ISSUE 13, August 2017

Anniversary Edition


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 Reborn
By Nidhi Singh

    ​
Kasyapa tossed and turned on the soggy mattress, but sleep wouldn’t grasp him in its embrace. The brown rafters overhead had turned green with the seepage from the constant rain that battered the tiled rooftops. It was warm and sticky on the bed, so he spread the jute mat on the limestone floor, tossed a pillow, and lay down. It felt instantly cooler and drier.
Children were playing in the light drizzle outside – for a while he listened to their joyful shouts. Shortly, as his eyes began to droop, the laughter outside changed into something of a commotion, and he could hear little footfalls splashing through the puddles, heading his way.
“Snake! Snake!” the children screamed.
He groaned. Not again. Kasyapa turned and wrapped his pillow around his head but the children had climbed the porch and were now clamoring at the door. “Sir, Sir – snake in English teacher’s house!”
“Long and black!”
“Dangerous – spitting poison – darting his forked tongue!”
“Whistling like a cooker!”
“Okay, okay, I’m coming. Wait up – let me change,” Kasyapa shouted out. Grumbling, he pulled on his trousers, threw on a flimsy cotton shirt over his damp vest, and briefly examined himself in the mirror. Wearily, he collected his elapid hook and snake bag and stepped out. The children tugged at his arms, shouting and clapping They followed him in an exultant procession to the English teacher’s house – a typical red-tiled cottage on the fringe of their school campus.
“Anyone see it?” he asked. The children fell silent. Maybe there’s no snake, after all, he mused. Just a twig or coiled rope.
But the snake was there. Crouched on the wet floor of the kitchen, coiled in a small plate with its head in its center. A stout body, nearly two meters long, highly keeled non-shiny scales with three rows of continuous dark-brown almond spots. It whistled like a pressure cooker as the kids screamed and cried on the doorstep. A thin tail tapered evenly to a tip, which it slapped impatiently on the floor. A female.
“It’s a Kaudia – Russell’s Viper. Poisonous,” he announced coolly over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off the snake. “A beautiful woman.” The kids relaxed on seeing his unruffled demeanor and began to laugh and clap.
He approached her without hesitation; she reared her head and crept once in a jerky manner and then calmed down as he whispered soothingly to her. Pinning her gently down with the pole, he grabbed her behind the head. “Shush, now be quiet,” he whispered close to her mouth, as she squirmed in his grasp. “We’re going home.” He transferred her headfirst into the bag and then walked out into the rain. He climbed down the porch and turned to face the kids. “Now go back to play while I leave her in the forest,” he ordered. “Move.”
“Sir, will you remove its fangs?” one child asked.
“How would you like me to pull out your teeth? She won’t be able to eat or digest her food. I’ll just leave her far away so she doesn’t find her way back again. Now, git,” he commanded and walked down the track leading into the thick jungle beyond the school compound. The kids broke off to play: the boys back to their cricket, the girls to hopscotch.
It was dusk when Kasyapa returned; folks heard him throw open the latch and push the squeaky gates leading to the staff quarters. The rain had picked up – ladies sat in the porches of their houses, knitting, gossiping, or both, while children snacked on tea and savories. There was a barrage of questions as he passed by the neat row of white and red houses lining the small, muddy track.
“Did you get bitten?”
“Did you kill the snake?”
He just shook his head and moved on, skipping over puddles, bounding from one dry spot to another under the dense overhead canopy.
“Why don’t you kill them – they keep coming back.”
Kasyapa halted. He turned to the pesky lady – the music teacher – leaning against the balustrade and sipping tea. “Will that stop them?” he asked, shielding his head with his arms. “I could spend a lifetime, yet not kill all the snakes in the wild. This land belongs to them – we’re the encroachers. It’s their backyard, their playground too – remember?”
“What’s that in your bag?” she asked.
“Madhuca Indica – Mahua flowers,” he replied, hastening on. “Medicinal herbs.”
“There’s something moving in there,” she cried after him, leaning out into the rain.
“A partridge – I’ll eat him tonight,” he answered, without turning.
“Do you need any help…with the cooking? Why don’t you come inside out of the rain and have some medicinal tea with me, Kasyapa Sir – it’ll cure you of the blues,” she teased him, thrusting her ample bosom out so that her cleavage became wet and alluring in the splashing raindrops.
He rushed on without answering, gliding over the wet grounds in a smooth, graceful motion. A dark, devilishly handsome man, many a woman swooned over his piercing green eyes and powerful, lithe body; his black hair, naturally slick and oily, was tied tightly in a long ponytail. That he was still a bachelor, invited many an unsolicited advance from ladies like the music teacher.
As soon as he got home, he bolted the door and placed the bag on the floor by his writing desk. He sat on the chair and watched the bag squirm. Finally, he untied the bag’s cord and prodded it open with his pole. The viper snuck its head out and seemed to take note of its surroundings. It ignored Kasyapa and quietly slithered under the cupboard and vanished out of sight.
Go on, make yourself at home. This house needs a feminine touch – isn’t that what people say? He smiled to himself and moodily tapped a pencil on the desk. He was glad for the company; it got too lonely at times. He was comfortable around snakes, perhaps because he was the biology teacher. They never bit him and he never hurt them, and no one was any the poorer for it. He didn’t deign to call them pets; they were more of companions. In fact, his services were quite in demand, as snakes, driven out in the open in the rain, appeared often in classrooms and in the staff quarters.
***
That afternoon he’d searched for a long time to find a dry place in the forest to leave the viper: tree stumps, knots, joints, root systems, rodent burrows, under rocks, dead leaves – everything had collected pools of rainwater. Musk-scented mahua flowers had fallen in succulent cream-colored corolla showers around him – it was hard to leave them wasted on the ground, so he collected as many as he could, for making good liquor later.
She’d looked so forlornly at him, as he prodded her out of the bag, that he didn’t have the heart to leave her alone out there – she was sure not to last the night. A snake in the open was favorite dinner to an owl or a leopard or mongoose, of which there were plenty foraging in the dense forests of Central Provinces of India. She could spend as long as she liked in his cottage and the vast yard behind, that promised a rich cuisine of mice, insects, birds or toads; and then leave of her own accord to lay an ambush elsewhere.
***
After returning the snake bag to the cupboard, he walked into the storeroom. He picked out a bottle with aged liquor, uncorked it with his teeth, then walked out to the porch to drink.
It was a dismal night, fragrant and vacuous – the dark heat of the day had sucked out all the air. The gray skies poured a steady wash of tears, gathering in reedy rivulets, marooning people in their yellow-lit islands. Gravel crunched as a wild animal passed by, punctuating the rhythm of the enchanted forest. From the deep, like war cries, came the nasty cackle of jackals lurking amid muddy beds, crouched and hushed, with daggers drawn, listening for traveler’s careless footfalls on lonesome paths.
This was Kasyapa’s music, his lullaby; sleep came rarely to him at night, as he paced restlessly peering out into the forest, figuring what went on there. As he cocked his head and listened keenly, feeling the mahua slosh in his head, another sound came from the dark, a steady nasal drone; a rhythmic whistle of reed pipes. He looked at the bottle in his hand – he’d nearly finished it – was he hearing things? The drone became louder as the musician became more confident and blew harder into the flute.
The music drew him irresistibly, and he was overcome by so strong an urge to tryst with it that he felt powerless. As he lurched down the steps and over the slushy track, his legs buckled beneath him. He swigged from the bottle and tossed it aside, but could not work up the strength to rise to his feet. A hush fell upon the forest, and only the enticing notes of the flute wafted through the night. Kasyapa felt aroused – the urge to couple made knots in his stomach. He lunged toward the sound, crawling, slithering, twisting, and overarching through the slush. Powerless, he was numb to everything except the sound that sucked him into its dark womb.
The music came from the semi-lit cottage next to his – the music teacher’s house. The witch – how she lured him – or was it the mahua that made him so helpless? He wasn’t sure. As he neared the steps and grasped the rails to raise himself, she must have heard the flower pots tumble, for the playing stopped. She stepped out onto the porch and seeing him in that disheveled state, rushed to help him get to his feet.
“What happened?” she cried, leading him into her house and sitting him on a cane chair.
Kasyapa shook his head. Now that the music had stopped, the numbness was slowly ebbing and he could feel his limbs stir again. His hostess sponged his blanched face with a wet towel and looked at him with concern. He couldn’t help but notice what a comely, voluptuous body she had; she wore a sheer sari, the edge having slipped from her shoulders, and she bent before him in a narrow bodice that showed off her wide hips and dangling moon orbs. She had flawless, creamy, coffee skin, shiny with the raindrops that still seeped into her yawning cleavage. But the spell was over. The music had roused him but the woman dammed the flood in his loins.
“I am okay,” he mumbled, spitting out her dark locks as they curved around his mouth.
“What happened?”
“I was bringing along the partridge dish – some wild animal attacked me – I think it came after the smell.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I have some lentils on the stove, stay and dine with me.”
“No thanks,” he said, struggling to his feet, quivering and dripping on her floor.
“You still look shaken up – stay,” she implored, grasping his hand, pulling herself to him. She brushed her taut thighs against his.
“I’ll go clean myself up,” he said, untangling from her with great effort. “And what’s that there?” He paused at the doorstep, noticing a double flute of gourd with two bamboo reed pipes.
“Haven’t you seen one? It’s a Pungi pipe, played by snake charmers.”
“Really, why would you play it?”
“I’ve seen you catching snakes – you’re such a hero. I thought I’d do my bit – “
“Don’t try it, it’s a stupid myth.”
“At least I managed to charm you,” she cooed, raising her arms aloft and swaying seductively like a snake.
“Trust me, you don’t want any snakes in your house – you wouldn’t know what to do with them.”
“I would scream for you.”
“Just give a shout – don’t disturb the peace with that infernal pipe.”
She laughed. “As long as you promise to come.”
Kasyapa smiled wanly and shuffled out into the night. I must control my drink – and stay out of that hypnotizing witch’s way.
***
When the mahua stopped drenching the earth in showers, the monsoons began, and along with them the school summer holidays. The Headmaster, Sh. Magoo summoned Kasyapa to his office and asked him to take the children out for summer camp. “You’re the only bachelor on staff, the only one without in-laws. Except Ms. Mohini whom I need here. So, I need you to take the kids out somewhere where they’re out of our hair. And make sure the place doesn’t offer any TV or other modern nuisances. What’s it going to be?”
Kasyapa wanted to decline firmly, but a strange humming started in his head and a compelling inner voice stayed him. Words tumbled from his mouth as if from afar. “Fine. I’ll take them to Pench – I’ve no in-laws to visit.”
“How’s Pench different from where we are?”
“We’re on the edge, beyond the core. Its treasures lie deep in its belly. The crocodiles on the white sands, the deep ravines, the tigers – there’s plenty rich flora and fauna I could show them as a biology teacher,” he said.
“I’ve myself been on one of those – with Mrs. Magoo and my in-laws. Yes, nothing to excite the children into mischief there. It’s settled then. Mr. Kasyapa, please send me a note with your proposal and funds required; we’ll process it quickly. Thank you,” the short man leaped from his chair, and landing like a cat on his small feet, dismissed the meeting.
***
A half a day’s bus ride took the screaming, singing kids and a taciturn Kasyapa to Seoni, the location of Mowgli Pench Sanctuary. Moist, sheltered valleys lay on one side, and open grassy patches on the other, beyond which loomed dry deciduous forests that climbed the Satpura hills. The axe and the plough had been eating steadily into the vast solitudes, but there were still thousands of square miles of forest-land, which would never be disturbed by roving, greedy human bands. Thus, cover would always remain for wild animals, which found refuge during the day in the thickets, from whence they emerged at night to lay waste to the growing crops, or attack the stragglers of the homeward herds.
They dismounted on the edge of Khoka Lake, a serene water body surrounded in the distance by blue hills with wreaths of gray mist slowly floating up. Nothing disturbed the stillness save the peal of cattle homeward bound, and an insistent cry of a peafowl or partridge.
A couple of pale flabby tents, damp with the rain, had been pitched in a clearing. A tall bearded hunter, attired in the dress of a Shikari, stood still near the entrance to the campsite. He smoked nonchalantly, with one foot propped on a black boulder. A double-barreled gun of exceptional length, probably an old flintlock, leaned against his other leg.
He pressed some tobacco leaves in Kasyapa’s hand; a customary welcome of the Gond tribals. The Shikari, called Manjhi, was about fifty years of age, tall and sinewy, with a singularly mild face, and a long, scrawny neck, deeply seamed with many scars. His meager form was arrayed in a sort of hunting shirt of greenish brown, belted at the waist with sambar leather. Around his head was a small, tightly twisted turban of the same hue as the rest of his garments. At his belt, he carried a long machete, a horn of powder, and a small wallet containing bullets, flint, and steel.
He and his ancestors before him enjoyed a fearsome reputation, of having shot dead man-eaters here, wrestled barehanded bison there, and cut down many an attacking leopard and beast of prey with their formidable daggers.
“Welcome to the land of Sher Khan,” he said, pumping Kasyapa’s hand in his giant, calloused grip. “I’ll be your guide,” he smirked, showing a strong row of broad white teeth.
The Shikari led Kasyapa to where some easy chairs and a camp table covered with tea, toast and fruit had been laid out. Kasyapa sank into one of the chairs, stretched out his legs, and closed his eyes with a sigh of intense satisfaction. Meanwhile, a flustered campsite host with a clipboard and fluttering papers shepherded the bellowing children into their tents.
“What are you keen on?” the Shikari asked after tea had been served in earthen bowls.
“The usual suspects,” Kasyapa replied. “How are the sightings?”
“Fair. Usually near the watering holes – plenty of cheetal and sambar here for the king of the jungle.”
“How do we go in?”
“By jeeps, obviously. Elephant rides are also available, but not for the kids without supervision. We’ll leave in batches; mornings and afternoons. You and I could ride an elephant, though. An elephant can strike out into the heart of the jungle – he makes his own road.”
“Okay. What else? We’re here for a week, thereabouts.”
“There is a tribal arts center – kids will like the wood and clay playthings. You could take home some trinkets for the missus? The camp guys have organized a boat ride down the Pench river. You will see alligators, hundreds of them lounging on the white sands on its banks, and beautiful islands. The camp guys usually throw in a campfire on the last day…”
Kasyapa nodded and looked away into the thickening mists as they began to settle on the treetops. “Don’t you ever go out on foot?” he suddenly asked. “What about these National Geography guys?”
The Shikari slapped his thighs. “I knew you were not the normal babu who looks for comfort or textbook adventures – you look fit enough to me. But the jungle – are you quite up to it?”
“What about the kids?”
“Don’t worry, there is a guide on each vehicle. The staff knows how to handle the rowdiest of them.”
“Just for the record – we’ll accompany them on the safaris and boat rides – and when they’re in the camp, we can strike out.”
“Sure. There is a cost, you understand. And there are dangers. Slippery tracks could land you in bottomless ravines. Bears, panthers, snakebites…and if you’re lucky, Sher Khan.”
“I am okay with that – are you?”
The Shikari sniggered. “I fear no tiger now; they fall before me like the mango at which the boy throws his stick.”
“Great.” It was getting chilly – in the forest, it could get colder than the winters in the plains. Kasyapa yawned and moved toward his tent set apart from the others. The sounds and smells of the forest had lulled his senses into sweet repose – perhaps he wasn’t going to need his mahua for sleep tonight. “I’ll skip dinner,” he said over his shoulder as Manjhi pulled a blanket over his knees and lit a cigarette.
***
It was still dark when the school party moved to the core of the forest. A long line of jeeps was already waiting for the gates to be thrown open. The forest was shaking off its slumber and coming to life as they finally drove in.
The winding, dusty track passed through a belt of salai forest – a peculiar, aromatic tree – and emerged on a broad low valley, in the midst of which ran many small brooks, dotted here and there with grislea bushes. They drove around the circuit for several hours, by which time it became quite warm, and then they returned to the refreshment area for breakfast.
There were many close encounters with sloth bear, four-horned antelope, mouse deer, and other exotic species. Curious langurs, hopping from tree to tree, followed the travelers, but the tiger remained elusive. Some claimed to have seen him, most were not so lucky, and they kept returning in the hope of sighting him in his natural environment.
The kids were soon bored with beating around the bush in the heat of the day and returned to their cricket and staple amusement the campsite provided: puppet shows, tribal dance, and as much ice-cream as they could stuff in their mouths. In the quiet of that evening, Kasyapa sent for the Shikari. After they’d clinked steel glasses of mahua liquor, Kasyapa reminded him of the promise.
“The kids are more or less done here – I don’t think even Sher Khan can convince them to leave the camp now.”
The Shikari chuckled. He cocked his ear and pretended to listen to the sounds from the wild. “Even Sher Khan sleeps.”
“Do we set out tomorrow – trek into the deep?”
The Shikari peered in the dark at Kasyapa, examining his face closely. Seeing that he was dead serious, he spat a thin jet of tobacco and nodded. “Be prepared. We leave before dawn.”
***
When the two set out the next morning, they could smell the rain in the air; there was a rumble in the skies and an odd flash in the distance. The entire day the men toiled over rocks and boulders, in and out of bamboo clumps, and along nullah beds. At last, they came to a sort of cleared space, with some fine jamoon trees and a vast, dark pool.
The guide looked askance at Kasyapa, who’d followed him stoically, without the intense physical toil straining him in any way.
“For a man of books, you seem rather comfortable in the wild,” he observed.
“I am the wild. The wild is I,” Kasyapa replied, squatting by the pool to fill his canteen. He took out his small notebook and penciled a few notes in it.
“Is there anything particular you’re looking for, Teacher, or are you just going to scribble away? Do you want some tiger skins, eh?” He leered. “Snake skins…crocodile hide…tiger tooth… I have a whole stock back home. Ivory – I’ve lots of it. Eh, Babu. What d’ya say?” He smacked his lips.
Kasyapa laughed. “I have no use for the things that you say. Isn’t that stuff banned?”
“It’s nature’s bounty, brother. Why waste it? Well then,” the hunter shrugged. “We’ll camp here for the night. Lots of game comes to the pool at night. Be wary of panthers, they’re braver than tigers. And often hunting around human settlements, they aren’t scared of lights or fire.”
Kasyapa crashed down on the soft matted grass, beginning to cool with the settling dew. The calm waters of the pool, dotted with patches of broad floating leaves, reflected the mingled rays of the rising moon on the one hand and the deeper tints of the glowing west on the other. All around, the gloom of night was settling over the lonely forest, in which, to the widely scattered hamlets, herds of cattle and buffalo were wending their way, leaving their pasture grounds to the beasts of the field.
The Shikari gathered some rotting leaves and bunched them to make a small pillow. He began to stuff gunpowder and steel pellets down the muzzle of his ancient flintlock. “Inherited from my ancestors. One British Sahib gifted it to my great-great-grandfather when he shot down a man-eater near the village – the twinkling lights you see in the valley below. Can’t trust anything else now; many a beast this gun has felled.”
“What’s there in cutting down your prey with your steel and your sulfur – where’s the fairness in that?”
“I also have the knife. It’s man versus nature, always. And you be careful of snakes as you lie on the ground – your love won’t wean away their venom.”
“They don’t bother me.”
“They vex me like hell. Many a snake-head have I mashed under these heels. Why, it was right under that banyan tree, my great-grandfather killed two king cobras in coitus –” the hunter’s voice trailed off as at that instant a long king cobra rose from the grass near where he sat, spreading its fearsome hood and flicking its tongue. It was nearly fifteen feet long, graceful and proud, the milky light bouncing off its shiny black scales. It hissed at the Shikari, weaving slightly. The Shikari shrank back, his hand slowly inching toward his dagger.
“Shush…I’ll take care of it,” Kasyapa said, rising slowly on one elbow, putting a restraining hand on the Shikari’s arm. But the Shikari shrugged it away; a mad gleam had passed into his eyes as he licked his lips in anticipation of the kill.
As Manjhi’s fingers curled around the shaft of his dagger, the snake uncoiled and flung itself at him, twisting and winding itself tightly around his throat. Spreading its fearsome hood, the snake poised before his eyes to strike him. The Shikari grabbed the snake and tried to wrench it away, but its grip only fastened further. The dagger was now firmly in the Shikari’s grip, and in panic, he lunged with it at the snake’s body. The wiry king cobra, in the blink of an eye, unwound itself, and the swooping dagger sank deep into the Shikari’s throat.
The great hunter gurgled as blood gushed from his neck. Kasyapa rushed to him, and tearing off his sleeve tried to stem the flow, but the gash was too deep and clean, and soon the jerking of his limbs stopped. Kasyapa sat back on his haunches and clutched his head. A hush fell upon the night and even the whispering wind died down.
A while later, came a rustling from the grass. Kasyapa raised his head and saw that the snake hadn’t moved, which was strange. Perhaps we’re too close to its nest, it’s hatching season, he thought.
A soft glow began to suffuse the snake and the grassy patch it sat on, and suddenly there was a roar and blinding flash of light. Kasyapa shielded his face with his arm, until the lights dimmed, and he saw in place of the snake, stood a tall, lithe woman of ethereal beauty. Dark lustrous locks hung around her shoulders, their winding strands curling around her supple breasts. A gossamer garland of leaves festooned her slender waist; her moist, dark eyes looked upon him with aching.
Kasyapa jumped to his feet, his heart hammering in awe. He stepped back as the woman advanced towards him; her hips swaying languorously, her feet gliding over the dewy turf. She reached out and ran her fingers down the side of his face.
Kasyapa drew back and cried, “What magic is this?”
“Do you not recognize me, your Kadru?” she asked; a faint hiss drifting along her mellow voice.
“What tricks you play with me, woman. Stay away!”
“Do not shun me, my Kasyapa. Do you not remember this full moon night, here, 200 years ago?”
Despite all his dread, Kasyapa could not help laughing. “What droll is this?”
“You were my mate – a gorgeous Cobra – my King. After days of courtship, I yielded to you in the twisted trunks of that banyan. And while we were lying beside each other, coiled in love, united in our bodies, with a part of you already in my womb as our unborn clutch, this man’s ancestor came and cut us down. For game, for pleasure. Try and remember – I beseech you,” she pleaded, hissing and floating over to him.
Kasyapa shook his head, taking feeble steps back. “It can’t be true…it isn’t…”
“Do not fear me – stay still and hear me out, Kasyapa. I took rebirth as a human. I became a sanayasin and undertook penance for 200 long years on Mount Kailash, where I prayed to Lord Siva to grant me one wish – to unite with you again. The pain hasn’t left my side all this time, Kasyapa – the longing has kept me empty. A couple of Naga sadhus guided me in my suffering so that Lord Siva was bounden to grant me my wish.”
“It’s a lie – you’re some enchanted creature of the forest! I saw you rise from a snake.”
“It is divine blessing indeed that I can change into any form I desire, for it is only then that I might mate with you again. I can only control my form, not yours.”
“I can’t believe you,” Kasyapa said, retreating from the outstretched fingers that flickered at him.
“You doubt me? You, who live with snakes without harm? You, who fall under the spell of Mohini’s gourd-flute?”
“How do you know of her?”
“She was a corrupt priestess of our times who wanted riches and power beyond all human imagination or reach. And that she could only attain through the Nagmani – the priceless and divine snake-gem that you alone possessed. She took rebirth to pursue you through your birth and death cycles, and has finally found you.”
“I have no such gem, I assure you.”
“Of that, later. It shall be revealed. Do you not believe that it was our destiny that drew you here? You never stirred too far from this place, either.”
“How do you mean – I’ve always been a school teacher at Katni – that’s miles from here.”
“I do not talk of this life, but of before. You took several rebirths: as the proud vulture that perched on this banyan’s wings; a lordly bison that haunted the bamboo-clad slopes of these hills; the stout buffalo, who kept to his grass-grown plains. Oh yes, in your myriad forms you were never very far. And when I was granted my wish, you’d become the human I behold now.”
She grasped his arm and led him to the gnarled roots of the banyan fanning over the moonlit pool. She started to scrape the earth with her feet. “See, the soil still cries red with our blood, with the blood of our unborn clutch. How the trunk of this cursed tree bloats with our unspent desire! Wherefore this breeze whispers of our untold love? Why?” She shook him till he broke down.
“My head spins so,” Kasyapa cried. “Give me a sign; restore my sanity, I beg of you.”
“Give what sign? To a man who’s dreamt of this place all his life?” She let him drop his head on her thighs and embrace her knees. Softly, her fingers snaked through his mop of hair, calming him down. “Tell what to a man whose heart hammers like the hooves of a charging buffalo herd. Show what, to a man with two penises? Isn’t that why you foreswore intercourse with a woman? Here, close your eyes and behold what I have to show you.” She bowed and grasped the sides of his head in her palms. “Do you see now?” she asked, as visions of his previous lives flashed past in his mind.
“Yes, I see,” he sobbed.
“How do you feel?”
“I feel full, like a moon that never wanes; happy, like the one who’s always known sorrow. Complete, like a vessel that has been empty. I’m afraid, Kadru. I’ve found something I never want to lose; sad, at what I’ve lost. This human vestige is but a lie, our betrothal is all that is true.”
“Let us then find our eternal love again; consummate this union and meld our souls forever.” She slid her fingers into his, and they walked down the moon-washed track whence Kasyapa had come.
“They will not understand,” he said, covering her nakedness with his jacket. “Until I can find befitting adornments for you.” He beamed down at her. “My love.”
The camp was still fast asleep in the warm quilt of night as the two arrived. Kasyapa led Kadru into his tent, lowered the flap, and faced her. The kerosene lamp flickered and then burned brightly. Kadru undressed him. For the first time, Kasyapa felt aroused in his life as the floods broke through his loins. The garland of leaves fell off Kadru’s hips of their own accord, and she lay down by his side. She whispered as he heaved astride her, “Do not fear, if in ecstasy I change my form – I cannot control it.” They spent the remaining night entwined in embrace, overcome by desire, and its storming, heaving, pulsating finishes. At long last, with the winds ceasing from the sails of their passion, they fell asleep.
***
At the crack of dawn, Kasyapa awoke with the discordant cries of the peafowl and the painted partridge. His bed felt squishy, wet, and empty. He rubbed his eyes and felt around for Kadru; instead, his hands cradled a limp, slimy rope, still warm; nay, burning to his touch.  He fell off his camp cot with a jerk and stared agape at the horrible spectacle before him – the decapitated body of a female king cobra – his beloved Kadru. Kasyapa screamed, and a loud brouhaha ensued outside the tent. He tottered outside, his hands and body sullied with his beloved’s blood.
“Wh- what happened,” he managed to stutter, holding out his hands for all to see; the crime they had committed.
“When the orderly walked in with your morning tea, he found a snake on your pillow; a massive king cobra. He rushed out and raised an alarm, and we cut it down, Kasyapa; we saved your life. Luckily, I decided to join the camp last night, at the Headmaster’s behest.” The voice sounded familiar. As Kasyapa managed to focus through his tears, he saw a tall woman standing behind the throng of children and camp staff. A woman with a glint in her eye. The music teacher.
Kasyapa screamed and rushed at her, but the camp staff pinned him down to the ground. “What have you done?” he wailed. “What have you done?”
“He’s a little sentimental about snakes; come away children,” Mohini smirked, leading them away with a jaunty step.
Now and then a flock of green parakeet flew over, each one trying to out-scream the rest; and occasionally a rocket-bird glided across the open space between the two belts of wood, his long tail streaking like a white riband after him. It was a long time that Kasyapa lay face down in the meadow, and when the long shadows threw their veil over him, he remembered a sacred obligation that was due.
***
Cradling the dead snake in his arms, Kasyapa covered it with a white sheet. Walking out to the lake, he untethered the hunter’s horse and rode out into the hills with the small white bundle in his lap. The horse hung his head as it plodded along the dusty track, and flapping its huge ears, whisked off the flies that annoyed its sides.
By nightfall, Kasyapa was kneeling under the gnarled trunk of the grand banyan, cremating his beloved Kadru in a fire of leaf litter and twigs. Your years of pilgrimage felled with one stroke. He gathered her ashes at dawn and scattered them over the lake and the hills as he bore on northwards.
The selfsame well whence had sprung forth laughter as of yesterday, was now overflowing with his tears. The newfound flesh that had released him last night was now the gray raiment carving into his soul. The earthen cup that had quenched his thirst was nothing but mortal clay fired in a potter’s kiln. His screams rent the hills, but even the echoes were hushed. He clutched his burden in an urn, his back hunched over the horse, as he rode through the forest.
Somewhere sounded a click; Kasyapa looked down at his wristwatch churning the hour. He unfastened the watch and stared at it briefly before chucking it into a stream.
“There is not enough time in you for me to find Kadru,” he moaned. It was a long ride to Mount Kailash, and the ascetics there; Lord Siva alone knew how many ages before he was reunited with Kadru.
He dug his heels in the obliging horse’s sides. “As long as it takes,” he said aloud for all the forest to hear.

Nidhi Singh

Nidhi attended American International School, Kabul, before moving to Delhi University for BA English Honors. Currently, she lives with her husband in Yol, a picturesque cantonment, which was a British POW Camp housing German and Italian soldiers during the World Wars.
More than 50 of her short stories have appeared internationally in Military Experience and the Arts, Grey Wolfe publishing, Expanded Horizons, Vagabondage Press, Rigorous, TQR, SPR, Fantasia Divinity, Fiction on the Web, Storyteller, TWJ Magazine, Indie Authors Press, Flyleaf Journal, Liquid Imagination, Digital Fiction Publishing Co, LA Review of LA, Flame Tree Publishing, Four Ties Lit Review, The Insignia Series, Inwood Indiana Press, Bards and Sages Publishing, Scarlet Leaf Review, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Mulberry Fork Review, tNY.Press, Fabula Argentea, Aerogram, Fiction Magazines, Flash Fiction Press, The Dirty Pool, Asvamegha, Thurston Howl Publications etc.
She has also authored several translations of the Sikh Holy Scriptures.


Safe Harbor
By DC Diamondopolous

The Catalina Express docked alongside the pier. The ride from Long Beach had been choppy as the boat bounced over swells; passengers stumbled on deck and spilled drinks while waves hammered the bow. I’ve traveled the channel every year since I can remember, but this was the first time to the island without my mother.
        I lifted the backpack over my shoulder and walked down the ramp.
         Six months since she passed. Mom continued to provoke me every day, even in my dreams. The ebb and flow of her sanity centered on me.
         I’d come to Catalina to film a tribute for my mother and post it on YouTube. A knot of anxiety and excitement coiled inside me.
I’d always been what others called “strange,” with extremely large eyes, dark with a hint of sclera. Classmates had called me a grey, my hair, Crayola yellow. It couldn’t be dyed; it didn't absorb peroxide and gave me an edge without wanting one. My skin was a rusted gold, as if I sunbathed on Mercury.
Boys would see me from a distance or from my back—my hair a natural curiosity—then, when they neared, or I turned around, there would be an intake of breath, a fallen expression. It hurt to disappoint.
My oddness went beyond the visual. I felt people’s emotions; if I hugged or touched them, the sum of their experience seeped into my being. The weirdest, most fantastical of all, was that I smelled people’s consciousness. I’d be at the farmers’ market, shoppers intent on picking greens or fresh fruit, the odor pleasant, but when hostile music blasted from a car stopped in traffic, the shoppers’ collective stench of anger filled me with nausea. Fear, the greatest stink, rose to unbearable heights. The world boiled with it.
I found refuge as the groundskeeper at the Self Realization Fellowship in the Pacific Palisades, where the atmosphere was serene. The tranquil lake where swans and mallards glided by was the perfect setting to reflect.
With the world’s religions celebrated at my home, you’d think I’d be religious. I was devoted and joyous when I dug my fingers into the earth, planted and pruned, fed the ducks and feral cats. My affection for animals and plants taught me to nurture an inner kind of beauty; Mother Earth, my religion.
Mom loved my strangeness. She hated it, too. Lashing out, calling me my father’s weirdo child. She was an artist, with a yoyo temperament. Creamy-white skin and occasionally an eerie mannequin stare. Men chased her until they stumbled over her pile of baggage. Our home in Long Beach had wall-to-wall signed prints and paintings from Escher to Warhol, including her own work. Her water colors and prints sold in galleries. She was a renowned illustrator.
With her gone, the craving to discover who I am possessed me.
Every night for the past week I’d stir, throw off my covers, waken from a dream of my half-sister, Jemjasee. She, too, had enormous eyes and hair like mine. Mom called it, “Lichtenstein yellow.” In my dreams, Jemjasee stood at the Little Harbor overlook on the Conservancy side of Catalina where my mother took me as a ten-year-old to meet my father and Jemjasee. I’d wake as if called, the dream vivid, and I’d be on the precipice overlooking the Pacific, searching the sea just as my mother did when we’d go back every year to the island. She’d wait for my father, pacing the cliffs, but he never appeared.
I searched the pier for Carlos.
He stepped from the dark terminal as light skipped across the ceiling slats. The night she passed, I called him; we talked, wept, laughed. Carlos cherished my mother like an older sister, and now that I saw him—his cowboy hat shading his crinkled face—his presence consoled me.
We stood, arms entwined, holding each other. It would be vulgar to talk while closeness tallied our grief. I promised myself I would be the one to comfort and not the other way around. He trembled. I held tighter, loving him for loving my mother.
“Man, I thought you’d stay longer, Gwendolyn,” he said, pulling away. His rugged face was damp.
“I can’t.”
“Spend Thanksgiving with us. Stay the week.”
“I’ll let you know.”
“You got the equipment?”
“It’s in my backpack.”
He put his tattooed arm around my shoulder, and we headed toward the terminal.
“Maria and the kids want to see you,” he said, releasing me as we moved through the crowd.
“I have to be here at five.”
“You’ll have plenty time,” he said as we came to his truck. “You have a speech or something?”
I shook my head.
“No notes?” He placed my bag in the bed of his Ford.
“Don’t need them.”
“It would help.”
Carlos had played the role of wise uncle since I was a child.
He opened the passenger door. “Where you wanna go?”
“Upper Terrace first. I can get a great shot of Avalon.”
His truck smelled of coffee and refried beans. It also carried the sweet tang of a man who loved his family and life on the island. But mixed in the smells, I caught whiffs of anxiety, perhaps about his future or Maria.
The Ford was caked with years of dust, grooved with dirt around the steering wheel. I rested my feet on a tool box and pondered my mother’s story. She had talked in a cacophony of innuendos and ambiguous retorts. She said things to get a reaction, so her sincerity was always in question. I wanted to know about my father and Jemjasee.
What happened on that day overlooking Little Harbor when my mother ran to my father, threw herself in his arms? I’d never seen her so happy. He kissed my forehead. A gentle being that cooed in a sing-song accent as he stroked my hair, the same effulgence as his own. I watched my parents head down the trail and disappear.
Jemjasee had taken my hand, and we walked the bluffs. She asked me questions, “What did I like to do, could I swim, did I have many friends?” She spoke as an equal, even though she had to be a lot older. We danced, laughed and skipped, did cartwheels and played hand-clap games. I had so much fun with my sister that I forgot about my parents.
When my mother returned sobbing,  Jemjasee had kissed me good-bye. I’m not sure what happened next, but she and my father vanished.
“Where did they go?” I asked. “Why are you crying?”
My mother howled. It hurt my ears.
“I’m afraid to leave!” She screamed and pounded her fists on the side of her head until I grabbed her, not letting go until her wails turned to whimpers.
Through the years, I’d bring up that day, and she’d snap, “Don’t live in the past!” Then five years ago, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I told her my wish was to know about my father and Jemjasee.
“They come from far away.”
“Luke Skywalker far?” I said with sarcasm.
Tears welled in her eyes. She stared into her wineglass, then played a Joni Mitchell album. I regretted my ridicule. She hurt easily and never spoke of them again.
Carlos drove up the hill and parked along the turn-out.
“This is perfect,” I said, pulling out the camera.
“I’ll do it,” Carlos said.
“Thanks, but I got it.” I recorded everything in sight, including Carlos, the Art Deco Casino Ballroom, moored sailboats, The Express docked at the pier, the Glass Bottom Boat, past the harbor condos built into the mountain like a honeycomb. I aimed the camera at homes stacked above their view of Avalon Bay, and two tourists who drove by in a golf cart.
“Drop me off at Little Harbor overlook, will you?”
“Hey, man, I thought I was gonna help you.”
“It’s something I need to do by myself. Give me three hours.”
Carlos took off his cowboy hat, his rugged face brown as the hills. He smoothed back his dark, graying hair.
“Two,” he said. “Make time for Maria before your boat leaves.”
“I planned on it.”
I put the camera inside my bag in the back of the truck.     
“Why Little Harbor?”
“Mom liked it.”
“She never said anything to me about it. Man, she could be loopy.” He laughed. “When she was at our house—before smart phones, you were a kid—she’d leave messages to herself on her answering machine. A diary type thing.” He sniffed. “I never knew if she was for real or not.”
“She talked in riddles.”
“Man, she was a trip. Kindest person I ever knew.” He opened the door and hopped into the driver’s seat.
We drove up Divide Road, past the Wrigley residence, turned on Old Stage Road and headed into the interior.
We passed bison, their ancestors left in the olden days when they made cowboy movies. Carlos stepped on the gas. He drove up and over the drought ridden hills.
In minutes, we were at Airport-In-The-Sky. The three towers, Spanish tile, and wagon wheels with plants tangled through the spokes. Small, isolated, and just like its name—in the sky.
Mom never shed her hippie beads and anklets, walking barefoot, doing yoga, eating her vegan diet. She told me she burned her bras in the seventies, slept with Jim Morrison, dropped acid and tried to be a lesbian. She also read movie magazines, had facials, manicures and wore make-up. She was a glamorous hippie. Until the day she passed, she burned incense, though the doctors told her not to, and played Carole King and Aretha Franklin albums.
She had me at the age of thirty-seven and said it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
Mom’s last words were, “Gwendolyn, don’t worry about the Earth. As soon as man destroys himself, the Earth will replenish.”
Carlos drove along the dirt road beside the pine and eucalyptus trees.
Nothing had changed since that day twenty years ago—the pyramid-like cliffs, brown fields of brush and cacti, blue and white everywhere, the sky, the sea, wisps of clouds, and ribbons of breakers crashing against the rocks.
Carlos went off-road and parked at the overlook.
“Two hours.” I opened the door, went to the flatbed, unzipped my backpack, pulled out the tripod and camera and dropped the bag on the ground.
Carlos slammed the door. “Need help?”
“I got it.”
He looked at the mountains. “Man, we could sure use some rain.” He sighed. “Be back at three, then we go see Maria.”
The truck wheels kicked up dirt. He made a sharp turn and drove off.
I adjusted the tripod, clamped on the camera, highlighted the settings.
Looking into the lens, I said, “I’m the daughter of Megan Jones, an artist, who grew up in the 1960’s. You’ve probably seen her work, especially if you read romance novels. But her landscape water colors also—.” Flashes appeared in the lens. “Ah, what now?” Was I out of focus? My settings off? It had a six-hour battery life.
In the lens, I saw a starburst break above me, a shower of fallen rays. I spun around. Beams of light pranced above the ocean. They skipped and danced. I moved to the precipice. Riveted by the lights, I watched as particles rearranged themselves, silver, glittering. I stepped to the rim of the bluff, laughing, as if the spectacle was for me. The lights disappeared.
Dejected, I waited, stared out to sea, searched the sky, no airplanes or helicopters. What was it? Mystified, I turned to the camera.
There it was!
Molecules rearranged themselves, several hundred feet across the field. The mirage shimmered without form. I aimed the camera when a portal of light appeared. The person in the arch I knew to be Jemjasee.
I ran, gulping air. Tears, laughter, questions and sorrows erased. I felt my mother beside me. Was it her voice or my imagination? Yes, Gwendolyn, part of you does come from far away.
Jemjasee floated down a ramp that extended before each step, yellow hair, golden bronze skin, her lithe figure youthful, elegant in a kaleidoscopic jumpsuit.
I slumped into her arms. Her love radiated onto everything; the purple blooming cacti, the brown chaparral turned brilliant with color. Her consciousness a fragrance of a thousand bouquets.
“Father?”
She shook her head and pulled a necklace with a pendant from around her neck.
“He made it for you, should I ever see you again.”
“What is it?”
“A red diamond with Catalina quartz that he excavated a long time ago. The diamond is from my home, Seren.”
“It’s gorgeous. Thank you,” I said, putting it over my head. “I dreamt of you.”
“And you came.”
“Why couldn’t we have been a family?”
“On Seren, anyone with the V-Gene is forbidden to immigrate. Father wanted to settle somewhere else, but your mother was afraid of leaving here.”
I’m afraid to leave. Now her ravings made sense.
“What’s the V-gene?”
“The gene of violence.”
“Why couldn’t we all live here?”
Jemjasee shook her head. “It would be like drowning, for Father and me, if we lived on Dual.”
“Dual?”
“That’s what we call Earth. Everything here is either good or bad, rich or poor, win or lose. The pendulum swings, happy one moment, sad the next. That’s why we call Earthlings ‘Dualities.’” She touched my face, a breeze against my cheek. “On Seren, we don’t live in the outer so much as the inner world.”
“All the time? Don’t you get bored?”
Jemjasee laughed. “Bliss is never boring.”
She took deep breaths. Her bare toes scrunched dirt, twigs and rocks. I watched, magnetized by the woman whose strangeness reflected my own. But she was confident, as if only good could come her way.
I turned back to where I first saw her. “How come I can’t see your ship?”
“It reflects the terrain it enters. Would you like a tour before I leave?”
The thought of her leaving made me despair. “Later.”
She gazed at the vista.
“Dual used to be a popular vacation spot for aliens. They came from different universes, took home souvenirs, gems, cocoa.” She glanced at me. “Now, few come. It’s hard to enter this dimension with the mounting density of fear. If we fail to navigate through it, we crash.”
We watched a flock of birds head south, and I thought about how animals and plants taught me patience and integrity. They weren’t afraid of me.
“Can Seren help us?”
“We don’t interfere with other civilizations.”
We headed toward the cliffs.
“Your mother set up her easel, right there, when Father crossed her path. Over the campfire at Little Harbor, they fell in love.”
I imagined my mother, how she must have been then. Her passions great, so consuming they robbed her peace of mind.
“Let’s head back. I have work to do, and I must leave soon.”
“You just got here,” I argued. “What kind of work?”
“I people young planets. Like Paxos, a twin of Dual.”
People planets? Earth has a twin? “How do you do that?”
“It can take a day or years to establish a contact. The decision to leave home is always their own.”
“Where do the people come from?”
“Many came from here. Now I recruit from other universes. Intergalactics with humanoid DNA, who through countless incarnations learned to apply the nature of peace.” She reached for my hand. “I must go.”
“Are you intergalactic?”
“No. Both Father and my mother were Serenians. We share the same forefathers as all humanoids, but without the V-gene.”
The mention of my father demanded an answer to my question, and I wouldn’t let her go. “What was Father like?”
“He was an artist, like your mother. He designed Seren’s Mothership and was known as a great navigator.” Tenderness gleamed from her being. “He loved you and your mother.”
She put her arm around me, and my sadness seeped away.
“How far away is Paxos?” I said without moving.
“Seven-hundred-thousand light years. In my neighborhood, close-by to Seren.”
“With people like me? Mixed?”
“Yes.”
I couldn’t fathom the distance, nor could I grasp that Earth had a twin where everyone lived in peace. “Can that happen here?”
“If everyone is like-minded.”
It didn’t seem possible.
Jemjasee walked on as I lingered behind.
“I won’t see you again, will I?”
She turned with tears in her eyes.
Why risk her life to come back here? I felt the sting of defeat, a personal failure for myself and my planet. I continued on, missing her even before she was gone.
Without command, a ramp and arch appeared.
“How did it do that?”
“The vessel’s malleable, chipped to my thoughts.”
We went through the dome.
When I walked into the chamber, I thought I was still outside. The structure was invisible, but there was a panel—about twenty feet long with keyboards and buttons, switches, knobs and screens inlaid like mosaics into a control board. The floor too was clear, which gave me the spooky sensation of hovering inches above the ground. A spiral escalator several feet away appeared suspended.
“How tall is it? How wide?”
“It can be limited to design. I prefer space.”
In an instant, the ship had an hourglass structure, three tiers and large enough to hold twenty people. “It’s more like a rocket than a spaceship.”
“That depends.”
I stood in the ship turned on its side.
She touched a switch on the console, and a multidimensional planet appeared.  
“Paxos,” Jemjasee said.
She brought the planet to me. Dwarfed by pillars of granite rock, the smell of pine filtered through a canopy of trees where I glimpsed a purple and orange sunset.
“It looks like Yosemite,” I said, gazing at several waterfalls.
She placed me in a city where every brightly colored building was oblong or round. Atop a hill, an arrow of lighting flashed by. “The transit system,” Jemjasee said. She swooped in close. I stood beside people who looked like me, some different, all humanoids.
Then I found myself on a dirt road beside farmlands and fields of wildflowers. A young man came running over. His attire: a kilt or a skirt with patterns of exotic animals that moved as he ran, his skin a marble wash of lavender and green.
“Hi, I’m Deke.” He took in my jeans and denim jacket. “You from Dual?”  
“Yes. My name’s Gwendolyn. Where are you from, originally?”
“Jura.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Four years.”
“Do like it?”
“Sure, don’t you?” he asked.
“I’m just visiting.”
“Oh.” He sounded disheartened.
“What kind of animals are here?” I asked.
“Like those on Dual. But they’re all vegan, like we are. Everyone has a garden on Paxos. Many, like me, are farmers. I grow food for all the animals.”
“Vegan lions and wolves?”
He nodded. “We have a common goal, that every breath increases our chances to detach from the V-Gene.”
I wanted to touch him to see if his skin was cool or warm like his eyes. “Do you have a family?”
“No, but I want one.”
“Me too.”
I was back inside the ship, wishing I could have stayed and talked to Deke.
“Peace everywhere?” I asked. “Even the animals?”
“If someone’s actions cause harm,” Jemjasee said. “They’re taken off-planet. Everything, thought or deed, is for the greater good of all.”
I thought about Deke, his skin a watercolor of heavens, reminding me of my mother’s paintings.
“Am I eligible?”
“You are.”
“And I’d see you often?”
“Of course.”
Could I leave—The Self-Realization Center, Carlos, Maria and the kids?
I went to the arch and looked out at the cliffs. I’d be leaving mom’s art work behind and the emerald ring and earrings she gave me for my sixteenth birthday. Would she be hurt if I took nothing but her memory?
A wistful feeling of all that had been swept over me.
I took a step forward. The ramp rolled onto the ground. I took off my shoes. Sprigs and rocks scuffed my heels. A breeze fluttered strands of hair across my face.
I’d be accepted on Paxos. I never considered a husband or child, but now?
I saw Carlos’s truck. His tires spewed billows of dust as he headed towards the overlook.
I gazed across the field to my camera and backpack.
Fear had destroyed Mom’s life. I mustn’t let that happen to me. Perhaps that would be her tribute.
Go Gwendolyn, my mother whispered on the wind.
Go.

DC Diamondopolous

DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s stories have appeared in over fifty anthology and online literary publications. DC won first place for the short story, “Billy Luck” at Defenestrationism’s summer contest of 2016 and “Billy Luck” is nominated for Best of the Net 2017 Anthology for short story. The international literary site The Missing Slate, in Aug. 2016, honored DC as author of the month for the short story “Boots.”



Once Upon an August
By Kristyl Gravina

I remember what happened ten years ago as if it was yesterday.
I was twenty. It was an early August morning. I had woken up early. Usually, I slept late on Saturday mornings, but not that day. I had been given the privilege to ride in a fancy car all the way to the tiny village, where nearly all the residents were waiting outside for the occasion. Stiffly, I climbed out of the car. Although such a ceremony was my first, I knew what to do as if it was something I did every day. I found my place and walked up the aisle beside Jas, clutching tightly at the bouquet of flowers in my hands.

I don't remember the first time I met Jas. Jas was my cousin Seth’s best friend. He had been his friend since early childhood. His father was a doctor and they had a large house with a swimming pool. Seth was always over at Jas's house. I remember hearing about Jas all my life, so when I met him, it felt like we were old friends already. Maybe that's why I don't remember the first time we met. I remember when I was in my teenage years and saw Jas wearing a suit before going to a party on New Year’s Eve. He had looked so cute. What I loved most about Jas, though, was his smile. You could tell it was genuine. He was the sort of person who radiated kindness, if that is even possible. It was easy to love someone like that.

The flowers I held were not the red roses I wanted. Instead, they were whatever the florist had available. I had ordered them the day before. I should have gone to another florist but I had never needed to buy flowers before, and it was the first florist I found close by.

I remember one August afternoon when I was five years old. I was at the beach wearing my favourite dress. It was red with large white flowers. Seth and I were eating ice cream and I was laughing so hard because Seth had an ice cream moustache. I did not see where I was walking and I tripped and fell. I still have a scar on my right knee.

Ten years ago, I walked up the church aisle beside Jas. I was not wearing white and I was not wearing a dress. Instead, I wore black trousers and a black blouse which I had just purchased. I don't think I ever wore them again after that morning. My face was void of any make up for a change; even the black eyeliner I never left the house without. Jas wore a black suit. It was only the second time I had seen him wearing a suit.

Seth was over at our house every day when I was a little girl. He would play with my toys and often, in a matter of seconds, he would break them. I know he did not do it on purpose and because of that I always forgave him. I remember that sometimes I hid my favourite toys whenever I would hear the doorbell ring.

Jas and I walked up the aisle in perfect coordination. As if we had rehearsed a hundred times before, our movements were graceful, our minds as one.

One time when we were kids, I slapped Seth hard across the face. It was August and we were eating ice cream again. He had said something I didn't like and I reached out and slapped him without thinking. It was the first and last time I ever did something like that and I remember how embarrassed I was.

Jas and I glanced at each other and he nodded. We had reached the altar by now, and automatically we took a seat on opposite sides of the aisle, across from each other.

When I was eleven, I showed Seth a short story I had written. I didn't want to, fearing he would ridicule me, but he found it and read it anyway. He just smiled and said I was like a real writer. I could keep no secrets from him.

The ceremony began as soon as Jas and I were seated. Everyone had been waiting for us. The church was crowded; all the seats were taken and there were a lot people standing. Those who couldn't fit inside the church were outside in the street, attempting to get a glimpse of what was going on.

I had not seen Seth in quite some time. Ever since we became teenagers, he did not visit our house so often anymore. When we heard he had gotten a puppy, we went to his house to see it. We were both fourteen and I had not seen Seth for months. My aunt led us to the yard where the puppy was. He was the cutest little thing with blue eyes. Then Seth came out to the yard. It was a summer afternoon in August and he was shirtless. We both paused when we looked at each other, and for the first time, we realised that we were growing up.

My mother held my hand and we stood. My family sat in the seats behind us, my sister beside me. Next to Jas stood his parents. One of my other cousins went up to the pulpit to read a poem.

I was seventeen when there was a festival at a nearby village. I went there with my friends. While walking along a particular street, I glanced up and saw Seth walking towards me, also with friends. He glanced up at the same time I did. Our eyes locked for a moment.  We did not speak, or wave, or stop to say hello. We smiled through our eyes and that was that. But with that one look, we exchanged so much. It was one of my happiest days. Yet, to anyone else, we were just strangers passing by.

The ceremony was nearly over. I did not hear a word the priest had said.

It was April, just before my twentieth birthday when I was waiting at a bus stop with my mother. Seth appeared out of nowhere and smiled at me and waved. She had not recognized him at first and thought he was some guy I knew. He rushed off to buy something to eat before the bus came, and soon came back, eating a pizza slice while signalling for a bus to stop. He said a quick hello and goodbye to us, gobbled the remainder of his food, and climbed on the bus.
That was the last time I ever saw him.

The funeral ceremony was over and I did not shed a single tear. During the burial, however, I broke down. I still cry myself to sleep on some nights.
Jas was Seth's best friend. He became a doctor like his father and I heard he got married and has kids. I saw him on television a couple of weeks ago. Everyone loves him because of his kindness.
Seth's other best friend was me. Maybe he never considered me as a friend because we were more like a brother and sister. Or maybe something more. Even if there ever was something more, it would have been weird, even forbidden, so it was never mentioned at all. We were cousins.
Seth chose to leave this world ten years ago when we were only twenty. The night before, I dreamt that the man I loved was drowning. There was a storm and I was trying to save him but I couldn't. His head exploded in my dream. That morning Seth shot himself in the head.
I still remember clearly the month of August ten years ago. I don't think I will ever forget.

Kristyl Gravina

Kristyl Gravina is from the island of Malta where she lives with her husband, son and three cats. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Third Wednesday, Down in the Dirt magazine, Haiku Journal, The Literary Hatchet and Hindered Souls: Dark tales for dark nights among others. 




The Wool Hat
By Mike Murphy

“Dad?” Alan called as he walked through the second floor of the old house. “Are you here?”
The muffled reply came from behind the attic door. “Up here, son!” Mitch responded.
Alan opened the creaky door to the attic. The airborne dust was thick in the sunlight coming through the room’s only window. The temperature was a good twenty degrees warmer than the rest of the house. He grabbed onto the old handrail and pulled himself up the stairs. His dad was sitting on the floor, several stacks of old boxes piled three and four high behind him.
“Phew!” Alan said as he climbed the last stair. “I had forgotten how warm it gets up here.”
“I don’t mind it,” his father answered. “These old bones can’t take the cold weather.”
“You’re not old,” Alan replied, walking over to his dad.
“I’m sixty-five,” Mitch said. “I’m hardly middle aged.”
Alan glanced at the boxes. “You haven’t gone through those yet?”
“No,” Mitch replied, embarrassed.
“You promised me you would.”
“And I will.”
“They’re all that’s left,” the younger man continued. “You’re moving into the condo on Saturday morning, and the new owners will be moving into this house on Saturday afternoon.”
“I know that,” Mitch replied. “Are you sure I couldn’t just. . . leave the boxes here?”
“You can’t ask the Mitchells to hold onto your stuff.”
“No, I guess not,” the older man said with a sigh. “I can’t take them with me to the condo?”
“You know the problem with storage there, Dad,” Alan went on. “You wanted that complex so you could be close to your friends, and there were only two available condos. Like you asked, I got you the one on the first floor – so you don’t have to climb those stairs – and there’s simply not a lot of storage space for that unit.”
“Could you. . .” Mitch asked tentatively.
“Dad, you’ve seen my house. There’s hardly enough room for Cheryl, me, and the girls. Besides, the kids would probably get into the boxes and ruin your stuff.”
“I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
“What’s in those boxes anyway?”
“You know, I. . .  I’m not sure.”
“Do you want me to look into one of those self-storage places?” Alan asked.
“How much would that cost?” Mitch inquired.
“I have no idea. They can’t be that expensive. A lot of people use them.”
“No, there’s no sense in spending money to store this old stuff, whatever it is,” Mitch answered. “I told you I’d go through it, and I will.”
Alan reached down and gently touched his father’s arm. “I’m sorry, Dad,” he said. “I know it’s mostly Mom’s stuff. I don’t mean to sound unfeeling.”
“Don’t worry. You’re only being realistic.” Mitch sighed at the remembrances of the past that started flooding his mind, try though he did to dispel them. “Soon this house will have new owners, and it’s up to me to get the past out of it so they can build a future. Their future. You’ve been very helpful with the move, and I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome.”
“Have you decided what charity will get this stuff?”
“Not yet, but there are several good ones right in town.”
“Maybe I could keep a few things?” Mitch suggested shyly.
“Sure,” Alan answered, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “I know what we can do,” he suggested.
“What’s that?”
“While I’m here, let’s go through one box together.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Mitch agreed.
“Let me get this top one down,” Alan continued, reaching for it. “Geez, will you look at the dust?”
“I haven’t touched any of this stuff since Linda passed.”
“Six years. It’s hard to believe.” Standing on his tip-toes, Alan was able to reach the box he was after. He grunted as he lifted it off the pile.    
“Careful of your back!” his dad warned him.
“It’s not that heavy,” Alan replied, straining a little. With a plop, he dropped the box to the floor. It kicked up a small cloud of six-year-old dust on impact. The son sat down beside his father and removed the box’s lid. He rustled through the items. “Boy,” he said, amused, “the things Mom saved!” He pulled out a pair of garish bell bottoms. “Check out the flare on these pant legs!”
“Back in the day,” Mitch explained, “you couldn’t buy straight-leg pants if you wanted to. It’s still better than the way kids are wearing their pants nowadays.”
Alan pulled out a familiar tattered pink bathrobe. “Now here’s something I remember her wearing,” he said.
Mitch smiled as he reached out and touched the robe. “I tried to get your mother a new one a few times, but she loved this old thing. Look how threadbare it. . . well, I haven’t seen this in years.” Mitch had found something he remembered well: A wool hat. He pulled it from the box and held it in the air, squinting at it through the floating dust.
“I think I remember that,” Alan said.
Mitch held it in his hands, memories filling his mind. “Your mother knitted it for me for our first Christmas together,” he went on. “She was pregnant with you at the time.”
“I didn’t know she knitted.”
“I don’t think she ever knitted anything aside from this. I remember when she gave it to me,” he continued, reminiscing. “She was so proud of herself. She said that your kicking was keeping her awake, so she may as well do something constructive.” He sniffed the air. “It smells like mothballs,” he said.
“It’s a pretty big-sized hat, isn’t it?”
Mitch went on. “All the Olsen men have big heads. Be thankful you got yours from your mother’s side.” He turned the hat over in his hands a few times and continued wistfully, “I remember her getting mad at me because I’d go out in the chill with no hat on. ‘You’ll catch your death of cold,’ she’d say.” He pressed the hat to his cheek. “I wonder if it still fits,” he said.
“You’re not really going to wear that!”
“Why not?”
“It’s so old fashioned.”
“Fashion be damned!” the older man stated. “If it fits, I’m wearin’ it.”
“I’m surprised it’s still in one piece after all this time.”
“It’s strong,” Mitch offered. “It’s held together with sweat and love.” He gently pulled it onto his head. “Will you look at that?” he said with surprise. “Fits like a glove.”
The room began to dim and swirl. Mitch could faintly hear Alan calling his name, alarmed. Mitch’s head spun. His mouth became dry. A wave of nausea briefly passed over him. And then he was. . . somewhere else. Christmas music was playing on the radio. “Do you like it, Mitch?” That voice! He knew it, of course. It was as sweet as the finest chocolate. He had dreamed of it nearly every night for the past six years, and he had cherished it every day before then.
Mitch reached up, felt the wool hat on his head, and then turned quickly to see his dear, late wife. She was brighter than all the lights shining on the Christmas tree behind her. “What. . . Where. . .” he mumbled.    
“I knitted it myself,” she went on, pulling her pink robe about her, “mostly at night. The baby was keeping me up with his kicking. Merry Christmas!”
Mitch thought he would wake up, but he didn’t. . . and he was glad.
“You don’t like it?” Linda asked, disappointed.
“No, I love it!” he quickly answered. “I love you. I’ll never take it off.” He clutched her and pulled her close, as much as her baby belly allowed. He hugged her tight and kissed her hard a few times, something he had dreamed of for many a night.    
She giggled. “What’s gotten into you?” she asked.
“N-Nothing,” he replied. “Can’t a man hug and kiss his wife on Christmas Day?”
“Sure you can – on any day,” Linda answered, kissing him on the forehead. “I approve. But you’ll squish the baby. . . Oh, there’s a big kick.”
“Really?” he asked eagerly.
“We may have a football player in there.” She took her husband’s hand and placed it on her belly. “There.”
Mitch chuckled as the unborn Alan kicked hard. “That was a good one!”
“Have a listen,” his wife suggested.
He dropped his head to her belly and pressed an ear against it. “I can’t hear much,” he said, after trying for a little while.
“Well, you have to take the hat off, silly.” She plucked it from his head, and Mitch’s visit ended.
***
“Dad? Dad, are you OK?” Alan slowly came into focus. He was clutching Mitch’s head in his hands, a nervous look on his face.
Mitch realized he was back in the attic. He didn’t know what had just happened to him, but he longed for its reoccurrence. “Alan, what. . .” he said, groggily coming to.
“You glazed over for a minute,” his son explained. “You wouldn’t answer me. Are you alright?”
“I. . . I think so,” Mitch replied. He felt about the floor nervously. “Where’s the hat?”
“Right there,” Alan answered. “It fell off your head.” Mitch scooped it up and held it dearly. “Dad,” Alan went on, “let’s. . . let’s go downstairs.”
“But –”
“C’mon. It’s really hot up here. Let’s go to the kitchen.”
“Why?”
“We’ll have a cool drink.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Well, I am,” his son continued, “and you know how I hate to drink alone.”
***
“You what?” Alan said, looking across the circular kitchen table at his dad, the wool hat resting between them.
“I swear to you, son,” Mitch repeated himself, “I went back in time.”
“How?”
“I’m not really sure. It must be the hat.”
“That old thing?” Alan scoffed.
Mitch briefly paused to gather his thoughts. “Up in the attic,” he continued, “you said I glazed over for a minute.”
“That’s right.”
“When did that happen?”
“Right after you tried on. . .”
“See?” Mitch confirmed.
“That’s not possible,” Alan stated.
“Says who? That’s why I glazed over: I wasn’t in the present anymore.” A look of disappointment crossed his face. “You don’t believe me?”
“I believe that you believe it.”
“Alan, it was real. I could see your mother, I could hear her, I could feel her. I even felt you kicking away inside of her. It was the day that she gave me the hat.” He snatched the hat off of the table. “This hat. Christmas Day. Damn! If she hadn’t taken it off me, I’d still be there.”
“Dad. . .”
“Will you try to believe me?” Mitch asked, upset by his son’s doubt.
“For what reason?”
“Play devil’s advocate.”
“OK.” Alan reached across the table and grabbed the hat from his father’s hands.    
“Hey!” Mitch protested.
Alan pulled the hat onto his own head. “Voila!”
“Alan!”
“I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“Give it to me!” Mitch bellowed.
Alan flinched, taken aback by his dad’s anger. He pulled the hat from his head and quickly handed it over. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t. . . didn’t mean to upset you. I was only trying to prove a point.”
“The hat wasn’t made for you,” Mitch went on. “It won’t work for you – just me.”
“Work?”
“Do you realize what I have here?” Mitch continued, his voice starting to crack. “It’s a ticket to the past: My past. I can go back in time to. . . to better days any time I like, as long as I wear this hat.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“When have you ever known me to have an imagination?” the older man asked. “I could feel your mother. I could even smell her perfume. I could. . .”
“What is it, Dad?”
“The hat.”
“What about it?” Alan asked.
“Do you remember what I said it smelled like when we found it up in the attic?”
“Yeah: Mothballs.”
Mitch held the hat out to his son. “Smell it,” he said.
“Smell the hat?”
“Yes.”
Alan took the hat into his hands. “Do I have to?”
“Humor me.” Reluctantly, Alan held the hat to his nose and sniffed it a few times. “Well?” Mitch prompted him.
“I. . . don’t believe it,” Alan continued, incredulously. “It smells like. . . Mom’s perfume.”
***
A couple of hours had passed. The two men again sat around the kitchen table. Mitch had tried on every piece of clothing in the boxes in the attic. Nada. Only the hat did anything. “It must be because she made it,” he concluded, “where all the other stuff is store bought.” He hugged the hat close. “You can give away everything else to charity, Alan. This hat is the only thing that matters.”
“Dad, what do you plan on doing with it?”
“Doing with it?” Mitch was amazed that the question had to be asked. “I’m going to use it! This hat is the rarest of all gifts: A chance to go home again. I’m going to visit your mother any time I want to.”
“But. . .”
Mitch was disappointed. “You still don’t believe it works?” he asked.
Alan replied, “Let’s say that I’m uncertain.”
“Just because it won’t work for you –”
“It’s not that.”
“What would it take. . .” he said, before pausing for a bit. “I’ve got it!”
“Dad?”
“The proof is in the pudding, right?”
“What are you gonna do?” Alan asked, looking nervous.
“Up in the attic, you said I glazed over when I put on the hat.”
“That’s right.”
Mitch touched the hat to his cheek, and the faint scent of his late wife’s perfume wafted to his nostrils. “Now that you’re sitting right beside me,” he explained, “I’m going to put it on again.”
“Do you think that’s wise?” Alan inquired quickly.
“It’s fine,” Mitch reassured his boy. “The worst thing that can happen is. . . nothing. If you see me glaze over again, I’ve likely gone back in time.”
“But –”
“Do you know any other way of testing this thing’s powers?”
“Well. . . no,” Alan admitted reluctantly.
“Then that’s what we’re gonna do.”
“What if you get hurt?”
“By a hat?”
“You know what I mean!”
“If I glaze over, I’m fine,” Mitch concluded. “How much safer can I be while we test this miracle? For heaven’s sake, I’m sitting at my own kitchen table with you right beside me! If I start to act at all odd, pull the hat off my head. That should bring me back to the present.”
Alan sighed. “I don’t like this.”
“I didn’t ask for your approval, just your help.”
***
    The shovel and his back were straining. The snow was really piling up. And it was coming down sideways – a losing fight. Mitch’s green parka was wrapped tightly about him; the blessed hat was on his head. With a grunt, he took another stab at the accumulated snow, throwing the shovelful away. Was that actually a visible piece of the driveway before his eyes?
Linda poked her head out of the kitchen door. “Honey,” she called, “are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” Mitch replied, winded.
“Is it the heavy kind of snow?”
    “Unfortunately,” Mitch answered, taking another shovelful.
“The radio said that we’ll probably pick up another four to five inches before it’s through.”
“Great!” he replied sarcastically.
“At least your head’s warm.”
    Mitch smiled. “Thanks to you.”
“I was going to put a pom-pom on the top,” Linda went on, “but I ran out of wool.”
“I love it just as it is.”
“I’ll be out in about ten minutes to help you,” she said.
“Are you kidding?” Mitch protested, stopping his shoveling and briefly resting on the handle. “No pregnant wife of mine is going to shovel.”
A big wind blew up as he was speaking. Mitch could feel his hat slowly coming off of his head. He threw the shovel to the ground and grabbed at his hat, but it had fallen to his feet.
***
“Dad? Dad?” It was Alan.
“The kitchen?” Mitch asked, coming to.
“Yeah.”
“Did I glaze over again?”
“Only for a minute. And then. . .” Alan went on, “it was the weirdest thing.”
“What was?”
“It was like the hat blew off your head and onto the table, but there was no breeze. All the windows are locked tight.”
“That’s what happened in the past,” Mitch confirmed. “A big wind came up and blew the hat off my head.”
“So you went back in time again?”
“I did,” Mitch said, smiling broadly. “I was shoveling snow in the driveway.” He snatched the hat off the table and held it before his eyes. “This thing is amazing.”    
“So it was winter again?”
“Yes,” his father replied. “I suppose that makes sense. My trips must be limited to the wintertime – when I’d be wearing the hat. That’s fine with me.” A shocked look came to his face. “Oh, no!” he exclaimed.
“What?” Alan asked eagerly.
“What if the hat won’t work away from this house?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“Your mother and I moved in here right after we were married. You were born here. We’ve never lived anywhere else.” He pounded on the table. “We’ll have to cancel the sale. Case closed.”
“What?”
“Call the realtor, and tell him I’m staying put.”
“You have to be kidding!” Alan exclaimed. “Everything is signed. You. . . You can’t back out of the condo now. How will you tell the Mitchells that they can’t have the house?”
“I’m not taking the chance of losing this connection to the past.”
“Dad,” Alan pleaded, “you can’t do this.”
“Of course I can. You have no idea what I could be giving up.”
“I don’t, huh?” Alan replied angrily. “When Mom died, all of us lost someone very dear: I lost my mother; Aunt Sue lost her sister; Mom’s parents lost their daughter. Mom was a lot of things to a lot of people.”
“I’m sorry, son,” Mitch replied, ashamed. “I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was the only one who suffered a loss.”    
Alan wiped a tear from his eye. “I envy you,” he said.
“How so?”    
“I’m still not sure if that hat does what you say it does –”
“It does,” Mitch assured him.
“Something as simple as putting on a hat gives you the chance to see Mom again. I’d give anything for that.”
“Then you can see why I can’t leave this house?”
“Look, it’s getting late,” Alan continued. “I have to go get Belinda and take her to a doctor’s appointment. Do you want me to come back later? It may not be until 9:00 or so tonight.”
“No, that’s OK.”
“Then I’ll come by tomorrow morning. We’ll take that hat with us and go for a drive. I’m sure it’ll work away from house.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“You can’t stop everything in its tracks, Dad,” he said. “You might even get sued for breach of contract.”
“This hat is worth any price,” Mitch assured his son.
Alan glanced down at his watch. “I gotta go,” he said. “Don’t you try a road trip on your own!”
“Of course not,” Mitch responded.
“If anything happens while you’re away from the house, I don’t want you to be alone.”
***
The bedroom alarm clock was showing times that Mitch had never seen before: 1:45, 2:00, 2:30 a.m. His mind was racing. I can’t sleep, he thought. Maybe, I’ll. . .
No, I promised Alan. I. . .
But I didn’t promise him that I wouldn’t try the hat on again in the safety of the kitchen.
***
He didn’t know this place. It wasn’t the house. He was in a London-like fog. Everything was bright, and – even in his pajamas – he wasn’t cold.
“Mitch?” Linda’s voice! Not a doubt. It seemed to be coming from everywhere.
“Linda!” he exclaimed, looking about wildly for her. “Where are you?”
“I am here,” she answered him, her voice in a slight echo.
“I can’t see you.”
“You are not meant to.”
“We’re not at the house.”
“Not this time, dear.”
    “You. . . You know what I’ve been doing?” Mitch asked, surprised.
    “I do.”
    “How?”
    “I watch you to this very day.”
“But the other two times. . .”
“I was unaware of those visits,” Mitch’s late wife explained. “That hat has some remarkable qualities, doesn’t it?” she went on with a chuckle.
“It certainly does. I’m going to use it more and more often.”
“You cannot,” she replied adamantly.
“Why?”
    “The powers that be have asked that you don’t.”
“Is this. . . Heaven?” he inquired, after a pause.
“No,” she explained. “We’re in a place between Earth and Heaven. It’s kind of like a rest stop.” With finality, she continued, “Mitch, you must stop using the hat.”
“Why?”
“Because I want you to.”
“I’m not hurting anyone.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” she said. “You’re hurting yourself – the younger you.”
“What?” he asked, befuddled.
“Think about the other trips you made,” Linda went on. “You were able to experience two events in your life that you had already experienced. True?”
“Yes.”
“But the younger Mitchell Olsen,” she explained, “who should have experienced those events, was deprived of ever knowing them. He will never live those moments of which you now have two recollections.”
Mitch was shocked. “Did I really do that?” he asked.
“Yes, though I’m sure it was unintentional.”
“Oh, it was,” he replied eagerly. “It was.”
“You’re a good man, Mitch. You wouldn’t want to be deprived of your memories of our time together.”
“Of course not.”
“Neither does the younger you,” she continued. “In order for you to gain, he would have to lose, and that isn’t right.”
“I. . . I wasn’t thinking, Linda. It’s only,” he sniffed, “that I miss you so much.”
“As I miss you,” she replied. “Alan was correct when he told you that many people suffered from my death. What no one remembers – and I guess you don’t think of this until you’ve died – is that the dead suffer as well. When I died, I lost all of you. Sure, I gained paradise, or as near as Heaven can be to paradise without you and Alan, but I still suffered a great loss. You lost me, but I lost you, our son, my sister, my parents. . .”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“It wouldn’t have occurred to you. Life is for the living, and it is always thought of in Earthly terms.” She paused. “Promise me, my love,” she pleaded, “that you won’t use the hat again.”
“It will be awfully tempting,” Mitch said with a sigh.
“Then give it away. Let Alan donate it to one of those charities he mentioned.”
“But you made it for me.”
“You have so many memories of me in that head the hat covers. Let it keep someone else warm in the cold weather.” She continued gently, “You’ll be moving out of the house very soon. As much as I miss you – and as much as you miss me – it’s time for you to start a new life.”
***
“Are you sure, Dad?”
“Yeah,” Mitch replied. “I put the hat in the top box and sealed the lid.”
“Why the change of heart?” Alan asked.
“Remind me to tell you sometime,” he went on. “Do you need help with the boxes?”
“No, I can get them.”
“Thanks,” Mitch responded. “I’ve got a few more things to get ready before the Mitchells move in tomorrow.”
***
The condo was nice enough. Alan and some friends of his helped Mitch move in the heavy stuff. Now it was pretty much down to hanging pictures and shelving books. Mitch decided to stretch his old legs with a trip to the mailbox. He didn’t notice that someone was behind him and, as he checked the mail, he accidently nudged her.
“Oh, excuse me,” she said.
“That’s quite alright,” he answered her. “My fault.” He stole a quick, shy glance at her. She was pretty, very pretty in fact. There was something of Linda in her and many other things that were entirely unique.
“I’m Lynn Cooper,” she said. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he went on. “I’m Mitch Olsen. I moved in yesterday – 1C.”
“Welcome,” Lynn said. “I’m sure that you and your wife will be very happy here.”
“I’m. . . not married.”
“Did you downsize as well?”
“Yes. There was no sense in keeping that big old house for myself.”
“You’re a widower?” Lynn asked.
“Unfortunately,” Mitch answered with a sigh.
“My Harry died nearly five years ago,” she went on. “You never quite get used to being alone, do you?”
“No, you don’t.”
After a pause, Lynn said, “I hope I’m not being too forward, Mr. Olsen –”
“Please call me ‘Mitch,’” he interjected.
“Only if you call me ‘Lynn,’” she replied.
Mitch chuckled. “It’s a deal,” he said.
“I’ve lived in this complex for a few years,” she explained. “I can tell you all you need to know, perhaps over a cup of tea?”
“Thank you,” he answered the pretty lady. “I would like that.”
“Wonderful! I’m in 1F. Would 3:00 be OK?”
“Just fine.”
“I’m also an excellent tour guide,” she said. “I can show you all the sights of the neighborhood. There are some wonderful restaurants, lovely parks. . .”
Mitch didn’t bother to tell Lynn that he knew the area well, having lived nearby for many years. Why pass up the opportunity, he thought, to rediscover old places with a pretty tour guide?


Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. In 2016, he won two Moondance International Film Festival awards.
His prose work has appeared in, among others, DIME SHOW REVIEW, GATHERING STORM MAGAZINE, ZETETIC, LYONESSE, THEME OF ABSENCE, FABULA ARGENTEA, and BUCKSHOT MAGAZINE. 
In 2015, Mike's script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.
He keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com.

​ 


No Man's Land
By David J. Wing

Carl lay on the bank, the water lapping the inside of his right leg up to his calf. The sodden sand, gritty and uncomfortable, lined his fatigues. There was blood too, of course there was. It polluted the waves as they ran back from the shore; a red puddle, filtered and disseminated among millions of gallons. He let his hand search for the source, a scratch or a tear, whatever; he just didn’t want it to be…but it was.
The bullet had torn through, in and out. His finger tentatively filled the hole. He couldn’t feel it. The cold water had numbed his wound; cleaned it too, as it happened. Carl’s med-kit was in his left chest pocket. He reached in and pulled out a strip of gauze and a bandage. The morphine was smashed. That would be a problem to look forward to later. The tiny vial fragments dug into his fingertips. Carl picked them out with his teeth and enjoyed a calming sensation from the remaining drug on his tongue.
The wound wrapped, Carl did his best to sit up fully and survey his situation. His weapon sat, cracked and beaten on a rock off to his far left. No use there or here, he thought. He wiggled his left and then his right foot; both played along, although the right took some persuasion. His uniform was mainly intact and besides the dampness, he didn’t feel too cold. The morning was beginning to warm and the sun was breaking through the pine trees.
Where is everyone?
It was so quiet. The trees stood still.  The ground failed to rumble and even the river walked. Carl pulled his legs to his chest, pushed down and thrust himself skyward.
GOD Damnit!
The pain shot up his leg, through his calf and thigh, and up to his hip. Carl took a series of quick, panicked breaths, until the searing heat passed and the tears stopped streaming from his eyes.
As he was about to start out in earnest to look for his squad, a shriek filtered through the forest and flooded his ears. He twisted around on the spot. His leg joined in the screaming and together, he and the forest cried. Falling to the muddied earth, Carl grabbed at his leg and begged the pain to subside.
Another desperate sound echoed. Carl took a deep breath, struggled to his feet, and forced his legs to move in the direction he thought the sound had come from.
A sound. Any sound is better than nothing, and it might be them?
The sun was chasing Carl. He could feel it on his back. His legs began to dry from the river only to be soaked once more with sweat. He’d thought to fill his canteen before striding out to meet them, whoever they were, but it was fast emptying. His thirst overrode his survival training and by midday he was down to a quarter remaining. Realising his folly, Carl stopped and rested. He hadn’t heard a scream for over an hour and there was little chance he could find them without one.
What could be happening over there? Why haven’t they come for me?
Carl took the opportunity to inspect his wound. The gauze had come loose. It wasn’t sweat, after all. He used as much water as he felt he could spare to re-cleanse the wound, applied a second gauze and wrapped the leg again. The throbbing was beginning to sound in his head, a pain that echoed the repetition of a train. If Carl hadn’t known better, he’d have said there was something inside, kicking and punching, desperate to get out.
Wiping his forehead with his cuff, Carl saw something, just out of the corner of his eye. A bush rattled, then silenced.
A mouse? No, maybe a badger?  
He shrugged it off when the bush didn’t move for a few minutes. Struggling to his feet, he carried on. The sun was finding it harder and harder to break through the tree canopy, and the deeper Carl strode, the safer he was from its attempts. But something was playing on his mind and he couldn’t place it.
The bushes moved behind him. Carl turned as fast as his leg would allow, reaching for his service knife and readying himself for an attack. Silence, again. This time he would wait it out. His heart was thumping, the beat out of sync with his wound. Carl’s eyes surreptitiously spied left and right, waiting, ready. He waited longer than he thought he should and just as he was about to give up, the bush moved. Carl, knife in hand, blade pointing down, dove into the undergrowth and struck for all his worth. His hand stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. The blood flew into the air and rained down on his arms and back, and dyed his hair.
After what seemed like ten minutes, Carl stopped and stared. There was little left to identify it, but it wasn’t the enemy he’d feared. Pelts of fur dotted the pine needled ground. His hand shook, enflamed, his knife satisfied of its purpose. Carl sat there, stared, and broke out laughing. He laughed so much his pain subsided. Wiping the blood on the ground and replacing his knife, Carl heard something.
Then he realised, his laughter must have carried.
It was a voice; strained and pitiful, but a voice nonetheless. Carl scrambled to his feet and limped as fast as he could before the whimper finished. His legs pulled the earth after him and made the going slow, but he continued on. The sound was growing fainter, but he could tell he was nearing it. Then it stopped. Carl turned and called out.
“Hello? Hello!”
Foolish, he knew. There was no guarantee this person was friendly, but he couldn’t risk staying alone in the forest without food and water and no means of rescue. It was getting dark, sooner than it really ought to.
“Hello?”
Then the answer returned. Carl looked all around him; nothing, not even a track. But the sound was there, definitely there. How could this be?
“Where are you? Show yourself!”
Rain started to fall, lightly at first and then almost torrential. Carl tried his best to blink the water from his eyes, but it wouldn’t budge. It caked his face and the more he tried, the greater it poured down. He paused and took a breath. It would do no good to scream over the rain. He breathed again.
That smell!
Carl lowered his eyes and stared at his red, wet hands. His legs, chest and shoulders had all transformed from a camo-green to an iron-reeking red. Twisting his head to the side and up, there he was, the source of the cries, crying no more. His legs were bound by something strong and vine-like, his arms dangled free. Carl’s face struck a similar expression as that on the body, only his was substantially less calm. He heard another cry, but this one came from within.
His feet pounded the ground, pain be damned, he was running!
    Carl – knife clenched tight in hand, arms pumping, feet crashing down and desperately pushing forward – rushed through the trees. His arms scraped against bark left and right and his teeth bit into his gums as he fled. He couldn’t hear over the blood thundering through his ears, but Carl was convinced that should he dare to stop or glance back, the cries would continue. If not from outside, then from within, and this time they might not stop.  
The sky was almost black and the farther he ran, the darker it appeared to get. Then it all went dark.
As he came to, he realised he wasn’t stationary. His legs were elevated, his arms dragged along, and the bulk of his weight rested on his back. Carl’s eyes fought the fog and after some effort, they cleared. He frantically turned his head around as best he could. The pine needles dug into his sides and more than a few had found their way under his fingernails. He groaned and raised his head. What he saw had no rhyme or reason. It simply couldn’t be, but if it wasn’t real, how could this be happening?
Fingers gripped his left leg at the calf - black, matted and desiccated fingers. The tips glistened and reflected his fear. Following the hand upward, Carl saw the wrist and forearm, the double-jointed elbow, the obscurely long biceps and on. The legs seemed to work in reverse, jarred and irrationally long, leading down to a hooved step. Carl could barely bring himself to look at the head, but look he must. He had to know what he was dealing with to figure out what could be done.
If nightmares could speak, if terror could breath, and if fright we made manifest, it would look like it.
In the night, it shimmered and almost vanished. A crooked skull, indented yet smooth with ears hidden within, a strand or two of hair, but no more, not anymore; it defied science and beggared belief. As Carl struggled to comprehend this creature, his mind turned to the more immediate problem; that of escape. Just then, it turned and flashed a brilliant smile – delightful in its devilry and pure of malice.
Carl’s heart paused – the shock took hold and his cognisance vanished once more.
Time passed, but it was impossible to know how much. A shooting pain seared up his leg and Carl woke with a shriek – familiar to that which he’d heard before. Blinking the pain away, he turned his head. Everything was upside down. The trees grew from the sky and the ground hung from above. He dangled like that poor soul earlier – but he was no longer alone.
What looked like the rest of his squad hung there too, all unconscious. He counted them off; Jeffers, Hull, Fletch, the new guy, Linus. He kept going, all there and more, in different uniforms… the enemy too? This didn’t make sense, why would they do this to themselves…
Carl was never the sharpest tool in the box, but even he realised that this wasn’t war, this was something else, and it gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘No Man’s Land’. They all slept; or at least, he hoped it was sleep. He frantically twisted around and scanned the darkness. He couldn’t see it, but being so dark, it could be anywhere. That smile flashed across his mind and Carl had to fight to be rid of the grin.  
A crack sounded beyond the treeline or nearer, he couldn’t tell, then a flame ignited and the clearing revealed itself. Five figures stepped into the clearing, circling Carl and the others. They chanted, rhythmically rocking to and fro. The sound was guttural and sickeningly sweet at the same time. Starting slowly, the chant rose to a tempo where the individual noises blended together and then, mid-moan, halted. In unison, the figures turned and faced Linus. His eyes pleaded but his mouth made no sound. Not then, not during, and never after.
A pair of outstretched, elongated arms rose skyward and pulled Linus free of his bondage. Carried, as if by rite, he was laid upon a slab. No utensils required. The fingers made light work. Over and over, their nails dug deep. Piece by piece, Linus was excavated and divided into receptacles. Carl couldn’t hold it in. The vomitus fled his stomach in a steady stream and pooled beneath him.
The figures never even bothered to look.  
When he’d finished his evacuation, Carl turned and saw why Linus had never made a peep. His throat had been slit, from under chin to chest.
This ritual repeated over and over. They’d all leave, return with wood, stoke the fire, chant and disembowel. They didn’t leave a sentry, they needn’t worry. Bound and traumatised, the men barely managed to breath. At some point, the terror reached a phase where Carl was no longer there. No longer in the moment, instead somewhere numb, and he wasn’t alone. The others had the same glaze in their eyes.
Two remained; Fletch and another.
The chant ended and the next victim was chosen. Torn from his shackles, the German seemed different. His eyes were clear and one could almost see his mind at work. Oblivious to his conscious state, they carried him to their table and began to peel. That’s when Carl saw it. His belt, a full half dozen and on his ring finger, a pin, primed and ready. He stared at Carl, screaming at him with his look.
The explosion shook the clearing and blew so fiercely that Carl was thrust against the tree to which he was tied. A searing pain rippled through him. When the blast wave settled, Carl looked over at where the German had lain. He was everywhere yet the figures were nowhere to be seen.
Carl reached up, craning his neck and crunching his stomach as hard as he could, and there it sat. The knife he’d been carrying when it took him had settled in his leg, near where the bullet had lain. Gripping the knife and pulling as desperately as he was able, a shot of blood spurted free and hit the ground. A steady trickle slid down his leg.
Carl repeated his efforts and pulled himself up to begin. The knife made hard work of the rope-like substance. Sawing and flailing, Carl slashed and gnawed at it until it began to fray and peel and break. He fell to the ground, a full ten feet, and landed on his shoulder. The pain was reminiscent of his youth, when he’d dislocated his shoulder; the same one. Staggering to his feet, Carl took hold of his arm and ran at the tree. The shoulder made a pop and Carl’s eyes watered but he made no sound.
The clearing reeked. Under the orange death of the fire, the red turned black, but the smell remained.
Carl ran, fast as his legs would carry him, over to Fletch. He couldn’t bring his mouth to move but the message was clear. Carl passed the knife to his friend and while he sawed, Carl surveyed the clearing. Many of the weapons sat in a pile. Cherry picking the functional and the loaded, Carl stood armed with a mish-mash of Allied and German ordnances. Returning just in time, Carl extended his arms and half-caught, half-dropped his friend.
One foot after the other, the pair strode, arm over shoulder and weapon in hand, into the woods and as best they could remember, towards the riverbed.
Having barely cleared the slaughterhouse, a call rang out. It wasn’t that sweet tune that had lulled Carl’s mind, but a dread cry, full of hate and devilry and purpose. Their feet crashed into the ground and their heads flashed back and all around as the sound neared. Brush and leaves cracked and broke under the pursuing hooves.
Bursts of machine gun fire fled through the forest, more desperate to escape than the two soldiers. If they’d had a mind of their own, the bullets might have been guilty of deliberately avoiding the creatures and flying free. The sky was beginning to open and the more Carl and Fletch ran, the brighter the world became.
The trees began to thin, as did their ammunition. Pine needles began to shower their hair and as they stopped and looked, a shadowed beast descended upon them from the canopy. The pair fell backward, spraying their remaining bullets at it. They either missed or the bullets had no effect as the monster landed on them and began to slash. Fletch bore the brunt of it and as Carl rolled free, he pushed his friend's’ outstretched, desperate arms away.
Carl’s last few strides towards the river bank were punctuated by meek calls he felt sure would plague his mind. He could have done something, maybe. Could have kicked it, punched it? He still had a grenade…
Wading into the water, the current now carrying him away, Carl watched as more now stood there, gripping his friend and each taking a limb in their hands, tearing his wailing body in four. The last thing Carl remembered – before his mind fled and his eyes closed – was the crying, punctuated by the raucous laughter.

David J. Wing

David J. Wing is a flash and short fiction writer. His work is dotted all around the Internet. He holds a Master's degree in creative writing from Anglia Ruskin University. He is a husband to Clarissa and a father to Alexandra. He also runs www.zeroflash.org

​ 


At the End of Summer
By Karen Heslop

The wind rushed through my fingers as I waved my hand outside the car window. The warmth of the early morning sun crept lazily up my arm as my husband drove steadily towards our city home. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. The intoxicating aroma of the flowers lining the country road floated around me, reminding me of the summers I used to spend here with my family. I wished I could soak it into my very being and carry its essence into my hectic everyday life.
I was pulling more of the fragrant air in when something slammed into my stomach. My breath rushed from my lungs and I tried to hug my midsection but my arms wouldn’t move. The air around me filled with the stench of rust and the screeching of metal tearing into metal. My eyes flew open seeking answers but the world was in a nauseating rotation. I looked to Maxwell for reassurance but he was frozen in terror. Between the vehicle’s turns, there was a silence so eerie I could almost hear his heart hammering in tune with mine.
The car slammed into the ground a final time and I heard the crack of my skull more than I felt it. Blood gushed down my face painting my vision maroon and sapping my strength. The tangy taste of blood coated my tongue as it dribbled into my throat before my world faded into a soundless void.
It could have been an hour or a year before Maxwell’s voice lured me from that place.
“Tiffany?”
With each whisper of my name, the darkness thinned until only a stark white room remained. I blinked and stared, then blinked and stared again. I saw myself lying prostrate on a hospital bed. My head was swathed in bandages and my chest barely shifted the thin sheet with each breath. I wondered why the bed seemed to envelop my frail body and then I realized – my arms were missing. Thick, white, bandage-wrapped stumps ended a few inches below my shoulders.
Shock and grief spread through me. The pain deepened when I realized I wasn’t able to weep and purge my sorrow. My husband continued to whisper at my bedside. His bandaged left hand hung helplessly at his side. I seemed too fragile to touch.
“Tiffany? God, I hope you can hear me. I love you so much.”
I love you too, Maxwell.
“This is my fault. You looked so beautiful with your eyes closed taking in the last bit of the countryside… I guess I took my eyes off the road for a bit.”
Oh, Maxwell.
“It’s not fair. I should be the one in that bed. I should be the one who…”
His breath hitched in his throat and I knew there was something he was holding in.
The one who what, Maxwell?
He continued to cry silently.
The one who what, Maxwell!
The ceiling lights flared for a mere moment and I wondered if that had been my doing. Could I reach him?
He took a deep, shaky breath.
“You took a pretty bad blow to the head, babe. Your skull shattered and the pieces dug in so far…the doctors are worried because you have no brain activity.”
Oh, God.
“Oh, Tiff, I don’t know what to do. I can’t lose you but I can’t…I mean I don’t know if you’d want to…”
No!     
The lights flared again and this time Maxwell noticed. He jumped up from the chair and winced at the sudden movement. He looked slowly from one end of the room to the other while rubbing his temples.
“Tiff?” he asked tentatively.
I wanted to reach out to him but whatever internal fire had intensified the lights had already fizzled away. I watched his shoulders sag as if the indecision was a physical being wrapped around his neck. I could tell what he was wrestling with and knew I had to help him. He wouldn’t remember but we had talked about it last year. It had been such a brief conversation he might not have taken it seriously. He might have thought we’d have more time to talk about it again, as I had.
I focused and drifted down to Maxwell’s motionless form crumpled in the faded green chair. I reached for his hand, expecting mine to pass completely through. Instead, my hand seemed to fuse to his skin. I felt a force within him pulling me forward. It was as if his soul was reaching for mine. It knew I was there. He shuddered and his lips moved soundlessly but he didn’t move from the chair. I placed my other hand on his chest and rested my forehead against his.
Listen to me, Maxwell. You need to remember.
Images swirled in my mind before settling into a shared vision. We were in the car heading to work. A coworker had died after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor that had been pressing on his optic nerve. The doctors had been hopeful after the successful operation, but then he had stopped responding. His brain activity had diminished and finally his heart had stopped. In the vision, Maxwell turned to me.
“You know if his heart hadn’t stopped, they could have kept him alive for a little while. I mean, you know, just in case he woke up.”
I shook my head, “He would have been a vegetable, hun.”
“Maybe that’s better than not being there at all.”
“I doubt that. Think of the strain it would place on his family. Mourning for him every day when nothing changed. No, it was better that way. Quite frankly, if that ever happens to me just pull the plug. I wouldn’t want to live like that.”
The vision faded and I pulled back. Tears were coursing down his face and he shook his head so violently tiny rivulets crept towards his earlobes.
“Oh, God…”
He bent over and clutched his stomach as gut wrenching sobs tore from his throat. Grief burnt through our entangled souls. Instead of disconnecting, I leaned further into him so even more of my being became one with his. There was a brief knock on the door and we rose together as the doctor entered the room.
“Um…I’m afraid the test results aren’t encouraging, Mr. Williams.” She added, “There is no discernable activity in your wife’s brain and it seems unlikely that will change in the near future.”
Maxwell took a deep, shuddering breath and I wrapped my arms around him. Tears glistened in his eyes as his words clambered all over themselves in a race to get out of his mouth. After a string of muddled syllables, he settled on a nod. The doctor hesitated and then reached out to awkwardly rub his shoulder.
“I’ll give you a moment with your wife, OK?”
Maxwell collapsed into the chair again and dragged his hand down his face. I curled myself into my usual position in his lap feeling his heartbeat flutter through me. Comforting warmth pulsed around us as we settled into each other. He closed his eyes letting the dull beeping of the life preserving equipment fill the room. After a few minutes, the sound of the doctor clearing her throat startled us.
“Are you ready, Mr. Williams?”
“Yes, doctor.”
His answer was so soft I wondered if she had heard him. She nodded and we watched her deft movements from our position in the chair.
She worked quickly and efficiently, flicking switches and pushing buttons. I braced myself for the brittle chill of death as a shrill tone screeched from the heart monitor. The warmth around me grew, grounding me instead of sending me afloat. The ceiling above me shone and thinned revealing an oval shaped hole. I could see figures beyond the opening but the light was too bright to distinguish any of their features. I leaned away from Maxwell to get a better look.
Hello?
Tiffany Williams…the time has come for you to join us.
The pulsing light pulled me toward it as if it were a powerful magnet and my soul a mere smattering of metal shards. The more I disengaged from Maxwell, the more weightless I became.
“Tiff? Where are you going? You can’t leave me yet!”
His yell was distant but jarring enough to halt me. I looked back, frozen by the beauty of Maxwell’s shimmering tears. I spoke to the light without turning from him.
I can’t leave him.
You will have to.
Does it have to be now?
It does not.     
Can I have a month or a…a year?
The entity chuckled mirthlessly.
You have until the sun rises.
The bright light dissipated and without its pull, I tumbled into the comfort of Maxwell’s body again. With our time limited, I basked in his warmth. Our souls intertwined and he sighed.
“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you?”
I focused on another memory, taking him to the night he proposed.
“Tiffany Marie Wells, will you love me for the rest of my life?”
“Oh, Maxwell…I’ll love you till the end of all time.”
“Till the end of all time,” he whispered.
Till the end of all time.

Karen Heslop

Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Big Echo Critical Science Fiction, The Fifth Di…, Broadswords and Blasters, Grievous Angel , FunDead Blog, The Ginger Collect and Brilliant Flash Fiction among others. She tweets @kheslopwrites.
​ 


A Free Ride to Pleroma
By Brett Petersen

1
While exploring the woods behind her house, Bobbie-Sue Viola came upon a strange tree. Its branches spiraled and twisted like sea worms. Unfamiliar symbols were carved into its trunk. Maybe aliens visited here and planted seeds they brought with them.
She ran her fingers over the symbols until she felt a sharp pain. “Ow!” She pulled her hand back. Could the tree be poisonous? She wiped her fingers with the hem of her hoodie sleeve. Nah, it was probably just a cramp from all the graph homework Mrs. Mallory had assigned. And the alien writing was most likely neighborhood kids doing graffiti.
A gurgle rose from her stomach. It was getting close to dinner time. “Goodbye, tree. I’ll try and figure you out later.” She scampered toward the forest entrance using the green mesh of the fence as a beacon to find her way home.
***
The Quantum Prison confining the witch Mirtha was located within the atomic latticework of a glass sunflower. It belonged to a twenty-something-year-old student studying graphic design at Sage College in Albany, New York. Mirtha had been trapped there by the brave knight Ralphus after he had foiled her attempt to shift the earth’s magnetic field and destroy mankind.
***
Sitting cross legged on the floor of her hovel, Mirtha glided her finger over the surface of the Mirror-Window or ‘Mirrow.’ She had come across the door-sized Mirrow several years ago while searching the endless corridors of the Prison for a means of escape. It had stood glistening amongst a pile of debris amassed by glass ants who used the refuse as building materials for their hills.
Mirtha dragged the Mirrow back to her hovel, leaned it against the wall, sat down and gazed into it. It showed her every possible manifestation of reality at once, triggering a Revelation in her brain: reality was essentially a dualistic system. There was the Inside (a.k.a. the Labyrinth or Multiverse where humans and other creatures lived), and the Outside, which was a solid, infinite whole. The Outside was a place without sound, color, waves, particles, or any sort of division between objects in space or time. After studying her reflection, as well as the reflections of reflections within her reflection, her life’s goal became clear. As soon as she escaped from the Prison, she’d bust down a fire door and bask in the freedom of the Outside.
The image currently displayed in the Mirrow was a young girl named Bobbie-Sue Viola. The girl had stumbled upon a Conduit Tree (one of which existed in every possible reality), which the Mirrow used as inter-dimensional periscopes. Mirtha watched as Bobbie-Sue touched the bark of the Tree. Oh, how delicious it would be if she could taste the saltiness of those fingers. Mirtha had not tasted anything since her imprisonment. On the Outside, however, there would be no such thing as hunger, thirst, want, or need. Simply being would be fulfilling enough.
“I must find a way to escape this god-forsaken Prison!” she clenched her fists. “Can this girl be the key to unlocking the cellar door of physical existence?” She scratched the back of her head with a blackened fingernail until she grew tired. She would ponder the question further after getting some rest.
She hobbled over to the granite slab that was her bed, pulled the sapphider silk blankets over her shoulders, and before she knew it, was asleep.
***
Bobbie-Sue awoke at exactly 6:16 AM. Wow, she thought, I hardly ever get up this early. She sprang out of bed, got dressed and bounded down the stairs to the kitchen where her mother was packing her lunch.
“Morning,” said Mrs. Viola. “My goodness, you’re up early.”
“Yeah,” Bobbie-Sue reached over her mother’s shoulder and grabbed the Cocoa Pebbles from the cabinet. “It is quite unusual for me to be up this early.”
“And so chipper too,” her mother chuckled. “Keep this up and you’ll get a lot done in life.”
Bobbie-Sue procured a bowl, spoon, and milk. The cereal crackled as she poured the milk. “I have a world history test today,” she said while chewing. “It’s about Rome during the time of Jesus.” She swallowed. “Don’t you think it’s weird for a public school to be teaching about Jesus?” She took a napkin and wiped her chin.
“Well,” said her mother, “there is a difference between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus worshipped by the Christians. One camp takes a factual approach while the other is dependent on faith.”
Bobbie-Sue smiled. “You always have a way of saying things that make sense.”
“Why, thank you,” Mrs. Viola bowed. “I take much pride in my ability to distill and simplify abstract concepts.”
Distill sounded like ‘dill,’ triggering a flashback. Bobbie-Sue hated pickles and anything with dill in it. Her grandfather had been proud of his pickle recipe and had at least a hundred jars stashed in his garage. He tried to get Bobbie-Sue and her parents to taste his pickles at every opportunity, but would always be politely refused.
One day, her father and grandfather had gone searching the woods for old jars buried in the swampy soil. They never came back. At around six in the evening, Mrs. Viola went looking for them, only to find they had been crushed by a fallen tree.
Years after the tragedy, Bobbie-Sue would strive to overcome her fear of the forest by venturing a bit farther in each day. By the time she was thirteen, she had nearly eliminated her phobia. Dill still made her sick, though. Her mother’s homophonic allusion to it seemed to portend something, but Bobbie-Sue didn’t know what. Perhaps the tree she had discovered the other day could cleanse her of this bad energy.
“There’s an hour before the bus gets here.” Bobbie-Sue stood and pushed in her chair. “Is it okay if I go visit my lucky tree out in the woods?”
Her mother stared at her blankly for a moment. “I guess,” she said. “If it helps you ace your test, go for it. Just be careful, and make sure you start heading back ten minutes before the bus gets here.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Bobbie-Sue giggled. “I’ll be right on time.” She slid open the back-porch door and jogged off towards the woods.
***
The tree looked the same as it did the day before. Bobbie-Sue ran her fingers over the carvings. She wondered if it was some sort of sacred tree, like the ones Buddhist monks meditated under. What was on the back of it? She went around to the side she had not yet examined.
There were characters on the back as well, including a triangular depression that stood out from the rest. She inserted her finger into the triangle. As soon as she did, she felt as if she’d gotten a static shock, but it was much more painful than any electrically charged piece of laundry. It wasn’t so much physical pain as it was a jolt of emotional anguish. Over the next few minutes, she began to feel it work its way to the core of her being. She felt dirty and sick, like she had just drunk a jar of pickle juice mixed with urine. She wanted to cry, to punch herself in the face, to cut herself. She felt loathing. Hatred.
“What is wrong with me?” She clutched her head. “What just happened? Am I imagining this?” She felt woozy. The world, to her, was now crawling with worms and beetles. The edges of reality were curling like an ancient manuscript in a fire.
“I’ll be okay.” She was shivering even though it was early September. “Maybe I’m just getting my period.” It was around that time anyhow. And fall was fast approaching. Perhaps it was early-onset seasonal affective disorder. “If I can make it through the day,” she whispered, “I’ll be a stronger person for it.” She shuffled out of the forest and through the gate. The bushes that once grew green and healthy along the bottom of the fence were now black and sticky, leaves engorged with colonies of white lice.
***
Seven hours earlier, while Bobbie-Sue was still asleep, Mirtha came up with a plan. She now knew why Bobbie-Sue seemed so different from other beings of her dimension. The girl had strong intuition; her subconscious was linked to higher planes, such as the one Mirtha had originally come from. If she were to focus her awareness on Bobbie-Sue as she was touching the Conduit Tree, Mirtha could transmigrate into her body through the Mirrow. Then Mirtha would kill Bobbie-Sue and hitch a ride to the Outside on her soul; a free ride to Pleroma.
According to the Mirrow, Bobbie-Sue would visit the Conduit Tree before getting on the bus for school. It was the perfect opportunity to enter her body.
***
Even after Bobbie-Sue boarded the school bus, she still felt sick. Was it her imagination, or had someone or something icky grabbed a hold of her and begun to molest a spiritual, emotional fiber at the deepest level of her psyche?
The whole bus ride was an agony of defeatist thoughts bouncing off the trees rolling by. Whenever the bus stopped, her stomach lurched. Whenever a new group of kids got on, the taunting echoes of their voices crashed into the walls of her skull like wrecking balls.
What’s going on in my mind? She massaged her temples with the pads of her fingers. It’s like a migraine, but it also feels like I’m going insane. It’s like my dad cursing at me, beating me … even though he never did that. Someone … anyone … help me!
She struggled to keep the pungent, vitriolic thoughts frothing inside her head from spilling out, praying that her body language wouldn’t give away her distress.
Teddy, a flannel shirt-wearing eighth grader, poked his head out from the seat in front of Bobbie-Sue.
“You’re making noises like a dying rat,” said Teddy. “Are you okay?”
“Yes-yes-yes!” Bobbie-Sue flapped her hand dismissively as the witch smashed her joyful memories with a sledgehammer. “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”
“O-kay…” Teddy retreated to his seat and popped in his ear buds.
***
The inside of Bobbie-Sue’s mind was warm and inviting, filled with teddy bears and anime characters and ideas for drawings she could scrawl on her friend Jessie Cline’s notebook while the teacher wasn’t looking.
“It’s a shame to have to destroy all of this,” said Mirtha, “but in this case, the ends certainly justify the means. I mean, won’t we both be a lot better off as part of the Outside rather than rotting away in our respective Labyrinths?” She called into existence an array of weapons with which she’d bludgeon, rend, and gut Bobbie-Sue’s spirit. She’d break its teeth, bash its head into the corner of a table, cut its eyes out, and torture it until her body could no longer hold onto it. She lifted a chainsaw from the armory, revved it and began to shred everything in sight; the walls, the plush furniture, the stuffed animals, the bedspread, the pillows; all the comforting features of Bobbie-Sue’s mind that made it a nice place to be. Mirtha did not stop until the room was a blizzard of animal stuffing and feathers.
***
All throughout the school day, Bobbie-Sue was racked with excruciating physical and emotional pain. She’d had migraines before and knew that her mother’s side of the family was predisposed to them, but this time, the pain had reached an unprecedented level of agony. It was as if a troop of monkeys were tearing at the flesh of her scalp, grinding, clawing, and pounding at her skull with blunt tools, making their way to the meaty flesh of her motor cortex, hacking it up and gorging on it. It hurt to exist. Her German teacher had the face of a deer tick. Bobbie-Sue’s stomach had become a lamprey mouth.
She was able to procure a pass to the nurse’s office, but she had to get out of the room quickly because every one of her classmates’ heads were twisting off and clouds of bees were swarming from their neck holes. Bees, she remembered, flew as fast as humans ran. She could barely shuffle two feet without feeling like the floor was going to become liquid.
The hallways wriggled as she staggered to the nurse’s office.
The letters on the office door burned her face.
Sitting on a cot, she dry-heaved seventeen times into a sanitary bag. The nurse called her mother who picked her up in her gray minivan and brought her home.
***
Mirtha pumped twenty magazines of steel-jacketed AK-47 rounds into every cherished photograph and childhood memory in Bobbie-Sue’s mind. She carved up her self-esteem nodule with a hacksaw and torched the pieces with a flamethrower.
***
At home, Bobbie-Sue, wrapped in blankets with a damp cloth on her forehead, moaned and writhed under the excruciating pain she felt in every part of her body. Her mother took her temperature, and after reading 108 on the thermometer, noticed the blood oozing from her daughter’s tear ducts and called 911.
Not even Bobbie-Sue’s fantasies involving boys she liked were safe from Mirtha’s hedge clippers and sledgehammers. She tackled the gel-haired boys to the ground, snipped off their peckers and smashed their scrotums. Bobbie-Sue’s inner-observer clasped her hands to her mouth. When would it stop? As a means of self-defense, her mind labeled Mirtha’s psychological assault as a viral infection, but all the antibodies on the planet wouldn’t have been enough to neutralize this particular pathogen.
***
On the way to the hospital, a paramedic named Stacy conversed with Bobbie-Sue.
“You’re doing fine, sweetie, we’re almost there.”
“The-the …” Bobbie-Sue coughed.
“What is it?” Stacy placed a hand on Bobbie-Sue’s shoulder. “Talk to me, tell me what’s wrong.”
“The Labyrinth …” Bobbie-Sue muttered. “I gotta… escape… the Labyrinth!”
“What’s the labyrinth, hun?” The paramedic suppressed a giggle. “Is that a game?”
“N-no…” Bobbie-Sue’s voice had become uncharacteristically gravelly and phlegmatic. “The Labyrinth is one h-half of re … al … ity.” She coughed, spotting her chest with bloody sputum. Her head rolled to the side. Her eyes whitened.
***
Even after running every test in the book, the doctors could not determine what was wrong with her. She was unresponsive, and her pulse and blood pressure were lethally high. All they could do was pack her in ice, pump her full of anti-hypertension drugs, and hope that she would make it through the night. Her mother stood by her side the whole time.
***
An emergency assembly was called at the school to inform the students of Bobbie-Sue’s condition. The bleachers buzzed with theories. One of them was meningitis, but that was shot down in favor of beaver fever. Bobbie-Sue hung out in the woods all the time. Maybe she drank water from the wrong stream. One boy laughed at the idea, but was quickly shushed by the others. Bobbie-Sue might have been a loner, but her awkward grace at volleyball had charmed even Betsy Charles, the ringleader of the popular girls. Coach Johnson had asked Bobbie-Sue to join the volleyball team, but his invitations fell on deaf ears. Bobbie-Sue’s gaze would often be fixed on something far beyond the gym ceiling. Was she communicating with her home planet? Was she daydreaming about pinball machine universes inside giant space jellyfish? Nobody knew for sure. Bobbie-Sue would always remain an enigma.
Mrs. Trotski was in the middle of explaining the situation when she got the call from Mrs. Viola saying that Bobbie-Sue had passed away in the hospital.
The Principal and administrators decided to send the kids home early that day without breaking the news. They would mail letters to the parents over the weekend regarding Bobbie-Sue’s fate. The parents, they figured, should be the ones to tell them. There would be an official announcement on Monday.

2
The world beyond death was black and empty.
But the pain was gone!
A Presence made itself known in the blackness. It moved its fingers and wiggled its toes.
It was aware.
It felt the urge to open its eyes.
As the curtains of its eyes lifted, the first thing to enter was a beam of light reflecting off something gold and shiny. It put its hands up to its eyes and rubbed them. When it was able to focus, it saw that it was a person and that it was female. It also had a name.
“Bobbie-Sue,” it said aloud. “Bobbie-Sue. Bobbie-Sue. I … am … Bobbie. I … am … Sue. I am Bobbie-Sue … and I am alive?”
She patted herself all over and pinched the skin of her left arm. “I’m not dead,” she whispered. “Am I?”
All around her was black except for the floor which was made of a membranous white material. It reminded her of the puffy clouds in Super Mario Bros. 3, except that none of them were smiling. Towering above her was a golden archway adorned with turquoise jewels.
“What is this?” Her heart leapt. “Where am I?” She stood for a minute and thought. “Wait a minute,” she gasped. “Could it be? Am I … am I in Heaven?”  At first, she was overcome with joy. She stood silent for a few more minutes and marveled at the spectacle of the magnificent archway above her.
Then she became aware of a nagging pain in her left leg. She took a deep breath, craned her neck slowly to the left and downward. Dangling just above her ankle was a black, bulbous tumor sporting several eyeballs, hair, and claws.
She shrieked and thrashed her leg. The feeling of the eyeballs bumping against her shin immediately caused her to stop. She realized the thing was attached to her, and felt queasy. Before she could turn to hurl, the thing spoke.
“Bobbie-Sue!” Its voice rumbled like dried nicotine mustard being squeezed out of a whoopee cushion.
Bobbie-Sue dismissed the voice as a cruel trick of her imagination. She began to hobble toward the arch, making the utmost effort to ignore the growth on her leg that had definitely not just spoken to her.
“Bobbie-Sue! Listen to me. I thought I was doing you a favor.”
She continued to ignore the misfirings of her decayed synapses and trudged ever closer to the arch.
“I was trying to liberate us from the confines of flesh. I wanted to deliver us both into a world where we could find peace and harmony and fullness. But apparently, this isn’t it. It seems like this is just some stereotypical storybook depiction of Christian Heaven.”
“Please shut up … please shut up … please shut up …” Bobbie-Sue wanted to curl up and die again.
“I’m sorry, okay? Look, let me start by introducing myself. I’m Mirtha. I was born in a higher dimension than your own. I was cast out of my home and trapped in a glass sunflower. I escaped by binding my spirit to yours through the Conduit Tree, you know, the one in your backyard. That thing is like a connection point between dimensions. The boundaries between them get kind of blurred at places like that, so …”
“Will you just shut the fuck up!” Bobbie-Sue ejected with a force she never thought herself capable of. “Please let God be on the other side of that arch,” she whimpered. “Maybe He can help me get rid of this growth on my leg that won’t stop talking to me.”
“Listen,” Mirtha snapped. “God isn’t here. This is not the Divine Realm. It’s an imitation meant to confuse post-mortal entities and dissuade them from searching for the next highest level. I know this because if we were really Outside of the Labyrinth, there would be no more pain, no more ugliness and no reason to quarrel. On the Outside, everyone and everything simply is in a state of eternal placidity without need or want of anything.”
“I thought I told you to shut up!” Her voice cracked as if she were about to cry.
“Fine, fine,” Mirtha grumbled. “But since we’re stuck together, shouldn’t we at least call a truce and try to cooperate? We both want the same thing, right?”
“How could we want the same thing?” Salty tears stung Bobbie-Sue’s eyes. “You’re just a part of whatever disease killed me. You’re an infection that can talk. Why should I believe anything you say? As soon as I see God, I’m gonna have him freeze you off like a wart. That’s all you are: a wart. A pimple that needs to be popped!”
“But …” Mirtha, for perhaps the first time in her life, felt ready to cry. What is this feeling? She wondered. Since when do I have feelings? I must have feelings now. Otherwise, how could my feelings be hurt? She became silent and remained that way as Bobbie-Sue trudged across the threshold of the golden archway and into whatever type of false splendor awaited her on the other side.
***
“What the …?” Neither Bobbie-Sue nor Mirtha were prepared for what awaited them beyond the arch. Floating in a gulf of blackness were four gigantic human heads orbiting a colossal squid watering a tomato garden. The squid wore a crown of centipedes intertwined in a double helix formation. Sitting atop the Squid’s head was a red-haired boy scribbling in a notebook.
I see, Mirtha thought. This must be the realm of the Demiurge, the false god who created Bobbie-Sue’s universe. He’s probably responsible for the creation of a whole bunch of universes. Even so, the one we’re in now is just one of a trillion within the molecular structure of a goat’s penis or something. The Labyrinth doesn’t end, but escape is possible. Don’t ask me how I know. Maybe it’s a matter of persistence. Or luck. Or the realization that causality is dependent on luck. It’s a roll of the cosmic dice whether we exist or not at any given time. Makes it seem kind of wonderful to be alive if you look at it that way. Here, in this moment, we have a breathtaking view of a cosmos in action. Someone inside one of those tomatoes probably thinks that squid over there is God.
The squid wrapped a tentacle around a tomato, plucked it from the vine, stuffed it in its beak, chewed and swallowed.
I wonder why the squid chose to plant the garden in the first place, Mirtha continued to ponder. Perhaps it was for the same reason I pilfered the Mirrow from the glass anthill or why Bobbie-Sue would choose to go to college: self-sustenance, the drive to better the quality of one’s life.
Out of the darkness, a sperm whale emerged. The squid inserted a tentacle into the bottoms of each of the four floating heads. Their faces grimaced and the centipede crown began to revolve. The squid flared the rest of its tentacles, revealing its beak. Inside the beak, a ball of light grew larger and brighter. The sperm whale dove toward the squid, and the squid launched the ball of light at the whale. The ball singed the whale’s face. The whale recoiled, but quickly regained its bearings and prepared for a second attack.
As the whale approached, the mouths of the floating heads opened and spewed clouds of greenish-yellow gas. The gas made its way into the whale’s blowhole. The whale scrunched its face, did a one-eighty and swam off at full speed.
Bobbie-Sue felt as though several pieces were missing from the puzzle her mind needed to reconstruct in order to understand what had just happened.
“What did I just see?” She put her hand to her head and sat down cross-legged on the puffy, cloud-like terrain. “Where are we? How did we end up here? Is that what God looks like? A squid? You’ve got to be kidding me.” She slapped her forehead with her open palm.
“That’s not God,” said Mirtha. “It’s just a universe-creator. Many such beings exist on various planes of the Labyrinth. Humans may be one of them. The God behind everything, the God of the Outside is incomprehensible from this vantage point. He cannot be directly observed by mortal or post-mortal beings. To even name Him doesn’t do Him justice. He’s a pluralized existence that has always been and will continue to be. In His realm, there is no time, no cause and effect, no end, and no beginning. He just Is. Those who reach His level become part of a boundless existence that Is and is Good. That’s all we can really say about Him.”
Bobbie-Sue had tuned out midway through Mirtha’s diatribe. It was clear that the squid, the floating heads, and the centipedes were not Gods. But how would she, with this sentient tumor attached to her ankle, be able to find a path to the realm of the so-called ‘real God?’
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Mirtha. “I’m a part of your soul, after all. We both have the same goal in mind. So whaddya say? You wanna let bygones be bygones and search for the realm of God together?”
Bobbie-Sue rolled her eyes and reluctantly glanced at the thing riding her ankle. Its eyes glistened with a sort of humility she would have never expected to find in such a nightmarish creature.
“Alright,” she finally said. “Since we’re stuck together and we both have the same destination, we might as well cooperate.”
The abomination seemed to smile. “Okay,” she chirped. “Then let’s be off.”
Bobbie-Sue rose to her feet.
“Let’s try going inside one of those heads,” said Mirtha. “The one with the dumb expression should be a good place to start.”

3
Fiiiiiiinkleeeeeeer! The dopey-looking head whispered, sending a gust of putrid breath crashing into Bobbie-Sue’s nostrils as she mounted the summit of its lower lip. She and Mirtha learned quickly that the world within was called the Finkler Dimension. The Finklerians were nude, hairless ape-like beings with ambiguous genitalia who were more than eager to assist traveling strangers. All they wanted in return was for Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha to become their buddies. The only problem was that the Finklerians were predisposed to not accepting responsibility for their misdeeds. If a Finklerian was accused of doing something inappropriate, they would dodge the blame by making an evasive statement like ‘Where’s the proof?’ or ‘But it’s not fair!’
The oniony stench that hung everywhere suggested that Finklerians had no concept of personal hygiene. In fact, they needed daily reminders to bathe themselves. Instructions on how to properly wet, wash, and rinse their bodies were tacked to the walls of their dwellings by the Staff, a minority race whose intelligence far surpassed that of the child-like Finklerians.
Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha searched high and low for a path to God, but all they could find were rows upon rows of televisions showing the same episode of what the Finklerians called ‘Sim-sims.’ Sim-sims was essentially a dumbed-down, distorted version of The Simpsons. As they passed ten or twenty of rows of TVs, they noticed that the Finklerians would watch the same episode over and over and laugh at the same jokes every time, despite having heard them thousands, perhaps millions of times. The only one not laughing was a red-haired boy sitting next to a particularly chubby Finklerian, sketching something on Bristol board.
“Okay,” Mirtha said to Bobbie-Sue after they reached the fifty-seventh row of Finklerian TV watchers. “I think I’ve had enough of this dimension, how about you?”
“Same.” Bobbie-Sue didn’t really give a shit either way.
They exited via Finkler’s left ear and made their way across the stretch of ribbon that connected the heads to one another.
***
The adjacent head was even more bald and childlike than Finkler had been. This head had buck teeth and black marble eyes magnified by lenses thick enough to be part of a cutting-edge space telescope.
As soon as they passed the threshold of its ear canal, it became clear to Bobbie-Sue that this world was familiar. It wasn’t as if she’d been there before, but she swore she had read about it or heard it described through the pop-culture grapevine.
They had entered a smoldering volcano. A stocky man with forests of curly hair covering his head and feet stood on a ledge overlooking a lava pit. A decrepit weasel of a man was crawling over a heap of rocks behind the hairy one, probably attempting to sneak up behind him and catch him off guard.
“Give me back my precious!” the scrawny man snarled as he leapt onto the hairy man’s back and tried to pry a golden ring from his finger. The two wrestled and traded blows. After both had sustained many cuts and bruises, the wretched man bit off the hairy man’s finger and fell with it and the ring into the lava pit.
Then the world switched channels as if the whole thing had been just a giant TV show. Now it showed a face, the face of the Dimension itself tossing its head back and laughing as if it was some sort of white, chubby, child version of Ray Charles.
“This is just weird,” Bobbie-Sue shuddered.
“We should get out of here soon,” Mirtha jiggled one of her eyestalks. “But where is the exit? I don’t see any way out. It feels like we’re stuck in inside a TV.”
“Maybe we can change the channel,” Bobbie-Sue said, half sardonically.
“Doubtful,” said Mirtha. “I feel like this is one of those Lotus-Eater machines … meaning we’re really not here. Our minds are just being fed information telling us that we’re here. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able return to the outside world again.”
“You know what?” Bobbie-Sue’s tone had sharpened to a fine point. “I think you’re full of shit with your talk about a realm of pure goodness outside of this one. I think this is actually Hell and that you being attached to my leg and leading me on this wild goose chase is my eternal punishment. I should’ve known I wouldn’t be going to Heaven. I don’t know what I did to deserve this. Maybe it’s because I never ‘accepted Jesus’ when my bible thumper friends tried to convert me. Maybe they were right. I should have accepted Jesus. I should have listened to them.”
Mirtha thought for a moment. “They meant well,” she said finally, “but they never truly understood what they were talking about. Salvation has nothing to do with what you do or don’t do in the physical world. Upon death, everyone is saved. I just don’t understand why we ended up here instead of there.”
“Maybe the weight of two souls is too much to allow either of them to enter the real Heaven if there is one,” Bobbie-Sue spat. “Maybe your little plan to stow away aboard my soul blew up in your face. And you didn’t see it coming even though you’re supposedly from some ‘higher dimension.’ Face it, you messed up big time … and you dragged me into it. You’re despicable.”
Mirtha said nothing. She knew, with absolute certainty that Bobbie-Sue was right. The girl had extra-sensory capabilities after all. It came down to a problem of mass. Two souls joined together were too heavy to escape the Labyrinth’s gravity. That explained why God had intended each individual body to contain only one soul.
The channels began to cycle rapidly. There was a scene featuring a prepubescent boy leaning over a counter, talking to a sporty-looking young adult twirling a lanyard around his finger. He addressed the boy as ‘Yasher.’
“Yasher.” Mirtha recognized the boy’s face. It was the same as that of the floating head.
The channel flipped to a scene featuring two middle aged women on a school bus. They were baby-talking to a deformed boy in a wheelchair. His head moved around at random and his mouth opened and closed, revealing rows of jagged, white teeth.
“Ricky-Ricky Rollins!” One of the bus ladies cooed.
Ricky’s jaws clamped down on the fleshy part of her hand.
“Uh-uh …” said the one whose hand wasn’t currently being chewed. “No biteys, Ricky, no biteys.”
Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha noticed a teenage boy sitting two seats away with his head against the window. The gray of his headphones contrasted sharply with his poofy red hair. He was staring at a group of birds perched on the boughs of a barren tree.
“Who is that?” Bobbie-Sue squinted to get a better look “I feel like I’ve seen him before.”
“I dunno,” said Mirtha. “He could be a phantom of someone Yasher once knew. Or maybe he’s a wandering thought-presence that appears in all of them.”
“What makes you say that?” Bobbie-Sue no longer had enough energy to be angry. Her emotional pendulum had settled on complacency.
“I’m pretty sure I saw him watching TV with the Finklerians. And wasn’t that him riding atop that orange squid’s head? He’s been in every place we’ve visited. I’m surprised you didn’t notice him sooner.”
Bobbie-Sue thought about it for a moment. “Now that you mention it, I do remember seeing him, or at least his hair. It was kind of comforting, like his presence was protecting me while we traveled across the ribbon.”
“Perhaps we both knew him during some other lifetime,” said Mirtha, “but our memories of him keep getting erased by God so that we don’t have to continually bear the burden of searching for him with each life we live.”
“Anyway,” Bobbie-Sue shuddered, “I just hope we can get out of here soon.”
As if on cue, the scene shifted again. This time, they were in some sort of basement lounge. Teenagers were playing video games, ping-pong and doing yoga. Sitting at the far edge of the ping pong table was the red-headed boy. He was drawing something on a piece of computer paper.
Bobbie-Sue leaned over his shoulder to get a glimpse of what he was drawing. It was a smiley face with rows of teeth that resembled those of the wheelchair boy from the previous scene. Its eyebrows were upturned, giving it a sort of guilty expression. Coming from its mouth was a speech bubble that said; ‘HEEY!’ Beneath the face, was the statement; ‘I AM DICK!’
“I am Dick?” Bobbie-Sue clasped her chin between her thumb and forefinger. “That’s sort of like ‘Ricky,’ the kid in the wheelchair.”
“Yes,” said Mirtha, “and Yasher’s first name is also Richard. I read it on a piece of paper that man twirling his keys was holding.”
“But what does it all mean?” Bobbie-Sue rubbed her forehead. “These dimensions are full of so many weird signs and symbols. I just can’t wrap my head around it.”
“To be honest, neither can I” said Mirtha. “This is the first time in all my life I can say I’m stumped. If I had the Mirrow with me, I could tell you the answer right away but alas—”
“You got greedy and screwed us both.”
“That was—” Mirtha felt flustered. “I’m sure we’ll find the answers as soon as we solve the puzzle of the spatial loop we’ve got ourselves stuck in. Let’s just allow it to play out and see where it takes us. Maybe things will sort themselves out on their …”
The world took Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha through the smiley face’s mouth. Everything went black for a few minutes, and then another scene came into focus. The red-haired boy was seated cross-legged in the atrium of a different building, apparently a school. He wore an army surplus jacket and was drawing comic strips in a blank book bound with gator skin. When his pencil got dull, he sharpened it and brushed the shavings onto the floor.
Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha crouched behind him to catch a glimpse of his work. He was drawing the same smiley face, but from a side-view angle. A starship was flying into its mouth dodging wavy lines labeled ‘stinky,’ with an arrow.
Bobbie-Sue giggled. This was the first time she had felt amusement since entering this post-mortem world of strangeness. Mirtha was laughing too, even though she had no mouthparts.
A yellow short bus pulled up to the atrium and the door opened. A young driver beckoned the boy to come aboard. The boy packed up his drawing supplies, flew out the door and bounded up the steps of the bus. Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha followed him.
***
As the bus passed a Burger King, a Sunoco and other staples of suburbia, the boy and the driver conversed about religion.
“So,” said the bus driver, “have you decided whether or not you’re going to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?”
“Uh …” the boy was clearly not interested in blindly accepting Jesus, but decided to play along just to humor the driver. “Yeah,” said the boy. “I definitely believe Jesus was a great man and had a lot of great things to say.”
“But, do you accept him as your Lord and savior, though?” the driver asked.
“Well,” the boy curled a lock of hair around his finger, “I think Jesus already knows that I try to do good for humanity. Like how I hold the door open for people and go out of my way to stand up for those low-functioning kids that Billy usually targets.”
“But good works are not enough to save you from Hell,” the bus driver pressed. “Only Jesus can save you from the Lake of Fire, and I won’t let you burn, Brian. I am here to tell you about the good news of His teachings and that only through Him can you be saved.”
“But what if I don’t believe in Hell?” Brian watched a squirrel dart behind a tree. “Will I still go there if I don’t believe?”
“Oh, absolutely yes,” the driver cut a hard left. “Your disbelief in Hell is Satan trying to trick you. He’s trying to steer you away from the light of God. Don’t listen to him, Brian, trust me. Or, more importantly, put all of your trust in Jesus Christ.”
After several minutes of tense silence, Brian finally said, “I’ll think about it, but for right now, I’m gonna listen to my music.”
“Okay,” said the driver. “There’s no hurry. Jesus can wait for as long as you live. Even if you declare your undying trust in Him on your deathbed, you can still be saved.”
But Brian had completely tuned out. “Fuck Christ” by the Satanists blared from his headphones.
    All the while, Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha watched and listened. With each passing moment, they became more and more acquainted with Brian’s character, thought processes, and defining traits.
***
    The bus pulled into the parking lot of a much larger building; another high school. The driver opened the door and of course, before Brian exited, went on his whole spiel about Jesus and salvation. Brian stepped off the bus and took in the scenery; the open doors of the school building, the kids wearing backpacks going to and fro, the fresh air, the freedom, the true salvation. His pupils dilated with joy and he felt as though he had ascended to his version of Heaven.
    These were Brian’s memories, but Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha were experiencing them as if they were their own. They grasped intuitively that Brian had already been through Hell. The four floating heads were demonic presences from his past that still lingered in his mind. He drew those demons, like Richard Yasher/Dick/Ricky Rollins in order to make light of them, to soothe the wounds they had inflicted upon his soul. But here, at this ordinary-looking high school, he felt he was in Heaven. He would get to be amongst kids as bright and intelligent as he was; free from the torment of macho street thugs and bullies who had nothing better to do than pick on innocent girls with schizophrenia and nerdy aspies like him.
This high school was the Divine Light at the end of Hell’s Tunnel through which he had crawled on his belly, collecting stretch marks and fat from medications that stimulated his appetite centers and made him hungry twenty-four hours a day. His brain had been lasered by the surveillance systems of the all-seeing Eyeball, diced by the surgical tools of the Cultural Normalization Facility hidden beneath the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania. He had been psychologically conditioned to ask permission from authority figures to move from one room to another. To him, being allowed to attend a public high school, which might have seemed mundane or even dreadful to the average kid, was like ascending to the highest circle of God’s Kingdom.
Bobbie-Sue and Mirtha felt warm waves of bliss emanating from his heart. His soul, at that moment was not a twisted blob of skin, but a baby wrapped in his favorite blanket, ‘born again’ so to speak. Bobbie-Sue felt the mass of cancerous flesh that was Mirtha slide off her ankle. The mass sizzled on the concrete, steamed and became dry. A crack appeared in one of the malignant lumps. Out of the crack, a butterfly emerged with wings that seemed to connect with the rays of the sun. The sunlight, Mirtha’s wings, and the light from Brian’s heart joined and formed a triangular sail. This sail would carry them all the way to the Outside.
    “Grab on to me,” the Mirtha butterfly said to Bobbie-Sue. “Let us exit this place together.”
    “Right.” Bobbie-Sue wrapped her fingers around Mirtha’s leg.
A wind began to blow from beneath them and they were carried up into the sky towards the sun. They became one with the rays of the sun; transformed into pure light. The mass of light retreated into the sun.
As soon as the light vanished, a magnolia petal fell from the sky and landed near Brian’s feet. He took the petal and stuck it between the pages of a book he had with him. The book was a collection of poetry, drama, and prose by William Butler Yeats. On the page marked by the petal were these words:
I think all happiness depends on having the energy to assume the mask of some other self, that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth as something not oneself, something created in a moment and perpetually renewed in playing a game like that of a child where one loses the infinite pain of self-realization, a grotesque or solemn painted face put on that one may hide from the terrors of judgment, an imaginative Saturnalia that makes one forget reality. Perhaps all the sins and energies of the world are but the world’s flight from an infinite blinding beam (253-254).

Brett Petersen

Brett Petersen writes because he feels it is a better way to spend his time than mopping floors or running cash registers. He obtained his B.A. in English from the College of Saint Rose in 2011 and his fictions have appeared in journals such as the Corvus Review, Corner Bar Magazine and Loud Zoo. He is also a cartoonist, drummer and singer/songwriter whose high-functioning autism only adds to his creativity. Links to all of his projects can be found at https://jellyfishentity.wordpress.com/ He lives in Albany New York.
​ 


Red Torl
By EJ Shumak

    The setting moons matched the yellow glory of the new Pride, spilled out like honey amongst the purple Mait grass.  One of the kits nipped her mother’s ear a bit too solidly.  Cuffed hard, she tumbled across the grassland.  Righting herself, she shook her head violently and looked back at Mother, offended.
    "You bite your sire like that and you'll be plucking claw tips from your cheek," Karnth admonished the kit.
    The lecture was cut short by the roar of a surface flitter landing near the den.  The kits leaped up, their feet scrabbling wildly before their claws gained purchase in the soft grass.
    They ran to the landing pad, expecting to see their father's landing craft.  But this was not their flitter; a black and gold Pride authority craft settled on the tarmac.  The kits froze halfway, then turned and skittered swiftly into the safety of their den.  Karnth stalked past, her ears at half-mast and her teeth bared in what could never be described as a smile.  This flitter would land here for only one reason: something happened to Esbar, her mate.  
    The flitter landed, and the combination hatch and rampway snapped open.  A Pride council adjutant – a large, stern-visaged female in a combat black uniform – stood at the corner of the landing pad waiting for Karnth.
    "State your business, adjutant," demanded Karnth.
    "I have Pride authority information to pass, with supporting documentation.  You are requested to accompany us once this message is delivered.  I have a keeper for the kits."
    "You may approach," said Karnth, hating the female and not wanting to hear the message, as though delaying the words would somehow negate the still unverified reality. "I will judge your sincerity."
    The adjutant came forward and unsheathing her claws, placed her hands on Karnth's shoulders.  Facing her reluctantly, Karnth did the same.  
    "As our ancestors judged truth passed between them, let it be so now as I speak.  Karnth, your mate is dead.  You are needed to identify the body and speak for his spirit.  He died fighting alongside fifty-three other brothers and sisters at the port.  I know nothing more."
    Blood welled from beneath the adjutant's tunic as Karnth squeezed the stranger's shoulders and let out a pain filled growl.  They killed him.  Perhaps it all started again.  The adjutant's ears went flat as blood slowly dripped down the immaculate fabric of her tunic and spattered onto the tarmac of the landing pad.
    "Truth, sister, I feel it," sighed Karnth as she disengaged her claws from the adjutant's shoulder.  "I'll not accompany you, but I respect you and honor your duty.  I served twenty years on a patrol ship.  I take one year for myself to have kits, and you couldn't let me keep my mate with me, could you?  Now he is dead and before his flesh is cold you come running to reclaim my life.  No!"  Karnth's ears lay flat against her head.  The adjutant remained silent with her eyes focused forward.
    "Truly, sister, it is what I am authorized to convey.  I am but repeating a message I would prefer never to have heard.  I must insist on you accompanying me."
    "I sincerely doubt you have the authority to take me by force, and I know you do not possess the ability," Karnth said coldly, the thinly veiled hostility and grief beginning to show through her tight control.  "Save us both hardship and relay my refusal to Pride Defense Authority.  Your office has taken my mate; it will not separate me from my kits."
    Karnth turned and walked away, with a steely arrogance that defied attack or seizure of her body.  She yowled once to the kits, and continued out into the field until the flitter became lost from sight.  She lay down in the tall Mait grasses, calling her kits to nurse.
    As she looked down at the kits nursing at her teats, she heard the roar of the flitter lifting from the pad.  They would be back, no doubt of that, but until then, she remained alone with her kits. Alone with her kits and the deep penetrating loss of her mate.
    Karnth was Concoloron, a highly evolved proto-feline.  Though her ancestors once walked on all fours, she walked upright and her people now ruled a large portion of their home galaxy.
    I waited so long for this, she thought. Twelve years in a metal box with no sky, serving my Pride.  I owed this time to myself, and to Esbar, regardless of the damage to my career.
    One female kit had grown much larger than her siblings, larger than most males would be at that age.  Her baby fangs came in early.  Allowing her to nurse became very uncomfortable.
    Karnth got up and stood erect, much too sore to allow continued nursing.  "Come kits, we'll go for a walk."
    Neither quick nor willing to disengage from their mother, they required prodding but soon headed through the field towards Red Pond.  The big kit, Torl, followed first, right on her mother's heels.  She always seemed the most energetic, and certainly the hungriest. She was never satisfied and always the most demanding of both attention and food.  
    The blue trunked Sarf trees reached high into the yellow sky.  The red Sarf tree spores spread everywhere.  They dyed the pond water deep red, providing both food for the Mearsch that swam below the surface, as well as the descriptive designation of these ponds. In the distance, the Dark Tower marked the center of their Pride land holdings.
    Karnth lay in the purple Mait grass, engulfed by color and scent.  Her senses overwhelmed by the diversity of nature on her homeworld, she could forget, for a time, that both her career and her life as she knew it, were over. She became numb, unable to comprehend all that had just happened.  She would never return to her ship and the endless void around this planet.  Three things had previously meant life to her: Esbar, her career, and her kits.  Now only her kits remained.  
    Karnth slept for a while, albeit fitfully.  Her dreams were clouded by a distant whimpering she could not seem to reach.  She sensed overwhelming loss and betrayal, yet she could not determine the source. She woke, not refreshed, but relieved to have left her unfriendly realm of dreams and nightmares.  
    She glanced over to the east and saw Torl playing at the Red Pond bank.  Feeling proud of her largest kit, always active and curious, Karnth knew Torl would grow to be a benefit to the Pride.  Karnth's Pride once ruled this entire continent, until the strongest among them were killed in space.  There had been terrible and strange rumors, and during Karnth’s cub-hood, the Pride lost its right to operate starships.  Karnth had commanded one of the first starships the Pride had operated in three generations.
    Though Karnth's mother taught her the old ways, she would never speak of the old time; the time when their Pride held riches and power.  She would only tell her daughter their ancestors had been wise and strong, that she should be proud of them and hold their memory.  This, despite the fact their names had been removed from the scrolls of honor with their crypts no longer buried in the City of the Dead.  Karnth recalled asking her mother where they went if they did not dwell in the City of Honor.  Her mother's eyes seemed almost to glow as she told her only that they existed everywhere, and dwelt within her, as all ancestors do.
    As Torl turned towards her mother, it looked as if she had gotten into the spores and was covered in red.  With a growl of frustration, Karnth got up and strode over to her largest kit.  She started to clean her, then stopped.  Torl had not gotten into the spores, but was clearly soaked with blood.  It ran down her muzzle and stained her chest fur.
    Flashbacks from her dream came to her and Karnth yowled in pain.  She turned quickly, running to the other kits.  She found them unmoving.  She picked them up, gently, fearfully, but found them lifeless, with no blood stains.  The only visible marks were two fang holes in each of their necks.
    Karnth stared at her dead kits in horror. Torl trotted up to her mother and lay leaning against her hocks, purring in satisfaction.  For the first time in her young life, it seemed Torl wasn't hungry.
    Karnth's mind raced.  She saw all that happened. Torl walking up to her litter mates while they rolled over in submission, willingly giving themselves to the stronger kit.  Torl slowly draining the life force from each kit, while those remaining watched calmly.  Karnth could not differentiate the images from true memory.  She couldn’t be sure she had not stood by and watched her kits killed.
    Karnth thought again of her own mother's teachings, remembered being taught to honor the strongest kit, even over the life and safety of the weaker siblings.  She also remembered the mix of pride and fear when she told her mother that Esbar would father her kits.  Karnth dropped to the ground and finished cleaning her remaining kit.  Torl purred contentedly and soon fell asleep.
Karnth turned away from Torl and gently gathered up the dead kits.  She weighted each of them carefully with small stones inserted through their mouths, swam them out to the middle of Red Pond, then dropped them to the bottom. She paddled slowly, barely keeping herself afloat, and considered joining the kits she had just released to the pond.  She didn't know if strength or weakness forced her back to shore.
    Karnth looked up to see Jhakar, her homeworld sun, just touching the horizon.  Nomel and Emil would be rising over Red Pond soon.  A small prairie cat scampered away at her approach.  Her pain momentarily eased from being so close to one of her ancient evolutionary ancestors.
    Avoiding the spores, she climbed out of the water and picked up Torl.  Her kit slept peacefully and Karnth carried her deep into the wood.  Life would change for them, but it would not be so strange to Karnth.  Her mother showed her the early ways, the ways of the land and the Dark Tower.  Karnth knew her kit would lack little, and would learn and grow rapidly.  The old stories told her.
    They would not return for many months, but when they did, the Pride would begin a new era.  The Pride would once more rule the continent, and perhaps even the stars.  Red Torl would return Blood Pride to its rightful place of leadership and honor, and Dark Tower would once again hold sway.

EJ Shumak

Mr. Shumak lives in metro Chicago, Illinois, and has spent most of his life in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.  He has been many things: police officer (disabled), large cat sanctuary operator, C.P.A. and on again, off again writer -- lately on again.  He has held active membership in S.F.W.A. since 1992, and has sold four books, three fantasy novels and one non-fiction along with several dozen short science fiction pieces and non-fiction articles. He has appeared in the May issue of this magazine with the short story Kojin.  Some of his current work is available at amazon.com/author/ejshumak




The Two Courts
By Elana Gomel

She left the sun behind and walked into the steamy dusk, the sky flesh-tinted. Jessamine bloomed in shadows, the air warm and wet. Rain threatened but did not fall, and the darkness did not thicken, for it was the fifth time of the day; the interval between daylight and twilight when the doors of the Faerie stood open.
Squishy stems caught on her borrowed clothes. She was as tall as her brother but his leather outfit strained against her wider hips and round belly. The tower was nearing, its stocky outline thrust into the humid sky. As Anat came closer, a glistening, segmented body, as thick as her forearm, slithered across the path. She caught a glimpse of a pale, almost-human face with unblinking eyes.
  She shuddered but trudged on. The land was cursed and it was her fault. First came two-headed calves and heat waves interspersed with cold spells. Then came an infestation of grasshoppers. And when she saw the poisonous-green blossoms on the big apple tree, she knew. All these were signs of the displeasure of the Seelie Court on whose shifting borders her village was precariously perched. The Seelie, also called the Beautiful Ones, would sometimes be displeased for no reason at all. But this time, Anat knew, that was not the case.
She came to the tower standing alone in the meadow and timidly touched the gray pitted wall. The tower was small and square with an arched doorway to the right. The doorway was bricked over and so was the only window. The brickwork appeared to be recent and shoddily done. Its cheap red stood out like a vulgar exclamation against the ancient, lichen-covered stone.  
When she tapped on the bricks, there was an answering tap from within.
She stood still. There were no more taps but she could hear a faint rustle as if something inside was rubbing against the wall. Anat pulled out her brother's dagger and started poking at the mortar.
As children, she and her brother heard the legend of the Twins’ Tower many times. Being twins themselves, they became obsessed with it, secretly whispering it to each other at night. And so here she was, paying for those games in the dark.  
According to the legend, the rose-crowned Queen of the Seelie had once given birth to twins. This was an omen of chaos to come, and in order to right the balance of nature, one of the twins was given to the Unseelie Court, the eternal adversary of the Beautiful Ones. But the twins defied their separation. They met on the borders of twilight and kept on meeting secretly, thus breaking the rules of the Faerie, which, though incomprehensible to humans, were as immutable as the laws of nature. The twins were eventually caught and the one brought up at the Unseelie Court was punished by imprisonment in the Twins’ Tower.  The legend was silent as to what happened to the other twin. But the balance had been restored.
Anat kicked at the brick and winced when a corresponding kick reverberated in her innards. Her time was running short. Soon enough, the villagers would discover who was responsible for the anger of the Beautiful Ones. And they would devise a proper punishment. She pictured the stocks in the village green, the old wood gnarled and implacable.
Running away was not an option. They had tried, had ridden all night - and found themselves back at the door of their own home. The Seelie Court knew of them and was about to deliver its judgment.
Desperation made Anat audacious, though it made her brother sluggish. She did not share her idea with him, but it had taken root in her mind just as a new life had taken root in her body.
If there was indeed a fairy prisoner in the Tower, why should she not set her free? The humans, as everybody knew, had the one power denied to the Beautiful Ones: the power of unbinding. In the released prisoner they might gain an ally who would protect them. But the Twins’ Tower was a mirage; an indistinct smudge on the flaming sunset, an old story worn out by repetition. There was no way of reaching it. Or so they said.
At day or night, dawn or dusk, the borders of the Faerie were sealed. They opened only in the fifth time; that instant between light and darkness. Brief as the interval between two heartbeats, elusive as the space between two raindrops. The only visible sign it gave of its arrival was the green flash at sunset.
It took Anat two weeks of staring at the fiery ball of the setting sun. Her eyes felt dusty, and blue reflections swarmed her field of vision like greedy fish. But when the orange sky finally flashed emerald, the dead-end track at the bottom of her garden unspooled into a road, and the Tower loomed at the end of it.  
The mortar fell out in large chunks as a brick was pushed out from within. A white hand appeared in the opening, fingers groping blindly. Anat caught it and squeezed it tightly in her own. The hand was dry and neither cold nor warm.
"I’m here to set you free!" Anat shouted into the dark hole. "What’s your name?”
There was no reply. The hand lay limply in Anat's grasp and then withdrew.
She hesitated for a moment. The old fear reasserted itself. She was about to consort with the Unseelie Court, whose other name was Death.
The Two Courts were not identical with what the Elders of the village preached in their weekly sermons. Good and evil were defined in ancient scrolls; the Seelie and Unseelie Courts ruled the ambiguous and bountiful kingdom of nature. But everybody knew that the Seelie Court and its rose-crowned Queen ruled over the blooming of spring and the harvest of summer. The Unseelie Court, on the other hand, presided over the decay of autumn and the famine of winter. Its ruler, whose gender was unknown, always went veiled, and there was no supplication or appeal to its ruthless decrees.
Anat hesitated…and then shoved in the remnant of the brickwork. What she and her brother had done was condemned by both the order of nature and the laws of society. If the Unseelie Court could offer succor, she would take it. There was nobody else to appeal to.
The brickwork collapsed with a clatter and she stepped into the darkness inside. What little she could discern of the round room was empty. The air was tepid, dry and scratchy and full of prickly dust. A winding stair led to the upper level.
Anat called for the prisoner and when there was no answer, groped her way up. When she reached the top, she could see nothing except a dim line of light around the bricked-up window. Something on the floor crackled under her boots.
She stepped towards the window and shoved with all her might until rotten bricks tumbled out. Twilight poured in through the jagged hole and she saw the prisoner.
She was huddled on the stone floor, naked, her knees hugged with long sinuous arms. Her face was obscured by falling white hair, just a shade darker than her bleached skin and just as lusterless. In a land sweltering under the blanket of unshed rain, her body seemed as devoid of moisture as old bone - not withered but angular and hard.
She lifted her head and looked at Anat. Her face was indifferent and starkly beautiful, a white oval pierced with dark eyes and wine-colored lips.
When she uncoiled herself and stood, Anat saw that the prisoner was not a woman. A young boy faced her, slender but tall with wide shoulders.
“I have come to set you free,” said Anat in a quivering voice. “I am…I am a twin, like you.”
The boy’s dull eyes stared past her. They looked like river pebbles taken out of water, hard and filmy. There were no whites and no pupils.

Did he even understand human speech?
“Please help me,” Anat pleaded. “I have broken the law. I have lain with my brother. The Seelie Court is punishing the village. Our neighbors will kill us when they find out.”
The boy approached her and laid his hand on her hair. It was as heavy and inert as marble.
And Anat suddenly realized what the Unseelie Court really was.
The Seelie Court ruled the cycle of life: copulation and spawning, growth and decay. Their power was grimy, polluted and corrupt. But denizens of the Unseelie Court were as clean and permanent as sand and dust. They were not subject to the diseased flux of the flesh; they were not splattered by the filth of birth and the rot of death. She was filled with an unbearable longing to be like them, to be whole and pure.
The boy put his arms around her and pulled her close, not a violent action but not a gentle one, either. He kissed her. His lips tasted of salt, and she imagined that instead of blood, some other liquid, clean like sea water, flowed through his veins.
The cursed thing in her womb stopped moving.
It did not die but sat there as patient and indifferent as a rock, wanting nothing, demanding no action. A stone baby that would never grow up, never push its way out, never betray its parents’ guilt. Anat gasped and the Unseelie boy turned and walked away, down the stairs and out of the tower.
She sat down on the flagged floor, unconsciously assuming the same position she had found the boy in. She hugged her knees and listened, with a mixture of relief and dread, to the silence of her body. Eventually, she fell asleep, feeling as peaceful as a scatter of sand.
***
She woke up shivering and wet, but not cold. The buttery moon shone through the jagged opening of the window. The mild, steamy air poured into the tower, banishing the last vestiges of dryness.
Anat sat up and inspected herself.  To her horror, she realized that she was dappled and splattered with some dark, sticky liquid.
She scrambled up from the puddle she was lying in and looked around. The room was empty. Or was it? Dripping from the dank walls like condensation, gathering in rivulets, collecting in pools and burbling in tiny streams, the thick liquid was filling the stone womb of the chamber. It looked black in the moonlight but Anat had grown up on a farm and knew the smell of a slaughterhouse.
She ran to the stairs around the spreading pool of blood that now occupied most of the chamber. The pool suddenly grew agitated, splashing as if a stone had been tossed into its turbid depths. But the disturbance came from within. Rings of waves hurried toward a tiny vortex in the center. The vortex puckered up like a mouth and blew out a giant bubble. Instead of bursting, the bubble grew and elongated until it was no longer a sphere. It became a smooth oval, sprouting two branches and a trunk. It rose into the wet air, wobbling and unsteady, yet keeping its bifurcated shape. The featureless head turned in her direction as the blood-creature tried to quell its quivering. The blank surface roiled as two dark holes opened in it and stared at her.
Anat rushed down the stairs but turned around to have one last look. In the moonlight, the wet surface of the emerging body glistened like an amniotic sack. It began to solidify and change color as an alabaster whiteness crept over it. Anat decided not to wait until the transformation was complete.
Standing outside, in the balmy air perfumed with flowers and growing things, Anat felt soiled. She looked around for water. A thin stream of dark liquid ran out of the entrance of the tower, drawing clouds of beetles, mosquitoes and moths that settled on the rank grasses and big blowzy flowers. Rats and hares lapped at the stream; a litter of spotted wild kittens joined them.
Anat made for the scraggly woods ahead. She saw animals in the grass: the bristling ball of a hedgehog, the fluid ribbon of a snake, the sail-like ear of a rabbit. But there was something else on the edge of the woods, a frantic flapping and writhing that she did not recognize. In a curious inversion of perspective, the creature seemed to be getting smaller as she ran toward it.  
A fat white worm with a segmented body and four soft flippers, was hiding its head under the rotting leaves. With an effort, Anat picked up its squishy body, as large as a Scottish terrier. It writhed frantically in her hands, but shrank even as she fought to hold it, growing smaller every second.
There was a human face awkwardly perched atop the head. She recognized the face, though it was covered with soil. The large dark eyes with long curving lashes were blinking frantically, trying to clear the dirt away. The white hair was matted, the perfect mouth trembling. The serenity was gone. The Unseelie boy's face was now animated with a mixture of shame, hostility, and secret pride.
"You?" whispered Anat incredulously. "So this is what you want? To be an animal, rooting in dirt, breeding, dying?"
The boy's wormlike body kept shrinking but he still flapped his boneless arms and curved his flexible spine, trying to break free, to burrow into the warm wet earth.
And now there was a sound coming from him. As he was losing his human shape, his melting mouth formed, for the first time, human words:
“I gave you what you want! Now let me go!”
Anat squeezed the flapping body, no larger than a carp now. And then she let it drop.
The creature burrowed in, quickly and efficiently, like an antlion. And as its rear end disappeared in the churning soil, the life of the land stopped.
The night noises - the chirping of crickets, the rustling of small animals in the grass, the soughing of branches in the wind - all ceased.  Anat looked around and saw the white night flowers close one by one, as the grass itself, lush and high, dried up. The field turned into an expanse of silver-gray like an old man's head, the ghostly stalks disintegrated into puffs of dust. Small creatures thus exposed stood up on their hind feet and lifted their suddenly human-like faces to the moon, their mouths stretched by mute screams. Their bodies dissolved into the moonlight and tiny delicate skeletons tottered for a while and crashed down into separate piles of ivory bones.
Snakes stood up on their tails like canes, scaly skins unwound in long spirals; their white bare stalks of a spine remained before they, too, dissipated. Butterflies rose into the night sky in swarms and their desiccated wings fell down like burnt petals. The trees in the forest ingested their leaves, turned hard and heavy like corals. They shattered.
And then the field was a flat sheet of glimmering dust. The only thing still standing was the tower.
Anat ran back to it, straining against the immovable weight in her belly. When she reached the tower, she saw that the doorway was bricked over again. With a cry of desperation, she pushed as hard as she could and it gave way.
Inside the tower again, but it was no mere repetition of her first visit. Rather than scratchy-dry, the air was moist and sweet. As she scrambled up the stairs, her bare feet slid on fresh moss and lichen. Moths and black butterflies fluttered against her face.
She reached the room at the top and saw that the window remained open, the moonlight pouring in. The prisoner sat in the corner in the same position as before, knees hugged by long arms.
She stood when Anat entered. Except for the small high breasts and the sea-shell juncture of the thighs, she was indistinguishable from her brother.
“Give me my baby back!” Anat cried. Again, she had the feeling that the prisoner did not understand human speech.
But she was mistaken. The Seelie girl spoke in the same whispery voice as her brother.
“Isn’t this what you want?”
“No! I want to be alive! I want my child to be alive!”
“Like an animal, rooting in dirt, breeding, dying?”
Anat looked outside into the field of dust.
“Yes,” she said.
“I cannot take away what my brother gave you,” the girl said. “But I can add to it. You’ll have both: flesh and stone, blood and sand, water and dust. Make of it what you will. We are bound by the law of balance; you are not.”
She put her hand on Anat’s naked belly and it burned her like hot iron. Anat wailed; the Seelie girl took her hand away but the imprint of her palm remained like a splayed silhouette of a living creature. It sunk into the flesh and twisted it with pain.
The Seelie girl turned away, uninterested.
Anat left the tower and walked across the dead land. She could not tell when she crossed the border but she suddenly found herself in her family's backyard. Her horse whinnied softly from the stables and her dog barked. The sky was pearling.
Her brother was waiting for her at the door. He gasped when he saw her.
“What happened to you?” he cried fearfully.
She looked down and saw her belly, big and round, proudly borne ahead of her slender frame. One baby moved, one was still.
“We are going away,” she said.
“Will the Seelie Court forgive us?”
“No.”
He buried his face in his hands and she looked at him with a mixture of tenderness and contempt, for she could never understand how being so like her, he could be so weak.
"What shall we do?" he asked.
"We shall leave," she said. "The village is doomed. My children need a better place."
"Children?"
"I'm going to have twins."
"Monsters like us!"
"So? We can make the land fruitful, even if the fruit is strange, and misshapen, and new. We can march into twilight, you and I, and break the stale balance of the Seelie and Unseelie, summer and winter, day and night. We can make chaos dance. We can have it all – and more besides!”
He looked at her in fear.
"You are mad," he said. "The Unseelie Court has taken away your mind."
She shrugged and went to the window. A storm of petals blew in from the orchard. The petals were beautiful lime-green in color.
"If you don't come with me,” she said, “I'll go into twilight alone, bear my children and make them rulers of all: men and worms, flesh and stone, water and blood. Rivers will flow with wine and women will suckle bear cubs. No one will go hungry and people will die laughing."
He did not answer.  Anat walked out, into the new morning. Already the air was warm and moist like a lover's sweat. When she went into the stables to saddle her horse, it shied away at first but then stood still and obedient, slightly trembling. She whistled to the dog and it growled, its tail between its legs; but when she galloped out of the yard, the dog ran after her.
And as her babies embraced in her womb, she did not look back.

Elana Gomel

Elana Gomel is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and American Studies at Tel-Aviv University. She has taught and researched at Princeton, Stanford, University of Hong Kong, and Venice International University. She is the author of six non-fiction books and numerous articles on subjects such as narrative theory, posthumanism, science fiction, Dickens, and Victorian culture. As a fiction writer, she has published more than thirty fantasy and science fiction stories in New Horizons, Bewildering Stories, Timeless Tales, The Singularity, New Realms, Mythic and many other magazines; and in several anthologies, including People of the Book and Apex Book of World Science Fiction. Her fantasy novel A Tale of Three Cities was published in 2013.




Some Things You Can't Let Go
By J.M. Williams

The floor of the 5th Precinct Investigations Division was a blur of movement. Officers in blue and technicians in yellow – human and alien alike – hurried from desk to desk speaking to white-clad detectives. Storm Hamilton couldn’t remember a time when they had been so busy.
He threw his chestnut brown suit jacket around the back of a black leather chair. He refused to wear the standard white tunic, choosing instead an iconic look from the past. With a weary sigh, he collapsed into the chair.  It creaked as he leaned back to rest his feet on his cluttered desk. He took off his hat, feeling the worn felt of the brown fedora between his fingers. He gave it a sniff. What’s that smell? A tinge of revulsion accompanied the thought. He tossed it onto the empty hat stand on the corner of the desk.
“Are you ever going to clean up that desk of yours?” Detective Drake—Storm’s alien partner—asked as he sat down at the empty desk opposite Storm’s.
The tall grey man was hard to see past the mountain of decorations on the human’s desk. Directly between them, at the center of Storm’s desk, was a large picture in an old wooden frame. It held a photo of Storm and a friend at the base of Everest. The human detective also kept a coffee pot sized statue of Buddha—the fat version—next to his computer monitor. On the other side, a pile of chaotically sorted paperwork and an uneven stack of books fought against any encroachment of empty space.
“What do you mean? It is clean,” Storm replied. “I wiped up that old coffee stain this morning.”
“You know that’s not what I mean,” Drake said.
Compared to Storm’s, the desks of the alien detectives—all of the dozen other detectives in the 5th—were pristine and orderly. There were no pictures, no personal items of any sort. Some of them had case files or other work materials neatly stacked on them, or sorted methodically in filing racks, but that was all.
“Humans need a little chaos,” Storm said, sinking into his chair. “It helps us think.”
“Think, maybe,” Drake said. “But not process or analyze. It’s a distraction.”
“Life is a distraction,” Storm said.
“True enough,” Drake conceded.
The way Storm arranged his desk irked the aliens, and he liked that. But the books…the books were the source of most of the trouble. The issue the greys had was in their strong connection to the past—a violent and dark past they wanted mankind to forget. Storm’s collection included, among other things, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Maltese Falcon.
“What about you? Why don’t you have any pictures?” Storm asked his partner, leaning forward to watch the grey man’s high, slanted eyes.
“Life is a distraction, as you say. Personal feelings and thoughts interrupt the efficiency of work. And we like to keep our private lives private. Unlike you humans, we don’t share our family life with the world. The joys we experience at home are for our family alone.”
“So, you have a family, then?” Storm asked. It felt odd to ask this to a partner of several months, but Drake had never mentioned it before.
“Yes, I have a mate…a wife, and a daughter.”
“Oh, how old is the girl?”
“She is about 14 Earth years old.”
“What’s that in human years?”
“She is the equivalent of a six-year-old of your species.”
“Oh, that’s a precious age.”
“Indeed. She has finally mastered the piano and can move on to the violin. She enjoys human music.”
“Mozart? Chopin?”
“You are well aware we don’t study past culture. Only modern music.”
“Oh, you mean that dull, repetitive, clangy stuff.”
Piano chimes began to play and Drake reached down for his phone. He gestured to Storm with a finger, suggesting it would only take a moment. Despite his hereditary dislike of the past, and his penchant for new things, Drake refused to get a standard communication implant inserted into his ear. It was another stark contrast between the partners. Storm loved his comm. It left his hands free for other, more important things. Like catching bad guys.
Storm turned his head to listen to his partner’s phone call. His comm implant amplified the sound. He heard an alien voice on the other end, but couldn’t be sure of its sex. Male and female greys sounded even more alike than they looked. And it didn’t help his snooping that the pair spoke in their own language. Storm made out a few words he recognized like home and dinner, enough to conclude Drake was speaking to his wife.
After a few more words, Drake placed the phone slowly and reverently on his desk. The gray man was smiling, a rare phenomenon. He turned to Storm.
“I think it is human custom to invite colleagues to one’s home for a collective dinner, is it not?” Drake asked.
“Depends on the humans, but yes, usually.”
“Would you like to join my family for dinner tonight?”
“Well, that is…unexpected.”
“It was my wife’s idea. She says we have been working hard and need a break.”
“That’s a very human thing to say.”
“We are not as different as you think.”
Storm rose to his feet, quickly donning his suit jacket and fedora. He wasn’t sure what to think about this turn of events; he had never been asked to the home of an alien before. But it wasn't like he had a family of his own waiting for him. Even an alien meal should be better than the garbage instant food he kept at home.
“If you are willing, would you bring your Everest picture?” Drake asked. “I imagine my daughter would love to hear the story.”
***
The old model aircar hummed as it cut across the sky. Storm preferred his police vehicle to his personal car; it was faster and more agile. In his peripheral vision, he saw his partner watching him from the passenger seat, his skinny grey arms crossed.
“I still don’t understand why you don’t just use the autopilot,” Drake said.
“I like feeling the way the machine moves,” Storm said. “I like being able to go as I please. Maybe I’m just a control freak.” He let the last word hang in the air.
“I would not call that freakish,” Drake replied. “I can understand the desire for control.”
“Is that why you refuse to get a comm implant?”
“Part of the reason, yes. I like to be able to choose when to be interrupted by a call.”
As if by fate, the car’s police radio crackled to life.
“Domestic disturbance at Blue Radiant, Second Complex, street level courtyard,” a monotoned voice said. “Suspect is armed. Potential hostage situation.”
Storm knew they were only blocks away from that group of apartments, a poor and neglected patch of town surrounded by upscale urban centers. He glanced over at his partner, who reluctantly nodded.
With a thought, Storm activated his comm implant and connected to Dispatch. “This is Detective Hamilton of the 5th. My partner and I are on our way. ETA, two minutes.”
“Roger, Detective Hamilton,” the voice from the radio said to him through his implant. “Assistance will be sent to the location as soon as possible.”
Storm deactivated his implant and shook the disorientation from his head. The comm’s sound was clear, but the connection always made Storm dizzy. He turned to his partner.
“Hold on to your seat,” Storm warned.
“What do you intend…?”
His partner’s question was cut short when Storm put the car into a sharp dive. The side of a nearby building rolled past in a blur. When the car was a few stories from ground level, Storm pulled up parallel with the street below. The vehicle shot forward and swung around the corner of the building. Storm kept one eye on the path ahead and the other on his car’s radar screen, pulling it left and right to avoid traffic. Drake gripped the sides of his seat and groaned.
Storm activated the car’s vertically-opening doors before it had even reached the ground. Once the vehicle clunked onto the pavement, he leapt out, turning back only to grab his hat. He didn’t bother to look if his partner was keeping up.
Throwing the hat on his head and holding it in place with his hand, Storm dashed through the open door of the apartment building. He ran down a long hall, lined with old pictures and dust stains. Twin doors on the other end slid open, anticipating his approach.
“You’re going to pay you son of a…” a voice ahead shouted.
Passing through the door, Storm scanned the courtyard. He saw a man, gun in hand, standing over another cowering figure. The detective drew his service weapon.
“Freeze!” Storm shouted.
Noticing the advancing policeman, the assailant—a human male, older than Storm, with thick but greying hair and a scar on the left side of his face—ducked behind his victim and brought his gun to the younger man’s head.
“Stay back!” the gunman shouted. “I’ll blast this guy! I mean it!”
“You do that and I’ll return the favor,” Storm said, aiming his pistol.
“Fine by me!”
Storm hadn’t been expecting that response. He also hadn’t been expecting the growing crowd, which assembled on the far side of the courtyard where a green park-like space met another opened door. More people were streaming in through that door, video recorders raised.
“What’s your name?” Storm asked the gunman.
“Devon,” the man replied.
“Listen, Devon, you need to stay calm.”
To his credit, Drake assessed the situation quickly as he caught up with his partner. The tall alien stepped over to the crowd with his arms out, trying to press them back.
“This is a dangerous situation, please step back through the door…” Storm could hear his partner shouting nonconfrontational orders, but his focus was on the gunman.
“Put the gun down,” Storm said. “Let’s talk this out.”
“I’ve tried talking,” Devon said, his gun hand shaking. “I begged this creep to give me more time. I told him I’d get the money. But he cut her off anyways.”
“You didn’t pay me for months,” the hostage started to say before a poke with the gun barrel silenced him.
“Don’t antagonize the man,” Storm said, looking the hostage in the eye. “Let me work this out.”
“There’s nothing to work out!” Devon shouted. “She’s dead!”
“Whoa, slow down. Who’s dead? What do you mean ‘cut her off’?”
“My daughter. She needs meds for a genetic heart defect and this guy stopped supplying.”
“He stopped paying,” the hostage pleaded. He received another blow to the head in response.
“Sir, stop talking,” Storm said. “You’ll get your chance to tell your side when this is over.”
“No, he won’t. He won’t be talking when this is over. He’ll be dead.” The man turned his gun on the detective. “Stay where you are, I’m warning you.”
Storm hadn’t noticed Drake come up along his left side.
“Crowd dispersed?” Storm asked without looking away from the gunman.
“Yes. And locked out,” Drake replied.
“Listen. You’re not making any sense,” Storm said to the gunman. “You said your daughter ‘needs’ this medicine? But didn’t you say she was dead?”
“I meant she needed it. She didn’t get her meds and now she’s dead.”
“When did she die?” Storm asked.
“This morning.”
That seemed to explain the man’s confusion, and the force of his rage. He was overcome with passion, a fury kindled by emotional trauma. He was dangerous.
“This guy doesn’t look like a proper pharmacist,” Storm said, pointing at the hostage.
“He’s not. He’s a street dealer. I can’t afford the meds on the regular market.”
“Why not go through the New London Compassion and Service Agency?”
“My daughter’s application with the NLCSA expired. It’s taken them more than four months to reinstate her benefits status.”
“Why so long?”
“Mandatory background checks. I was in the war.”
Of course, he was. That explained the scar. And he looked to be in his fifties, at least. He would have been in his twenties during the war, the international nuclear conflict that almost destroyed the world. It would have destroyed it, had the greys not shown up in the brink of time and put an end to the violence. Some humans had resisted the new benevolent dictators; a violent insurgency raged for years. Despite promising aid to mankind—which they did in substantial ways, raising up even the lowest of the social muck with their advanced technology—the greys refused to help anyone connected to the resistance. And so, there were detailed background checks. It seemed even the most advanced societies couldn’t avoid bureaucracy.
“Listen, I understand your pain,” Storm said.
“Do you? Were you even alive during the war?”
“I was a child. I lost my father in the war. My mother shortly after.”
“Even so, you’re still doing well. My daughter, my Grace, was all I had in this world. Her mother died shortly after giving birth, in a run-down refugee camp hospital. The greys were slow to help us then, just like now. All I had. Do you understand? I can’t even hold down a job. Radiation sickness broke my lungs. I can barely walk up the stairs.”
“You seem to hold a gun just fine.”
“Someone has to pay for her death.”
“Seems to me your grievance is with the greys, not with this man.”
“He didn’t give her the medicine she needed. Her death is on his hands, too.”
“But he shouldn’t have been selling you that stuff in the first place.”
“What does that matter now?”
“Look, I understand you’re grieving. But would your daughter want this? Would she want you to die, too?” Storm glanced at his partner. “Look at me.” Storm pointed two fingers at his eyes and stared at the gunman. “Look at me. It’s all a distraction. Life’s a distraction.”
“What do you mean?”
“All this pain you feel. It’s distracting you. It makes you want to lash out, recklessly. Instead, you could do something positive.”
“I don’t see how anyone could think positive at a time like this.”
“That’s because of the distractions. We all need a little chaos sometimes. It helps us see what’s most important. Instead of getting angry and ending your life in violence, you could find a way to honor your daughter’s memory. Maybe be an advocate for people going through the same stuff you did. You could work to make sure this doesn’t happen to others.”
“Not anymore. Not after this.” Devon indicated the gun in his hand.
“I can vouch for you.” Storm lowered his weapon slightly.
“You can?”
Devon’s body eased. The gun moved a few inches away from the hostage’s head.
“Put the gun down,” Storm said in a soft tone.
Devon looked as if he was struggling not to cry. The gun moved further to the side. Drake seized the moment to pounce on the gunman from behind. The alien gripped the man’s wrist in both hands. The gunman struggled. The hostage rolled away. Storm lowered his pistol and charged, his hat flying off his head. In the passing of a few, tense heartbeats, the man was on the ground, the gun sliding across the concrete. The broken father’s body shook with sobs.
“I can’t let go,” Devon wept. “She’s all I have.”
“You don’t have to let go,” Storm said. “You can honor her memory. That’s what I do.”
The sound of sirens echoed down the open hallway from the street. Figures in blue uniforms filled the courtyard. A pair of alien officers dragged the man away.
“You’ll get through it,” Storm shouted after them.
“Storm.” The human detective spun around to see his alien partner holding his fedora. “It seems the only casualty today was this hat,” Drake said, offering it in an outstretched hand.
Storm took it. It had a new oily patch on it. Storm walked over towards a water fountain near the park area. He tried to rinse the hat clean, but the stain remained. He threw it over his head anyways and turned back to his partner.
“Don’t we have dinner plans? I’m starving.”
***
“I learned it is customary to give a gift when someone visits your home.”
The slim alien woman tried to force a friendly smile, but she struggled with the expression as much as her husband. Storm was not sure what held for attractive with the greys, but in his mind, Drake had caught a keeper. She held the gift awkwardly in outstretched hands. It was a new hat. A bowler. Storm already had a hat.
“You’re relatively new here, right?” Storm asked. “To Earth, I mean.”
“Yes,” the woman said, looking somewhat shamed. “My husband came with the initial group, but I only arrived a decade ago.”
A decade was a long time to live in a place. Storm guessed she just never had a chance to socialize with humans before.
“Actually, the custom is for the visitor to bring a gift,” Storm said. “Which is why I have this bottle of brandy here.” He brandished the liquor in one hand, a half-smirk on his face. Drake looked over, clearly surprised by the sudden appearance of the gift.
“Oh, really?” the woman replied, embarrassment contorting her alien face. “Please have the hat anyway, for taking good care of my husband. And thank you for the alcohol. Now, make yourself at home while I finish up the meal.” She was insistent.
Storm set the pristine black bowler hat down on the coffee table in front of the sofa. At least she had gotten his preference for classic styles right. Drake had probably complained to her about his eccentricities.  He sat down, feeling himself sink into the soft black leather of the couch. He took the old fedora from his head, rubbing the worn and still damp felt between his fingers.
“Don’t you think it’s time for a new hat?” Drake asked. “That one is quite…faded.”
“Me and this hat have been through a lot together,” Storm said, failing to hold his smirk as deep thoughts pressed on him.
How could be begin to explain its value to a person who kept no souvenirs, no bits of sentimentality or connections to the past? How could he explain that it had been his father’s hat, bought for the man by his mother, a woman who had been obsessed with old detective stories? His father had never worn it, which made it feel all the more important for Storm to do so. Both of his parents were long gone. It was one of his last connections to them. He could still feel the pain of their loss, a pain the man in the courtyard was just learning today. You couldn’t make the past disappear just because it made you uncomfortable. So how you memorialized it was important.
“You’re not going to wear the new one, right?” Drake asked, but not in an accusatory way. The alien watched his human partner carefully, as if struggling to understand something. “It’s okay."
Drake reached out a hand to take the hat but Storm stopped him. They are trying to understand us. They are really trying, he thought. The woman’s sincere effort deserved some success.
“I’m grateful for the gift,” he said, placing the black hat on his head. “And it does fit really nice. I can’t say what I’m going to do with it…you know, if I will wear it or not. But I’d like to have it.”
“Good,” Drake said. “It’s been a long day. I’d rather just forget about this evening’s adventure. Let’s have a drink and you can tell me all about that hat of yours.”

J.M. Williams

J.M. Williams is a Fantasy and Sci-fi author who writes stories centered on strong characters. He has been writing since childhood and focused on the short story form as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota. He currently lives in Korea with his wife and 10 cats—teaching, writing, and blogging at JMWWriting.wordpress.com.





The Back Yard
By Amber M. Simpson

    I ran outside, the back door to the kitchen slamming shut behind me.  The raised, angry voices of my mom and her loser boyfriend followed me to the back yard.  God, I couldn’t stand them.  All they ever did was fight and make up in a never-ending cycle.  I was so sick of it.  
    I took some deep, calming breaths and fished out a lighter and cigarette I’d stashed in my bra.  I’d swiped them earlier from my mom’s purse when she was holed up in her bedroom with Gavin.  Another make up session, I’d guessed.  
    Our back yard was pretty small, just a patio table, chairs, an old broken grill and a small dumpster on wheels.  A tall wooden privacy fence separated us from the old man to the left, and the family with three loud, annoying kids to the right.  
I wandered over to the fence shared with the old man’s yard and leaned my back against it.  I puffed on the cigarette, inhaling deeply, blowing deformed smoke rings up at the sky.  
Inside my house, the muffled argument tapered off and the kitchen light went out.  Ugh.  They’d be going up to their room to “make up” again, no doubt.  I shuddered and pushed away the disturbing image.
    I had just dropped my cigarette and was snuffing it out with my foot when I heard something from the old man’s back yard, on the other side of the privacy fence.  
    Footsteps, shuffling through leaves and crunching over twigs.  
I jerked away from the fence, startled.  I didn’t think it could be the old man, not this late at night.  Maybe it was just a dog, or a cat.  Did the old man even have a pet?  All I really knew about him was he’d had a wife who recently passed.  Other than that, he kept to himself.
There was another crack of twigs, louder this time, closer to the fence.  Maybe it was a raccoon.  That was probably it.  But I was curious.
“Hello?” I called out.  My voice pierced through the quiet night.  Besides the crickets, the only sounds were the faint crying of the baby next door, and a dog barking down the street.
Whatever was moving on the other side of the fence, stopped at the sound of my voice.  I stood still, waiting to hear something.  Several long moments slid by in which I didn’t speak or move, and neither, it seemed, did the thing in the old man’s back yard.  
There was a large hole in the fence, where the wood had rotted through.  I crouched down to be eye level with it.  I wasn’t the type that scared easily.  And besides, I reasoned, whatever was over there was surely an animal of some kind.  Still, I just had to know.  
I peeked through the hole, straining to see in the darkness.  Several tall trees loomed in the old man’s yard, which blocked most of the moonlight.  Since the passing of his wife, he hadn’t been taking care of things around the house, and that included his back yard.  My nosey mom, who made it her mission to know all the neighbors’ business, had been keeping track of him.  The grass and vegetation was badly overgrown in both the front and back of the old man’s house.  Add that to the tall thick trees, and it was probably quite dark in the back yard even during the day.  
“Hello?” I tried again, still peering through the rotted hole in the fence.  “Is someone back there?”  
I waited a few moments more, but heard nothing.  Just as I began to straighten up and blame the whole incident on an overactive imagination, a voice spoke through the hole.
“Hi,” it said.  
I couldn’t help it.  I screamed.  
The voice chuckled, a boy’s voice.  Deep, but friendly.  Cute, too.
“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t mean to scare you.”  There was amusement in his tone.
I laughed, expelling the anxiousness I’d built up.
“Well, you scared the shit out of me.” I bent back down to the rotted hole.  “What are you doing back there?”  
I could just make out the shadowy shape of his face and upper body where the scant moonlight filtered through the heavy trees.  
“Same as you, I guess.”  The dark lump of his shoulder rose and fell in a quick shrug.
“Hiding out from your crazy mom and her gross boyfriend?”
He laughed breathily.  “No, no crazy moms or gross boyfriends over here.”
“You’re lucky, then.  You only have one quiet old man to deal with… your grandfather, I guess?”
“Ah, yes.  The old man.”  He paused, then added, “My grandfather.”
“I’m sorry about your grandmother,” I said, picking at a piece of splintered wood with my fingernail.  “Are you here to help him out or something?  I’m sure he’s really sad.”
“Yeah, thanks.  It’s been hard on him.”
“I bet.” I settled down on the grass at the base of the fence.  Talking to this guy, whoever he was, was a lot better than going back into that nut house and having to hear my mom and Gavin go at it all night.  
I leaned against the fence and I could feel him doing the same.  The weight of his body pushed the wood against me ever so slightly.  
“I’m Taryn,” I said, stretching my legs out and crossing them at the ankles.  “What’s your name?”
He was quiet for a moment before answering.  “Reed,” he said finally.  I liked it.  It was different.  I’d never met a Reed before.  
“How old are you?” I asked.  Maybe I was just as nosey as my mom.  But we had to get the basics out of the way, didn’t we?  
The baby next door had quieted and so too the dog down the street.  Through the chorus of crickets, I heard Reed’s breathing, deep and slow.  When he didn’t answer right away, I found myself filling the silence with chatter, a bad habit of mine.
“I’m eighteen.  Well, I will be in a couple weeks, anyway.  God, I can’t wait.  It’s going to be, like, the best day of my life.”  
I had some money saved up from my summer job at the grocery store, and I was going to use it to get an apartment with my friend, Lindsey.  I couldn’t wait to move out.
“What day is that?” Reed asked, sounding genuinely interested.
“The nineteenth.”
“Cool.”
“So, are you going to tell me how old you are, or what?” I teased, leaning back comfortably and twisting a strand of long blonde hair between my fingers.  
“I’m…” Reed hesitated.  “Older.”  
I frowned.  What did that mean?  He didn’t sound much older than the guys I went to high school with.  Maybe he was in his twenties and didn’t want to scare me off.  Well, that was all right.  I liked older guys.
“So, how long have you been over there?” I asked.  “With your grandpa, I mean, not in the back yard.”  I laughed and heard his soft chuckle in response.  
    “Just a few days.  How long have you lived next door?”
    “Oh, years.” I sighed.  
It had been years since my dad left.  Years since my mom met Gavin and moved us here to this boring neighborhood surrounded by boring people.  But Reed didn’t seem boring.  Reed seemed like just the distraction I needed until my birthday, when I could run like my life depended on it.  
    The kitchen light blinked on in the house; I stiffened.  Guess Gavin and my mom had finished their little romp.  
Reed must have noticed the light too, because he asked, “Who’s that?”
    “Probably my mom or her boyfriend, Gavin.  I guess I’d better go inside now.  It’s pretty late.”  
    Reed was quiet a moment, like he was thinking.  “Want to talk again tomorrow night?”  
I smiled, flattered.  
    “Sure,” I answered, standing and brushing dirt from the butt of my jeans.  I heard Reed standing up as well.  
    “Can’t wait,” he said, and I realized he was much taller than me, from the location of his voice.  I’m kind of tall myself, about five foot eight.  That meant Reed was well above six feet tall, judging from the distance of his voice above me.  Nice.  I liked tall guys.  I wished I could see him.  I wondered what he looked like.  
“Good night, Taryn,” he said, his voice husky and low.  Kind of sexy.  
I grinned like an idiot.
“Good night, Reed.”  I said, and crossed the yard, the feeling of being watched heavy on my skin.   I wondered if Reed could see over the fence, as tall as he was. I looked back before opening the door to the kitchen, but all I saw was darkness and the hulking trees.
It was Gavin in the kitchen, much to my dismay.  He straightened up from the refrigerator when he heard me come in, lunch meat in one hand, a jar of mayonnaise in the other.  He grinned, his creepy gray eyes sweeping up and down the length of my body like they always did.   
“Hey, Taryn,” he said, setting the food on the kitchen counter.  He pulled a loaf of bread from the cabinet, his eyes still on me as I closed and locked the back door.  
“Hey,” I mumbled, ready to make a beeline for my room.  I wanted to lie in bed and think about Reed, what he looked like, what we’d talk about tomorrow.  But as I walked by, Gavin’s hand shot out and gripped my wrist.
“Where you going so fast, pretty girl?” he said.  
God, his breath stank.  How could my mom stand to kiss him?  He was forty to her fifty, that had to be it.  But I never could understand what she saw in him.  With his squinty gray eyes, thinning brown hair, pale wormy lips and slight beer belly, he was no prize.  Even though my mom annoyed the hell out of me most days, she deserved better.  Sometimes I had to remind myself I wasn’t the only one my dad left.  I think my mom was just lonely.
Gavin pushed me against the kitchen counter with his gut, a big smile splitting his face.  I wasn’t in the mood for this.  I just wanted to go to bed.
I reached behind me and grabbed the butcher knife from the block and held it under his chin.  
His gray eyes danced merrily.  
“You crack me up.” He laughed, taking the knife from me and moving away.  He opened the jar of mayonnaise and used the knife to smear some on his bread, still chuckling to himself.  
Heart thudding, I hurried to my room and locked the door securely behind me.  Ugh.  Gavin was always trying to play his little “games” with me.  They always ended with me feeling gross and uncomfortable, and him laughing like it was the funniest thing.  But I never found it funny.  I’d told my mom about it once but she’d brushed it off, saying he was just goofing around.  I never talked to her about it again.
Safe in bed, I shoved all thoughts of Gavin and his little “games” out of my head, and focused instead on the mysterious guy from the back yard.  I wished I had been able to see him better.  I imagined him with dark curly hair, locks of it falling into his eyes as we talked.  Those eyes would be hazel, or green.  He was tall, so he’d have big hands, big feet.  Long, strong arms that could probably wrap around me twice.  
I smiled to myself in the dark.  Did I have a crush on some guy I’d never seen before?  Some guy I’d met through the fence in the back yard?  I’d always been kind of boy crazy, but this was a little extreme, even for me.  
I drifted off to sleep with Reed’s dark shadowy face floating through my mind.
***
The next morning, I avoided Gavin’s eyes at breakfast, picking at my eggs and toast while my mom did the dishes.  He made a big show of grabbing her ass before grinning back at me, and giving her cheeks a firm, jiggling squeeze.  God, he disgusted me.  
My mom giggled like a little girl, and swatted playfully at him.  I couldn’t have eaten even if I’d wanted to.  I got up from the table, about to go back to my room and get dressed for school, when my mom shot a look at me from the sink.  
“Take the trash out back, will you, Taryn?”  
Sighing, I pulled the bag from the can and tied it closed.  I glared at Gavin who smirked at me as I opened the back door.  Shouldn’t he be taking out the garbage?  After all, he was a piece of one.
I carried the bag to the small dumpster, against the back of the house.  My eyes darted over to the fence.  The rotted hole looked like a round black eye, watching me from across the yard.
I shivered, suddenly feeling naked and exposed, as I stood there in my t-shirt and sleeping shorts.  Then I chided myself for being so silly.  It wasn’t like Reed would still be out in the back yard.  He didn’t live back there.  He’d be inside his grandfather’s house, sleeping or eating breakfast.  Anything but bending over to watch me through the hole in the privacy fence.  Wouldn’t he?
I threw the garbage bag in the dumpster, slammed the lid closed, and forced myself to walk slowly to the back door.  With one hand on the knob, I threw a final look at the fence.  Was it my imagination, or did it look like the leaves which had sprouted up over the side of fence seemed to shake, as if someone had brushed against them?  
No.  I was being stupid. I ran inside.  
***
That night, as promised, I met with Reed again in the back yard.  He was already there waiting for me when I came out.  I didn’t bring up the incident from that morning.  He probably would have laughed at me.  
“You look pretty tonight,” he said to me by way of greeting as I approached the fence.  I flushed with pleasure.  He didn’t need to know that I’d dressed up for him, or that I’d made sure to put on my favorite perfume.  I was sure he’d be able to smell it through the fence.
“No fair,” I said, leaning down to try to catch a glimpse of him through the hole.  “You get to see me, but I can’t see you.  It’s so dark back there.  Why don’t you come over?”
“I can’t leave my grandfather alone,” he said quickly.  
“You wouldn’t be too far,” I pressed.  “You’d be right here.”
“Actually…” Reed’s voice lowered.  “I don’t think I should leave the house or yard.  I might be seen.”
That piqued my interest.  “What do you mean?”
“Well,” I could hear him shifting from foot to foot, leaves crunching under his feet.  “I’m not really supposed to be here.”
“Why not?” I leaned forward, pressing my body against the fence.  I was totally absorbed by what he was saying.  
“I sort of… ran away,” he answered reluctantly.  
“So, your grandfather’s hiding you for a while?  That’s nice of him.”
“They don’t know where I am, but I’m sure they’re looking for me,” Reed’s voice was low, serious.  “I don’t want to leave yet.”
The way he said it was like he didn’t want to leave me yet.  Or was that just wishful thinking?  
“So, you shouldn’t tell your mom or anyone… I’m here.” Reed finished.  
“I won’t,” I promised.  It wasn’t her business, anyway.  Not hers or anyone else’s.  
I took a chair from the patio table and pulled it up to the fence, ready to stay a while.  I liked talking to Reed.  And I loved a good mystery.
“So how long are you going to be staying over there?”  The thought occurred to me that he might only be visiting for a short while.  I didn’t want him to go.  I wanted him to stay.  And mostly, I wanted to see him.    
“Not too long.”  
Did I detect a note of sadness in his voice?  
We stayed at the fence all night long.  The hours just melted away as we talked about anything and everything.  I noticed he shied away from most of the personal questions I asked, but that was ok.  I knew I’d get him to open up soon enough.
I couldn’t get over how funny he was.  How sweet, and smart.  It was like talking to an old friend I’d known my whole life.  But there was something else too, an electric charge.  I felt the shock of it through my body each time he said my name a certain way, each time his voice got low and husky.  I didn’t want the night to end.  And I still wanted to see him.  Badly.
***
The next couple of weeks, I came to the back yard almost every night.  Reed was always there waiting, ready to talk.  I didn’t push the issue of seeing each other face to face again.  I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.  I did begin to wonder, though.  Was he afraid I might find him unattractive?
I thought this over one night as I came inside, after another long late night conversation with him.  Was that the real reason he wouldn’t let me see him?  I thought about his voice, the slow, sweet way he said my name.  No, he could never be ugly to me.  I had come to care for him in a way much deeper than looks could go.  I wanted to tell him I didn’t care how he looked.  I just wanted to be close to him.  Closer than the fence between us would allow.  
My mom was at the kitchen table when I came in, surprising me.  The light had still been on, but I’d been sure she and Gavin had gone to bed hours before.  
“Who’s out there with you?” she asked me, her eyes narrowed accusingly.  
So, she’d noticed, huh?  Guess she wasn’t as stupid or blind as I’d thought.  
“No one,” I tried to lie, avoiding her eyes as I grabbed a bottled water from the fridge and headed for my room.  She ran past me and blocked the door to my room with one wide jutting hip.  I knew I had to tell her.  
So I told her I’d made a new friend in the old man’s grandson.  I didn’t tell her Reed’s name.  It felt too personal, somehow, telling her that.  She seemed satisfied with my answer, though, and let me go to bed, but I got the feeling she wanted me to stay up and talk.  We used to be close, especially after my dad left and we were all we had.  But then Gavin came into our lives and everything changed.  Now, my mom and I barely even spoke, unless she was demanding I do something around the house.  It made me sad sometimes, but then I’d remember that Gavin had been her choice.  She’d let him come between us.  By reminding myself of that, I could just go back to being angry at her.  
***
My birthday came, and I expected to wake up that morning feeling elated.  At long last, I was eighteen!  I could get out of here like I’d always wanted, far away from my crazy mom and Gavin’s little “games” that made my skin crawl.  But instead, I woke up that morning feeling… melancholy.  If I left, what about Reed?  Would I ever get to see him?  Would we still be friends, or more?  And I realized, achingly, I wanted much more.
My mom surprised me with a party that evening at my Aunt’s house across town.  Practically my whole family was there, and a few of my friends from school, too.  But all I could think about was getting home, getting to the back yard; getting to Reed.  
I left the party early, feigning cramps, taking advantage of my mom’s too drunk status to notice or care.  I did see Gavin’s gray eyes watching me, but I threw him a mental middle finger as I left.
At home, I opened the side gate and walked straight back, not bothering with going through the house.  My breath caught in my throat when I entered the back yard and looked over at the fence.  
Flowers.  There were flowers everywhere.  He’d tucked them between every board on the wooden fence, even pulled some apart and sprinkled the petals along the grass in front.  My heart melted.
“They’re beautiful,” I said, walking up to the fence.  I plucked a flower to bury my nose in and sniff.  “Thank you.”
“Happy birthday, Taryn,” Reed’s voice, husky and low.  
“Did these grow back there?” I asked, wonderingly.  When had the old man ever had flowers in his yard?  It was true, the yard had grown lusher.  The trees were thicker than ever, blocking out all light, making it harder to see Reed through the hole each night.  Vines and small leaves had begun to make their way into my yard from his through the slats in the fence.  
The weirdest part of all, however, was that I’d literally plucked the flower in my hand, as if it was still attached to the plant.  If that was the case, how had they all managed to push through the fence and bloom all at once?  
“I knew you’d like them,” Reed said, not answering my question.  I could tell he was smiling, though.
“I love them,” I smiled back.  I didn’t care how the flowers had gotten there.  It was an incredibly sweet gesture.
“You look so beautiful,” he said.  I stood in front of the rotted hole where I knew he could see me, and did a little twirl for him in my short pink party dress.  Reed chuckled appreciatively.  I kicked my heels off to get comfortable and we talked for a while, our faces close to the hole.  A couple of times when he laughed, I could feel his warm breath on my face.  
We were laughing as I told him about my drunk uncle Larry who’d tried to piss in the kitchen sink that night at my party, when Reed suddenly got serious and quiet.  I leaned my face closer to the hole.  
“Reed, what’s wrong?”  He was quiet for so long, I thought he’d disappeared.  “Reed?”
“I want to see you,” he said, surprising me.  My nerves tingled with excitement.  
“Me too,” I gushed, my face practically in the hole.  “You owe me a birthday hug.”  
“Are you sure about that?”  his voice was soft, low.  “I might never let you go.”
My heart kicked up a notch as Reed slid his hand through the hole.  In the faint glow of moonlight, I could see that it was filthy, dirt packed up beneath his fingernails.  Well, he had just been arranging a large display of flowers for me.  That was probably why.
I entwined my fingers with his.  I could hear his breath quicken when our hands touched, and I ached to touch more of him.  I’d never wanted someone so badly in my life.  I was falling in love with the boy next door, but one I’d never even seen before.  One I’d met through the fence of the back yard.  Did that kind of thing even happen?
The back door to my house burst open, flinging back against the wall with a loud crash.  I jumped and my hand slipped from Reed’s.
It was Gavin.  Drunk.
“Your mom’s staying with your aunt tonight,” Gavin slurred, blinking at me through the darkness of the back yard.  
I stared at him, disgust rippling through me.  He stepped off the back porch and walked over.
“What are you doing out here, pretty girl?” he said as he approached.  
I cringed.  I was sure Reed was watching him through the fence.  His breathing had all but stopped as he listened.  
“Just… hanging out,” I answered.  Dread formed in the pit of my stomach, replacing the yearning ache from moments before.  Gavin stood in front of me, looking me up and down in my short dress.  He said nothing about the flowers.  Maybe he was too drunk to notice.
“It’s late,” he said.  “You should be in bed.  You told your mom that’s what you were doing.”
“I know, I was going to in a few minutes,” I lied.  
“Go now,” Gavin said, in a deep, flat voice.  A trickle of fear ran through me.  Gavin had always grossed me out, annoyed me, made me uncomfortable at times.  But he’d never scared me.  
Reed was dead silent on the other side of the fence and that scared me too.  What was he thinking over there?  I’d told him all about Gavin and his little “games”.  It had made Reed angry, which I’d kind of liked.  He was so protective of me.  It made me feel… safe.
“I’ll go in a few minutes.”
I was making Gavin angry, I knew.  But it was my birthday and I was talking to Reed.  Gavin wasn’t my dad, and I wasn’t some little kid he could tell what to do.  I was eighteen.  I could make my own decisions.
“Out here chatting with your imaginary boyfriend, huh?” Gavin sneered.  Great, so my mom couldn’t keep her big mouth shut.  I should’ve known.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to Reed, hoping he wasn’t mad at me for telling my mom about him when he’d asked me not to.  He didn’t answer me, but I thought I could hear his teeth grinding together.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said to Gavin.
“Shit, Taryn,” Gavin’s eyes glittered.  “If you were that desperate, all you had to do was ask.”  He grabbed his junk and shook it at me.  
“Ew, what the fuck?!”  I recoiled from him.  My body was so tight against the fence that the rough wood scraped the top of my bare back.  
Gavin’s face twisted at my disgust.  With a growl that sounded only half human, he grabbed me by the hair, yanking me away from the fence.  
I cried out in shock and pain as he began to drag me across the yard to the back door.  I struggled under the twisting strength of his hand on my head, unable to get away, or make him stop.
“Reed!” I screamed.  
But I heard nothing from the other back yard as Gavin pulled me inside.  He flung me across the kitchen, where I collided with the counter, banging my head against the cabinet above it.  
The butcher block!  I reached for the butcher knife but Gavin was too fast, his drunken weight pinning me against the counter as he pushed the knives out of my reach.  
My ribs were being crushed against the edge of the counter and I threw my elbows back at him, trying to get him off me.   
He laughed and sucked sloppily at my neck, his rank beer breath making me gag.  
I grabbed the toaster and reared it back to connect with the top of Gavin’s skull.  Cursing, he backed away, holding his head.  Seizing the moment, I bolted from the kitchen and ran down the hall to my room.  He chased me, stumbling over his own drunken feet.  I slammed and locked my door, the pounding in my ears nearly drowning out the pounding of Gavin’s fists.
“Open this fucking door!” he cried, between bangs.  “You want to keep playing these little games with me, that’s fine!  You win!  Come on out and get your prize, Taryn!  I got a nice big one for you right here!”  He cackled hysterically.  
My stomach lurched and threatened to empty its contents all over my bedroom floor.  Gavin was a creep and a pervert, sure, but he’d never taken it this far before.  
“I’m calling mom right now!” I threatened, shouting at him through the door.  “So you’d better just go to bed and leave me the fuck alone!”
I had flipped a switch.  Gavin was no longer making lewd jokes and laughing through the door.  Gavin was furious.  He beat so hard at the door, I thought it was going to break down.  
“Listen here, you little bitch,” he growled.  “You call your mom and I’ll fucking kill you, you hear me?”  When I didn’t answer, he went on.  “You listening to me, you little cunt?  Call your fucking mom and I will tear you the fuck apa-”
He cut off, mid-sentence.  
I stood in the middle of my room, confused.  When I didn’t hear anything more, I walked to the door and pressed my ear against it.  There was scuffling in the hall right outside.  It lasted a few moments then stopped.  
Silence.  
What the hell just happened?  Was it Reed?  Had he come over and tried to stop Gavin?  An unbearable thought occurred to me: what if Gavin had somehow hurt Reed?  My entire body vibrated with each pound of my heart.
“Hello?” I called through the door, the moment reminiscent of my first meeting with Reed in the back yard.  “Reed?”  
There was no sound of any kind.  I opened the door and crept down the hall to the living room, my breath coming in short gasping pants.  There was dirt and mud all over the carpet and dozens of little leaves.  I looked closer and realized the smears of mud were footprints.  Muddy bare footprints.  What the hell?  My mind was too rattled to even try to make sense of it.
I entered the living room, on high alert, my palms slick with sweat.  Empty.  My stomach rumbled its dissent, the vomit that had threatened me earlier wanting to make good on its promise.  What the fuck was going on?  I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
The muddy footprints and plant debris led to the kitchen, through the back door.  To the back yard.  
Shaking, but willing myself to stay calm, I opened the back door.  I peeked out just in time to see Gavin’s body being pulled into Reed’s back yard over the wood fence.  I only saw the lower half of his body as he was dragged over head first, legs kicking.  Long thick vines were wrapped all around him, and I realized, in horror, that it was the vines pulling Gavin over.  
I stared in terrified amazement as the rest of Gavin disappeared over the fence.  It didn’t take me long to decide what to do next.  I rummaged through a kitchen drawer for a flashlight and ran to the back yard.  I screamed for Reed, but got no answer.  
“Reed, you talk to me right now!” I yelled, the taste of vomit at the back of my throat.  That’s when I noticed the flowers, my flowers, all wilted and drooping against the fence.  How could that be?  They’d been blooming so bright and so beautiful just minutes before.  
I shoved the flashlight down the front of my dress and jumped up onto the chair against the fence.  I began to climb, using the fence rails as foot holds.  My hands and bare feet scraped against the wood, one palm catching a splinter.  I hissed in pain.  
Straddling the top of the fence, I gaped at Reed’s back yard in disbelief.  It was a total jungle back there.  It hadn’t been that overgrown just a few weeks ago, had it?
I pulled myself over and jumped down, landing painfully on all fours, my splintered hand throbbing.  The grass was so tall, it reached above my head until I stood.  It was nearly to my waist.
“Reed?” I climbed to my feet, trying to make anything out in the darkness.  I pulled the flashlight from my dress and clicked it on, scanning it slowly around the yard looking for Gavin, for Reed.  The foliage was so thick, I couldn’t see more than a few feet around myself in any direction.  
 I listened closely, straining to hear through the cacophony of crickets.  I heard the muffled cries of someone in distress and a soft slithering through the grass.  A saner person would have turned and run.  A saner person wouldn’t have climbed that fence to begin with.  But I put one foot in front of the other, and walked toward the sounds, the tall grass scratching my legs.
As I neared the sounds of what I knew to be Gavin, I was suddenly greeted with silence.  I stood still, puzzled, listening for more direction.  Something tickled my ankle and I shone the flashlight down at my feet to see what it was.  A thin green vine was circling my ankle, winding upwards over my calf.  
Stifling a scream, I jerked back, freeing my leg.  As I did, the beam of my flashlight pointed upwards, illuminating what was right above my head.  The scream I’d just been holding in exploded out of me.
Gavin dangled from a tree, bound and gagged by thick ropey vines.  His eyes bulged from their sockets as the vines tightened around his body, one encircling his throat.  He was already dead.
“He’ll never touch you again,” Reed’s husky voice.  
I still couldn’t see him, but I could feel him.  I tore my eyes away from Gavin and swung the flashlight around the yard, looking for him.
“How are you doing this?” I expected my voice to shake, but it didn’t.  
“I couldn’t tell you everything before,” he murmured, and now I could feel his hot breath on the back of my neck.  Goosebumps littered my flesh.
I took two deep lungfuls of air and turned, catching him in the dim beam of the flashlight.  When the light found him, I nearly dropped it.  
He was naked, all but a single broad leaf that covered him down below, like Adam in the Garden of Eden.  I would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so dire.  The bare muddy footprints in the house now made sense.  A naked person wouldn’t be wearing any shoes, right?  But why?  Why was Reed naked and why was his skin so… green?
I still hadn’t seen his face.  He was so tall, I had to run the beam of light up his body for several long seconds before reaching it.  His hair was a thick and matted clump of leaves and twigs.  I couldn’t be sure if he even had real hair, or if it was all made of plant debris.  
I was right about his eyes, though.  They were green; the color of moss.
There was a tickle at my wrist; another small vine, reaching for the flashlight.  I gasped but held still as it wound around my hand.  I tilted my head back to meet Reed’s eyes just as the light clicked off, throwing us back into a world of darkness.
I felt him bend down, lowering his head to me.  He smelled of earth and musk and fresh cut grass.  I closed my eyes and inhaled.
“What are you?” I whispered, beginning to form an idea, as impossible as it was.
“I come from the forest,” he murmured.  “But I’m a long way from home.”
“But… I don’t understand.  What is all this?  The back yard, the vines, how you look.  Reed, I-”
“I’ll tell you everything,” he said firmly, taking my face in his hands,  “after we go.”
“Go?” I mumbled, uncomprehendingly, as he took my ear between his lips.   
“I’m going to take you away from here.” His lips moved from my ear to just below my jaw.  “Like you’ve always wanted.”
Like I’d always wanted.
“But, I…”
“Are you afraid of me?”  
The question surprised me.  Was I afraid of Reed?  I had no idea who he really was or where he came from.  He said he came from the forest, but what did that even mean?  It seemed he could make plants grow and flowers bloom, and it was obvious he could control vines that seemingly came out of nowhere.  All of this, and Gavin too, hanging from the tree above us.  Was I afraid of Reed?  
“Taryn,” he said, my name a song in his mouth.  
A warmth settled over me, and with it a deep steady calm.  No, I realized, as I dropped the flashlight and sank into him, his arms coming up around me. It was crazy, I knew.  Possibly dangerous, but I trusted him.  I was not afraid.
I felt his fingers grow impossibly long against my back.  They curled around me to pull my body tighter against him.
The grass engulfed us as we fell into it, Gavin our homemade mistletoe.  
Reed chuckled softly as vines coiled around my wrists and bound them together above my head.  I arched my back to push into him and his hands replaced the vines.  We clung to each other as the grass grew taller around us.  
Our skin bloomed with flowers.
***
The police paid a visit to Thomas Bernard and questioned him about the missing man and young girl from next door.
“Who’s that, you say?” The old man squinted up at the officers through his thick horn-rimmed glasses, as they stared down at him from the front door.
“The girl’s mother said she’d been spending a lot of time talking with your grandson the past few weeks,” said one of the officers.  He studied the old man’s face for any reaction.  “Is your grandson home?  May we speak with him?”
“Grandson?” The old man’s milky blue eyes opened wide behind his glasses.  “Why, I don’t have a grandson.  No grandchildren at all, actually.”  
The two police officers exchanged long, heavy looks.
The old man’s house was searched but there was no evidence to support the claim that he had a grandson, or that anyone else had been staying with him.  The place was turned upside down, but no trace of either of the missing was found, until investigators searched the back yard.
The missing man hung from a tree, vines weaving in and out of his nose, mouth, and ears.  They dangled from his empty eye sockets, stained with dried blood.
All that was found of the missing girl was a flashlight, and a short pink party dress.  

Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson has been writing short stories and poetry since the age of ten. Lover of all things horror and fantasy, she writes mainly in these genres, often with a touch of romance thrown in for fun.  Amber lives in Kentucky with her husband and their two crazy but loving little boys.


About the Editor-In-Chief:
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.


About the Editor:
Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson has been writing short stories and poetry since the age of ten. Lover of all things horror and fantasy, she writes mainly in these genres, often with a touch of romance thrown in for fun.  Amber lives in Kentucky with her husband and their two crazy but loving little boys.