“What exactly does that mean?” A moment ago I was sleepy from the thick, flowery air in the small, warm room. It's cliché and serves its purpose well. My stupor came on fast and lulling. Now, I am all energy. I feel electricity pass through my spine down to my fingertips and glide across my ribs down to my toes.
“You will have her across every life time. And you will lose her. Over and over. Or rather. She will lose you. I can't be sure. Although...my heart says she will lose you. You will push and push, and she will break. She will always break. You will build her up just to break her. Over and over. Across every existence. You can break the pattern…”
The smallest, downy hairs rise in ripples across my arms and legs. She knows how to use her words to create urgency, but this is important even without all the dramatics. Somewhere inside I knew this. It is still a halting collision to my heart. My lungs stop, and it is all I can do to hold steady. I find my breath and swallow hard. “How…how do I break that pattern? All I want is her whole.”
Her bright eyes lower. I wait in her arrested quiet, pushing back my tears, willing my lungs to keep filling and emptying. I watch her hands raise to her forehead. She looks tired, too tired to tell me what she's thinking. Her elbows rest on the table, and her head rests in her hands, fingers massaging her temples. Her eyes snap up with silent tears pouring from them. “But can’t you see? That there, that is the pattern. You want her whole. You will push her until she is almost complete. You want her whole. And you want her as your own. She is already yours, and you've already missed it. You want her whole, but you will destroy her. You have to take that with you. You have to keep it inside you. You cannot forget. This pattern has already begun. All you can hope is that you take it with you, and you remember for your regeneration. You cannot make her whole. You can only keep her. And each time you push to complete her rather than hold her you will dismantle it all.”
I shake my head. I can't accept that. I pull my hand back across the table. I don't care about a line that is severed. I don't care about a pattern. I can fix this. I can fix us both. I can find her, and then she will find herself and me. I can fix it.
I can't let it go. I haven't found her yet, but I can remember. There's a dark room. October 25th 1941. It's late on the night before I sacrificed my regeneration cycle. The room has a heavy feeling. Its like you closed the door and ran a hot shower, and now you're basking in the steam. I remember the false sense of security that room offered. I remember little before or after. I know that that wasn't my first or last visit to the “gypsy”. I know that she wasn't a gypsy either. She was the same as me, only she knew how to do her business out in the open. It wasn't easy then. Not that it is now. Then, though, it was nearly impossible to make it through the days. Only those who could divine were really able to get away with using their magic. The rest of us were limited to feigning parlor tricks if we wanted to avoid questions. Genesis was her real name, but she went by Madame Apollo. As though Genesis wasn’t able to garner enough histrionics in the art of fortune telling. The lighting was low, and the air was heavy. There was me in a pressed suit and tie, and her in all of the gauzy, lacy layers of clothing that the swamp lands had ever known. We were tucked away in a back corner of a tea shop. The curtains were deep reds and oranges mirroring the leaves outside and layered in the same haphazard fashion as the folds of Madame’s dress. The walls were a muted, pale purple, and the flames danced across them in a way that made them almost disappear into a living thing. She told me of the girl and how I would come to ruin her. And I can't remember that girl, but I can remember how important that revelation was. I don't know what I did. I can remember leaving that room with determination and defiance in my heart. I can remember my chin held high as I told myself that the lines she had read meant nothing. The cards had meant nothing. The leaves, nothing. She may be practiced in divination, but divination was finicky, and strong will and energy could change it. I would change it. I remember walking out with my eyes burning, but my head high and determined. And I remember returning to Genesis the following evening. I remember the tears breaking through and me breaking down. My head in her lap as she quieted me and helped me remember to breathe. I knew of an ancient magic that would require her help. It was mythical. There was no way to know of its power or if it had ever worked. She was a true seer, not like most now that have learned their craft. She was born with the ability to see, which is what the spell required. She knew why I was there before I had even gathered myself up enough to tell her. She was hesitant. If it didn't work, we would invite a darkness into our world that had long been caged. She spoke of a return to the earth. But not a regeneration as we usually experienced. It would be an end. Permanent. I said nothing. I held my hand out for her. Palm to palm. Her eyes rolled back and closed. I felt every nerve in my body come to attention and saw her skin take the shock of it. And then I felt nothing. My eyes closed involuntarily, and I felt nothing but perhaps, an indescribable lightness. And then I was drowning. Suffocating. Burning alive. Until it all melted away. My eyes opened and she nodded. I knew she had felt it. It was all I wanted, and I would not make this mistake again, if I could just hold the idea through to my next life. She didn't speak. She lifted her layers of skirt and pulled a blade from her garter. What I was asking her for required blood magic. Mine and hers. And memory. Strong memory. And strong magic, also. There has to be enough energy for the blade to hold the memory. That means a terrifying amount of power. All of the power I had. Most of hers. It would cut her lifespan by half. If something were to go wrong and I was not able to hold her power it wouldn't even come back to full after her next regeneration. This was reason enough for her to return her blade and tell me to find another way. She must have felt it. She felt my will or she would not trust me to carry the spell. She handed me the knife. The handle was made of some ancient magical bone tumbled and polished then wrapped ornately in a sparkling silver that must have been faerie made. I can feel the magic thrumming through it even now. I am right back there. My skin ignites with its energy. We all keep magical objects. Most of us still use wands or rings to help channel our power. The few with true divine magic do not need a channel. Their body is conduit enough, however they still keep something impregnated with magic to steady their own. Handing over something like that is like handing someone a vessel full of yourself. I use a wand to contain my current. It's made from blood crystal from the dark sea. I laid it out on the table in front of her as a courtesy. I know she trusts me, but it feels disrespectful to not offer her up some sign of that same trust. I touch the tip of her blade to my temple. I start to conjure up the girls face, but Madame must sense this. She lays her hand on mine and shakes her head. She tells me it's not strong enough. She tells me I need to remember her energy in order to hold onto her. The face will do nothing. I need to feel her energy and know how to hold it without crushing it. I let go of the face. I think of her. I think of everything I have ever felt from her. Every vibration she has ever sent through my being. I can feel her all through me as she passes through my mind. I can feel every breath I have stolen from her. I can feel her hands and her mouth. My skin is crawling with every memory it has ever contained of her. I am awake and alive and teeming with energy I have picked up over all of my lifetimes with her. It is painful and breathtaking and every part of me wants to hold onto it forever. I cannot. I let it spill into Madame’s blade. I feel the memory draining into it. It is an intense heat that creeps throughout me and leaves a damp cold in its place, and by the time it reaches the blade my temple is on fire. I feel flames pour out of me into the faerie silver. Then there is no more fire, but I am still burning. I pull the blade away and it is glowing almost golden with heat. My exhaustion is indescribable, but I push past it. Madame slices her palm then squeezes the blood into a cup of something steaming. It smells like pines. She takes my hand and does the same. The drink turns a glowing yet milky white. It is memory liquefied. I have seen this once before now. At a museum. An orb filled with liquid memory from a failed attempt at this same spell. It is the most enticing sight I can ever recall. And it is the last thing I remember before now.
Gus looked out through bloodshot eyes between the bars of his prison cell. The beckoning calls of the vibrant scarlet and golden magic of fluttering leaves, seen through his window beyond the barbed wire, reminded him that he would never see the outside world again unless it was a furtive glimpse in the distance. He felt severed from life as the bones of leaves portrayed the dust of autumn’s flesh. Already, the fading amber lights in ashy yellows signified autumn’s end. Soon, it would be winter again and he would pass one more year in his cold, dank cell. Snowdrifts sporting jaunty winter clothes would be beyond his reach. It would once again feel as if spiky icicles were stabbing his heart in frozen shadows of sprinkled regret He dreamed of inhaling the brisk air and feeling human once again.
Sluggishly in his numb stupor, Gus watched two muscular death row inmates dance around each other like sweat-soaked ballerinas. Hen-scratched tattoos marked their time spent swinging their mallet fists into each other’s faces, turning noses into bloody pudding and teeth into smoothies. Inmates clustered around, shouting out bets while guards ignored them.
Gus remembered being the victim of this cruelty many times when several inmates ganged up on him but there were other pointless savageries as well. Often guards messed with him for their own amusement. One of their favorite ploys was the old “fake visit from Mom” when they would tell him that he had a surprise visitor. Even though he realized it was probably untrue, he still felt like this was the bright spot of his whole month and fell for it every time. He would do his best to clean himself up and wait patiently at his cell doors for the guards to escort him to the visitor’s room. “Oh wait,” they laughed, “we got the wrong Johnson!” And they would laugh and laugh.
Gus sighed as he struggled to remember what normalcy had been in the past but it was becoming only a vague memory. He was ashamed as he realized that vulgarity and meanness was becoming a part of his personality because he felt he was becoming ice bound, trapped in glacial recesses of his body. Anger festered as he began to formulate a plan to kill one of the other prisoners who tormented him. Secreting a magazine in his cell, he pulled out its center staple and then removed the waistband from an old pair of underwear, making it into a catapult. Next, he removed threads from his underwear and wrapped them around the staple to make a dart. Removing one of the advertising cards from the magazine, he reinforced the dart and then dipped it into a noxious mixture of human feces and urine which he heated in the light from his window concentrating it to transform it into a dangerous poison. Then, he rolled up the magazine until it was about 2 inches in circumference and attached it to the bars of his cell. As the hated inmate walked by, he retracted the catapult, inserted the deadly dart and shot it into his neck. Although the prisoner yanked the dart from his neck and said nothing, sepsis took over in the next few days and the inmate died a lingering, painful death.
Hate in chills of cold sweat began to take over Gus’ persona as he felt himself becoming a different person. Knowing he would be in this prison for many years before his death penalty would become instituted; he began to devise other methods to kill both prisoners and the treacherous guards. There was nothing to lose!
Gus closed his eyes as he remembered why he was here. He had been the cherished only son of parents who had finally given up on him and never visited. He wistfully remembered making snowmen with his Dad as he watched flurries of snowflakes outside his window.
Depressing him the most was the knowledge that he was innocent, having been wrongly convicted. He cupped his agony (like fallen leaves) in his chapped hands, wiping drops of perspiration from his forehead, knowing he was ready to take control and destroy all those who had damaged him. The future was of his own making as he felt the wickedness of his transformation take hold like the changing of the seasons. He would shape a feared reputation, like frigid snowballs, that would never be forgotten. No longer would he be burdened by memories of his former life! Smiling in anticipation, he was ready to face his world as he wrapped the thoughts of a springtime of retribution around himself in hues of a new beginning.
’Til Winters Frost
Mama walks with
short, shaky steps
Her struggling breath
through her lungs
like wind across the trees.
She gently lays
a gnarled hand on wrinkled bark
whose branches are near bare
down her face
betraying all her fear.
Mama is like autumn
stubbornly holding on
each day slowly
'til winters frost is come.
Winter Kills, Autumn just Frightens
I was always taught by my parents to make my dreams happen. Yet I never could, I blame the undecisive seasons. They never aligned with my dreams.
But I’m done listening to the silence of the seasons changing.
So here I stand, ready to jump as the swift fall breeze gently tugs me back and forth from the ledge. Maybe it’s telling me to back down or maybe it’s giving me a nudge forward. It must not know that I made my decision already.
One foot hovers off the ledge, and I tell myself that it will feel exactly like missing a step when going downstairs. But unfortunately, I know better than that. I’ll probably feel a drop in my stomach, the same drop I get when a roller coaster plunges steeply towards the ground.
I gather my thoughts and look down to prepare myself for what’s to come. There’s no going back now. I can’t be a coward forever.
And with that last instigating thought, I jump. Diving forward, my feet are practically sewn together. In the same second as a blink, I hit the water. I didn’t prepare myself for the sting on my skin the moment my body broke the barrier between the air and the water, so it came as a shock. Not a “screaming eyes wide open shock”, but a “wow I didn’t expect that shock.”
I swim with galloping strokes towards the shoreline and realize there’s no one around. My body is covered with goosebumps and all my hairs are standing. I just continue to walk until I make it home, in my wet clothes just dripping with every step as if I’m leaving a trail of my melting cowardice.
Shivering, I step into my room and strip off everything but undergarments and my goosebumps. I pull a blanket over my shoulders and it kisses my body with warmth. I lay back on my bed with my legs straight out and my arms on my sides.
“Did I really jump?”
And I’m silent again... as I see from the corner of my eyes the window curtain dancing in a rhythmic pace.
My sight starts to darken and I begin to give in to the blissful temptation of sleep, as it creeps onto my bed and hugs me tightly, not letting go and I don’t want it to.
Slipping deeper and deeper into darkness all I can think about is how I forgot to close my window and how the autumn breeze may take this as its chance to nudge me forward.
But I know it won’t because winter kills, autumn just frightens.
i think fall hits the hardest … you could scroll the Pinterest feed everything is methodically about how autumn is life after death, but the truth is—sometimes we break gradually, sometimes the break is like glass, and we can never be put back together.
I hated how my sister smelled, wrapped around my neck and suffocated me in her scent, creating a thick opaque fog, hazy over my head, engulfing me in the faint presence of a shadow of her. As I grew farther and farther from her as each day passed as I didn’t engage in this childish game of make-believe making up memories with my sister, the hole in my chest growing bigger each day, I hadn’t been in my sister’s room since five years ago.
I missed the way I used to lay on her carpet waiting for her faint arms to wrap around me and whisper gently in my ear that she loved me, as much as I loved her even though I didn’t know, for I truly believe the not knowing wasn’t what was eating me inside; it was the fact that loving her was an allusion (someone I didn’t know), that is what hurts me more—I don’t even feel I deserve to even mourn her , this is why I sleep with my eyes open because those are the dreams that I can’t even control whereas nightmares occur when I close my eyes in the dark and I have dreams of my sister that feel so real only to wake up to the piercing reality my sister isn’t here.
My sister used to hum the song where it goes I am just a falling angel trying to find my way back home. Sometimes, we have to visit the dark places to heal. I opened the door to my sister’s room and opened the door to her closet and let myself grieve where no one could hear my tears, and the walls closed around me and the shut out the world. I reached my hand in the back of closet and trying to hold myself from the walls closing in on me and I felt a box scrape against my hand drawing a jagged line through my hand, it’s unsteadiness felt like plastic, it’s translucent fragility deemed it plastic. I dipped my hand inside to steady myself, my hand fidgeted around the tips of journals, my hand fidgeted against the bumpy covers, sparkly, flowery, pearly covers; my hand danced around each one. I choose the bright red one with the gold lettering chipped away by time—aged, and desired to be slit with ink to bleed such emotion in order to feel something, in order to contain the urge to rip into the veins of the soul pushed closer to the wall of the box shying away from touch, but gently catching my eye, but so innocently desiring to be noticed, but slowly sinking into the box, blushed and embarrassed at how human or vulnerable it felt.
It reminded me of my sisters wrist, small and slender; the red reminded me of her hair and the gold lettering on the front reminded me of the way she looked as if she was being eaten away by sleepless nights and racing thoughts and the secrets that devoured her, it was like she had gnawed on her soul, to feed the emptiness she felt in her chest, my sister was an artist and her canvas was her pain.
I trembled as I opened her and tried to feel just anything I needed—to be split in half down to the marrow, because a knife just isn’t enough.
Gnawed at fat on my bones Slipped a pill down the pipe And watched it coil around my waist And watched the numbers fall Eyes sunken in my aspirations Of dreams of vogue Became addicted to the way the scale Brought me down the rabbits hole Spiraled out of control Tasted the vomit of my decisions Wrapped myself in disquieting thoughts Of being able to slip my arms around my waist I deep throated the truth I let it sink deeper in my veins and pushed my throat For daring me to vomit Every meal of last year thanksgiving I swallowed the pain because that was the only thing my stomach could handle Just not the truth just not yet
Sometimes, we recede in the closet of our soul because we are scared to be seen as we are broken.
And I was broken, just like my sister.
I tried to heal my broken heart with poetic words of misery because I was tired of feeling. I didn’t want to feel this lump in my throat.
I hated the desire to miss her and allowed myself to miss her without feeling I’d forget her. If I let myself fall into the path of grief, but, I feared even more, I wouldn’t be able to pull myself out after grasping the truth about her, I believe it’s the feeling that kills us not the feeling itself.
Grief was something I wasn’t ready to accept
I layed in my bed till two in the memory , shivering in the cold opaque air
The leaf, burnt orange like sunrise
Clings fruitlessly to it's home
upon a frost dusted branch.
It has not seen the ground below
And fears what will become of it.
He remembers the earliest spring
From which he and the others were born
The promise of June.
The glow of the mid day sun
Allowing him to grow vibrant and green.
He thought it forever, that summer.
But all things pass with time.
It's a small change at first,
A light breeze through the branches.
The first signs of fall.
He's not sure when it happened
But he found himself alone
surrounded by his fallen brothers
Rotted brown, crumbled like ash.
He does not wish for that.
But nature is a fiery mother,
Stout and unforgiving
And she, with her forceful wind
Thrusts the leaf from his autumn home.
And in that icy wind he dances
Until he becomes what he fears.
Ash and dust
Like all things become.
But too soon, for him, he thinks.
A season is not enough time.
But even still, the season has passed.
He is dying.
The skies blacken.
So dark, the snow is stark against it
As it falls with a violent fury
Burying the leaf and his brothers
In their wintery grave.
A lifetime passed in a season.
A fraction of time to us.
But how soon we forget
Of the summertime leaves.
How little we care.
When our own cheeks are blanched
from the cold.
We are not endless
Merely seasons that pass.
And we too will one day be buried
Beneath the frost
Beneath even the leaves.
Deep in that dirt
Mother nature will take her revenge.
And we too, unable to stop it.
All things pass with time.
My First Autumn
“Stop!” Kathleen yelled.
I didn’t listen. My car went airborne as it entered the intersection, soaring straight through the bright red stoplight. Time was of the essence.
“This isn’t timed!” she screamed, her hands squeezing desperately to the sides of her seat.
“What?” I slammed both feet down onto the brake pedal and we skidded to a halt. The car rocked back and forth a few times as a tense quietness settled in. “This is a driving test,” I said. “How can it not be timed?”
Her body was shaking. “The test is over!” she said, fumbling around with the door handle. She managed it open and jumped outside. The door slammed shut and I watched Kathleen stride powerfully away from me – toward the administration building.
I leaned my elbow on the button beside me and lowered the passenger side window. “How do I find out the results?!”
She ignored me and persisted in her escape.
I nudged the gas pedal, turned the car around, and followed the driving course’s main road toward the exit. I passed by a few cars that were headed in the opposite direction, and I could see each of the cars’ occupants staring at me with bewilderment written onto their faces. I nodded politely and continued on, steering my car around the orange cones that were blocking the way out.
“Dr. Dan’s office,” I enunciated into my phone. The navigation app loaded and spun through a few scenarios while I worked my way through the parking lot. The optimal route flashed across the screen and I jabbed at the start button. When I looked up I saw traffic on the frontage road breezing past me in both directions, so I eased off the gas and allowed the car to drift itself toward the stop sign.
Gurgling inside my stomach caught my attention. My eyes scanned across the dashboard until they landed on the clock. It was nearly one. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Where had the day gone? My gaze shot upward. The sun was already past its apex, though still hovering significantly above the horizon. Days were becoming imperceptibly shorter, secretly throwing off my circadian rhythm. I’d better grab food before I spoiled dinner.
I pulled out onto the now empty road and sped up. Up ahead, a billboard for a new pizza place was speaking my language. My route would take me right past its location. I dialed the number and listened while it rang a few times.
A youngish sounding boy answered. “Pickup or delivery?” he asked, lifting his voice above a noisy background.
An awkward pause erupted.
“We don’t have a drive thru sir,” he replied.
“Don’t have a drive thru? It doesn’t say that on your advertisement.”
I could hear the young employee’s confusion stiffen. “I can bring it out to your car if you want. When it’s ready.”
“How long will it take?” I asked.
“To cook your pizza?”
“No, to walk it outside.”
I swear I could hear the kid smiling before he spoke again. “Just a few seconds sir. Once it’s ready.”
“Oh, no problem then. I can just come in,” I said. “I can help you carry it out.”
The kid chuckled. “Sounds good.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “See you in a few.” I hung up the phone and returned my attention to what lie ahead of me. The colors were beautiful. The orange and yellow leaves that painted the edges of the road, visually offset by the deep blue distant sky, reminded me of my youth. Autumn was the beauty before the beautiful. The coming of fall meant hockey season was right around the corner. I hadn’t actually played in a few years, but I still felt the tickle of anxiety stir through my stomach whenever the leaves began to change. The feeling was instinctual. For most of my life, hockey was my identity. Now, it was my shadow. Maybe I was its shadow. Either way, I still felt the connection through the arms of the season’s transition.
“My pizza!” I blurted out, realizing I’d forgotten to actually order. Before I could react, my phone was already vibrating against the dashboard. I didn’t recognize the number. Maybe it was the pizza shop, calling me back.
“This is Dr. Dan,” I answered.
“Good afternoon Dr. Dan. It’s Eugene calling.”
“Dr. Hancock,” I laughed. “I didn’t even recognize the number.”
“How are you doing today Dan?”
“Not too bad. Failed my driver’s test.”
Gene offered a nervous chuckle. “Why were you taking a driver’s test?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Just thought I’d mess with Kathleen a little.”
Gene couldn’t hold back a more robust outburst of laughter. “Your daughter’s friend?”
“Yeah. She works part time at the DMV.”
Hearing Eugene continue with his uncontrollable giggling made me smile. I loved it when people smiled. Anything I could do to ignite a burst of laughter was well worth the effort. I had just spent half the morning trying to make myself laugh, but it was better with other people. I didn’t have to work anymore, so that’s how I’d spend part of every single day – pranking people, joking with people, and just trying to bring a shot of adrenaline into people’s lives. That and helping people were my life’s priorities at the moment.
“You headed into the office Dan?” Gene joked.
“Yeah. Long day ahead of me.” He knew I referred to my home as my 'office’. He and my dad were best friends. I’d known Gene since as long as I could remember.
“Let’s meet for lunch instead,” he said.
I shook my head and snickered. “I can’t man. I’m finally framing my honorary doctorate degree today.” I wasn’t a real doctor either. Not technically, anyway. My alma mater thanked me for my recurring donations by offering me a fake diploma along with an awkward appreciatory commencement ceremony. It was their way of branding my name to the arena walls to help with recruiting. I didn’t mind. I did like to joke about it though.
“Come on… I’ll buy,” Gene persisted.
I just didn’t feel like meeting for lunch. “Can we meet next week instead?” I asked.
“The MRI and cranial scan results came in,” Eugene said, going right where I didn’t want him to.
“Maybe we should meet for lunch,” I suggested. I pulled over quickly and parked my car along the shoulder. “I knew you sounded a little too serious today.”
Dr. Hancock nodded a few times. I could hear it. I could see his comforting facial expression in my mind’s eye. I could even hear the thoughts inside his head. Those weren’t very comforting.
“Gene?” I asked.
“Dan, you have Alzheimer’s.”
A tingling sensation spread through my chest and I felt my lip quiver. I don’t know why it quivered. Somewhere, deep down, I already knew. The finality of it was tough to hear though.
“I’m only 44,” I said, directing the confirmation of my denial more toward the heavens than toward Gene. I had taken the tests over a month prior and thought maybe I’d passed. No news is good news, right? I’d forgotten to take into account that Gene was an old family friend. He couldn’t get himself to spill the beans I imagine.
He knew the drill though. Many patients had tried bargaining away his diagnoses before. Still… this was different. The somberness of his tone told me he was gutted too. “I don’t know what to say Dan.”
I wiped my hand across my face, hiding myself from the brightness in front of me. “Is it from hockey?”
“I’m not completely sure. But my guess is… yes, it’s probably from hockey. This is a pretty early onset. You don’t have a family history.”
I wasn’t sure what to say either. I felt myself suddenly wanting to cheer him up for some reason. “Wait, what did you just say there Gene, like a second ago?” That was the only way I knew how to feel better myself.
This time, Gene forced his chuckle. “Let’s talk for a while Dan.”
“Ok… Osseo Pizza?” I asked.
“Sure Dan. I’ll be there in ten or fifteen.”
Neither of us said a word for a few seconds so I hung up. I still didn’t care to meet. Nothing he’d tell me would change anything.
“So, this is the autumn of my life, isn’t it?” I asked the emptiness around me. I knew the scene in front of my eyes would be burned into my memory for as long as memories existed inside me: the colorful trees, the perfect sky, the breeze running effortlessly through the blades of grass. And I couldn’t think of anything else except how bittersweet it all was to look at. Everything in front of me seemed more real than ever, and I knew nothing would ever be as beautiful as I saw it at that moment. The colors were already fading away, right in front of my eyes.
My phone rang again. I picked up the call without speaking.
“Kathleen thinks you’re crazy.”
“Why is that good?”
“She’s studying psychology, right? Trying to be a therapist?”
“So, I’m her first patient. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to fix me.”
“Dad, stop messing around. Kathleen had a tough upbringing. She has like no confidence.”
“Why do you think I went there today?”
“Because you’re weird and you think you’re this funny, wise old shaman man.”
“She needs to believe in herself Alexandra. Just tell her I’m a narcissist or something. Tell her I refuse to see a therapist. Maybe sprinkle in a little OCD too.”
“You want to act insane behind her back so she can fix you behind your back?”
I smiled. “Sounds like me and your mom. How is your mother anyway?”
I heard Alexandra laugh a shot of air through her nose. “I think she’s ok. Did you get your test results yet dad?”
“Oh, no… not yet. I completely forgot all about that.”
“That’s not funny dad.”
“I know. I’m sure it’s fine.”
I could hear the tension in her breathing. I think maybe she could sense mine too. It wasn’t the right time for me to say anything.
“Dad, I wrote you a poem. Do you wanna hear it?”
“Sure,” I said, pinching my eyes to trap the tears in. “What’s it called?”
“Hope,” she replied.
I felt the tingling hit at my chest again. “Ok. Let’s hear it.”
I heard her take a deep breath. I knew she wasn’t embarrassed or worried about me liking it. She was just nervous.
“To my dad…” she began. “Hope with all your heart. Maybe everything will be just fine. Hope with the irrational part of your soul. Hoping is actually a really good sign. It means you won’t give in. It means there’s always a chance. It means you’ll never lose your sweet grin. Tomorrow will bring at least one more dance. Some things are bigger than us. Miracles happen every single day. I’m scared, I admit it, but one thing’s for certain. God will answer you, whenever you pray. If you lose hope, you lose your will. You lose the essence of what makes you fight. You know I’m right. Your future’s bright. Your future, to me, is a beautiful sight. So be the fighter I know you are. I’ve never known you to shy away. Dream the most marvelous dream you can think of. Because I need you to stay dad… I need you to stay.”
My lungs were empty. I couldn’t inhale for a few seconds. I hung up and burst out crying. The news still hadn’t even sunk in properly yet and already I couldn’t function. When I saw my phone start ringing again, I swallowed hard a few times and cleared my throat. “Hi sweetheart.”
“Did you hang up dad?”
“No. I just went through the tunnel. I heard the whole poem though before it cut out. That was so beautiful.”
“Thanks dad. You’re still holding out hope, right?”
“Will you call me right when you hear back from Dr. Hancock?”
“I’ll try to remember.”
“Dad. Promise me.”
“Alex. We’ll find out soon enough. You have your own life to live. Don’t ever let anything get in the way of that, ok?”
“Yeah, sure,” Alexandra replied, sounding only slightly convinced. “You wanna hear a secret dad?” she asked, more excitable.
I smiled. “I would love to.”
I already knew. Liam called to ask my permission a few weeks prior. “Who is Liam again?”
“Did you say yes?”
“I assume his parents are paying?”
The carefree sound of Alexandra’s light laughter perked me up. I couldn’t help but smirk. The leaves suddenly looked immaculate again. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the beauty in front of me would never truly diminish.
The Firstborn: Chapter One
It’s nearly four in the morning when I hear the crackling of twigs and stiff leaves outside my window.
I take a deep breath, bracing myself. I always knew that it would one day come to this, but I hadn’t expected it so soon. I quickly remove my nightclothes and begin throwing on my most official-looking dark dress and cloak, although it’s difficult when my fingers are fumbling; after all, I’ve just been rudely awoken, and am not fully in control of my body yet. The continued sounds outside assure me that the intruder has not yet escaped, so I take the extra time to apply a little bit of dramatic makeup, although I feel extremely silly while doing so. Now’s not the time for that kind of thinking, though. I've got to focus.
It’s time. The moment I’ve been warned about since childhood.
It’s time to defend my garden, and my honor as a witch.
I summon my courage, draw a deep breath, and then throw the door wide open, cackling as madly as I possibly can and swinging my lantern wildly. Lightning flashes overhead, and thunder cracks a mere moment later. The autumn always brings with it these terrible storms, and I often lose plants to its fury, but this time, it works in my favor. Ignoring the rain, I step forward, my eyes searching for the one who has intruded.
“Oh, hey,” comes a rather bored voice, and I turn, scowling, to see the criminal.
The light of the lantern illuminates her. She looks young--probably around my own age--and is just as beautiful as one would expect of a maiden. It’s hard to see through the rain and darkness, but her form is slight, her face elegant and feline. The thing I notice even more than that, however, is her expression.
She looks utterly unimpressed.
I’m starting to feel like something is a little out of place--isn’t she supposed to be terrified?--but I continue, as I have studied for. “Impudent girl,” I hiss, advancing toward her, “how dare you come into my garden unannounced? And--” I seize her slender wrist, twisting so that I can see what is in her hand. They’re stems with purple, star-shaped blossoms, and she wears a thin glove on the hand holding them. “My magical plants? You think you can steal my herbs and get away with it?”
“Nah, I kind of figured you’d catch me,” she drawls, yanking her arm out of my grip. She shoves the handful of flowered plants into the pocket of her cloak, and actually has the nerve to yawn at me. “Story goes that you’ll demand something from me to pay for the herbs I stole, right?”
I know I’m supposed to be threatening right now, but all I’m capable of at the moment is gaping stupidly.
She rolls her eyes, actually rolls her eyes, at me. “Uh, hello? Are you distracted or something?” She sounds as though she finds it excruciatingly dull to have to discuss this with me. “I have places to be, you know. I’ve already got everything I need. You took forever to come out, so I’ve been waiting. Let’s just finish this up, shall we?”
Her crisp tone snaps me out of my stupor, although my pride has just started stinging a little. If I’m not mistaken, she’s being kind of insulting. “Y-yes,” I respond, attempting to keep up my act but starting to lose it in my state of confusion.
I squeeze my eyes tightly shut. No, don’t lose it! You’re a witch! You can do it!
“Poor little peasant girl,” I jeer, slipping back into my rhythm and tipping her chin up with one finger, “you came into my garden to steal my magical herbs. You will not get away so easily.” I give another laugh, and am fairly pleased; it sounds reasonably menacing. “Why should I, the witch Siobhan, allow you to live?”
“Oh, come on,” she snaps, clearly becoming exasperated and waving my hand away. “Can we skip to the part where you demand something in return? I really do have things to do.”
I glare at her for a full three seconds before answering. “Fine,” I retort, forgetting the whole scary witch thing for a second. I clear my throat, getting back into the swing of it. “Fine,” I repeat, more eerily this time. “I will let you live, and because I am generous, I will allow you to keep your stolen herbs. They are valuable and will bring you great rewards if used correctly. Therefore, as payment, you will give to me…” I pause for effect; working together with me, as the weather often does with witches, lightning strikes again, and I wait for the thunder to really ring before I finish. “You will give to me…your firstborn child.”
There is silence but for the dripping of the rain; then, the maiden says, “Okay.”
Without further ado, she turns, her cloak flowing behind her. She starts to leave, climbing my towering garden wall with apparent ease.
I watch her go, jaw dropping. Am--am I supposed to just let this happen? I always thought that someone who just barely escaped death and promised their firstborn to an evil witch would be fleeing in a panic, or at least seem a little bit shaken up, but this girl isn’t fazed. It’s actually kind of anticlimactic.
Without really thinking, I shout at her retreating back just as she’s about to drop down to the other side of the wall. “What’s your name?”
She glances back at me, and lightning flashes again, illuminating her fine features as she grins. “Gwyn,” she calls back, and then she’s gone.
I’m not sure what to do now, so I call it a night. After all, nothing’s more awkward than a dejected nineteen-year-old witch, standing silently in the pouring rain and feeling perplexed over some sassy herb thief.
I sleep in until noon because of how late I was up, and I’m still in a foul mood as I wander around groggily. Who does that girl think she is? Sipping my peppermint tea, I flip through some of my old textbooks, searching through the sections regarding exchanges with maidens. All of the books say just what I’d recalled them saying: the poor, frightened young lady will beg for forgiveness, asking to be spared. Then the witch will laugh and mercilessly request something valuable--generally the firstborn child. The maiden will then cry and run away.
I accidentally spill some tea on my shirt and make an unidentifiable noise of frustration.
That Gwyn girl was definitely not typical. Should I ask someone about this? It’s not as if witches really have families to ask about this sort of stuff, but I do have a couple of older friends. Asking them would probably be a bad idea, though; witches aren’t a sociable bunch, and besides, I don’t know a single witch who encountered her first maiden before the age of forty-five. It’s possible the situation seemed strange because I’m not as intimidating yet, being a younger and less weathered witch.
There’s also the fact that I’m not exactly the best at being a witch. My spells are shoddy and tend to set things on fire that they shouldn’t, my evil cackle sounds something akin to maniacal hiccuping, and hunching over to try to look creepy hurts my back, so I don’t really have the whole look down yet. I’m awkwardly in the middle appearance-wise; most witches are either stunningly, superhumanly beautiful or horribly, terrifyingly hideous, but I couldn’t possibly be more mediocre in appearance. My hair is black and a little frizzy, my eyes are a clear grey, and I’m pretty tall, but no one would go so far as to call me either ugly or pretty. I’m also incredibly clumsy and lack general talent, or so I’ve been told. My potion-making is my only redeeming skill as a witch, but even then, I have trouble with the more devastating concoctions; I’m really much better at making healing brews and tasty sauces, which is not exactly what witches are supposed to excel at. It’s entirely plausible that Gwyn just isn’t scared of a woman who looks like she’s more likely to trip over her own feet than perform a curse.
I’m too irritated to continue reading. I throw the book I’m holding against the wall, accidentally dropping my mug of tea at the same time. It takes a couple seconds for the sight of the broken china and soaked floor to register, but once it does, I’m even more upset.
Then again--I go about cleaning it up by hand, not trusting my faulty magic to do it without burning down my house. Maybe it’s a good thing. Who ever heard of a witch that drinks peppermint tea, anyway?
I’m actually a bit impressed with the strange results of some of my spells.
For example, the spell I tried to perform only a moment ago is a very simple one, designed for only one thing: turning a creature into a mushroom. I tried to cast the spell on a tiny mouse for practice, intending to turn it back right away, but I’m no longer sure that reversal is possible. The mouse isn’t a mushroom.
It’s the size of a horse.
I try the reversal incantation for the mushroom spell, but if anything, the mouse gets a little bigger. It blinks its inky eyes at me, twitching its rod-like whiskers innocently, and I stay perfectly still; it’s only a few feet away from my garden, and if it decides to bolt in the wrong direction, all of my precious herbs are done for.
And what if it doesn’t bolt at all? What if it attacks me? I tense up subconsciously, my eyes wandering to its humongous, gleaming front teeth. If I remember correctly, mice are omnivorous. This mouse is certainly large enough to do some damage to me if it attacks me. I could probably make a loud, scary noise if I use a color-changing spell or something like that, with how my magic is behaving today, but I don’t want to risk injuring the poor thing when this is all my fault to begin with. The result of the failed spell could just as easily be an explosion as a loud noise.
The mouse seems to consider me, tilting its head slightly and perking its round ears; I stare back, not daring to move a muscle. After a second or two, the bizarre creature seems to decide that it is content with the state of affairs and lowers itself to the ground, apparently in need of a nap.
The situation seems to be defused for the moment, but there’s still an inconveniently large mouse in my backyard and I can’t trust my spells to fix this for me. My garden isn’t out of the woods, so to speak, yet. Not to mention that I’ve just seriously screwed up life for this mouse, which is undoubtedly not sure exactly how to function at this new size. What will it eat now? Will it still be able to live by just roaming around the forest? Might it terrify its tiny mouse family with its oversized affection?
If word of my failure gets out to my mentor and the other witches, I’ll be even more of a laughingstock than I already am, and that’s saying something. Transformation spells aren’t exactly the simplest of all spells, but they’re certainly not complex enough to merit an adult witch accidentally performing a growing spell instead. In fact, growing spells are, generally speaking, more difficult to perform correctly. Does this mean I’m a better witch than I’d thought, or just an incredibly bad one? I’m confused.
It’s not as though this is the first time that something like this has happened, but I swore to myself after what happened last time never to make my mentor dig me out of a hole like that again. She’s a kind and understanding witch, but even she looked a little bit flustered after being forced to rejoin all of the pieces of the tree that I’d accidentally blown to smithereens. In addition to that, dust particles from the explosion had turned all of the children in a tiny nearby village into rubber balls, and it was quite a hassle for her to correct that issue before the adults drove us both out of village.
I set my jaw in determination. I’m not going to let my mentor down again. Although I’m loathe to leave the gigantic mouse alone, I take a couple of minutes to scan through one of my brewing textbooks, and I’m able to locate what seems to be a suitable recipe for a shrinking potion. After that, it takes me a few more minutes to complete my calculations, but luckily, this kind of thing is my specialty, so I’m confident I’ve done it correctly once I’m finished.
I realize pretty quickly upon re-reading the list of herbs and quantities I’ve written down that I don’t have everything I need in my garden. Most of it I have in surplus, but there’s one specific herb that I don’t grow, mostly because I’m moderately allergic to it. It’s not a plant that has any close substitutes, either--most of the other herbs on this list have at least one other herb that could potentially serve as a replacement, depending on the specificity of the individual concoction, but not this one. It’s completely and totally unique.
I grind my teeth together unpleasantly. I can’t just give up. This is the only way to fix this.
There’s only one solution: I’ll have to go to the market of the closest village.
I start the walk almost immediately, only pausing to discard my usual cloak in favor of more normal, brightly-colored clothes; the village is quite a distance from here, and if I want to make it there and back before dark, I need to get going. The clothes I wear because witches aren’t exactly society’s favorite sweethearts, and for good reason; after all, there are the curses, the stolen firstborns, the threats against the kingdoms, and much more. The list really goes on and on, so one can’t blame people for getting a little suspicious and angry upon seeing a witch. Hopefully these very un-witch like clothes, combined with my un-witch-like behavior, will make me appear to be...well...not a witch.
I nearly trip on a tree root protruding from the path and curse to myself. I’m young and haven’t gained any notoriety, so I should be pretty safe, but it’s better to be cautious in times like these. Witch hunts are gaining popularity by the day, after all; should something about my face throw anyone off, I imagine it wouldn’t be beyond them to test me somehow. At the very worst, I’ll be burned at the stake. I’ve heard it’s not pleasant.
In any case, maybe I’ll try to buy seed for this herb while I’m in village. Just sneezing every time I harvest nearby plants is a pretty good deal, considering it will mean not having to venture into the village. I’ll just have to keep careful control over my magic when I’m around that section of the garden; sneezing might result in some insane spell if I’m not careful, and one of these days, I’m going to accidentally do something I can’t reverse.
A rather foreboding image of the horse-sized mouse decides to visit my mind again, and I do my best to brush it off. Honestly, of all the embarrassing and strangely frightening things to need to purchase plants for…
The walk is a long and boring one, but I reach the village while the sun is still well above the horizon, so there’s that, at least. Most of the shops that might have what I need are probably still open, so I won’t have to wait here overnight.
The village is quite small and sits with its back in the crook of a tiny mountain range, which surrounds the valley in a vast semi-circle. The narrower tributary of a great mountain river runs through the center of the village, and the majority of the vendor stands are set up on either side of this snaking water.
Ignoring an unhappy, hungry squeeze from my stomach, I hurry over to a stand near the edge of village. It’s my go-to stand, mainly because I know the person who runs it personally, and he already knows that I’m a witch and has promised not to rat me--or any other well-meaning witches--out. He’s not a witch himself, but his sister is, so he has some sympathy for those of us who don’t mean any harm and are just trying to survive.
I shudder, trying not to think about his sister. I’d never say it aloud, for fear of word getting back to him, but his sister’s not my favorite witch. She’s horrible at potion-brewing, so she takes an unfortunately common, and unpleasant, shortcut: live animals. They have significantly more energy than the normal plants, so when a witch lacks finesse or quality ingredients, they sometimes make up the slack by using live frogs or mice or bats. I try to avoid those witches.
Not that her brother knows about that, of course. The guy’s completely sweet and clueless. It works to my advantage, though, since a more down-to-earth person might not be so kind to witches. Plus, it’s nice to see a normal human smiling at me for once.
“Siobhan!” the man shouts, waving cheerily. He has a chubby, boyish face and twinkling brown eyes. I do wish he wouldn’t shout quite so loudly. I hush him as politely as possible.
“It’s nice to see you too, Aedan, but people trying to keep a low profile usually don’t shout their names across the square,” I say, straining to keep a note of exasperation from my voice. Aedan seems to get it, luckily, and he settles for a happy grin as I look over his wares.
I frown, not seeing what I’m looking for. “Don’t you have any yarrow today, Aedan?”
“Fresh out, I’m afraid,” Aedan says. “There was a nasty frost this morning and the less hardy plants didn’t survive, and I’m out of seeds, too. It’s killing my business!”
I could go back to my place and try to harvest wild yarrow, I suppose, but I prefer to buy from Aedan because his plants are reliable and he often has spare seeds. My place is slightly south of here, but even so, the plants in my somewhat protected garden are probably going to be the only safe weak plants around.
It looks like he doesn’t have any silverleaf, either. That herb thief Gwyn stole a bit of mine, and while I don’t really need more of it, I’m curious to know what she’s planning to do with it. It’s a nightshade derivative, so it can be used for its toxic effects as a poison or irritant. She knew exactly what she wanted, too, because she was wearing gloves to negate the skin irritation. Curiously, she also stole a little bit of my tormentil, which I only ever use for healing mixtures. It’s an odd combination: a poison and a pretty flower.
I wonder if Gwyn lives here. The thought makes me both furious and nervous. Furious because she stole my stuff and nervous because she was intimidating while she did it.
“You could try the herbalist on the other side of village,” suggests Aeden brightly, pulling me away from my thoughts. “She has her own storage of plants inside her shop. She’s never out!” He beams at me, clearly waiting for a response.
It takes all of my willpower not to release an exasperated sigh. “Thanks, Aeden. I’ll be back later.” As I turn to leave, waving the jolly man goodbye, I stop for a moment and say, “Take care of yourself.”
“You too, Siobhan!” he practically yells. I glare at him for good measure and hurry away, toward the opposite end of village. I have to cross the river, but there’s a conveniently located bridge nearby.
Because the village is very small, it does not take me long to locate the herbalist’s shop. It’s on the border of the village, and it’s a small building with a faded and old but rather neat sign, which is adorned with painted flowers and reads “Daisies on the River”.
I step cautiously into the shop. I’ve never met the owner, so I am once again presented with the issue of trying to not seem like a witch, which is much harder than it should be for a witch as un-witchy as I am. Something about us gives off a magical aura, creeps people out. I just have to hope that the owner of this shop is unperceptive--or doesn’t care.
For the moment, though, it doesn’t really matter; the owner must be in the back, as the shop is empty apart from myself. The assortment of plants is surprisingly vast. In fact, I instantly see the small white flowers of the yarrow I’m looking for, although I don’t see any silverleaf or tormentil. Whoever owns this shop has at least twice the variety of plants that I do, although many of them wouldn’t be very useful to me; I do, however, spot at least three that I would like to purchase. There are even seeds or buds for every type of plant.
I’m just marveling at the selection when a voice from the back calls, “Sorry, I’ll be out in just a moment!”
I barely have time to register how strangely familiar that voice sounds before the shop owner steps out, and I gasp in disbelief.
I can’t tell if she recognizes me or not, since she mainly seems confused and irritated by my dramatic gasp. I guess it’s possible that she doesn’t, since we were in a storm and my face was mostly obscured by my cloak and makeup. I recognize her immediately, though. That clear voice, those sharp features, that almost bored expression. I couldn’t see her hair because of the cloak before, but it’s a lovely, flowing golden blonde, and her eyes are an incredibly bright, pure green.
“Hello?” she says, and I realize she’s been trying to talk to me while I’ve been gawking this whole time. “Can I help you?”
I cough, hoping against hope that she doesn’t recognize me. She doesn’t look suspicious, just annoyed. “I need to purchase some yarrow.” I pause for a moment, watching her to see if she recognizes my voice, and when it seems she doesn’t, I continue, “Also, some black haw, some lady’s mantle, some coltsfoot, and some goldenstar.”
“Sure,” she says, her face softening now that I’ve stopped spacing out. Possibly she just has a low tolerance for people wasting her time. Her movements are certain and smooth as she carefully gathers each plant and puts it in a well-sealed bag, adding more or less at my request. I end up having her fill up her largest bag with yarrow.
“Do you want any seeds or buds for these plants?” Gwyn asks.
“Yes,” I respond hastily. “For all of them, please.”
She smiles, and I’m momentarily frozen by how blinding it is. “Are small bags okay?”
I nod dumbly. As she gets to work putting together bags for me, my brain finally starts to catch up to what’s happening.
That sassy plant thief runs her own plant shop! It seems she truly didn’t have the plants she stole from me, though. I can’t help but wonder what she needs them for. For a moment I wonder if she is a witch, too, but I banish the thought quickly from my mind. We’re very in tune with each other, witches. I can tell another witch’s magical aura from a non-witch’s aura instantly, even if I’m not a particularly good witch.
Do I confront Gwyn? I ponder this as I watch her use her delicate fingers to deftly tie the tiny sacks shut. I probably shouldn’t, since it’ll be bad if she ousts me as a witch in the middle of the village. It’s really lucky that she hasn’t realized it’s me already; I’m sure she’d be itching to expose me, since I’d probably have to flee. She must just be one of those people who isn’t good at picking up auras, which is great for me. I am, however, still upset with her, and part of me is itching to pick a fight or intimidate her or at least find out more about her.
“What’s your name?” I ask before I can think too hard about the potential risks of engaging her in further conversation, and although I already know the answer.
“Gwyn,” she says. She’s tying up the last small bag now. “Yours?”
I pause, horrified at myself for almost just blurting it out.
I swallow painfully. “Shrew,” I say lamely. It’s not the best fake name ever, but it was the first thing that popped into my head...possibly because of the horse-sized mouse.
“Shrew,” she repeats coolly, giving me a once-over. Her green eyes rove over me, crystal clear and attentive. She finally gives me a smile, this one a bit more playful than the gentle ones from before. “It suits you.”
Well, it shouldn’t, since it isn’t my name. Also, does she think I look like a shrew? Isn’t that...insulting? Well, whatever; it seems she meant it as a compliment. I smile back despite myself.
“Do you live around here, Shrew?” She’s putting all of the little bags into a larger one as she waits for my response.
How do I answer this one without sounding suspicious? “Pretty close, yes,” I respond. “My family runs…” My brain hurts from all this making stuff up. “...a farm a couple hours away. We have cows and pigs and things.” Really smooth, Siobhan. Very convincing.
“Is that so,” she says, nodding thoughtfully. “Well, in any case, I do hope you’ll drop by again soon. It’s always nice to have customers that appreciate my yarrow.” There’s a mischievous look on her face, and there’s a pause while she hands me the bag, which is still surprisingly light. “That’ll be twelve pounds.”
I hand her the money and bid her farewell, and before I realize it, I’m outside and walking back. It’s growing dark now, and although the way back to my place isn’t terribly dangerous, I really should be hurrying. I spent more time than I meant to due to that distracting Gwyn.
The unusual absence of my cloak has left me rather colder than I’d like, but my newly established half-jog through the forest is keeping my blood pumping, at least. I almost trip several times, though, mainly because my brain’s racing even faster than my body.
One would expect a witch who’s been robbed and mocked to be angry upon seeing the criminal, but I was too shocked and anxious to feel much anger upon meeting Gwyn. There’s that air of incredible confidence that makes me feel like I’m standing before a mountain, rather than a woman. Where does her confidence come from? If I had to guess, she’s about my age, so what is it that makes her so self-assured?
Well, whatever it is, I lack it. At least I know where Gwyn lives now. I think there’s some sort of pact that should tell me when she has her firstborn, since the words of witches can be binding in certain circumstances, but I can at least keep an eye on her until then. For the purpose of making sure she doesn’t sneak off somewhere, of course. She’s undoubtedly a tricky, thieving, cunning maiden.
By the time I reach my home, I’m exhausted and shivering and I have scrapes all over my hands and knees from falling over so much. The giant mouse is still loitering nearby, and I sidestep him carefully on the way into my house, although that doesn’t stop his giant black eyes from staring a hole of shame into my skull.
I store my purchased goods in a cabinet for now; I’m too fatigued and anxious to do anything with them tonight, so I’ll have to hope the mouse will stay intact until tomorrow, when I can start brewing the potion I’ll need to fix my mistake. I climb into bed and quickly fall into a sleep filled with dreams of Gwyn’s face, laughing at me mockingly.
The Heart of Things
Compulsion lead her to step on each fallen, crumpled leaf as she walked down the seemingly forgotten path. The sound satisfied her, and each crunch sent a tingling sensation from the bottom of her shoe to her entire body. The pavement was laced with the remnants of summer, and the barren tree branches swayed nakedly in the wind. Depending on one's disposition, Fall could paint a beautiful story of transition or a depressing tale of things gone too soon. She reflected on these ideas, and realized that she was uncomfortably suspended between both. As she crossed the street, she noticed a raccoon flattened into the road. Streaks of red and loose pieces of fur were the only indications that there was once a life in this pile of guts. She stopped in the middle of the intersection and took a thorough glance at the dead animal. Normally, she'd have walked passed it and just sighed with a twinge of sadness. But today, perhaps inspired by the facade of decrepitude in the trees, she stopped and stared. She was arrested by one of its eyes that was still intact--wide open. It reminded her of her grandmother--minutes after she died. The dullness of her eyes and her crusted mouth, wide open--comfortably a corpse more than a person. "But what makes the difference?" She wondered. She looked up at those deceptive trees, on the precipice of some sort of conclusion, and walked on.
She was on her way to meet a friend for coffee. But was rather early, so she strolled to pass the time. Once it got too cold to justify the walk, she popped into a used book store. She quite enjoyed the atmosphere of these types of stores. But was, admittedly, not much of a reader. The air of intellectualism and literature was alluring to her, even though she hadn’t finished a book in years. It would always start the same. She’d revel in holding the book. Smelling it. Excited by the description on the back. She’d pop it open and would intensely read the first few pages. But prose almost never kept her. Her eyes would tire. Perhaps her imagination was limited, and she preferred the worlds of cartoons and anime. Whatever the reason for the disconnect, her compulsions did not extend to finishing boring literature. She had crushed countless leaves on her journey to the cafe and would, inevitably, devour every inch of the sandwich she was going to order. She followed failing relationships to their very end and would pick and clip every fingernail until they were all the same size. And yet, she could not commit enough to a single book for more than a few chapters. She plucked a book from one of the shelves and examined it. Hardcovers were her favorite to hold. When determining if she’d ever actually take a book home for a half-assed attempt at reading, she relied on obscure titles and nice cover art. She stood there with the dusty book and felt its weightiness. “The Heart of Things” lined the cover in thin white letters. Intrigued, she read the back, but assessed that she wouldn’t lose herself in the story, so she placed the book back on its shelf. She looked up and began to observe the university students ponder through their choices and her eyes followed them to the cash register. The old man behind the counter seemed to be a perfect match for the atmosphere. He wore a black turtleneck and jeans, that were no-doubt purchased at a consignment shop. The frames of his glasses were round and sat on the bridge of his nose. She wondered if he had to look down in order to see through them. His wispy white hair was tied back into a ponytail--the balding center revealed a shining scalp that he wore like a crown. She wondered how many books he’d finished in his lifetime and gathered that he was making silent judgements at each person’s choice as he checked them out. She imagined him wisely asserting that “you can tell a lot about a person based on what they read”. She wondered if that was true.
Growing bored of the book store and chastising herself for being so early, she marched on to find another distraction to kill the time. She’d forgotten that it was cold outside and grumpily debated going back to the store for warmth. As she walked and crushed leaves, a man came into view holding a cup and standing outside of a restaurant. His hood laid over his head, secured in place by two scarves. He was toothless and his eyes revealed that he’d seen more in this life than he’d like to remember. She silently walked passed him and wondered if the people around her were consciously ignoring him in the way she was, or if they just didn’t even register that he was there. There were a few who mouthed “sorry” to his requests for help. She never quite knew what to say in those moments, but tried her best not to say “sorry”. She couldn’t imagine how many times he’d heard that, and wondered if he even distinguished the difference between responses that were all a form of “no”. But today, compelled by those solemn tree branches and some other accompanying force unknown to her, she doubled back and placed a five dollar bill into the man’s cup. She tried to give earnest eye contact and fished for some encouraging words. But the only thing she could think to say was “Good luck to you”. Giving homeless people money rarely made her feel better. Often times, it made her feel worse. At once, she could feel the weight of the hopelessness of the world...in front of her. In the form of a toothless old man who has been on the blind side of the universe. And how flimsy her small money was. But in those moments, she tried not to focus on what she was giving, but how she gave it. It seemed more important to acknowledge him. To look at him. But even that approach had a touch of condescension. There was no winning, so she had learned to just mindfully ignore them. And would reconcile that feeling within herself as she walked passed.
She mulled over this thought for the rest of her walk, as she finally approached the cafe, ready to meet her friend. She looked at her phone and was amazed to see that she was now five minutes late.
The Signs of Autumn
“You’re definitely an Autumn,” the makeup artist told me as she roughly brushed a brown color on my eyelids.
“Well, Autumn IS my name.”
“That is just too funny!” she gushed, “It’s a really pretty name.”
“Is it?” I thought to myself. Fall is the season where the skies darken, a chill sets in, and plants start to die. More depressing than pretty. But I wouldn’t say any of this to the makeup artist. She was preparing all the bridesmaids for my friend Paige’s wedding and you’re supposed to be cheerful for weddings.
When our faces and hair were ready, all the women walked down a long hallway to where the groomsmen were. Two of the other bridesmades were discussing the men in the wedding party. I’m a quiet person and for some reason people seem to think that also means I don’t listen. In reality, it means I listen more.
“I’m totally going to hook up with the best man,” the maid of honor whispered loudly to another bridesmaid.
“That’s so cliche!”
“He’s smoking hot! I’ll do that cliche.”
“No offense, but you barely know him. Isn’t that a bit slutty?”
“I’m not slutty... I’m sexually social!”
We got to our walking partners and linked arms. Who we walked with was based off of height and we were the shortest pair. I don’t care about height with guys like some girls do. My partner was probably 5′7 and I thought he was very attractive. As we walked down the isle, I struggled in my heels, and clung tightly to his arm keep myself steady.
Paige looked breathtaking with her long blonde hair in curls. Nobody would ever think she looked like an Autumn. She radiated sunshine like a summer day. She cried gently as she gave her vows and even her tears seemed happy. I’d never understood the concept of happy tears. If I cried it always meant I was sad.
Following the ceremony, the wedding party went outside to take photos. Everybody kept commenting on how lovely the colorful leaves were, but I couldn’t wait for the shoot to end. The flashing lights and moving around for different poses exhausted me. Eventually it ended and we were all told we could go back in for the reception.
Craving a few moments of quiet and solitude, I decided to take a short walk in the woods nearby. It was calming, especially since I knew the reception was about to be loud and crowded. Several times I was about to turn back, but decided to venture a bit farther.
Then I stumbled and everything went dark. I had slipped on some falled leaves, hit my head, and loss consciousness.
I’m not sure how long it was before somebody shook me back to reality. I sat up very slowly with my pounding head.
“Are you ok?” the girl who had shaken me asked.
“I’m Autumn,” I responded groggily.
“Do you believe in signs, Autumn?” she asked me as she brushed some hair behind her ears.
Her ears were pointy and I stared at them. She noticed and covered them up quickly. Now I was scanning her in search of something. The girl was pale and petite with little hands and feet. She reminded me of something.
"You look like a fairy."
Impossibly, her skin became paler and she didn't move a muscle. She started muttering something barely audible.
"You must have been one of us."
"You have to help us! Autumn is almost over and then it'll be too late!"
She was louder now, almost frantic. Before I could respond, we both heard the swish of people walking through leaves and calling my name. The girl I had been talking to rushed away. Starting to feel dizzy again, I lied back down. I vaguely recognized the men who approached as Paige's cousins.
"Her head is covered in blood," one said to the other seriously.
For the first time, I touched my head and noticed it had indeed bled. It seemed to have stopped though. They each took an arm and started walking me to the hotel the reception was at. As they discussed calling an ambulance, I thought to myself that these linked arms reminded me of walking down the aisle as a bridesmade. The guy I walked with had also been pretty pale and petite. Did he have pointy ears too?