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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Clean

river-in-autumn

(1,305 words)

I went to the river where my husband died, looking for absolution.

Far below the bridge from which he’d jumped, I perched on the rocks where we used to sit sometimes on hot summer days. We’d lazily watch the boats speed by, as they churned the sparkling waters to foam.

The sun was absent on this cold November day, and the river flowed quiet and gray with no boats in sight. Danny had always hated November, with its falling leaves and mournful, departing geese. I suppose it was a fitting month for him to die.

As I wondered if he’d cursed me when he fell, the opaque clouds cracked open, and a golden ray of sun slanted across the water. In its bright beam, I saw my husband.

He floated vertically just below the water, his eyes closed as if he was asleep. Shadows rippled across his tranquil face. I nearly tumbled off the rocks, and when I looked again he was gone. A moment later the sun faded as the sky closed up, leaving the water steely and impenetrable once again.

 

“You’ve been through a trauma, Jen,” my sister told me over coffee the next day. “I know you blame yourself, but Danny had serious problems. The drugs took over. It’s not your fault.”

“I saw him, Kath. He was there in the water, like he was waiting for something. I’m not crazy.”

“I didn’t say you were crazy. All I’m saying is that you’re grieving, and you feel guilty because you couldn’t save him.”

I ran my finger over the edge of my foam cup. “I was going to leave him.” I looked up at Kathy’s surprised face. “I told him that morning, on the day he jumped.”

“Oh, Jen.”

“There’s more. I was having an affair. I told him that, too. I was so angry. I wanted to hurt him.”

My sister sighed, and took a sip of her latte. “That doesn’t mean-”

“I may as well have pushed him off that bridge.”

“Stop it. For once, let Danny take responsibility for his own life. And death. He held your heart and emotions hostage for ten years. Don’t let him do that to you forever. Are you listening to me?”

I heard Kathy’s words but didn’t acknowledge them. Lunchtime traffic sped by outside the coffee shop window. Forever? What did we know about forever? Only Danny now understood the endless dimensions of that concept.

I’ll wait for you, he’d said, his last words to me as I walked out the door. I’ll get clean, one way or another. I promise.

Kathy was writing something on a piece of paper.

“What’s this?” I asked as she pushed it over to me.

“My counselor’s number. Promise me you’ll call her?”

“Okay.” I stuffed it into my purse.

Outside, she hugged me tightly. When she drove away, I dug out the paper and crumpled it up before throwing it into the trash.

 

The telephone was ringing when I got home. I glanced at the caller ID. Miguel. I stared at the phone, remembering how he whispered to me in Spanish as he’d made love to me, although I didn’t understand a word. I remembered his caramel-colored skin, his long dark hair, his easy laugh. So unlike Danny. Miguel been a breath of fresh air when I was suffocating. Now I only felt sick.

I had turned the answering machine off, so it rang a long time. When it finally stopped, I collapsed onto the couch and drifted into an exhausted sleep.

Lapping water woke me. I sat up on the couch, surrounded by it. Rivulets streamed down the walls through cracks in the ceiling. It rose rapidly up over the furniture, over the couch. I stood up on the cushions, but soon was treading water. At the ceiling, I breathed in the inch of air left. Soon I was completely submerged. I swam for the door, but it wouldn’t open.

At the window, Danny floated, his eyes still closed. Clouds of fish shimmered around him, and river vegetation hung from him like ribbons. I’m clean now, Jen, his voice echoed in my head. The water’s washed me clean.

I woke with a gasping breath. Sitting up, I reached into the pocket of my sweater for some tissue to wipe the tears in my eyes. Instead, I pulled out a handful of river mulch and a dead frog.

 

I went back to the river to peer into its murky depths. I waited a long time in the cutting wind, but nothing happened. No gleam of light, no Danny is stasis under water. Just the waves slapping up against the rocks; crows flapped and cawed at the far bank, and rustled the brittle brown leaves of the most stalwart oaks and maples.

Cars and trucks rumbled across the bridge, nearly three hundred feet up; the girders rattled and shook under their assault. I finally drove to the small parking lot on the west side of it. The leaf-peeping tourists were long gone, and I was alone as I traversed the narrow sidewalk along its span.

My hands rested on the smooth stone railing as I stared down at the choppy water. It was a long way down, offering plenty of time for someone to change their mind. Or curse the one who had driven them over the edge.

I imagined falling, weightless and free, and then the smash of contact, like hitting concrete. I imagined my broken body floating down the embracing currents, swirling in eddies. Danny would be waiting, his eyes finally open.

“Are you okay? Do you need help?”

I wrenched my eyes away from the river. A woman had stopped her car to look at me, her face pinched with concern. In a moment I understood why: I had climbed onto the railing. My right leg dangled over the abyss.

“Do you want me to call someone?” the woman continued. She clutched her cell phone in her hand, fingers poised to dial.

I scrambled down the railing. “No. No, I’m okay. I’m going home now.” As I hurried down the sidewalk to my car, I shivered uncontrollably. My clothes were drenched as if I’d just climbed out of the frigid river.

 

The dream wouldn’t leave me. Every night Danny’s submerged form waited for me. I floated beside him and pleaded for him to open his eyes. My garbled voice emitted bubbles that drifted up to a surface I couldn’t see. Watery beams lit his face in an otherworldly glow.

I’ll wait for you, his voice cut through my water-clogged ears in clear tones. I’m clean now.

I’d wake damp and breathless. River grass tangled in my hair and little silvery fish fluttered between my sheets.

One morning I found slime-covered rocks weighing down the pockets of my nightgown. I emptied them into the bathroom sink and washed my hands, but this tap water would never get them clean. As I glanced at the mirror above the sink, a drowned woman looked back at me, pallid and apathetic.

I went to the river a third time, and on this day the sun shone like muted gold in a cerulean sky. Below the rocks, Danny looked up at me with his eyes open at last. I peeled off my clothes and slipped into the water.

The bracing river was like an antiseptic. With every stroke and kick, layers of grime washed away. The heaviness left my limbs. I was cold and light and white as snow.

Danny smiled as I drifted into his arms. I kissed his cold, blue lips. As the air left me, I instinctively tried to rise, but he held me fast in his arms.

Stay with me, he said, and as life left me, I knew I always would.

I’m clean now.

 

The Memory of Oranges

oranges

(3,675 words)

Alice left her body for the first time the day George nearly killed her.

He hadn’t beat her too much this time, just a backhand to the face that sent her spinning to the kitchen floor. She heard the pan of burnt meatloaf clatter onto the tiles, and then he was on her, squeezing her neck with his meaty hands until she passed out. When she woke, George was slapping her face lightly.

“Come on, baby, wake,” he urged. “That’s my girl.”

She tried to speak, but her throat felt shredded. George helped her sit up.

“See, you’re okay.” He pushed some strands of hair away from her face, gentle in the aftermath, as always. “You should know better than to upset me like that, though. All I want is a nice meal when I come home from work. You know how hard I work to take care of you, right? Right?”

She nodded. “I know,” she croaked. “I’m sorry, George.”

“Well, that’s all right.” He helped her stand, and the room spun. “Now, clean up this mess and get me a decent dinner. Okay?”

That night in bed she watched him sleep and imagined cutting his throat. She could easily slip out of bed and take a knife from the kitchen drawer. She’d lay the blade across his Adam’s apple, which bobbed up and down as he snored. George liked to keep the knives sharp; it would be easy, like slicing through butter.

She stayed in bed, resisting the urge. Going to jail wouldn’t be as bad as remaining here, but she wasn’t willing to trade one prison for another. Sometimes, death seemed better. Part of her wished that George had strangled her just a few minutes more, to finish the  job. But only a part.

Once while George was at work, she had filled the bathtub with warm water, peeled off her clothes and slid in. She picked up the knife waiting on the edge of the tub. She brought the blade to her wrist, but instead of doing it quickly, like she ought to have done, she stared at the thin blue veins beneath the translucent skin, and a memory surfaced.

She was a young girl sitting outside on the grass one summer, eating an orange. The sun warmed the fruit on her plate. She lifted one of the orange slices and held it up, examining the delicate veins of its flesh through the light. As she bit into it, sweetness burst onto her tongue, and the warm juice dribbled down her chin. Happiness suffused her whole body, warming her like the rays of the sun. She was glad to be alive.

She had gotten out of the tub, dried off and dressed, put the knife away. If she cut those veins, she would kill that little girl. The one who still lived inside her, trapped and mute, but waiting for the taste of oranges again.

In bed Alice felt the bruises on her neck, the ache in her left cheek, but it didn’t matter. She thought about the little girl, the burst of sweet juice, and the warm sun as she drifted off.

After a time she woke, disoriented. Something felt different. She didn’t feel any pain in her face or neck, but it was more than that. She got out of bed and just stood there, trying to think of what it was. Light from the street lamp outside the window illuminated the room, casting a beam across the carpeted floor. She followed the intricate pattern of the lace curtains, as if she had never noticed it before. Every single fiber in the rug was visible to her. Every tiny rosebud on the wallpaper leaped out, even in the dim light. She tingled with electricity, like a ball of energy, light and formless. For some reason she wanted to laugh, and when she did, it sounded like music. She turned quickly to see if she had awakened George, but he just snored on.

She stared at the bed for a minute more, trying to understand what was so strange about it, until she finally realized what it was. Alice was still there, right next to George. She was looking at herself while outside of her body. At first she thought she had died in her sleep. She must have hit her head on the floor harder than she thought. Internal hemorrhaging had killed her. But when she looked closer, she noticed the rise and fall of her chest. The Alice in bed was only sleeping. She was dreaming, then. She couldn’t ever recall having a dream of such clarity.

Presently she noticed a shimmering cord that attached her to the Alice in bed. About an inch thick, it glowed silver and snaked out from behind sleeping Alice’s head to connect to the back of her own. She reached up to feel it, but her hand passed right through.

It irked her that the cord connected her to the battered thing in the bed. The woman had nothing to do with the real Alice, the consciousness that floated here, weightless and free. She wished she could fly away and leave the pathetic body behind.

With the thought, she suddenly shot upwards through the ceiling, through the roof, and out into the summer night air. She saw the houses below her, then the lights of Redfield as she flew higher and higher, until the lights became the pinpricks of stars. An infinite number of heavenly bodies blazed in every direction. Awe filled her as she comprehended the vastness of space, but as she realized her own smallness in this celestial sea, panic set in.

Fear snapped her back along the cord at incomprehensible speed to her body waiting in the bed. She woke instantly, opening her eyes to the bedroom ceiling. The heaviness of her limbs, the dull ache of her bruised cheek, the fire in her throat all assaulted her. George snored beside her, his head thrown back, his mouth slightly open. The dream was over. She turned away and wept silently, so as not to wake him.

She thought it nothing more than an exhilarating, vivid dream, until the next night when she found herself standing next to the bed again, her body sleeping next to George. And again the next night, and the next. She guessed her brush with death had opened a doorway through which she could pass, to roam with a freedom she had never known.

She drudged through her days, cleaning the house until it was spotless, cooking meals for George, and enduring his belittling remarks and fitful, unpredictable fists. She didn’t care. This wasn’t her real life. Her real life waited for her at night. While her vulnerable body slept, her soul soared through the air of Redfield, exploring as she wasn’t allowed to during the day.

At first she kept to the house, hesitant to relive the overwhelming vastness of space. She didn’t want or need to go that far. She wandered the rooms, passing through walls and doors, relishing the idea that George couldn’t follow. In this form, she was free from the weight of his gaze, the force of his hands, his awareness of everywhere she went. She was truly out of his reach.

She looked out the windows and yearned to escape this house that was his, this cage he had fashioned for her. One night she tentatively moved forward to step out through the glass of the window, into the small front yard. The glittering cord followed behind her. She wondered how far she could go, if it was another leash to hold her back. She walked down the street, away from the house, away from George, away from the weak body that slept behind him. The cord stretched out behind her but didn’t pull her back, so she kept going.

She explored her neighborhood, peeping into the houses of their neighbors. She had never been allowed to befriend them, and she was curious to see how others lived. Some houses were dark as families slept. Some glowed with the light of the television as the occupants watched favorite shows. Couples made love, and she turned her eyes away from them. Their loving caresses were painful to see when compared to George’s sweaty thrustings.

She left the neighborhood and entered town, looking into the dark windows of the shops. Everything closed early in Redfield. Only a few cars passed down the quiet streets, and even fewer people walked the sidewalks. If someone did pass by, she instinctively ducked her head and didn’t look at them, not wanting them to see the newest bruise, or the shame in her eyes. When she remembered they couldn’t see her, she gazed frankly, drinking them up like a thirsty woman gulps a glass of water.

She wanted to see more, much  more than she could in a single night by walking. She wanted to see other places, other cities, other states. One night she mustered up the courage to fly again, but this time used her mind to control her flight, so that she coasted above the rooftops of Redfield. She laughed out loud as she flew into the adjacent town and landed softly on the grass of its common. Williston was more of a small city, and she spent a lot of time looking around and exploring its twisty, shop-laden streets. She remembered passing through it to Redfield after marrying George, but she hadn’t seen it since.

She was passing one particular building when she spotted a sign in its window:

Abused? Scared? Nowhere to go? Call 1-800-XXX-XXXX.

There was nothing else on the sign, only those words and the number. She peered more closely at the building, but it looked abandoned, dark and empty beyond the glass of its window.

As she flew back to her bed and the sleeping Alice, she couldn’t get the phone number out of her head. Once back in her body, it crossed her mind once again, but she immediately dismissed it. There was no point in running. No matter where she went George would eventually find her, and probably kill her. She didn’t want to die. She had to protect the little girl who loved oranges, who flew with her in the night, and laughed with her. She could endure the days, as long as she had the night.

It was enough.

A few weeks later she missed her period.

Alice always looked forward to her time of month. George wouldn’t touch her while she was bleeding, as if she suffered from some sort of contagion he didn’t want to contract. Vigilant about birth control, he kept a box of condoms in the nightstand drawer next to their bed. Her certainly didn’t leave contraception in her hands. Either she wouldn’t take the pills consistently (“You’d miss one on purpose, I bet, just to have some snot-nosed, bawling kid, another mouth to feed we can’t afford,” though Alice suspected he didn’t want her attention diverted away from him) or she would consider herself open for business (“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’d fuck every guy in the neighborhood, wouldn’t you?”)

When she found the courage to tell him she might be pregnant, he blamed her, as if she had somehow caused the condom to tear. He screamed at her and threw chairs around and swiped things off tables. Then he beat her.

Luckily, he didn’t hit her in the stomach this time. She wanted this child. She wasn’t going to let George make her get rid of it, something he had yelled about during his rant. This child was hers, and it was not going to know George at all. Not ever. This child will sit on the grass in the summer sun eating oranges, delighting in its sweet stickiness. It was never going to lose that happiness, not if she could help it.

She lost a night of blissful roaming from lack of sleep, but it was worth it. Her desperate, anguished mind formed a plan. She felt it would succeed but for one fairly large problem, and she set to work on solving it right away.

The next time she left her body she didn’t leave the house, but tried, unsuccessfully, to grasp an object. She’d reach for a cup. a vase, or a bottle of water on the counter top, but her glowing hand passed right through it. Again and again, she’d reach for something, curl her fingers about it, and hope to feel its solid edges. But each time, she failed. Her form had no matter, therefore she could not interact with matter. And yet, the need to do so was key to her plan. Every morning she woke in despair. George was going to bring her to the clinic in Williston next week. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stop the “procedure”. Not in her waking form. She was running out of time.

One night before bed, George was flipping around the channels on the television when he stopped momentarily on a show about ghosts. This episode chronicled the troubles of a family whose home was haunted by a nasty entity, one who could hurl objects, grab hair or scratch skin, and cause all sorts of physical phenomena. The attending ghost expert purported that it could do these things by sheer force of emotion. Its rage fueled its strength.

“What a crock of shit,” George commented, clicking off the television. But Alice now knew what to do. She reasoned that her own disembodied soul was similar to a ghost, and so had the same abilities. She could grasp objects if she wanted to. She was just going about it the wrong way. Every time she tried to pick something up, she cleared her mind and concentrated, focusing entirely on the object. She had believed she needed to be calm and detached, like a monk trying to levitate. But it appeared she wasn’t supposed to be calm. She was supposed to be enraged.

Rage-that was something she could summon. Rage was a boiling lake she kept deep down inside her. Part of her was afraid to access it. To touch it was to burn, to incinerate to ash. She recoiled from it reflexively.

That night she stood by the bed examining her body next to George, she let herself gaze unflinchingly at what she’d become. Her pinched and worried face was unable to find peace even in sleep, despite the joyful wanderings of her soul. The latest bruises were beginning to yellow as they faded, giving her a sallow look. Her hair lay lank and dull against the pillow. Her shoulders hunched together, a perpetual shrug she had assumed to protect herself from blows that could fall at any moment. She looked much older than her years.

She had wasted the better part of her youth with this man. This man who had sniffed out her loneliness and fear after her parents had died in the crash, who took her far away from home and out of reach of any remaining family and friends, who had stamped out any trace of the happy little girl she had once been.

She looked from the crabbed body of sleeping Alice to George, who slept soundly. oblivious that he had ruined a life. No lines creased his brow, no premature gray invaded his hair to show his troubles. He slept as if it was perfectly fine that he wanted to kill the life inside her.

Hatred flared in her. She let herself touch that pool of rage, and then suddenly she was floating above him, trying to pummel him with her fists. She hit and cursed at him, but her slapping hands still fell through him. As in her waking life, she was ineffective, unable to touch him. In utter frustration, she screamed a high-pitched wail that echoed in her ethereal ears. At the same moment, the bathroom mirror in the next room shattered, and pieces of glass rained down onto the sink and floor.

George’s eyes flew open at the noise, and he gasped as if waking from a terrible dream. Alice was pulled back into her body as it woke. She looked over at him.

“What the hell?” George glared at her.

He could find no explanation for the broken mirror, and made her clean it up while he went back to sleep.

Alice could affect the material world in her disembodied form, but had to learn how to control and focus it. She spent the next few nights practicing, summoning the now easily-accessed anger, and focusing her attention on an object she wanted to grasp. There were a few mishaps. The remote control dropped onto the coffee table; a butter knife clattered into the sink. George got out of bed to investigate the noise. She laughed at his fearful uncertainty as he stood in the middle of the living room, looking for burglars.

She finally succeeded in picking up a plastic cup from the counter, holding it for a few minutes, and gingerly setting it down again. Once she accomplished this, she turned her attention to opening the kitchen drawer where she retrieved one of the sharp knives. She picked it up and held it before her. It gleamed in the moonlight coming through the window over the sink. Yes, she thought. This one will do nicely.

After George left for work the next day, she picked up the phone and dialed the number from the sign on the abandoned building. The woman on the other end of the line spoke in soft, measured tones, and gave her directions to a place called Haven House.

Alice hung up, packed a few things, and walked into town to catch the bus to Williston. Once there, she followed the woman’s directions. Haven House was a cozy-looking brick building with banks of tulips beneath the windows. She knocked on the door, and the soft-spoken woman, named Margaret, let her in with a compassionate smile. Margaret led her into a small office and asked her some questions, then handed over some papers for Alice to sign.

“No one will hurt you here,” she said, leaning forward and putting her hand upon Alice’s arm. “Settle in tonight. Tomorrow we’ll talk about your next steps.”

Alice wasn’t worried about tomorrow, but thanked Margaret and followed her her upstairs to a comfortable bedroom where she put her things. She washed in the bathroom down the hall, then sat in the cushioned chair near the bedroom window. She watched cars rush past in the road below, thinking of nothing in particular. She waited for the night.

After a while, Margaret came up to tell her dinner was ready. She could meet some of the other women here and start to build a “safe circle” of trust, a support network that would help her in the days to come.

Alice declined, citing fatigue, and Margaret let it go this first night since she was new. “Sleep well,”she said, starting to close the door.

“I’ll try,” Alice replied, “But do you think you could check on me in a few hours? I’m afraid I may lose my nerve, and leave in the middle of the night. I don’t really want that.”

“Of course.” Margaret smiled her beatific smile and clicked the door shut. Alice sighed with relief. She had an alibi for tonight.

George would be home by now and find her gone. She wasn’t sure what he’d do, but she waited several hours before lying down on the bed and trying to sleep. She was nervous and feared she might not be able to, but she finally dozed off and found herself looking at sleeping Alice in the strange bed of Haven House.

She flew up through the roof, oriented herself, and headed toward Redfield, and home. Not home, she thought. Not anymore.

She landed in the middle of the living room, or what was left of it. George, at finding her gone, had torn the place apart. He had flung the coffee table over onto its side, scattered the couch cushions over the floor, and smashed the television screen with the VCR. He toppled over lamps and end tables. The kitchen was no better. Appliances littered the floor, dished were broken on the tiles, pots and pans were knocked from their hooks.

In the bedroom George lay sprawled on the bed where he had collapsed after his rampage. His sleep didn’t look sound now. His brows scrunched together in consternation, and his lips were drawn tight in a thin line.

She returned to the kitchen, opened the drawer, gripped the knife in her glowing hand, and went back to the bedroom. Standing over him, the tip of the knife poised over his exposed throat, the only regret was that he would never know it was his darling Alice who killed him. When the blade sank into his neck, it felt like stabbing a melon, not like butter at all.

When she woke the next morning, the sun streamed through the bedroom window of Haven House. She rose and dressed, then descended the stairs into the kitchen. No one was about this early. She thought she might leave now, but the summer sun beckoned her out to the backyard. She picked out a large orange from the bowl of fruit resting on the kitchen table, then slipped out the sliding screen door and sat on the grass.

Alice slowly peeled the orange, delighting in the feel of the oily essence on her fingers. She broke open the fruit and separated the crescents, making a small pile in her lap. The orange was ripe and plump, and she raised a piece to the sun. The light glowed through its flesh, delineating its delicate veins. It reminded her of the fragile veins of a fetus, and she smiled. Resting a protective hand over her belly, she took a bit, savoring the sweet juice.