• Visit Indigo

    Sledgehammer is proudly presented by Indigo, which offers editing, design, and more to authors and publishers around the world.

    Visit us at www.indigoediting.com to learn more and to schedule a free sample edit and initial consultation.

    Indigo: editing, design,
    and more


    Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter.
  • Join Our Networks

  • Photo Gallery

    To view photos of Sledgehammers past, visit our Facebook photo albums!

    All photos property of Sledgehammer Writing Contest. Most photos copyright Doug Geisler.

“Bohemut’s Dream” by J. S. Welch

Bohemut’s Dream

J. S. Welch

 

In the water, the murky water, Bohemut rose. The lagoon was so dense that the darkness echoed upon itself as Bohemut’s snout broke the oily surface and sent up two plumes of salty mist into the early morning air.

“There he is!” Steven hissed. He pointed, squinting through his stylish horn-rimmed glasses.

“Where?” Michelle whispered.

Steven put his fingers on her binoculars and guided her to the subject’s location.

“Stop it!” Michelle’s voice rose in frustration.

“Shh.” Steven said quietly. “He might hear us.”

Both of them backed a step deeper into the heavy boughs of the forest that towered over the banks of the lagoon.

Bohemut seemed to have heard them, indeed. He lifted his head above the water, his skull alone was the size of a small herd of cattle.

Steven and Michelle held their breath, gazing in awe at the ancient magnificent of the breathing, supple mystery before them. Suddenly, with a whoosh, Bohemut dropped back into the lagoon and disappeared far into its smoky depths.

“Shitake mushrooms.” Steven muttered.

Michelle sighed, disappointed in herself. “At least he stayed a little longer this time.” She inspected her binoculars to make sure they were still clean, then stowed them in their case and absentmindedly handed them to Steven. Steven secured the case to a modified tool belt over his shoulder. “Yeah!” He grew excited “His head was huge!”

Turning, they walked side by side beneath the canopy of the forest. A carpet of grass dampened their footfalls, and they breathed in the sparse fingers of sunlight that crept softly through the morning mist.

“Yeah, massive…” Michelle’s voice trailed off as she gazed up thoughtfully at the fabric of leaves overhead.

Abruptly, Steven gripped her shoulder. She stopped alongside him, and they both saw a shadow step into their path.

“Going walkin’ on an early morning, are we?” asked the shadow.

Michelle glanced at the shadow’s shoulder, trying to discern if the golden patch of a park ranger was knit onto the sleeve.

“What’s it to you?” Steven challenged. Out of the corner of her eye, Michelle saw his hand stray up to his tool belt he still carried over his shoulder. His thumb casually flipped out the butt end of an orange extension cord, its three holes staring innocently out at the forest.

“What’s it to me?” The shadow repeated. “Well, nothing I suppose.” He stretched out his arm towards Michelle, and pointed at her wrist. “What happened there?” He asked.

Michelle shrugged. “I tore my sleeve on a chain link fence the other day.”

“The other day?” challenged the shadow. “Or, more likely, you tore it on a chain link fence this morning entering the park to visit a certain lagoon, “The shadow chuckled, and lit a cigarette.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” Michelle’s voice quivered. She glanced side long at Steven, but he appeared calm, his hand still fingering the cord in his tool belt.

“Who are you?” Steven asked the shadow.

The shadow exhaled heavily, two plumes of smoke rose from his nostrils. “Me? Well I am just a concerned citizen.”

Michelle felt certain that his tone implied something far more menacing.

Still obscure, the shadow managed to lean against a tree trunk. Cigarette in hand, he gestured behind them. “I’ve heard folks say that all sorts of creatures have been spotted in that lagoon; mollusks, shellfish, invertebrates, bony fish, and even the head of the family, so to speak. Some say, at least.” The shadow brought the cigarette back up to his lips.

“Well,” Michelle began, when she saw Steven’s hand suddenly flick out towards the shadow, and the orange cord curled in a wicked coil, holding a braided metal cord with fish hooks woven in. The makeshift whip struck on target, cutting the cigarette in half, and hooking deep into the shadow’s face.

At least, it was supposed to. Michelle blinked. The shadow was gone. Steven’s cord lay upon the grass, and two plumes of smoke rose up from the cigarette halves.

Startled, Michelle looked fearfully at Steven. He looked back at her, and whispered “Michelle! Michelle, wake up!”

Michelle opened her eyes, feeling Steven’s grip on her shoulder. “Look!” He whispered, and pointed towards the lagoon.

Michelle looked, and saw two plumes of smoke (or, mist? She wondered groggily) rising ominously above the oily lagoon.

“Bohemut.” She whispered.

© 2014 J. S. Welch

“Stealing a Chance at Life” by Faith Hunter

Stealing a Chance at Life

by Faith Hunter

 

Shit. Shit. Shit. Jenny warned me time and time again that my arrogance would be the end of my devilishly charming thieving ways. My battered boots hit the asphalt hard and the ground crunched unhappily in protest. Footsteps close by echoed as loudly in my ears as my own feverish heartbeat, pushing me to pump my arms harder and my legs faster despite my aching muscles screaming for mercy. Why the hell did I listen to Ralfie? Fucking cheat sold me out to save his own neck. But it’s my own damn fault. Never should’ve tried to steal from the Valences, especially not their bloodthirsty family head Renaldo. Or at least never get caught. Sloppy. My breaths were becoming more ragged with each quickened step extravagantly showing off my blatant lack of regular exercise and overall poor health. Hell, if these goons haven’t caught me yet one can only assume how badly out of shape my pursuers really are. The first hopeful trickles that I might just get away with this fluttered through my spinning mind. A chuckle caught me right in the ribs as the world was suddenly flipped upside down; the ground fell out from under me and I less than gracefully fell flat on my face. Crackleberries, thought too soon. Bitter grains of earthy goodness and city sewage made their way in my mouth and settled uncomfortably before being promptly coughed and spat up. Gross. Running a mucked hand across my mouth did little to rid the infestation-taking place on my lips. Pain blossomed as fresh skinned spots made themselves apparent across my arms and legs. Gingerly I reached up to my numb forehead and brought back sickly-wet bloodied dirt that smelled suspiciously of copper…and blood. Aw shucks, guess I won’t be running for Miss Missouri this year, I thought sourly. Ah shit. My fingers reach around the side of my waist before sinking in to wet, ripped flesh and I bite down hard on my lip to stop from whimpering. Well, that’s not good. Dusting my hands off on my wet and mucky- and now newly ripped- bloodied trousers I rolled over and searched for the cause of my fall. Wrapped tight around the length of my ankle like a traitorous boa snake was a used and abused hideous neon orange and dirt covered extension cord. Footsteps crunched the pavement unforgivingly and forced me out of my momentary reprieve. Like dogs relentlessly hunting their prey in hopes of appeasing their master. Yanking forcefully at the distastefully colored death sentence strangling my only means of escape I stilled when the sounds of ragged breath drew dreadfully close. My heart was pounding like a jackhammer in my chest drowning out all else but the sound of my fear. Whimpering I pulled harder on the cord willing it to release me from it’s death hold. Giving up on escape I settled for subterfuge and attempted to nestle myself in the darkest corner in the alley. A few inches away a rat scurried near me and regarded me hungrily before I batted it away with the back of my hand. “I’m not food you vermin. Not yet.” Though I was feeling pretty close to nothing but pain. Leaning my head back against the rough chain link fence I tried to focus on sounds that might signal danger, trying harder to ignore the increasingly loud pounding of my head and heart and the freckled black spots closing in on everything around me.

“Come.” She said. No more, no less. This place is loud. Filled with strange sounds and crying and laughter. Spicy smoke trails through the main lounge hiding the leering faces that sit menacingly behind them. Her skirts trailing gaudily out from behind her in a multitude of haughty colors. My fingers itch to reach out and embrace the warm stretch of fabric. It looks like the sunset, I think idly. I glance up from beneath my paltry lashes and jump when I see her accessing me coldly. “Your dress. It’s pretty.” I mumble blandly. A faint trace of warmth flashes in her eyes before promptly returning to ice. “Yes, it is. Hope that you won’t have to wear one just yet.” She whispers. “Why, don’t you like wearing such pretty clothes?” I ask. “These clothes are a brand. They signify that we are not our own. They’re a death sentence.” She says. Why would clothes mean that she would die? “Are you going to die? Am I going to die?” I ask boldly. “I’ll tell you a secret.” She says, giving me the first true glimpse of a smile on her pale lips, but it was cold and emotionless. “We’re all already dead. We just haven’t stopped breathing yet.”

Funny, huh, living an existence in a cage only to die within the confines of another fenced cage. Cowering from death. But the thing is, I’ve spent my whole life dying. I’m still waiting for the chance to live. My dirty fingers smudged from the toxins of life wrap weakly around the grated fence and pull. Pull harder and harder despite not having any strength left to give. Yanking dreadfully weakly at my gateway to life.

I stood in the middle of the room in front surrounded by three large windows twirling in circles over and over and over. My small, chubby fingers ran over the length of the crimson fabric lovingly. It’s the first time I’ve been allowed such fine silks and I smile beside myself in joy. “Ah, you look so pretty love, so pretty.” Mistress Molly crooned, rubbing her fat fingers together eagerly. I half-listened to her rant and flinched away when she tried touching my face with her grubby fingers. I didn’t appreciate the wicked glint reflected in her eyes. My young mind didn’t pay much heed and continued to admire the full glory of the deep red brocade that nearly swallowed whole my underdeveloped frame. “Yes, yes he’ll like you just fine,” Mistress Molly whispered. My whole frame stiffened at the full meaning of her words. Young I was but not stupid. I knew what kind of business my parents had sold me to. “What?” I asked gingerly, not wanting to entice her temper. “Why, you’re to have your first job today.” She said happily. The silk enshrouding me became tighter, wrapping around me like a noose, making it hard to breathe. To think. I desperately didn’t want to think. “Maybe now you’ll actually be good for something other than cleaning out my kitchen cabinets and following that no good girl around,” she muttered darkly. My chest clenched tightly in anger. How. Dare. She. What right does she have to speak ill about Jen like that? Jen took care of me when I was left alone to die. She snuck me portions from her own meager helpings so that I wouldn’t rot away in the musty hole that they stuck me in six out of seven days of the week. Too small to lie down or sit up straight. My fingers roamed the corset-taking note of the obvious ill fit due to malnourishment. Tight fingers wrapped around the length of my hair yanking hard and unforgivingly. “You will not screw this up you little whelp.” A large burst hit the wall as someone flung the door in. “Take your hands off of her.” Jen’s voice. Jen. Relief flooded through me and began to purge the unease settling treacherously in my gut. “Who are you to tell me what to do? She is to serve today and earn her stay.” Mistress Molly spat, the turkey flap under her neck shaking angrily. “She is barely eight summers and you intend to whore her out to perverted, vile men?” Jen shrieked, her voice rising uncontrollably with her rage. “Those perverted, vile men will pay four times the rate for a specimen like her,” Mistress Molly chided, clucking her tongue like a chicken. “It is illegal. She must be fourteen summers before the law permits her to be bid for in an auction. I will report it.” Jen said, her rage spreading through the air until the first inklings of Mistress Molly’s fear began to mix with it. “You would not dare. You ungrateful bitch, after all I’ve done for you?” Mistress spat before hastily letting go of the iron grip she had on my hair and spinning out of the room. “I knew what the punishment was for selling children before their time in brothels. I thought the death penalty would keep me safe.” I mumbled in between hiccupping breaths. Jen wrapped her arms around me and gently stroked my hair. “I’ll keep you alive. For whatever that’s worth.” It was worth everything.

Shallow breaths, shallow heartbeats and the sounds of eager vermin fill up the empty void of silence in the alleyway. I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired, like each of my limbs are covered in concrete and my head’s been hit by a freight train. Stupid. Everything just feels so stupid. Being sold by my parents. Being forced to work at a brothel. Being forced to steal. Getting caught. Not listening to Jenny. Soft tears trickle down and mix with the sewage coating my face. Ragged sobs rack my aching ribs and startle away my soon-to-be skin pickers. Nothing in this life has been mine. Sold into prostitution by those meant to protect me. Being starved and whipped and forced to steal. I’ve been doomed right from the start. A low, wretched laugh forced itself from the confines of my hoarse throat. Darkness enshrouds me like a thick fog, menacing and comforting. Why didn’t I listen to Jenny?

“Jenny, aw, Jenny don’t be like that. It’ll be a quick job. Ralfie says it’ll set us up for good. No more stealing. No more begging for the mercy of the merciless.” Jenny’s furious, but it’s not like we have a choice. A life full of dying ain’t no way to live. It’d been three summers since we escaped from the brothel together before my fourteenth summer. “I know I promised no more stealing, but Jim’s cut my hours at the shop and we need the money. We don’t have a choice.” Jenny spins round on her heel so fast the folds of her skirt turn furiously with her like a tornado. And with her face twisted in anger and her eyes alight with fire, it’s safe to say I’m looking at the eye of the storm. “That’s just it ain’t it? We ain’t never had a choice! If we want to live then we work until we die. Sell our hearts, sell our bodies, sell our souls for a measly scrap of food. What kind of a life is that?” She asks. I know it was a question towards me but since we both know the answer already I don’t bother saying anything. Her gaze cuts me sharper than the most honed of knives. “We’re all dead. From the moment we were born kicking and screaming covered in our mama’s blood. We were already pronounced dead.” Her words caress my skin sadly with the truth I’ve always known. “Maybe. Maybe we’ll die today. Maybe we’ll die tomorrow. But as for right this instant we are alive and I want so desperately to start living.” I break. Simple, truthful words. I want to live, I yearn for something greater than breath, hunger for something with more sustenance than food, something to quench this insatiable thirst that rasps my throat and suffocates me. I yearn for life. From the moment I met Jenny at the brothel I’d been sold to as payment for my family’s debt. From the second my wide innocent eyes met her weary and cold ones I knew that I was sentenced to a life of dying. Slowly. Piece by piece until I was nothing more than skin and bones. A hollow shell. But I resolved to live. “Jen. Please.” I plead with her. She regards me warily before a look of resignation shrouds her worn features. “Do what you like.” She turns to leave before stopping and rushing into my frail arms. “Be careful. Stay smart. Return to me. In order to start living you have to still be alive.” Tears. Salty and sweet traces down my face and I flick out my tongue to taste it. The sickly-sweet beginnings of life.

Rain. Soft and forgiving stroke trails down my face and mingle with my own bitter taste. It drenches me in understanding and pity and I hate it more in that moment then I have ever hated anything before it. More than I hated my mother and father for selling me at the tender age of six. More than I hated them for giving birth to me and using me as currency. More, even, than when they cried in agony when I called out for them as rough hands ripped me from their warm ones. I hate it with my woefully barren heart that has been ripped and broken and pillaged. I hate it with every inch of my stolen and battered body. I hate it with my every twisted and deliciously dark thought scouring through my mind. And more than anything I love it. I love it with all of my wounded soul, more than I have ever loved anything before it. More than when my mother first told me I was pretty and that I would make a good bride someday. More than when my mother and father baked me a cake for my fourth birthday despite how poor we were. More than when Jenny told me I was strong. Stronger than the strongest cruelties life had to offer. More than when she told me that I would survive, maybe not past tomorrow, but today I would survive. And despite myself a slow coming smile spreads across my bruised face as my lost soul rejoices in the soft, loving caresses of the rain. If even heaven weeps for me then I must be pretty damn pitiful. I crane my neck painfully to look up into the sky. But it’s bleary and grey with no stars to grace its great expanse. It’s like staring into an eternal nothingness. It’s like looking at my life. Black spots begin to reappear at the edges of my vision. I squint but I still can’t see what I’m looking for. There, a small white light. Small and frail breaks out from the cover of darkness and across the bleak dreariness of the night sky it shines. The rain grates down on me harder trying to cleanse me of an existence full of misery. It falls down my face and into my cracked and bruised lips. With every trickle I can taste what I have been so desperately yearning for. Life. And it tastes…so. Damn. Good.

Hey Jenny, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back like I said I would. But I found it. In a sewage-ridden alleyway no less, hiding from Ralfie I found it. The meaning of life…my life.

© 2014 Faith Hunter

 

“Tin Violin” by Matea Wasend

Tin Violin

by Matea Wasend

 

My dad came home for the first time in two years four days after my fifteenth birthday. He usually brought something along with him from wherever he’d wandered to, and this time was no exception: he brought Amaryllis, and Tulip, and Daisy Mae.

You might be imagining him knocking on the front door and presenting me with a bouquet of birthday flowers or something, but let me paint right over that picture. We don’t have a front door; it’s more like a front curtain that just hangs down from the crossbeam we managed to shove into the side of the mountain. It’s no good for knocking, but it’s okay for keeping the house flies and fruit flies and every other kind of fly out while letting the breeze in, when there’s a breeze to let.

Also, Amaryllis and Tulip and Daisy Mae weren’t in a bouquet, since they’re people. Well, two people and a dog.

How it happened was this: Rex and I were fixing dinner and our grandmother was wiring a tin guitar when from outside there came floating in three notes of music, sweet as a spoonful of canned peaches. I dropped my knife with a clatter and Rex whirled around so fast he knocked pieces of slimy onion all over the floor. Only grandma did nothing, since she’s almost entirely deaf. There was a split second where Rex and I both stared at each other, and then we tore through the front curtain and down the narrow trash-packed lane towards the whistling.

Dad!

Rex was up in his arms, whirled around, then deposited back on the ground. I was too big to whirl but we hugged and I touched his long beard, which made him look the consummate drifter, and he laughed as Rex and I asked ten questions each, stumbling over each other like uncooperative partners in a three-legged race.

Slow down, he said. You’ll use up all the question marks.

Come inside, I told him. We’re just making dinner.

How’s your grandma?

Grandma was our dead mother’s mother, and she didn’t much like our father on account of how his wanderlust had dragged him off the mountain and away from our mother for the first time when I was just a baby, and again and again in the years since. But they got along okay by sticking to polite basics whenever my father was around.

She’s fine, I said. Come in and you can see for yourself. There’s junk all over your bed, but while you’re here we can—

Actually, kiddo—I’ve got news for you, he said, and his face split into an infectious grin that jumped over to mine faster than the plague. I’m staying for good this time.

Are you serious? said Rex.

Dead serious, he said, and crossed his heart. Hope to die. Which is why I got my own place.

Your own place?

Yeah. Over by the fence.

Why’d you get a new place? We can all fit here.

Well, he said. This place is a little nicer.

He’d never had his own place before. I pictured his nicer new place—maybe it had wooden walls, and a real front door. Maybe it even had electricity; there were lights and power lines along the broken-down chain-link fence that had once, decades before, contained the trash, though now the trash contained the fence.

It’s a lot bigger, my dad went on. Two bedrooms, and a living room.

I thought about this. Having a real bedroom would be a definite upgrade, even if I did have to share it with Rex.

Perfect for three people, said my dad.

Three people? I said. What about grandma?

Grandma? my father said, as though he hadn’t thought of this. And I supposed he was right—she could stay by herself. Come to think of it, she probably wouldn’t want to leave her instruments anyway; in the last year alone her workshop had been looted three times, so she’d finally moved them all into the house so she’d be there to protect them if someone came calling. Now there were bits of makeshift tin can violin and tuba and guitar and clarinet hanging from the walls and ceiling and cluttering up the floors, to the point where I sometimes felt I was living in the stomach of a large beast with a musical appetite.

Just then a little dog came racing around the corner, tongue lolling, ears flopping like the wings of some awkward flightless bird. It had an orange extension cord tied around its neck for a leash, which was trailing along the ground behind it, and as it neared us the cord got tangled up in its paws and it face-planted right at my feet.

Tulip!

A girl came running after the dog, which had by then righted itself and started jumping up against my legs and slobbering all over the place. She almost tripped to avoid running into my dad. He caught her and righted her.

Zee, Rex, he said. This is Daisy Mae, and Tulip.

Which one’s which? said Rex.

Tulip’s the puppy, said the girl. I’m Daisy Mae.

I stared at her. She wasn’t from the mountain, that was obvious; nobody half so clean or half so beautiful lived here. It was an odd kind of beauty, since she was covered all over with pink splotches, like someone had splattered her with bleach and then laid her out to dry, but the spots only drew attention to the perfection that was her face.

I tore my eyes away and I waited for my dad to offer an explanation, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry. Rex came to the rescue with his standard forthrightness.

Why are you here?

My mother is Amaryllis, she said, as if another flower explained everything. Then a woman came walking around the corner—a pale and wispy vision of a woman, like something off the kinds of scrap advertisements for laundry detergent my grandmother used to hang around the house for decoration.

This is Amaryllis, said my father. My wife.

You better be careful of that dog, Rex told Daisy Mae, not seeming to blink an eye at the addition of two people and a dog to our family tree. People’ll eat dog around here, if they can get their hands on it.

***

Neat, huh? said my dad, as Rex plugged and unplugged a small television into a power cord and the screen flickered on and off. Place came with a television—can you believe it?

I sat there on the bed with my arms crossed, feeling as though someone had stuffed my eyes with pins. Every movement was excruciating; everywhere I looked I saw what my father had bought for his new family, and not for me. The place had electricity, like I’d suspected; it had a small and functional-looking kitchen area, two queen-sized beds in the bedrooms, and fake flowers tacked up all over the sturdy walls. I couldn’t tell one flower from the next, but I wish I knew which ones were the daisies.

You can come on over whenever you want, alright, bud? my dad told Rex, and ruffled his hair so he looked like the roosters our neighbors kept in a pen behind their house. It’s as good as yours.

Awesome! said Rex.

My dad turned to me. You too, kiddo.

Right, I said. Thanks.

I was thinking, my dad said. Maybe tonight you guys could come over for dinner? Zee, you could bring your violin. I’ve told Amaryllis and Daisy Mae all about how good you are on the fiddle.

He did, Daisy Mae put in enthusiastically. He said you’re like a prodigy.

I stood up. I have to go, I announced. I flicked Tulip off my bare feet, which he’d been licking as enthusiastically as if they were covered in molasses.

Where? said my father. School doesn’t start for another hour, does it?

I’m not in school anymore, I said.

Then where are you going?

His eybrows went up. Work? You on a crew now?

The Riddler’s, I told him. In spite of my anger I actually looked at him for a moment, to check for the pride in his eyes. I found it. The Riddler was one of the best collection bosses on the mountain, and even my dad knew that

That’s great, he said with an electric smile. Good for you, Zee.

I turned off my face before my own smile could appear. Yeah, well. I better go.

Hey—I have an idea, said my dad. Why don’t you take Daisy Mae with you?

My stomach fell faster than a tumbling trash-slide.

What?

Yeah, he said. You can show her the ropes. Let her see how things are done around here.

Dad, I said. I—she can’t.

Why not?

She’s—she’s not on the crew. She can’t just—

Why not? You’ll increase your haul. Just swing by the Riddler’s and ask. I’m sure he’ll say yes.

That’s not how things work, I said. It took me months to get in. You don’t—

If he says no, you can send her back home, said my dad, who was obviously in one of his irrepressible moods.

But dad—

I realized suddenly I was putting on a whining show to rival Rex’s long-ago toddler tantrums, and stopped myself with an effort.

You know what? Fine. I turned to Daisy Mae. Let’s go.

Thanks! said Daisy Mae, and she practically bounced to her feet. Can I bring Tulip?
***

Tulip seemed not to have learned to walk very effectively yet. He tripped over the extension cord just about every thirty seconds, which was why after five minutes or so Daisy Mae ended up scooping him into her arms.

How can you find your way around here? she asked me, gazing around at the trash landscape that was the mountain—that particular glinting gray that, if you squinted at it in just the right way, became a prism of color. It all looks the same to me.

I ignored her question.

Wait out here, I told her when we’d reached the building—the only cement structure in a five-mile radius of refuse. This was where the Riddler lived, which put him among the elite percentage of mountain residents who didn’t have to put out buckets when it rained.

That’s okay—I’d rather come in with you, she said.

I clenched my teeth.

I nodded to a couple of other collectors inside, then headed for the Riddler’s office. He was on the phone when I stuck my head inside the door, but he shoved his hand over the receiver mouth to block out the noise and mouthed What Is It?

My dad’s in town, and he’s got—well, this girl is with him, and he wants her to come collecting with me today to get to know the mountain, I said, gesturing at Daisy Mae behind me.

The Riddler frowned and I felt vindicated for my earlier whininess.

I told him you wouldn’t like it, I added quickly. If you say no, I’ll send her back home.

Daisy Mae stepped into the office beside me, Tulip still in her arms, and it was like she’d brought the sun in alongside her the way the Riddler’s face brightened. He pointed at her as if to say This Her? and I nodded. Then his waving hand said Take Her Along.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if there’d been smoke coming out of my ears. I stomped all the way back down the hall, out the front doors and halfway to my route-start before I realized I’d forgotten my basket and had to go back for it.

***

Daisy Mae carried Tulip in one arm and a bushel of questions in the other. She slung them at me one after another and I offered up the bare minimum in return.

What are we looking for?

Anything valuable.

Like what?

I bent and snatched up a gleam of silver, which revealed itself to be a necklace with a teardrop pearl hanging on by a tenuous broken clasp.

Like this.

I dropped it into the basket on my back.

What do you do with it?

Take it to the Riddler.

And what does he do with it?

Sorts it.

Then what?

Sells the good stuff.

To who?

People, I said, not knowing a more specific answer.

Unders?

I guess.

You’ve been under, haven’t you? Your dad told me. He said you got to play the violin in a real concert hall.

The audition that could have changed everything settled in over my eyes like a layer of film strip, the fancy stage chair and the snob-nosed judges and the sparkling water they’d given me to drink afterward that had made my throat burn. My grandmother had been hopeful, my father certain to the point of using words like When and Next Year. That had been just before the last time my father had left, and I’d been half-sure he’d been so disappointed that he’d never come back.

I’d love to hear you play, said Daisy Mae.
I don’t really play anymore.

Why not?

I sighed. Look—it doesn’t really make sense for us to search the same spot. We’ll just end up in each other’s way. Why don’t you go over there? Anything you find, just make a pile and I’ll come get it later. Yeah—all the way over there by that flag.

I directed her far enough away that she couldn’t talk to me without shouting. As I watched her for a moment, thrusting her clean hands into the garbage while Rex began digging enthusiastically beside her, the discolorations on her face seemed to squint and wink at me under the blazing sun.

***

Zee?

Hmm?

I’d found a treasure trove—a bag of old mobile phones. Some of them were damaged completely beyond repair, but a lot of them looked like they’d hardly been scratched. I was sorting through them and placing them carefully in my basket, not wanting to damage them.

I think I might have found something.

Just wait, I said, and sorted through the rest of the phones. Then I walked over to where Daisy Mae was sitting with Tulip in her lap, pleased at my haul for the day; I’d get a good return. I found myself returning her smile automatically on the high of my own discovery.

What is it?

I’m not sure, she said. She gestured at the briefcase leaning against her leg. It’s just got paper in it, but I—

Paper? What kind of paper?

She undid the latches and flipped it open. Inside were stacks of green bills, the kind you’d be lucky to find one of in a month. I reached out and grabbed one stack and flipped through it—at least thirty twenty-dollar bills, all their balding puppy-eyed Benjamin Franklins looking up at me in quick succession.

What do you think? said Daisy Mae. Tulip found it.

Tulip found it, I repeated. My voice shook.

Yeah, said Daisy Mae. Think it’s worth something?

I threw the stack of bills down into the briefcase and stared at Daisy Mae’s eager face, at the beautiful contrast between perfection and malformation. I found that I was near tears.

This is worth more than everything I’ve ever hauled in put together, I said. Period.

Seriously?

Seriously. You’ll get a huge payoff for it. I turned away. Congratulations.

Me? said Daisy Mae. No—it’s yours, Zee. I was just helping.

You found it.

Tulip found it, she said. And you told me where to look, anyway. You told me this was a good spot. It should be—

It’s yours, I snapped.
I’m—

Look, I said, turning back to her. That’s just how it works here, okay? You found it, you collect the money. I don’t want your charity.

I’m sorry, she said. I was just trying to—

Let’s go, I said. You need to get that in before someone takes it from you.

***

My father took us all out to dinner at one of the slightly respectable mountain versions of a restaurant the next night—really just a set of broken-down picnic tables under holey umbrellas—on Daisy Mae’s money.

To Daisy Mae! he said exuberantly, raising his beer in a toast, and the rest of us echoed To Daisy Mae, me just lip-syncing along.

And her incredible, fortune-finding dog! Rex added.

It wasn’t really a fortune, of course; it wasn’t the kind of find that could get you off the mountain and down under, into a life of air quality control and soft towels and fresh meat. Old paper currency was worth only a fraction of its original value. But it was definitely the biggest haul any one person had made in a year or two, and made all the more remarkable by the fact that Daisy Mae had found it on her first day as a collector—as my father reminded us all through dinner and over the course of three post-dinner drinks.

He was slurring a little by the time we made our way back to his, Amaryllis’ and Daisy Mae’s television-containing house in the fading light.

Good on ya, kid, he said, his arm slung around Daisy Mae in a fatherly way.

I saw the way she looked up at him, and knew that here in front of my own eyeballs was the very look I’d worn so many times before. My father was larger-than-life, and when he turned his gaze on you it was hard not to feel like you’d been singled out for a miraculous destiny. It hit me that I was watching my life on repeat, only played out by an un-scrawny, un-dour-faced version of myself. At first I’d hated Daisy Mae for stealing my father, but now I realized I hated her for how pathetic she was—the way she ate it all up, every little lie he promised her, just like Tulip scarfing down whatever half-rotted food he could get his little teeth on.

And I hated her extra because she did pathetic more beautifully than I ever could.

***

Once I’d realized this I stopped going over to my dad’s house as his daughter, and went over as an outsider to his family. And as an outsider, I could see all the telltale signs, starting about five weeks after my fifteenth birthday.

First my dad got all big-spirited and expansive, doling out affection and compliments and taking us all to the leveled trash pit beyond the fence to kick around a soccer ball, where he made dramatic diving saves while parodying the commenters we’d heard on his new television.

After that it was snappish irritability, and a cold detachment that lasted for a few days.

Then there were about twelve hours of cruelty, during which he hurt nobody physically but emotionally bruised everyone but me, me being pretty much protected by my new truth-seeing eyes.

You okay? I found myself asking Daisy Mae as we scavenged on the far end of my assigned route. The Riddler had made her my permanent collecting partner after that first day, and usually she asked the questions and I fended her off, but today she seemed to have left her voice at home. The night before, my dad had made a jibe about the discolorations on her face that had set her to blushing and petting Tulip in a pitifully transparent attempt to hide the fact that she was crying.

I’m okay, she said, and I wondered suddenly if she had a good singing voice. She sounded like she would—or maybe it was that she looked like a love song.

I was just thinking about our old home, she went on.

Where are you from? I asked, realizing that I didn’t know. My dad tended to dominate conversations, both as speaker and topic.

Colorado, she said.

I nodded, having no idea where that was. What’s it like there?

Beautiful, she said. Trees and flowers and mountains—real mountains, not made out of trash. You would love it.

Do you think you’ll ever go back? I asked, a large part of me hoping she’d say yes.

Never, she said.

Why not?

Beauty isn’t everything, she said. The land is sick there. The people are sick. My mom… She trailed off, and I thought about Amaryllis’ big, glassy eyes and sickly demeanor.

That’s why I have this, she said, pointing at her discolored spots.

Zee? she asked me a few minutes later. Can I ask you something?

What?

Why’d you stop playing the violin?

Though I felt like I’d kind of fulfilled my quota of Daisy Mae-outreach when I’d asked her if she was okay, I somehow found myself answering her with a portion of the honest truth.

No reason to play, I said. And nobody to play for.

What about Rex? And your grandma?

That’s not what I meant, I said. I meant—nobody important. Nobody who could make a difference.

We dug in silence for a while.

I think family is important, Daisy Mae whispered, but I pretended I hadn’t heard her and I said What?

And she said, Nothing.

***

After the cruelty, my father got drunk and repentant.

I’m not good enough to be the head of this family, he slurred to me outside the mountain’s closest approximation to a bar at two in the afternoon, after I’d been informed he was making a scene and left my route to go drag him home. Or any—any—any family. I’m not a g-g-good man. He swallowed hard, like he was force-feeding himself this guilt. I don’t deserve a f-family.

Well, you have two of them.

He nodded, and then vomited his repentance all over the trash mountainside.

***

I woke in the middle of the next night to a scuffling at our front curtain, and my hand was on my knife before I was even sitting up straight. But then someone whispered my name. I stepped outside to find Daisy Mae crying fat tears under my flashlight beam, Tulip looking sleepily up at me from where he sat on her foot.

Daisy Mae? What’s wrong?

My—your dad, she said. He’s—he’s gone.

I looked at her in exasperation.

You came all the way here to tell me that? It’s the middle of the night, Daisy Mae.

I—I thought—Daisy Mae looked down at the ground. I thought you’d want to know.

Why should I?

Because, said Daisy Mae. He’s your dad.

Not since you came, he’s not.

Zee, I—

You thought he’d stay for you? I said. Because you’re pretty and always get what you want?

She just looked at me. Tulip gave a little yip.

You’re an idiot.

I tried to slam the curtain, but it just flapped in the breeze.

***

Daisy Mae wasn’t at our meeting place by the chain-link fence the next morning, and I spent the whole day trying not to think about her, which meant I thought only about her—the flashlight hurt I’d glimpsed before I left her standing outside my house in the sweltering heat. I’d thought her a fool for expecting him to stay, but how many times before had he told me he was staying for good? He was a born salesman, my dad; he could sell a glass of water to a drowning man, just by flashing his pearly whites. And there was irony in that, since he could have made a good living at the mountain as a crew boss like the Riddler, if only he didn’t have that itch inside he could only scratch by staying on the move.

Even seeing all that now, it still hurt that he’d stayed longer for them than he ever had for me.

***

Three days later and Daisy Mae hadn’t showed up, so I grabbed Rex after school and we went over to the house that was my dad’s and now just belonged to the dried-and-pressed flowers he’d left behind: Amaryllis, Tulip, and Daisy Mae. Nobody answered when I knocked, though we heard Tulip barking and someone shuffling around inside.

Daisy Mae? I shouted.

Daisy Mae? said Rex. Open up! It’s us! It’s your family!

There was nothing, even though we knocked for five minutes and Tulip didn’t stop barking the whole time.

Come on, I said to Rex. I have an idea.

***

Rex was a smarter kid than I’d ever been at his age; he’d told me he’d known dad was leaving for days.

Whenever he starts complaining about the smell, said Rex. That’s when he leaves.

You mad? I asked him, as we walked back to our house.

He shrugged. I just hope Daisy Mae lets us back in so we can still use the tv.

 

***

 

The sky was darkening by the time we made it back, but we had our flashlights—all three of us, since grandma had insisted on coming along when I’d picked up my long-silent tin violin.

I miss your music, she said, as she’d told me every day since I’d quit, but this time I allowed myself to truly consider it.

Why?

She chuckled.

Nobody else plays my trash instruments quite so exquisitely.

What about me? said Rex, clutching his own, smaller grandma-made clarinet.

Except you, darling, she said, and it was a kind lie because Rex was abysmal at the clarinet.

We stood outside the house by the old chain-link fence, and the smell of rotting trash rose up around us in the heat, and somewhere my father step-by-stepped away from us to wander once more, and I played my violin until Daisy Mae opened the door.

© 2014 Matea Wasend

“Surprise!” by Victoria Steik

Surprise!

by Victoria Steik

 

“Did you bring it?” Mario said in a low voice to his older brother Louie, as they stood at the chain link fence marking the property line between their backyards.

“Yeah, I left it over there under the porch,” Louie said. Squinting his dark Italian eyes, he looked right, left, and all around. “We gotta be careful, Mario. We don’t want any snooping eyes finding out our plan.”

“Are you crazy?” Mario replied. “It’s frigging midnight, dark as pitch. Who’s gonna see unless that pain in the ass Chihuahua of yours starts yipping its head off.”

“Don’t worry about that. Chi-chi’s asleep in the bed next to Carla. He couldn’t hear a fire truck over her snoring,” said Louie.

Louie tiptoed the four or five steps to the porch, reached underneath it and pulled out the long orange extension cord. He plugged the male end into the outlet on the wall facing Mario’s house and then he grabbed the female end of the cord, stepped back to the fence and began shoving it through the metal mesh to his younger sibling.

Mario pulled the cord through the fence and alongside an old Dodge station wagon that sat on blocks against his side of the fence. He threaded the cord through the open wing-window on the passenger side of the Dodge and then walked around to the driver’s door. He opened it, climbed in and plugged some wires hanging from the ceiling of the car where the overhead light used to be into the cord. He slipped out of the Junker and quietly, but firmly, closed the door.

“Got it?” Louie whispered to Mario as he came close enough to hear.

“Absolutely,” Mario replied. “All they need to do is open that car door and the fireworks, so to speak, will begin.”

“Good,” Louie said. “I don’t want that pencil-prick little Anthony doing the horizontal hula in the back seat of a car with my sweet little Angela. She’s too good for that.”

“Oh yeah? Seems like I remember some young Lothario making moves in the back seat of that same car, when it had wheels, with a certain lovely young lady named Carla and that was the beginning of your sweet little Angela. Am I right, Romeo?” Mario teased.

“Shut up, you,” Louie swatted at his brother. “But that’s why I don’t want those two alone in that car tomorrow night at our Anniversary Party. They might think we’ll be too drunk to notice, but the head of this family pays attention when he needs to.”

“Okay, so all you have to do is flip the switch before the party so that outlet has power,” Mario said, “and you’re all set.”

The two brothers parted for the night with a fist bump at the chain link fence.

***************************

The next evening, the last faint colors of dusk had faded from the sky and the only lights illuminating the faces in Louie’s backyard came from the paper lanterns that Carla insisted Louie and Mario hang earlier that afternoon. Maybe it was the lantern light; maybe the Chianti or maybe the sun bronzed faces of family and friends gathered around the table that spread an atmosphere of love and peace to all.

Despite the heavy meal and numerous toasts to the happy couple’s marital success, Louie and Mario, remained vigilant, keeping a close eye on the young sweethearts. The teenagers sat on a bench at the very edge of the pool of light, Anthony holding Angela close, her head resting on his shoulder. Anthony stealing quick, but passion laden kisses whenever he thought no one was looking.

The ladies began gathering up the dishes and platters of food and carrying them to the kitchen. The men moved closer together to share more Chianti, Cuban cigars and conversation. Anthony and Angela casually strolled off into the shadows. Missing nothing, Louie and Mario smirked at each other and settled back for the show to begin.

Seated only feet from the chain link fence and the booby trapped vehicle, the men had to fight back the kind of laughter school boys share when they toss a plastic spider on the teacher’s desk while her back is turned.

The men could hear the shuffling footsteps in the long grass as the couple approached the car. They heard the click of the door latch and the low creak of rusty hinges. Then nothing: their plan was not happening. Louie could hear the rustling of clothing, passionate moaning and the smack, smack, smack of slurpy kisses.

He grabbed Mario by the throat, pulled him close and whispered, “Where’s the frigging fireworks? You said you had it all worked out!”

“I dunno,” Mario croaked out. “There must be a loose wire or something.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Louie growled.

“Angela Marie Stefano!” he shouted, “get your young ass out of that car and bring that worthless boyfriend of yours with you. Don’t make me come over there!”

The car door creaked open, then the rustle of clothing being frantically pulled on reached Louie’s ears and finally the sounds of feet running through the long grass, around the end of the fence and back into Louie’s yard.

“Jesus, Dad,” Angela screamed. “How could you!”

“How could you, young lady?” He shouted back. “Get yourself in that house this minute. And you, Anthony, you better get walking on home before I totally lose my patience and fix you so you’ll never walk again! Get outta here!”

Being a young man with excellent survival instincts, Anthony lit out down the driveway shoes in hand and shirttail still aflutter.

“See ya later, Ange,” he called over his shoulder as he ran into the night.

Mario and the other men who had witnessed this outburst of paternal rage exploded with laughter at the sight of Louie standing at the end of his driveway, shaking his fist high in the air as a final threat to the teenage boy. His friends’ laughter deflated Louie’s rage and he began laughing with them.

“Goodnight Louie.”

“Happy Anniversary you two!”

”Great party Carla.” the last of the partygoers called out as they headed down the block to their respective houses.

Breathing a deep sigh, Louie put his arm around his bride, escorted her back to the table and with a flourishing bow asked, “Care for a nightcap Gorgeous?”

“Don’t mind if I do, good lookin’,” she replied.

Just as he replaced the stopper in the bottle, they heard the screen door creak and there stood their precious Angela, hair in ponytails, wearing her fluffy slippers and Minnie Mouse pajamas.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said. “Nothing happened. Honest. Don’t hate me, okay?”

“Come here, baby girl,” he said opening his arms to her.

“I could never hate you,” he said as she snuggled him. “I just want you to stay Daddy’s little girl for a while longer, okay?”

“I love you, Dad. Goodnight!” She headed back toward the screen door.

“Hey Angela,” he called to her, “Flip that light switch by the door. We don’t need these lights anymore.”

“Okay, Pop.”

“You’re such a good Daddy, Lou,” Carla whispered to him as he held her close.

“Aw, enough about Daddy. How about some sugar for Mama?”

“I know why you were so worried about them being alone in that car,” Carla said. “I remember the back seat of that car. I wonder if it might be as fun as it once was.”

“You little vixen,” Louie teased, nibbling on her neck. “Why don’t we just find out? I’ll race you.”

They took off running around the fence, giggling and stripping off clothes as they went. Louie reached the door just one step in front of his wife. The moment he pushed the button and pulled on the door, the latch opened up and four different car alarms began blaring, headlights, tail lights and turn signals began flashing and a recording of the Boston pops playing the Star Spangled Banner began blasting, set on ten, through the super deluxe stereo system Mario had devised just for the occasion.

© 2014 Victoria L. Steik

 

“Regime Change” by Kalyna Conrad

Regime Change

by Kalyna Conrad

 

“What are you doing here?”

Des turned to face the chain-link fence and the tall, pale man on the other side of it. His half-brother glared back at him with cold liquid silver eyes. Des grinned, “Always a pleasure to see you too, Sam.”

“You don’t belong here, you son of a whore.”

“I’m still your brother, Sam.” Des replied, “And that whore was your mother too, just in case you’ve forgotten.”

“How dare you speak of her.” Sam hissed, “She was a saint and you killed her. If she hadn’t been raped by that filthy Shadow Fey, you would never have been born and she would still be alive.”

Des sighed. This was the same argument they had every time he came home for a new assignment. It was becoming something of a ritual.

“She wasn’t raped and you know that,” he replied.

“She was, you filthy bastard.”

“Look,” Des rolled his eyes, “I’m really tired and I don’t feel like doing this right now, so will you just let me in, already? Da– ahem, the king wants to see me.”

“Very well.” His half-brother grumbled, tapping a pattern against the joints of the fence between them, “But you’d better make this quick.”

The metal mesh between them flickered and disappeared, revealing itself for the glamour it was. Des stepped through with a nod, “Thanks.”

Sam grunted and spun on his heel, trudging into the sad little copse of trees behind the fence without looking back.

Des followed.

As they passed through the second layer of trees the air around them shifted, cooling as they passed through the invisible gate between the modern world and the Fey one. The light dimmed as they passed between the ancient trees of the Old Forest, the kingdom which Sam’s father–and Des’ stepfather–was king.

Crossing the breadth of the hundred-acre magical forest in mere minutes, they emerged into a clearing facing a huge, ancient oak tree with an elaborate door carved into the front of it. Sam led the way inside.

As always, when Des stepped through the huge gilt doors into the main hall he was once again transported back to his childhood, growing up in these very halls, spending all of his time with the servants, hiding in the kitchens, ducking both his father and his elder brother for fear of yet another undeserved beating. It wasn’t until he reached adulthood and began to manifest his Shadow Fey powers that the king had finally realized how useful his wife’s unwanted, illegitimate child could truly be. After all, every kingdom needed a good spy, and if that spy could melt into shadows and travel from one pool of darkness to another, well, all the better.

They entered the audience chamber and Des walked down the lush red carpet, straight towards the dais where the king sat, his younger brother and chief advisor, Jerrin hovering at his elbow. Des kept his head high and his eyes up as he approached the throne. The king squinted back, disapproval in every line of his face.

Des stopped before the dais, gave a cordial nod to Jerrin–the only member of the Arlatly family who had ever treated him as an equal–and stared the king in the eyes for a moment, just to be clear that he wasn’t afraid of the old man. The king’s squint narrowed with disapproval so Des grinned and dropped to one knee, pressing his right fist to his chest.

Sam grabbed the back of his head and shoved down, forcing Des’ forehead to the floor. He bent down and twisted Des’ head into the carpet as he hissed in his ear, “Show some respect for your king, slime.”

He let go of Des’ head and straightened, but Des had the sense to stay down.

“You wanted to see me, your majesty?” he mumbled into the carpet.

“Yes,” the king paused, “I have a task for you.”

Trying to keep the weariness out of his voice, Des gave the formulaic response, “I live to serve. What would you have me do?”

“I need you to fetch me a girl.”

Des’ head popped up in surprise, “Excuse me?”

Sam kicked him in the rump.

Resisting the urge break Sam’s foot, Des dropped his head back to the carpet, “Do you have a particular girl in mind, or will anyone do?”

“Very funny.” the king snorted, “Of course there is a particular girl. Her name is Katie. Her address and photo are in here.” A folder landed on the floor right in front of Des’ nose.

He picked it up and stood, opening it to examine the papers within. A photo of a small woman with soft, short dark hair and bright eyes stared back at him. Huh. She was cute. He flipped the picture to the side, scanning the information document. She lived in the human world. Just outside the chain link fence, in fact.

Suspicion tickled the back of his mind. The king wasn’t generally in the habit of kidnapping innocent human women. Especially so close to the gate. He knew better than anyone that the Fey could not afford to draw attention to their world.

“What do you want with this girl?” he blurted.

Sam cuffed him in the back of the head, “That’s none of your business, peon. Just bring her here.”

Des spun on his brother, “Now hold on. I’ve done a lot of unsavory things for this family, but I will not be responsible for harming an innocent girl.”

“And what makes you think she’s innocent?” Sam reasoned, “She could be a traitor, a murderer, any number of horrible things… where would your saintly conscience stand on grabbing her then?”

“Obviously if she had done some wrong I wouldn’t hesitate in bringing her in, but you forget I have her file in my hands. She’s clean as a whistle.”

“Who cares?” his half-brother sneered, “You don’t get a say in this. If you won’t take Pop’s order as head of this family, you still have to obey him as king.”

“Oh, rein it in, you two,” the king grumbled from his dais, “I’ll make you a deal, Desimund, you bring me this girl with no questions asked and I will release you from your servitude.”

Now that made Des pause. Even Jerrin and Sam looked surprised by the offer.

“Complete freedom? No strings attached?”

The king nodded, “I’ll even throw in a tidy little house and a small estate. I’ve got the key right here.” He produced a sleek iron key. “I was saving it as a little place to set up a mistress, but I’m much happier to have my toys closer to home.”

Des hesitated, biting his lip. His very own house and estate? That was very tempting.

“Do you swear this girl will come to no physical harm?” He demanded, trying to add at least some value to this most recent complete capitulation of his morals.

“Of course,” the king nodded, adding with a little snicker, “We will treat her as a daughter.”

“I will make sure of it.” Jerrin added, his silver eyes boring into Des’, communicating a more eloquent promise than words ever could.

Well, he wouldn’t have taken his step-father’s word on its own–the man was notorious for his whimsical cruel streak, which he usually vented on Des–but if Jerrin was willing to give his word it was likely all right. Especially if it meant he’d finally get his freedom.

He bowed low, only feeling a slight pinch of morality, “In that case, consider it done.”

“Good. You have two days.”

He laughed and spun on his heel, “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

********************

Des stepped out of the shadow cast by a shiny silver SUV and paused, scanning up and down the rows of little post-war houses in this quiet suburb. The street was deserted – as well it should be at nearly two in the morning.

He slipped back into the darkness, emerging into the garage shadow of the girl’s house. He peered through a small window set into the side of the garage, which happened to be open just a crack. It wasn’t dark enough for him to cross the room as shadow, and too dim to tell what was in there, but at least there was enough darkness just under the window for him to get in. And the garage was attached, so odds were good the door to the house was unlocked, which would save him the trouble of picking a lock. There was no doubt in his mind that this was his best bet for gaining access to the house without waking a soul.

He grinned. This would be too easy.

Careful to take silent steps, he slipped back into the shadow and passed through the open window on a wisp of darkness. He re-solidified and stepped out from against the wall into the moonlight streaming through the window. The door to the house was not only unlocked, but he could see from where he stood that it was ajar.

Yep, definitely too easy. This mission was turning into a breeze.

Eyes and ears fixed on the gap into the house, Des took two steps–and tripped over a box sitting in the middle of the floor. The box made a tremendous clattering sound as he stumbled over it. It sounded as though it was full of dishes or pots, but that wasn’t the worst part.

Once he’d lost his balance he went sailing headlong into a shelving unit which lined the wall next to the door. The overburdened metal shelves gladly gave up the fight as he plowed into them with his face. A wall of cardboard boxes, lawn chairs, hockey sticks and other assorted items rained down on top of him as he landed hard on the concrete in a tangled heap.

Damn. There was no way that noise hadn’t woken everyone in the house and maybe even the neighbors. He had to get out of here. Struggling to get to his feet he ran afoul of some sort of smooth, leafless vine which wrapped itself around him like a boa constrictor and wouldn’t let go. The thing was relentless, the more he moved, the tighter it got. He cursed softly to himself and wriggled some more, but it was no good. He was trapped. The chit must’ve known he was coming for her and set this ingenious trap. She’d even made sure he’d land in a patch of light so there was no hope of dissolving into a shadow.

He ground his teeth and stilled, trying to figure out what to do next.

********************

Katie woke to a huge crash. It had come from the garage. Breathing through the adrenaline spike that had shot through her system at the sound, she glanced at the clock. Two in the morning. Maybe it was just a raccoon or some other rodent that had found its way in and was looking for some kind of tasty snack?

A second, much larger crash sounded from the garage. Okay, that was way too loud to have been caused by a rodent.

Fighting to master her building fear, she eased out of bed and fumbled through the dark until her fingers found the crowbar she kept behind her headboard for just such an occasion. After all, a woman living alone could not afford to take any chances.

She crept down the stairs, trying to will her heart to resume a calm, normal rhythm as she dodged every creak and groan, but it was no use.

As she approached the door to the garage she couldn’t help but notice that it was open a crack. Had she left it like that? Was the intruder already in the house?

She plastered herself to the wall and scanned the hall. She saw no movement or unusual shapes, but that didn’t mean much, they might already be in the kitchen or something. Careful to stay alert, she inched towards the door.

As she got closer she could hear the clear sound of a man swearing under his breath drifting from the garage.

Oh god.

Well, she still had the element of surprise. She considered sneaking away to call the police, but was sure the intruder would be through the door before she could get to a phone. No, she would have to subdue him first and then make her phone call. Luckily she was no coward.

She ran her fingers along the wall until she found the light switch and pulled in a fortifying breath. Counting to three, she flipped the switch and burst through the door with a wild scream, crowbar raised high over her head.

“Holy hell!” The man shouted.

Katie stumbled to a stop and had to swallow a laugh.

The intruder, a lean man with black hair and olive skin, was lying on the floor, impossibly tangled up in a long, orange extension cord. He was watching her with startled, wary black eyes. Only, they weren’t normal black eyes. The entire orb was black; no iris, no pupil, no white, just a shiny black pool gazing out of his face.

The crowbar drifted down to her side as she gaped, feeling herself falling into the depths of those black pools. That was when she noticed that his eyes were not the only part of him which looked non-human. His cheekbones were high and pronounced, giving his face a sleek, windswept look. His ears, while not actually pointed, were not the normal, rounded ears of a human.

He cleared his throat, “Hello.”

She blinked, “Um, hello.”

“Are you planning to bash my head in with that thing?” he asked, pointing at the crowbar with his chin. His voice was deep and smooth, with a musical lilt.

“What?”

“Are you planning to do me in with that crowbar.”

“Oh,” she glanced down at the thing in her hand and dropped it, letting it clang to the floor, “no, I suppose not.”

“Excellent. In that case, would you mind giving me a hand? I seem to have fallen prey to one of your traps.”

“Traps?” A chuckle leapt out of her throat, “That’s not a trap, it’s an extension cord.”

A small growl rumbled from his chest, “It’s not funny. And I don’t care what it is, as long as you’re willing to help me out of it.”

“Oh, of cou–” she stopped. “Wait, what are you doing my garage? Are you going to murder me if I let you go?”

He rolled his eyes, or at least she got the impression he did, “Murder you? Why would I murder you?”

“Because you broke into my house in the middle of the night? I’m not stupid, you know, I watch TV. Burglars always murder anyone unlucky enough to be home when they choose to break in.”

“That’s absurd,” he snorted.

“No it’s not.” She raised her chin, “You could have all kinds of sinister reasons for being in my garage at two in the morning. I don’t know you.”

“Fine,” he grunted, “hello, my name is Desimund Arlatly of the house of the Great Oak, and you are?”

She replied without thinking, “I’m Katie… Katie McDougall.”

“Wonderful. Nice to meet you, Katie, now would you please help me out of this mess?”

“Well, all right,” she hesitated, “as long as you promise not to murder me or steal my stuff.”

He looked her square in the eye, “I promise.”

Setting aside her lingering uncertainty, Katie moved over to him and began the process of unwrapping the extension cord from his body. She grabbed one end and began unwinding it, but it was clear that he would need to stand up so she could work her way around him.

“Can you stand?”

He shook his head, “Not on my own, you’re going to have to help me.”

“Oh, um, ok.”

She reached for him but pulled her hands back, too shy to touch him and uncertain of how to help, “What should I do?”

“Help me sit up.” He replied, illustrating by trying to struggle into a sitting position.

She got behind him and put her hands on his shoulders, pushing him up. He was warm under her touch and she had a sudden urge to run her palms all over the smooth plane of his back, or slip her hands around his chest and press her cheek to the heat of his back.

Shocked and embarrassed, she pulled her hands back. With a very creative curse he tipped backwards again, slamming into her. He smelled like the forest.

For a single, still moment they froze that way, his shoulders cradled against her chest, his short dark hair tickling her nose. She pulled in another surreptitious whiff of him and couldn’t be sure, but he seemed to be doing the same. One thing was certain; he wasn’t trying to get away from her.

Ignoring the blush warming her cheeks she put her hands back on his shoulders and pushed again, better to keep this all business instead of imagining things that weren’t there.

After a bit more grunting, swearing, and pushing, they managed to get him to his feet. Careful not to let her fingers linger on his skin, Katie unwound the extension cord. She could feel his gaze like a living thing crawling through her hair as he watched her, his expression caught somewhere between unhappy and confused.

Finally the mangled nest of orange cable lay on the floor and he was free. She took a few quick steps away from him as images of curling into his grasp filled her mind.

She raised her eyes to his, “There, better now?”

“Much, thanks,” he nodded.

“Good, so you can go now.” She took another step towards the door, away from his tempting heat, and hit the garage door opener.

“Not just yet,” he replied, gaze intent as he took a step towards her, “I can’t leave until I have what I came for.”

Panic choked her, “But… but you said you weren’t going to rob me.”

“I’m not.” He took another step towards her, but she was rooted to the spot, unable to move, let alone run, “I promised I wouldn’t take your stuff and I never lie.”

“But you said…”

A third step and he was a mere breath away from her. She should turn, she should run, but all she could do was stand there, eyes wide with fear as she stared up into the unfathomable black depths of his gaze.

“I’m here for you.”

His hands lifted, curling around her waist. Terror flooded her mind, but couldn’t quite seem to overcome her body’s very positive and very inappropriate reaction. He picked her up as if she weighed nothing and threw her over his shoulder. Turning off the garage light, he hit the opener button and bustled out onto the driveway, ducking under the closing door. He was awfully thoughtful for a kidnapper.

He started down the street for all the world as though he were taking an evening stroll.

She finally found her voice, “Hey, Desimund, put me down or I’ll scream.”

“No can do, and I prefer Des.”

“Well, I warned you.” she snapped, opening her mouth and drawing a big breath.

Just as she was about to let out one heck of a shriek he stumbled, bouncing her on his shoulder and knocking the wind out of her.

“Oops, my bad.”

She could hear the grin in his voice. What a jerk.

She didn’t dignify him with a response, instead she drew breath again and–

He bounced her on his shoulder again and this time she choked on her breath.

“I don’t want to knock you out, sweetie, but I will if I have to,” he warned.

“Yeah, right.” She pulled in a third breath.

He heaved a long-suffering sigh and raised his other arm. There was a quick sharp pain in her bottom and the edges of her world started to blur. She tried to scream, but her vocal cords wouldn’t cooperate.

The last thing she heard as her world dropped to blackness was his voice, “I warned you.”

 

********************

Sam was waiting at the chain-link fence for him when he returned. His brother’s chilly liquid silver eyes warmed as they came to rest on Katie’s rump which was high up in the air as she drooped over Des’ shoulder. Des had to resist the urge to pull the girl’s nightshirt lower over her backside.

“That was quick.” Sam grinned, activating the opening sequence in the fence.

As Des stepped through, Sam reached for the girl. For some reason he couldn’t fully explain, Des was reluctant to let his brother touch her, so he took a step back.

“Come on, hand her over.” Sam wheedled, “I’ll take it from here. I’m sure you’re eager to get to your new home.” He produced the elegant skeleton key which now had a map tied to it.

Yes, he was eager to get to his new home, to settle in and start making the place his own, and most importantly to be free of his duty to the king, but in his eyes, his mission wasn’t finished until he delivered the girl to the king personally.

He shook his head, “Nope, my mission was to deliver the girl to the king, and that’s what I’m going to do.” He pushed his way past Sam and started down the path into the Old Forest.

Sam had to scurry to catch up with him, “But she’s a gift for me,” he whined, “I don’t see why I can’t start enjoying her now.”

“What?” Des stopped so abruptly that Sam nearly crashed into him, “What did you say?”

“She’s my birthday present.” Sam repeated, his expression hungry as he smoothed a hand over Katie’s bottom, “If you take her to Pop he’ll just hand her over to me, so I don’t see why we can’t skip the middle man.”

Sam might have been lying, but it was impossible to tell. Something like dread formed a rock in the pit of Des’ stomach. He ignored it. It was no business of his what happened to the girl once he turned her over to the king. He would be free and that was all that mattered.

He kept walking, “No way. I promised to deliver her to the king, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

With a huffy sigh Sam took up his position behind Des, “Well at least I can look at her while we go.”

They entered the audience chamber to find the king and most of the courtiers assembled, bleary-eyed and yawning. Odd for this hour, but not the strangest thing he’d ever seen.

Des strode straight up to the bottom step of the dais and bowed to Jerrin and his step-father, depositing the girl on the steps before raising his gaze to the king’s silver eyes, “Here she is. Now keep your word. I want my reward.”

The king gave a sly smile, “Of course, but first, one more thing. Wake her up.”

Pulling a vial of smelling salts from his pocket, Des knelt and waved them under the girl’s nose. She started to stir instantly. He watched as her head lolled and her eyes fluttered open. How had he not noticed her lovely sea-blue eyes when they’d been speaking in her garage? She met his gaze and her cheeks pinkened with a becoming blush as a small, uncertain smile flickered on her lips.

He felt a tiny answering smile curl his lips in return, “Hello again.”

“Hello,” she frowned, “Des, was it?”

“That’s right.”

“What… what happened? Where am I?” She glanced around, quick rage building in her gaze as it flicked from the ceiling to the assembled courtiers, over his shoulder to where Sam stood, and finally back to Des, “You! You… you kidnapped me!”

“Um, yes.”

With a shriek that would’ve made a banshee proud, she launched off the steps quicker than he would’ve believed possible, given the amount of tranquilizer still in her system, and collided with him. Next thing he knew he was flat on his back and she was straddling him, the hem of her nightie riding somewhere around her hips. She pulled back a fist and slammed it into his right cheekbone.

The assembled crowd gasped, except for one muffled chuckle which sounded suspiciously like it had come from Jerrin.

“That’s for kidnapping me!” She shrieked.

Another fist, this one to his left eye, damn but the girl had good aim, “And that’s for lying to me!”

“But I didn’t–”

She stopped his words with a fist to his jaw, “Not telling the truth is the same as lying, you bastard!”

Gods how he’d always hated that word.

The courtiers were chuckling all around them now.

That was it.

He caught her next punch in his hand and deflected it to the side, pulling her down on top of him. He felt the softness of her body crash into his, but was too angry to pay attention to the need that speared his belly.

Curling his free hand around the back of her neck he pulled her down and held her nose-to-nose with him, making sure he had her full attention, “Now listen very carefully, I didn’t lie to you. I’m also not taking you back, no matter how much you pummel me, so I recommend that you stop making a spectacle of yourself in front of the entire court and make the best of this. You can start by getting the hell off me.”

The rage in her eyes faded to bewilderment and self-loathing slithered through him, but he didn’t let it show.

“You need to let go of me.” She whispered, her sweet breath brushing his lips.

“What?”

“I can’t get off of you if you’re still holding me down.”

“Oh,” he released the back of her neck as though it were on fire, “of course.”

Sam chose that moment to swoop in, offering a gallant hand, “Are you all right, my lady? This oaf didn’t hurt you, I trust?” He helped Katie to her feet before delivering a solid kick to Des’ ribs.

Katie shook her head, “N-no, I’m fine.” She looked around, “Wh-where am I?”

Des watched from the floor as Sam dropped into a deep bow and pressed a lingering kiss to her fingers, “You are in the main audience chamber of the palace of the Great Oak, seat of the ruling family of the Old Forest for the last few thousand years.”

Stunned, she replied, “And who are you?”

“I am crown prince Samuil Arlatly, of the house of the Great Oak.” Sam bowed again and swept a hand toward the dais, “And this is my father, king of the Old Forest and head of the Arlatly family.”

The similarity in last names did not escape Katie’s somewhat bewildered notice. She looked down at Des. “You’re a prince?”

Sam laughed, pulling her attention back to himself, “Oh, no. Des is nothing more than a bastard; a by-blow of my mother’s. The family name is strictly a courtesy extended to a useful vassal.” He threw a contemptuous glance down at Des, “He could no more rule the kingdom than I could become a peasant.”

Feeling exposed and awkward, Des finally pushed back to his feet, ignoring Katie and his brother and turning to the king. “I believe I am owed my reward now.”

“Of course.” The king replied waving a hand at Sam, “Give him the key, son.”

Withdrawing the key and map from his pocket, Sam let it drop to the ground, forcing Des to bend and pick it up.

He snatched it from the ground and turned to leave, afraid to look at Katie in case he gave into the strong urge to grab her and run for the hills.

“Don’t you want to stay for the party?” Sam teased.

He stopped and turned back to his brother, “What party?”

“My engagement party, of course.”

“Engagement?” Katie frowned, “Who are you getting engaged to?”

“You.”

“What? No!” She pulled out of Sam’s grasp and backed up, “I’m not marrying you.”

“Oh, yes you are!” Sam growled, catching her and wrestling her into his embrace, “Tomorrow, in fact. I’ve been watching you for years. We’re meant to be together.” He stroked a rough hand through her hair, leaving it mussed, “I’m offering you the chance to become a princess, isn’t that what every girl wants?”

“No!” She shrieked, struggling to free herself from Sam’s hold, “I don’t even know you!”

“Trust me,” he purred, one hand dropping to the hem of her nightie, pulling the fabric up over her hip, displaying her lacy blue underwear to the entire court as he dug his fingers into her flesh, “you’ll love me. I’m amazing.”

Sam bent his head, capturing her lips in a savage kiss as his hands plastered her body to his. She tried to turn away, but Sam was stronger, grabbing her by the back of the head and holding her still as his hips began to roll against hers.

Good Gods, Sam wasn’t going to rape the girl right here in front of the entire court, was he?

“Samuil Arlatly, stop that right now!” Jerrin thundered from his place next to the king’s throne. Their uncle had a surprisingly commanding voice when he wanted to.

“Stay out of it, Jerrin,” the king warned.

“No.” Jerrin retorted, “I put up with much in this court, but I will not stand by and watch an innocent woman violated for your amusement.”

Every eye in the room was locked on Jerrin, and most of the courtiers’ mouths were hanging open. No one had ever spoken to the king like that in public.

And with good reason.

Des could only watch as his step-father hefted his scepter in his right hand and swung, driving the studded ball on the end deep into Jerrin’s gut. Jerrin coughed and sputtered, collapsing to the floor next to the dais.

“Anyone else have something to say?” the king taunted.

Silence met his words.

Sam pulled Katie’s nightgown up even higher, sliding his free hand up to squeeze her breast.

Des scanned the room. Every single one of the courtiers stood, gazes fixed on the marble at their feet, hating the scene before them, but unable to do anything about it. Sam was the crown prince, after all.

Well, somebody had to do something.

It looked like it would have to be him.

Tucking the key to his new home deep into his pocket so that it could not be taken away from him, Des strode right up to Sam and Katie.

The girl’s eyes were wide with terror as they fixed on him. There was no doubt she expected to be raped.

“Let her go, Sam.”

His brother ripped his mouth away from Katie’s to turn a sneer on Des, “No. She’s mine and I’ll do as I please with her, so get lost.”

Sam was a bully, but Des knew, when it actually came down to brass tacks, that he was far more accomplished at hurting people. He let some of that knowledge slip into his voice, “Let the girl go before I have to hurt you.”

Now that got Sam’s attention. He released Katie, shoving her backwards where she stumbled into the arms of a waiting guard, and turned to face Des. Des kept his eyes off the rather prominent erection making a ridge in his brother’s trousers and returned the man’s glare.

Sam lashed out, slugging Des in the gut. Des doubled over as his breath left him.

“Anything else you’d like to say before I beat your ass into next week?” Sam leered, looming over Des.

“Just this,” he wheezed, pulling himself upright and catching Katie’s eye over his brother’s shoulder, “you might want to duck.”

Katie snatched the guard’s dagger and spun, waving it in the man’s face. The man lifted his hands in surrender.

Sam turned to see what was going on and Des took advantage of his opportunity to drive a hard fist into Sam’s kidneys. His brother squealed and dropped to his knees.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Des grunted, kicking Sam in the ribs.

His half-brother went down in a heap.

“Stop this at once!” the king bellowed, “Guards, arrest him!”

Des delivered one more kick to Sam’s inert form then put up his hands. After all, what had he expected? He’d known he was in for it the moment he’d decided to pound on the crown prince.

Two guards appeared from within the crowd of stunned courtiers to flank him. He didn’t put up a fight as they pushed him to the foot of the dais and down onto his knees.

Katie landed on the carpet beside him, the guard she’d been threatening having stripped her of her weapon with little difficulty.

“Well done,” he whispered.

She huffed, “Thanks… and thanks for saving me.”

“Silence,” the king decreed, “Desimund, you leave me no choice but to find you guilty of treason. You will be put to death at with the last rays of the sunset this evening. And as for you,” he turned his gaze on Katie, “you will marry my son. Tonight. Immediately following the execution.”

He raised his eyes to the room at large, “You will all prepare for a feast, for tonight we celebrate the death of a traitor and the marriage of a prince.”

This declaration was met with stony silence. Apparently Des wasn’t the only one who’d been mistreated by Sam and his father.

The guards hauled Des to his feet and began marching him down the carpet towards the doors. Each face they passed was suffused with pity or outrage instead of joy.

The guards tossed him into a cell in the dungeon which was ringed with sealed lanterns intended to dispel every shadow but paused before turning to leave. The bigger one–Ted?–spoke, “We’re right sorry about this, sir. There ain’t a person in this kingdom who don’t know how hard you worked for us. There’s plenty of folks round here who’d rather see you on the throne than that old tyrant and his disgrace of a son.”

The other guard nodded.

Des smiled, “Thanks, I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“T’weren’t nothing but the truth, sir.”

Then the door closed and Des was left alone with his thoughts.

********************

Katie found herself separated from Des, escorted up the main stairs and down a walnut-panelled hall lined with regular doors. The guards opened the last one on the right and tossed her into the room beyond. It was a well-appointed bedroom done entirely in blue. As the door slammed shut and she heard the guards take up positions outside the door, a short, mousy woman in a blue dress rose from a chair by the fire.

She curtseyed, “Good day, my lady. My name is Catriona; I’m here to help you prepare for your wedding.”

Wretched dread plunked into Katie’s gut, “Hello Catriona, it’s nice to meet you, but I won’t be getting married.”

The woman’s eyes widened, “Oh, but you have to, my lady, the prince demands it, and what the prince wants, the king grants.”

“He’s not my king.” Katie retorted.

“But… but he’ll have you executed if you disobey… just look at poor lord Desimund. Faithful to the crown for his whole life, one wrong word and now he’s going to die.”

The very sound of his name dispelled a little of the despair clutching at her heart. She couldn’t help herself. “Do you know lord Desimund well? He seems like a nice guy.”

The other woman’s eyes lit up and she grinned as she bustled about the room, preparing a huge fluffy pink dress as well as some punitive-looking undergarments, “Oh, lord Desimund is indeed a true gentleman. The king forces him to do horrible things and the poor man is so loyal that he does them, though you can see he doesn’t like it. And he’s never been anything but kind to the serving staff.” Catriona bustled back over to Katie and lowered her voice to a whisper, “Many of us wish that he was the prince instead of Samuil–or even that he was king.” She shook her head, “But that’ll never happen now.”

********************

Des sat in the centre of his cell, hugging his knees, and let despair claim him.

For so much of his life he’d been walking a fine line; balancing on the edge of his step-father and brother’s contempt, it was really a miracle that he hadn’t been put to death for some minor slight before now. And the worst part was he couldn’t save Katie. Yes, uncle Jerrin had promised to look out for the girl, but after today’s little display it was clear that he was in no real position to help. He didn’t resent his uncle for that; the man was a lone beacon of goodness in a rotten family. But still, it was a double insult to go to his death knowing that the innocent girl he’d delivered into his step-father’s care was in for a lifetime of abuse at Sam’s hands.

The very thought made him see red. She didn’t deserve a fate like that. She’d been kind enough to free him and trust him and how had he repaid her? By snatching her away from her life to become his half-brother’s sex-toy.

For the first time in his life, he felt truly capable of strangling his brother to death and damn the consequences. After all, what more could they do to him? He was already going to die. Surely there’d be at least one shadow on the way to the block. If he was quick he could probably strangle Sam before the guards had time to react.

A noise at the door to his cell caught his attention and he looked up. Uncle Jerrin stepped into the light and let the door fall shut behind him. Once he was sure they were alone, he spoke, “I do not have much time, Des. The guards are covering my visit as well as possible, but if I’m gone for too long my brother will suspect something.” He whipped off his cloak and covered the six lanterns by the door, standing in the centre of the room. His shadow stretched out behind him and he gestured to it, “Hurry, there’s a dark nook just around the corner to the right.”

But Des shook his head, “No. I appreciate the gesture, Uncle, but I’m done with running and hiding. I’m going to face this head-on.”

Jerrin blinked at him, “Please, you must go. I will not have your death on my conscience.”

“And what about Katie?”

“You mean the girl?”

“Yes.”

“She is too well-guarded for even you to save. You must forget her.”

“And if I can’t?”

“I will do my best for her, but her life is not worth more than yours… please, Desimund, go!”

“Well I happen to believe her life is worth more than mine. She’s an innocent and I brought her into this mess. I’m staying right here. I may not be able to do much for her, but my best shot is tonight at the execution. I will do what I can or die trying.”

Jerrin made a plaintive noise, “I cannot make you go, but I do wish you would.”

Des just shook his head again.

“Very well, then. At least take this.” His uncle pressed something cold and metal into Des’ palm and collected his cloak. He paused in the doorway, his silver gaze gentle, “You never cease making me proud.” He slipped from the room and shut the door behind him.

Des looked down at the dagger in his hand and smiled. It wasn’t big, but it was enough to kill Sam.

********************

Katie stood on the makeshift altar in the middle of the clearing in front of the castle, which, much to her surprise, appeared to be carved from the biggest, oldest oak tree she’d ever seen. It had taken two guards, Catriona, and a footman to hold her down long enough to cram her into the ridiculous dress she now wore, but in the end they had overcome her. So here she stood, her ankles shackled together and those shackles chained to the floor under the bell shaped skirts of her frilly pink dress, watching the doors of the palace for what would be her last glimpse of Des. She told herself there was nothing romantic about he desire–no, need–to see him one last time, it was simple gratitude. He was going to die because he stood up to defend her. Other than the kidnapping he’d seemed like a decent sort of guy, he didn’t deserve this.

The main doors swung open and Katie felt her heart leap, but it was the pale Prince Samuil who strode through the door, not Des’ dark self. The prince paused on the top step and raised his arms.

The assembled courtiers clapped in a subdued sort of way.

Prince Samuil raked the crowd with a warning look and raised his arms once more.

This round of applause was more enthusiastic.

He strode across the grass and climbed the steps to take his place next to Katie on the altar. He leered down at her chest. This dress did do quite a lot to frame her cleavage.

“Ready to be a princess, my love?” he sneered.

Katie snorted. “I’m not your love.”

“Hmm,” he curled an arm around her waist and pushed her hip against the ridge in his pants, “give it a couple hours.”

He bent to force another kiss on her, but at that moment the doors to the palace burst open again and the king strode out to another round of subdued applause. The prince released her and turned to watch as the king proceeded down the steps, a shackled Des following behind flanked by two guards, an epic black eye blooming where she’d punched him earlier. He was followed by the other man who had been on the dais in the audience chamber this afternoon. Some kind of advisor if she had to guess, though after his outburst and subsequent beating this afternoon, his advice clearly wasn’t always welcome.

 

The advisor was walking behind Des, his liquid silver gaze fixed on Des’ back, a look of deep regret on his face.

In fact, out of the entire crowd, the king, the prince, and Des were the only ones who didn’t look wretchedly unhappy. Des was actually smiling.

He must be insane.

Or on drugs.

He glanced up at the altar on his way by, the black pools of his eyes shining as he offered Katie an encouraging smile. He turned his gaze on the prince and his smile turned sly, a subtle threat written in his look.

The prince just sneered back at his half-brother, “Why so happy, Des? Finally getting what you deserve?”

Des didn’t bother answering, instead his gaze flicked to a spot on the altar just behind the prince and his grin widened.

Katie glanced behind the prince, but didn’t see anything remarkable, just the loose boards of the temporary floor.

As though offering its own farewell salute to Des, the lowering sun broke from behind the clouds which had been concealing its light, casting sharp, dark shadows of the trees across the floor of the clearing.

That was when all hell broke loose. There was a shout from somewhere in the crowd as Des and his guards passed into one of the shadows and Des disappeared. Katie blinked in disbelief. He’d been there one moment and gone the next, shackles and all.

The two guards whirled searching the clearing, but no one expected what happened next.

Somehow Des materialized in the darkness of the prince’s shadow on the altar. He stepped forward and threw is manacled hands over the prince’s head, pulling the man back against his chest. His eyes were dancing and there was a devilish grin on his lips as something bright and silver flashed between his fingers.

The prince’s eyes flew wide and his mouth dropped open. He began making little choking sounds as red blood bloomed against the pale skin of his throat.

“What’s the matter, brother?” Des purred in the dying man’s ear, “Finally getting what you deserve?”

He lifted his hands and stepped back, letting his half-brother drop to the crude wooden floor of the altar.

Katie opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

Des flashed her a blinding smile and winked, “Just a moment, my lady, I have one other thing to take care of.”

Meanwhile, the king had managed to regain his wits and was now screaming himself purple ordering his guards to surround him and capture the rogue Shadow Fey.

Katie could only assume he meant Des.

The man in question stepped behind Katie. Was he seriously going to use her as a shield? What a coward. She whirled to tell him so just in time to see the last glint of his black eyes as he dissolved into her shadow.

What?

A woman screamed and Katie whirled back to face the clearing. Des had somehow managed to get inside the circle of guards and was currently pressing the small silver thing in his hands to the king’s white throat. The guards, for their part, were scrambling to rearrange themselves in a way that might be useful to their master. They were well trained. It took them only a moment to draw their crystal swords and train them on Des.

“What are you waiting for, you clods?” the king screamed, “Kill the traitor!”

Des did not look in the least bit afraid. He shrugged, “Well, who’s going to be first?”

No one moved.

“That’s what I thought.” Des muttered. He turned his gaze to the king’s face, “Just so you know, I never really considered you my father.” The silver in Des’ fingers flashed again and another pale throat ran red.

He let the king’s body drop to the ground, let go of his little knife, and raised his hands, “All right gents, you may now execute me.”

The ring of guards around him just stared, clearly unsure whose orders to obey now.

Des laughed, “I believe in a case like this the crown reverts to the king’s younger brother.”

All eyes turned to the king’s advisor who looked nothing short of staggered.

Finally, one of the guards surrounding Des who seemed a little more experienced than the others grabbed Des by the collar and pushed him over to the advisor, throwing him down in the grass at the man’s feet.

“What should we do with this traitor, my lord?” the man asked, his tone full of wariness.

The advisor seemed to come back to himself with a thump. He looked down at Des’ dark head, back up at the guard, and then out over the crowd. He swallowed. “Let him go.”

A palpable wave of relief washed through the assembled courtiers, followed by a huge cheer.

As one of the other guards rushed over to undo Des’ manacles, the first guard returned to the king’s body, plucked the delicate silver crown from his head, and placed it on the advisor’s brow, shouting “All hail King Jerrin!”

“All hail King Jerrin!” the crowd returned, bursting into jubilant cheering and applause.

King Jerrin, for his part, was blushing.

Des, meanwhile, had retrieved the keys from the guard who’d freed him and climbed up onto the altar. He smiled down at her, “I hear you’ve got some unwanted jewelry under that skirt of yours.”

A laugh wrung itself out of her chest around her immense relief and she smiled, “You heard right.”

“Well then, pardon my forwardness.”

He dropped to his knees and lifted the edge of her skirt. He let out a low whistle, “Wow, they were serious about keeping you here.”

The warmth of his fingers brushed her bare ankles as he unlocked the iron rings and she laughed again, “It did take four people to get me into this dress.”

Des popped back to his feet with a grin, “And what a lovely dress it is.”

She punched him in the arm.

“Ow.”

They shared a little laugh which dropped into an awkward silence.

“Oh, by the way, I’m sorry about this.” She mumbled, brushing her fingertips across his cheekbone below his black eye.

He shrugged, “Don’t worry, it happens all the time.”

“So, um, what now?”

“Well,” he surveyed the clearing where the courtiers were busy taking turns offering the new king their warmest congratulations, “Now that Jerrin is king, I think things are really going to turn around here. He’ll be an excellent ruler. He’s the fairest, most well-reasoned person I’ve ever known.”

“I meant what’s next for you, you dolt.”

“Oh.” he turned to look at her, “I hadn’t really thought about that. I suppose I’ll be taking possession of this.” He pulled large, iron key out of his pocket with a piece of parchment tied to the loop end.

“A key?”

“A house, actually.”

“Ah.” A flutter of disappointment beat against her heart. What had she really been expecting? They barely knew each other. “And me? Do I get to go home?”

Something sad flickered across his face, “Yes, of course. I can’t keep you here.”

Was it just her imagination, or did he sound sad about that?

“Shall we?” He gestured towards the bottom of the steps.

She walked down the stairs and he followed, passing her when they got to the grass.

“This way.” He grabbed her hand and warmth shot through her, but didn’t seem to affect him one bit.

Hand in hand, he led her out of the clearing into the forest. They walked for what seemed like mere minutes before they came to a chain-link fence, more specifically the chain-link fence that ran along Castle Boulevard a mere few blocks from her home. Confused, she turned, looking back the way they’d come. How could that whole crazy kingdom exist so close to her community without anyone knowing about it?

The forest behind her looked the same as it always did, small and devoid of any magical kingdoms.

“How–?” She blurted.

Des stopped at the fence and turned back to her, “Oh, the Old Forest isn’t actually part of your world. This copse of trees just happens to hold a gate between your world and mine.” He lifted a hand and tapped a series of joints in the fence. A large section of it dissolved before her very eyes.

Katie gaped.

“It’s a glamour,” he explained, “a magical illusion. Though, from your side of the fence it’s perfectly solid.”

He fell silent and they stared at each other for a moment. She studied his face, memorizing his funny black eyes, the slight point to his ears, his careless black hair and the warm scent of forest that drifted from him.

“Will I ever see you again?” She asked.

His eyebrows drifted up, “That depends. Do you want to?”

She shrugged, “Maybe.”

“Well, don’t try and find me. The Old Forest may seem benign, but it has a nasty habit of eating humans unwary enough to wander into its clutches. However, if you like,” he glanced down at the ground, “perhaps I could come and visit sometime.”

She reached out and lifted his gaze back to hers, smiling into his eyes, “I’d like that.”

His expression brightened, “How about Thursday?”

“It’s a date.” She sighed, “But for now I should get home and get out of this ridiculous outfit.”

“Ah, right.” He stepped aside to let her pass through the fence.

Once she was on the other side she turned back, took one last look at him through the now-solid chain-link and blew him a kiss.

He grinned and blew one back.

She turned and hurried down the street, hoping he didn’t see the little skip in her step.

© 2014 Kalyna Conrad

“Henry A. Coleman” by Elaine Hatcher

Henry A. Coleman

by Elaine Hatcher

 

“Alright thanks man. I’ll be sure to do that. Have a good night and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Jim waves off to his buddy, grabs and wraps me loop after loop around his arm, and we take off for the parking lot.

I’m not in the mood to be stuffed in the toolbox with my stuffy toolmates today, I’m just not. It has been a long day, and I just want some AC and classic rock. Some days I am in the toolbox, and some days in the backseat; I never know what to expect. The decision is never based on my performance at work, or even Jim’s mood. I have yet to figure it out. Once after a long day I was so desperate to stay out of the toolbox I took a risky chance and wrapped around the not-so-tender woodsaw I was connected to in hopes of sneaking a hitchhike. The big tools always get to ride in the front. But when we got to the truck Jim was quick to unplug and place me in the back. No rhyme or reason!

The only thing I can do now is cross my prongs and hope for the best. We just made it to the truck…

Ugh. It’s a toolbox day. I should have known. We did not have a lot of our team out today, so maybe Jim thought it would be best to just single trip dump me in the back with the rest. Easier for him yes, but dreadful for me. Stuffy and dark and crowded, I really do not like it in here. In the front I have a cushy seat and can look out the window and see the strip. But back here I am jammed between the screwdrivers and bolt box and do not even have room to stretch. And every time we hit a pothole I end up knotted for a week. I know hate is a strong word, but I hate being in the toolbox. I hate it. I didn’t want this today, I don’t want this any day really but what can I do? It is what I have come to learn as my life. And crossing my prongs never seems to work for much.

At least when we get back home things are different; Jim takes me out first and puts me in the backyard tool shed by the chain linked fence. This is a daily event I can depend on. Unlike the uncertainty of my ride home, arriving home is like taxes or the tides. I know the minute the truck stops I will be brought back to the shed and hung from my trusty rusty nail on the wall. The other tools are eventually brought back too, but I am always one of the first. Whether it is because I am the last one packed and the first one out or because Jim likes me best I do not know, but I like it either way. Being first brings a moment of elation to my otherwise menial existence.

And menial is to say the least. Lowly, repetitive and downright pathetic are much more appropriate.

“Hey Dad! Check this out you’re never going to believe what happened!”

“Yeah! Wattson got caught near the big socket today and Mom is so mad.”

“Yeah and Charger was going to go play there too but lucky for him I told him not to…”

“You did not!”

“I did too!”

Triplets: Charger, Wattson and Turbine. Not even 6 foot of length yet, yet are amped up like 50 foot power strips. They get their liveliness from my side of the family.

“Dad are you gonna yell at Wattson too?”

“Yeah Mom said you would. She said, “Wattson, just you wait until your father gets home!” and then she left and made Wattson stay in his room till dinner.”

“Yeah she did! Do you wanna go see him right now? Ohh I bet he’s scared of you Dad!”

Let me take this moment to inform you, I was not designed for this mediocre existence. Through a computer glitch and twisted fate I ended up here, on this nail with a wife, three kids, and filling the needs of my owner Jim who runs Paradise Electric in Nevada. Do not let the name fool you, it is just the name of our town; nothing paradise-like about it. Instead of lighting up the Luxor I am powering Jim’s drill or the family Christmas lights when he takes his annual two week winter vacation.

But like I said, I am not designed for this. I am a Coleman. A Twenty Five Foot, Heavy Duty, Orange Outdoor Vinyl Power Extension Cord. I was designed for power and strength! Purposed to accomplish great feats of energy transfer from one place to another! Constructed to provide light and force and vitality to where it is needed most! Back in 1990 I was set on the production track for Vegas, packaged and stamped in a box destined for The Strip. I was a young plug then and had only heard stories, but from what I did hear Vegas was where I needed to be. One of the guys said the city was so bright at night you could see it from space! With my durable design and genes for perfect current strength I knew then my life’s purpose was to be a provider for the brightest city on Earth.

Despite my genes and dreams, life has a way of taking matters into its own unreasonable hands. The day I was shipped a big storm hit and our factory computers went down. My box was already packed and en route, so the storm seemed inconsequential to me at the time. From what I could overhear from the driver we had two stops that day, the majestic MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, and a small, unknown hardware store located in an equally small and unknown suburb called Paradise. We arrived at the small store first and the driver came around back to scan and drop off boxes filled with tools not destined for greatness. But with the computers down the scanner could not register which boxes were which, and as a result fates were twisted and the right boxes went to the wrong place. I never made it to Vegas.

After Jim purchased me almost 25 years ago, a series of typical small town events unfolded to lead to the proverbial nail I’m hanging from today. Employment in a laborious, unrewarding 9 to 5 job; a surprising connection with a conservative Belkin surge protector eventually led to marriage; and the most recent and unexpected earned role of fatherhood when kids were added to the mix after a post-Thanksgiving request from Jim’s wife.

“Jim, the family is growing so big. We need to have more entertainment at Christmastime. Karaoke for the kids, music for the adults, what do we have to do to make it happen?”

And the rest is history.

“Hey Dad?”

“What son?”

“Are you gonna go see Wattson now?”

“Yeah Dad. Come on let’s go he’s waaaiiitinnggg!”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my wife, and I love my kids, but I cannot help spending my days wishing I was doing something else and my nights longing to be part of something bigger. My wife doesn’t know it but while she sleeps I am wide awake, looking towards the north where Vegas lights up the sky like a rocketship blasting into space. From my nail I can peer through the shed doors and out through the fence to catch a glimpse of the strip and dream of the life I had been stripped of living. How heroic and noble it would be to provide energy for lights and shows and spectacles! Making sounds and sights possible in areas where these components could not exist without me, and powering lights and cameras and…

“Hey Dad!”

What? Oh.

“What son?”

“You ok?”

“Yes son, I’m ok.”

I tell a lie.

No. I am not ok.

But so is my life.

 

The next morning is almost an exact repeat of the last; I wake from sleepless slumber tired from the day ahead before it even begins, and my wife is arranging and preparing the kids for another day at tool school. I can hear them in the back;

“Turbine, check out the new volt I earned yesterday!”

“Charger didn’t earn it he stole it!”

“Oh yeah? Well at least I could light up that light bulb when you couldn’t!”

“Yes I could to! I did it when you turned around! I lit that light bulb up so much it almost exploded!”

“Nuh uuh!”

“Uh huh!!”

Just as I am about to shout to calm their wiry nerves and avoid losing mine, Jim walks in to grab me and the tools he needs, and my work day officially begins. I look over to my wife and kids and feel the repeat guilt I always feel every morning. She deserves better. The kids deserve better. This old shed is no place to raise a family.

The past few weeks Jim and I have actually been working on the strip. But it is not the strip you typically imagine or the strip I see at night; the city by day is not really impressive at all. There is no action and plenty of sunlight and therefore no need for me. Not in the way I want to be needed anyway. The Bellagio has been converting one of their old convention rooms into a performance hall, and Jim won the contract to rewire and install the new lighting. It is going to be an amazing space! It’s not yet completed but you can already tell this will be one of the best stages in town. Interactive theater seating, ultimate lighting systems, the highest of high-end sound systems; it will be an electrical dream come true! I tell myself that because I am working here now I am a real and true Vegas cord, providing mega support for the megastars that will soon grace this stage with their presence. I try to convince myself of this stretched truth just to get through the day with some sort of dignity, but as Jim plugs his DC 800 drill into my receiving end, the delusion’s falsity becomes very apparent.

The long day winds down in its typical fashion, and Jim grabs and wraps me and starts heading towards the lot. As I begin my usual yet obviously futile prong crossing ritual, one of the contractors calls Jim over.

They start talking shop and I can tell the nature of their conversation is longwinded, and it is drawing Jim towards the other guy’s truck and away from ours. Out of nowhere I feel an unusual sensation; I am genetically engineered for proper grounding and rarely blow a fuse, but something inside is swelling and the current situation is making it worse. I don’t even care if I get crammed in the toolbox at this point, I just want to go home. To get home and back to, well, what, my shed? My drafty shed and 3 unintentionally energy draining kids? Back to Paradise? Oh blasphemous life I just can’t take this anymore! So angry and yet, no one to be angry with except myself. It all seems so hopeless. I should have done more with my life.

At this point I drift off or pass out, which of the two I do not know. I think my internal outburst caused my current pressure to rise. Either way, I was out like a light. Or a broken light rather. I never understood that idiom.

 

When I stir I can tell I am a pickup truck bed, but it is not Jim’s. Wherever I am and whoever I am with I do not know, but based on the recognizable jerky start-stop of the truck I can tell we are stuck in traffic. As I come to I look around and notice a few other tools and a big old generator in the back corner, but that’s about it. If there are other tools they must be lucky and in the back seat, because they are not here with us. It is getting dark outside and before I have a chance to get nervous a realization halts me in my thought tracks…

I am in the back of a pickup truck, cruising down the strip in downtown Vegas.

“Hey kid!”

I can’t believe it but it is true. I am here, in Vegas, live and in the flesh, and past working hours! I don’t even know…

“Hey kid!”

Kid? Wait, who is talking? They cannot be referring to me, I am a 25 foot Coleman! I am no kid!

“What’s the deal? Are you trying to play it cool kid? I’m talking to you.”

It was the old generator in the back. I guess compared to him everyone is a kid.

“Oh, no, no sir. I just was, well I mean, I’m confused. Where am I? I mean, why am I, whose truck is this?”

“You’ve been out for some time. Your buddy Jim up there put you in the back with us, and our buddy John is taking him out for his birthday. You’re stuck in the back here for the night kid.”

“You mean, stuck for the night in Vegas?”

“That’s the plan. You ok wi…”

Whatever he said after that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Well, let me take that back. Everything now actually mattered. Life finally mattered! This was a chance for my break! Big possibilities! It was only a birthday party, but staying the whole night in Vegas would lead to something incredible for sure. I have heard the stories about this place, and they are almost always the same. The night starts off simple only to lead to a crazy experience. Sometimes unbelievable. In the very least this evening would give me a chance to get a prong in the door. I can see my story unfolding now; Vegas truck night tonight, Celine Dion and Mystere lighting stage team tomorrow! Look out fame and fortune here I come!

“Where are we going? Are we seeing a show? Do you know if they will need lighting for their party? Or sound? Or…”

“Whoah kid now slow down. It’ll be a low key night. Well, low key for Vegas anyway. John’s gotta get back home before dawn. We’re headed to the Mirage for some blackjack and later to MGM Grand for the fight. And by “we” I mean them. You and I and the rest of the tool gang will be here in the back of the truck. So take it easy.”

But nothing could crush my excitement at this point. Even staying in the back of the truck all night seemed to be a glorious opportunity. As the sun was setting I could tell it would be a magnificent experience. So much better than anything back home! The strip was already starting to light up, much brighter and more intense than I ever presumed from my sleepless nights in the shed. And it was not even nighttime yet. This was about to get good. No, not good, GREAT.

“So we are going there now? To the Mirage? Will we be outside the whole night?”

“Yeah kid, we will. You ok? Seem kinda jumpy; you’ve been on The Strip before, right?”

The Strip? At night? UhhhhOF course!

“Of course! Yeah, I mean yes, I have come to the Strip, I mean, been on the Strip plenty of times. Just, you know, not like this, that’s all. Usually I’m with the band…”

With the band?? What band? He’d never buy it.

“I mean, part of the band, banding, abandoning, not that I was abandoned, because I’m not, or wasn’t, I mean I just was here in the past with others. Like with a group. And not in the back of a truck.”

Phew! Good recovery.

“Well, alright there kid, whatever you say. Just try to keep your cool. You’re not strapped down you know? Last thing we want is you causing a scene and getting picked off.”

Picked off? Does he mean stolen? And kept here forever in Vegas? An extension cord can dream…

“Ok, you got it sir. I mean man, er, dude, sir. Thank you.”

And with that big old Generator slowed himself down and shut off, maybe for the whole night? Probably best to be honest; I needed to spend more time thinking and less time talking out my plug. I nailed the band recovery for sure, but usually I am not the best liar.

We pull off to the side to park, and manage a spot right on the strip. What luck! Such great place to spend my first night in the city. The sky is getting darker and the lights are getting brighter, so bright my eyes have a hard time adjusting to the glare, but that is to be expected. I have never seen a sight so amazing in my whole life! All around me are spectacles and wonders and magnificent hotels; hotels with captivating shows and brilliant casinos inside just waiting to discover me and put me to work. It is my destiny that I am here tonight; maybe all the prong crossing had an effect after all.

Jim and John get out of the truck, lock the doors and head down the strip. It is tough to see over the edge of the truck bed, but what I can see is plenty enough. Off to one side is Paris and on the other is New York New York’s rooftop roller coaster, and if I time my look just right I can catch the tips of the dancing Bellagio waters down the street. Oh how I wish my family was here to see this! Even better; how proud of me will they be when I finally arrive home with my new career? I can picture it now…

“Hey Dad, where ya been?”

“Yes honey, where have you been? You seem longer, taller, prouder…”

“Well family, I have an announcement. Pack your bags because we are moving to Vegas! Poppa’s got a new gig and we’ve been upgraded to the biggest penthouse storage warehouse in the city!”

“Oh honey that is wonderful news!”

“That’s awesome Dad Yeah!”

“Yeah Dad yeah!”

The kids would go on to brag to their friends, and my wife would finally be able to enjoy all the luxury she deserves. She could dress in the finest materials and would receive more volts than she ever imagined possible and could …

My dream comes to an abrupt stop as commotion on the strip grabs my attention. How long was I fantasizing? An hour or two? Maybe more? It feels late actually and the streets seem to be brimming with people and lights and the scents of, what is that, hot dogs and alcohol? Not quite as elegant as I would have expected for a city like Vegas, but maybe a street party is starting? A few years back Jim hosted a birthday party for his son and all the parents came over and drank Budweiser and the kids ate hot dogs. This street party appears a little different though; it includes yelling and screaming and slurring words and whoah ok I guess flying glass bottles are part of the Vegas party culture too. A little threatening yes, but no matter, I can get used to it. If this is how Vegas celebrates Friday nights, I will play my dutiful part. Bring on the revelry!

As I consider waking old generator to ask him how to protect my exterior from alcohol damage, Jim and John approach the truck, chatting about their Mirage blackjack experience. It looks to be a passionate exchange; Jim must have hit it big! Winning is what always happens in Vegas!

It is tough to hear what they are saying because the streets are getting louder and my ears are starting to hurt, but I can struggle enough to get the basic scoop. It sounds like Jim did not win money after all, and in fact lost more than he bargained for. How could this have happened? Vegas is where dreams come true and Jim should not be an exception to the rule! I strain to hear more but before I can grasp another word they walk away. I try to see where they are headed, but like my sense of hearing, my vision is going and I have to squint to see clearly. My eyes must be having a harder time adjusting to the Vegas lights than I thought, but I know I can manage. A bit of sensory overload never hurt anyone, and I gotta get used to this if Vegas is going to be my new workplace!

Despite the ringing in my ears I notice a voice rising above the buzz of the streets. It sounds like an announcer’s voice, and from what I can make out he is talking about an event tonight at the MGM Grand.

Of course, the MGM Grand! Where the guys are headed off to watch, what was it old generator said, a contest? I wonder what kind of contest? Something chivalrous like knights fighting on horseback, or maybe a celebrity-studded talent show? Oh it doesn’t even matter. Anything as majestic as the MGM Grand will put on a show of high caliber and class for sure. To be broadcast across all the bars on the strip it must be important. And from the sounds of the crowd it is exciting too! I cannot believe old generator is sleeping through this. The contest has got to be an ultimate Vegas event, maybe the greatest event of all time! If my eyes could see anything at this point I would be gazing towards the bars’ big screens for sure.

I sit and focus my remaining senses on the announcers’ words; oh how I wish I could be at the Grand now! I hear the crowd cheer, then boo, then cheer again; what could be happening? It sounds so exciting! What is going on?

I begin to hear the announcers more clearly;

“Ahh he is so strong it’s unbelievable, but how will he respond to the power of Buster’s right hook?”

Right hook?

“Yes, his coach is yelling to him from the corner to and I quote, “bust him up.” This could be a quick finish for the rookie from the East Coast; let’s see what happens here at the end of the round.”

Round? Round of what?

“I’ll tell you what, as we approach these last ten seconds, you can see Buster is starting to fade. And there’s the bell, let’s hope he can gain a big recovery during the short break.”

And so it was. Vegas’s biggest event of the night, the big contest being hosted at the ever gallant MGM Grand, was one big fight.

I can’t believe it. I feel like a fool.

How can this be true? All my dreams of grandiose purpose, all shattered in a single night of Vegas’s glaring and noisy truth. The bright lights are a mask to a life not made for me, and the reality behind the smokescreen is nothing more than an opportunity to lose money, or in my case, two of my five senses.

How could I have been so deceived? Compared to this, my life back home now feels like the dream.

Where is Jim? I want to go home.

It may not be flashy or big or bright, but it is my predictable life and I want it back.

I want my stuffy rides home in the toolbox!

I want my rusty old nail back! And my drafty old shed!

I want to spend winters lighting up Christmas lights and summers working with Jim’s cheap drill!

I want normal sight and hearing again!

And most importantly, I want to be with my wife and kids.

I feel like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Who knew I have been living my dream life all along?

“TAKE ME BACK TO PARADISE!”

Just then old man generator kick jumps from his sleep; did I yell that out loud?

“Gee wiz kid, what’s the matter with you? You ok?”

I guess I did.

“Oh sorry sir, nothing sir. Nothing’s the matter with me at all. I’m ok.”

And for the first time in as long as I can remember, I was telling the truth.

© 2014 Elaine Hatcher

“Appreciate the Wrapping” by Jacqui Pitt

Appreciate the Wrapping

by Jacqui Pitt

 

“Where did you go, you piece of wannabe origami!” Grumbling, Travis Voiche reached under the bed, carefully keeping the weight off his right knee as he grabbed the elusive paper that he had knocked off the desk Stephan kept beside the bed. Straightening back up, he sat on floor by the bed, and looked at the creamy piece of folded paper. The words printed on the front shook him to his core.

“Stephan!” Travis’s voice croaked out of his throat. Trying again, he called out louder,

“Stephan!”

“Yeah?” Stephan Rocxiv answered as he stopped just inside the bedroom doorway, leaning against the jamb as he dried his hands with a dishtowel. “Hey, why are you on the floor? You know you’re supposed to be resting.” He moved toward Travis.

“What is…” Travis’s voice trailed off as he looked at the leaflet in his hands. Unable to get the words out, he waved it at Stephan, who immediately turned pale.

“Wh-where did you find that?” Stephan asked quietly.

“I knocked some stuff off your desk, and it fell under the bed,” Travis replied in a near whisper.

“I didn’t know whether the stuff was important, so I picked it up.”

“Instead of calling me?” Stephan asked, walking over. “Trav, you’re still recuperating from some major surgery. Bending and twisting isn’t good for you.”

“I know,” Travis said. “But, what is this funeral paper all about?” He waved the leaflet in the air.

“Well,” Stephan said, taking a deep breath. “I’m not sure how to explain…”

“You aren’t sure how to explain?” Travis exclaimed, tearing up. “I suggest you figure it out, Stephan!”

Stephan looked at his best friend and the leaflet the other man held.

“I think it’d be better if I showed you,” he replied, holding his hands out palm up, and wiggling his fingers toward Travis.

“Showed me?” Travis looked up at Stephan, confused. When Stephan just wiggled his fingers again, Travis reached up and grabbed his hands.

“Carefully,” Stephan warned as he started to pull Travis up. Once both men were standing, Stephan leaned over and lifted Travis into his arms.

“What are you doing, you idiot?” Travis cried, smacking Stephan on the shoulder.

“Doc said no strenuous movement, Trav,” Stephan replied, carrying him into the living room and placing him carefully on the sofa next to the two dogs who had been napping on the cushions.

Straightening up, Stephan moved over to the shelving beside the television and DVD player, and grabbed a slim case. Silently, he transferred the disc inside to the DVD player. Holding the case, he walked back to the couch, nudged the dogs off the couch, and sat down on the opposite end. His hand trembling, Stephan slowly held the case out to Travis so he could see the cover. When Travis took the case, Stephan leaned over to the coffee table and grabbed the remote. Placing the remote on the couch by Travis, he stood again.

“I need a drink,” he said quietly. “Want one?”

“Yeah, water,” Travis whispered quietly, still staring at the DVD case. He was still staring at it when Stephan returned with two icy bottles of water and handed him one.

Returning to his seat, Stephan picked up the remote and asked, “You ready for this?”

“Y-yeah,” Travis whispered, not looking at Stephan.

Sighing inwardly, Stephan started the video, then leaned back, his focus on Travis’s face.

Upbeat music started playing, grabbing Travis’s attention in time for him to see the words

“Welcome to Celebrating Renae’s Life!” form across the screen. Travis gasped as the screen filled with happy people at a sun-filled meadow party in the wooded area behind Stephan’s house.

Whoever had the camera was dancing around the meadow, catching people laughing, eating, and dancing. Several minutes conversations played on the screen, most filled with laughter. About ten minutes into the DVD, Rick, Travis’s brother-in-law raised his hands to his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle.

“Hear ye, hear ye! One and all! ‘Tis time to begin,” he shouted. “So shut yer yappers and take a seat!” He motioned dramatically toward an arrangement of seats that faced a wooden podium made of – Travis looked closely.

“Is that my sled and dresser from my parents’ house?” He asked, a small smile on his face.

“Yeah,” Stephan replied. “Rose made it.”

“Rosie?” Travis’s voice wavered slightly as he watched the video.
“She said it was important to do it this way,” Stephan replied.

“Do what?” Travis asked, still staring at the screen as the last few people took their seats.

“Watch,” was all Stephan would say as Rose walked up the aisle between rows of seats to stand beside the podium. Turning to the camera, she motioned.

“Stephan! Get up here!” The image jolted a bit before becoming still as it was attached to a stand. Stephan’s image then came on screen and walked up to stand behind the furniture podium. Facing the crowd, and squinting into the sunlight, he started to speak.

“Thank you all for coming today to help us celebrate the life of Renae Marie Voiche,” he welcomed the group. “We all know that when Travis finds out about this, well, the shit could hit the fan. But we’ve all loved Renae for so long, and we need to celebrate what she has brought to our lives, and how she has gifted us with her presence.” As Stephan’s voice began to break up, Rose wrapped her arm around him in a side hug and spoke up.

“We asked that you all bring items that remind you solely of Renae, wrapped up in biodegradable wrapping – we don’t want Travis to murder us for killing the planet! – “ she grinned as everyone laughed, then continued, “and I know a few people want to share what she meant to them and why they are putting certain things in our time capsule of sorts,” she patted the side of the small dresser that acted as the podium. Looking around, she smiled as a single tear rolled down her cheek.

Watching Travis, Stephan saw a matching tear rolling, and quietly handed over a tissue.

“Renae has been my twin sister for our entire lives,” she grinned at the group through her teary eyes. “We had a sucky childhood, since you all know our parents,” she laughed at the shouts of agreement. “And we all know that our father, ‘the head of the family’ as our mother liked to call him, was, is and will always be a nut job.” Rose reached into her pocket and pulled out a huge nut that was covered in colorful paint.

“We found this the first year we went to boarding school,” she held it up for everyone to see. “And we painted it to look like our father on one side,” she swiveled it to show the image. “And our mother on the other side.” She swiveled it again. “And made a promise that when one of us had broken free from the nut house, she’d give it to the other. And when the other had broken free, too, we’d bury it. I broke free when I married my Rick,” She smiled at her husband in the front row. “And now Renae is free from the nut jobs we knew as parents.” Smiling, but with tears tracking down her cheeks, Rose opened a drawer in the small dresser, tossed in the nut, and slammed the drawer shut. “And good riddance!” She cried out. Still smiling through her tears, she walked herself and Stephan over to sit by Rick.

An older man moved slowly up to stand beside the dresser. Turning to face the group, he removed his broad-brimmed hat and held it, worrying the brim as he spoke.

“Miss Renae and Miss Rose were like daughters to me the whole time I worked on the gardens at their parents’ house,” he said. “Miss Rose always managed to blossom in the horrible growing conditions at that house, but Miss Renae never managed to do anything right in their blind eyes.” He glowered for a moment. “She always tried to help, but something would go wrong, or she’d get the blame for someone else screwing up. Including me,” he admitted. Reaching into his hat, he pulled out a length of orange extension cord that had been clipped and woven into a circle.

“A few years ago, my eyesight started to go really bad, and one day while trimming the edge of the lawn, I trimmed right through my extension cord,” he told the crowd. “Unfortunately for me, the head nut job of the household saw it happen, and decided it was enough to send me packing immediately.

“Now, I wasn’t able to pack all my items up, as I was ejected from the estate pretty quickly, but that evening during dinner, my wife and I had a visitor. Miss Renae had packed all my items up for me, and snuck them out of the house,” he told them. “She even brought me the broken extension cord. She said it was to help me celebrate getting out of that evil place. She said that it was a sign that I had broken free from hell,” He sniffed and dug out a handkerchief. Dabbing at his eyes, he continued,

“She told me I wasn’t to worry about my income, as she had taken care of it. She even had a part-time job lined up for me, so I wouldn’t get bored,” he chortled, motioning to where Stephan was sitting by Rose. “Apparently, her young man had bought a piece of land and had no idea how to take care of the plants.

“When I heard that this celebration was happening, I took a piece of that cord and wove this,” he held up the orange circle. “It’s to signify that she broke out of hell, too, but found herself in the process.” He quickly stuck it into a drawer and started moving to sit down.

Stephan stood up, walked over to the old man, and helped him sit where Stephan had been listening. Turning, Stephan walked back to the dresser-podium, and turned to face the crowd again. Lifting his hand, he shaded his squinting eyes, and looked at the group.

“I think that if this gets maudlin, I’m going to definitely be murdered when Travis eventually sees the video,” he smiled softly. “So, I’m going to be the last official story today, and ask you to write yours out on the paper on that table,” he motioned to his left. “and put it with your item when you put it in the dresser. That way, it can be told without more people crying.” He grinned at the laughs.

“My item is related to how Renae and I met,” he held up a piece of wire net, grinning at the laughs that came from certain members of the audience.

“When Renae and I were in sixth grade, we met at the chain link fence behind my school. Renae and Rose were home from boarding school for once, and were walking down the block by where my friends and I hung out after school.” He grinned at the memory.

“Leon, my best friend, saw them, and had a huge crush on Rose immediately,” Stephan teased the huge man sitting in the back of the crowd by his wife. “And climbed the fence to meet her.

“Well, I had to join him – hey, we were sixth grade guys!” he protested the laughs. “And my shoelace got wrapped around a broken part of the chain-link at the top of the fence. So, I ended up falling over the fence, but my shoe stayed on, so I ended up just *ahem* hanging around while Leon hit on Rose.” He grinned at the groans.

“Renae climbed the fence to help me get free, and became my other best friend from that point on,” Stephan said. “After she helped me down, she fist bumped me at that chain-link fence, said ‘hey’ and then walked off with her sister.”

“And that’s when he fell in love with Renae,” Leon called out.

“Absolutely – which surprised me most of all!” Stephan called back to more laughter. He grinned and told the group, “Later that night, I went back to that very spot with my daddy’s wire cutters and clipped a chunk out. I knew I’d marry the owner of those gorgeous green eyes someday!” Stephan put the chunk of chain link fence in a drawer while everyone else laughed and whistled. When the group had quieted down again, he continued,

“Feel free to bring your items up whenever. We’ll bury the dresser and sled in this meadow after Travis gets home from the hospital and the doc says he can come out and see everything,” Stephan paused for a minute, took a deep breath, and said,

“We all know that Travis might get pissed about this, and I promise that I will make sure he sees the video when it’s time. I will do everything in my power to help him understand that we aren’t making fun of him with this. Renae has been an important part of our lives for many years, and we are all so happy to have Travis now, but Renae’s his past. She’s also ours. She was the first form of Rose’s twin, and the first way I got to meet my best friend and my true love. We get Travis from now on, but we needed to celebrate Renae for the gifts that she brought to us. It’s my hope – well, our hope,” he motioned to Rose and Rick, who moved to stand beside him. “It’s our hope that Travis will come to celebrate Renae with us when he’s ready, and will see how much our love for her let us love him so much. Thank you for coming.” Rick held up a remote and pushed a button, and the lively music from the beginning of the party started playing again.

For the last few minutes of the video, Travis watched those he considered friends and family move to put paper and items in the dresser and then start to dance and laugh again, celebrating Renae.

Travis’s gaze remained glued to the television screen for several moments after the video ended. Turning to Stephan, he asked,

“Why? Don’t you want me this way?” He motioned to his body.

“Travis,” Stephan scooted to the middle of the couch where he could reach his best friend. “I love you, no matter what shape you may take. Three eyes, fourteen arms and legs, talking hair, anything.”

“Then, why?” Travis asked, anguish spilling from his every pore. “I hated Renae. She was so wrong for me.”

“I know, Love,” Steven replied, gently pulling Travis to him. “She was the wrong shape for you, but that’s all she was – a shape. She was just part of you, your childhood. You have always been Travis, just trapped in a Renae-shaped body. But that body is part of so many memories for so many people. They – We – needed to celebrate those memories. Trav,” Stephan thumbed away the tears streaming down Travis’s face.

“We love Renae because she is part of your foundation. Your experiences as her made you so very strong, and made our lives so wonderful. I know you are Travis, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that you can finally be who you are meant to be, and I love you – and always will.”

“But you love Renae, too?” Travis asked, confused. “How is that possible?”

Stephan wanted nothing more than to snuggle Travis close, but he knew that his best friend – his true love – wouldn’t allow it until he explained things better.

“Trav,” Stephan began carefully. “You know how whenever you get a present, you take forever to open it?”

“Yeah,” Travis nodded, letting Stephan pull him a bit closer to rest his head against Stephan’s broad chest.

“Why do you do that?” Stephan asked quietly.

“Because the way the gift is given matters, and the packaging needs to be appreciated, too!” Travis answered, leaning his head back so he could look at Stephan’s eyes.

“Exactly!” Stephan exclaimed.

“Huh?” Travis questioned.

“Travis, you are the most important gift I’ve ever received – in my entire existence – I hope you know that,” Stephan said. At Travis’s slow nod, he continued, “Well, for twenty-six years, you were wrapped up in a Renae-shaped package. That’s how I got you.

“You see it as you spent so long in the wrong shape and type of body, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” Travis replied. “It was like being in a prison – I was supposed to act by one set of rules, according to the body that people saw, but it wasn’t right. Not for me.”

“And I get that, I do,” Stephan reassured him. “And I’m glad that you finally get to be your true self, Love. But you need to understand that while Renae represents hard times to you – times we all wish you could have avoided – to many of us she was the wonderful wrapping that surrounded the world’s best present for over two decades.” Moving Travis back gently, Stephan took a tissue and wiped the tears that freely flowed down both men’s cheeks.

“You don’t resent my having the hormone injections or the surgery?” Travis’s chin trembled.

“Never!” Stephan told him. “Actually, when you told me that you were trans, I was a bit relieved.”

“What? Why?” Travis exclaimed as Stephan blushed.

“Well, before I met you as Renae, I knew I was gay,” Stephan admitted. “I was so confused when I fell for someone who appeared to be a girl. I had a bit if an identity crisis.”

“For how long?” Travis asked.

“Big time, for about a week, when I started to think about it,” Stephan said. “But when you sat me down to have that talk, I didn’t know that it was at the very back of my mind under mental laundry until I went home that night with a strange sense of relief. Though I was glad to realize that my Gran was right – I fell in love with you, not with the shape you took.”

“I can’t tell if your Gran is the wisest or the corniest person ever to live,” Travis teased Stephan.

“Oh, both,” Stephan reassured him. “Definitely both! So, are you okay with the celebration now?”

Travis sat quietly in Stephan’s arms for several minutes. Then, taking a deep breath, he nodded.

“Yes, I think I am.” Leaning back a bit, he asked seriously,

“Is that how all those people felt?” Travis waved his hand at the television screen and the video they had watched.

“Did you see the last line?” Stephan asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Travis admitted. “Things were a bit blurry by then.”

“Here,” Stephan used the remote to the point in the video he wanted to show Travis. Pushing play, he waited. The end of the party was playing and it faded to black. After a few seconds, the screen reverse faded back to the party scene, but this time everyone there was gathered behind a huge piece of paper that spelled out in large, colorful words,

“Appreciate the wrapping. Love the gift! We love you, Travis!”

Pausing the video, Stephan and Travis sat and stared quietly at the image. After a few minutes, Travis mumbled something.

“What did you say, Love?” Stephan asked.

“Appreciate the wrapping,” Travis repeated, squeezing closer to Stephan.

“Love the gift,” Stephan replied, gently hugging Travis.

“Love you.”

“Love you back.”

© 2014 Jacqui Pitt