ISSUE 4, November 2016​​


Cover Art by Ryan E. Dixon

What Color are Her Eyes
By Tyson West

When Victoria, the lady of the ranch, caught the swirling column of dust rising from the half ton Ford coming up the driveway, she realized that her son's off and on girlfriend for the past couple years was on for the Roundup.  Buck had mentioned that he had said something about inviting the girl. Now the sight of the bright pink stepside dodging pot holes and kicking up dust set Victoria on edge.
It was mid-May and Buck and the hands were rounding up calves born in late January and early February, branding and castrating them.  
Friends and acquaintances who wanted to experience a bit of real ranch life occasionally came over for a day during roundup that often ended in a barbeque with free flowing drinks.  As the ground dried from the winter snows and spring rain, cheat grass awns were starting to nod off from green to a slight reddish color.  Yellow toadflax flowers and spotted pink and white knapweed blossoms shown bright against the green bunch grass.  
Victoria recollected her first trip up the same driveway over 40 years ago in her yellow Buick Skylark convertible. Her bright pink silk scarf waved in the wind. Delbert, her predestined fiancé, commenced courting her after no insignificant prodding on her part.  Prior to Delbert she had little experience with cattle ranching. She had spent time on her girlfriend’s stock ranch, but her father was a wheat farmer. Farmers and ranchers live in different worlds.  Grain farmers work strenuously planting in the fall, then pretty much loaf all winter except for repairing machinery and drinking beer.  When the fields are dry enough, they put in the spring crop, then pray for good weather through the harvest.  If the rain comes, the grain ripens perfectly, and fire or hail doesn’t destroy the crop, they will harvest day and night.  Grain farmers have no interest in fences, which just get in the way of machinery.  Farmers want no responsibility for animals that interfere with their Hawaiian vacations.  Farming is a lot more leisurely life than ranching, but Victoria had no regrets over her conversion.  
Cattle need tending everyday.  A rancher can put them out to pasture but has to be sure they have water and must move them from pasture to pasture to manage the grass.  Delbert would often be out all night when the cows were calving in late January and early February.  Managing insemination and locating the bulls was always an issue in mid spring.  Bulls tear up fences. Repair of fence lines was something ranchers tended to neurotically.  No, a ranch, vast and beautiful though it may be, takes a special breed of man managed by a special woman to make it pay.  A farmer could always lease out his wheat ground to another farmer and retire. Ranching was a lot less forgiving.  Delbert spent many a night out busting up ice on water troughs in the middle of an arctic breakout, feeding the cattle in a blizzard with the hands, or retrieving a cow that escaped through a broken fence.
Ranching could be predictable at times.  Delbert would fall into his routine with the men and leave the strategic thinking to her.  Maybe, Victoria thought, that is how every ranch has been run since the white men and women claimed this land from the Indians.  
A ranch wife especially has to worry about her son's choice of a potential bride.  A rancher has to have a wife who is ranch minded.  A wife has to accept that she lives miles from anyone else. She must be self-sufficient and resourceful and above all, live without needing the companionship of other women.  Victoria wondered if Philomena O’Shaunnessey had the right stuff.  Philly was a city girl and had met her son, Delbert III, who everyone called Buck, at State Tech before he dropped out a couple years short of a degree. Her long manicured fingernails, coiffed black bobbed hair, and slender frame made Victoria wonder if she was capable of dealing with the hardships of ranch life, let alone feeding tired and silent men or bearing children.  
More than that, although Victoria would never admit it, she was jealous of Philly's grace and charm.  Philly did not have a classic figure.  A bit on the lean side, she lacked the big breasts and broad rounded hips of Victoria's German blood. Nevertheless, Philly had a hypnotic way with men.  Victoria could see that in her own lethargic Delbert's response to Philly's scattered behavior.  She had a talent for finding the sweet spot in a man's vanity and massaging it.  She remembered everyone's name, even the distant cousins who floated by from time to time on holidays in a haze of whiskey fumes. However charming she may seem, Victoria was deeply sure, ultimately, that Philly lacked staying power.  Buck was smitten with her, but Buck would have been smitten with the Torvald girl down the road if she just paid him the least bit of attention.  Evidently Ms. Torvald decided that she would rather live in town as a nurse and did not relish Buck's rough and unskilled attempts at lovemaking.  No, Buck's breeding was definitely a problem.  She had to make sure she paired him with the right heifer who could someday, but definitely not too soon, run the ranch. Buck needed a wife who would patiently follow Victoria’s lead while bearing strapping grandsons.  
Outside Philly slammed her truck door and rushed into the house without even knocking. Victoria sensed she would have to solve this problem like any noxious weed infestation.
Victoria yelled for the house girl, "Maria, Maria, we have a guest!" Victoria then turned to Philly and gave her an enormous hug.  
Philly kissed Victoria lightly on the cheek as Victoria smiled and asked, "Would you like a cup of coffee, dear?"
"Oh, I'd love one," said Philly, and she looked at Victoria's grey eyes with her wide, innocent gaze.  
Victoria wondered if Philly’s hair was naturally a deep shade of black with blue highlights or if she just controlled her dye job so well the roots never gave her away.  In this light, she could not tell the color of Philly’s eyes.  Philly wore her bobbed hair lightly coiffed with a bright red bow on the top, in the middle where she parted it. "Oh," Victoria said, "You look wonderful."  
Philly wore tight Levi jeans, not the city designer kind, and a western style cerulean blouse with snaps and white collar. She even sported a big belt with a large silver buckle, of course, not as big as a man’s.
"How's everything at school?"
"Oh, it’s great, I'll be graduating soon with honors.  I'm sure glad I switched my major."
"What did you switch it to?"
"A couple of years ago I switched from elementary education to agricultural business. I am thinking of getting an MBA. Didn't Buck tell you?"
Victoria was taken aback.  She thought, Can this bubble head do math?
“Buck has trouble telling anyone anything that requires more than three one syllable words. I am proud of you."  
Maria, short and brown with dark hair bearing some streaks of grey, ran into the kitchen and smiled warmly at Philly. "Will you be staying with us long?"
"Didn't Buck tell you that he asked me to stay a week to help?"
Victoria laughed, "No, no, he didn't, but I'm sure it slipped his mind. You know how cowboys are. You are always welcome here, dear.  Maria, why don't you get a room ready for Philly, and we will let Buck know that she has arrived.  Buck's out right now branding at Miller's Pasture. We will saddle up a horse for you to ride out to meet him."
"How will I find him?" Philly asked innocently.
"Oh, one of the boys will be coming back sooner or later to pick up lunch for the men and I'll have you ride out with him."
"Wonderful," she said, "I love riding horses, you know.  I had never really ridden until Buck came into my life.  He has expanded my horizons so much. If you don’t need any help, I’ll  freshen up and put on my boots."
Victoria looked down. Philly was wearing athletic shoes.  Evidently it was not comfortable for her to drive in cowboy boots like a real cowgirl.  
As Maria and Philly walked out, Victoria thought through what must have happened.  Buck must have casually mentioned to Philly about coming to the Roundup and Philly instead of understanding that men say things for effect, believed that she was being invited.  "Well,” Victoria thought, "Buck mentioning the Roundup was possible but, if he really invited her, the words probably had gone out of his head just right after he spoke." Philly, of course, did not confirm it with him or emphasize to him that she expected to see him.  Suddenly, it occurred to Victoria that perhaps Philly was using his loose words to wrangle an opportunity to get closer to Buck.  Victoria had done just that with Delbert four decades ago. In spite of Philly’s perky almost frothy talk, Victoria could not deny her feeling that Philly was sizing up the ranch and measuring out her kitchen for a remodel.  No, she was not the girl for Buck.  On another level Victoria was impressed.  Communicating with a cowboy was not easy.  You don't sit there and give them a long lecture.  You hit them at certain strategic times anticipating the answer you lead them to.  A good woman would figure that out after a while and Philly may have figured it out already.  
As Victoria finished checking over the lunches for the crew, she heard a horse approaching.  Ramon, a lean and generally happy Mexican in his late 30s, was riding up.  He was wearing filthy jeans and a long coat.  She smiled. Good ranch hands were hard to find and Ramon was one of the best.  His wife with their four children worked hard and put her family first. There was a trick to managing a ranch hand like any man.  You had to show them respect but at the same time you had to let them know who was boss.  It helped to respect their family. Victoria had been doing this for so long that it was second nature to her. She looked at the mirror on the wall and smiled, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest rancher of them all?"  
The phone rang. Their accountant called to discuss expenditures and tax planning.  Victoria went to the office, pulled out the check register, and put on her reading glasses.  After they visited for a few minutes, Victoria looked up to see Philly listening to her.  The older woman took off her glasses, "Oh, dear, you surprised me. I thought you were still in your room."
"I just came down." Suddenly her voice changed from high sweetness, "How did you do as far as breeding this last year? Were there a lot of dry cows?"
"No. We bring in enough replacement heifers and keep our herd fertile enough that we have a very good rate."
"Buck was telling me that you had a lot of crooked calves last year."
"They were a real problem. We had more than usual."
"One of my professors is doing a research project on lupine and the crooked calf problem.  It's not feasible to spray it all out. It’s just a matter of pasture management so that you don't put the pregnant cows at their critical weeks in the pastures when lupine is blooming."
Victoria was taken aback. She had heard the men mentioning the crooked calf problem, but she was unaware about the research on lupine.
"Does Buck know about this?"
"I told him about it.  He hadn't been paying much attention in class. I spotted this as a problem at your ranch and put some extra effort to learn what I can to help Buck."
Victoria thought, Oh, my Buck, dear Buck.
"Ramon is here," Victoria said, "and he will be taking lunches out to the crew.  Maria's already got them ready. Why don't you tag along and you can see Buck.  I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about."
"Oh, yes we do. I definitely want to see how Roundup works.  I missed it last year, but I am learning a lot about ranching from Buck. He has opened up a whole new world to me."
"My dear," Victoria smiled, "I'm so glad that this is so exciting to you.  But ranching can be very boring. You are out here away from everyone.”
Philly looked her in the eyes, "A woman's work is never done. In addition to having to manage the household, I can see that you have to manage the ranch. I also know that a woman with children has a full time job.  Being a rancher's wife is like having three full time jobs."
For an instant, Philly seemed almost real.  Then she slipped back to the cheerleader jargon.  
"Oh, I think everything is just wonderful here.  I just love the cattle. For sure, I love the sunsets. It's just actually so romantic here at the ranch."
As hard as Philly was trying to appear unthreatening to Victoria, Victoria had already made up her mind.  She was not the woman for Buck.  Victoria did not like the red ribbon and dainty feet, especially when she stared at her own plain broad face in the hall mirror.
"You know, dear, ranch life may seem romantic, but it is a life of hard work.  Cowboys are like all men; dirty, dusty, tired and selfish. They are not, perhaps, the most intellectually stimulating.  A girl like you would be better served marrying a doctor or an accountant or a lawyer in town.  I can even see you with a college professor."
Philly giggled. "Oh, it’s so sweet of you to think of my happiness.  But I love big strong men, and I love cowboys."
 Philly's clear eyes suddenly locked on Victoria's steel grey gaze.  They both smiled warily at each other. An outsider might guess that Victoria was mentoring the young woman or even that they were loving family members.  Victoria smiled and spoke evenly, "Our family is German and a hundred years ago my husband's grandfather came here after serving his time with the Kaiser's cavalry.  We were stockmen then and we marry Germans.  A ranch is not just artsy rocks, romantic arroyos and pretty spring flowers.  It takes good strong Germans to keep the fences up."
Philly didn't blink.
"I may be Irish and everyone knows the jokes about potatoes and Guinness, but the history of Ireland is cattle.   It is in my blood.  I may see the colors of the sunset as beautiful, but I still know the dust and smoke in the air creates such an ethereal shade of crimson."
Each held her stare for a long time.  Each was smiling showing teeth, then Victoria blinked and turned.
Philly too turned into the kitchen and began joking with Maria in Spanish.  She asked Maria about her children and how things were going. She then began talking to Ramon and asked him about his family. She recalled the name of each child and their family dog, Bandito. After Philly helped load the food, she checked the saddle, cinched it to her specifications, and walked slowly around Buttercup, who she had not ridden before. She looked the horse in its eyes.
"What kind of temperament does Buttercup have, Ramon?" she asked.
"She is a good horse except she gets a little skittish sometimes and you have to watch out so she doesn't get away from you."
"What frightens her?"
"Thunderstorms and she doesn’t like bulls for some reason.  We may not see any bulls today as they are all in the South Pasture with the open cows, and we are going to Miller's Pasture."
"Thanks for letting me know. How long have you been here?"
"Oh, I've been here about four years, and Ms. Victoria’s a pretty good ranch woman. And Delbert, he knows what he is doing."
"How's Buck fitting in?"
"Oh, Buck's alright but he is easily led. He's learning and he is a little bit unhappy being under his dad's thumb.  Neither Buck nor his dad communicate real well.  Buck’s going to be a real good stockman when everything is said and done.  His book learning didn't hurt him none, but he would rather be in a saddle than in a classroom."
They rode off together down the trail towards the pasture where the hands were cutting out the calves, branding them and castrating them at the corral.  An old wood stove in the field held a fire of dried cow chips. When the cowboys cut the testicles from the calves they tossed them on the greased surface to cook as Rocky Mountain oysters.  
As Philly rode up waving to the men using her whole arm like a homecoming queen on a float, the hands almost stood up and took off their hats.  Her dark bob wasn't even dusty under her cowgirl hat.  Seven cowboys, including Buck and Ramon, all smiled warmly.
Buck looked at her surprised. "Philly, what are you doing here?"  
"Why Buck, don't you remember you invited me?"
Buck had a genuine puzzled look in his eye.  
"You told me you wanted me to come up and you would give me some Rocky Mountain oysters. I am excited to taste them."  She then licked her lips in a sensuous manner.
The men all started to grin and laugh, then the hand they called Grumpy Joe stood up, "Well, little lady, we welcome ya, and we are happy for ya to enjoy fresh cowboy caviar."
He pulled out a fork and tossed a couple of fried calf testicles on a tin plate
Ramon laughed happily, “Philly, in Mexico we call these huevos de toro.”
She smiled, reached into her pack and pulled out a small bottle of hot sauce. She shook out quite a bit, and pulled out a buck knife which she flipped open with one hand and sliced off a piece. They all stared at her, and she calmly ate savoring each bite. At the same time, however, to this rough bunch, her eyes never seemed so vulnerable and needing their protection so badly. Deep down even Grumpy Joe and the old hand they called Doc, were a bit frightened by her lack of squeamishness, though, even if you got them all liquored up, they would never admit it.
Philly grinned and laughed. "I love the taste of Rocky Mountain oysters but I didn't come here to eat for just myself.  I came here to bring you your lunches."  She and Ramon then began handing out the lunches. She ate some lunch with them, and sat next to Buck.  She wrapped her hand around his arm.  She quivered for a moment as she felt his hard muscles and looked at his calloused hands and imagined him holding her backside and rubbing his day old beard stubble against her soft nipples.
“Are you all right?” Buck asked as he felt her tremble.  He wondered for an instant if the oysters had made her ill.
"I am just fine with you here. You are working really hard here aren't you, honey?"
"Yeah, I really didn't expect to see you."
"You invited me."
"I did?  I don't recall you accepting my invitation if I did, but I am glad to see you."
"Oh, I always like surprising my man.  I see you are wearing the Hudson Bay blanket coat I gave you last Christmas. You look nice in it."
***
Meanwhile back at the ranch house, Victoria was trimming some beef for dinner.  She had culled a crooked calf from the herd herself and led it back to the ranch house.  She shot it between the eyes with a .22 rifle, strung it up with a block and tackle and slit its throat.  She gutted it and skinned it. She hung the carcass in their cooler for weeks to dry age until it was tender and the flavor concentrated.  She enjoyed butchering calves for her family.
The beef was perfect; that the calf had been crippled with bad bone development did not hurt its flesh.
That skinny snip annoyed Victoria.  She worked her hands raw over the years, put up with her husband with loving on his mind coming to bed stinking of whiskey and snoose, dealt with cash flow problems, bad prices for yearlings, and stepped lightly around Delbert's domineering mother for decades. Now she wore Delbert’s mother’s prized pearl necklace. In her mid-fifties, Victoria was damn well planning to run this ranch for another 20 years.  Buck could get a girl that she liked, who would know her place and not some skinny smartass who looked like a runway model with blue black hair tied in a red ribbon.  What color were her eyes?
"The time has come to cull Philly from my herd.”  If Buck was not going to give her up, Philly had to be scared away.  Victoria, as she began marinating the red meat, realized that extraordinary situations require extraordinary means.  She could see Buck getting married to this woman and a divorce.  It could cause financial disaster, not just the child support, but the potential loss of part of the ranch itself.  If this conniving girl persuaded Buck to sign everything into community property they could lose ground. Buck, along with his other siblings, had been given enough individual parcels of ranch land by her, Delbert and the grandparents over the years that it would create quite a mess.
***
Philly stayed out with the hands until almost dark.  She rode back next to Buck, whose eyes followed her slender form as he watched her dismount gracefully.  When Victoria first met her, Philly had never ridden a horse, except for perhaps ponies at the county fair.  Now she was a skilled horsewoman.  
Philly asked if she could help in the kitchen and Maria shooed her away.  "You get cleaned up for dinner."
They ate late, and Philly, hungry from the open air, did not eat in a delicate manner.  Victoria scowled at her as she passed the biscuits.  If she wasn't going to leave voluntarily, Philly would probably have to meet with some kind of an accident.  Hopefully she would just be injured enough that she would lose interest in ranch life, then Buck. But if necessary, Victoria was prepared to do what it took to save the ranch.
Philly sliced off another chunk of the rare steak.  She put it in her mouth and chewed.  Victoria envied her sharp, young teeth, and realized that hers were a bit worn and old.  Victoria may be old but her teeth could still bite into a problem and were strong enough to chew it apart.
Philly giggled, "I love the taste of rare beef."
Philly smiled at Victoria and thought, She's never going to accept me and I'm not going to whine to Buck about it.  I can take care of this myself.  She would get a lot closer to Victoria.    
Delbert and Buck talked in disjointed sentences between big bites of beef about the Roundup and the number of calves this year and crooked calves.  
"We've done a lot better on them," Delbert said, "and I'm not that worried about that this year.  We're going to have to move the cows that bred this year to the Wasmer Pasture."
"I'll take the heifers down there in the next day or two," said Buck. "Maybe Philly could ride down there with me and see what it’s like."
"Yeah," Delbert said, "but don't forget to check that cistern.  You know, the one with the bad motor."
Instead of having an electric pump, this old cistern had a gasoline powered pump and the engine hadn't been working well in the last year or so.  They wanted to make sure it was still pumping adequate water to supply the cows.  
"Philly," Victoria asked, "if you are willing to help me on the ranch here, I’d like to ask you to give me a hand tomorrow morning."
Buck said, "But Mama, I wanted her to go out with me and see how things work on the ranch.  She seems real interested in being here."
"Oh," Philly demurred, "there is nothing nicer than waking up in the early morning and helping your mom if she needs me."
Victoria spoke slowly, “I’d appreciate your help in the morning, but I am sure I could spare you in the afternoon to see Buck.”
As Victoria had Maria start to clear the table, Victoria brought out the glasses for after dinner drinks. Philly declined a drink but had a cup of coffee.
Victoria had offered to get it for her.  However, Philly graciously replied, "No, I don’t want to trouble you."  Philly got up and got it herself. “Can I get you something?”
Philly’s tone troubled her. Victoria decided she would not eat or drink anything Philly brought her.
That night, as Buck and Philly went for a walk, she put her arms around him.  They looked up at the great square of Pegasus in the black sky.  Far from city lights, the stars gleamed especially bright.  She nibbled his earlobe.
Buck stammered, "I don't know how to say this, but I'm thinkin’ about asking you to marry me."
"Oh," Philly whispered with a rehearsed surprise. "Buck, I do love you and I would be honored.  I accept with all my heart. But I don’t think we should say anything to your parents yet. Let's wait for the time we both feel is right."
"Yep." He swallowed and kissed her hard.
They looked up together at the sharp bright stars and saw a meteor flash.  "You know, you can see the stars out here way better than you can in town," Philly murmured.  “Even if you lose one once in a while.”
"Yep," Buck said out of the blue, "I think you are ranch minded and you would be willing to live out here."
"I am ranch minded. I want to be here for you and your family.  I could be a real help to your mother.  She works so hard. I could help her get some rest."
***
The next morning, the men rose before dawn to ride out.  The women were there as well to fix coffee and breakfast. Philly stepped in right next to Maria to help out.  
Victoria, still ragged around the edges from her extra three shots of schnapps last night, glanced over at Philly and scowled. That little snip even managed to get on all her makeup and her red bow in her hair.
As the men went out by the horses, Philly skipped out to give Buck a goodbye kiss.  She caught Delbert talking to Buck.  
"When you get over to Wasmer Pasture, be sure to check that cistern with that motor that ain't working too good.  And watch out for carbon monoxide.  It has a tendency to build up there.  Make sure you get plenty of ventilation and don’t go in there by yourself.  Hold your breath for a minute.  Shut the motor off and let it air out.  Be careful, it happens real fuckin’ fast."
They turned and Delbert saw Philly then he blushed slightly.  "I just want to give Buck a goodbye kiss and a hug."
Delbert turned to climb onto his horse.  
Philly threw her arms around Buck and gave him a big kiss right on the lips.
"Have a nice day, honey. I'll see you later," she whispered in her best Lauren Bacall contralto.
From the house, Victoria called out to Delbert before he rode off, "We need some help here with barn chores; loading some hay and cleaning up outside.  Do you think Luca could help us out?"
“Sure enough, Ma,” Delbert hollered back.
Luca was not exactly the most stable of hands.  He had done time in prison for sexual assault and drugs. Impulsive, he often read peoples’ motives wrong.  
Victoria had initially hoped to send Philly out alone to meet with Buck and the men and take their lunch.  Victoria decided Luca would be a better escort.  She talked to Luca that morning while supervising him cleaning the barn.  She slipped in a few words about Philly almost in passing.
"You know, Luca, that Philly really seems to be a charming girl."
"Yep," he grinned, "she sure seems to be nice to everybody."
"I hope she's the right girl for Buck. She seems to be sweet on him and he seems to be kind of sweet on her."
"Well, it ain't my place to tell Buck what to do with women."
"I've seen the way she looks at you, Luca. I think she has something for you, too. She seems to like big strong cowboys."
Luca had seen her quiver when she put her arms round Buck after she ate the oysters.  He had seen that in women before.
"I wouldn’t think of doing nothing with Buck's girl," he muttered.  He was clearly becoming uncomfortable with the conversation.
"Well, I want you to know, that she mentioned to me that she wonders what kind of man you might be."  Victoria then slipped into more of a motherly tone, "You be careful now, okay."
Victoria had Philly help her with some of the ranch bill paying in the morning, then they went into town in the pickup for supplies.  While they were working, Victoria suggested, "Luca should be done cleaning the barn by now.  I could spare you to ride out with him to where the men are working."
Later as Luca began saddling up to escort Philly out to the work area, Victoria grinned into the mirror in the hallway and straightened her hair.  From the excited tone in Luca’s voice when she told him he would be escorting Philly alone, she knew she had piqued his interest.  
Buck was a big bull.  Victoria implied to Luca that Philly wondered if Luca might be even bigger.
She didn't feel like she needed to warn Philly about Luca's history.  After all, Philly was a big girl.  Just before they headed out, Victoria whispered to Luca, "Hey Luca, you've been really helpful here.  Would you like to have a shot of whiskey?"
"Don't mind if I do." He grinned.  
She poured out a double shot of her husband's best scotch.  He sipped it.
"This is too good a whiskey to slam."
Nevertheless he sipped it down fairly quickly, and then she asked, "You got your thermos there with coffee right?"
"Yeah," he said.
"Let me pour some more in for you. I always like to help our good hands keep a good outlook on life."
Luca mounted his horse a tad unsteady.  
That morning, Buck had forgotten his Hudson Bay blanket coat and Philly had gone into his room to get it to take to him.  She rolled it over her saddle.
After they had ridden down the road a ways, Philly realized that something was a little bit off with Luca.  He was glancing at her, not as men normally do, disguising their looks as if they were looking at something beyond her breasts, but looking at her more intensely as if he did not care that she knew he was looking.  She was wearing a tight blouse and her breasts stood out.  Luca was staring.  She felt uneasy as he slurred his speech.  
"Yeah," he mumbled, "Buck wants us to go check the water supply over at Wasmer Pasture.  They are moving cattle."
"Victoria said that she was going to come out today," Philly recalled.
"Yeah," he said, "that's going to be a bit later in the afternoon, but my job is to escort you out to where Buck is. They're moving the cows into Wasmer Pasture," he repeated dully.
"I am bringing Buck his coat. It’s going to get wrinkled over my saddle.  You and he are the same size, do you think you could wear it?" she asked.
Luca laughed coarsely, “I am bigger than Buck.  I want to be just like Buck."  
As she rode over to hand it to him, he reached out to grab her arm.  She slipped out of his grip and drew up on her horse.
"Well, little lady, you seem like you're something special. Special and hot like the sauce you ate those bull balls with!"
"I'm something special for Buck.  I don’t like your way."
"You will, you will."
She felt scared but sat tall in the saddle and stared at him. "Get on your horse, now!"  
He backed up for just a second.  He shook his head and turned red, then got a grip on himself and complied.
As they rode, he kept glancing at her.  She could sense that he was stewing in his lust and anger.  He wore Buck's coat proudly.  She saw in the distance that Victoria would be coming along soon.  The last thing in the world that she wanted to do was be attacked by Luca, then have Victoria discover them in some kind of an embrace. She could be sure Victoria would confirm Luca’s drunken excuse that she, Philly, had seduced him.
They rode carefully along the rocky trail, past barbed wire fences rusting amid the tall grasses and weeds. This area was full of ground squirrel burrows.  She could see the old cistern up ahead and hear the motor sputtering loudly.
"Say," she said as she rode over to Luca,  "we need to check on that motor there. It doesn't sound like it is working right."
"Would you like me if I did that?" Luca replied, gritting his teeth.
"I'd really appreciate it if you could check it out. I'm worried about the water supply."
"It’s not your worry."
"Yeah, it is my worry, because I want everything to be good for Buck, and for you."
"You know," he sniggered, "Buck doesn't need to know what happens here."
"Oh," she winked, "I can keep a secret. But let's check that cistern out first."
He leered back excitedly and jumped off his horse. She held his horse while he swaggered over to the cistern looking back at her worried, as if she would get away, then he climbed down into it.  The motor popped and sputtered toxically.  
He had been there a few seconds, then began yelling. She looked down and saw he had passed out, red faced with carbon monoxide poisoning.
She waited a few minutes, then looked down to be sure that he was dead.  
She took his horse, and tied it on the other side of a hill out of view of the cistern.  She then rode back towards the direction Victoria was riding.  
She began screaming hysterically and sobbing the minute she saw Victoria. "There's something wrong. He's in the cistern and he's not moving. I don't know what to do."
Victoria sat tall in her saddle. "You little bitch, who is?"
"Buck, he came back to check the cistern. He climbed in─he's not moving.  I don't know what to do." She shrieked, “You have to do something.”  
Victoria slapped her hard across her face. "I'll cut your heart out and eat it, you little bitch." But she did not have time to savor the satisfaction she felt in that slap.
Victoria spurred her horse up to the cistern.  She jumped out and saw Buck's Hudson Bay blanket coat below.  She climbed in frantically. "My son, my special son.” But the false air cheated her as well. After a few breaths, she collapsed.
She realized as she fell, It's Luca, he's wearing Buck's coat. In that instant before she passed out, her last thought was not of God, her family, nor the ranch, but a trivial question. That bitch princess ... what color are her eyes?
Philly waited. When she was sure Victoria was not moving she led Luca’s horse back near the cistern and hitched it to a fence post. She then rode towards the direction where she knew the men were moving the cattle.  She began screaming hysterically when she got in earshot.  
"Buck! Buck! Your mother and Luca, they're in the cistern. But don't go in there," she cried disjointedly. "There's poison gas. We need to get help."
The hands rode up to the cistern with purpose. Using ropes and lassos they carefully and efficiently shut the engine off. Working together, they pulled the bodies out carefully with none of the rest of them getting poisoned.  Both Victoria and Luca were gone beyond revival.  
Philly kept sobbing softly.
Buck, upset with the loss of his mother, summoned all his inner manhood to protect his princess. He had Ramon ride back to the ranch with Philly where Maria gave her a sedative then put her to bed. Ramon called the sheriff who came out immediately and started an investigation.  
The next couple of weeks were a blur for both Buck and Philly.  Delbert seemed, at first, inconsolable, but Philly sweetly and patiently put aside her own grief to care for him.  Philly herself at times seemed so vulnerable and heartbroken that Delbert felt needed. He rose to the occasion to comfort her as a father. His other children who came back home for their mother's funeral appreciated Philly’s help organizing the service.  Philly even ordered special sprays of yellow roses, which had been Victoria’s favorite flower.  Philly, dressed in a classic tasteful black dress with pink piping, stood by Buck's side with Delbert and helped them through the funeral and the reception afterwards. Delbert insisted she wear Victoria’s pearl necklace. She poured Delbert whiskey and she held Buck’s hand.
A few weeks later, Buck stood by Philly as she testified at the inquest.  The deaths were ruled accidental and, as a result of that finding, the ranch collected double indemnity on huge life insurance policies on Victoria.  
That evening after the coroner’s ruling, Buck and Philly sat in the ranch kitchen having a quiet roast beef sandwich from the crooked calf that his mother had slaughtered weeks before.  They drank dark coffee and looked at each other in one of those private moments between a man and a woman who have suffered much together.  
Buck reached out and held Philly's hand.  "I know this is hard for you," he said, "but I'm thinking it might make sense that we get married sooner rather than later. I'm thinking it might be easier for you if you had me to support you emotionally."
Philly looked up into his eyes and squeezed his hands hard in both of hers and said softly, "Buck, I need you so much. I want to be as ranch minded a wife to you as Victoria was to your father."
Buck looked into her eyes, then closed his own as he kissed her. Although he relished thinking of the dark color of her hair and could recall the excited feeling of her lean smooth body and small firm breasts in his hard hands, he still could not remember the color of her eyes. He felt so good as he held her, that he did not want to open his eyes to learn the color of hers.








Tyson West

Tyson West lives in Eastern Washington in smoke and dust on the bottom of an Ice Age flood plain. He enjoys reciting his poetry to magpies and coyotes.
He has published poetry and speculative fiction in various genres in “Fast Forward Festival”, Voluted Tales, and in anthologies “Warlords of the Asteroid Belt”, and “You Can’t Kill Me I’m Already Dead”. He has had two poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry collection “Home-Canned Forbidden Fruit” is available from Gribble Press, http://www.greymaredit.com/. His novella “Mall of the Damned” was published in 2014 by Red Dashboard Publishing, LLC.
For more information please see his profile on “Haiku Registry” online.


Shoreside
By Vonnie Winslow Crist

"What do you need, Will?"
    "Suntan lotion."
    "I've got it," Hiromi said and picked up a plastic bottle that was leaning against her beach chair. She feinted a toss, paused, then tossed the lotion to his ready hands.
    "Thanks." Will unscrewed the lid, dumped a creamy glob onto his palm and slathered his shoulders and arms with the liquid.  
    Hiromi scanned the surf. Their children were diving under the incoming waves. She saw their white teeth and heard their laughter over the swish of surf. Perhaps the blood was thin enough they did not feel the tug of the Ningyo.
    "Did the kids put any suntan lotion on?" asked Will.
    "Mmm-hmm."
    "What?"
    Hiromi turned her head and looked at Will. "Yes, but they're not happy about being slimed." She smiled. He grinned. For a moment, she relaxed.
    "What’s the protection rating on this stuff?" he asked, reaching for the bottle again. "Only fifteen?"
    "Well, not exactly," Hiromi explained. "See, I had part of a bottle of SPF-15 and half a bottle of SPF-30, so I dumped them together. I figure it's probably about a SPF-22 now."
    Will shook his head.
    "William, I have a new bottle of SPF-35 maximum protection if you need some," offered Mother Barrett.
    Hiromi straightened her shoulders. She lifted her eyes from the book she was reading and concentrated on her children as they played with the water.
Will shrugged. "Thanks, but I'm fine."  
Even though Hiromi felt her husband's eyes studying her, she refused to look in his direction. She sat rigid with her hands clutching a copy of Essential Fables. The sand, the beach bag, a thermos, a cooler, and an umbrella pole separated them. She knew there was more.
    "I'm hot," her mother-in-law proclaimed and pushed hard on the aluminum frame of her beach chair. The chair groaned. "Come down to the water with me, William."
    Will nodded. "Going to wade in today, Hiromi?"
    "I don't think I'm up to it," she answered without facing him. "Go ahead; your mother is waiting."
    From the corner of her eye, Hiromi watched Will remove his sunglasses and fold them. Next, he slipped the glasses into the pocket of the freshly-ironed, plaid shirt hanging on the back of his beach chair. Finally, her husband tugged his towel from the beach bag, shook out some stray sand, neatly folded the terry cloth, and placed it on the seat of his chair.  
    Will walked towards the waves, paused, turned back to face her. "You sure?"
    "Yes, go on.  The kids will love having you in the water with them," Hiromi replied.
    Hiromi brushed the rebellious strands of black hair that had escaped her braid from her eyes. She rarely went into the water. When she did, the fairy part of her yearned to shift into turtle or merrow form and drift deeper and deeper into the blue. It was getting harder to control the Ningyo blood. Harder to refrain from transforming, diving beneath the shimmering surface and swimming until she reached the deepest ocean.
    She wasn't sure how many generations ago her father's side of the family had mingled with the Ningyo. Her father, like his father before him, captained a charter fishing boat. Wealthy clients hired the vessel and her captain for extravagant outings. Weekend fishermen, birthday parties, college students trying to impress girls—The Manami was always booked.  The other charter boat captains thought Hiromi's father extraordinarily lucky in finding the best fishing waters. But Hiromi knew the real reason had nothing to do with luck.
    Hiromi's mother came from an Irish-immigrant family. Three generations ago, they had abandoned their seaside village in Northern Ireland not far from Giant's Causeway and set sail for America. So, her mother understood a waterman's life and the strangeness of the ocean. Nonetheless, she remained suspicious of rivers, lakes, and the sea. Years before she birthed Hiromi, before she married a Japanese-American fisherman, her mother had gone to a boardwalk fortune-teller. Madam Zora had foretold her mother's career, marriage, daughter, and more. The last words of the gypsy had been a warning. "Deep water," Madame Zora had hissed. "Deep water will take a loved one."
    Hiromi's mother still feared a family member would be taken by water. Hiromi suspected the gypsy might be right.
    As she studied her husband, Hiromi wondered if Will knew how difficult it was for her to remain land-bound. She loved him and their children, but the tides beckoned to her blood in a voice that grew more urgent by the year.
    She had spoken to her grandfather once about the longing. Papa Kenshin had pressed his forefinger to his lips and made a shushing sound. “Do not draw the attention of the Ningyo with such talk. You are strong. You must ignore this thing.”
    Hiromi's gaze returned to the surf. Their daughter, Aimee, raced out of the foam as Will approached. She grabbed his hand and led him into the waves. Her sons swam to their father like salmon returning to their stream. These four were the anchor Hiromi was tethered to, and for their sakes, she must remain in womanskin.
Mother Barrett scowled at Hiromi from the water's edge. Her arms were folded across her drooping breasts, and her darkly patterned swimsuit's skirt fluttered in the breeze. Hiromi shook her head. Mother Barrett's over hair-sprayed locks remained unmoved by the shoreward wind just as her cold heart remained unmoved by her daughter-in-law's kind gestures. Truth be told, she knew her mother-in-law suspected there was something different about Hiromi and resented her for it.
The corners of Mother Barrett's mouth turned down even further as half a dozen gulls swooped past her. Neither her mother-in-law or the nearby sunbathers paid much attention to the gulls. If they had, they would have noticed each bird carried a small gull-rider on its back.  Dressed in white, gray, and black feathered garments with bright orange eyes and beak-like noses, the gull-riders guided their mounts using pressure and nudges from their legs, feet, and hands.
Hiromi laughed at the gulls and their riders merrily bickering over a discarded bag of potato chips.  
Determined to keep the scavenging seabirds from the chips, Mother Barrett clapped her hands. The gull-riders shook their tiny fists at the dour woman, then wheeled their mounts back up into the sky.
    Hiromi studied her mother-in-law. Mother Barrett's upper arms were larger than Hiromi's thighs. Hiromi looked around her at the dozens of well-oiled bodies stretched out on mats and chairs and beached rafts. Obesity was common, but Mother Barrett's upper arms bothered her.
    She imagined those arms in twenty years when the fat was gone. She supposed they would be great sacks of wrinkled flesh draped on thinning bone. Perhaps then, her mother-in-law would be able to fly if she raised her hands, spread her skin, and ran through the froth searching for a landward gust. But such a thing required magic, and Mother Barrett did not believe.
    Suddenly, her mother-in-law squealed a harpoon-sharp squeal. People put down their books, and some seemed ready to render aid if needed. But there was no emergency, just a woman reacting to the water's chill. Mother Barrett beamed at the people looking at her.
    Hiromi slid lower in the folding chair and tried to read Essential Fables. The sunlight bounced off the book's white pages. The wind snatched her bookmark and sent it skipping across the sand towards the dunes and scruffy beach trees. She closed the volume. There would be no reading today. She stuffed the anthology back into the beach bag and glanced once more at the water.
    Far from shore, a small head bobbed in the waves. Every few seconds, the child waved an arm in the air. Hiromi stood. To her left, she saw the nearest lifeguard was chatting with several girls in scant bikinis. The mom and Ningyo in her knew time was short, so Hiromi shouted for help as she tossed her hat on the sand and raced towards the drowning boy.
    As soon as she got to waist-deep water, Hiromi dove beneath the surface. She called forth the water fairy in her genes and felt her legs merge.
    Gulls flew above her head as she swam. “Hurry. Hurry,” screeched the seabirds and their riders.
    A few flaps of her tail later, she reached the struggling swimmer. The boy was no more than ten and barely able to hold his head above the waves. He tried to say something to her, but only managed to groan as he swallowed a mouthful of water.
    “Don't talk,” urged Hiromi. “I'll have you back on the beach in no time.”
    Hiromi vanished beneath the foam, then quickly popped up behind the child. She circled his upper chest with her arm and began the swim to shore.
    The lifeguard with his brilliantly-colored flotation device met Hiromi and the boy before they reached shallow water. She gladly turned the now-laughing child over to the lifeguard, but lingered in the surf.
    Hiromi's blood pulsed in rhythm with the ebb and flow of the cool liquid that surrounded her. Her hair escaped its bindings and black tresses spread out around her shoulders like a dark cape. She turned her face to the distant horizon, took a deep breath of moist air, and swam seaward. A flock of gulls soared above her head, their riders cheering her on. Then, a small pink shovel bobbed by.
    Hiromi grasped its brilliant plastic handle, looked shoreward, and saw Will and her children standing in the shallows, foam swirling around their land-born legs. Her eyes locked with her husband's, and she knew she could not abandon him. She witnessed the fear on her children's faces, knew she could not leave them.
    Without another glance at the horizon line, Hiromi allowed the human part of her to surface. She swam towards the beach and its dunes and grasses and trees. Willing her legs into being, she did her best to climb unnoticed out of the surf. But the parents of the boy she had rescued waited for Hiromi on the shore. Despite her assurances that any good swimmer would have done the same, they proclaimed her a hero, hugged her, and thanked her profusely. A few other people nodded and waved at her as she trudged across the sand towards her belongings.
    One look at her mother-in-law's face told Hiromi the praise ended here.
    “Whatever possessed you to swim so far out to rescue that boy?” Mother Barrett asked as Hiromi located her hat, wrapped a towel around her waist, and slipped into her beach chair.
    “He needed help, and I knew I could save him.”
    Her mother-in-law huffed. “Well, I certainly hope you don't intend to make a habit of that sort of thing. You should focus on your own children, not some stranger's child. I don't think...”
    "Mom! Hey, Mom!” called her daughter as she raced towards Hiromi. “I didn't know you could swim like that.”
    “There are a few things you don't know about your mom.”
    “Like what?”
    Hiromi laughed, handed her daughter a towel. “We will discuss it later.”
    More than a decade ago, Will and she had named this girl child Aimee. The name was nice, but not the right name for the golden-skinned adolescent who loved water like swallows loved air. Something magical, something watery, thought Hiromi. Nerissa. Her name should have been Nerissa.
    Aimee wrapped herself in the towel and flopped down on a woven straw mat at Hiromi's feet. “Can we have our sandwiches now?"
     Hiromi nodded, pulled a sandwich from the cooler and a small bag of pretzels from the beach bag, and held them out to Aimee.
    Her daughter took the proffered sandwich and munchies. Aimee's sandwich was American cheese on whole wheat. Hiromi had packed tuna sandwiches for the boys and their father, but Aimee didn't eat fish, oysters, clams, or shrimp. “They belong in the ocean, not on my dinner plate,” she'd say when asked about her refusal to eat seafood.
    "Pink lemonade?" Hiromi asked.
    "I brought cola," said Mother Barrett as her chair creaked. "Wouldn't you rather have Grandma's soda, Aimee?"
    Aimee looked at Hiromi, then at her grandmother. Her sea eyes were as changeable as her moods. Today, she liked her mom. "Pink lemonade is fine."
    Hiromi poured a cup of lemonade. Her hand was almost steady. She gave the drink to Aimee and tried to ignore her mother-in-law's frown. Hiromi’s eyes searched the waves for Will and the boys. They were wading in, hungry perhaps.
    It was then she spotted the dolphins.
    "Look," Hiromi whispered. She raised her slightly webbed fingers, gestured towards the horizon.
    Aimee turned towards the surf. Mother Barrett sat like a lump of dough in her chair, grimaced.  
    "Look at the dolphins," Hiromi repeated.
    Her mother-in-law finally saw the mammals. She echoed Hiromi's words. Stood. Pointed. Announced to all within hearing range, "I've spotted dolphins. Look at the dolphins."
    The people looked at Mother Barrett, then followed her finger to the pod.
    There were about ten of the mammals playing offshore just beyond the swimmers. They leapt from the waves, hung for what seemed to be an eternity to Hiromi in the air, then slapped the water. As they swam, their fins sliced the shining surface like waning moons.
    Hiromi was so entranced that she did not notice the clapping at first.
    "Ooh," cried Mother Barrett after a dolphin made a crescent jump. She clapped. Her upper arms undulated. “Again," she demanded.
    Hiromi was shocked. Her mother-in-law was one among many who were clapping, calling for more. The beach people believed the dolphins were performing for their benefit. Hiromi considered the logic of this. They must also think the sun shone to tan their bodies. They probably believed the sea rushed to the shore so they could wade in its coolness. They might even assume that the moon rose from the curve of indigo to lend a silvered light to their lovemaking.
    Hiromi bit her lip. She glanced at her sons standing to her right. They were already taller than she was, and the downy beard of early manhood shadowed their cheeks. Her sons contemplated the dolphins. She recognized the dreamy look in their eyes as they stared at the foam, at the deep water. To her left, Aimee gazed at the frolicking mammals with her mouth shaped like an O. Hiromi knew her daughter fought the urge to swim out to the dolphins and join their game.  
Her children did not clap.  
She felt Will’s hand on her shoulder. He leaned down. "They miss you, brave Ningyo," he whispered. “But you are ours, now.”
Hiromi could only nod. She placed her hand over his. No matter how loudly the tide called, she would remain with Will. Nevertheless, she longed for the salty depths as a dolphin leapt into the air and hovered for a split-second over the water like a question mark.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist (SFWA) is author of "The Enchanted Dagger" (Compton Crook Award Finalist), "Murder on Marawa Prime," "Owl Light," "The Greener Forest," and other books. Her fiction appears in "Chilling Ghost Short Stories" (Flame Tree Pub., UK), "Faerie Magazine," "Cast of Wonders," "Dia de los Muertos," and elsewhere. A cloverhand who has found so many four-leafed clovers she keeps them in jars, Vonnie strives to celebrate the power of myth in her writing.


Not in the Stars
By Caroline Sciriha

John’s name was so apt.
Nicki took her glass and curled up on the woollen throw-over on the sofa. The furniture in the kitchen-cum-living room looked even more worn out than she was after the seven hour flight. The brochure described the grey-bricked cottage as quaint and charming. She was not one to be hoodwinked by a turn of phrase, still she’d expected something better than the rundown street and damp-mottled cottage walls. If John had come with her as planned, he’d be marching her out of the cottage and phoning the agency to complain, though considering the late hour, even John would probably have had to make do until the morning.
Sipping her water, Nicki concentrated on her breathing—what helped to overcome stage fright should help to relax the tension in her muscles. Think positive, Nicki. She was in England after all, at Stratford—home of the revered William Shakespeare. And after years of stringent living, spartan accommodation was nothing extraordinary.
A huge fireplace took up most of the wall in front of her. The oak surrounding it seemed old, perhaps part of the original structure of the cottage. Someone had considerately placed logs in the grate. Catching sight of a box of matches on the mantel, Nicki knelt to light a fire. She remained seated on the floor, the wooden floorboards and flickering red-yellow flame, cocooning her in warmth and comfort.
The wood smoke and earthy tang loosened her muscles. John could go to hell. She had scrimped and saved, taking on any job that came along, supporting him even when he was out of work and his scripts returned. And now she’d landed the role of Nerissa, Portia’s lady-in-waiting, with a leading theatre company in London. She would not let John ruin this opportunity. Until rehearsals started in five days’ time she was going to seep herself in the Bard’s birthplace, and not think of John. Tomorrow, she’d book tickets at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre to watch Macbeth. Perhaps, one day she’d return to England to play Lady Macbeth or Portia.
Or, better still, return for the opening night of one of her plays.
Dream on, Nicki.
Nicki blinked to clear her vision. She could have sworn she’d just seen men dressed in Elizabethan costume drinking and eating in a raftered room on the other side of the fireplace. How crazy is that? Nick rubbed her fingertips down the side of her forehead. Her blood sugar level must have spiked.
The oak frame around the fireplace rippled and swelled. Smoke clouded out the room’s furnishing. Flames spread around her. She had to get up. She had to put out the fire.
Yells. Screams. Horses neighed, wood crackled and cracked. Nicki hurled the rest of the water into the fireplace. The fire sizzled and spat sparks, but did not go out. She reached for the sofa throw and smothered the flames in its folds.
Shadows swirled around her. Men shouted, yelling instructions and curses. Someone grabbed her arm and hauled her through the fireplace and onto her feet.
“Move before it burns down on you!”
The speaker—a man—thrust her out of the burning building. The air hit her with a gust of freshness. Inhaling deeply, Nicki bent over, coughing and wheezing. Everything spun.
Her rescuer held her up. He prised the throw from her grip and draped it over her quaking shoulders. The throw stank of smoke and burnt wool, but its warmth helped stop the trembling.
Men had formed a line down which buckets of water were passed to be flung over the flames. Some men had also climbed onto carts placed below the hanging eaves and tossed water over the burning thatch.
Thatch? She could have sworn the cottage had a tiled roof.
“Will—anyone else inside?”
A burly man in a dirty white apron gripped her rescuer’s arm.
“Nay. This boy was the last.”
Boy? Nicki peered at the man who had pulled her out. Torn sooty leg hose, a doublet—Elizabethan clothing. Her skin prickled. She squinted at the figures putting out the fire. The smoke and darkness made it difficult to see clearly, but they too seemed to be dressed in Tudor costumes.
“What’s happening? Are you in a play?” Her voice was hoarse, her throat dry. She coughed to clear it.
“A play? There haven’t been any players here in months. Were you knocked on the head, lad? The tavern caught fire.” The man, who seemed in his early twenties, had an unusual accent, even for an Englishman. Nicki felt her mouth hang open, and she consciously closed it. A gust of wind blew a strand of the man’s shoulder-length hair across his face.
“Where are you staying?” he asked, swatting the hair out of his eyes.
Nicki looked back at the building she had just left. The moonlight had to be playing tricks on her. The cottage she had rented had been at the end of a decrepit row of houses, and she could have sworn there had just been a step from the pavement to the front door of the cottage. Now the grey-bricked building seemed larger than she remembered and was surrounded by a muddy yard. Dogs and horses were milling around it, and men led the terrified horses away from the sparks that leapt off the roof.
She pointed at the building.
The man snorted. “No one will be sleeping there tonight. Have you friends in the area?”
Nicki shook her head. All her stuff was in the cottage. Her passport. Her credit cards. Her phone. Her insulin! What was she going to do? Fumbling beneath the throw, she rooted around for some loose change in her jeans pockets. Nothing. Nicki stifled a surge of panic—the police would help her get in touch with the American embassy and they’d help her sort out the mess.  
The man fell silent, then he said, “We have a spare bed you’re welcome to, if you like.”
Nicki caught the slight hesitation in his tone. “I—Thank you, but I don’t want to cause any trouble. Perhaps I can save some of my stuff if I get back in. How come the fire engines and police haven’t arrived yet?”
“There’s no going back in—not until the fire’s completely out. What’s that you said—fire…?”
“Will, are you hurt?” A woman in a kirtle and French hood hurried towards them, with a toddler asleep in her arms and another child clinging to her skirts. An older little girl followed.  
“Anne, what are you doing here? Go back home—this is no place for you and the children.”
“I heard about the fire and I knew you were here.” The woman’s eyes were anxious.
“I’m fine, as you see. Anne, this here is…?”
Nicki looked from the man to the woman and the children. Everyone was dressed in Elizabethan costume. Perhaps there was a pageant being enacted in the streets of Stratford.
“Hi, I’m Nicki. Your…husband just saved my life.”
“Master Nicki.”
The woman too had mistaken her for a boy. Perhaps her short hair and the dim lighting wasn’t helping. Nicki opened her mouth to correct the mistake.
“Nicki is short for Nicholas, I presume?” the man asked. “I’m Will. William Shakespeare.”
What the—?
This had to be a joke—in which case she was going to murder whoever was responsible. Or she had better get to a doctor, and fast.
“Anne, love, Nicki has nowhere to stay tonight. I think we can put him up for a day or two, don’t you think?”
Anne? As in Anne Hathaway?
The woman pursed her lips.
“That’s decided then. You’ll be staying the night with us.” Will scooped up the younger of the two children standing by the woman’s skirts. “My brood, as you can see. That’s the eldest—Susanna. This is Hamnet, and that sleepyhead is Judith. Let’s go home, Anne—the fire’s almost out and it’s way past the children’s bedtime.”
The man took hold of the eldest child’s hand.  It was almost completely dark by now, but no street lights illuminated the road. The full moon, however, glimmered on the cobbles. She forced her feet to move. It’s just someone’s idea of fun. You’ll soon hear someone yell “Smile!”
Nicki stumbled in the dark. Few people were out and those they passed nodded a greeting before hastening on, cloaks ballooning in the breeze. She became conscious of the quiet. No cars revved past. No TV sets blared from the rows of houses.
Will turned into a lane and opened the door of a narrow three-story building. Walking in after him, Nicki found herself in a room dominated by a large hearth and sparsely furnished with a long wooden table and stools. Will lit a candle stub, then Anne bid Nicki goodnight and took the two girls up a steep flight of wooden stairs.
“This way,” Will said. He followed Anne up the stairs, with Hamnet in his arms. Nicki hastened to follow the flickering candle. One floor up, she saw the contours of a large bed. Will put Hamnet down, and the boy tottered after his mother. Then, Will continued up another flight of stairs.
Nicki stepped into a long room with a low sloping ceiling. A narrow bed was flush against one wall and opposite it, a table and stool stood below a window. The only other piece of furnishing was a long wooden box at the foot of the bed.
“This is where I like to disappear to when I need some peace and quiet,” Will said with a grin. “You’re welcome to it for as long as you need a place to stay. Tomorrow, we’ll see if any of your possessions survived the fire. Goodnight.”
The man took the candle with him.
Moonlight filtered into the room through the window. Nicki slowly lowered herself onto the bed. Everything had happened so fast—landing in England, receiving John’s email. And now this. If it wasn’t an elaborate joke, she had to be hallucinating.
Head aching, she lay down. The mattress was lumpy and hard, but she was too drained to care.
***
Nicki opened her eyes and stretched. Grey light gleamed into the room through the window, and a faint drumming noise sounded over her head.
Early morning rain washes away the pain. The sound of rain brought back her mother’s soothing voice. Nicki snuggled down and closed her eyes again.
A drop of liquid splashed onto her face. Another followed. Nicki’s eyes snapped open. A leaky roof was the limit. She’d phone the agency and demand better accommodations. But first things first—her bladder was about to burst, and the sound of rain wasn’t helping. Nicki sat up and banged her head against the low rafter.
“Ouch!” Surely the cottage bedroom hadn’t had such a low roof. Her gaze swept the room—a plain wooden table, a stool, a chest.
Shakespeare!
Her heart hammered in her chest.
She was losing her mind.
Or was trapped in the past.
Rain tip-tapped over her head.
She needed to pee.
If this was Elizabethan England there weren’t bathrooms!
She would need insulin. If she didn’t take it—
Nicki rolled down and peeped under the bed. Sure enough there was a bucket.
Oh God! A whiff of something disgusting made her gag. She stood up, hurried to the window and forced it open. A woman across the narrow street nodded at her. She tilted a bucket and its contents poured out into the street below. Bile rose in Nicki’s throat and she leapt back inside. Leaning against the wall, she forced herself not to scream.
A puff of cold air chased a shiver down her spine. She badly needed to pee. She had to hold it in.
She’d wet herself.
If there was a candid camera crew hidden in the house, she’d sue them. Forcing shut her sense of smell, she pulled out the bucket, used it, and heaved its contents out through the window.
She couldn’t believe she had just done that. Nicki slid down to the floor and hugged her knees, trying to still the tremors. Breathe. In. Out. Think. Giving in to panic was not going to help. Nicki inhaled deeply and drew her fingers through her hair and straightened her clothes. She felt dirty and unkempt but there was no way around it—she had to descend and find out what was going on.
The family was up and in the downstairs room. The creaking staircase announced her approach. Silence fell. Anne looked up as she poured some darkish brown liquid into a cup for Will, who sat on a stool by the table, breaking off a piece of bread. The children sat on the stone floor, rolling a woollen ball to one another. Five pairs of eyes met hers. The heat rose in her cheeks.
“Good morrow, Nicki,” Will said. “Would you like some bread and ale?”
“I…Good morning. I don’t want to disturb you.” Ale and bread and no insulin. If I don’t die of my condition, the food, and lack of hygiene, will finish me off.
“I was hoping for some water.”
Anne nodded. “I’m heating some. Sit and talk to Will while I prepare it for you.”
“Your clothes are funny,” Susanna stood up and came next to her. The child’s gaze travelled up Nicki’s jeans and loose shirt.
“Now Susanna that’s not very polite.” Anne’s tone was sharp, and the little girl’s cheeks reddened.
Could this child be such a good actress? But if she wasn’t acting, then—
“You’re right, Susanna. I come from…far away from here.”
“Where are you from?”
“Hmmm.” How much should she say? Did people travel back and forth from America at this time? Nicki swallowed. Was she actually beginning to believe that the impossible had happened, that she had ended up in Shakespeare’s time? “My father’s from the continent—from Venice. I lived there as a child. My mother’s African-American.” Would that mean anything to them?
“Is that why you’re dark?”
“Susanna!”
Nicki blinked. Susanna’s dark eyes glowed with curiosity. The girl was about five years old, but if she was William Shakespeare’s daughter, she seemed to have inherited more than just her father’s looks.
Nicki glanced up and met Will’s gaze. “Black is not counted fair—yet Beauty itself doth of itself persuade.”
Nicki’s heart missed a beat. She knew those words!
“My husband thinks he’s a poet, as you can see. Here, Master Nicki—your water.”
Will’s lips thinned. Crumbs of bread fell from between his fingers.
“Thank you.” Nicki took the pitcher and basin from the woman’s hands and fled back up the stairs.
She had to pull herself together. And if she was really in William Shakespeare’s house she had to make the most of her time. So little was known of Shakespeare’s life and family. She had to find out all she could, and then somehow get back to her time.
Washing as best she could, Nicki was conscious of her quivering limbs. A sharp intake of breath made her swirl round. Will stood on the stairs, mouth open. Nicki yelped, and grabbed and held her shirt in front of her. It didn’t hide much.
“You’re a woman!”
Mouth dry, Nicki nodded.
“Are you in some kind of trouble? Are you in hiding?”
“No, of course not! I—” What could she say that wouldn’t sound completely crazy? “It’s more comfortable to travel dressed in…dressed as a man.”
“Hmmm.” His brow furrowed. “Where are you heading?”
“L-London. I’ll be joining a theatre company.” Nicki flushed. What an idiotic mistake—women weren’t allowed on stage in Shakespeare’s time. “My boyfr—my husband is a script-writer—a playwright.” Well, that was partially true.
“You will be joining him, then.” Will’s expression cleared. “Players can be rather odd—I understand now why you’re so…different.” His gaze swept her up and down. Nicki felt the heat rise in her cheeks. “I’ve never been to London, but I’d like to go there, one day. Anne, however, doesn’t think it a good idea—London’s plague-ridden, she says.”
Will snorted, then a smile curled up his lips. “It’s better if Anne doesn’t know you’re a woman—she won’t understand why I invited you here.” He chuckled. “Actually, she’d be pretty angry at me, and I’d rather avoid that! I brought you some old clothes of mine. You cannot go round Stratford dressed like that.” He placed the clothing over the banister.
“T-thank you.” She was going to wear William Shakespeare’s clothes!
Will nodded and bound back down the stairs. Nicki heard him chuckle again. Her face felt like it was about to burst into flames.
Participating in numerous productions had taught Nicki the proper way to dress for an Elizabethan role, but the authentic stuff felt tighter, rougher and pricklier. And the tremble in her fingers didn’t help.
She jutted out her chin and squared her shoulders—acting the part of a boy wouldn’t be a problem. She’d done that before. But being convincingly Elizabethan was something else altogether. Nicki took a deep breath. Show time.
Returning to the downstairs room, Nicki gave the pitcher and basin back to Anne. The woman’s tight face relaxed into a slight smile. Will was sitting on his haunches by the twins. He caught the woollen ball and pitched it back to Hamnet, hitting him on the head. The little boy chortled and threw it to Susanna.
“I’ll take you to the tavern to see about your things,” Will said, straightening up and rolling his shoulders. “Then I need to go to Anne’s brother’s farm.”
***
The drizzle had stopped and the Stratford streets were bustling with tradesmen and journeymen. Will’s stride lengthened and loosened. Watching him out of the corner of her eye, Nicki got the impression that little escaped him. She lifted her chin and imitated his gait.
Will cleared his throat. “So you’re from Venice—it’s a jewel, I hear.”
Tread carefully, Nicki. “I lived there many years ago.” Her lips twitched. “Venice is smelly, damp and chaotic, but it is beautiful, and elegant, so I suppose it qualifies as a jewel.”
Will frowned. “Both fair and foul then.”
“And foul is fair.” Nicki’s eyes gleamed.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair. All’s never what it seems, is it? You, Nicki of Venice, are a woman but seem a man.”
Nicki of Venice!
“What’s it like to live with players?” Colour rose in Will’s cheeks. “As Anne mentioned, I like to write. Nothing special mind you...” He shrugged.  “Anne thinks it’s a waste of time and paper and candles.”
What?
“Things are difficult at the moment,” Will said, brushing his hair behind his ear. “I used to work with my father and brother, but the business cannot support three families, so I’m helping Anne’s brother—he’s got a farm and we…tolerate each other. But in the evening, when the children are asleep, I go up to the attic. Writing makes me feel alive.”
A muscle at the side of his jaw jittered. “There has to be more to life than this.” With a sweep of his arm he indicated the filthy street, the tradesmen’s shops, the sluggish Avon in the distance.
“Will you show me some of your work?” A knot rose in Nicki’s throat. My kingdom for a horse. She could wholly sympathize with King Richard. She’d willingly embrace this craziness to hold what he’d actually written.
Will stopped in his tracks. Nicki’s stomach muscles clenched.
“Can you read and write?” His eyebrows hooked. “Anne can’t. I read what I’ve written to her, sometimes.”
“I know how, and I’d really like to see your work.” She licked her lips.
His long hair was in front of his eyes again.
He looks so young. She longed to reach out and push his hair back.
“I’ll show you some of my poems.” His eyes glowed. “Perhaps I’ll write one about you tonight. You’re strong-willed and clever, and so different from the women I know.”
Nicki swallowed. Clever! John hadn’t thought she was clever. You’ll never be a writer, he had said. You don’t have what it takes. And her pile of rejection slips confirmed his judgement. As for strong-willed…She should have been the one writing the Dear John letter.
“You’re a dark lady—in more ways than one.”
Nicki’s breath caught in her throat.
“Here’s the tavern.” With his chin, Will directed her gaze to the commotion ahead. Tables and stools were piled in front of the grey-bricked building, and men were climbing up ladders to patch the damaged roof.  Will waved to a brawny man with a fringe of hair around his head.
The man strode towards them. “Will, the tavern’s closed for today, but we’ll probably open tomorrow. There’s less damage than I feared, praise the Lord.”
“Excellent! Master Nicki was here yesterday and he’d like to search for his things. He left them here in the confusion.”
The man shrugged. “Look around. We hauled out everything and threw away what was too damaged to save.”
Nicki thanked the man and began to meander around the piled furniture. She had very little hope of finding her bags or insulin kit. If the tavern keeper had found anything so outlandish he would have surely remembered. Nicki was sure her stuff—and most importantly her insulin—was back at the cottage, over 400 years away.
“There’s nothing here, Will. Let’s go.  You need to get to the farm, I believe. Is it far?” A visit to Anne Hathaway’s cottage had been on her to-do list. She just never imagined she’d be visiting with Shakespeare.
Will shrugged. “It’s at Shottery—about a mile away. Bartholomew can be a bit of a bear at times, but he’s got a good heart, and there’s always work to be done on the farm.”
The so-called cottage turned out to be a sprawling farmhouse, with a patchwork of cultivated land beyond it. Poultry waddled freely around a large farmyard.  
A grey-haired man and a young girl came towards them. “Will, you’re late!” The man’s voice boomed across the farmyard. “I need you in the fields, and there’s still the poultry to feed, and the barns to clean.”
“Good morrow to you too, Bartholomew. I’ve got another pair of hands with me today.” Will turned to Nicki. “Are you willing to do some work here? A little money or produce might help you on your journey.”
“Yes, of course. What can I do?”
Will’s lips quirked. “Well you heard the man—there’s the poultry to feed and the barns to clean.” He began to unbutton his doublet.  “Look, that’s Anne’s little sister. She’ll tell you what to do.”
Working on the farm was back-breaking work, but Nicki found herself enjoying it. Joanie was a pleasant companion who worked by her side all day. At midday, Nicki joined the extended family inside the farmhouse. The women of the house placed loaves of bread and cheese and a hunk of meat on a long table. The spread of food and the smell was appetizing, and Nicki was ready to devour whatever was placed before her.  The problem was she was only given a knife to eat with. Nicki watched Will and the family and she copied what they did.
By the end of the day, Bartholomew mellowed enough to suggest she come back the following day. “There’s always work to be done, if you’re willing,” he said, handing her a bundle of vegetables. He gave Will a trussed hen—for Anne and the children, he said.
By the time they returned to the house, the sun had begun to set. Nicki handed Anne the vegetables. She hoped the woman hadn’t seen the shake in her hand—her insulin was due, and her body was feeling the toll.
The hen squawked—perhaps like her, it too knew that its time was running out.
“I’ll be cooking that tomorrow,” Anne said, noting her interest. “Your water, Master Nicki.” She gave Nicki a pitcher and basin.
Nicki thanked her and trudged up to the attic to wash off the worst of the sweat and dirt. One aspect of Elizabethan England she hoped not to witness was the killing of that hen.
Stomping footsteps and a discrete cough signalled someone’s ascent. Nicki hastily shrugged on her shirt.
“May I come in?” Will asked, standing below the stair opening.
A slight smile tugged the corner of Nicki’s lips. “Yes, of course.”
Will walked up the rest of the steps, clutching a sheaf of papers. Nicki inhaled sharply. “These are a few things I’ve written. They’re poems, but I was thinking of starting a play next. Perhaps a history or comedy—I don’t know yet.”
Nicki licked her suddenly dry lips. She forced her legs to move closer to him.
He held out the top paper. “I wrote this for Anne a couple of months after I met her.”
Nicki stood by the window and caught the lingering light on the yellowing sheet. The handwriting sloped and the splashes of ink made it difficult to read. Nicki slowly deciphered the words.
‘Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate'
To me that languish'd for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying 'not you.’
The paper shook in Nicki’s hand. She remembered reading this.
“It’s not great poetry, I know. Sometimes I think Anne’s right and I’m just wasting my time.”
“The more you write, the better you get.” Her gaze met Will’s.
He nodded. “It almost sounds like you know what it’s like. I suppose your husband feels the same way about his writing.”
And I, but she couldn’t tell him that.
“I’d like to show you something I composed while tilling the land.” Will shuffled the papers till he found the one he wanted. “Mind, the ink is still fresh—I’ve just jotted it down.”
‘In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.’
“You were my Muse, you see.”
“It’s… beautiful.” The Dark Lady sonnets had always touched a chord in her heart. Nicki’s eyes widened.
“Hmmm. I’m not sure how I’ll finish it. But you’re good for me—you got me writing again. It’s been months since I put pen to paper.”
Nicki swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. “Never stop writing, Will. Whatever happens, you have to write.” Listen who’s talking. She should practice what she preached. She forced herself to give back the sheet of paper. “I want to read your work and act in your plays.”
“Ha! That’s a good one! Women will never be allowed on stage!”
A slow smile formed on her face. “Who knows—perhaps one day women’s roles will be acted by women. It’s up to us to work for what we want.” Her eyes crinkled. “‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’”
“I like that—it sounds like something I’d want to write about someday.” Will cocked his head. “Anne’s calling us down for supper. Let’s not keep her waiting—there’s nothing she hates more than food going cold: unquiet meals make ill digestions!”
***
That night Nicki tossed and turned in bed. She had lived long enough with her condition to know that the following day could easily be her last.
If she wanted to live, she had to find a way back to her own time.
Or, she could stay and be part of Will’s life for as long as her condition allowed.
When the first streaks of dawn began to light up her room, she rose from the bed. Her head spun and she steadied herself before heading for the pitcher and basin she had taken up with her the previous evening. The cold water helped to revive her, but she still felt dizzy and nauseous. It would only get worse.
Nicki put on her shirt and Will’s hose and doublet. She bundled her jeans into the smelly throw-over which was dappled with burn marks. By the time she descended the stairs, Will and Anne were up and stoking the fire. The children, however, were probably still asleep, as they were nowhere to be seen. But the hen was still alive, thrashing against its bonds.
Anne glanced at the bundle in Nicki’s arms.
“I would like to thank you both for your hospitality, but I have to be on my way,” Nicki said, her voice husky.
Will frowned but Anne nodded. She sliced off a wedge of cheese and wrapped it and a loaf of bread in a cloth.
“To start you off on your journey,” Anne said.
Nicki thanked her and tucked the parcel into the folds of the throw. She found it difficult to look at Will. All it would take for her resolve to waver would be Will suggesting she stayed on.
“I’ll come with you to the tavern. You might find a travelling companion there,” Will said, taking his cloak off the hook behind the door and swinging it over his shoulders.
Raindrops splattered over their clothes. It felt appropriate and served to hide the tears that fell despite Nicki’s best efforts to control herself.
The yard in front of the tavern was clear of the furniture that had been dragged out the previous night. Instead, horse-drawn carts, laden with odds and ends, stood in the yard.
“Look Nicki, what luck! A troupe of players. If they’re heading to London, you could travel down with them. I was worried about you travelling on your own. The roads are not safe.” Will strode up to one of the men by the carts. After exchanging some words, Will beckoned to Nicki and walked into the tavern with the man.
Nicki followed at a slower pace. Despite the early hour, the large room was crowded. Wine flowed and the loud talk roared in her head. Will and the man joined others sitting on stools around a trestle table. Nicki’s gaze swept across its length, and her lips curved into a smile. The handsome man with the short trim beard Will was talking to would probably play the lead roles, while the boy across from him would play the parts of women.
Will beckoned and Nicki waved and smiled at him. She longed to walk across the room and sit next to him. Will called for wine and the actors banged on the table with their cups. Will joined in.   
Nicki’s gaze glided over the rest of the room. No one was paying her any attention. On unsteady legs, she wound her way to the fireplace. Kneeling by the grate, she placed her bundle on the ground. Flames rose before her. She inhaled the smoke and waited. Nothing happened. She reached for the bundle and extended her other hand towards the flames.
The sounds in the tavern dimmed.  Unclear at first in the haze and smoke, the contours of a sofa began to materialize. Her empty glass was on its side, rolled against the coffee table. And on the coffee table was a used insulin vial.
Nicki quickly withdrew her hand and stood up. Will was still talking to the striking-looking actor. Perhaps she could stay a little longer. Maybe this was when Shakespeare left Stratford for London. They could go together.
How long could she survive without insulin? A few days? A week? And if in some miraculous way she reached London, she wouldn’t be allowed on any stage in Shakespeare’s England.
This was not her time and it was not in her stars.
But William Shakespeare considered her clever and strong. She wouldn’t spend her life in the shadow of any man, be it John or even if that man was Will. Never stop writing, she’d told Shakespeare. She’d take her own advice. She needed to return to her own time to be the woman Will thought she was.
His name was apt too.
Nicki scooped up her bundle, and reached for the flame.


Caroline Sciriha

Caroline Sciriha lives in Malta, where she works as a Head of Department of English in a State Secondary School. She writes fiction—especially fantasy—whenever her day job allows. Her work has appeared in a children’s anthology titled Childhood Regained and in New Myths.


The Return
By DJ Tyrer

Lisa had to pull over to the side of the road just after taking the slip road off the motorway. She felt nauseous. Her hands gripped the wheel tightly, knuckles white. Her breath came in rapid gasps as she fought to control herself. She hadn’t had a panic attack like this in a couple of years; they had been under control. She gasped a curse.
“Control yourself,” she muttered between breaths. “Stupid.”
If she were honest with herself, the reason she was returning to her childhood home in the market town of Hampden was a large part of why she was reacting like this. But, most of all, it was the fact she was returning at all. Lisa hadn’t been home in years.
She found herself replaying yesterday’s events as her breathing slowly returned to normal. She loosened her grip on the steering wheel, as if analyzing them allowed her to assert control over them and neuter the shock she’d felt.
It was almost exactly twenty-four hours since she had answered the door to discover a policeman. He had seemed oddly nervous.
“Miss Price?” he asked. “Miss Lisa Price?”
“Yes?” Her answer was as much a question. She hadn’t called the police, not in months, and had not knowingly done anything to attract their attention.
“Do you mind if I come in?”
Reluctantly, she nodded and led him into the lounge.
“What is it?”
He didn’t answer directly, but asked, “Is your father...” – he took out a notebook and confirmed the name – “Raymond Butler?”
“Yes.” She had adopted her mother’s maiden name.
“I’m sorry to tell you he’s dead.”
“Oh.”
“Sorry.”
She nodded.
“He’s dead,” he repeated, as if uncertain she had heard.
“Yes, I understand. We weren’t close.”
“Oh.” He looked relieved. “I hate this part of the job,” he added, vaguely.
She knew she was supposed to feel upset, but if she felt anything then at the news, it was numbness. She and her father had been dead to one another for years. Now, she wondered if it had taken the last twenty-four hours to process the fact, for it to hit her. She couldn’t be sure.
“How did it happen?” she asked after a moment.
“Accident, apparently. I’m afraid I don’t have any details. You’ll need to call the local station.” He jotted the number down for her.
“When?”
“Um, his body was found two months ago. Seems there was some sort of trouble identifying him and then, of course, they had to locate you.”
She supposed that hadn’t been easy.
He left and she called the local station. The detective she spoke to wasn’t any more helpful, just saying something about the condition of the body and telling her that he would need to speak to her.
Although he’d repeated that it was an accident, she had the impression they suspected more.
“What sort of accident?” she asked at last, tiring of his evasiveness.
“He was found in the cellar of his house next to some sort of... contraption. The machine had apparently exploded, killing him.”
“Oh.” Her father had always fancied himself an inventor, had preferred to spend his time working on some new gadget than spending time with his family. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was probably how he would’ve wanted to go.
After promising to arrange to come in and speak to him, she had phoned her father’s lawyers. It was a brief conversation and they were either unwilling or unable to elaborate on the details of his death.
“He never changed his will,” the lawyer said, at last, “which means you’ve inherited everything. There isn’t much in the bank account, but there are some shares and the house, of course.
“Now,” he went on, “we could courier the forms to your address to sign, but it would be quicker if you could come into the office.”
She had said she would come down to Hampden, thinking that she could speak to the detective, arrange the clearance of the house and put it up for sale and then, be gone forever. She was regretting that decision now. Perhaps it had been some perverse spark of self-loathing that made it for her.
Still, she could be quick. Visit the lawyers today, make some calls, see the detective tomorrow, then drive out of Hampden and never return.
The sooner she was done, she told herself, the sooner she could leave.
Lisa restarted the engine and headed for Hampden.
The town looked little different to her memories: it had been in the grip of a recession when she left and was in one now; there was no evidence the intervening years had been much better. Shops were shuttered. ‘For Sale’ signs sat outside numerous houses. Rubbish was strewn about the streets as if nobody cared about the town.
Her visit to the lawyers didn’t take long. They appeared to be one of the few thriving businesses and got her through the process with a thrifty efficiency. She signed the paperwork and accepted the keys for the house.
“Your father left this for you,” the lawyer said, handing her an envelope with her name on it.
Lisa slipped it into her jacket pocket and set out for the house, leaving it unopened; she had no interest in whatever her father had to say to her from beyond the grave. They had said everything there was to say years ago.
Her childhood house was on the edge of town. It was known as the Old Rectory, but hadn’t belonged to the church in over a century. The old rectors had clearly had money as it was a tall, wide building, starkly Georgian. It held no happy memories for her.
Lisa parked on the gravel drive and crunched her way across to the front door. The bed of roses in front of the house was gone, replaced by lawn. She let herself in and found herself standing in a familiar entrance hallway. Although the paint was peeling and her father had clearly neglected the house, she was surprised at just how clearly she remembered it.
Returning home was not an enjoyable experience. Nothing about the house was welcoming and none of the memories it held were pleasant ones. She wondered if she was making a mistake staying even just one night.
Lisa went through into her father’s office and tried the landline; it was dead. She got out her phone, but could get no signal. She would have to make arrangements tomorrow in person.
Feeling drained, she decided to go to bed. She couldn’t face revisiting her childhood bedroom and some ingrained fear or respect deterred her from sleeping in her father’s bedroom, so she headed for the guest room. It smelt musty, as if it hadn’t been aired in years, but was better than the alternatives.
She climbed into bed, but could only toss and turn, unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. Nightmares of a childhood she’d spent two decades forgetting surfaced now in the place where they had acted out. Horrible memories of the events that had seen her leave to live with her aunt in London. The terrible events that had been the catalyst for her salvation. All that and thoughts of her father’s death...
“Stuff this,” she muttered at last, throwing back the covers, swinging her legs out of bed and sitting up. If sleep wasn’t going to come, she would confront the reason for her being back.
Lisa stood and got dressed; if she were going down into the cellar, it wouldn’t be in her nightdress.
She went downstairs. Feeling a little chilly, she pulled on her jacket, before opening the cellar door. She stood for a moment, undecided. She had only the vaguest memories of her father’s workshop. Once, when she was little, he had tried to interest her in his handiwork, but when he realised such things held little interest for her, had barred her from it.
Lisa took a breath, flicked on the cellar light, then descended the stairs, which creaked and shifted alarmingly. She almost did an about-turn, but kept going.
Suddenly, there was a loud crack and her foot went straight through the wood of the step, pitching her forward down the last few steps. She lay stunned for a moment, then slowly picked herself up. Checking herself, she was surprised she seemed to have suffered nothing worse than a few bruises.
Cursing her father for letting the stairs get into such a state, she looked around.
The cellar was large. Lisa had expected it to seem smaller, now that she was grown, but it retained its size. Perfect for the role her father had co-opted it into.
There were the workbenches and tool racks, of course, but the room was dominated by a huge machine that appeared to be composed of copper tubing and strung wiring. What it was for, she had no idea.
She walked over to it. As she did so, she brushed against the corner of the workbench, her jacket snagging on it and pulling free a chunk of wood.
Lisa looked down at it in surprise. It was a section of the bench and it had just snapped free.
Picking it up, she turned the piece of wood over and over in her hands, pieces flaking away as she did so.
Perplexed, she tossed it onto the workbench and noticed that the metal tools seemed tarnished and rusted. A saw-blade lay snapped in two on the workbench and a pile of crumbs appeared to be all that was left of its handle.
Lisa suddenly felt nervous. Something wasn’t right, but she had no idea what it could be. A lingering curiosity warred with the sudden, nagging fear.
One quick look, she decided, then she could go.
She examined the network of pipes and wires, but could no more discern what it did close up than she’d been able to at a distance. She sighed, tiring of the exercise. It seemed she could no more understand her father than he’d been able to understand her. A melancholy sensation washed over her and she reached out, wistfully, to caress the copper-work, the only remaining connection to the father she’d lost so many years ago.
There was a sudden flash and she felt as if she were plunging into an abyss. Then, she struck the cellar floor and found herself staring up at the joists of the ceiling far above.
For a moment, her brain didn’t quite seem to be functioning, then the fog began to lift and she realised she must have been electrocuted. She swore.
Then, she swore again as she pushed herself up onto her elbow and saw the machine had vanished.
Lisa looked about, startled. For a moment, she thought she must be looking in the wrong direction, then that it had blown up, but there was no sign of any pieces of it lying about. Had the explosion vaporized it? What the hell had her father been working one?
She staggered to her feet and felt her head for any contusions. Was she concussed? She certainly felt woozy, disoriented. The room seemed subtly different, as if she were seeing it through a lens. She needed to sit down.
Looking around, she saw the workbench: there was no sign of the damaged corner, nor of the broken and crumbled saw and corroded tools. What was going on?
Lisa headed for the stairs and started to climb, only to stumble and nearly fall as she realised there was no broken step. A cold sensation of fear swept through her as she tried to understand what was happening.
She burst into the hallway and was surprised to see that the paint, rather than flaking and peeling, seemed fresh and new. She looked about in confusion.
A sound on the stairs made her look up. A man was standing, halted in mid-step, looking down at her, his expression one of surprise.
Lisa screamed and ran for the front door, somehow managing to wrestle it open, and ran out into the night.
The man had looked exactly like her father as she remembered him.
***
Lisa’s eyes flickered open. There was sunlight. Birdsong. She wasn’t in bed. She sat up and realised she’d been lying on the ground. She appeared to be in a copse of trees.
How did she get here? She tried to make sense of her memories. She remembered the nightmare of seeing her father’s ghost, of running out into the darkness. Had she really? Apparently. She must have run out into the fields until she could run no more.
Was she going mad?
She took out her phone, but it was dead.
The electric shock. Yes, it made sense. Her father’s machine had zapped her, killing her phone and scrambling her brain. Obviously, she’d had some sort of fit, hallucinated, whatever, and ran out into the night.
She needed to get home... back to the house, then drive over to the hospital, have herself checked out.
Standing, she brushed leaves off her and tried to orientate herself. It had been so long, but she thought she knew where the copse likely was, only about half-a-mile from the house.
It didn’t take her too long to find the road and, from there, it was straightforward to walk back to the house.
There it was.
Lisa pulled up short. Where was her car?
Standing just outside the gate, she stared at the empty driveway. Then, she looked at the house and garden, each subtly different from her fleeting memory of her arrival yesterday, yet so familiar, nonetheless. With a start, she realised the roses were where they had always been in front of the house.
She began to shake.
Suddenly, there was a click as the front door began to open and Lisa stepped back into the shelter of the hedge. Movement in the hallway, then she saw the man. The man who looked just like her father.
“Hurry up, you’ll be late for school,” she heard him call in her father’s voice.
“I’m coming,” she heard a voice reply. A voice equally familiar.
Quickly, Lisa retreated up the road a distance, fearful of... what, she didn’t quite know.
This couldn’t be happening. Couldn’t be real.
And, yet...
When she looked back, she could see at the gate to the next house along, a girl and a boy, each in school uniform. She recognised the brand-new bag the girl had slung over her shoulder. There was only one day this could be.
It was impossible.
It was horrifying.
“I’m mad,” she told herself. But, somehow, she knew that wasn’t true. This was real. Somehow, she was living that day over again. What had her father been working on? Suddenly, the state of his workshop made a terrifying sense. It was real.
She had to get back. But, how?
***
Lisa waited till the man – she couldn’t bring herself to think of him as her father, no matter what she now believed – left, later that morning, then went back inside the house. It was a mercy the locks hadn’t been changed in the intervening decades, the key sliding in and turning without effort.
If she were honest, Lisa had no idea what she was doing here. Her father hadn’t made his machine yet, wouldn’t for years. What could she hope to find? Had he started planning it? Had something come back with her? Was there a way back?
Was she trapped?
She went down to the cellar again, but there was nothing to help her. Although she searched all through it, she was forced to admit defeat.
She sat down on the floor where she’d found herself earlier and began to cry. She felt as if she were in a nightmare, but no nightmare smelt or felt or sounded as real as this. No matter what she wished, she knew she would never awake from it.
Lisa tensed. The door upstairs opened. He was back.
She stood and wiped her eyes.
There was the sound of footsteps overhead.
Then, the cellar door opened and he came down the stairs, halting at the bottom to stare at her.
“You again!” he exclaimed. “Who the hell are you?”
“Your daughter,” she said, knowing the answer would make no sense to him.
He continued to stare and shook his head.
“Look,” she said, “I know it sounds crazy, but you’re my... dad. You... died – in the future – and left some sort of, well, a time machine, I guess, down here. I touched it and there was a sort of flash and I found myself here. In the past. Your present.”
“You’re mad,” he replied, and she knew she’d receive no help from him.
She started to cry again and, pushing past him, ran up the stairs and back outside.
Lisa wandered slowly back into town. If she didn’t look too closely, she could pretend nothing had happened, that she was still in her own time. In many ways, the town had barely changed at all.
As she wandered the streets, it struck her what a predicament she was in: she had no money on her, not that it would be useable, and no means of accessing her account. It was never like this in the movies.
She spent a hungry few hours waiting. If this was the day she believed it was, she had to be there, had to see; like a driver gawking at a car smash.
Lisa positioned herself on the route between the school and the Old Rectory. Despite all her attempts to erase this part of her past, the route, the cracked paving stones, the overhanging trees, all of it was seared into her memory.
Then, she saw him. The boy she knew so well. Walking alone. And, behind him, closing fast on the oblivious boy, a gang of lads, all a year or two older.
They reached him and the name-calling, the abuse, began, quickly followed by the shoving. The assault would begin in a moment, she knew. The vicious, unwarranted beating born out of a visceral fear and loathing.
She couldn’t stand idly by and watch.
“Oi!” she shouted, running towards them. “Leave him alone!”
Startled, the boys paused, glared at her. In the present – her present – they might have turned on her, but here, now, an adult commanded enough respect or, at least, fear to chase them off. A couple of departing blows and they were running away, shouting their crude insults, threatening retribution on him.
She helped the boy to his feet. He was in a mess, uniform dirtied and torn, nose bleeding, but it was far less than she remembered.
He looked up at her, confused, and she hugged him.
“Don’t be ashamed,” Lisa said. “Go home and tell your father you want to go live with your aunt.” She smiled and added, “I used to be just like you. Believe me, it all will be alright.”
She watched as the boy she once had been walked slowly homeward, keeping an eye on him to ensure the lads didn’t return for another round. She remembered the awful beating she’d suffered. Her father had declared it was all her fault, that it wouldn’t have happened had she just been ‘normal.’ Then, declaring her an embarrassment, he’d packed her off to her aunt. That had turned out to be the only good thing he ever did for her.
As Lisa watched her past self go indoors, she slipped her hands into her pockets and felt the envelope her father had left for her. Suddenly curious, she pulled it out and tore it open. Inside was a sheet of paper. She unfolded it: a pencil sketch. She recognised what it depicted: it was the machine in the basement. Above it were the words: ‘I’m so sorry.’
Had that always been what it showed? What it said? Or, had her presence changed everything? Had her life changed because of her actions? Had her father remembered meeting her? Had he – and she prayed perhaps he had – come to accept her for who she was?
There were so many questions and only one way for her to learn the answers.
She looked again at the schematic and wondered if the machine really could return her to her own time.


DJ Tyrer

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), State of Horror: Illinois (Charon Coin Press), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), Tales of the Black Arts (Hazardous Press), Ill-considered Expeditions (April Moon Books), and Sorcery & Sanctity: A Homage to Arthur Machen (Hieroglyphics Press), and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor).



Bring Down the Sun
By Randy Hulshizer

Ping sat perched high up in the Great Tree. She pried apart the branches and peered at the crowd gathering on the lawn far below. Cheng had led them here. He might not have wanted them to follow, but they did, and they would not go away until they got what they wanted.
How small they look from here, thought Ping. How harmless. As if she could step on them and crush them like ants. But she did not want to hurt them. She only wanted them to leave her alone.
From childhood, Ping had known she was unusual. She knew by the way Li Qin talked to her like she was a princess, and by the way Kong ignored her like she was invisible, and by the way Cheng looked at her like she was a meal. But she never imagined things would end like this.
***
A year ago, shortly after Ping turned thirteen, she began to wonder if something was wrong with Cheng. Ping had already begun to blossom in the ways of womanhood, "like the early bud of spring," her mother said. But Cheng, almost sixteen years old, stood two inches shorter than Ping and had not yet developed his manly voice. His shirt and trousers hung loosely around his scrawny body, but despite his stature, his father, Kong, spent countless hours with him, preparing him to lead. "The late bloom blooms best," Kong often said, clapping Cheng on the back.
Ping's mother, Li Qin, had been forced to marry Kong at the age of thirteen. When Li Qin was fourteen, Cheng was born, followed almost three years later by Ping. Although Li Qin's life with Kong was difficult, she did her best to care for the children and create a pleasant childhood for them.
Perhaps a blessing in disguise, Kong was often away on business. He seldom stayed at home for longer than a day or two at a time, and when he was home, he spent his time with Cheng, teaching him the ways of manhood. Kong rarely spoke to Ping, or to Li Qin, and when he did, his words were harsh with disapproval.
***
One afternoon, as Ping scrubbed the floor of the main house, she heard Li Qin and Kong arguing in the kitchen.
"Ping is too young," said Li Qin.
"No," replied Kong, "She is the age you were when you began to perform your duties."
Li Qin began to protest again, but a heavy, dull slap cut off her words, then a crash.
Ping rushed into the kitchen to find Kong leaning against the wall and her mother sprawled on the floor amidst broken pottery. She knelt beside Li Qin, whose mouth hung open, blank eyes staring back unseeing. Ping cradled her in her arms, whispering "mama, mama," letting tears drop to Li Qin's face. She did not respond. Ping tried to brush away the tears from Li Qin but found herself smearing something dark and red. A trickle of blood ran down Li Qin's cheek into her mouth, but it was not Li Qin’s blood.
Horrified, Ping pulled her hand away. A deep gash ran across her palm like a sinister smile. She must have cut herself on a pottery shard as she knelt, she thought. She tore a piece from her sleeve and wiped the blood from her mother's face. Then she tied it tightly around her own hand to stop the bleeding.
"Ping?" broke a voice behind her, and she turned. Cheng stood in the doorway, his eyes curious but impassive.
"Mama!" Ping sobbed, rocking her mother's lifeless body against her chest. "Father killed her!"
"Away, Ping Mei!" bellowed Kong from the dark corner of the room. He rushed to where Ping held her mother and grasped her shoulder roughly. "She must learn her lesson as you must learn yours!" With a strong thrust, Kong sent Ping sliding across the floor head first into a stack of wooden shelves in the corner of the room. They crashed on top of her.
Ping rolled from under the shelves in time to see Kong bend down toward Li Qin, whose body lay spread out face up in the middle of the floor. As Kong's face approached Li Qin's, her arm suddenly swung up in an arc toward Kong. In her hand, Li Qin held a sharp piece of broken pottery. It sunk into the side of Kong's head, and he collapsed next to Li Qin, clots of blood and tissue gushing into a puddle beside his head.
Ping's stomach heaved, but she stood, steadied herself, and approached Kong and Li Qin lying side-by-side in the center of the room. Cheng remained motionless in the doorway, his eyes flicking from Kong to Li Qin to Ping and back to Kong.
She knelt quickly beside her mother. Li Qin suddenly reached up and pulled Ping into an embrace. "Thank you, my sweet," Li Qin whispered, then her arms went limp and her head fell to the side. Ping rolled to the floor beside her mother, gasping.
"What have you done?" barked Cheng from the doorway, still not stepping foot into the kitchen. "You have killed Baba."
***
Ping bathed her mother’s body in clean water, dressed her, and placed her in her bed. She returned to the kitchen to find Cheng with a mop and a large wooden bucket full of steaming water. Kong's body was gone.
"Cheng?" asked Ping, stepping into the room. "Where is father?"
Cheng turned and glared. He ignored her question. "I know you did this, Ping Mei." No one called her Ping Mei except Kong. "But I will not allow this family to be disgraced." He stood up tall and held the mop rigidly beside him like Ping had seen in the old warrior paintings. "I shall lead now, and you shall follow."
"But father?" Ping asked, thinking of all the time Cheng had spent with him. "Did you not love him?"
"There is no strength in love," Cheng said. He turned back toward the puddle of blood on the floor and resumed mopping. Ping bowed her head slightly and stepped slowly backward from the room, keeping Cheng in her sights.
He was right. She had done this. She had peered into Li Qin's blank eyes, through her eyes, into her soul, and she had seen Li Qin's desire: to break Kong's iron grip on herself and her children. Ping had desired it, too, and she had given it to Li Qin. With her blood.
***
Li Qin woke the next day, but she did not truly wake. She rose and cooked and cleaned and went to market, but her eyes remained empty, her hands cold. Ping knew why, as did Cheng, but they never spoke of it. Nor did they speak of Kong.
***
Life under Cheng's leadership was better than life under Kong's leadership, Ping decided. As long as she and mother kept his clothes laundered and kept him fed, Cheng had little to say to them. Yet, the way Cheng stared at her made her uncomfortable, like the way she felt when she looked at the painting in Kong's room: a tiger hunting its prey, hungry, ready to pounce.
Days passed into months until one afternoon, as Li Qin busied herself with household chores, Ping went to market to purchase food for the evening meal. She had purchased the rice and had begun to gather vegetables when she noticed, out of the corner of her eye, a frail old man standing nearby, weeping quietly. She glanced toward him and caught his eye. The wrinkled old man gasped and opened his dull gray eyes wide. His eyes flashed, hungry.
Ping stepped back, brushing her arm against a wooden vegetable stand, scraping a sharp splinter across her skin. A dashed line of thick red bubbles emerged on her arm, and she dropped her bag of rice.
The old man's eyes flicked toward her arm, and he shuffled toward her, licking his lips involuntarily. She tried to back away, but he grasped her arm, pulled it toward his toothless mouth, and licked the blood from her skin with his rough, dry tongue.
Ping screamed and tore her arm away. The old man stepped back, his body suddenly rigid. He shuddered and snapped his eyes toward Ping, his once dull gray eyes now deep, piercing blue, his once wrinkled face, now smooth and young. He flashed his white teeth, turned, and left Ping shaking, gasping, steadying herself with her hand on the wooden vegetable stand.
***
Ping did not remember returning home that day, but she found herself standing in the kitchen with the bag of rice gripped tightly in her right hand and her basket of vegetables spilled across the floor. She set down the rice and bent to gather the vegetables.
"Leave them, Ping Mei," said her brother's voice from behind her. "Li Qin will gather them."
Ping turned.
Cheng stood close, his face drawn but his eyes bright with excitement.
He has never called mother by her name before, thought Ping. Something has changed. She stood up and bowed her head slightly.
Cheng leaned forward in a show of dominance and spoke sternly. "Your acts at market today are being told, Ping Mei." He grasped her arm firmly. "You will not leave this house again without my permission."
"Cheng--" Ping began.
Cheng pulled his hand back and swung it toward Ping's face. She closed her eyes, waiting for the impact, but she felt only a hot wind against her cheek. She opened her eyes. Cheng had stopped his hand an inch from her face.
"If you question me again, Ping Mei," Cheng said, "you shall know my wrath." Still grasping her arm, Cheng wrenched Ping toward him until her face was so close to his that it seemed to Ping that his eyes merged into a single, large eye in the center of his forehead. "You shall come with me and do as I command."
Ping had seen this face before--Kong's face. She did not resist as Cheng led her toward the back of the house to the small prayer room. He pushed her in, commanded her to stay, turned, and left. Ping sunk to her knees, hot tears dripping from her face onto her hands and arms, running across the scabs crusting the wounds where the splinter had scratched her arm.
***
"Ping Mei!" Cheng's harsh voice broke into Ping's mind. She opened her eyes and found herself lying uncomfortably against the idol pedestal. Cheng stood in the center of the prayer room with his left hand on his hip and his right hand brandishing a small, fish-cleaning knife.
Ping scrambled backward on her hands toward the corner of the room. Beside Cheng stood a heavy man who breathed with great difficulty. His skin, beaded with a thin layer of perspiration, looked gray and cold.
"Ping Mei!" repeated Cheng, louder. "Stand!"
Ping rose unsteadily to her feet, hunched her shoulders, and bowed her head, from fear, not respect.
"Cheng--" she started.
"Do not speak!" barked Cheng. Reaching forward with his left hand, he jerked Ping's right hand toward him, twisting it palm side up. She tried to pull it away, but he held it firmly. Cheng took the knife in his right hand and slid it across Ping's palm, slicing open the flesh. She cried out as blood pooled in her hand, flowing over the sides, spilling to the floor.
The heavy man lunged forward and knelt clumsily before Ping, gasping for breath. He grasped her bleeding hand, pulling it from Cheng's grip, and placed it to his lips. Like a dog, he lapped the blood from Ping's hand, smearing it on his lips and face. She struggled against his grip, but he was stronger. Finally, he let go and sat heavily to the floor, hanging his head to his chest. Ping stumbled backward and fell into the pedestal, knocking it and the idols onto the floor. Cheng did not seem to notice or care.
Ping’s eyes refocused on the man sitting on the floor of the prayer room. He looked thinner, younger, healthier. Handsome. His breathing had eased and came now in deep, rhythmic waves. Ping was not surprised. He had taken his desire from her. She glanced at Cheng. His face showed no hint of surprise. Ping was surprised by that.
The man rose and returned with Cheng to the main house. Through the screen, Ping saw him place several pieces of shiny metal in Cheng's hand. A transaction. She sank to the floor in a heap, weeping, not for herself, but for Cheng.
How very much like his father he has become, she thought, burying her face in her hands.
***
Cheng brought a steady stream of customers to the tiny prayer room at the back of the house where he had imprisoned Ping for the past three weeks. Each day, Li Qin brought Ping a small bowl of rice and a cup of tea. Ping tried to speak with her, but her mother simply set the bowl and cup on the floor and left the room without looking at her. Ping knew not to expect much. Her mother had not spoken since the day Kong had died at her hand.
The men came and went, growing younger, stronger, healthier, more beautiful. Ping grew weaker. She felt the flesh around her eyes receding, pressing back against her cheek bones. Her hands were raw and caked with scabs, so much so that Cheng had begun to cut Ping's arms and legs to ensure a cleaner source of blood. As her strength waned, she began to pass in and out of consciousness.
Although Cheng seemed to care nothing for Ping's wellbeing, he understood that killing Ping would not profit him, so he began to cut smaller incisions, binding Ping's wounds between sessions to reduce loss of blood. Ping wished he had left the wounds open.
During rare episodes of lucidity, Ping tried to make sense of things. She had seen the old become young, the weak strong, the sick well. She had also seen young men grow older, and once, a woman entered the prayer room and left, moments later, as a man. But strangest of all, she had seen Li Qin, her mother, come alive again to kill Kong. This power, to fulfill desire, was in Ping’s blood. And for Cheng, Ping’s blood made him rich, but it was not enough. His eyes remained hungry, like a tiger ready to pounce. What else did he desire?
Questions and confusion swam through Ping's mind as the weeks passed into months. She had little left to give, yet Cheng kept bringing the men, and the men kept taking, until one cold, rainy late autumn day.
***
Ping lay on the floor unmoving, listening to the rain pattering softly on the roof. Although her eyes had long since swollen shut, she listened, waiting for Cheng to bring his next customer. But she heard no boisterous talk, no shuffling of feet, no clink of coin.
The morning and afternoon passed without a sound. Finally, as a chill breeze swept along the floor announcing sundown, Ping heard the light tap of her mother's feet approaching. She waited for the familiar click of the wooden bowl against the floor and the gentle slosh of tea in the cup. Instead, she heard a voice, soft and distant.
"My sweet," whispered Li Qin.
"Mama?" Ping rasped. A finger touched her lips.
"Cheng comes for his desire," said Li Qin. "He follows his hunger." Ping felt her mother's fingers press something cool, damp, and paper-like into her palm, softly closing Ping's fingers around it. "Cheng will take his father's place in the world. You will become to him as I was to Kong."
"No!" cried Ping. "My brother would not--"
"Appearance can deceive," said Li Qin. "Open your eyes and see." She squeezed her hands gently around Ping's. "Cheng is not your brother, nor was Kong your father. Do not let Cheng take from you as I let Kong take from me."
Ping felt her mother's hands retreating gently from hers and her mother's lips being pressed lightly to the tip of her nose.
"Remember your desire, my sweet," whispered Li Qin.
The slap of Cheng's feet approached quickly from the main house, and Ping felt her mother pull away and scuffle to her feet.
"Li Qin!" Cheng's harsh voice burst into the room. "Why do you disobey?" Ping heard heavy footsteps, a dull slap, and a crash. The footsteps moved toward Ping. "What did she say to you, Ping Mei?" Ping remained silent. Cheng's shoe scraped sharply against the floor then pain exploded from the left side of Ping’s face, flashing light across her vision, then darkness.
***
Ping felt a sharp pain in her jaw and opened her eyes. She hadn't been able to open her eyes for weeks, but they were open now. The room was cold and dark but starlight twinkled through the thin crack in the wall. She lifted her hand to rub her eyes and realized that she still held the item her mother had placed there, folded into a small square. Gingerly, she unfolded it and held it up to the dim light: a leaf from the Silver Almond Tree, smeared with a sticky, pungent liquid. Medicine.
Ping rolled to her side. She scooted to where her mother's body lay crumpled in a heap and touched her mother's face. Cold. She collapsed onto her mother's body and embraced her. It was all too familiar. Li Qin had died twice to protect Ping, and as Ping held her mother now, she knew Li Qin could not take her desire this time. It was too late. She laid her head on her mother's chest and wept, allowing the night chill to enter her body and fill up her mind.
***
"Stand when I speak to you, Li Qin!"
Ping recognized Cheng's voice, but it had deepened. Lying face down on the floor of the prayer room, she opened her eyes, blinking in the sunlight filtering through the window. Cheng's feet stood inches from her face, and she scrambled to her feet. Her mother's body was gone. So were the wounds on Ping’s arms and hands. Her flesh was smooth and clean. Was this from mother's medicine?
With wide eyes, she looked back at Cheng, who seemed to stand several inches taller than he had before. His chin and shoulders looked broader, and his face was proud, like his father's. Exactly like his father's.
This was his desire, thought Ping, to be like Kong!
"Bow your head, Li Qin!" Cheng barked.
"I am not--" began Ping, confused. Cheng slapped her face hard with his hand, leaving the hot impression of his fingers on her cheek. Ping bowed her head.
"You shall do as I command, Li Qin!" Cheng continued, "And I shall protect you."
"Protect me?" whispered Ping.
"Do not be insolent, Li Qin! After your shameful display at market, the people clamor for your blood, the Fountain of Desire. Yet I have protected you!"
"You have profited from me," whispered Ping.
Cheng's hand flew again, landing on her left ear. "You shall learn respect, Li Qin, or I shall not be able to protect you!" Cheng rushed from the room.
Ping sunk to the floor and put her head between her knees. She had lost her mother twice. Had she also lost herself? She opened her hand, still holding the leaf her mother had given her. She spread it on the floor and traced its outline with her finger. It reminded her so much of her mother.
***
Ping had often walked with her mother through the sacred grove of Silver Almond Trees near the temple. Hand-in-hand, they would stroll by the river, listening to the flowing water, until they stood peering up through the branches of the Great Tree. To Ping, it seemed to stretch all the way through the sky.
"Does it touch the sun, Mama?" Ping had asked one warm, autumn afternoon as golden sunlight filtered through the leaves.
Li Qin laughed kindly, lifting Ping into her arms. "Not yet, my sweet. But perhaps one day." Then Li Qin recounted, as she had many times, the story of the young princess whose name had long been forgotten.
“One morning, almost three thousand years ago,” said Li Qin, “the princess wandered from her home while playing, becoming so entranced by the beauty and power of the sun that she followed it high up into the mountain.
“The Great Dragon of the mountain discovered the princess wandering and lost, yet her eyes were so blinded by the sunlight that she supposed the dragon to be a kind old man. She cried out, pleading with him to take her back to her parents' home. He spoke kindly and said he would do as she asked.
“But as the dragon approached, she saw that he had deceived her. He was the Great Dragon, who desired only to consume her and slake his own ravenous hunger. She turned to run, but the dragon was too fast and caught her in his great teeth, swallowing her in a single gulp.
“As the dragon turned toward his cave, the princess kicked him angrily from within, and the dragon opened his mouth, belching her out in a great fireball. She soared many miles before plunging deep into the earth beside the river. From that spot, the Great Tree sprouted and has grown for nearly three thousand years.
"See?" said Li Qin, pointing toward the branches silhouetted against the great orange disk of the sun. "The princess still reaches for the sun."
"Why, Mama?" Ping asked, pressing her cheek against her mother's.
"It is her desire, my sweet. She seeks its beauty and its power."
"But why, Mama?" repeated Ping.
Li Qin lifted Ping from her chest and peered into Ping's eyes. "With such beauty and power," said Li Qin quietly, "she might vanquish every dragon on Earth." She pulled Ping close and wept.
***
Ping picked up the leaf and turned it over in her hands. She had not understood her mother's tears that day long ago, but she understood them now. Her mother had lived within the Great Dragon's belly for many years. She had wished to be free, like the Great Tree, spreading her arms toward the sun. She had wished to pull down fire upon the Great Dragon's head. And with Ping's help, she had done it, only for another dragon to take its place.
Ping pushed herself to her feet. She did not have her mother's strength, and she was not sure she could stand against Cheng. He had grown into a tall and powerful man and spoke with such authority. She was a girl, not even fourteen years old.
I cannot fight him, thought Ping, but I shall run. Tomorrow.
***
The next day passed. A week. A month. When Cheng entered the room, Ping bowed, speaking only when spoken to. She cooked his meals, made his tea, laundered his clothes. On a cold winter evening, as snow fell outside and Ping set Cheng's meal before him, Cheng looked into Ping's eyes and smiled.
"You have begun to learn respect, Li Qin," said Cheng, turning back to his meal. Ping felt tears pushing at her eyelids. She had let Cheng consume her as Kong had consumed her mother. She was trapped within the belly of the Great Dragon.
That night, as Ping laid out her bedroll, she promised herself this would be her last night in this house. She could delay no longer, for soon she would be fully digested by the dragon's acid. Tomorrow, Cheng would be away for several hours in the morning. She would prepare his breakfast, wait for him to leave, and make her way through the village toward the river. Beyond that, she had no plan.
***
A sleepless night gave birth to a cold morning as Ping rose early to prepare Cheng's meal. He ate and left the house without speaking. Ping watched him walk down the pathway to the village road and disappear below the hill.
She would take little with her so as to raise little suspicion among the villagers. Concealing a small knife in her waist satchel, she took up her empty rice sack, slipped from the house, and walked toward the market. As usual, villagers moved out of her way, avoiding eye contact. They knew she belonged to Cheng.
She arrived at market and continued walking. Several merchants called out to her. People leaned toward each other with faces close together, whispering. Would they send word to Cheng? Ping wondered. At the village boundary, she stopped and looked back, remembering how Cheng had forbidden her to leave the village. She clenched her fists, spat on the ground, turned, and strode past the boundary toward the next village.
***
The road wound away from her village into the country, over rolling hills, beside snowy banks of frozen grass dotted with trees, and past the ancestral shrines. Ping had walked for about ten minutes when she saw the next village about half a mile ahead. She quickened her pace.
As she pressed forward, she heard a pattering sound behind her. About a hundred yards back, a horde of at least thirty men and women from her village hurried after her. She ran, but the noise of the crowd grew louder and closer. The people had also begun to run, and they were closing the gap. Ping ran as fast as she could, but she was weak. Cheng had made sure of that. She glanced back. The horde was less than twenty yards behind her now.
As she looked back, her right ankle twisted and she fell to the road, scraping along the gravel into the snowy grass. The people rushed toward her, ravenous. She tried to scramble to her feet, but she was not fast enough. Two men running at the front of the pack tackled her, then four others, three men and a woman, joined them. They wrestled Ping to the ground and rolled over and over, hands grasping and scratching, as Ping cried out in pain and fear.
"Stop!" A man's voice shouted. Cheng's voice. "Let her go!"
Ping found herself suddenly alone in a bank of blood-stained snow. Confusion swirled in her mind. Cheng had come for her. Perhaps she did need him to protect her, for how else could she stand against such forces of desire? She looked up at Cheng's face, red and hot with anger.
"Li Qin! You have betrayed me!" He shook his head, breathing heavily from running. "I told you that you must obey me or I cannot protect you!"
Ping wept hot tears into the snow, saying nothing.
"Get up, Li Qin!" Cheng walked to where Ping lay. He bent and grasped her arm roughly, pulling her to her feet. She pulled her arm away and closed her eyes.
"Do you not understand, Li Qin?" he yelled into her face. "You must return with me to the house, or I cannot protect you!"
Ping opened her eyes and stared directly into Cheng's dragon eyes. He was not her protector. He was her captor. "I am not Li Qin!" she screamed. "Li Qin was my mother and you killed her! You will not take from me anymore!" She was no longer afraid of him. She would kick him from within and hope that he would belch her out.
"I am Kong and you are Li Qin!” Cheng grasped her arm again and wrenched it violently. “You will come with me now!"
Ping ripped her arm from his grasp, slipped the knife from her waist satchel, plunged it into Cheng's arm, and pulled it back quickly. He cried out and fell into the snow, staining it red with his blood. Ping turned and ran, across the snow toward the river, toward the sacred grove of Silver Almond Trees, toward the temple.
She glanced back. As long as Cheng remained, the horde would not follow. But soon, he would pursue her, and with him they would come. If she could reach the temple beside the grove, she could find the priest of the Old Way, Da Shi Ho. Her mother had spoken of him--a man of wisdom and peace. Surely, he would give her protection and counsel.
***
Ping ran, then walked, then stumbled for nearly an hour before reaching the temple. Da Shi Ho saw her as she approached, and he rushed to meet her. She collapsed into his arms. He carried her quickly into the temple and laid her carefully on a bamboo mat.
"Child," he said, "you have run far and are much distressed. Why have you come?"
Between gasps, Ping recounted her story to Da Shi Ho. He listened intently, closing his eyes and nodding his head.
"Please," said Ping. "My mother often spoke of the wisdom of Da Shi Ho."
The priest opened his eyes and smiled. He reached to a shelf beside Ping's cot, grasped a small bundle of yarrow stalks, and cast them across the floor. He stood and examined them closely.
"Ah," he exclaimed, nodding his head. "This gift flows through you as wind through the leaves."
"But what shall I do," asked Ping, her eyes wide with hope.
"You must do nothing, child."
"Nothing?"
"You must not resist the Way of all things," said the old priest. "Give me your hand." He knelt beside her and stretched out his hand.
Ping saw the hunger in Da Shi Ho's eyes, and she shrunk back, slipping her hands beneath her thighs. The priest grasped Ping's forearm firmly. She twisted her arm and tore it away, leaving a hot rash.
She ran from the temple, not looking back, as Da Shi Ho called after her in his aged, warbling voice. This is not the Way, he called. She would face great danger unless she returned at once to his protection.
She ran faster, but as she approached the sacred grove she saw the people, at least fifty of them now, rushing toward her through the trees.
She could not return to the temple, yet she could not continue forward or the vicious crowd would surely drain her life. Her eyes flicked toward the Great Tree, almost two hundred feet tall, in the center of the grove. Strange, she thought, how it’s branches were still covered with golden, autumn leaves. If she could reach the first branch, she could climb up, up, away from the people, and hide among its leaves. They might follow, but Ping was younger and smaller. She could climb higher.
She sprinted and, with all of her remaining strength, propelled herself up the trunk, clamping her fingers around the first branch, pulling herself up with difficulty. The crowd rushed the base of the great tree, screaming her name. She climbed, weakening with each branch. After several minutes, she heard Cheng's distinctive voice below.
"Li Qin!" he called. "Return to me! I cannot hold this mob for long!" Ping spat toward the ground and continued climbing. He did not want to protect her. He wanted to control her. "Li Qin! Please, listen to--" A muffled cry replaced Cheng's words as the people silenced him. They would come for her now.
She climbed higher and higher, until the weight of her frail body was too great for the branches.
***
From her perch high up in the Great Tree, Ping glanced up through the branches to the sun shining overhead. The people bellowed and screamed below. The tree shuddered. Ping peered down at people, tiny as ants, groping, scratching, climbing over each other. They would never stop. Eventually, they would reach her, and they would devour her. Finally, here at the end, Ping knew what she desired more than anything else: to be with her mother once again, safe in her arms. She knew she could never have it.
Ping closed her eyes and thought of her mother and the story of the princess who had become the tree, reaching for the sun, desiring its beauty and power. Had the princess striven these thousands of years in vain? Would she never reach the sun? Would she never vanquish her dragons?
Ping turned her hands palm-side up. The rough bark had ripped away the flesh, and they were red and slick with blood. In the sunlight, the blood looked like fire. "You may not reach your desire, princess," Ping whispered to the tree, "but I shall bring it to you. For that is what I do."
She slipped her knife from her waist satchel and, into the bark of the branch upon which she sat, she carved a circle, shaving away the bark inside, then cut eight rays radiating out in all directions. Ping dipped her right forefinger into the blood in her left palm and painted the carved sun and each of the eight rays. As the golden sunlight filtered through the leaves, the carved sun shimmered and shone, red, orange, gold; brilliant.
"Oh, princess. See?" said Ping, smiling. "I have brought down the sun for you!"
Like a child waking from a nap, the tree shuddered. Ping glanced down, expecting to see the people climbing through the branches. Instead, golden drops of fire rained down in a spectacular arc around the Great Tree. People fled in all directions.
The branches suddenly collapsed around Ping, and she felt herself descending rapidly until she stood where the Great Tree had risen from the ground. The branches had dissolved and a dome of golden leaves surrounded Ping on every side. She reached out and touched the leaves gently with a finger. They rippled as if a stone had been cast into a pool of water, and Ping felt hot power rush through her hands, her arms, her body.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply.
Her body shuddered. She felt smaller, younger.
She felt happy. Free.
She breathed out and opened her eyes.
The golden leaves lay around Ping in a wide circle, and the trees of the grove lay in eight rays radiating out from the circle of leaves. Something like a mound of dark earth about thirty feet away lay across one of the rays. Ping walked slowly toward it.
As she approached, its form took shape before her eyes. Legs, four of them, a tail, and a great head with sharp teeth. The Great Dragon, once fierce and mighty, lay crushed and charred. Ping placed her hand on its head and peered into its eyes. Cheng's eyes.
"Ping Mei," the dragon breathed through its teeth. It dissolved to dust and settled to the ground.
Ping turned around and surveyed the eight rays. She could see them now. Dragons. Hundreds of them. Crushed under the thick, fallen trunks of the Silver Almond Trees. They had gathered to devour her, but with the power of the sun, her sun, she had vanquished them all. They would never devour again.
Ping turned toward the temple, but it was no longer there. In its place, a young woman strode toward her. Ping ran to her. "Mama!" she cried, her voice childlike and innocent. Li Qin picked her up into her arms.
"Oh, my sweet princess," cooed Li Qin, brushing Ping's hair from her face, "Do you want to come home now?"
"It is all I want, Mama," said Ping.
Li Qin set Ping down, took her tiny hand, and walked with her toward the village.


Randy Hulshizer

Randy Hulshizer is a writer and editor living in beautiful southeastern Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia, arguably one of the most historic cities in the United States. His over-educated brain, two dogs, wife, and daughter push him a little closer each day to the madness that fuels his science fiction and fantasy writing. In addition to his writing, Randy is editor-in-chief at Empyreome, a quarterly online speculative fiction magazine. You can find Randy online at https://twitter.com/randyhulshizer.


About the Editor:
Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She started Fantasia Divinity to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. Madeline is the author of the children’s series Once Upon a Unicorn. Volume one will be available January 20th, 2017.

Visit her website to check out her latest projects.


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