ISSUE 11, June 2017


Cover Art by Glass Valkyrie Studios




*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

The Calling
By Tabatha Rodriguez

“What on earth has happened to your skin?” Regalia’s mother, Mabel, asked with a look of abject horror mixed with incredulous fascination on her face.
    “I don’t know,” the young woman answered as she looked with dismay in the mirror.  Where her skin had once been a lovely brown tone, it was now as green as the grass on their lush spring lawn.  Her hair remained black, with the same silky woolen texture as before, but nearly every inch of her skin was bright green.  “What do I do, Ma?  I can’t go to school like this.  I look like the Jolly Green Giant!”  
    “Get in the car.  I’m taking you to the emergency room,” her mother said.  
    “No, Ma,” Regalia replied. “We can’t afford it, and I don’t feel bad at all.  I’m just… green.”  
It was true.  Regalia did not feel bad.  Other than being shocked by her appearance, she felt great.  In fact, she felt better than she had in a long time.  
“I think I just need some sun and rest, okay?  Let’s wait and see if it goes away on its own.  If I start to feel bad, we can go then.”
    Regalia could see the relief on Mabel’s face.  She knew her mother could ill afford another bill, as she was barely making ends meet as it was.  Being a single mother had never been easy for Mabel, and lately it had been even more difficult than usual, with her hours at the office being cut.  
“Okay, but if you start to feel bad at all,” Mabel emphasized, “we are going straight to the hospital.  I’m calling the office to let them know I won’t be there.”
    “No!” Regalia almost shouted.  She paused and softened her tone.  “I am fine, Ma.  I can call you if I need you, and Miss Rose is right next door if I get in a bind.”
    Regalia looked at Mabel.  She could tell her mother was struggling with the decision.  She crossed her fingers that the mention of Miss Rose would ease Mabel’s worries.  After all, Miss Rose was always there when they needed her.  She inwardly blessed the mysterious old woman and wondered what they would do without her.  
Mabel smiled.  Her face belied her exhaustion, as well as her relief.  “Okay, but if you even sneeze and it feels off, you call me.” She looked at her daughter, one eyebrow raised. “I mean it, young lady.”
    Regalia smiled and hugged her mother. “I will,” she said, “I promise.  Have a good day at work.”
    Mabel looked at her as if she had lost her mind.  “I’ll have as good a day as I can knowing that my one and only daughter has turned into a sprout.”  She softened the statement with a smile as she kissed Regalia’s cheek before heading toward the door.
    Regalia turned again towards the mirror and examined her face.  Her eyes had not changed, they were still the deep warm brown that they had always been, and her lashes were black and thick.  Her lips were the same medium brown as before, slightly darker than her normal lighter brown complexion.  
Actually, I look pretty damned good, considering I’m green.  She laughed at her reflection, a sudden and pressing urge to play and run in the sun coming from somewhere deep within.  Sun, I need more sun! she thought as she headed toward the back door.  
    She stepped out into the backyard and raised her face to the sun.  It had never felt this wonderful before.  It was the most exquisite and exhilarating feeling she had ever experienced, as if she were connected directly to the sun’s energy via an invisible cord.  A sudden urge to play in the water hit her and she skipped happily to the mechanism that turned on the sprinkler system.  
What is happening to me?  Why do I feel this way?  Regalia thought.  A vague thought that this was not normal formed in her mind, but vanished as soon as the water hit her.   
    “Well, hello, child,” Miss Rose’s familiar voice came from the backyard of her own house.  She stood at the waist high fence that separated their properties and watched Regalia with great interest.  
    “Hello, Miss Rose!” Regalia answered as she skipped through the sprinklers as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do first thing in the morning after one has woken with green skin.  “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”  She beamed at the older woman as she continued to skip and play in and out of the streams of water.
    “Indeed, Regalia,” said the dark-skinned woman.  
Miss Rose was not actually Miss Rose.  Her last name was Andrews.  She had been given the nickname “Miss Rose” by Mabel because of the exotic rose scented perfume she always wore and because of the beautiful roses that she grew each and every year.  There were none like the roses grown by Miss Rose anywhere else in the world.  They were beautiful and lush and so varied in color that Mabel often joked that the old woman might have some sort of supernatural power.  
    “What has happened to your skin, child?” Miss Rose asked as she peered across the yard at Regalia.  
    “I have no idea, but isn’t it wonderful?” Regalia answered, her eyes glowing.  Wait, why is it wonderful? She pondered, before that thought also vanished.  
    “Yes, I suppose if it makes you this happy, then it is a wonderful thing,” Miss Rose replied. “But what about school and your mother?  How will this affect those things?”  The woman looked expectantly at Regalia and waited for an answer.
    Regalia stopped suddenly.  She had not even considered that since steppng outside.  In fact, over the past half hour or so, she had forgotten everything else except just to be.  She was simply being, and it was a wonderful feeling.  The young woman was torn.  
    She looked at her neighbor with pleading eyes. “What is happening to me, Miss Rose?  I don’t understand what is happening.  I just know that it feels wonderful and natural and I don’t want that to end.  But, what does that mean for Ma?  What does that mean for school and getting a job?”  She looked down at her hands, surprised to see that her nails now resembled leaves and had turned green.  “Oh no!” She began to cry and buried her face in her hands.  Regalia slumped to the ground and sat there in the still running sprinkler water, sad and confused.  
    Miss Rose opened the gate and walked through.  She turned off the sprinkler system on her way over to Regalia and held out her hand.
“Now, now, child,” Miss Rose said as she helped the girl to her feet.  “Where there is a question, there is always an answer.”  She did not seem at all concerned with the changes to Regalia’s body.  In fact, she seemed to be expecting them. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and pull yourself together, girl.”  Her voice was gentle but firm.  “I will help you through this as best I can.”  
    Regalia found strength from the hand that Miss Rose offered, and when she looked back at her hands, the leaves were nails again.  
Did I imagine that?
    “No, you did not imagine it,” Miss Rose said.  Her response startled Regalia.  
    “I didn’t think I said that out loud,” Regalia said as she looked at the old woman with a mixture of surprise and uncertainty.
    “You didn’t,” Miss Rose assured her.  “It is time that you learned about a world that you are a part of, but that has been hidden from you, child.  What is happening to you has happened to others in this world, as well.”
    Regalia hesitated, afraid of the answer, before asking, “What happened to the others?”  All sorts of thoughts ran through her head, including actually turning into a sprout, as her mother had insinuated.
    Miss Rose looked at the girl thoughtfully, as though wondering just how much she should tell her.     
“You have been chosen, child, by Mother Nature herself.  It is a high honor indeed, and it is a sacrifice, as well.  You will have to make a choice… a choice between devoting yourself to Nature and staying on your current path.  To stay will lead you directly into the same life as your mother.  Make no mistake, while your mother works hard and has a hard life, she has immense joy in you and would not trade her life for any other, as long as you are in it.  Your mother is able to enjoy the ordinary things in life and her responsibility is not as great as those who are chosen.  You see, to be chosen by Nature and to accept that responsibility is something entirely different.  It means that your life will be dedicated to the Earth and to Mother Nature.  You will create beautiful natural things that will either contribute to the beauty of Nature, or the sustenance of her children.  In doing so, you will sacrifice being a normal girl and a normal woman.  People may look upon you in curiosity or even in fear.  There will be times when you will acutely feel the loneliness that comes with being different.  But there is also great reward in accepting the gift.”  
The old woman paused for a moment before she continued, “If you choose to accept, the trick is to figure out what you are meant to grow.  If you can do this before the day ends, your body will return to the way it was before.  In that form you will remain, serving Mother Nature.  However, if you choose to ignore the call, then the magic that you are experiencing will be forever lost to you.  You will have no memory of this moment and you will be destined to struggle like your mother.  With that struggle, though, comes the ability to enjoy an ordinary life.  The choice is yours.”
    “What happens if I choose to accept?  What kind of life will I have?” Regalia asked.  Her fear was easing and her curiosity was growing.
    “Well,” Miss Rose said, “That path is one that will be revealed by Mother Nature herself, child.  But understand that for everything you sacrifice, you are given an abundance of something else, even more wonderful.  Perhaps it isn’t what you would have asked for, but it always is exactly what you need.”
    “What happens if I want to accept, but don’t figure out what I am supposed to grow?” Regalia asked.
    “Well, then you will change forever, and cease to exist as a human,” Miss Rose replied, her expression serious.
    “Can you help me figure out what I’m supposed to grow?” Regalia pleaded.  I can’t stay green forever! I can’t turn into a plant!
    Miss Rose chuckled, “That, I cannot do.”  She looked at the young woman reassuringly.  “But I think you were onto something with the sun and the sprinklers.” The old woman’s eyes twinkled as she walked back to her own yard.  She paused to turn the sprinklers back on as she went.  
    Regalia stood there with the water spraying around her and the sun shining down, and contemplated Miss Rose’s words.  
What should I grow? What should I grow? Regalia willed the answer to come, but got nothing.  She glanced over to ask Miss Rose a question, but the old lady was already gone.  Damn, guess I’m on my own.
    A butterfly landed on Regalia’s nose.  It sat there and looked at her as it slowly opened and closed its wings.  Regalia laughed as the overwhelming need to take in the sun and water overcame her again.  Nourish. Play. Glow. Grow.  It was an odd thought, but it felt right.  She, once again, started to skip and play in the sun and water.
    After a while, she became sleepy.  
Oh wow, I have been out here for hours! She thought as she sat down and reclined in one of the beach chairs in the backyard.  She reveled in the warmth of the sun as she allowed her skin to dry.  Just a little nap, then I’ll figure out this riddle of mine… She drifted off to sleep.  
***
    “Regalia!  Regalia!” her mother’s voice seemed to be coming from far away.  “Regalia!” closer now.
    Regalia felt someone pushing her, nudging her, but she did not wish to wake up. She was perfectly content where she was.
    “Regalia!” Mabel screamed.
    She finally, slowly, opened her eyes and her mother’s face appeared.  
“Oh, hey, Ma,” she said sleepily as she stretched her arms out to either side.
    “Good Lord, Regalia,” her mother said, her expression both relieved and troubled. “You scared me to death!  Why didn’t you call me when it got worse?”
    “What do you mean?” Regalia asked.  She didn’t feel bad at all, other than still being sleepy.
    “Regalia, have you looked at yourself at all?” Mabel asked.  
Regalia’s arms now resembled the limbs of a tree, her fingers like branches, with smaller ever-extending branches growing from each of the original digits.  Her hair was like a mass of leaves and twigs and her feet now had roots growing from them.  
    Regalia screamed as she saw her hands for the first time.  “Oh no! Ma!  What do I do?”  She was terrified, her now deep green face wet with tears.
    “Let’s get you to the hospital!” Mabel urged. She tried to pull Regalia up from the lounge, but the young woman resisted.
    “No, Ma, that’s not going to help.” Regalia insisted.
    “Get in the car, Regalia!  I am not going to sit here and do nothing!” Mabel answered.  Her voice gave away her rising fear for her daughter.  
    “I know what to do,” Regalia said.  She suddenly understood.  She slowly made her way up to a sitting position, not an easy task considering the massive changes that had occurred to her body while she slept.  “I’ve got to stand up, get back to the sunlight before it’s gone,” she said as she put all of her strength into getting up.
    “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Regalia,” her mother admonished, “You’ve had plenty of sun and look what it’s done to you!  Just get to the car, baby!”  Mabel began to cry.
    “Now, now, child,” Miss Rose’s voice came from right behind Mabel and caused her to jump.  She never heard the gate open or even seen the woman come from her house.
    “What on earth… how did you…” Mabel’s voice trailed off as she looked into Miss Rose’s eyes.  
The old woman’s eyes were glowing bright yellow and her face, which had before been wrinkled from time, was now smooth and firm.  Her hair, formerly white and resembling cotton, was now long and black and flowed around and behind her like a regal mane.  
“Miss Rose?” Mabel asked and blinked several times, as if trying to better focus.
    Miss Rose smiled at Mabel, and turned her attention to Regalia.  “You know what to do, Regalia.  It’s time to choose,” she said as she helped the young woman move toward the center of the backyard.  
    Regalia moved painstakingly slow, as if she were walking through hardening cement.  Each step took monumental strength and concentration.  As she walked, the roots growing from her feet spread out along the grass, as if searching for something.  Then, as she came to the middle of the lawn, the roots suddenly shot down into the earth and held Regalia firmly in place.  
Mabel screamed as Regalia’s body began to change even more, her arms and legs lengthening, hardening.  
Her legs fused and became trunk-like.  Her torso stretched and grew taller.  Her head expanded and branches shot out from it, full of leaves, and to Mabel’s surprise, oranges.  Mabel tried to go to her daughter, but Miss Rose held the distraught mother firmly in place.
“Do not be afraid, Mabel,” Miss Rose said, eyes still aglow.  She caught Mabel’s gaze and Mabel felt herself slip into what felt like a dream.  
Don’t be afraid. The thought reverberated within Mabel’s mind, and she stood still and calm.
As Regalia’s body completely transformed into the orange tree, Miss Rose allowed Mabel to come out of the trance.  
“Where is she?  Where is my baby?” Mabel pleaded as she looked at Miss Rose, desperately wishing for her daughter to appear.
“She’s right there, Mabel,” Miss Rose said as she pointed to the orange tree that now stood tall in the middle of the backyard.  “She made her choice, and she has chosen to nourish my children.”
“Your children?” Mabel asked, eyes wide as she looked at the woman.  “What about my child?” she screamed, angry now, her pain like a hot poker twisting in her chest.  “What about me?  Regalia was my everything!”  Hot tears flooded Mabel’s face as she ran to the tree.  She hugged the trunk and sobbed.  “Please come back, Regalia, please…”
Miss Rose put a hand on Mabel’s shoulder, “She hasn’t gone anywhere, Mabel.  There is no need to distress, child.  In fact, I think that you would feel much better if you would just eat an orange,” Miss Rose said as she plucked an orange from the tree that used to be Mabel’s daughter and handed it to her.
“Are you crazy?” Mabel shouted through her tears.  “You turned my baby into a tree and now you want me to eat her?!”  Mabel pulled away from the woman’s touch, too angry and hurt to think straight.  “Bring her back, dammit!  You bring her back right now!  Take me if you need someone to be a tree, but you bring my baby girl back!”
“Eat the orange, Mabel,” Miss Rose repeated calmly.  Her eyes glowed again and Mabel felt herself weaken against their power.  
Eat the orange.  Okay, eat the orange.  Mabel thought as she took the fruit and began to peel it.  As she peeled, she noticed that the peel seemed to go on forever.  No matter how much she peeled, there seemed to be more to peel.  Mabel peeled for what seemed like an hour before the orange showed any sign of the fruit underneath, and when she was finished, a pile of orange peel the size of a person lay on the ground beside her.
“Eat the orange, child,” Miss Rose said again.
Mabel did as she was instructed and ate the orange.  It was delicious, refreshing and lifted her spirits immediately.  As she ate each section, the orange peel on the ground transformed.  When she ate the first section, Mabel noticed what appeared to be a foot form from the rind, then a leg, then an arm.  
She ate faster and faster, although the orange seemed to not be getting any smaller.  In fact, after a while, Mabel was not sure if she could take another bite.  But, something inside of her knew that she had to somehow eat the entire orange.  So she pushed forward and forced herself to eat.  What once had been refreshing was now sickening, and she wished that it would be finished.  
Finally, when her belly felt it would explode from the pressure of being so full, she was down to the last section of orange.  She put it into her mouth and chewed, then swallowed, forcing herself to keep it down.  
The discomfort of being so full was almost unbearable, but when she looked down to where the orange peel had been, all discomfort faded.  There, laying on her side, like a baby sleeping, was Regalia.  
Mabel whimpered and knelt down beside her daughter. She looked up at Miss Rose, who was once again an old lady.
“Is she…?”
Miss Rose smiled, that same comforting smile that she had been using for the last ten years.  “She’s just fine, Mabel, she’s just fine!”  Miss Rose gave a little chuckle and then made her way back to her own house as she hummed a happy song.  
As she reached her own backyard, Miss Rose turned back to Mabel. “Now, she’s gonna have some ideas that seem strange to you, Mabel.  You let her have her way, you hear?  Regalia is the future.  That girl’s gonna feed you both, as well as the rest of the world.” Miss Rose smiled and hummed as she made her way toward her back door.  She stopped for a moment to smell a newly blossomed, orange colored rose, and glanced over at Mabel, and Regalia, who was awake and sitting up.  She gave Regalia a wink, and then disappeared completely.
Mabel ran over to where Miss Rose had been standing, but the old woman was gone.  Next to the newly blossomed rose was a larger rose of solid black that had not been there before.  
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Mabel said as she leaned in to smell the black rose.  It smelled just like Miss Rose.  


Tabatha Rodriguez

Tabatha Rodriguez is a lover of all good (and so bad it's good) fantasy and science fiction who lives in Corinth, Texas.  She has two grown human sons, as well as several fur children, and enjoys traveling, reading, and (of course) writing.


What You Make of It
By Margery Bayne

George pressed the call button and said, “Mrs. Whitfield, you have a visitor.”
    Then George waited, hand resting on the phone pad, for a curt “send them in” or the click of Mrs. Whitfield’s heels in her office, or the doorknob rustling if Mrs. Whitfield deigned to open the door herself.
    George smiled faintly at the waiting guest. ‘Overcoat’ she labeled him in her head, because this definitely wasn’t the weather for one. Overcoat didn’t smile back, just blinked slowly, face like driftwood.
    Dropping her eyes instead of engaging in an heebie-jeebie inducing stare off, George waited for the 3:07 in the corner of her computer screen to change over to 3:08. She couldn’t buzz Mrs. Whitfield twice in less than a minute.
    “George is a strange name for a young lady.”
    George jerked at the sound of Overcoat’s creaking voice.
    “I --,” she glanced down at her name tag. “Yes, it is.”
    “Is there a story behind it?” Overcoat asked.
    George tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “Isn’t there always?” she said. Then, “I was named after my grandfather. I was supposed to be a boy.” She shrugged, tried that ‘oh gosh golly’ grin again, the perfect disarmament.
    “People aren’t supposed to be anything but what they choose be to be,” Overcoat said, posture straight and expression unmoving.
    George checked the time. It had somehow gotten to 3:10.
    “What did you say your name was again?” George resettled her finger on the call button, ready to push.
    “She’s expecting me,” Overcoat said. “Everyone expects me at some time or another.”
    “Oh,” George said, all she could say, when being polite to Mrs. Whitfield’s guests was a job requirement. “So are you like an auditor or something?”
    That would make sense for the delay. George was too careful and the office phone too expensively good for the message to have gone astray. Perhaps Mrs. Whitfield was shredding incriminating paperwork as they waited -- that is if Mrs. Whitfield had ever shredded her own paper.
    “No,” Overcoat said, not offended or anything.
    George pressed the call button hard and spoke with an extra loud pitch, “You have a visitor.”
    Five seconds passed, then ten, then her phone rang. The screen showed it was an internal call from Mrs. Whitfield’s office. She usually ushered commands through the intercom.
    “Hello?” George said, not bothering with her corporate-generated phone pick up spiel.
    “George, can you come in here. Just you. Please,” said Mrs. Whitfield, warbly, and hanging up directly after. The shocking part was the please.
    “One moment,” George said to Overcoat, excusing herself as best she could into Mrs. Whitfield’s office.
    Mrs. Whitfield sat, hands gripping her desk’s edge, as George came to stop before her, waiting for instruction.
    “What’s he like?” Mrs. Whitfield said, voice soft and chalky in a way George had never heard from the woman before, not even as she was bedridden with pneumonia last winter, but still commanding George and her company from the hospital.
    George racked her vocabulary for an exact word that explained the ominous without threatening nature of Overcoat, but settled on, “He’s… ah… a bit stoic.”
    Mrs. Whitfield nodded, leaning in, seeming so nervous.
George cocked her head, considering: Was Overcoat a gentleman caller?
    Mrs. Whitfield, as anyone who read her Forbes bio would know, had been married and widowed early in life and in the aftermath focused solely on her career. She had been single and uninterested for as long as George had worked for her.
    “He seems nice,” George said, consoling and encouraging, not confident it was true.
    Mrs. Whitfield cupped her hands over her mouth and nose. “Thank goodness,” George thought she heard Mrs. Whitfield whisper.
    She dropped her hands. “I knew it was coming, but I’m still not ready.”
    “Who’s ever ready?” George said kindly. She was twenty-eight, with thirteen years dating experience, and her stomach still threatened to vomit before every first date.
    Mrs. Whitfield brushed her silver-gray bangs across her forehead. “I had so much more to do.”
    “You look great,” George said. Her outfit was a bit formal for a mid-afternoon date, but the woman had never come to work looking less than immaculate, even for her many years.
    Mrs. Whitfield’s eyes snapped from distant staring beyond George’s shoulder to hard on her face, eyebrows pinching inward.
    George flushed. Somewhere, unbeknownst to her, she’d taken a wrong turn.
    “I mean… you’re Evelyn Whitfield, one of the richest women in America. You’ve never met a person who intimidated you, let alone a man.”
    “You’ve read my memoir,” Mrs. Whitfield said, recognizing the quote.  
    “Of course I did,” George said. “Every girl I ever met in business school wanted to be you.”
    Mrs. Whitfield’s lips curled up in a smile. “I did make an impact, didn’t I?”
    George nodded.
    Mrs. Whitfield stood and smoothed down her pencil skirt. She stood inches over George. “I suppose there is no point in… delaying the inevitable.”
    George nibbled her bottom lip, keeping back advice she might have given a friend who said the same; that ‘inevitable’ was an awfully negative outlook to take on a date.
    “I do appreciate you, George,” Mrs. Whitfield said. “I’ve never said it. I don’t think I should have to, considering how well I pay you, but lest it be in doubt.”
    George rest her palm against the desk top to steady herself, light-headed with the twists of this very odd day.
    Before she exited, Mrs. Whitfield gave her skirt another smooth and said, “I’ll miss it all.”
    George lingered in the office for a few minutes to give the couple their privacy. After she was sure she’d given them enough time to reach the elevator, she went back to her desk and redirected Mrs. Whitfield’s calls until quitting time.
    The next morning, George arrived at the office before Mrs. Whitefield, which was such an unusual occurrence, George could count all the times that happened on one hand.
    By ten it was worrisome, by noon George concluded Mrs. Whitefield’s date must have went really well, by two -- with no phone call -- it was worrisome all over again. By three in the afternoon it was worrisome enough for George to call Mrs. Whitfield’s direct home line.
    There was no answer. After trying it two more times, she called the front desk of Mrs. Whitfield’s building.
    Not her next of kin, and not one of the board members actually banking on her existence, George doesn’t get the news until a floor meeting where the CFO announces that Mrs. Whitfield had passed away last night in her sleep.
    “That’s so sad,” Tina, the HR generalist who never had the pleasure or displeasure of working with Mrs. Whitfield directly, said next to George’s ear. “I didn’t think she was that old.”
    “Almost seventy,” George said.
    “That’s not old. Not anymore,” Tina said as the CFO went on about how Mrs. Whitfield would be dearly missed but please do not panic during this transition period.
    “What’s sad is that she went on a date last night. The first one I’ve ever seen her go on,” George said.
    She crossed her arms. Something scratched inside her skull, an understanding that couldn’t quite jump across all her synapses. She was sad about Mrs. Whitfield’s death, sure, but there was something more.
    Tina made a puppy-like whine. “Just shows you’ll never know when your time will be up. It’s coming for all of us.”
    “Yeah,” George said, as the CFO announced that the funeral details would be forthcoming. She decided the bothersome itch was a warning, that she should get back out there and have a life other than a career. What was it that Overcoat had said -- she wasn’t supposed to be anyone but who she chose to be?
    It was a good thought. Grief, like life, is what you make of it. But it never quite satisfied George and her memories of Mrs. Whitfield’s last day, like eating diet food when you’re craving fat and sugar. She wouldn’t figure it out until fifty-eight years later, when a nurse would knock on her door at the nursing home and say, “Mrs. Dawson, you have a visitor” and it would be a man she’d nearly forgotten.
    She’d know his name this time. She’d say, “I’ll miss it too, but I’m ready.”



Margery Bayne

Margery Bayne is a resident of Baltimore, MD, a graduate of Susquehanna University's Writers Institute, and works every day surrounded by books in a library. More about her and her work can be found at www.margerybayne.com.

The Girl Who Knew When
By M.C. Kaske

In retrospect, the irony was that the ultimate diagnosis was the furthest thing from her mind.
Karen Saunders, senior medical student, was in her scrubs and on duty by seven. The University of Illinois Hospital had succumbed to a bleak Chicago February, and its dynamic verve had long since been replaced by a melancholy gloom. But unlike her colleagues, Saunders wasn't shuffling her feet; she was bright. This was her final internship, and while the harsh fluorescent lights stung her eyes, and the two hours of sleeping fully clothed on the on-call room couch had lead to a pounding headache, her enthusiasm prevailed. She was in high spirits; so far, it had been a good week.
Saunders circled the wards, checking the status of her patients, glancing over as a new admission rolled in across the scuffed linoleum floor. She smiled to herself; in the past few days, Saunders had effectively assisted on two cardiac arrests, solved a tough case of gastrointestinal bleeding, and diagnosed more than one cirrhotic liver. Now, her self-efficacy soared. In her mind, Saunders was on top of the world. She had been a good student, faced challenging patients. And, in a few short months, her time in medical school would be complete. She could finally move out of the crowded city with her fiancé, buy that new Prius, and start her dream residency near home; she had matched in Stanford. Oh, how she missed the West Coast.
“Hey, Karen.”
With a start, Saunders spun towards the voice. Beside her was Aaron Kahn, her senior resident. Kahn's long, haggard face sported gray stubble. Dark blue circles sagged under his eyes. He was her least favorite on staff.
Even so, Saunders waved cheerfully. “Rough night?”
Kahn gave a brisk puff and handed her a manila folder containing notes on her assigned patients and new admissions. His manner was naturally curt, aloof.
“Some new admittances. One will be transferred to the ICU.”
Saunders frowned, following Kahn's gaze, spotting the patient.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Pancreatic cancer, metastatic. Probably terminal.” Kahn cleared his throat and thrust an index finger towards an occupied bed. “But that guy's CT said angiomyolipoma. Treatable. We're talking chemo. Don't worry about them too much though. Stick to your own patients.”
Saunders took his folder and thumbed through the printouts; Kahn never liked hunting down medical records electronically.
“Fair enough,” she replied.
Kahn landed his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. She winced; snoozing on the couch always made her right arm fall asleep.
“Cool. Keep them alive for me,” said Kahn, in a patronizing tone. “I need to follow up with an attending on the other team, but I'll be back in a few. Oh, and don't forget to use SOAP format in your write-ups. Your last two were a mess.”
“They were?” Saunders blinked, surprised. The acronym ‘SOAP’ stood for the words ‘subjective,’ ‘objective,’ ‘assessment,’ and ‘plan.’ It was standard narrative format for documenting a patient's chief complaints. She was usually pretty thorough.
Kahn gave her a nod, turning to leave. “Oh, I do recommend that you check out the patient in the last room before heading out though. Weird one. Spins a good yarn, if you can spare the time.”
Saunders squinted at him as he left, hating how easy it was for him to talk down to her, ruin her mood, and tease her curiosity so early in the day.
It wasn't long before Saunders had given in, drifting into the marked room. A pale, puffy-cheeked woman in her mid-fifties lay snoring loudly in the nearest bed, a thread of drool hanging from her lip as a lock of hair fled with each breath. Quietly, Saunders consulted the woman's labs and notes on the computer just outside the door. Her eyes narrowed as she read.
“Okay,” she said, uncertain.
Because it seemed it was; Mrs. Lange's was an unremarkable case. Slightly high sodium, maybe from dehydration. High glucose, likely due to her steroid treatments. Nothing unusual for the autoimmune disease she was being treated for. Perhaps Kahn meant that Mrs. Lange was a good storyteller in general? It was possible.
Disappointed that there was nothing more to solve, Saunders stepped away from the computer. She took one last look at Mrs. Lange and was about to move on to her next patient when a small, squeaky voice called out from across the room:
“Are you my doctor?”
Surprised, Saunders turned. A girl in her late teens peered out from behind the privacy curtains of the room's second bed. She had a willowy physique, thin and dark-skinned, with big brown eyes that gave her a frightened look. She wore a hospital gown, and her hair was fashioned in tidy braided rows. It was the same hairstyle Saunders had worn when she was nineteen.
“No… but is there something I can help you with?” Saunders glanced around; there was no indication that anyone had attended to the girl at all. Without a beat, she approached, sliding the curtain away.
“Has anyone seen you yet?”
The girl shook her head, pulling the bed sheets up to her chin, pressing her lips in a timid way.
“No worries, I can help.” She held out a hand. “My name's Karen Saunders.”
The girl hesitated, then took it and they shook hands; her grip was as light as air.
“Angela Bell.”
Saunders drew up a stool beside the bed so that the pair of them sat at eye level. Curious, she opened Kahn's folders and searched his notes, chewing the inside of her cheek. Perhaps he had left Angela's case for her to solve. Could this girl be the patient he was referring to, the one who could ‘spin a good yarn?’
Saunders looked up and smiled. “So, how are you feeling?”
“I'm seeing colors,” said Angela.
“Colors?”
Her voice was softer than a whisper. “Yeah.”
“What kind of colors?” Saunders asked.
Angela swept her hand over her braids, then her neck. “All of them. They're fuzzy-looking. Like ripples in a pond.”
Saunders wrote this down. She had no patient history, no tests to work with. She was flying blind.
“Is that all?”
“Uh-huh.”
“Any headaches or eye pain?”
“No.”
“And you haven't consumed anything unusual?”
“Not that I know of.”
Saunders wrote this down too. A thrilling sense of guilt and daring took her; these were unique symptoms and an unknown patient, one that she hadn't been assigned.
“And your vision?” she said, producing an ophthalmoscope. “Are you seeing spots, flashing? Do you feel like there might be something in your eye?”
The girl shook her head; it was a confident gesture. “And I don't wear glasses either,” she said.
Saunders frowned. “But you're seeing unusual colors.”
“That's right.”
Saunders lit the scope and tested each pupil; they constricted under the light. Then she looked inside each eye—but the retinas and vessels appeared healthy. She furrowed her brow; given the girl's condition, Angela shouldn't be in a bed at all. Unless this was neurological.
“So, how long have you seen these colors, Angela?”
Angela shrugged. “For as long as I know.”
“You've always see them?” She clicked the scope light off.
“Always.”
Saunders was stumped. “Do you see them around lights, or in words and numbers? Or, do loud sounds cause you to―”
“I see them surrounding people.”
The girl's sincerity caught her off guard. Saunders felt suddenly dizzy, but she hadn't eaten breakfast; this happened all the time. “Surrounding people, you say?”
“Yeah.” Angela bit her lip. “They're unique for everyone.”
Saunders pulled her chair closer. “How so?”
The girl blushed and looked down.
As the only daughter of a divorced probation officer, Saunders knew vulnerability when she saw it. She softened her tone. “Angela, it's all right. I'm here to help.”
There was a span of silence. Angela continued to pick at a loose thread in the bed sheet. There was something about her that made her appear older than she was. It was her precise gestures, or something in her behavior.
“I can… tell when someone's happy or mad,” the girl said finally, in a low tone. “Based on the shape. It's like a halo, but it can be smooth, wavy, jagged—and the colors…” Angela's words faded, as if she was afraid to say.
“What about them?” Saunders pressed.
“Well,” Angela said, hesitating. “They tell me when someone isn't well.”
Saunders leaned back on the stool and tapped her pen on her notes, gnawing her tongue. It was suddenly clear that she was out of her depth; neither neurology nor psychiatry were her strengths. And hallucinations could mean any number of serious causes without further testing, like a brain tumor. It was time to call in her senior resident―and yet, she couldn't help but wonder…
Saunders looked out the door and saw Kahn's treatable patient in the bed across the hall. He was overweight, lying flat on his back, staring forward into space as the television droned. Saunders thought a little experiment wouldn't hurt.
“Angela,” Saunders said, wondering how to ask elegantly, “what color is that man's, uh, halo over there?”
Angela craned her neck, looking out the door and across the hall. The answer came quicker than Saunders expected.
“Green,” Angela said, certain. “With smooth ripples.”
“And your neighbor, this woman beside us?”
Angela turned her head and blinked at Mrs. Lange, who was still snoring and salivating with gusto.
“Also green. They're both sick, but will get better soon.”
Goosebumps crawled across Saunders's skin. Outside the room, a nurse wheeled a  bedridden patient down the hall, discussing his pancreatic cancer. She stopped short and peered into their room, giving them a funny look. Saunders ignored her; this girl, this case, was far too entrancing to ignore. Far too surreal.
Saunders swallowed, a husk forming in her throat. “Okay, what about the nurse outside, Angela? What color does she have?”
“Blue, wavy,” Angela said. Her eyes began to glaze. “She's unhappy but healthy.”
“And… the man lying in that rolling bed?” Saunders only then realized that it was Kahn's terminal patient, the ICU transfer.
Angela glanced at him and shivered, quickly turning away.
Saunders touched the girl's hand supportively; it was as soft as the linen beneath it. “Angela, what color—”
“Red,” she said, her voice thick, raw. “Dark red. That man is going to die.”
There was a swooping sensation in Saunders's stomach; it was like the girl had heard Kahn's prognoses, as if she could read Saunders's mind. She clenched her teeth to prevent her jaw from dropping. It was all too bizarre. How did she know?
Unnerved, Saunders looked down at her writing and suddenly felt flush with confusion. Her notes, they were no longer clear; they were scribbled, chaotic. Further flustered, she turned back to Angela. The girl's questioning expression was not unlike the face that Saunders gave her mother when she, too, was a teen. Hell, with her tidy braids, this girl could have even passed for her―
The sudden realization arrived with the force of a speeding freight train. There was a horrible sensation in her chest. The blood drained from Saunders's cheeks as she spoke her next words. “Angela,” her lip began to quiver, “what color is my halo?”
The girl searched her face dispassionately, her eyes now fully glazed, tearing. “Red, Dr. Saunders. Deep red.”
“I see.” Angela's hand seemed to evaporate beneath hers as Saunders steadied herself on the stool, her palm pressing on the now empty bed. Her headache returned with a vengeance. She wiped her brow. It was then that she felt a presence behind her. But she knew who it was; the nurse from the hall. She closed her eyes.
“Nurse?” she said.
“Yes, Doctor?”
“Could you call a neurological consult for me, please?”
“Of course, Doctor. Of course.”
“Thank you.”
Karen Saunders passed away six months later, surrounded by family and in the comfort of her own bed. She never did buy her new Prius, nor did she ever start her dream residency in Stanford. The mass at the base of her brain had been too aggressive, grew too fast. But Saunders had lived up to her own expectations; she had seen the signs, interpreted the symptoms. Faced her most difficult case: her own. She had been a good student. Her peers claimed that she knew about her illness but was hiding it from herself all along. Even so, months later, a document continued to surface in the ward. It was a note about a young woman who could see one's fate in colors: Karen Saunders, the girl who knew when.




M. C. Kaske

M. C. Kaske is a PhD candidate studying educational communications in medicine at New York University. In the past, he has been recognized by the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) and the University of Illinois at Chicago for a graphic novel on cell biology, and has published work on science and medical education in various scholarly journals. Presently, he is writing popular science articles for the medical illustration community's newsletter and avidly writes speculative fiction with medical, science, and health-related themes. His most recent preceding fiction short story can be found in Theme of Absence, an online ezine.




The Witch of Strawhorn
By Shalini P. Sawkar

They climbed at first with fervor, later with fever.  The mountain was gargantuan with drops of snow here and there. They wondered if the witch had cast a spell on it so that no one apart from her would ever reach the top.
    But, to their surprise, they managed to climb to the top within a few hours.
There it was, atop the sun-kissed mountain: the hut of the Green Witch of Strawhorn. Dingy, with vines all over it, any hiker could’ve easily mistaken it for a modest cottage of a poor tribal man, but the Rebels of Strawhorn knew better. If what their spies had told them was true, they had to exterminate her from their lands.
    From the world, thought their leader.
They marched towards her hut with purpose. Swords drawn, fire at the ready. They knocked.
    “Who is it?” came an old voice from inside.
    “Open the doors!” roared the mob.
    There was a creak and the door swung open on its own.
The leader gulped. This was not going to be as easy as he’d imagined.
    He raised a hand, signaling the others to wait outside. He wanted to capture the witch all by himself. This was the perfect opportunity to strengthen his position as the Leader of the Rebels, and those who questioned it would learn to fear him. The people of Strawhorn would forever be indebted to serve him as their king.
    With that thought in mind, he stepped inside.
    “Lady Kansambia!” he announced, staring deep into her treacherous green eyes. “We meet at last!”
    “Please, call me Kansa,” she said, shaking his hand with her wrinkled one. “Would you like some water?”
    Lady Kansa raised a finger and water began to pour into a metal glass out of thin air.
    The leader’s eyes grew wide for an instant, but his anger overcame his initial fear. Not only was she a witch, but the fact that she used magic in plain sight, irked him.
    He thumped the glass on the table vigorously.
    “Witch of Strawhorn, I’ve not come here for small talk.”
    “Very well, then,” she said. The lady made the glass disappear with a flick of her fingers.
    He couldn’t contain it any longer.
    “You’re a witch! You truly are a witch!” he burst out.
    “Oh, but you already knew that.” The old lady smirked.
    “If what they say is true… ”
    She cackled.
    “Of course, it’s true,” she said, softly. “Every word.”
    “You have to leave the town.”
    “Or?”
    Her cool green eyes met his frightened ones, an unspoken threat passed between them. What could mere mortals like him do to her? Their numbers did not matter.
    But he composed himself quickly. Eager to take back control, he roared.
    “Or we’ll burn down your hut. We’ll cut you in half!”
    Even as he said it, he knew he had made a mistake. He hoped at least his words would reach the mob outside and they would come to his rescue.  
    The lady laughed louder. Only, there was no joy in her laughs, no mirth in her crooked smile, only evil.
    He had underestimated her. He should’ve let his spies handle it. He should have believed them. But, it was too late for that now. All he wanted at that instant was to get out alive.
And as if she read his thoughts, she said—
    “Right now, you’re the one who’ll be cut in half. Half a million pieces.” Lady Kansambia twisted her fingers and pointed them at the leader.
    “Mother!”
    An aghast scream.
    Lady Kansa’s aim faltered, and the door to the hut broke into a million pieces.
    “Brenda!” screamed Lady Kansa at the woman who came out of the kitchen. “Look what you’ve done!”  
The mob outside retreated as splinters of wood and metal flew at them.
“Mother, I will not let you kill him!” shouted the irate, blue-eyed woman. She was in her twenties, clad in armor, much like the mob. A sword clung to her waist. She looked nothing like her mother. She stepped forward to cover the leader, resisting her mother.
    A man marched into the hut with a bleeding forearm, the piece of wood still sticking out from the wound. Another followed. And the whole mob barged inside, screaming slogans.
“The witch to the pyre
The witch to the fire
The Rebels to the rescue of Strawhorn
From the clutches of evil desire.”
    Lady Kansa seethed with rage. She raised her fingers and aimed at the empty space they were entering from.
Brenda jumped in front of them, immediately.
    “Brenda! This isn’t about you! Why don’t you move aside and shut yourself up somewhere?” said Lady Kansa in a menacing whisper.
    “Oh, but it is about me, mother,” said Brenda. Her voice hitched. “It’s about every mortal, like me, who can’t perform sorcery. It’s about him, him, him, and their wives and children and every one of them.” Brenda pointed at the mob as if she knew them for ages.
Lady Kansa was taken aback.
    “You’ve hated me all your life. You were embarrassed that your daughter, Lady Kansambia’s daughter could not perform a single spell,” said Brenda, her eyes full of unshed tears. “You shut me away for a long time, Mother. Not anymore.”
    “Brenda, my dear, I never meant to hurt you. I was only trying to protect you.” she said, softening her tone. She moved closer and reached out to caress Brenda’s cheek, but she turned her face away.  
    “I’m not ashamed to be a mortal, neither am I afraid. I don’t need your protection! I despise you and your evil magic,” cried out Brenda, drawing her sword.
Brenda surveyed the hut. The mob surrounded them on all sides. Their swords aimed at her mother, while their leader cowered behind her.
    “I will not let you kill a mortal ever again,” said Brenda with conviction. “You have no choice but to surrender Lady Kansa!”
    “Very well then,” declared the witch, raising her fingers and mumbling a charm. “I’ll kill you first!”
Brenda ducked, but not in time. The spell hit Brenda’s shoulder. A chunk of her armor fell down, revealing a deep gash.
“Ah!” Brenda cried out, clutching her shoulder. She could not believe her mother actually attacked her.
The mob moved closer. Brenda immediately straightened her sword and held it tightly. She raised her other hand to the mob, signaling them to wait.
    “Please, It’s too dangerous. I’m trained. I’ve been practicing to take her down ever since I was ten,” she told them.
    She looked to each one. There was something in her eyes that made the mob stop.
    A bright ball of light flashed. Another one of Lady Kansa’s spells hit her. Brenda almost fell back.
    “I’m not killing you because you are my daughter. Now, go back and shut yourself up!” yelled Lady Kansa, raising another finger.
    In a swift move, Brenda gathered her balance and caught Lady Kansa’s wrist with her sword.
Lady Kansa’s eyes grew wide. “No! No!” She gasped, horrified at what her daughter was about to do.
    Brenda smiled. “Mother, say goodbye to magic.” She slashed her sword across her mother’s wrist and Lady Kansa’s magical hand hit the floor with a thud.
    Lady Kansa’s piercing scream echoed through the mountains and valleys of Strawhorn.
“That’s right! Witches must cry in pain—the worst thing that happened to the world,” said Brenda. She looked to the mob for cheers.
    “Aye! Aye!” they screamed in unison.
    “Now, bow down to this fine leader, Lord—” she looked at the man still hiding behind her.
    “L-Lord Edwin,” he fumbled. And then he said more confidently, “Lord Edwin of The Rebels of Strawhorn, the true ruler, the protector of the valley.”
    “Aye! Aye! Lord Edwin,” roared the Rebels.
“That’s right, Lord Edwin. He’s the true ruler of Strawhorn, the champion of the villagers,” said Brenda, looking at the mob. She noticed how their armors seemed old and dusty. They looked undernourished. She went on, “...the provider of rice and raisins. He will protect us all from any harm that comes to the land of Strawhorn. Now, bend a knee and ask for forgiveness mother,” said Brenda, looking her mother in the eye. “Do it, now.”
    Lady Kansa, in pain and fury, went down on her knees.
    “Aye!” screamed the mob.
    A look of relief on their faces, glee in their eyes, and before she knew it she heard a voice.
    “Lady Brenda!”
    Brenda turned.
    A man was raising his sword above his head. The whole mob grew silent. Lord Edwin was livid. The Rebels looked to one another in confusion. There was a low murmur, and before they knew it, another sword went up in the air.
    “Lady Brenda!”
    “Lady Brenda, the savior!” shouted a man.
    There was an unspoken understanding among the Rebels, and they all began to follow suit.
    “Lady Brenda,” the echo continued until all their swords were raised above their heads, in reverence.
    “Lady Brenda, the true ruler!” They all roared in unison.
    Brenda looked from Edwin to the crowd.     
Lord Edwin looked at them with disbelief. Grunting, he took his sword out and aimed it at Brenda. The whole mob roared and aimed their swords at him. Edwin swore and retreated, begrudgingly.
    Brenda raised her hand, and the crowd put their swords down. She looked at all their faces; troubled, exhausted from the journey, frightened, and yet hopeful.
    “Only for the sake of Strawhorn!” she said, smiling.
    And in a twist of fate, Edwin lost his only chance of ruling Strawhorn.
Once the mob retreated, the old witch said calmly, “It’s beginning to hurt you know. Do it fast—”
“Shh ma, they might hear you,” said Brenda, looking out the window at the retreating crowd. When they were out of sight, she raised her hand to fix her mother’s magical one.
    “Good show, Brendie.” The old woman winked.
    “The coronation’s day after tomorrow.” Brenda grinned. “Get ready to live in the palace.”



Shalini P. Sawkar

Shalini P. Sawkar is a writer of fantasy and fiction short stories, living in Bangalore, India. She is an avid reader and traveller. She has been to Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, U.A.E., Mauritius, and parts of Europe including London, Paris, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy. Her work has been published in the anthology Born Too Soon. She is also a computer science engineer and Coursera Mentor for Writing for Young Readers. Follow her on https://shalinipsawkar.wordpress.com

​ 


Vivian's Tree
By Eddie D. Moore

As John carefully inspected the edge he was shaping, he slid the whet rock against the steel with a smooth grinding scrape. Satisfied, he glared at the tree in the front yard for a long moment before running his eyes over the sharpened tools around him. Shears, handsaws, axes, wedges, and heavy sledge hammers sat ready for use and arrayed around him in a near perfect arc. Sharpened and glittering in the sun, the tools should have spurred a chest swelling sense of accomplishment or craftsman’s pride, but he felt nothing.
    John stepped closer to the tree and was overwhelmed by the mixture of emotions that flooded through him. He had to stop for a few long, slow breaths before he could take the final steps under its branches. He reverently ran his quivering fingers delicately over the notches in the tree trunk. His daughter had stood under each of those marks on her birthday as he had marked her yearly growth. They had started the tradition when she was five years old, and as he fingered each of the twelve marks on the tree, the hint of a smile turned the corners of his mouth until he glanced up at the branch above his head. The smile vanished as a building rage coursed through his veins and a fire in his gut replaced the spark of warmth in his chest.
    Resigned to the task at hand, he turned away from the tree and selected his longest pole saw, determined to rid his yard, and the world, of this traitorous birch tree. The thirty foot length of the pole saw barely reached the highest branches, but its sharp teeth dug into the wood easily. He cut away the smaller limbs and then moved down the tree snipping off the ends of the larger branches, as he toiled his mind drifted back to the day he planted the tree.
    It was a chilly day in early spring, and the daffodils lining the driveway seemed to radiate their own light in the sunshine. The green grass gave the air a fresh clean smell, and the world seemed at peace everywhere he looked, but a war of contrasting emotions fought inside his heart. He had picked up his daughter from the hospital early that morning and drove straight to the church for his wife’s memorial service. Everyone had taken turns admiring their daughter and whispering to her how they would be there for her in her mother’s absence. Where were those promise makers in her hour of need?
    John squeezed his eyes shut and fought back the tears that were blurring his vision. After a few pain filled breaths, he put down the pole saw, leaned his ladder against the tree trunk, and selected a handsaw with razor-sharp jagged teeth. His anger returned as he climbed the ladder, and once he reached the top, he began cutting away what was left of the upper limbs, careful that none of them struck his ladder as they fell.
    As he methodically worked his way down the trunk and cut away larger and larger limbs, blisters formed and burst, leaving the saw’s handle sticky. He ignored the pain and forced his arm to move back and forth. He saved the lowest and largest limb for last, and he chose to accept the stinging pain in his hands as he cut it into smaller pieces, counting the pain as his own personal penance for planting the cursed tree. If he hadn’t planted it, maybe Vivian wouldn’t have done it. Even if the thought had still occurred to her, she would’ve had to walk to the tree line. Perhaps, she would’ve had time to change her mind. He just couldn’t escape the feeling that some of the responsibility for her death rested on his own shoulders.
    The last chunk of the final limb fell to the ground with a satisfying thump, and he moved his ladder out of the way. Blood ran down his fingers and he shook from the pain as he opened and closed his hands. He took a moment to wrap them and put on a worn pair of leather work gloves. He knew that the blood would make it impossible to properly swing and grip the axe.
    He drank a glass of water before he struck his first blow at the base of the tree trunk. Sweat stung his eyes, and he poured his anger and rage into every stroke of the axe. Large chunks of wood were knocked away as he varied the angle of each strike until the trunk began to waver and fell crackling to the ground.
    Although John’s muscles burned and ached in protest, he continued swinging the axe and cutting the trunk into pieces small enough to handle. He piled some old dry limbs on top of the stump and slid a lit match under it. A wisp of smoke rose from the top of the pile, and the smoke was soon replaced by hungry flames that grew higher and higher into the air as he piled small twigs and leaves on top of it.
As John watched the fire consume the tree’s tainted branches, the sun slipped behind the horizon and the moon rose high into the sky. He split the larger pieces with his wedge and sledge hammer and tossed them into the fire. Hours passed as he tended it, prodding it and stirring the coals with a shovel. Outside of the fire’s influence, the night’s dew settled on top of the grass.
    The sun was above the tree line by the time the last of the flames died away, but as he expected, most of the stump remained. He used the shovel to scoop up the coals and move them a few feet away. While the coals slowly consumed themselves, he chopped at the tree’s roots with his pick. A few of the roots were too big to sever, and he had to put a fresh edge on his axe to cut them free. He yawned as he rolled the stump out of the hole and positioned it on top of what was left of the coals. After a few minutes, new flames appeared and ate away the stump with a growing intensity.
    Using a small hand spade, John dug deeper. He cautiously sawed away roots that blocked his progress, and after a few feet, he carefully scraped away the dirt using the spade’s edge instead of digging. Eventually, the spade rubbed against what he was looking for, and he gently dug around it. When he was able to get a good grasp on it, he held tight to the object and wiggled it until it came loose from the ground.
    He reverently wiped the dirt off the urn and gently sat it to the side. After scraping away a little more dirt, he pulled out a metal box covered with a thick plastic layer to protect its contents from water. He stared at the box for several seconds before he stood up and carried it into the house. When he came back outside, he was cradling a second urn.
    He softened the dirt at the bottom of the hole and laid the urns side by side. Tears fell from his eyes and he felt as though he were going to choke on his own words when he finally spoke.
    “Hello, honey. I’ve brought you some company. We came to visit you every year on her birthday. She…” John swallowed hard. “She grew up to be a beautiful young lady, and I’ve always been very proud of her. I don’t know why she chose to leave me. Maybe she just really needed her mother.” He rested a hand on the other urn. “I’m sure you’ll be happy here with your mother. Don’t ever forget that I love you. I want you both to know that I’ll never stop thinking of you.”
    John slowly emptied several bags of potting soil into the hole, burying the urns. Once the hole was completely full, he planted a single tree in the center and then surveyed the yard with weary bloodshot eyes. He decided that he’d put away his tools once he was rested.
    After a long hot shower, John eased into his recliner and peeled away the plastic covering the metal box. Old memories full of love and pain replayed in his mind as he lifted the lid. He tenderly rubbed the beads of a bracelet between his fingers. The beads spelled out his daughter’s name, and he thought back to the day the nurse had put that bracelet on his daughter’s wrist.
    He sat the bracelet on the small table beside his chair and then took out the pink blanket that the hospital had wrapped her in when he brought her home. He held the blanket over his nose and took a deep breath. It still held the same scents it did the day he sealed the box. He closed his eyes and imagined himself pressing his nose against his daughter’s head, let out a long slow breath, and prayed for pleasant dreams.

Eddie D. Moore

Eddie D. Moore’s job requires extensive traveling, and he spends much of that time listening to audio books. His stories have been published by Jouth Webzine, The Flash Fiction Press, Every Day Fiction, Theme of Absence, Flash Fiction Magazine, and the Centum Press. Find out more on his blog at: https://eddiedmoore.wordpress.com/.


Born-Again Hero
By Matencera Wolf

After a moderately challenging day of spinning tall tales at the tavern, all I wanted to do was place Betty in her corner, put my feet up in front of the fire, and work on my next tale. The last thing I wanted to hear when I came home was my wife’s voice.
“How many times have I told you not to wear your boots inside the house?” she screamed.
“Fiona, you're being unreasonable. It’s been a hard day. It was an accident. I'm sorry!”
“Once is an accident, twice is an accident, three days in a row is a lack of respect! I would have been better off marrying a wild demon over you! I wish Da never consented to our marriage!”
“Consented?” I spat. “With all this talk about consenting, you would think that I had a choice in the matter!”
Fiona howled, and I had just enough time to swear before she grasped Betty by the neck. She hefted my beloved fiddle above her head and bashed its body against the floor, reducing my beautiful instrument to splinters of wood and snapped strings.
“What have you done?” I pressed my palms against my brows and shook my head. “How am I supposed to support us now?”
Fiona barked an ugly laugh. “Support us? First, you need to have a family before you can claim to support something.”
“Fiona…” I warned against the old argument.
“You promised me children and a house full of love,” she cried out as she flung Betty's remains at the wall. “But all I have is an empty belly and an empty home!”
I had promised her no such thing, but over the years I had learned that my version of the past differed greatly from hers and mattered far less.
“To hell with this.”
Ignoring the insults that she hurled at my back about my apparently dysfunctional manhood, I snatched up my coat and stormed out the front door. It had been all lust and excitement the first night we had met, but since the morning after it had been nothing but strife.
Before I was forced into unholy matrimony, I had ambitions. I was going to explore the known world and battle through the unknown; plunder riches from forgotten ruins, save exotic princesses by day then make love to them by night. Instead, my adventures had been halted at the first city I had visited. From that point onward, the only escapades I partook in were spinning tales about the exciting lives of others for the clang of scrap metal.
Without meaning to, I found myself back at The Laughing Goblin, the same dive I had played in that afternoon. I decided that while a few cups of wine wouldn't fix all my problems, it might make me forget them for the night. As I pushed past the swinging doors, someone barged into me. She was thin, muscular and gasping for breath as if she had been running all her life.
I was aware of her screaming, but her words fell on deaf ears; all I could concentrate on was the room behind her. Inside my watering hole, a battle was taking place, just like a scene from one of my tales.
Loud crashes and shouts filled the air, and in the center of the room stood a giant swinging a battle-axe at a group of scrappers in mismatched armor. Like the woman, his skin was alabaster, but where she was lean, he had the body of a titan bred for war. A smattering of scars covered his bare arms, telling the tale of his brutal life. Cresting his bed of cropped, silver hair was a thick, foot-long horn that marked him as a draquinus.
Another figure, hidden beneath a flowing black robe, stood atop a wooden bench and issued commands to his dying mercenaries. He pointed at the woman pressed against me, and a warrior broke away from the fray, sprinting towards us.
“You have to help me!”
I looked back to the woman. She had a flat chest and thighs twice as round as her arms; not your traditional beautiful damsel in distress. But when her violet eyes locked onto mine and she commanded my help, the hero that lies under the skin of every man gave the only possible response. I grasped her hand, and I ran.
After a full ten minutes of running, I fell against the wall of a nearby building. “I should - get you - to the - city guard,” I panted.
The woman shook her head wildly. “That won't help. Sandro would have already bribed them.”
“I don't know how I'm meant to help you. I'm no hero or anyth-” I bit my tongue. This was my chance to shed the skin of the bard and be born-again a hero. I thought for a second of what Aeolus, my favorite hero of old, would do.
The woman clung to my chest and kissed me gently. Her lips were soft and tasted faintly of honey.
“Will you please escort me to the Blue Boar tavern, sir?” She pleaded, looking up at me with angelic, lilac eyes.
I grinned; I knew exactly what Aeolus would do. Lost in my imagination, I let her lead me through the city by the hand. I couldn't take my mind off of how she had kissed me. Fiona had never kissed me like that, not even when we had been in the throes of our new-found passion.
The woman jerked to a stop, yanking me from my stupor. A mercenary from The Laughing Goblin was sprinting up the street towards us, the sword in his hand reflecting the moonlight.
“Sandro wants his ring, Kayleed!” the mercenary shouted.
She released my hand and withdrew a dagger from her belt.
“Sword beats dagger,” I chuckled under my breath.
“What?”
I shook my head. “Nothing, it's just a quote.”
I looked at the shabby buildings around us and the hard packed soil beneath our feet. We were in the poorest side of the city; street rat territory.
“This way!” I shouted as I pulled Kayleed down the nearest alleyway.
We took random turns and barreled through four narrow passages in my quest for the street rats. The mercenary fell behind, and I dared to hope that we would lose him, but he always managed to catch our scent. The shadows ahead of us shifted, and I spotted the ambush only seconds before we ran directly into its teeth.
“Good to see you, Risk,” I said between gasps for breath.
The boy pointed to a low rooftop where his twin wielded a stone, his light green eyes innocent and cheerful.
“I'm Risk, that's Scraps,” the boy on the roof said. “Have ya brought us a story, masta bard?”
The street rats, children abandoned by their parents to the cruelty of the slums, were kind to those who brought them gifts.
“Not tonight children. But I have brought you a mark. He's coming up right behind me.”
Risk's eyes flashed hard, and he was no longer an innocent child, but a predator in the body of a boy.
“Thank ya kindly masta bard,” he said. “Ya should move along now. Won't do for ya ta witness somethin’.”
I jogged past the street rats that were submerging themselves back into the shadows of the alleyway. Moments later, the steady thump of stones and an aborted scream echoed off the walls and followed us out into a deserted street.    
“So, Kayleed is it?” I asked.
She looked at me and paused. As a semi-accomplished bard, I could tell that she was trying to formulate a story. I raised my eyebrow, and she sighed.
“That mercenary said something about a ring. Is that why we're going to the Blue Boar?” My first question, in a long line of others, tumbled out of my mouth.
Kayleed rested her head on my shoulder and wrapped her slender arms around my body.
“The less you know about all this, the better,” she whispered, her warm breath tickling my ear.
“What kind of ring is it, Kayleed?” I asked, sniffing a tale.
She kissed me again, and her honey-scented breath filled my mind with bliss.
“Thank you for saving my life…?” Her voice tilted at the end, begging for my name.
“Wayde,” I supplied dreamily.
“Thank you for saving my life, Wayde,” she repeated, and then the world faded away until only her soft lips remained.
***
I was deep in thought as we stalked through the night, avoiding the world while making our way to the Blue Boar. Me. Wayde. The boring bard, whose closest relationship with adventure was a two-day journey, fleeing the farm where he had been born to the city where he had spent the rest of his life. I, who had made my living spinning tales about the exploits of others, was now sneaking through the shadows on a quest. I was being hunted by mercenaries, as I escorted an exotic woman, with the name of a princess. It was like one of my barroom tales, but still… it felt so right.
“I can't go in there. One of Sandro's men might be watching my room,” Kayleed said, pulling me from my contemplations.
“Wouldn't my neck be in as much danger as yours?” I asked.
“Aren't you a hero?” she retorted with a sly smile. “Besides, no one knows your face.”
“Kayleed-”
She attempted to kiss me again, but I turned my head, and her lips met my cheek. The skin tingled.
“I'll get the ring for you, Kayleed, but first, I want to know what's so special about it.” It didn't sound like my usual voice, there was too much steel to it, but I liked it.
Her delicate lips parted and then closed. After an instant, she opened her mouth but again subsided. Irritation vied with what I hoped was admiration when she finally said, “Fine. I'm trusting you, Wayde. Please don't make me regret it.”
She lifted the hem of her tunic revealing her midriff and a golden ring that pierced her navel. Set in the ring was a violet stone, the same shade as her eyes.
“This ring is a decoy, made in the image of my clan's narshika. Although it was of little use,” she added bitterly. “The narshika is the keystone of a draquini clan. It contains the memories and experiences of each clan member that has gone before, saved within the crystal so that future generations can reap the benefits of their lives. The narshika is carried by the clan elder, and she is trusted to add to its reservoir and share its memories within the community for the benefit of the clan.”
She took a long, shuddering breath before continuing. “The narshika that Sandro seeks belonged to my mother, the elder of the Iclandi tribe. It should have been passed on to me when I inherited her title, but Sandro murdered her and my tribe in order to sell it to a collector. It is my duty to keep the narshika out of his grasp.
Her tale sounded like something I would spin. I didn't know much about draquini at the time; only that their race all shared silver hair, lilac eyes, and…
“I thought all draquini had horns?” I asked.
In answer, she removed the thin strap of braided leather from her forehead and parted her hair, revealing two bone nubs atop her brows.
I raised a hand to pinch one of her horns and smiled. I had known that Kayleed was a name suited for a princess.
“And what about the giant draquinus with the battle-axe? Is he you’re loyal guardian or something?”
“Yes!” the words leaped from her mouth, followed by a choked sob. “At least he was. Who knows if he is still alive?”
I knelt down on one knee, took her hand in mine, and kissed it. “It will be an honor to help you, princess,” I said.
She brought the hand I had kissed to her chest and smiled down at me beatifically. “Thank you,” she whispered. “The narshika is in the wardrobe of room seven. I've hidden it in the left-hand pocket of the only black dress hanging in there.”
I walked toward the entrance of the tavern clutching Kayleed's key. Dead mercenaries, malificia, exotic princesses, and infidelity. In just one night, I had been torn from the shoes of the bard and thrust into the boots of an adventurer. I was terrified, but for the first time in such a long while, I was alive.
I entered Kayleed's rented room, my ears and eyes alert for the slightest sound or movement. Satisfied that I was alone, I made my way directly to the wardrobe at the far wall, hoping to get in and out before any of Sandro's men arrived. I separated a beautiful black lace dress from an assortment of other lavish garments. It had a slit cut up the side that would expose a strip of teasing skin whenever the wearer took a step. For the meager price of a week's worth of earnings, I had bought Fiona a similar dress for our anniversary. She had looked at it only once and refused even to try it on, claiming that it was a dress fit only for a whore. I chuckled. The joke was on her; it was a dress fit for a princess.
“You planning to slip into that? Or just browsing?” A woman snickered behind me. “I've been waiting here half the night; I could use the entertainment.”
I turned, but the unknown woman kicked me and sent me sprawling to the floor. The shadows shifted, and she appeared, black mist swirling around her body like ragged strips of dark clothing.
“I've got some metal,” I said reaching into my pocket. “You can have it. Just don't hurt me.”
The woman withdrew a dagger from her belt and danced it between her fingers. “That's mighty generous of you, but I'd rather have the ring.”
I held up my meager sack filled with scrap metal. “This is everything I have. Take it. You can have my wedding ring too if you want.”
She leveled the knife to my face and lingered it over my left pupil. Sweat ran freely down my forehead stinging my eyes, giving me a taste of what was to come.
“Don't play stupid. Give me the ring, or I'll cut out your eye and make you eat it.”
I gripped the dress tighter. Up until that point, I had made one compromise after another until my dreams were but distant mirages… but no more. The heroes from my tales wouldn't have given in and neither would I.
“No,” I growled.
The woman smiled as if she had been waiting for me to argue, then, she suddenly fell forward. I flinched, and her knife slashed my cheek. When I opened my eyes, she was lying face down with a pool of black blood forming around her body.
Kayleed stood above the corpse, holding a bloodied dagger. “I wondered what was taking you so long. Are you all right?” she asked.
I brushed my cheek, and my hand came away warm and wet. “I didn't see you come in,” I answered numbly.
She reached down and helped me to my feet. “You didn't give me up, Wayde. You're a real hero.”
My head span as I rose, but not with pain. It was pride that made me lightheaded; she called me a hero.
***
We were hiding in an alleyway by Cirta's north entrance, waiting for the sun to rise and the city gates to open.
“What's your wife like?” Kayleed asked, gesturing to my wedding ring with a nod.
“My wife… she's… my wife… and…”
“Do you love her?” she asked.
I felt I should say yes; Fiona was my wife after all. But sometimes it seemed unfair, that a mistake made so many years ago had sunk its claws into my life and twisted everything that had followed. Instead, my words fell into the artful cadence of my profession as I started my tale.
“I set out on an adventure when I was newly a man. I had thought myself invincible, that the entire world would be my playground after escaping my father. Cirta was meant to be the first stop of my adventure, but it turned out to be the last. I had planned to rent a room by spinning a tale, maybe even collect some metal. The tavern was filled to bursting that night, and more beautiful women than my small farm had ever prepared me for were wandering idly between their husbands and fathers.”
Kayleed listened patiently, her violet eyes cold and calculating.
“I told them a tale of the old world before the wild demons appeared. I told them of how we lived in cities with buildings like shining swords piercing the clouds. Of how we rode metal carriages, that despite having no beast of burden to draw them, rivaled griffins in flight with their speed. Lastly, I told them of how star-eyed lovers roamed the countryside, beyond the city walls, without fear.”
I closed my eyes, losing myself in the memory of the night. “My tale had the desired effect and the women swooned without exception, but only Fiona held my eye. She was beautiful, with fiery red hair, and ebony skin flecked with freckles like crimson red stars in a night sky.
“She took my hand and led me to an empty room, whispering how she would make all my dreams come true, and I was too drunk on the sight of her breasts to tell her otherwise. No sooner than our clothes had hit the floor, her father burst into the room, and the next day I was married to her at the point of a knife.” I finished my tale and scratched my head. “So there you have it… the saga of my marital bliss.”
“It sounds like you fled from one cage to another. Why didn't you just flee again?” Kayleed asked.
“I tried on a weekly basis, at first. But whether I left by the south gate or the north gate, at day or night, her father and his friends would find me on the road, beat me, then drag me back home. Eventually, I just stopped trying.”
I opened my eyes, and Kayleed was holding her dagger to my throat.
“I'm sorry, Wayde,” Kayleed said. “The narshika is important.”
“So take the damn thing! You don't have to bloody kill me.”
She shook her head. “I can't take you with me, and Sandro's not just any malificia, he's a necromancer. He'll come for you, and he'll find a way to make you talk.”
“So don't tell me where you're going then. It's simple.”
She sighed deeply and spoke with the patience of a teacher trying to educate a naive child. “Be logical, Wayde. He won't believe whatever you tell him until he tortures you. Death would be kinder.” She leaned her face forward, and her soft lips brushed mine. “I can make it painless, Wayde; pleasurable even.”
It was a strange thing. I knew I was about to die, but I couldn't help but appreciate how beautiful my executioner looked, bathed in the light of the full moon.
“Hello, Kayleed,” Sandro said as he entered the alleyway encircled by his three remaining mercenaries, one of which was earnestly pursuing something inside his left nostril.
Kayleed’s head snapped back. “Sandro! I… I was just-” she stuttered.
“Goodbye, Kayleed.” The malificia nodded in our direction, and his men drew their swords, advancing on us in a single file line.
I swallowed heavily. A day ago the idea of being in a swordfight would have seemed impossible, a thing of fiction. A lot could change in a single night. I snatched the dagger from Kayleed's hand and drove it into the chest of the nose picker. Before anyone could react, I liberated the sword from the dying man and pushed his limp body back towards his comrades.
I knew that without the element of surprise the mercenaries would overwhelm me with their superior training, but with the stone walls boxing in the thin alleyway, they would have to fight me one at a time. Maybe I could buy a few minutes… maybe I could be her hero again.
“Go!” I shouted.
Kayleed looked at me in bewilderment, and I smiled. “The hero has to sacrifice himself to save the princess. It's a rule.”
She grinned and then burst into a fit of laughter.
“You're a special kind of idiot, Wayde,” she choked out. “I'm sorry for getting you mixed up in this. I really am.”
Without looking back, she ran through the alleyway's back exit.
I was reminded of the tale of Dante's Stand and smiled to myself as I quoted to her retreating shadow. “It's too late to apologize; I've already forgiven you.”
I turned back towards my enemies and roared like Dante. “Come on then! Let's see how you like the taste of my blade!” I grinned. I had always wanted to say that.
As the first mercenary sauntered forward, I swung my sword down toward his head, but he leaned aside and let the blow cut the air to his right. He dove forward, and I raised my left arm protectively in front of my face, however he kicked my feet out from under me. He kicked me again as I went down, driving the air from my lungs. While I lay gasping on the ground, he lifted me with one hand and jammed his other fist into my stomach, pinning me to the wall and forcing me to watch the approaching malificia.
The shadows around Sandro seemed to throb as he spoke, a silent threat that supplemented his words. “Where did she go?” he rasped.
The mercenary released the pressure, and I sucked in a shallow breath of air to fuel a feeble laugh. “No idea.”
“I don't believe you,”
My smart reply died before it left my lips as the mercenary hoisted me up by my throat and belted me across the face, bouncing my head against the alleyway wall in a flash of white light.
“Vasheda!”
The giant from The Laughing Goblin stalked into the alleyway from behind the group, his massive shoulders brushing the stone walls on either side of him. The mercenary released his grip on me and fled without a word to his master, but Sandro didn't notice. He was too preoccupied with the advancing titan.
“Kill him!” Sandro ordered.
The last remaining mercenary charged forward, and the titan slashed his axe downward, splitting the man's body and leather armor like a ripe tomato.
Cursing, Sandro raised his hands in the air. The divided body knit itself together like two halves of a grisly rent garment, and the mercenary stood whole once more. The ghoul lumbered toward the titan. It had no concept of fear, to it, flesh was prey, and it would bite and scratch until one of them was gone. The titan hacked away with his weapon, but it was useless, the flesh parted before the axe and joined after it as if the blade were being dragged through filthy water.
I seized my chance. Snatching Kayleed's dagger from the ground, I thrust it through Sandro's back. The blade sunk to the hilt and a foul smell assaulted my nose as black blood bubbled up from within the wound. Screaming, Sandro threw his arms out spastically, and his ghoul fell to the ground in a pile of loose flesh.
Freed from his skirmish, the titan lunged forward and kicked Sandro to the alleyway floor. “Where is the narshika?” he bellowed.
“Let me leave, and I'll share what I know,” Sandro spat between mouthfuls of inky blood.
The titan rested his leather boot atop the malificia's head and spoke slowly, articulating each word clearly. “Where - is - the - narshika?”
“The bitch thief has it,” Sandro spat.
“And where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
The titan stomped down, reducing Sandro's head to a black stain on the alleyway floor.
“Who are you?” he asked me.
I didn't know how to answer. Was I Wayde the bard, husband to Fiona? Was I Wayde the hero, valiant protector of Kayleed, princess of the Iclandi draquini? Or was I Wayde the fool, who had risked his life protecting a thief?
“I am the sum of all I have done, added to the sum of all that has been done to me,” I finally answered, quoting the great Fitz.
“Where is Kayleed?” he asked
“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully.
The titan left me in the alleyway without a backward glance.
***
The early morning wind on the back of my neck chilled me as it pushed me back towards my home. I couldn't stop thinking about my counterfeit princess, and the titan that would surely hunt her to the ends of the world. I read the note that Fiona had left on the counter, saying that when I returned, we would need to talk. I thought about going to work in the next few hours, and the weeks ahead that I would spend regaling city folk about adventures that weren't mine, and I knew that I couldn't go back to it.
I turned the note over and hastily imprinted my emotions onto the paper. I folded it in half and then unfolded it. I repeated this four more times, trying to think of better words, but eventually, I entrusted them to convey what I wanted.
While Fiona was slumbering, I slipped the note under her lax hand. After filling a bag of supplies, I left.
The sun was only a promise on the horizon when I departed through the north gate of Cirta, but it was a promise of possibilities. My footsteps created the tempo as I composed my newest song; Born-again Hero.

Where I was crippled,
I was healed,
In a single night,
I relearned how to feel,
I was burning away,
Like a fuse,
But I wasn't afraid,
I had dreams to gain,
And nothing of worth to lose,
I'd lived too long,
Lost in limbo,
But that night,
I was A Born-again Hero.
-Wayde Summerson

Matencera Wolf

Matencera Wolf was born 1991 in Australia. He started collecting all kinds of experiences from an early age, ranging from performing with fire to playing gratuitous amounts of video games. He met his wife in 2012 when the world was supposed to end and has since been traveling the world while playing slightly fewer video games. He is currently touring Europe but is happily moving to Japan at the end of 2016.


About the Editor:
Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She started Fantasia Divinity to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. Madeline is the author of the children’s series Once Upon a Unicorn


Want to know more? Madeline is featured in an interview by Cathleen Townsend, where she discusses the magazine and her writing.