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Rodolfo’s Pizzeria

by Joe Mankowski

 

Aaron looked out the front window of Rodolfo’s Pizzeria. He could see the lights to Barry’s Diner across the street turning off. It was late, and in Ash Falls, that meant only the weirdos would be out looking for food.

Aaron turned his attention to a clock decorated by tacky, plastic grape vines. It was nearly eleven. He stared at the minute hand with disdain. Some knock-off Pavarotti album was playing over the speakers. He wished Maurice would turn it off after normal business hours. None of the timberworkers, drug addicts, or gangly teens gave a crap about Rodolfo’s aesthetic.

The pizzeria was a counter-top dive bar with a false liquor license on a good day. It had white floor tiles, stained by blotches of marinara sauce and a glass display case for the ‘fresh’ pies. There were two sets of plastic lawn furniture covered in parmesan cheese and a few stools to the right of the cash register for seating. It was a wonder anyone ever came in. The slices were over-priced and often reheated. Aaron stayed because Maurice paid him under the table and gave him hours that worked around his college schedule – even though Aaron hadn’t taken a class in two semesters.

The store phone rang.

“Yeah?” Aaron said.

“I can see you on the camera, Ron. Quit leaning on the counter,” snapped Maurice through the phone. “Look busy. Start mopping the floors or something.”

“I’m waiting for a Mister Don Calriss to pick up his pizza order,” Aaron said as he checked the order slip and pizza box beside the register. The pizza was already cold.

“Don’s a regular. He can wait.” There was an audible shuffling of papers. “I can’t give you a raise if you don’t earn it.” The line went dead.

The threat of not getting a raise nearly made Aaron laugh. He had worked cashier for three years now, and only received a ten-cent raise after working his first year for the scumbag. Aaron didn’t put the phone back on its station. The machine buzzed monotonously. If Maurice wanted to criticize his work ethic again, he’d have to leave his broom closet of an office.

Aaron stared out the front window of the shop again. He watched a few cars roll by. Barry’s Diner was completely dark. Only the red ‘Closed’ sign was visible. A street lamp flickered. When he looked back at the clock, it was five-past-eleven. Swearing under his breath, Aaron pushed his way through the kitchen door to fill the mop bucket.

Two days worth of dishes were sitting in the kitchen sink. The drain had been clogged since the Friday before last. The plumbing was backed up to the point wherein the piping was secreting black liquid through the faucets. Flour and cheese were smeared on the floor. Two flies buzzed around a ball of dough Maurice had forgotten about.

Beneath the sink was a yellow mop bucket. The smell of it up close was a nauseating concoction of spoiled dairy and ammonia. Beside the bucket was a tub of bleach. Aaron tipped the rest of it in.

“Maurice, we’re out of bleach!” he shouted.

There was a disgruntled sound from the office attached to the kitchen. Aaron could hear his boss struggling to stand under his own weight. “What was that?” Maurice said.

“There’s no more bleach.”

The owner of Rodolfo’s stared at the empty can for a moment. “Buy more.”

“Everything’s closed.”

“Then pick some up tomorrow on your way in. Take some cash out of the drawer, and bring me a receipt.”

Maurice waddled back into his office and slammed the door. Why don’t you do something other than sweat in your swivel chair you lard, thought Aaron. He pushed the mop bucket towards a hoseline and turned the water on. There was a gurgling sound of fluid being backed up. Aaron swore again and reached for the the mop, which was caked in flour.

As he lifted it, a family of worms dropped onto the floor. They were pale, thick, and white with a waxy texture. They flopped and squirmed, but Aaron paid no attention to them. The were all over the kitchen.

Finally, the hoseline began to dribble water.

The bell to the front door chimed.

“Door!” Maurice called from his office.

“I’m going,” Aaron said. He left the water running, assuming if he took long enough the bucket would overflow and do half his job cleaning the floor.

Aaron approached the counter. “Welcome to Rodolfos,” he said.

Hi’yah. Ordered a meat-lovers.”

“You’re Mister Calriss?” Aaron thought the man looked familiar, perhaps he was a Tuesday regular – the one day Aaron didn’t work. Either way, the guest looked sickly, like an addict, but still well fed. Aaron assumed the man had ordered the pie for only himself. He noticed the guest scratching at some hives on his neck. Tapeworm, thought Aaron, or maybe an infection.

“Ay’yuh,” said the guest. He tossed a crumpled twenty-dollar bill onto the counter.

“It’s twenty-six ninety-nine.”

Mister Calriss snorted. “Is Maurice in?”

“No,” Aaron lied. He was told to always lie.

The man squinted for a second and lifted his nose a little as he inhaled a bit too much. Aaron had the awkward sensation the man was trying to smell him. “You jus’ tell ‘im I stopped by. Don’t forget. Don Calriss came in tuh see ‘im.”

“Sure.”

Mister Calriss dropped another crumpled twenty onto the counter. Aaron punched the buttons on his register and gave the guy his change.

“This pizza is stone cold, ya know.”

“The order was for an eight o’clock pick up,” Aaron replied.

He grunted again. “Can ya warm it up for me?”

“The ovens are off. We’re closing.”

Mister Calriss sneered out of the corner of his mouth but said no more and left. A minute or so after, Maurice appeared. He was holding a brown leather bowling bag.

“I tried calling you from my office, but the line was dead.”

Aaron picked up the phone and gave it a shake. “Cord must be loose.”

“How much did you charge Don?”

“Twenty-Six,” Aaron said.

“And he paid it?”

Aaron nodded.

“What an idiot,” Maurice laughed. He grabbed a fistful of napkins and dabbed at his balding head, then the stubble on his chin, and lastly the folds between his neck. He looked like a pig roasting in spandex. The napkins fell to the floor.

Aaron stepped aside while his boss closed out the register. He watched as Maurice removed the till and poured everything into his bowling bag. “What time did you get in today?”

“Six,” Aaron answered.

Maurice reached into his cash bag and pulled out the two crumpled twenty-dollar bills and gave it to him. “For tonight,” he said. “And pick up bleach tomorrow.”

Aaron nodded.

“I’m going home to count this. Lock up at midnight. Finish mopping. Take out the trash, and exit out the back door.”

“What if a customer tries to pay with cash?”

“Tell them we only accept cash until eleven.” Maurice grabbed an empty pizza box and a black marker. “New house rule. Write it down and tape it to the display case. No one argues when there’s a sign.”

Maurice left through the front door a few minutes later with his bowling bag tucked tightly beneath his arm. Aaron watched him go, before walking into Maurice’s office where the knock-off Pavarotti album labeled Italiano Muzico was being played. He flipped the audio-player switch to ‘Off’.

He looked around Maurice’s office. It hadn’t been cleaned since the day Aaron had been hired. There were tin-foil wraps filled with burger grease and white worms. He found stray fries that had been kept warm in the crease of Maurice’s folding chair. A paper stack of overdue bills and health-code violations were so high it seemed as though eviction was an empty threat. And then, of course, there were the posters of swimsuit models taped to the walls.

Aaron felt the heel of his right shoe squish a rogue worm. Its guts popped and confettied the floor like black pus from an aged zit.

Back in the kitchen, Aaron could hear water splashing onto the floor. He covered his mouth and nose with his arm. A pool of brownish water was spreading beneath the sink and metal racks holding sacks of flour. The backed up piping was now affecting the hose. Aaron made his way to the faucet valve and twisted it off, then picked up the nearest phone.

“What?” came Maurice’s voice through his cell phone.

“The hoseline is spitting out brown sludge.”

“I’ve called the City’s water department, they said a plumber would be by this week. I ain’t paying out of pocket for the Ash Falls issues.”

“So mop with sludge water?”

“Better than nothing,” Maurice said. The line clicked and went dead.

Aaron smeared the water around the kitchen floor. Some of the worms that had been inhabiting the mop swelled as they, too, were wiped towards the drain. He did his best to mash them through. Aaron emptied the trash bins around the pizzeria, then propped the back door open with a brick. He stepped out into the alley.

A single lamp tried to illuminate the dark stretch between buildings. Aaron always got the creeps when he had to take out the trash at the end of the night. The dumpster was halfway between the back door of Rodolfo’s and the street. Everything was twisted in shadows.

There were usually weird things happening in the alley. Aaron had seen it all. People shooting up green syringes of who-knows-what, hairy men wrestling to settle a score, women with wild hair drawing symbols in chalk and foaming at the mouth. Only the weirdos of Ash Falls came out at night. Only the weirdos seemed to inhabit the alley behind Rodolfo’s. Except tonight, for some reason.

Aaron looked around. There wasn’t another human in sight.

Something scurried across the ground. A cat or a fat rat, Aaron wasn’t sure. But then, the sound of more scuttling followed. Out of the sewer grates climbed nearly two-dozen rats. They all clawed at each other and the pavement. Aaron pulled out his phone and turned on its flashlight.

The rodents were covered in a blackish oil and ooze. Their eyes were red. Some had hairless patches, while others had visible gashes. This wasn’t the first time Aaron had seen rats in the alleyway. Knowing how they hated light, he waved his phone at them. They scurried off and out towards the street.

A door behind Aaron slammed shut. He turned around to see the back door to Rodolfo’s closed. “Crap,” he said to no one. The door automatically locked from the inside. Aaron hurried towards the dumpster. His cell phone revealed clusters of wax worms along the way. The rats, he assumed, had brought them up through the sewer system.

When Aaron reached the dumpster, he found mounds of trash ignored by the city’s waste disposal department. There were dozens of bags piled high around a rusted metal bin. The infestation of worms continued there. They were fatter around the dumpster, like breakfast sausages. Aaron could see them nursing on the waste.

They had mutated; evolved ever so slightly with little tentacle appendages wiggling around the surface of the garbage bags. They probed and prodded for openings. Aaron tossed his bag to them and left the alleyway.

Thankful for not locking the front door to the pizzeria, Aaron returned to his counter. The grapevine clock read ten-to-midnight. He drummed his fingers on the surface of the empty register and stared out the windows. There were no more cars driving by. No one walking along the sidewalk or peering into the pizzeria. Aaron thought about his couch, his game console, and the case of beer in his fridge. Looking up at the security camera, Aaron noticed that the recording light was off. What Maurice didn’t know, wouldn’t bother him, Aaron reasoned. He had already been paid for his shift anyway.

Aaron reached into his pockets. He couldn’t remember where he had pocketed the money. Feeling through all of them, he wondered if he had set it down in the kitchen while mopping.

Aaron retraced his steps. He checked the office and his jacket that had been hanging on a hook by the door. He poked the pizza dough to see if it had melted over his two twenty-dollar bills. Aaron’s money was lost.

In his frustration, he kicked the mop bucket. It crashed against the back door, which popped open, and rolled out into the alleyway. Had the door been open the whole time? Aaron wasn’t sure. He had seen it closed. He had heard it slam shut. The brick, perhaps, had kept the door from latching completely.

Looking out into the alleyway, Aaron thought about when he had taken his phone out of his pocket. His money could have fallen out at that moment. The rats had been creepy enough to keep his attention from his money tumbling away in the dark.

Aaron turned his phone light on again. He wedged the brick more securely in the door. Scanning the pavement, he moved his phone from side-to-side. He saw the mop bucket overturned. Its bleach-sludge-concoction spilled out towards the large sewer drain. He aimed his light at it.

The gurgling of sewer water traveled through the storm-drains below. The smell of sulfur and stale water hung in the air. There was a slight tremor underground. Aaron ignored it.

Through the metal grate, Aaron saw it. His money was stuck to black gunk on the inner lining below. The mop water had washed it through the grate, but not all the way down. Getting on his hands and knees, Aaron surveyed the best way to get his money. Maurice wouldn’t pay him a second time for losing his day’s wages.

Aaron slid his hand between the bars. He could feel the damp air clinging to his skin. The underside of the grate was caked with the black ooze that had coated the rats and their fur. Aaron had to hold his breath as he lowered himself closer to the ground. His wrist and forearm slid down. It was difficult to see how much further he needed to reach. Aaron contorted his body and placed his phone over the grate. The light shined down directly. Hundreds of worms wriggled in the muck below.

The back door to Rodolfo’s slammed shut. Aaron swore as he twisted his head back. The brick was lying flat against the pavement. Next, Aaron’s phone began to vibrate. It shook the metal grate and teetered off balance.

“No, no, no! Shit!” Aaron screamed. His phone slipped through the gap and fell to the depths of the sewer below. He heard a faint splash. The light zapped out.

Aaron removed his hand. A worm had crawled onto it; one of the nasty, sausage-sized ones. He felt its little tendrils probing along his skin. Aaron brushed it off and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. The popping of its guts was audible, like an exploding ketchup packet.

Without a key, Aaron had no way to get back into the pizzeria. His house key was in his coat pocket. His phone was now destroyed. His money was gone. Aaron was on the verge of giving the mop bucket another swift kick when another worm groped at his ankle.

Aaron went to swat it away when he realized it wasn’t a worm at all, but a tentacle. A thick, arm-length appendage that reached out through the grate. The dim alleyway lamp illuminated its white, waxy coating. He screamed. More were beginning to feel their way out of the sewer. Dozens, then hundreds. Their slimy flesh slurped at the pavement. Aaron reached for the mop bucket and slammed it on the tentacle that had latched itself around his foot.

There was a shriek from beneath the storm drain. In revenge, the other tentacles lashed out towards the bucket. Aaron felt it being pulled from his grip. Then, in fear, he watched as the yellow plastic was crushed. Aaron tried to back away, but his foot stepped in a puddle of mop water and the splash alerted the monster that he was still there.

The cover to the storm drain rumbled. The tendrils lashed out at Aaron again, this time grabbing both of his ankles. They bit into him like leeches, pulsing and sucking on his skin until it was torn open.

There was a loud crash and the sewer grate was tossed free. A long, translucent, slithering creature with black veins pumping beneath the surface of its flesh appeared. There were no eyes or snout, just white flesh covered in mucus and a mouth – a gaping hole at the top of its head that reared itself towards Aaron as its tentacles continued to grope and suck at his ankles.

Aaron couldn’t move. He was paralyzed. A cold wave of numbness washed over him from his ankles upwards. All he could do was stare at the ten-foot worm as it revealed rows of jagged teeth with chunks of undigested flesh caught between.

Aaron couldn’t even scream. His throat was being squeezed by longer tentacles that had found their way through the drain. The creature’s tongue unraveled itself through the center of its mouth; boiled and black. It spat mucus onto him, and then, from the back of its throat it vomited thousands of its own spawn.

Aaron closed his eyes as the new vermin made a feast of his flesh. Then the monster leaned over him and swallowed him whole.

 

END

In-mortals, Ep. 1

Prologue

CAPRICE LEAPT FROM THE top of the boulder. Daria gasped and caught her daughter. “Baby, you gotta warn me before you jump.”

Caprice giggled with pure four-year-old belly laughs, her entire body quivering with each heaving breath. “I’m serious baby…”

Caprice ignored her mom, climbed back up the boulder, and jumped again. Ready this time, Daria caught her daughter and swung her through the air until they were both too dizzy to stand. They flopped onto their backs in the damp sand until they stopped laughing long enough to breath.

“Again!” Caprice leapt to her feet and monkey-crawled her way up the boulder. Daria groaned, but stood up. She swung her baby again, then distracted Caprice before she could climb up the boulder another time.

“Let’s go rock hunting!”

“Rocks, rocks, rocks!” Caprice chanted as she flung handfuls of sand into the air. She skipped away from her mother, now singing, “Need a Mamma Rock, and a Baby Rock, and a Doggy Rock, and a Birdie Rock.”

Daria stuck close to her daughter as they meandered around boulders and climbed over small hills with sharp, water carved edges. Waves pounded against the shore around them, a symphony of wind, tides, and laughter.

“Bad Guy!” Caprice yelled as she pointed at a dark pink sea shell poking out of the sand. She dug the shell out in furious swipes. Triumphant, she raised the perfect spire above her head and zoomed around her mom three times before shoving the seashell in Daria’s hands and continuing the search for the perfect family of rocks.

Before long, Daria carried Bad Guy, Baby, Doggy, and three Birdies, but they still needed Momma Rock.

“What about over here?” Daria asked before Caprice could wander off a sharp drop into wave-covered rocks.

Caprice bounced to the inland treasure trove of stones her mother had found. Daria knelt beside her and tugged a lemon-sized pink and grey stone out of the sand. “What about this one?”

“Momma Rock!” Caprice clapped her hands in glee and took all of the rocks from her mom. With careful precision, Caprice stacked each of her rocks on the flat top of a short boulder. Once they were all situated, she flew Bad Guy through the air. “Shhhhrooooom. Vroooom. Shhhhhhrooooooom. Bad Guy’s going to get Baby Rock.” She narrated as the stones and sea shell acted out her words.

Caprice clutched Baby Rock and Bad Guy in the same hand with a vicious Bad Guy roar.

“No you don’t!” Momma Rock yelled at Bad Guy. “You leave my baby alone Bad Guy!”

Momma Rock leapt through the air with an impressive eight turn flip, two zooooooooms, and a satisfied plop as she squashed Bad Guy. Pink sea shell bits shattered across the boulder and fell to the sand. Caprice cheered and giggled. Momma Rock and Baby Rock hugged while all the Birdie Rocks cawed and pooped.

Satisfied, Caprice handed her mom the rocks, though she kept Momma Rock safely clenched in her fist. Hand in hand, mother and daughter meandered toward the parking lot.

“Mamma?” Caprice asked.

“Yes, Baby?”

“You won’t leave me, right?” Caprice squeezed Daria’s hand with a tight desperation.

Daria stopped walking and knelt beside her daughter. “No, Sweetie, I’m not going anywhere.”

“But Bad Guy said you was gonna leave me,” Caprice said with a sniffle.

“When did Bad Guy tell you that?” Daria’s heart thumped and her breath quickened. It wasn’t the first time Caprice had said such piercing words. Most chalked it up to preschool imagination, but Daria knew how real such things could be.

“Before Momma Rock squashed him.” Caprice brushed her fist across her cheeks, leaving a streak of dirt on her face, and a splotch of tears on the stone.

“Oh Baby, I’m not going to leave you.” Daria wrapped her hands around Caprice’s tense fists. Clutched in Caprice’s tight grip, Momma Rock felt hotter than it should have.

“You don’t want to leave me,” Caprice corrected before melting into her mother’s chest as if she were still an infant, soft and malleable.

“No, I don’t want to leave you. And I’m not going to,” Daria almost promised, a catch in her spirit. She shook off the fear and added, “I will always be with you.” Daria rocked her baby back and forth, breathing in the scent of childhood, salt, and sun.

Caprice pressed Momma Rock against her mom’s chest. The stone pulsed against her flesh. “Just like Momma Rock squashed Bad Guy and saved Baby rock?” Caprice asked.  

“That’s right. And I’ll always protect you from the Bad Guys until you are big enough to protect yourself.” Daria brushed tangles of sand-soaked hair away from Caprice’s face. “Always.” Against Daria’s skin, the stone flashed hot, like a coal fresh from a fire, then instantly cooled back to warm. Caprice didn’t seem to notice.

“Okay, Momma.”

Daria carried her baby to the car, buckled her into the car seat.

Caprice fell asleep almost as soon as the car started. Daria flipped on the radio, quiet music floating through the vehicle. “I’ll be theeere,” Daria sang as she drove down the twisty, empty road. “I’ll be there to protect you, yeah baby.”

Suddenly, Daria felt a familiar shiver of fear race down her spine as she sang. She stomped on the brakes. The car sped up instead of stopping. An icy voice cut through the lyrics. “Daria, Darling, what are you doing?”

How had he found them? Daria twisted at the steering wheel to no effect. The tires squealed, then everything went dark as metal crunched around her. In eerie, wavering notes, the music continued. “Just call my name, and I’ll be there.

Daria struggled, a strained gurgle the only sound she could manage.

“Shhhhhh, she’ll be alright. She’ll be safe. I’ll take marvelous care of her. You are somewhere in Oregon, correct?”

“Momma!” Caprice’s voice cut through the nightmare. “Momma!”

Daria gasped and choked.

“Mom! Mommy!”

“It’s okay, Sweetie, I’ve got you.” A new, gentler voice broke through the nightmare.

“What’s wrong with my mommy?” Caprice asked.

“She’s hurt,” the voice sounded vaguely female.

“Momma Rock will protect her.” Small, warm hands touched Daria’s arms and chest, Momma Rock pressed between daughter and mother. Daria gasped, suddenly able to breathe.

“You won’t get her.” Daria thought as loud as she could, forcing the words at the cloying presence still wrapped around her body. It shuddered and faltered. She repeated the words out loud and in her head. “She is not yours.”  

“You can’t stop me,” the icy voice whispered.

Daria didn’t bother to respond. Instead she focused on her daughter.

“Mommy?” Caprice asked in a small voice.

Daria shuddered, then spoke, “Baby, it’s okay. You are going to be okay.” Daria’s arm moved, though she couldn’t feel it. She held her daughter against her dying body and whispered several unintelligible syllables, a lullaby she had sung every day since she learned of Caprice’s existence. It was protection and life, love and peace. She poured all of her hope, all of her life into the song. Into Caprice.

“It’s okay Momma, I big enough now,” Caprice said with four-year-old jauntiness, and a couple stifled sobs. “I big enough to protect myself against the Bad Guys.” The rock seared Daria’s flesh. For a moment, all feeling returned and they were both warm, and real, and safe.

Miraculously, almost magically, the voice was gone, along with his presence and Daria only had a moment to wonder how much her daughter knew about the man that pursued them.

The rock pulsed with her daughter’s heartbeat. Daria’s breathing faltered. Her words failed her. I love you, Caprice.

“I love you too, Mommy,” Caprice curled against her mommy’s body until the police arrived.

###

8 WEEKS 1 DAY

I curled around the meticulously scrubbed porcelain bowl and released what little breakfast I’d managed to consume. The luxury of money meant I wasn’t the one to have to clean the toilet and it was always clean for my frequent use. Shaky from the effort, I stood, rinsed my mouth, and straightened my hair and clothes before rejoining the mess of people in the dining room. Family brunch was a monthly occurrence and not even horrid morning sickness could call me away from my duty. I pasted the smile back on my face as I took my seat and carefully maneuvered the food around my plate so that it appeared as if I was eating.

Chatter wrapped around me, flowing through the exhaustion of first trimester baby-growing to lull me nearly to sleep before my husband caught my hand in his, drawing me fully to awareness.

“Yes, Caprice is doing well. Your babe is sure to be strong and lively,” Wilson told our guests in that friendly, but formal manner of speaking indicative of his role.

I inwardly groaned at his assumptions. It was the same tale he told to each of the families we adopted. While there was truth to the words, it was too soon for any such confidence. If we lost the babe… I hated to think the words, let alone ponder the implications. Wilson placed a comforting hand on my back, almost as if he knew my thoughts. I relaxed and smiled at the couple sitting across from us.

I’d met them last year, from Wilson’s work. My husband’s associate, Richard Ingersall, was rather intimidating, but he was kind to his wife and they desperately wanted a child. I placed a hand over my belly.

“Things are progressing well,” I assured them. They believed me. After all, this was my fifth time doing this.

Molly Ingersall grasped my hand in both of hers, tears in her eyes. “Thank you.”

“You are most welcome.” I squeezed her hand in return.

“Molly, it’s time to go.” Richard rose and offered an arm to his wife.

We walked with them to the front door and said our good-byes. We’d do this again next month, if we didn’t add an additional dinner or outing later this month.

The front door shut and I retreated to the bathroom. Wilson followed me and rubbed my back until I was done puking the few remnants of breakfast I’d forced down.

“I’m getting Evan.” He paged the doctor. “This is the second time you’ve thrown up in the last hour.” Third. I didn’t say anything. If he hadn’t noticed, I wasn’t going to point it out.

Besides, Evan would only tell him the same thing as before, that there hadn’t been enough time between the last baby and this one. I needed time to recover. Five babies is hard on anyone’s body and I’d had them nearly back to back. I leaned against the cool marble wall. Wilson placed a wet cloth across the back of my neck. I took a deep breath as my stomach settled.

I must have dozed off because it seemed like only seconds had passed before Wilson was helping me into a wheelchair, Evan at the handles.

“Come on, Honey, let’s get you to bed.” Wilson said as he gently tucked a blanket around me. Evan pushed me through the double doors that opened onto the deck and down the ramp to the guest house.

It was our compromise—I participate in the family brunches in the main house and recover in the guest house where no offending aromas could send me back to the bathroom. I was asleep before I’d registered that I was in bed.

###

Evan clattered around my room, apologizing profusely, as if it were his fault I woke up. There was an IV in my arm, again. I hated that it was necessary to keep me functioning. Five pregnancies. Each progressively worse, but this baby took the cake, with fluids nearly every day since the test said positive.

“We need to talk medication again.” Evan said, but he wasn’t speaking to me. I had no say in whether I got medication or not.  

Wilson shifted in his chair by my bed. “No, it’s not an option. Fluids only.” He tapped his fingers against the wooden side table, ice clinking in the cup of water at his elbow. My stomach curled at the thought of drinking the water, or anything else. There was a tray ready for me. Evan whisked it away with a dark look toward my husband. Evan was one of the few people to get away with such behavior. There was no other doctor as qualified to care for me and the gifts I carried.

Bile rose with my ire. Gifts indeed.

“Leave it be.” I lightly touched Evan’s arm, calming my own irritation more than his. “It will get better, it always does.”

It was a lie and we all knew it, but the lie knit us together. There was too much risk for medication. “Alternative” type treatments, such as teas and massage, were allowed, within reason. Medication was an absolute no. I’d be put on a constant fluid drip before Wilson allowed any possible harm to the child.

“I’m sorry Love, but I’ve business to attend,” Wilson said before Evan could protest any further. Dr. Wilson S. Krathur left with the formal brevity we were accustomed to—work mode, he called it.

My husband wasn’t the sort of doctor who could give medical care. He was the type of doctor that had earned six degrees by the time he was thirty, a man who meddled in the personal affairs of every official in the city and beyond. No one knew the full extent of his subtle interference. Few knew that he interfered at all. His law firm was the pinnacle of discretion and care. Before he advanced to head of the company, he was the chief in-house psychologist. His acuity at reading people and solving challenges made him an obvious choice for leadership when Louis had passed.

Louis Montgomery had been a good man. I’d come to love him in the few years I’d known him. Wilson and Louis had been inseparable from the first time they’d met, long before Wilson and I had met. He was the best man at our wedding, and often whisked us from the house for wild adventures—weekends in Vegas, camping in the mountains, and barbecues in his backyard. Wilson had been so happy back then, lighter and less troubled. That had all changed when Louis died. I rubbed my belly. Perhaps the worry would dissipate as the pregnancy progressed. I hated that Wilson worried so deeply.

“Are you alright?” Evan’s soft question drew me from my memories.

“What?” Why would he ask me that? He touched his cheek. I shadowed the motion and drew away wet fingers. Briskly wiping away the tears, I settled deeper into the pillows as Evan put the lovely vibrating cuffs on my legs to keep the blood flowing properly.

“Shall I get you anything else?” He passed me the remote.

“No thank you.”

I clicked on the TV, browsing the numerous channels for something that wouldn’t make me cry. Pregnancy hormones made TV a dangerous pastime. I flicked past a puppy commercial that got me sobbing nearly every time I saw it. Just the brief glimpse had me repeating the rapid eye rubbing.

He checked his notes. “Hormone levels are good.”

I chuckled dryly. Yup. Good enough to make me cry during puppy commercials. He glanced up from his notes, clearly wondering why I was suddenly giggling.

“Your timing.” I said. He stifled a quick bark of laughter and returned to his notes.

“Your iron is a little low, but blood counts are good.”

I tuned him out. It wasn’t that I didn’t care if the child did well or not—out of self-preservation I cared immensely—but I wasn’t emotionally attached to the baby. He, or she, was not mine. I’m an incubator, a lavishly kept piece of flesh capable of keeping the baby alive until the day he or she could meet the world.

He checked my pulse and blood pressure. “I’m worried about you. You’ve lost five pounds already. Wilson says you threw up twice during breakfast and you haven’t kept anything down for a couple weeks now.”

I shrugged. We’d been through this before. There wasn’t anything to do beyond rest and constant watch. Barfing by myself during family brunches was the only alone time I was ever allotted, a ruse to keep the parents from knowing the extent of my morning-all-day-all-night-sickness. I watched Evan write his notes on the clipboard. It was more interesting than anything the TV had to offer.

“No medication.” I repeated. “It might hurt the baby.”

“I know.” Evan drew a small vial of blood from the IV, filled out a slip of paper, and wrapped it around the blood vial before sliding it into a pre-addressed box with an ice pack. “I’ll be right back.”

Enjoying my brief moment of solitude, I stared at the spot on the ceiling that looked as if a bear were taking off a kneeling man’s head. Today, the man had Wilson’s face. It was oddly satisfying. I laughed, a deep, cleansing sort of laugh. I loved my husband, at least most days, but today it was all I could do not to blame him for the puking misery that was my life. Perhaps if another surrogate could carry children to term for our families then I would get a rest, but that was not the case, so here I puked and slept at the mercy of my team of caregivers.

###

13 WEEKS 4 DAYS

In the vision, the child watches me with large golden eyes.

“I won’t come,” she tells me, and I know that I carry a girl.

“What do you mean you won’t come?”

The visions had never spoken directly with me, nor had they come before the second trimester. At most, the visions contained bits of memory, almost like a broken excerpt from an audiobook. Usually, there was nothing more than a momentary impression. This vision is different, so clear, so immersive.

“I won’t come,” says the child, following me with her large golden eyes. She doesn’t appear any older than eight. “They want me to come, but they aren’t right for me.”

She hands me a wilted golden flower, the same shade as her eyes. I sniff it and she laughs. Her giggle like heaven, her joy immense and addictive. I need to make her laugh again. I tuck the flower into my hair and spin a circle. The giggles grow and grow until she can’t even stand. I catch her hands to keep her from falling. The laughter slows as we both gasp for breath.

She kisses me on the cheek.

An electric burst of pleasure zips through me, and for the first time in my five pregnancies, I wish the child were my own and not meant for another.

“I must go now,” she tells me suddenly, and her body melts into cascade of mist.

I reach into the mist to catch her, the cool moisture leaving me slightly damp.

“You can’t go!” I call after her. “You can’t leave!”

I place a hand on my belly as the skin tenses and releases.

“No, you can’t do this!”

I desperately race after her, determined to reason with an eight year old. My belly tightens with a true contraction. Right, you can’t reason with a fetus, let alone the memory of an eight year old.

###

“Wake up. Caprice, wake up!” Wilson’s urgency drew me out of the dream.  

Please don’t do this. Tell me what it is you need. I poured all of my focus into my thoughts, hoping beyond all hope that they would reach the baby. Please, give me a little more time. I begged and pleaded as more pressure filled my body. Fire pressed against my eyes as I refused to cry. I won’t give up. I can’t give up. The contractions intensified for a breath then slowly backed off.

There was a collective sigh of relief before Evan turned to my husband and whispered, “I am putting her on bedrest.”

Wilson didn’t argue, but neither was he pleased. I cringed, thinking about how this would affect our plans. We couldn’t worry the baby’s parents.

“I’m sorry,” I whimpered.

“No, no, sweetie.” Wilson brushed my sweat-soaked bangs from my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

Thank you.

I poured out my thoughts and worries, wondering if the child really heard my plea and had responded. A hint of gold caught my eye. The edge of a petal rested under the pillow. I picked up the wilted flower. The stem was bent as if it had been tucked behind my ear when Evan rolled me onto my side. I carefully wrapped my fingers around it, my mind lost in thoughts of the girl with magical laughter.

###

17 WEEKS 4 DAYS

“You really think they would be good parents for me?”

The eight year old appeared at the table across from me. Four weeks without any contractions or visions meant that I was able to join the family for brunch, in a wheelchair, of course.

I tried not to appear surprised. At least this vision was closer to the normal timeframe for crazy. She indicated Molly with a tilt of her head, golden eyes agleam.

“What’s her deal anyway? Is she positively nutso or is it just me?” the child asked. She turned her head the other direction and watched Richard for a moment. “He’s as stiff as a starched potato. How’d he end up with her anyhow?”

The child reached for her father’s plate and plucked a berry from the edge. A shadow of fruit rose with her hand, a little less colorful than the original. “Must have been sheer dumb luck.” She turned those brilliant golden eyes on me. “Have you had enough time yet?”

Fear struck me hard enough to send the bite I was pretending to eat flying. All eyes turned on me as the child laughed with pure magic.

“What’s wrong?” Wilson lay a hand across my back.

“Nothing.” I shook my head. “I thought I heard something, it startled me is all.”

The child’s eyes squinted in glee. “You are an excellent liar,” she assured me. “I would expect nothing else from someone capable of bearing and nurturing my human form.”

I started again, but didn’t show it this time.

“Much better,” she told me. “If we are to continue this relationship you’ll need to be better practiced at this.”

So, you’ll stay? I let the thought dangle.

“I’ll think about it.” She plucked another berry from her mother’s plate, leaving the pale version behind. “I might stick around just for these.” She waved her berry in the air. “They weren’t so easy to get the last time I was here.”

The last time you were here? But she was already gone with only a warning cramp to keep me in my wheelchair.

The rest of brunch was bland compared to the life that filled the child. I finished my pretense of eating and made it to the bathroom in time to throw up the two whole berries the child had eaten. How was that even possible?

I returned to the dining room where Molly hugged me, tears in her eyes. Richard shook everyone’s hands. I grimaced at the strength of his cologne, eager to rinse the scent of life off and crawl back into bed.

Wilson had other ideas.

“It’s such a lovely day. We should take a walk.”

He pushed my wheelchair to the back door. Warm sun soaked into my skin as he pushed me along the path that ran through the grounds. We bypassed a small pond and several cultivated garden spaces. He stopped by the little creek, the calming sound of moving water surrounding us.

“This pregnancy is harder than the last,” he said.

Yes, you obvious bull. I politely nodded.

A breeze carried childlike laughter past my ear. I tried not to grimace, but Wilson hadn’t noticed anything off.

“Do you still get the crazy pregnancy dreams that plagued you in the past?”

It was an innocent question, but my gut squirmed.

I shrugged. “Hormones tend to do that.” I didn’t speak of the visions. They seemed a dangerous thing to speak of.

He nodded. “Any fun ones to share?”

I had told him about strange pregnancy dreams in the past, but seeing as I was pregnant almost all of the last seven years, that or pumping milk for the babies, I had grown tired of sharing the weirdness of hormones. I wanted my body and imagination back as my own. Images of my mostly unused art studio filled me with longing.

“I gave birth to a bird the other day,” I lied. “A small yellow canary. It came out smooth and clean, and when it saw me, it bit me on the nose and flew away, for I was not its mamma.”

He laughed, as I knew he would. It was close enough to several of the dreams I’d had, but this pregnancy lent itself to a different type of dream that were mine alone to ponder.

The child dangled upside down from the sturdy branch of the oak tree nearest us. She asked with a quirk of her lips and mischief in her eyes, “Is he usually more pleasant or was he born without a bend to his back? How horrible for his mother to have to hold a board-stiff child all the time.”

It was all I could not to laugh as I thought back to our early days together when Wilson had been more fluid and energetic than anyone I knew. We’d play hooky to climb a mountain, stay out all night to watch the sunrise, and store snowballs in the freezer to bombard our friends in the middle of summer. I hadn’t married a board, but that had changed. Everything had changed when Louis died.

The girl twisted her body and flipped from the tree. I caught my breath. Wilson looked at me and placed a hand on my back.

“What’s wrong?”

I looked down, my hand splayed across my belly. The baby was wiggling furiously.

“The baby is moving,” I told him. I placed his hand where he could feel her kick. “A strong baby.”

The child laughed, placing her hand over my own.

“Strong, stubborn, willful, obstinate. You take your pick,” she said playfully, and her eyes gleamed as she caught my other hand. “The choice is yours, if I stay or if I go.” Foreboding rode her whisper. “But choose with care, for I won’t be raised by a board or a bore.”

I felt my belly tense. She disappeared.

“Time to get you back to bed.” Wilson took his hand from my belly and pushed me down the path toward the guest house.

I couldn’t agree more. A bath and bed were just what I needed to try and puzzle the meaning of the child’s words.

###

18 WEEKS 2 DAYS

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I stared at the IV line. Something tedious droned on the TV. Wilson graciously sat beside me, half focused on the show, half focused on me. He pretended this was interesting. So generous. I growled. I wanted to be up and moving. I wanted my body back. I wanted to paint and wade, knee deep, in clay.

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

Wilson’s voice grated on me. The deep tones that used to talk me into skinny dipping in the middle of winter now pecked at my final nerve.

“Out. I need out.” I might have snapped, but it had been long enough since the last time that I was due for a thorough snap. “I need out of the bed, and out of the house, and out of my friggin body.” I tried to push away from the bed, but the strength wasn’t there. I would need to increase my physical therapy sessions.

“You can’t do that.”

I know that. It would hurt the baby. Everything could hurt the baby. But she isn’t even my baby!

“Are you sure?” The child sat at the foot of the bed, golden eyes seeking deep into my own. The world tightened until all I could see was her.

“What do you want from me!?”

“He can hear you,” the child warned.

Why bother? You wanted to leave? You’ve threatened to more than once. You’ve bound me to this bed…

“Have I?”

She cut off my mental rant. The small girl crawled up the coverlet and a soft hand reached out to lightly brush my cheek. A shock of energy moved between us. I felt myself gasp, but I was no longer aware of the world around me. The child held all of my focus. The hand moved away from my skin to grab the IV line. “Are you sure?” She spoke into my ear as the line crimped closed. The constant drip of fluid slowed and stopped. I shivered.

I’ve been sicker than sick with this pregnancy.

“And you place that on me?” The child sounded sad.

I am carrying you.

“Which shouldn’t be possible.” The child mumbled as if I weren’t supposed to hear, but her words were as clear in my head as my own angry thoughts. “I suppose it is my doing that you are ill, but if you released all the blocks you’ve placed, it might go easier.”

Blocks?

“You should paint,” she told me.

I would love to. My heart cried with the thought of color and light.

The child grabbed my chin. “Do it. No matter how you feel. Paint.” She vanished as multiple pairs of hands filled the space that used to belong to golden eyes and ebony hair. I cried. I didn’t want her to leave.

“Caprice, can you speak?” Evan sounded worried. He repeated the question four more times.

“Yes,” I sputtered. “Please stop talking.” My head pounded a sorrowful tune to the beat of my heart.

Wilson leaned in close. “What did you see?” The words were clear and dark.

I jerked back. “What did you say?” I asked.

His eyes spoke of worry though his voice was as smooth as glass. “Nothing.”

I pulled the arm he was holding away from his grasp, the feeling of slime following his touch. What on earth? I love my husband.

Evan placed his own hands on my arm. “I need you to calm down.” His tone was serious. I didn’t flinch from his touch. “Tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know.” I could feel the child’s pleasure at my lie. That’s new. “I was watching TV with Wilson and now you are all here… What are you doing?” I noticed the number of hands keeping my body still upon the bed. The blankets were a tangled mess, the IV line bearing three true knots.

“Keeping you from injury.” Wilson said.

I grit my teeth together so that I wouldn’t hit Wilson… for his perfectly reasonable response to my question.

“I’m going to be sick,” I told them.

A tray was offered and then whisked away. I groaned and rested back into the pillows.

Once we were all certain I was done with whatever fit had come over me, Evan banished everyone from the room. He sat in Wilson’s chair. I had the sudden urge to light the thing on fire.

“What happened?” he asked me again.

I squinted at him. How was I supposed to answer? There was no way to explain dreams and visions of a golden-eyed child with laughter so marvelous that I would do anything to hear its sound again.

“I don’t know,” I honestly said.

“I don’t believe you.” Evan had been my doctor for a long time. He’d been with us since midway through the first pregnancy, when my original doctor didn’t agree with Wilson’s care plan. “You’ve spoken in confidence with me before. I offer the same opportunity now.”

He was the only one I had told about the visions. His were words of caution, and they kept me from speaking the same words to others, even Wilson.

I shook my head. I didn’t dare speak of the child I carried. Not a soul could know that I had met or spoken with her. Where had that knowledge come from? I looked around for the girl, but she was nowhere in sight. The baby in my belly was still.

“I see,” Evan responded.

What do you see? What do you know?

Wait. What does he know?

I watched my belly for any affirmation or sign. The thoughts in my mind were only partially my own.

He put a new drip into my IV. It offered him the chance to lean in close and whisper in my ear. “When the time is come, I’ll be ready.”

“For what?” I whispered back.

He watched me with eagle eyes. “You’ll know.” He patted my arm. “Get some rest. I’ll have the others leave you alone for a while. Is there anything I can get for you?”

Paint! The child’s thought rang about my mind.

“Paint,” I whispered, fearful that someone might scorn me for my desire. They all knew that even the smell of paint made me ill.

He nodded, a small smile gleaming in his eyes, his mouth studiously still. “I’ll be sure to provide what you need.”

###

18 WEEKS 3 DAYS

The colors flowed without conscious input. True to his word, Evan had brought a selection of paint, brushes, and a lap-sized canvas. I closed my eyes. There was no need for me to see as I painted, the images in my mind were strong enough to guide my hand by feel alone. Lost in the world of texture and sound, I was startled when a hand brushed across my shoulder.

“Please, put it away quick!” The voice was frantic.

I blinked away the vision before me and looked at the colorful canvas. It was the flower that the child had given me, light sprouting behind and before it in a slew of colors I hadn’t been given to paint with. I shook my head and the colors returned to the ones I had placed on the canvas. Evan was shoving brushes and bottles into an empty pillowcase. He tried to take the painting. I clutched it to my chest.

“Caprice, please.” His eyes pleaded with deeper desperation than his words. “He must not see this.” There was fear in his words.

I released my treasure.

He quickly helped me into a clean gown and added the paint covered gown and blankets to the pillowcase. He shoved them into the closet just before Wilson knocked and peeked his head into the room with a grin that promised an afternoon of fun.

“I have a surprise for you.” His gaze sparkled as it had when we were dating and life was nothing but wonder and magic.

“Okay.” I feigned excitement. He believed me.

“Can she be in her wheelchair for a spell?” he asked Evan. The doctor nodded. “You’ll come as well,” Wilson commanded. He leaned in to whisper his plans to the doctor before leaving.

Evan relaxed when Wilson had gone. “We have a little time to get ready. Come on, let’s put you in something other than a medical gown.”

I picked a sunny red dress, one of the colors woven through the background of my painting.

Bathed and ready to go, we waited for Wilson to come to the door. He arrived in a spiffy getup that included dress pants and my favorite of his shirts. I hadn’t been aware that he had stolen it back from me. I’d taken to keeping it in my bedside table for the times when I was missing him.

A mischievous grin tugged at his lips. “Come on.” He took charge of the wheelchair.

A limo was waiting in the curved driveway. He helped me into the backseat as the driver packed up the wheelchair. Evan slid into the back next to me. He checked my pulse before trading seats with Wilson.

“I’m fine,” I insisted, though nobody cared to listen.

We took the most scenic route from our hillside home into the city. I watched the water below the cliff with bated breath. It was always a fearful thing to drive along the sharp drop to certain doom.

The child appeared in the seat next to me. Her hand clutched my own with the strength of a vice.

“He’s showing you how good you have it. He’s afraid he’s losing you.” The child filled the still air with thoughts I certainly didn’t want expressed. Once the words were spoken, I could not deny their veracity.

How do you know this?

“He’s expected this since the first pregnancy, but I didn’t come then. Neither did I come for the second. He almost had me with the third, but didn’t do it right. The fourth… pffft. This time, he caught me.” Her words were forlorn and distant.

My vision blurred with the strength of her emotions. An overlay of a foreign land filled with rainbow trees and plants I could not name replaced reality. My heart longed for that land.

“You’ve changed,” she told me. “He’s noticed.”

My breath caught in my chest. Surely I wasn’t that different?

“I can still escape, you know. I can leave and go back.”

The words dangled, tempting me that I might stay in the comfort of my life, but it would mean losing her and never hearing her laughter again.

“I thought so.” She responded to the wave of emotions I hadn’t sorted through. “Things will move fast.” She tightened her grip on my hand. “Don’t be afraid.”

I blinked and she was gone. The baby rolled and moved within my belly as a practice contraction moved between us. I placed a hand over her, loving her.

The car pulled to a stop at my favorite museum. The chauffeur pulled out the wheelchair and opened the door. Evan and Wilson aided me into my seat. My husband certainly knew how to make me happy. We chatted of innocent things, art and artists of days past. There was a new exhibit from an up-and-coming artist who lived just down the hill from us. She had an interesting view of color and lines. Wilson wasn’t too thrilled, though Evan seemed intrigued by the works.

“Meh. I’ve seen better.” The child spoke as she leapt from the arm of my wheelchair to get a closer look at the monochromatic piece, her commentary for my ears alone. For a brief moment I felt as if the blue were suddenly clearer and fuller. When I blinked again the portrait seemed rather dull. She turned to watch Wilson as he moved us deeper into the museum. She spoke over his words. “Really, what do you see in him?”

I glared at her. She brushed off my offense.

“Must have been something grande, a facade worthy of an award to get you so deeply connected to him that you would put yourself through this more than once. Was it your idea or his?”

Both… no, his. I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant again. The first was enough, but the parents had wanted a sibling for their baby. I couldn’t say no, just like I couldn’t refuse to carry babies for the next three families…

“Do you still love him?” she asked.

Yes. Very much. The last part held more hesitation than I was comfortable with, but things had drastically changed from the wild passion that had drawn us together. He was still the beautiful and generous man I had fallen for as a younger student giving her first art show. I was still… well, I was hardly an artist anymore. Seven years of all-day-sickness or pumping milk would do that to a person. We no longer had the spunk and spontaneity we had enjoyed in our younger days together. But I still loved him. Wilson took my hand as we moved on to the next exhibit. He cared for me and loved me. My thoughts trailed as we entered the hall of statues, the baby kicking away. No. It wasn’t a facade that drew us together. It was love or lust or something equally addictive. We were good together.

“Just keep telling yourself that.” The child ran off before I could respond.

###

19 WEEKS 4 DAYS

Evan measured my growing belly. The child wiggled as he worked. He laughed.

“A lively little being,” he commented quietly. I nodded. She was the wiggliest of all the babies I had carried. He took my pulse through my failed attempts at creating the proper shade of blue. No matter how I tried, I could not capture the hue I had seen in the museum. The paintings of the child’s land were not right without that blue. Evan moved a blue-coated canvas off the bed and set it next to three others, each wrong in a way that made my stomach curl.  

“Blue period?” he teased.

I frowned. “Can you get me more paint?”

“You’ve used all the blue already?” He opened the closet and dug out two fresh tubes, one turqouise and the other Payne’s Grey. I’d already mixed those two as many ways as I could imagine. “It’s all that’s left,” he said, noticing my disappointment. Then, with an indication to the pile of mispainted forests, he asked, “May I take these?”

The question was nothing more than good manners. I couldn’t keep them here. I wasn’t sure why I believed this, but I did. I shrugged. Evan hurriedly added them to the basket of dirty laundry he was planning to take to the housekeeper. He left me alone with the blue failures.

“Evan’s waited for me longer than anyone else has.” The child picked up the nearest mistake. She squinted at it and for a breath it was the correct shade of blue.

“How’d you do that?” I reached for the painting as the doorknob turned.

“Hello, Caprice.” A nurse entered the room as the painting clattered to the ground outside of my reach. She bustled over and picked it up.

“Interesting work,” she said, arranging the paintings across the top of my desk. “I’m sure they’ll spruce up the room. Just need to get some nails and a hammer.” The walls were already covered by my failed attempts to get the correct shades of red, orange and gold.

“You are trying too hard,” the child told me, as my nurse started hanging the monochromatic canvases. “You have to relax and let it come to you.” The baby crimped the IV line and took my hands in her own. “Close your eyes and breathe with me.”

I obeyed.

“Now open your eyes.”

Her breath floated across my face. The first thing I saw were her golden eyes, liquid-rich with shades of amber and coal in their depths. A forest filled her vision. She backed away. The forest filled my room. Animal noises and fresh air washed over me. I took a step forward, fully embracing the vision she offered. My legs had the strength to function. Tears blurred my overwhelmed vision.

“Keep practicing.” She told me as the immersive vision disappeared.

My nurses worry broke through my wonder. “Are you uncomfortable? Is something wrong?” She was next to the bed, my hand clasped in both of hers. An alert light flashed in the corner of my vision. Evan would be there shortly. No doubt Wilson wouldn’t be far behind. He kept a close eye on the emergency call line.

“Did I black out?” I asked instead. It was a good excuse that I juiced for all its worth.  

She shook her head. “Not fully. You were just gone.” She brushed a hand across my forehead and checked my pulse and blood pressure. “That’s odd.” She examined the IV line. “It’s not working.” She removed the little plastic bit that kept it crimped. I grimaced as the cool liquid flowed into my body.

Evan blew into the room. For a moment it appeared as if he were wearing strange clothing reminiscent of ancient lore or even a few modern-day fairy tales. His strange clothing was gone as quickly as it had appeared, replaced once more by his usual button up shirt and black pants. His skin no longer carrying the slight green undertone it had borne a moment before. Weird. Must have been some leftover vision-voodoo.

“It’s time,” Evan whispered, just before Wilson joined us in the room, his work clothes rumpled from his quick jog over.

Time, for what?

“Your final decision,” the child explained. “Do I stay or do I go?”

I couldn’t let her go. Not now, not ever. The world needed the life and beauty that she carried. I needed her.

She laughed, and I melted. Wilson took my hand. I wrenched it from his grasp, the feeling of a thousand needles in his touch.

“Shhhh, it’s okay.” Evan pressed me back against the pillows though I couldn’t recall an attempt to get up.

Wilson watched with a mournful sigh. I relaxed my vision and my breathing evened out. For a moment, Wilson was no longer with us, rather a dark facsimile stood in his place. My mind added flames to the imagining and I hid my smile. Wilson, the one I had loved and married, took a step back.

“I just hurt,” I expressed with the deepest sorrow I could muster, offering my husband my hand. He took it with the light touch of a feather. There was no prick or burn. He looked at me with liquid love in his gaze and a soft smile on his face.

“Maybe we’ll take a break after this baby,” he suggested.

I nodded. That would be nice.

“About time,” Evan mumbled, as he readjusted my bedding.

Wilson bent to whisper to the nurse. She left and returned with a movie in her hands. It was the newest in the superhero series I had grown to love. The movie wasn’t even out of theaters yet.

“How did you get it?” I gasped in excitement.

“I pulled a few strings.” His grin grew to match my own. “I thought I’d play hooky on the rest of work today and we could watch Attack of the Mora Beast together.”

I nodded in genuine excitement.

See, he is the man I fell in love with. The child simply laughed at me. I ignored her and settled in to watch the movie that I had wanted to see since the first trailer came out.

###

19 WEEKS 5 DAYS

In the dream, I follow the child through the forest as she moves between the rainbow world that she knows and the dull green that is my reality.

My fingers itch to paint what I see or even attempt a sculpture of the marvelous flowers that scent the air with heady, earthy aromas that miraculously do not trigger my puking reflex.

“Not yet,” the child whispers. “We have a ways to go.”

She tugs at my arm. I follow her into a clearing. The colors of our two worlds mix until everything is muddy and swirled. I clutch my belly as I struggle not to puke. It is wrong. Everything about this place is wrong. I squeeze the child’s hand. She looks back at me as tears stream down her face.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” I ask, kneeling before her and brushing the tears away.

She shakes her head. “Not hurt in the way that you know pain.”

Her explanation makes no sense, the words too grown up for the eight year old frame I’ve grown accustomed to. I hug her, offering comfort and safety. She smells of the glorious flowers and rain, not the polluted rain of my reality, the fresh rain of a place that doesn’t know environmental devastation.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Why are you fighting me?”

My breath freezes in my lungs. “I’m not.” I hear the pretense of the words before they even leave my lips.

“I will miss you.”

She walks away.

“NO!” I place my hands on her shoulders, barely keeping pace with her.

“Then open your eyes!” she yells at me. “Open your eyes and quit shutting out the things that you wish were false. Or have you become so comfortable with your reality that you would know nothing else?”

The clearing transforms from the swirl of brown to the beauty of what had been there before travesty hit, deep red earth growing yellow, orange, and green trees with a sparkling purple river rippling green, gold, and turquoise as it bubbles through the fertile earth.

“I’ve shown you the truth, but you refuse to listen!”

The clearing dulls to mud and muck. The thick river struggles, gurgling against the sheen of oil that shimmers on its surface, a distorted beauty born of pollution instead of life.

“I’ve been listening,” I insist.

“You’ve made a valiant effort to listen, but you’ve been dulled for far too long.” She brushes at my tears this time.

Footsteps sound behind me. The unfamiliar image I had seen beneath Evan’s skin the day before stands behind me. He is taller than the Evan I know, younger and older, all at once. His skin ripples green, brown, gold and amber. His hair weaves about his head like the bark of a tree. However different he seems, I knew that it is Evan, the Evan I feel I should already know.

He speaks then, his voice sharp and clear. “Child, be patient with her. There are forces working on her that you have not touched in many generations. She has done better than any before her has done and lasted longer than any other.”

The child listens to his words with an intensity that sends my gut to quivering.

“She is the first to bear your form in how many years?” Evan asks the child.

I do not expect to hear an answer. My curiosity is stifled by a force beyond myself. Instead, I try to grasp the form Evan wears. It isn’t possible. It can’t be possible!

“She knows nothing of our world,” he explains to the child. “Surely you have gathered that much.”

The child shrugs. “I know much, but my interest lies in her getting away, escaping those that had trapped me within her.”

“Trapped you?” I sputter.

She nods. “How else was I to be caught if they didn’t work their vile magic and call to me? What do you think the others you bore are?” She glares at Evan, keeping him silent, though he obviously wants to speak. “There is no time to be careful or gentle. She must make her final decision instead of this waffling junk she keeps pulling. You do know how to make up your own mind, don’t you?” she asks me sharply.

I open my mouth to insist that I can, but in reality, it has been a long time since I’ve had to make any decision beyond what I might wear or watch on TV. Those are not the type of decisions she cares about.

“I thought as much,” the child groans “It would have been easier if I hadn’t been placed in someone so lulled into complacency.”

For a moment, she appears ageless and ancient, wisdom beyond human years in her eyes. Then she is eight again. It is too much. I flee the clearing. Two sets of footsteps keep pace with me. Evan catches me and waits until I’ve calmed before speaking.

“She is right.” He catches my wrist before I can hit him, my reaction startling me more than his speed.  

“I am not complacent.” I force my fears into the deepest reaches of my mind, for I can not admit what they might lead to.

“I wasn’t your idea.” The child arrives at a more reasonable pace. “Neither were the other four.” She waits for me to protest, and when I say nothing, continues, “You didn’t want to have the family dinners and chat about children you would never know. As the sickness grew worse, you wished for drugs and sleep… perhaps maybe death?”

I shake my head, but her words are true, and she knows it.

“What sort of veil did he place upon you for you to love him so?” she leers,  piercing straight into the heart of my fears. The image of my dear husband shatters until all I can see is the stranger of the day before, darkness clothed in flawless human flesh, searing, joyless eyes stare into my soul. My desire to light him on fire increases.

“I’m sorry,” the child whisperes softly, as Evan cradles me against his chest. The smell of freshly turned earth and sunlight suit him better than the chemical smell of soap and laundry detergent. “We’d hoped that you would come to the realization on your own and escape, but you are too close to the day where I must leave if you didn’t fully accept your role.”

“My role?” I hiccup between the words.

“As my mother.” The child beams. “Once I am viable we will no longer be able to speak as we do now. I’ve only three weeks to teach you what you need to know.”

I shake my head. “No, the visions last the entire pregnancy.”

The girl rolls her eyes in full childish obstinance. “I am not your normal pregnancy, remember?”

She pushes something hard and worn into the palm of my hand. I run my finger over the smooth surface of the stone as my heart flutters. It is the stone I’d carried with me all through my childhood, the only memory I have left of my mother. I fit my finger into the groove I’ve worn into it over the years. It had gotten lost not long after I’d met Wilson, but I hadn’t needed it so desperately with him by my side.

Memories wash over me. Colors and thoughts that had led me to pursue art at the university. My hands itch with the memory of forming clay flowers and fairy homes that come straight from the visions that the child grants me.

“What a grand facade, a wondrous tale, and a lovely life he created just for you.” The child’s words bite into me with a piercing truth.

“So, what will it be?” Evan asks.

I look between him and the child. “Who are you? Both of you.”

“I am your guardian,” Evan explains with a bow, “though there was little I could do until you discovered me for yourself.”

“No.” I clutch the stone to my chest. It can’t be realthis, them, my lost stone. The stone goes hot, then cold right as Evan speaks.

“Your abilities hide you so well that even my people had no way to find you until the first baby became viable.”  

“No!” I repeat. I don’t have abilities. Just stupid, crappy, bottom of the dung barrel morning sickness…

The child catches my hands and my attention. I sink into her golden gaze. “It’s all true,” she says, and her words mesmerize and promise adventure and life unlike anything I’ve ever known. Who are you? I think the words, but cannot speak them.  

The child grins. She carefully draws me back to the clearing, to the place where wrong and right are at such odds that the very earth can not determine which to obey. She releases my hand and walks away as my mind freezes in terror. I have to choose…

“Wait! Please don’t go!” I chase after her as the world tilts. She blows into my arms. Her magical laughter wraps us in a warm embrace.

“She’s your daughter,” Evan explains in her stead. The ground grows solid again, green, brown and fertile. I relax my vision, the overlay of color as glorious as before, though not nearly as overwhelming. The child, my child, does not change, her golden eyes and ebony hair blow on the same wind that carries me from my dream.

###

I sat up with a gasp. The smooth stone was tucked into my right hand. Fear drove me to get out and away while I could.

My night nurse was dozing in the chair near the bed. I carefully pulled back the covers and tugged at my IV. The thin tube came out with a pop of blood. Oops. I nabbed a nearby towel and held it against my arm.

My nurse grunted in her sleep. I barely breathed, waiting until she settled before I climbed out of bed. The floor was cold and my muscles watery, but I tiptoed to the front door of the guest house. The door was locked from the outside.

The child stood at my elbow, watching with interest. “You seem surprised,” she told me. She didn’t seem surprised to find the door locked from the outside.

“He’s afraid that he’s losing you.” She laughed, breaking through my fear with the joy she carried. “What do you think, can he win you back?” She tilted her head toward the main house where a shadow jogged our way.

Wilson unlocked the door and wrapped me in a hug. I didn’t push away, despite the icy chill of his touch. My mind dreamt up fire. I shoved the idea away.

“Caprice, what’s wrong?” He led me to the couch, urging me to sit while he pulled the cloth away from my arm, the laughter lines around his eyes furrowed with worry. There was only a little blood on the white fabric. It resembled a flower or a monster. I couldn’t decide.

“Why was the door locked?” I asked. I needed the truth from him, for once.

“I didn’t want anything to happen to you.” Wilson, always my protector, my knight in shining armor, only had the best in mind for me.

“No, that’s not it.” I said. As I spoke those words, not even a shadow of the image I had grown to love in the man before me remained. His dark eyes held none of the warmth and love that I knew. I relaxed my vision, perhaps it would work the other way around?

For a breath, I saw Wilson, my Wilson, with adoration in his warm brown eyes. Then it was gone and his dark eyes watched me in anger… and fear? I placed my hand on his cheek, the sensation beneath my fingers did not match the image my eyes knew. Wilson’s eyes widened briefly as the angles beneath my fingers shifted to match my sight. I pulled my hand away before I could give away my secret. Too late.

“Caprice.” I felt like a child in trouble when he spoke. There was no warmth, comfort, or familiarity in his words. “What aren’t you telling me?”

I hid my desire to flee. He softened.

“You are safe here, you know.”

I nodded. He placed his hands over the top of mine. I closed my eyes, a catch to my breathing that I was having trouble controlling.

“Where were you trying to go?”

“My studio,” I lied.

“It’s three in the morning.”

His concern was nothing but a lie. I squeezed my eyes closed as tears burned behind my eyelids. He tried to twine his fingers through mine, I ripped them away from him.

“Caprice, what is this?” He caught my wrist and forced my right hand open, the stone lying across my palm. There was no imagining the fear this time. “Where did you get that?!” He knew of the stone. My stone.

“You took it?” I accused, certain of his guilt. He didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. “It was the only thing I had from my mother!” I scrambled away from him with the stone clutched to my chest.

“Caprice.” My name stretched into two sorrowful syllables. “Please give me back the stone.”

“What does it matter to you?” I demanded.

Wilson stopped, my body already pressed against the floor length window furthest from the door. There was no emotion in the unfamiliar dark eyes.

“You weren’t trying to go to your studio.” He pulled a small silver device out of his pocket. Fear choked me. What was he doing? He stepped toward me. “I need the stone back.”

“You can’t have it.”

I tried to slide along the windows toward the door. Wilson gently grabbed my shoulders. I ducked and failed to escape his hold. Stupid constant pregnancies! My limbs were as weak as wet bath towels. I struggled uselessly as he took my hand in a tender lover’s grasp.

“Give me the rock, Caprice.” He said, a sharp edge to the words.

Why hadn’t he just taken it? He was obviously much stronger than me.

The door interrupted my refusal. Evan took in the scene without a lick of emotion on his face. I wrenched against Wilson’s grasp on my wrists. Evan shook his head with an almost imperceptible frown.

“Doctor, good timing. I could use your help. My wife is awfully distressed tonight, distraught, really. Perhaps there is something we can do to help ease her mind a touch?” I gulped.

Evan tucked his hand under my elbow. “Let me get Caprice settled and then we will discuss our options.”

I froze. I didn’t want to go back to bed. I didn’t want to be drugged into complacency. The stone grew warm against the palm of my hand. I feared that it would slip from my sweaty grip.

Wilson’s hold on me relaxed. Evan smiled encouragingly. I leaned against my doctor. Evan wouldn’t drug me into complacency.

The door clicked closed behind us, the lock catching with a thud that sank into my body and mind like ice.

I gasped as Evan shoved me behind himself and spun toward Wilson. A shield of light blocked the zip of power that roared out of Wilson’s silver device. Where had Evan gotten a shield?

“You can stop him,” Evan whispered to me as the shield wavered. Another wave of energy popped against the shield.

Wilson sank into his true form, his shadowed body hard and black eyes expressionless as he advanced with the oblong silver device held before him.

“Give me the stone!”

No matter how I screwed my eyes, there was no vestige of the man I knew left.

Evan was steady as he held the shield between us and Wilson. I sank to the floor with a shiver. This couldn’t be happening. I pinched myself and yelped, awake, alert, and wishing that it were only a nightmare.  

“Caprice, stay with me!” Evan commanded, as his form shifted into the woodman from the dream, complete with a glowing sword.

Wilson laughed. “You are the guard they snuck into my presence?”

He drew his own blade, light sucked into its depths as if it were made of the same darkness that shone from the holes where eyes normally resided.

Evan bowed with an added flourish of sword and shield. “And you never suspected me.”

Wilson swung his blade, betrayal in every line of his face. Evan parried. I covered my ears as my bones rang with the attack.

“Please, stop!” I cried out.

“You can stop this.” It was the child, kneeling by my elbow.

“No, I can’t even stand,” I told her, watching as the men fought.

“Evan can’t stop him.” she told me. “He isn’t powerful enough or he might have tried something before now. You are the only one here who can stop him.”

“I don’t know how,” I mumbled as Evan’s shield shattered. I covered my face as burning shards fell over me.

Evan glanced toward me in worry.

“No, don’t!” I screamed, but my warning was too late.

Wilson’s sword slashed down across Evan’s arm. Evan winced as blood dripped onto the white carpet and switched his blade to his other hand.

“Close your eyes,” the child instructed. I obeyed. There was no other option. “Deep breaths.” She covered my eyes with her hands. “Now, open them.”

I obeyed, seeing as if there were nothing over my eyes. Everything slowed. I could see the energy that each man gathered before they struck, the energy they poured into their shields, and the energy that Evan wasted in his attempt to protect me.

“The stone?” she prompted.

I lifted my hand. The rock glowed with the magnificent red I could never replicate. I held it in front of me as if it were a shield. It pulsed in the palm of my hand.

“Now,” the child whispered.

I released the heat in my palm, the red glow flowing over the room. Wilson faltered.

“Again,” the child urged.

I poured my focus into the stone, waiting for the red to be just right. I could feel it before I could see it. I held it a beat longer and released just as Wilson came at me, his focus on the stone in my hand. He stumbled at the release of power and Evan struck him from behind. Wilson fell in a puddle of rancid blood.

Evan scooped me from the ground as his sword disappeared to whatever realm he had pulled it from.

“We have to leave, now!” Evan ran from the guesthouse faster than any person I had ever seen. A car was waiting at the edge of the long driveway, an unfamiliar figure in the driver’s seat. Evan slid into the backseat without releasing me. “Go!”

The driver obeyed.

Evan carefully placed me beside him, procuring a bag just as my stomach released its contents. Fear and exhaustion battled with the crazy that my mind had no way to process. I shivered as cold washed over me. “Is he… dead?” I asked.

“Not dead, no.” Evan pulled blankets from a bag that was on the floor of the car. He stopped me from falling over and wrapped the fabric around me. “It would take more than that to kill a hem-netjer.”

“A hem-netjer?”

I could feel my awareness slipping. The air around me wavered between reality and the strange world that the child knew. I couldn’t make sense of either.

“A servant of the gods,” Evan said, as he mixed some sort of powder into a bottle of water. “Drink.” He held the bottle to my lips. I hesitantly sipped and found that my body could tolerate the mixture, at least for the moment. Warmth flowed through my limbs and into my mind. “Just a little more and then you can sleep.”

I didn’t want to sleep. The chill dissipated entirely. My mind broke free of the fear that had claimed it so strongly. I opened my mouth to demand answers. I could have sworn Evan just told me that my husband was a servant of the gods. My stomach heaved a warning.  

“All in good time,” the child assured me, and she curled up on the seat next to me, her head in my lap. “All in good time.”

I placed a hand over my belly in sudden fear. The baby kicked and I relaxed. She was fine. I tightened my hold on the smooth old stone and held the image of a shield in my mind as the car smoothly slid through traffic.

 

 

Walk in the Shadows

by Jeremy C. Schofield

 

My sales were done for the day and I was finally able to relax a little, when I saw her coming down Shoreline Drive. I was in my usual M.O., sticking to the shadows, so she wouldn’t have been able to see me until she was only a few feet away. The strange, refracted light from our damnable ever-present clouds gave her two shadows for a moment, and I wished I had a cell phone or a camera to capture it. She was looking back behind her and across the street when I decided to surprise her.

“Hello, Caroline.”

She spun back around to face me, one hand spread toward me as if to shield herself when she saw me and relaxed.

“Dylan. Still lurking, I see?”

“Yup, that is me. The lurkmeister. How has life been treating you?” I didn’t add “…since you vanished overnight all those years ago.” It didn’t seem diplomatic.

“I am fine. I know this seems awkward, but I really need to go.”

I was no longer looking at her face. The second shadow I had noticed before and dismissed as an optical illusion was crawling along the pavement toward me. It rotated around her body, reaching (consider revising) toward me like an accusing finger. I took a step backward involuntarily.

“What the hell is that?” I asked. I did my best to sound calm, but my voice still warbled like a karaoke singer at the tail end of happy hour. The shadow had finished stretching out towards me, and was now forming a line in front of me, looking like a capital “T” someone had written on the sidewalk in roiling black ink.

She looked somewhere between disgusted and amused. “It is trying to protect me. It responds to malice and anger. I didn’t know you were still that angry. Maybe you had better go.”

Supernatural line drawing notwithstanding, this was too much. “You didn’t know I would be angry? How the hell else was I supposed to feel? One more morning I wake up alone, and that is it? After three years, no more Dylan and Carolina?”

Her eyes grew wide when I used the Spanish pronunciation for her name. “Don’t say…” she began, but it was too late. The line vibrated, pulsing with energy, and suddenly vanished. In its place sat a bundle of eyeballs, fur, and teeth. It looked at me, looked back at her, looked at me again, clearly unsure what it was supposed to be doing.

I could feel the brick of the building behind me pushing into my back through the body of my pack, and thought stupidly for a moment that I was glad I had already taken care of my business–no merchandise left to damage.  I pointed at the apparition in the street.

“Again, what the hell is that?”

She sighed, obviously put out with me. I was familiar with the body language. “Look, let’s step in here for a minute, and I will try to explain,” she said, gesturing toward the alley between the closest two buildings.

I took another look at the two-foot tall ball of furry death in front of me, noticing saliva gleaming on its fangs. “How about you step into the alley, and I will stay out here. I have no intention of getting into an enclosed space with that.” I noticed my hand was shaking while I pointed at her hyper-vigilant thing. I was never very good with stress.

She sighed as if I had asked her about texts on her phone from some guy I didn’t recognize, and walked around me into the alley. I noticed her mobile string mop stayed between her and I the whole time, turning around and backing into the alley to stay close to her, never taking its eyes off of me. Unable to help myself, I followed to the mouth of the alley, looking for answers.

She leaned up against an exhaust-darkened brick wall. “It is an Inugami – a dog spirit.” She said this matter-of-factually, as if she was describing a goldfish. “It is my spiritual protector. It normally stays in my shadow, but can be called out with a summoning phrase.” At last, she has the grace to look embarrassed. “I suppose I will have to change it now.”

“Dylan and…” I stop myself before uttering it again. “That was your summoning phrase? Not, ‘Inugami, I choose you?’”

“They are nothing like that, Dylan.” The exasperation returns to her voice. “There is no little red ball, no quests to fight other Inugami, I certainly don’t want to try to catch them all. As for the phrase – no one else has ever said my name the way you did. It made me feel safe.”

I am simultaneously honored and angry. Watching the narrowing eyes and shifting position of her dog-spirit, I decide to switch subjects quickly. “What is its name?” I ask.

“Jun.” she grimaces. “I was hoping it would make him more obedient.”

I step into the alley and kneel. “Come here, Jun.” I have been around dogs my whole life – until Caroline, in fact. I hold my hand out for him to approach and investigate. Being eaten is the least of my concerns right now as I try to make sense of my ex showing up with a spirit walking dog.

Again, her eyes grow wide with panic. “No, you can’t do…” Her voice trails off as Jun walks over to me, gives my hand a cursory sniff, then places his head below it – dog-speak for “you may pet me now.” I am startled by the almost ice-cold temperature radiating off of his body when I scratch his head for a minute. I look up at Caroline, and notice she is crying. Alarmed, I stop petting the spirit-dog and stand up.

“Caroline, what is wrong?”

Now it is her turn to shake, a trembling finger pointing at Jun. “You aren’t supposed to be able to do that.” Is all she can say.

“Why not?” I ask. “If he is a guardian angel dog, surely he knows I don’t mean you any harm.”

She shakes her head in angry denial. “That’s not how it works. He is only a weapon, a tool. He is never anything but angry. He knows I don’t love him.”

I am puzzled by this, but at least I know the answer. “Any dog will be what you expect it to be, Carol.  If you want a pet, they will be a pet. If you want a guard, they will be a guard.”

She can’t take her eyes off of Jun, as if seeing him for the first time. “But you don’t understand…the horrible things I had to do to create him…” she breaks down completely now. Jun moves back toward her and sticks his not-really-a-nose against her leg. She crumples to the ground and embraces him fiercely, weeping like I have never seen her cry. It is a very odd sort of heartwarming moment–the Lifetime Channel meets a late-night horror movie.

Which is, of course, when the spirits find us.

***

The skies have been growing darker this whole time, and now a frozen wind picks up, blowing straight down the alley. Suddenly the voice of the wind becomes louder- an unearthly shriek, with gibbering and moaning human voices captured inside it. I turn my head, and a disembodied figure rushes by me, headed for Caroline. As I look back at her and Jun, I see two more heading down the alley behind her.

“Dylan!” she cries out, then rushes towards me. For a moment I have the crazy idea that she is running to hide behind me, hoping I will protect her from these things.

This idea goes the way of all illusions as she turns in front of me and uses her body to force me into a corner between a wall and a dumpster, keeping herself between me and the spirits. She places her hands together, whispers something I can’t quite hear, and suddenly there is a blinding blade of light between her hands held across her body like a samurai sword. The three glowing figures turn to follow her, and I briefly notice that it is now somehow darker than night in this alley.

There is a pulse- an explosion of light from behind the spirits, and where there was once two feet of mop fur and fangs, Jun has suddenly become an ice-shrouded avatar of dog-spirit, bigger than an Akita. A pair of wings unfolds from somewhere under that coat of ice and fur, and he bays like a prairie wolf beneath a full moon as he launches himself at the spirits.

Caroline, I notice, is doing nothing to attack the spirits, merely fending them off each time they come near her. The fight is left to Jun- he grabs an incorporeal body between his fangs and flies muzzle first into the alley wall. The spirit falls, limp, and then Caroline’s guardian plants his feet on the body, pinning it against the wall and pulling with his head. There is another bright explosion of energy, and where the spirit was there is now a pile of ashes.

The other figures have not been idle, though. While one keeps Caroline busy, the other is rending its claws down Jun’s flanks, causing gaping wounds to appear. As I watch, the wounds are immediately frozen over by the radiation of the dog’s body, and he turns to grasp his attacker between his teeth. When the second explosion of not-light fills the alley, the last spirit abandons its attack on Caroline and flees, keening, down the alley.

The radiance disappears from between Caroline’s hands, and we are left with only two piles of ash and a panting Jun to show that the fight ever occurred. The ammoniac stench of urine fills the air.

“Thank you,” is all I can manage over the thundering of my heart. I look at Jun. “Will he be OK?”

She nods. “Another ritual to heal him after I return home.” She looks suddenly troubled. “I am going to have to re-think this whole thing.”

I walk over to Jun, now reduced back to his fanged mop form, and wonder where the wings went. I place my hand on his head. His rear end moves back and forth as if he was trying to wag his non-existent tail. “Thank you, Jun. I hope you get better very soon.”

He vanishes from beneath my hand, being sucked back into Caroline’s shadow. I look at her as if I have never seen her before. Maybe I never have.

“Are you going to explain any of this?” I ask plaintively.

She shakes her head. “Not right now. These-” she nods her head towards the ash piles, “were what we were looking for in the first place. Now we need to get home and fort up while Jun recovers.”

A silver flask appears from somewhere, and she begins using it to gather up the glistening remains of the two spirits. I notice she is careful to never touch the gleaming ashes with her hands. “Ash Falls is a battleground, Dylan. The walls between the worlds are especially thin here. Every kind of monster, spirit and demon you’ve ever heard of finds their way here eventually. Even fighting back against them turns you into a kind of a monster, like I am.”

I want to comfort her, to tell her she is not a monster. Remembering what she said about Jun, I can’t get the words to come out. She finishes her spiritual housekeeping, and the flask vanishes again. She turns to look at me.

“Are you still dealing?” she asks, looking over my shoulder at my pack.

I nod, embarrassed that I was judging her behavior just a moment ago.

She smiles and shakes her head. “Then you’re part of the problem. Knock it off and get out of this town.”

I shake my head. “I’ve tried to leave before, Carolina. I just can’t make it stick for some reason.”

She nods, sadly. “Yeah, that is part of the effect. Somehow we all have our anchors set at the corner of 1st Street and Rosedale Drive. I don’t know what causes that either.”

She straightens her back and takes a deep breath. “Look, if you really want to know, I will call you and we can talk about it some time later, somewhere safer. OK? Has your number changed?”

I shake my head, wondering if she means it, or if this is the last time I will see her. “I would like that,” is all I say.

She walks forward and embraces me- not like a lover, but not quite like a friend either. “I will call you soon. Maybe Jun would like to see you again, anyway,” she adds, cryptically. Then she is gone.

“Adios, amor.” I whisper. I pull my spare sweats out of my backpack, then take off my soaking jeans and underwear and stuff them in. I will have to go commando on the way home, but you see worse on our streets every day. I take another look at my pack, then throw the whole thing into the dumpster. I don’t know what I am going to do now, but there is no escaping that the world just got a whole lot bigger than I ever thought it was.

***

Halfway home, I start to wonder if maybe I should get a dog.

Teenage Badass

TEENAGE BADASS

by Kostas Paradias

Finn is a Helfwir, a monster hunter born. At the age of 8, Finn was capable of destroying a vampire with a plastic spoon. By the time she was 10, Finn knew a hundred ways of killing pretty much everything that went bump in the night.

Now, on her 14th birthday, Finn decides she wants to try living a normal life. She leaves home for Orsonville and enrolls in its high school. There, Finn will have to learn to deal with petty bullies, tenuous friendships , the hardships of teenage love and a werewolf cult that’s hell-bent on world domination, all without revealing her true identity.

This is shaping up to be a long, tough school year for Finn.


Episode One: At the End of the Whole Mess

So here I am, aboard a burning zeppelin that’s been ripped right out of time, fighting off a pack of snarling Nazi werewolves. There’s a hole in my sides; the only thing that’s keeping me from bleeding out is the spear-head that’s lodged against my ribs. The altimeter alarm is screaming from the cockpit and there’s a chill wind blowing against my back, tousling up my hair.

The balloon beneath me quakes like two metric tons of jello. Something below screams, as whatever’s left of the passenger hull grazes against the Edgarhorn, shedding glass and bits of its support-frame as it goes. A mass of packed snow and century-old ice becomes dislodged from the top; comes cascading down the mountain range, burying the derelict church on Bloch Hill under a couple metric tons of ice, come winter time. The way things are looking at the moment, I will either be torn apart by werewolves, drop 3 kilometers down to a messy death, burn to a crisp, bleed out or all of the above.

Dad would be so proud of me.

I am told there are worse ways to die: Mom always told me she was afraid she might waste away at that nothing little desk job she had before she met Dad, pushing buttons on keyboards according to on-screen instructions from 9 to 5. Sometimes, when my dad was gone for a long time hunting some creepy-crawly across the Urals, she would have nightmares. She would dream that faceless accountants would drag her kicking and screaming back to her cubicle, to serve until the end of her days.

One of the werewolves pounces on me so I whack him with my silver-plated baseball bat to the side of the head, send him flying down a two-kilometer drop all the way down to splat against the rusted, rotted remains of the ancient railway tracks that snake out of the mountain range. The ground might not be silver, but it’s going to be a while before he’s up and running again. Another one of the werewolves lunges at me, goes for a feint and swipes at my face, so I wheel around and land a blow to his chest with my reinforced elbow-guard, knocking the wind out of him. The force of the blow sends me sliding down across the balloon’s metal-clad envelope.

The fingers on my right hand flop down like wet hot dogs, so I switch the bat to my left arm. Won’t make for much of a swing, but it’s definitely going to sting. Somewhere ahead of me, in the bowels of the zeppelin an engine explodes, adding to the conflagration that is consuming the Hindenburg. Smelted, burning engine parts pitter-patter over house roofs. An axle smashes that ghastly gypsum cat statue on top of Mister Landsdale’s pet shop.  The entire zeppelin takes a sharp forty-five degree downward incline. I click my heels together and Mister Nomura’s patented AdhereAll™ smart-spikes shoot out from the soles of my shoes, grip the surface below me.

One of the werewolf braves moves in, thinking he’s up for an easy kill. This one’s a little bit smarter; he fixes his claws down into the wooden planks, digs in deep to steady himself, tries to bite my neck. The following explosion, which destroys the zeppelin’s auxiliary tanks makes him stumble; turns his killing blow into a mighty miss. So I crack him one in the ribs, another in the jaw and watch the teeth scatter in the high-velocity wind. We’re dropping like a meteor straight out of a disaster movie now, as big as the sky and wreathed in a halo of flame. Orsonville rises up to meet us.

Time seems to slow down, like a dream. I wonder if anyone below is seeing this. Maybe they’ll all just shrug and move on, unless the Hindenburg crashes into the school or totals the library. Even then, one of the residents in the Valente Old Folk’s home will tell you how they got it worse in ’65 and how young people got it easy these days.

I hear something wailing below, over the roar of the flames. The altimeter’s gone quiet, probably reduced to a mass of boiling glass and melted metal by now. I make out the distant, mournful wailing of an air raid siren. Looks like Uriah finally found some use for it. All those weeks, months, years of watching the skies finally paid off. He’s probably cackling like mad down there, screaming I Tol’ You So’s and Who’s Crazy Now’s at Skeptic Jane and Cynic Cleetus down below.

The Hull finally sheds off the Hindenburg, lands on Mister Guttierez’s convenience store, reducing it to rubble. I think of all the rows of stale donuts and the creaking, cranky Slurry™ machines and the comic books and the cheap Zippo knockoff lighters going up in flames and his cash stall, filled to the brim with all the change he short-charged me every day of every week during this entire year that I’ve visited his store. The loss of all that dead weight causes us to gain a little bit of altitude, just enough so we won’t end up crashing into Ellison Street.

Two of the werewolves skitter by and grasp my jeans to hold on. One of them tries to pull himself up, get a cheap shot in. I bring the baseball bat handle down on his face again and again until he lets go. The fur on his face sizzles where the silver has landed. After another couple of hits, he lets go. I don’t even notice my pants leg is ripping until I feel the wind against my calves. When I turn to look, the other werewolf’s gone. They’ve probably landed all over the Orsonville Mall roof by now.

I chance a glance behind me and see that we’re heading toward Henderson Lake. There’s enough industrial waste and runoff petrol from frakking operations there to turn the entire mass into a fireball as soon as the flame hits, but at least it’s a long way away from Orsonville. There shouldn’t be too much damage. Mission accomplished. The world is as good as saved.

I don’t dare say it out loud, but I’m feeling pretty damn invincible right now. Like Major Steele and Jean LeFevre the parkour champ all rolled into one. I feel ten feet tall and my heart is pumping fast; like I could chew steel and breathe fire. But when I see Gunda stomping out of the flames, fur bristling, claws at the ready, a row of teeth so long and sharp they could tear strips off a battleship’s hull, so angry she could tear down the Moon and eat it, I remind myself that it’s time to get the hell out.

“Finn! You bastard!” she howls like the Bad Wolf in the picture books Mom used to read to me, when I was four and scared of the dark. Time to go. Putting pressure on my heels to activate the pressure switch that retracts the spikes, I let myself slide down the incline just a little bit, turn my body to brake my descent. If I do it the way Dad showed me, I should be able to jump over the tip, do a flip and then let the wind carry me behind the zeppelin just in time to control my fall enough to maybe break only a couple of bones on landing.

If I don’t, at least I’ll make a pretty corpse. Glancing back, I see Gunda stomping down across the incline. She moves like something out of a nightmare, deceptively fast. Her every step is calculated, seems to ignore gravity and the steepness of the incline. I tell myself that she’s not as close or as fast as she seems and that I’m going to make it. I guess that’s the same thing all those stumbling, doomed cheerleaders tell themselves in slasher movies, just before they turn around and see the man in the bloody coveralls standing right in front of them.

Skidding across the bobbing polyester surface of the balloon, approaching maximum velocity, I jump up in the air. True to form, Gunda slams into me like a steam-hammer. Her moon-mad face fills my field of vision, her eyes as wide as saucers.

“You ruined everything!” she snarls as we bounce off the railing, across the balloon, down the nose. Her claws dig into my back. I hear her tearing my backpack across the seams, reducing it to canvass ribbons and useless lengths of zipper. It all happens in the span of a couple of instants, almost too fast for the eye to see. My tools rain down, a hail of  vials full of wolfsbane concentrate and mandrake root powder and mercury, strewn across the forest floor. If I make it out of this alive, Mister Pettus is going to be so pissed. He will probably berate my corpse at my own funeral. Grab me by the neck and just beat the living tar out of me, ordering me to get up so he can chew me out some more. Provided there’s enough of me left after the drop.

“Die!” she howls.

“After you,” I say.

Gunda opens her mouth so wide that she could fit my entire head between her jaws. I push the tip of my baseball bat up against her wide open mouth, let her taste silver. She bites into it anyway; grazes the plating, reduces the shaft to splinters. Her gums and tongue sizzle where the silver lingers, but she’s too mad to care. She spits at my face, grazes my cheeks with her front teeth looking for a vein or a patch of flesh that she can peel clean off. She rakes her claws across my back, tearing up the spider-silk layers of armor underneath. I’m too terrified to scream, settling instead for twisting my bat handle and the mess that’s left of the shaft into her mouth. It cracks and I drive the jagged edge against her palate.

Tree-branches whip at the back of my head, my ears and eyes. Shifting my weight slightly, I turn both of us in mid-air so she’s below me, hoping that her body can break my fall. I mutter a quick, garbled mess of a prayer. Gunda finishes off my bat, moves in for my throat. I feel her teeth grazing my jugular, piercing the skin. I’m perhaps three seconds away from dying and all I can think of is how pissed Anton is going to be if he finds out I stood him up on our date because I’m dead.

We crash into the ground at thirty meters a second just as the hijacked Hindenburg falls into Henderson Lake, turning its surface into a pillar of fire a hundred meters tall.

END

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March 2015 ebook cover

Gnawing the Bones of the City

By Leigh Kimmel

Even in a crowded communal apartment, Tikhon Grigoriev could hear the ever-present thudding of German mortars besieging Leningrad. The starving residents of the apartment gathered around the body of a boy who had committed suicide. They were equal parts grief-stricken and terrified of being accused of murdering him for his ration card.

Grigoriev, a member of Leningrad’s militsia police force, had come the moment he heard shrieks through a badly boarded window. However inexpertly tied, the rope had done its work. Nothing to do but cut the corpse down.

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March 2015 ebook cover

Revealing the Mirage

by Christina L. Usher

Warren’s girlfriend was dead and gone, or at least that’s what he told her mother. He ended the call, unable to deal with the shocked silence, and inched between the bed and dresser to stare out the window. The streetlights were broken outside. People lingered in the discrete darkness, muttering and drinking like no one could see them. Warren took a drag from his cigarette, ignoring the whispers in his head.

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February 2015 cover art

The Moira Sisters’ Inn

By Roshani Chokshi

Age 10

The puppy curled in Casper’s lap like a doughnut. He watched its silken tummy rise and fall, blissfully oblivious to the rain pelting the family minivan like shrapnel.

“We can’t make it to the lake in one day,” Mom muttered.

Dad sighed, “I think you’re right.”

“Tell me something new,” Mom laughed. “I’ll try and pull up a place for the night.”

Dad left the highway behind. The rain was still ruthless, but at least Casper could see something other than evil red truck lights. Outside he saw rows of rain-blurred magnolia trees and bright daffodils on square lawns. They drove through cobbled town squares and dim restaurants until they got to a flat stretch of road with no lights.

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Fiction Vortex - November 2014, art by Sergio Suarez

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When Park Slope pediatrician Dr. Miller died, it wasn’t only the neighborhood paper that covered it, and not just the borough-wide Brooklyn news that remarked on his passing. Tilly Mendelssohn noticed the New York Times itself carried a lengthy, multi-column obituary full of many photos and anecdotes.

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Fiction Vortex - November 2014, art by Sergio Suarez

Music in Glass

By Sabrina West

From her hiding spot in the antiques shop, Sarah watched the man pacing along the street. For the past ten minutes, he’d been at the back of every store and the edge of every crowd, blond hair sweeping down over lowered eyes. She could swear she knew him. But whenever she had tried to approach him, he had slunk away. Now, as she finally had a chance to study his face, the sensation of familiarity grew stronger.

The man paused just on the other side of the window. Sarah could see the bright blue of his eyes and the frustration evident in his expression. He looked lost and sad, on the verge of tears. As the man ran his hands through his hair, a strand fell into his eyes.

And Sarah remembered.

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