Dark Fens of Cedar (5)

Go here for Part 4 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

(3,600 words)

dark forest 5

She realized she was smiling. “I’m good. What else can I do for you?”

 

She spent the rest of the afternoon in the laundry room, washing and drying several loads, humming to herself, not minding the vomit-stained sheets and clothing. The work felt good, purposeful, grounding her in the moment.

Jack read to his mother, and when she fell asleep, he busied himself in the kitchen, making cold-meat sandwiches for them to eat on the back deck with cold glasses of Diet Coke. She talked about her favorite poets (besides Eldridge, there was Dickinson and Whitman); he pointed out and named various flowers and plants in the garden in the corner of the yard, along with their Latin names. The sun made their glasses sweat, the ice cubes melting and shifting in the bubbly liquid. She wished Jack’s mother wasn’t dying in this lush, glorious spring; she wished Annie’s life hadn’t been cut short during the act of giving birth. Death trailed life like a black dog, never letting you forget that bitter balance.

When Jack’s father came home in the twilit evening, Jack drove her back to the B&B, and her thread of unease returned.

“You’re sure you want me to stay?” he asked, when he parked in the gravel driveway.

“If you don’t want to, I understand–”

“No, I’d love to. I mean, if it will help. You’ve helped me so much today. I want to return the favor. Are you sure it’s…” He hesitated.

“Appropriate?” She waggled her left hand at him. “Don’t worry, I’m not engaged anymore.”

“Oh.”

She got out of the car before he could ask any questions.

In her room, she pulled out the rock and put it back on the bedside table. If it was the cause of her dreaming about Annie, she might as well make sure it was front and center. It was only 7:30, and she wasn’t tired at all. Jack stood awkwardly in the middle of the room.

“Are you familiar with Eldridge’s poems?” she asked him, retrieving the small volume from her backpack.

“I’ve read a few of them, during the course of my work at the Historical Society. But I haven’t committed any to memory, or anything like that.”

She snorted. “Well, neither have I. They’re lovely, though. We could read some.”

“All right.”

She sat down on the floor and leaned against the bed. He sat cross-legged across from her.

Eldridge’s sonnets were lilting and lyrical, and as she read she went into a kind of trance. She’d often read them alone in her head, or sometimes out loud; but sharing them with someone else imparted a joy she rarely had a chance to experience.

Whenever she finished a poem, she’d look over at Jack, and he’d smile and say nothing. She appreciated that he didn’t feel the need to comment or analyze any of it. He simply absorbed the words and accepted them for what they were. After a while, she offered him the book, and he’d read a poem. They took turns like this, with only Eldridge’s words between them.

The last one he read was this one:

 

Dark fens of cedar, hemlock-branches gray

With trees and trail of mosses wringing-wet;

Beds of the black pitch-pine in dead leaves set

Whose wasted red has wasted to white away;

Remnants of rain and droppings of decay,-

Why hold ye so my heart, nor dimly let

Through your deep leaves the light of yesterday,

The faded glimmer of a sunshine set?

Is it that in your darkness, shut from strife,

The bread of tears becomes the bread of life?

Far from the roar of day, beneath your boughs

Fresh griefs beat tranquilly, and loves and vows

Grow green in your gray shadows, dearer far

Even than all lovely lights, and roses are?

 

When he finished, he didn’t look up. By the set of his mouth, Hannah could see he was working through his own grief. She took the book from him and closed it.

“He wrote that one after Annie died,” she said. “He didn’t write much more after that.”

He finally looked up at her. “Can’t top that, I guess.”

“He was really quite talented. It’s sad that no one knows him.”

“You’ll try to fix that with your thesis, right?”

She shrugged. “I’m not even sure if I’ll finish it now. How can I, knowing what I know about Annie, but not being able to prove it?”

“You’ll find it. Don’t give up.”

She nodded, and they were silent, lost in their own thoughts.

“I wonder what she wrote about.” He said it with the utmost conviction, never questioning her belief that Annie was a poet.

He was of the air, and she was of the earth.”

He threw her a questioning look. “A line of Annie’s,” she said. Like a bubble suddenly surfacing. “She wrote about the only things she knew–her experience of being a woman. The messiness of it. Childbirth, blood, the body. Desire. Aspirations for more–all the things people weren’t supposed to talk about in polite society, all the things women certainly weren’t supposed to think about. She was far ahead of her time.”

After a thoughtful pause, he said, “Do you think Eldridge destroyed them? After she died?”

“The thought had crossed my mind.” It was entirely possible, in which case the world would never know about Annie’s poetry. And yet, Jonathan had been astonished at her brilliance. Could he really have destroyed his wife’s extraordinary work?

“Maybe we’ll find out,” he said. “When you go to sleep.”

“I’m a little afraid.” Her stomach roiled. “Okay, I’m a lot afraid.” Myths about dying while dreaming of death plagued her. What if she never woke up?

“I’ll be right here,” Jack said. “I’ll wake you if I think anything’s wrong. I promise.”

She couldn’t quite believe he was real. “Why don’t you think I’m crazy?”

“Because if you are, I am, too.” He couldn’t meet her eyes as he went on. “I’ve always felt weird up at the property, but with you here, it’s much stronger. I don’t understand it, I never have, but now that you’re here, I feel like I can try to make some sense of it. It’s like, I’ve been waiting for you to come here and show me.” His cheeks grew pink in that familiar way. “That sounds so stupid.” But he looked up and didn’t take his eyes off hers.

She wanted to kiss him. I have waited centuries for your touch. The words floated up from some deep churning sea within her.

There were so many prudent reasons, just now, not to kiss him. His mother was dying. She’d just broken off her engagement that very day. They’d just met two days ago. Maybe even more importantly, she knew a kiss would lead to more, and she was aware of the blood still seeping from her. She didn’t want to begin this budding thing between them with blood. She could wait a little longer.

“It’s not stupid. You’re right.” She broke their gaze and climbed up onto the bed. “I think I should go to sleep now and maybe get some answers for us.” She kicked off her shoes, and pulled the quilt at the end of the bed over herself.

“Should I shut the light off?” Jack asked.

“No, keep it on, please.”

He leaned against the side of the bed and picked up Eldridge’s book of poems. “I’ll be right here, Hannah.”

She closed her eyes, but sleep was slow in coming. She was nervous, but she was also aware of Jack’s presence, the rustling pages of the book, the rock resting on the bedside table, watching them like a glittering eye. She indulged in thoughts of plunging her hand into his thick dark hair, not far from her fingers on the mattress.

 

She floated up from the depths of her fever to see him kneeling beside the bed, his dark head face down in his arm at her side. She moved her fingers toward him, and it was like moving underwater. She plunged her fingers into his thick hair, and he instantly looked up with worried eyes.

“Annie!” He grasped her damp hand and brought it to his lips.

She tried to smile at him, but there was still pain; the flow of blood continued to soak the rag between her legs. But it was the absence in her belly that crushed her now. The girl she pushed out two days ago had been perfectly formed, though in miniature, blue with death. She’d insisted on holding her before the doctor wrapped her up and whisked her away. She’d been dry-eyed while Jonathan wept nearby. They’d named her Sarah. Even before the fever took hold, Annie knew she’d see her again before long.

Yesterday, she’d called for her children, though Jonathan would have shielded them from seeing her in a such a state. But she felt time slipping away from her, and she would see their sweet faces one more time.

Lizzie, barely two, wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t remember. Her strong, willful personality would probably get her into trouble someday, but she’d do all right. Annie had kissed her fat cheeks and let her go into Agnes’ arms. Silent tears fell from the housekeeper’s eyes.

Robert, at four and a half, sensitive and perceptive like his father, would remember her, just enough to be haunted by the vague nightmare of her death. He cried and clung to her, and she stroked and kissed him as her heart broke.

“You must help me now, my little man, and be strong for Papa. Can you do that for me?”

He’d sniffed and nodded, and she could see that he would live the rest of his life trying to follow that directive. A little sob escaped her as Agnes took the children from the room.

Now she looked at her disheveled husband, and she knew that her death would break him into pieces. There was only one thing she could do for him now.

“Jonathan, go fetch my poems.”

“Not now, my love. I don’t want to leave you.”

“Please.” She squeezed his hand in supplication. He capitulated and shuffled out of the room, returning a few minutes later with the stack of papers in his arms, a little haphazardly; they’d been hastily gathered and piled together after her collapse. He sat down next to her on the bed and set her work beside her.

The fireplace in the bedroom was blazing. She’d been shivering uncontrollably, despite the fever. On the bedside table beside her, the rock he had given her gleamed in the firelight.

“Shall I read them to you?” Jonathan asked, reaching for the first page in the pile.

She put her hand on his to stop him. “No. Put them in the fire.”

He stared at her, then shook his head. “No. No I will not.”

“Listen to me. I was selfish, I see that now. If anyone discovers these poems, they’ll ruin you. You know it. You must destroy them.”

He was still shaking his head, but she could see the struggle inside him. He did know. “Annie…”

“Please Jonathan, do this for me. Letting them go is the only thing I can do for you now.”

The dim light of the room shone in the tears in his eyes. “You’re not going to die.”

She managed to smile after all. “Then I’ll write them again. They’re all up here.” She pointed to her head, which seemed to be swimming in a vast ocean, deep and limitless. Her smile faded. “The world’s not ready for them, my love. I hope someday it will be. Someone else will find the words again. I’m ready to let them go.” She was nearly ready to let everything go; she just needed to see the words burn first. “Please. For me, if not for you.”

He spent several minutes wiping his eyes. Then he sighed and got to his feet heavily, pulling the stack of papers with him. He looked at her one more time, and she nodded, lifting her arm with great effort toward the fireplace.

He knelt before the flames. He sat there for a long time, and she thought maybe he wouldn’t do it. Finally, he lifted the first page, and after a brief hesitation, threw it into the fire.

She exhaled, with relief and sorrow both, and watched as he continued to thrust the papers into the hungry flames, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, wanting perhaps to get it over with quickly.

With each group of words that burned, she felt herself getting lighter and lighter, as if they’d anchored her to the earth, to life, and now she was being set free. Her husband looked very far away now, down a long corridor that lengthened and grew dim. His voice echoed as he turned and said, “It’s done.”

It was done. She was done. She could let it all go now. She wanted to tell Jonathan that everything was all right now, but the corridor was getting narrower, dimmer; he was as distant as a shining star she wanted to reach out and touch. She had to let him go, too.

She wasn’t sure if she closed her eyes, or if darkness enveloped her completely. She was afraid, but also curious to see what came next.

 

Hannah opened her eyes. Someone was shaking her.

“Annie! Annie, please. Please don’t leave me!”

Jack was sobbing beside her, his face contorted, his eyes seeing but not seeing her. His fingers dug painfully into her arms.

She struggled to sit up. “Jack, it’s okay. It’s me. It’s Hannah.” She cupped his face in her hands, made him look into her eyes. “I’m all right. It’s Hannah, I’m here.”

“Hannah?” Recognition dawned, and anguish faded away into confusion. “What’s happening? I don’t…I don’t understand what’s happening.”

Tears still leaked from his eyes, and she wiped them away. “Did you fall asleep?”

His hand shook as he passed it over his face. “I think so.” He looked around the room, remembering. “I read Eldridge’s poems for a while. You were asleep. I got up and sat next to you on the bed, just watching you. I must have fallen asleep, and then…then…”

“You were with me, weren’t you? In the–dream–or whatever it was.”

His head was in his hands, and he didn’t reply.

“Jack,” she said, “You were there in the room. When Annie was dying. You were Jonathan.”

He raised his head, his eyes haunted. “I knelt by the bed. I knew you were–” He corrected himself. “I knew Annie was dying. She looked like a ghost, pale and feverish. She wanted me to–to put the poems in the fire. I didn’t want to. I swear, I didn’t want to, but she–”

His face spasmed again, and Hannah gathered him in her arms, and they wept together for a while. They wept for Annie, and for Jonathan, for their children and the poems they burned. They remained like that long after their tears dried, silent and motionless, sinking into the embrace.

A dull light crept through the curtains, and a soft rain pattered against the windows. When he began to kiss her neck, she didn’t stop him; she opened herself to him completely. Neither of them cared about the bit of blood she was shedding. Blood had bound them together, and blood had torn them apart. Let it bind them together once again.

After, quietly entangled, they listened to the rain. After a while he said, “So the poems are gone. The world will never know about Annie’s work.”

Her head rested on his shoulder; she leaned up on an elbow now to look at him. “Maybe it will.”

“What do you mean?” His finger traced the line of her eyebrows.

“There are words in my head, Jack. Words that are just beginning to float up from somewhere inside me. Maybe here, in this place, they can see the light of day.”

“Annie’s words?”

She thought for a moment. “Annie’s or Hannah’s, it doesn’t matter. It’s their time to live.”

“So…are you saying you’ll stay here? With me?”

She answered him with a kiss. She’d come here to River Valley looking for something: a thesis, a poet, a future, an escape. What she found instead was herself, and the fulfillment of a longing she never knew she had.

 

The sun was brilliant, the air mild with a light wind. He found the perfection of the day outrageous, blithely ignorant of his pain. The world should have stopped, the sun dimmed, in recognition of his loss. But they hadn’t.

He trod his usual paths along the ridge, but the familiar trees, the hulking boulders like old friends, brought him no relief.

He wandered off the path into the thick underbrush, pushed past laurel and juniper, flattened the ferns that ran profligate here, into the dim, damp, interior of the forest. The canopy here was so thickly interlaced he could escape the hurtful, bright beams of the day.

He sat on a damp rotting log and listened. Past the pain, past the echoes of the howling in his heart, there were words. Her words, hot and full of passion and anger, scalding the soul, as if her pen had been on fire as she wrote them, spilling out and burning into the paper. Her rage had shocked him, and hurt him, too. But he understood it, and there had also been love, and tenderness, and a keen desire that even now brought him to his knees.

He put his head in his hands and let the storm of her words pass through him, wreck and brand him, until they passed out of him like smoke, as when they burned in the fire the day she died.

When the smoke cleared and he raised his head, he found there were still some words left: his own. He pulled his notebook out of his sack, sharpened his pencil with his whittling knife, and began. His words were as they’d always been–quiet, steady, rhythmic and intense. He spun out a song of this glade, and the grief he could covet and nurture here, never to be disturbed or evaporated by the light of the sun, but sealed and protected by the bubble of its dark isolation.

By the time he was done it had grown so dark he could barely see the words on the paper. He closed the notebook and put it away. It would be his last poem. There was nothing left.

He reached deeper into the sack and brought out the sharp, sparkling rock he’d brought her that day, when life had been full and free of this agonizing absence. He closed his fingers around it, squeezing with the herculean strength of his grief. Pain lanced through his hand in hot currents, and he held it inside himself as long as he could, wincing. When he opened his fingers, like a flower opening, blood bloomed; the rock’s shine was dimmed with it.

“Forever, my love.” He threw the rock into the gloom; he heard its thud somewhere in the shadows before him. His hand hung beside him, unheeded, as droplets of blood fell onto the damp earth.

 

Jack opened his eyes. It took him a moment to come out of the glade and remember where he was. Who he was.

He looked over at Hannah sleeping beside him. Her face was peaceful, her dreams now free of Annie’s life. Already she was precious to him, and he marveled. Forces he didn’t understand caused them to find one another. He supposed it worked that way all the time–it seemed a miracle that anyone found each other at all, among the multitudes, in the chaos between birth and death. It gave him hope for other miracles.

He passed a hand through her hair. She opened her eyes sleepily and smiled at him. “Everything okay?”

“Perfect.” He looked beyond her at the rock on the bedside table. “But I think there’s something we should do.”

 

She led him past the tower, off the path to the glade she’d found as if by accident. She held Jack’s hand and pulled him through the foliage, though he seemed to know the way already.

A dark enclosure, shielded from the sun, always damp, soaked with sorrow. They stood in the middle of it with interlaced fingers, the ground itself palpable with grief. She let go of his hand and took the rock out of her pocket. They gazed at it together for a moment, and then she held it out to him.

He took it, hefted it in his palm, and raised his arm as if to throw. She put a hand out to stop him.

“Maybe we should bury it.”

He nodded, and they both knelt on the cool ground, strewn with a carpet of brown pine needles and oak leaves. He brushed it all away as she found a stick to dig. In a few minutes they had a hole several inches deep, and he dropped the rock inside it. She pushed the dirt back over it and patted it firmly in place. They covered it again with pine needles and leaves, solemn, wordless.

It felt like a funeral, and she supposed it was. Jonathan and Annie were gone; they had been for a long time. It was time for Jack and Hannah to bury the grief once and for all, and put them to rest.

They came out of the glade together, into the sunlight.

 

 

 

 

 

Dark Fens of Cedar (4)

Go here for Part 3 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

 

(3,100 words)

tea cup poet

“Get the doctor! Oh god, hurry!”

 

Hannah woke clutching her cramped abdomen. A vague awareness caused her to throw back her blankets; fear shot through her when she saw the blood-stained sheets.

For one stunned moment, she didn’t understand what was happening. The crazy thought–I lost the baby–shot through her mind. But that didn’t make sense. She wasn’t pregnant. It took her several long, confused moments to figure out that she was not Annie from her dream. She was Hannah, and she had only started her menstrual period, a little early and unexpectedly. It was, however, a sticky mess.

Her shaky laugh sounded hollow in the dim room of the B&B. No wonder she had been so emotional with Jack yesterday.

She went into the bathroom and cleaned herself up, finding a box of Maxi pads beneath the sink. Then she stripped the sheets off the bed, futilely trying to scrub away the stains on the mattress. She walks through the world and leaves bloody footprints. The line seemed familiar, though she couldn’t recall who wrote them.

And then, in the midst of her scrubbing, she did know. Annie had written those words. They had lived in that bundled sheaf of papers she’d given Jonathan to read in Hannah’s dream, among many other words that seemed to be on the tip of her tongue, but beyond her reach.

Her phone flashed with Craig’s messages. She shut the phone off and put it in her purse. On a sudden impulse, she took the rock on the bedside table as well.

She was halfway to the Historical Society when she realized it was probably too early to be open. It was 8:26 am, and she was fairly certain it opened at 9:00. She turned and headed to the Korner Kitchenette to wait. Jack was ordering his coffee in the to-go line.

She rushed up to him. “Annie was a poet, too,” she blurted.

He turned to her in surprise, his coffee sloshing through the hole in the plastic cap. “Hannah, um, hi. Do you mean Annie Eldridge?” He winced, then muttered, “Of course, who else would you mean, what other Annie would you–”

“She was a poet, too, she wrote a bunch of poems that her own husband called brilliant, though he then went on to criticize them for being too personal, not a proper subject for poetry, but the thing is, there has to be a record of them somewhere, or some extant pieces of it left. Something, somewhere. It’s absolutely incredible, but will you help me find them?”

As she stood catching her breath, Jack turned to the girl behind the counter. “Could I also have a cream with no sugar?” He looked back at Hannah. “That’s how you like it, isn’t it?”

When she had it in her hand, he led her to a booth in the corner. “Now, what makes you think Annie was a poet?”

“Well, I…” I dreamed it, she could have said. Or, I am the living embodiment of Annie Eldridge, reliving her memories through dreams with the help of some rock I found at the tower. Or: I am completely insane.

“I just know.”

“Okay.” He sipped his coffee thoughtfully. “Where should we start looking?”

“Just like that? You’ll help me, with no proof at all?”

He spun the Styrofoam cup between his hands. “I don’t have much else going on, except…” He shrugged his shoulders.

Except to watch his mother battle cancer. “How’s your mom doing?”

“She’s just really sick. Dad’s with her now. I’ll relieve him later, after lunch.”

“I’m so sorry, Jack.”

He made an effort at a smile. “This will be an interesting distraction. If it’s true, it’d be really big, wouldn’t it?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be like finding out Shakespeare’s wife was a writer. But yeah, it would make some ripples in the literary world. It would make my career.”

“Let’s get to it, then,” he said. “I don’t think the Historical Society has anything to offer. I know that place inside out, and there’s nothing anywhere to suggest that Annie wrote it at all. If there were any surviving manuscripts, they might have been taken to Boston to Eldridge’s family when the children were sent there after his death. We could research his family line, try to contact his descendants, see if there are any leads. If anything, we could get you names and contact information, for when you go back to Boston.”

When she went back to Boston. To Craig. To Kitty and her guest list and seating arrangements. To the future suburban house that echoed with the voices of their unborn children. All the things she knew she didn’t want to go back to.

This place, River Valley, had taken some kind of hold over her. As she’d written her verses yesterday afternoon, she allowed herself to imagine living here, writing her poetry. Living alone in some charming apartment, perhaps teaching at the community college. Maybe even pouring coffee here at the Korner Kitchenette, until things got settled. Pouring coffee for Jack, before he went to the Historical Society. It was a vision so sweet, she could almost taste it.

“Hannah? What do you think?” Jack looked at her expectantly over his cup.

“Sounds like a plan.”

They ended up going back to the Historical Society to use the computer there. Eldridge’s lineage was somewhat of a public record. Jonathan and Annie’s son, Robert, had married a Boston socialite. They’d had four children, who then had gone off in different directions, from New York to London to India. Two grandsons had been killed in World War I, and the trail went cold from there.

Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was called, had married a Boston lawyer, but the marriage produced no children. Some kind of scandal had been involved, with Lizzie leaving her husband and travelling to Europe to become an artist.

Hannah was immensely intrigued by this, but she had to stay focused on the task at hand. She sat back in her chair and sighed heavily. “Any surviving manuscript could be anywhere in the world.” She already felt defeated; she was no literary sleuth.

“We need to narrow down the search, find which trail to follow,” Jack said. “If we had a little bit more to go on…” He glanced over at her, hoping she would supply that missing information.

Information she didn’t have, except the unprovable conviction that Annie had written poetry. She stood and stretched her neck. “We’ve been at it for two hours. What do you say we take a walk up to the property again.”

“Sure.” He grabbed some granola bars from a desk drawer and two plastic bottles of water. The day was mild again, sunny and cloudless. Once at the property, they sat on an old log and tore at the granola wrappers. They chewed in silence, looking out at the spreading town below.

She glanced at Jack out of the corner of her eye. She’d only known him for two days, but she felt comfortable with him, as if she could tell him anything. If she’d told Craig about the dream, he’d laugh it off. Or insist she get psychological help. He was a doctor. He liked to fix things, to dismantle a problem so he could put it back together in a sensible manner. She had admired that in him, in his utter confidence to make things right. But here, now, she just needed someone to listen and accept.

“I know that Annie was a poet,” she said after a while, “because I dreamed it.”

He swallowed his water and waited. “Go on.”

“Since I’ve arrived here, I’ve dreamed of her. Dreamed of her writing, of showing Eldridge her work. And they’re not just normal dreams. In the dreams, I am Annie. Reliving her memories.” She dug into her purse and pulled out the rock. “I’m not sure, but I think this rock has something to do with it. I found it my first day here, in the woods near the tower. It–called to me. I dreamed of the rock, too. Jonathan gave it to Annie. The sharp edges cut her skin, drawing blood. They vowed their love would be eternal.”

She held it out to him. It glittered in the sunlight. He looked at it a moment before taking it from her.

“Wow,” he said.

“You don’t think I’m crazy?”

He shook his head, weighing the rock in his hand. “I’m a scientist by education. But I know that there are still things in the world that we can never understand. Not scientifically. I know that places–or even objects–can be haunted by memories, or intense emotions. Sometimes when I come here…” He drifted off, looking around at the empty lot, at the weeds running riot, at the vines choking the hedges and branches alike. He shrugged. “I just get this funny feeling, you know? Joy and anguish mixed together. It’s overwhelming. Maybe that’s why I don’t come here too often.”

“Are you feeling it now?”

“Yup.” He smiled at her, but it was tight, as if he were in pain.

“We should go.”

He looked at his cell phone for the time. “I should get home. My dad will be waiting.”

“Can I help?”

He looked at her curiously. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I know.” For some reason, she wanted to help this kind man take care of his mother. She wanted to do something for someone else for once. She was sick of being in her own head, and needed to get away from herself–and Annie.

They walked back to the Historical Society and got into his silver Honda Civic. He drove them across town to the ranch-style house he lived in with is parents, on a pleasant street called Meadow Lane. His father was in the kitchen putting dirty dishes into the sink. He had the same sad-looking eyes as Jack, lined and weary around the edges, but he perked up at the sight of his son bringing home a young woman.

“Dad, this is Hannah. A friend. She offered to help us today.”

Jack’s father held out a hand to Hannah. “Steve Whitmore. It’s nice to see Jack getting out a little bit with people his own age. Thinks he’s gotta be a hermit, what with his mom and all, but I’ve been encouraging him to date.”

“Dad.” Jack rolled his eyes.

“We’re new friends,” Hannah said, trying to ease Jack’s embarrassment. “Jack’s helping me with my thesis. We met at the Historical Society.”

Steve’s eyes lit up. “History major?” Hannah remembered he was a history teacher.

“English Lit. I’m writing on Jonathan Eldridge.”

“Ah, Eldridge. River Valley’s almost-famous son. He could have been one of the greats. But grief destroyed him.” He pursed his lips and glanced behind him, down the hall. He addressed Jack. “She’s restless today. Agitated. Kept asking for you. I didn’t have much time to get anything done.” He sighed and ran a hand over his receding hairline.

Jack put a hand on his arm. “Why don’t you get a beer, Dad, and relax. Get out of the house for a while.”

“Think I will. Nice meeting you, Hannah.” He shuffled out to the green pickup in the driveway, checking for keys and wallet on the way.

“I’ll make her some tea,” Jack said.

“Let me make it. You go in and see her. I’ll bring it when it’s done.”

“Thanks. Third cupboard on the right.”

She filled the red tea kettle with water, set in on the stove top, turned the dial until blue flames appeared. In the appointed cupboard, she found black, green and chamomile tea. She opted for the chamomile and set the box on the table. After poking around, she found the cabinet with the glasses and chose a white mug that said, “World’s Best Mom.”

She felt comfortable in this kitchen. It wasn’t worn and shabby, with mismatched table and chairs and faded flower wallpaper, like the kitchen of her childhood, stamped with poverty. Neither was it gleaming and cold and intimidating, like the sleek kitchen at Craig’s parents house, as if no one lived there.

When the tea was done, she brought it to the bedroom door and knocked softly.

“Come in,” Jack said. When she entered he was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his mother’s hand. The curtains were closed against the brilliant spring day, with only one lamp lighting the room. The stale air had the faint scent of vomit and cleaning solution.

Jack’s mother sat up in the big bed against propped-up pillows. A floral bedspread was pulled up to her thin form. What hair she had left, now in tufts and patches, had been dark, and her large blue eyes shifted from her son to Hannah as she brought the tea.

“This is my friend, Hannah, mom.”

Hannah set the steaming mug onto the bedside table, trying to smile reassuringly. The woman’s eyes never left her for a moment, following her across the room unnervingly. Hannah wondered suddenly if she shouldn’t have come. Maybe his mother would resent her presence here, maybe she’d want her son’s company all to herself right now. She had every right.

Finally, his mom smiled weakly at her. “She’s lovely, Jack. I’m very happy for you.”

“It’s not like that, Mom,” he said, blushing again at the same assumption his father had made. “She’s a friend. I’m helping Hannah with her thesis. Or trying to, anyway.”

“We just met two days ago,” Hannah added.

“It doesn’t matter,” his mom said, her eyes glittering in the low light. “I can see it.”

“See what, Mom?”

“Oh,” she said, raising an arm that looked alarmingly thin to Hannah. “The link. It’s very strong.”

“The link?” Jack repeated.

“You’re both the same color. Red. The exact same shade, like blood.”

Jack glanced back at Hannah, then reached for the tea on the table. “Have some tea, Mom, and then get some rest.” He brought the mug to her pale lips as she inclined her head forward from the pillows. She took a few swallows, and then sagged back and closed her eyes.

Hannah left the bedroom. In the kitchen, she washed the few dishes in the sink, wiped up some crumbs from the counter, found the broom and swept the floor. The sick woman’s words made no sense, but she couldn’t get them out of her head.

After a time, Jack came out of the bedroom, and she made tea for them both. They sat at the kitchen table, their hands wrapped around their mugs.

“Sorry about that,” Jack said. “I’m used to her being confused, but that was just weird.”

“I’m getting used to weird around here,” she said, blowing on her tea.

“Do you think you’ll dream of Annie again tonight?”

“I don’t know. Last time, she was losing the baby. We know that she died with the third child. What if…I don’t want to go through…” She stopped and covered her distress by sipping her tea. The warmth in her belly helped with the ache of her menstrual cramps.

“If you want, I can stay with you tonight. Just to, you know, watch over you.” He plunked his teabag in and out of his mug by the string, not looking at her.

She didn’t realize how afraid she was at the idea of going to sleep that night, until she felt relief wash over at his suggestion.

He misunderstood her pause. “God, sorry, it was a dumb idea–”

“No, please. I’d appreciate that, really.” She reached out a hand and placed it over his on the table.

“Okay.”

“Okay.” She didn’t withdraw her hand, and neither did he. She squeezed it a little, and his thumb came up to lightly trace her own.

His mother’s voice calling him made them jump, and he stood up from the chair with a loud scrape. “Sorry, I better go check on her.”

“Of course.”

He disappeared into the bedroom. She sat at the table and finished her tea, listening to the sparrows singing outside the open kitchen window. She was aware of her hand tingling where Jack had touched it. She was aware of the rock in her purse, which hung off the arm of the chair. She was aware of her cell phone, full of Craig’s messages.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled out the phone and accessed her voice mail.

“Hi babe. Did you fall asleep before calling me? Sweet dreams. I’ll call you in the morning before my shift.”

“You must be elbow-deep in research. I hope it’s worth it, Hanny. Miss you. Please call. Okay?”

There were no more voice messages, but there were several texts:

I don’t mean to keep bothering you, but a call would be nice.

I’m getting worried. Did you fall off that tower?

You met someone, didn’t you? You could at least be an adult and admit it.

She had to stand and pace the kitchen to work through the outrage that surged through her. She picked up the broom again and swept the rest of the house furiously, then went outside and swept the porch and front steps, muttering as she did so. After she emptied the dustpan into the trash, she sat at the table again, chewing her thumbnail.

In all fairness, Craig was right. She had met someone. Several someones: Jack and his parents, Jonathan and Annie Eldridge. They seemed more real to her than Craig did, in distant Boston. Suddenly the last few years of her life didn’t feel real at all, as if she’d only been playing at something until her real life appeared. Her anger spent, she found she didn’t care what Craig thought, unfair as that was.

She took up her phone and texted: Yes, I did meet someone, Craig. She’s immensely important to me, and I have to find out everything I can about her. I’m not sure when I’ll be going back to Boston. In light of this, I can’t in good conscience go through with the wedding. I’m so very sorry. I’ll explain everything when I see you again.

She hit send, shut the phone off and put it back in her purse. Holding out her left hand, she pulled off the diamond engagement ring and put that, too, into her purse. It had been on her finger long enough that it felt strange without it now, but she couldn’t deny how right it felt to take it off. An enormous weight was gone. She was giddy with lightness, with freedom. Anything was possible now.

When Jack returned to the kitchen, he gave her a funny look. “You okay?”

She realized she was smiling. “I’m good. What else can I do for you?”

 

Go here for Part 5 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

 

 

Dark Fens of Cedar (3)

Go here for Part 2 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

(2,000 words)

 

poet pen and paper

“Do you want to get a coffee or something?”

 

The Korner Kitchenette was on the town’s Main Street, with vinyl-covered booths and a few round stools surrounding a curved counter. Old-fashioned signs hung on the walls, advertising hamburgers for ten cents, and hot fudge sundaes for twenty-five cents. Vintage signs for Moxie soda and Hershey’s syrup rounded out the decor; the actual kitchen was not a separate room, but a grill and other equipment squeezed into a corner, where the customers could see their food being prepared.

Hannah and Jack sat at the curved counter on their stools amid the lunchtime chatter and the sizzle of burgers spattering on the grill. Hannah stirred cream into her coffee while Jack bit into his Reuben sandwich. She’d ordered a grilled blueberry muffin, but didn’t have much of an appetite just now.

Part of her wanted to talk about that weird, shared moment at the property. Instead, she asked him, “Haven’t you ever wanted to leave River Valley, see other places?”

He finished chewing and put down his sandwich. Wiping grease from his fingers on a napkin, he said, “I went to UMass and got my degree in botany. I planned on getting my graduate degree at Oregon State, maybe go into research or teaching.” He fingered the stale chips on his plate. “My mom got sick, so I stayed here to help my dad. He’s a history teacher at the community college, and runs the Historical Society on the side. He’s been so busy with Mom’s chemo appointments, I’ve pretty much taken it over for him.”

“I’m so sorry.” She felt like a jerk. “I didn’t mean to imply…”She trailed off.

He stirred the ice in his water glass with his straw. “It’s okay. The longer I stay here, the more I like it. You know how when you’re a teenager, you’re just burning to get away? Anywhere, so long as you don’t become your parents? Settled and boring, the same thing everyday, walking through their lives as if they’re already dead?”

She nodded, remembering her own urgent need to leave her hometown. Her father coming home tired and dusty from the shop, her mother weary and redolent of the various aromas of the school cafeteria, her hairnet holding back premature gray hair. She wasn’t going to end up like them, or the other girls from her high school who got pregnant to try to hold onto their moron boyfriends.

Jack went on. “And then for one reason or another, you end up staying, and after a while it doesn’t seem so bad, and you just wish your mother would stay alive, you know, just for a little while longer.” He took another bite of his sandwich.

She didn’t know what to say, so she just sipped her coffee, and watched the people of River Valley walk by the large glass window in the sunlight, intent on their lunchtime errands.

“What about you?” he asked. “Where are you studying?”

“Boston.”

“Amazing city. Good hospitals. We brought Mom to Dana-Farber a few months ago.”

“My fiance is a doctor at Mass General.”

“Really? That’s great.”

“We’re supposed to get married in the fall. After his residency.” She wasn’t sure why she was telling him these things. Maybe it was because he had shared the personal information about his mother. She didn’t know, but the words came of their own accord.

“Oh, wow,” he said. “Fall is a beautiful time to get married. Unless it rains. But I suppose rain would ruin any wedding, at any time of year.”

“I don’t want to marry him.” The words fell from her lips, the few loose stones before an avalanche.

His sandwich stopped halfway to his mouth. “Oh.”

“I can’t bear the thought of it.” And for the second time that day, tears welled in front of this kind stranger.

It was his time to be silent, as he watched her struggle to regain her composure. Her first instinct was to apologize, brush it off, and change the subject. But she didn’t. Here, in this town where no one knew her, where odd rocks called to her and gave rise to unsettling dreams, she spoke the truth.

“I thought it was what I wanted,” she said, sniffling and stirring her coffee, round and round. “To break free of where I came from and rise above it. To be a teacher, a doctor’s wife, to raise kids in that big, beautiful house in the suburbs. I thought that’s what I wanted to be. But that’s some other woman’s dream.”

Jack handed her a napkin. “What’s your dream, Hannah?”

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose before answering, then smiled at him. “Poetry.”

 

Jack walked her back to the B&B, and shuffled his feet at the door.

“I’m at the Historical Society most of the time during the week. If you need any more help.”

“Thank you.”

Hannah watched him from the front window, as he walked back to his cataloging with his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. Then she went to her room, got out her notebook, and wrote.

Not her thesis. She wrote some verses about a wild place haunted by memories, about burnt coffee in a retro diner, about a shy young man with dirt under his fingernails. She wrote the entire afternoon, and didn’t feel any guilt or particular urgency concerning her thesis.

When Craig called that evening, she let it ring. She would have to tell him, of course. Not now, not tonight. She rested on the bed and stared at the rock on her bedside table. She felt pleasantly drained after the afternoon’s work, satisfied and calm. She didn’t want to spoil it with a painful conversation with Craig. She closed her eyes.

 

The candles were lit, the children were finally sleeping, and Jonathan was working intently in his study. Annie hated to interrupt him while he was writing–she knew what that was like–but she thought it was time she showed him. In the morning, he’d be gone with the dawn, exploring and foraging, and she’d be elbow-deep in flour, baking the day’s bread with Agnes.

The child wriggled inside her as she approached the door, as if sensing her apprehension. She rubbed her swelling belly, as much to calm herself as the baby. She held the bound, loose pages under her other arm as she knocked quietly. She opened it before he answered and stood in the doorway.

“Jonathan? May I come in for a moment?”

He held up a hand as he continued to write with the other, finishing his thought before it fled like a startled bird. At any other time, he reminded her of a boy, with his shy smile, his excitement at showing her a new specimen for the greenhouse, his trembling caresses in the darkness of their bedroom. But with the pen in his hand, he was at his most solemn; his intensity frightened her sometimes. What came out of his pen could only be called sublime.

The line finished, he looked over his shoulder, as if waking from a dream.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I wanted to talk to you about something, something important.”

“Of course.” He took a deep breath and sat up straighter, gesturing for her to sit in the other chair next to the desk.

She lowered herself carefully, and then placed the bundled pages on the desk. “I believe it’s done.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re ready to show me?”

“Yes.” She’d been working on the poems since before the child took life within her. She hadn’t wanted to show him until they were done, lest she be influenced by any criticism he might mete out. His opinion was immensely important to her, and yet she knew he thought her writing as mere “womanly jottings”. Her heart beat with trepidation, and the child seemed to still with tense anxiety.

“It couldn’t wait until tomorrow?” he asked lightly, not wanting to wound, but irritated at having been interrupted for the sake of her lesser work.

“No,” she snapped, and then softening, she said, “Please, Jonathan.”

“All right,” he said, seeing her distress. He pulled the bundle closer and undid the strings of the binding.

She sat in an agony of suspense as she watched him take up the pages and read. At first his face was a mask of patronizing toleration. As his eyes moved over the lines and down the page, his expression changed to one of confusion and surprise. His brows knit together and the lines of his forehead only deepened as he continued; each page he finished was turned with an astonished impatience.

Annie perched on the edge of her chair, rubbing her belly, waiting. Finally, before he was even halfway through the bundle, he looked up at her, his eyes searching hers.

“You wrote these?”

“Of course I wrote them. You saw me writing them.”

“Annie, these are…well, they’re extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like them.”

The tension drained from her, and she allowed herself to smile at him. But he’d already gone back to the poems. Despite his words, his countenance seemed troubled as he read them.

“I understand they don’t have any recognizable form,” she said, feeling the need to explain. “I just wanted to free myself from traditional constraints and…well, see where my mind took me.”

“Indeed.” He continued to read, his knuckles pressed to his lips.

“What’s wrong? There’s something you want to say, isn’t there? Please say it, Jonathan. I want your honesty.”

He dropped the pages to the table and turned to her. “Annie, what you have written here…it’s brilliant. There’s no other word to describe it. But…”

“Yes?” The child kicked, painfully.

“Well, besides having no form–that, in itself, is rather unheard of–the subject matter, though undeniably powerful, is quite…intimate.”

“I simply wrote from my experience as a woman. Is that no less authentic than your own?”

He leaned toward her and took her hand. “Of course, darling. I’ve already said that I think they’re brilliant. Truly. And yet–matrimony, childbirth, and–” he cleared his throat–“physical desire. These things are, as I said, quite intimate and private, and perhaps–well, perhaps not a proper subject for poetry.”

She withdrew her hand from his. “What would you have me write about? The hills and valleys I’m not allowed to roam? The trees I’m not allowed to climb? The wider world I can’t participate in? The very stars I can’t reach, nor even see for the permanent roof over my head?”

He tried to reach for her hand. “Annie…”

She pulled away from him, wrapped her arms around her burgeoning belly. The child writhed inside her, agitated, as she was. “This is my reality–within these walls, within this body. I have nothing else to give, nothing else to offer the world.”

He made an impatient gesture. “Why must you offer anything to the world? Why can’t you just be my wife?”

She could see that he regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but she was still speechless with rage. She stood and gathered the loose pages from the table, pressed the bundle to her chest and headed for the door.

“Annie, please. Wait.” He stood and reached out for her, his hand coming to clasp her arm.

She wrenched free of him with a violence she never knew she had; it had only simmered in the words she had scratched onto the pages in her arms, pages that now fell loose and fluttered to the floor in a messy heap.

“Look what you’ve done!” She knelt heavily and began picking up the pages, until a sharp pain in her belly took her breath away.

Jonathan crouched next to her. “Annie, please calm yourself. The baby.” He kept his voice steady, but there was fear in it, too.

“I’m all right,” she said, but another band of pain squeezed her abdomen, and she groaned. A warm gush between her legs signaled that she was not all right. She let the pages fall from her hands as she clutched her husband’s arm.

“Get the doctor. Oh god, hurry!”

 

Go here for Part 4 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

Dark Fens of Cedar (2)

Go here for Part 1 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

poet scroll

(2,800 words)

Hannah woke with the pain knifing through her hand. She sat up in the early morning darkness of her room in the B&B, straining to see her trembling hand before her. There was no blood, no wound, but the ache of it remained.

The dream had been so vivid, so real. She remembered the poet’s lips on her own, felt the rock in her hand as it cut her flesh. Her flesh. She’d dreamed she was Annie Eldridge. She laughed shakily. She’d been working on this thesis for nearly a year now. Perhaps she was getting too involved with her subject. Her brain was mixing up the rock with her research and her new interest in Annie, along with her fear (yes, she admitted it to herself) of becoming a wife.

It was only when she was soaping up in the shower that it occurred to her: in the dream, Annie had been writing before she was interrupted by Jonathan. Writing what? She said she’d been “working”. It didn’t mean anything, of course. It was just a dream. But what if…?

None of the books she’d encountered or any online research suggested that Annie had been a writer or poet. Never a whisper of it. By all accounts, Annie had been the supporting, loving wife and muse to Jonathan Mason Eldridge III. Her death had sent him into spirals of grief, a sort of permanent mourning that caused him to withdraw from public life, which had always been tenuous, at best.

The library had nothing left to offer her. The librarian suggested there may be some source material on Eldridge at the River Valley Historical Society, just a few blocks away. Hannah walked down the residential streets that bloomed with lilac and flowering dogwood, inhaling their scent on the warm breeze and trying to understand the excitement that buzzed in her belly, that odd sense of familiarity that tapped on her shoulder as she approached the brick-red Victorian style building.

The door held a simple sign that read River Valley Historical Society. She wasn’t sure if she should knock or just open the door and go in. She shrugged and turned the knob. The heavy door opened with a slight creak, into a darkened hallway that ran straight through to the other side of the building. Doorways to other rooms ran along either side of it, spilling light into the shadowy corridor. Immediately to her right was a staircase leading to an upper level.

“Hello?” she called into the quiet.

A stirring down the hallway, and then a head emerged from one of the doorways.

“Um, yes, hello, can I help you?” A young man, with slightly disheveled dark hair and wire rim glasses, stood half-in, half-out of the room, holding rolled up scrolls that he held to his sweater-vested chest like an armful of kittens.

“I was wondering if you had any information here on an nineteenth-century local poet, Jonathan Mason Eldridge? Do you know him?”

“Oh, Eldridge, yes, of course.” He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose while awkwardly holding the scrolls. “Just let me, um..”

“Let me help you.” Hannah approached him and took a few scrolls from him.

“Thank you.” He flashed her a smile that reminded her of Eldridge’s grin at Annie in the dream last night. It disoriented her a little, but then she was following him into the room whose door was labeled “Map Room”.

He emptied the scrolls onto a large mahogany desk near the window, and so she placed her few scrolls there as well. The room was filled with cabinets and chests of drawers, and a few glass cases where some very old maps were displayed.

“I was just re-cataloging and re-assigning,” he explained apologetically, as if she was about to scold him for it. “Some of these items haven’t been touched in years.”

“I see.”

They stood regarding each other for a few moments, and she was about to speak when he clapped his hands together.

“So, Eldridge! What kind of information are you looking for, exactly?”

“Well, I’m not sure, really. I’m writing my graduate thesis on him, and the local library doesn’t have anything new to offer. I thought you might have something a little more personal, like journals or letters?”

“Sure, we’ve got a few things like that. Let’s go to the Eldridge Room and take a look.”

“You have an Eldridge Room?”

He smiled that oddly familiar grin again. “Most famous poet in town. Have you been to the tower?” He led her out of the room and up the darkened, winding stairs to the upper rooms.

“Yes. It’s a wonderful view.”

“Especially this time of year. I go up there myself now and again, just to sit a bit and think about things.” It was too dim to see if he blushed, but he sounded embarrassed by his words. “Here we are,” he said briskly, ushering her into a smaller room just at the top of the stairs.

Its door indeed said “Eldridge Room”, and held some Victorian period chairs and tables. Some landscapes by Turner lined the walls, as well as a portrait of Eldridge himself. Some smaller, grainier photographs of the poet, Annie and their children, Robert and Elizabeth, decorated the wall near the lace curtained windows. The third child had died with Annie, and was posthumously named Sarah. A bookshelf held various editions of the poet’s work and several biographies she’d already read. A display case beneath glass chronicled the building of the stone tower in 1912, which replaced the earlier wooden structure erected in 1895 that had been destroyed by fire.

“Over here we have a few original manuscripts,” her guide said, gesturing toward another display on the other side of the room.

Hannah leaned over the glass to see some handwritten drafts of Eldridge’s poems. She’d seen a few facsimiles of his writing before, but what she was looking for now was a sample of Annie’s writing. She seemed to remember an elongated and looping script from her dream. If she could somehow match it to an actual piece of writing from Annie–well, what would that prove? It was just a dream. But she felt there was something deeper at work here. If she found a match, that meant she somehow knew what Annie’s handwriting looked like. And that Annie had been writing something more than recipes or grocery lists.

“Do you have anything of Annie’s?” she asked. “Letters, lists, anything with her writing?” Even though the dream was blurry, and she couldn’t remember any specific words, Hannah felt sure she would recognize the writing itself.

“The wife? I think so.” He wandered over to the bookshelf. “There are no surviving letters or such that I know about, but she wrote something in one of her husband’s books. A personal note or dedication, I think.” He pulled a big, leather-bound book off the shelf and brought it over to a small writing table near the window. Flora and Fauna of Northeast America, second edition, 1850. He opened the book carefully, and pointed to an inscription on the inside cover:

To my dearest Jonathan–so you may name the birds and beasts of your beloved home. May your rustic wanderings bear fruit in the knowing. Your Annie.

Hannah peered closely at the writing. She couldn’t be sure, of course. This was all based on a dream. But she thought–perhaps somehow she even knew–this was the writing she’d seen in the dream.

“Does that help you at all?” The young man’s voice pulled her out of her reverie.

“Yes, thank you.” She leafed distractedly through the book. Beautiful color illustrations of native birds, trees, flowers, bugs, reptiles and small mammals of New England popped out from the delicate pages.

“I understand he cherished this book,” her guide said.

“Hmmm,” she replied, closing the book. “Nothing else of Annie’s?”

“Not that I know of. Is your thesis on Annie, rather than the poet?”

“Both, really,” she said, and with the words, knew it was now true. Wherever her thesis had been going before, it was going in a different direction now. Annie had to be a part of it, although in what capacity, she wasn’t sure yet. She was operating on a hunch, a feeling. A dream.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it. If there’s anything I can help you with, I’ll be downstairs in the Map Room. Re-cataloging.”

“And re-assigning.” She smiled at him as he blushed. “My name is Hannah, by the way.” She held out her hand.

“Jack.”

“Thank you, Jack.” She noticed incongruent half-circles of dirt underneath his fingernails as he shook her hand.

When he left, she puttered around the room, read the displays, flipped through the books on the shelf. There was really nothing here that could be of use to her. She looked again at the inscription in the leather-bound book, willing words to form themselves in her mind, words written by Annie in her dream, in this handwriting. She had known them in her dream–a captured image–she had been Annie, after all–but they had slipped away upon waking.

She stood in front of the wall of photographs, studying the faces of the Eldridge family. The boy, Robert, looked to be about three years old, and the girl, Elizabeth, was barely out of infancy. Annie had died giving birth to Sarah in 1857; the photo was dated in the same year. The child was inside her when the photo was taken.

Hannah tried to picture herself in a similar family photo with Craig, with more color and smiles. She tried to picture herself as a mother, wiping runny noses, calming screaming babies, changing diapers, of incubating a human being inside her own body. She and Craig had talked about having children. Or rather, Craig had talked enthusiastically about it, as if it were a foregone conclusion, and she had nodded, and said, yes, when we’re done with school, when we’re settled in our careers, when we have a house in a nice suburb. After her first book of poems was published…always after some milestone was met, some future date when everything was perfect and the time was right. Inevitably, a deep maternal need would wash over her, and the yearning to be a mother would override anything else in her life. Wouldn’t it?

Of course it would. She and Craig would be happy and successful, she’d be the mother of his children and they’d live in a big, beautiful home.

A thought occurred to her, and she sought Jack in the Map Room. She found stacks of folders and a few open drawers, but he wasn’t there. She poked her head into every room along the corridor, but couldn’t find him. She was about to check the other rooms upstairs when a rustling outside, beyond an open window in the nearest room, caught her attention.

She followed the sound out the front door, around a corner of the building, to find Jack on his knees near a bed of tulips. He was pulling weeds, and watering the blooms with a green watering can. The sun glinted off the drops as they fell upon the bright petals.

He glanced up as she approached and set the watering can on the soft grass. As he stood, he brushed his pants self-consciously.

“Oh, um, hello again, can I help you?”

His awkwardness was endearing; she was used to Craig’s confidence and bold manner. “Are you the gardener, too?”

His cheeks pinked in another blush. “I like to tinker around in the garden.”

“They’re beautiful.” Tulips always reminded her of some lollipop garden in a Willy Wonka fantasyland. She knew nothing of plants or gardens. She and Craig would have to hire a gardener for that big lovely house they were going to live in.

Which reminded her of her question. “Do you happen to know where Eldridge and his family lived here in town? Is their house still standing?”

“Yeah, I mean, the house is long gone, but I know where it used to be. I could show you. If you want.”

“Is it very far? I’m on foot, unless you have a car.” She’d taken the train in from Boston, on a newly open line that went straight through River Valley.

“It’s only about a fifteen minute walk from here. I can show you, if you want,” he said again.

“Okay, that’d be great.”

“Just let me lock up.” He went around to the front door and locked it from the inside, then pulled out a sign that read “Back at” with a picture of a clock and moving red hands. He moved the hands until they read 12:30, and looped the sign around the door knob.

“I’ll just take my lunch break early.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t want to take up your break time–”

“No, it’s fine. I usually just take a walk anyway, buy a sandwich at the Korner Kitchenette.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Absolutely. I haven’t been up that way for a while. It’ll be nice.” Despite his words, his smile seemed forced. She followed him out onto the sidewalk.

He led her along a few quiet residential streets, until they came to the town’s Main Street, which was beginning to buzz with lunchtime traffic.

“How long have you lived in River Valley?” she asked, trying to make polite conversation.

“Born and raised,” he replied, not quite making eye contact, as if he was embarrassed at his answer.

“It’s a nice little town,” she said, attempting to put him at ease for some reason. It reminded her of her hometown in Vermont, though River Valley was a bit bigger, busier. She couldn’t imagine having never left it. She had counted down the days to her high school graduation, and left for Boston practically the next day for a summer job on campus.

“It’s actually considered a city now,” Jack said. “The charter was changed a few years ago.”

“City, huh? Eldridge would turn over in his grave at the idea.”

“I suppose he would.”

They climbed a hill leading away from the center of town, to a road that led to the tower. Her B&B was just down a side road from where they were. They passed the tower road, crested the hill, and walked down a wooded, dead-end gravel lane that held several upscale homes that looked out over River Valley. The lane terminated in a loop that sent the traveler back from where they came. Beyond the loop stood a small, empty field that also looked out over the town. Or city, rather, with its small conglomeration of schools, hospital, steepled churches, and businesses. Past the town were squares of fields and farms.

“Well, here it is,” Jack announced, stopping and surveying the plot and its view, shading his eyes against the midday glare.

Hannah took a few steps forward, taking it all in. Here, Jonathan and Annie had lived and loved and died; children had been birthed and poetry had been written. Now, there was nothing but the wind through the sparse trees where birds sang and crickets chirped. Perhaps Eldridge would have liked it that way.

“What happened to the house?” She could just make out the buried foundation stones beneath the wind-blown grass.

“Fire, long after Eldridge died. The house was empty, the children had gone to live with family in Boston by then.”

“Who owns the property now?”

“A charitable trust, I think. Eldridge’s family had no use or interest in it. It’s remained empty ever since.”

Hannah walked in further, and after a few moments, Jack followed her. Besides the weedy suggestion of the foundation, no trace of the house remained. A sadness overcame her, at the impermanence of things, of lives reduced to history lessons, of foundations buried in the dirt. She wasn’t sure where this melancholy came from, or the sudden tears that welled in her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Jack asked beside her, a hand reaching out, not quite touching her.

She hastily wiped the tears away, embarrassed, surprised, and not a little confused. “God, I’m sorry, I don’t know where that came from.” She laughed, but it sounded forced even in her own ears. “I guess I’m a little sentimental about my subject.”

“No, I totally get it. I mean, sometimes when I come up here, I feel it, too.” He looked around, at the whispering trees, the weedy grass, the clouds scudding across the blue expanse of sky. “Kind of like…not ghosts, exactly…like the presence of memories I can’t remember.”

She felt the truth of his words, and wondered at it.

He tore his eyes away from the horizon and found hers. A question formed in his countenance, and then he shook his head, as if to clear it. He shrugged in his sheepish way. “Do you want to get a coffee or something?”

 

Go here for Part 3 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

 

Dark Fens of Cedar (1)

This story is based on an idea I had nearly a year and a half ago, based on a writing prompt calling for a local landmark and a special (maybe magical) stone. Here’s what I came up with (it turned out to be a long short story, and so I will post it in parts here this week).

*Please note that my fictional poet of Jonathan Mason Eldridge III is based on a real poet named Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, whose sonnets appear here in the story. All other details concerning my character of Eldridge are wholly my own creation.

 

poet stone

(2,500 words)

The tower was at the top of a forested hill that overlooked the town. Hannah hiked up the cracked pavement of the road, enjoying the spring morning. May in New England could be a glorious time, and she understood why Eldridge would have come here to write his poetry.

Boston seemed further away than the three hour train trip it was, and she was just beginning to feel giddy with freedom when the text dinged on her phone: Hey Beautiful, Mother wants to know when ur coming back, she’ll be in Italy in 2 wks, wants to tlk about the wedding. Fall will b here sooner than u think!

Leave it to Craig to ask her when she’ll be back on her first day here. Hannah slipped the phone back into her pocket without answering. She didn’t want to think about fall right now; she was absorbed in the flowering of spring all around her. The citrine light seeping through the canopy, the silence that wasn’t silent, as the maples exchanged breezy secrets with the oaks. The warm air hung heavy with earth and pine. She wanted to take out her notebook and pen a poem right now, but she was here to research Eldridge, not emulate him.

The tower loomed above, with windows cut into its brown stone, open to the wind that flapped the American flag at its top. She stopped at its base and caught her breath, looking out over the low wall in front of it at the small town of River Valley below. It had been even less developed one hundred and fifty years ago, when Eldridge left Boston for “the country”. He left his law degree behind to come here and write his poems, study botany and astronomy, and marry Annie, who gave him two children. An ideal life, though not one untouched by tragedy.

She circled the base of the tower and traced her finger along the brass plaque inscribed with the words:

Poet’s Seat Tower

Erected 1912 in honor of

Jonathan Mason Eldridge III

A Romantic poet who often came here

To write his sonnets, inspired by

The natural beauty of the area.

 

She entered the base and climbed the stairwell that led to succeeding levels that grew smaller the higher one went; it looked like a rook on a chess board. At the wind-whipped pinnacle, where the flag snapped on its shuddering pole, she splayed her palms on top of the scratchy stone wall, fighting vertigo. She’d never liked heights.

She remembered the time Craig convinced her to go to the top of the Prudential Building back in the city. She was of the opinion that buildings shouldn’t actually sway in the wind. Or at least, that she shouldn’t be inside said building. Craig had gotten angry when she threw up, right there in front of the tourists and other visitors.

Appearances were important to Craig. She’d written a secret poem about the experience called Not so prudent at the Prudential.

She quickly made her way back down the stair case to solid ground. The tower had been built long after Eldridge died. He likely wrote his poems somewhere nearby, leaning back against a warm rock in the sun. She wandered off on a worn path to the right that led to a rocky ledge along the ridge of the hill. She imagined Eldridge sitting here, notebook open across his dusty trousers, the collar of his shirt loosened against the summer heat.

Thin little leaves of wood fern, ribbed and toothed

Long curved sail needles of the green pitch pine,

With common sandgrass, skirt the horizon line,

And over these the incorruptible blue!

Her let me gently lie and softly view

All world asperities, lightly touched and smoothed

As by his gracious hand, the great Bestower.

What though the year be late? Some colors run

Yet through the day, some links of melody

Still let me be, by such, assuaged and soothed

And happier made, as when, our school day done,

We hunted on from flower to frosty flower,

Tattered and dim, the last red butterfly,

Or the old grasshopper, molasses-mouthed.

 

Hannah understood and commiserated with Eldridge’s nostalgia for the freedom and joy of his youth in nature. Lately she felt as if she were trapped in a box, miles and years away from her childhood in rural Vermont.

She sat and plucked the grass beside her, lost in thoughts of chasing butterflies and grasshoppers. She looked out to the east, where Craig waited impatiently for her to answer his text. The trees whispered behind her, and she looked over her shoulder. Just the wind, but her imaginative mind thought it had recognized words in the air. She suddenly felt the urge to leave the ridge and go into the woods, to search for the source.

She left the view and followed the trail that led deeper into the wooded hill. The brown leaves and pine needles of the past autumn crunched under her boots. Crows flapped and yelled somewhere ahead, drowning out the sweet whistle of the sparrows. The trail curved, the forest thickened with fern and laurel, and the canopy above closed against the bright spring sun. She stopped and listened. Wind like words in the gathering gloom. She stepped off the trail, waded through weeds and underbrush, found herself in a cloistered glen of cedar leaf and bark. Dim, still, silent.

Hannah stood in the center of this arboreal eye of stillness, listening to her breath. Something seemed to throb here beneath the earth, a heartbeat pulsing under her feet. She knelt and pressed her hand against the cold dirt. Nothing. Just a stone nearby, the size of golf ball, angular white quartz with veins of pink and gold. Pretty. She closed her hand around it, feeling its sharp edges. In the space of a blink, an image came unbidden to her mind–someone giving her the rock. A male hand placing it into her soft palm. Then it was gone.

Her phone rang into the silence, its vintage ring like a scream. She dropped the rock and answered it without thinking.

“Hey, you get my text?” Craig’s voice, travelling across the miles, pursuing her.

“Um, yeah, a few minutes ago. Aren’t you on rounds?” He was in the last month of his residency. They were to be married as soon as he finished, in the fall. And once she finished her thesis on Jonathan Mason Eldridge III.

“Had a minute, thought I’d check in. How’s the research going? The library there any help?”

“Haven’t been there yet. I’m at the tower, or near it, where he composed some of his sonnets.”

“Didn’t know you went there to go hiking,” he muttered. In her shocked pause, he continued, “Best get on it, love. Mother wants to go over dinner menus and the guest list.”

When she found her voice, she said, “Well, Mother is just going to have to wait.” She hung up and shut her phone off. Her hands trembled with her anger, and she rubbed them briskly against her thighs. She spied the stone she’d dropped, and picked it up. It glittered in her palm, strange and familiar at once. She slipped it into the front pocket of her jeans, where it seemed to emit a heat she couldn’t explain.

She looked around the glen, at its shadows and damp earthy corners. What am I doing here? She hurried away, scrambling through branches that whipped her as she passed, and followed the trail back to the ridge and light. She had work to do; it was time she got to it.

 

The River Valley Public Library was ridiculously small compared the vast caverns of the University library, but it had a section devoted to local notables, including Eldridge. Most of the books that surrounded Hannah at the table in the back didn’t tell her anything she already didn’t know: a true Romantic, his slim volume of sonnets featured nature and the individual’s subjective response to it, filtered through the lens of emotion and nostalgia. He studied law in Boston, but abandoned that vocation and his prominent family to come here to River Valley and write his poetry, build his greenhouse and raise a family with Annie, a native of the area and a merchant’s daughter. He had always been a bit of a recluse, but after Annie died giving birth to their third child, his grief drove him to further isolation. Over the years he’d had some contact with Tennyson and other notable poets of the time, who admired his work, but apart from the single volume published in 1860, his poetry never gained traction or a national audience.

Hannah hoped her thesis on the almost-famous poet would give him the attention he deserved. And open doors to a teaching career that seemed increasingly unpalatable to her.

The rock in her pocket had an almost magnetic affect on her. Her hand kept straying to it, distracting her from her reading. Every time her fingers closed on it, that familiar feeling intensified, and that flash of receiving it from that male hand blinked through her mind.

She tried to ignore it as she leafed through the old books, determined to find something new, an angle to Eldridge never considered before, another lens through which to view him.

She found a wedding photo of the poet and Annie, and peered at their serious faces. They looked as if they were embarking on a funeral procession rather than the beginning of their lives as man and wife. And yet, it was a serious business back then, matrimony and childbirth. Marriage was for life; once committed, there was no going back. And childbirth was a bloody undertaking–it could take life as well as give it, as Annie and Jonathan would find out, to their sorrow.

From what Hannah understood from the biographies, it was a love match. She focused on Annie’s face, looking for clues: did she have doubts? Was she afraid? Did she ever wish for other options? Or did her grave expression mask a sublime joy that a camera could never capture?

A bride-to-be was a skittery thing. Hannah wished she could see into Annie’s heart. Maybe it would help her discover what lived in her own.

 

The bed and breakfast stood at the foot of the hill where the tower was located. A refurbished Victorian building, it had small, narrow doorways, uneven floors, and charming gables. Hannah finished up a few notes on her laptop, then flopped on the bed and wondered if she should call Craig.

Checking her phone, she read the last few texts from him:

10:35-What the hell Hannah?

12:02-Are u getting cold feet? Is that it?

3:15-Look, I was tired. U know what this rotation does to me. And how Mother hounds me.

5:20-I’m sorry. I miss u. Call me.

In spite of herself, she felt a little sorry for him. She dialed his number.

Craig’s sleepy voice answered on the fourth ring. “Hey.”

“You were sleeping. Sorry, I should have known.”

“It’s okay.” He sighed. “Look, Hanny, I was a jerk. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

“It’s not all right. You have every right to be there. Your work is just important as mine.”

“Your mother doesn’t think so.”

He gave a little laugh. “Kitty thinks a wife is a diamond-studded platform for her husband to stand on.”

She smiled. For Craig, that was fairly poetic. “And what do you think a wife is?”

“A friend. A lover. A partner. Do you still want to be mine?”

“Of course I do. I love you.”

“I love you too, babe. Take as long as you need. Hike as many hills as you want. Channel Eldridge through those country air molecules, if you must. Mother can wait.”

She laughed, but there was some weird unease in it as she fingered the rock in her pocket, an unease she couldn’t explain. She promised Craig she’d call him tomorrow evening, then placed the rock on the bedside table. It gazed at her like some igneous eyeball, and it took her some time to fall asleep.

 

“Annie, come see what I brought you!”

“I’m working, darling.” She wished he wouldn’t shout. The children were napping, and once they awoke, she’d be called back to duty and away from the image that was just beginning to coalesce on the page. Her ink-stained fingers paused above the parchment, and she bristled a bit as her husband came bustling down the hallway. He had returned earlier than expected. She’d have to abandon the work for another day.

He peeked his head into her room and smiled that boyish grin that had so captured her heart. “It’ll take just a moment.”

She suppressed her sigh and smiled back at him, then put her finger to her lips to shush him.

He nodded and held out his hand. “Come see,” he said quietly.

She set down her pen and smoothed her skirts as she rose. He pulled her down the darkened hallway like an excited child to the sunny kitchen, where his overstuffed satchel sat on the tiled floor. He knelt and searched through it, carefully circumnavigating the stalks and sprigs of green that stuck out of it like wild hair. Specimens for the greenhouse, no doubt.

“Ah, here it is.” He stood and took her hand, and placed something hard and small into it. A white rock sparkled with veins of pink and gold in the sunlight. Not completely round, it was angular, with several sharp points.

“When I saw it, I thought of you,” he said. “Beautiful, but sharp. If you close your fist around it too tightly, it might cut you.” He met her eyes with his dark ones. “One can never fully possess such perfection.”

“Jonathan,” she murmured. He always did this to her. Any annoyance or resentment was instantly dissolved by his words, his touch, his shy smile.

He came closer, cupping her hands into his, careful not to press her skin too tightly against the stone. “Tell me our love will be as eternal as this rock.”

“I promise, love.” His lips were near, asking. She answered by pressing her own against them. Her body responded; she was nearly helpless against it. The children were still sleeping, Agnes, their housekeeper, was still at the market in town. Perhaps there was time…

His arms came up and around her as the kiss deepened. As he clutched her to him, her hands pressed against her chest. The rock, still in her palm, punctured her skin with one of its points, drawing blood.

 

Hannah woke with pain knifing into her hand.

 

Go here for Part 2 of Dark Fens of Cedar.

 

 

 

 

Mine

cotton candy

(3,000 words)

When I think of Grace, I try to remember that she loved me. She did love me. It’s been so long, I sometimes wonder if she’d been real, if I’d only dreamed her. But no, it was she who had the dream.

Curled up under the covers of her bed, her little vibrating body pressed against me, her breath warm in my ear.

“I love you, Mommy.” She said she dreamed they would take her away.

“Who?”

“The sky people. They want me.”

I kissed her freckled nose. “I don’t blame them. But I won’t let them take you, I promise. You’re mine. Anyway, it was just a dream. Okay?”

“I told them I wouldn’t go without you. I told them.”

“Okay,” I hushed. “Go to sleep now. We’ll go to the carnival tomorrow, and we’ll have so much fun. You’ll see.”

“They said I was special. That they needed me,” she murmured, her voice thick with sleep.

“Of course you are. I need you, too, so you’re not going anywhere. Okay?” Her silky hair through my fingers, my lips against her smooth forehead.

But she was asleep, and I stayed in the bed with her, breathing in her scent, imbibing her warmth, memorizing the feel of her in my arms. Mine.

 

Grace wanted cotton candy, but I dragged her to the ice cream stand instead. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I’d just let her have that damn cotton candy. I don’t know. But when I turned back from handing over the cash to the girl behind the counter, Grace was being led away by another woman. The stranger’s back was to me, so I couldn’t see her face, but Grace looked up at her with a smile, reaching out for the fluffy pink candy being offered to her.

“Grace?” Alarm made my voice harsh. The two were several feet away from me. My daughter didn’t seem to hear me as the woman lured her away.

“Grace!” I started to move forward.

“Ma’am, your change,” the counter girl said, holding out coins and dollar bills.

“Keep it.” I threw the ice cream cones onto the dusty ground and lurched toward them, but the crowds moved in, their laughter somehow sinister and leering as I lost sight of them. I shoved past people, not caring if they fell, ignoring their angry complaints.

I couldn’t see them. I stopped and pivoted, scanning desperately for my child. The world spun and careened around me; the whoosh of the rides, the screaming of those who rode them, the scents of the grease and sugar and cooking meat, the warbling carnival music, all assaulted my senses.

Please. Please. PLEASE!

Then a glimpse of blonde curls, the flash of pink candy. I surged forward and they were right in front of me, the woman’s hand on my daughter’s back. A space cleared around them, and the noise of the carnival faded as my head buzzed. I wanted to run to Grace, take her in my arms, rip her away from that stranger, that kidnapper, but my limbs refused to move. The buzz in my head grew louder as the woman turned to look at me.

My own face stared at me across that fathomless space.

The buzzing stopped abruptly and the voice–not my own–sounded inside my head, though my doppelganger’s lips didn’t move.

“We’ll teach her what she needs to learn.”

The buzz returned, louder, so deafening I clamped my ears with my hands, squeezed my eyes shut, but it was inside my head and I couldn’t escape it.

But she’s mine! I wanted to hurl the words like daggers, but the scream remained inside me, my voice strangled.

When the buzzing stopped and I opened my eyes, they were gone. Pink cotton candy melted in the sun in a sugary puddle.

 

I described Grace to the police: six years old, blonde curly hair, blue eyes (the color of the sky), her weight and height. Freckles. Wearing jeans and light up sneakers, a Dora the Explorer shirt. I dug out a recent school picture from my wallet. Her gap-toothed smile sent waves of pain through me.

They asked me again to describe the woman who took her.

“Well, she looked like me.”

“In what way?”

“In every way. She was…well, she was me. But the voice wasn’t mine.”

“Voice?”

“It said they would teach her what she needs to learn.”

The officer and the sketch artist glanced at each other.

“Grace told me last night they wanted her,” I went on, rocking in the hard-backed chair in the police station, wringing tissue in my hands to shreds, tears clotting my throat. “She said they told her she was special. What does that even mean?”

The officer leaned in. “Who told her?”

“The sky people. In the dream. Oh god, she dreamed they’d take her, and I promised her I wouldn’t let them. I promised her.”

Her absence was a stone in my heart. Every hour, every minute she was gone caused it to grow heavier, denser, so that nothing could escape it. Watching those shows about space on the science channel, I could never grasp the concept of a black hole–so much matter compressed into such a small space, its gravitational pull so strong not even light could escape. My brain couldn’t comprehend, but my heart understood it now. My grief would always absorb everything around it. There would never be anything else.

“Sky people?” The officer’s pen remained poised above his notebook, and I sensed my mistake.

“Please find her,” I begged.

An Amber Alert went out, flyers were posted, a flurry of Facebook appeals were sent. Search parties formed and fanned out in a five-mile radius from where she went missing. Grace’s father flew in from Florida, raging and weeping and shouting at the authorities: Find her, find my little girl! You need more officers out there, you need to keep looking, damn you, damn you!

It was only a matter of time before he unleashed his fear and anger on me. He stood at the end of my bed, where I lay silent and unmoving. Valium made his words echo in my head.

“How could you let this happen? This is your fault. You lost her. You lost our child!”

I let his words fall over me like burning embers. I lost her. They took her. I lost her. They took her.

“I knew I should have pressed harder for custody,” he continued. “If she’d been with me, if she’d been mine, this never would have happened.”

Maybe he was right. But maybe they would have taken her anyway. None of it mattered. No matter how many forests were combed, no matter how many bodies of water were drained or dredged, they’d never find her.

Grace was nowhere on this earth anymore.

 

In the first mental facility, two years after Grace disappeared, I spent hours writing down everything I could remember about her. I filled notebooks describing her habits and quirks: how she picked her nose while she watched television, the way her tongue stuck out while she was concentrating on something, how she hated the number five for no apparent reason.

Her favorite subjects at school were art and math. I detailed every art project she’d ever done. Her artwork was imaginative and colorful, but nothing out of the ordinary for a six-year old. How she knew her times tables at four years old and was just wading into long division. She wasn’t exactly a math prodigy, but she had a facility. I was searching for reasons they might have taken her. Why my child? Outside of being precious to me, what was so remarkable about her? I wrote more detailed physical descriptions, suddenly remembering a star-like birthmark on the back of her left hand that now suggested to me she might have been marked in some way.

I didn’t stop writing even when the doctor came in to talk to me for our appointed hour everyday. She watched me behind her large-frame glasses, her own notebook resting on her lap, her pen ready to jot down the occasional note.

“Are the meds working?” she asked.

“I’m sleeping better. Not as many nightmares.”

“Good. What are you writing about today?”

“Grace’s hands.” I didn’t look up from the notebook.

“Anything particular about her hands?”

“No.” I wasn’t going to mention the star birthmark. She’d nod in that knowing way of hers, scribble her notes. I was a fascinating case on how the human mind copes: the mother who lost her daughter, who insisted her child had been taken by “sky people”. The mother who couldn’t face reality–that Grace had more than likely been raped and murdered and left in some ditch somewhere, or that she’d been sold into some sex-trafficking ring. Far better to go with the “abducted by aliens” theory.

“May I read it?”

“No.”

Several minutes of silence as she watched me. I waited for the question I knew she’d ask.

“Would you like to talk about the sky people today?”

“No.” Same questions, same answers. I wondered if they’d release me soon simply out of boredom.

Then: “Is this your way of keeping Grace alive?”

I stopped writing mid-sentence and looked over at her for the first time.

“Grace is alive. She’s just…not here.”

 

After my second stint in rehab, I quit the pills for good and reached out. I read every book I could get my hands on about alien abduction. I joined an online support group for those who believed their loved ones had been taken. I gathered all the notebooks I had filled in the mental facility and shaped them into a memoir called Falling from Grace. The book became known in alien conspiracy circles, and Grace’s story was even mentioned on an episode of a prominent TV show on the subject.

When the book was published, Grace’s father called from Florida.

“Are you serious? You’ve turned the memory of our daughter into a freak show. A joke.” Voices in the background, childish babble, a baby crying. He and his young wife had just welcomed their third child.

“I know you don’t understand, but I have to do this.”

“She’s been gone for ten years. You need to let her go. Indulging in your crazy fantasies won’t help.”

Let her go? They took her from me. All I have left is her memory, and the truth. I’ll never let those things go. They’re mine.

I hung up on him and gazed out the window at the night sky. I hated the stars for their cold silence. I loved them because they were my only link to what I had lost.

 

In the second mental facility, my sometime lover came to see me when I could have visitors. He stared at the bandages on my wrists with barely constrained anger.

“After all you’ve been through, after all you’ve done and accomplished, this? Really?”

I stared at the white wall and said nothing.

“The group needs you. We’ve just gotten permission to interview the Evans girl. This is big. It’s important. We need you there.”

The Evans girl. Taken when she was four years old. Then last year, ten years after her disappearance, suddenly found in her parents’ backyard, as if dropped there straight from the sky. A joyous reunion with her parents, apparently all in one piece, but no information on her mental state, what she remembered, where she’d been. A ripple of excitement in the Fourth Kind community, and after what we considered an appropriate amount of time, pressed for first interview rights. I ran the newsletter for our group, and had every intention of conducting that interview. Beth Evans was a beacon of hope for those of us who still waited for our loved ones to come home. But as time passed and the phone call giving permission didn’t come, my hope turned to bitter resentment. I hated Beth Evans for coming back, I hated her parents for getting to see her again, after only ten years. Grace had been gone for two decades. Why Beth and not Grace?

“Did you hear me? The Evans family is ready to speak. Now get out of this bed and let’s get to Arizona for that interview.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, my voice a raw whisper.

“How can you say that? It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

I turned to him, my own anger rising. “It’s not what I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been waiting all these years for Grace to come back, and now I understand that she’s never coming back and I’ll never know why she was taken and it doesn’t matter what the Evans girl says because she’s not Grace, she’s not mine. I don’t care what what happened to her and it doesn’t matter what I’ve done and what I’ve so-called accomplished, she’s never ever coming back and there’s no point in living with this constant, unbearable pain anymore.” I turned away from him, the stone in my heart as heavy, as crushing as ever.

His contempt bore into my back. “You think you’re the only one who’s suffered, don’t you? You think I haven’t thought about ending it all? I think about Henry every single day. I don’t know where he is, and I don’t know if he’ll ever come back. But if I can honor him by simply being alive and reminding people that he was here, that he lived and was loved and will never be forgotten, then by God, that’s what I’m going to do.”

His chair scraped as he got up and went to the door. Before he left, he added, “What if Grace does come back and you’re not here? She’ll suffer the same pain you’re going through now. Is that what you want?”

The door closing behind him wasn’t loud, but it was final. I’d never see him again. A terrible relief flooded through me. I couldn’t shoulder his grief anymore, and I couldn’t shoulder mine, either. It had nearly broken me.

He was right. I couldn’t take the chance. If Grace ever did come back, I had to be here, and I had to be whole.

 

I didn’t see it on the news when it happened. I was out in the garden, planting. I’d never been much of a gardener before, but I wanted to spend my last few years on this earth making things grow. The arthritis made it difficult sometimes, but plunging those achy hands into the cool earth soothed me.

Sometimes I thought of Grace as I worked. Sometimes I didn’t. There were times now where I could go whole days without thinking about her. It had taken me a long time to accomplish that without guilt. I’d filled those days with work at the library (books having been my first love, before Grace) until I retired. Now I spent my time reading, meditating, volunteering at the animal shelter, tending my own brood of house cats. And now gardening. I never thought I’d be very good at it, but it turns out I’d found my calling as I coaxed life out of the earth.

I had a patch of herbs, and a little plot for tomatoes and cucumbers and beans, but my pride and joy was the flower garden. Brief explosions of beauty in their season, and then gone. But not forever. Things lived, things died, and then things lived again. Soon I would die. Maybe I would see Grace again, and maybe I wouldn’t. She wasn’t mine, not for a long time now. She belonged to the universe, or God, or whatever one believes is larger than ourselves. I had to let her go to do the great things I believed she was doing, what whatever it is they had taught her.

She wasn’t mine, but my love and pride and great joy in her would always belong to me.

My knees hurt as I bent over the spaded earth. Time to go in for tea. I used the cane to push myself up, and hobbled into the house that I’ve lived alone in for decades. The wall monitor droned on about some big news. My hearing wasn’t what it used to be, and I ignored it anyway. Who could bear to face the latest horrible thing in the world? But it was my only company these days, besides the cats. I put the kettle on (I still liked to make tea the old fashioned way) and settled at the kitchen table as Ollie, my big Maine Coon, rubbed against my tired legs. I bent over to scratch him between the ears, and my eyes flicked over to the monitor. That’s when I saw it.

The ship was massive, hovering over the city like some giant insect. Thousands of people lined the streets, looking up and pointing. Flashing lights and sirens everywhere, shouting, breathless reporters yelling into the cameras. Words scrolled across the screen at top and bottom:

Historic moment as UFO appears…President will make her statement soon, appeals for calm…No word from otherworldly visitors yet; long-missing children suddenly come home: connection?..Friend or foe?

The kettle whistled and then shrieked, but I didn’t hear it. The stone in my heart, the black hole that had nearly sucked me into oblivion, collapsed into a supernova, and I clutched at my chest and fell from my chair.

 

Ollie licked my face, and I opened my eyes. Early morning light filtered through the blinds of my bedroom window, and a warm spring breeze fluttered the curtains. I’d been dreaming of Grace. We had been at that long-ago carnival, eating cotton candy and riding the merry-go-round. Our sticky fingers gripped the poles, and she laughed as her purple-maned horse went up and down, up and down.

Someone sat next to me on the bed. A woman with curly blonde hair and sky-blue eyes. As I focused on her face, she smiled.

“Mom,” she said.

 

 

 

 

Hera’s Milk

arum-lily

(5,218 words)

Kate stopped at the Bloomfield Bed and Breakfast after driving aimlessly for hours. She  hadn’t formed any coherent thought since leaving the city, certainly nothing as drastic as swallowing the bottle of Xanax in her purse. Her mind had simply been filled with the young female voice that had answered Evan’s cell phone that morning, one that suggested the fresh, pretty face that went along with it.

Evan’s in the shower now, can I take a message?

A sing-song voice that echoed in her brain like an annoying pop song. Kate had called to confirm their plans to celebrate her forty-third birthday at some swanky restaurant she couldn’t afford, but she wasn’t about to tell her young lover that.

The voice probably belonged to some perky co-ed named Tiffany or Jessamyn or Autumn. Kate hung up, got into her car, and drove. Over the next couple of hours she ignored the insistent buzzing of her cell. There was no point in speaking with Evan; she’d seen this coming all along. She’d been determined to enjoy it for as long as it lasted, and she had, but now that it was actually happening, she hadn’t been prepared for the black pit of despair she now found herself in.

It wasn’t just the loss of Evan. He was only the latest in a string of failed relationships with men who grew younger as she got older, a desperate inverse pattern meant to stave off the realization that her own youth was long gone, and she had nothing to show for it.

As her mind wandered down this bleak path, the awareness of the pills in her purse grew. Soon, she could think of nothing else. When the Bloomfield B&B appeared, with its red tiles and Victorian gables, the headline jumped out at her: Writer Takes Her Own Life in Local Landmark. Her death wouldn’t warrant a headline in any newspaper, but it seemed an appropriate place to end her disappointing life.

She parked in the empty lot, grabbed her purse, and walked up the moss-covered flagstones that led to the door. Inside, she tapped the bell stationed on the corner of a large desk. Its ring echoed in the silence. A sound at the top of the stairs caught her attention. The braided head of a little girl peered around the banister. Kate was about to say hello when the girl’s head disappeared as she darted back down the upstairs hallway.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” A woman about Kate’s own age came around a corner to the desk. “I was working on the books in the office.” Her graying hair was coiled into a bun on the back of her head, and a few wisps fell across her broad forehead. She pushed horn-rimmed glasses back up her long nose and smiled. “Welcome to the Bloomfield B&B. How can I help you?”

“One night, please.” Kate ruffled through her purse for her wallet. “You take Visa?”

“Absolutely. I’ll just need some ID.” The woman slid the credit card through the machine. She frowned, then looked at Kate with a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, but this card was declined.”

“Oh.” Kate’s face burned. “Oh, yes, I forgot. I closed this account,” she lied, taking the card back. “Do you take cash?”

“Of course. Single room?”

“Yes.”

“Well, let’s see. If I put you in the Lily Room, it will be one-twenty-five.”

Kate was counting the cash in her wallet. Now she looked up at the woman. “Is that the least expensive room?” She had forty-five dollars.

“Tell you what,” the innkeeper said. “Give me what you can right now. There’s an ATM machine at the gas station in town, about a mile from here. We can settle up later.”

Kate hesitated. The Lily Room sounded lovely, but all she really had to do was pull over to the side of the road, swallow the pills, and be done with it. But that sad, sordid scenario repulsed her writer’s sensibility. She wanted to be found in the Lily Room, with her dyed auburn hair spread out over the silken pillows, and her manicured hand hanging over the bed, holding the empty bottle.

On the other hand, if she did the deed upstairs, the innkeeper would be jipped eighty dollars, and that bothered her, too. She didn’t care about leaving the ten thousand dollar Visa debt, but if she was going to die in this kind woman’s room, the least she could do was pay for all of it. How did dying become so complicated?

“That’s very good of you,” Kate said, handing over the cash.

After they finished their paperwork, the woman said, “My name is Diane. I run the inn with my daughter. She’s floating around here somewhere.” She waved a hand vaguely in the air. Kate remembered the little girl at the top of the stairs.

“I think I saw her,” she remarked.

“Did you? She’s usually in the garden at this hour.”

Diane led her up the carpeted stairs and down the hall to the left, to the Lily Room.

“Here we are.”

Kate stepped into a small room that was just receiving the afternoon light through the western window. Its rays fell on a twin bed covered with a cream-colored bedspread. The walls were papered in light green with small white lilies, and the wood floor had matching light green throw rugs with cream tassels. On a cherry wood table near the window, a vase held white lilies. The sun illuminated their silky petals, and released their subtle scent into the room.

Kate looked at the innkeeper. “It’s perfect.”

“Good. Dinner’s at five o’clock. Don’t be late-it’s swordfish with fresh asparagus. Adn if that doesn’t tempt you, then my homemade chocolate cream pie will.”

“Can’t wait.”

When Diane left, Kate sat down clutching her purse, and stared at the lilies in the green vase. She was glad she took the room. She wanted the last thing she saw on this earth to be something beautiful.

She fished out the bottle of Xanax from the purse. The prescription was nearly full, as she’d just renewed it the other day. She’d suffered from insomnia the past few months, with intermittent panic attacks. The depression had gotten better when she started dating Evan, but now its black tendrils crept over her again, pulling her down into the pit.

She noticed a pitcher of water and a glass tumbler on the table with the lilies. After pouring herself a glass, she leaned down top the lilies and inhaled their scent, as if filling herself up with it. Her eyes strayed out the window to a garden below filled with flower beds. From a large oak tree hung a wooden swing, and in the swing sat the little girl with the pigtails she had seen earlier. Her legs, which stuck out from a red dress with a big bow in the middle, swing back and forth as she pumped the swing. She seemed to be singing, though Kate couldn’t hear the song.

A sudden lump tightened her throat. Maybe she would have been happier if she’d had children. She’d had her chance in her youth when a young man named Mark had asked her to marry him. But Mark wanted children, and she wanted to write. At the time, the two things seemed incompatible, and she broke his heart. Twenty years later, with only a handful of publications and an out of print novel, it was becoming clear that she’d made the wrong choice.

She picked up the prescription bottle and opened it, spilling out a handful of pills. She was about to put them in her mouth when she glanced out the window. The little girl on the swing suddenly looked up at her with a frown.

Something shattered, startling Kate so that she dropped the pills with a gasp. She stared down at the table. Water dripped off its shiny surface, and pieces of glass littered the table and floor. It took her some moments to understand that the glass of water had just exploded into fragments.

She looked out the window to the swing, but the little girl was gone.

 

Kate cleaned up the mess, and then stretched out onto the bed, thinking about the little girl and he strange glass explosion. She tried to connect one with the other, but found it impossible to think straight, and she soon fell asleep.

When she woke, the shadows had lengthened in the room, though it was still bright. She reached for her cell phone in her purse to check the time. Four thirty. She’d slept for three and a half hours.

She held onto the phone, watching the message icon flash. After a while, she tapped the icon and put the phone to her ear. She closed her eyes and listened to Evan’s voice.

“Hey Kate. I see you called. We still on for tonight? Can’t wait to give you your birthday present,” he said, in his low, confidential voice they jokingly called his bedroom voice. Despite herself, a thrill shot through her. “Call me later. Bye.”

Ten minutes later: “Hey Kate, Carrie said you hung up on her when she answered earlier. Look, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. She’s my sister, visiting me before she goes off to college, I swear, okay? Let’s not ruin your birthday with this. I love you. Bye.”

She put the phone away and squeezed her eyes shut, willing the tears away. Sitting up, she put her head in her hands, feeling more alone than she ever had in her life. Loneliness had been a foe that she had battled with words on paper, and young lovers, and a polished veneer  bought with money she didn’t have. Those weapons seemed to be losing their effectiveness. Her one last refuge had resided in the bottle of pills in her purse, and even that attempt had been bungled. She was alone, at the edge of the pit.

She wasn’t alone. The little girl was standing by her bed, staring at her. Kate gasped, and clutched at her lurching heart. “Jesus, you scared me.” The girl continued to look at her with a sweet, radiant face. “I saw you in the garden. On the swing. You looked up at me.” Her jangled nerves made her babble.

The girl smiled, a smile so warm and encompassing that it nearly broke Kate’s jaded, battered heart. The girl reached out, and covered Kate’s fingers with her own. Her skin was soft and warm and fragrant. The scented lilies wafted from her like the bouquet in the vase.

Kate was so surprised and moved by the gesture that she couldn’t speak. An urge to take the child in her arms overwhelmed her, as if in the act of soothing, she could be soothed.

She nearly gave in to the urge when her cell phone rang, muffled in her purse on the other side of the bed. She jumped and turned away from the girl, the smooth skin pulling away from her hand as she reached for the phone.

“Hello?”

“Kate, where the hell are you?”

“Evan.” Kate looked back to the girl, but she was gone, as if she’d never been there. “I’m…” Her mind was clouded, as if she’d just woken from a strange dream.

“Are you all right? Kate?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” She got up from the bed, opened the door and looked down the hallway. She saw no one.

“Where, exactly?”

“Some B&B.” She looked out the window. She didn’t see the girl, but the swing rocked gently on its ropes. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t sound good. Tell me where you are, Kate.”

“Bloomington. I think.” She put a hand to her forehead and took a deep breath, trying to clear her mind. “No, Bloomfield.”

“Bloomfield? Where the hell is that?” When she didn’t answer, he said, “Never mind, I’ll google it. I’m coming to meet you.”

“No.” She remembered that she was angry with him, that it was over, that she never wanted to see him again. “Please don’t, Evan. Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be, okay?” She hated break ups, and liked to keep them quick, clean, and as painless as possible.

“Kate, I told you, Carrie’s my sister. You’re overreacting. Didn’t you listen to my messages? I love you, I want to be with you.”

“Just stop. I’m hanging up now. Please don’t call again.”

“Kate.”

She hung up and turned the ringer off. Her stomach roiled with nausea, but after a few calming breaths it went away. When she put her phone back into her purse she spotted the pill bottle. There were some tablets left, still enough to do what she came here to do. But she only shook one tablet into her palm and swallowed it without water. She freshened up in the bathroom before dinner; she wasn’t very hungry, but couldn’t bear the thought of being alone just now.

 

Diane was in the spacious kitchen, lifting lids from pots on the stove and stirring their contents. An apron wrapped around her bulk said, “Get Pie-Eyed: Winner 2016 Bloomfield Pie Bake-Off.” She turned and smiled, her horn-rimmed glasses slightly steamed.

“You’re just in time. Have a seat.”

Despite her lack of appetite, Kate noted wonderful aromas issuing from the oven: pungent fish, made clean by the scent of lemon and rosemary. Diane donned some mitts and pulled a large casserole dish from the oven, containing the promised swordfish, and placed it on the stove top, next to the asparagus spears that bubbled in a stainless steal pot. Risotto rice plumped in another pot on the back burner.

“It looks wonderful,” Kate said. She wasn’t much of a cook, choosing to spend most of her free time in front of a computer rather than a stove. Takeout or microwave meals were the norm while she worked.

“Hope you’re hungry,” Diane said, taking off the mitts and fluffing the rice with a fork. “It’s just the three of us tonight.”

“Are there no other boarders?”

“Nope. We’re in between our busy periods of winter skiers and summer travelers. Fall is the busiest of all, of course, with the leaf-peepers and all, but spring tends to be pretty quiet. Can’t say that I mind too much. It gives us more time to devote to spring planting our garden.” She brought the steaming dishes over to the table, setting then down onto woven place mats.

“The lilies are certainly beautiful.”

The innkeeper bustled over to the refrigerator, bringing out a pitcher of water. She beamed as she placed the pitcher on the table. “We’re very proud of them. Our lilies won the grand prize at the spring festival last year.”

“How nice.” Prize-winning lilies as well as pies. A successful business, an enchanting daughter, and all without a man, as far as Kate could see. Envy of frumpy, homespun Diane flared in Kate. “Did you know the Greeks believed the white lily symbolized motherhood?”

“Is that so?”

“The story goes that Zeus wanted Hercules, his son by an extramarital affair with a mortal woman, to become a god. The only way for him to do that was to suckle at the breast of his wife, Hera. One day he put Hera to sleep, and placed Hercules at her breast. He sucked so vigorously that the milk overflowed. The mild that flowed heavenward became the Milky Way, and the milk that flowed to the earth became white lilies.”

“Well, isn’t that something?” Diane commented, offering a polite smile. Kate suddenly felt ridiculous for showing off. A woman like Diane would not be impressed with such useless information.

“So you like the room?” Diane went on, bringing out more glass tumblers like the one that had exploded earlier. Thinking about the incident, Kate hesitated, wondering if she should mention it.

“Love it,” she answered, deciding not to give Diane any reason to think she was crazy. Although, maybe she was. Hope you don’t mind, I just stopped by to kill myself in your lovely room.” Which reminded her of something.

“Oh my god, I forgot to run to the ATM to pay for the balance on the room.”

“Oh heck, I’m not worried,” Diane said, pouring water into the tumblers. “We’ll settle up later. Now, where is that daughter of mine?”

“I saw her upstairs about twenty minutes ago,” Kate offered. She didn’t mention that the girl had entered her room; she didn’t want to get her into any trouble. “She’s beautiful.”

Diane looked over at her in surprise as she took off the apron. “Well, isn’t that sweet of you? Lord knows Jenny’s never been accused of such a thing. I love her to pieces, but she’s got my looks, poor thing, and her no good father wasn’t much better.”

Kate only stared at her. The little girl was easily the most beautiful child she had ever seen. How could a mother, of all people, not see it?

Before she could even form a response, a young woman entered the kitchen. She cast a shy smile at Kate, and then with downcast eyes took a seat at the table.

“Well, there you are,” Diane said, sitting down next to her. “We were just talking about you.” The young woman took a sip of water, looking at Diane complacently.

“Oh,” Kate said. “You’re the daughter?” But of course she was. Looking at her, Kate could see the resemblance in the broad, plain features, the rather deep-set eyes, and the round face.

Mother and daughter looked at her blankly. Diane said, “Were you expecting some one else?”

Kate shook her head. “No. I was napping earlier, and I must have dreamed her.”

Diane and Jenny exchanged a glance. “I see,” Diane said, as she plunged a fork into the pile of asparagus. “I just love spring asparagus, don’t you?”

Kate made an effort to eat some of the food, and had to admit it was all delicious. Diane kept up an animated conversation, talking about the colorful characters she’d seen coming and going through the inn, the state of Bloomfield’s economically depressed downtown, and of course, the garden. The flower beds on the property held a special place in their hearts that went beyond mere pastime. Even Jenny, silent through most of the meal, talked quietly of the spring crocuses and daffodils, the summer roses, the multicolored mums they coaxed up in the autumn, as if they were dear friends. And the lilies, of course.

“Do you garden, Kate?” Diane asked, as she poured coffee during dessert. The chocolate cream pie was heavenly, surely the best she’d ever tasted, and decided she wouldn’t  begrudge the innkeeper her pie contest title.

“Oh no,” she replied, stirring cream into her coffee. “I have a black thumb. In fact, I can’t seem to make anything grow.” With the words, the pie lost its flavor, and the pushed the rest away. Plants, meals, children, books, relationships. It didn’t matter. Nothing grew from her. She was sterile.

She didn’t realize silent tears streamed down her face until she felt Diane’s hand patting her own.

“Now, now,” she soothed. “It can’t be all that bad.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate said, wiping tears from her face. “I don’t mean to make such a scene. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”

Diane sat back and regarded her. “Well, as to that, I think I might know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Follow me.” She left the kitchen through a door that led to the sitting room. Kate looked at Jenny, who only averted her eyes and picked at her pie with her fork.

Kate followed Diane into the sitting room, where she was turning on the lamps. Old pictures covered the walls, tintypes and sepia portraits of people, young and old, in Victorian clothing, and some later fashions that suggested early twentieth century.

Diane came to stand in front of one particular picture, just left of the window. “Is this the girl you saw?”

Kate drew closer. The face that looked out at her was indeed that of the girl she’d seen out in the garden, and again in her room. There were the same large, liquid brown eyes, the same Cupid’s bow mouth. Even the pigtails and the collar of the dress were the same. Her features were set in the same serious cast Kate had seen in her room, just before she’d smiled and ensnared Kate’s heart.

“Yes, that’s her. Who is she?”

“Her name is Lily Rose Powers. She lived in this house nearly one hundred years ago. In fact, the Lily Room was her bedroom. Elizabeth and Oscar Powers were raising her in this house when the Great War broke out. That’s them over there, by the way.”

Diane pointed to a picture on the other side of the window. A man and woman, impossibly young in their wedding finery, stiff and unsmiling as was the custom for photos back then. But underneath the stiffness, through the black and white lens, Kate sensed their joy bubbling beneath the surface, a great hope and excitement for the future, for their lives that were just beginning.

“Oscar was made an officer and was sent to the trenches in France,” Diane went on. “He never came back.”

“Terrible,” Kate murmured, glancing back at the handsome young face. He reminded her of Evan, or Mark of twenty years ago, and pain stabbed her heart. She imagined Oscar’s face splattered with mud and blood, rotting in the puddles of war.

“Elizabeth was never quite the same after that,” Diane continued. “She spent more and more time in her garden, tending to her beloved lilies. She so loved her lilies. She even had named her daughter after her favorite flower. But her husband’s death had altered her. One day she took Lily up to the attic and threw them both out the window, to their deaths.”

“My god,” Kate whispered.

“Yes, it’s a very sad story. She was only six years old.”

Sorrow upon sorrow here. Kate stood in mute grief for this child who had been dead before Kate’s own grandmother had been born.

The innkeeper, her rough hands clasped before her, waited for a response. After an interval of time, in which only the sound of the grandfather clock could be heard ticking in the hallway, Kate cleared her throat.

“So the girl, Lily. She’s…a ghost. That’s what you’re getting at, right?”

Diane shrugged. “I’ve never seen her. I’ve only the word and description given to me by some of the boarders here over the years.”

“She’s never appeared to you?”

“Not once. Nor to Jenny, or to anyone else in my family who’s run the inn for decades. But she’s very well-known to us, and every once in a while she singles out a boarder to whom she feels an affinity. Those are the only ones she appears to.”

“Why? Why would she appear to me?”

“That’s for you and Lily to figure out.”

Kate returned to the Lily Room, confused, but with a new sense of purpose. She was drawn to the little girl, the ghost that had chosen to appear to Kate, an honor bestowed on only a lucky few. Perhaps her very life depended on what this ghostly little girl wanted with her, and she was determined to find out what it was.

She retrieved the bottle of Xanax from her purse. After rolling it around in her hand, she flushed them down the toilet at the end of the hall. Then she sat on her bed and waited for Lily Powers to appear to her once again.

Despite her nap earlier, she fell asleep with the lamp on. She dreamed of lilies growing in puddles of bloody mud. When she woke, Lily stood by the bed watching her.

Kate slowly sat up. “It’s okay. I was just sleeping.”

The girl’s face broke into that beaming smile that made Kate want to press her against her chest. She reached out to do it, so overwhelming was the urge. She wanted to caress the girl’s hurts away. She wanted to matter to someone.

The girl’s smile never faltered, but she inched back, just out of reach, so that Kate’s hands fell upon air.

“What do you want, Lily?”

The girl backed up to the door and lifted her hand. She curled her finger, beckoning Kate to follow, then slipped out the open door.

Kate rose and looked out into the hallway. The girl was peeking around the corner at the end of the hall. Her giggle echoed down the corridor as she danced away.

Kate followed, as if floating along in a dream. Around the corner, Lily waited at the foot of some steps leading up into what Kate assumed to be the attic. Her smile gone now, Lily turned and marched up the stairs, dissolving into the darkness.

Dread coursed through Kate as she hesitated. The attic, where Lily and her mother fell to their deaths. She didn’t want to follow, yet she found herself walking toward the steps and staring up into the dark. A string hung down the wall to the right, and she pulled it. A single light bulb at the top of the stairs blinked on, dangling from the rusty rafters above.

Her foot creaked on the first step, and then the next, an invisible thread pulling her up the stairs toward the light. At the top, piles of boxes, chests, and old furniture sat indistinct in the wan light of the bulb. Everything was covered in dust, coating her nostrils and the back of her throat.

“Lily?” There was no sound. No wind outside the open window, no mice scurrying in corners, no spiders spinning webs. The stillness, more than anything else, terrified her.

“Lily Rose Powers,” she called into the silence, in the stern tone her mother had used when she was a child and misbehaving. “Stop playing games and show yourself this instant!”

She turned her head, following the scent of lilies.

Lily sat on the sill of the window, her eyes shiny with tears.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Kate said, reaching out a hand. An irrational fear of the girl falling out the window flashed through her. “I didn’t mean to yell at you. I just-” Just what? What did she want with this ghost of a girl?

“I just want to help you.” Lily had been dead for nearly one hundred years. What was there to be helped? It was an old tragedy. And yet, looking at the girl haunting the scene of her death, Kate thought maybe her spirit could be eased in some way. She couldn’t think of anything worse than eternal loneliness. A lifetime was enough.

Lily sniffed, and then, raising her eyes to Kate, held out her arms.

Instinctively, Kate moved forward to hold the child. Lily was solid against her. The skin of her arms was soft and warm, and her dark hair was smooth and glossy against Kate’s cheek. A phantom heartbeat pulsed against her own. They cried together as Kate rocked them atop the windowsill. Just the feel of the trembling girl in her embrace filled a deep need that couldn’t be assuaged by anything else. Not a man’s desire, not even writing. The touch was elemental. She never wanted it to end.

After their tears had been spent, Lily looked up at her and smiled again. Kate smiled back at her.

In the split second it took Lily to pull her out of the window with supernatural strength, Kate had time to feel an instant of terror; but the child still held her tightly as they fell. and before they hit the flagstones below, Kate understood.

She would have leaped if Lily had asked her to.

 

Diane was working in the front garden when a car pulled up to the inn a few days later. She pulled off her gardening gloves and stood, brushing dirt and leaves from her overalls as she watched the two young people emerge from the car. They both possessed dark hair and bright blue eyes; anyone could see that they were siblings.

“Excuse me,” the young man said as they approached. “I’m hoping you can help me. I’m looking for someone. Her name is Kate Simpson. I talked to her on the phone a few days ago and she said she was here.”

“Well, let me see,” Diane said, taking off her sun hat and wiping her brow with the back of her calloused hand. “Seems I do remember a Kate passing through here a few days ago. Tall, reddish hair, about my age, but heaps prettier?”

“That’s her,” the boy said. “Do you know where she was going? I can’t reach her on her cell.”

She shook her head. “She didn’t say, but I think she headed north. Is she your mother, honey?”

The boy’s jaw tightened. “She’s not my mother, she’s my girlfriend.” His sister rubbed his arm.

“Ah, I see. Well, as I said, I think she went north. Would you two kids like some nice cold lemonade? I just made a pitcher this morning.”

“Um, no thanks. I just want to find Kate.”

“Of course. Well, good luck, honey.”

“Thank you,” the girl said, pulling her brother away.

“Bye-bye, now.”

“Just one more question,” the boy said, turning suddenly.

“Sure, sweetie.”

“Did she seem upset or anything when she was here?”

“Well, she did seem a little sad. But by the time she left, she was quite serene, I’d say.”

“Thank you,” the sister said again, taking her brother’s arm. “Come on, Evan. We’ll keep looking.”

Evan kept glancing up at the inn as his sister led him back to the car. Diane smiled and waved as they sped away up the road.

When the car turned the corner and was gone, she let the smile fade. Turning back to her garden, she put her gloves back on and dug her hands into the bucket of fertilizer she made herself. Jenny was still squeamish about making it, but Diane had been chopping up its special ingredients for years now.

She spread it along the base of the white lilies that thrived in her little plot of earth, long before they should have bloomed. Hera’s milk, indeed, she thought,chuckling to herself. Their heady scent calmed her, and she dismissed the two young people from her mind. She had nothing to worry about, for she had a nephew that was good at making cell phones and cars disappear.

She’d seen the likes of Kate Simpson many times over the years. The vain, over-educated types, desperate to fill the empty hole in their souls. Those particular boarders always ended up smashed against the flagstones. Well, the dead had their own needs, and what the dead needed wasn’t Diane’s business. Her business was living. And growing prize-winning lilies, of course.

Too many deaths at her inn would have been suspicious and closed its doors forever. She had to do something with them.

“Well, look at that, Kate Simpson,” she murmured, spreading more of the fertilizer. “You can make something grow after all.”

 

 

 

 

 

Plugged In

computer-faces

(2,310 words)

Rose knew they’d be coming soon to implant her.

It  wouldn’t be long before they caught up to her, so she’d come here, to the cabin at the foot of the mountain. Her father used to bring her here when she was a child, and they’d walk in the woods, fish in the streams, cook their supper over an open flame. Sometimes they’d roll their sleeping bags out under the stars to sleep. On cold nights (back then there were still cold nights), they’d sleep in the cabin, snug in their bunks. One night, she’d heard a bear sniffing around outside, lured by the smell of fish (back then there were still bears) but she felt safe with her father. He was a zoologist and knew about animals.

Rose walked along a dried up stream bed, thinking of her father. Only he would understand why she’d come here. If he were still alive, he would have resisted implantation to the bitter end, just as she was doing now. He might even have joined the infamous Anti-Implantation League. Rose would have enlisted in AIL if she had known where to find them. It would mean she’d become an outlaw, but the kids were grown and Greg–well, she and Greg hadn’t seen eye to eye for a while now.

 

“Nervous?” he’d asked her that morning at the breakfast table. She hadn’t touched her food and sat motionless, except the fingers of her right hand, which tapped on the table like rain pattering. She couldn’t seem to stop.

“No.” Nervous wasn’t quite the word. Panic blew through her like a disorienting wind. In one hour, she was scheduled to be implanted.

She was surprised her husband had noticed her at all. His blank face stared out across the room. He’d accessed the morning news and was now reading it as he took absent-minded bites of his breakfast. Her drumming fingers must have annoyed him, and he’d looked over.

“Look, don’t worry,” he said, trying to soothe her. He even reached out a hand to touch hers–maybe he was just trying to still it–but she pulled it away and clasped her fingers together in her lap.

“It’s not painful,” Greg went on. “One day in Recovery and you’re done.”

“You know it’s not the procedure itself that I’m worried about. It’s the consequences of the procedure.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this, Rose. There’s no point in complaining about it, now that it’s law.”

She said nothing because he was right. They’d discussed, debated, and fought over everything there was to say about it. Greg had gotten his implant five years ago with the twins, when they turned eighteen. Before that, both parents had needed to give consent. She had refused to give it, and did so while she had any say in it. It had led to increased tension in the household, with many arguments and slamming of doors, but she had held her ground. Now she had no choice.

“Look, I understand your misgivings,” Greg said now. “I really do. Just try to focus on all the good things about it. I guarantee you’ll end up loving it. You’ll see.” He stood and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s almost time. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared down the hallway. The bathroom door clicked shut.

Rose sat at the table a moment longer, just trying to breathe. The walls of her spacious apartment closed in on her. She spied the key card on the table. In a moment, it was in her hand, and she was hurrying out the door, down the five flights in the elevator, and into the garage where she found the car. She inserted the card, got in, pushed the start button and drove away, with no plan, no supplies, no thought, except to get away.

She’d driven aimlessly for awhile, sure that she’d see police lights flashing behind her at any moment. The city went about its business, however, as cars and transports zipped down the congested streets. Morning commuters walked in groups, island of isolation as they voiced commands to their implants, fully engaged with the computer chips in their heads.

The good things. She knew what the good things were supposed to be. A database lodged in her mind, with instant access to any of it, at any time, in any place. News, music, games, movies, work reports or charts, anything she wanted would be routed to the visual and auditory receptors in her brain. She could shop, do her banking, make and cancel appointments. Virtual reality programs would allow her to walk in wild places that were no longer on the earth. She could travel the world without leaving her living room, fly through the air, even make love to a perfect man that didn’t exist. She could do all of these things and more, and it was all free.

She didn’t want it. Not any of it, all because of what Greg called her “misgivings”. It may not have cost a things, but this revolutionary device was anything but free. Rose wasn’t willing to pay the price it demanded.

She’d finally taken the exit that led here, knowing it was where she wanted to be these last few hours. She thought they would have caught up with her on the road, but maybe Greg hadn’t called the authorities right away. Maybe on some level he understood her resistance and had given her that much.

 

The autumn sun was hot, and in her haste to escape she’d forgotten her sun gear. The UV rays were deadly without her sunscreen, but she lifted her face toward it regardless, relishing the heat of it. She listened to the warblings of the forlorn birds, the sad song of the wind through the dry, brittle leaves, the silent spaces between these things.

She wanted to stay out longer, but the sun pressed down on her like a fist. She made her way back to the stuffy cabin, which was relatively cooler. Easing down on the hard bunk, she pillowed her head on her arms, letting her mind drift. It was perhaps the last time it would be able to do so.

She thought of the twins. How embarrassed they’d be at her behavior. Like a recalcitrant child throwing a tantrum, or an old biddy, hopelessly old-fashioned, resisting modern plumbing when the outhouse would do just fine. A Neanderthal, that’s what she was, afraid of the shiny new people coming to populate the earth, with their big brains and big ideas.

 

“It’s not such a big deal, Mom,” Jake had said the last time they were over for dinner. “You’re on your computer half the time for work anyway, so what’s the difference?”

He gestured toward the back room that held her workstation. She was a biologist, but ironically, she spent more time in that room than out in the field. Most of her work consisted of writing out grant applications, articles for conservation groups, letters of protest to corporations and government officials, and lobbying the powers-that-be to preserve what little was left of the natural world.

“The difference is an off button,” Rose replied, trying to catch his eye, though she knew he was distracted. Probably searching for the next song, or listening to the latest commercial that popped up through the ether. Even in Inactive Mode, which she insisted on when they came over, The user is still “online”, subject to the occasional but consistent weather update, breaking news, or infomercial. Maybe even one of Greg’s ingenious ads.

Everyone ignored her. Perhaps they simply didn’t hear her.

“Besides,” Julie piped up. “With the virtual reality programs, you can walk with the rhinos and elephants and whatever on the Serengeti. Or watch polar bears float on the Arctic ice floes. Isn’t that something you’ve always wanted to do?”

“It isn’t real, honey,” Rose said, pushing her reconstituted food around on her plate. “What would be the point?”

Greg slammed down his glass of water, sloshing it onto the table. “The point is, Rose, that it isn’t real now, and never will be again. Don’t you see that? No matter how many letters or articles you write, no matter how many more dire reports you make or protests you organize, the world is never, ever going to be what it once was. Why can’t you just accept it?”

The table fell silent. The twins were looking away, and she knew they were secretly accessing something, anything, to fill the awkward silence. Greg busied himself with a towel,soaking up the spilled water.

Finally she said, “I can’t accept it. I won’t. No one’s talking about it, but I will. I can’t accept something that will allow others to know where I am, what I’m doing at all times. Who I call, what I watch, what I listen to, what I write or read, how much money I have in the bank, what I buy. It’s like being stripped naked in front of strangers. It’s like being raped.”

“Geez, Mom, don’t be so melodramatic,” Jake said, cringing at her words.

“Yeah, it’s just a safety thing, you know that,” Julie said. “It’s to stop the terrorists. They’re blowing people up everyday. You want them to be stopped, don’t you?”

“Of course, but not in exchange for my privacy.”

“People who have nothing to hide shouldn’t feel threatened by this,” Greg insisted. “So what if others know you’re reading the latest thriller or called your mother yesterday? The point is to monitor for signs of terrorist activities, like buying bomb materials or calling known terrorist suspects, suspicious activities like that. You’re not doing any of that, are you, Rose?”

“Of course not.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that it’s nobody’s business what I do with my life!”

“You’re being selfish, Mom,” Julie said, as if admonishing a child.

“Selfish?”

“Yeah. It’s a small price to pay for keeping us safe, don’t you think?”

“You do want us to be safe, don’t you, Mom?” Jake added, finally meeting her eyes.

Yes, she did. Of course she did. What kind of mother would she be if she had given any other answer?

 

She felt nauseated, and not just from the heat and her thirst. She forced her mind back to happier memories, like being with her father here in this cabin. They’d go on adventures together, either in these woods, pretending they were great adventurers like Lewis and Clark; or in their imaginations, as they read books together, real books with the smell of paper and ink. He’d take her to the zoo, where the last remnants of wildlife had been gathered. She’d watch the lions loll about in the sun until it became too hot, even for them. The sad-looking gorillas, listless and apathetic, seemed to know they were the last of their kind.

Her father’s death two years ago had been the hardest loss she’d ever had to endure. He’d been on the boat coming back from Africa with the last herd of elephants in existence. He’d some how survived the incomprehensible violence of that continent, the rampant disease, as well as the massive, complex paperwork involved in getting the elephants onto the boat. But one night on the way home, he’d somehow fallen over the railing into the sea, and was presumed dead.

Painful thoughts, after all, but they were hers. She lingered on them, remembering his peculiar smell of aftershave mixed with the scent of hay and animal dung. His easy laugh, the books they read together. She remembered one in particular: Watership Down, it was called, about a group of rabbits trying to find a home. She’d loved the rabbits as a child, but realized later it wasn’t just about bunnies. It had been about the need to live free.

Rose drifted off and dreamed about rabbits caught in barbed wire, their fury flesh torn and bleeding. She woke to the sound of a vehicle approaching.

She sighed and got up from the bunk, wiping the sweat from her brow. Her time was up. Time for Rose Green to be plugged in.

She opened the door and looked out. Along the dirt road that led up to the cabin, one lone vehicle approached, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. It didn’t look like a police or government car. It was an old gasoline-powered Ford pickup, something she hadn’t seen in a long time.

Curious now, she left the door of the cabin and walked toward the car. As she stood in the hot sun shading her eyes, a young woman emerged from the driver’s side and approached her. She wore travel-stained clothes and a gun belt, but her hands weren’t near the holster.

“Rose Green?”

“Who else would it be?” Rose replied, inclined to be insolent. “You know exactly who I am and why I’m here.”

A corner of the woman’s mouth turned up. “Yes, I do.”

Why wasn’t she arresting her? “You don’t look like the police.”

“That’s because we’re not. But they’re about ten minutes behind us, so if you want to avoid that implant, you’d better get in the truck.”

After a moment of confusion, a burst of hope. “You’re A.I.L.”

The woman nodded. She held out a calloused hand. “Hurry.”

Rose took it without hesitation. “I’m Elena,” the woman said, and led her to the car.

“But how did you find me?”

Elena didn’t reply. The passenger side door opened and a man emerged. His long white hair blew in the wind and his weathered face behind the sunglasses was cracked like mud in a drought. Rose knew who he was before he even spoke.”

“Not many places left for you to go.” He smiled, showing cracked, stained teeth. “What do you say, Rosie?” asked her father. “Ready for another adventure?”

Shiny Pretty Things

blue-jewel

(3,220 words)

The scenic view was deserted in the middle of the week, and since Ruby had been suspended from Fire Creek Junior High two days ago, she’d hitch a ride to her favorite spot to gaze at the canyon, and to be alone. She looked down from her perch at the railing; the sun glittered off the river winding its way through the gorge below, causing it to shine like a snake covered in diamonds.

Snake woman. Lizard girl. Dragon lady. The girls’ snickers and cruel words echoed in her head. They had been laughing, of course, at the scales. Ruby tried very hard to hide the rough, reddish-brown upraised flaps of skin that covered the backs of her arms, legs, stomach and back. She wrapped herself up in long sleeves and pants, even in the hot summers. No doctor had ever been able to diagnose or cure the scales, and she could never hide them for long, especially in the girls’ locker room.

It had been Ava who started the teasing. She and her friends had circled around Ruby, calling her names. It started after Mark had talked to Ruby at lunch earlier that day, smiling shyly and asking her if she might want to go to a movie sometime. Everyone knew that Ava liked Mark.

“Do you think Mark will want to go out with a snake like you?” Ava had curled her lip in disgust.

“I told him no,” Ruby had replied, holding her books against her chest like feeble armor. Her heart had fluttered with excitement when Mark approached her. Despite the secret scales, her long red hair and green eyes made her the kind of girl that boys approached. She wished she was the kind of girl that could have said yes to Mark’s invitation. But Ava was right. He would have seen the scales, eventually, and recoiled in horror. It was better to have him long for her, than to have him be repulsed by her.

Ava had leaned in close. “You stay away from him, got it, bitch?”

Ruby would have told her she wouldn’t have to worry, but it was then she noticed the necklace that hung from Ava’s neck. A long silver chain held a large blue jewel. A sapphire? It was probably just a cheap bauble, but it didn’t matter. The fluorescent lights of the hallway danced in its faceted depths. She wanted it.

No. She had to have it.

Before she knew what she was doing, Ruby had reached out toward the necklace. Ava stepped back in revulsion. “Don’t touch me, snake!”

Ruby’s rage arose, not by Ava’s words, but by being prevented from taking the necklace. She didn’t really know what happened or how. Only images and sensations flashed through her memory: simmering anger, a deep breath, immense heat shimmering before her, screaming throughout the hallway. The sickening smell of scorched flesh hung in the air. Ava lay on the floor with her face and neck nearly burned beyond recognition. The blue jewel had indeed been plastic, as it had melted into her ruined skin.

A sliver of guilt pierced her consciousness; she hadn’t wanted to hurt Ava. But she regretted more that she hadn’t gotten the jewel from her. She liked shiny, pretty things. She couldn’t help it. It was a compulsion, as her foster parents had come to know with the multiple shoplifting charges. They had been ready to send her to teenage boot camp, but this latest incident had gone way beyond petty theft. The police had been at her house for a long time, asking a lot of questions. Ruby could tell them nothing about what actually happened. The investigation was ongoing, and in the meantime she had been suspended from school. So she came up here, to look out over the canyon, and wish that she could dive into the river below, as if into a pile of diamonds.

A car pulled up and screeched to a halt. Matt, her foster father, glowered over the wheel of his precious restored Camaro.

“Ruby, get your ass in the car now!”

She reluctantly obeyed, sliding into the leather seat next to him. “What’s going on?”

“There’s some one at the house that wants to talk to you.”

“The police again?”

“No, not the police.” He took a Marlboro out of the box that was rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve.

“Who then?”

He lit the cigarette, and took a drag. “Come and see,” he said, and his words were wisps of smoke drifting in the hazy afternoon light.

 

His name was Uriah Jones, and he was with the Draco School for the Gifted. He extended his card to Ruby, and she took it from his hands warily as he stood smiling before her. She didn’t even glance at the card; she couldn’t stop looking at him. He was tall, with caramel-colored skin that was nearly golden, and eyes as blue as Ava’s jewel.

“It’s nice to meet you, Ruby,” he said in his deep, rumbly voice. “I’ve already spoken to your parents about possibly recruiting you to Draco School. Your grades have been exceptional everywhere you’ve attended, and I think you might fit in nicely with us.”

“But I’m in trouble,” Ruby began, glancing at her foster parents. Matt stood near the television with is bulky arms crossed; Nadine sat perched on the edge of the recliner, mashing out her cigarette into a red plastic ashtray on the end table.

“Now you listen to what this man has to say, Ruby,” she said, immediately reaching for another cigarette from its box on the table.

“I’ve reassured your parents that I can smooth things over with the authorities,” Uriah Jones said. He turned to Matt and Nadine. “May I speak to Ruby alone?”

“Of course, of course,” Nadine gestured with a wave of her lacquered fingernails. “Ruby, why don’t you show Mr. Jones your room?”

Ruby thought it strange to show a grown man her room, but only nodded and led him down the hallway. She sat on the folding chair near the card table that served as a desk, while he sat down on the edge of her austere bed. She waited for him to speak, but he only looked at her thoughtfully for several minutes. She fidgeted, looking around at the bare walls of the room.

“How old are you, Ruby?” he finally asked.

“Thirteen.”

“And are you happy here?”

She shrugged. “I guess.”

Another long silence ensued. Then he said, “Do you know what you are?”

She tore her eyes away from his luminous blue ones, and thought, I’m a thief, and I hurt people and I don’t even care, I’m the smartest person in my school, and I don’t care, all I care about is pretty shiny things, and I have ugly scales like a reptile.

Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m a monster,” she whispered.

She thought he’d either agree, or try to sooth her. What he said was, “We’ve been called monsters for a very long time.”

She looked up. “We?”

Without a word, he rolled up the cuff of his dress shirt. Scales crawled up his arm, just like hers. They shone faintly in the light of her room, golden brown ovals moving with and against each other as he flexed his arm to show her. She met his jewel-like eyes with awe, and knew she was with a kindred spirit.

“What are we?”

He rolled his sleeve back down as he answered. “There aren’t many of us left. We’ve evolved over time to take on the human form, but it’s not our true form. We can be dangerous if pushed, as that girl at your school found out to her misfortune. But mostly, we like things that shine and glitter, and collect them. We’re not complete without our hoard. I can smell yours now, right in this room.”

Ruby’s scales rippled in alarm. She kept her hoard of treasures in a box in the corner of her closet, covered with old blankets and clothes. It held all the pretty, shiny things she had either found or stolen over the years: new coins or keys, jewelry, baubles, polished stones, geodes, cheap trinkets, even some Christmas tinsel. No one knew about her hoard, and a sudden panic surged through her. She was ready to do what she did to Ava to protect it.

Amusement gleamed in the man’s eyes. “I’m not here to steal your hoard, Ruby. Where I’m proposing to take you, there are treasures beyond imagining.”

She relaxed a little, but her scales still prickled with alertness. “What if the police arrest me? Can I still go to your school?” She wanted to go. Not so much for the education (though even the slightest intellectual challenge would be nice), but to be among her own kind.

Uriah laughed his deep laugh. “There is no school, foolish girl. And  you have more to worry about than the police. The article in your local paper about the burned girl likely didn’t just alert me to your presence here. It also surely alerted a Hunter.”

“What’s a Hunter?”

“Exactly what such a word implies. Humans have hunted down and slain our kind for millennia.”

“Why?”

He sighed, and looked out the window of her room, as if an answer existed somewhere beyond the glass. “Because we are different. To prove their own bravery to themselves. Because we are no dumb animal, and challenge them. In the end, I think they like to collect their own pretty things. To them, we are the treasure.”

“What do I do?” For the first time, fear invaded her mind.

“You come with me, of course.”

She hesitated. “Can I take my hoard?”

Uriah Jones’ deep laughter surely filtered down to the living room, alerting Ruby’s parents that their troublesome foster child would soon be off of their hands.

 

Ruby packed some clothes and some personal items into her backpack. She emptied her box of treasure into a plastic shopping bag, and shoved it down into the bottom of the pack. The farewell with her foster parents was brief; Nadine gave her a quick hug, and Matt advised her to listen to Mr. Jones and to do what he says.

“We’ll miss you,” Nadine said, attempting a sad smile, but Ruby knew the only thing she’d miss was her monthly stipend.

They wound their way through the dusty hills, Ruby pestering Uriah with questions. Where were they going? How many of their kind were there? What kind of treasure did they have? What had happened when she burned Ava? What had he meant by their “true form”?

He answered her questions patiently: There’s a place not far from here where they’ll be safe. They were an endangered species; they tended to be solitary creatures, but since there were so few of them, they often banded together and protected each other. Their hoard consisted of the treasures of the ages, like nothing she’d ever seen before: piles of gold and silver, mountains of jewels. The burning of her schoolmate had been an accident, but she will learn to control her fire, especially after she makes her first transformation.

“Transformation?”

“Into your true form,” he said. He opened his mouth to continue, but stopped and slowed the car. A black Mustang blocked the middle of the road. Uriah braked the same time a woman stepped out of the Mustang, holding some thing in her hands. Tall, muscular, with short dark hair, she was dressed all in black: tank top, leggings, knee-high leather boots. Over all she wore a cloak that glinted in the late afternoon sun. Ruby stared at the cloak, mesmerized.

“Hunter!” Uriah cried as she raised a crossbow, notched a bolt and aimed straight at them. “Get down, Ruby!” He pushed her down behind the dashboard and ducked as the windshield shattered with the impact of the bolt. Ruby lifted her head, and shook pieces of glass out of her hair. The woman took a few steps toward them and calmly notched another bolt, her face a mask of determination.

“Stay down,” Uriah told her. Still hunched behind the dashboard, he opened the driver side door and eased out to crouch behind it. The Hunter let loose her bolt, and it splintered the door’s window. In the moment she lowered her crossbow to retrieve another bolt, Uriah stood and quickly took a deep breath, so deep  his chest puffed out with it. The Hunter, seeing this, dropped to her knees on the pavement and swirled the cloak around her, just as Uriah blew out a massive jet of flame from his mouth. The fire seemed to go on forever, and completely engulfed the Hunter. When at last it sputtered out, Uriah fell back into the car, panting.

To Ruby’s amazement, the Hunter threw back the cloak and stood, unharmed. She bent to pick up the crossbow and continue her attack. In that moment Uriah threw the car into drive and sped toward her, then lurched around the parked Mustang. As Ruby looked back, the Hunter jumped into it to pursue them.

They careened through the curving roads as hot wind blasted them through the broken windshield.

“How did she live through that?” Ruby asked, as Uriah feverishly drove them higher into the hills.

“Dragon scales,” he replied, his eyes darting to the rear view mirror. “They turn their kills into cloaks, to protect themselves from the fire. Lucky for us, their honor code demands that they use the ancient weapons. Cross bows are clumsy and slow.”

“Why didn’t you use the fire on her again?”

He shook his head. “It takes time to rekindle in this form.”

There was little traffic on the road, but after turning a sharp corner at speed, they nearly ran into a white pickup truck coming in the opposite direction. The driver honked his horn and yelled out the window, but that was only the beginning of his trouble. As the pickup took the corner, the Mustang roared right toward him, and they both veered away from each other into the sides of the road. The Mustang sideswiped a sign post, and then spun around into a gully to face the other way; black smoke curled out from beneath the hood. Ruby couldn’t see what happened to the pickup as it swerved around the corner.

Uriah pressed the gas pedal to the floor of the car, and soon they approached Ruby’s favorite scenic view at the top of the hill. She though he’d drive right past it, but  he turned into the parking lot and squealed to a halt.

“We only  have a few minutes,” he said. Ruby followed him out of the car, and he pulled her toward the railing. The sun was setting in the distance; the bottom of its orb just touched the tops of the hills that formed the canyon. The walls of the gorge blazed red, and the river ran black below, dappled by the sun as if lit by stars. On the ledge, their shadows slanted long behind them.

Uriah faced her and held her eyes with his. His skin glowed golden in the sun. “Do you trust me, Ruby?”

“Yes.” Ever since they’d encountered the Mustang in the road, she’d been terrified, but trusted Uriah to protect her. Now, as he asked her this at the lip of the canyon, a new terror gripped her, though she couldn’t understand it completely.

“Be what you are meant to be,” he said. He climbed onto the railing, and swung his long legs around to the other side. He smiled at her, and then dove over the edge, his arms out in front of him as if he were a swimmer diving into a pool.

“No!” Ruby looked frantically over the edge. His small form dropped towards the bottom, but the rive was a good hundred feet to the left, and he would only smash against the rocks below.

She turned as a vehicle approached. The white pickup truck crested the hill and rattled into the parking lot, but its original driver was not at the wheel. It was the Hunter.

The pickup barely stopped before she opened the door, her crossbow already in hand. Ruby quickly climbed up on the railing. As she swung her legs around and perched there, a sudden wind gusted up from below, blowing her hair into her face. A huge shadow blurred up and past her, and when she pushed her hair from her eyes, a golden dragon with black wings rose up into the air before her. Its huge blue eyes swiveled to look at her.

Its scales gleamed in the sun. She sat paralyzed with its beauty, until Uriah’s voice spoke in side her head: Hurry. She looked back at the Hunter, who had also paused to take in the majestic form of the dragon, but had recovered herself and was notching a bolt to the crossbow. She raised it and aimed it at Ruby.

Ruby had no time. She dove off the edge, slicing through the air as the rocky bottom rushed up at her. She nearly screamed, but Uriah’s voice spoke again: Believe. Another voice clawed its way up through her fear and said, Dragon lady. But it wasn’t Ava’s voice, taunting her. It was her own, strong and clear.

She spread her arms wide out of instinct, and as she did so, the skin on her shoulder blades pricked and then painfully burst open as wings unfurled behind her, ripping her clothes. Her neck and limbs elongated, and claws erupted from the ends of her digits. her face stretched into a snout, and sharp teeth clicked inside her mouth. A long, sinuous tail sprouted behind her. Her scales tingled and rippled as they spread across her enlarged body. They shone bright red, like new blood. A growing heat flared inside her; she was a furnace burning with fire.

She pumped her black wings and floated upward toward the golden dragon, who circled above her, waiting. The Hunter was now at the railing, aiming her crossbow at Uriah. The bolt flew at him, but fell harmlessly off the armor of his scales. Ruby instinctively knew that there was a vulnerable spot, just where the neck met the body. The Hunter had missed it, but anger filled her nevertheless. She inhaled air into the furnace like a bellows, fanning the embers into flames.

She breathed out, releasing the inferno behind her. The Hunter, distracted by her attack on Uriah, wasn’t quick enough. Her eyes widened as she reached for the cloak, but the fire engulfed her, and this time, when the flames died, all that was left was smoking ash. It blew away in the wind, leaving the dragon cloak behind. Uriah flapped to the railing and plucked the cloak from the ground with precise claws, and then flew off over the gorge.

Come, he thought in her head, there are caverns below. She followed as he flew down toward the river. Ruby exulted as she dove through the diamond-like surface, forgetting about her tiny hoard back in the car. Where she was going, deeper and deeper through the water, into the earth below, the shiniest, prettiest things waited.

 

 

Ambisagrus

lightning

(2,009 words)

My best friend Aiden believes his father is a god.

“Not some dumb comic book god like Thor,” he says. He paces around the headstone I sit back against, as he smokes his stolen Marlboros. “No, he’s the real deal. He’s Ambisagrus, the Celtic lightning god. You know that, right, Dove?” He brushes some ash from the sleeve of his black trench coat.

“Yes, Aiden, you’ve been telling me that since kindergarten.” I adjust my braces and pull myself up with my crutches. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to tell our tenth-grade gym class.” I can still hear their cruel laughter in response to Aiden’s proclamation of divine blood. He’d fled here to the cemetery, and I’d followed, even though it meant detentions for both of us for skipping classes.

“Those bullies need to know who they’re dealing with.” His eyes dart around the cemetery. “They’ll be sorry.”

“I agree you need to stand up to them. Just not that way. It only makes it worse.”

He stops moving long enough to flash me a rueful smile. “I don’t have crutches to beat them with.”

I smile back. I’d been known to do that once or twice. “I’m serious. Don’t make it easy for them.” He continues to pace while I speak, puffing on the cigarette and muttering under his breath.

“Did you take your meds today?” I ask.

“I don’t need them. I don’t have ADHD, you know that.” He smashes the cigarette out on the top of the headstone, flicks it away, and runs a hand through his brassy hair. “It’s the lightning inside of me. I don’t know how to channel it.” He continues his manic ambling. “But someday I will. Someday soon, my father will come to me, and he’ll teach me how to control it. Then they better watch out. I’ll fry them. I’ll evaporate them. I’ll blacken their guts and crisp their skins. I’ll-”

“Aiden.” I hobble over to him as he circles near me.

He stops. “What?”

“Time to grow up.” I lean in on my crutches and kiss him. I guess I’ve wanted to kiss him for a while now, but he’s been too caught up in his own world to even think of making the first move. So I do it. I don’t stick my tongue in his mouth or anything, but I taste the cigarette on his lips.

It lasts only a few seconds, and when I pull away, he looks as if he doesn’t recognize me.

“Why did you do that?”

My cheeks burn. “I don’t know. I just wanted to.” I just want him to stop talking, to stop pretending, to stop waiting for his stupid lighting god father to show up, and to start seeing me. Maybe I thought he’d stop being crazy if I kissed him, that he’d change like the frog prince. But I don’t believe in fairy tales.

“I gotta go,” he says, not meeting my eyes. He fumbles with the pack of Marlboros, pulls one cigarette out, then shoves it back in. “I’ll see ya.”

I’ve been angry with Aiden before, but sprinkle a good dose of humiliation on top of it, with a dollop of hurt for good measure, and I’m not going to just let him walk away.

“Your father’s never going to come, Aiden,” I call out to him. “Ambisagrus doesn’t exist.” They’re words I’ve longed to say for years.

He turns around, his face contorted with anxiety. “Don’t say that, Dove. Of all people, I thought you understood.”

“I understand that your father is not some Celtic god. He was probably just some loser who took off after your mother god pregnant. Can’t you see that?”

He raises a trembling finger at me. “You shut up now, Dove. You  just shut your mouth.”

Something vicious gripps me. Once the words started to spill out, I can’t stop. “I know it’s hard for you to believe that your Virgin Mary-loving mother would spread her legs for a mere mortal, but that’s what happened. Or maybe she was raped. You ever think of that, Aiden? It was so traumatic that she made up the whole thing to put a good spin on it. Maybe she even believes it.”

Aiden’s eyes darken with every word, and his red hair glints in the glaring May sunshine. He burns like some angry fire god, in defiance of my disbelief. It scares me, but not as much as the vitriol I am spewing at my best friend.

I wait for him to scream at me, or cry, or push me to the ground, but he doesn’t. He only turns around and walks away.

“Aiden,” I call, regret already stirring inside me. He doesn’t look back and I don’t follow. With my shuffling gait, I’d never catch up anyway.

I carefully lower myself to sit against the gravestone and cry. I’m not normally a crybaby about things. I’ve learned to deal with stuff most kids never have to consider. Surgeries and catheters and adult diapers. The crutches I lean on. Whatever.

I cry because I may have destroyed the only crutch Aiden possesses.

 

I don’t see him for three weeks, and he won’t answer my calls or texts. I finally knock on his door one oppressive June day.

His mother peeks out, wrinkling her nose at me. “Aiden’s sick.”

“Can I see him?”

“No.” She closes the door in my face. She probably thinks spina bifida is contagious or something.

I imagine her returning to her knees to pray for Aiden’s health at the Virgin Mary altar in her living room. Maybe she feeds him hot soup despite the heat, or reads him tales of the Irish gods and heroes while he broods in bed.

Catholicism and Celtic mythology has blended into a strange mysticism in Kathleen O’Connor’s world. She’s spoon-fed Aiden the story about Ambisagrus since birth. She claims that the Mary statue cries every year on his birthday because the god has not come yet to claim his son.

Aiden has always been there for me during my numerous medical crises. Whether he’s really ill or mourning his deflated delusions, I want to be there.

The next day I walk the three blocks back to his house, although a thunderstorm brews in the distance. It’s so humid my sweaty forearms slide against the cuffs of my crutches. No one answers my knock, and the door swings open when I try it. The first rolls of thunder patter across the sky.

“Aiden?”

It’s silent inside the house, and dark despite the unattended altar candles that still burn. Aiden is probably in his room. I gaze at the dozen stairs rising before me and sigh. Sitting on the bottom stair, I hold my crutches in my lap and work my way up backwards.

At the top, I hurry past Kathleen’s bedroom and knock on Aiden’s closed door. No answer.

“Aiden, it’s Dove. Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said those things. I’m a monster. Will you forgive me?”

Nothing. I open the door. “Aiden, please-”

He shivers in his bed despite the ninety degree weather. He’s never been big, but he looks puny now, lost in the sheets. His hair lies flat and damp on his forehead, and his dull eyes stare. His chest rises and falls like a sick animal.

I rush to the bed and take his hand. It’s damp and cold as a dead fish.

“Dove,” he whispers when his eyes finally focus on me. “It’s the lightning. It’s killing me.”

“Where the hell’s Kathleen?”

“At church, praying.”

“What’s wrong with her? You need to be in a hospital.”

“Never mind that. Listen.” He raises his head from the pillow with great effort. “Can you hear it?”

Thunder grumbles above his shallow breathing.

“He’s coming,” Aiden says. His eyes glint with hope. “Ambisagrus.”

“I’m calling my mom.” I pull out my cell phone. “She’ll bring you to the hospital.”

“No, help me. I need to be outside.” He tries to sit up, but falls back against the pillow, trembling like an old man with a palsy.

“Are you crazy? A storm’s coming.”

“Exactly.”

I start to punch in my mom’s number.

He reaches out and stopps me with clammy fingers on my arm. “Dove, if you’re truly my friend, you’ll help me in this.” His shadowed eyes burn with an intensity I’ve never seen before.

“Fine, but if you die, I’ll never forgive you.”

“I’m not going to die.” He eyes my crutches. “Let me borrow those.”

I sit on the edge of the bed and hand them over. He rolls himself to the other side and, with the help of my crutches, shakily pulls himself to his feet. Stumbling his way out of the room, he pants and sweats over to the stairs and sits on the top step. Holding the crutches under one arm, he slides down on his bum one step at a time.

Thunder crashes across the darkening sky now. The curtains of his bedroom window flapp with a cool wind. Rain falls now in a steady rhythm, leaving the widow sill soaked.

I totter over to the window and look down just as Aiden comes out the back door. He shambles to the middle of the large, empty lawn, drops the crutches and falls to his knees.

“Aiden, what are you doing?” I call.

He doesn’t hear me over the noise of the rain and thunder. He raises his face to the sky and lifts his arms in supplication. Black clouds boil above him, cracking with thunder. His drenched t-shirt and shorts cling to his thin frame; his hair whipps in the fierce wind and sticks to his hollow cheeks in wet strands.

He looks so pathetic that I pull out my cell phone again to call my mom. Just then, a white-hot finger of lightning streaks down from the violent sky and strikes Aiden. The bright flash sizzles across my eyelids, and my ears ring with the sonic boom.

When I can see again, he lies unmoving on the grass.

“Aiden!”

I haven’t crawled on the floor like a baby for a long time, but I do it now. I cruise across the wooden slats of his room and slide myself down the stairs as fast as I can manage. The Virgin Mary watches with utter tranquility as I scrape my knees across the carpet of the living room. I bruise them on the linoleum of the kitchen floor. They sink into the sodden grass of the lawn beyond the open back door.

By the time I reach him, the rain has slackened to a drizzle, and the dark clouds drift away. Thunder rolls away to the east, like a receding conversation.

“Aiden.” I touch his face. His skin, though warm, is unburnt. He cheeks, no longer sunken, glow with a healthy ruddiness. The dark rings around his eyes have disappeared. His lips, no longer pale, pout pink and moist.

His open eyes focus on me.

“Dove.” He sits up with a dazzling smile. “Did you see him? It was Ambisagrus.” I hesitate, and he continues before I can speak. “The moment he touched me, he spoke to me. He said my name. Dove, he took the lightning from me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Aiden.”

“No, you don’t understand. That was his gift. To take it away, so it didn’t crackle inside me anymore. I’m quiet now.” He pauses to look around the yard, then finds my eyes. “It feels good.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m perfect.” He leans in and kisses me. I’m not about to argue with him.

Kathleen claims that Mary no longer cries at Aiden’s birthday, and I won’t argue with that, either. Statues can cry, and miracles can fall out of the sky in a bolt of lightning. Frogs can turn into princes, with the right kiss.

And I’ll beat anyone who says otherwise with my crutches.