Running, Part II

kellyiconEvan is bundled up on the sofa, huddled under a blanket and rubbing his hands together. It’s cold in the little once-abandoned cabin. Though the day was warm enough – the kind of bright spring day that brings people out for the first taste of warm weather after three months of winter – the nights still held a bitter chill, and the cabin didn’t have any kind of heat beyond the small space heater I bought just in case. Just in case. The whole one-room cabin, like everything else about our lives, was a matter of just in case: the bags of canned food and water bottles stacked against one rickety wall, the spare clothes in a small tote against another, and the little sofa from the thrift store that would serve as our bed tonight. His entire life since leaving Mom has been a series of apartments and hideouts like these. Just for once, I’d like to have him live in a proper home.

The kettle shrieked, jumping me out of my thoughts. I mentally brushed them away as I poured us both cups of tea. No milk, of course, but at least it would be something warm to go with our small bowls of Progresso soup. Damn, there I go again. Self-pity wasn’t going to save our lives, it wasn’t going to find us a safe place to live, and it wasn’t going to keep Mom from finding us again.

“Here,” I said, handing him a chipped mug. I settled down on the couch next to him. “Drink up, it’ll keep you warm.”

“Thanks.”

We drank in silence, our thoughts too filled with fear and apprehension to risk saying anything. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

“Maybe you should go back,” Evan said.

I nearly dropped my cup in shock. “What?”

“Maybe you should go back home,” Evan said again, and again I had a hard time believing what he just said. “Apologize to Mom, you know, and then you wouldn’t have to live like this anymore.”

“Are you insane?” I put down my cup, afraid I really will drop it if I hear any more crazy ideas from him. “You really think an apology will cut it? That she’ll just let me go and live happily ever after if I just stop helping you?”

“No,” he said, indignation rising in his voice, as he huddled further down into his blanket until all I can see are his eyes and the bridge of his nose. “But you wouldn’t have to live like this anymore. Maybe you wouldn’t -”

I shook my head. “It wouldn’t work. She’d either kill me for opposing her, or she’d make me come after you. Either way, my chances are best if I stay with you.” I reached around him and pulled him into a hug, fitting his head underneath my chin. “You’re stuck with me little brother.”

I heard a sob from somewhere around my chest. “Thanks, sis.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll figure something out.”

“Like what?” He lifted his head away from me and looked up with a pair of glistening, huge brown eyes. “She found us so soon this time.”

“She must have some way of tracking us. Probably through our blood, if I had to guess.” Mom’s magic wasn’t only powerful, she had hundreds of years to gather knowledge and experience. She practically wrote the book on magic; it was like trying to outwit the Devil. And she’d do anything to keep her power, including murder her own children. I repressed a shudder. I didn’t like to think about how many brothers I may have had had Mom not…

“What are we going to do next?” Evan asked, now back to huddling under his blanket.

“Whatever we can,” I said with more confidence than I really felt. If she really has found a way to track us, time was not on our side; we may not even have until morning. Mom wasn’t human, and wasn’t bound by things like sleep or food or occasionally the laws of nature.

But then again, I’m not completely human, either. Mom always made sure we knew this, that we were never bound by the same rules as regular mortals.

I jumped off the couch, startling Evan in the process.

“What? What? Is it Mom?” he asked, throwing off his blanket and jumping off the couch after me.

“No, no,” I said, trying to calm him. “No, it’s just that I’ve thought of something. Pack your bags, Evan. We’re going to see a wizard.”

Heart of Stone – Part II

tjiconIt wasn’t in the dead hours of the night when Miss Paulson walked through the looming gates of the South by West Cemetery, but it sure seemed like it was. The rain had turned into a light drizzle which was much more tolerable than the bone chilling shower from before, but it had lowered a veil of fog over the city which seemed to be nearly three times thicker on the cemetery grounds.

“Hey there, Miss P,” shouted a friendly voice through the white mist.

Miss Paulson swatted at the fog, “Who’s there?”

“Oh,” said the voice again, dejected, “you don’t remember me?”

“If I could see you through this God forsaken brume, then maybe I’d remember if I remembered you or not.”

“Oh,” the voice said again, more chipper this time, “sorry, sorry ma’am.” I small little silhouette emerged from the miasma and revealed itself. It was a big man with wild bushy hair and dingy overalls. He was dragging a shovel behind him and had a body slung over his shoulder. “It’s me, Ollie.”

Miss Paulson blinked.

“Ollie,” he said again, “you booked me a few months back for grave robbing.”

“Oh, Ollie. Aren’t you suppose to be in jail?”

He looked off to the side, “Well, yeah, kind of. But after that… thing happened, with you, they turned over some of your recent cases and-”

“And they let you off?”

Ollie smiled awkwardly, “Yeah.” Miss Paulson sighed, and once again, it turned into a raucous cough. “You sick, Miss P? You really shouldn’t be out in this type of weather if you’re sick.”

“Don’t worry,” she said amidst coughs, “I’ll be fine.”

“Well, if you say so,” said Ollie kindly, “what are you doing here anyway, Miss P? You start grave robbing since the force laid you off?”

“Of course not. That’s gross.” Ollie’s face dropped. “Oh, um, not that you’re gross, Ollie. Just that, well… do you know where the groundskeeper is?”

Ollie shrugged the body on his shoulder, “This is the groundskeeper. He died last week. Heart attack.”

“What the hell do you need his body for?”

Ollie looked off to the side, “… Reasons.”

Miss Paulson rolled her eyes, “Look, whatever, I don’t care. Just, I need help finding a grave.”

“Oh, sure. What are you… I mean, who, who are you looking for?”

“The Great Magnific-O.”

“That wizard?”

“He wasn’t a wizard, okay. He was I two-bit magician with alcohol problem.”

“Pardon me, Miss P. I didn’t, um, I-”

“It’s fine, Ollie. Just tell me where his grave is, please.”

Ollie pointed into the foggy distance, “Go that way until you reach the third lamp post, then take a right until you get to Mayor Morrison’s first wife, then go back three graves. If you get to Mayor Morrison’s third wife, you’ve gone too far.”

“Thanks, Ollie. You, uh,” Miss Paulson nodded at the body on Ollie’s shoulder, “stay out of trouble, yeah?”

“Okay,” said Ollie with a smile, “see you later, Miss P.”

Miss Paulson followed Ollie’s directions and found herself at a plain gravesite with an underwhelming headstone. It read ‘Here lies the Great Magnific-O. Nobody knew his real name.’ Miss Paulson scratched her head. She leaned down and knocked on the headstone, “Uh, hello. Anyone home. ”

As if to answer her, two red orbs of light appeared in the distance. The lights were accompanied by the sound of crumbling rocks and dying breaths. Miss Paulson walked towards the lights and found herself face to face with a large gargoyle statue with glowing red eyes. “Hello, Delilah,” it said, “to what do I owe the pleasure of your lovely presence?”

“Francis? What the hell are you doing in this thing?”

“It’s a long story, dear. How about I tell you over dinner sometime?”

“I’m here on business, Magnific-O.

“That’s The Great Magnific-O, my love,” said the gargoyle smugly. “Wait, are you here about my murder?”

“It wasn’t murder, Francis. Coroner said it was a heart attack.”

The statue laughed, “Oh, my beautiful little dodo bird, do you really think a trite little cardiac arrest shuffled me off of this mortal coil?” Miss Paulson rolled her eyes and coughed at the statue. “Are you sick, my sweet? You really shouldn’t be out in this weather-”

“My God, just tell me what the hell I’m doing here so I can get paid already.”

“Ah, yes. Then this really is business then, isn’t it. Are you sure there is no room in your schedule for pleasure?” The gargoyle received another face full of cough. “I see. Well, I’d have you know that I did not die of a heart attack. Of that I am sure.”

“How are you sure?”

“I sold my soul to for a Minotaur heart eighty years ago. Those things never give out.”

“Wait, if you soul your sold to a demon, how are you haunting that statue? Shouldn’t you be in Hell somewhere?”

“I said it sold my soul, I did not say the transaction was made with a demon.”

Miss Paulson’s brows perked up, “So… you think someone was trying to collect?”

“Why, yes, my darling,” said the gargoyle, “of that I have no doubt.”

A Friend in Need, Part 2

bernicons            Keeping the tissue up to her nose was beginning to make Amy’s arm sore. Keeping her head up was making her neck tired.

“Amy?”

“Yes, Miss Nordberry?” replied Amy. She hadn’t realized just how silly she sounded with her nose stopped up with blood and tissue.

“Please tell me what happened on the playground today,” said Miss Nordberry, pushing her Vice Principal sign to the side so she could pass Amy another tissue. Amy had already been to see the school nurse, and he said that Amy would be fine soon. Soon wasn’t coming soon enough for Amy though. Some blood had already spilt on her favorite lavender hoodie.

“I didn’t start anything.”

“I know. You already said that, but I need to hear the whole story, please.” Miss Nordberry got up from behind her desk with a heavy sigh. She had a plump belly that looked funny on her thin frame. Amy’s mother told her it meant she had a baby on the way. Amy hoped it would be a baby girl. “Start from the beginning, at lunch.”

Amy’s eyes glanced at the clock. She had ten minutes before her dad would be at school. His dentist office was only a few minutes away and she wasn’t looking forward to the look on his face when he would come into the principal’s office. “Lacey and I went outside to play after we finished eating.”

“Alright, and then what?”

“We were gonna see if the swings were free and on the way I saw Karen and Milly corning Afsha next to the jungle gym. I figured they were making fun of her again.”

“I know your mother called us and said you felt badly about how you saw Karen treat Afsha.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t do anything about it.”

“We would need Afsha herself or a teacher to tell us what was happening before we could talk to Karen or Milly about this.”

“That’s a stupid rule.”

Miss Nordberry sighed. “So you saw Karen and Milly with Afsha?”

Amy looked away and nodded.

“Then what?”

“They were doin’ it again.”

“Doing what?”

“Making fun of Afsha’s hijab! Like they’ve been doing all week!”

“If they were doing it all week, why didn’t Afsha tell an adult?”

“I dunno… because she’s shy? I mean she’s been in my class since September and she barely says a word in class!” In the pit of her stomach, Amy felt a little ashamed. She knew she should have talked to Afsha in the past two months. She always looked so sad in the back of the class. Their teacher tried to get Afsha to participate more, but she’d shrink in like a turtle.

“So then what happened?” asked Miss Nordberry.

“I ran over to them.”

“Ran?”

“Yeah.” Amy remembered Lacey shouting after Amy, asking where she was going. Amy didn’t think to say anything, she just felt like she need to say something. “I ran over and called out to Karen.”

Miss Nordberry nodded.

“Karen and Milly didn’t listen at first. But Afsha saw me. She looked scared. When I reached them all, I noticed Milly had a dirty lunch lady’s towel in her hand.”

“A towel?”

Amy nodded. “Yeah. So Karen turned around and asked what I wanted. I asked what’s the towel for. Karen said she asked me first so I told her I didn’t like it when she teased Afsha like that. Karen laughed at me and then ignored me. She turned to Afsha and said she had a new towel for her hair.”

Miss Nordberry’s eyebrow’s went up making the wrinkles on her forehead stand out.

The door opened. “Amy?” A tall man wearing sea foam scrubs entered.

Amy shrunk in her seat. She wondered if she looked like a turtle now. “Hi, Daddy.”

Miss Nordberry stood up slowly to shake her father’s hand. “Mr. Foster, Amy was just getting through what happened on the playground today.”

Amy’s father looked sternly toward his daughter. Amy knew that look well; it meant none of mom’s Apple’s pie for sure. Amy’s mother only made pie every so often and her dad called it Apple’s pie, even though it was never made with apples. No granny smiths, no golden delicious’, nothing.

Amy’s father knelt down and looked Amy in the eye as he guided her chin down. “Looks like the bleeding stopped,” he said as he pulled away the tissue. “Does it hurt?”

Amy shook her head.

“Is the girl outside the girl who punched you?” asked Amy’s dad.

“No! That’s Afsha!”

“We’ve already spoken to Karen, Mr. Foster. She and her parents are speaking to principal Adams now.”

“I see.” Amy’s dad was looking as his daughter. But he wasn’t angry, just concerned. “Amy, why did you fight that girl? What happened?”

“I couldn’t think of anything else to do!” said Amy, bringing her knees up to her chest. “I was shouting but they just ignored me… so I… pulled Karen’s hair… hard.”

A Friend in Need, Part 1

kellyiconAmy heard her mom’s voice through her bedroom door, then a soft knock and a creak as the door slowly opened.

“Amy? Amy, dinner’s – Baby, what’s wrong? Are you feeling alright?”

Amy didn’t lift her face from her pillow. Instead, she shook her head and mumbled, “Not hungry.”

The covers sank away from her side as her mom sat down at the edge of the bed. She felt her mom’s hand at her cheek, warm and soft. “Are you feeling alright? You don’t feel too warm.”

Amy shook her head again, and, still not moving from her position face-down on her bed, mumbled that no, she wasn’t feeling alright at all. It wasn’t a lie, not really. She wasn’t sick, but she felt like she might as well have been, the way her stomach twisted itself into knots and her chest felt so heavy it made her want to cry.

“Well, if you’re not feeling well, would you like some tea or milk? Wait, are you crying?” Worry weaved its way into her mother’s voice. “Amy, please tell me what’s wrong. Sit up. Look at me. Please.”

She briefly contemplated curling into a ball and hoping to disappear, but she hated making her mother worry. She sat up, sniffling and trying to stifle her tears, wiping at her nose and eyes with her sleeves. Her mother’s eyes went wide, and before she could say anything to explain she was grabbed up into her mother’s arms.

“What’s wrong, baby? What’s wrong?” Her mother kept repeating as she stroke Amy’s hair. Amy didn’t say anything immediately, not wanting to ruin her mother’s comforting embrace by saying anything. Instead she buried her face into her mother’s shoulder like a baby, not the eleven-year-old she was, and tried to swallow the lump in throat.

“Was it something at school?” her mother asked.

Still not sure if she could talk without crying, Amy nodded.

“Did someone tease you? Were you bullied?”

Amy shook her head. “N-n-not me,” she said.

“Not you?”

“Not me,” Amy said. Amy sat up right and looked up at her mother’s face for the first time since she came into the room. Her mom’s blue eyes were still wide and intense, and red patches dotted her pale cheeks. Her mom’s cheek always turned red whenever she was happy or sad or angry, and that’s why her dad always called her mom “Apple.” Her dad’s color never changed much. His skin was always dark, much darker than her mom’s or even Amy’s, but Amy thought maybe her dad was just much calmer than everyone else. He must still be downstairs, Amy realized, wondering where she and her mom were. “Not me,” she repeated. “Another girl at school.”

“You saw another girl at school getting bullied? What happened?”

Amy took a breath and it all came out in a rush. “She was at recess sitting on a swing all by herself. Then Karen and Milly came up and started asking her all sorts of questions.”

“What kind of questions?”

“They kept asking her about the scarf-thing she wears over her head.”

“A bandana?”

“No, the teacher said it was a hi…a hijeb, or something.”

“A hijab?”

“Yeah, that’s it! They kept asking her about it. Then she – the hijab-girl – started to get a little mad, and then Karen started to call her names.”

“What kind of names?”

“Karen said…” Amy stopped, not sure of what her mom would say if she kept going, but the shadowy look over her mom’s eyes convinced her she had to finish her story. “Karen said her mom said all Arabs are terrorists, and they shouldn’t be allowed in the country, and that if she – the girl – was going to be rude then she should go back to where she came from.”

“And you heard this yourself?”

“I..me and Lacey were playing hopscotch near the swings.” Amy hung her head. “We were going to tell Karen to stop, I promise. But the girl ran away before we could say anything.”

Her mom was silent for a minute, and Amy had the terrible feeling that maybe her mom was disappointed in her. She could of run after the girl, after all. Maybe find her and tell her that Karen always says stupid things when she doesn’t get her way. But instead, she watched her run off and disappear back into the school building, and Lacey just wanted to start their game again. The girl didn’t come back to class after lunch, either. All day, Amy had seen the girl’s tear-streaked face in her mind. It made her sick to her stomach and her heart heavy.

When her mom finally started speaking again, she stretched out her hand and wiped away the tears still lingering at the corners of Amy’s eyes. “Alright, baby, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make some calls. I want you to write down your classmate’s name, and see if I can get a hold of her mom. And Amy?”

“Yeah?”

“I think that girl could really use a friend right now. What do you say?”

Running – Part I

tjicon“It’s happening again,” he said. He was down on his hands and knees, panting, sweat dripping from his head like he had just walked in from the rain. He was shivering.

I stood in place for a moment, unable to move, or unwilling. My thoughts were taken over by the memories of last time. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to run until my legs gave out. I wanted to put a bullet in his head and just get over with. And then mine

“It’s okay,” I said instinctively. I felt my legs buckle in time enough to make it look like I was kneeling on purpose. I lifted his head up. His pupils were dilating and contracting with each breath he took and released. “Calm down, just… breathe slow.”

“She found me, I can’t believe it. I don’t know how-”

“Did she see you,” I said, cutting him off.

“No, I don’t think so.”

I sighed in relief. If she saw him, it would be over. At least now, we had some time. I grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, “Come on, we gotta hurry.” We walked quickly through the park. The weather was nice and warm without being too humid or bright and the park was full people walking dogs, playing soccer, or just lounging in the sun. He kept looking around anxiously, making sure she wasn’t following us. He did this all the way out of the park and through downtown back to our apartment. I’m sure everyone looking at us thought he was high on something. I didn’t even try to calm him down though, there was no use.

As soon as we were back at the apartment, he check all the rooms and close the blinds.  “How did she find me,” he asked frantically.

“I don’t know,” I said, despite knowing that the question was mostly rhetorical. We never know how she finds us, just that she always does. “Get your things together, we need to be out in ten.”

He was jumpy and jittery, but he moved like a man with purpose. He zipped around the apartment like a ricocheting rocket. Then he stopped to look at me. His body shook like it was buzzing with electricity, though he stood still. My legs buckled again. He was by my side before I felt my knees hit the floor. The mint green walls of our apartment vibrated like someone was playing loud music. Perhaps he wasn’t moving fast. I was moving slow. “Come on, sis, we need to go.” He looked at me, his pupils still exploding and imploding like they were dancing to his heartbeat.

“I… I,” I tried to speak. To tell him I was fine, just out of breath from rushing through the city. But I wasn’t fine, and I was out of breath for a different reason. “I can’t do this again, Evan.” He wiped his hand across my face and I realized my cheeks were wet. I smacked his hand away and wiped my own tears. I was supposed to be the strong one. “It’s been so long,” I said, “so long, I thought we were gonna be okay.”

“Come on, sis,” he said. He was trying to keep the panic out of his voice, but his eyes were darting back and forth to every entrance and exit. “We gotta go, come on.”

“I can’t. I can’t run anymore. We’re always running.” My face was wet again.

My body moved like it got caught in an earthquake. I didn’t feel his hands on my shoulders, but I saw him shaking me. “We have to run. We can’t do anything else.”

I blinked. Then I took a deep breath and blinked again. The room was spinning a bit, but it stopped buzzing. “Yeah,” I said slowly. “Yeah.” Faster that time. “Get the rest of your stuff.” He darted off to his room. I rushed to mine and grabbed my emergency bag. Then I took the gun out of my purse and tucked it into the back of my pants. “You need help,” I yelled at him as I walked back into the living room, but he was walking back at the same time, his backpack strapped on his shoulders and the big duffle bag in his hand. “Did you get a good look at her,” I asked in the hall as we made our way to the car.

“Not really. Her hair’s longer, and it’s back red again. Other than that, she looks the same. Same old mom.”

I have the car doing sixty towards the interstate before Evan even buckles his seatbelt.

Heart of Stone, Part 1

bernicons            Miss Paulson is a detective.

Or rather, she was. She was asked to leave the force due to … extenuating circumstances. So she lost her badge but gained the title Private Eye and somehow that made the loss of a steady paycheck and health insurance worth it.

Except for today. With a sore throat, runny nose and a fever dangerously flirting with 100 degrees Ferinheight, that tax payer  paid health plan was looking pretty good. But there was no way around it. She didn’t have fifty dollars to her name. If her hair wasn’t already white as a ghost she certainly would have stressed herself gray. She pulled back her long locks into a pony tail, threw on her blood red trench coat and walked out the door.

Miss Paulson almost hacked up her lung on her landlord which kept the man from demanding his rent again. She might have been coughing extra loud to drown out his voice, or she might not have been. Who really knows? She stepped out of the elevator and made a dash for the front doors. The doorman was asleep again, snoring a familiar tune.

The best thing for a bad cold is plenty of rest, a warm cup of tea and to bundle up under some blankets. It was raining outside, with temperatures so frigid that Miss Paulson could see her breath in small puffs in front of her face. She would have preferred snow to the rain, but warm front was coming up into the city later today made that impossible. She pulled up her coat collar to cover her face as best she could then dug her hands into her pockets. The subway was crowded, due to the rain. People were slipping this way and that and Miss Paulson was certain that she must have infected at least four other people on her way. Which was a real shame because the train mostly held single moms and children.

Her stop was at the end of the line, a real dangerous neighbor in this city, and on any other day she would have been fine with someone trying to jump her. The unfortunate soul would learn to know better than to mug Miss Paulson, the lady in the blood red coat. But her constant hacking gave her a headache, almost as bad as the headache that she kicked into the punk she plowed into the ground of the alleyway outside the subway station. He’d be fine, just a bloody nose, a sore gut and a bruised bit of pride. The kid was laying face down in the alley and Miss Paulson grabbed him by his dirty blonde hair , tilting his face toward hers. She coughed a few times in his face and then dropped him again.

Miss Paulson entered an old office building a few blocks down and  stepped into the elevator, making sure not to hold the elevator for a middle aged looking woman who must have just gotten off the graveyard shift. Half the buttons were missing inside but she jammed her finger into Level 10. Right before she reached her floor she pressed Level 17. Soon she hit Level 2 and the elevator screeched to a halt.

Miss Paulson turned to the wall left of the buttons. She sighed but it ended up making her cough for a moment. She pulled took her fist and knocked on the wall of the elevator. It was a simple six beat knock, one that she couldn’t help but hum the tune to in her head. It was the same tune the sleeping doorman was snoring.

A doggy door sized window slid to the side in the elevator and out of this door popped out this grey skinned, bald headed creature with bat like ears. “Oh, it’s you Miss Paulson,” it said.

Miss Paulson smirked. “Good morning, Grace.”

“What’s it you need this time?”

“A job. Anything that pays.”

“You know you don’t have to come to me to find a job that pay for a young lady like yourself.”

Miss Paulson directed and coughing attack toward the bat eared lady.

Grace wasn’t amused. “Fine, yeah. Give me a minute.”

The gray skinned lady disappeared for e minute, leaving the little window open. Miss Paulson leaned in and took a peek. It was dark, but she could see hoards of bat eared creatures making their morning treks throughout the building. Many of them were drinking coffee our of the caps of spray can caps. Others were wearing socks as scarves. Miss Paulson shook her head. Gnomes were weird.

Grace popped back in, making Miss Paulson jump back. “Haha, that’s what you get for being nosey.”

Miss Paulson straightened her collar and shrugged it off. “Alright, what you got?”

“Well, you’re not gonna like it. You turned this one down the last couple of times you came by.”

“Crap.”

“Yep. Sorry, Hun.”

Miss Paulson coughed several times into her collar. “Fine, alright, I’ll take it.”

Grace handed a piece of paper over to the Private Eye. “Go to the South by West Cemetery. You’ll find him there.”

Miss Paulson skimmed over the paper, groaned and tucked it into her blood red coat.

“Oh, and do stop by soon, Miss Paulson, I do enjoy our visits,” chimed Grace before she disappeared back into her window and shut it behind her with a satisfying click. Nothing odd looking here. Just a plain elevator wall.

All for One, Part 3

kellyiconSix months after escaping through the Wall, my father found me.

Life beyond the Wall wasn’t easy. The rumors didn’t disappoint. The air was harsh and bitter, and water was scarce. People were equally hard to come by, just one or two little settlements around a small stream or pond. From what I’ve seen, it’s for the best people are hard to come by. Still, they’re not as bad as the monsters: huge, misshapen creatures that stalk the forests endlessly, all eyes and claws and teeth, their cries echoing through the night. We spent most of our first months beyond the Wall avoiding these beasts, drawn to us by the smell of Chel’s open wound.

I spotted the small personal ship weaved its way through the trees, whipping up a whirlwind of dirt and leaves as it landed in front of the rickety shack I had managed to scramble together. My father jumped out first, kicking up dust clouds when he landed. His face was covered by a pair of clear medical goggles and mask to keep out the polluted air, making his face bug-eyed and alien.

I walked up to him first. “What are you doing here?”

My father patted the dirt from his shirt, avoiding my eyes. When he finally looked at me, it was with…irritation. Not anger. Not fear or worry. I had a annoyed him.

“You’ve made your point, Hinata. Come home.”

“Excuse me?”

“Come home,” he repeated, frustration creeping into his voice. “It’s imperative that you and Chelsey come home with us.”

I barked out a laugh. “You must be joking.”

“I showed you the secret of Menusa’s sustainability because I expected you to take my place once I retired.” My father’s back straightened, the way it always did when he began to speak of the dignities and prestige of his office. He was so ridiculously out of place here in the forests beyond the Wall, his immaculate suit and shoes rumpled only by the heat and the dirt, his face and hands – as much as I could see of them anyway – free of the sweat and scars that graced the face of every other human I had encountered out here so far, myself now included. “That you would do something so unfathomably foolish, as well as stupid, as to run away…”

The heat rose into my cheeks and I was shouting before I could stop myself. “You were going to kill Chelsey!”

“I planned to do nothing, Hinata, that’s what you fail to understand. The lots are impartial.”

I fumed, anger boil in my chest as he stood there staring at me with the same mix of annoyance and deliberate ignorance he had when I first asked him about the lots all those months ago. He simply couldn’t – or wouldn’t – understand why I couldn’t offer my friend up for slaughter.

“The lots are a necessary part of life in Menusa.” He gestured at the forest around us. “You’ve seen for yourself that there is no way to sustain the city with resources from outside the Wall. When the city overextends itself…” He lowers his arms and straightens his shirt, as if his all-important appearance mattered so far away from Menusa. “…Sacrifices must be made among those who are no longer beneficial to the city.”

I could hit him. I could hit him and send him sprawling into the dirt. My fists balled, nails digging into the skin of my palms.

“Hinata? What’s going on out there?”

Chel came out of the hut and up to my side. Her arm was still in its sling, but otherwise she looked much better than she did. It took her a moment to recognize my father, and when she did, her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates.

“You! Are you…are you here to kill us?”

“No, I am not.” My father spread his arms again, this time in the spirit of saintly benediction. “I have come to offer you a return to the city. Away from this wasteland and back to the civilization where you belong.”

“Why?” she asked. My father smiled, but did not answer.

“Why else?” I said, then shrugged. My father certainly wasn’t here because of fatherly affection. “It It must look awfully suspicious that both of us went missing and can’t be found in the city. I wonder what kind of rumors must be spreading around.”

My father’s eyes narrowed and his smile widened, showing teeth.

“Come home,” he said again, and this time it sounded like an order.

I looked at Chel. She looked back at me. The unspoken question hung in the air between us. After a few moments, she nodded, and I understood.

“No.”

“No?”

“No, we won’t go back to your or your cesspit of a city.”

“And what do you expect to do?” My father’s composure broke completely. Red flush crept up his face and specks of spittle dotted his mask. “Living your days not knowing when you might die of disease or starvation or a million other things that will kill you? I am offering you a way back to paradise, and you’d be stubborn and foolish enough to say no?”

“That’s right,” I said. I turned my back on the old man and walked away, leaving him cursing in the wind, with no one to listen but the trees.

Whales and Waffles, Part 3

bernicons            Nicole knew that Duchess hid the master key to the entire house under the mat behind the front hallway desk, but Duchess did not know that Nicole knew. Occasionally, when Nicole was bored, she would hide the key somewhere slightly different, like the opposite corner of the mat or perhaps even in one of the desk drawers. It was all in good fun.

Nicole quickly gathered the key and returned to the couple. “This way!” she cheered, “The entrance to your apartment is outside, beside the porch.”

As the group existed the matching French doors Nicole spotted Barnaby walking up the veranda steps hand-in-hand with Wilber. They had met at a novelty mug convention and the two had been inseparable ever since. Wilber was taller than Barnaby but not nearly as muscular as her neighbor . Wilber did sport a very handsome brown beard though, and Nicole thought it was cute how a Wilber plus a Barnaby completed a facial-hair set.

Wilber and Barnaby greeted Nicole her party with warm hellos. They were eager to display their recent mug purchases from their brown paper bags. Nicole, not wanting to bore the possible new tenants away, quickly mentioned she was giving a tour before rushing away like a polite little whirlwind.

The couple followed Nicole outside and to the basement door. The door was painted plum purple and was tucked away beside the house like a mysterious entrance into a magical world. The couple gasped upon entering the apartment. It was beautifully bright, with lots of windows placed high on the walls. The floors had been redone and now were made out of a lightly colored bamboo.

Nicole smiled, she was going to like her new neighbors. “This is the living room,” she said proudly. She moved over to the left to continue her guided tour. “Over here is the bathroom and the bedroom. Over here the kitchen and just off to the right is the office…” Nicole eyed the blackberry woman’s stomach. “Or a second bedroom.”

“This is really something,” said the golden haired man.

“Oh, but that isn’t the best part!” said Nicole, “This way!” Nicole grabbed the hands of the couple and pulled them toward the kitchen. “Just beyond here is-”

“Oh my!” said the blackberry woman.

Just off the kitchen there was another pair of French doors, matching the fetching pair in the front of the house, that lead them onto a dug out veranda that over looked a small garden and the cliffside view of the ocean.

“Hello Nicole!” shouted the whale from  before has he splashed about with the rest of his pod.

Nicole waved with her entire arm.

“Navneet,” said the golden haired man to the blackberry woman, “This is…”

“-This is amazing!” finished Navneet, “This is exactly what we were looking for! Isn’t it Fredrick?”

Nicole’s jaw dropped to the floor of the veranda. “Fredrick?!

“Yes?” replied the golden haired man.

Nicole rarely got angry. She honestly didn’t see the point of being so upset. At the end of a temper tantrum, she would just feel hot and empty. But she could not help the feelings swelling up inside. Fredrick?! Queenies Fredrick?!

“You have some nerve coming here!” shouted Nicole.

The couple was flabbergasted.

“After you stood up Queenie like that! Why it’s just absolutely terrible! That’s what it is! You should leave right now before Queenie sees you and gets upset! And I truly hope that you two do NOT-”

“What’s this ruckus all about then?”

Nicole turned to see Duchess and Queenie, who just had entered from the plum purple door. “Nicole, pet, why are you shouting?” asked Duchess.

“Yes, dear. What is this all about?” asked Queenie.

“Queenie! No!”

Duchess and Queenie stepped onto the veranda and Nicole became confused. Queenie didn’t seem to recognize Fredrick at all.

“No? ‘No’ what?”

Nicole looked at the couple, then to Queenie. Both were eager to hear her answer.

“I- uh. Queenie… this man’s name is Fredrick…”

Queenie looked to the man and nodded her head politely. “A pleasure.”

“No, I mean… wait… he’s not your-”

Queenie’s fur stood up on end. “We will not speak of it!” Duchess placed a supportive paw on Queenie’s back. The cat took a deep breath and shook her head. “But, no. He is not that Fredrick… if that’s what you thought.”

Nicole’s face plunged into several shades of scarlet and when she thought about this later, she rather thought she must have looked like a tree; being red, yellow and orange.

Apologies were made, whole heartedly on the part of Nicole but Navneet and Fredrick only laughed. Navneet had even called Nicole’s passionate defense of her friend a good thing. Not long after, the blackberry Navneet and golden Fredrick moved into the apartment with the plum purple door and Nicole couldn’t have been more pleased.

Haunt – Part III

tjiconI nibble on bacon while I try to spoon apple sauce into his mouth without spilling it too much. “You can’t eat the spoon, honey,” I say, trying to pull it out of his mouth.

He looks up at me, blinking his big brown eyes as if to ask, Why not?

“Well, because you don’t have teeth, for one.” He giggles. I remember to eat this time. I gave him a bit of my eggs, but I devoured everything else. It’s not until my plate is clean that I realize how hungry I really was.

As if reading my mind, the waitress known as Angel sets another plate of food in front of me and refills my coffee. “Hey,” I say, “sit down.” She does. “Okay, I know you probably think you have good intentions or whatever, but where the fuck…” I cover his ears, “where the fuck do you get off telling me how to live my life?”

“I’m sorry if it seemed like-”

“Do you just hand everyone who walks in here a fucking tarot card and then jump all up in their business?”

“Only if they really need it.”

“How the fuck do you know what I need.”

“I…” she stops like realizes she’s about to say too much. She takes a deep breath, “I don’t know your life, okay. I don’t know what you’re going through or what you went through. But I can tell things, when I look at people. It’s just what I do.”

“Aside from waiting tables,” I say, “unsolicited life coaching doesn’t pay the bills?”

“People pay good money for you to tell them things they want to hear, but if I dealt in lies, then I wouldn’t really be worthy of this nametag, would I?” Her self-righteousness made me want to bite her head off but my mouth was full of waffles and they were delicious and for some reason I couldn’t get as mad as I wanted to.

I continued to eat while the girl made silly faces at my son.  I wanted to tell her to stop but he was enjoying himself and she wasn’t really doing any harm. I was nearly through the second plate but I didn’t want to seem like a pig, so I stopped and just drank more coffee. “Don’t you have other customers to bother.”

She looked around. The same guys from before were still there, but they were sitting together now, talking about something that they had apparently read in their newspapers. “No, they’ve been helped already.”

I sigh without meaning too, then I take the card out of my pocket and put it on the table. “What does this mean?”

“The Hanged Man. It means you’re in a pretty bad situation-”

“Wow, that never occurred to me.”

But,” she said emphatically, while reaching over and turning the card so that the man was upright, “his hands are free and he can untie himself whenever he chooses. He may have not put himself in this situation, but he is the only thing keeping himself in it.”

I looked at the card for a moment. The man had his hands behind his head like he was relaxing. Like it was comfortable hanging there, not having to move or make a decision. As long as he was hanging there, he wasn’t responsible. He could blame the rope for being tied so perfectly so that he didn’t slip out of the knot. Or the tree branch for being so strong that it didn’t break under his weight. It was easier to hang. “It’s not fair,” I say.

“I know,” she says, still making silly faces at the baby, “but it’s the way it is.”

“First you told me that we needed to let each other go, then you say I need to tell him about his son-”

“Like I said, I know all the answers. I don’t know what will happen, or how things will turn out.” She put her thumbs in her ears and wiggled her fingers while sticking her tongue out. He clapped and cheered. “I just know what you need.”

*             *             *

I’ll go home and put the baby to sleep. Then I’ll sit down with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey and balance my check book. I’ll go back to the diner a day or two later, but the strange girl, Angel, won’t be there. I’ll call Rache and apologize and I’ll think about what she and the girl told me. Eventually, I’ll call him. Maybe. If he doesn’t call me first. I’ll tell him we need to talk. He’ll come, like he always does, and we’ll talk, like we always do. Then he’ll leave. And I’ll beat myself up about letting him. And some way or another, the decision I’m too scared to make will come back to haunt me.

Whales and Waffles, Part 2

kellyiconNicole ran to the balcony railing, beaming excitement. The humpback leapt up to meet her. The whale left a trail of shimmering droplets in its wake, pieces of crystal that hung in the air like a diamond necklace, glimmering in the sun, before falling away. Droplets of water clung to the whale’s gray skin as he hung in the air, giving him a glowing aura in the afternoon sun, contrasting with the shadow his floating form cast on her balcony.

“Hello!” Nicole said. “How are you?”

“Quite well!” the humpback replied. Nicole imagined he smiled just then. Whales didn’t have expressions like humans or even cats, but she never found it difficult to understand their emotions. It was in the eyes with whales, and his were warm and crinkly. “Has Duchess rented the apartment yet?”

“Maybe! There’s a couple coming soon to see the apartment. This afternoon, in fact.” Nicole couldn’t wait to meet them. They were expecting a baby, Duchess said, and Nicole had never seen a newborn baby before. A friend of Duchess’, a pretty gold retriever with red-gold fur, had had puppies once, and they were pink and wrinkly and always sleeping whenever Nicole visited them. She wondered if human babies would be the same.

“Wish the old girl luck for me, will you?” the humpback said, chuckling, his whole body bouncing slightly in the air as he did. “I know she’s been trying to rent that place out for ages. And bring them round if it works out, will you? The pod would love to meet new neighbors.”

“I will!” And with that, the whale turned and dived nearly by the sea with a humongous splash. The spray, cold as ice, flew up as high as Nicole’s nose, leaving her in a spasm of sneezing and laughing as the pod swam away.

After lunch, Nicole returned to the ground floor, still giggling, hoping to catch Queenie on her way back from lunch with Dutchess. Instead, a man and woman, both looking around with lost and slightly concerned expressions on their faces, stood in the foyer. Nicole stood on the landing, watching them for a second, before it clicked.

She bounded forward, coming to a stop in front of them. “Are you the couple wanting to look at the apartment?”

The woman started. She gave a little gasp and placed a hand on her heart. She had hair and eyes the color of blackberries, and her skin was bronze in the sun. Her stomach bulged slightly under her shirt.

The woman looked Nicole up and down before speaking.

“Yes, yes we are. Are you…Duchess?”

“Oh, no. I’m Nicole! I’ll be your new neighbor!” She extended her hand, and the first the woman and then the man shook it. “Duchess is still having lunch with Queenie, they’ll be back in a moment, I should think.”

“Oh, I knew we’d be early,” the woman said, frowning.

“I hope it’s alright we came in,” the man said. His hair was golden and his eyes were clear blue. His skin was pale except for his cheeks, which were red, reminding Nicole of the colors of peaches. “We felt a little silly just sitting in the car.”

“No worries!” Nicole said, spreading her arms wide. “Let me give you the tour!”

“Are you sure, love?” the woman asked. “We don’t want to impose.”

“It’s not a problem. Duchess would be upset if she knew I’d left you here all alone and kept you waiting. And Queenie would definitely scold me for my forgetting my manners.” Nicole lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “She was royalty once, you know, and that kind of thing is always really important to her. Now, onto the tour!”