De Rien Redux (Because I’m a Sucker)

[Okay – because I’m a sucker for happy endings, I gave her one. But I wanted it to be a compromise, and I hope that comes across. Keep reading if you, too, like happy endings.]

Six months of loneliness and Mia was wondering what she’d done. She hadn’t realized how much she felt for her husband. That when she’d told him “I love you” she’d meant it.

She couldn’t go back. He wouldn’t have her back. Hell, the country wouldn’t take her back. Even if she pledged to transition. It was too late.

Freedom felt good, just not as good as she’d though it would feel. Freedom was not easy; it was hard and sometimes boring and cold when she forgot to pay the heating bill.

But she had more energy. She wondered at just how toxic those vitamins were after her first checkup in her new homeland and the doctor asked her how long she’d been ill. She’d told the woman about the nurse and the tests and she’d clucked and shaken her head. Mia hadn’t told her about Tom’s pills to boost her system, and that she’d still had awful blood numbers.

On a rainy spring day, walking home from work, slow because there was no rush, nothing to get home for, she noticed a car parked at the curb of her apartment building. She recognized the big vehicle; it had been parked in front of her home every evening for five years–every night since Tom purchased it.

“Mia?” Tom stepped out, holding onto the top of the door like it was keeping him erect.

“Tom?” He looked old, his skin gray, his slim body gaunt.

He swallowed and nodded, slamming the door shut and shuffling towards her.

She’d never expected him to be so angry that he’d some after her. Never expected it when she’d used her real mailing address on the letter. Never expected to see him again.

Worry shot through her. He looked ill. “How are you?”

He shrugged. “You?”

She shrugged.

The rain fell, her hair already soaked, his rapidly getting there. If he was ill, the cold rain would only make it worse. “Do you want to come in and warm up? I can make tea.”

Staring, he nodded. “If you want me to come in.”

If she wanted?

She blinked, her world tilting. “Tom, what was in the pills you gave me?”

He chuckled, but it didn’t sound like laughter. “Probably about what was in the vitamins the nurse gave you.” He looked at her, his eyes dark. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” But the vitamins been to stop her from passing the blood test-

“I could have killed you.”

She jerked back. “What?”

“You were taking a double dose of poison. I’m glad you weren’t taking them like you were supposed to.” He took three steps towards her, through a puddle that slopped water into his shoes. “Even so, it’s a wonder you were functioning.”

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted to be happy.”

“I was happy. I didn’t realize how happy I was until you were gone. But I was. No matter that Dad said I wasn’t, that I needed to do something about you. Transitioning is dangerous. More dangerous than anyone wants to admit. There are complications and side effects and…I was scared.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She stepped forward, joining him in the puddle. They’d both die of pneumonia before they were done.

“Men aren’t supposed to be scared. My father kept drilling into me how important it was for you to transition so I could move up in the world. He thought the risk was worth it. I don’t think I understood why I didn’t want to take that risk.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I love you. Just you.” He fingered a frizz made ringlet by the wet. “The way you are.”

“Oh.”

He smiled, the movement softening his features, and he didn’t look so old for a moment. He patted his pocket. “I’m legal. I’ve immigrated. Seems they like pediatricians up here.”

Mia giggled. “They like math majors, too. I have a job.”

He frowned. “You want to work?”

She considered a moment. “Yes. Maybe not if I have kids when they’re young. But yes, I like working.”

“Okay.” But he didn’t look certain.

Sighing, Mia took his hand and led him to the front door of the three-story converted warehouse. “Lock your car with the remote. We need to get in out of the rain and have a discussion.”

“A discussion?” Tom’s voice sounded strangled.

“Yes. We need to decide if you’re sleeping on the couch or in bed with me.”

He laughed, the sound happy for that instant. “Even the couch sounds good with you.”

De Rien

[Not sure what to say about this one. Written in a funk after the election. Obviously in the future, but not sure how far.  I have an alternate ending, too. But I will post that in a few days. Please let me know what you think.]

(c) Tara Moeller, 2016

Mia sucked in a breath when the needle pierced her arm. The nurse winced with her, drawing out blood into the attached tube.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” She smiled, her lips over-dimpling in fake reassurance. The nurse’s face was lopsided; Mia assumed her transition hadn’t gone well, and that is the reason for the disparity — and her job.

Smiling, Mia shook her head but pressed the little piece of gauze tight to the pinhole. “Of course, not.”

“Dr. Willikins will put these in for test and we should have the results by tomorrow.” The nurse shook the little tube, checking to make sure all the gunk in the bottom mixed with the fresh blood. “Are you taking the vitamins I gave you?”

Nodding, Mia stood, waiting impatiently while the nurse stuck a tiny plastic bandage over the gauze, patting it after until it stung. “Yes. Of course.”

“You need a refill?”

“No, I still have half a bottle.”

The nurse frowned, freezing mid shake of the tube. The rust brown of the natural iris peeked through the dark center of her royal blue eyes. “You should need a refill. You really need to take them every day.”

“I’ve been taking them.”

“Every day?”

Mia couldn’t offer a truthful yes, so she remained silent.

“Mia, the transition can be dangerous. If you don’t take your vitamins, like I didn’t, there can be horrible repercussions.”

Letting her gaze trace over the other woman, Mia noted more than just the lopsided features. The barest hint of freckles marred the otherwise porcelain protrusion of her cheeks, a faint notch jarred the smooth line of her jaw, the flesh that covered it drooping just a tad.

“Take a good look. It isn’t just in my face.” The nurse pivoted back to the metal cart, jamming the bloody tube into the tray for processing. “Remember, if it doesn’t turn out, your husband doesn’t have to keep you.”

Mia continued to stare, watching a single tear trace its way down her cheek. Damn. Had her husband refused her? Is that why she was here, working as a nurse in a world where women weren’t supposed to work?

The woman tuned back, sniffing hard but not bothering to remove the offending droplet. “Take the vitamins Mia. You don’t want to wind up like me.”

Stalking outside, Mia held her tongue, wanting to scream. She didn’t want to wind up like her nurse, but really, was autonomy so bad? So the woman didn’t have a husband? She had a job–and freedom.

So far, the results were exactly what Mia wanted–damn the vitamins that were supposed to help get her body ready for transition. But one day–far sooner than she would even want–the blood test would come back “A-OK” and she’d be eligible for transition and her husband–and his father and uncle and everybody else in the family–would be happy.

She rode the bus home. There was no need for her to have car since she couldn’t work, and so far, she had not been approved to bear a child. A small part of her wondered if it was because she had failed the blood test so many times. No sense propagating children that couldn’t make the transition.

Staring out the window, at the masculine cars parked along the street, all jutting angles and fat wheels, she thought about her mother. Did she look like her? She didn’t resemble her father, but genetics taught that she might look like a grandparent, and it had been a couple centuries since anyone knew what their maternal ancestors truly looked like. There were no photos of young girls in dark pigtails or young brides with dark curls piled high with a tiara and veil.

Women only had their photos taken after transition.

No one looked at her on the bus, met her stare or smiled in warm greeting. How could they tell she hadn’t had the surgery yet? Maybe her husband wanted a woman with a little pudge, plain hazel eyes and walnut hair a little frizzy, with a too-large nose and too thin lips.

But that was crazy. And everyone knew it.

When Dr. Willikins had brought out the big book of features, Tom had picked out blonde (though to be certain, some wanted gingers, and maybe he only picked it because it was the first option offered), and selected a little taller and little thinner, with a petite upturned nose and sulky lips. The doctor had smiled and said that was a pretty standard package, and what about breasts and hips and-

That is where Tom had cut him off. Just the package as it was would be fine.

The doctor had only sighed and reminded Tom that he couldn’t change his mind after transition. Oh, and what about eye color?

Tom hadn’t been picky about that, and had let her pick it out: green. Her natural hazel orbs had a lot of green in them; maybe they would still look like hers after.

That had been almost three years ago, and she still hadn’t been deemed physiologically ready for transition. She was certain the doctor was ready to give up, but Tom kept paying, so she kept going for the test.

The other women on the bus, mostly blonde with a single stark redhead sitting behind the elderly driver, were blue-eyed models with long silky hair and elegant cheekbones. Nary a freckle or pockmark in sight.

Mia took a breath and steeled herself for the dismount. She pulled the thin cord to signal she needed off and stood, tripping towards the door, just making it through the levered portals before the transport roared off down the street. At the end of the block, it stopped again, the ginger-haired beauty alighting in slow-motion while the bus waited for her to take the final step to the ground and traipse around the front.

Swallowing the bile that rose, Mia made her way down the street to the small townhouse she shared with her husband. He could afford larger, flashier–he was a doctor for God’s sake–but felt it was just enough until he had a wife to match. Instead, he spent his money of gold and silver trinkets, all on display in his home office on long shelves. They were all different, but all made of one or the other of the precious metals. Some were old, antiques even, while others were newer and gaudy.

She hated every one of them.

His car was big, though. He could fit a body in the trunk with spare parts needed to make them perfect. It was the same model, only a year older, as his boss’s auto. There was an image to project, even if his house wasn’t part of the picture.

Tired, Mia rubbed her eyes and unlocked the front door. It was time to get dinner in the oven. It was pot roast night, and she had the roast and vegetables all ready and waiting in the Dutch oven in the fridge, prepared ahead just in case there had been extra tests this time.

One day there would be. One day, Dr. Willikins would want to find out why her white blood cells were always too high and her red too low.

The phone rang, and she jumped. The screen showed [husband’s] work number and she debated answering. But if she didn’t, he’d worry and call Dr. Willikins.

“Hello.” She tried not to sound too depressed.

“Make it back home okay?” Tom’s voice was too loud over the line. It sounded shaky; maybe he was having a stressful day at the office. He was a pediatrician.

Mia was proud of that. The he was a doctor that helped children and she was the wife that took care of him. “Yeah. Almost got taken out by the bus, but otherwise, I’m safe.”

“Did they get your blood okay?”

“Yes.”

“Was it Dr. Willikins or his nurse?”

“The nurse.” Dr. Willikins hadn’t actually seen her for a couple of years now.

There was a pause. “Did she ask about your diet at all?”

Mia sighed. The nurse never asked her anything except the damn vitamins. Today was the most she’d ever spoken to her. “No.”

The soft sigh made Mia smile. She suspected her husband feared that Dr. Willikins would accuse him of doing something to her. Tom was a doctor and knew the risks more so than other husbands. But her not transitioning because of something he did would be devastating for his career.

“So, still no mention of vitamins or supplements?”

“No.” Mia eyes the large bottle of pills on the table. She hated lying to him; he was really quite nice and treated her well. Anything she wanted, he tried to get for her.

“You still take your pills, right? The ones I gave you?”

“Of course.” Him and his damn pills. He was as bad as the nurse and her vitamins. They were supposed to help her pass the blood test. “I have to go. I haven’t got the pot roast in yet and if I don’t get it in it won’t be ready on time. The Sylvesters are coming over tonight, right?”

The Sylvesters were a younger couple; he was another doctor, an obstetrician whose patients moved up to Tom’s practice once they were born. It was important to keep connections strong, especially when one moved up the chain. Without a referral from Dr. Sylvester, Tom could lose patients.

Another sigh. “Yes. They will be there at seven. I should be home by half past six.”

One thing you could count on with Tom, he was always home when he said he would be.

Dinner was hell. Oh, the pot roast and vegetables were perfectly cooked, and the wine Tom brought home even more so. The problem was the perfect Mrs. Sylvester, with her golden-red curls and violet eyes. Mia felt like a rag doll next to a porcelain figurine.

Tom was quiet after the meal, walking the Sylvesters to their most expensive car while Mia cleared the table. When he came back in, he stared at her, and Mia imagined the disappointment coursing through him at her plain hazel visage, far too short and squat for sex.

Crossing the room, he kissed her temple, his squeezing hug just a bit harder than usual, his hand lingering on her hip. “Remember to take your pill tomorrow.” He was on his way up to bed.

She checked on the ingredients she needed for breakfast. “I will.”

As expected, there was no sex, only quiet sleep–for a time.

The nightmare came, as always after the bloodletting. A face she didn’t recognize in the mirror, with lips that didn’t respond to her will to smile or speak, dead green eyes that stared but didn’t see. Hair so pale it was transparent.

Nothing of her was left.

Waking, she stilled her scream, muffling it with her pillow so he wouldn’t hear. He got so upset when she had those dreams.

At the tinkling of the alarm at six, Mia rose, exhausted, starting the coffee and French toast with fruit that was Tom’s favorite. She felt bad for him, stuck with her–a wife that couldn’t pass a simple blood test.

She kissed him at the door, smiling up, trying to outsmile her plainness. It seemed to work; his lips lingered a few seconds longer over hers before he pivoted and marched off to the driver’s side of his car. He waved before getting in and she waved back.

The bottles sat on the counter, taunting her with her failure. Opening the top, she shook a handful out, counting in her palm. Had she remembered to take one yesterday or the day before? She hated the tablets; they could stick in her throat, choking her with regret.

Taking two, she threw them down her throat, following them with a full cup of black coffee to make them go down all the way.

Half an hour later, the call came in.

“Hello.” Mia kept her tone upbeat.

“Well, looks like someone knows what I’m about to say.” The raspy voice of Dr. Willikins filled the earpiece.

“Oh?” This wasn’t good. She’d expected the call to come from the nurse, like it had every other month for the last couple of years.

“The test results are in, and they look pretty good. You red count is up and your white count is down. I’d like you to come back in two weeks for another test. I think you might finally pass and we can get your surgery on the schedule. The sooner the better, eh?”

Mia swallowed twice, finding words difficult.

“Mrs. Mason?”

“Yes.” She choked on the single syllable.

“Ah. Speechless I guess. Well, don’t worry, I’ll give your husband’s office a call and give him the good news myself. Let him know he should probably let you rest up starting now, just to make sure the numbers stay good.”

The doctor signed off after a bit more babbling about specific numbers and how different they were from last time and how much they would have to drop or rise in two weeks.

Mia listened, saying nothing, not even nodding automatically at his advice. The only thought running through her head was oh god ohgod ohgod what was she going to do now? What would she do when she no longer recognized her face in the mirror? She was supposed to come out taller; she’d need new clothes, but she wouldn’t know the size. She’d probably be thinner, too.

Could she still have children after the surgery? Most women didn’t, but was it by choice or necessity?

The dial tone echoed in her ear and she hung up the receiver, seeing her hand grasping it but not feeling the hand itself was attached.

Would it be like that after the surgery? Would her body feel like her own? Would she…

Shaking herself, she dragged in a long breath, scrubbing her hands over her still-familiar forehead, nose, cheekbones. She couldn’t do. She just couldn’t do it.

The phone rang again: her husband’s work number on the screen.

Mia backed away. She couldn’t bear to listen to his happy voice making plans for the transition, the move to a new house after it was over and she’d finished healing. Everyone got a new house after, with a big coming out party, where the husband presented his improved wife with a diamond or sapphire or emerald–or hell, all three in a single piece of wearable art.

How could she tell him?

She couldn’t.

The collection. Running to the study that was really a den, she stared at the glittering array of bits on the shelves. Snatching up a box, she dumped the old medical journals it held to go to recycle on the floor and pulled them off, raking them into the box like leaves in the fall. When that box was full, she searched for another.

Precious metals: a universal currency.

If she could just make it to the border; maybe she could buy her way out. Not every country forced women to transition. In some, small third-world cultures, it was even frowned upon.

Not finding a box, she grabbed a small suitcase and shoved clothes in, not caring if they matched or packed well. Who cared? She didn’t. If she did, she’d want the transition, wouldn’t she?

There was a shard of vanity, though. Her grandmother’s hair combs. They were antique brass with tiny rubies embedded in little curlicues to nestle in the gentle ringlets the older woman had been given. She tucked them into the case, safely wedging them in the folds of a sweater to keep them from being damaged.

She dropped the suitcase to the floor next to the box and stared at her haul. How could she get the boxes out of the house? Out of the suburbs and into the city where she could hop on a bus, or maybe even a train? Trains still made it across the border to Canada, didn’t they? Could she afford to wait for Tom to come home and steal his car after he went to bed?

Damn! She should have thought this through. He’d notice the collection gone from the walls and wonder what the hell she was up to. She’d have to put them back, taking just a few from the back–big ones worth money–that he wouldn’t notice missing.

Dragging the box back to the office, she replaced the ornaments, not really caring if they were in their regular order. She’d never seen him place them with any care; maybe they didn’t have an order. She paused over a couple, setting them on a table to take with her. They were heavier, so she hoped there was more metal in them, translating to a higher price when she sold it for cash.

She froze at the sound of tires on the pavement; a car in the drive. Peeking through the sheers, Mia gasped. He was home, the gleaming black hulk of automobile crowding the small parking space. He looked calm, even though he’d never come home from work early like this before.

Shouldn’t he look excited? His shoulders slouched in his jacket, his feet dragged along the ground as he rounded the car. He reached into the back seat, pulling out a bouquet of red roses and a box of chocolates; the package looked like it was from her favorite little shop. He usually only got them for her at Christmas and their anniversary.

Trotting back to the kitchen, breaths coming on short convoluted grasps, she grabbed the solitary suitcase and tossed it in the broom closet. he never went in there; he’d never see it and she could work on her plan.

She had two weeks to figure it out.

“Hey!” His smile split his face when he came in the house, arms stretched out, flowers in one hand, chocolates in the other. “How’s my girl?”

Mia laughed, though it sounded like someone was strangling her. “I’m great. After all, we got the good news today.”

His smile faded and he nodded, offering her the chocolates.

She took the box, unwrapping the fat ribbon, savoring the scent of sugared sweets that met her nose when the lid was removed. “Mmmm. Caramel centers, my favorite.”

Tom plucked one from the box, hovering it beneath her nose before popping it into her mouth.

Chewing and swallowing, Mia batted her lashes at him. If she was going to run away, never see him again, maybe she could make some good memories first.

He stared a moment before dipping his head to kiss her, his lips lingering over hers, his tongue sharing the remnant flavor of chocolate and caramel.

Pulling away, Mia sucked in a breath. She tried not to think about what they were celebrating, that he was happy and wanted her because in two weeks she’d likely be ready to transition to his vision of perfect.

Blinking at her from behind his wire-rimmed lenses, Tom traced a finger down her cheek. “What?”

“I didn’t get dinner on; I’m sorry.”

“S’okay. We can go out.”

Go out? They’d get back late and he’d be tired and they wouldn’t…

“Or we can order something in. Chinese?” He backed up, hand stretched toward the phone.

“That sounds wonderful.” Mia set the box of sweets on the table and took the roses, turning to take them to the sink. “You call and I’ll put these in water.”

Dinner was eaten while cuddled together on the sofa, watching rerun TV. Clean up was easy, and quick, and that meant that, for a change, neither was too tired when done.

Mia decided to be bold. Why not? What did she have to lose? She could argue that he was horrible for wanting the transition, but what could she expect from him? It was just the way society was now. She should count herself lucky that her husband only wanted what amounted to slight changes. She’d heard the stories of women so utterly changed that they went mad.

At the bottom on the stairs, the doors locked and the lights all off, Mia placed a hand on Tom’s stomach. It wasn’t a muscular stomach, but there was no protrusion of belly.

“What?” He frowned at her, standing one step down.

Stretching forward, Mia settled her lips on his, drawing out the kiss as long as she could When she pulled away, his followed and he leaned into her.

Success.

She backed up the stairs, him one step behind, lips touching the whole way. At the bedroom door, he took the lead, pulling her in behind him.

He hesitated at his shirt buttons, staring into her eyes.

Smiling, she undid his short, pushing it back of his shoulders, tugging on the bottom of his plain white undershirt. “I love you.”

He kissed her again, backing her to the bed, falling into the soft mattress with her. It was a night that mirrored their first time together, after the wedding, when he was only in university, filled with energy and youthful desire.

She wanted to remember it forever. Even if it wasn’t real.

 

Mia rose the next morning and made breakfast as she normally did. Tom came down, relaxed and smiling, and hugged her while she stirred the oatmeal at the stove.

He even whistled while he ate.

She never felt so guilty in all her life.

When Tom had left for work, Mia stood in the center of the kitchen, unmoving. The packed suitcase, the hair combs and a few of the larger gold trinkets tucked amidst her clothing, was still in the closet.

She still needed a plan.

Sitting at the table, the dirty bowls and mugs still at each place, she picked at her nails. How could she get out of the country? North to Canada would be a start. While there were women there that made the transition, it was not expected like it was here. hell, here, it was practically law.

What would happen to Tom if she left? Would he be able to divorce her from afar? Have their marriage annulled? Start again, maybe with a younger wife that fit closer to his ideal from the start.

It would be hard, that last possibility. Those young women were reserved for the men who fit that mould; the rich, the famous, the beautiful.

Mia stared at the jar of pills. Should she take one? Did it matter anymore? Even though she intended to be gone before the two weeks was up, should she still play the game?

But she was losing.

Standing, sucking in a giant breath that filled her lungs, she expanded her chest so that her bra straps dug in to her ribcage. The pain felt good, real. She could do this.

She left the table messy and marched to the study, pressing the button to boot the computer. Finding the bus line’s website was easy; finding a ticket North enough that she could make it across the border before anyone found out she’d left, was hard.

When the phone rang, she didn’t even bother glancing at the number, just picked up the receiver, more interested in the screen that the voice, and said “hello.”

“Mrs. Mason? This is Nurse Cummings. From Dr. Willikins office.”

The screen blurred and Mia blinked, focusing on the phone. “Yes?”

“The doctor told me about your latest results.”

“Yes?” Mia squinted at the screen, flipping between the bus schedule and a map of Maine. Was Calais close enough to the border? Ah–yes. It was on the border.

“You really should have been better at taking those vitamins. There’s nothing I can do for you now.”

“Huh? What?” Distracted, Mia tracked the mouse to the bottom corner, blanking the screen.

There was a long sigh down the phone line. “The vitamins. If you’d kept taking them like I told you, you never would have gotten good enough results for transition.”

“The vitamins?”

“Yes, the vitamins.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t think you were convicted enough.”

“What?” Mia tracked the mouse back up to the center, bringing the window that held the bus schedule back up. She clicked on the buy button for the ticket to Maine.

“Aren’t you listening?”

“I’m trying. But you never told me anything.” Anger sparked. What the hell? If the woman had told her what the vitamins were really doing, she would have taken them every day and once in between.

“Of course not. Do you know how much trouble I could get in if someone found out about those vitamins?” The nurse’s voice bit into Mia’s ear. “It’s not just my job that’s on the line. It’s my whole life.”

Mia needed a credit card number, but her card was in her purse, her purse upstairs in the bed room. The little countdown box was ticking down the time she had to purchase her ticket.

“Look. Fine. I’ll throw away the bottle, okay?”

“Not good enough. I need the bottle, now. And the vitamins inside it.”

Shit. “I’ll put it in the mail.”

“Not good enough.”

She had less than a minute to put her credit card number in. She slammed down the receiver and raced for the stairs, taking them two at a time, snatching up her purse from the dresser and nearly tumbling down the stairs in her rush.

Falling into the desk chair, card in hand, she tapped the numbers onto the keypad and hit enter.

She’d bought her ticket.

The phone rang, and angry jangle that made her shiver.

It was probably the nurse again. No way was she talking to that woman. Not now, not ever.

The bus would be leaving in two hours. She needed to get into the city and to the station before then.

Mia stuffed the card back in her purse, flinging the bag over her shoulder, knocking over the chair and scrambling to her feet. She needed to be gone, now, five minutes ago.

She grabbed the suitcase from the closet and the left-over grocery money from the cookie jar where she kept it for safe-keeping. It was only a ten-minute walk to the bus stop and the quick hop through the sliding doors before the bus lurched forward and she dropped her rider card and bumped her head picking it up.

Managing to swipe it despite the jerky ride, she stumbled to the first seat available and dropped into it. She didn’t need to worry that anyone would notice her with the suitcase, be able to describe her to anyone or remember where she got off the bus. No one ever looked at her enough.

She was in the city center within the half hour and jogging down the sidewalk toward the station. The day was sunny but breezy and her hair played around her face. She didn’t care. Again, she didn’t worry that anyone would notice her.

“Mia Mason.” She gasped out her whispered name at the attendant, sliding her ID across the counter and through the little Plexiglas slot to the attendant. “I purchased my ticket online.”

“Kinda quick.” The young man frowned.

“Family emergency. Trying to get home before my father dies in hospital.”

The frown dissipated. “Oh, sorry. Hope you get there in time.” He slid her ID and thick ticket back to her. “Platform 3. You have about 15 minutes before it loads.”

“Thanks.”

Mia tucked her ID in her purse and clutched the ticket in her hand. She was close, so close.

Platform 3 was at the end of the station, one of the smaller loading areas. Few people took the bus anymore, except for poor students and the elderly that outlived their retirement savings.

She waited with three other passengers, an odd couple that consisted of a wrinkled man and a woman who looked like her insides had shrunk inside her still-smooth skin and a young man with ear buds that ignored everything around him.

When the bus pulled in, the young man jumped to the head of the line and claimed the back seat, stretching out lengthwise. Mia let the older couple climb up the steps first, even steadying the woman when she stumbled at the top. the old man clutched her hand in the same way Mia clutched her ticket, but he wasn’t strong enough to keep her up

The couple settled in the front seats, winded and gasping, the man pale, the woman blinking teary eyed while she smiled her thanks to Mia.

Mia offered her ticket to the driver, who looked at her through narrowed eyes. “Maine?”

“My dad’s in the hospital. Going to visit before he passes away.”

The driver nodded and gestured for her to take a seat.

Mia sat somewhere in the middle, her suitcase locked in the compartment above her head

 

Calais was cold and almost deserted at midnight when the bus pulled into the station, Mia the only rider left on board. The couple and the young man had gotten off in Boston, making the driver complain about having to keep going for only Mia.

Mia sniffed and wailed about her dying father, and the driver shut up and put his foot to the pedal, not stopping until they made it to the small town on the border with New Brunswick a whole hour and a half ahead of schedule.

The driver didn’t even wait to see if she made it into the station before he’d backed up and parked and locked the bus for the night and scuffled off for wherever he got to sleep.

Shivering, Mia picked up her suitcase and wondered what to do now. She could see the other country, looking so much like where she stood now, across the lazy St. Croix river.

There was a stone bridge with barriers and lights on the other side. She started walking, her breath ending in puffs of frozen steam that chilled her cheeks. The wind picked up at the bridge, the river offering a through-way for the rush of winter air.

One foot ahead of the other, a steady beat toward freedom.

What if they shot her? Arrested her?

She stopped. Was it worth it? To die instead of live? To punish Tom for nothing more than doing what society expected of him?

Another step, then another, and she bumped into the first barrier, the bright beams of light blinding her.

“Halt!’

She hadn’t expected a guard. Not a real person with a weapon speaking to her. Maybe just an automatic rifle shearing bullets into her form.

Stopped, she teetered on her feet, one arm up to shield her eyes from the glare.

“What are you doing?”

“Running.”

“Looks more like walking.” A pause, then the voice sounded closer. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Just after midnight.” Mia swallowed. “Please. I just can’t transition.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

Damn, was this a transitioner? Someone who supported the American system and thought Canada should be more like its neighbor to the south? She’d heard there were some up here; she thought them to be mostly men with tight ties to the States in business that saw transitioning as a way to further their status in the other country. Status meant money and power, and they could then make it in America.

What if she answered “can’t”? Would it make a difference?

“Won’t”

“Huh.” Another pause, then the lights dimmed and a hand grabbed her arm, tugging. “Come with me.”

The inside of the station was warm and clean, the white tile floors glossy, the pale gray walls smudge-free. Mia was dumped in a red plastic chair and told to wait.

She waited. She couldn’t see anywhere to go.

A woman emerged from behind a door, her uniform on black trousers and white shirt with red trim pressed to knife pleats. She held out a mug of steaming liquid.

Mia accepted it, sniffing. Tea. “Thank you.”

De rien.” The woman pulled another plastic chair forward and spun it around, sitting on it backwards, resting her forearms along the back. “Running, huh?”

Mia nodded. The woman had two different colored eyes–one brown, one blue–and freckles. No way she’d been transitioned.

“Okay. There’s some paperwork for you to fill out. Anyone here who can vouch for you? Take you in?”

Shaking her head, Mia choked on a gulp of hot tea. She hadn’t thought of anything beyond making the border. She thought once she was on this side, everything would be okay.

“That makes it tougher, but not un-doable. Let’s get you legal at least. Got any money with you?”

Mia stood with the woman, the legs of her chair scraping the floor. “A little.”

“How much?” The woman cocked her head to the side, frowning.

Thinking of what she’d been able to grab from the cookie jar, Mia counted in her head: six twenties, a single hundred, a couple of tens, and who knew how many ones. “A little over 200 bucks.”

“American?”

Mia nodded.

The woman grinned and flapped a hand. “You’ll be fine until we can get you in a program. With the rate of exchange right now, that’s almost a thousand in Canadian funds.”

The paperwork was straightforward and easy to fill out. They really only needed to know who she was, where she was born, and when. Oh, and why she wanted to live in Canada and what she could offer work-wise.

For the first time in her life, she was happy that she’d gone to school. She had a degree in math, and though it was worthless in the States because she was female, from the way the customs agent’s face lit up when she saw it, it was not so unvalued here.

“Yes indeed, you’ll do fine.”

And she did. After a month she had a social insurance number and a job working in statistics at an insurance agency. It was a temporary job, though. She was scheduled for an exam and if she passed with a high enough score, she would get a job in finance.

But she missed Tom. She wrote him a letter, explaining what she’d done and why, and that she was sorry if he got in trouble because of her. She apologized for not taking his pills like she should have and explained about the vitamins the nurse had given her. She wrote that it wasn’t him; that she just wanted to be herself, the way she was born.

She even mailed it, knowing he would never send a letter in reply.

Work was hard; she didn’t quite make the cut for the finance job, but she made enough at the insurance agency that she could pay her rent and utilities and buy groceries. She rented close to where she worked so she didn’t need a car; she didn’t have a license to drive anyway.

Hole in the Wall

Tara Moeller © 2016

[Inspired by a photo I posted on my E. G. Gaddess Facebook page and an article about holes in the earth being considered portals to hell.  There may be more.]

Kara hated the basement. Dark and damp, it smelled like something big had died down there a long time ago and was still rotting away in some forgotten corner.

When she’d inherited the family’s old house on the corner of Aberdeen Street and Sentry Lane, she’d been ecstatic. Summers at the grand old Victorian, staying in the tower bedroom in an old iron four-poster tucked under the eaves, had been the highlight of her life after her parents’ divorce. At Great Aunt Millie’s there was no fighting or 3 am phone calls, no interrogations of what went on at Mom or Dad’s from the other parent.

Great Aunt Millie had taken in Kara’s mother as a child, and so had been more grandmother than an ancient aunt. That didn’t matter; she’d been the one constant in Kara’s young life; and into her high school and college days, it had been Great Aunt Millie that got all the good news, from boyfriends to scholarships, first.

The Victorian farmhouse was beautiful and big and set up like a boarding house. At one time, it had been part of a farm, but as the century passed, the farmland had been sold off and the town had encroached, building up a suburban oasis from D.C. Now, it was the only Victorian on a street of cloned 70s one-story ranchers.

Kara had supposed that the money from the boarders would be enough to pay for maintenance. In those summers so long ago, the house had been full of folks renting rooms and eating home-made stew and fresh-baked bread. That had been the only income Millie had, and the house had always been well kept.

Only after she’d signed the paperwork had she found out that it was now on the Historic Register and it wasgoing to cost a lot more than she’s budgeted to keep it up. There were standards to uphold and keeping the house historically accurate was not going to be cheap.

So she was going to be in debt to her armpits.

And the first piece of debt was going to be fixing that damn smell from the basement.

Opening the door to the lowest level of the house, she held her breath and threw another bag of lavender-scented closet balls down the stairs, listening to the echoing tumble against the treads. She figured once she had enough down there, she might be able to last long enough to clean it out.

Jeff Matthews, her sole tenant left over from when Millie ran the boarding house, laughed. “It doesn’t smell bad if you keep the door shut.”

He was older, with graying hair at his temples, and worked temp construction jobs. He traveled sometimes to other big job sites and sometimes he didn’t work, like in the winter when construction ground to a halt. Kara had promised to keep on any boarders after taking over, she just hadn’t expected there to be only the one.

That was a problem. Even older, he was well built, lean and muscular, and one evening after a little too much wine, she’d let him fuck her. Several times the one night and into the next morning. He was good–very, very good–and a part of her wanted some of that again.

But then she found out about all his kids and exes, and she had no plans to join that group. She understood how it had happened, though. Why they maybe hadn’t been able to say no. He was good enough to make a girl forget birth control and a lot of other things.

The others had left, having been only rooming temporary for school or had moved on to an apartment.She’d put an ad in the local paper and on a national website, but so far, no one had called.

“I’d like to clean it out.” Kara slammed the door shut, rattling dust from the jamb.

“Then do it.” He called over his shoulder, not even looking over at her.

“I can’t breathe down there.”

He laughed again and flipped the channel on the big screen TV in the shared living room.

Kara had her own little apartment in the back, having taken over the space Millie had lived in. She had her own bedroom, plus a smaller guest room, her own bath and a larger room with a kitchenette and living area. It was nice, bigger than her apartment had been in the city.

That left Jeff full run of the big room–and he was taking advantage of it. She wasn’t sure how he’d adapt if she did get more boarders.

Flipping him off made her feel better, and she huffed and slammed the door. He didn’t notice; the game had come back on and he was once again fully focused on the screen.

There was half a bottle of wine left in her little fridge, and Kara considered finishing it off with her salad. But she couldn’t afford to be tipsy tonight. She still had work to do. Though there was no loan on the house, it needed more repairs than she’d been prepared to make, and there was little money inherited to support it.

So she was still working—freelance as an editor—after quitting her crummy proofreader position at a military contractor company that changed its name every three years or so in a scam to avoid paying taxes. The pay had been minimal, and she found she was making more freelancing, but the income wasn’t steady and she didn’t have any benefits. Not that she’d had a lot before, but even two weeks’ vacation was better than nothing.

A small part of her hoped there was something of value hidden in the basement, some storied antique she could auction off. Though she had to keep the house in near-original condition; the stuff inside was fair game.

###

Saturday morning dawned rainy. It was a great excuse to not mow the lawn or weed the flower beds, so Kara wasn’t upset. It was also too rainy to go do anything though, even go for a run or meet the girls to visit an outdoor market as planned. The drops fell hard and heavy, beating against the metal roof.

Jeff was gone for the weekend, off to visit his third set of kids. He hadn’t married their mother, having married and divorced twice. Or maybe he was still married to his second wife and that was why he hadn’t married this one. She’d been told his story once, but she hadn’t listened after the details of his first family drama.

It didn’t matter. He was gone three weekends a month visiting his various children. Kara had no clue how he paid all the child support. Maybe temporary construction paid more than she knew. She paused, wrinkling her brow in heavy thought. Was this the oldest set, with the one kid he always had to pay bail for? It seemed one kid of his or another was in trouble with the law or at school, and sometimes both at once.

Lying in bed, she took a deep breath and gagged, rolling over to curl herself around her stomach and push her face into the pillow. She could smell the basement all the way in her bedroom.

Kara threw the blankets off the old iron bedstead and jumped up, grabbing her oldest t-shirt and pair of jeans. No matter what, she was cleaning whatever crap made that odor today. In the mud room, she shoved her feet in grubby rubber boots and checked for a working flashlight.

Ready, she stomped toward the offending door, taking deep breaths. Hand on the knob, she stopped. She couldn’t twist the knob; she just couldn’t make herself do it.

“Damn it.”

She stomped back to the kitchen, rifling through the towel drawer for one long enough to tie over her mouth and nose. Maybe, if she could filter some of it out, she could breathe.

Even more ready, she made her way back to the door, pausing before it again. She would get down there. Nothing would stop her.

And if she did, she’d treat herself to steak and whiskey at the pub. And dessert, definitely dessert, something chocolate all to herself. It would be worth the credit card charge.

She grabbed the handle, jerked it clockwise, and hauled open the door.

A hot wind hit her face, full of the reeking scent of rotting flesh. There must be an fucking dead elephant down there.

The stairs were narrow and steep with no railing to hold onto, only the wall. The plaster crumbled beneath her fingers, creating bits of rubble on the already-dangerous steps. The flashlight spilled its light on the treads, not traveling very far into the blackness.

Kara felt along the wall a few feet ahead, tenderly stepping down a tread and feeling further. Surely there was a lightswitch somewhere. The estate agent had turned a light on when she’d shown her the house.

Aha. She found the switch, flipping it up to a spark of old wiring.

The single bulb illuminated, swaying in a breeze from nowhere.

Staring at the swinging globe, Kara’s stomach dropped. It reminded her of being on a boat in rough waves, watching the sun at the horizon. She was getting sea-sick standing on a set of stairs heading underground. Figured.

Taking a deep breath she immediately regretted, she continued down, keeping the flashlight on. Though the bulb helped, it was like the darkness fought back and leeched some of the brightness out of it.

The floor was dirt, packed hard like concrete. She could stand straight up, which was a surprise. At five-nine, she usually had to duck in old cellars. Here, she had better than a foot between her head and the rough-cut ceiling.

Old pipes crisscrossed above and ratty wiring sagged. Shelves lined one wall; old jars, their lids rusted and crumbling, filled them. Probably jam and pickles as old as Millie or better.

A wall of furniture jumbled in a corner, spanning from floor to ceiling. There was an old armoire, the top ornate and curling to the edges; an equally ornate buffet stood next to it, a dresser of younger vintage stacked on top. Smaller items were stuffed into spaces between: crates and suitcases and trunks.

“Yes.” Kara stepped forward, reaching out one hand to stroke a curlicue. “These should be worth a pretty penny.”

Taking in a satisfied breath, she choked and gagged, swallowing down the bile that rose. The stench was coming from behind the pile of furniture.

“What the hell?” She tried not to take in too much air. The furniture was pressed up against the wall. How could anything be behind it? Maybe it was inside something?

She opened the doors to the armoire. Other than an old dress and cloak, it was empty. She grabbed a suitcase handle and pulled it from the pile, slow in case it was supporting something else. If the whole mountain of stuff fell on top of her, she wouldn’t be found until Jeff got back late Sunday– probably sometime Monday evening actually, once he was off work and wondering why his dinner wasn’t waiting.

Millie had included dinner with the boarding fees, and Jeff was keeping her to the contract. He seemed happy even if it was just baked beans and hot dogs.

There was nothing in the suitcase except some old papers, the type faded to illegibility. There was only rusted tin toys in one of the crates, and she couldn’t open a trunk that took a key, but it was too light for anything to be inside.

Dismantling the pile took most of the morning, and she found quite a few items she’d be able to sell—some for quite a bit of money if the right person bought it. She’d have to do some research this evening and take some photos for appraisers.

By lunch, all the small stuff was scattered across the dirt floor, separate small piles indicating what she thought was only junk, what she thought might be a collectible, and what she thought was an antique.

For the first time since getting the house, she felt like it was a good deal.

Trudging back up the stairs, Kara flipped off the light and entered the main floor. It was much cooler up here, and she shivered. She hadn’t realized how warm the basement had been.

Most basements were cool. There was probably a heating duct leak or a pipe wasn’t insulated, and money had been wasted warming an unused basement all winter. Once she’d finished with all the treasures she’d found, she’d have to get a repairman in to look at the ducts and pipes. Once she had some money, she didn’t want to waste it. There was too many other things that needed to be fixed.

###

Lunch was coffee and a bagel with the last scrapings of cream cheese. It was easy and filling and used what little was left in her fridge. She was due to go get groceries, but the fee for her last job had yet to come in. She checked her laptop, navigating first to her bank account; it still showed a 67-dollar balance, 55 of which was slated for her car insurance payment scheduled for deduction on Monday.

Sighing, she finished the bagel and downed her coffee. Tomorrow morning she’d have to use the crappy powder creamer instead of real half and half.

Delaying her descent back to the basement, she googled antique selling sites, skimming the contents currently offered for anything like what she had in the basement. All she wanted was an idea of what she might get. She could put some food on her card if she thought she’d get some money in to pay it off relatively soon.

There was a buffet on one site for a thousand dollars, but it was mission style. No way to tell if the ornate mess downstairs was comparable.

She gave up, dropping the screen down on the keyboard a little harder than necessary. Time to get back to work or she wouldn’t have anything up for sale anywhere.

###

Before tackling the big stuff—maybe she could get Jeff to help her shift the heavy items—she brought the lighter stuff of value upstairs so she could clean them. She knew better than to scrub them off, but they needed dusting and maybe a little polish. Enough to show up in internet auction pictures.

Back in the basement, while she stooped to pick up the last small crate, a flash of light illuminated behind the furniture still in the corner. Pausing, straightening, she cocked her head. Had it been a blood pressure flash? Maybe she was trying to do too much.

Then, it flashed again: a purple-blue light behind the right corner of the top of the armoire.

What the hell was back there?

Kara stepped forward, slowly because there was the possibility that the wiring was going and there might soon be a fire. She stopped. Did she want a fire? How much might the payout be? Could she contain it to the basement, so the house wasn’t damaged but the insurance claim would pay to get rid of the smell?

Sighing, she decided it wasn’t worth the risk. She needed to check it out, and if it was wiring, get it fixed. Hopefully, her credit card would handle the electrician’s charge.

Grabbing the edge of the armoire, Kara tugged on the heavy piece, scraping the thick legs on the dirt floor, leaving long tracks in the otherwise smooth surface. After several tugs and deep gouges, there was enough room to see the wall behind. Clicking the button in her flashlight, she aimed the beam at the wall.

There was no wall.

There was a hole.

A hole with no back.

She aimed the flashlight into the recess, leaning in to reach and see.

It was a fucking tunnel.

The purple blue light flashed again, lighting the entire tunnel, marking the curved rock walls for a moment.

It was a long tunnel.

Where the hell did it go?

###

Kara took a long gulp of cold beer, appropriated from Jeff’s stock in the big communal fridge. She’d already finished her half bottle of wine.

There was a tunnel to nowhere in her basement. At least, she assumed to nowhere.

Of course, if it went nowhere, why was there a pile of crap blocking it?

Was it a slave tunnel? She was in the South. Had there been slaves in her family’s history? Thinking hard, she tried to remember if Millie had ever said, but couldn’t remember any conversation that even touched on the possibility. It wasn’t something talked about.

Maybe she should have asked.

Were there bodies down there? Is that why it smelled so bad?

Closing her eyes, she set the near-empty brown bottle on the counter and took a deep breath. She had to stay rational; this was no time for a freak-out session. Any bodies in that tunnel would be long decayed by now, only the bones left.

She needed another beer.

Jeff had a case in the bottom of the old commercial refrigerator, and another in the pantry. There was still most of the cold one left, so Kara pulled another bottle from the box and screwed the cap off.

Five minutes later, her bravado boosted, she stumbled her way back to the basement, baseball bat and hatchet in hand. Staring at the armoire, eerie light silhouetting it in the dark, she advanced.

The blue light lit the tunnel in regular bursts, so she didn’t bother turning on the flashlight. She just held the hatchet aloft and kept the bat down at her side, bouncing it against her thigh. Keeping to the curved wall, she pressed against it when the light receded and the darkness ruled, skipping ahead when the light flashed and she could see where she was going.

When the flash was contained in a round burst, she realized she was nearing the end of the tunnel, the walls dark against the opening that flashed. She slowed, listening. She still didn’t know where the tunnel was going, or what was making the bursts of light.

For all she knew, she was about to die.

The alcohol didn’t care about that. It was all for dying in battle, hatchet in hand. She listened to the buzz in her ears and scuffled closer, peering around the corner.

It was a cavern, its ceiling high and rounded, shining like glass, with a hole in the floor. Flames shot up from it, causing that burst of light. There was a short stone wall, with a wide top, ringing the hole, and more tunnels emptied into the round room.

Kara stepped inside. There was no one else around, just the flames and the other tunnels. She tried to count the number, but she couldn’t see when the flames were dormant and when they shot up, the light was so bright she winced and closed her eyes.

Feeling her way to the right, the hand with the hatchet feeling along the wall, Kara searched for the entrance to the next tunnel. Finding it, she ducked in, gained her bearings and started down it.

This tunnel was almost identical to the one that came from her basement: the same sloping walls and ceiling, the same stones and floor, until she got farther along, and the stone turned to reddish dirt, packed hard so that even her fingers barely scored the surface.

The air turned cooler and she heard water rushing over stones. A breeze wafted in, cooling her cheeks.

She kept moving, wondering where the tunnel would empty. There was no source of burbling water anywhere near her home. The river only meandered, and she couldn’t have gone far enough to get beyond that.

At the entrance, she stopped.

She was on a mountain, water rushing over the rocks to her left, misting the entrance, making the dirt beneath her feet slippery. Baskets lined the floor, some with fruits and vegetables, others with small, covered clay pots.

Taking the first basket, filled with fruit and vegetables, Kara’s stomach rumbled. She picked up a piece of fruit and bit into it, the lush flesh bursting over her tongue.

She grabbed another, smaller basket and a couple of clay pots from another, tucking all of it into the larger basket, along with the hatchet. She left the baseball bat behind, propped against the wall.

Scurrying back, she didn’t pause when it grew dark. She knew the tunnel would end at the cavern and that no debris would halt her passage. At the great room, she turned left, slowing, once again feeling along the wall, the basket now balanced on one hip with her hand holding it up.

Once she found the tunnel to her basement, though, she jogged the rest of the way, basket in both hands, running into the back of the armoire when she reached the end in darkness. Luckily, the basket hit first and little damage was done.

She squeezed the basket around the armoire and then her body, setting the basket down long enough to push the armoire back into place. If she could go in, something–or someone–could come out. She didn’t want that.

Gasping, she grabbed up the basket and trotted up the stairs, turning off the basement light at the top and slamming the door shut. For extra measure, she grabbed a dining chair and wedged the back under the doorknob as a makeshift lock.

Collapsing on the sofa, she fell asleep, hauling Millie’s old afghan over her, the basket of stolen goodies on the floor.

###

“You’ve been in the basement.” Jeff stood over her, the light from the window behind him turning him into a black silhouette. His mussed hair looked like horns sticking out the side of his head, one twisted just a little more than the other.

“Um, yeah. What else was I going to do in the rain? I wanted to clean out that smell.”

Sighing, Jeff shook his head, that twisted horn looking less like hair. “I really wish you hadn’t done that.”

###

Kara groaned and threw the bag of rose-infused moth balls down the steps to the basement, listening for the satisfied sploop when the soft sack hit the floor. “One day, this will work and I won’t have to smell that shit anymore.”

“I thought it smelled like rot?” Jeff spoke from the sofa, fast-flipping through the channels on the big-screen TV.

“Whatever. I want it gone.” Kara slammed the door to the basement shut and turned back to the communal living room. It was still only Jeff living at the boarding house, and there just wasn’t enough income to pay someone to come in and examine whatever was in the basement. She rubbed her temple; just thinking about it gave her a headache.

“Why are you so worried about the basement? Just forget about it; Millie did.”

“I don’t know how she could just forget about it without a sinus infection. I can smell it all the way back in my room.”

“It’s not that bad.” Jeff glanced over his shoulder and eyed her up and down. “Want me to check out your bedroom?”

A thrill ran through Kara at the instant of his offer. She knew what he was really asking and a small part of her ached to say yes. “No. Stay out of my room.”

He shrugged and turned back to the game on the TV. “Suit yourself.”

“I will.” She had a friend tucked away in the top drawer of her dresser, new batteries in a box beside it. She could take care of herself.

“You got plans for the weekend?” He didn’t even turn around to ask the question.

Why did he care? Was he going to make another play on her? “Yes. I’m going shopping with Meghan and Sue.” Her fees for three jobs had come in and she actually had some to splurge with.

“I’ve got to go visit a kid this weekend.”

“Which one?” Kara tried not to sound judgmental, but from the look he shot in her direction, failed.

“My daughter. Gotta try to convince her to go back to school.”

Signing, Kara pivoted away and stalked to the kitchen. She couldn’t imagine Jeff being successful in that, unless he used the argument ‘you don’t want to end up like your old man.’

She made a rudimentary dinner: boxed mac and cheese, hot turkey sandwiches and kale salad. Jeff hated vegetables, so the salad was small, just enough for her really.

“Dinners on the table.”

“Yeah. Be right there.”

Kara didn’t wait for him. She’d learned the first week in the house that his ‘be right there’ could be five minutes or an hour. She ate the kale salad, leaving enough in the bottom so he could tell it was vegetable based, and a sandwich. She finished before he emerged from the living room, so she left the rest on the table to clean up later.

In her own rooms, she opened a bottle of wine and poured a solid glass for dessert. It was a sweet wine, recommended at the wine shop, and it went down smooth and quick. After her third glass, she was ready for bed; she could clean the kitchen in the morning.

###

Her head hurt when the sun broke through her curtains and fell on her face. Squinting, she sat up and pushed her hair out of her face, yawning. She’d fallen asleep in her clothes, her teeth unbrushed so her breath was rancid—but still not as bad as that damn cellar.

Jeff was already gone, a note amidst the dirty dishes on the table reminding her that he was off to see one if his kids and would be back on Sunday noonish.

Stretching, she cleared the table and filled the dishwasher. At least he’d been nice enough to eat everything so she didn’t have skanky leftovers to eat for dinner. She’d just started the wash cycle when the phone rang.

It was Meghan. “Hey girl. Look, I’m sorry but I gotta bail on shopping today. Overtime makes more cash, you know.”

“Yes, I know.”

Meghan still worked for the industry contractor Kara had left, as another proofreader that did more real editing than she should, and since the company hadn’t replaced Kara yet, there was a lot more work to do than before. It meant a boon for the workers, but there would be burnout soon enough.

“And Sue is coming in, too. Sorry.”

Kara couldn’t blame them. If she thought the company would do it, she’d ask for a little part-time work. But once you left, they never took you back. It was policy.

“Maybe next weekend?”

“Sure.” Kara could keep the extra money until then—unless a bill came due.

Hanging up the phone, she wondered what she could do for the rest of the day.

Huh. That reeking odor.

With narrowed eyes, Kara stomped to the basement door and hauled it open, glaring down into the deep black. The scent wafted up, even stronger than she remembered.

She could do this.

Nodding,she closed the door and changed into grubbies and her rubber boots. A towel over her nose and flashlight in hand… damn. She needed batteries She thought for certain she’d had lots. She rummaged over the shelf where the flashlight was kept, and the batteries that went with it. Nothing. Nada.

Stomping a foot in frustration, she groaned. Why did this always happen to her? Popping open the battery compartment, she was surprised to find there weren’t even batteries in it. Surely she wouldn’t have left it like this? Was Jeff trying to play some weird unfunny joke on her?

She smirked. She could show him. It took D-cell batteries. She had D cells in her bedroom.

Sashaying through the kitchen, humming a jaunty tune, she opened the top drawer of her dresser and moved aside her best frills to the purple joke gift from Meghan that was far better than any joke she’d ever been on the receiving end of. It was gaudy and glowed in the dark, but it vibrated with an unholy intensity that always got her off.

The spare batteries were in an unopened carton next to the long device and she pulled one out, splitting it open with one fingernail and pouring all four batteries into the handle of the flashlight. She pressed the button, and—voila!—there was light.

She shut the drawer with one hip and danced out of the room. She wasn’t happy to be descending to the basement, but there was a certain joy in circumventing whatever Jeff had planned.

###

It smelled worse the farther down the stairs she got, and about halfway down she considered turning back. But she was determined and forced her feet to keep moving.

At the bottom, she was surprised at the space. She’d thought it would be small and closed in because it was so dark, but the ceiling was high and there was little stuff down here. What was there, and some was big and some was small, was in a tall pile in once corner.

Kara frowned, a strong wave of deja vu sweeping through her when she examined the armoire and buffet. Maybe it had been upstairs when she’d visited as a child. That had to be it.

The odor emanated from that corner, and Kara couldn’t imagine what was behind it all. But she was staunch, and started moving out the boxes and smaller items, sorting as she did.

Soon enough, it was just the bigger pieces left and satisfaction welled. She had finally accomplished something.

A purple blue flash caught her eye and she started. Where had she seen that before? She dragged on the buffet, toppling the smaller chest on top of it to the dirt floor, where a small drawer and some papers fell out. She picked up the papers, ramming them in her jeans pocket, then tugged on the buffet again.

She could see a darker shape on the wall.

It was a hole.

A big-ass hole.

She shone the flashlight it.

Nope, it was a tunnel.

Fear rippled through her. She’d seen something like this before. Probably in a horror movie. But that was a movie and this was real life.

She stepped in, waving the flashlight beam around.

The blue light flashed again, filling the arching space.

She walked toward the light.

At the end, she stared at the surging blue flames, shading her eyes with one hand. Blinking, she explored to her left, instinctively looking for another tunnel. When she found it, she looked back, making certain her tunnel was still where she’d left it. When the flames surged again, she entered the new tunnel.

The air in this tunnel was dry and arid, and swept toward her, blowing fine bits of grit into her face. She squinted her eyes to keep it out, even raising a hand and moving her face to the side when the wind blew brisker.

At the end of the tunnel she stopped, shading her eyes from a bright sun and its reflected glare off sand. It was a desert, the wind whipping the rock particles in a swirling dance.

There were pots at the entrance to the tunnel, some stoppered to keep the contents from spilling out, others open so she could see what was inside. The closest one was open and held a yellow-gold resin. She scooped out a small handful, rubbing her fingers over the semi-smooth bits. A rich fragrance rose to her nostrils, and she though it oddly soothing. She stooped to pick up the clay pot, and another that was stoppered.

Turning, she made her way back down the tunnel, back to the cavern with the flame, where she shifted right to find her way home.

###

Back at the Victorian, she set the pots on the kitchen table and stared at them. Dread filled her. What had she done? Where had she actually gone?

She wedged a dining chair back under the doorknob to the basement, and rubbed a finger over an older mark on the wood back. It looked like someone had done that before.

Back at the table, she opened the stoppered jar and sniffed: oil, scented oil. The perfume filled the room, clearing away the rot rising from the basement.

Pouring her last glass of wine from the bottle from last night, Kara sat at the take, stroking her fingers over the clay containers. Why were they set at the entrance to the tunnel? Where had that tunnel gone? There was no desert anywhere near her home, so it wasn’t really possible that it had gone anywhere.

And yet, the clay pot of resin and the jar of scented oil were here, on her table. Pulling out her phone, she snapped a photo, smiling down at the last message from her mother.

Are you going to church in the morning? Mrs. Hubbard could use some prayers if you do.

No, she wasn’t going to church. But she would say a quick prayer for her mother’s elderly neighbor.

Downing the wine, she put her phone in her purse and the dirty glass in the sink. Since Jeff was away, she decided to watch something on the big TV, maybe stream something on Netflix. He had an account; she couldn’t afford to keep hers current. She could catch up on Supernatural.

Eyes drifting closed, she smiled at the scene on the TV: Dean Winchester exorcising a demon.

###

“Why do you keep going in the basement?” Jeff stood over the recliner, the light from the bright ceiling fixture haloing his head, sweeps of mussed hair pointing out like daggers.

Kara giggled. “You have horns.” Only half awake, she yawned and stretched, forgetting she was upset at her boarder for hiding the flashlight batteries.

“What’s on the kitchen table?” He crossed his arms across his check, glaring down at her.

“Table?” Kara sat up, trying to remember. “Oh, the pots. Yes, I found them in the basement.”

“Not in the basement.” Jeff leaned down, pushing his face close to hers. “You didn’t stay in the basement did you?”

Kara blinked, focusing on what looked like a short horn growing out of his head just above his right temple. “Um, no?”

Jeff sighed. “You really need to stop doing this.”

###

Her headache in the morning didn’t even need a beam of sunlight to trigger it. Consciousness came with the throbbing ache deep in her templates.

It was strange. She couldn’t remember drinking enough to get a hangover.

Sitting up, the world swirling around her, she stumbled from bed, grabbing the bedpost to keep from hitting the floor. Groaning, she considered calling for Jeff to help, but thought better of it last minute. She really didn’t need him in her bedroom, even in the state she was in. If she let him, she’d only be worse off.

Once she’d washed her face and brushed her teeth—she hadn’t last night and her mouth felt like it was part of that damn basement—she was ready to emerge.

In her bedroom, she noticed her purse on the chair. That’s not where it belonged. She always set it inside the closet, next to her shoes.

Picking it up, she glanced down into it. Her phone sat on top of everything.

That wasn’t right either.

She picked up the phone, pressing the button to light the screen and flipping her thumb over to open it.

There was a photo, of her kitchen table, with a couple of clay pots setting on it. A memory of warm scent reached her nose and she sneezed, a small explosion going off behind her eyes. Calling out, she sank to her knees, dropping her phone so that it skittered across the floor to settle beneath her bed.

“Hey, you okay?” Jeff pushed open her bedroom door and leaned through, bare chested, in flannel pajama bottoms.

Kara stared. His chest was all lean muscle with a smattering of still dark hair, his shoulders broad, his torso tapering to a toned stomach that just didn’t quite display a six pack of abs. Sighing, she pulled her eyes up to his face. He looked concerned, his brows descended over his eyes in a deep frown. “I’m okay.”

“Why are you on the floor?”

“I’m wondering.”

“Wondering?” He straighten and pushed the door open farther open, stepping to tower over her.

“I’m wondering what you did with the pots.”

“Pots?” He stepped back, eyes narrowed. “You mean the dirty dishes?”

“No.” Kara used the bedpost to drag herself to her feet, staggering when her head throbbed. The light stabbed at her eyes, making the throbbing feel more like daggers stabbing into her head. “The ones I brought up from the basement.”

Jeff stared at her, his muscles rigid. He reached up a hand toward her head and Kara flinched back.

“Easy. I’m just going to take the pain away.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“I suppose you shouldn’t.” He reached further and Kara couldn’t lean any farther away without toppling.

He touched a gentle finger to her temple and the pain disappeared and memories surged.

She’d been down to that basement more than a dozen times.

“What the fuck?” Without the pain she could stand unimpeded.

“Millie only went down once. It was easy to convince her to stay up here.”

“What?” Kara stared, her palm itching to slap, but self-preservation overrode the impulse, reminding her that whatever he was, he could easily cause her pain—if not downright kill her.

Jeff sighed and crossed his arms, tilting his chin up so that he could stare down at her. “I’m a guardian of the portals. I was placed here to stop your family from using the one your ancestor’s built their home on top of.”

“They built the house on top of it? Surely they didn’t know-“

“They knew. That’s why they built the house here. To give them exclusive access to the portal.”

Kara shook her head and staggered to the side of her bad, sitting down on the edge. “I don’t- How?” She looked up at Jeff. “What are you, you know, species wise?”

He sighed. “I’m a lesser demon.”

“Lesser?” She roved her eyes over his form. If this was lesser, what was more?

Grinning, Jeff winked. “Like what you see, huh?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No, I don’t.”

“You lie.”

“Just tell me what you are.”

“I already did.”

“Okay, fine. What is a greater demon, if you’re a lesser?”

“One that isn’t part human, but pure demon.” He stepped forward, leaning over so she could smell the musky male aroma that drifted off his skin.

“So-“ she opened her eyes, leaning back when she realized he was right there, in front of her, “you’re part human?”

He nodded, slow, his eyes boring into her.

Swallowing hard, she struggled to keep her train of thought steady. Right. “Where are the pots?”

“In the mud room right now. Hidden.”

“With the flashlight batteries?”

He sighed and stood up, slouching. “Yes. And the silk you brought back another time, and the gems on another trip.”

“Why hide them? Why not take them back?”

“If I go in, I can’t come back out.”

“Oh.” Kara frowned. “But you said you were a guardian?”

He nodded and paced the length of the room, striding to the door, pausing, pivoting, and marching back. “Yes. But I broke my pledge when I refused to kill Millie and only wiped her memory.”

“You’re supposed to kill anyone who finds the portals? But the others, they aren’t guarded.” Kara sat back up, indignance coursing through her veins.

“The others are revered and no one enters. Mainly because the guardians of those gateways always killed if someone does, then throws the bloody body back out. I didn’t.” Jeff craned his neck, the resounding crack making Kara wince. He stared up at the ceiling. “Maybe I should have, but she was just curious, like you.”

“Others weren’t?”

“No. They used the tunnels to make raids on the lands where the other portals emerge. That is a dangerous thing in and of itself, but when your great-great—I think another great is in there—grandfather sought to use the flame for his own gain, well… things got hairy in a big way.”

Shaking and shivering, Kara swept her palms over her arms, seeking to warm them.

Jeff sat beside her, draping one arm over her shoulder, providing warmth.

“I-I-I did-didn’t see any-any other demons.” She leaned into him. This Jeff offered comfort and warmth, without the sexual undertones.

“You wouldn’t. You can only see the ones assigned to the portal you enter. And they can only harm those who enter the one they are sworn to guard.”

“That sounds… odd.”

“It prevents them from slaughtering humanity. Many demons would. Most like to kill.”

“You don’t?”

He shrugged. “I suppose it was okay the first few times, but then, after a while, it becomes routine.” He leaned close, once again exuding an aura of sex. “I’ve decided there are other things I’d rather do.”

Kara threw off his arm and he laughed.

“I’m trying to be serious.”

“I am serious. There are far better things to do than waste energy killing people. When a demon exerts energy on stuff like that, it takes it out of him. Literally. I lost my right hand for a full fortnight the first time I had to kill a human that entered my portal.”

Raising a brow, Kara cocked her head to the side. “And when you exert yourself for sex?”

“Let’s just say, I don’t really have all these kids. But I like to go out on the weekends and get some. Easier to hide for a day than explain why I’m missing a body part.”

“So it had nothing to do with what body part you use to exert this energy?”

“Um, no.” But he chuckled.

“Can you stop the odor?”

He shrugged. “Sure. But I’d really like you to stay out of the portal.”

“Okay. On one condition.”

Raising a brow, he tried to look imperious but failed when he offered a crooked grin.

“Can I sell the stuff I’ve already brought through? Not all at once, but just a bit at a time, so I can pay to keep up the house?”

“Can I get a split of the cash?”

“Huh?”

“What, you think I like working construction?”

Kara had never really thought about it. “Why don’t you do something else?”

“Temp construction work is about all you can do without proper ID.”

“Oh.” That’s right. He was really a demon. “So, I can’t exorcise you?”

“Uh, no. I’m not possessed… possessing… whatever. I’m half human.”

“What does a full demon look like?”

“Really? You want to ask me about that?”

“Fine. Don’t answer.” She glared him down. “Do we have an agreement?”

“Do I get a cut?”

“How much?”

“We split what’s left after the maintenance on the house.”

Hmm. Kara considered the offer. It was actually pretty fair under the circumstances. “Agreed.”

He held out a hand and she took it, offering a single, firm shake.

Grinning, he tugged her close, leaning down.

“Um, this isn’t part of the agreement.”

“Come on, you know how demon deals work. You watch that show.”

“This isn’t a deal.”

“Isn’t an agreement a deal?”

“Fine.” She spit the word out through gritted teeth.

His mouth descended, his lips moving firm and soft against hers. She stayed rigid, not reciprocating until his teeth nipped at her bottom lip and her womb shuddered. Sighing, she opened her lips, moving them with his.

He let her hand go, sliding his palm around her waist, pulling her closer.

Shifting, she leaned into him, sliding her arms around his neck. Why not? He didn’t really have all those kids. And she’d used up all the D-cell batteries.

And she was curious to see what body part he’d be missing come morning.

[END]

 

Lilith

(c) 2016, Tara Moeller

“She’s coming?” Amanda stares, mouth gaping enough to show the little white teeth the dentist has given her. “She’s coming to the funeral?”

I shoot a quick glance to the side. Amanda’s mother weeps in the front pew, her shoulders heaving under the great dull blackness of her dress.

“Yes, she’s coming. They were married for fifteen years. Why wouldn’t she come?”

“They’re not married now!”

I want to say that, technically, her mother isn’t married to him now, either, but I bite it back, swallowing the bitter words. They get stuck on the way down and I choke, covering it with a cough. “They were still friends.”

And they had been. My mother had always kept a good relationship with my father after the divorce. She made sure I was still a part of his life, and that he was still a part of mine.

“She can’t be here.”

“It’s not invitation-only.”

“My mother…”

My mother is coming. Don’t worry, we’ll sit in the back pew.” I turn on my heel and leave, swallowing even more angry words. I think I am going to be sick.

There is no one sitting in the back pew and I drape my black cardigan over the back, spreading it out enough to mark the seat for two people. I can’t sit down yet; I need to move; I want to beat my fists against the wall.

Father Mulroney would not approve.

From the back of the church, I can still hear my stepmother, her sobs loud and wet. I can hear Amanda, speaking to her in a stage whisper: There, there Mummy. It’s okay Mummy. I’m here.

A hand touches my arm.

I start and turn: My grandmother, his mother.

The pearls at her neck are old – my grandfather gave them to her when they were first married. She wore them at her wedding. It was the “something new.” She still has her veil, carefully packed in a vacuum bag, along with her embroidered lace handkerchief – the something blue.

They are for me when I get married.

But the pearls are old now, yellow instead of white, restrung after I pulled them off her when I was three. I was told the story when I asked her about the faint scar on her neck. I think I was twelve when I asked.

I raise my brows.

“Any sign of her?”

I shake my head and turn back to the tinted window. Rain drops race down, leaving tracks. My reflection is dim in the window, next to my grandmother’s. I have her nose and I am a few inches taller than she is now. I remember when she used to be taller than me, staring down that long nose in disappointment.

“She’ll probably arrive just before, so no one gets upset that she’s here.”

My grandmother snorts; an unfamiliar sound. Her reflection sneers; an unfamiliar expression. “I doubt that woman would even notice. Unseemly, wailing like that.”

I can barely remember my grandfather’s funeral; I was only five when he died. All I can remember is sitting with my mother and my father and my grandmother, staring at a closed casket. I think I fell asleep.

“To each their own, I guess.”

We stand silent, watching for her, just inside the double doors. The tinted glass keeps out the sun, keeps the chapel in perpetual shadow. Raindrops gathering momentum down the glass, joining together, little streams making little rivers that race to pool at the bottom. They streak downward, making our reflected faces cry without our mascara running.

The rain thickens for a moment, the heavier drops battering the roof. The drops hit the pavement, the ground, the grass; some of the drops bounce–hailstones. There is a flash of lightning, followed by a slow roll of thunder. The wind buffets the windows and they shudder.

After a violent minute, the wind quiets and the rain eases back to a drizzle, and I see her car, at the back of the lot, a small compact squeezed between someone’s Mercedes and an off-road, jacked-up-by-three-feet truck.

“There she is.” I grab my grandmother’s wrist, and it feels skeletal in my hand. A tall, lean woman in a black dress walks toward the church, her head down beneath a black umbrella.

My mother.

My grandmother cranes her neck, the pearls sliding, spinning with the movement. She doesn’t smile, but she nods her head once.

“I’m going back to the front. Maybe that woman has calmed down.”

I think my grandmother is being overly optimistic but I don’t say it out loud. That would be rude.

When my mother reaches the door, I open it, pulling her in and taking her umbrella to shake the water away. She smiles at me and reaches her lips toward my cheek, her hands heavy on my shoulders, forcing me to dip down to receive the kiss. Her lips are cool and her cheeks are damp from the rain.

Father Mulroney smiles at my mother, though it is not a big, welcoming, glad-to-see-you smile. It is thin and papery; an “oh god – you’re here” smile.

Mother nods at him without smiling and we pass him by, sliding into the chapel and the back pew. I sit near the aisle.

My mother nods and smiles at Mrs. Corprew, who is sitting in front of us. The woman’s steel gray hair is cut short and spiky, even though she is likely going on seventy. She wears a trim, dark-gray suit with a deep purple shirt; she is not wearing a hat. She was dad’s secretary for as long as I can remember.

Frowning, I realize that I have never met Mr. Corprew. For a moment I consider that slight, but then Mrs. Corprew smiles back at us and turns in the pew, reaching one hand of the back to grasp my mother’s hand.

“I’m so glad you’re here.” She whispers the words to my mother but I catch the quick glance in my direction.

My mother smiles back; her eyes crinkle at the corners and the dimple in her cheek winks. “So am I.”

The music starts, a deep bass of mourning, slow and painful. I can feel it rattle in my chest.

My stepmother’s wails punctuate the music, a duet of horrible sorrow. Amanda sits next to her mother, her arms around the woman’s shoulders, patting away like the woman is on fire.

I reach out my hand toward my mother and she takes it in hers, squeezing gently, stroking it with her other hand. I try to ignore the wailing without success.

My mother appears to be succeeding though. She sits serene in the pew, staring ahead at the open casket, her mouth soft, neither smiling nor frowning. The diamond studs my father gave her for their tenth anniversary twinkle at her ears, like little stars.

Those, too, are destined for me when I wed. Her dress, in airless storage since the day after she wore it, is waiting, too.

The heart-shaped gold locket my father gave me when I turned sixteen, the year after the divorce, weighs heavy around my neck. Inside is a photo of him from college, from before he met my mother. On the other side, there is a photo of my mother, from when she was in college, after she met my father.

The eulogy begins and the wails from the front recede. My mother inhales a single, sharp breath. Her eyes water and her nose begins to seep. The gentleman in front of us, next to Mrs. Corprew, turns to offer my mother his handkerchief. She shakes her head, carefully taking one of her own from her purse. I cannot see them, but I know that her initials are embroidered in one corner, in an emerald green slant, with a little yellow rose beneath them.

She put them there herself. She buys plain white, soft cotton squares and hand embroiders the initials in the corner. When I was seven, she taught me how to embroider my own initials. The thimble had been too big for my skinny fingers, so I hadn’t used it. I remember getting upset when I pricked my finger and got blood on my new white hankie.

My mother had given me a new piece of cotton and new thread and I used the thimble and didn’t get any blood on the second one. She had taken the ruined one and embroidered a camouflaging pink rose over the red spot, carrying it in her purse for years.

She wipes her eyes and nose, her movements slight and unassuming, careful not to smudge her makeup. It is not over-done, but I can see her face powder; it gathers in the lines at the corners of her eyes.

When the eulogy is over, Amanda helps her mother stand, holding her up. A red rose is in her mother’s hand; I can see it shake from the back, a petal falling before she gets out of the pew. Amanda and her mother walk to the casket; the woman shaky on her feet, and Amanda stumbles keeping her upright.

She places the rose on my father’s chest, nearly falling head first into the casket, but Amanda pulls her back.

My grandmother, standing in the pew, starts forward, then stops when she isn’t needed, waiting to help Amanda get her mother back into her seat.

Amanda stays standing next to the casket. I rise and walk forward. The aisle seems endless and I feel heavier the closer I get to the front.

A woman waits–it’s the organist–two white roses in her hands. Amanda takes hers and quickly places it in the casket, jerking her hand back like something bit her.

I am oldest, his daughter by birth. I should have placed my rose first.

Amanda doesn’t even wait for me to place my rose before pivoting and trotting back to her mother. I place my rose and catch the stem of Amanda’s with my fingertips, placing it next to mine. Exhaling, I let my hand linger on his chest, just for a moment. He is cold and his suit is stiff.

My father was always warm and soft, hugging me, holding me. He smelled of cigars and old spice and orange slice candy. He always had a bag of that candy in his pocket; if I’d had my way, he’d have one in there now.

But he doesn’t. Instead, is has his rosary and small Bible, never opened.

I turn away from the casket.

Amanda sits next to her mother, the woman once again sobbing. My grandmother still stands in the pew, watching me. When I pass, she reaches across Amanda and her mother, grasping my hand and squeezing it. I stop and she leans over, kissing my cheek, giving me a one-armed hug. I hug her back, a quick squeeze.

She lets go of my hand and I walk back to my mother. When I sit, my mother reaches for my hand and holds it. She does not squeeze, just holds. I hold back.

My tears start, welling behind my eyes, a heavy, wet pressure. I try to keep them back; I don’t want to cry here. I don’t even know most of the people sitting here in the church. These are people who knew my father, but not me: business contacts, coworkers, country club members. Some are from after his life with my mother, when I was only a part-time child. They don’t know me, either.

My mother offers me a clean handkerchief from her purse, but I shake my head, pulling one of my own from my pocket. It is neatly folded, the soft green of my initials small in one corner, an ivy leaf swirling beneath them.

Soon, the final prayers are said. My stepmother leads the procession from the church, followed by Amanda, then my grandmother. I remain in the back pew with my mother.

My grandmother catches my eye and nods. I pat my mother on her knee.

I get a watery smile in return.

Many people pat my shoulder and nod to my mother, passing by in a slow march out the door. It is still raining; the swirl of wet sweeps inside. Just inside the door, my stepmother speaks in low tones to those leaving, Amanda’s higher voice, an echo.

I cannot hear my grandmother. Perhaps she has braved the rain to go to the church’s hall, a separate building on the edge of the parking lot, a covered portico stretching between the two buildings.

When the last mourner files past, I exit the pew, my mother close behind.

“Just a minute.” Her voice is small in the grandness of the chapel, and just a bit raspy, though she hasn’t smokes in over a decade. She walks to the front and stands by my father’s casket. I join her there, and stand beside her, arms crossed over my stomach, hands clutching my elbows. It’s hard to look at his face; it has no smile, no frown–no expression at all.

My mother, too, does not wear a smile or a frown, but there exists a softness in her features instead of stiffness: in the droop of her lips, in the slack of her cheeks, in the red rimimg her eyes.

She sighs, the sound coming from the deepest part of her. Reaching into her purse, she pulls out a small, withered rose, the red faded to purple. It shakes in her hand, one petal falling to the floor.

There is another sigh, this one softer, shorter. She gently places the dried rose next to the fresh ones, resting her hand over my father’s now-still heart before trailing the fingers of her other hand over my father’s cheek, her thumb glancing over the corner of his mouth.

I pick up the dropped petal and keep it in my hand, thinking, at first, to put it in the casket with the rest, but it crumbles. My fingers crush it even further, releasing the last remnants of fragrance. I brush my palms together to get rid of the last pieces sticking between my fingers.

We turn together and leave the church arm-in-arm, our legs moving in unison, right, then left, then right again. We are not in a hurry; the rain still falls, the sky still dark. Slow-moving cars wend their way through the parking lot; not everyone is going to the reception.

We share the black umbrella, strolling, avoiding the gathering puddles. She will not be at the graveside service. I want to leave with her, but can’t voice it, knowing I have to stay here; that I must go to the reception and then to the interment.

There is a small part of me that wishes I was five and asleep, being carried to the car on a strong shoulder. The car would be warm, its engine humming steady beneath the erratic staccato of rain. I would be safely belted in, a rolled sweater placed under my head.

My grandmother waits at the separate door to the hall. I raise one hand so she knows I have seen her. She nods and disappears inside, the door closing on the wind and rain.

Mother hugs me at her car, brushing the dampness of her cheek on mine. She grips my shoulders tightly. I grip hers just as hard.

“I’ll be at dinner.” I whisper.

“I’m planning your favorite.” Mother whispers back. “We’ll talk, after. You can tell me about your classes, your job, and your new man.” There is a gleam in her eyes.

I want to laugh at the gleam, to share the brief expression of joy, but I feel like I will only choke instead. So I hold on to it for later.

She drives away, and I watch without waving. I don’t care that I am getting wet, standing alone in the rain. Turning, I shuffle to the reception, no longer bothering to avoid the puddles. The hems of my trousers are wet and water runs down my hair and down the back of my sweater. The wet creeps into my shoes, soaking into my hose and creeping upward to my ankles. I shiver.

I know my favorite black flats will be ruined, but deep inside, I feel that I deserve to lose them to the rain.

Clementyne

[I wrote this a long, long time ago. I mean, before I was married I think.]

(c) 2016 Tara Moeller

[Somewhere out West, circa 1850.]

Clementyne hated Sundays in August. The heat swirled around her skirts on the walk to church, sticking hot, dry, scratchy fingers underneath to irritate her skin. No amount of talcum helped when she got home, it would just make her skin sting where it had chaffed.

Father Michael’s services always rang long, too, his voice bouncing from eardrum to eardrum, causing headaches aplenty. Since Clementyne played the organ for the service, she sat right up next to the priest, her ears in direct line of his firing speeches. She had no wish for a headache today. Her head had ached the last three days trying to teach the Gulliver twins how to play Bach. Today she wanted to just lie in bed beneath her cool white sheets, being lazy and loving it, forgetting all about the piano and organ and music.

So she did. She buried her head beneath the pillow to muffle the church bells ringing. She ignored the clatter of horses hooves beneath her window as the “gentry” rode to the church situated just outside of town. It was like a parade of sorts, the women in the fine fancy bonnets and the men in their funeral blacks. It was like every Sunday was Easter and time to show off the new finery.

Clementyne pretended to be sick. She moaned a little but ruined it with a giggle that she smothered beneath the sheet. The heat slowly seeped through the warped glass of her street-side window, and she decided to shed her nightgown. Still wanting to uphold the modesty her mother and father had all but beaten into her, she slipped it off under her covers, and slid it off the side of her bed. The sheets felt sinful against her naked flesh; the faint roughness passed over her breasts and her nipples hardened.

Carefully dragged the sheet over them once again, Clementyne enjoying the strange tightness. It was like a cold wind had blown up under her winter shift and cape. She sighed, throwing her arms over her head, allowing the tops of her breasts to show above the sheet. She stretched, languid, her muscles melting in the heat and soaking into the mattress beneath her.

Sinning was fun.

Clementyne thought of the rest of the town sitting on the hard wooden pews. Young Sheriff Jones, taut muscles stretching the cotton of his shirt with that badge shiny on his best vest, sitting in his sweat, listening to the drone of the Sunday Sermon. Old Mrs. O’Hoolihan filling in and playing the organ with her short arthritic fingers, deaf to whatever was being said; she loved to play but few loved to listen when she did. Then there was Paul Whitaker, whose father owned the General Store; he usually stared at Clementyne the whole service, licking his lips and shifting in his seat. Whenever she was in the General Store, his gaze rested on her chest and rose no farther.

It was mass Sunday, and everyone would have to confess his or her sins. Clementyne realized a small amount of pleasure in creating a sin to confess at the next mass.

She was dozing slightly, a mosquito buzzing lazily around her head, when she heard the door slam downstairs. She sat up in bed, forgetting her lack of nightgown for a moment, until she felt the heated breeze against her bare skin. She pulled the sheet up and huddled beneath it and the quilt just as Father Michael and Mrs. Winters burst into the room.

Clementyne sunk farther under the bedcovers, her eyes wide round balls of blue in a translucent white face.

“My child,” said the priest, leaning over her, “Are you ill?”

Clementyne pushed the sheet and quilt into her neck, feeling the heat rush to it and her face as the priest’s face got close to her – and to her naked body beneath the covers. Heat also flooded her loins at the thought of being discovered, a thrill coursing up her spine.

Mrs. Winters moved to stand next to the pastor, reaching out to place the back of her hand against Clementyne’s forehead.

“Mah Goodniss.” The woman exclaimed in her foreign southern drawl. “The chile is burnin’ up!”

The priest drew back suddenly, averting his face a little to the side.

Clementyne forced a cough, the bedclothes sliding just a little in the effort. She tried to draw them back up, but Mrs. Winters grabbed them and tried to pull them further down. Desperate to stay covered, Clementyne inched down in the bed.

“Chile, y’all ought to get some ayer on that there hot skin of yourn. It will help in gittin’ that fever down.” Mrs. Winters tugged even harder at the sheets.

Clementyne stared at the minister, who stared back at her chest, steadily being revealed by Mrs. Winters’ ceaseless tugging. She thought she would die of shame any minute. The priest didn’t move but continued to stare.

“Oh, oh p-p-please Mrs. W-Winters,” Clementyne stammered out her whispered plea. She drew in a long breath. “I’ve already tried to do that, beyond even the sheets.” She implored the older woman to understand, but Mrs. Winters kept up the tugging.

Father Michael’s eyes kept getting larger and larger, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his neck, synchronized with every tug from Mrs. Winters. The big black Bible in his hands, clasped to his chest when he entered, shifted lower, until it hovered just below his belt buckle.

Clementyne licked her lips and Father Michael’s apple bobbed hard. Clementyne swallowed and focused on Mrs. Winters, batting her eyes in what she knew was a “Southern” way; Sally Winters, Miss not the Mrs., had explained it all to her after last year’s Labor Day picnic. “Mrs. Winters,” she made her voice soft. “I’m really fine, you don’t have to worry about me. How did the choir do this morning?”

She wasn’t sure where the question had come from, other than the Good Lord himself put it into her head, but it was a miracle. Mrs. Winters stopped tugging. The choir was something about which Mrs. Winters loved to talk. It was a welcome distraction and Clementyne used the opportunity to pull the covers up.

“The choiah tried theih best to accompany Mrs. O’Hoolihan, but her playin’ is just not up to yourn. She forgot ta bring her eyeglass and was squintin’ ovah the music the whole service.” Mrs. Winters sat on the edge of the bed and arranged her skirts around herself. She looked like she was settling in to stay a spell.

Clementyne nodded. She wanted Mrs. Winters to talk all day as long as the priest was in her room, even if it meant listening to a lecture about the choir.

Father Michael leaned forward again, his eyes resting on the scalloped edge of the quilt. Clementyne could feel his eyes but refused to look at them. Somehow, she didn’t think purgatory could be as bad as this.

Mrs. Winters was off in full steam. Every off-note and wrong chord was regaled, accompanied by emphatic little jumps of her body. Clementyne realized that the older women was completely distracted and once again felt the pull in her groin, the thrill of sin that had first prompted her to stay in bed this morning. Twitching her lips slightly, she let the quilt and sheet fall slightly and leaned toward Mrs. Winters. Her cleavage, made buxom by the fold of quilt underneath, was an impressive display, and she noticed that Father Michael’s mouth fell ajar.

Power swelled in her breasts with every inhale. They seemed to puff higher and higher above the quilt. Father Michael’s neck grew longer and longer and he shuffled on his feet. Clementyne wondered if anything on him tightened the way her nipples had this morning. Just the thought had them doing it again.

Clementyne sighed, shifting beneath the blankets. She felt the heat once more between her legs.

Mrs. Winters sighed long and loud. “Ah do hope that y’all will be feelin’ bettah next Sunday, so’s the choiah will have a propah tuen to sing ta.” The older woman stood up, smoothing down imaginary wrinkles in her skirts.

“Uh.” Father Michael cleared his throat. “Yes. I also hope you will be feeling better next Sunday. We’ll let the rest of the congregation know you have a fever but are on the mend.”

He hastily backed out the door, Bible held at the juncture of his thighs, followed by the jovial Mrs. Winters calling out advice all the way down the stairs.

Clementyne rested back on her pillows, shifting her legs to relieve the pressure and the moisture gathering there.

Maybe she’d be ill next Sunday, too.

Failure

The Kickstarter attempt to fund a new game (Awkward Compliments) developed by me and three friends did not meet its funding goal. It was far, far below what we needed to fund a short run print.  Even if we tried to fund a shorter print run (the smallest the printer allowed) we weren’t close.

We’ve been discussing what went wrong with our Kickstarter attempt.  Was it a problem with the game (beta testers loved it), the cost ($20.00), or a lack of engagement (maybe this one – but we sure tried).  From what gaming folks have said when we were finally able to ask, it’s just not the right time for card games. It would do much better if it was an app.

So we’re looking into that.

But for those who did support our initial effort–and really would like to get a physical copy, we’re working on a POD version.  It needs to be uploaded to a POD game site, and the price won’t be as low as what we were offering on the Kickstarter, but we are hopeful our backers won’t mind and will still want a copy.

And, we’ll be offering physical copies for sale at various conventions (Marscon and Ravencon in Williamsburg, Virginia in the Spring; Con of the Mountain this fall) and at other venues, like local gaming stores. So be on the lookout for Awkward Compliments available near you.  Or check out the website (http://www.awkwardcompliments.com) for links to the publisher.  We aim to be ready by this weekend.

And as always, why be suave when you can be awkward!

Be Our Guest

So I got some exciting news–or rather, an exciting invite.

I’ve been asked to be a guest (I had to apply, but that’s okay–I was accepted) at Ravencon17 next year. Ravencon is a sci-fi and fantasy convention held in Williamsburg, Virginia. (It moved from the Richmond area a couple of years ago.)

White Cat Publications will have my steampunk novel out by then (that’s the schedule if we can make it anyway), so I’m really excited about this opportunity. I need to sit on panels, but having sat in the audience for many, I think it will be fun.

So, if you’re going to be in Williamsburg in April next year, you might want to check out the con – and come and visit me!

Khan!!!!!

So, DreamPunk Press (http://www.dreampunkpress.com) was at Khan-con (http://www.khan-con.com) in Hillsville, Virginia over the weekend, displaying our books and demoing the game Awkward Compliments (http://bit.ly/AwkComp). It was a grand time. I met a  lot of great people, and reunited with some great folks from last year’s Khan-Con.

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Khan-Con is a small-town convention, and there is a part of me that hopes it stays that way. Not just because it means a cheaper table, but because it means folks can afford to attend.

I attend other conventions, and they are expensive just to get in the door (which is one reason I tend to stay close to home). And I understand, many of them have big names coming, and that means they can (and maybe have to) charge more.

But for small vendors (artists and authors going it alone and small publishers) that means the folks coming through the door have fewer dollars to spend on your stuff. There is a big difference between $5 per person and $50 per person.

So they want something for a buck, and if it cost a puck to print it, you make zilch.

I’ve heard the schtick: Offer your first item cheap (or free) and they’ll pay for your next one.

That doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. They just want more free.

So while I hope that Khan-Con gets bigger and better, I hope it never loses that small-town ethos, and stays affordable for vendors and attendees alike.

 

Short Story Time: One Second Chance

One Second Chance

Neil swallowed a hard lump in his throat, staring through the one-way mirror at the gurney in the small room on the other side. The hard plastic chair, cold beneath his legs, remained a harsh reminder of reality.

“Ready?”

The guard tapped the front leg of the chair with his toe, jarring Neil from his stupor to look up at him.

“Doesn’t matter if I ain’t, does it?”

“Suppose not. Want a cigarette?” The guard extended a slim white cylinder, pulling a lighter from his chest pocket.

Staring at the smoke, Neil thought about it. He’d quit the habit last year, but did it matter anymore? It was too late to die of lung cancer. But it held no lure this morning. It was just a cylinder of paper stuffed with weeds. “Naw. Let’s get this done.”

Standing, the shackles around his wrists and ankles heavy, Neil shuffled toward the door to the room.

“Sure there’s nothing you want? Last chance.”

“Can I speak to Marisa or the kids?”

The guard sighed, long and gusty. “They don’t want to talk to you.”

Neil nodded and let his head drop so his chin bumped his chest. The judge had let him write a letter to the wife of his once best friend. He’d taken a long time to write that letter, making sure the words were neat and the paper crisp. He’d gotten a single page back, angry red letters sprawled across it: HELL NO I DON’T FORGIVE YOU.

He’d gotten similar responses from Ric’s kids, now grown themselves.

The small room, the walls a dull white tile, was cold and he shivered.

“Need a sweater?” The guard paused at the door.

“Naw.” Neil just wanted this done and over. He’d been on death row for ten years and a bit. And now, these last minutes were taking forever.

A man in a lab coat entered, eyes downcast, a large metal briefcase handle grasped tight in his left hand. He threw the case on a small metal table and stood behind it, waiting, eyes fixed on the case.

Through the open door, Neil heard the shuffle of feet, and knew that the observers – including Marisa and Ric’s eldest son – were filing in to take their places in those plastic chairs. He didn’t look at the window, mirrored on this side. He couldn’t see them, and didn’t want to give them the satisfaction that he knew they were there.

Something thudded against the window, and the guard sprinted to the door, pulling it closed, but not before the shout of another guard was heard and someone was escorted out of the room.

Neil imagined it was Marisa. She blamed him for Ric’s death – for the slaughter of her innocent husband. He’d never been able to convince anyone that Ric hadn’t been so innocent. It didn’t matter no more.

“Sorry ’bout that.” The guard backed away from the door. “Your lawyer should be here, soon. He asked to be here.”

“We don’t need to wait.” He was getting anxious, bile rising up his throat, trying to choke him.

“He put in a last minute appeal.”

“It ain’t gonna get approved.” Neil had seen the papers. He knew that Marisa had been lobbying for his death, had been a vigilante in her own way. If she had a gun, she’d probably blast him away right then. Maybe that would be a better way to go – quick and violent, like Ric.

The digital clock on the wall switched a number and the man in the lab coat opened the case on the table. “Go ahead and get comfortable.”

Neil held out his wrists to the guard and the man unlocked them. When he sat on the edge of the gurney, the guard stooped to do the same at his ankles. For a split second, Neil thought about running for the door. He’d never make it out, but maybe the guard would shoot and it would all be over.

Looking at the kind face, pinkened from stooping, he couldn’t though. They’d talked earlier, and he liked this guard. The man had made sure he got all of the last breakfast he’d requested, right down to the steak and eggs and jalapenos and maple syrup.

He was a good guy, and he didn’t deserve to have a man’s death on his soul. He may have had to before, may already have one or two weighing on him. He didn’t need more, even if it was justified and forgivable.

That weight was heavy, Neil knew. Heavier than anything else a soul would ever have to bear, except maybe the knowledge that you took that life while the man’s kid watched.

Lying back on the gurney, Neil stared up at the ceiling, keeping his sight away from the glare of the lamp. He didn’t want to die blind. He wanted to see it coming.

He felt bad for the man that would insert the needle, too, and figured that’s why he wouldn’t look at him. If he didn’t see it, it wasn’t real. He wondered how many times the guy had done this? Did it make it better that it was an injection and not a bullet? That it was ordered by a judge and not an angry moment?

The door burst open and for a quarter of a heart beat Neil though Jack had been successful and the appeal had been signed. But no – he could tell by the pale skin, the tight lips. Nothing had changed.

He shifted his gaze back to the ceiling.

“I’m sorry.” The man in the lab coat touched his left wrist. “My name is Matt, and this may sting a little going in.”

The man’s eyes were dark and wet.

So, it wasn’t easier when it was an injection.

“No prob, man. No prob.”

The man nodded and rustled through his equipment.

“Sorry, Neil. I couldn’t convince the judge. Not even a stay.” The lawyer’s voice cracked and echoed in the room.

“S’okay. Thanks for trying one last time.”

“Anything you want me to do? You know, after?”

“Yeah, just-” he wanted to tell Marisa he was sorry, really sorry, but that wouldn’t take coming from Jack. His letter hadn’t worked, why would the words coming from someone else’s mouth?

So, what did he want? He’d spoken to his mother yesterday by phone, the connection scratchy over the distance, convincing her not to come out for this. He didn’t want her hurt anymore by something Marisa would say. He’d hurt her enough already.

“Tell my mom I love her.”

“Sure, man. Sure.” Jack shifted back when the guard put a hand on his shoulder.

It was time to get strapped in.

There was a wide strap for his torso, smaller ones for his thighs, and then even smaller ones yet for his wrists and ankles. The cold of metal clasps touched his skin like a flame.

“Do you need a blanket?” It was Matt, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of the lab coat. He looked like he’d do anything to delay the inevitable.

“Nah.” Neil shifted under the straps.

“Too tight?” It was the guard. “I can loosen them just a bit.”

Neil shook his head again. His throat closed up, making speech impossible. Why hadn’t folks been this nice when he was young? Not just to him, but to Ric, too. Maybe then, they wouldn’t have joined that gang, tried to run drugs, and gotten in a bind.

“Okay, then.” Matt placed a warm palm over his forearm and squeezed. Then slid the tubing around his upper arm, knotted and tightened it. The vein bulged in his inner elbow. “Here we go.”

“Say a prayer for me?” Neil forced the words out, though no one might be able to understand their garbled sense. “Please, ask God to forgive me?”

He said his own quick prayer, an abbreviated version of the one he’d said every night before closing his eyes to sleep: Please forgive me and help me. Amen.

The pin prick did sting – a lot. The liquid burned going in. But then his eyes watered and the light above his head swam in a circle.

Neil O’Malley closed his eyes and died. The official time of death: 10:07 a.m., Tuesday, January 5, 2015.

 

A clock flashed the time: 10:06. The numbers were blue that shifted to green, then purple. Neil stood, staring, waiting for that 6 to flip to 7.

It didn’t. The time stayed at 10:06.

“They say there’s no going back.”

Whirling, Neil stared at the figure behind him. “Ric?”

“Hey, bro. Whassup?” The tall man held out a hand for a low five.

On automatic, Neil slapped the hand, holding up the other for the ritual high five, which Ric gave him with a slow grin.

“What the hell?”

Ric snickered. “Not hell, man, not hell.”

Neil nodded and stared. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Ric cocked his head to the side and stared. “Would you change it if you could?”

“Hell – heck, yeah.”

“Do you really mean that?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll see.”

And everything went black.

The air was humid, like after a rain, but it wasn’t clean. Neil could smell gasoline and rotting fish. There was a gun in his hand, his gun; he recognized the feel of the Glock against his palm. He’d thrown it in the bay after shooting Ric. How was it back?

“Hey, you here or not?” Ric hissed in his ear and Neil jumped.

What the hell?

Blinking, Neil glanced around. The rusty hulls of cargo containers, the moldy brick walls of the warehouses.

He was back at the night he shot Ric.

“Come on, man. We gotta hurry. Sean’s back in the car. I don’t like leaving him alone like that.”

Neil swallowed hard. “Maybe we should go back. Forget all about this.”

“Naw, man. This is it. We get the stuff, sell it, and we’re good as gold.”

“I got a bad feeling, Ric.”

“Don’t chicken out on me now, Neil. We are in this together, man. I’m tired of your whiny complaining all the time.”

“Man, this is wrong.” Neil grabbed Ric’s arm, spinning him around. “You know it.”

“What I know is you agreed to help me for a cut. So help.” Ric snatched his arm away and crouched to listen, his own gun tucked in the waistband of his loose jeans. “Put some swagger on and let’s do this.”

They were supposed to meet the man with the goods at his boat, a small river tug moored next to a French tanker. They weren’t supposed to have weapons, but Ric had insisted they pack. It was just too dangerous not to.

“Are you sure this is the right pier?” Neil followed, his voice harsh in the dark.

“‘course I’m sure. I got the directions from Marco.” Ric led the way, standing tall, his gait a long lanky swivel of hips.

Neil didn’t trust Marco, but the man was a long-time friend of Ric’s from the neighborhood. Ric vouched for him. So Neil went along.

The gun felt wrong. An uncomfortable appendage that didn’t belong.

“Ric-”

“Who’z there?” Someone called from a hidden corner.

“Friends of Marco. Come to make pickup for him.”

“Friends of Marco, huh?”

“Yeah.” Ric put his hand on his gun but didn’t pull it out.

“You bring the money?”

Ric shifted. “What money?” His voice cracked.

“Marco owes me money. Didn’t he tell you? He shafted me on his last purchase.”

“He didn’t tell me that. Just asked me to pick up for him.” Ric pulled his gun out, his hand shaking.

Neil swallowed. “Man, let’s book.” His whisper was louder than intended.

“Aw, you wanna leave the party?” Another voice stepped into the alley between the warehouses, a semi-automatic held at an angle across his chest. His clothing was dark, darker than the shadows, and Neil couldn’t make out anything but a towering menacing figure.

“We made a mistake trusting Marco.” Neil raised his voice. His own gun wavered in his hand.

“Oh, you made a mistake all right.” The man pointed his weapon at him. “I need a payment, and I’ll take it any way I can.” He jerked the weapon. “Face each other.”

“What?” Ric pointed his gun at the man.

The man laughed and aimed the semi at Ric. “Don’t think that will scare me, boy. I got me a fancy vest. Do you have a fancy vest?”

Neil shook and may have pissed in his pants a little. Neither of them was getting out alive. This man was going to shoot them where they stood; they didn’t have a chance in hell of making it home.

“Dad?” The quavering voice from behind them made all three men freeze.

“Git back in the car, Sean.” Ric’s voice shattered.

“But, Dad? What’s going on?”

“Git back in the car!”

There was a skitter of feet, but only for a few yards. Sean did not make it all the way back to the car.

“Got him, boss.” Another voice, another dark shadow.

Shit. Neil’s stomach plummeted. What the hell now?

“Let the kid go, man.” Ric lowered his gun. “Please, just let him go.”

“Oh, I need a favor for that. One good turn deserves another, yeah?” The man with the semi took a step forward, a slant of lamplight slicing across his weapon.

“Yeah, sure.” Ric’s nod was violent.

“Shoot your friend.” The man jerked the barrel at Neil.

“What?”

“I said shoot him, straight through his heart. Do that, and I’ll let the kid go, unharmed.”

“Naw, man. You must be kidding.” The crack in Ric’s voice just made the man laugh.

“One of you will shoot the other. If you don’t, the kid will die.” The man laughed, loud and sharp. “And it won’t be quick.”

Ric turned to Neil, raising his gun to shoulder height. “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry.”

“S’okay, Ric. Do it. Go ahead.”

Ric closed his eyes and fired. One second after, Neil shifted, and the bullet whizzed past, its wind kissing his cheek in passing. It careened by, slamming into the wall, spraying brick dust and tiny shards of hardened clay.

Damn.

“Only one bullet at a time. Makes it hard when you’re nervous.” The man with the semi took another step forward. “Okay, friend. Now it’s your turn.”

From behind, Sean squealed, the sound high and terrified.

“Better hurry, Mick likes little boys.”

Trembling, Neil raised the Glock, aiming the barrel at Ric.

Ric nodded and lowered his own gun.

Neil fired.

Ric fell, a deep red stain spreading across his chest.

Someone yelled and cursed from behind, and sneakers slammed against the wet ground. For a second, Neil saw Sean, his nine-year-old eyes wide, blood trickling from a cut on his lip. Then, in an instant, the child turned and sprinted away, screaming.

“Aw, hell. Looks like the fun’s all over.” The man with the semi shuffled back, keeping his gun up and trained on Neil. “Say hi to the feds for me. Oh, and let Marco know he still owes me the cash.”

And the men were gone, fading into the shadows like they never were. Sirens rent the air, piercing Neil’s ear drums. He winced, sniffing. He swiped an arm over his nose and tip toed toward his friend.

“Ric?”

There was no response.

“Ric? You okay, man?”

Still no sound, no movement. He’d aimed for his shoulder, but he’d never been that great a shot.

“Aw, fuck, man.” Neil dropped to his knees next to his friend’s body, finger tracing the growing stain, pressing his palm over the wound. “No, no, no.”

He stared at the Glock in his shaking hand. Standing, he squinted in the distance and hurled it away. A few seconds later, the faint splash of it hitting the water reached him between siren wails.

When the police arrived, their own weapons, drawn, Neil stood over Ric’s body, tears coursing down his cheeks, blood dripping from his hands.

 

“I thought you were gonna to do it different this time?”

“I tried.” Neil’s whisper was more air than sound. He watched the police cuff him and drag him off. Watched Sean, tears mixing with blood, point at him and bury his face in a blanket. Watched the EMTs load Ric’s body into the back of a silent ambulance.

“Yeah. You almost got in front of my bullet. I saw that.”

“Can I try again? I’ll be faster this time. I swear.”

“Naw, man. You only get one second chance.”

Neil nodded.

“‘course, we’ve seen what we needed to see.”

Neil pulled his head up, but it was hard. It was leaden, and it was like he was moving it though something solid.

“We?”

Ric jerked his head and other figures appeared beside him. “You know, ‘we’.”

“No, I don’t.”

“They’ve heard your prayers, Neil. And now, they’re answering them.”

“Answering?” Neil blinked. What was Ric talking about? How could these figures answer his prayer? “I do need an answer, though.”

“Oh?” Ric smiled. “To what question?”

“Do you forgive me?”

“Man, I forgave you when you did it. I shot first, remember? I forgave you the instant Sean walked away. Don’t ever doubt that, Neil.” Ric stepped forward and clamped a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking his friend. “Do you forgive me?”

“What?” Neil squinted up. There was a palpable light all around his friend’s face, glowing, making it hard to focus. But Ric was still the same as in his memory, tall and solid, his skin and hair dark. He latched on, like he was an anchor, grabbing that arm, his fingers gripping tight.

“Do you forgive me for getting you into that mess?”

“Of course. I know you were desperate for money. You trusted Marco.”

“I should have listened to you.”

Neil shrugged. “It’s all done now.”

“Yeah. All done.”

The blinking clock numbers changed: 10:07.

“Come on, the Big Man wants to see you. He might even show you around.”

“Show me around? Around where?”

“Well, we ain’t in hell man. You made sure we ain’t in hell.”

Playing Games

Ever thought of a good idea for a game?  Well, I did.  Or rather, a group of folks I met at a con (and became great friends with) and I did. We had so much fun, we decided to actually make a game.

What starving writers will do for a buck and change.

I thought it would be easy.  It was easy at the con- we made awkward compliments (to ourselves of course 😉 ) about the folks we saw, in character cosplay. And they were compliments – awkward because of where we were and what was going on.

But when we started putting it on paper… well, group dynamics came in, my prudish sensibilities rose up, and there was a lot of compromise.

And now, the fruit of our labor and fighting is on Kickstarter.

Short link:  http://bit.ly/AwkComp.

And of course, there’s more to it than just making a Kickstarter page. To be honest, this post is part of that “more.” Facebook posts, tweets, tumblr posts, you name it and one of us is trying to do it. Hopefully, with some success.

So if you’re bored and have five minutes, check out the game (and back it if you like what you see). We also have a page on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/awkwardcompliments/, and we’re on the World Wide Web, http://www.awkwardcompliments.com/. On twitter, we’re @awkwardcardgame, so please follow us there, too.

After all, what else is a starving writer to do?