October 14th, Arrival, Afternoon.
We made it to the cabin with no trouble and luckily with little of the perma-snow getting into our boots. Sitting on a tree stump that I’m using as a make-shift seat-- while pine needles try to find their way into every crevice of my clothes-- I can see what Jed meant when he said that everything is clearer when you’re up here. The sun pierces through the clouds and illuminates everything around us, enhancing the changing color of the leaves, the branches on the ground and even turns the greyness of rocks into a happier hue. The air is colder up here, but that just seems to make it more bracing. Wind whistles through your clothes and grasps at you, almost like an embrace, so pure that it seems to get rid of all negative thoughts, even ones that you don’t fully feel like you could ever forget.
The snow provides the canvas, the nature provides the color is what I feel like you would say if you were here.
Jed, the park ranger, hiker extraordinaire, adventure guru know-it-all as it is, already told me all of this in his long ass speeches about how beautiful the location is,, how I must “pack warm” and “layer up,” but I’ll be damned if I give him the satisfaction of saying that he is right. He is also currently hollering at me to get off my ass and help him unpack the sleigh. Crates need to be unloaded, food put away and blah blah blah. I still don’t think it is enough food for two weeks, but again, he is the know-it-all, so who am I to judge his extreme wisdom?
I was never the adventurous type, I barely got to First Class in Boy Scouts before throwing in the towel; I still don’t know how Jed convinced me to come out here. But at least the area is beautiful, and journaling to you may help me pass the time, or at least keep me sane.
October 14th, Night.
I thought the sun itself was beautiful, but that sunset was something else. Violets and oranges that you just can’t get in the city.
We got everything unpacked into the cabin, our food supply just perfectly fills up the kitchen, looks like Jed was right again, might even have to admit that I was wrong. Sometimes I wonder if I ever had a correct thought in my head, you and Jed always seem to prove that everything I say or think is wrong.
The cabin is beautiful. If you were here, I know you would absolutely adore it. It’s entirely made out of logs from the surrounding trees. Consists of two stories, the first floor being dedicated with a seating area that contains a fireplace, a fully decked out kitchen, a dining table, and a bookcase filled with books about wilderness survival, boring info about the flora and fauna and even more boring info about the location. Upstairs is smaller, but still just as nice. It’s a half floor, with a small little hallway/banister that allows you to look at the floor below. The only actual room up there is the bedroom, but with its queen-size bed, wicker chairs and window that faces the east, it more than makes up for being the only thing upstairs.
I’m also glad that I decided to bring more jackets and blankets than Jed said I needed, it's bloody colder than I was expecting. We have propane heaters, and a fireplace in the sitting area stockpiled with God knows how much wood, and an axe to go out and chop more, but even that doesn’t seem to combat the chill that has begun to seep into my bones. Wood floors and walls look nice, but would it have killed them to add SOME carpet!? Anything to add some dormant heat in this place?
Jed is taking the room, leaving me with the couch. I asked Jed if we should sleep in the same bed to preserve body heat. He hit me, I think I deserved it.
October 15th, Morning.
Morning arrived earlier than I expected, and earlier than I wanted it to be. I am not a monk, this rising-with-the-sun shit is not for me. Luckily Jed was already up and made me a cup of coffee, its smell waking me up before he could. I’m starting to think he actually cares for me, or maybe he just doesn’t want to deal with cranky morning me. It's probably the latter. He probably remembers pre-coffee me from when we were freshman roommates, but still, it’s the thought that counts.
No real plans for the day. Jed wants to hike around and show me the area. We are bringing the .22s in case we come across any small game. I think that's the real reason we are hiking; Jed needs to shoot something and he wants me to share in the experience of killing small rodents. I think coming with him is a bad idea, I’m more likely to shoot him than the game, but my cries don’t sway him. I asked Jed if he could just shoot me instead. I don’t think he appreciated that, probably still thinks that it is “too soon,” considering what had happened, considering its the reason we are up here. I know you would have liked it though.
October 15th, Afternoon.
No luck with any game, but the area sure was pretty.
October 16th, Night.
We’ve only been up here for two days, yet I’m already bored. Sure the area is pretty and nice to walk around, but that's pretty much it. Jed has me playing card games with him once the sun goes down, but it's not like there are a lot of games that you can play with just two people, and after my upteenth game of Go-Fish, I finally addressed these frustrations to Jed. He just scoffed at me though. Boring is good, he says. Boring means that nothing is going on, and that means there is nothing we have to worry about. He may like boring, and maybe I am just a city-slicker, but I could go for some excitement. I know all of this would be easier if you were here though, but writing these feels like I am talking to you, like you are actually here, which is the best I can get right now.
But I’ll take anything.
October 17th, Morning.
It feels like the days are beginning to get colder, and the clouds look heavier than they should; it seems like night is refusing to give way to day. Jed says there is nothing to worry about, that I’ve spent too long reading the books in the cabin and am just getting scared of stuff that I don’t fully understand. Apparently it’s just regular mountain weather, and I quote him here, “Nothing to get my panties in a twist about.”
I really can’t help but worry though, I’m getting the same sense of foreboding I got when… you left, the feeling of being in the eye of the storm, where everything is calm, right before the rain blinds you and pulls you in to drown.
I wish you were here, I know you could ease my nerves better than Jed ever could.
Snow has started to fall. Jed still says it is okay, but I think I see a small glimmer of worry in his eye every time he turns away from looking through the window.
Two feet! Two feet of snow, according to Jed’s estimation. He says that it's fine. Mid-Autumn snows like this are apparently common up here, the books that I love so much (according to him) say the same thing. Plus, a little extra snow never hurt anyone according to him. I don’t know how he can call this little. The clouds haven’t let up either. I asked Jed if we should cut the trip short, but I am still being told not to worry. We can still get off the mountain anytime we want, and while we may get more today, it won’t last long. He also claims that while he could get down right now, I would not be able to easily trek down the mountain while walking on two feet of snow. And if I cared to read the books a little bit more than I cared to bitch, I would also see that the snow will melt just as quickly as it came. I hope he is right about this all, but I’m starting to doubt it.
The snow started back up again. Jed still says that it is fine. I’ve started to read any book now that mentions the snow, or survival in the snow. It isn’t doing anything to alleviate my fears.
24 hours later and the snow still hasn’t stopped. My worry is turning into panic, and Jed isn’t masking his worry anymore, I can feel his nerves penetrating around the cabin, washing over me like a wave, colder than the snow. He says everything is fine, but I know he doesn’t believe it himself, that it's just some line he thinks he has to sprout for my benefit, even though I was the one who brought up the concern in the first place. He’s also begun to pace around the cabin, and I think he is muttering something to himself, or planning something by himself.
The wind is also beginning to start up again, and whenever I go outside to use the outhouse it won’t embrace me like it used to, instead I can hear it in my thoughts, whistling its sweet melody in my brain, whistling like you used to do.
The wind has picked up and, surprise, the snow hasn’t stopped. Jed advised that we begin to ration food. When asked if it was possible that we just leave everything and get off this forsaken mountain, he said no. The storm would impact our vision and we may never find our way down. Plus with how cold it is getting and how slow moving it would be, we wouldn’t be able to get down before night, and who knows what hypothermia or other cold-related afflictions will we get when the sun goes down.
I snapped, told him that we should have gotten off this mountain earlier, to which Jed replied by locking himself in the bedroom. I don’t give a fuck about his hurt feelings though. I know I’m right, and through the whistling of the wind, I hear you agree with me.
October 22nd? Maybe the 23rd
I can feel you in my mind more now, the whispers that I heard before have changed to full words, spoken in your voice. Maybe it’s just an echo of you, me clinging to your remnants so I have someone to talk to, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to keep me sane.
I can tell that you’re not always here, sometimes you leave, and no matter how much I call, you don’t respond. Even when you are here, I feel like you can’t hear me, even when I speak aloud, but I can hear you. But while I can’t see you, I know you can see me. This journal is proof of it. Everything I write in you respond to. Maybe it has taken the shape of a reverse Ouija board, one where you speak, and I write.
Maybe I really am going insane.
I can tell that Jed doesn’t like the fact that I continue to write in this journal, he scoffs every time I pick it up. But with how much time he is spending up in his room now, those scoffs are few and far between. Even if we couldn’t communicate with it, I know I would keep doing it, just to piss him off, because even though he is one of the last people I could imagine wanting to see right now, he is the only person I can see right now, and bitter scoffs are better than no human interaction in my opinion. Plus, he got us into this situation, he can deal with my journaling.
What do you think?
Yeah, I thought so.
I’ve Lost Count
The snowfall has stopped, but we are still in no condition to go anywhere. It is piled so high that we can barely walk through it. This morning I think the door was actually frozen shut, it took Jed banging against it multiple times to finally open up, and his efforts were rewarded with a wall of snow. We can still get to the outhouse, but only barely. And if a 100-foot walk takes minutes, I can only imagine what going down the mountain would be like.
Food is running low; I don’t know how much longer it will last. Wood supply is also running low, and due to the snow, we are in no position, nor even have the morale, to chop down more.
Two more inches of snow, because apparently we didn’t already have enough
I agree, this is all Jed’s fault. He is the one who wanted us up here. He is the one who didn’t take us down when it started getting bad. He is the one who didn’t pack enough fucking food. And now with the snow starting up again for the who-knows-how-many-time, who knows when we will get off this fucking mountain.
Oh, and this even harsher rationing of food, where does Jed get the balls. We only have three days left of food if we continued with half rations he says, but I don’t buy it. We had at least a week left of food if we ate at a normal pace when the ration started, how are we already down to three days of food at half rations. I’ve only been eating half rations, how are we down this far?
No, Jed wouldn't be eating more of his share, he can’t be. He’s an ass, sure, but he is better at this than I am. He wouldn’t break the ration rule, even if it would spite me. You’re wrong, you have to be wrong.
But are you?
Where are you going?
I think I can see you, out in the snow. You’re always out of sight, and always leave right after I see you , but it has to be you. I don’t understand why you’re out there, maybe you’re finding us a path so we can get off this mountain, maybe you’re just embracing the weather, you always did love the cold. We can leave Jed behind, he deserves it. I hope you get back here soon though, we can’t talk if you're not here reading this, and I miss you.
I can feel my stomach eating itself
I am so hungry, I don’t remember the last time I ate, when the food ran out. Do you remember?
I thought so.
Jed is jealous of us, I can still see it when he looks over here, he is just mad that he doesn’t have a wife by his side, someone that would be by his side even after their death, mad that he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. It’s not my fault he stopped talking to me, I tried. Its not my fault that he is so fucking uptight. That he spends more time in the woods than with his wife. It’s not my fault that she left him. We’ve tried talking to him, you know we have. But every time we speak up, he just looks away. When you were away, I tried to go into the room, I swear I did, but he wouldn’t open the fucking door.
Oh? You were able to go up there when I was asleep? What did you guys talk about? What do you mean you guys didn’t talk?
What do you mean he was hiding something?
The day (and night) of splattered blood
I did what I had to do right? You agree with me, it was justified. I did what had to be done, no one can fault me on that. He deserved it.
He was smuggling food. I knew that we weren’t running out of food that quickly, that we couldn’t have been going through the rations, that ration that he implemented, that fast. You were the one who told me that he was hiding food from me. You have to realize what my reaction would have been when I found out you were right. Bags of beef jerky, cans of chili, some oranges, all tuck away, out of sight and out of mind, in a room he locked me out of, since the beginning. He never wanted me in that room, even during the first day. I was condemned down to the couch, while he slept like a king, all tucked away from the lowly peasant that he must of thought I was. Was this the plan all along? Finally grew tired of me weeping about you, so he decides to bring me up here and starve me out, as some sort of sick, slow killing torture?
You weren’t here for this obviously, you were out there again, trying to find a path down I’m sure, but you must have known how I felt. He tried to defend himself, that it was just for when things got even worse, so he could cheer me up. As if. How much worse could it get? I’ve been without food for days, and yet not a word from him. You told me that he was smuggling it away from me, why would I believe him when I have you.
And nobody can fault me for what happened next, it was to be expected, it was natural, survival of the fittest, retribution for my wrongs, getting rid of the weakest link. I am justified! Anyone would have done the same, you would have done the same right? You wanted this to happen right? Why else would you have told me? You always wished that I took charge more, and now I finally have.
I still don’t know how the axe got into my hands. Maybe you came back and put it there, to usher me forward on what I had to do. The .22’s sat in the corner, using them would have been kinder for Jed, but the axe, oh, the axe; the feel, the heft, the power in it, it was the best feeling I’ve had since our wedding. Yeah, the axe felt right. He screamed and screamed and screamed, so loud that you must have heard it, so intensely that it would have broken the confines of this journal, but I didn’t care. He brought me up here so no one could hear my cry, and that sword can cut two ways.
I’ve never been one for hunting, you know this. The thought of killing another animal always made my stomach turn. I was a hypocritical carnivore. I could eat the meat, just couldn’t stand to acknowledge where it came from and how it got here. But bringing that axe down rendering through flesh, was ecstasy. The blood gushed from the ruin of his arm, flying so high that it splattered into my laughing mouth, and oh, it was nice. Tasty. He stopped pleading and tried to defend himself, but I was in control now, and I would allow no quarter to be given. I brought it down, again and again. First into his other arm, then into his leg, my screams of excitement joined his scream of fear, creating a haunting melody, the perfect soundtrack to his ruin and my ascension. Again and again I brought it down. Flesh and bones, fingers and toes flew off and around me, a perfect storm of red to forget the insufferable storm of white. I don’t know when his screams stopped, all I know was until I walked out of the room, a wealth of food items in my hands, mine never did.
Oh it was a feast. Juice running down my chin, the taste of jerky in my mouth, the feeling of chili warming me up from inside my belly. His body sat slumped in the corner where I drag it, the holes where his eyes once were watched me the entire time, but what about it. He tried to rid me of my rations, so now he got to watch me feast.
Rations are running low
I knew you wouldn’t have blamed me for what happened, that you saw the justice in me killing him. And you’re absolutely right about the current situation, the remaining food won’t last much longer. And he is already in pieces.
It really would be a shame to leave his body
Rations filled back up
The snow preserved what I couldn’t eat. I never knew that flesh could taste so good. The blood that sprayed into my mouth during my justice stirred up my appetite for this without me even knowing, and finally indulging myself in him, oh that was a treat. Beef could never compare. I don’t know why we aren’t offering this in restaurants everywhere, it’s practically the same as cow. Rarer, stringier, juicier cow.
I wish you could eat some, you could experience what I am tasting. Remember that fancy steakhouse that we went to for one of our anniversaries. You got the veal, you said it was the best thing that you have ever eaten, I took a bite, and I agreed with you.
This doesn’t even compare. Nothing will ever compare.
There isn’t enough, not enough to last me. I need to get off this mountain, but was Jed right, was there no way off, was it still too dangerous?
No. Jed was weak. He succumbed to our situation, to his hunger, to my fury. He knew he couldn’t get off this mountain, but I can. I have you Cecilia, you’ve been looking for a way off this mountain. You’re out there right now. You’ll find it, you’ll save me.
And then, we can be together again.
I see you out there, beckoning. Could it be possible that you found a way off this mountain, for us to be together. I can see it in your eyes, it seems like you actually can hear me. Is that true? It is!? Do I no longer need this? I’ve been writing in it for so long, I can see your arms, beckoning me to move faster, but I must write this down, this is how I started my journey, and it’s how I want to end it too. There is no time to put on a jacket, or to put on shoes, you need me now, you’ll protect me, you’ll lead me away from this mountain
We can finally be together again.
Half of me
It was a brisk winter morning by the lake the last time I met the demon.
He appeared as he always did: unexpected but with the subtle, foreboding twinge of cold twisting my stomach. Shivering, I pulled the heavy uwagi coat tighter over my kimono--the demon offered his Montbell down jacket. I declined.
Following the creaking bamboo grove on my left and keeping the demon between myself and the reflections of the orange sunrise over the lake to my right, we shuffled along the marked trail, our breath misting the air and mingling between us. With falling snow coating our tracks behind us, we walked a good hour in silence before his graveled voice carved through it.
"Do you still hate Japan, Naomi?"
Fear didn't grip me. Instead, my chest tightened with nervousness, my throat with shyness. I kept moving forward, one foot in this world and the other in the next. Snow danced in a breeze, powdering the slumbering pines, barren cherry and plum trees, and my wrinkled face, which began to match the paleness of the demon's own.
Folding his arms, he again broke our silence. "Japan has insulated coats, you know." He frowned. "You'll freeze out here in a kimono."
"I'm fine." I rubbed my hands together. Paper-thin and dappled with dark liver spots contrasting with my slightly lighter brown skin, they were numb to the cold. "I brought something to warm me up."
The demon sniffed; a sly smile parted his lips just enough to see one scraggly fang. "That's why I came."
"That's why you always come."
"Tell me again why you let me."
"You help me understand things."
"Is something troubling you?"
In a sense. But I wasn't ready to let him know that. Instead, I unwrapped a red furoshiki cloth and handed him something I had kept out of my world for so long: a piece of cornbread.
He snatched it and scarfed it down. "I haven't had this in years."
"Brings back memories, doesn't it?"
"I wish they sold these here."
"I'm baking it again because I finally understand what I am."
"Took you long enough."
"Do you remember how many times you tried to tell me?"
"I can't quite recall." His quiet smile said differently.
I bowed my head, clutching the furoshiki to my chest like armor. "Three times."
As snow gathered upon his hair of matted snakes, he listened to my memories float in the breath connecting us, the lake's rolling waves lapping away my words.
In the schoolyard
"Hey, Naomi. Hey! Wait up," the demon said, his high-pitched nasally voice needling into my ears. He sidled up to me, sniffing the hardened leather randoseru on my back like a stray dog.
"Got any left? Gimme some."
The demon liked cornbread. Throwing him a piece usually got rid of him. Rummaging through the cloth pouch hanging off my side to pick through the lunch I wasn't planning on eating anyway, I averted my eyes so I wouldn't have to look at the wriggling mass of worms piled atop his head and his inward-turning fangs. But mostly, to avoid looking into his fiery eyes or seeing his dark skin.
"Give it over, Naomi."
I fumbled out the entire cut of bread and handed it to him. Our hands brushed as he took it; the two tones of our skin briefly matched shades: chocolate-brown against a light bronze. The sun had shaded his, unlike mine, which had been dark since I was born. He could be as pale as a lily if he wanted to, but spending so much time out of the world he should have stayed in had tanned it.
My teeth ground together at the thought.
"Where do you get this bread anyway?"
"My mom makes it." I bowed my head and swiftly jogged toward the iron gate of the school.
Catching my sleeve, he forced me to face him. Crumbs dappled his shirt as he gobbled down the last of the bread. "Why're you leaving?"
Frustration pierced my throat hard enough to shove an answer through my clenched jaw: "Because I hate Japan."
"But you've never lived anywhere else."
"That's exactly it!" I bolted.
Reaching the front gate, I jerked it open just enough to slip through. Now I was free of stares, sniggers, classmates' nagging to stroke my curly hair, their giggles when I struggled with words and insistence that I wasn't one of them. Even though I was--sort of. My father is Japanese.
Well, they wouldn't "other" me anymore. Especially not Yui and her horrible group. For the rest of today at least.
Though the demon shouldn't have been able to leave the school grounds, he wiggled his way through the gate, grinning. Cornbread mash filled the gaps in his teeth. "Yui again?"
"Leave me alone."
Skipping ahead of me, he delighted in getting in my way and making my steps falter. "They get to you 'cause you let 'em, you know."
"I don't let them. They attack me."
"You're putting a target on yourself." He pointed to the woven Shinto omamori--talisman--hanging off my randoseru and then to the golden cross around my neck. "Two targets, really."
"Three if you count my skin." I buttoned up my top button to hide my mother's birthday gift.
"If you hide that you'll get teased more."
"It doesn't matter. I can't hide my skin."
The demon snort-laughed. "You could, you know, like a mummy."
"How do you ignore them? The stares and the name-calling, I mean."
The demon shrugged, his pointed shoulders bending skyward like two orange traffic cones. "I guess they don't bother me as much as they do you. The others don't see me as I am because I don't let them. That's all."
"Maybe they're blind," I said. "Or you are."
"I am, now!" He shut his eyes tight and stuck his arms straight out, shifting from foot to foot as he shuffled around me. Pointed nails on the end of his fingers swiped playfully at the air.
I turned and ran. He gave chase. Then I chased him. Then we chased dragonflies until we both collapsed from exhaustion beneath a huge stone torii gate leading to a shrine to Omi Hachiman--whoever that was.
Sweating, he sucked on my thermos while I caught my breath. Above me, a thick twisting rope--shimenawa--dangled between the gate's stone columns, and hanging off it, four strings of zig-zagging folded paper--shide--swayed in a breeze. Made of a strip of paper folded into several uniform rectangles that looked stuck together at the corners, the shide had a curious quadruple Z-shape. The rectangles seemed to fight against each other as the wind lifted the paper at the angles, but they didn't tear away.
"Praise and lies may be snakes and spies so find the clear path between them."
I cocked my head at the demon. "What?"
"You asked how I ignore bullies. That's what my Dad tells me to do."
Advice from Enma, the King of Hell, himself. "Does it help?"
"Sometimes." He handed my thermos back. "But it's easier if I just focus on me, you know?"
I didn't know, and his smirk told me he knew I didn't.
"Nao, you're so hung up on what you are, you can't see who you are. But we're sixth-graders now. Almost adults. We can't hide what we are, not to ourselves or others, so just be what you are and find who you are."
"I know what I am!"
"I dunno. I like butterflies and the color orange."
The demon laughed. "You're not saying it. It was hard for me to say 'it,' too. We're different, you and me. You gotta see that. My Dad told me I had a truth I couldn't embrace, and everything got better when I could. I mean, when I could embrace my truth, the difference between me and them, then people saw me for me."
"What does that mean?"
"Embrace? It's like a hug. You gotta give the thing you hate the most a big ol' hug. Or you know, you'll always be sad or angry or something."
What kind of demon was he, anyway? Hug the things you hate?
"Who do you hate right now," he asked.
"Yui." And there was no way I was going to give her a hug.
"She makes fun of me. Calls me 'burnt girl' and 'dirty.'"
"Because of your skin."
"Do you hate your skin?"
I nodded harder. "If I had skin color like everyone else--"
"You don't. And who gave you your skin?"
"My mother. She's not Japanese."
"Do you hate her?"
I folded my arms. It was her fault I was who I was.
But hate? Hate? Bunching the fabric of my collar, I clutched the golden cross I had hidden.
Mother knew me as well as she knew the color of her own skin--black, and two shades darker than mine. Her skin drew her away from America. She wanted to live in a world where she would have a clearly defined reason to be an outsider, not just because of her skin. She chose Japan and struggled with its language, culture, and ideals. But her struggles made her stronger. She said it would make me stronger, too.
I doubted that.
The demon frowned. "Do you, Nao? Do you hate her? You gotta say it if you do."
I toed the gravel underneath my feet. Whenever I had a problem, her smile was a warm tea on a cold morning, and her hugs tight. "I can't hate my mother." She gave three gifts to me, after all. Life. A cross, though Father didn't believe. And her skin. "I don't."
"Then you can't hate yourself. Because that would be like hating your mom."
"Did your father say that, too?"
The demon's grin became fire. "Yup. If you can't hug your skin, go hug your mother. I do. I give my dad loads of hugs."
I smirked at his casual admission of affection, but he just grinned harder.
"Embrace your truth, Nao."
"They'll still make fun of me."
"They still make fun of me. Because being different in Japan is like being a wolf in a flock of sheep. Except the sheep eat you." He gnashed his teeth and growled. Cornbread bits spotted the torii gate. "We are strong wolves, though, right? We can't let the sheep see that, or they'll get scared off. I don't want to be scary. There's nothing wrong with wolves living with sheep, you know."
"What if I want to be a sheep?"
"You can wear their wool if you want, but you'll look silly."
"Are you saying, 'just be myself?'" I wrinkled my nose at him. "Being yourself" didn't work here. Japan wasn't an American after-school special.
His eyes darkened as though insulted, but he just laughed. "No. That's stupid." He squinted his eyes up at the crooked paper shide above us. "If those paper things there were straight, they'd be boring, huh? But they're not. They're cool. They know they have to zig and zag, or people wouldn't think they're cool. And what if they were straight?"
"But they can't be straight. Shide aren't made that way."
"Right. And if they were, people would yell and scream to change them back. So why try changing what they are?" He stood and stretched. "Being crooked is cool. And if you try to fix yourself, people will see right through it. Got it? My dad says, 'Don't worry about being yourself.' You will be, even if you try not to be. People make fun of you if you try not to be you, right? But if you be what you are, that won't matter. First, you gotta know what you are."
"Your dad is pretty smart."
"He sure is. So you gotta know who you are. So who are you?"
"And what are you?"
I wrung my hands. "Half. Half-Japanese. Hāfu." I slurred out the English loanword with the thickest accent I could muster.
The demon's brows furrowed. "No, you're not. You're not half of anything because your mother wasn't born here. You are Japanese. Like me."
"The shide is Japanese because of the way it's folded. But it's still just paper." He shoved a pointed finger into my chest, striking my cross and making it dig into my skin. "You. Are. Japanese. A bit crooked, but that makes you cool, Nao."
He ran off, leaving me under the torii, embarrassment prickling my cheeks.
My wedding day
Cheeks stained black with running mascara, I stood in my street clothes between two chairs, glaring at the cursed garments I had to wear: an ivory white wedding dress with satin fixings and lace and an equally white kimono embroidered with nigh-invisible bleached cranes. They draped over the backs of each chair like the dead and gutted hides of a pure animal.
A heavy hand settled on my shoulder, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Furiously sniffling and rubbing my eyes, I turned, expecting my husband--only to be confronted by the demon, his lizardlike hands cradling a half-eaten cut of cornbread.
"You're not supposed to be here," I said.
"Relax." Then, as though sensing my disdain at his crime, he crammed another mouthful of bread into his gob. "Stole it off the catering cart. Want some?"
"No. Get out."
"I can't just leave a bride crying in her dressing room, Nao." He adjusted his bow-tie, adorning it with a smattering of crumbs. "Why aren't you dressed?"
Because seeing both dresses laid out before me reminded me of my split culture? Because I can't disappear into the white fabric of the dress nor wear the pasty white makeup the kimono requires without accenting my darker features? Because it feels like I have to choose one culture over the other? What would a demon know, anyway?
"I don't know." I sat on the floor, refusing to look at his pallid complexion and brows furrowing in infuriating confusion. "I guess it feels like I'm being forced to choose between two things that don't fully make sense and one thing I thought I was so sure of."
"It's tradition to wear multiple dresses."
"But why this dress?" An accusing finger directed at the western-style wedding dress pointed my ire.
"It's still a tradition, even between Japanese people who don't have the culture behind it. Didn't you pick it out yourself? Your husband is excited to see you in it, too, you know."
My eyes dropped to the floor where a twisting pattern of grey and red in the carpet seemed to suck my soul right into them. I could be there, between the patterns, pounding at teardrop bars, screaming, and nobody would hear me. Maybe it would be safer to lock myself away.
"Do you just want to wear the kimono?"
I shook my head. "It's not about the dresses. Am I doing right by myself, marrying a..." My eyes began to wet again. "A..."
The demon smiled. His teeth glistened as though drinking in my misery. "Another hāfu?" He laughed. "Uma wa umadzure--horses prefer the company of horses, Nao."
"Birds of a feather flock together," I translated into English, heat tipping my tongue. "That doesn't mean I can't think about everyone who would expect something like that from... someone like me. And be ashamed by it. Does that make me a horrible person?"
"No. Those thoughts really define you. A zigzagging paper shide, Japanese, in all respects."
I glanced at both dresses again; the demon cradled his head in one hand, sucking in a slow breath between the gap in his fangs.
"You're torn between two things," he said, "but not entirely. You speak your mother's language, but you know less of her country than your own. That makes you Japanese with a few perks."
"Does it?" I narrowed my eyes.
"Teenage mutant ninja what?"
I shrugged. "Kōga?"
"Turtles, Nao. Your mother would say that without a beat. But could she name all the ninja clans of Japan?"
"Japanese with a few perks." The demon winked at me then indicated the dresses. "Your husband wouldn't appreciate you doubting your marriage, you know."
"I wish I could walk confidently between two cultures as he does."
"So do it. You eat curry and rice, but you aren't Indian. You drive a Mercedes, but you aren't German. Cultures merge and cultures change. There's no shame in being a part of two different cultures. Nor choosing the best parts of several others to make them your own."
"Because struggling with the choice is what makes you, you, isn't it?"
"It gives me the chance to still be unsure. To still choose the path that's right for me."
"Nao, you don't have to choose anything. Just be you."
"What about your choice to live in your world or ours?"
"To hell with choosing in which world. I chose to live. You did, too, Nao."
I hugged myself, pulling on my sleeve to hide a ragged scar on one wrist.
The demon knelt by me and placed a soft hand over mine. "By forgiving our wrong choices and extending love to all will rid our mind of evil and thoughts of separation. It's not you against yourself, Nao. Or us against them."
"It feels like it is."
"It does, sometimes. Let them think their thoughts and live in their world. But shine your love upon them, anyway. Isn't that what your little man on the cross tells you to do? Shine into the darkness so that you may wake from dreaming a nightmare of life."
My cheeks again prickled with tears.
"I can stop this marriage if you desire. Right now, with a snap of my fingers." He held up his saw-toothed index finger. "If you need more time--"
"No," I shook my head, then stood and snatched up the wedding dress. "Getting married is the only thing I truly feel sure about. This one?"
The demon laughed, then picked up the kimono and draped it over my empty forearm. "The duality of life is in your arms, Nao. If you focus too hard, you will only see a single point."
The demon cleared his throat, his muffled footsteps in the snow slowing. "And the third meeting?"
"Right here. Right now. You, the cold, and the lake."
He glanced out toward the island in the center of the lake, where a spindly cherry tree craned upward, stretching its crooked trunk toward the sky, catching snowflakes. "So, you need me to help you understand one more thing."
"No. I need you to understand."
The demon cocked his head; snow crystals fluttered to his shoulder.
"I've had a hard time understanding what I am. It's given me great pain."
"A pain we both share, as you know."
I nodded. "Pain is like kintsugi, filling in the cracks of a broken bowl with gold, creating something altogether whole, but shattered on the inside."
"But more beautiful than before the bowl was broken in the first place. And stronger, too, Nao."
I smiled. "I guess you already understand."
"I might, but I'm not in your head, you know. All I know is that pain hurts, but how we deal with it becomes our inner strength. And we all deal with it differently. Because we're all different, no matter the color of our skin or where we were born and raised."
"We are against a world that holds hopelessness and hope, ignorance and knowledge, happiness and sorrow. Love and hate."
"Darkness and light." His gaze centered again on the cherry tree.
I stopped and tilted my head up, letting the falling snow melt on my face. "If I focus too much on one thing, like whether I am Japanese or American, or something else entirely, the pressure of all my other choices becomes too much to bear." I took the demon's hand in mine.
He squeezed tight. "Nao, you know I've always said--"
"Be both. But I can't. The choice of one or the other makes me, me. I understand, now. And I want you to as well. I don't have to be Japanese. I don't have to be American. Or both. Or neither. I can be Japanese. Or American. Or both. Or neither. I can always choose whenever I want, anytime I want. I don't have to be defined by what I am, because I can always change what that is."
"Are you avoiding choosing?"
"No. My choice is that I don't have one, and that makes me strong."
A grin gnarled up the demon's face.
"I hated Japan for so many years. Until I saw it as part of me, not as something to strive for. Or an adversary. That's why you and I are different. I am not bound by trying to live in two cultures or worlds at the same time. If I want fish for breakfast, I'm having fish. If someone chides me in English, I'll give them snark right back. If someone calls me foreign in my own land, I can just smile. Because I know what I can be. And that's ever-changing."
The demon's hand slipped out of mine, and his features melted from sharp and ragged, returning to the soft, confident tones of my husband. "Figuring this thing out they call hāfu is so difficult. I'm glad I could spend so many years with you working through what it means. But I must ask, what spurred your sudden answer, Nao?"
"Cornbread. For our grandchildren. I want them to know what they are before they start to question who they are. Because, ultimately, knowing who they are takes a lifetime. Knowing what they are shouldn't."
"And what will you tell them?"
"That they're beautiful. And that even if the blood flowing in them is different, they are Japanese." I winked at my husband. "With a few perks."
"I'll take those perks, too." He held out his hand for another piece of bread, which I gladly offered.
He paused, the cornbread halfway to his mouth, glancing at his white skin peeking out from underneath his down jacket sleeve. He pushed his sleeve back to reveal his skin and the faded, almost invisible scars crisscrossing his wrist, then scarfed down the bread.
"You'll catch a cold."
"Maybe. But I'm choosing not to hide anymore, either." He laughed. "It feels good to get rid of that demon, doesn't it?"
I laughed with him. "It'll be back when doubts creep up on me. Besides, everyone is married to their demons. Only ours can smile back."
The Nature of Heroes
Jak Owinsson stood upon the edge of the forest looking down on the military encampment below. He had finally made it. After two days of travel, he had found the camp of the Battlehawks; the most respected mercenary company in all of Kendar. He would finally be able to join the war and leave his boring farm life behind.
In his sixteen years of life, he had always dreamed of becoming a hero like the ones from the stories. So far, it had been an uninspiring beginning. On his two days of walking from Harnan Vale, he had encountered no bandits, no damsels in distress, not even so much as a wagon stuck in the road to start Jak on his way to herodom. But, then again, he supposed not every story had to begin with epic action and auspicious signs. At the very least he had left Harnan Vale and Erryl Crick far behind.
Not that there was anything wrong with either place, Jak supposed. It was all fine for men like his father, simple men with simple goals in simple lives. Men who wanted nothing more out of life than a farm and a family. Well, anyone who wanted such a life was welcome to it, but Jak meant to be something more. Something special.
All his life, Jak had been the biggest strongest boy in Erryl Crick, maybe even all of Harnan Vale. He routinely beat the other boys in wrestling and sparring with sticks. Even if they were not much in the way of competition, he had still shown himself to be worth more than a simple back country life. He could feel it in himself, something great waiting to come out. He knew deep down he was meant to be like one of the great stories. Maybe even as great as Cedric the Charmer himself.
And true, in all likelihood, he would not marry a princess or some high lady, but it would certainly still be better than what waited for him in Erryl Crick. His mother had had her heart set on him marrying Ethel Cooper from Tares Hill, farther up the valley. Now, Ethel was nice enough, but she was gangly as a stick figure and had hair like straw. Jak had had enough of straw for his lifetime. Plus, her teeth were crooked. No, he knew he could do better; especially once he made a name for the bards to sing.
Jak started down the hillside toward the camp. Green and white tents sat in rigid, precise lines in the fields around the hilltop that sat across from the fords of the river Wendle. A palisade surrounded the larger tents on top of the hill. Likely, that was where the officers of the company had set their command. Earthen works and a long ditch protected the rest of the camp. Open spaces were visible between sections of tents where men could gather and practice the arts of war. Jak could not wait to join them there and prove himself. He joined the line of men that stood out from the entrance to the camp; a slim bridge of earth over the ditch that led to a small breach in the earthen works. The whole point of the camp’s position here was that this was the only place to cross the Wendle for almost twenty miles in either direction.
Jak stood there for what seemed like forever. Finally, he found himself standing before a small desk of oak, behind which sat a large man with a bored expression, writing in a large ledger. When Jak reached the front of the line, the large man barely glanced up before asking for his name and his credentials. Jak tried to be bold when he spoke but found he was stammering out something about Erryl Crick and this being his first time joining a military company. The man simply gestured told the open field to his left and muttered about presenting himself to the sergeant there.
Jak walked over, a little in awe of what was going on around him. This was a real military camp. These men were soldiers, hard men who fought for glory and loyalty and their own place in the stories.
He reached the field and his awe died quickly. There must be some mistake, the men, no boys, he saw around him were not the stuff of stories. They flailed around with wooden swords and blunt spears. They barely landed blows and the ones they did land were soft and almost listless.
This was not where Jak belonged.
After asking around a bit, Jak found the sergeant, a man called Baric. He presented himself to the man and tried to sound confident about it. He was dismissed almost immediately and told to join a group that had an odd number of trainees.
Jak joined the group he had been told to join and waited with the others. None of them seemed interested in talking. Half seemed too nervous to look anywhere but their feet; the other half stared around haughtily, as if everyone else were scum under their boots. Jak hoped he did not seem like either sort. In the stories, the heroes were always confident, but no aloof. Courteous, but not shy nor meek. He stood with his shoulders back and his hands tucked into his belt, doing his best to affect an air of confident placidity.
A man soon approached them. He was a tall, lean man, with a pointed black goatee and bored looking eyes. The man was named Sint. Jak was not sure if that was his first name or his last, but it seemed to suit him somehow. He spent as little time as he could explaining the exercises they were to perform, where to find their practice weapons, and how long they were to keep at it (until they were told to stop, as it turns out). After that he simply stalked off, his mouth twisting as if finally done with some unappealing chore.
When Sint was gone, one of the other boys finally spoke, “You all know who that was, right?” He looked around expectantly at the rest of them.
“Who?” Jak asked when no one else seemed likely to do it.
“Sour Sint,” the other boy replied, staring back at Jak as though he expected the name to scare him. When Jak made no motion of recognition, the boy added, “He took four knights prisoner by himself at the battle of the Kriltop. Didn’t even ransom them, just executed them after the fighting was done.” He looked around with a leer on his face as if looking for a reaction to pounce on.
Two of the nervous looking boys paled at the mention of the act, and the first boy’s leer grew. He looked as if he was going to say something new, but another boy spoke up. This boy was almost as tall as Jak, though much heavier and not with muscle.
“Enough,” he said in a voice that was too high for such a large boy. “We had better get started or we’ll have the sergeant to worry about.”
After that, they went to one of the equipment wagons that ringed the field, donned their practice gear, and began to run through the drills. When the sergeant finally called an end to training for the day, Jak hated how relieved he was to find his assigned tent and sleep the night away.
The next week followed much the same pattern. A morning meal of hard bread and harder meat. Hours of training followed by another meal of hard bread and harder meat. More training followed until sundown, when they were allowed another meal of slightly softer bread and slightly better meat.
Jak learned more about his training mates over the course of the week. The first boy, whose name was Tef, turned out to not be as bad as he had seemed. Tef liked to talk, mostly of how his father had been a soldier and his destiny was to continue the family business of war. The fat boy, Mully, was nice enough and extremely focused on training. He worked as hard as anyone and after a week, he had lost a noticeable slice off his belly. One of the nervous boys was named Loring. He also had a father who had been a soldier, but unlike Tef, his father had hated war and raised his son to find another line of work. Unfortunately, Loring was not good at any of the trades he had tried, and finally, he had given in and joined the Battlehawks.
After a week of training, all across the training field the wild swings and soft taps had turned into, if not precise, certainly more accurate jabs and hacks. Even the more reticent of the fighters was putting weight and effort into each swing. Jak still considered himself above most of these trainees, but he was no longer certain he was the best of them. Tef was a tenacious fighter and he would often leave bruises bone deep, whether he struck armor or not. Mully, despite being large and slow, was a patient fighter who waited for the right opportunity to land a heavy-handed blow that make a man’s head ring for days. Even Loring proved himself capable of at least competency, though a lot of that had to do with the strategy of fighting that they were learning.
Jak had always thought of fighting as one man against another, a battle being made up of hundreds of these little fights. But what they were learning was different. They fought in pairs against pairs, each trainee paired with a shield mate. One would bear a large shield called a wall shield, while the other used a spear or sword from behind. The shield bearer would defend and the spearman would attack, when presented with an opportunity. The jabs and hacks they were taught were crude, if incredibly effective and easy to execute. It was not the picture of gracious sword fighting he had always pictured from the stories.
On the seventh day, Sergeant Baric began walking between groups of trainees, speaking to several of each trainees, and then moving on. When he reached Jak’s group, he watched them drill for a few minutes before pointing to Jak, Mully, Tef and Loring and motioning them aside.
“You four,” he began as soon as they were close enough to him, “are ready, or at least as ready as you’re like to be. Report to Spear Company Four before dinner.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and strode off to the next group.
Jak hardly listened as the other boys began to talk excitedly as they walked off the training ground. This was it, the time for Jak to begin his real story. His own legend was beginning now.
They reported to their new commanding officer, a Lieutenant named Alric, He was a man of average height, average build and above average age. His face was craggy with wrinkles, the lower half covered by a hoary thatch of a beard.
The food here was better than the fare during training, and for once the boys were happy for more. After his second plate, Tef tapped Jak on the shoulder[MW1] , jittery excitement lighting up his face.
“Come on,” he whispered, eagerly. “You’ve got to see this.”
Jak looked at Mully and Loring, wondering why Tef had singled him out. Loring was tucking into his third serving of dinner and Mully was half asleep over his mug of ale. Shrugging, Jak got up and followed Tef. They strode past the section where their company camped and toward the center of camp. They approached a campfire with a smaller circle sitting around it, but a large crowd standing around them. Jak wondered if there was some kind of fight or contest going on, but when he got closer he was even more surprised.
“Galen Greenspear!” Tef whispered again in his ear. Not that Jak needed to be told who this man was. Galen was seated across the fire from where they stood. He was a tall, well-built man, with long dark hair, flowing to his shoulders. His face was clean-shaven and his eyes glowed with merriment and confidence. This man was on of the most celebrated heroes of the last ten years. Jak had not even known that he was riding with the Battlehawks. Next to him sat a dark-skinned man with a shaved head and two sword hilts sticking up over his shoulders. There was only one man in Kendar with that shade of skin; this had to be Toren Dal. The stories said Dal had the fastest sword in all the Southern Sands.
Jak mentioned this quietly to Tef, who nodded quickly and pointed to the man on the other side of Galen. “Lowen the Loser!” Jak noticed the lion engraved on the man’s breastplate and knew Tef was right. Lowen was one of the most renowned knights in the land. Once he had been called Lowen the Lion, but his penchant for choosing the wrong side in any battle had overshadowed his own personal prowess.
Galen was in the middle of telling a tale when they arrived. As he approached the end, Jak realized it was the tale of Killian Kingkiller. A fine story about one of the best knights of the last half-century who had killed the current king, Crestor’s, father, who had been a terrible despot. Of course, the story left out how that act of heroism had sparked the current war of succession between Crestor and his brother, Polac. A minor detail anyway.
Galen had just finished the tale with the usual line of “Killian, a true hero!” when another voice spoke up from the near side of the fire.
“A fine hero, and dead before thirty, like all those other heroes.” Everyone turned their attention to the man, most of them sneering at his comment. It turned out the speaker was their own company Lieutenant, Alric. Galen did not seem at all put out by the interruption, however.
“Ah, Alric,” he said almost condescendingly, “always the same stance on these tales. Always knocking brave men for their great deeds.” He smiled around at the onlookers, as if indulging them in a shared joke.
“Its not the deeds I knock, it’s the foolhardy ways they spend their lives in the doing of those deeds that I take issue with.” Alric spoke well for such a ragged looking man. “All I mean is a little prudence would have served those men better than their eagerness to earn their place in history. I have no objection to bravery when it is called for, but foolishness will always earn my scorn.”
Galen’s smile slipped a bit at that. He seemed close to saying something biting in return, but instead, he smiled again. “Bravery when it is called for you say? And what would you know of bravery, Alric?” He looked around at the crowd again. “Alric here,” he gestured to the bearded man, “had run from more fights than any man here!” The crowd burst into laughter at that, as Alric’s face turned red.
“If I’ve run from so many fights its ’cause I’ve lived long enough to see so many.” Alric said it simply, not as a retort, but a mere statement of fact. But Galen seized on the admission.
“He does not even deny that he runs when the battle turns against him!” Galen trumpeted, smiling broadly, though the smile no longer seemed so nice. If he expected Alric to back down, he was to be disappointed.
“Aye, I’ve run,” Alric said, “when the battles were hopeless. All those heroes you love, they fought past the point of sense, past the point when the battle was unwinnable. All for a place in the songs.” He glared around the fire daring a man to call him wrong. “But I’ve also stood when the fight was hard. I held the line with Toric the Elder and Younger Toric after him. I held it with Honig himself, before he was Headless.” Some men around the fire were nodding along now, seeing the sense in what he said. Jak found it hard to disagree but he also had a hard time believing any of those heroes he had worshipped his whole life were fools.
“Yes, you held the line,” admitted Galen, standing now to look down on Alric. “And here you are, still in the line, while all those better men went on to glory and now their names are sung across the land.”
“Aye,” said Alric, standing himself, though he still had to look up to meet Galen’s eyes. “They went on. To glory and an early grave. Personally, I’d rather be late to mine.” He stared at Galen for a beat before stalking off into the night.
Once Alric was gone, Galen and his entourage moved away as well and the onlookers were left to seek their beds. Jak and Tef went back to their own tent, neither saying a word. Jak was surprised by the pensive look on Tef’s face. He’d never considered Tef to much of a thinker. They hit their cots heavily, Mully and Loring already snoring away, and fell quickly into sleep.
The dawn came fast, and the trumpet call to arms came soon after. Jak and his tent mates donned their new armor, given to them the day before, and hurried to join the ranks as they assemble along the field between the ditch and the fords of the Wendle.
The ranks of Spear Company Four found themselves along the eastern edge of the ford. The enemy ranks were already marching toward the ford on the other side of the river. There were at least several thousand. The Battlehawks fielded almost two thousand foot and another five hundred cavalries. The cavalry would not be needed unless the shieldwall failed to hold the ford. This was unlikely. It was plain to Jak that they held the better ground. They were uphill and out of the water. The enemy would have to fight uphill in muddy ground after making their way across the unsteady footing of the ford.
The battle started faster than Jak had expected. The enemy simply came on despite the unfavorable field. Jak was several lines back of the front line. It would be some time after the first clash before his line was called forward to relieve the men in front of them. The sun was rising on their right as the two front lines met. Tef was several men down the line, Mully was directly to his right, with Loring on his left as his shield mate. It was difficult to see what was happening over the head high shields of the ranks in front of his.
Time seemed to pass strangely, one minute he was standing, almost bored, and the next his rank was being called forward. The horn sound for the rotation of men came loud across the morning air and they were thrust into the front line. The fighting was almost to the water line now. The ground was all churned mud now and the enemy were right there in front of him. He relied on his training, trusting his shield mate, waiting for his openings before stabbing out with his spear. The first time it came back red he almost retched. But he reminded himself this was war, fought down his gorge and willed his stomach to stillness.
Before Jak knew it, the horn call sounded and his turn was done for now. He rotated out and allowed himself to breathe. It was hard, trying to keep his spear out of his line of sight so he would not see the gore and blood on it. His turn came again and again as morning turned into afternoon. It was not the glorious warfare he had anticipated; it was more like butchery than anything else.
Suddenly, another horn call rang out, but it was not the Battlehawks horns. It came from the east. Orders rang out for the ranks to turn east, but Jak, in his inexperience, was caught between staying to face the enemy and turning with the others. Tef was suddenly beside him turning him east. Over the rise, a long line of heavy cavalry rode down on the invested infantry of the Battlehawks.
Chaos reigned. The infantry ranks shattered. Jak found himself standing amidst the thundering horses and dying men, wondering how he had ever wanted any of this. A man standing next to him was spitted on a spear by a passing horseman, at an angle that pierced the ground and left him propped him up like a blood-covered scarecrow, his eyes goggling at the three feet of spear haft sticking out of his stomach, the light slowly leaving them.
He headed for the forest to the west. The forest that would hide him as he fled toward home. He could not fight it any longer. All he wanted was to go home. He dodged horses and men, occasionally swinging his spear or throwing up his shield to protect himself; but mostly he ran.
The thundering sound of hoofbeats sounded behind Jak, seeming to follow him no matter how he zigged and zagged. At last, he turned and threw up his shield, hoping to catch the oncoming blow.
But the blow never came. The horseman flashed past him and was gone; no spear in his hand. Jak looked lowered his shield to see Alric standing in front of him, a spearpoint standing out of his chest.
“R-run, boy. Run” Alrics rasped out before falling to his knees, dead eyes still staring at Jak. If it were not for the chaos and death around him, Jak would have kept staring at Alric’s dead body, but he took the dead man’s words to heart and turned to run again.
As he ran, he saw other horrible sights. Mully dead from several gaping wounds. Loring pierced with arrows. Tef trampled into the mud; hoofprints littered his back. He saw Galen atop his horse surrounded by pikemen who eventually pulled him down and he was lost in the mud and blood. Toren Dal fighting several men at once with great skill, until a spear thrust through the knee hobbled him. He was dead seconds later. Lowen the Loser lay in the mud with blood pouring from beneath his helm. A glance over his shoulder showed the command tents on the hill being abandoned and a group of several hundred horsemen fleeing to the south.
Against all odds, Jak reached the edge of the woods, the exact spot he had been standing on when he first looked down on the camp. With a last look he turned and fled deeper into the trees. As he ran, he thought about what Alric had said about heroes, coming to the conclusion that there were Heroes and heroes. Galen was a Hero. He died young and the songs would sing of his deeds. But were those deeds any greater than Alric’s? Alric had saved his life. He was a hero. No songs would sing of that.
But Jak would always remember.
The only thing left to ponder, was what would Jak do now?
He would go home. Go home and become a farmer and live a simple life. Maybe even marry Ethel Cooper. After all, she wasn’t bad looking. Sure, she was skinny, but strong too. He’d seen her hauling water enough time to know, hadn’t he? Her hair was like straw but in the sun light it glinted like gold, didn’t it? And her teeth weren’t crooked exactly. Not even, but still charming in their way.
Yes, he would go home and live a simple, safe life.
Struggling to catch her breath, she leaned against the grimy alley wall and pressed her palm against her upper leg. She bit back a groan as pain crackled like a lightning bolt. She pulled off her belt with shaky fingers, putting it around her leg on a tight setting but not tight enough that it would cut off blood circulation.
Gordan had been raised by assassins, and like everyone else, she was trained to do one thing.
She'd always hated it, the numbness they'd tries to instill in her from a young a age. She'd never been able to fight back until now. Earlier that day she'd been given a choice. Kill or die.
She chose neither.
Gordan pushed off the wall, fighting the urge to grunt in pain. She struggled to walk, wondering how far she'd get before they found her. Thunder cracked and lightning flashed, briefly illuminating the empty street ahead.
After finding another street, this one lined with doors, Gordan walked up to one of such homes and knocked once. Her hand lingered near her dagger; she needed help, but if she didn't get it and they tried to kill her, she would be ready.
The door opened by a tall, dark-skinned girl with curly hair piled high on her head. She scowled. "Whadyuh want?"
Gordan groaned slightly. "I need a few medical supplies, if you have them, please." Her voice was slightly slurred, another effect of the blood loss.
The girl's brown eyes narrowed and she slowly dragged then to where Gordan was holding her leg. Her head tilted. "Who did you make mad? Will they come here?"
"Probably." Gordan wasn't going to lie to her.
She snorted. "I like your honesty. Leave or I'll shoot you." She slammed the door in Gordan's face.
Gordan sighed and leaned against the door for a second before she pushed off it. She didn't blame the girl, but it was frustrating.
Loud voices rose in the distance and she spun, grunting this time. Lights rose up in the distance and mechanical barks snapped.
Gordan growled with irritation and grabbed the door and pushed it in. She was met with a cold gun barrel to the face.
"I told you to leave." The girl's tone was ice.
Gordan stepped inside and kicked the door shut. "They followed me. They would've come here anyway." She slowly pushed the gun out of her face. "Is there another way out?"
Her eyes narrowed to slits. "Are you trying to get me killed? You're a bloody mess! Whadyuh think they're going to do to me?! They probably won't let live! I don't care what happens to you! Get out of my home!" She shoved the gun back into Gordan's face.
Gordan's head spun and she struggled to stay standing. "Do you at least have an F.P?"
Her eyes flashed darker, but she pulled a small metal syringe out of her pocket. "Get out of my home." She tossed it to Gordan.
Gordan quickly pressed a small thumb pad and it flashed green. She stabbed it into her leg and it shot a warm wave through her body, giving her a sudden burst of adrenaline, numbing her pain. "Thanks." She turned and burst out the door.
She ran through the street, hearing the mechanical dogs getting closer. She hit a dead end and scaled up the wall. She sprinted over the roof and started pressing buttons on her metal embrace.
A small 3-D map popped up, showing her the layout of the area. She pressed another button and the map flashed blue and vanished. Gordan sucked in a breath and jumped off the side of the roof, free falling for a split second before hitting a moving object.
She grinned and gripped the wet hover bike handles. It was sleek and black with a large round motor in the back. She sped through the streets, placing a large distance between her and her hunters. Maybe she really had a chance. Maybe she could really be free.
But even she knew the truth and let that thought die as it had grown. Her past would forever keep her chained, and there wasn't anything she could do about it. *
Shayla gripped her gun tightly behind her back, pressing herself against the wall. Her eyes were widened in fake fear as two mechanical dogs sniffed around her shabby home. The home her and Tristan had spent sweat and blood getting. Two masked men dressed in blaster proof clothing stood at her open door, letting rain wash in over her floor. She couldn't see their eyes behind their masks, but she could feel their stares on her.
"I told you." Shayla said, her voice wobbling. "The girl left. I... I sent her out."
They didn't move. The robot dogs sniffed until they stopped at their master's feet. They mechanical beings were connected to their masters, if one died, the other did as well.
"Where did she go?" One of the men asked. His voice was distorted, so now Shayla wasn't sure if it was a man or a woman.
"I don't know." She said, her trigger finger tightening as she resisted the urge to pull it like she wanted to. "I told her to leave and she left."
"Look." The one on the left pointed to a small puddle of blood the girl had left. "Kirk really did hit her."
They backed out of the house with their dogs, not bothering to shut the door back.
Shayla sighed as she heard their footsteps fade. She'd promised she wouldn't get into trouble, promised she wouldn't spontaneously shoot someone. No matter how hard it was.
She whistled once and the door shut with a faint click. Pushing off the wall she shoved her gun back into her waist band and looked down at the purple bruising and abrasions on her wrist. She scowled at the door, mentally murdering them. She recognized the gang members. Usually they stayed in the shadows and didn't bother coming to the surface. Which made Shayla question why they were chasing the girl.
Shayla didn't really care. It wasn't her problem. She'd stopped caring a long time ago after she'd been banished from the Galactic army, the day after receiving her stripes.
She grabbed a rag and wiped up the blood before Tristan got back and freaked.
He was a Gladiator. He was the only thing that kept her going sometimes. He was her rock, her big ugly bolder to lean on.
Shayla was lounging on the only sofa in their small house, thinking about a pock faced, yet handsome, man from the library. Ugh, she hated libraries. She didn't know why she kept going back despite her disdain for a place of revered knowledge.
The door clicked open and Tristan tiredly walked in. His rugged, muscular frame was droopy and his once white tunic was sweat, blood, and who knows what else, stained. He whistled once, shutting the door, and plopped on the sofa next to her with a loud sigh.
"What happened?" He didn't even look at her as he asked, just closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
Shayla arched her brow. "What do you mean?"
"Your wrist is bruised and split
open. And you left the rag by the door. Also, I don't smell any smoke so I know you didn't shoot anyone."
"You caught that, huh?"
He made a sound of acknowledgement. "What happened?"
She quickly filled him in, not forgetting to add how she really, like really, wanted to pull that trigger.
Tristan cracked his eyes open and slowly turned his head to her, his eyes full of anger. "You realize you could've died, right?"
She shrugged. "I didn't."
He sat up. "What did these gang people look like, Shay?"
"What normal gang dudes look like, I guess. But they had tech dogs."
He frowned, placing his forehead in the palm of his hand. "Did they say what they wanted with the girl?"
Shayla snorted. "Yeah. They asked if I wanted to give their doggies a belly rub too."
He looked over at her, slightly amused with her response. "Girls aren't allowed in that gang. I wonder how she got caught up in it all."
"She's probably one of their girlfriends, or something. She had the looks."
He shook his head. "No. Girlfriends wouldn't leave their lair alive if they decided to run. I wonder who she is..." He mused to himself.
"Are you seriously feeling bad for her, Tristan? She's nothing more than a street rat."
"No." He said. "All I'm saying is that she must know what she's doing if she's still alive."
"Well, she won't be alive for much longer. She lost a lot of blood. Probably from a blast wound."
He scrunched his brow in concern. "A blast wound? How did they get their hands on blasters?"
"It's not our problem, Tristan. Stop worrying that big brain of yours."
Tristan had always been fighting the rules. After he'd been enslaved into the Gladiator Games most if his fight left. "You're right."
Even though Shayla enjoyed hearing those words, they troubled her. What had happened to her brother?
"How did it go?" She asked.
He sighed; the sound reverberated through the sofa and into her. "Normal. Killed a few cyclones and played with a few idiots who thought they were bigger than they were."
"So my brother's name is still shouted throughout the arena as I'd he were one of Oden's sons."
"I kill people, Shayla. People who don't have a choice." His eyes were pained, filled with the guilt that hung over his head.
"You don't have a choice, either, Tristan." She said quietly. "And now the people love you. They won't let you be killed."
"Please, change the subject." He said tiredly.
Shayla wished he could revel in his accomplishment. Not many slaves reached his level of success. But she respected his wishes. She wasn't sure what to say though and was left with saying nothing.
"Did you bring back anymore books? Or were the last stack enough to suffice?"
Shayla's faces heated. "I took the books back yesterday, actually."
"Hmm. I wonder what could be there that would keep your interests bound to a place of "reverend knowledge", as you like to call it." He chuckled when she scowled.
"Shut-up." Was all she said. Argh! Why did he have to be so cursed perseptive? *
Gordan slowed her bike in the crowded marketplace, her leg throbbing. The bleeding had stopped, and the F.P had started closing the wound, but it still hurt like fire and all things hot. The rain had stopped and the sun peeked through the clouds, pushing through with sweltering rays.
She slid from her bike and winced as lighting shot up her let. She bit back a grunt and pulled her bag from the side of her bike. She wove through the thick crowd, looking for a certain stand. People bumped into her, making her already on edge nerves ready to explode.
She spotted the stand and stepped up under the faded blue awning where cloaks and other necessities were being sold by a short, chubby old man with stringy grey hair.
Gordan slapped a gold coin on the worn wood counter. "I'll take one of your med packs. I hear they're the best this part of the district."
The man seemed more dead than alive and moved with the impressive speed of a turtle. But he somehow managed to grab a small black box off a shelf behind him. "Is that all?" He wheezed.
She was about to walk away when she realized how much she must've stood out in the assassin's garb she wore. She gestured to the cloaks hanging off to the left. "I'll take a black cloak." She figured white would draw too much attention, and red wasn't much better. Everyone wore black.
He nodded his chubby face and grabbed it off the hook, slowly handing it to her. Then his hand snatched the coin with lightning speed.
Gordan arched her brow, realizing he'd only been moving slow the first time to give her time to deside on what else to buy. "Quick hand." She muttered as she grabbed her box and slipped it into her bag.
She pushed away from the stand and walked away. Pulling the cloak over her shoulders, she fastened it at the nape of her neck and wove through the crowd once more.
When she reached her bike her eyes narrowed on the two people surveying it. It was the girl from the night before standing with a muscular man who was probably in his early twenties.
"It's not for sale." Gordan said.
They spun and the girl's eyes widened in surprise. "You're alive!" She was clearly astonished.
"This is her?" The man asked, now eyeing Gordan in a new light.
"Yeah." She said. She smirked. "I'm impressed. I figured you were too pretty to survive the night."
Gordan moved to the other side of the bike, trying to hide her limp. "I must apologize for last night. But I knew they wouldn't kill you. Hunters like then only kill their intended target."
She didn't look reassured, but she seemed to lose her disdain for Gordan.
Gordan jumped onto her bike when mechanical barks spiked fear into her gut.
Two dogs and their owners parted through the crowd coming straight for her.
"Why are they after you?" The man asked, watching the Hunters with a grim look.
"Because they don't like stray dogs." Gordan growled. "You might want to get out of here." She slid from her bike, this time not able to hide her slight limp, and drew her daggers.
The man hesitated to go, but the dark skinned girl tugged on his arm with a huffy. "Come on, Tristan."
Gordan didn't wait to see if they left. She walked forward, trying to hide her limp in what she hoped was a cocky strut. "Do you really want to do this again?" She asked loudly, flipping her blades and sinking into a sturdy stance.
The crowd of people had thinned as they took notice of the Hunters. Most were fleeing, others seemed to be taking bets.
The Hunters stopped just feet from her. "Come with us and you'll die a painless death." His voice was garbled, but she knew it was him.
Gordan laughed. "I don't think so, Finn."
"Please." He said. "Just come with us."
Her eyes hardened with her resolve. "I'm not going back."
"You had a life with us." Finn said.
She squinted at him. "What life? We are trained to kill people, Finn. They gave me a choice, I made it."
"Then you'll die." Finn said quietly.
Gordan released her cloak and let it fall to the ground. "Bring it then... partner."
Both Hunters drew their long, metallic sticks from their backs and lightning jumped over them. Zappers, as Gordan liked to call them. Very painful to get hit with.
She walked forward, threw her dagger at Finn's new partner and blocked Finn's zapper with her vambrace. It absorbed the lightning and she punched him in the chest, sending him flying back.
Both dogs went limp. Gordan walked to Finn and knelt beside him. She carefully pulled his mask off, remembering how he hated it.
He was gasping for air, blood spackling his pale lips. "Sorry." He sputtered and his green eyes widened with regret. "I didn't want to."
Gordan's throat tightened painfully and she smoothed a strand of his red hair out of his eyes. "I know." She said. Strands of her own black hair fell into her face as she watched his eyes fall still.
She slowly stood and gathered her blade and cloak as she walked back to her bike. The girl and man was gone. She jumped onto her bike and hit the start button, speeding away. Heavy tears rolled down her face as the realization hit her.
They had trained her to kill. Walking away hadn't changed that. She was now a killer. *
Tristan's mind was going haywire. His sister had been face to face with an assassin. Or, Hunters, as they were called in the gang realm. He'd had to face them twice in the Games, they were dangerous and loyal to their boss. So why would she run away?
Shayla's arm was still tightly wrapped around his own, as if she were afraid he was going to go back and find the Hunter. He did find her incredibly alluring, not in that way, but she was just... okay, yeah attractive. He'd never seen anyone with sapphire eyes. They were piercing, captivating. Beautiful.
"Well, this day went differently than I imagined it would." Shayla muttered.
"I..." her words were cut off by a loud blaring horn; it was followed by a booming voice.
"If you don't return, this entire district will be burnt to the ground before you can escape."
Shayla looked up at Tristan, her dark skin slightly ashen. "What was that?"
Tristan grimly looked down at her. "Someone who don't like stray dogs. We need to find her."
She set her jaw and he thought she was going to yell at him. But she said. "I'll need the rest of my guns."
Okay. He didn't expect that. He arched his brow. "Seriously?"
She slowly nodded, like she was having a hard time believing it herself. "Yeah. She may be completely stupid, but thus district is fairly innocent." She shrugged. "And plus, I wanna shoot someone again." She winked and walked on.
Tristan chuckled and followed her, feeling a coursing excitement rushing through him. *
Dread coiled tightly in Gordan's gut as she replayed what the message had said. They didn't care about innocent lives. They didn't care about her life. Her whole life she'd been taught that they were the only ones she could trust. Her loyalty was payment for everything they'd ever taught her, for letting a girl train amongst the Hunter Masters.
But that was all a lie. And now, because of her, this district would perish. She couldn't let that happen.
That's why she left in the first place. After learning that she was raised to spill innocent blood, she promised to protect it.
Death awaited her if she attempted to stop them. She couldn't go back. But how could she fight them on her own?
With a bitter growl, Gordan punched the wall behind her. She heaved heavily, anger rushing through her veins like a raging river. She could never run from them. How could she?
"So, you're not very hard to find."
Gordan glanced up with narrowed eyes, recognizing the voice. "What do you want?"
The girl was now heavily armed and carried several guns, and the man, Tristan, was armed with leather vest and a large sword. He was Gladiator. Well, that explained his muscles. (No, she did not find him attractive...)...(well, maybe a little.)
The girl chuckled, her white teeth flashing in the high sun. "Well, it wasn't my idea. But we thought you could use some help. It seems to be something you need often."
Gordan narrowed her eyes. "This isn't a game. Leave now before you get caught in the crossfire again."
"I'm Shayla, this is Tristan." She said, ignoring Gordan's last comment. "We've come to die with you."
"We're not gonna die!" Tristan hissed. "Seriously, stop being so dramatic!"
Shayla chuckled. "Not a chance." She winked. "What's your name?"
Gordan contemplated not telling them. Even though she knew she needed their help. She could see they were capable. But she couldn't ask them to lay down their lives for a cause not their own. But she gave in. "It's Gordan. And I work alone."
"Is that why you see your teammates?" Tristan asked.
Guilt shot through her like a searing flame and she felt like ripping his face off. "You don't know what you're talking about." It came out as a low whisper, nearly a hiss.
He narrowed his eyes. "Was Finn your boyfriend?"
Gordan swiftly drew a dagger and aimed it at him, ignoring how Shayla had a gun pointed at her faster than Gordan could blink. "You had better choose your next words very wisely." Gordan growled. "And no. He was my partner. Until he tried to kill me."
"And why did you leave?"
Gordan gritted her teeth. "Did you ever wonder if Hunters like what they did?"
He shrugged his wife shoulders, gesturing to Shayla to lower her gun. "No, I never have. But I suppose you and I are a lot alike."
Gordan's eyes changed, less angry. "Yes." She swallowed. Gladiators were slaves just as much as she was. She slowly lowered her blade, somehow feeling so much heavier than she actually was.
"How many gang dudes are after you?" Shayla asked.
Gordan glanced up at her sharply, thinking it a stupid question. "All of them."
Shayla arched her left eyebrow, slightly smirking. "And how many is that, princess?"
Gordan bristled at the name. "Forty. Ten of them are trained as I. And five have dogs. The rest are simple footmen with blasters."
"Oh, is that all?" Tristan scoffed. "I guess we are going to die."
"No." Gordan said, slightly irritated. "You two are going to leave. Take my bike and get to the next district before they attack. They'll be preparing now."
"Uh." Shayla said, sticking a stick of gum into her mouth. "We ain't going anywhere. These people need protection."
Gordan raised her eyebrows. "That's why I'm here."
"Ten of you will be going up against you." Tristan said. "That does not sound like good odds. Just saying. And plus, those weird robot dog thingies and blaster dudes."
Gordan stared him down. "Do you know why they're sending everyone after me?"
"No." Tristan admitted. "Why?"
She squeezed her hand into a tight fist. "I was their best Hunter. Trained by all five masters. I was a rare exception. Being the only girl, they tried to break me in every way possible. If I hadn't yesterday, I would've graduated and received the title Master. I am a threat to their very existance."
"Sheesh." Shayla muttered. "And I thought living with one dude was bad enough."
Gordan frowned. "You two are married?"
Shayla chuckled. "Naw. He's my step-bro. You can breathe now."
"What?" Gordan squinted in confusion.
"I know he's hot." Shayla chuckled. "You've practically been drooling over him."
"Shut-up, Shay." Tristan growled, shooting Gordan an apologetic look.
Gordan cleared her throat, fighting off a blush. "Like I was saying. You two need to leave. I can take care of myself." She started to walk away. The pain in her leg had dimmed to nothing after she'd applied the med pack to it.
Gordan looked over her shoulder. "How bout this time you don't follow me."
Shayla laughed. "Not a chance!"
Gordan sighed, but in relief. She knew she couldn't fight this battle on her own. She'd only told them half the truth. True, she was trained as much as any of the five masters who'd
trained her, but she was only half way through her training. *
Pushing into an empty house, Gordan scraped her boots on the door mat as she stepped in. It was large, two stories with marble decorations. Shayla's and Tristan's steps echoed her own as they walked in behind her.
She turned to them. "We have an hour before they hit. They'll wait for me to turn myself in. I'll be in the next room over, don't disturb me." She nodded to me and pushed the two oak doors open and shut them back.
It was a room that had once been used as a dance studio. Young girls were trained in the arts of grace and poise. Gordan was one of those girls. Dancing helped her stay fluent and agile, it trained her body to stay light when jumping or moving on stealth missions. Even though dancing was used as another form of bloodshed, to Gordan, it was a way of release. A way to let out her anger and frustrstions.
It was a shame this house hadn't been used in months. The funds had stopped coming, therefore meaning Gordan hadn't had her release since then.
She raised her arms out on either side of her and slowly started moving, twirling and bending. A warm, relaxing wave washed through her body, like a summer's breeze. She closed her eyes and let the dance move her across the floor. Gordan gracefully jumped, twirling once before hitting the ground without a sound, instantly moving into the next part of the dance. Grace sang through her limbs, like an imagined song a weeping willow makes as wind rustles through its long branches.
Anxiety vanished. Fear vanished. Anger dimmed. She slowed to a stop, finishing with a bow to her imagined audience.
"That was beautiful."
Gordan spun in surprise. Tristan was leaning against the door with a strange smile on his lips, his eyes sparkling.
"I told you not to come in here." She snapped angrily.
"Where did you learn?"
Her eyes narrowed to slits, and she felt as if someone had read her personal diary. It made her feel vulnerable. Helpless. "Get out." She said through gritted teeth.
He pushed off the door. "Can I dance with you?"
Oh, he had a death wish. She just knew he did. "Are you deaf?"
He shrugged with that strange smile. "Maybe?" He took a few steps forward.
"Get out." She said again, calmer. So calm she felt as if she were begging.
He kept coming. She could've killed him right then if she wanted to. But, she didn't want to.
He stopped, now a hairsbreadth away.
The warmth of his breath warmed her cheeks and heat crawled up her neck. He slowly raised his hand, palm up. "Can I have this dance?" He whispered, eyes searching her own.
"No." She said coolly, and his eyes dropped. "I don't even know you."
"Well enough." He said quietly. "From the first time I saw you, I looked into your eyes and thought 'This girl has had a pretty messed up life, but she's the one that kept the light on'."
Gordan balkes. "What does that mean?"
He smiled softly. "It means, through all the things you've clearly been through, you haven't turned off the light that keeps you who you are."
Gordan frowned, trying to find anything that would turn this around on him. "And what about you? Gladiator. You have more blood on your hands than I do. Do you keep your light on?"
He surprised her with a smile. "Yes." He said slowly. "Thiugh I can't deny how hard it is to keep the lighthouse in sight."
"And what of Shayla?"
He smiled, understanding she hadn't believed Shayla was actually his sister. "I was adopted. Are we going to dance?"
"Well," He gestured with both arms. "we are standing in a ball room." He winked an icy eye.
Gordan smiled without meaning to. "We are." She said, feeling her heart flutter.
He grabbed her hand, taking her smile for a yes. She was halfway surprised she didn't stab him right then and there.
He took the lead, and she let him twirl her around the room.
They moved in perfect sync. As one. Tristan's eyes sparked to life and he grinned softly down at her, she smiled back, feeling her insides melt to goo. One day, if anything ever became of this, she'd have to ask him where he learned to dance.
He twirled her again, this time lifting her off the floor and spinning with her. Gently he put her back down and she spun into his arms, feeling her body catch fire. Her heart sped up and she twirled back out, breathing heavily, though not from exertion.
"When you too are done, can I dance next?"
Gordan looked up in surprise. Shayla was leaning nonchalantly on the door, looking bored but slightly protective of her brother.
"I told you to stay out." Tristan said.
"Ha!" Shayla barked a laugh. "Like you listened when Gordan told you the same."
Gordan stiffened, fighting off her blush again. "Well, clearly neither of you can follow simple orders." She muttered. "Like brother like sister."
Tristan shyly smiled down at her. "Thank you for the dance." He whispered.
Gordan arched an eyebrow, unable to hold eye contact. "It was nice." She admitted.
He shifted slightly, fiddling with the hem of his dirty tunic. "You're pretty good."
Gordan swallowed hard, unsure of what she was feeling. "You too."
Shayla groaned. "Somebody shoot me. You're making my ears bleed."
Gordan blushed again, this time noticing Tristan doing the same. So, he was feeling the same way. Interesting.
"Don't we have to like go fightsome jerks?" Shayla asked.
Gordan shook the flutters out of her stomach. "That was the plan. We still have a while to prep."
"We should get to good ground, then." Tristan said. "Shay will take the high ground, I'll take low, and you do your thing?"
Gordan nodded. "Sounds good."
Shayla walked to them. "Just stay in range of where I am. I'll be able to watch your six."
Tristan nodded seriously. "Yes, ma'am."
"I was talking to both of you." Shayla said, giving Gordan a pointed look.
It took Gordan to realize Shayla was telling her that she was going to watch her back too.
"I'll watch out for the both of you too."
"Good. " Shayla smirked. "Cause it sounds like we're all gonna die today." She grinned. "Does anyone want something to drink?"
"I don't drink." Both Gordan and Tristan said.
Shayla pouted. "Party poopers."
"Don't we have to go, anyway?" Tristan reminded.
"Eh." Shayla shrugged. "No harm in asking." *
Shayla climbed into the old bell tower on the library. It was old and worn, as all artifacts were. The tower hadn't been used in over a decade, but it was still sturdy and had a good viewpoint. She watched Tristan walk into the mide of the courtyard below. Gordan had told then this is where the gang dudes would likely drop by first and start burning the district. Gordan was out of sight, but Shayla knew she was nearby.
The entire district was ghostly silent, everyone was behind locked doors, hoping they wouldn't be hurt to a crisp.
Shayla couldn't believe she was actually doing this. For as long as she could remember she watched out for herself and Tristan only. Not some uesless district and stupid girl who asked for trouble like candy. Though that stupid girl was the one, for some reason, who brought the sparkle back to her brother's eyes.
Shayla pulled her sniper ride from her back and laid on her stomach, getting comfortable before she pulled the trigger.
A loud horn screeched and loud mechanical barks followed.
Through the scope she saw men dressed solidly in black marching down the empty road that intercepted with the courtyar. Five dogs marched in front, their large metal noses sniffing the air.
Shayla quickly lined her sites on the ten me walking in the middle; they were different from the others, walking with a deadly grace. Just like Gordan. These were the other assassins.
Clenching her jaw, Shayla fired two quick rounds, dropping two of the assassins before they could scatter. Her gun was near silent, nothing more than two quick pops, like opening a can of soda. The Galactic army had the best toys any gun loving but would want.
The assassins gave quick, cutting orders and they all ran toward the courtyard as she picked them off, only able to get good shots on the men with blasters.
Tristan met the first wave and started chopping into them with vicious growls. Shayla reloaded, wishing the Galactic army would've let her keep her canon blaster. Now that would have been great. She pulled the metal lever back and fired three shots in quick session, dropping three dog masters.
The two remaining dogs were let off their leashes and they charged. Shayla picked off one of their owners just as Gordan's empty hover bike rammed through, taking out several blasters and an assassin with its large booster.
It seemed to stun the gang members temporarily, giving Shayla enough time to draw her two revolvers and shoot two at a time.
They shouted curses and attacked, swarming Tristan with brute strength.
Shayla heard Tristan's grunts and fury rose in her veins. The assassins were the only ones left. She didn't have any good shots on them. They'd activated bulletproof tech over their body armor.
There was a shrill whistle and Shayla turned slightly to see Gordan strutting down the road holding two thin swords out on either side of her.
All remaining assassins turned to her, completely ignoring Tristan. Shayla arched her brow; gang members never left a victim alive. And they readily ignored Triet for another piece of dog meat. Apparently they really did want Gordan dead.
"Come on then!" Gordan roared fierce enough to put a lion to shame. "You've come this far, don't disappoint me now!"
The five assassins spread out drawing metallic sticks that sparked with lightning. "Little Gordan," One of then purred. "Come with us and we'll give you a painless death."
Gordan let out a light laugh. "I stopped believing your lies long ago, Kirk. The boss don't like runaways. Bad for business. If I went back with you, I'd be made an example."
Shayla arched an eyebrow, trying to line her sites up on their necks, but they kept shifting.
"So, if we'll going to do this." Gordan said venomously. "Let's do this!" She gestured to herself. "Do you think you can take me down this time?"
The one called Kirk shifted uneasily, but he barked out a quick laugh. "I've been waiting for this day for long time." Then he charged, the rest if the men followed
Shayla's eyes widened and she thought for sure Gordan would be cut down. But she slipped out of their reach and twirled into thwn, almost like she was dancing. She slashed her swords, cutting them down like weeds.
Tristan rammed them from behind, taking them with ease now that Gordan had joined the fight.
Then Gordan cut down thw last one.
And everything was silent.
Gordan andTristan walked up to each other, both weary and blood covered.
Tristan grabbed Gordan's arm and bent, giving her a quick peck on her flushed cheek.
Shayla's disgusted frown shifted into a grin as Gordan kicked him below the belt.
"Okay, maybe she isn't so bad after all." Shayla muttered.
In the following months the Gladiator was freed by the people of the district and he went on to marry the runaway assassin. Together they helped each other keep sight of the lighthouse. Meanwhile, the sharpshooter struggled to accept the marriage, but soon found herself saying "I do" to a local librarian named Shawn, and they all four lived happily ever after.
The Cost of Freedom
At what point do you know what fear truly is? And what I mean is, fear in all of its means and iterations. Terror, horror, dread, creep, anxiety, and all possible ways of describing one of living nature’s most primal senses. Most attempts at understanding fear only go so far as to cheaply replicate its effects by cheaply imitating its triggers. Drawn up pictures of grotesque beings, fiction written from the point of view of corrupted minds, numerical statistics of cancer likelihoods and death tolls. Even as these come close to the true root of fear, many choose to walk free of them, the societal machination in which they are born in offering many avenues to turn away from their natural calls to the void. To them, fear stems from the pettiest of life’s wants. Are they going to find love, a successful job, live a long life, understand the vast complexities of the universe. All basic things that make it seem that fear only stems from the absence of want.
These fears bore me. Nothing but another speck of dust in the very blowing dunes of existence to a collector such as myself. What someone like me is after are the fossils. The remains of the dead buried in life’s blowing wind, their suffering forever memorialized in a set cast of their misery. Aren’t they just the most magnificent things to behold? Pain woven right into the foundation of where we lie today...
My apologies, it seems that I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. I find it hard to contain myself when talking about such… visceral material. My position has allowed me ample time to find the beauty in decay, a fascination that I hope to share with you all now. Because understand this. Suffering is an inspiration that many of us jerk and stray away from. It seems everyone now is far too eager to numb all of their senses, especially fear, for the minuscule net grain of pleasant contentment. You all don’t get to see what I see. Feel the lifetimes that I have walked through. But now you will learn not only my name but what my own experiences have brought me. I’m here to awaken you, to widen your eyes, make you focus, and feel the pain all around you.
My name is Graven, and these are my accounts.
This was one of the first stories I collected, a fitting intro for my volumes. It’s a personal tale, one of a young boy who simply wants some independence in his life. A coming of age story if you’re an optimist or eyeless romantic. And like all inspiring stories, it blossoms from a dying prostitute in a crack house. In the arms of one Tyler Bindweed.
Before you go casting judgment on our young boy here, one must understand how hard it would be to be your own man at sixteen. But young Tyler was actually handling it well. Of course, the normal connotation of well is not exactly the best fit for the situation here. No one could be well after running away from their orphanage. Or having an abusive drunk father that threw more bottles than the number of times his checks bounced. Or having survived a religious nut mother tried to gore out the demon in their soul. No one could say anything was well in that scenario. The connotation of Tyler’s entire life is needed to make sense of all this senselessness and for that, one has to start at the very beginning.
Tyler had never felt truly free. From his birth, he felt controlled. His cage was the clogged up heartland of the American east coast, Kentucky bluegrass country, the sentencing date being April 13th, 1973. It was directly from the maternal womb of his mother to the whipping belt of his father. What had once been a hard-working family man was now a violent drunk. The long-standing family business was going under and his father was handling it about as well as he did apple pie moonshine. A man at his kind of low point just wants to put hurt out into the world, and too often Tyler was the closest outlet. That was only because the mother was out bible thumping.
Carrying Tyler had been a labor of love for his mother starting out. Then by month eight it had turned into a labor of unspeakable anguish. Tyler was a late arrival and his actual delivery was difficult. To come out of all of that to return to a crumbling home and drunk husband, reasonable to see why she went as mad as she did. Her sudden discovery and devotion to Christ from a dream was considerably less so. Her rare atheist upbringing made it all the more special and unhinged. But when the ground below your feet falls away, there’s only one place to look toward and that’s up into the sky. And people love pulling things out of clouds. The clouds seemed to have told her to start badgering her neighbors and calling her only son a relative of Satan. The reason for all of the family’s troubles. A burden put on earth for her by God to test her newly found faith. Parents usually put a lot on their kids though so that was par for the course.
This all came to a head when the father was somehow even more sloppy with his drunken beating and hit Tyler in the face. One good shiner was all that was needed to confirm the long-held suspicions of Tyler’s school teachers. Soon Tyler was pulled aside, interrogated, and put in a little safe room while the teachers called the police. They had always worried for Tyler, his more-than-quiet behavior and odd ticks were a point of concern between them. Now their nativity was leading them to believe that local authorities would be enough to stop the anguish of this poor boy. It would soon turn out to be the subtle flap of the universe's butterfly wings.
The cruiser pulled up to the lonesome house, not even bothering to see if anyone else was around the property. The two cops on patrol that day were very aware of the Bindweed family, their father causing more than enough scuffles in the town bar to warrant his own corner in the stations holding cell. They expected the father to be out on his ass drunk watching something on T.V. An easy arrest. However, by the time the officer had arrived, the school was already let out. That meant Tyler should have been home. His father was not one to miss out on time spent with his favorite punching bag, so he knew something was up. The sound of car tires pulling up on the dirt road was all he needed to get out his shotgun.
The police sauntered up the dilapidated porch, not prepared for the double-barreled welcome waiting for them. They were chuckling to themselves, taking guesses at what slurred excuse the father would have for them this day. It was their own snickering that covered up the sound of two shells being loaded into the father’s break action. The senior officer’s knock was the opening sting to the orchestra of buckshot being fired through the door and into the policeman. His partner deafened and stunned at the sight of his mentor being torn apart like apple mash. He stumbled out of the way of the second spread of red hot pellets. The father’s aim, unlike his paranoia or rage, was not helped with whiskey. Neither was his footing, as the father tripped over himself trying to swing his spent weapon at the remaining officer. The opening let the remaining officer take out his revolver and fire right into the father’s chest, followed by three more as the rabid drunk’s body dropped to the ground. As the downed man’s blood seeped into the rotting poach wood, he reeled thinking he had ended the evil of the damned home.
A returning matriarch would cut short any chance of closure. She was right outside, returning from yet another failed conversion session when her new reality soon hit her. Instead of the usual treat of another bill taped to the front of the home, what was there was her deadbeat husband truly dead and beaten. One in the shoes of a long-abused wife might find this sight horrifying yet relieving to a certain extent. Yet this woman had one thing she hated more than her drunk and now dead husband: Police. Men and women acting as the arms of a long and corrupt creature of sin. Just the mere sighting of one meant that more godless creatures would come into her home. It would be like a plague. One that could have only been brought on by a wicked curse. One that was created inside of her. One who too conveniently did not seem to be there at the house at the very moment.
If the policeman thought to see his partner get shot was the low point of the day, I’m sure having his cruiser jacked by a screaming lunatic of a woman was at least the strangest one.
The mother peeled away from the house, determined to rid the world of her own perceived demon. Meanwhile, the secretary leaving Tyler’s school was probably just determined to call a plumber to finally fix that leaky pipe under her sink. It would be the secretary leaking out on the pavement after the mother arrived and plunged her dagger deep into her chest. That sacred dagger mimicking the spearhead that stabbed Jesus finding its way into the chest of a secretary called Mary. What was once a powerful example for the mother to pull out and show others the personal sacrifice Jesus had made for humanity, now a great image of irony.
Those teachers witnessing said stabbing probably didn’t have the clairvoyance to appreciate the coincidence however. The mother hadn’t any mind for it either as she broke through the front door of the office. Her eyes snapped toward and her feet stomped right over to her terrified little hellspawn. Tyler was in the back of the room, chair facing what was sure to be his death. But as the mother made her charge toward Tyler, the football coach of the school had come up from behind and tackled her to the ground. Soon everyone rushed to dogpile on the crazy mother who was now screaming and flailing around, all the while in a locked stare down with her boy. Her bloodstained face and howls forever etching themselves in the heart of Tyler.
Was it any wonder why then after all of the death and screaming and demon-labeling that the kid didn’t turn out to be quite the talkative type? Tyler became a practical mute after the incident, the entire country soon being made aware of this crazy family. The people ate it up. The perfect American town turned upside down. Nothing gets the masses more wound up from the comfort of their couches and air conditioning. Tyler, on the other hand, was being passed around from psych office to psych office, any therapist worth his salt wanting the fame of helping the most troubled boy in all of America. But Tyler was a clam, not even offering so much as a crayon drawing to show the things he was put through. The world asking for your story when all you want to do is to try and process it all is a tough thing. Eventually he was shipped off to some orphanage on the other side of the state. Some people realized all the microphones and cameras might hurt the poor boy’s mind. But trying to save it was a lost cause.
Tyler was once again thrust into a horror house with strangers that should have been caring for him but instead were just causing him pain. So, he decided to fall back on what his dad had taught him best to do. Run. Run and hide. In the dead of night, he escaped the orphanage and just ran with some granola bars and water bottles all to his name, carrying in the same backpack he had when his mother tried to kill him. The next morning, of course, there was another roundabout the news circuit on the disappearance of America’s favorite trauma boy. There were search parties sent around the area, though the local police were well and truly tired of this whole Tyler fiasco. Still, they tried with some measurable amount of effort to find him but to no avail. But it was because he was not in the town dumpster or lost in the woods huddled in a cave somewhere as everyone presumed. Tyler was in a long thought abandoned house full of local drug addicts and dealers.
The ’70s were a great time to deal heroin. It was as popular M*A*S*H. Even with the colorful characters drugs usually tend to attract, it can be said with certainty that the people dealing heroin did not expect a 10-year-old boy to show up on their doorstep. Tyler had only come there because it was the only place the caretakers at the orphanage told him not to go. Installing the fear of a creepy and decrepit house would have probably worked on any other child. Home didn’t carry the friendly and inviting connotation in Tyler’s mind so busted out windows and dangerous people were just par for the course. He knew it’d be the last place anyone would look for him so it was a fantasy land in his eyes. All he had to offer, however, was his hands for work and some of his stolen granola bars. Thankfully the happy heroin dealers took him, mostly because they were high at the time and thought it would be cool to have a “celebrity” in their dilapidated home.
So for the next five years, Tyler’s life was that old home. He started out as just a lookout for the dealers. He was still a mute at this point, so he carried around an old cowbell as an alarm. That soon became his calling card among the dredges of the town, calling Tyler the name Bell instead of his own. He didn’t mind of course. If anything it was another thing that put him away from his past. He would be Bell and that would be it. No more questions. No more demands. No more family ties besides the nightmares in his head.
But he would see a whole lot of other family troubles. In the ever disintegrating shack he now called home, the dealers would bring in buyers to “sample” products. These interested investors ranged all over the moral spectrum. Some defunct workers from local coal unions faced the hardest of hard times while others were widowed wives seeking an escape from all of life’s troubles. And some were just completely corrupted shitbags you could not believe were once human.
It’s why Tyler would never touch the product. Despite the near-constant egging on from his dealer counterparts, Tyler would simply shake his head at any pass of the needle. Same thing for liquor or marijuana. His dad would say he drank to change, to get rid of all the pain in his life. Tyler had seen that experiment fail in front of his eyes. He figured people were just meant to carry heavyweights in their hearts. Just like himself, everyone in the house had already given up and was beyond redemption in their own eyes.
But one always stood out to Tyler: An older girl in her 20’s, who was simply called Tink. That’s because whenever she was high any can or light metal object would be subject to her finger pecking. That sound was the only thing she would make when she was strung out. Soon one day when Tyler was just hanging around, Tink got a good look at his bell and fell in love. At least when she was strung out. And Tyler didn’t mind because Tink, even whacked out of her mind, was easy on his eyes. Plus she never asked questions unlike everyone else. It was just about the only relationship Tyler could ever think of having long since given up facing the general public. He didn’t care if she was a prostitute or higher than a weather balloon. It was nice for the two months they knew each other… until it wasn’t.
One day Tink entered the home crying. She fell into the arms of Tyler, going on and on about how her most profitable client had given up on her: That client being a hot-shot mayor of the county and a soon-to-be candidate for Kentucky governorship. A younger man who was quickly climbing the political ladder, was using Tink as a human stress ball, giving her most of the money she would spend on heroin. However as the races finally started to heat up, he decided it best to leave his golden girl. It was a loose end he could not afford in his mind. This left Tink devastated. Once feeling like a princess picked out of poverty was now thrown back into the common, plebeian gutter. Cut off from her source of happiness. This tragedy, of course, all took place on top of a 20-year old mattress, covered in more human fluids and sadness than a handkerchief in the pocket of the world’s busiest funeral director.
But her bawling would stop when one the dealers found out she still had enough money for another shot of her medicine. After the initial high, she was soon in a familiar stupor. The other dealers told Tyler if she couldn’t pay for another round to just dump her somewhere. Before they left, however, Tink looked deeply into Tyler’s eyes and asked him to get more money for her; the man who wronged her would be at a nearby trailer home visiting his grandmother before going off on the campaign trail. And, if nothing else, maybe just a few more minutes with his Bell. Tyler simply looked down at her completely glazed face, planted a kiss on her lips, and left his cowbell at her side. He then stepped out of the home with only an aluminum baseball bat.
Tyler walked seven miles needed to reach the trailer home’s location. For the entire walk, Tyler seemed to be in a trance. The way he dragged the bat behind him left a clear trail in the dry dirt road for anyone to follow. But no one was around on this road. It seemed to be clear for this day’s walking manifestation of rage and revenge.
Eventually, Tyler reached the park that seemed to match Tink’s vague description. He moved through the seemingly abandoned park till he reached the mobile home farthest out from everyone else’s. There in the front was a campaign lawn sign of the offending politician. Tyler studied the grinning face on it for a while until his focus was drawn to the mobile home door. There was a sweet-looking old lady who smiled down at the disheveled Tyler. She was none the wiser to Tyler’s murderous intent. Hard to be observant when you’re partially blind. Instead, she started to talk about how the politician was her grandson and that she was so proud of his progress in the polls. Proud grandma jabber. She would have talked Tyler’s ear off for the next hour about the politician’s plan to reform schools, a crackdown on drug users, and the promise to return the state to the center of the American spirit if Tyler hadn’t cracked her head wide open.
Now while he was by no means a tactician of a superior strategic mind, Tyler had seen enough sketchy drug deals go down to know the meaning of the word bait outside of a fishing context. Not taking mind of the blood trail, he dragged sweet nana’s corpse back into the trailer home and waited for his real target.
Through the window blinds after an hour’s worth of waiting, he saw a truck seemingly ready to rally a march onto Washington pulled up to the mobile home. It was covered with campaign stickers and posters, all containing the blinding grin of the politician Tyler was set to kill. Soon the man himself stepped out of the truck in boots too nice to have ever been worked in, wearing a button shirt that was exactly the kind Nashville country would eventually kill. All topped off with a grin more plastic than the buttons pinned to his chest. It Seemed Tyler guessed right on what a politician would look like.
This politician in question slowly strode up to the home, calling out for his grammy when he was only a few steps away from the door. He had gone there alone, wanting some quality time with her after being gone for so long at the state capital. He wanted to pay respects to the woman who raised him when his own parents couldn’t. When the vacant rocking chair on the small porch finally caught his eye, something deep inside started to sense the off nature of the situation. When he neared the front of the home, the blood trail leading to the door sent him into an immediate panic. Reason would dictate that the last thing one should do is follow a blood trail into a confined space but family wasn’t a rational matter for this all too honest man of the people. He quickly rushed to the door, arm stretched out and reaching to fling the door open. Before he could see any more of his grandma’s spilled blood, he was subject to the spilling of his own.
Tyler barged through the trailer door, completely catching the politician off balance. He fell to the ground with a dirty thunk, catching a momentary glimpse of Tyler’s face before his eyes were thunked into the back of his skull. It was a gruesome scene, involving enough bat swings to kill a bison let alone a pencil-necked politician. But Tyler would not let up, keeping up the pounding to the face, body, and eventually the truck of the now firmly deceased campaign runner. It was just a whirlwind of rage finally coming out of Tyler. He released every ounce of hatred he had for his father, mother, therapists, dealer bosses, and the entire world all at that moment. His guttural scream was the first thing he vocalized ever since being damned by his mother so long ago in that school. It was one based on the feeling of anger and then release. Release of all that controlled him. For so long he had felt tied to the sins of his family: Always being told what to do by his father, what to believe by his mother, how to feel by the therapists, how to live by the dealers. Him taking that bat to the temples of that old shitbag politician was just about the most freeing thing Tyler could have ever felt. Because it was he who was spilling the blood now. He who was giving out pain. He who was doing things for the one he cared about.
As all of this was finally channeled out, Tyler caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection of the shiny truck door he was smashing. He saw a glimpse of what had become of his face. He rushed to one of the side mirrors to get a clear picture. It was sunken in like he was an understuffed teddy bear. He had a scraggly beard that demanded to be shaved. His eyes as red as the blood splattered across his face. It was the epitome of a nightmare state of being. But Tyler didn’t feel shame at all for his look. One sentence slipped through his dry and cracked lips.
“No one will recognize me…”
With that, he stopped his assault on the truck, looked back down at his previous handy work, and walked off into the open road. Some say he was never caught and just kept walking until he dropped from dehydration. Others claim they saw him as an aimless drifter, still carrying that bat of his. The police claim they shot him down while he was trying to rob a convenience store. Any of these tales simply aren’t worth noting down in detail. It changes nothing of what Tyler did. None add clarification to the meaning of all this unholiness. And it’s not like it should. Not in my eyes at the very least
8 Hours Until Paradise
The little scrap adorned with a pixel of some fruits felt heavy in my mouth. Not bitter. Rebecca across the hall said something about it being bitter. I don’t remember if it’s a good or bad thing. The paper sat for a second on my tongue, a little dry and unusual, but was gone by the time I reached the kitchen.
In my twenties, the idea of me taking drugs was unseemly. I was a stand up member of society. Not one who would win a Nobel Prize any day or would make a high school history book, but an accountant. I took part in living the way one should live. I worked odd labor jobs until school. That was interrupted, but a girl’s dad gave me a chance. Her hair bounced and twinkled like a dancer in the spotlight. My hair was stick straight, thin, and destined to fall out in twenty years; I do not know what she saw. Colette waltzed up to me one day, many many years ago, as I looked at the flowers in a florist’s shop and stated, “Buy me one and I’ll go to lunch with you.” I didn’t even notice her before her sore interruption. But a smile drifted up my face, warming my cheeks with a soft rosy glow of love. I nodded silently and she followed behind me as I brought a pink carnation to the counter. We went to a nice diner a door down. She got tea and pancakes for us to split. And that was that. Sometimes I wish we never split those damned pancakes. I cannot bring myself to eat pancakes anymore, nor many other things. I find myself to be tired, emotionally and physically, of living. Sometimes I wonder if that is how she felt. I wonder if she truly found that peace she seemed to be searching for.
We had two kids, Maryanne and Addison, or Addie, as she used to demand to be called. Addison was too formal for my lil’ drama queen. But now she is thirty-six and has her own kid with a lawyer a few hours south. Maryanne and I have not spoken since Thanksgiving three years ago. Colette had passed a week before.
Colette needed me. I needed her. She was my everything from the moment I met her. I didn’t know what to do when she decided she wanted to leave this world. I do not know what made her so tired or what made her feel so fragile. Until the day she left, I never felt old. We may have been far past our biological prime, but we still had so much time left and so many memories. She left our grandkids and our daughters and somehow they are mad at me. Maryanne swore I should’ve always seen she needed help, that this would happen. That her poor mood and bleak behavior were a warning sign.
I could always eventually cheer her up. It may have taken a few days or longer sometimes, but I couldn’t this time. I didn’t. I don’t know if I tried hard enough. I was fed up with her sitting stale with buzzing flickers of some neon people on the TV casting shadows on her face. She stole all the blankets and plates would pile up. I loved her. I did. But the one time I should’ve been there more than anything, I decided to not take her seriously. I was mad that she was seeing the world through this myopic lens of negativity.
Why did I do this? I kept asking myself. My youth was over. It isn’t my turn to be rowdy or wild anymore. Plus, that never was never really me. Colette and I met in California in the early seventies, if that answers any questions about her. She needed a ride back home after heading a few states away for band. When a girl like that leans over the hood of your car at a gas station? You say yes. While I drove, she wrote a bucket list in this notebook she had. Swearing, we were karmic and destined to finish them all. That we would and under no circumstance would there be a box left unchecked. We were kids, so most were silly looking back on it, but sweet. I hate myself for arguing some were unrealistic. She eventually scribbled those off the page and I’d give anything to see what was under those angry lines. I don’t remember too many of those anymore. But we went to the Grand Canyon and the Atlantic Ocean. We hitchhiked and partied together. We took our kids to Disney Land. We got married on the beach. We painted our kitchen cabinets yellow. The only thing I could buy to answer my question was Colette’s face. I promised her so much. The very least I could do in the last months or weeks or even days I have left is to keep a promise or two. I crumbled the soft, aged paper of the forty-year-old dinner napkin I had in my hands without even glancing at the notes on there. It felt like a tumor, the way it rested against my thigh, an infection stuck in my pocket.
I glanced towards the scattered papers, MRI scans, receipts, and bills on my coffee table. They are all stained from Sunday. I spilled my mug. It has gotten heavy nowadays. The mug is still tipped over. I couldn’t bring myself to clean it up. I cannot bring myself to do much anymore. The walls are all tan now; it’s a decent color, yet, not the best. Addison and Maryanne painted the whole place for us a while back as a gift. The floor squeaks as I shift my weight to grab the latest file. I stare at the black, oozing rot on the paper. I let myself go after Colette. She would be proud, though. I’m finally doing a few things I had promised her when we were young, with hearts as empty to the world as a new journal to a poet.
These last few years, since the passing of my dearest Colette, the world feels heavy. Much like she used to describe the few months before her accident. I feel the oxygen in the air sticking to me like flies stick to a horse. And the trees have lost their green even though it’s July. There is a puddle outside of our apartment complex that won’t dry up. And I can never bring myself to turn the lights on in my apartment. I guess at my age, I should expect myself to be this tired.
What is that?
What is that sound?
“Mary Anne! Stop slamming your door!”
Please go away.
Mary Anne isn’t here and the knocking likely isn’t and that shadow that has been staring at me for the last ten minutes isn’t real either, nor the wave of the walls nor the buzzing. The buzzing is not real. The buzzing is not real. The buzzing is not real the buzzing is not real the buzzing is no-
“Mr. Regdell! How are you hangin’?”
It is Rebecca. Rebecca Young. It is Rebecca from across the hall. Slowly, I rise from my chair and the world shifts from under me. I can feel the sun rising in Australia.
The door handle slips out of my hand. It resembled a mass of that playing dough the girls used to have. God if only I could figure out how to open this god damn-
“Isn’t your key under the mat? I’ve been watching the door handle bobble for like five minutes man, can I just let myself in?”
I try to orchestrate my brain to work in conjunction with my mouth but before I can agree, she is on my couch with my key in her hand.
Rebecca has eyes much like Colette. They remind me of the pools of honey she would leave on the counter after making tea. Rebecca acts like Mary Anne, but I am yet to be on her bad side. They both happen to be stubborn, loud, and abrasive. In Rebecca’s case, what else comes with youth besides just that. I met Rebecca a long time ago when she was around twelve. Her and her mother moved across the street and after Colette and I experienced months of the mother’s screaming, we invited the girl over for dinner and she soon became a fixture in our home. I remember her playing with Addie’s old Barbies that just sat in a box in her closet after she moved away to that university in Pennsylvania.
She used to sit in the kitchen at the round table that used to be in the corner of the kitchen, near the windows, with them all set up in their plastic shoes and nylon skirts. The dolls would argue about each other’s boyfriends or friend drama. Colette would sit with her, silently stitching a new coat out of some scraps of fabric she found in the closet. As Rebecca got older, the barbies were passed to the vintage toy shop down the street to pay for a new chair in the living room, this gaudy velvet green piece, and her entertainment became boys, friends, and some activities I cannot approve of. But I loved her like a daughter.
Rebecca was a good kid. The only one who came around anymore after Colette. I was bored. I was alone. And she took care of me like I used to take care of her.
She’s the only one I told.
The couch feels like marshmallows and Addie’s old bunny named Bonnet.
Everytime I look at the ceiling, I swear it is dripping onto me. I can see it. I swear it is.
“Mr. Regdell, how are you doing?” she interrupted while I slipped in between the cushions into a far memory of mine.
I watched Colette from the door as she sat at the piano in the office, playing some beautiful, improvised melody. The light from the window, even though it faced a brick wall, fell on her profile and graying hair, making her glow. My god, she was iridescent. I could never look away. She was beautiful. Not just looks, even though she was, in her youth and still is, a stunner, but in who she was.
“What do you think,” she chirped from slouched over the piano keys.
“Wonderful,” were the only words that came to my lips. Maybe I was describing the music, maybe her, I still don’t know.
“Not yet,” she stated. Even as we aged, her passion never did. It remained as green as Persephone. That’s who Colette was. Passionate. While she never liked living much, she was thrilled with everything life had to offer: music, art, theatre. Colette was everything I was not. Back in ’67, as soon as I saw her, I knew I wanted to spend every single moment I had left laughing with her, crying with her, protecting her, and with her.
But now I have more moments left, not many, but some, and she robbed me from spending those with her.
I can’t be angry at her. I knew she struggled. I knew she could feel her want to be here slipping away, and to be honest, I saw it too. Her eyes went from the color of a sun’s kiss to dull, uninterested, uninvested. I should’ve said something. I promised. I promised to be there and I did nothing. I didn’t think she would.
I knew what would happen but I hoped she wouldn’t be as selfish as she was.
She wasn’t selfish, I regret saying that. She was just tired. So tired. So so tired. I’m so tired. I’m exhausted.
The couch spits me back out and I’m thrown back into an orange room with blinding yellow lights that buzz constantly. I can feel their hazey, sickly glow around me, sticking to the walls like a disease. I hate this room. I repainted it to get rid of the mural Colette had painted who knows how many years ago and now it reminds me of her even more.
I’m heavy with the weight of missing you, Colette. I- I can’t do this anymore but, but it isn’t much longer. There aren’t many days left. Those papers on the table say so. Maybe only a week, a month at most and I- I can’t wait. It went dark without you Colette and it wouldn’t stop raining. It rained and it rained and it rained every day without you. I know you would criticize me for the way I live. Without want, without love, without hope, but I can’t see anything past the day Mary Anne and I found you. I thought I had done enough for you and the girls. I thought I had shown you that the day I met you I found paradise. I thought you were happy with the world we had created, but no, I was never enough. I tried so hard and you didn't care. I was somehow too much when all I did was show you that I loved you. But I guess I was never what you wanted.
I was never what you wanted, was I?
“Huh?” Rebecca asked. I still don’t think my mind and mouth are working together yet. My tongue feels heavy. Maybe it will swell and strangle me.
Rebecca had left for her boyfriend’s. And I sat. Sitting in this apartment alone, I felt her heavy on me, like a blanket suffocating my heart. It has been near fifteen years without her here but I still see her in the orange wallpaper in the kitchen with her bay window. She thought in colors and intangible ideas.
I sat staring at some picture Mary Anne had painted for me back when she was in art school. She had her mother’s talent. Addie had her mother’s temper. And they were both the best daughter’s I could have wished for. I just wish I was there more often for them or had corrected my mistakes earlier. Addie doesn’t see me much now. Mary Anne won’t see me.
I sat staring at the picture. The strokes of Mary Anne’s brush shifted and turned as I studied this painting for the first time. I was never the parent they needed. I was obsessed with providing for them and never thought about being there for them. I missed every first step, first word, first game, first dance performance. I didn’t just miss the firsts. I missed it all. I don’t know if I even spoke to my girls until around their sixth birthday. The paint shifted around my head, taunting me, mocking me for my failures. I’m sorry girls.
The walls began to breathe in rhythm with my aching heart.
The floor felt like sand and my body like gelatin.
I inched my way down the hallway, past the office with the piano, past Addie and Mary Anne’s old rooms into mine. I stood staring at what my life had been boiled down to. Piles of papers, medical documents, and Colette’s old things. The box her wedding dress is in peaked out from under my bed and all of a sudden, Colette and I are dancing. Her blonde hair was curled perfectly behind her ears and her blue earrings sang as they knocked against the clips in her hair. I melted into her eyes and then onto the bed.
The papers on my bed swallowed me. Medical bills and treatment plans raced in front of my eyes as I could feel the bug in my brain pulsing as it ate me alive. I should’ve told the girls about the tumor.
The aged napkin fell out of my pocket and I stared at the empty boxes written in pink ink. Our bucket list. Unfolding the napkin, I stared at her handwriting. Colette wrote in the most wonderful cursive.
I promised her to go to the Grand Canyon. I promised her we would go horseback riding. I promised her that we would have a dog, a Cocker Spaniel. I promised we would attend a Fleetwood Mac concert and I promised her I’d finally agree to do LSD with her there. I also promised a son and a Porsche 917.
She was wild. I was not. She lived and I didn’t. I only survived.
We used to go on picnics where I’d watch her string dandelions together into a crown for the little girl we saw on the swings. She would tell me about her old boyfriend and the protests they would go to. Or about the time she got arrested in Portland. She told me all these wonderful stories, but at the time they scared me. She scared me, but in the best way.
I was a coward. I was afraid. I was afraid to commit to my responsibilities. I was afraid to show how much I cared. I didn’t show her or the girls. I thought I did by providing for them and bringing the food home to put on the table but I never provided my love.
I cheated Colette. She deserved a life where she could fulfill her wishes. She deserved someone to keep their promises. So here we are. I am staring at these words we wrote, hoping to find some remainder of her in my heart but I- I can’t remember what paradise felt like. The tears pooling in my eyes were oceans swallowing me, drowning me as they fell down my face.
The walls breathed in synchrony with me and there I was, in the dark, swimming in my papers, tears, bills, and reminders of my dear Colette. I waded in the papers, trying to keep my neck above, trying not to be pulled under. I was Alice and she was my cake that seemingly was the cure but left me with a void too big. The papers lapped at my feet and arms, joking together about what fate I should meet. Their fluttering and crinkles mimicked laughter in my ears. I search for a light, I search for some place to rest, but I’ve been swimming for years at this point and I’ve grown tired.
What awaits me?
What will greet me?
Will I be met by the warm embrace of Colette or her stern stare or by an empty nothingness? Will the rot in my brain overcome me and leave me to the rats in the walls? Could I be found weeks after the day I journey off to find Colette? At my funeral, I am afraid I will have little to no attendees. I won't receive flowers on my grave on the anniversary but I guess it is karma. I was too mad at her for too long. Am I to only be dust and grass fertilizer? Am I destined to live through all this sorrow, heart ache, and isolation to only be alone yet again?
My thoughts, memories, and the papers cut deep into my skin as I attempted to sleep, but I laid there, curled up, sobbing.
Suddenly, the color returns to the walls and I can see her dress draped over the rocking chair and Addie’s old sneakers in the closet. I soon feel the sticky glaze of the yellow lights and find myself clutching our list.
I need to sleep. I can’t sleep despite how tired I am. Every time I close my eyes, I can see the veins in my eyelids pulsing against my corneas like the red river Addie told me about from Bible school. I am so tired. Am I always this tired? Have I always been this tired?
I know all that holds me is a thin, knit blanket but I swear I can feel the weight of her with me, on me. I miss her.
I stare at the little piece of paper and throw it in the trash. I kept one promise. I loved her. I loved her as best I could. Damn did she tire me out, but I was never too tired. I do not believe that I can be faulted for loving too much. I turn to my side and close my eyes. Still, memories suffocate me. Maybe I am forever uneasy; possibly, I must pay penance of sorts. That thought brings me some peace. I can see myself resting soon. The walls have quieted down and I no longer am stuck within them and the photographs they wear. Though, I do hear Rebecca and her boyfriend fighting as he walks her up the stairs. It is faint like thoughts of Colette, at least for now. I wrap the knit blanket tighter, hoping to feel the shape of her again. Instead, I feel the presence of sleep. It creeps along through my toes and up to my eyes, and finally, I can rest.
The Banks of the Great River
If the world we live in is a gateway to the beyond, and if all religions, past and present, are correct, we are in for a wondrous time indeed.
The cattails and reeds of the marsh by the Great River tickled my thighs as I scanned the muddy shores for bodies. The damned ferrymen never checked when people fell—or got tossed—overboard, leaving the bloated corpses for me to dredge up. Respect for the deceased seemed to be for the living.
Which made sense to me, really, being dead myself.
It's actually a pretty good afterlife. The banks defined peace, with an air of cool mint and warmth of Ra. Or Apollo, I suppose, depending on who you asked--or rather, when you asked.
I would have been content to linger here among the lightly lapping shore, but apparently loitering had become sinful at some point. Squinting against the sun, I scanned the riverbank, feigning interest in my immortal task.
A bright red power tie clashing against the soft brown and green tones of the marsh grasses caught my eye. Another of the ferrymen’s droppings. This one seemed to be a businessman in a fine-tailored suit: water-logged Italian if I wasn’t mistaken. That could be the suit or the person, and I made a silent bet with myself as to which it was.
Back to work. A smoke-filled sigh escaped through the part in my lips where a lit cigarette dangled. There never was a moment for deep contemplation or prayer when you were one of the lesser gods, if I could call myself one. I liked to think of myself that way, in any case. The Angel of Death! I was more a glorified janitor, really, than the fearful myth the people conjured in my image. And that image had suffered so much ever since I lost my flaming sword in a poker game with Brahma, the cheat.
Never play cards with a god that has four heads, that's what I say.
The crumpled gray suit in the reeds had seen better days. The man, as well. His stomach strained against an algae-covered dress shirt causing a broad tie with spots of black mold to list to one side. He looked like a bloated sack of old potatoes sprawled, spread-eagled, with one shoe balanced precariously on his big toe that bobbed in time with the waves. A scraggly mess of hair plugs, weeds, and muck had piled on his head and draped over his shoulders. The pockets were empty. Nice wristwatch, though.
Blowing out a long puff of tobacco smoke, I propped the man up on a nearby boulder and salvaged his shoe from the river before it floated downstream.
The man didn’t look so bad; maybe this one would pass for judgment. If not, I could probably slip him under the constant bickering of the gatekeepers--though the bureaucrat, Rhadamanthys, usually cast most of the refuse I dug up into the recycling center with a wave of his ledger and not much coin lining my pocket. One could assume that, from the general filth and pungent stench that permeated the corpses I found, most didn’t make it into the afterlife. That assumption would be mostly true.
Time to see if this soul was worth his weight. The easiest part of my job was the resurrections. It was surprising more people on Earth didn't figure it out, truth be told. Heck, a carpenter managed to do it on himself eons ago without any special training.
It was simply a matter of knowing about the ‘reset’ button that reanimated the body. This one would only need his sloppy vessel to get to the gates. After that, the matter was out of my hands. I shook the man’s shoulder as if rousing him from a deep sleep.
The man’s head lolled back as though on a well-oiled hinge.
Some people needed a jolt. I curled my hands around his neck, feeling for the small lump at the back of his head where the spine met the base of the skull. The Soulspot. My fingers buzzed with a charge, courtesy of Zeus--or Jupiter, depending on whom or when you asked.
I jammed my finger onto his Soulspot. A tiny snap of electrostatic singed hair, and I wrinkled my nose at the sharp smell.
With a gasp, the man twisted from my grip as he contorted and writhed. He rolled over and vomited a steady stream of black bile onto the riverbank, eyes churning from cloudy to nut-brown with each heave. He sat up, swiveling his head in every direction at once.
When I had first taken the mantle of Death, this part had been fun. I used to delight in frightening the newly deceased, complete with a big old skull mask and rusty scythe (it had been better with a sword on fire, truth be told). But that novelty had worn away with routine. Now I dreaded each awakening, sometimes wishing the Big Guy had put in a system to keep souls from losing their memories of this place after each reincarnation. It occasionally came up in council meetings, but his answer was always infuriating: “It’s all part of my plan.” It’d be nice if he let us know exactly what that was.
The man wobbled as he stood and bellowed, “Where am I? Where—what is… Goddamnit! Who the fuck stole my watch?”
It was good to let them blow off some steam first. I had tried to subdue the first hundred newly resurrected, and usually, we had fallen into the Great River and carried downstream. The gatekeepers, particularly Kepha, didn’t take too kindly to an unruly deceased and a janitor exchanging blows near the doorways to paradise. I had gotten an earful from the Anubis each time as well—and he was the rudest, most foul-mouthed god of all. Probably because he was so short.
The man continued to lash out, screaming at nobody in particular, until he collapsed into a wet, blubbering mess, wiping at his eyes. After he had said his Hail Mary’s and prayers to God, he looked up, as though expecting me to fill in the blanks in his memory. I extended my hand and took inventory of his life through our touch as I pulled him to his feet.
“My name is Jack Corvid,” I said with a casual smile.
The man nodded solemnly.
“You had a heart attack on East Main Street and passed away on your way to the hospital. This is the land of the dead.” Keep it simple, for they were simple people.
The man searched his pockets. The dead always seemed to do that first. Maybe they were trying to find themselves in the soggy lint that lined them. One time a man did manage to bring over a Swiss-army knife--I never knew the corkscrew could be a deadly weapon until he had taken a chunk out of me with it.
“I’m S… Samuel,” he stammered. “Gimme your damn phone. I need to call the hospital and my wife and…” His hands dipped into his pockets again, eyes fluttering, perhaps trying to choke back tears, even though that wouldn’t have made a difference either way since he was already sopping wet.
“Yes, I know. Samuel Johnson, the last name you owned.” I dragged on my cigarette and blew a cloud into his face, hoping it would add a dramatic effect to my words.
“What you had in life and what you accomplished doesn’t have any bearing in this world. What matters to us are the connections to others you’ve made, and what you’ve learned spiritually. Judging by your tailored suit, I would imagine you’ve made several great connections. I hope they were genuine. But I am not here to judge your transgressions. Only the gatekeepers can see your truth when they weigh your heart.”
Samuel’s eyes widened.
“Relax, Sam. Can I call you Sam? That’s just an expression. We’re not actually going to rip your heart out and put it on a scale. I mean, Anubis used to, but that was centuries ago. He’s not allowed to do that anymore--it traumatizes the dead.” Although it was pretty funny.
“Are… are you Death?”
“In the flesh... as it were. It’s just a job, Sam. No hard feelings.”
“A job?” Sam smoothed his lapels, water sloughed to the reeds.
“More like cleanup. Don’t worry. You don’t need to know the details unless you’re given work. Maybe you’ll take my job, and they’ll finally let me cross over.” I laughed into the breeze. That didn’t even happen when I dredged up a cannibal. It’s hard for the gods to recommend reincarnation for me when I have no soul to speak of. Well, not anymore. Just an empty vessel. "Unlikely, however, considering ‘Sam’ is your four-thousand, three-hundred and twelfth name. You seem to be going for the record. Some important lesson you haven’t learned yet?”
“Going for a record…” Sam repeated. “The record for what?”
“Reincarnation, of course. Your first name is Salim, and you were first born of thirteen, in the Kashaf Ud Basin in what you would know as Iran. Your current name is Samuel Johnson, third born of four, in the Houston area of the United States. Welcome back.”
Sam spluttered, denying my words, the reality around him, and eventually, his own existence. That would have pissed off a creator if they were in earshot. Shiva would have turned him to dust on sight. Yahweh, being only a creator, would have settled for something more vengeful and vindictive, or even, dare I say, creative. His revenge strategies made for great small talk at company get-togethers. Like when He gave platypuses venomous spikes on their feet to spite a group of tourists to Australia in the seventies. Yahweh had incredible foresight—though He mostly used it for pranks. His face on a bit of burnt toast, for example.
I followed the flow of the river as I tramped through the tall grasses—Sam followed close behind.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Where you need to go."
“Is this heaven?” Sam asked, his voice on the verge of cracking.
He certainly had low expectations. “We’re trudging through a stinking marsh and you’re wearing sloppy, soaked clothes. Is this your idea of paradise?”
“No, but I thought—”
"Fluffy clouds and angel choirs? Trust me, you don’t want a job in the choir. Unless you like long work hours and a sore throat.
“We’re going to the gatekeepers, who will judge you and proclaim your next destination. Probably another round of reincarnation, from the looks of it.” He hadn't been very exemplary while alive. I had done a quick check of his naughty-nice tally, part of his 'life file,' when we touched. It didn’t quite dip low enough to send him to the underworld, but it wasn’t anywhere near paradise levels.
“The… what? Gatekeepers? To judge me? What should I do?”
“Just be polite. Anything you could do to impress Anubis and Kepha has already passed. That was a pun, Sam. You need to laugh more.” I offered a grin.
Sam gripped his tie with the force of a thousand raging demons. “So… the land of the dead, then?”
The dead were always excessively slow to catch on. “Just follow me–oh, god damn it.”
He had paused to regard the water, though what he expected to find in its murky depths was beyond my own reasoning and ability to read his soul. Something about the river always fascinated the recently deceased, though I hoped he would snap out of his trance before I would be forced to drag him away from the shore.
“Have I been ferried across?”
“No. You fell off the boat. You're flotsam, Sam.” The dead always had a million damned questions. They never could accept what they saw with their own eyes—though that attitude was probably vestiges from their time on Earth. Blind faith went both ways.
I quickened my pace, and as luck would have it, he followed. The sooner I was rid of this one the sooner I could get back to ‘work’--smoking and picking up moldy wallets or shoes that had fallen off the boats. At least that was peaceful.
"Is this the River Styx?"
Sometimes it seemed the dead ran their mouths more than the living. Styx indeed. “I wish this was the River Styx. Good benefits. Cool cave, nice breeze, and no marsh grasses. There are several rivers—Phlegethon, Lethe, Acheron, Cocytus… each with their own ferrymen. You've landed in the Ganges.”
“I’ve never been to India, sir.”
Was that a joke? His sheepish smile told me it might have been, so I looked at him sidelong and gifted him a polite laugh. "‘Sir’ is a bit formal. Jack’s fine.”
He snapped off the end of a cattail and twirled it nervously in his fingers, shredding it to fluff as he walked and getting it all over his suit. "Have I chosen right?"
He meant religion. Here we go again. I bit down on my lip to stop a hailstorm of snark. "Faith isn't about being right or wrong."
"Sure, but... there is an answer. I followed the one true religion." Cattail seeds covered the front of his jacket as he tore the head to pieces. "I'm a Christian. A damned Christian, Jack!."
Damned indeed. "And you spent most of your time in a secular world. Once a year for Christmas isn't faith, Sam, it's insurance."
"But I went. And I prayed."
My eyes rolled before I could stop them. "Mostly for yourself, right?" Sam seemed to have been stuck somewhere between faithful and faithless, a spongy state still undefined because "faithmoderate" didn't quite roll off the tongue.
"But I'm no atheist."
"Their faith in the belief they don't have faith is stronger than you think."
"Yet their assuredness would have kept them from falling off the boat."
Sam's mouth twitched in anger. "What about cults? Surely--"
"Even some cultists have a form of faithfulness. If they wanted to believe in a flying spaghetti god, one of our own would eventually lay claim to having been that being. Or several would, and we would have an insurrection, which generally ended up with several gods sharing the role on certain days of the week."
He furrowed his brows, likely upset that we would give cults any credit at all. "That's ridiculous. Just what kind of man do you think I am? I'm not fucking dumb. False religions are--"
"Who are you to decide what's false or not? Look, it's not my job to debate religion with every vessel that comes to my shores." And it was infuriating--because it was all they ever babbled on about. Why couldn't an athlete who died making an amazing play wash up and brag about how great it felt to break his neck but win the game? That would make for a fun story to one-up someone with at a meeting. "Look around you, Sam. What do you think the gods want?"
"Loyalty. And I--"
"Faith, Sam. Just that. It doesn't matter what religion you signed up for, just that you believed in it, walked with it, and died with it. Life was for you to love. To make spiritual connections with others and live for your faith, whether you believed in any one god, a few of them, or none at all. And you were into spirituality for your own damned selfish reasons. You think any of the gods would have liked that?"
Tears wetting the corners of his eyes, he clamped his mouth shut--at last. Now maybe he would walk in silence.
After a few hours of trekking through the marsh, with Sam grunting after long introspective intervals but never quite forming thoughts into words, the docks before the cavern to the gates of the afterlife came into view over a dip in the path. A ferryman’s white paddle steamer had been secured to them with a thick barbed chain--Kharon's, from the look of the glistening red paddle off the backside. It contrasted badly with the rusty, moss-covered body of the rest of the skiff. He was probably inside the Cave of Judgement, trading bodies and banter with the gatekeepers—the worst brown-noser of all the ferrymen. Probably the only thing St. Peter and I had in common was our mutual distaste of Kharon and his personality that was best described as "loud."
Confronting the gatekeepers with Kharon flitting about their feet wasn’t going to score me any points with them. I had a few things to go over with Sam anyway, and with some luck, Kharon would be long gone by the time we entered the Cave.
Herding Sam under one of the docks where the water of the Ganges flowed to just a trickle, I halted our march by a rotten post and offered him a cigarette.
Sam stared at my offer, face contorting as though sorting through a logic puzzle that was missing half its pieces. "Sin stick?"
He declined anyway. His loss.
"I'm scared, Jack."
I smirked. Judging by his pulse and temperature, he was angry--not scared. Was he already using a narcissist's final ploy to tear at emotions to get his way? Sam hadn't learned anything during his time alive. Neither had Narcissus, either--and the mere thought of that old gazer made me queasy. "Are you truly scared, Sam? Or are you upset that you don't have control?"
With a volume rivaling Kharon's, his entire life story spilled out from his rotten mouth. Nothing he had done was his fault—something that wouldn’t sit well with the gatekeepers. The ‘path to the righteous’ was admitting your follies, or something. Though it wasn't my duty to be his confessional, I nevertheless snuck in suggestions of pious reflection, though each was met with a quick denial or excuse. The smell of death--a fruity stench of month-old raspberries, which is what you get when you let the god of wine, Bacchus, have a hand in creation at a drunken party--became more pungent the more he ran his mouth.
"You should tell your charge to save their breath in this place, Jack, or else you'll be dragging another empty vessel before the gatekeepers again." A heavy hand bore down on my shoulder and spun me around—Kharon. My skin crawled. The damned ferryman must have heard us from inside the Cave and come out to spread his greasy attitude all over my pep talk.
With a smile of muddy silk and a wreath of laurels that sat crooked on his head, covering his male-pattern baldness and bringing a sort of elegance to the wrinkled, reddish-brown tunic open to his naval, he cocked his shoulders back like he owned the Ganges and sauntered over to Sam. But not before squeezing my shoulder in a way to display his sculpted muscles.
“Wonderful! I see you’ve dug up my leftovers," he said, running a finger down Sam's cheek as he circled him like a wolf would a young shepherd. "What a fine bit of sacred refuse you have brought! I dare ask, Jack, if you think this man will put even a minuscule dent in your debt?”
God damn you, Kharon. “I don’t have a debt,” I lied.
Kharon faced Sam, licking his lips. “Tall and dark--if you didn’t have such a potbelly, you’d be Greek perfection, despite, or maybe because of, your sharp Roman nose.” He hung an arm around Sam’s shoulders. “Beautiful facial symmetry. I bet you had a gaggle of ladies pining after you. Men, too.” He laughed. “Don’t listen to Jack, Sam.” Kharon shoved a manicured finger toward me. “He’s using your soul as payment to get his own back. He's not even licensed!”
Kharon wouldn’t flinch at my stink eye, but I gave the ferryman the evilest I could anyway.
Sam ducked out of Kharon’s embrace and took a few steps back, a wild gaze darting to the both of us. Kharon’s grin widened along with Sam’s eyes. The ferryman wouldn't ever forgive me for that time I short-changed him at a company picnic--a petty transgression, but I had learned ever since that the gods and those under them ran the universe on petty grudges.
“Nothing’ll come of that one, you hear me?” Kharon belted out as he laughed his way to his skiff. “Sisyphus is going to love hearing about this. You’ll be paying your debt until the end of time, Jack!”
I kicked a stone into the river in Kharon’s general direction as the boat pulled away from the dock, then turned an eye to the jagged rocks rounding out the entrance to the Cave of Judgement. The gatekeepers were waiting, and the sooner I could get rid of Sam, the sooner I could get as far away from the docks as possible before Kharon’s next load.
“Are you going to sell my soul,” Sam blubbered.
Only if I can haggle a good price. “Let’s go.” Yanking Sam by his blazing cherry-red tie, I hauled him toward the Cave.
One more soul closer to freedom.
I sniffed her ass. She had meatballs with a little parsley in them, boiled and not fried. But more important it was that sour smell, a sour smell that would change, that would ripen. She was almost in heat.
I asked her for her name and she peed on the rock for me. Didn't want to talk. I took a deep breath, letting the complexity of her odors coalesce.
Alexis.. what a beautiful name. I sniffed at her ass again. Careful. She's high-born. you could see that easily and she considered herself superior. From a good home and all that...
A sniff is an art. You want to come close, you ache to come close, to smell more, but if your cold, moist nose touches the skin, well.. she'll know you for the mutt you are. I sniffed and enjoyed. The aroma of the meat balls. If she shits, it will taste good.
And she did. Dropping small, dry pellets. Another urge to resist. I'm hungry, I thought, but if she saw me eating that, well... there won't be any chance.
So I sniffed her again, promising myself that I'll come back for those later.
"Alexis is a beautiful name." I said awkwardly.
"Thank you" she said her first actual words. She had the voice I Imagined her to have. Rich and demure and soothing. My heart was racing.
We walked on the newly wet grass, it had rained in the night, and I became self-conscious, worried that my coat had gotten wet. Would that put her off? She didnt seem to be. She didn't seem to care much about me.
"my name's Black Foot, because.."
"Black Foot. Yes.. I got it. "She said. It was obvious that she would not sniff me for all the pork in China. Probably for the best, I wouldnt want her to know what I had last night for dinner.
"I've never seen you this part of the park before" I said, luckily that I managed to stop myself from completely revealing that it's more than just a park for me. That this was where I lived.
"No. first time here for me."
"Want me to show you around?"
"That would be fine, Black Foot."
I started the tour, walking on the soft, wet grass. Our first stop was the notice rock. It had the odor of almost a hundred dogs, or maybe not, I'm not so good at math, everybody peed there.
General queries: "where is the best place to get a meal?" "Does anyone know if the park attendants are dangerous?"
Notices: "golden retriever, 9yrs. Looking for a partner that's fun." and so on.
She sniffed it all, showing disapproval for some, smiling at others, but didnt reply.
"How about this?" she asked.
"That notice about the symposium"
"Oh..that" I hadn't noticed it myself. 'A Symposium on canine-human relationship in the age of uncertainty.' With guest speakers and so on and so forth, the usual display of the academic types, jawing their way. I never attended the symposiums if I could help it.
But Alexis..She probably was the cerebral type..
But if I take her there, she'll meet other dogs, and I'll have to get in to those ridiculous pissing contests. Especially if it's someone like her.
but if I refuse to take her? She'll see what a dumbass I am and I wouldn't have any kind of chance.
But hey..it didn't mean I had to take the shortest route..
"well yeah, the symposium is a bit far, though, do you have time to travel? Do you have time? I mean your human .."
"Yes.. I have lots of time." she said. Slightly smiling at my confusion. She sees right through me, I thought.
"Anyway, the symposium starts later on, so we have time."
Time to get my act together, I thought.
Kites, what is the human fascination with kites? They run along the walkway, struggling to get that piece of paper in the air.
"so ridiculous " I explained "they run fast, pulling the kite. When they stop, turn around to watch the thing it falls 'cause no one is pulling it..." we stood over them, on the raised terrace. I could see her smiling a little, just a little.
Maybe just to be polite.
This is one of my best lines!
It usually works for me when I take a girl here, to see the apes in action.
We kept watching the humans goofing around with the kites; first the children would try, fail, try again and fail again, eventually tiring of it, and their parents would come , show them how it's done, and fail just as bad.
And then there were the regulars- people who come there almost every day, or at least every weekend, these are the experts, old an wizened in the ways of kite flying, they had no children to show off to.
We met Samson on the way to the orchard. The little mutt smiled at her, grinning his snub-nose of a grin.
"What have we here?"
Alexis moved slightly to the side and gave a slight sprinkling on a rock for him. a high-born would never introduce herself verbally. But I was very happy that she didn't give him much of her pee to smell, really just a few drops.
Was she saving it for better acquaintances?
But then again, Samson was fixed. His humans had gotten tired of paying the vet every time he got into a fight over a female and had him snipped. If they had done it sooner, at least he wouldnt have lost an eye and most of his tail. There was a patchwork of scars on his stomach and back, monuments to the stitches and the fights he had probably lost. Samson was tough, but not very big.
"How you doing Samson?" I called out to him, denying him the courtesy of replying Alexis in kind, and not giving him an Impetus to sniff her ass. He would probably touch his whole wet nose in there and she'll bite him herself.
"Can't complain. You hear about Sweet?"
"No, what happened?"
"The stupid bastard ate rat poison. Again! I mean if you see a human, in a yellow overall putting a bunch of these food pellets around, I mean...no free lunches right?"
"Well, like you said, he is a stupid idiot" a concurred, momentarily forgetting that I was entertaining a lady.
"So is he dead?"
"No. but if you stayed by the pond last night, the big pond, not the small one.."
"He was there, howling all night like crazy, throwing up everywhere. I come over to him and say 'Sweet-didn't know you had so much in you!!' but I saw him this morning, going over the trash near that kiosk so I guess he's back to his usual nasty self"
"He's lucky to be alive. "
"You're kidding? They dont put enough of these pellets to kill ol' Sweet" he said, turning to Alexis "I mean, he takes a mouthful of these, says to himself 'these taste funny' and than tastes the rest just to be sure that it's rat poison. But that dog is so big and so fat that they would need to deliver the pellets in a truck"
Alexis didn't smile. She seemed bored. And the crude language that Samson used was beneath her. We said our farewells and left.
A grove, an orchard where the humans grow fruit, but not in this park, these fruit trees are not meant to produce. No lemon trees or peach or plum. Just long rows of cedars and pines, with winding cement walkways between them, shaded, and cool.
We avoided the hard cement and treaded on the rotting, damp needles. A wonderful smell of earth.
"This is my favorite part in the park" I confessed, as we walked on the slight slope of an artificial hill. "When I feel like I need to think, or just enjoy a moment of silence, I come here.
"It is very relaxing" she agreed but seemed cold. Distant, thinking to herself.
"Are you ok?" I asked.
"Yes." She said hesitantly, "why do you ask?"
I could not say anything. So I didn't answer. We kept walking.
"Tell me about your humans. Are they nice?" I asked her.
"Yes, they are a nice family. A young couple. They had one son, and two years after that, twins."
"Twins? I didn't know humans have litters. How amazing"
"It's not a litter, just the two. Very noisy. And the parents are very busy. Three young children. " she said. " but I have my own place. Near the TV... It's warm there in the winter. The man likes me a bit more than the woman but they both take care of Me." she said, and somehow I saw that this last statement was causing her some confusion.
"I have a human too"
"Really?" she said, surprised.
"Yes. I'm not like all those street dogs here. I have a human as well."
"Ok" she said.
"He comes every day, in the evening, brings me food in nylon bags. Sometimes it's sausage in tomato sauce, sometimes it's some fried chicken. "
"But you don't live at his place?"
"No. I don't. I own him, but he's free enough to go home"
"Don't you mean the other way around?" she said, smiling.
"No, I own him. He brings me food. He pets me. But I don't have to go to his home to get it. It's much better. Nobody sticks me in an apartment all day long with nothing to do but to count the floor tiles"
"Is that what you think I do ?"
"I didn't say that. I just said that this way is better for me. I enjoy all the benefits of owning a human, but none of the drawbacks."
"I see" she said. Hesitantly. "Still, it's nice to be indoors when it rains. "
"It does. But I find places where I can keep warm and dry when I need."
"So you think that my way of life is worse than yours."
"Not at all. If you like that kind of life you can have it. I mean, I've just met you today, but you strike me as an intelligent, free-spirited dog right?" I said, slipping in a compliment.
"I guess so"
"So. You obviously live the way you do because it's what you like best. And if you like something you can have it. If you don't, just change things. "
"I see.. And how about Samson? He looked a bit ragged"
"Oh. him? " I said, unhappy that she turned the discussion over to other dogs. "Well.. He lives here, but he doesn't own a human. He used to. But he got fixed, so he ran out. Doesn't like humans much. On the other hand, he's crazy about cats. Goes dancing with them whenever he can."
"Yes, I could see the scratch marks. " she answered. Smiling.
"I have another question"
"What are you required to do? I mean, you own how many, five? Six humans? What are you..eh.. Required to do?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you told me about your apartment and the babies. But, what are your responsibilities over there?"
"I don't know, chasing rats out, or barking at strangers, or licking their hands.."
"Licking their hands?"
"Yes. I would say that this is my only responsibility to my human, he gives me food, and I lick his fingers from the grease" this made her laugh for a moment.
"Ok, I would say that I have some responsibilities. If there's a stranger coming, it's expected that I bark. I mean they would more often than not tell me to shut up, but I know that deep in their heart they are quite pleased that I'm keeping them safe."
"Ok. What else?"
"Just keep them company. Humans need love more than anything. And if you show them love, well.. it makes their life happier."
"Your humans seem very needy. Aren't they?"
"They are. Very needy. not so much now that they have the twins, but they are still in need of me to show them affection. "
She fell silent. "But from what you say, the human that you own is just the same. He would come, bring you food, and he needs you to show him some love. Doesn't he?"She fell silent.
"He does, but maybe he's a bit more crude then the humans you own. You should hear him talk, as he pets me. I mean the words that come out of his mouth are just crazy. I think maybe he has problems. I've heard it said that even humans have psychological problems sometimes. But maybe this is because youre a high-born. I'm clearly not. Not even close, so I could only get this poor, lonely, crazy bastard"
"I see." she said. "Maybe mine are better. But of course sometimes they get angry at me. It's even funny sometimes." She said smiling, remembering something. "I mean, I usually control myself, but it is fun sometimes to get them riled up. Let them sweat a bit. You know, appreciate what they got"
"No. I wouldn't, that poor guy is the only human I ever owned. "
She said no more, now deep in thought. I let the matter go and we continued on.
We found a fire hydrant, dripping water down. Was this the law with fire hydrants, that they could not keep their water in check?
We had a slow drink. Refreshing cold water. Here was a place were birds sang, and there was a soothing noise. The sounds and that damp smell of rotting leaves, a heaviness that I always associated with death. You die and you are covered in this mass, slowly become part of if. How rich and luxurious it must be. I could smell her again. She was apprehensive about something but I could still not tell what.
A slight rise in the earth, made in crescent shape was where the symposium was to be held. All around-trees, but humans rarely walked near this place, except of course the odd child; Human children seem to have the worst possible sense of direction. They get lost even in the middle of the park, and start crying until somebody takes them to the police station, and they call for the parent on the screechy speakers, would something something come to the information booth and pick up the little runt..
We arrived just as a learned Dalmatian, slim and clearly high-born had concluded his lecture. Some grunted in respect. He walked away from the center of the stage, his tail raised in pride.
I don't know why , but I have never liked high-born males. There was always something about them. maybe too clean, I don't know. High-born females, however, like Alexis was a dream for me. I was glad we missed that twerp.
Next came an old mutt. Tall and thin, with mangy grey fur. Good. Somebody that would actually have something to say:
"Thank you Dr. Rolls for your wise words" he said, he had a sober, throaty voice. "Friends. My name is Maxwell and I'm a historian. I would like to give today a historic context to the relationship between human and canine.
Let's first identify how canines live besides humans today. I can put it very shortly indeed-not good. The truth of the matter is that it has never been worse.
Many thousands of years ago, our ancestors had chosen to own humans. Perhaps it started when we saw how useful they were in providing food for us; we were in the woods, traveling, half starved, and the reason for our starvation was the human's success. So somewhere, we made a decision; We will tolerate their demands of us in exchange for the food we needed- And it worked. We got what we wanted, and humans became more and more dependant on us. Dependant on our senses, on our instincts, on our compassion." he said, clearing his throat for a moment.
"and this dependency led to a sense in us of ownership. We aren't their partners, a partner you can take or leave.
Partnership also implies equality. And there certainly none of that. we provided safety forf them and kept them as happy as they could be, and they gave us what we needed. But it was clear who had the upper hand in this relationship. So a sense of ownership was created within us. and with ownership, naturally, comes responsibility. We feel responsibility for our property. Sometimes we even come to love them. So Things were good for us. We went with the humans wherever they wanted to go and cohabitated every spot on the plant, with us as a dominating force.
How much power did we have back then? It must have been Immeasurable. An uneducated hunter-gatherer relied on our judgment; whether something was safe or not, whether they can trust this person or that. We needed only to show dislike, or bare our teeth a little and they would get the message. That way we could steer them on a better course. And thus their dependency deepened. Even today, we see examples for this; I have talked with many police dogs who practically govern affairs for the policemen. humans have such blunted senses, much more then their ancestors, that they can't even smell the aroma of cannabis.
Now let's face it- it was for the better. We are, after all superior to them. And unlike them, we are generally benign. But things could not have stayed like this forever; Humans are individualists. They seek freedom. And they sensed their dependence on us, and loathed themselves for it.
And so they forced themselves into changing their existence, their livelihood, to one where they are less dependant on us. We call this change the agricultural revolution.
The first step was a mere emulation, or transposition of the canine-human relationship to other species. Like we controlled them They started controlling herds of cows and sheep.
And all of this, still because they couldn't stand being owned by us! But what do you know- with all that livestock, They seemed to need us even more! Because these animals were even more vulnerable , more unintelligent than the humans! They had to start worrying about wolves and lions and tigers killing their newly-domesticated animals. So instead of losing their dependence on us, they in fact grew to be more so. And we were required to facilitate their needs, of course to our benefit as well.
But As you can guess, this greater dependence was exactly what they tried to escape. And so they developed their agriculture further in hope of distancing themselves from us.
They began to sow the earth, and grow crops. This by the way was a dietary change that they were not equipped for, I mean, just look how fat they are!" he paused with this anecdote, some laughed. But it was obvious that this crowed wasn't big on humor.
"But now in the farms, they still needed us," he continued "to scare away the crows, and the foxes. To warn them from thieves. So they were still unable to break free. But the dream of freedom from dogs never died in them. At this stage this unfulfilled dream had new manifestations to antagonize us they began to have CATS, which have absolutely no actual value to them. But this antagonism was not enough to give them the freedom that they needed. So they escalated their hate. They began to have dog fights and used our name as derogatory expressions. And most Important-they began to leave their farms, moving slowly to villages and then to towns. There, the need for us , at least as guards against the wildlife is indeed reduced. But here again- they could not escape the need for us. Because their new, communal kind of existence; living in such close proximity to each other, demanded a way to settle disputes and protect humans from other humans! And we were asked again to guard homes, from thieves and murderers, even to serve in their wars.
Here new change happened; the more they settled in cities, escaping their comfortable servitude to us, the more they began to look on us with nostalgia. Their idyll of the country life isn't complete without the friendly loyal dog. And we utilized this of course to increase our sense of ownership. I mean, if you could, wouldn't you? so this love-hate relationship continued, they hate us , and they need us. for changing reasons. " he said. Pausing again, slightly out of breath.
"But now, my dear friends we come to our recent history. And things are indeed not good. Up until the last century, humans found us quite indispensible; we were efficient guards, we were a psychological crutch for them, especially in their increasingly confusing urban existence.
now , however, we find ourselves in a new era. Developments in how they build their home
have all but eliminated our role as guards, either from man or animal and those electronic contraptions called televisions are superior to us in entertaining them and giving them existential comfort.
More and more we see humans unowned by dogs. Or if they have dogs, they choose to have smaller, less 'doglike' dogs. Excuse me, by the way, if this offends you." he apologized.
"And they use elaborate justifications for this; it's cruel to keep a large dog in a city apartment. it's too expensive. This is nothing less then a shirking off of their dependency on us as their owners! This is the escape they had dreamed about so long.
Of course the hate that humans had long held for dogs, has never died! They tried all these many years to break free, they had to completely change their lifestyles to facilitate this so-called freedom, at their own terrible expense!
But now their goal is finally at hand. They are alienated enough and eventually will be independent enough to succeed now where they could not have before.
Do not be deceived by the pampering that you receive. And some of you do receive much, of that I can see! Some of you are dressed in clothes and treated like human babies. A clear example of displacement if there ever was one! The rest-even if you are lucky enough to still own a human, you are a chore to them, a chore that exists by a declining norms. Inertia snd no more. An excuse is all it takes to have a dog put through intolerable cruelties like castration or worse yet, abandonment. Just think about the idea of castration. It is nothing short of the prevention of the next generation!
Who would have thought this possible only a generation ago? And if this is the present generation, can we not see the next? Will the next generation be kinder, when it's obvious that their entire civilization is based on our removal? Today we can't enter public buildings, tomorrow; we will be altogether abandoned or worse. Don't be fooled by the apparent development of new purposes for us. It is true that they now use us to find bombs, and guide the blind. But even as we speak, new technologies are being developed to replace these newly-found uses. They are working hard at this and rest assured that they will succeed!
And don't forget the cruelties committed against us. ..."
Alexis moved away from the congregation of the listeners, she obviously had heard enough.
I followed after her silently. She obviously did not know where she was going, but I didn't dare interfere with her thoughts. something was on her mind. So we walked on. I will get us both out of any path she leads. I thought.
We reached a section of the park that was flat, and was filled with marble and bronze statues all of the realist variety. Men and women , heroically posing. Presumably the greatest and noblest of the humans; here a man holding a rolled scroll, with a raised hand, as if preaching, his sermon long lost in time. Another one, of a young naked woman, holding a tennis racket.
Beside the statues, the expanse was filled with benches, and weeping willows. Their branches now green with new growth after the bitter winter.
Alexis finally stopped in front of a bronze statue of two men, wrestling each other. They had a strange expression of joy on their face.
She started crying.
I was surprised and rushed closer. She was of course not surprised by my appearance. I made no attempt to hide the fact that I was following her.
"They left me here. " she said, crying Quietly.
"Who Who?!! Who do you think? you stupid mutt." She rasped. Clearly in pain, it hurt a bit to hear her say that.
"How do you know?"
"They.. we..Live on the other side of town. They drove almost two hours to bring me here. They gave me a good meal, patted me and walked back to the car."
So that was it! Everything made sense. This is why she was so quiet.
"I mean they had the first baby, and they lost sleep over it, but with the help of the nanny, they managed to take me out every day. But after the twins were born, I've felt them getting colder and colder to me. They were fighting over me too. And today the woman shouted at me when I hesitated going into the car. Don't you see? I'm abandoned now. And what can I do?!"
I thought for a while how to cheer her up. It is a rare thing to see a being so superior fall so low.
There was this bitter, ache at the roof of my mouth, the feeling I get. I used to have it when I was young, just before crying. Just before the tears flowed. Now the tears are gone. I never cry, but this bitter feeling I still feel sometimes.
We kept silent for a long time. The wind started blowing, ruffling the old fallen willow leaves, and the bows bending slightly, showing their respect to the wind.
"Well." I started. "From all the places to be abandoned at, nothing beats the park. I mean.. Look at me. I'm a street dog by all accounts, but I'm fat! I'm practically waddling around. So don't worry about it, in no time, you'll see what a stroke of luck this is for you. And.."
"If you want to own a human again. It's relatively easy. Humans after all are so easy to manipulate. And you , you are not a simple dog like me, you are high-born and everyone can see that. You're the type of dog that people pay for at the pet store. "
"I don't know how to acquire humans. How to ..get them to want to take care of me"
"My humans got me as a present from one of their friends; I never had to work at keeping them"
"So, I'm not sure if I can do that. What if what that Maxwell guy said was true? What if I can't find a human? I'll live on garbage like a rat?"
I saw where this is going. She actually took seriously the bullshit she heard in that lecture!!
Why is it when we are down we seem to be open to the worst possible ideas? Why can't we be optimistic when we're in need of it?
"Alexis. You seem like an intelligent dog. Why do you take what that idiot said seriously? Don't you know that this symposium is just another in a series for him? Next week it will be about our relations with cats, maybe titled 'why can't we get alone? Contemporary thought about Canine dog-relations ' and later on it would be something else. If you listen to that, and take it seriously it would be good for only getting more depressed. And definitely not good for you. I always say-screw those egg heads" I explained.
"I'll tell you what, if by this time next week you wont be owning at least one human, I'll..I'll..I'll sniff Samson's butt!"
This made her laugh a bit.
"But today, if you would like .. I can take you to my human. Like I said, he's crazy, but I'm pretty sure you will like his cooking. Just remember to lick those fingers. Does that sound good?"
"It sounds good"
And we walked on. It was late afternoon and we had some time to kill before my human came..
Carla Johnston Enters the Arena
It was a long day at work. The endless corridor under Cott Arena seems to get further from the parking garage every day. And so far, the undercover mission has yielded nothing. My superiors at the FBI are going to pull the plug any day. While my employee badge says Janice Snow, my real name is Carla Johnston. I'm an FBI special agent.
How did a rookie fresh from the academy get assigned to this op? I look young. Nobody in the Cott cartel suspects that the high school girl running the concession stand is with the FBI.
A sudden noise makes me stop in my tracks: a woman's scream echoes down the hallway. I dump my backpack and grab my Beretta from the hidden pocket. I chamber a round and clip the tactical headset to my ear. With gun low and ready, I advance up the hall.
Focus, deep breaths. Pick your target. Remember your training. I reach a door with light under it. My heart starts to race. No time to call anyone, this one is all you.
But as I reach for the knob, a figure bolts from the darkness. In an instant I'm face to face with a giant. He goes to tackle me, but I twist free and fire twice, hitting him once, but he doesn't go down. He slams me to the wall as I pull the trigger twice more but hits the barrel before I can line up a third shot. Two more point blank to the chest. He keeps coming. He connects with a left, but I pivot right and land a roundhouse kick to his head. He doesn't even blink.
I break free and run, hitting the panic button on the radio and reloading a magazine. But he's faster. I pivot to fire but he tackles me. The gun falls from my hand.
A bee sting burns my neck where the needle goes in. My knees give out as I go for the gun, but it's out of reach. It's too late, I'm finished.
He withdraws the syringe and smiles, revealing a mouthful of broken teeth.
Everything fades to black.
You want this truth?
Sure, no I probably wasn't too good for you.
You want the legend.
We lived together.
But not at the present.
I lied to you.
You hurt me and everyone knew.
We skated by.
Broken pictures, faces and cries.
You said you loved me.
Broken hearts and promises.
I'm the dumb one.
Must have amnesia...
To forget what I've become.