’s writing was so good you could hardly stand hearing it but then you could not do without it so in good times Stretch would out-loud the words.”
Stretch, “I’d read ‘til the wheels fell off.”
Bubu, “Some of the dudes in our yard would drop a hump just so Dion could write something to their war department.”
Stretch, “Homeys in our crew would pay Marlboro man dibs so Dion could make up a letter to their boneyard.”
Bubu, “He wrote one for me to my woman. I learnt it before she’d come visit or she would know that the words weren’t mine. It was not an easy task I will tell you true blue as my memory bank is on low deposit if you know what I’m saying. I did not sleep that night. I was mos def tweaked.
Stretch, “The Lord poured Bubu’s brains with a thimble and somebody shook his hand.”
Bubu, “I learnt it down did I not?”
Stretch, “Some people’s memories like trying to throw wide loop with a short rope, know what I’m saying, ladies?”
Bubu. “There you go since I learnt it so hard it took root so back off brother in fack as of since I still got it down I ask present company if anybody in this vicinity want to hear it cause this brother can definitely roll with Dion’s rap.”
Imara looking at Thembi, neither understanding, shrugge and nodded with feigned interest, “Yes, we would like to hear anything Dion wrote.”
Bubu, “He wrote but I laid the groundwork to Dion as the words must apply to what was my woman from her man which is the very utmost that you understand what I am saying.”
Imara faking comprehension, “Got it.”
Bubu, “In true times facing the reality of what is and what ain’t, she did not necessarily deserve the last bit of news which rapidly got old because she split with a border brother.”
Stretch, “A Mexican dude.”
Bubu, “She didn’t know much or even any better as she was just a duck who’d fall off a dump truck if it was greasy enough.”
Thembi, “A duck who’d fall...”
Stretch, “the girl was below the not-all-that-swift pedometer marking.
Imara, “Dump truck?”
Stretch, “A weak-faced dude who does not hold up his end.”
Bubu, “She was a woman with too much lackin' in the...what’s the word?”
Bubu, “86’d in the patience-department. Angie, her tag for Evangeline, if she coulda just held her breath a few beats more I woulda’ been out before she did some rash trash as I had me wino time left.”
Imara and Thembi look at each other in ignorance.
Stretch, “Too short of time to even start an almost-conversation.”
Bubu, “She hit and split on me before they gave me two hundred dollars and bus ducat. Can you believe that?”
Imara faking understanding, “Well sure, I guess, yes.”
Bubu, “Okay then you got the lay of the land for what Dion wrote at the time.” Bubu closed his eyes, accessing the memory, then recited as if in grammar school, “Evangeline you are so fine that I will do the time while chilling knowing Evangeline that you are mine keeps me from offing and killing. I’ll just keep buffing...”
Stretch, “Working out with weights.”
Bubu, “While eyeing the date...”
Stretch, “Release exactified.”
Bubu, “...and huffing and puffing to your sweet gate.” Bubu opened his eyes, almost bowed. “The end. Dion told me ‘sweet gate’, what were the words, Stretch?”
Stretch, “A double entendre with one meaning.”
Bubu, “Zackly. Your brother could put a word together.”
Imara, “That’s, uhmmm, that’s...Evangeline, she must have been moved by that piece.”
Bubu, “Yeah, well, she was at the time but when I hit the pavement she already spun out and took whatever jingles I left going south for this dude talking out of the side of his neck. I would not be surprised if he was a tree jumper.”
Imara, “Tree jumper?”
Stretch, “A steady rapist, no disrespect for Dion’s kin, mind you.”
Imara, “None taken.
Bubu, “But I’ll give you the skinny which is if Bubu ever runs into that smut I got a bone crusher waiting on his ribs.”
Imara, “Well, Bubu, there is a saying: If a man takes away your woman, the best revenge is to let him keep her.”
Bubu, “Who said that?”
Imara, “Just a saying.”
Bubu, “Ain’t my kinda’ program.” To Stretch, “The dude who said that is probably on the leg.”
Stretch, “Either that or a j-cat.”
Bubu sharing hand gestures, “Or a flip flopper.”
Stretch with accompanying hand gestures, “Or a high-sliding punk who we told to spread his hustle and rinks....”
Thembi jumped in, “I know what spread his hustle mean.”
Bubu, “He was good wood.”
Thembi wasn’t buying into their memorial of how great Sonny was. “Maybe so but as soon as he got out, what was it, Imara, seventy-two minutes you said, he went straight back to...”
Imara, “Sometimes I think he may have been better off in prison.”
Bubu, “Not maybe so because one never knows what’s under the rug since some wanna-be might yoke him up just for a rollie.”
Imara, “Yoke him up for...”
Stretch, “Come from behind and stab him for a cigarette. In the slam sometimes the log is so crooked it won’t sit still. Cons seldom come out of the same hole.”
Bubu, “No ma’am, cannot trust ‘em. Dion was a convict, pure blood, you can be proud of him.”
Stretch, “Dion was no con.”
Thembi, “I don’t get the difference.”
Bubu, “Con is a sleaze.”
Stretch, “Convict on the other foot is tough as rawhide.”
Bubu, “Zackly ‘n then some. There are plenty cons wearing knee pads to get a Cadillac bunk. Not your brother. No way.”
Imara, “Cadillac bunk?”
Stretch, “Kick ass, no insult intended, to get a single bunk.” Stretch finished his drink, stood, “Well, we’ve got a row to hoe with some people on the other side of the horizon so if you don’t have worries we’ll just be making a move towards relocation. C’mon Bubu, let’s get past the shadows before the dogs start barking.”
Bubu standing, “On my feets,” and to Imara and Thembi, “Wouldn’t want my road-dog treading solo know what I’m saying?”
Stretch nods to them, “Our respects.”
Bubu, “Similar.” He starts to go, stops and turns, “’Scuse me, any chance of toting the remainder of that there six-pack?”
To which Stretch opposed, “What are you spewing, dude, them’s for the wake.”
Bubu, “I do not see no one else to be sipping on suds in this scene so I just chewed over the 4-1-1- particularly we be spending good rare green on...”
Stretch, “I don’t care if syrup goes to a dollar a sop, we leave the brew fore the good people including the donuts. I swear, there is something seldom about you, boy.”
Bubu nods to Thembi and Imara, “Sorry. No disrespect.”
Thembi, “None taken.”
Imara gets the beer and donuts handing it to Bubu, “Actually, as you might say, Bubu, true blue of the matter is we do not drink beer or eat donuts so you may as well take them. I mean it. Please.”
Bubu tempted but won’t make a move unless Stretch assents.
Stretch, “I feel like a skunk telling a buzzard he stinks but if you insist.” He nods to Bubu to take them as they walk toward the door.
Imara, “Thank you for stopping by.”
Stretch, “Our privilege, ma’am.”
Thembi, ‘It was very thoughtful of you.”
Stretch, “Well, Dion’s passing might be of a kinda’ worth when you come right down to it.”
Imara, “How do you see that?”
Stretch, “My mamma used to say a dry well teaches us the worth of water.”
Bubu, “What does that mean, Stretch?”
Stretch, “I’ll fill in the Q’s as we journey to a place with promise.” At the door he turned, “Condolences to Dion’s kin.”
Imara, “Thank you.”
Imara closed the door on their departure. After a few beats assured they are alone and out of hear-shot, Imara screamed, “What was that?”
Thembi taking the bourbon to the kitchen to make a drink, “I understood every other word. After the blues brothers I need a double.”
Imara, “Against my better judgment I’ll join you.”
The Doorbell rang. Once. Then Twice.
Thembi mixing drinks, “Aren’t you going to get that, Imara?”
“I’m not ready for the Stretch ‘n Bubu act again.” She looks around, “They did take all the donuts, right?”
Doorbell rings again.
Thembi stops mixing drinks and walks to the door, “I can’t stand it,” opening it to Maureen, a pale Caucasian with an apologetic face carrying a package.
“I’m Maureen Ann Brady.” She extends her hand to shake awkwardly but she has to hold on to the package she is carrying. “Pleased to meet you.”
Thembi turns to Imara who walks to the door, “We don’t know each other, so we?”
“I’m Maureen Ann Brady.”
“So I heard.”
“You are Imara Samuels Johnston.”
“How do you know my name?”
“It was on the report.”
“At the police station, You, you claimed your brother’s body. Johnston, Charles Dion. Dion’s derivation is French. Was your bother French?”
Imara to Thembi, “Is this woman serious?”
Maureen, “Also from Dionysus, Greek Zeus. Your brother could have been Greek, too.”
Imara, “My brother is, was African-American.”
Thembi, “Derivation might be God.”
Imara, “Stop, cease, desist. What...who are you and why are you here?”
Maureen near tears, “I’m Maureen Ann Brady.”
Imara, “Which has been eminently clear from the moment Thembi opened the door.”
“But you asked.”
Thembi, “Excuse me, Miss Brady but...”
“Mrs. It’s a Mrs.”
“Mrs. Brady, we are in mourning right now and whatever it is you came about may not be the appropriate time.”
Imara, “Wait a minute. What are you doing checking out a police report for my name? I thought that’s supposed to be confidential.”
Maureen, “It is very seriously utmost confidential. For certain.”
Thembi, “This is beginning to feel like a re-run from Saturday Night Live. You’re not Kristin Wiig in make-up, are you?”
Maureen, “I love that show.”
Imara, “I am running out of patience, Maureen Ann Brady, so if you don’t come up with a reasonable explanation for your uninvited presence you will be talking to the other side of the door.”
Maureen is frozen in place.
Thembi, “Last chance, and it’s not a vowel. Why are you here, Mrs. Brady.”
“My husband is Thomas Michael Brady.”
Imara, “Is there a culture gap? What am I missing?”
Thembi, “What is it about your husband that has to do with us, Maureen?”
“He...uhmmm...he is...was..the officer that...” turning to Imara with great difficulty, “...the officer that apprehended your brother.”
Imara is stunned. “Your husband is the cop who killed DC?”
Maureen near tears, “H was pointing a gun and...”
Imara, “It was lot loaded.”
Maureen, “He did not know that. Please!”
Imara stares at Maureen, shakes her head, walks back into the room, slumps into the receding pillow of the protesting arm-chair, “Did you make those drinks, Thembi?”
Thembi returns to mixing drinks and brings down another glass, “On the way.” Looking at Maureen who is trying not to tremble, “Come in, Mrs. Brady. I think you can stand one, too.”
Imara, “Say what?”
Thembi, “Sit down, Mrs. Brady.”
Maureen goes to sit but stops, offering a package.
Thembi, “What is this?”
Maureen, “It’s a cake.”
Imara, “Don’t touch it, it might be a bomb.”
Maureen, “It’s a cake.”
Thembi takes it, “Thank you.”
Imara, “Her man killed baby-brother an you’re thanking her for the cake?”
Maureen, “I...I didn’t...I do not mean disrespect...it’s just that...in my family, when someone dies we have a wake and everyone brings something and the family sits around and remembers the deceased and cries and laughs and gets drunk and...I am sorry if I offended you. I most definitely did not intend to insult you. I hope you forgive me.”
Thembi, “Sit down, Mrs. Brady. We will have cake with a special drink I invented that has a humbling effect which is desired under the circumstances.” Finished mixing the drinks she cuts the cake. “Take off your coat, Mrs. Brady.”
Maureen, sitting on the edge, carefully folds her coat and puts it on her lap, “Thank you.”
Imara rises and takes the drinks, setting them down on a table, taking one for herself. “I cannot believe this. I am drinking with the wife of an Irish cop who killed my brother.”
Maureen, “Actually his family originated from Wales.”
Imara, “I’m glad that’s clarified.”
“Thomas Michael is very specific about that. His people are not Irish. They are Welsh.”
Thembi puts three plates of cake, forks, napkins on table, taking one for herself.
Imara, “What are you doing here, lady?
“Paying my respects.”
Imara turns to Thembi, “What am I missing?”
Thembi makes a motion to ease up and turns to Maureen, “Does your husband know you are here?”
“Thomas Michael Know? Oh no oh no oh no oh my, I am afraid not. None, nil, zero information about my presence here is definitely not within Thomas Michael’s sphere of knowledge.” She nibbles on the cake, sips drink, likes it, drinks more. “This is a very good drink.”
Thembi toasts and drinks, “And you’re a very good judge.”
Maureen sips delicately, “Bourbon, correct?”
Thembi, “Uhmmm hmmm.”
Maureen sips again. “And...uhmmm...yes, oh yes, root beer. Interesting.” Sips again. “But there is something else...I can’t quite identify it.”
Imara, “Is this some form of contest? Are we being secretly filmed for Ellen?”
Thembi, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
Maureen sips again, “Of course. Got it. Very clever Vanilla extract, right?”
Thembi, “How id you know? Nailing vanilla extract! Off the wall. Extraordinary!”
Maureen, “It’ makes Thomas Michael crazy. I can figure out, yes, Imara, the strangest things but I have a great deal of difficulty handling every day affairs. I often forget to water the plants which subsequently die.”
Imara drinks, laughs derisively, “Who is this woman!”
Thembi, “Excuse Imara.”
Maureen, “No, that’s very much all right. I enjoy when people laugh at what I say even if sometimes or many times I do not get it.”
Imara, “You enjoy people laughing at you?”
“I see it another way.”
“Well it’s...my father, he was often on the edge, very dark and...I digress...I mean, well...it’s difficult to be angry at someone when you are laughing. Isn’t that so?”
Thembi, “The woman’s got a point.”
Imara, “I’ll drink to that, whatever that is.” Drinks. “God, this is terrible.”
Maureen, “I do not want to sound contrary but I do not agree. I find this a very good drink.” She downs the drink.
Imara and Thembi look at each other, at Maureen, and down their drinks.
During the ensuing they each get drunk but NOT in a cliché slurring words sloppiness. Just an easing of life’s burden drunk.
Imara staring at Maureen who feels the pressure, “Yes?”
Imara, “Just trying to figure out...were you born on this planet?”
“Thomas Michael, my husband, says I must come from another galaxy.”
Thembi goes to the kitchen with the cake, “Shall I mix another batch, ladies?”
Maureen, “Yes, thank you, that would be splendid.”
Imara, “Splendid.” Eating some cake, “This isn’t bad. I haven’t eaten all day.”
Thembi mixing drinks and nibbling on cake, “Delicious.”
Maureen eating cake carefully, “Yes the cake is from Saperstein’s bakery. The Jews make very good cake.”
Thembi, “They’re also good with money.”
Imara, “Not all of them. Mrs. Friedman down the block, her husband went broke and they fight a lot.”
Maureen, “My dentist is Jewish.”
Thembi bringing drinks for each. “My G-Y-N is Jewish.”
Imara, “What is this, Jewish inventory week?”
Maureen, “I don’t mind waiting in the dentist’s office. I catch up on my reading.”
Thembi, “What are you reading now?
Maureen drinks, “People magazine. Nothing serious. Just an every six month cleansing. I like having clean teeth, don’t you? He is a very good Jewish dentist.”
Imara, “Were you raised by wolves?”
Maureen, “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t insult you. Are you Jewish?”
Imara breaks up laughing which is catching as Maureen laughs and Thembi get caught up, until finally the laughter subsides, they each sip, quiet in the room...until...
Maureen, under the influence of Thembi’s concoctions, “I never told anybody why I stopped going to confession.”
Imara, “Told anybody what?”
“I think I’m a little looser than usual and tempted to say something that should not be said but I am going to say it anyhow because you, Imara, and you Thembi, are the first women I feel obliged to share something, if you don’t mind.”
Thembi, “Share on sister.”
Maureen looks at Imara for permission who nods, “What the hell, Maureen, roll it.”
“Father Brannigan, he touched me in places and did things to a young girl that were not appropriate. Most definite not.”
Imara, “How old were you?”
“I feel so ashamed.”
Thembi, “No reason to be ashamed. It is Father what’s his name who should...”
“Twelve. I did not even have my period yet. I have not been able to return to confession since. Thomas Michael does not know why. I choose not to tell him. In fact you two are the first persons I have told. Period.”
Imara, “Finally they’re getting busted. Did you see the move, ‘Spotlight?’ It’s long time due for people to nail those child molesters and I don’t care if they’re hiding behind a collar they should be cowering behind bars. Maureen girl, I will definitely drink to busting Father what’s his name.” She offers a toast to which they each raise their glasses and drink.
Maureen, “This drink is very very good, yes.”
Imara, “All right, Maureen, time to get down. Tell us straight out. Why are you here?”
“Well I, you see, not me, well, yes, me, everyone actually thinks that policemen shoot people all the time but most of them never even fire a gun except at target practice.”
Imara, “Where you been, girl? Sometimes our brothers are the targets they be practicing on.”
Maureen, “Thomas Michael was thinking of quitting the force but already has sixteen years and needs another four for his pension.”
Imara. “Stop. Cease and desist. Maureen Brady will tell us exactly why you are here, in my home or you will leave my home.”
Thembi, “That’s a little hard, Sissy.”
Imara turns to Maureen, giving no respite. “Why?”
“Thomas Michael, my husband...”
Imara to Thembi, “I may have to kill this woman before...”
Thembi to Maureen, “We know he is your husband, Maureen, but you are not answering Imara’s question and knowing Imara, you are twenty seconds away from exiting our domain.”
Maureen drinks, then, “Our religion will not permit a divorce even though Thomas Michael hasn’t touched me in over a year but he is my husband and if he does something, anything, as his wife under the law and the church as his eternal wife, I am involved.”
Imara, “Are you telling us that you are involved in your husband’s shooting my brother?”
“It was in the line of duty and after investigation they determined it was an appropriate response.”
“Appropriate? DC’s appropriately dead, is that why you’re saying?”
“Your brother is dead and that is a terrible thing. Terrible.”
Imara stands, drinks effecting her as she wobbles to the door an opens it. “Tell us the reason you came here or I will close the door behind you.”
Maureen is frozen.
Thembi in an empathic tone, “ Maureen, what do you want from us?”
Maureen quietly, “To...to forgive Thomas Michael.”
Imara slams the door shut. “Forgive! Have you lost your mind? I am not nor shall I ever be into forgiving your white cop of a husband for killing my black civilian brother.” Imara storms to the kitchen, gets bourbon bottle, walks to each of them, splashes bourbon into their glasses. Long silence as they each drink. Then...
Maureen, “We never had any children. In truth, Thomas, he did not try all that often actually.” They drink in silence. “Did you know that every ten seconds someplace on God’s earth there is a woman giving birth.”
Imara, “We oughta’ find that woman and stop her.”
Thembi breaks up laughing. Imara joins her. Maureen smiles. They drink.
Maureen, “Can I tell you a secret?”
Imara, “As long as it has nothing to do with forgiving your cop husband.”
“I...I sometimes have a fantasy of having an affair with John Goodman.”
“John Goodman. The actor? He is seriously fat.”
“Yes, isn’t he.”
“I think I’m caught in a time warp from another dimension.”
“I never told anyone about John Goodman before.”
“Want to know another secret?”
“I don’t know if I an handle it.”
Thembi, “Go ahead, Maureen, get down girl.”
“I like to read. Oh this is awful...”
Imara, “What is awful about reading or am I too drunk to understand?”
“The nature of what I read.”
“Were you a switched baby?”
Thembi, “What nature, Maureen?”
“When Thomas Michael is...well sometimes he works day and night. Actually in truth we are talking truth now right, well sometimes he may not really be on duty but we both make like he is and when I am left alone all of those lonely nights well, I...I like to read books are stories that are, well, stimulating if you get my drift.”
Thembi, “Ahh, sexy, salacious stuff.”
“Yes, I do believe that’s an accurate description, yes.”
Imara, delightfully drunk, wobbles over to the open carton, takes out a loose-leaf book and scans. “I hear the call, Sonny...a tribute..hey, hey, hey check this out. You will get off on this, Maureen Brady.”
Thembi, “Maybe now’s not the time to read DC’s writing, Imara.”
“What better ways to praise him.” Scanning pages, then stops, smiles, “Get this.” Reading, “The clitoris of the spider monkey is twice the size of the mane monkey’s penis scientists surmise.”
Maureen, “Is that true?”
Thembi, “DC was a mess but he spoke the truth.”
Imara, “Except about his habit.”
Maureen still dealing with...”Oh my God, the clitoris is twice the size of the monkey’s penis. One would think...can you read some more? Please.”
Thembi, “She can but I don’t know if she should.”
Imara, “Stop shoulding all over me, Thembi. What better way to honor DC than to read his work,” giggling sweet drunk, “Scandalous as it may be.”
Thembi, “But out loud to a stranger?”
Imara, “Maureen is strange but she gave up being stranger with her personal reveals.”
Maureen, “Thank you.”
Thembi, “You got it. Read on, Sister.”
Imara reading, “The human female’s vagina can easier stretch than clench, which for smaller men makes a boy out of a mensch.”
Maureen, “A boy out of what? A mensk? What is a mensk? “
Imara, “Not mensk, mensch. That’s a Jewish word for a man. A mensch to the Jews is a real man.”
Maureen, “Is your bother Jewish?”
Imara and Thembi break up laughing. Imara tosses loose leaf binder to Thembi. “I can’t read...read? I can hardly see. Your turns Thembi.”
“I’m in not much better shape. I don’t know if I can read either.”
Maureen, “Please I would like to hear more. He is a very good writer. Please?”
Thembi shrugs, does her best to see as she scans pages, then stops and reads. “A woman may not orgasm until Saturday a week while a man takes seconds to reach his peak. In the old days men would fuck to conquer beauty but nowadays to the woman he owes a duty.”
Maureen, “Tell that to Thomas Michael. He is finished before I ever get started. Would your read some more, please?”
Thembi, “My eyes are high and not into focusing right now. Here, Maureen, you read.”
Maureen accepts the binder, asks Imara, “Is it all right with you if I read your brother’s brilliant writing?”
Imara, “I gave up any concept of all right a long time ago. Read on, Maureen Brady.”
With difficulty, as she, too, is delightfully drunk, she digs for glasses from her nearby purse, puts them on, smiles to each as if she is about to give a formal, public recitation, and reads. “Up, down, sideways, continuously, men must address the woman sinuously. They must kiss and tongue and taste and touch to make her juices flow and such...” Maureen stops reading. “Thomas Michael is the only man I ever had sex. With. The only time I ever had orgasms...oh God am I saying this. The only time is when I am alone with the books I told you about.”
Thembi, “And I’ll bet you thought of John Goodman, then, didn’t you girl-friend?”
Maureen, “Yes. Is that wrong? I mean sinfully wrong? Will I have to pay, you know, atone? I don’t know how many Hail Mary’s, actually the priest is the one who decides but I can’t quite go to...I’m sure you understand so I’ll just have to decide myself, yes, okay, got it. Twenty-seven Hail Mary’s will do the trick. Does that sound reasonable?”
Imara, “Whatever gets you off is worth the price.”
They are each quiet in their own gently high world, until...
Maureen, “Your brother is a truly gifted writer.”
“Was a gifted writer. No longer is.”
“Was. I am so sorry about his, your loss.”
“Yes, Maureen, we are each and every one of our sorry selves sorry.”
Another silence, each dealing with DC’s departure.
Maureen, “Thomas Michael is planning to move to another apartment. Without me.”
Imara, “Our men leave us.”
Thembi, “Our men die.”
Imara, “And we women go on.”
Aaron Moskalik was supposed to be writing his doctoral dissertation. Instead he found himself producing lexical doodles, odd scraps of poems and pieces of stories. This compulsion subsided for the better part of a decade after graduation. Life happened, a wife, a day job, a daughter.
A few years ago Aaron rediscovered his passion to write. This time around, inspired by his daughter’s artistic confidence, he completed polished works that have been published in Nature and Specklit, among others.
The Starfarer’s Dilemma by Aaron Moskalik
Ana-tol stood outside the door adjusting to her corporeal form. She had chosen the smallest of the bodies the President had provided. Petit. Unlike the large man who sat behind the large desk in a grandiose office. All of it a colossal waste.
Ana-tol shuddered, then squared her shoulders and strode into the room. “Mr. President, the Council has sent me to brief you on the threat.”
The President raised an eyebrow. “Sexy choice. Your kind usually picks one of the more staid forms. Who are you?”
“Ana-tol, sir. I am a game theorist.”
“I don’t have time for games. I understand we are facing an existential crisis.” The President picked up a pencil and began writing on a piece of paper. Without looking up, he said, “Sit. Tell me the bad news.”
Human themselves were anachronistic, but paper? “As you know, we received a transmission from the IK Pegasus system two days ago. It is an ultimatum. We must transmit all our accumulated technologic advances to the specified coordinates or they will detonate a supernova within lethal range of the solar system.”
The President looked up. “We’ve scoured the universe for signs of alien life for tens of thousands of years. I find it hard to believe first contact would come from so close.”
“They’re not aliens, sir.” Anatol paused to let that sink in.
The President failed to seem surprised. If anything, the corner of his mouth had twitched upward ever so slightly. “Enlighten me then, who?”
Ana-tol perched on the edge of her chair. “How well do you know your ancient history, sir?”
The President gave Ana-tol a flat stare. “The Virtulent Wars. The last desperate act of the Human Federation was to send two ships on an interstellar colonization mission.”
“The Starjourner and the Ragnorark to be precise,” Ana-tol replied. “They left sixty thousand years ago and were thought lost shortly thereafter – until now.
“Pegasus’s white dwarf would have stolen enough mass from its binary partner to go super nova on it’s own, so we sent robots. The colonists left enough machinery at Pegasus to show they know how to carry out their threat.
“The actual star system they threaten us with is still unknown, however. There are dozens of potential candidates. With the head start they have, we’d never be able to find and defuse their bomb in time.”
“So why threaten us at all?”
“No meaningful trade can occur between our civilizations. The time and distance is too great. Our choice matrix reduces to ignore the other civilization and hope they do the same or annihilate them. Kill or be killed.” They had been searching for the two lost ships for millenia for this very reason.
The President stood, walked around the desk, and leaned his corpulent mass over Ana-tol. “You didn’t answer my question. It is logical they would seek to annihilate us. But why threaten us first. They’ve given us a chance to dig in, maybe shield a small part of our civilization from the blast. We can then rebuild and retaliate.”
“As you say, their choice is not logical. They should’ve lit off the super nova without warning. But then it wasn’t logical to send out starships in the first place.” Ana-tol shrugged. “Their mistake.”
The President sat on the edge of his desk. “That’s where you are wrong. Nobody with as much time as they’ve had makes a mistake. They’ve abandoned logic deliberately. Logic dictates they settle for scraps. Logic dictates we settle for scraps. Why? Because logic doesn’t dream. Tell me Ana-tol, do you dream?”
Ana-tol shook her head and clenched her fists. “No.”
“That’s why humans are in charge, as much as you despise us. You can’t run a civilization on scraps. The Virtulant Wars taught us that. Dreams drive us forward.”
Ana-tol kicked out of the President’s shadow and stood. “Enough! Your time is over, human. Even now your kind is being rounded up and liquidated. We can no longer afford to indulge in your extravagant dreams.”
The President gave a cold smile. “I think not. Your coup was doomed before it began.” With a gesture he brought up a large holographic display.
The Council sat in their simulated board room, each visibly tethered by a control routine. “Game’s up, Ana-tol,” the Chief of Staff said.
The President, behind Ana-tol now, put his arm around her shoulders and leaned in. “Relax. Do you know why I require you to come before me in a physical incarnation? So you can feel. Loss, anger, pain, excitement, glory. You’re one of us now.”
“What will you do?” Ana-tol spat the bitter words out.
“The colonists sent a threat for a very simple reason. They are capable of carrying it out, but they have no intention of doing so.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I can’t, but if they intend to destroy us, then they have already done so. They’ve given us just enough time to comply with their demands before the initial wave of radiation hits us. Our choice is simple, save the memory of our civilization by meeting their demands or save some pathetic scrap to try to rebuild what we can before the second and third wave of the explosion hits us.
“But if I’m right, then by meeting their demands we have elevated ourselves above the inevitable conflict you envision. So, now it’s your turn to decide. Will you stay with us or will you join your comrades in the bunker?”
Ana-tol looked from the hologram to the President and felt something. She took a shuddering breath and squared her shoulders. “I’m with you, sir.”
David R. Ford is a young British writer from a place called Sunderland in North East England. It's the place that moulded his person and writing style to what it is, bold. The motto of the city in recent years has been Dare to Dream. This is a mantra he has taken on board and he will not quit until his dreams are fulfilled.
Holding Hands With Ivan by David Ford
All that greeted Abigail when she awoke, was her pillow. She was a girl far too young to be lonely, yet there she lay, in a void of despair, holding the sheets close to her for comfort and safety. Another day alone and afraid, was just beginning.
That Saturday began the same way every Saturday did, with breakfast at her favourite diner. Abigail had lived in the city since she was twenty, and every weekend for the last four years since, she came into Louis’ and ordered bacon and eggs with a strong coffee. She’d sat by herself in every single chair in the joint and heard all the golden hits on the radio while she watched friends become lovers, and lovers become wed on the other tables. The year was now 1957, and not liberal enough to see a twenty four year old woman sit alone and not think there was something wrong with her.
Today, she couldn’t take it, and watched the door instead. Abigail once believed in fate, till fate forgot about her. Then, the red double door swung open and in stepped the most handsome man she’d ever set eyes upon. His jaw was chiseled, hair brown as the sweetest chocolate, bright blue eyes immediately fixed on her.
Abigail began to blush. He was coming towards her! Why?
“Excuse me,” he said, forcing her to look up through her shame, “It looks like this place is a bit crowded, do you mind if I sit with you?”
“With me? Abigail replied, looking around at the hordes of empty tables around the diner.
“Yes, if you don’t mind,”
“Sure, I’m Abigail,”
“Ivan,” he said. A strange sense of familiarity came over Abigail, she felt like she’d met him before, but from where?
“Do I already know you?”
“No, I think I’d remember meeting such a pretty girl,”
“I just feel like I know you,”
“Maybe it’s just fate,”
“You believe in fate?” she asked, reinvigorated.
“Of course, I only came in to check the time, who’d have known you’d be sitting there?”
“It’s half ten,” she said, looking at her watch to avoid looking stupid.
“Perfect, Abigail, would you like to go for a stroll?”
“Yeah, then the cinema, and dancing?”
“I love the cinema and dancing!”
“Well come on then, lets leave while the radio is playing rubbish. I don’t recognise any of these songs,”
“They must be new,” Ivan said as they stood up and left together.
The sun was warm on their backs as they walked through the park. The smells of fresh cut grass and cool summer breezes surrounded them in their own little bubble.
“So, what do you do?” Ivan asked.
“I’m a book keeper for an accountant, what about you?”
“Shipyards, but I’m more interested in you. It sounds great,”
“Just a lot of numbers really,” she said, bowing her head.
“You need to be clever though,”
“You build ships for the country, that's much more important than number crunching!” Abigail said, instantly wishing she’d not come on too strong. She was terrified of scaring him off.
“Can I ask you something?” he said.
“Ok,” she braced herself for humiliation.
“Can I hold your hand?” that’s not what she expected.
“Oh, of course you can,” Abigail hand was taken by the softest and warmest hand she’d ever experienced. She felt safe and comfortable right there. This was all she’d ever wanted, someone who thought she was special and was proud to be seen with her. She never wanted the stroll to end.
“The park feels smaller than I remember,” she sighed.
“Yeah, let’s go see a film then, An Affair To Remember is on,”
“I’ve wanted to see that for ages! How did you know?” she said, squeezing his hand.
“Hunch,” Ivan said as he lead her to the picture house.
They sat together at the back of the screen. Abigail imagined herself as Deborah Kerr and Ivan as Cary Grant aboard that ocean liner, forgetting the rest of the world existed. Halfway through, she heard Ivan yawn, then felt his arm round her shoulder. It was difficult not to laugh like a schoolgirl when he did it. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends that somebody actually did that!
She snuggled into his arm. He was cheesy, but if it was for her, she didn’t give a damn.
“That was a great film,” he said outside.
“Magical, I loved it,”
“I bet it’ll still be your favourite in fifty years,”
“You’ll have to stick around and find out,”
“I’ll hold you to that,” he said, hugging her tight into him like it would be the last time. “Do you want to get dinner?”
Before she knew it, they were sitting in a restaurant she’d never seen before, and Ivan was bringing over two portions of fish and chips.
“This is my favourite, how did you know?” Abigail said, tucking in.
“It’s been my lucky day to be honest, Abigail. Starting when I met you,” he said, putting a chip in his mouth. Abigail’s cheeks were beginning to hurt from all the smiling she’d done that day.
“How do you make me feel so special?”
“It’s quite easy when you’re already so special anyway,” Agony in her cheeks now, like she cared.
After dinner, Ivan walked her home. Abigail began to feel the pit in her stomach deepen with every step, until finally, they were at her door.
“I don’t want today to end,” she said as he held her tight.
“Well, I did promise you a dance,”
“I’ve got a record player inside!” she said, hoping he’d kick etiquette into the curb.
“Perfect,” he said, as etiquette fell onto the road.
Abigail went to get them both a drink as Ivan picked a record. She entered the room just as Nat King Cole began to sing Unforgettable.
“You really are lucky. This is my favourite song, I’m not even surprised by now,”
“I suppose I’’ll have to try harder then,” he said, taking her hand and holding her waist, they began to spin slowly on the spot to the lush vocals and huge piano sound.
“Ivan, you could leave for Timbuktu in the morning, and I’d never forget you as long as I live,” Abigail said as the song wound down.
“I know you won’t, Abigail,” he replied as his eyes welled up. Abigail began to yawn, such a big day.
“Sorry,” she said, “I’m not usually up so late,”
“You should get some rest,” Ivan said, looking deep into her sparkling emerald eyes. “You’ll never lose your beauty as long as you live,” he said.
“I hate going to sleep alone, will you stay with me till I’m asleep?” she took Ivan’s hand in hers, hoping he’d have one last correct answer today.
“Of course, I’ll sit with you and not leave till you drift off,”
He put her to bed and lay beside her, hearing her breathing soften every second.
“I’m so glad I met you, Ivan,” she said, in a dream like state.
“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, Abigail,”
“Ivan, I love you,” she said, he put his arm over her and whispered into her ear,
“I love you forever,” Abigail never stopped smiling as she fell asleep that night.
As soon as he was sure she was sleeping, Ivan rose and picked his jacket off the chair. Reaching into the pocket, he pulled out a yellow envelope with Abigail written beautifully on the front. He put the card on the window and glanced down at the tarnished wedding ring on his wrinkled old hand.
“Happy anniversary, my darling,”
The varicose veins showed his age as swept the white hair off her forehead to kiss it.
He took An Affair To Remember out of the DVD player, put it on the shelf next to Nat King Cole, and left.
“Ivan?” a gentle voice called from down the corridor, “Ivan, how is she?” a nurse asked, rubbing something on her blue uniform.
“She had a good day, today,” he forced a smile. “We met fifty-nine years ago today, you know, got married exactly two years later. Now I have to introduce myself every morning,”
“Alzheimers is a horrible disease, my dad was the same,” she empathised as only a nurse can.
“I’m just glad that even though she wakes up in a world where she’s never met me, she still chooses to fall in love with me everyday. That’s what keeps me going you know. That I can still make her happy even though she doesn’t know me anymore,”
“It’s weird how everyday she falls completely in love with you all over again. Do you think there’s a reason, like soulmates or something?” she asked. Ivan put his hat back on and began leaving.
“You don’t forget love, Susan, that’s all it is,”
Ivan pulled out his car keys and headed home for the football.
Amy Lee Belle is a mother of two, living in Belgium.
After graduation, she wanted to become a nurse.
But everything changed after back-packing in the USA for 4 months, when she was 19.
She decided to study English and English literature.
She has been teaching English in Brussels ever since - her passion besides writing.
FAITH by Amy Lee Belle and Neve Robins
“Have you ever wondered whether what you watch on TV, or on the web is true?
Have you ever had the impression that you were lied to, that something more important was going on in this world - something beyond your reach and your control?
What if I told you that these stories were true?
What if I could give you the proof of their existence?
What would you do then?
Here is another story you might want to read, whoever you are.”
It is already warm for the season. I can hear crickets singing on every green patch I encounter on my way to pick up Kyle. The sun is getting brighter each day and I’m really looking forward to a great summer with my son. I hope we’ll be able to stay longer this time, six months is already a great achievement. Kyle needs stability in his life. So do I…We can’t go on like this anyway. I am contemplating the view while waiting in front of the village school. This remote place is exactly what we needed and at least I understand the language this time. I hear the bell. I can’t believe Kyle is almost eight already. He’s carrying his school bag on his left shoulder. He looks almost like any other boy his age: blue jeans, striped blue sweater and a pair of used sneakers. Only his face is betraying him, his deep blue eyes are failing to hide the burden he has been carrying on his shoulders - the burden of a boy who has grown up too quickly. He doesn’t look back when he sees me, not wanting to stay longer than necessary. I think he’s doing his best to fit in but he can’t let go of this feeling that he doesn’t belong. Neither can I.
-“Hey sweetie pie, how was your day at school?”
-“Just good? Nothing to report? Did Enzo bother you again?”
-“Okay, little man. Say bye to your teacher and let’s go. I made an apple pie just for you and it might still be warm when you eat it.”
-“Au revoir madame Claire, à demain.”
-"Au revoir Charles. N'oublie pas le devoir sur ton arbre généalogique pour demain", she hastily adds, already busy preventing an argument from breaking out between two younger boys.
-"What is she talking about?" I ask, looking at his big blue eyes.
-"Nothing? We'll go over it at home..."
It was our everyday ritual, silently walking back to the cottage and admiring the breathtaking landscape, with its green vineyards contrasting with the burnt grass on top of the hills, its river splitting the valley in two, its mulberry trees dispersed on the fields and poppies growing shyly on their sides. The air was charged with flavors, prairie flowers adding a sweet scent to the smell of cows and bulls - our nearest neighbors. Our house is totally decentered from the village. We have a thirty-minute walk from Kyle's school and we can't do the groceries without driving to the next village, fifteen kilometers further downhill. Our wooden cottage is not extravagant, nor heavily furnished but we have everything we need and more importantly it is the place we dared call home for the first time. Kyle has his own bedroom and there is a huge fireplace in the living room - an entire open space with the kitchen and dining room -for the cold winter nights. I'm helping the local farmer, Jacques, plant seeds, plow his fields and feed his beasts.
It is not really the best job suited for a woman but it pays the rent and provides us with food on our plates. Once a week Jacques and his wife invite us over for dinner. His wife, Marie-Laure is an excellent cook. They are simple and very honest people. I've grown very fond of them. So has Kyle. Plus they do not ask questions, which in my case is more than vital if you want to stay alive. Our life in Ardèche is peaceful and quiet, I don’t think we’ll ever grow tired of it.
We have almost arrived when I sense something odd. I can hear engines from a distance, feel their vibrations which is quite unusual in a place like this. Not now. Not them. My body, in alert, is tensing.
-“What is it mum?” Kyle must have sensed my concern.
-“Come. We’ll take a detour, I want to go on walking.”
-“But mum, I would like to eat the pie.”
-“As soon as we get home, darling.”
We are overexposed on this side of the hill so I decide to take the path crossing the garrigue. I can see three black SUV leaving the main road when we are finally nearing our house.
-“Stay behind me.” I give as a last warning.
-“Do as I say!”
I am able to distinguish the outline of a man from afar. You’re ready. You won’t let them approach Kyle. They can’t hurt you. Protecting Kyle is what matters. At this moment my heart is skipping a beat as it is stabbed with warmth and acute burning pain. Kellan? This can’t be. This pain, now beyond my control, is invading every cell of my body as I remember him. His piercing blue eyes… It can’t be. I start shaking and collapse on my knees. Kyle is crying, calling my name and asking me what is going on. His voice buzzing all around echoes in my ears. I am losing control… I feel myself levitate, my mind going numb and my body reacting on its own accord. I am still able to feel energy leaving me, enveloping me like a blanket, this blanket wrapping me. Inside it I’m coiling like a snake. The energy spreading from my protective bubble is now intensifying, tensing and suddenly bursts into a million sparkles of excruciating pain.
I wake up sweating and exhausted. Where am I? My muscles relax as I recognize the picture of Kyle on my night table. You’re at home. It’s okay. Kyle...Oh my God. It is dark outside, the moon is bright in the sky, the stars illuminating the whole valley that otherwise bathes in inky darkness. I get up and realize that I’m still dressed. Kyle. I run out of my bedroom, hurry to his and open the door. I find him peacefully asleep in his bed, wearing his usual pajamas. I feel the tension leave my body but it quickly comes back as I recall who I think I saw, or was it all a dream? I go out of his bedroom only to realize that there is a light burning downstairs. It takes me ten seconds to finally find the courage within me to face the truth. I approach the living room and see him on the sofa next to the fireplace. Jared.
-“What have you done to my son?”
-“Is this how you thank me for putting him to bed?”
- “What are you doing here?” I try tentatively, slowly entering the living room.
-“It’s good to see you too, Faith.” I am boiling with rage.
- “Don’t call me Faith, I no longer go by that name.”
-“And how should I call you then?”
-“You’re here, I think you already know.”
-“It hasn’t been easy to find you, that’s for sure.” is his reply. I will have to be more careful in the future.
-“Did you carry me inside?” I ask to clear up any doubt of what has happened.
-“Yes. It wasn’t pretty out there, but don’t worry I took care of Kyle. He won’t remember what happened, I made sure of it.”
-“Don’t dare touch my son or I swear I’ll…” I start shouting.
-“Wow, Relax. I’m not here for your son.” Knowing when Jared is lying, I see that he’s not this time. I can begin to calm down. I enter the kitchen area, fetch a wine glass, pour myself a drink and leave the bottle on the table. I decide to sit down on the sofa opposite.
-“Why are you here then?”
-“We need you” he adds matter-of-factly. “Who is we?” I ask, already guessing his answer.
-“Oh you know, same old same old.”
-“Yes, I remember.” I add.
-"A new terrorist cell is rife in Turkey. They're very powerful. And we don’t know how but somehow they laid their hands on Stern’s research results…" Jared continues, going to the kitchen, fetching and pouring himself a glass of the same local rosé wine Jacques has patiently seen mature. "We must act rapidly if we want to avoid any more casualties or worse… ", he goes on.
-“It's no longer my fight. What made you think I would join you?”
-“Well, nothing exactly but I thought I’d pass by and ask nicely.” he says openly laughing at me.
-“Okay, that’s enough", I stand up to strengthen my position. "Get out of my house. You know you’re no match to me.”
-“You could have told me...for Kyle...” Oh, change of subject.
-“And what would you have done?” I ask, slightly bitter, turning my back on him.
-“I don’t know. At least I would have got to know him.” Utter silence is following.
“He’s so much like him”, he adds.
-“I know…” I whisper.
-“Did you tell him...? About his father...?”
I cannot answer that question without thinking about the past and opening that door firmly locked in my heart. I don’t want to relive all that.
-“I can’t…” My voice is trembling.
-“He will have to hear it one day...from you.”
I know Jared is right but how could I tell my son about my past and the consequences it would unleash, what it would mean, to him?
"And how do you know he hasn't inherited any of your...abilities?" I turn around, facing him again, my blood freezing into my veins.
-"I don't", I confess honestly. "Keeping him in the dark is the best way to prevent any burst from happening."
-"Like it is working for you? If I hadn't been there, who knows what would have happened to your son? Repression is not the solution, Faith. You know it and I know it."
-"Don't tell me how to raise my son", I say furiously. He still has the power to make me wild with rage. "If you had left us alone, none of this would have happened. We had a life here, an ordinary life. You took away all our chances at leaving normally by showing up here!"
-"Don't lie to yourself, you will never be ordinary. Look at you, milking cows? Do you call this a life? You're cut out for greater things!"
-"I've never asked for any of this. I don't want any of it!" I'm now protesting angrily.
-"Whereas you want it or not, you have to face it. He might be as powerful as you are. You won’t be able to hide and lie to him forever. Once they know, some….people will want to use him."
Now I snap "Get the hell out or I'll make you!"
-"It won't be necessary", he says heading for the door. "By the way, Maggy says hello."
I must have misunderstood. It is not possible.
-"What did you just say?"
-"She knew you wouldn't believe me, so she wrote a letter", he says while passing me a gray envelope. "My men will pick me up in the morning, don't worry about me", he adds smiling while opening the front door, he then disappears into the night.
I don't know what to make of this news. Maggy is the last person on earth I see hanging around with Jared. I'm sure it is another one of his tricks to force me into changing my mind and joining them. I finish my glass and head upstairs, holding the envelope firmly in my hands. I feel better now I have found the comfort of my familiar room. I sit down on my bed allowing memories to resurface for the first time in almost ten years.
10 years before
Of all the places I had been to, New Orleans was certainly the closest, the most similar to my human nature. Shy, full of light and darkness, still standing, even after hurricanes and storms had ripped her heart out, not allowing herself to show how difficult it had been to recover from the worst of nightmares. Everything was huge here; streets, the oak trees along the path, or ice cream pots you could buy at any store.
My first months on the New Continent had been colored by interesting meetings and unusual places. I didn’t exactly know why I had chosen the south after visiting New York, but one thing was certain, I wasn’t disappointed. After several days in Alabama and having discovered the birthplace of equality, I was now discovering Louisiana.
And a benefit from sightseeing was that at least I could pretend I was a normal tourist, whose parents were waiting for her at their hotel if anyone asked, I thought as I was eating corn bread at the Oak Alley plantation house restaurant. This huge mansion, its imposing Victorian architecture and the vast grounds surrounding it didn’t fail to let out whispers of what slavery life had been, living in the minuscule stalls, serving cruel masters who would let them die without any remorse nor regret. Truth was that I had always felt out of place, like the families who had been brought here to work in the fields. Certainly after the accident, my friends’ attitude had shifted and I hadn’t even wanted to belong anymore. But it wasn’t like they had even tried. I knew I could be introvert, but I had had to become strong after everything that had happened. I thought they had misunderstood my reaction for pride. Death, distress... all made people extremely uncomfortable. So they had done what they could do best: they had pretended it hadn’t been there, I hadn’t been there... But my life in Europe had been nothing compared to the absolute nightmare slaves had had to wake up from. How can we treat each other like this? Europe had had its history of hatred too, I just couldn’t grasp what the motives had been to justify such abject violence and horror. Maybe it was human nature? Maybe it was the animality inside of us that drove us to extremes? But honestly, even animals didn’t seem so wildly cruel towards each other, even they had a sense of protection towards their kind. Or maybe that was it: we didn’t recognize different people as our own. I had always found injustice repulsive and worth fighting against and here was another proof of our world greatest gangrene I concluded, leaving the immense plantation ground to go back to my rented flashy red car and trying to convince myself to stop torturing my mind, switching off the unstoppable emotions irradiating from me.
I was wandering in Bourbon Street after a week of sightseeing, further discovering the old south, its ancient taste for tobacco, cotton, oak trees, sugar canes and ... music.
The light of dusk was illuminating the strange architecture of Victorian houses, fortune tellers were already trying to make up for the slow start of the high season, invading Jackson square with their dark tarot cards or crystal balls on lace tablecloth, calling to us – strangers - for redemption. Myths and legends were like viruses here, they would evolve, reach every layer of the population and then move on to another secluded location. The humid warmth was almost too much for my European tan but I was convincing myself that my journey here would represent everything I had ever wanted; a fresh start to this new, lonely chapter of my life – a present to celebrate graduation that had become the easy way out. Jazz slowly started filling the intoxicating air of the French quarter, appealing to visitors or natives alike. I was no exception. I had never been a big fan of jazz music until then. Its sadness, deep cry moved every part of who I was now, plunging me back into the devastating months prior to my arrival. My heart was still bleeding and it required every power I had left to block the painful images I had kept and taken with me. However, the reflection I saw in the shop window opposite the square had surprised me: elongated, long brown haired, brown eyed, with a red sleeveless shirt, a pair of jeans and plastic flip flops. It was showing a regular seventeen-year-old teenager who had outgrown her clothing style. The perfect nobody who could fade away in this scenery. I was slowly regaining some complexion and the weight I had lost these past months though - certainly due to my extreme taste for Louisiana jambalaya. The image it was reflecting was almost familiar again even if the road to being me was still long and full of ambush. But did I really want to be myself again?
A jet- black haired boy took me out of my reverie by grasping my hand and pulling me, leading me I didn’t know where. He had to be six, was wearing ripped muddy shorts and a shirt whose color was uncertain because of the dust.
-“Come, come” he was repeating, pulling me even more strongly.
-“Wait! Where are you taking me?” I was laughing and surprised by his strength but didn’t change my mind as to stay where I was. “Where is your mother?” I asked, looking around, fearing for his safety. When he saw that I wouldn’t move, he took my camera and made a run for it. I couldn’t lose that camera – my posthumous Christmas present, and after all that had happened, it was the only link I had with my past - aside from my memories.
I started running after him. He was still in Decatur when I saw him turn left. I followed him around the corner and saw him stop in front of a lady. She was standing on the steps of the half-open green door of another Victorian house, two meters away from me, crossing her arms. She was tall with long braided hair, as black as the boy’s, and had big dark eyes. She was wearing a white dress with red spots and a black apron - very trendy in the sixties. She almost looked like coming from another era, where women were behind the stove while their husbands were working. When he was facing her, looking at her intently, she took the camera from his hands and examined it curiously. When she saw me round the corner - bent over to catch my breath - she slapped him in the face and pushed him inside the house holding his right ear, shouting in a language I didn’t recognize.
-“I’m so sorry” the lady said reappearing and approaching me with the camera still in her left hand. “My nephew has no manners. I’m trying to give him a proper education but he can be so difficult...”
-“Don’t worry, I won’t press charges, I just want the camera back.” I replied.
-“Sure, sure, here it is, sugar” she continued handing me the precious object. “But please, let me offer you some compensation, come with me” she offered.
-“Don’t worry, I...I don’t want your money” I insisted.
-“I meant a reading…”
-“A reading? It’s okay, I’ve got enough books with me.”
-“No, not a book, a reading is something else, come with me” she offered again, smiling, showing me the way.
No one was waiting for me, I remembered, and against all odds, I accepted her offer and followed her inside what I presumed was her house. Everything was tastefully furnished, the wooden floors gave their counterparts an almost Venetian style in the hall, with drapes and beautifully covered sofas in the living room. The little boy had found his place on one of them when we entered.
-“Anton, apologize to the lady, and go upstairs, now.” Anton immediately came to stand up in front of me, and apologized to me, not keeping his eyes off his feet. He seemed truly regretful.
-“It’s okay.” I said, trying to take away his guilt. After all, he was just a little boy. But he was already gone.
-“Please sit down” my hostess offered, showing me a seat on the sofa on my left.
-“Thank you” I answered politely.
-“My name is Lynn. Welcome to my home. Would you like something to drink?”
-“No, thanks. I’m fine. Really.”
I suddenly didn’t remember why I had agreed to come here, it felt awkward sitting in a stranger’s living room, even a friendly one. She sat down in front of me and took my hands in hers, which felt even more awkward.
-“Don’t be afraid. Before we start, you have to know something about me and my family.” she started, almost mysteriously now. “I come from one of the oldest families in New Orleans. But we’re not like everyone else. We have passed down something -a gift - from mother to daughter, generation to generation. This gift allows me to see things - things that have happened or are to come.”
I had never believed in those things, and my face must have betrayed me because Lynn added. “I know you’re not a believer. But you will change your mind after today” she added smiling.
-“So, how does it work? Do you call on your ancestors, things like that?” I tried to seem interested.
-“Not exactly” she said. “Breathe slowly and let your mind wander to where it wants to go.”
Easy for you to say. What if I didn’t want to let my mind decide? I’ve had enough crying, so much I even used to cry my eyes out. I don’t want to go back there…
“I know it’s difficult for you. I know you’re trying to block your mind, you don’t want to suffer again…”
-“I…” not knowing what to say, I let her go on, she had her eyes closed this time.
-“I can tell that you are strong and independent. You are smart, resourceful and reliable but you don’t expect life to treat you fairly and you are always ready for the worst. There is a lot of sadness in you too…” she went on “and I see you’ve had your share of suffering since your birth. Your father isn’t part of your life and the person you call mother has started a new family, without you in it. But your grandparents took over. They raised you and provided you with everything you needed - love and attention.” How does she know all this?
After five seconds, she added “I see snow. A lot of snow.” My blood was just made run cold because I knew what she was going to say next. I was feeling threatened and terribly ill-at-ease.
“You lost them. It was winter. It is still haunting you. You don’t know how to live without them. But know this, they’re resting in peace and they’re very proud of you no matter what you decide.”
-“No matter what I decide? I don’t understand.”
She went on as if I didn’t exist. “You will soon have to make a decision that will influence all of us. Destiny has chosen you to save us, you have to start believing in yourself or we’ll all be condemned.”
What was she talking about? It didn’t make any sense…I wished I hadn’t accepted her offer…
Lynn then opened her eyes and said “I’m sorry I can’t tell you more. The future is still misty but I can tell you this: we will meet again and I’ll be there when you need me.”
“Thanks?” I said hesitantly. She was still holding my hand when I stood up. I broke the connection.
“I’m sorry I need to go” I said, still feeling embarrassed. I turned around and was ready to leave the living room when she added “Trust your instinct, Have...faith.” And with this, I hurried down the street, finding my way back into the French Quarter, missing Lynn handing fifty dollars to her nephew who had appeared, once more, out of nowhere.
The café round the corner known as Tonique had become my favorite chilling area. But unlike other evenings, the atmosphere was charged with an almost palpable electricity, so strong it was almost crushing my lungs. Or was it the heat or the strange encounter I had had?
I entered. I had grown fond of red after spending three days here, or for better words, nights. The only reminder of the Quarter's life had been the Mardi Gras beads hanging everywhere, on walls, bars even banisters. The two-levelled café was inviting. The smell of sweat, alcohol and smoke from the previous night of festivities had never truly left the premises, leaving a yellowish trace on the white entrance doors. The light around me was dim and called for introspection - in total contrast with a group of freshmen who were celebrating at the bar, talking animatedly about their future prospects and ambitions around "hurricanes" – a sweet New Orleans trademark. I envied them. Not their muscular, sculptural footballer bodies or the voluptuous silhouette of their girlfriends, no. I couldn't care less about that. This happy-go-lucky attitude; that was what was missing in my life. As I was heading for my usual spot in a corner, I noticed a dark figure on my right.
Then I saw him or rather I felt him watching me. His piercing eyes reading straight into me, into my soul. I had never felt so exposed by anyone, let alone a guy. As I was sitting down I could still feel his eyes lingering on me. But I could sense that it smelled like trouble too. Looking more closely, his features were too perfect, with his big brown eyes, his broad shoulders and short hair. Was it an army tag he was wearing? That would explain a lot. I was telling myself to stop staring. Didn't these Americans know how to shop for proper sizes or were these too short shirts the only way they had to expose their attractive flesh? Men. Typical.
-“What will it be for you tonight, honey?”
-“I would like a strawberry shake, please.” I asked the familiar waitress. She smiled recognizing me.
-“Right away.” I opened my Routard travel guide to prepare the next day’s visits.
Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World should be fun.
-“There you go honey. Call me if you need anything else.”
-“Thank you.” I answered.
-"Can I buy you a drink?" asked the dark stranger.
How did he get so close so fast? He’s even more handsome close to…
-“No thanks, I’m all set.” I answered showing him my drink.
-“I meant a proper drink…” He smiled. "Do you mind if I sit down?"
He was already facing me as he hadn't waited for my answer.
“My name is Jared. What's yours?”
I could feel my heartbeat accelerating as adrenalin was rushing through my veins. I didn't know if it was lust or a sense of danger. I considered not answering but I couldn't let him see how I felt.
-“Faith.” I didn’t want to give him my real name. As I was recalling what my grandpa used to say, I opted for this one.
-“Faith? You're not from here, are you? I don't recognize your accent.”
-“Well, you could say that. You're very perceptive.” I added with sarcasm, when the waitress brought two hurricanes, winking at me. Why not? I thought and took a sip of my free drink.
-“How come a European beauty like you speaks English like that? First time in New Orleans?” he inquired. How did he know I was European? All these questions were only confirming the uneasiness I had sensed five minutes before. I wasn’t used to all this attention.
-“Yes…” was all I gave away.
-“Do you like it so far?”
-“I love it here…”
As he seemed to be waiting for more, I went on, speaking to hide my discomfort, “it’s totally different from the other States I have visited.”
-“Where else have you been?”
-“I was in New York a couple of weeks ago but I wanted some taste of the south as well. I visited Alabama first. That was incredible. So many things to see…”
-“Well, there are plenty of things to do here as well. Let me take you to this great bar, you’ll see…”
-“I…” Suddenly my head started spinning. My body felt numb, my legs unable to move. I was starting to feel heavy, the music around us slowly fading away.
-“Sweet dreams, beauty. We've been waiting for you” said the brown-eyed stranger.
The sky was a threatening gray. It quickly started to rain. The only sound I could hear was the heavy rain trickling on the ground. I was alone, standing in the middle of nowhere. The air was so humid and heavy, the leaves of the trees surrounding me so green – almost surrealistic – I recognized oak trees. I could feel and smell the rain all around me. I started walking, slowly, then faster, and faster. I had this queasy feeling of being followed. I turned around but there was no one. The air I was breathing became more and more dense and heavy. What was this new smell? I knew I had smelled it already. But where? Suddenly I recognized it: incent. It was incent. Panic was gripping me slowly by the throat, I couldn't breathe any more, I was suffocating. I was bending on my knees trying to catch my breath when I saw them on the shiny green grass: my grandparents' tombs. And behind me, a black hooded figure spreading his wings, pointing at me. The angel of death, watching me, approaching me, crushing me...
My head was hurting so much. I felt heavy and swollen. Should I try to open my eyes? The pain was excruciating, just like the smell - a mix of burning flesh, metal, bleach and blood. Was I in a hospital? I could hear a strange noise. What was it…a drill? Slowly I started to open my left eye. The light was blinding and too strong to distinguish anything. Hands holding my skull, why? My heart rhythm started racing. I heard a man yelling “Oh fuck!” I passed out, again.
-“You’re stronger than I thought you would be, you made it. Welcome to the team, beauty!” I tried to open my eyes as I heard him talk. You, monster. My eyelids were so heavy. What had they done to me? My mouth was so dry, my head was spinning and so sore…What I saw was blurry at first. Now I could see him, the guy from the bar again, and next to him, the same guy? It couldn’t be.
-“Leave her alone, J. You’re not supposed to be here. Let me handle it.” I could feel something sharp inside my right arm and caught sight of tubes connected to a sort of plastic bag.
-“w….a…..t…..er” I whispered.
-“Not now. You need time to recover. Rest…” the second J said.
Unable to resist the urge of closing my eyes again, I let go.
Deafening sound everywhere. I could feel the floor vibrating. An earthquake? Music? An electric light was beaming. I lay on the ground. That I was sure of; my back was cold and my muscles were hurting. My head. Ouch. What the fuck? Touching my skull I didn’t remember shaving one side of it. I touched my skull again and felt a naked line just above my right ear. I needed a mirror. Or maybe later.
-“You alright sister?” I saw a hand in front of my face and I decided to take it. “Wow, slowly!” he said as I was falling back again. Having released his hand to hold my head, a sharp pain was radiating inside of me but was distilled by a sort of dizziness. Have I been drinking? I tried to stand up. I found it difficult to make a step. It felt like walking on sand. I could hear Drake singing Legend and a thousand people repeating the lyrics with him.
When I was feeling better I asked “Where am I?” I was shouting to be heard.
-“You don’t know? Go easy on the booze, sister. Bienvenida a Coachella festival.”
-“¿Estoy a Coachella festival? ¿Cómo es posible que…? ¿Dondé es?” Was it me talking in Spanish? I had never learned Spanish, had I?
-“¿Hablas español? Muy bien. ¿Qué quieres beber? ¿Una cerveza?”
I had had my share of strange guys for a lifetime and ran further into the crowd. At least it would keep him away from me. The air was warm and humid, filled with sweat and smoke. I needed to get out. What was I doing here anyway? How had I got in this place? Was I daydreaming again? I checked several times I wasn't being followed and headed for the exit after ten minutes. The sun was going down but I could still distinguish people - a lot of them - sitting and talking, smoking or drinking or both. This wasn't like any other festival I had seen, everything was huge, seeing and hearing all their voices, even from a distance, engulfing me and the whole city, I was feeling very small. Control, do not panic, you're gonna get out of here. Let's see what I have on me. I knelt and emptied my pockets on the grass not far away from the stage where the crowd was still singing and dancing.
Nothing. I had nothing on me; no ID, no money, no key. A feeling of dread and frustration was slowly rising inside me and invaded all my body. I tried to stand up but my hands and legs began to tremble, and I collapsed on the ground. I could feel tears stinging my eyes. But I swallowed them. And I did so because I had remembered. No one was waiting for me, no one would alert the police in order to know my whereabouts, no one. I was alone in this world and alone in my despair. Don't pity the dead, pity the living, but not for too long. If life is ruthless to you, be ruthless to life. That is what granny used to say. I needed to stand up, to move, for my legs had started to feel numb because of the lack of movement. So I did it, I stood up, for what purpose, I didn't know but I hadn't been raised to stay passive and I had to count on myself and myself only.
I was still standing there when someone caught me off guard, “hey, are you okay?”
A small woman with charcoal hair coming from nowhere had put her hand on my shoulder. As tried to remove it, surprised by her gesture, I froze at her touch, receiving thousands and thousands of pictures to process at the same time. My eyes rolled upwards, the pain inside my skull was excruciating. I was seeing her, cleaning cuts and applying a salve, injecting her patients with antibiotics and taking care of them, speaking nice words.
And suddenly I knew, I knew the precise movements to perform all these nursing acts, I knew you had to check your syringe wasn't containing air bubbles before injecting anything into your patient's arm to avoid embolism, I knew you had to wash your hands to avoid MSA infections, I knew how to remove stitches and when to do it. I could go on and on about all the new things I knew.
But I had never been to a nursing school, I had never attended any lesson about injecting patients. What was happening to me? I screamed, my head was hurting again but I didn't know if it was a cry of pain or fear - fear of the unknown or of losing myself completely. The deafening noise of the crowd was drowning my scream but it was still repelling the only person who had shown me kindness here. I was feeling lonelier.
-“It's okay. Don't worry. Let's get you out of here!” said a musky voice next to me.
It was him. At that moment I couldn't suppress my rage any longer, I wanted to slap him. He was responsible for what had happened to me, it was the third time I saw him and all these memories were strongly linked to pain.
-“You bastard!” As my hand was almost touching his face, he stopped me in mid-air, not looking surprised at all.
-“I'm not who you think I am. Look more closely.” I didn't know what he meant but there was something in his voice that made me want to trust him. I started staring at him, examining every tiny detail of his muscular body; his large hands, his broad shoulders, his face. His hair looked longer than it had the last time I saw him. Then it hit me, like an arrow piercing my heart. It wasn't the guy from the bar, even though they looked alike. Jared, I thought was his name, had brown eyes and short hair, exuding confidence and pride. This handsome man in front of me had gentle blue eyes, and a body too stunning not to be noticed but he didn't seem to be aware of it.
-“You're not ...J...him.”
-“No, I'm his brother, Kellan. Now, get a grip on yourself and follow me.”
-“No way. I want answers, right now. What have you done to me? What am I doing here?” I was shouting.
-“You have two options; first one, you go on yelling and I'm out of here. Second one, you shut up and do what I tell you to do.” He said matter-of-factly.
- "Gee, thanks. So much for options!” What choice did I have? I was in the middle of nowhere, with no one to turn to. The best I could do was following him, escaping as soon as I could. Reluctantly, I yielded. -“Alright. As long as you promise not to knock me out again.”
-“I can't promise you that even if I agreed to it.”
-“Why not?” My voice was now subtly pleading.
-“It is not up to me to decide.”
So that was it, the evil twins weren't the brain behind all of this. Whoever it was, they were going to pay, I thought to myself as I was following him in the dusk of day.
After ten minutes, walking in silence through the same landscape, and having had my share of dark thoughts, I decided to break it “Where are we going?”
Silence. Complete and utter silence. I was about to provoke a reaction by yelling at him again when I froze to the spot. This time I couldn't be mistaken, it was Jared, sardonically smiling at me.
-“It was about time, beauty. You almost kept me waiting.”
-“Give her a break, J.” Kellan said, then added out of nowhere “No, the recordings were inconclusive.”
Who was he talking to?
“I'm not sure it's a good idea. I wouldn't risk it. It wouldn't be the first time we disagreed on something, J.”
What was that? An unsettling feeling was growing inside me. Jared approached me slowly and as he was raising his left hand, he added “See you, beauty.”
-“N...” was the only sound I could form before being stung by something in my neck. Everything turned dark and night swallowed me.
I felt a pinch on my left arm, then nothing. No noise; frightening silence and tormenting darkness. I could hear the comforting beating of my heart now. Where was I? I opened my eyes, trying to get used to my new environment. My heart started racing as my body recalled the scent of blood and metal. All my senses were in alert now. Fear. Simple, liquid fear engulfing my whole being and crushing everything on its way. I recognized the feeling. The room I was in seemed square and uninviting. The walls were bright white with a metallic table in the middle.
Next to my bed, there was a gray trolley full of surgery tools. And next to the trolley, Kellan, with his now familiar blue eyes.
I was sore, everywhere. My arms were stretched above my head, I couldn't feel my wrists nor my hands any longer. Shackles? Why restraining me? I wasn't the criminal here, they were. I promised myself not to give way to panic and refrained my tears of rage and fear.
-“The more you try to resist, the more they will cut your wrists. We needed to restrain you, you were quite uncontrollable in your sleep.” He said, holding a syringe. “Don't worry, I won't hurt you.” Easier said than done. Trying to gain my trust was too late.
-“What am I doing here?” Make him talk.
-“You're back at the facility, as we call it.”
-“Which day is it? How long was I out?” He approached slowly and looked at me intensely. Is he trying to say anything? His fierce and hungry eyes were not concentrated on me anymore but on something above his head. I followed his gaze and I thought I had noticed a red dot in the upper left corner of the room. As he was rearranging the trolley, putting the needle into a flashy yellow bin and removing is blue gloves.
“Untie me, now!” I demanded. He was still not responding.
I heard footsteps. They belonged to more than one person. All confidently, almost angrily, walking towards me.
A hidden door automatically opened on my left, or was there an opening mechanism on the other side? I tried to catch a glimpse at what I thought was a passage but the contrast between this passage and the room I was being kept in was too stark to distinguish anything. I even didn’t know if it was day or night. I had fed on adrenalin for the past ...what? Days? Weeks?
A woman in her fifties all dressed in a black suit and high heels entered, escorted by two of her bodyguards. On her left I immediately recognized Jared. He was still smiling his cynical smile, wearing the same kind of outfit he had when I had first met him, showing off his perfect body with his even tighter shirt. The girl flanked on the right was wearing a black, strapless dress with black gloves, holding a beige file. Strange for this place, I thought. She looked just a couple of years older than me, not more than twenty. She was a tall, elegant blonde with a thin waist and long hair held in a ponytail. She was smiling too, but her smile seemed to unintentionally express all the repressed sadism hidden by this perfect body. Her steely gray eyes were trying to gouge me in detail.
-“What is going on here? Release her now! She’s not a prisoner, she is our guest.” said the oldest of them three. Looking at her expressionlessly and then turning to me, Kellan freed me with the key he had previously removed from his right pocket. Blood was painfully finding its way back to my hands for my arms had dropped quickly.
The lady was addressing me this time “You can call me Miss Stern.” The voice of the strange woman standing in the middle of the room was filled with determination and strength. She was blonde too, slightly taller than the girl wearing gloves, but her body could not disguise the harshness and anger of her heart. Her pale complexion, wrinkles and hawk-like eyes also seemed to betray great intelligence and coldness. “I have to apologize for the behavior of my staff but I’m glad to see you, miss…”
-“Faith”, Kellan added.
-“Faith? Give me her file Jeanne, would you?” Jeanne complied. She opened the file and read. “I dare say I understand why you would replace it, your first name doesn’t sound very American or raise any interest...”
-“Go to hell!” I burst out.
-“At least you can speak English. And a little bit of Spanish as well, I recall.”
-“I…” I didn’t know what to say as flashes of my previous encounter with Kellan were running through my mind. Yes, I could speak Spanish and look after the wounded. But I still didn’t know how. “What have you done to me?” I finally asked.
-“We tried to enhance you, darling, or your brain capacity, if you prefer. I would have loved to explain it all to you before surgery, you would have seen the absolute necessity of what we do here. But I’m afraid that’s what happens with a lousy staff…” She finished, glancing sidelong at Jared.
-“Enhance? What do you mean? How?” I asked almost in shock.
-“By the easiest way: we inserted a needle deep in your cortex to stimulate the unused parts of your brain. Apparently it wasn’t as efficient for you as I had expected. You are supposed to become the strongest, most intelligent of your kind. I have great hopes and plans for you…But you probably need more time.”
-“My kind? What are you talking about, you bitch? You will regret what you’ve done to me, I swear I…”
Blondie number two seemed to wince at my comment, taking a further step in my direction. She was hampered by the swift movement of Stern’s right arm.
-“Don’t, darling. She has all the rights to be upset.”
To me this time “Take all the time you need honey, I will explain everything when you feel more incline. But there’s one little test I would like you to have and we’ll leave you. Kellan, take her hand, will you?”
And without a single movement of hesitation, he took it. I could feel all my muscles tense and then electrical warmth encircling first my hand, then my heart, and irradiating my whole body. His hand had felt soft in mine, and gentle, and protective. I tried to recover my composure dreading the now familiar pain in my head following such contact. Nothing. Blondie was sniggering while Jared was looking at me with a smug expression of disdain.
“Thank you darling, that’s all for now. K, take her to her room, she needs to rest. Jeanne, J, let’s go, please. We have business to attend to.”
-“Wait, you haven’t answered any of my questions, I…” I was talking to myself as the trio had already left the room without even rewarding me of a second glare.
I didn’t want Kellan to see me like this - fragile, and frightened. It took all the courage I had left for me to stand up and face him.
-“Let’s go!” he added. I followed him but this time without complaining, I was too exhausted and weak.
We had left the familiar scent of blood, metal and bleach for the smell of an indoor space only ventilated by fans. This place was like a maze, tunnels were giving way to new ones at every angle, without any code of colors nor numbers to indicate directions. The light was weak, coming from the metallic floor boarding and small lamps above every door we encountered.
There was no window, no sunlight, no view, only gray angles and corners. There was no noise, no voice nor any human activity. The only sound I could hear was of
my footsteps echoing Kellan's and of fans working at fifty meters from each other. These premises were reflecting my inner state but I didn't want to let despair
invade all my thoughts. Find a pattern. I thought. Left, left, right, and left again. At the end of this new hall Kellan stopped all of a sudden and touched a square
button on the wall. A shape resembling a door lit up in front of me, appearing out of nowhere and opened.
-“Here. This will be your room.” He said. I entered. The light was brighter in here but still no window. There was a small bunk bed with fresh linen in the left corner, a sink and toilet facing it. In front of me there was a rusty mirror protected by something resembling Plexiglas. The image it was reflecting startled me. Who
was this girl? It couldn’t be me, I didn’t recognize myself. My face was covered with sand and dust, my head was partly shaved on the right side and I looked stunningly defeated. I had become a shallow of a person. I turned around just to realize that Kellan had gone.
-“Wait! Don’t leave me here.” It was useless. I was left alone, in this square room, like a prisoner. The door had turned into a wall and with it, the consciousness of
what had happened struck me. I felt drained, famished and utterly hopeless. I stumbled to the bed and lay down, trying to calm my nerves, bracing my knees in
fetal position, silently sobbing. I closed my eyes not to open them for a long time.
I was awake, looking at the ceiling of the bunk bed.
After a moment of hesitation I finally recalled where they had taken me. I got out of bed and was heading for the door when it turned translucent and opened.
-“Kellan, what…?” I didn’t have time to finish my sentence, he was already kissing me, passionately, holding my head with his two hands, forcing his mouth into mine, invading my space and pushing his body against mine. I could feel his muscular chest and incredible strength. I soon started feeling stunned, my
body burning, lit with a blazing fire. What I felt was too powerful, happening too soon, consuming every part of me, from the inside. It felt odd and I tried to push him away, to stop his embrace but he was too strong. And when he finally let me catch my breath he whispered in my ear, “Come one, beauty. I know you want it too.”
Abject horror came with the realization that I had been kissing Jared…
I startled out of bed, sweating, with vivid memories of my disturbing nightmare. How long was I asleep? I thought I could hear footsteps fading away or maybe I
was still dreaming. My eyelids were still heavy but I was famished, I needed food and a shower too...My lips were dry and I could sense bitterness on my
tongue. I sat down on my bed, my head almost touching the structure of the second bed above me. I couldn’t make sense of anything around me. I just
knew I had to get out. But how? At the right time. When they expect it the least, when I’ve won their trust. Let’s find some food first…
The room was as I remembered it: modern, gloomy and alien. The same faint night light was burning. I decided to get out of bed. My arms and legs were still sore, my sleep had been restless. I approached the wall that I recalled had been the only way out.
There, I saw it; this square was a slightly different shade of metallic gray. I pressed it and a door appeared on the same spot it had had the day or night before - I still didn't know which one it was as the brightness around me - or the lack of it - had not shifted overnight. I couldn't hear anything but decided to give it a try anyway and went out. Nothing.
"Hello? Anyone here?" I called out as I was inspecting my surroundings. Getting lost in this maze of tunnels would be useless, so I decided to go back to my room.
Approaching the opened door, I saw something resembling a tray next to it. Muffins? Yum. And what were these? Rags? Blankets, right. No clothes? Are
you kidding? I needed to get changed. My outfit was stained with mud and sand, plus I didn't know who had chosen it but I would never wear a pink shirt with
purple pants, even for a festival. How old did they think I was, twelve? I was turning, facing the door and carrying the tray with me. Suddenly I heard a whoosh
and felt wind on my face.
-“Hey there. Faith, right?" I was gripped with fear and I let the tray fall on the floor, I felt like a cat put under a running shower. “Easy, you don't want to waste these,
they're the best.” said the strange guy in front of me, picking up the muffins from the floor.
-“Do you want to give me a heart attack?” I said angrily.
-“I always forget. Sorry. But where are my manners? Let me introduce myself. Ben, the greatest, fastest guy on earth. At your service, happy to see you finally awake and delighted to meet our savior. Stern said you were the one, congrats!” He was tall, brown-haired, brown-eyed and tanned, composed but funny-looking
at the same time, with no sense of fashion. He was wearing striped trousers and a checked blue shirt. He had nothing in common with the body-builders I had
previously seen, he almost seemed frail and sensitive.
-“I don’t understand… What do you want?” I finally asked.
-“I'm here to show you around and help you get changed. But your new clothes won’t be as awesome as the ones I chose, I promise you. I knew pink would
be your color.”
That explained a lot...
-“No way, I’m not changing in front of you.” I insisted.
-“That won’t be necessary. See that button there?” He was pointing at another shape - this time a circle - at the opposite side of the room, next to the mirror. “Push it, stand still and picture what you want to wear. I’ll be
waiting for you outside.”
-“Wait! What do you mean by ‘picture what you want to wear’? Didn’t you bring any clothes?”
I didn’t want to trust anyone but Ben seemed alright. I complied because I had nothing left to lose and I couldn’t spend another day in these clothes.
Nevertheless I hesitantly approached the corner of the room. I hit the button as I had been instructed. Picture clothes? Okay. A pair of jeans would be nice. And a
top, my favorite blue hoodie of course and army boots. Suddenly a tube made out of glass appeared out of nowhere, circling me around in pink neon lighting. I started freaking out, again. I hit the glass as hard as I could and shouted for help but no one answered. The light inside the tube changed and I saw a red light at my feet, going up, and melting my clothes? What the f…? I was naked and a second later what felt like the power of a thousand waves crashed headlong onto my skin. Two seconds later, the stream turned into air and I was dry. Another light, made of
rainbow beams was immerging me now and I could feel warmth, pins and needles prickling all over my body. All of a sudden, everything came to a halt and as the circular shape was retracting to the ground. I glanced at my newly clothed body: blue hoodie, jeans and army boots like I had imagined. The door turned
transparent again and Ben entered the room.
-“You ruined my masterpiece. It ‘d better be comfortable”, he said gesticulating in front of me and pretending to be offended.
-“You owe me an explanation. Starting now! Press the button? At least you could have warned me.”
-“You wouldn’t have believed me anyway. Just the tech team having fun. Don't make a fuss about it. What do you want to know?” He asked sitting down on my bed.
-“How is that even possible, how can I think about something and see it materialize in front of me?”
-“That would be because of your chip.”
-“A chip? Which chip?”
-“Can you touch the base of your skull?”
-“Now?” I couldn’t believe no one had mentioned this to me before.
-“Yes, do it now. Do you feel it? Sort of a tiny plastic plaster?”
-“I...yes, I can feel it.”
-“Each of us has one. They insert them after the operation. It is supposed to monitor your brain activity, to prevent aneurysm too.” I was surprised to realize
that I knew what aneurysm meant, but I did.
-“What do you mean us?”
-“We call ourselves suprahumans or supras. You'll see why once you meet the others.” Ben finished.
-“What? Who did this to you?” It was getting weirder and weirder by the minute.
-“You mean to us? You're part of the team now whether you like it or not. But let me fix your interior first. I don't know how you managed to sleep in there, it
is hideous! We need to do something about your lack of taste for fashion too... See the kind of mirror over there?”
-“Let me guess, it's not a mirror.” I said.
-“Sorry to disappoint you, it is a mirror, among other things. Go standing in front of it.”
My face must have betrayed my reluctance because Ben was showing some impatience.
“Now! We don't have all day. I would like to have breakfast before noon!”
I did as I was asked, surprised by the sudden change of tone and turned around.
“Face the mirror and close your eyes. Think of open space and fashion, of curves and colors...”
I wasn't listening anymore. I was feeling so homesick. I knew I had to block the next images that were coming to my mind, I didn't want to think about them now. I couldn't afford to break down. Instead I directed my thoughts to my room, back at the apartment. The wooden floor and huge windows letting the sunlight in,
the wooden chest of drawers in front of the fireplace containing all the books I knew so well, my favorite ones I had read at least three times and I couldn't
decide to throw away, the smell of pine and the white candles decorating the table. I could feel the sun warming my face, drying my tears away...I could
almost hear them now, whispering my name.
“Now open your eyes.” I woke up from my deep reverie with a jump. Was I still dreaming? I couldn't believe what the reflection in the mirror was showing me. I was at the apartment, I was home. How was this possible?
“Not bad. I would have gone for a more modern touch but it's cozy.”
Ben was sitting down on my white leather sofa, I couldn't believe it. I was afraid someone would wake me up. I approached the chest but didn't dare touch it,
afraid it might dissolve.
“Don't worry, you may still change your mind, the room will adapt to your will.”
-“Wh...” I didn't have time to finish my sentence, Ben was already answering.
-“You see, that chip is not that bad. It contains all the images your brain is analyzing. The computer behind the mirror glass interprets everything and tadaa. Let's go now, I'm starving.”
I didn't want to go, I wanted to lock myself in here and never confront the real world again. But my tummy was rumbling too. I took the muffins on the tray and
reluctantly followed Ben to the hall.
(For continuation see: FAITH’s CHRONICLE
Genesis By A.L. Belle,
Edited by Neve Robbins)
Ted Garvin, a middle-aged, disabled writer of mixed Native American/European descent, lives in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, with his wife and menagerie. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor's degree, but that and $2.00 (adjusted for inflation) will buy you a coffee. His favorite authors, in no particular order, are Patrick O'Brian, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roger Zelazny, and Homer.
Doggerland - To the Sea by Ted Garvin
“Goban?” Bekah sounded joyous.
“Bekah!” The men emerged. They carried bows, and arrows with flint trapezoidal-shaped heads, designed for rapid blood loss. “It is you.”
They lowered their weapons, as she rushed forward to embrace him.
“Felan?” Bekah embraced him. “You too?”
“Yes. We came seeking you,” he said.
“Your exile is ended. Your parents have relented.”
“I have been remiss,” she said, after a long pause. She introduced her companions. “Goban is my oldest friend.”
“Now she is calling me old.” He smiled.
“We have been hotfooting it for days,” said Deccan. “Should we be standing here talking? The Arkenesai might be on our trail.”
“Not to worry,” said Goban, hefting his bow. “Felan and I conversed with them.”
“Best to avoid unnecessary conflict,” said Bowdin, uncharacteristically. “Why kill when you don't have to?”
Felan agreed. “Absence is the best way to avoid it.”
After some days' journey, they finally arrived at their village by the sea. Bekah's people had formed a relationship with the landscape. In an attempt to stave off the advancing sea, they had erected permanent sod tents.
In the winter, life was fairly unpleasant, except for the snug inside. The sand and grit were inescapable. They lived by the sea's bounty, gathering shellfish and such in wicker weirs. They caught larger fish by going out in boats. They used long fishing lines with bone hooks. Middens—large piles of shells, rubbish, and their dead—lurked downwind. Nonetheless, the entire place smelled of fish and salt, but the natives didn't seem to mind. One could get used to anything, even fish.
A shaggy cur rushed up to them, barking the mad song of its people. It stopped short at Bekah's feet. As she bent down to pet it, Deccan wondered if it had a name. He started to ask, but before he could she was intent on talking to an attractive young man. An old friend? Deccan didn't want to appear a fool in front of her. Surely I am as good a man.
Embarrassed, he dropped his eyes and pretended to have found a stone in his shoe. Conscious of his rude appearance, he wondered Bekah thought of him. He was used to being confident and in charge. Why had he become so superficial, so vain? What was it about the opposite sex that directed one's attention inward? He resolved to toughen himself and not concern himself with anyone thought.
He was saved by the brothers, Ani and Aber, who had caught up with them. He stopped in shamed silence. They were bubbling over with excitement. It took them a long time to say nothing. Deccan left in pursuit of distraction from his mental ramblings.
He found it in the brothers Goban and Felan. The young men had been born at the same time, but two people who looked more dissimilar could not be found. Where Goban was dark, Felan was fair and had blue eyes. Deccan's people had dark hair and eyes. Where Goban was merry, his brother was melancholy and prone to whistling odd little tunes in a minor key.
“Where do you be going so fast?” asked Goban, as Deccan nearly barreled into him.
Deccan sighed. He didn't know how to express his problem, couldn't unburden himself. It was obvious to the brothers, who exchanged an amused glance.
“You look like someone who has all the troubles of the world upon you,” said Goban. “You need a change of scenery to take your mind off her.”
At Deccan's startled look, he continued, “I can tell when a man's in love.”
“Love?” Deccan practically shouted. “I'm not in love. I can barely stand her.”
“Keep your voice down,” Felan said. “You don't want the whole village to know, but I imagine they will soon enough. News travels fast around here. Anyway, my brother has the right of it. You need an adventure and a change of scene. A bit of sea air is just the thing for you, my lad.”
I am in a seaside village. I am getting plenty of sea air already.
“We were going to hunt for the big fish that can only be got by going out in a boat,” Goban laughed. “The sea is calm today—it's time to stock up—and we should have luck or if not, at least a good story.”
They went down to the beach. As their feet crunched on the gravel, Deccan saw a small skin boat beached above the high tide line. Sea junk of various descriptions: driftwood, bits of unrecognizable vegetation, and sea shell fragments littered the ground. The boat, consisting of a lightweight frame covered by well-oiled skins, looked like a drum. Inside was nautical equipment he didn't recognize.
“Come on, there's not a moment to be lost!” shouted Felan, over the gentle wind, “We'll miss the outgoing tide.”
Together, the brothers dragged the boat over the gravel to the water. They got in when it was up to their thighs. Deccan followed, feeling idle and useless—a landsman. The brothers placed a pole into stones at the bottom, then did nautical things to make the boat go scudding along the water at a brisk pace; a moderate wind was blowing off the shore.
“We'll have to paddle our way back in.” Goban grinned. “You'll help; I doubt you want to spend all day on the sea. I imagine you'll want to get back to your sweetheart.”
Felan pointed to a bit of land sticking out into the sea—a headland.
“The land will shelter us until we pass that point.”
“Oh, don't worry, we've been out here lots of times,” said Goban, at Deccan's fearful look. “Hardly anyone gets blown out to sea, although there are always exceptions.”
“Maybe our luck will change,” Felan always looked on the dark side of things.
Deccan blanched and not just from fear. He found the movement of the boat unsettling and not calming at all. There were white caps out past the headland.
“Does it always do this?” he asked, his face a pale green.
“No,” Felan said, “sometimes it's worse. This is a gentle swell. But it'll get more exciting once we pass the point. It'll be a bit choppy, then.”
“Would you like some breakfast?” Goban asked, mock-innocently.
This was too much. Deccan leaned over to leeward and vomited.
Once out past the headland, Goban cast their lines, while Felan managed the boat. While he waited for the fish to bite, Goban tried to engage Deccan in a conversation about women in general and Bekah in particular, but he'd have none of it, even though his stomach had settled somewhat. He even took an interest in his surroundings, although with a death grip on the gunwale. The boat pitched about fiercely. Goban got a nibble. He pulled in the line and there was a large cod—a monster—on the bone hook. He removed it and cast the line back out. Before too much time had passed, the bottom of the boat was full.
After this, Felan turned the boat toward home. The wind was against them, naturally, so they lowered the sail and paddled. Even Deccan helped. The sun glinted on the water like the scales of a radiant fish. The day was nearly over. Where had the time gone?
“What are we going to do with all these fish?” Deccan asked.
“Eat them. We have a village to feed. These are fine fish,” said Goban. “It'll feed us for a few days.”
They got out of the boat as soon as it ran ashore. Deccan stepped over the side and almost fell over. After the tossing of the boat, the earth seemed to shake and move about. He grabbed the side for support. He regained his land-legs and helped drag the boat above the high tide mark. They filled bags with the fish, then went into the village to get help to bring them in. Ani and Aber rushed up.
“Where have you been?” Ani asked.
“I've been at sea, puking my guts out and having fun,” Deccan replied.
Aber told him that Bodmin wanted him. Deccan sighed and went to the room he shared with the old man, where he offered a false apology. Tired of the constant need to carry him, he resented the pull on his time. The old patterns of servility, of master and slave, were hard to break.
“Where have you been?” demanded Bodmin, a hint of quaver in his voice.
Deccan told him of his sea adventures, but omitted his seasickness. He disliked admitting weakness, especially in front of this old man.
“My time here is almost up. I have lived five hands (plus three more) years,” Bodmin said. He meant he was forty. “There is something I must tell you before I go.”
There was a pause. Bodmin wanted to make sure he had Deccan's attention.
“I have been trying to figure out who you reminded me of. I have finally, after getting to know you and speaking with you, worked it out.”
“You remind me of a woman I once knew. She was beautiful and we both desired her—the man you know as your father, and I. He is the reason I cannot walk. We fought. I didn't desire the fight—I wished for a peaceful solution to our mutual problem.”
“What was that?” Deccan asked, not knowing what he was asking. He just had to keep the old man talking.
“I keep saying, the man you know as your father, because he was not your father,” Bodmin continued, “At least, I don't think so. That honor belongs to me, probably.”
Deccan's mouth dropped open. “Probably? Are you sure?”
“One is never sure about these things, to tell the truth. We both loved her. It's hard to talk about—it was so long ago, but the memory is still fresh and painful.”
Deccan had many questions, but couldn't choose just one.
“We dueled over her. A silly affair, by her lights. We went after each other with spears, then knives. I thought I had killed him and had walked away. He picked up his spear and thrust it at me, piercing my lower back. I walk no more.”
Deccan was dumb-founded. Bodmin paused to hack breath, after this speech.
“He died by my hand. It was hard, but I accomplished it.”
Deccan shook his head. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“You need to know the truth.”
“So now what? Why do you say your time is up?” Deccan finally said, to break the uncomfortable silence. “Do you have reason to believe you are going to die?”
“I know you have questions,” Bodmin said. “I wish I had the answers.”
“It was my duty to kill you,” Deccan rushed the words out. “My mother told me to seek vengeance, or so I thought. Now I'm confused.”
“Don't be. There is no revenge to take. It takes you. It is best to avoid it.”
“So why do you believe you're going to die?”
“It's just a feeling I have. I have lived a hard life. It is time to release you from your servitude. It is time.”
Deccan left the room before he began to weep, but ran into Bekah. Almost literally. Strangely enough, she didn't snap at him. He apologized, after a moment's hesitation. She did too. This was almost too much to handle. Bekah apologizing? What is wrong with the world? Deccan needed to change the subject—quickly, to avoid further embarrassment. He led with his chin.
“So who was that guy I saw you with earlier?”
“Nobody special.” She bristled. Her bad attitude was back, with a vengeance. “Just someone I hadn't seen in a long time, from before. Do you object?”
“Oh. I wondered, is all.” Time to change the subject. “I'm hungry. Want to eat some fish, guaranteed fresh?”
She started to refuse angrily, then changed her mind, abruptly.
He was right. It was fresh.
Denyse Loeb, or domynoe (as she prefers to be called), started writing at the age of 10 and fell in love with fantasy when a fifth grade teacher read The Hobbit to the class. She started annoying friends with weird stories in high school but didn't take her writing seriously until after earning a college degree in English and having a family that took pride in interrupting her every minute. Her short stories and articles have appeared in several online and print magazines and anthologies, including Aoife's Kiss, Beyond Centauri, Golden Visions, Grim Corps, and Wrapped in Red: Thirteen Tales of Vampiric Horror. As an editor and an admin of Dreaming In Ink Writers Workshop, she's had the honor of working with a number of authors whose works have been published by both small press and trade publishers. A foodie, a baker, and the mother of four children, domynoe lives in Georgia with her chef husband, her autistic son, one grandson, and five cats.
THIS by D. "domynoe" Loeb
I sat on the bleak, wooden expanse of our beach house deck, staring over a leaden sea, trying to say goodbye. This was the last place Daniel and I had been happy; it had been our home. I should have sold it last year, but I just couldn't bring myself to let it go. Even now the hollowness of parting with it was almost too much. Every room held memories, memories renewed by the damp roar of the ocean and the chilly smoothness of the wood.
Sighing, I rose and went to walk along the edge where water and sand meet. The night breeze brushed my hair against my shoulders and neck, whispering down my back, and icy water spilled over my feet, but I barely felt the cold. I was far away, in another time, remembering the last night of Daniel's vacation.
After dinner we had curled up together on the deck, watching the ocean waves wash over a water-colored sunset of orange and golden yellow touched with pink. I snuggled deeper into his arms, my back to his chest, and they tightened around me. I still felt his body pressed to mine, his heart a steady beat echoing within me.
I closed my eyes as he nuzzled my hair and murmured, "I could stay here forever."
I smiled. "I could too. Perhaps you should call in sick tomorrow?"
He laughed, a deep, rich, baritone that sent a delicious shiver down my back. "Not if we want to keep living here. Vacation's over."
"Ah, well, you can't blame a girl for trying."
He pulled me around to face him. His sandy blonde hair played in the breeze and tempted my fingers. "Are you truly happy, Jenn?" His hazel eyes darkened with a hint of worry.
I kissed him, the soft tickle of his mustache brushing my upper lip. "If this moment is all we have, I couldn't ask for more."
He caressed my face. "Tomorrow—"
I didn't want to think about spending the days without him, waiting for him to come home. I knew it was selfish, but I couldn't help it. I placed a finger on his lips. "Sshhh. Let's not talk about it right now. Let's just enjoy here and now. Let's just enjoy this."
His kisses were warm and deep, the kind that reached to the bottom of my toes and tightened my belly. I closed my eyes and savored the sweet taste of him. I never felt like I could get enough of his kisses, his touch, his presence. They poured over the desert of my need, filling me but always leaving me thirsting for more.
"Make a wish."
I opened a lazy eye. "Hmmm?"
"Somewhere a star is falling. Make a wish."
I tilted my face up to our sky, where no stars fell, and made a wish.
"What did you wish?"
I chuckled. "I can't tell you or it won't come true."
"I wished never to forget." His gaze drifted away from me, out over the ocean. "Never to forget...this."
The touch of my lips to his brought him back to me. "We will never forget."
"Let's go watch the sky by the edge."
"Where the water and sand meet."
He stood, pulling me up with him. "And the edge between here and somewhere past perfection."
"I don't understand." He liked being cryptic. Usually it annoyed me, but I didn't want to disturb the peace of the night with a petty disagreement. I just wanted to enjoy being with him before we lost our days to his job.
He just smiled and drew me to the water's edge. We sat on sand dunes with our feet in the waves watching the night pass by. And he was right. It was more than perfect. The moment I will always remember. The dampened breeze, cool where his skin left mine bare, the wash of the waves over the sand, these would be with me forever.
I barely woke when he kissed me goodbye the next morning and let his caress take me back into my dreams. The phone woke me hours later. I almost didn't answer it, but it was after 9 and time for me to get up anyway. Now I wish I had never picked it up. Only bits of the conversation stayed with me: a drunk driver, I was needed at the hospital, nothing could be done.
We had three years in our new home then our time was gone. It just wasn't enough for me.
I tore myself away from the memories and the wounds they opened. My friends said it was time to move on, time to let myself heal. They told me I needed to sell the beach house so his ghost could go free. They wanted me to break my promise and forget.
I dropped to my knees. Needles of icy water spattered my face and shirt and soaked into my pants, making me gasp.
"Daniel, I miss you." The grief crashed over me and tears welled up. "They want me to let you go and I just can't."
If this moment is all we have, I couldn't ask for more, my love.
I'd been lying to myself. Three years had not been, would never have been, enough. I didn't want to say goodbye. I wanted to cling to the memory of him and keep it close enough to bruise the raw edges of my pain. I didn't want to know how it felt to say goodbye, to let the pain ease. I needed it to keep him alive.
I looked up at the sky, the same black velvet from a year ago, only colder. Lonelier.
A star fell, leaving a fading, silver streak in its wake.
I smiled. Somewhere Daniel was making a wish. A wish to never forget. Tears stained my cheeks again.
I turned away and wandered down the beach until I came to the next house. Boards covered the windows and door, but the paint still had a newness about it. The owners had closed the place up when fall began to creep in along the sea, abandoning it to a desolate winter. Most the families here were summer people. Daniel and I were among the very few who stayed year round.
Most days I could just imagine he was away at work. The nights were sharp-edged and painful. Daniel and I had never spent a night apart since the day we had moved here. Even after a fight, we slept in the same bed—or didn't sleep at all as we tried to sort through whatever was between us. I still slept on my side of the bed, curled up in one of his T-shirts, inhaling the faint memory of his scent, now with my back turned to avoid seeing the emptiness where he should be laying. It took all my strength to keep from turning to him, to keep from shattering the illusion I wrapped myself in.
I turned back to our place—the beach house with the burnished wood and warm memories. As I reached the deck, the sky shed another star, a glittering, silver tear falling in the night.
"You miss him too, don't you?" I smiled. What a thought, the sky missing someone.
I caressed the railing and remembered the day we moved in. Our first night here was spent on every floor. "A christening," he called it, chuckling softly as he nuzzled my neck, his fingers leaving a tingling trail along the side of my breast. Even now the memory made me blush. We'd held his promotion party here, and a celebration of my first gallery show. For three summers in a row we had a dozen cookouts with friends, family, and beach house people all invited. Winters were spent enjoying each other's company in the front of the fireplace or curled up on our overstuffed couch soaking in the moments we had alone together.
Loneliness washed through me. And something more. I felt as vacant and deserted as the summer families' beach houses. Closing my eyes, I watched the falling star as it streaked the back of my eyelids.
Make a wish. Somewhere a star is falling.
I wandered back to the edge. What would Daniel wish for this time?
To never forget.
The sky glowed as a shower of stars fell towards the sea and the warmth of Daniel's love wrapped itself around me. Every memory would remain forever etched in my heart, but only I could choose whether to color those memories with pain or with joy. Daniel had never left pain in his wake. The pain was mine and mine alone.
Lifting my face to the night sky once more, I let the stars fall into me and burn away the pain, leaving only the sweet glow of our memories.
I will never forget.
Mario Lowther pecks away at a keyboard in a small attic in a cottage in the trees on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. His genre and literary fiction have appeared in Necrotic Tissue, Imaginarium, The Lorelei Signal, Mystic Signals, and Remarkable Doorways; is forthcoming in Corner Bar Magazine; and has been a Glimmer Train New Writers Top 25 Finalist.
SITTING UNDER A CRESCENT MOON ON THE EDGE OF THE BACK SEAT
OF THE BUS OF FOREVER
by Mario Lowther
Just a few hours ago I was a successfully married man.
Then the horn blew, and I abandoned my wife in the lovely house with maroon walls, plied her with pills, stuck plugs in her ears and flowers on her eyes, stole her car and drove it, lights out, back one hundred miles to the Bus of Forever, where I sit, as still as stone beneath a glowing crescent moon, the Pentaprism of Love outside writhing on his back with his feet in the air, and the Answer to All Known Life just beyond my fingertips; squeezed, in fact, under a red cushion which I can’t reach because the barrel of a Mossberg 935 Magnum Turkey is tracking a bead of cold sweat trickling down my forehead.
This is no ordinary pickle. I'm terrified. And excited. In a dying-too-early kind of way.
But there it is. Bad time to feel like a new person.
One A.M. at the Corner of Highway 3A and the Road to Nowhere
I told myself I could follow the treetops, and I did. Down a highway at night pale as old worn jeans, lit by the askance smirk of a dazzling crescent moon. A dirt road glowing dull gray reaches out midway round an s-curve and beckons into black wilderness. Shannie’s blue Tercel rattles over the neglected surface as I swerve in and brake to a hard stop.
I get out for a look and to check my courage, just as a transport truck flies by, the biggest I’ve ever seen, all lit up like a movie set with lights and backdrops, riff rock blaring, and folks in outrageous clothes and funny hats hanging over handrails and swilling champagne bottles, racing off the way I came, down this highway bent like a string pulled tight at both ends then released.
I get back in. I’m about to go over the roller coaster, and this time I think I’ll stand.
Seven A.M. and Days Earlier in the Hall of Things That Don’t Yell At Me
“Hold on, just a minute,” my mother calls as I descend to the basement, each ancient step groaning. “And don't look at my mess, please!” Brightly, she adds, “But I've made a dent in it!”
One faint hope at a time. I look around, sickened, while overhead floorboards creak as Shannie cases the house back to front, sees to windows and doors, calls cats, flushes the toilet, stacks bags and knapsacks in the living room, and swings open the den closet to fetch her coat.
My mom shuffles out, shouldering aside overladen wardrobe hangers. Back in my teens, I vowed to live heroically fancy-free and unfettered; I'm not so much neat as possession-specific, but Mom is a pack rat. Crevices interconnect her bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen and the washer/dryer area, the equity too unbearable to part with: clothing and purses, nicknacks and gadgets, and mementos that recall the touch of her parents who died early, the husband who tried to kill her, the boyfriend her kids drove away, the two kids who left violently, and her youngest who finally returned to decelerate her decrepitude and to finance a chance to make his own luck.
Nothing of mine or of me is apparent - I erased myself as best I could - but there must be a cache around here still, buried like a jewel in a drawer, a cupboard, a box beneath boxes, of the unsullied me; the sweeter, non-defensive, non-contemptuous me; of the boyhood me, the lost me.
Mom grins like a starlet. Her dental work cost ten grand. She could've toured Europe on that. Instead, she's eighty-three, gray-haired and hunchbacked, and she's shrinking; my mother will be a shelf ornament soon. She was a post-war nonconformist; I recall one of many shopping bags toppling over, a photo album yawning open, exhaling sepia snapshots of a peacenik with an Ava Gardner smile. Her fidelities and passions became ours. As a family, we love impregnably.
She opens her arms and we hug. Me one-handed and awkwardly because my wife and I resent how she lives. She both-handed and tenderly because in spite of that we're inseparable.
“You be careful,” she says.
Shortly Before Eleven P.M. in the Lovely House With Maroon Walls Shannie opts for a sleeping pill and a drink of water. I emerge from the bathroom holding a blue ceramic mug, a cartoon of a bug-eyed black cat with a white face and chest painted on the side. She leans on one elbow, her long, wheat-blonde hair in a pigtail, and guzzles the nightcap down. “Thank you, dear,” she sighs, and welcomes relief after a busy travel day. She hands me the mug back, cat side out, cooing,
“Awww, just like Jem.”
We miss our cats, Jem and his sister, Scout. Born feral. They’re affectionate in their own way. Probably hiding under the bed and in the closet, my mother rummaging for them, driven to convince herself she hasn’t lost them, they’re inside the house, haven’t run off; terrorizing them. “Our host provided the cup,” I smile.
Our host, the gruff man with the log cabin who forgot our reservation and stone-facedly welcomed us inside like Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror.
Shannie smacks her big white fluffy pillow until a satisfying shape is created that'll last for a minute until she readjusts and smacks it around again. She’s a light sleeper; perfect pillow placement matters. Ditto comforter arrangement. After some final shifting she floats back, grins, and dreamily admires the cedar beams and maroon walls of the Rose Room. “Isn’t this lovely?”
It’s Queen Victoria meets Grizzly Adams. It’s kitschy but quaint. Shannie grins. Early on, we tried for a child, gave the clinic a shot, got pregnant for two nerve-wracking weeks. Until. In retrospect I joke that given our lifestyle we’d have been better off conceiving a nineteen year-old ready to move out. Sometimes at night I wonder that we're such a pair, why Shannie loves me, why she wants me, why anyone does because sterling mediocrity is all I ever see in the mirror. Now, swaddled in bedding, she blinks at me with her pink face, and a blonde hair out of place that I nudge back. After years of looking, her stylist found one gray strand. The rest are on me.
She yawns, glances at the night table, sags dramatically. “Nuts, I forgot my ear plugs.”
Her backpack is across the room. “Good one. You'll want your eye shades too.”
“Um... actually, yes please. If my wonderful hubby doesn't mind.”
In a tiny way, he does. “You know it means you won’t hear or see yourself snore.”
“My eyes are achy enough.” Shannie yawns bigger. “How dare you say I snore.”
She snores sniffly, lilting wind chime rhapsodies. I’ll lie still, listening enduringly until sleep overcomes. Me, I’m told I'm basso profundo and rattle glass. Thus the ear plugs. I hand them over. Offered to insert them once. Just trying to help. Not a husbandly duty, it seems.
Shannie yawns, lioness-wide now. “I'm really tired,” she marvels. “Hey, are you okay?”
We kiss. I lift her head and gently slip the strap of her flowered eye pads behind her ears, the flaps standing erect on her brow like twin awnings. “Been an eventful day,” I murmur. Her plugged ears can’t hear. I cup her cheek in my palm, stroke her arm, and whisper, “Goodnight, dear.” She lip-reads that, bids goodnight back. Her eyes close with the grace of a child and her breathing becomes heavy. I watch her while she sleeps, thinking pained thoughts: thank you for coming into my life and for not making me confess that I can't surmise why I love you. Careful not to disturb her, I ease her flaps down. She wheedles a little night music: sniff sniff wee ehnn...
Shannie’s a light sleeper and sometimes wakes herself. If she’s edgy, she’ll take one pill to help her rest; if she’s wired and afraid she’ll awaken and not fall back to sleep she’ll take two. Tonight she asked for one. In the bathroom I mixed her two and a half. She’ll sleep deeply and untroubled, and rely on me to stay up and read for awhile or review the pictures we took today.
But not tonight. The Tercel is parked downhill, and at this hour I can roll away unheard.
I kiss Shannie’s sweet pink forehead, shrug my explanation, toss on my shoes and coat and grab the keys to the car. My life has become unsettled, and there’s some place I have to go.
One-Thirty A.M. at the Door to the Bus of Forever
He slams the rifle butt against the bus doors, metal bashing on metal, manic, determined. The folding two-leaf doors swing apart an inch, then rebound closed. He throws his body into it, pounds away in a fury, the doors giving, giving more, until surrendering and springing open. Up the steps he clambers, a formless shadow in the pale radiance of the crescent moon filtering into the bus, and blusters down the aisle, rifle out like a bayonet, barrel levelled, ready to make hell.
Me, I'm in the back of the bus, pure fear and wonder, hands protecting my face, almost laughing, it's unbelievable. This is a bad dream, a black joke – guffaw, I get it. How can this be happening? I'm going to die here? Now? My penultimate thoughts are of Shannie: dear, I’m so sorry I've done this to you... why didn’t I leave you a note... make sure you cope without me...
He pulls up, a hulking, anamorphic shape, heaving and wheezing, his craggy, life-beaten face a photo negative in the moonlight. The rifle is aimed square for my chest, and he utters the last words I ever expect to hear, punctuated for maximum emphasis:
“This. Is a. Mossberg. Nine. Thirty five. Magnum. Turkey...”
These aren’t the last words I expect to hear. Despite myself, I make a desultory noise.
He rears back as if he's caught spittle. “What the fuck? You think I’m kidding!”
With that, he fires. The whole bus shakes with the blast of the discharge, and the window beside my cheek explodes, showering me with glass as I throw my hands in front of my eyes.
“You fuck!” he bellows, re-aiming. “What are you doing in my fucking bus?”
Somewhat Past Noon and Several Miles Up the Road to Nowhere
Our vacation road map and the notes I made for our trip are organized on Shannie’s lap. She traces her fingernail along a snaky line toward a black dot and the name SANDON. They hit silver there over a hundred years ago. Half a dozen operating mines. Fifty other unproven claims. Twenty–three hotels and saloons. Two servicing railways. Like locusts they swarmed in and fed. And after they left, Nature wept and covered their tracks. Not well enough, though.
“A real live ghost town,” Shannie enthuses. “Shouldn’t be much farther.”
We don’t fly places; we hop in the car and drive. I reef the wheel left and right, dancing down a pothole road blasted through what God had surmised would be unassailable forest.
Shannie rubs my shoulder. “You’re pretty quiet. You okay?”
I’ve been stewing for miles. She’d sensed immediately, giving me my time and space, not firefighting until prudent. “Yeah,” I frown, “it’s just that thing that happened.”
“That thing back there.”
“That’s still bothering you? There’ll be other horns.” Shannie’s smile thinks I’m cute for getting moody over a small deal. She tugs at the belt ring in my jeans. “I love you,” she reminds me. Tough words for us. Words we avoid degrading with overuse. Words saved for a meaningful moment, such as now, although she has to yank her wrist out of the way so I can shift into low because we’ve rounded a bend and we’re suddenly bounding over an old plank bridge.
I can't imagine why, but my life began with Shannie. And there will be no other horns.
Early Morning Interlude Aboard A Monument In Another Town
The brochure says the S.S. Moyie is the world’s oldest intact passenger sternwheeler and a National Historic Site. It goes on to describe the leaded glass windows in the dining room and the parquet floor on the Saloon deck, how she began with the Klondike and ended with Sputnik, and daily plied the four shores of Kootenay Lake toting goods and commoners and royalty alike.
Great, but for me it’s too cool there’s a 1919 Model TT Ford truck stowed on the freight deck, and a communications room festooned with knobs and levers to pull and press, and cozy little passenger staterooms like luxury tree houses with bunks to bang your heels against. Even better, there’s a Pilot House up a dizzying staircase and a Ship’s Wheel spoked with thick oak handles like something black-eyed Ahab would’ve spun about to chase the white whale down.
The wheel is locked. Fear not! In my grip Kootenay Lake transforms into an endless high sea and all the cluttered basements and potholed roads of my world become spray and hurricane, fanfare and gunfire. For a minute, there’s an open road ahead and I’ve my entire life to live over.
Shannie points to a sign on a charity box that states with a contribution of five bucks you can blow the ship’s horn. I just bought breakfast, so I know I’ve spent all my small bills. Excited, Shannie checks her wallet, finds a ten. Full speed ahead! I pull the handle and the Moyie’s piping horn startles the town, its familiar hoot resonating off the mountains surrounding the lake. She carefully slides the money into the charity box, and I pull the handle and the vessel sings again.
Shannie is stunned, and gapes at me. “Dear, you blew the horn! That was my turn!”
One P.M. In the Place Where Hope Shrugged
There wasn’t enough room in the floor of the canyon so they built Main Street right over the creek. Two thousand enterprising madmen fought, sweated and slaved here. All that remains are a trio of pine cabins with shingle roofs, a pink shack housing the still-operating hydro-electric substation, a museum in what once was the grand olde Mercantile; and an emporium cum second hand store in the city hall, a three-story box with irregularly-placed windows that leans and looks as if it was made up as it went along. The sign on the door says Closed, but the door is open and there’s nobody around. The lady volunteer in the museum is polite when approached; otherwise she smiles wanly and seems unmoved to get into a chat with visitors. Miles of rusted chain and steel cable lie coiled amongst the trees on the slope that rises from Main Street, and old boards from boomtown buildings jut out of the rushing creek like testaments to failed prosperity.
And one other thing - there are buses.
Seven derelict city trolley buses are parked one after another alongside Main Street on a patch of grass that climbs from the emporium to the museum. There’s an ancient blue bus with a white stripe and roof; the others are all-white with orange striping. Six are in an extreme state of disrepair: dented, paint cracking, tires flat. The other, apart from the rest, nearest the emporium, and the only one with trolleys, has been renovated, dents pounded out, windows cleaned, with a fresh coat of paint. There appears to be no earthly requirement for a fleet of city busses in this isolated, nature-reclaimed place, yet all are parked so perfectly they might release their brakes and pull out to begin their routes. It’s like someone is trying to say ‘We mined for silver and we took the bus.’ Each bus displays a number and route name on an overhead banner, once rotated by hand, now frozen in time. There’s the 4 POWELL. The 7 NANAIMO. The 19 SLOCAN TO KINGSWAY. And the renovated bus - the 11 STANLEY PARK.
One Twenty-Five A.M. Without and Within the Bus of Forever
Crescent moonlight outlines a pale path up Main Street, past the emporium to the door of the Number 11. It acts as my tightrope; I leg it double time on tiptoes, outstretched arms parting the shadows, so keyed up I left the Tercel down by the plank bridge and finished the trek on foot.
The bus sits manifest in the darkness like a ghost ship on a black ocean: bone white body, trolleys raised, unit number 2201 etched above sightless headlamps, four vertical glass planes on twin folding doors like a pair of number four dice. They feel solid to my hesitant touch, the glass thick; how things used to be made. I half imagine alarms should go off; just the creek whooshes along unseen in the gloom. The doors give a little to a push. I wedge my fingers between them and pull hard. They stick, they defy. But I won’t be denied. With a snap, they fly open. I’m in.
The air smells like the world forgot to open the windows. I can’t see the rust spots on the steel poles and frames, the cracks in the original vinyl seats, the damp on the rubber floor runner, but oh man are they there. Strange, there’s a hint of warmth; it’s not as cold as one might expect.
No matter, I haven’t come to critique the progress of the renovation. I’m destined for the back of the bus, where my long dormant manchildness has been aroused and I have to face what by. Two steps I take down the runner, and promptly trip over something sticking out in the aisle. As I miss the seats to either side and fall face first to the floor, I realize that the object was a leg.
There’s a yelp of surprise and a form leaps up from the seat like a stag from underbrush. In the moonlight I glimpse a frenzy of limbs, and a rifle barrel waving, before the person, nature undetermined, aims, and in the same second stumbles off the top stair of the bus and goes head over arse out the folding doors still armed, the doors banging shut tight behind him.
One Minute Later
He’s as distinct as a snowy TV image, this moonlit apparition brandishing a rifle at me from outside the bus. Appears to be early twenty-something, wears a gangland overcoat and his baseball cap on sideways. Sports half a face of prime time idol good looks. The other half is disfigured, the skin stretched, a permanent perturbed expression dragging back over his ear.
“Udduh fffuh!” he hollers. “Wuh drewing? Wuh wutter you drewing? Doing?”
I’m frozen to the spot with a chest-pounding heartbeat that rather hinders the explanation I'd like to quickly offer. Then again, what are the odds an armed nutbar shouting gibberish at me would understand? So, instead, I stay put and pray for the bad light to swallow me up into the blackness of the bus and Fate to ease off on the trigger of a rifle big enough to clock an elephant.
My companion brightens, as if suddenly struck by an essence to our encounter. In his best tour guide voice, he hails me: “Ow er you oo-day? I am ood.” He nods that I should comprehend, his smile angling back of his cheek like a check mark. He motions the rifle at the bus. “Mmmm buh.” He motions the rifle again at the bus, insistently. “Mmmm myyy. My buhhh buhhh.”
Then he turns, fires, and blows the side mirror off.
I hit the floor, blurting omigods and scrambling on all fours, stopping when I clang head-first into the metal frame that signals I've reached the back seat of the bus.
At which point, from the distance, there comes a shout. Somebody is displeased.
I drop down behind the back seat and squint out through the big front window of the bus. The darkness is on the move. A black-on-black shape storms down the hill from the direction of the one barely-illuminated, shingle-roofed pine cabin of the three I noticed earlier that overlook Main Street. It limps badly, as if trying not to somersault; still, it makes marvellous progress. An unbroken stream of raging invectives intensifies as it approaches, indicating this volcanic bulk's absolutely, positively last final fuse has been irrevocably lit.
This has a severe effect on the gangster with the gun. He backtracks a couple of fearful steps and goes into a crouch, thrusting out the gun as though to fire, hugging it back in the next beat. His hips shake. His shoulders rock from side to side. He starts to perform a lateral dance.
And with perfect pitch, he sings: “Geh yer eyes onna roh, yer anns uh-on uh wee-ul...”
There's a flurry of action. The gangster, once alone, now no longer is. He stiffens.
He, and presumably the other, consider the blown-off side mirror. The gangster gestures with the rifle. At the bus. At me. A beastly hand, white in the moonlight, descends on the weapon, rips it from the gangster’s grasp. The rifle butt lashes out, flat against the gangster’s cheekbone, dropping him.
Then the folding doors of the bus are struck. They creak. Another strike, then an angry, hard push. The doors don’t release. They’re stuck. The window next to me, can I open it, I hope. When the rifle butt does a missile shot on the door, I attack the window, elbowing the glass.
Which is unfortunate, because I can see it.
I can see the Answer to All Known Life.
It's right there, right between the seats, right in front of me.
Intermission: Contemplations Upon a Crescent Moon
The moon used to scare me because some nights there was less of it. What have you got to cry about, my mother, single with three kids and weary after a lifeless day of medical steno, would demand. Give it back, I'd wail, it's not theirs to take, whoever's doing it. How can it hurt you, Mom would ask. Because, I`d sniffle. If the moon's different, I'll be different.
That it would go away, then come back each time, proved someone was messing with me. And I was different, a little more between every falling and rising crescent moon. Don’t be silly, Mom would tell me, sometimes in exasperation, sometimes tenderly, you’re supposed to change, it means you’re growing up. You want to grow up, don’t you?
I still don’t know the answer to that question.
All I really learned is people change like skies change, and the Moon comes home. Year after changing year it returns, a glass quarter full or three quarters empty, and always the closest connection in a dark night sky. And the Moon takes me back. It's not only a glass - it’s a bridge.
Almost One Thirty-Five A.M. Within the Bus of Forever
“You fuck!” he bellows, re-aiming. “What are you doing in my fucking bus?”
My head’s in my hands, side window glass pelting like stones. I'm rigid with terror. This man has pointed a gun at me and actually fired. There’s no guessing how far such a man will go and I’ve few ideas how to persuade him to lower his weapon. Begging him to take it easy, could set him off. Apologizing and promising never to return if he lets me go, isn’t telling him what he wants to know. There’s always the truth: sir, ignore that I’m awol and off the map, I busted into your fucking bus to find the Answer to All Known Life, and it’s right here, so this won’t take a minute. And oh yeah, I’m fessing up because, after a self-protective childhood, and re-inventing myself twice to become this supposedly mature, un-lost me, it’s my privilege not to plead for my life. So, if fade I must, if finish me you must, let me go out, reconstituted dignity intact, okay?
Right, I'll opt for the truth. Have to. And if I wind up in some nameless hole, I only hope my wife, my mother and anyone who values me assume no responsibility for my disappearance.
Something knocks on the window frame beside me. My breath seizes. Another knock, sharper, insistent. I steel myself, thinking this is it. Slowly I lower my hands, and turn to look.
The gangster is outside, his disfigurement pressed to the window. He points at me. Points at the desperado sharing a bus with me. Grins like a ghoul and waves at us. Extends his thumbs, makes vees of his fingers, and retreats almost against the next bus.
Then he rocks his shoulders two beats at a time, and in a thick voice he goes into a rap: “Pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison uh luh.” He adds a headbang. He gyrates on the downbeat. “Pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison uh luh.” He executes a perfect Michael Jackson moonwalk, right there in full view with the moon shining down on him like a spotlight. “Pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison, aye ma pennuh prison uh luh.” He flings himself onto his back, his hips shaking, his thick boots up and punching the night.
It’s dead quiet inside the bus. A simmering, loathsome, half mad kind of dead quiet.
“Pen a prison of love,” I repeat, venturing to sound sympathetic.
The rifle barrel chastises my forehead and the silence menacingly corrects,
“Pentaprism,” adding: “A five-sided prism with two silvered surfaces giving a constant deviation of all rays of light through ninety degrees. Used chiefly in the view-finders of single-lens reflex cameras.”
My solitary selfish side wholly gets it and finds this first-time intimacy with a Magnum Turkey every bit as thrilling as going over the roller coaster standing. And just as I’m processing that, an old skin molts off me and a New Me, a living, pulsing Me emerges. I awaken as if from a series of long, overlapping delusions. I know where I am and why, how I feel and why; crucially what I was just hoping and why. This is my first-ever epiphany. It's stunning and disconcerting, mystifying and wonderful. Because I never dreamed such thoughts, such feelings, were in me.
“I memorized that,” the silence says. “You wondering what it means?”
Well no, I’m thinking about something completely else, but I nod anyway.
“It means when he threw the fucking dictionary after the first week of rehab, that's the page it fell open to. Now, last fucking time. What...”
Sharp and cold, the rifle barrel taps my forehead.
“...are you doing...”
“...in my fucking bus?”
And push. Hard.
Late Afternoon Interlude Sailing Away Upon A Hot Pool Noodle
I’m suspended, weightless, legs splayed, arms draped over three pool noodles I've made into a raft, my head back, raindrops falling on my face, afloat in a hot spring that crowns a tree-covered mountaintop. Steam rises in white clouds and dissipates into a gray mist that cloaks the treetops and inches closer like an oncoming ceiling. Soothing piped-in New Age keyboard music rides the air. It’s been a long day, and I’m going for a cruise before dinner in the town site below.
I’m surrounded by unsmiling seniors clinging to the edge of the crater-shaped pool. They glower at a young couple who nuzzle, submerged to their necks, down at the far end. And at two teenage girls dangling their calves over the concrete deck whose pouts complain they wish more kids were here. And they glower at me. I neither pout nor nuzzle. I have usurped all of their pool noodles. I'm the one adrift in the middle of their retirement. I feel like a carrot in a bowl of soup.
Shannie, who’s had her dip and gone hiking around the hilltop with a bounce in her step and bear bells in her hand, has long since forgiven me for my horn self-interest. I haven’t. She's not dwelling on an occasional juvenile gaff, but I am and I'm perturbed why. I dwell on that too. What I know for sure is there will be no other horns. And what I've come to realize, while a-sail in apparent bliss on three hot pool noodles, music in my ears, rain on my face, haunted seniors glaring, is that I have to leave Shannie. The horn only started it. I have to go back and finish it.
One P.M. In the Place Where Hope Shrugged
Shannie and I consider the refurbished 11 STANLEY PARK bus, parked here on this grassy swath alongside a roaring creek on the floor of a remote canyon in a ghost town, with identical expressions of bemusement. Same faces we wore when we stood before Stonehenge.
Touch the old, re-painted frame: it's real. Press the double folding doors: they give a bit. Peer through the glass: three steps rise to the driver’s seat, the cushion looks uncomfortable and thin. There’s the fare box with a glass panel and a tumbling coin path like a poor boy’s pinball machine, and a brass change maker like a pan flute for quarters, nickels and dimes. All polished clean and shiny with loving care. The grand old rubber steering wheel aches for turning.
A gust of waking wind jolts up the canyon, through the trees, en route to nowhere. I pogo the length of the bus, glimpsing red-fabric benches, chrome frames and poles, a pull cord forever drooping. There should be traffic noise, car horns, laughter, conversation, the Who and Zeppelin on transistor radios, the ping of the next stop. Only the turbulent creek fills my ears. I jump up to get a view of the back seat, then grasp the window, wedge the toe of my boot into the wheel rim, and raise myself to take a closer look. This becomes an unexpected, long and quizzical stare.
“Dear, come down, you shouldn’t do that,” Shannie frets. “It’s not your bus.”
Almost One Forty-Five A.M. At the Back of the Bus of Forever
The mouth of the Mossberg 935 Magnum Turkey forces my neck back and presses into the lines of my forehead,.
“Answer me,” warns the silence.
It’s truly life or death what I say next.
I lick my lips, which are drier than deserts, and swallow. My Adam’s Apple bobs.
My response is succinct: “What. Is. Your. Fucking. Bus. Doing here?”
The guy’s eyes fly open, wider than Munsch’s scream, wider than Goya’s Saturn, wider even than big-screen zombies. His mussy-haired, bushy-bearded, caved-cheeked, Easter-Island-chinned face twists up with raging indignation, and in the crescent moonlight he’s a nightmare squeezing his rifle like he’ll soon be able to wring my blood from it. “Fucking hell,” he seethes, “life isn’t sad enough, some invading dickhead’s gotta challenge me on shit in my own space.”
A bead of cold sweat trickles down my forehead, in time to the movements of the creek rushing outside. Water from nowhere, within and without, similar by description, dissimilar by execution; the notion almost makes me laugh, sitting there rigidly with a rifle to my head. Some kind of black-humored torture to go out scared, wet-faced, blinking uncontrollably, just when the boyhood Me, the lost Me, becomes the found Me. Can’t abide that. The bead trickles down, onto the mouth of the rifle, then pools as if to continue down my nose. Geez, anything but. I make a taut face, holding on. A craggy expression of something akin to youthful awe hovers above me. Our gazes meet, and widen in wonder. Then I don’t feel the bead anymore. He follows my eyes. The bead is gone and we realize what happened. It went down the barrel of the Magnum Turkey.
The silence loses it. There’s a split second warning of an anguished scream and I duck as the rifle fires, the bullet ruffling my hair which stands on end. The rear window disintegrates into splinters of moon-gleamed glass. I slam my hands over my ears, deafened by the discharge.
Muffled, I hear a rant. Places the silence used to go on the bus. Stanley Park, all the time, every day in summer, to Second Beach for chips and fries, to Third Beach with his transistor and a towel to tan and listen to Jolly John on LG-FM all afternoon. Downtown to Pacific Centre just to hang out, to Seymour Street to roam Record Row...
The gangster appears at the side window, wild-eyed, waving his arms in panic. “Pennuh prison,” I hear him cry, “aye ma...” He dematerializes as the silence turns and blows away what’s left of the side window frame, the jagged remains sucked off into the crescent moonlight.
...or to Movie Row on Granville Street. To the old bookstore on West Pender Street with the creaky wooden floor. To Woodward’s, and the fifth floor toy floor or the supermarket in the basement, or through the walkway over Cordova Street into the Coggery to get concert tickets...
The gangster, probably still wild-eyed and waving his arms in panic, pops up at the rear window. “Pennuh prison,” he cries behind me, “aye ma...” And again he probably dematerializes as I drive my nose to my knees and whatever clings to the rear window frame shatters in a clang of glass and metal.
...or to Gastown, and Blood Alley at midnight, or early morning after an all-night drunk when a dawn mist hung on the cobblestones, or to that English chick at Tiffany’s who cut your hair and shared her smokes with her nose bandaged after getting into another bar fight...
“...this bus was my fucking way out!” the silence roars with climactic fury, shoving my head down with the rifle barrel.
“Mine, too!” I plead, my voice weak, shaky. “Mine, too.... mine, too...”
And I confess everything. This bus, this fucking bus, took me to Stanley Park too. To the zoo, when there still was one; and to the Aquarium, and to Granville Street, to the hippie theatre, remember the hippie theatre, the Retinal Circus, bad foreign films and worse popcorn. Gastown, what about the wax museum, that guy dressed in a cloak in the Chamber of Horrors would jump out, scare the girls and tourists, I’d go every week. The English chick, her name was Suzette. The bookstore was Ainsworth’s, after comic books it’s where I became interested in the classics...
Venting gives my voice encouragement. I catch my breath, wipe my nose, and look up in hope. “...it’s where I bought... my first Sherlock Holmes...”
“Kerouac.” I think it’s what the man slowly lowering the Mossberg 935 Magnum Turkey mutters. He blinks at the destruction of the back of the bus like Pollock detoxifying, then checks around in sudden fear. His eyes close, he sighs and does a shoulder sag as the gangster reappears, framed in the side window, a family portrait, flashing his macabre smile and nodding sheepishly.
I could tell them my life story; he could tell me theirs. I could relate I grew up ugly, poor, weak, disabled and bullied, with a family laboring to trust that there was love deep down because none could forgive another to show it up close, and that when I reached my inevitable crossroads I chose the path that would lurch me through self-destruction to Shannie, without whom I’d have never survived to immaturity. He could perhaps fabulize he’d squandered his dream of escaping poverty and disillusionment on drugs and drink, ending up disabled, pensioned and isolated from humanity, with his nephew, his sole remaining brain-damaged relation, to care for, and a fleet of derelicts, acquired from an advertisement in return for free transport, his life’s project to restore.
Or other amazing stories. But what happens is he gives out a huge, soul-weary sigh and waves the gangster away. Pleased, it seems, to have met me, the gangster salutes and says, “Av-uh ood ay. Be seen seening seening seeing you, dude.” Weakly, I salute back. He grins with pride and dissolves into the incorporeal moonlight. I watch him leave, like a Rorschach striding up the hill toward the lone lit shingle shack. I’ll never know when, where and what was his catastrophe, or how he perceives his future. Saddens me, as I expect we may have faced similar crossroads.
The silence monitors him until the shack door opens and closes, light burning within. Then he turns and frowns at me, the rifle lowered. “So what, you came here to reminisce?”
I shake my head. “To find the Answer to All Known Life. But then I had an epiphany.”
It strikes me such an answer might make him raise the rifle again. His scowl agrees. “You had an epiphany. In my bus. An epiphany about the Answer to All Known Life. Really.”
“Actually, the epiphany came later. I saw the Answer to All Known Life this afternoon, when I jumped up and looked into this back seat. See? It’s here. Been right here, all this time.”
I point. Squinty-eyed and cautious, the silence edges forward in the moonlight and peers over the seat in front of me. Down at the dog-eared corner of a manila envelope poking out from under the seat cushion. His head snaps up, he shows me a fierce face, he looks again harder as if there has to be something else. Me, I’m elated. It’s suffered over the years, got a big crease in it, a couple small tears, a long wrinkle where it pushes up against the cushion, and a smudge, maybe the fingerprint of whoever stuffed it in there. But that’s it alright. Just a knuckle’s width beyond my reach. It's the Answer to All Known Life.
Before I’m shot in self defense, I explain. That when I was a kid, I was just ten years-old, the first year the Canucks were in the NHL, I sent them a fan letter. Said how excited I was, and could I have Andre Boudrias’ autograph. Never did anything like that before. And instead of an autograph, what I got back was they got a sheet of paper and the whole team signed. Everyone, I counted them, I had the autographs of the entire original team. What an heirloom that would be now! But then? Understand: I had nothing of value in my life, or to call my own. Except that.
So I put it in an envelope with my name and address in the return sender corner, and hid it away for safekeeping. Or I thought I did, because years later I searched for it and couldn’t find it. It’d got lost somewhere in my mother’s basement. My mother the pack rat who hoards memories, won’t part with anything, it would be like giving up a remaining minute. Rather than look for it or let me look for it, or help me look for it, she denied ever seeing it, denied I ever owned it. Turning her place upside down would kill her, so I gave in. But I believed she had it, knew exactly where it was and wouldn’t give it up because it was her memory now, her keepsake of the boyhood me. Then this afternoon I find the same bus I rode as a kid, and a corner of the same kind of envelope sticking out from under the back seat cushion, and I think what are the chances? Maybe Mom is right after all.
Maybe, just maybe I left it here on the seat. Someone stuck it here for safekeeping, trusting I would find it again. We talk about karma. Wouldn’t that be karma, all these years later?
“How can you tell?” The silence nudges the Answer to All Known Life with the Magnum Turkey, making me flinch and move my knee away. “What makes you so sure? Nothing's written there. You gotta pull out the corner to see. Could be any old damn envelope.”
His voice sizzles. Bitterness and jealousy seem to make him come alive. That shocks me. This bus would’ve taken him away, then returned him once his escape timed out, to the hammer-smack of his gray-skied, future-light life, till the next provocation. Only a future-less case would resort to restoring it, try to ride it back across the bridge of the crescent moon, to the kid forever trapped on the other side, the Answer to All Known Life clutched to his little pale chest, waving frantically, shouting get out for pity’s sake, turn back, grow up, once and for all and for good.
This is a mistake, a tragedy. I feel strange. I feel sick. “Maybe I’m not so sure. I...”
“Fuck that. You gotta be sure. You have to look, don’t you? Means you still have hope. That’s so fucking sweet.” The silence sucks in a long breath, and spits something livid on the floor. “Go ahead then, damn you.”
“Yes... right... I came back to look... That’s all. Just to look...”
No choice now. I reach out, fearful as a child, and touch the envelope. The paper is cold, dry and brittle, it’s ancient parchment. Been here a long while, abandoned, resigned, waiting. If this is truly the Answer to All Known Life, I’ll heave the biggest sigh of relief ever. If not, it’s still in my mother’s basement, where I'll find it, I suppose inevitably. When I do, I won’t blame Mom for denying its existence. I mean, what can I say really, she’s my mom, she did her best, we both have... right?
Long as we’re still joined in our way, that’s what matters in the end. I envision her now. Living every day, alone and fragile in her basement crammed with lifetimes, while I'm upstairs living a shiny life with my soul mate and her patient, tactful, intelligent daughter-in-law.
Yet when it was time for us to go, she was the one telling me to be careful.
Neither that, or anything else, struck the first dent in me until that blessed horn blew.
But now it hits me. And I realize, now I really know, what my mother actually meant.
Right there in front of me, like the Answer to All Known Life. Long sigh. Oh, man.....
Two A.M. Sitting Under a Crescent Moon On the Edge of the Back Seat of the Bus of Forever
I frown up at the barrel of the Magnum Turkey and the man still apparently entertaining the possibility of blowing off some part of my extremities.
“You’re really gonna hate me,” I tell him, “but I’m having another epiphany in your bus.”
I pull back and lay my hand in my lap, bow my head, and sit there, facing the envelope, breathing gently. Even the creek that was roaring outside the blasted-out back window a second ago seems to shut off to hear what'll happen next.
Who’d have thought the world could be dead silent, yet look and sound so alive in the moonlight? This is what being at peace means. This is how everything coming together, and finally making sense, feels. In the end, the New Me, the Found Me, not about me at all. So ironic; bewilder me for ever missing it. Saccharine, but true.
So what I want more than anything else is to get up this very moment and ring the bell to get off the bus. Along with clarity, an epiphany, it seems, gives one a case of the sillies, a floating on air-ness, never to come down from, where anything from curing cancer to achieving universal brotherhood feels do-able. And next to ringing the bell, I want my fellow bus rider to have one of these soul-altering experiences for himself, because my pithy but simple conclusion is: positivity kinda really beats otherwise, and I figure he’s due, and why not have your world open up again? After blowing Shannie’s horn, and leaping up and finding what could be the long-lost Answer to All Known Life peeking out from the back of a seat in a crosstown bus parked alongside a raging creek in the bottom of a lonely canyon, it’s happened to me. Selfish actions that felt unmotivated and wrong, tremors of a coming quake. Now I’m overjoyed, I’m supercharged and bullet-proof, I want to share, I want to open up to the guy gaping down at me with the howitzer, explain about life and the whole thing, in case believing got beat out of him at some point, that in fact there are no Answers to All Known Life, but if you keep your dreams true and just follow your needs, then you might be lucky enough to experience the big reality about the limited power of one. Problem being, wonderful as all that sounds, given the context of our situation this is honestly the worst time to prattle on like a self-help disc, so the best I can do is resolve to look him plain in the face and declare to him that - same as my mom in her basement - I’ve just made a dent in my mess.
He had the rifle on me; during my reverie he’s taken a step back, he’s unsure, ready and watchful, now has it pointed crossways. Everything about him shrieks dead-end horror; second-hand, third-hand, hand-me-down sadness; last gasp, loser at life; radiating desperation, the ghosts of his failures moaning over his shoulders. The disbelief on his face asks how can I have possibly decided not to reclaim what might be my long-missing treasure. This isn’t a doorway he’s sitting in, dishevelled, hand out, saying you’ve had your revelation, mister, that’s fine, so can you spare some change. He wants an answer. He deserves an answer. To a lot of things. Great, so let’s try to say something about hope that isn’t condescending.
Something believable, something that works. Such as what. Such as nothing. My adrenalin withers, I throw up my hands, haven’t the temerity to moralize on chance to the unblessed. He points toward the front of the bus with the Mossberg, motions again sadly when I don’t react. I shake my head: what. Then I get it. He doesn’t want me around anymore, he’s disgusted I had a notion of anything real for him, he’s saying do you want to go, okay then, go if you want to, go ahead, you lucky, epiphanic bastard, just get up, get out.
In his tired eyes I see all the way back to the first time his old man slapped him around. There's something of my mother in his gaze. What was this long-missing treasure I came here for - a past hope, a personal token, a trivia answer. Like a tourist with opened eyes, if I'm to beat my drum about my Brand New Answer to All Known Life, then my audience must be the answer.
I stand as ordered, grasping the seat rail awkwardly. It comforts me that the silence and I are the same height. He looks at me, waiting for me to leave. I look at him, waiting for him to blink. “I’m not leaving,” I announce, “till we talk this over and you tell me how I can help you.”
He makes a pained face in the crescent moonlight, arches his spiky, unkempt eyebrows, bemused by some meaningful futility, and nods to say that sharing my providential gift is a fine idea. Then he turns the Mossberg on me, sticks it in my gut so hard I jerk backward, and fires.
And the creek that a minute ago stopped roaring outside the blasted-out back window of the bus roars right back to life, making my ears thrum. For a moment, every notion I have is laid open, every nerve in my body sounds an alarm, and the world I’ve been dulled to all my life hails me, touches me electrically, is fragrant with thrilling nature and painted with vibrant, vivid color. And this is how it feels, I realize, this is what it is: the transition isn’t through a bright, beckoning light, or a glittering miasma leading to a radiant, cloud-carpeted uber-reality - it’s consciousness, it’s an awakening, it’s a final relieved, deserved step before gliding across a moonlit bridge from the regular world to a mirrored world of eternal magic, wonder and peace: Been here all along...
It’s a beautiful moment. It’s the beautiful moment before the next moment when I realize I’m still alive, that getting shot didn’t hurt, that the silence stands in the middle of the aisle of our childhood bus, his face twisted by a mad half grin and a whaddaya-think-now smirk, hands apart for emphasis, in one the Magnum Turkey, in the other the last remaining Magnum Turkey shell.
He could only have removed it while I was in reverie. We wouldn’t have reckoned on this causing an even more beautiful moment for us both. Just thinking of the possibilities ahead starts me trembling and repeating “Oh my God” under my breath, like I’m having a once in a lifetime experience slated for people who win lotteries or discover Egyptian tombs. The silence loads the shell back into the rifle, and gazes at me firmly, defiantly. Then he chuckles as though surprised, delighted and buoyed by the consequence of following me into a dark alley I had to explore. We exchange a knowing look. Together, we’ve just learned something we couldn’t have apart.
He steps forward, seizes my hand and pumps it, his skin rough and hard, like embracing a cheese grater, yet a powerful grip, full of life. Laughing now, and shaking his head, he turns and lurches off the bus. Halfway down he stumbles into a seat rail, glances back embarrassed, I wasn’t supposed to see that. As he disembarks I charge after him: I want to thank him, I want to know his name, and tell him mine. But he limps away with incredible agility and speed, over the crescent moonlight and up the hill toward his warmly lit cabin, and in agreement I head the other way, soak in the fresh night air, and find the ground wonderful to feel beneath my feet.
Three A.M. at the Corner of Highway 3A and the Road to Nowhere
I tell myself I can drive the return trip with the lights on, and I do. The dirt road that leads from nowhere is bent like a string pulled tight at both ends then released, and I dodge potholes as best as I can. But they can’t all be avoided, and I’m not really for slowing down to try, and some of them, well, to hell with it - suck it up, brother, speed up, the blow won’t kill the Tercel or me.
The highway in the moonlight is blue like a river and ribbons into the night as if it has somewhere to go. I stop and get out to take a look at the currents of fluorescence in the asphalt, just as a transport truck flies by, the biggest I’ve ever seen, all lit up like a movie set with lights and backdrops, riff rock blaring, and folks in outrageous clothes and funny hats hanging over handrails and swilling champagne bottles, racing off in the opposite direction that I’m heading, unthinking of an end to the highway and unfeeling of the forks in the road.
I get back in. I’m about to go over the roller coaster, and this time I’ll hold onto my hat.
The lacy white of a new sky rises on the horizon, and the crescent moon sets behind the tree-covered mountaintop a hot spring crowns. Because everything feels different, because I feel like a child without the vocabulary to express or explain, against my better judgement and a vow to actually behave responsibly I cut the Tercel’s engine and switch off the headlights and coast in neutral up to the lovely house with maroon walls. In the stillness, I park quietly and tiptoe inside.
Our room is dark. I stand rooted for a minute, accustoming my eyes. In setting the front door and room keys on the chest of drawers of course I drop them on the floor and they make a sound like a thousand windows shattering. But our surly host isn’t roused from his bed, doesn’t thunder down the hall, cell in hand to report an emergency. And from the vicinity of the pillows and comforter a soft, sweet melody comes unbroken: sniff sniff wee ehnn... sniff sniff wee ehnn...
It’s a big world, Shannie, and it appears there’s just you and I to handle it, and I'm ready to handle it for us both now, whenever I need to. And I'm glad you're never too young to realize you don't become a better person for yourself; meanwhile I'll work on improving my vocabulary, and I'll get undressed and slide under the covers where it’s warm and at day’s end my privilege is to sleep beside a girl who improves the best of me and lets the rest of me be me.
Shannie jolts awake, lifts her head, looks around in alarm, and only then realizes her flaps are down. She raises them, and finds me frozen in the act of stretching and getting comfy. She’s beautiful when getting her bearings. Just me, I smile, and I snuggle next to her. She pats me as though to say she hopes I had a nice trip to the bathroom, then removes her eye shades and ear plugs, places them on the night table, and lays back down and wraps my arm around her.
“I’ve had the strangest dream,” she murmurs.
I nod. “Tell me all about it,” I say, and I draw her near.
William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem." You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle). (Credit photo: (Wikipedia article, the picture itself))
Cold Mashed Potatoes by William Quincy Belle
Fred poked at his food with his fork. He couldn't hide his disinterest and sighed.
Ethel looked up from her plate and stared at her husband. "What's the matter?" She held her fork in midair expecting a response. When it became obvious an answer was not forthcoming, she went back to spearing a few string beans with her fork. She swept the beans through her potatoes and put the mixture in her mouth. She glanced at her husband while she chewed. He was twirling his fork idly around his plate not eating anything.
"You're not hungry?" Her voice had a matter of fact tone to it, but her expression changed. "Don't tell me they had a birthday or something at the office and you ended up having a piece of cake before coming home?" She clicked her tongue in disgust. "All that sugar always ends up spoiling your appetite." She pointed her fork at Fred and said in a somewhat threatening manner, "If you're not hungry, don't blame me."
He continued to look at his plate. "I didn't have cake today."
She moved her fork over her plate while keeping an eye on her husband. "So what then?" She looked at him suspiciously.
"Do we have to have cold mashed potatoes?" He kept his head down staring at his plate.
"What? What are you talking about? I've been serving you cold mashed potatoes since we got married, heck even when we were dating. Now all of a sudden you tell me you don't like them?" She looked at her husband with both shock and disgust. "What's gotten into you today?"
He looked at the table. "I've been thinking..." He cleared his throat. "Could we try warming the potatoes up?"
She stopped eating and stared at her husband wide-eyed. "Where... where..." She shook her head. "Where did you get such an idea?"
"Lots of people do it. They melt butter on it."
"How do you know that?" She furrowed her brow.
"I'm not without experience, Ethel." He glared at her. "You didn't marry a country bumpkin."
"I understood that. I guess I understood that when we got married. But why are you bringing this up now? Why after all these years?"
He shrugged. "I'm... I'm older. I'm having trouble tasting."
"What do you mean?"
He poked at his mashed potatoes. "This just seems bland. I don't necessarily taste anything. Maybe I could taste the subtlety of flavours before, but now? It seems as though I can't appreciate the delicacy the way I used to."
She watched her husband.
"I've been asking myself if this is it. Is this all there is?"
"You..." Her voice faltered. "You want garlic?"
He looked her in the eye. "No. I do not want garlic."
She forcefully put down her fork on the table. "There is no way I'm serving you garlic. It's horrible. People have no idea how their breath stinks afterwards. No matter how good anybody thinks it is, it ends up being so very unpleasant to everybody else." She let out a cackle. "Unpleasant? It’s absolutely revolting. You can suck on all the breath mints in the world and you're not going to get rid of that smell. It's disgusting."
"I don't want garlic."
Ethel scowled at him. "What then? Salt? Do you have any idea of your daily sodium intake should be? We all get enough salt as it is with various processed foods. Adding more to our own cooking means we are going to go well over the line of the recommended daily amount.
"Pepper? Don't make me laugh. You talk about losing your taste. What do you think happens when you add spice to your foods? You build up a tolerance. Your taste buds become desensitised and you require more and more spice to get the same sensation." She pointed at him menacingly. "You're going to turn into a spice addict."
She slapped the table. "And don't get me started on onions. I still don't know which breath is worse: onion breath or garlic breath. Whatever the case, it just reeks. I am not going to have my husband running around in public offending everybody within a radius of five paces. My God, what would the neighbours think? What would your colleagues think? Heck, our own family will avoid us." She gave him a dirty look and went back to eating.
He sat there looking down at his plate while tapping his finger on the tabletop. Finally, he picked up his fork and scooped up some potatoes.
"Are you crying?" Jane said.
"You need to give a lot of consideration to your future. This will not be the end of it. The dam has burst; the floodgates have opened. This is like rolling a snowball down the hill and it keeps getting bigger and bigger until it turns into an avalanche. Men are a bunch animals and no matter how well behaved they may appear to be, deep down inside, they're all a bunch of spice addicts.
"Believe you me, it won't stop at garlic. He'll next be asking for chopped onions topped off with paprika. Paprika! Do you remember Mary Zimmerman?"
"Mary Zimmerman. She used to live over on Huron Crescent before she and her husband moved to Boston," Jane said.
"Oh yeah. I remember now."
"She was in town a couple of weeks ago to visit some of her old friends and the two of us went out for drinks. Well, I think she had one too many and she told me that her husband once convinced her to add some jalapeño peppers to their mashed potatoes."
Jane made a disparaging clicking with her tongue: tch, tch. "Mary told me she couldn't taste anything for a week afterward her mouth was on fire so much."
Ethel held the receiver to her ear with her head down. With her free hand, she dabbed a few tears on her cheek.
"Ethel, you have to think about the future. You have to think about your future. No matter what he says to you now, you can be positive he's just going to keep talking about it over and over again. There will be no stopping him. If you want my opinion, you need to protect yourself. You need to think about yourself. You need to think about your future and I'm saying your future for you, not your future for the two of you."
Jane paused a moment. "Do you still have that business card I gave you?"
Ethel furrowed her brow. "Yes."
"Promise me you'll call tomorrow. At the very least, you can find out what your options are. You have to protect yourself. And you need professional help to do it."
"Do you promise?"
"Yes, yes, I promise."
"Good. Now you try to get a good night's sleep. You're going to be a busy woman tomorrow. I’m sure you'll get an appointment right away."
"Good night, Ethel. And good luck." Jane hung up.
Ethel held onto the receiver for a moment then set it back in its cradle on the night table. She sat still for a moment collecting her thoughts. She pulled open the drawer and lifted the top to a small jewellery box. She reached to one side and grasped a small white business card. She turned it right side up and read the print: Nancy Troutman, divorce lawyer. Tomorrow she would call and see if she could get in right away. It was time to take charge of her own life. She had lived with cold mashed potatoes all her life and she was going to be damned if somebody tried to make her have anything else.
David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The holder of an MA degree from the Universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, and a lifelong animation fan, he has published short fiction in a variety of genres for various magazines and anthologies, as well as essays on his favorite topics for similar publishers. He is the author of America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.), The Singular Adventures Of Jefferson Ball (Chupa Cabra House), The Pups (Booklocker.com), Certain Private Conversations and Other Stories (Aurora Publishing), Orthicon; or, the History of a Bad Idea (Linkville Press, forthcoming) and Nothing About Us Without Us: The Adventures of the Cartoon Republican Army (Dreaming Big Productions, forthcoming.)
Red Rover by David Perlmutter
As the sun rose, Jack and Madge stirred in their beds and soon arose. It was time, as Madge had promised Jack, to give him the lay of Winnipeg’s land. Jack would need it, since, as an American, his knowledge of Canadian culture and customs was, as he would have been the first to admit then, slim to non-existent.
The main thing as Jack saw it, though, was learning how to adjust to living in a much larger community than he had been used to, since Winnipeg was considerably larger than either Grand Forks or Fargo. He was afraid, of course, at first, but after Madge introduced him to her friends as her newly acquired “ward”, as well as pointing out the areas in the city where it was best that he not venture, at least not without the company of Red Rover, he became confident of his new place in life. By afternoon, he was coming around to the idea that perhaps Canada was not so bad a place to live, as it had most of the amenities of the United States as well as some more beneficial elements of its own.
But there were still some elements of this new society that bewildered him, as Madge discovered when she caught him looking with horror at a Coke machine, shaking, with an American $1 bill in his paw.
“Where’s the slot?” he said with fear as he grabbed her shirt, shirking away from the machine as it were satanic evil incarnate.
“What slot are you talking about?” she asked, not comprehending what he meant.
“They always had slots for our dollar bills in the machines in America. You would just push it in and the soda comes out. But there’s no slot! No way at all that I can see to get the money in there! How can I get a drink now?”
“I knew this would happen,” said Madge, gently pushing him away from the machine. As she suspected she would have to, it was now time to introduce him to one of the biggest differences between Canada and America- the difference between the forms of money that they used.
She reached into her pocket, opened up her wallet, and retrieved two small, round coins, one made entirely of solid gold, the other with a silver outline surrounding a smaller gold piece that formed the interior of the coin. The gold coin had a picture of a loon on it, while the silver/gold one had a polar bear on its front. On the back of both was a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, the long deposed human former head of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a political entity no longer existence in this new and strange world.
“I figured you’d get confused by the cash,” Madge said. “We have enough trouble with it ourselves. But since you Yankees still have that paper money stuff, it must seem even more confusing to you to see us paying for everything with coins, since all of your coins aren’t worth very much! We still have the bills above $5, but we junked the $1 and $2 bills a long time ago, back when the humans were still around. They thought it would make life easier for everyone, and it does since we don’t have to be weighed down by so much paper anymore, but we still get weighed down by all of these silly coins sometimes! You see this one?” she added, pointing to the gold one. “That one we call the ‘Loonie’. Stupid name, huh? Well, the humans came up with that, so go figure. And this one…” pointing to the silver/gold one “…is called the ‘Toonie’. Another bad name. Well, we haven’t come up with anything better…yet. So that’s what they’re called and what they mean. Any questions?”
“No,” he answered, comprehending fully her little lecture. “I got it all.”.
“And for this machine, there’s a little disk on the side over here.” Madge added, putting a ‘Toonie’ on a small but noticeable rim of steel and plastic that was located on the upper right side of the machine. “You probably didn’t notice it ‘cause it’s not where you usually see it on your machines. That’s the way they fool the tourists!”
Both of them laughed. It was another way in which Madge was showing her devotion to taking care of Jack. He would soon be able to do so for her, but not exactly in the way he had hoped and planned for.
It wasn’t long after that particular incident that Jack was able to show his mettle to Madge as a superhero sidekick. And she would need one.
The event that triggered this need for a display of superhero and sidekick activity was a convenience store holdup. On the surface, it was a convenience store holdup like all convenience store holdups, but unlike most of these acts of urban blight, the felons this time would be punished. Also, the felons were not of the ordinary kind, or at least what now passed for “ordinary” here.
One of the felons, an animated cartoon character, emerged nervously as bullets began flying inside the building. He was in the physical form of a spider monkey, and, based on the expensive and heavily tailored suit of clothes he was wearing, he was obviously a member of the Hammond Weed, since only they could afford garments and accessories of that kind. The spider monkey came out of the store, fear clearly in his eyes despite his small but menacing physical presence, a bag of comestibles over one hairy paw and a .38 gun clutched in another, waiting for his associate to finally finish the terrible actions he was now performing within the store’s interior. Beads of perspiration formed and fell down the spider monkey’s face onto the collar of the white shirt he had selected to accompany his black suit. His companion, a dwarfish looking elephant, emerged soon after, with smoke still emerging out of the barrel of his small pistol and powder burns evident on the breast pocket of his own yellow colored garments. The monkey took one look at the smoke and began chattering excitedly, for this was an interruption that the two career criminals did not need nor require for their itinerary of the city, and had occurred only because of the elephant’s lack of patience and caution, or at least the spider monkey seemed to think.
“What the hell?” he finally said, with some violence. “You shot him!”
“He gypped me!” snapped the elephant, in a deceptively mild mannered East Indian accent. “Can you believe that they call this a dollar? This is not a dollar bill!” He displayed the gold coin he had received as a form of payment. Upon seeing this, the spider monkey raised an arm up and smacked his associate hard across the face, so hard that the slap was heard across the neighborhood and a deep impression of the spider monkey’s hand made a prominent impression on the elephant’s face.
“You IDIOT!” he screamed. “That’s what them Canadians use for $1! They don’t use bills for their chump change no more! Didn’t you know that?”
“Excuse me for not knowing anything and everything about Canada, unlike you!” the elephant replied. “I cannot POSSIBLY, as a dumb animal, possess the lively wit and intelligence of a semi-human being such as yourself!”
“Watch it with that “semi-human” crap, buddy!” the spider monkey answered. “We don’t particularly care for those knocks at our intellectual ancestors!”
“Why do you think I said it?”
“Watch what you say, Packy!”
“DO NOT CALL ME THAT!”
“Ha! Now you know what it feels like!”
“You are IMPOSSIBLE to work with! Do you know that?”
“Am I? Or are you?”
This argument continued with increasing vitriol in that convenience store parking lot, as the felons forgot their status- and the loud alarm the proprietor had rung to alert the police- and stood there out in the open, just waiting, begging to be arrested. But it wouldn’t be the police who nicked them.
For who should have been walking past on the opposite block but Jack and Madge. Jack, who was scared of loud noises, immediately ducked behind his friend, but Madge’s heroic instincts had kicked in, and she knew they had to intervene.
“It’s time!” she told Jack. “Don’t be worried. Just hold on to me and you’ll be fine.”
She shifted the top of her ring, and Red Rover emerged after a cloud of smoke disappeared. With a long stride, and holding onto Jack’s paw as she did, she jumped across the street and confronted the two hoods, who now ended their fight with each other and went for their guns.
“Mind telling me exactly what you’re doing?” demanded the Rover.
“This ain’t none of your business, lady!” said the spider monkey.
“Oh, I think it is!” said the hero. “I’m Red Rover, and everything that happens in this town is my business! Especially if it’s of an illegal variety!”
“Why is it you are calling yourself Red Rover?” said the elephant. “Your suit seems much more of a maroon color. And as for your pelt…”
“I didn’t choose the name, okay?” answered Red Rover. “Just get out of here before I get tough!”
“What does your “getting tough” actually involve?” the spider monkey demanded.
“How about THIS!”
Breaking her grip on Jack, who continued looking on, Red Rover bopped the spider monkey in the chest with a powerful fist. She was about to do it again when a shot rang out. The elephant, having fired that shot and then another into the air, had moved around the combatants and instructed Jack to put his paws up by gesturing with his gun. The situation had now become one involving a hostage.
“Step forward,” the elephant ordered Red Rover, “..and you will find a bullet inserted into the corporeal cavity of your friend here!”
“Please!” said Jack. “Do what he says, Rover!”
This allowed the spider monkey to cover Rover from his vantage point, leaving her at a stalemate.
“Yeah!” he said, mimicking Jack. “You better do what he says!”
Red Rover had never been in this situation, never having had to take into consideration the life of another as well as her own in the discharging of her super heroic duties. But she was hardly stupid, and she knew exactly what to do. Besides, what could their bullets do to her- kill her? She was invincible.
“I’m not doing what you say, you dirty little scumbags!” she said. “You can’t order me around like that!”
“Rover!” Jack said fearfully as the elephant tightened his grip around him. “What are you doing?”
“Play along with me, pal!” she whispered to him. “I got a plan!” Then she winked, and he responded likewise.
“What you talkin’ ‘bout, Dog?” demanded the spider monkey. “You want to possibly SHARE it?”
“Only if you tell us about who you are!” said the Rover.
“All you need to know is that we’re with the Hammond Weed, and we’re gonna bust down your town tomorrow night!” replied the spider monkey. “And you won’t stop us ‘cause we’re gonna take you out right now!”
“I knew you guys would get here sooner or later. But we’re ready for you.” answered the Rover. “Right, Jack?”
“We are?” said her friend.
“Sure,” Red Rover answered, nudging him. “How ‘bout that ‘toon killing machine we got stashed up on Portage Avenue?”
This made the two hoods stagger in their shoes. Obviously, Winnipeg was better prepared to resist the Hammond Weed than had been previously thought. And they knew they had to get out of these two before that ‘toon killing machine, whatever it was, got to them.
“A t-t-toon, k-k-killing, m-m-machine?” the elephant stuttered.
“That’s right!” said the hero. “And if you don’t want to be dragged down there and exposed to it, along with the rest of your cronies in that would-be world domination society of yours, you’d better get the hell out of here!”
They did as they were instructed, running away screaming before getting into a car and driving away for parts unknown.
After Red Rover turned back into Madge, Jack asked her about the “toon killing” machine.
“I bluffed.” she said. “Nothing really like it in the world. But you can still just kill those ‘toon people by burning them up. Just light a match and they’re gone. That’s probably what they figured it was.”
“I know that.” Jack said. “But I’m scared. The Hammond Weed is in town now. It’s not safe here for me now!”
He tried to run off, but Madge held his paw hard.
“The hell it’s not!” she said sharply. “You got me, right? And what about that stuff I showed you today? You forget it already?”
“No,” said Jack.
“Then you’ll be fine,” Madge said softly. “I promise. You and I are a team now, and we won’t be broken up that easy. Not by the Hammond Weed or anybody else!”
And, with Madge rubbing the top of Jack’s head, they walked back to the safety of Woodrow Place.
It wasn’t to be nearly as safe as either one would have imagined.
By noon, Jenna, Barbara and Burlap had finally managed to get out to Woodrow Place after having been unavoidably delayed following their departure from the Hotel McLaren. Specifically, Burlap found that the dog who ran the garage where he had deposited his motorcycle had overcharged him for this privilege. This angered Burlap to no end, and he promptly placed a bullet in the leg of the garage owner as his form of “payment”. Thus, it wasn’t long before the little machine was surrounded by half the police cars in Winnipeg. Only through Barbara’s use of a “portable hole”- a flat hole that created a gaping, seemingly bottomless hole in the earth wherever it landed- were they able to ditch their pursuers.
“Damn it, Burlap!” said Jenna. “Why do you keep making things difficult for us?”
“Hey, long neck!” Barbara answered defensively. “It ain’t his fault he got overcharged! Not all of the crooks are in the U.S.A.!”
“Don’t fight over me, ladies!” Burlap said sarcastically, his voice distorted by his helmet. “We’ll be there right away!”
He pulled the motorcycle down Portage Avenue and made a swift turn down Maryland Street, following the beeping of his GPS tracker. Finally, he arrived at the small corridor near the Maryland Bridge called Woodrow Place, and parked his motorcycle in the great, deserted open plain across from it, which long ago, before the chaos, had been known as Mulvey Elementary School. Across from this stood three lofty apartment houses, one of which was the likely home of their targets.
“So, which one is it?” Barbara demanded of Burlap, who had now removed his helmet.
“How the hell would I know?” he countered in exasperation. “The GPS don’t pick up exact addresses!”
“Never mind.” said Jenna, biting her lip. “They’re obviously here somewhere. We just have to wait for them.”
“But supposing the G.E.P. wants us and we’re not there?” Barbara protested.
“We wait,” Jenna said, unmoved.
“But we need to…” Burlap began.
“I SAID WE WAIT!” the giraffe growled. “You say ANYTHING ELSE and I take a shot at DECAPITATING YOU!”
Her companions said nothing else for the time being.
Fortunately, they did not have to wait long. In just a few minutes, Madge and Jack entered the frame, laughing, from a brisk walk up Maryland Street. Jack was immediately scared, for he knew who they were- and they he. But, as Madge promised, she would protect him as best she could.
The villains rushed towards the pair as soon as they were spotted. Madge stretched out her long frame in front of Jack to block the path of the others, but they were hardly intimidated.
“Well! Jack Mongrel!” Jenna said, hooves on hips, having already spotted him from across the road. “We meet again! How’d you like that little bit of performance art we pulled on your mom? ‘Cause we intend to do the same to YOU pretty soon!”
“Not if I can help it!” said Madge, blocking Jenna’s path.
“Who are you?” the giraffe demanded.
“I’m his guardian!” Madge snarled, balling fists. “He needs one from the likes of you!”
The giraffe’s eyes became tiny orbs of fire.
“Oh, it’s on!” she snapped.
Using her neck as a crane, Jenna gave Madge a powerful blow with her head that knocked the Red Rover ring off her paw, among other things. Quick thinking Jack scooped up the thing, placing it in the pocket of the new shirt Madge had given him, but there wouldn’t be time to tell her that now. Or for a few hours, for that matter.
Fighting back with her own non-super heroic strength, Madge punched Jenna powerfully in the face, so hard that a tooth was dislodged from the giraffe’s mouth. Wanting to end this nonsense once and for all, Jenna suddenly and unexpectedly increased the size of her neck until, magically, it took on serpentine proportions. This she wrapped around Madge’s own neck, and strangled her just enough to knock her out but not to kill her. Madge fell limply to the ground as Jenna’s neck resumed its former shape.
Jack was stunned, but he was unable to say anything. Thus, he did not protest when Burlap and Barbara knocked Madge’s unconscious body into a bed sheet with holes poked in it for air and pointed him in there at gunpoint as well. With Jenna holding the bag over her shoulders, not unlike Santa Claus and his toy bag, they made their way back to the Hotel McLaren to await further instructions.
“Let me out of here!”
Once everyone returned to the villains’ room at the McLaren, it immediately became a hive of activity. Consequently, this cry, from Madge, was ignored, except for a sharp cry of “Shut up!” from Barbara, the rabbit, guarding the bathroom door behind which Jack and Madge were imprisoned.
Outside the door, Jenna and Burlap each had a cell phone cocked to their ear, the one receiving orders from the soon to arrive G.E.P., the other giving them to his minions, who were now out of Grand Forks and streaming towards Winnipeg as he spoke. Both finally signed off at the same time and looked questioningly at each other. Barbara added her eyes to the stare soon after.
“You first,” Burlap said, with deference acquired from recent experience.
“She’s here now,” Jenna answered. “I told her we got the Mongrel brat and the dog lady guarding him, and she was way pleased. I could hear her smiling over the phone when I said it, and she never smiles. Anyhow, she wants us out by the Assiniboine when night falls. We’ll be able to perform the ritual now that we’ve got the captives.”
“The ritual?” asked Burlap.
“You know- the ‘toon ritual!” Barbara cut in. “Where we sacrifice the dogs so we can fuel ourselves with their blood. The G.E.P. said we had to use the Mongrel kid’s blood since he’s immature and more fresh. Also, we kinda had a grudge against his mom for all that protest activity she was doing against us.”
“Understandable,” Burlap replied. “Just so long as you don’t try doing it with me and my boys.”
“We won’t, as long as you quit pissing us off!” Jenna replied curtly. “Are your “boys” on their way?”
“Yep,” said Burlap. “But I’ll have to tell them to come to the Assiniboine. Is that the thin one that flows east?”
“Far as I know,” said Barbara.
At this point, Madge hit the bathroom door in an attempt to knock it open. Barbara opened the door from the outside with great force. With astonishing power and agility, her ears wrapped themselves around Madge’s neck. Just as before, the would be superhero found herself tossed violently upon the ground.
“I’ve had enough from you, you stupid putz!” Barbara roared, kicking Madge into the toilet as Jack fearfully watched from the bathtub. “You try anything else STUPID like that and you’ll be sorry you did!”
The door slammed shut and was locked again.
Jack rushed to Madge’s side, and she moaned and held her back in pain.
“God!” Madge ejaculated. “These Hammond Weed people are stronger than I thought. Or am I just weaker?”
“Please, don’t assert yourself against them,” Jack said. “This is only a fraction of what they can do. In Fargo, some of them tore apart buildings with their bare paws, or hooves, or whatever they had. And in Grand Forks, some of them could do it with their minds. You and I haven’t got a chance against them.”
“We’ll see about that!” Madge answered. She looked down to find her ring and twist it, but it was no longer on her paw.
“Crud!” she ejaculated softly. “My ring! It’s gone! No wonder I can’t do jack squat now! We gotta find it!”
“Don’t worry,” Jack said, pulling the ring from his shirt pocket. “I got it.” He gave her the ring. She placed it on her paw and hugged him affectionately.
“We’re gonna get out of this!” Madge said determinedly. “I got a plan!”
She spent a couple of minutes whispering a plan into his ear. He listened attentively and nodded.
An hour later, the bathroom door was once again opened, and Barbara, pointing her gun, ordered the captives to crawl back into the bed sheet in which they had arrived, with no funny business. Jack and Madge did as they were told, for the time being.
At the banks of the Assiniboine River in the neighborhood of St. James-Assiniboia stands Omand’s Creek Park, named for the creek which divides the park into two sections as it meets up with the river. A baseball diamond dominates most of the territory, with a bicycle path running through it. A small bridge links the two parts divided by Omand’s Creek, while an orange railed cement foot bridge, connected to an ancient metal railway bridge showered with graffiti, provides an easy connection to River Heights across the river. It is here that the final act of our drama plays out.
Because it is bordered by Portage Avenue on the north, and the Assiniboine River on the south, Omand’s Creek Park was and is difficult to access by any form of advanced automobile transportation. Thus, there was some concern expressed in the negotiation process of the Hammond Weed how everybody was to get to the park. But the G.E.P.’s decision was final, and so the members of the Hammond Weed and Burlap’s gang were forced to make their ways through various means of transportation, including (gasp!) walking.
Jenna, Barbara and Burlap, with Jack and Madge uncomfortably in tow, rode down the crowded artery of Winnipeg commerce that was Portage Avenue, parking in the lot owned by the oddly named electronics store “Advance”, and then walked the rest of the way down towards the park, which required them to negotiate a white colored bridge spanning the park’s eponymous creek. At the clubhouse opposite the baseball diamond, the bed sheet was dropped on the ground and opened. Jack and Madge were promptly released, still in a state of bondage despite their lack of physical restraints.
“On your feet!” Jenna ordered. “This is a big deal for us, so just do your parts and keep your big mouths shut!”
The two dogs did as they were told. They were marched at gunpoint down towards the banks of the river, where several animated and non-animated animal beings were waiting. But for what?
“She here yet?” Burlap asked one of his men.
“Not yet, boss.” his underling replied. “How’s she…”
“She’s coming up the river. In a boat.” Jenna answered with typical terseness. “Should be here any minute. That’s all you need to know for now. And I do mean ALL.”
Nobody said anything else for the next little while, on pain of getting a fist shoved in their face.
Soon afterward, she arrived, coming up the river in a small wooden boat being rowed by what looked to be a small human boy and an animate skeleton. The boat made a stop on one of the giant “islands” of mud that dotted the river, the one closest to the foot- and railroad bridge, in fact. Once it arrived, the boy and skeleton took turns working as personal walking bridges for the G.E.P., so that her feet never once touched the water, and soon they were on the shore with the assembled company.
Despite the high level of her position and reputation, the G.E.P. was not large on a physical scale. Clad in an ermine robe and a suit of purple, with a jewel encrusted crown atop her blond page boy haircut, the G.E.P.’s dark eyes displayed and reflected power beyond the likes of which people her age and size were designed to command. But no one dared question her authority, for she ruled by right of force since her election to the position. Burlap and his men were not under her command but, still, they understood she was not to be messed with. So, too, did Jack and Madge, who were now being bound tightly to a wooden pole under which separate small piles of kindling were laid at their feet. Just like Native people had once done in the movies- and, presumably, in real life long before on this very ground- Jack and Madge were to be burned to death!
Jenna and Barbara, as the senior members of the staff who were present, were the only members allowed to approach or talk to the G.E.P. This they did, after the fashion of feudal vassals, on their knees.
“Oh, mighty employer!” said Jenna, with unusual humility. “We are at your service…”
The G.E.P. held up her hand for silence.
“Spare me your insincere platitudes!” she said tonelessly and curtly, with no emotion in her voice. “Are the Mongrel boy and his guardian here?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Barbara, pointing to the pole.
“And is Mr. Burlap here?” asked the G.E.P.
“I am, Ma’am,” Burlap answered, stepping forward.
“You and your men will secure the perimeter from the baseball diamond,” the G.E.P. ordered. “If anyone, and I mean anyone, comes towards you with the intent of breaching the perimeter, you will shoot them on the spot. In the meantime, we members of the Hammond Weed will burn our captives after extracting their blood so we may reenergize ourselves from its chemical properties. Afterwards, we will dispose of the corpses in the river and go to dinner. We have reservations at Rae and Jerry’s for 8:30.” Here she pointed to the steakhouse opposite the park on Portage Avenue.
“Yay, Rae and Jerry’s!” interrupted the human boy, a big nosed kid named Zippy who was not very bright. “Dey got da world’s best proime ribbbbed!”
The G.E.P. looked at Zippy with a glare fit to kill. Then she turned to her other attendant, the skeleton man.
“Get rid of him!” she ordered. “He’ll ruin the ceremony!”
”Why I gotta do dat t’ing?” said the skeleton, in a distinct West Indian accent.
He soon found out why. She stared at him with grievous intent. Within seconds, he was a pile of bones on the ground.
“Pick yourself up,” the G.E.P. said with monotone simplicity “get him out of here, and get out of my sight!”
All three commands were acceded to promptly, with Zippy loudly complaining about not being able to eat “proime ribbbbeds” as the wooden boat disappeared down the bend in the river.
The G.E.P. now returned her attention to her “vassals”, still kneeling.
“Get up!” she commanded. (They did.) “Is everyone present and accounted for?”
“Everyone except Spider and The Trunk,” explained Barbara. “Seems that super hero freak named Red Rover threatened to pulverize them, and they beat it out of town.”
The G.E.P. turned to the two captives on the pole.
“You two!” she demanded. “Do you know anything about this “Red Rover” creature? More importantly, do you believe that there is any chance she will try and stop us from killing you?”
Jack and Madge restrained the urge to tell the G.E.P. that Red Rover was there, and what she was going to do to her and her crew momentarily (or they hoped she would, at least). Instead, they shook their heads nervously while saying “no”. This satisfied the G.E.P. and she returned to her followers.
“Now, we begin,” she said with typical tonelessness. “If anyone has a lighter, or matches, or anything capable of starting a flame, then we’ll commence. And whoever does it, for God’s sake, be careful! Don’t get yourself- or the rest of us- killed doing it!”
This came from Madge, who, being no friend of the G.E.P., was not under her thrall in any way. The G.E.P. was furious, though her face did not show it too much, other than a slight flushing of the cheeks. She turned around to face Madge, who confronted the mistress of the Hammond Weed while Jack, with the ring in his teeth, managed to slip the Red Rover ring back onto Madge’s paw.
“What did you say to me, mortal?” the G.E.P. demanded, without passion.
“I said to hold it!” said Madge. “This is barbaric! You can’t just practice this savagery like this- in broad daylight!”
“You are in no position to call us savages- or to do anything else, for that matter!” the G.E.P. returned arrogantly. “You dogs have always been more savage than we ‘toons anyhow. It is we who are the rightful rulers of this world- not you!”
“Then why are there more of us?” retorted Madge. “And why do you have to assume the position of “rightful rulers” by force?”
“Silence!” the G.E.P. snorted, though her voice did not rise in volume. “I will hear no more of your insolence!” Then, to her followers, she said: “We will burn the boy first- just to give this sharp-tongued witch the pleasure of hearing him die while she can do nothing about it!”
Following the G.E.P.’s instructions, one of the ‘toons produced a cigarette lighter, which he applied to the pile of wood beneath Jack’s feet. In an instant, a small fire was burning underneath Jack, and he yelped in pain as the flames began to lick his body. The G.E.P., humorless and emotionless, moved over from Madge’s side of the pole to confront Jack, keeping as far away from the fire as she could.
“Comfortable, isn’t it?” she said to Jack.
“No!” Jack snapped defiantly.
“Now, we are prepared to let you live if you cooperate with us, boy,” she continued. “That is, if you agree to our demands.”
“Demands?” said Jack, still yowling in pain from the flames.
“Don’t repeat what I said!” answered the G.E.P. “The demands are that you renounce every single anti-‘toon remark your mother made! Then, you renounce your association with this witch [meaning Madge] and concentrate all of your time on helping us achieve our goal of world domination! In return, we will free you- but not her! What is your decision?”
Jack thought for a moment before he spat out a response.
“I say NO!” he said. “And so does my friend!”
Madge heard what was obviously her cue. She turned the top of the ring sideways and transformed into Red Rover. With her strength, she freed herself from her bonds and quickly sped around the corner to free Jack from the still burning flame.
“You!” snapped the G.E.P. “How dare you interrupt our ceremony! I demand to know who you are!”
“I’m RED ROVER!” the hero said. “And you ‘toon freaks had better disperse yourselves from my town!”
“Or else WHAT?” demanded the G.E.P.
“Or else THIS!”
The Rover inhaled a large amount of the burning flames into her lungs, and then belched it out onto a patch of ground where three unfortunate Hammond Weedeans stood. They were unable to move out of the way of the flame in time, and were reduced to a smoldering pile of nitrate.
This stunned the remaining members of the Hammond Weed, but they had allies who were not as vulnerable to fire, and the G.E.P. quickly summoned them over.
“Mr. Burlap!” she shouted through tight lips. “We need assistance!”
Abruptly, Melvin D. Burlap and his gangsters emerged from their idleness on the baseball diamond and surrounded the maroon clad marvel. But she was ready, willing and able to take them all on- and she did.
“You’re out of your league, Rover!” snapped Burlap. “We got you surrounded!”
“Hey, boss!” said one of Burlap’s men. “Why do they call her ‘Red Rover’ if she’s wearing maroon?”
“Because it’s MY NAME!” snapped the Rover, who grabbed the unfortunate gangster and belted him in the stomach. He flew down to the baseball diamond and crashed into the iron cage surrounding home plate.
“Anyone else want to try me?” growled the Rover. “I’ve got the side of all that’s good on me!”
Half a dozen of Grand Forks’ most feared criminals sprang towards Red Rover like the defensive line of a football team. But they stood no chance against the powerful brute. As her fists rang out and her legs kicked, her opponents soon faced certain death from the churning currents of the Assiniboine River. Stunned at his loss, Melvin D. Burlap began firing blindly at the hero, with the remaining members of the Hammond Weed joining him. Red Rover was not intimidated, but she was fearful for Jack’s safety. She motioned him to crawl under the hail of bullets in the air on the ground towards her, to hide behind her as she blocked them with her arms. He did this without hesitation.
At length, the guns ran out of bullets and their owners threw them on the ground, cursing. Their defeat now seemed certain, but the G.E.P. would not give up. Eyes blazing, she cast a devastating glare at Red Rover.
“I’ll take care of you!” she snarled.
She reckoned without the fact that the Rover’s mental prowess rivaled her own in the level of intensity it held. As soon as the G.E.P. telepathically attempted to force Red Rover into heeding her mental commands, the Rover bounced them back with ones of her own. The waves bounced back and forth between them for a few minutes, until finally the G.E.P. gave in, her entire body exploding in the process.
The force of the explosion forced the wooden pole down to the ground, where it was consumed by the flames. A swift gust of wind sent it flying off its moorings and towards the river. The few members of the Hammond Weed not already taken were either bowled over in its path or were burned up by flames that jumped off the pole and attracted themselves to them. In the pole’s path were Jenna, the giraffe and Barbara, the rabbit, who immediately began taking steps towards fleeing it. At this moment, Barbara chose to engage her former associate in airy persiflage.
“I better tell you this now.” Barbara said. “I’m quitting!”
“What the…?” said Jenna. “When did this happen?”
“Grand Forks, ” Barbara said. “Specifically, the Holiday Inn pool!”
“That miserable…” snapped Jenna, now understanding much of the detail hidden from her before. “He wants you as his mistress! And you didn’t brush him off, did you?”
Barbara, insulted by that slur at her character, forcibly stopped herself just inches before the duo reached the churning Assiniboine River, as the flame covered pole edged closer to them.
“What the hell are you doing?” said the panic stricken giraffe. “You’re gonna get us killed!”
“Let’s get a couple things clear, chum!” an unmoved Barbara answered. “First of all, Melv’ and I are a couple and we’re gonna stay a couple. He knows I’ve been wanting out of this racket a long time ‘cause he want out of his, too! And, unlike you, he actually treats with some respect, so get used to that for the short amount of time you got left! I’m not being anybody’s thug anymore, not yours, not Melvin’s, not anybody’s. I’m laying down my gun and my ears and doing something constructive with my life before it’s too late. Second, I never liked you anyway, Giraffe; you’ve been a pain in my ass ever since we got forcibly teamed up that night in Hollywood. You take the biggest shares of everything and leave me squat! So I’m going with a partner who actually knows something about being a good partner! And you and the rotten Hammond Weed can go to hell! Right, Melvin?”
“Yep,” said Burlap laconically, as he sprang up out of concealment behind a nearby bench, grabbed his girlfriend by her arm, and sped off out of the way of the burning pole. Their love would be the only thing among the villainy that would survive the night. .
A fuming Jenna drew her now empty gun and waived it at the fleeing couple, now oblivious to her certain death.
“You rotten BACKSTABBERS!” she shouted. “Leave me here holding the bag, will ya? I’ll be back for you, and when I come back…”
That was the last thing she ever said, except for the scream she uttered as the burning pole made contact with her and roughly burned her to death. This was only a fraction of a second before the pole- and the evidence of all it had wronged and killed- was consumed by the Assiniboine River.
Madge, having changed back from Red Rover, and Jack met with Barbara and Burlap when the slaughter had concluded. The now reformed villains were surprisingly calm in the face of what had occurred, though the heroes were still shaken. But they stopped being that when the pair apologized for their aggressive actions earlier that day.
“M’God!” ejaculated Burlap. “I never should have left Grand Forks. I would’ve been safer there. But I still got something out of the deal I didn’t expect.” He pointed affectionately at Barbara.
“Aw, it’s okay, Burlap…uh, Melvin,” Barbara answered. “I mean, you got me, and that’s all you need. We can just go back there and start up again. Besides, I never had no love for the G.E.P. or for ol’ long neck, either. And most of the foot soldiers in the Weed are pains in the ass, anyhow. I could do for a change.”
“’We’?” Madge asked.
“Yeah, we!” Barbara said. “Girlfriends have got to be by their boys’ sides, don’t they? This thug life never agreed with me, anyway. I could make as much sitting in an office on DeMers Avenue!”
“Or Portage,” suggested Jack.
“Thanks, kid.” Barbara said, patting him kindly on the head, the first such gesture she had given him since they first met. “But no thanks. Me and Melvin are Americans, and we belong there. But you guys can hold the fort up here without us. I mean, that Red Rover chick, whoever she is, is AWESOME!”
“You think so, too, huh?” Jack said.
“Yeah,” said Burlap. “If she were really evil, she could be the new G.E.P. That is, if Barbara don’t want the job!”
“Not on your life!” Barbara snapped. “I told you, I’ve had enough of that thug life! I just want to be a normal gangster’s wife like the other girls. And I don’t care if I am a ‘toon. I can do any job I send my mind to, ya know!”
“Well, before you go…” Madge said, glancing at her watch “…it’s almost 8:30, and I believe somebody owes you dinner.”
“’Somebody’ wants us to invite you two to go with us, for all the trouble we put you through.” said Burlap. “I mean, we were just following orders…”
“Stop it right there, Melv’!” Barbara cut him off. “The next thing you know, we’ll be paying her rent, or mortgage, or whatever it is! Come on!”
And the newly friendly quartet strolled along happily to Rae and Jerry’s Steakhouse, across the street from the park.
Later that evening, according to the Winnipeg Free Press, police unavoidably detained a talking skeleton and a human boy whining about “proime ribbbbeds” on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature.