ISSUE 5, December 2016​​


Cover Art by Zach Stoppel




When Two Rivers Meet
By Caroline Sciriha
I was floating down the river, waiting for the fish to bite, when I caught sight of the two human males at the edge of the water. I submerged, all but my eyes. I was in no mood for a fight, but I was curious. It was rare for their kind to venture so close to Ogres’ Mountain. They knew better than that—too many of the two-legged furless had gone missing over the years, thanks to the skill of my people.
The forest’s ancient trees—as old as our clan, according to some of our legends—arched their branches over the river bank, darkening the water. If the males noticed me, they probably thought I was just a misshapen log. The furless carried someone between them. It looked small—like a cub. They swung it from its arms and legs, back and forth, its long mane of golden hair hanging loose from a head that lolled. Then, they let go and it dropped into the river with a splash that rolled water over my head.
Who was crazy enough to throw away good food like that in these hard times? Besides, unless my old eyes were betraying me, they were disposing of one of their own kind. It turned my stomach to see such savagery. It was one thing to hunt and kill what Nature provided to feed oneself, quite another for the food to turn on its young.
The young one floated out for a while, carried by the current, then it went under.  The two males watched it sink before trampling back up the bank and away. You could hear their stomping, twig-cracking, leaf-crunching footsteps even above the swishing sound of the water. No hunters, them.
Now, if I still had teeth, this was a gift-wrapped opportunity to get myself a week’s worth of succulent meat—and no effort required, just as I liked it. But most of my teeth were gone, including my long canines—source of my pride and vanity—and those were indispensable to rip up meat, or win a fight. So it beat me why I bothered to dive down for that patch of yellow hair and drag it up to the surface. I hauled it onto the bank. It was a young female, as I had thought, wrapped in the layering of clothing members of its kind always seemed to wear. When I could still chew meat, I always found it a bothersome chore to cut out the tasty stuff from the inedible wrapping.
I placed my hand on its chest. I could feel its heart beating faintly. Rotten pumpkin! Now what?
It was kind of cute. Its skin was several shades paler than mine, and its features were small and delicate. I rolled it onto its stomach and began to thump the river water out of it. A couple of well-placed wallops, and it was gasping and coughing water out of its lungs.
I sat back on my haunches and waited. It wouldn’t be long before the screaming began. The one thing I hated about its kind was the noise. Most animals were cute, especially the cubs, but the two-legged furless were loud.
It opened its eyes. It blinked and gagged. Moaning, it struggled to sit up. Then its eyes met mine. I grinned.
It opened its mouth.
Go on—scare all the wildlife for a mile round.
Her mouth closed again and she swallowed. “What are you? Where am I?” Its voice was hoarse and low. Not too unpleasant actually, and no screaming—so far.
I ran my eyes over it. Since my wife had died, I had chosen to live in the forest by the river, below the mountain that had been my home all my life. My cubs had grown and formed their own families—they didn’t need me anymore. I enjoyed the solitude and carefree rhythm of life in the valley, but it was kind of lonely.
I stood up and hauled the cub to its feet.  I jerked my head towards the undergrowth and set off.
She hesitated, then followed. I was a little surprised at that. It showed gumption for one of them to trust my kind—and courage was admirable, wherever you came across it.  Even in the worst of the hard season, when the snow lay thick on the ground and food was scarce, an animal that showed resourcefulness deserved respect, and I’d spare its life.
My cave wasn’t far, but by the time we reached it, the golden-haired creature following me was shivering, her teeth rattling. I got a fire started. She immediately sat down next to it, warming her hands. She took off one layer of wrapping and wrung river water out of it. She was definitely female. She wore another water soaked layer, which was blue-green, and darker blue on her legs.
She had better take it all off if she didn’t want to sicken and undo all I had done for her. I rummaged in the back of the cave, shoved aside cooking containers, bags of fruit, drying plants, bits of left-over fish, and other odds and ends I had picked up over the years, till I found the roll of skins I knew I had.
I dumped the skins and a large bowl of fruit next to her. She was skinny—little more than skin and bones—and probably starving. Feeding the food was a novelty to me, but she wouldn’t make much of a meal until she was fattened up, anyway.
She had the gall to sniff the furs, and look like she was going to throw up. She pushed them away.  
That’s gratitude for you.
Then she took one of the fruit I had picked only that morning. She eyed it from all angles before rubbing it down the front of her chest. She bit into it. She ended up eating all the fruit. I could feel my tummy rumble.
“Where can I wash my hands?”
Wash? I gaped at this strange creature I had brought home. She was soaking wet, and she wanted to wash. She stood up and walked around my cave, cool as could be.
“It’s a real dump in here. Don’t you ever clean up? How can you live like this?”
Cheeky too—typical of all cubs, apparently.
I stood up, glared, and gashed my few remaining teeth. Pity they were so few, but that should teach her who was the boss around here.
She cocked an eyebrow, and balled her fists on her hips.
“What’s your name?”
My name?
“I think I’ll call you Gramps. You’re kind of a grumpy grandpa, aren’t you? I’m going back to the river to clean myself up. I need some privacy. Don’t follow me.”
“Good riddance to you, if you fall in again.”
She swung around, gaping. “It can speak!”
“Of course I can speak! And I’m not an it—you are. I’m the former leader of the Mais, so you’d better show me some respect.” I eyed her bristling form and frowned. “I’ll have to think up a name for you.”
“I have a name, thank you! I’m—” The cub widened her eyes, and her face turned ashen. “I can’t remember who I am,” she whispered.
Rotten pumpkins—what had happened to her before ending up in my river?
The creature backed away from me and began to run. I debated following, then shrugged. She’d come back if she wanted to. There wasn’t any other decent shelter for miles. I had more important things to do, like finding lunch. Again.
When I returned to the cave, with a sizable load of greens and fruits, the cub was sitting on my favorite log. I pushed her off.
“Ouch!” she protested as she landed on her behind, long legs and arms flying.
I chuckled. “This is mine. Find your own, Buttercup.”
“Buttercup?”
I grunted. “Yellow head, thin stalk—it’s a good name for you. Here eat, and don’t speak.” I tossed her a fig. “Tomorrow you’ll help me find food, if you want to eat.”
Over the next weeks, my cave became tidier and cleaner. And Buttercup learned to recognize the juiciest fruit, the edible roots and plants, and how to catch her own meat with the help of my old sling. Catching fish was something she never managed to do. I used my body as bait, and often didn’t need to wait long before grabbing a few large specimens that tried to feed on me. Buttercup thought it a hilarious way to catch fish, They didn’t seem to care to nibble her as much, though. Buttercup had the cheek to say that it was because I was ten times smellier than her. Ha! If I were ten years younger I’d show her who smelled tasty.
The lessons continued. “Don’t eat of that fruit. Look—it’s plumper and a lighter shade of blue. Do you know why?”
The cub examined the berries she had picked. Their blue was the same shade as her leg wrapping.  She shook her head.
I tilted her head down. “Use your eyes. See? The plant has fused with a vine. It’s sucking life juices out of it and making itself more potent at the vine’s expense. That’s nature for you. The strong and resourceful survive …If you eat those berries they’ll send you into a deep sleep. Keep them. I’ve used them sometimes when I needed to set someone’s broken bones. It’s less painful.”
Over the weeks, her pale skin darkened. She filled out. Her golden hair grew longer, but no fur grew off her legs and arms. That was typical of her kind, but it worried me. Winter was coming. And her wrappings had now more holes than a woodworm-infested log.
I had to do something about that, so one day I told Buttercup to forage on her own. I had other things to do. I set off early in the morning with the sun just beginning to light up my path—I had a longish way to go, but I knew just where her kind could be found—the food store, we used to call it round our campfire.
I reached it when the sun was overhead. Hidden in the foliage at the edge of the camp of the furless, I checked it out. Cubs raced all over the place. A couple of males chatted in front of the metal boxes on wheels they called homes. A female was hanging wrappings over a rope tied between two trees. The problem was getting to the wrappings without being seen. I didn’t have backup, and it would be kind of humiliating to be caught.
I hadn’t been leader of the Ogres of Mais for nothing, though. Stealth was my middle name. I flitted between metal-box homes, rolled beneath a couple, before reaching the hanging string of wrappings. I picked a few and was about to sprint off when I saw a picture of my Buttercup stuck on one of the tree trunks. The piece of paper was yellowing and curling at the edges. I ripped it off, stuffed it in my furs and slipped away.
Buttercup was half asleep, wrapped in her bed furs, when I returned to the cave. I crept in, but she immediately got up, and built up the fire. Good girl—it was cold outside. I sat on my haunches, warming my old bones. She seemed pleased to see me, and she brought me food that she had put aside for me.
“Here,” I said, shoving the bag filled with wrappings into her hands. She sat down by me, undid the drawstring and took each piece out, examining it and placing it against her. I had judged right, they would all fit, with room to spare.
She met my eyes. Tears glistened in the firelight. Then she threw her arms around my neck. “Thank you, thank you!”
I petted her back and grunted. “Sleep—it’s late.” I coughed to clear my throat.
When she was back in her furs and her breathing became low and regular, I drew the piece of paper I had snatched off the tree. The picture was undoubtedly Buttercup. There were black symbols above and below the image—Buttercup’s kind of communication. I had never learnt the meaning of those squiggles. We never kept one of their kind long enough to make them tell us how to read them.
I copied the largest squiggles in the soil near the fire.
The following morning, when the sun’s rays lit up the mouth of our cave, I showed Buttercup the lines I had drawn in the soil, and asked her what they meant.
“Mmm.” She peered at the marks. “That looks like an M, an I, two SSs…MISSING—it says missing. Why?”
Missing. Someone was missing my Buttercup. Well, that made sense. She had to have belonged to someone, but since she couldn’t remember, she hadn’t returned to them. My heart constricted. I could understand someone’s pain having lost a young one like Buttercup, but then, who were the two males who had thrown her away? I inhaled sharply—and could the rest of the squiggles tell Buttercup who was missing her? Would I have to give her up? It was the honorable thing to do, but I was reluctant to show her the paper. I needed to think it through. Perhaps tomorrow I would tell her what I had found. Not today.
“Gramps. Do you know how to read and write?”
Now what was Buttercup talking about?
Buttercup drew the first symbol I had drawn. “That’s an M. It’s the sound mmm. And I is usually eeee. S is ssss...”
Over the next few days Buttercup taught me the meaning of their symbols. I listened and learned. I did not show her the paper.
In the firelight, after she fell asleep, I read the rest of the symbols. I learnt her name—Laura Anne Rider. She was 15 years old and her parents wanted anyone with information about her whereabouts to contact them. Parents looking for their cub—I could understand that. It was my duty to return her, but still I did not talk to Buttercup about the paper. I felt bad about it—it was wrong—but I told myself, what difference would one more day make? I had got used to Buttercup in my cave. It would be very quiet without her.
***
“Father? Good day to you.”
My boy—a man now, leader of our people—materialized in front of me. I had taught him well—I hadn’t heard him approach my cave.
“Hu, what brings you down the mountain?” He must be doing well. Hu had put on weight since I had last seen him, some two seasons back.
“I came to see how you were. You live too far, Father. You should return to the village—we can see to your needs there.”
I snorted. “I’m not helpless yet.” And you don’t want your father and former leader breathing down your neck.
Hu nodded. He had heard my tone and knew better than to contradict me. Buttercup chose that moment to come back from her morning forage, laden with fruit and a plump rabbit hanging from her belt.
Hu’s eyes widened. “Father, you knew! You’ve saved me a trip to the food store. Thank you! Young and plump tender flesh—just right to impress Turek and those who support him. Our women could weave that golden hair into an impressive ceremonial cape too.”
Buttercup froze. It had been months since I had thought of Buttercup as food. For the first time in a long time, I was afraid.
I didn’t dare show Hu how I felt. I jerked my head at her, and she took the hint and fled into the cave. I pulled Hu away from the cave opening.
“What’s Turek up to?”
“Nothing good, as always. He’s challenging my leadership.”
“He takes after his father. Ogin had tried a number of times to wrest the leadership of Mais away from me. If Turek’s anything like his father, a meal won’t sweeten him.”
“Perhaps, but it will show our people just who I am. Do you want the honor of the kill?”
“Buttercup is not going to be slaughtered for food.”
Hu gave a short laugh. “Have you named it too? Really, Father, you need to pack your stuff and come back home. You can share our cave. Come—I’ve brought food. Let’s eat.” Hu shrugged off his backpack and brought out dried steaks and mushrooms.
As I munched his mushrooms, I chewed over ways of getting rid of Hu and keeping Buttercup safe. I got up and went into the cave. Buttercup was packing her bits and pieces. Her hand went for the knife I had given her, and she held it out towards me.
I cocked my eyebrow at it, then pushed it away. “Where are those berries I told you not to eat?”
She gaped at me, then swallowed. She sheathed her knife. “I’ll get them for you.”
I filled two cups with water and squeezed the juice of the berries into them. Our eyes met. “Stay here,” I told her.
“Tell me what you think of this drink,” I said to Hu, handing him a cup.
Hu drained it. I merely sipped. He belched. “Tastes good, old one. You always knew your plants.”
“Yes, and you never bothered to learn,” I muttered.
His eyes closed, then opened again. “P-potent s-stuff,” he slurred.
He leaned back and fell off the log. A snore shook him. I left him where he had fallen. He’d wake up with a massive headache, but nothing worse.
Buttercup crept out of the cave and stepped over Hu. She swung her backpack onto her back.
“I have to leave,” she said.
I took her backpack from her and shrugged it onto my back. “Let’s go,” I said.
“What about him?” She indicated Hu with a jerk of her chin.
“He’ll sleep it off. Don’t worry about him.”
“Where shall we go? You don’t need to come with me, you know—this is your home.”
I pursed my lips and pulled out the creased piece of paper I had carried tucked in my furs all this time. She unfolded it and her breath caught.
“Laura Anne Rider,” I said softly.
She swallowed. “Yes, it’s me.”
“Do you remember, then?
“I’ve known who I am for some time now. I ran away from home, Gramps. My parents were always quarrelling and nothing I did seemed right to them, so I just left.”
“And then two men tried to kill you.”
She bit her lip, then nodded. “I remember I was hungry and cold on the streets, and I met some guys who said they’d help me find a place to stay. I don’t know much what happened then. I-I think I was drugged. Then the next thing I remember, you were there and I was cold and wet and you brought me here. Gramps, I’m scared of going home. My parents must be so angry at me.”
“If you were my cub I’d be worried sick, and I’d want to know you were safe. I’d forget about being angry at you. Well, maybe I’ll remember to be angry afterwards. Buttercup, your parents love you. See—they wouldn’t have put up these papers with your picture if they didn’t care.”
She nodded and blinked back tears. “I should go back. You’ve taught me a lot, Gramps.  I know I was difficult, and I suppose my parents were right to be furious.”
I nodded. “You’re no longer the little girl who’d let someone dump her in a river like some unwanted leftovers.”
I took Buttercup to the food store. I thought it a poor joke of a name now and didn’t call it that to Buttercup. Hidden in the foliage, we looked at her kind going about their business. Buttercup pointed at an adult male wrapped in black from head to toe—one of the most fierce and difficult of her kind to hunt.
“That’s a policeman. He’ll help me contact my parents,” she said.
I grunted. It was time to say goodbye.
“Gramps, will that guy cause trouble for you?”
“Who—Hu? Leave Hu to me. I’m still his father and he’ll listen to me. Hunting your kind has to stop. There’s other food—if you know where to find it. I’ll go up the mountain with him. It seems there’s still knowledge I need to pass on before I join my fathers—how to read your symbols, for one, and the need for our two peoples to respect each other. You can play your part too.  Tell your people, as I will, that when two rivers meet, some turbulence is inevitable, but when they unite and respect each other, they become formidable.”



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.


Memory Sprites
By Mary E. Lowd

Camping with my sister, Phyllis, feels like a cargo cult. If she hikes into Uncle Mark's forest, stakes out a tent in the dirt, cooks instant stuffing on a propane stove, and toasts hot dogs on sticks, then she believes the happiness of childhood will come flooding back. But all I see is a sadly empty camp site. There are no cousins climbing trees, rock-hopping across the river, or searching for frogs. They're all grown up and scattered across the country. Hell, Erika lives in Australia. Instead of aunts and uncles laughing over a lively game of Brain-Dead Bridge around the campfire, it's just me, Phyllis, and her travel backgammon set.
The teakettle whistles and Phyllis pours boiling water into three insulated, metal mugs.  She empties packets of hot chocolate, the kind with mini-marshmallows, into the water and stirs it in.
"Who's the third cup for?" I ask, hoping that Uncle Mark is planning to join us despite the email he sent saying he was too busy. I haven't seen him in years.
"The fairies." Phyllis hands one mug to me and keeps one. She pours the third onto the fire, and the hot chocolate explodes in a cloud of steam. The smell of cocoa and vanilla fills the air.
After backgammon, we roast marshmallows. Phyllis and I each make three s'mores, complete with graham crackers and chocolate. My stomach feels so full of sugar I can't imagine eating another, but Phyllis reaches for the bag of marshmallows again. She toasts the marshmallow to a perfect golden-brown and squishes it between two crackers and a piece of chocolate, but, instead of taking a bite, she gets up and walks to the other side of the fire. She sets it on a rock, right at the edge of the firelight.
"For the fairies?" I ask.
She nods.
I wonder why she doesn't throw them on the fire like the hot chocolate. Phyllis makes five more and sets them all out on rocks. We'll have squirrels all over our camp by morning.
We put the campfire out with the rest of the water in the kettle and crawl into our shared tent to sleep. It looked small from the outside, but inside it feels large with only the two of us. It's dark, but I can hear Phyllis breathing, almost mumbling to herself as we lie there.
"Are you okay?" I whisper.
She shushes me.
The cloth ceiling of our tent glows dimly. The shadowy shapes of tree branches twist about and grasp insubstantially at us. I wonder where the glow came from. There's no moon tonight.
Phyllis' breathing speeds up. She crawls to the front of the tent and unzips it. "Look," she whispers.
I crawl to the unzipped crack in the tent and kneel beside Phyllis, sleeping bags tangled around us.
Lights dance behind the trees, coming closer, until the glowing figures of six childlike sprites form in the darkness. They dance and look like they're laughing, but all I hear is Phyllis, whispering, "See!" She grabs my hand and squeezes it.
The sprites chase each other, tumbling and tripping around our campsite as if they're playing tag. They remind me of us, when we were young and played with our four cousins.
The sprites notice the s'mores and settle down to eat them. The one closest to us looks like Erika when she was eight. Another one could be Jason. Sprites who look just like Aaron, Micah, and Phyllis make faces at each other until they all tumble over in silent fits of laughter. Then I see one of the shadowy, glowing children brush hair out of her eyes, and she looks exactly like a picture of me from my fifth birthday. I've never looked happier.
I don't know how Phyllis is doing this. I don't know if I should be scared. But, for now, I squeeze her hand back and whisper, "You're right; fairies." Then I enjoy watching our memories.


Mary E. Lowd

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than seventy short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com.


The Purr-Fect Flat
By Gaynor Ace

Jenny stared at the bright shiny key on her desk and smiled. She’d slipped out from work at lunchtime to finalise things and now at last the flat was hers. It was only a small ground floor maisonette on the outskirts of town, but she’d fallen in love with it the first time she’d seen it. Her friend Maddie who worked with the local estate agents had alerted her to the bargain.
“A young man… desperate to sell. Said he’d take any reasonable offer just to keep his girlfriend happy. She seems a right nag – don’t know why he wants to move in with her in the first place. But this flat’s just right for you, Jenny. You must go and see it – let me book you in.”
It really is perfect, thought Jenny as she opened her own front door for the first time. She wandered from room to room not really believing that all this was hers – well, and the mortgage company’s actually but let’s not split hairs! She’d already given in notice on her shared rental flat and would be moving in that weekend.
The next few days passed in a happy, busy blur until Jenny was actually living at Number 1, Azalea Close. Her old flatmates came to visit and were all really impressed. It was only when they’d left that Jenny began to notice the quietness of being alone. She did miss their noisy chatter more than she’d thought she would and the half empty rooms started to acquire a hollow emptiness somehow.
She decided to cheer herself up with a nice relaxing bath – how strange not to have someone knocking on the door every five minutes asking her how long she’d be! She lay back in the perfumed water until she became aware of a strange howling noise coming from outside. Intrigued, she slipped on her towelling robe and went to investigate. There on the doorstep, sheltered from the pouring rain, was a small bedraggled tortoiseshell cat who looked up at her pleadingly.
“Well hello, where did you come from?” She bent down to stroke her little visitor. “You’re in a bit of a state too, aren’t you?”
Taking that as an invitation, the little cat trotted in, going straight to the kitchen and making strange mewing noises. Realising the poor thing was starving, Jenny opened a tin of tuna which was very gratefully devoured. The little cat then jumped up on the window sill and proceeded to wash herself from top to tail.
“You seem to have made yourself quite at home here, haven’t you? I suppose you’d best stay here tonight with the weather like this, but don’t get any ideas – tomorrow off you go!”
The next day Jenn fed her new friend before putting her out.
She was very surprised to see the little cat waiting for her when she got home from work. This time, she purred happily and rubbed herself against Jenny’s legs.
“I shall have to find out where you come from,” said Jenny, realising this might be a good opportunity to introduce herself to her upstairs neighbour.
***
Mrs. Mitchell was a sweet old lady with a round cheerful face.
“Oh, that’s Amber,” she explained to Jenny. “She used to belong to young Steve who owned the flat before you. He’s moved to the other side of town now to live with his girlfriend. Attractive girl….can’t remember her name. She never talked to me much…always in a hurry. I’ve got Steve’s phone number somewhere – can’t believe poor Amber’s travelled so far.”
She disappeared inside then came out triumphantly waving a scrap of paper.
“Here it is, my dear. Give him a ring. He’ll be devastated to lose little Amber – he adored her. To tell you the truth I miss her too. She used to spend a lot of time up here with me when Steve was at work.”
Jenny thanked the old lady and went back downstairs to dial the number. It wasn’t Steve who answered but his girlfriend Amelia.
“Oh, that pesky cat’s turned up there has it?” she said scathingly. “Ok, I’ll tell him. He’s been looking everywhere for it. Why he bothers I don’t know. Thanks for your trouble anyway.”
Amelia hung up leaving a very irate Jenny holding the phone. It was funny how you could sometimes get an idea of a person from just a few words, she thought. She fed Amber again who curled up on her lap, purring appreciatively. Jenny realised how much she liked having her around but it was only fair to give her back to her real owner.
Steve turned up that same night. He was tall and gangly with a  shock of dark curly hair. It was his eyes that Jenny noticed though – they were kind eyes, deep green, just like Amber’s in fact!
“I’m so glad you found her.” He smiled. “She hates the new house. She’s supposed to be kept in for a while till she gets used to it but my girlfriend’s worried about her scratching the carpets. She used to be so happy here. I was too,” he added wistfully. “I was really sorry to leave this place actually.”
“Why did you sell it then?” asked Jenny gently, detecting a certain sadness in his voice.
“I sometimes wonder that myself,” he replied pensively. “My girlfriend wanted us to buy one of those houses on the new development in Woodside. It’s a nice estate but not much character really. Well, thanks a lot for looking after my Amber so well. It's amazing how she must have walked over two miles! I hope she’ll settle with us now. Amelia’s not used to cats, that’s part of the problem.”
Jenny missed Amber a lot that evening. She couldn’t help thinking about her owner, either and wondered whether he really regretted moving.
It was two weeks before Amber reappeared. She shared a tin of salmon with Jenny and seemed really pleased to be back.
“Well, whatever am I going to do with you?” said Jenny. “You’ve just got to get used to your new home, you know.”
Steve came round straightaway. Jenny was surprised at how pleased she was to see him. He came in for coffee this time and Amber jumped up on his lap contentedly.
“It’s really nice, what you’ve done to the old place,” he commented, looking around appreciatively. “It looks so homely and cosy. Not like our place – it’s a bit of a show place, really. Amelia’s got expensive tastes!”
“Has she got used to having Amber around now?” asked Jenny.
“No, that’s the trouble really,” he replied. “She won’t have her in the house…believes cats should be kept outside. As you can see, our Amber likes her home comforts! I don’t know what to do about it really. Amelia and I are always quarrelling about her, amongst other things. Say, you wouldn’t consider ‘adopting’ her, would you? She seems to really like you and she was so happy here. I’d come and visit her if I could.”
Jenny was delighted. Not only could she keep Amber but she’d see Steve regularly too. So, the deal was done and the little cat moved back to Azalea Close permanently.
Steve called in whenever he could and his visits soon became more frequent. Both Jenny and Amber loved seeing him and soon he began confiding how his relationship with his girlfriend was fast deteriorating. One day he told her that Amelia had gone home to her mother’s to think things over. He spent a long time there that day and seemed delighted when Jenny asked him to stay for dinner. They had a lovely meal, with an extra treat put down for Amber, of course. Steve seemed really reluctant to go home that night.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you and Amber to visit,” he said on the doorstep. “It was the worst mistake of my life leaving here.”
He suddenly leaned forward and kissed her, but then pulled away abruptly. “Oh, I’m sorry…. I never meant to do that.” He rushed off leaving behind a very confused Jenny.
Three weeks passed and Jenny heard not a word.
“Haven’t seen young Steve around for a while,” commented Mrs. Mitchell one day. “I’ve missed him; he always used to pop up for a quick chat after visiting you and Amber.”
Her neighbour wasn’t the only one who missed him, thought Jenny ruefully. Even Amber wasn’t her usual self and had been off her food for three whole days. Several times she’d almost rang Steve’s number to ask if she should take the little cat to the vet. It was Mrs. Mitchell who encouraged her to ring in the end:
“He’d be really upset if anything happened to that cat,” she said pointedly.
Steve looked a bit shame-faced when he turned up.
“I’m really sorry about the other week,” he said. “I thought I’d probably upset you and that’s the last thing I want to do.”
“Not at all.” Jenny smiled, gazing dreamily into those big green eyes
“I’ve left Amelia,” he continued. “I’ve moved in with a friend till things are sorted out. I’ve really missed Amber. I’ll just have to make sure my next girlfriend likes cats. Any ideas...?”
They moved closer and held each other so tightly that Amber wasn’t quite sure whose leg she was rubbing up against.
In the flat upstairs, Mrs. Mitchell smiled to herself as she put the three empty tins of the best salmon into the bin. It had cost a bit to bribe Amber to eat upstairs, but was well worth it to get those two together at last!        


Gaynor Ace

Gaynor Ace lives with her husband Andy in a little coastal town in South Wales called Llantwit Major. She used to work as a teacher but now does part time office work which gives her more time to indulge in her hobbies. In her spare time, she loves travelling, reading, craft work and keeping fit. She has always enjoyed writing stories and one day hopes to complete a novel she started some time ago.


Gator Country
By Eddie D. Moore

My mom abandoned her family on the third of June, 1978. It was my birthday. We left home early that Saturday morning, and we drove forty miles to the Chateau Des Cocodries in Jennings, Louisiana. Living in the sticks, I saw gators and crocodiles many times from a distance, but the thought of holding one excited me. My dad snapped a picture with an old Polaroid while my mom and I held a crocodile together. He gave the photo to me, and I watched as it slowly developed.
A screen door slammed shut a moment before my dad cursed and ran outside. I fanned the photo as I searched for my mom, and when I didn’t find her, I followed my dad out the door. My dad ran toward a white van that was tossing rocks behind it as its tires spun on the loose gravel. My mom slowly waved through the van’s passenger window as it sped away. The tires squealed when they found the pavement and as the van faded in the distance, my gaze dropped to the now fully developed photo, and I began to fight back the tears that stung my eyes.
My dad stopped just long enough to grab a twelve pack and then flew down the back roads home. The truck slid on the gravel in every curve, and a mile long cloud of dust trailed behind us. From the corner of my eye, I saw a couple tears roll down his cheek. I didn’t believe he wanted me to see him cry, so I looked out the side window and hid my tears as well.
The wheels locked as the truck ground to a stop in front of our trailer. “Grab your rifle and shells, son. We are going to do some target practice.”
I spent the next two hours shooting cans and bottles with my .22 rifle. My dad lined up my mom’s knickknacks on a low tree limb, and he used them as his targets.
I remember asking him, “Can I shoot one?”
“You know your mom wouldn’t want you touching them,” he replied as he reloaded.
My eyes grew large when he handed me a can of beer. “We all have to grow up sometime, son. It’s just you and me now.”
He held on to the can and looked me in the eyes for a long moment before he released his grip with a nod. I thought the beer tasted like piss, and I poured most of it out when he wasn’t looking.
I was out of ammunition by the time he sat up his last target. It was one of my mom’s books, and I remembered reading the strange word ‘Dianetics’ in the title as he leaned it against a tree. They had spent many nights fighting about that book, and he hated it with a passion. There was nothing left of the book but confetti by the time he fired his last shot, and the wind scattered pieces of it behind us as we turned for home.
We haven’t missed gator season since, and we fill our tags every year. I asked him once why we spent that afternoon shooting targets.
“I just didn’t trust myself with a loaded gun that night,” he said, and we never spoke about it again. I still think about that day and my mom every time I put a bullet in a gator’s head.



Eddie D. Moore

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



The Spellweaver and the Once-Proud Prince
By Jim Lee

Many centuries ago, in a far, obscure corner of an equally distant and little known kingdom, there lived a young spellweaver named Lema. She was, like most of us, neither astoundingly beautiful nor particularly ugly, but she was strong and healthy, and well-schooled in the several Great Magicks.
She endeavored to use her skills wisely, for the betterment of all who could pay—and sometimes, if she was of a mind, for those who could not.
No, Lema was neither a saint, nor was she an ambitious monster. She was simply a woman of skill, intelligence and decent ethics.
In due course, she found herself in love with a fine and daring young man.
He was a patriot, in the best of all senses—honest, capable and fair-minded. Unfortunately such virtues made him seem strange to some—perhaps even dangerous.
And so it was that the patriot was branded an outlaw.
The local prince ordered his soldiers into the woodlands to hunt the young man down. This prince was a tall man, going prematurely gray and had once been both proud and brave, but ten years earlier, Good King Tarn had died without leaving a clear successor. Accordingly, the Great Council of the Several Principalities met to elect a new king. They passed over the local prince (most unfairly, he thought) in favor of his slightly older cousin.
To his credit, the prince was not the sort to rebel against lawful authority. Yet he dwelled over-long on this perceived injustice. He grew ever-more bitter year by year as a sick, unfocused anger rose up inside him. His pride took on a destructive character and he eventually became an outright tyrant, taking out his frustrations on the people.
The king, his cousin, sat with apparent indifference in the distant capital city of the kingdom. He might not have fully approved of the prince’s methods, but he had no taste for intervening as long as his personal authority was not threatened.
So it was that many good men and women found it necessary to plot against the prince. The patriot was, as you might have guessed, among them. Soon the land was torn by a sputtering small scale, but violent civil war.
However, no one knew of the patriot and the spellweaver’s secret romance. They met quietly and often in the virgin forests beyond Lema’s small cottage. There, they did the things that lovers will—holding hands and strolling about together, gazing at one another for long moments in eloquent silence and then speaking in sweet whispered tones of things both great and unimportant.
The spellweaver also used her powers to keep her lover safe, as one would expect in such circumstances. Her subtle efforts and the patriot’s martial skills frustrated the prince for many months, but in the autumn of that year, just prior to harvest time, the patriot was betrayed.
Before any knew better, the prince had him captured and tortured for information. Learning nothing of value, the enraged prince ordered the young man tied and thrust helpless into an icy mountain lake until drowned. Then, the patriot was quickly buried in a shallow, unmarked grave—so that the resistance could not claim him as a martyr.
In time, the patriot’s fate came to be known and the young spellweaver was heartbroken. She turned her arcane abilities to locating her love’s grave.
Once there, she threw herself down and rolled in the dirt like a madwoman. She rose, straightened her soiled clothing and went off to prepare her vengeance.
Three days later, the still-loose ground began to stir.
It took till long after nightfall, but the spellweaver was in no great hurry. She stood by patiently and watched as her lover’s corpse slowly freed itself from its unconsecrated resting spot. It was the most difficult and dangerous Magick that Lema had ever worked and in one sense, it was all in vain. She might well reanimate the patriot’s stinking corpse, but the essences of the man she loved—his heart and soul, his spirit and mind—were all gone forever.
Yes, even the Great Magicks have their limits—as she well knew.
Nonetheless, the spellweaver gave the lifeless thing its instructions in a compulsively self-controlled monotone. Then she watched it shamble carelessly from sight.
Only after it disappeared from her view did she allow herself to weep.
The patriot’s corpse reached the principality’s major town near midday. It advanced unchallenged to the prince’s citadel. There, the first of several guards found the courage to attempt to block the dead thing’s path. This stout warrior was flung aside, as was the next and the next and the next.
In total, a dozen well-armed men were met and defeated by the uncaring invader. Not even one was killed, however. Lema had been very precise in her instructions: mere common soldiers sworn to follow their better’s orders were to be disarmed or disabled, rendered unconscious should the need arise—but none were to be slain.
In any case, what harm such men could do to their grotesque opponent was negligible. The patriot was already dead. His moldering corpse knew no sensation, felt no pain.
At last, the walking dead thing found the wide-eyed prince—no longer proud or brave—cowering behind his throne. It took hold of him by the scruff of the neck. Up a winding staircase they went, the corpse’s arm extended full-length in front of him, his gurgling captive unwittingly in the lead.
They emerged near the top of the citadel’s primary tower on a balcony that overlooked the open courtyard, where the town’s population was often required to gather to hear the prince give his ever-more bombastic speeches and ill-tempered proclamations.
The corpse neither hesitated or paused, nor did it make haste. It simply advanced, steadily and remorselessly, to the very edge of the outer railing. Its right arm now rigidly extended into empty space. Its hand still clutched the gasping prince by his expensive collar.
“Somebody help me!” the prince moaned, dangling in mid-air.
Down in the courtyard, an archer took aim and fired. The shaft lodged near the shoulder of the corpse, but the thing’s arm never so much as wavered.
And even through his panic, the prince realized that it was a good thing as he was suspended a great distance above his potential landing place. The fearful man saw this and his eyes bulged even more so than before. He sputtered, begging the archer not to fire again.
Meanwhile, the prince’s lieutenant and two swordsmen came bounding up the stairs. They paused a few arm’s length behind the animated dead man, indecisive.
The lieutenant called down and ordered the bowman away. Then, he turned and watched something as thick, cold and sticky as the region’s fabled maple syrup ooze from the corpse’s arrow-damaged upper arm. A trail of it seemed to briefly defy gravity, moving sideways to the dead man’s wrist before slowly dribbling down its quivering prisoner’s neck.
Whatever the pus-colored substance was, it most surely wasn’t blood.
The lieutenant glanced at the swordsman who stood adjacent to his muscular shoulder and shook his head in bewilderment. What do I do now?
“You stay a safe distance away,” a female voice answered his unspoken question.
The lieutenant and his men turned.
They recognized the young spellweaver from the far dell—the one who was always curing sick goats and casting spells of protection for the region’s children.
“And now,” she continued, “you shall listen to my demands.”
The small, unarmed woman took a step forward. Behind her, more soldiers waited on the stairs. One stepped forward, his dagger raised, but the lieutenant shook his head.
“You caused this? You control this . . . ah, creature?”
“He had a name!” she cried out.
“Of course.” The lieutenant nodded. “But it no longer matters, does it?”
“Perhaps not, but if you wish your prince to survive . . . ”
This time the lieutenant shrugged. “I am sworn to serve him.”
“Well, I summoned his captor from the very earth. Only I can return him to his rest, or give the order that will safely free your liege.”
“And should we be unable to comply with your demands?”
The answer was obvious to all, even the panic-stricken prince.
“No!” he said with a shrill voice. “Do anything! Do whatever she wants! Quickly, quickly!”
The spellweaver looked the lieutenant in the eye. “A brave fellow, isn’t he? But in any case, my demands. First, you will make no attempt to challenge or interfere with my . . . agent. Agreed? He shall hold your prince as he is now, for the next ten days and nights.”
“Like that?” The lieutenant arched a thick brow. “Out in the weather? No food or drink? He’ll die.”
“If you interfere, he certainly will. But no, one of your soldiers, unarmed, shall be permitted near enough to leave food and water from time to time. It shall be placed upon the railing, within reach of my . . . agent’s free hand. Our good prince shall have his food and drink passed to him, from the hand of the one he had murdered, and the food shall consist of the gruel prisoners of his dungeon receive. The drink—water only, absolutely no wine, milk or juice, and that shall be the tepid, impure well water from the peasant’s emergency reserve. As to the weather, be assured: I have woven a Spell of Limited Protection around him. He shall not freeze, though on the third, fourth and eighth nights he is likely to be rained on quite a bit!”
“What of his . . . bodily functions?”
“He must relieve himself there. I expect the lower quarter of his royal finery shall be quite ruined. He will begin to smell bad shortly, but with my agent in such close proximity, I doubt many will notice by comparison.”
The lieutenant frowned, then nodded.
“Additionally, the town folk are to be allowed—no, encouraged—to come and see their prince in this state. If some choose to jeer or make foul comments, so be it. I require your sacred word that they will not be punished. But attendance shall not be mandatory—none of our beloved prince’s bully-and-blackguard tactics, lieutenant.”
“Understood. And then?”
“At dawn on the eleventh day, I shall order the prince brought safely back onto this balcony. I shall then turn myself, unresisting, over to your justice, with the single proviso that when I send my helper back to his grave, he shall receive a proper funeral rite.”
The lieutenant’s dark eyes narrowed. “That is all?”
“That is all,” Lema confirmed.
And so it was done, and the people came. They stood in silence, that first day. On the second, a few made cautious gestures. By the third day, the braver souls shouted derision. By the fifth, the once-proud prince was being regularly pelted with garbage. Even some of his grim-faced soldiers cracked quick, ugly, semi-secret grins.
The spellweaver’s enemy was hopelessly insane long before the ten days and nights were up. The inherent danger of the situation, and conversely the impossible boredom, the rancid food and water, the building ridicule and constant humiliation—all these played their parts in the tyrant prince’s complete mental collapse.
By the dawn of the eleventh day, when the patriot’s decaying corpse was told to swing round and deposit its burden on the cool stone of the balcony, the once-proud prince was no more. In his place was a pathetic, haggardly creature who hardly minded eating swill and quite cheerfully fouled its own stinking garments.
Lema, who had forced herself to watch as four disgusted servants picked up their former liege and carried him, at the lieutenant’s order, to the hospital, now sent her ‘agent’ away.
Then, she leaned out across the railing and was quietly sick.
She half-expected a dagger in the back, and would not have minded such an outcome over-much.
But what she received was somehow worse.
The lieutenant placed a strong, yet sympathetic hand upon her shoulder.
The spellweaver turned her head, met his eyes, then shrugged.
“You must have hated him greatly—why else put yourself through all of this? He did many things in his time—for good as well as ill, though mostly for ill of late. He could be harsh, often to excess. But . . . I am curious . . . ?”
“I loved him.” Somehow, Lema smiled. “The one I just sent off? When he died—”
“Yes, I understand.” The big man’s expression was sincere. “But this region is now without a ruler.”
“You can surely move up,” she said. “I cannot imagine the king would object, you having been a loyal soldier under the prince. And your first decision: my punishment!”
“I could by all rights kill you,” the lieutenant agreed. “But I believe I know a worse fate—or at least one that seems strangely fitting. You, spellweaver, have taken our prince from us. It shall be your burden to replace him.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “The king—his own cousin!”
“I have served both men. The king cares not a whit who runs this sleepy backwater, as long as the taxes are paid, his name is respected and there is something like order. You could bring peace to us, after which all else would follow most naturally.”
Lema saw that he was serious, determined even, that it should be so.
And so it happened: Lema accepted for herself a life of unending burden and responsibility. She tried to govern well, this spellweaver-turned-ruler.
For the larger part, she succeeded, which is perhaps all that any could by rights hope for. In the fullness of time, the king did more than tolerate her—he went so far as to formally recognize her position and grant limited sovereignty to the principality. She saw that her lands were well-maintained and paid the taxes on time, while keeping her subjects reasonably content—far more so than her predecessor had managed, to say the least!
By the time that advancing age began to stalk the spellweaver, she had adopted an orphan child with talent. She schooled the child in the complex ways of power, both magickal and mundane—and even more important, in the limits of such things.
Thus began the fabled Dynasty of the Orphans. That long, unbroken chain of spellweaving princesses and princes which some claim continues to this very day, and which just might last forever in that far and obscure corner of that distant and little-known kingdom.

Jim Lee

Jim Lee comes from a Pennsylvania town better known for producing Olympic swim champ/early movie Tarzan Johnny Weismuller, Pioneer Rock 'n' Roll DJ Alan Freed and millions of tons of coal dust. Jim has been a published writer since the 1980s with a wide variety of his fiction, poetry and nonfiction having been published in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa.


Let Me Grow Cold with You
By Darren Ridgley

Henry woke up, his face buried in his pillow, drool making his cheek stick to the fabric of the case. His shoulder was sore, his arm having been outstretched to the other side of the mattress all night. Stretched out, to where she used to lie. 
He sat up, slowly, pushing himself upright while he listened to his elbow pop from the strain. Picking his glasses up off the nightstand, he shuffled over to the ensuite and looked at himself in the mirror.
I look like hungover Dracula, he thought, fumbling for his comb on the cluttered countertop. He cursed himself for letting the mess pile up. It had been two weeks since the funeral, and three since she was here to patiently pick up after him — not that she ever missed a chance to give him heck about it. 
Having tamed his hair as much as it could be, he entered the kitchen to the chime of the coffee maker finishing its programmed brew. A glance at the machine quickly revealed something had gone horribly wrong. 
“Damn,” Henry threw up his hands in surrender as he looked at the mess. He hadn’t shoved the pot fully into place, so the valve wasn’t open to let coffee flow through. A volcanic mess of grounds and coffee coated the machine and slopped off onto the countertop.  
“Tea it is, then.” 
The sun was just barely coming up, shining down on Ninga, Manitoba. He looked out the window, grateful that the whistle of the kettle brought some noise into the house besides that of his own steps. Looking out the window he saw his collapsible ice fishing shelter, folded up and sitting on the back patio, waiting for him, his rod already placed inside it. The boys had suggested he try to get into the old routine which, during the winter, meant near daily ice fishing trips out on William Lake. He used to go with Gertie, before she got too tired for it. That was when he knew the end was near. Gertie had never missed a trip to the lake. 
It felt wrong to go without her, now. But at least this first time he wouldn’t be completely alone. He looked over at the dining room table where a brass urn rested. He poured his tea into a steel travel mug. 
“Ready to hit the ice, doll?” 
It took him half an hour to drag the shelter over to the truck and get it in the bed. The boys had only done half the job before something or other had called them away. They were always busy. After that was done, and he managed to get the auger in without wrecking his back, he retrieved the urn from the house and buckled it up in the front seat.  
***
He talked the whole drive over. It was easy to pretend Gertie was still along for the ride when he, at least, had her remains in the seat next to his. Helped to pass the time, too. He had asked their son, Tom, when he came to get the shelter out of the shed, if he wanted to come with him, or maybe the grandkids. But as usual, the answer was “no.” Tom was shuttling one kid to dance class, another to volleyball practice. Their other son, Pete, was similarly tied up most of the time, often not even answering the phone. They’d all crowded around him leading up to the funeral. As soon as the service was done, they scattered. 
He finally made it to William Lake. The lakeshore wasn't very busy, but he noticed Bill Anderson on the ice, getting his own auger ready. Bill spotted him right away and gave a wave. 
“Henry, you need a hand with all that?” Bill’s voice was big and booming, easily carrying across the ice in the silent morning. 
“Appreciate it, Bill,” Henry struggled to match Bill’s volume.
Bill helped drag the shelter into place, the two old timers grunting as they hauled the shelter, auger, propane heater, seat and fishing gear on a sled. He offered to help drill the hole, but Henry waved him off. 
“Sorry to hear about Gertie, Henry. She was one of the good ones.” Bill nearly took off his hat out of respect before remembering it was twenty-five below out. 
“Thanks again. I’ll be okay from here. I guess I’ll have to learn to manage on my own, right?” 
Bill nodded and headed for his own shelter. Henry always preferred a good, old-fashioned shack, but it was much too heavy to deal with by himself, and he didn’t like the pressure of having to get it off the ice in the spring. He’d nearly lost his last one ten years ago, before Gertie finally convinced him to give up on a permanent shack and just buy the little pop-up one. It did the job. 
He folded out a camping chair over his fishing hole and sat down, the urn next to him. The shelter felt awfully big now. He looked down at the urn, resting at his feet beside the chair. The propane heater hissed as its element turned red. Henry picked up the urn, examining its smooth surface, and took off the lid. This was how she wanted to go. He thought it was odd — plenty of people want their ashes scattered over water, but not in January — but then again, she hated fishing in the summer. This was their place.  
Henry hesitated to tip the urn over, bringing it down a bit before raising it again, not quite allowing a particle to spill. It was the last of her. It wasn’t really goodbye till the urn was empty. 
He reached into his tackle box and pulled out a flask. His doctor told him to quit drinking, but it had its uses. The 12-year-old rye burned as it went down. His fingers traced the outline of the urn, the metal as cold as she was when he woke up to find her gone. They told him not to grieve, at the funeral — they said God had finally taken her home, like He takes everyone. He’d never really thought about it at all the other funerals, but now, it seemed awfully greedy of God. 
Finally, he poured out the urn into the hole, and the pile of ashes settled on top for a bit as it dissolved into the lake. He stepped outside for a moment, to let it dissipate, but soon the breeze forced him back inside to the relative warmth of the enclosed space.
The ashes were gone, replaced by sloshing lake water quickly turning to slush upon exposure to the surface. He dug out the slush with a slotted spoon, and looked again at the empty urn. He slapped it into the hole, suddenly disgusted by what it represented, and waited for it to sink.
Finally, he began to fish, going it alone for the first time in thirty years. It was a slow day on the ice, but it was bright out, so at least he could see what was going on below. A few pike investigated his hook but none took the bait. All the same, he actually started to feel a little better. The smell of minnow was on his hands, the heater was hissing, the water was clear. For once it felt peaceful, instead of just quiet.
Four hours in a walleye, maybe thirteen inches, bit. He began to reel it in, expecting a fight. It was nearly topside when a shadow crept past, right beneath him, and yanked his line harder than any fish he’d ever felt. He dug his boots into the ice and pulled with all the strength left in him. He was nearly pulled into his own heater, barely managing to stop himself before his jacket made contact with the element. His line went limp, not even the weight of the hook on it. He reeled in to find the line ending in nothing, and the walleye gone.
He looked down into the hole, but there was nothing. No sign of what had taken his hook, or the fish that was on it. He put his face closer, and heard a sound. A high sound, playful and lyrical. It was a giggle — the giggle of a young woman.
He turned off the propane, ran out of the shelter, and took off home in the truck, leaving everything where it was.
He hit a patch of black ice as soon as he hit the highway, and struggled to keep the truck out of the ditch. The rest of the drive home was a series of over-corrections on the wheel and quick rationalizations of what he’d heard.
Must have been a mistake, he thought. Must have been something else.
Henry got home and had tea to settle his nerves. He picked up the phone and tried to call Tom, but there was no answer, and he hated talking to their voicemails.
***
The weather sunk to minus 50 for a couple of days; a brief cold snap that kept Henry off the lake. He knew no one would take his stuff from the lake, but all the same he’d called Bill and asked him to check up on it if he happened to brave the weather for a few hours. Bill was still a young man of forty-five. He could take it.
For the first time ever, he went to the local seniors center for coffee and socializing — again, on his kids’ advice. But he quickly got tired of the gossip, and hated board games and cards. The little library in town didn’t have much that interested him either. They’d all been Gertie’s friends, not his, and he didn’t know what to do with them any more than they knew what to do with him. It was all just polite smiles and weather talk.
Gertie had passed the time on her tablet, playing a bunch of silly little games, but he didn’t think much of them, either. He wanted to do something with his hands, with his body, however much it might be failing.
Finally, the weather warmed up and he returned to the lake to find everything where he left it, although he needed to drill a new hole and drag everything away. He was ready to go in about twenty minutes.
He landed a fat walleye about two hours in, seventeen inches long and full of fight. He opened the flap of the shelter to toss the fish in the snow to freeze, and heard another noise. He hurled the fish out and listened to the water again. This time, it wasn’t a giggle he heard, but a sigh. It sounded disappointed.
“Who’s there?” Henry’s voice came out as a stammer. Despite his propane heater, he was cold and his teeth were chattering. “What’s happening to me?”
“Tsk tsk tsk tsk.” The voice pierced through the ice he was standing on, clear as day. It made Henry’s heart skip. “Not very nice to do to a poor little fish.”
That’s it. I’m losing my mind.
He took a breath and accepted the slow approach of senility. He calmly packed up all of his gear, loaded it into the truck with great effort, and returned home. When he got home, he threw the fish in the sink to thaw. He wouldn’t be able to gut it until his fingers had warmed up, anyway. He’d probably take longer than the fish.
He picked up the phone and dialed Tom’s number. This time, there was an answer.
“Hello?”
“Tom, it’s dad.”
“Oh, um, hi dad. How’s it — hold on, I’m on the phone — how’s it going?”
“Oh, uh, it’s okay. Went out fishing today.”
“Yeah? That’s good dad, we said you should — yes, okay, I understand, we will go. I’m talking to grandpa.”
Henry heard a high, nasal voice in the background. His granddaughter, Katy.
“Is that Katy?”
“That’s her. We promised we’d take her into Brandon to see a movie tonight, we were just about to head out.”
“Well, that’s nice, can I talk to her for a minute?”
“You know what, we really have to go now or we’ll be late. Can we catch up later?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Sure thing, Tom.”
The line cut out.
Henry killed the afternoon with a nap, and by the time he woke up the fish was ready to be cleaned. His hands were still steady enough to do a decent job of it, though lately he was never confident he was completely deboning the fillet.
Oh well, he thought. If I am going senile, maybe I should leave a big one in there on purpose.
Henry laughed at his own gallows humor. If he killed himself, Gertie would murder him once he reached the pearly gates.
He sat down to his fish fry and took a bite. It wasn’t the same. The breading didn’t stick on everywhere, like hers had, and it wasn’t seasoned as well as she’d done it. And he hadn’t caught it with her.
***
“Maybe you should get a dog,” Bill pulled more than his fair share in dragging Henry’s shelter to the ice again. Henry wondered if Bill ever left the lake, since he always seemed to be handy.
“Love dogs. No energy to walk it though. Hell, even housebreak it.”
“Cat?”
“Hate cats.”
“Fish?”
They dropped the rope of the sled with a great exhale as it slid to a stop, carrying the shelter, auger and other materials.
“I catch fish, I eat fish, I don’t keep them around to be pals.”
“Suit yourself, Henry.”
“You’re not gonna say ‘bird?’”
“Oh, hell no. I hate birds. A bird’ll stink your house right up.”
“Gertie used to keep finches. You’re right, they smell. But the singing was nice.”
Bill shrugged, clapped a big hand on Henry’s shoulder.
“Well, I’m actually packing up and heading out of here. Been out since five this morning.”
“You’re leaving?”
“Yeah, wife finally got sick of me being out here all the time. We’re actually flying out to Mexico tomorrow. Two-week stay.”
“Sounds nice,” Henry lied. He hated the heat.
“I’ll have a shot of tequila for you.”
Henry waved and gave a congenial smile. Now Bill was gone, too. He’d definitely have to bring the gear home every time he went out, and with no one to help. His joints already hurt thinking about it.
The fish were biting today, but he couldn’t keep anything on the line. He’d see them come into view, nibble at the bait, swallow it, then take off. He’d begin to reel them in, but they were always getting away. He spent the first couple hours cursing and rebaiting hooks, his fingers freezing as he negotiated new minnows on, over and over.
Another minnow, another bite — a massive pike this time. Henry hated bringing in pike, since their bones were much harder to remove, but he’d take what he could get at this point. Pulling with all his might, he saw the pike slowly start to surrender, until another object came into view. Rather, two objects.
A pair of slender hands seized the pike, after which one began to work at his line, removing his hook from the fish’s lips. Henry’s breath caught in his throat. Once the hook was freed, the hand ripped the minnow off and held it out for the fish, which gobbled it up gratefully, taking the hand with it. The other hand smacked the pike on top of its skull, and it let go. The fish, spared death, swam off with its belly full. Henry’s eyes went as wide as dinner plates at the sight. One hand retreated from view, while the other wagged a finger at him, scolding him like a schoolteacher. Then, it too disappeared.
He looked down into the hole, at nothing but the bottom of the lake, for a few minutes, unable to sort out what he’d seen. He realized his face was getting colder, and noticed the propane tank was no longer hissing. He was out of fuel, and the heat was gone.
Three fishing trips full of bites, and only one fish to show for it. The noises he’d heard. He thought he was going crazy, but now he knew there was more to it. Someone was in the lake, letting all his fish get away.
He went to brush his teeth before bed, clearing detritus away to make room for his rinse cup. Grabbing at assorted tiny bottles, he turned one over to find it was perfume. Her perfume. He sniffed at the tip of the bottle, and felt the weight come off him. He spritzed some onto her pillow, and slept easily for once.
***
When Henry woke up the next day, he found that the town was engulfed in a blizzard. That was fine with him — he had some reading to do.
Luckily, he was only a few doors down from the library, so as long as he walked in a straight line, he knew he’d make it there through the blasting wind. He got in and knocked all the snow off himself. As he suspected, he was the only one in there, save for the lone librarian who had to man the fort. She was younger, and he didn’t recognize her.
“Good morning,” he offered. “Do you have any books on mermaids?”
“One second,” she tapped into her computer. “Nothing just on mermaids, but we have a few books on mythology. Want me to get them?”
“Please, get me everything.”
She nodded and went to comb the shelves, eventually returning with a few hardcover books.
“Why the interest in mermaids?” Her voice was chipper and polite as she looked at his library card and stamped the inside covers. She asked the question to be nice, not really wanting the answer.
“I want to know how they wind up in lakes.”
“Hmmmm, I don’t think they do, do they? Mermaids live in the ocean.”
“Well, I think there’s one in William Lake.”
The librarian stretched her grin as well as she could, and nodded. She turned to do something else, and Henry left, coveting the books in his arms.
He sat down at home, in his recliner, and started to read. A few minutes in, a coughing fit came on. He looked and noticed his black side table was turning grey. Running his finger along the surface, he realized he hasn’t dusted or vacuumed since she passed. His flannel shirt felt too big on him. He reminded himself to eat more. Scanning the walls, his eyes fell on their wedding portrait, which dominated the living room in its ornate, oval frame. He walked over to the picture, running his fingers across her cheek, taking in her full-sleeved dress, the one she’d made herself. He stifled a quiver in his throat, took the portrait down, and hid it in the closet.
***
The next time he went to the lake, he was prepared. He’d read through his books, enough to know how to make an entreaty, one that would hopefully sate his curiosity. If it worked, he’d finally meet his saboteur. He hadn’t felt this alive in weeks.
He was getting used to the work of dragging the shelter out by himself and setting everything up without Bill’s help. Maybe he was actually building muscle in his old age, or maybe his excitement helped to ease the aches and pains. It didn’t matter to Henry. He got set up, a new propane tank heating up the element attached to it, and put on his newest lure: a simple lead weight, painted chrome to give it a nice shine. The books had said if you want to catch a mermaid, you’ve got to lure her with something shiny. It had occurred to him a few hours after he read that passage, that Gertie’s brass urn must have drawn her to the spot.
He wasn’t ready to part with his watch yet, but if the weight didn’t work, he was prepared to consider it.
He stared down the hole, refusing to take his eyes off of it. The sunlight penetrating the ice illuminated the water nicely, and some of it bounced off his lure, making it glimmer. Finally, he saw a shadow creep in, one too big to be a fish. The hands appeared again, delicately grabbing the lure, examining it. Once she had it, he took out the second piece of his plan, a little paper card he’d “waterproofed” with layers of transparent tape. It simply said “Hello.”
He dropped it in the water and it slowly started to sink. The hands snatched it and looked at it for a bit, turning it over and over.  The owner of the arms started to move — and he finally saw her. The first thing he thought was, she looks like her.
She had hair as green as a summer meadow, short enough that it barely moved in the water. Gertie had worn her hair a lot like that as a teenager, growing up on her dad’s hog farm. She’d told him it took too long to get the smell out of longer hair, so she kept it short. Once he got a better look at the mermaid, he realized the resemblance stopped there. Their faces were the same round shape, but his saboteur’s eyes were wide and round, unlike his late wife’s permanent squint after years working in the sun. The mermaid was daintier, her jaw ending in a pointy chin, a thin nose leading to full, deep blue lips. She looked at him with as much curiosity as he had for her. She held up the shiny weight and pointed at it. He pointed at his chest and nodded.
“For you,” he pointed at her.
She nodded. She swam up a foot and broke the fishing line with her teeth, tying the weight around her neck like a pendant. When she raised her arms to tie the line he noticed for the first time that she was topless. His upbringing kicked in and he shied away, averting his eyes, but his fascination overcame his manners and he found himself staring back down the hole by the time she finished tying the necklace. He felt like a peeper, but she didn’t seem to notice or mind that he’d seen her that way.
“What’s your name?” he shouted to her. He wasn’t sure how well she could hear him through the ice and water.
She raised a finger in front of her face and wagged it at him. She shook her head no, a smirk breaking out on her face. She blew him a kiss and swam away.
For the first time in weeks, a genuine smile crept over Henry’s face.
***
For once, Henry was glad he was old. The old didn’t sleep as much as the young. He could get on the lake earlier.
Knowing what awaited him at the lake, he practically raced down the highway, only controlling his speed once he started to feel black ice underneath him. He thought about trying to sneak the story to his family, maybe as a wild fish tale to the grandkids, just so he could talk about it out loud. But he knew himself, and they knew him. He never told stories like that. They might think he was losing it. Maybe he was, but if seeing her face was a consequence, he was happy to be mad.
It was important to start the work of setting up earlier today — he intended to drill a much bigger hole. The shelter stayed folded up in the truck bed, as it wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate the new opening and his chair. That made it easier.
Once his hole, triple the size as usual, had finally been opened up, he sat down with his coffee and tied a new chrome weight to his line. He sat there on the water for a while, waiting for her.
Maybe mermaids are late sleepers, he thought. After all, he’d never encountered her before nine in the morning or so.
The waiting was made harder by the fact that, without the shelter up, he couldn’t see through the water. He’d relied on the sunlight travelling through the ice to illuminate what was below, but not having the shade of the shelter blocking out the light from above made that impossible. He tugged the line, making the weight bob up and down. He waited a while longer, until the coffee was drained. Finally, a light tug from below. Then another, then another.
He began to reel in his line, feeling some weight on it, but not too much. He knew he couldn’t have a fish, since there was nothing to hook it. It had to be her.
The weight came up, her azure hand wrapped around it. She let go and the hand sank below again.
“No, wait, come up. I’ve got something for you.” He tried to make his voice travel as much as he could.
A moment later, she emerged. She was the colour of the sky. Her hair looked darker in the full light of the sun. She looked at him, bemused, holding her hand out for her gift.
Henry took off his watch.
“It won’t work once you go back under, but it’s nice, eh?” Henry held out the gold timepiece for her to consider. “I already took out a few links so it will fit better.”
He took her hand. A chill ran through him, both from her temperature and his own excitement. The watch still hung a bit loose, but it wouldn’t come off her hand. She admired the gold, twisting her wrist in the sun, making the piece shimmer. She flashed a grin.
“Who are you? How did you get here?”
She fell into a state of repose, leaning her elbows against the edge of the hole, lounging in the world’s coldest Jacuzzi. She shrugged.
“Can’t you answer me? Can you speak? I’ve heard you laugh.”
She shook her head, and sank below the water. He heard a voice.
“Not above the surface.” The sound drifted up through the ice.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
“Do you?”
“I’m Henry. Henry Thornton.”
“Hello, Henry. Maybe I’ll tell you my name someday.”
She emerged again, resuming her stance. She came up more exposed this time, and he again averted his eyes. He rummaged through a bag at his side, producing a long scarf.
“If you don’t mind,” he said. “You’ll give an old man a heart attack.”
She looked at him, puzzled, and then looked down at herself. She chuckled noiselessly, and wrapped the scarf around herself.
“Are you really here? Or have I gone mad?” It was the million dollar question. She seemed as real as anything, but she was also impossible. He couldn’t trust his eyes.
She sank below again.
“I’m real, as far as I know. I don’t know if you’re going mad.”
“You look a lot like someone. Someone very special to me.”
“She must have been lovely.”
Henry laughed. “Well, you’re not modest, are you?”
“I can see the look in your eyes.”
“I feel bad about that look. I feel like a lech.”
“What makes you think I’m younger than you?”
She rose again.
“Well, I’m seventy-two, miss. Are you younger than that?”
She curled her mouth in consideration and nodded, but held her thumb and index finger closely together, squinting at him.
“But not by much, eh? Well, that’s a relief. You’ll have to tell me your secret to long life.”
She undid the scarf and tossed it back to him, heavy with water. She sank back below.
“Bring me something truly precious next time,” the voice drifted up again. “And maybe I will.”
***
“What do you mean, maybe I need a change?”
The boys were sitting across the dining room table from him, looking tense. The wives and kids weren’t with them. He’d been ambushed.
“Dad, I know you love this house, but look at it. Everything’s dusty, everything’s cluttered. The pantry’s nothing but coffee and beef jerky. This isn’t good for you,” Tom talked with his hands as usual. Henry didn’t care for his diplomatic tone.
“Well, I was never much of a homemaker, I’ll admit, but really, I’m fine.”
“Look, we’re sorry we haven’t been in touch much, we’re just… very busy,” Pete at least had the decency to look a little ashamed. “But now that we’re here and we’re seeing what’s happening, it’s obvious you need more company, and more help. We love you dad, we don’t want you to turn into one of those old widowers living in his own muck until we find you in your recliner one day.”
“I can take care of myself, I’ve just been distracted. Been to the lake a lot this winter.”
“Maybe you’re at the lake too much.” Tom was getting condescending now.
“I’ll have you know I’ve met someone out there.”
His sons looked at each other. A worried look crept over their faces.
“Oh really?” Pete said. “Who?”
“A nice young lady who likes to be out there. She’s been helping me.”
“Uh huh.” Tom took a deep swallow. “Dad, we still talk to people around town. Nobody else is out there. There are no other shacks. No shelters since Bill went on holiday. So how is this young lady there? What’s her name?”
Henry looked down at the table. He could make one up, but they probably would see through his lie. He’d stressed honesty when he raised them too much to have become a good liar.
“I don’t know.” Henry knew where this was going.
Pete slid a few pamphlets across the table at him.
“Just take a look, dad. It’s not so bad. There are plenty of great facilities. I know you’ve got your pride, but you’re not young anymore and you can’t do everything yourself. You never could.”
Henry’s fist came down on the table, shaking their drinking glasses and giving the boys a start.
“Well, you’re right about that. Used to be I had someone in my life who wanted to help me around here. Do you think I wanted this? You think this was how I wanted things to turn out?” Henry shot fire out of his greying eyes. His sons flinched at the look. They’d seen it before. “So how much do you two plan to list this place for?”
“Please dad, just look at them. We’ll come by tomorrow to talk some more,” Pete said.
The boys got into Pete’s minivan and left. Henry watched them drive away out the window, then ran to get his coat.
***
The snow was coming down in big, fat flakes, carried by a strong wind that obscured Henry’s view of the road as he drove down the highway. He left his right hand on the wheel, while in his left, his thumb and pinky idly poked at his ring finger.
He thought about her face all the time now, her big, expressive eyes, black in colour, brimming with secrets. He thought about her hair, their tight curls crowning her head, her deep blue lips blowing their kisses. Knowing she was at least around his age made him feel better about his infatuation, though it wasn’t lost on him that he was getting the better end of the bargain, looks-wise.
He didn’t notice the deer wander into the center of the highway until it was almost too late. He slammed his foot into the brake and they squealed in protest, their pads too old to do their job well. The ice made the truck careen off course. The passenger side scraped a protective railing lining a short bridge over a frozen creek, and the vehicle came to a stop half in the ditch, its right-side tires hopelessly embedded in the snow.
Henry’s heart raced. He was grateful to have survived for a few moments before realizing how much this was going to set him back. He couldn’t lose the daylight. He felt around the floor of the passenger side. The wine had survived but the glasses had broken at the stem. He sighed, grateful for half a miracle.
He looked in his rearview. A truck was approaching. He only had one shot. Throwing open the driver’s side door, he grabbed the wine and stepped out onto the center line, waving his arms wildly. The truck, thankfully, noticed him before it was too late and came to a stop. A man, maybe a bit younger than Henry, sat behind the wheel.
“You okay, buddy?”
“Yeah. Deer ran out into the road, didn’t hit my brakes early enough.”
“You need to call a tow?”
Henry looked back at his truck.
“Not right now. I’ll deal with it later. Can I get a lift? I need to bring something with me, too.”
“Sure thing. Us old-timers have to stick together.”
Henry returned to the truck to get his auger. He heaved it into the bed of the stranger’s truck and climbed into the cab.
“The name’s Gus.” The man reached a hand out to Henry. They shook.
“Henry.”
“Where am I taking you Henry?”
“William Lake.”
“Oh? Not home?”
“I’m meeting someone.”
The truck got going again, leaving Henry’s vehicle behind in the snow. They drove in silence for a few minutes before Gus decided to spark conversation.
“I have a cell phone. Need to call the missus and let her know what happened?”
Henry shook his head. “No. She’s gone.”
Gus sighed. “Sorry to hear that. How long ago?”
“About a month.”
Gus nodded. “My Carol left five years ago. Breast cancer.”
“Sorry to hear, too.”
“Thanks. It takes a while, getting over it. So who are you meeting at the lake?”
“Oh, just…” What? Henry thought. A friend? Another old man prepared to go fishing in a blizzard? “Someone I’ve met.”
Gus went silent. He looked at the brown paper bag, and up at Henry, then back at the road.
“You think it’s too soon,” Henry said.
“No, it’s not that. I guess I’m just envious. If you found someone to spend your time with, to take your mind off it… take it.”
Henry felt at his ring finger again. He felt like a traitor.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
“I know. You don’t have to tell me.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence. Henry guided Gus to where he needed to get off, and left. They exchanged wishes of good luck, and the truck puttered away. Henry dragged the auger to the usual spot and drilled, again making an extra-large hole.
He stood over the hole as water sloshed out, turning the snow to slush. It occurred to him he had no way to signal her, without his rod and painted weights. He took off his glove and looked at his wedding band, simple gold, knicked over the years. Something truly precious, she’d said. It was the key to learning her secrets.
Henry became paralyzed with a realization: he’d left his fishing rod in his truck. He had no way of lowering it down safely. He didn’t want to risk tossing it over for her to ignore his gesture. He removed his coat and rolled up his sleeve. Bracing himself, he plunged his bare arm into the water, his hand the lure to coax her. His teeth chattered, and his breath caught, at the chill creeping up his arm and spreading to his body, the blizzard around him a second front in the assault.
“Please. Please come,” he whispered at the ice.
He felt her grab his hand. His arm was pushed to the surface, her arms coming up underneath them. She emerged, resting her elbows on the ice while Henry tried to stuff his frozen arm inside his down jacket, desperately trying to warm it. Once he calmed himself he looked over her to find her leaning against the ice, waiting patiently. She held out her hand.
Henry looked at his trembling left hand, gone white with cold. He tugged at the ring, struggling to remove it over his bulbous knuckle. Finally, it freed. He looked at it, gave it a kiss, and placed it in her palm. The mermaid eyed the jewelry, taking in its accumulated imperfections. She sank beneath the water.
“The ring is nice.” The voice penetrated the ice and the storm, easily reaching his ears. “But I told you to give me something precious. A ring is only a ring without the story.”
She emerged again, floating in the center of the hole as the storm whipped around her. Henry squinted against the wind, but her black eyes stared out, unfazed.
“Fine. You want a story? I’ll tell you a story.” Henry got to his knees by the edge of the hole, tired, cold and spent. “Fifty-five years ago I met a woman who lit me on fire. Everything I did, I did for her. I worked like a dog. I suffered every layoff with dignity, digging ditches or scraping muck out of machines to make a buck, for her. She took good care of me. We raised two kids together. We planned holiday dinners and outings for our grandkids. Everything.”
The mermaid leaned back against the edge of the ice in her state of repose, taking in his words.
“About ten years ago, we started to joke about death. We were getting to that age. But then, after the joking, we started to really plan what we were going to do when the day came. Only problem is, we made all of our plans around me. Men die sooner, all the reports say. Women live longer. My family was the one with the horrible histories of diabetes and heart disease and cancer. She was the one who ate her vegetables and went walking. So we sorted out how she might get on, after me. We talked about how she’d spend her time, whether she’d keep the house, everything. And then she died, and left me here, and she took the man she made me with her.”
She drifted to the other side of the hole and touched his cheek. Her touch was ice.
“All that’s left are memories of a person I’m not anymore.” His voice leaked out desperation at the edges. “A person I can’t be without her. I want you to take the rest of that person away, and give me a chance to be somebody new. In return, I’ll make sure you don’t swim this lake alone ever again.”
The mermaid looked down, nodding. She met his eyes again and started to sink, her hand beckoning him to join her below.
He watched the hand disappear and considered his options, but decided there were none. Gertie wasn’t coming back. Even if she was lying, there was nothing above the ice for him. He stripped naked and curled into himself, exposed to the cold. He thought one last time of his wife, and their years out on the ice. He jumped in.
The water shocked every part of his system, and he felt paralyzed against its chill. He opened his eyes but could see nothing. It was tranquil, down here, the raging storm above having no effect beneath the ice. He pawed at the water, searching for her, but felt nothing. He felt his body start to go numb, his eyes start to dim. He’d been tricked.
He resigned himself to a cold grave when he felt an object come up next to him. Her arms draped themselves over his shoulders. He wrapped his around her waist, gripping her tightly as he became more and more numb.
Her lips pecked at his, and he felt his skin tighten as his muscles expanded, regaining their former strength. She wrapped her tail around his legs, and he winced as his thighs started blending into one another. Her lips travelled to his ear, and she whispered her name.
​​

Darren Ridgley

Darren Ridgley is a journalist, speculative fiction writer, and grump residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His short fiction has previously appeared in the Fitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal Subcultures anthology and Polar Borealis magazine.


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.