My First Novel! & other news

LikeWaterFrontApril-200x300I'm excited to share the news that my first novel –Like Water– is now for sale! Thanks to everyone who has supported this transition to fiction writing.

"Like Water is a love letter to both the streets of Oakland and the youth who walk them. It tells of the city's history as well as the conflagrations threatening to devour it. These are characters attempting to love through the fire."

– Nayomi Munaweera author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors

 

I've also just completed an amazing writing intensive with Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I wrote 19,200 words in one week, read a huge amount of stories, and learned more than I can say.

If you are interested in online or in person writing workshops, I recommend Kris and Dean. They won't hold your hand, but offer straightforward information that really helps your writing. If you want a suggestion on where to begin, Writing with Depth is astonishingly helpful.

 

My Writing

Greetings,

Though I've continued writing my weekly stories, I'm not posting them right now. Someone commented on The Ice Cream Van that my stories were getting good enough that I should start submitting them for publication. So posting my practice writing here has come to an end.

I've been researching magazines, reading more stories, and studying while I write. As my fiction progresses, I'll keep you posted.

My intention is to eventually offer my wares for sale here, and to post any professional sales I may have.

 

Thanks for reading.

The Ice Cream Van

He stood in front of the open Sub Zero. Mustard. Some salad greens. An expired carton of rice milk. Cheese. Neatly contained and stacked leftovers of grilled fish, sauteed vegetables, rice.

The cold washed over his face, and was starting to creep down the rest of him. He could smell an old, escaped onion in there somewhere. Somewhere in the back of the crisper, no doubt.

John shut the refrigerator door. The kitchen felt empty. All chrome and glass.  Temperature controlled wine room. He shook his head slightly. Sank to the slate floor. She was never coming back.

“Ba dum, ba dum, ba dadaddum, ba dum ba dum ba DUH dum!”

The tinkling, slightly out of phase, sound of chimes came through the open window. Ice cream. Bad ice cream. Cheap ice cream. Ice cream sandwiched between two long, softening chocolate wafer cookies. Ice cream in a cone, covered in hard chocolate and nuts. Ice cream on a stick. Fudgesickles.

John was quickly on his sneakered feet, patting the pockets of his track suit for change. There was money on the entry table. He’d left it there three days ago, after Carol broke up with him at Le Lune and he’d crawled home and sobbed himself to sleep on their king size bed with it’s 700 count navy sheets and pillow top mattress.

She had already rented a fucking condo across town. Would send movers for the things she wanted in a week or so. The condo was a different look, you know, so the things from the house wouldn’t really fit, overall.

She had left the house that morning without mentioning a word.

“You must be joking!” He had shoved his glass of wine across the starched table cloth, coming perilously close to knocking into the candles. Carol’s manicured hand steadied the squat glass tumbler filled with glass beads and black tea light. Her fingernails were always these weird perfect ovals with white tips. They matched her sleek mahogany hair and her sharply tilted eyebrows.

“You’ve been considering this for what? A month? Three months? A year?”

She just sipped her Malbec and looked at him with those green eyes. Tinted contact lenses. “We’ve been drifting, John. You know that. You haven’t been yourself in quite some time."

No. He hadn’t been her in quite some time. He didn’t match her nails and eyebrows and perfect hair. He had loved her. Still loved her. He’d tried, and clearly failed.

John carefully pushed back his chair and rose. Kissed her pale, powdery cheek. Then threaded through the other tables and out the door, leaving it to her to pay the check.

The chimes were growing louder. The truck was almost in front of the house. He jogged toward the cherry wood console and the brass dish set under the Chinese vase with its now drooping bouquet. Under the keys and change he saw a five dollar bill. He pocketed it all and ran out the door.

The ice cream van was chugging up the little rise. Bright blue and yellow it rolled, incongruous, past the green sweeps of grass, the curving driveways, and the Tudor facades. How had it even gotten through the gate? Past the guard shack?

Then John noticed there were strange paintings on the side panels. Hedgehogs dancing. Otters drinking tea. A bear reading a gilded book. The van began to slow, stopping in front of the walkway at 836 Jasmine Drive. The jasmine still sweetened the air, despite attempts to tame the unruly vines by the homeowners association. Fascists.

John stepped carefully toward the van, some of his excitement ebbing as the strange reality before him registered. The side window rolled up with a snap. Down plopped a hinged yellow counter. And behind the counter was the most amazing sight of all. A man? A man. Attenuated. Spindly. Spidery. Thin. With a tall top hat and a faded black frock coat. Out of his breast pocket peaked a red and white striped puff of silk. He didn’t look like an ice cream vendor. He looked interested. And interesting.

“Come forward, my friend! I have treats in store! I have lavender ices and chocolate drops. I have licorice as black as a raven’s mouth and ice cream as smooth as a selkie’s thighs.”

John’s heart was beating funny and he had a weird taste in his mouth. Like that one time Carol had made him try Chartreuse at that fancy French Quarter restaurant when he’d flown down to join her on some business trip. Strangely spicy and sugary at the same time. His eyes were playing tricks, too. It seemed like there were things creeping up on him, but when he turned his head, all he saw was concrete and tarmac, Tudor homes and green.

“I don’t know what that means. I just wanted some ice cream. You got ice cream sandwiches? Vanilla?"

The man behind the counter looked disappointed. His sharp mouth turned down a bit. Then turned upward again.

“I think I know what you’ll like! Rose petal ice cream delicately placed between cacao shortbread!” He bent, head obscured by the wall of the van. John stared at one of the otters. It stared back. He could hear rummaging and muttering. The man finally rose up again, proffering – that was really the only word for it – a bar wrapped in bronze waxed paper.

Fumbling in his pocket, John pulled out the five.

The man waved his slender fingers in the air. “No no! No payment required! This is our gift to you!” He placed the cool bar in John’s hand, withdrew his arm, flipped up the counter and slammed down the window.

“Toodleoo!” He called out from the front seat.

The van started rolling. The chimes began again, “Ba dum, ba dum, ba dadaddum, ba dum ba dum ba DUH dum!”

John shrugged, then peeled back a corner of the bronze paper. The cookies inside was thicker than the usual chocolate wafers. He sniffed at the bar. Sure enough: rose. The ice cream was pale colored, like vanilla, but with the smallest hint of pink. He peeled back more paper, ripping it as it went. Bit in. The cookie resisted for an moment, then the cold hit his teeth.

And a wash of butter, chocolate, fine ground wheat, and smooth, smooth cream tinged with rose fell through his mouth. John could barely chew. It was as if his body, as if time itself, had slowed. He almost stopped breathing. He licked at a droplet of the rosy cream before it fell onto his hand, then bit through the buttery chocolate and into the ice cream again. He closed his eyes and chewed. Swallowed. Breathed in the scent of jasmine and sun touched grass.

“Selkie’s thighs,” he whispered. “Selkie’s thighs.”

***

They all hungered for something. Love. Acceptance. Recognition. Oh sure, sometimes they hungered for fame, or money, someone to control, or some eye candy that would prove their self worth, but all of those really boiled down to the first three.

Henri piloted the ice cream van past tan and brown houses. Past white houses. Green lawns. Gardens with carefully tended roses, red and yellow. Gardens with low creeping phlox in blues and pinks. The occasional maple. It was almost beautiful and made him long for home. Home of the endless space between dawn and twilight. Home of the rushing waterfalls and deep green moss. The world here felt so flat sometimes. The food was like chewing on tree bark. The music? Like the chimes on this van. Tinny. Non-melodious. But they were comforting to them somehow, those chimes. To those who could hear them at all.

The ones who could hear the chimes were filled with greater needs than most.

They were hungry for some magic.

***

John took a shower for the first time in days. He pulled on dark jeans and a t-shirt and padded barefoot to the closet. There, tucked in the back, was a long sleeved purple shirt with a sharp pointed collar that he’d bought four years ago and worn once.

He’d started out that evening feeling good. The purple set off his blue eyes in the mirror. Carol hadn’t said a word, just paused and gave him the silent up and down.

The party was a disaster. Their friend Tim had sidled over with a beer, tilted it at John’s shoulder, “Feeling happy today, John?” He started laughing. Smacked him on the back. “Hey Jerry, don’t you think John’s looking happy?”

Assholes. The shirt felt good as he pulled it on. Smooth cotton. Crisp. It tucked in flat and narrow around his body. He turned sideways and forward in the mirror, checking all the angles. Yeah. Purple.

That ice cream was really good. John definitely would keep his ears open for the chimes. Not that he’d be staying in this neighborhood for long. Funny, too, that he’d never seen the truck before, not in all the years they’d lived here. He’d never tasted anything like that ice cream sandwich either. Carol didn’t allow ice cream in the house, but he sometimes hit the gelato shop when he was running errands in the city. The gelato was good, creamy, flavored with cardamom or raspberry. But nothing tasted like that rose. Or those cookies.

“Selkie’s thighs. I wonder what the hell he meant by that.”

John had woken with the memory of the ocean, salt spray on his lips, the feel of wind on his face. He’d been dreaming of the sand. Dreaming of the ways the white foam tickled the shore into soft dampness. Dreaming of the blue green of the waves. He’d heard singing. Some melody he couldn’t place. A song he knew, but hadn’t heard before.

He had awakened with tears on his face, but no real sadness. The feeling was more like…longing? Something he hadn’t felt since he was a boy. He remembered reading books at night, curled under the coverlet, glow-in-the-dark stars winking from the ceiling. Sometimes he would put the book down, stare at those stars, and just be filled with so much feeling. He was never sure exactly what the feeling was, only that he wanted something. It wasn’t that he wanted to get on a rocket ship to the stars. It wasn’t that he wanted to fight a dragon, or quest for a missing goblet. He didn’t want the freaky carnival to come to town, though that sounded pretty cool…

He just wanted something. He wanted something to happen. Nothing ever did.

For the first time, he felt like it just might. And if it didn’t, perhaps he could do something about that.

Yeah, today just might end up being a good day.

***

The ice cream van had seemed a lark. He’d grown weary of the beauty all the time. The sameness and perfection. Here, he got to see different things. He got to travel down alleyways strewn with discarded needles, oil a gorgeous sheen upon the street. He had traveled into towns tucked high into dry mountains smelling of balsam and loam. Had driven past bodegas and delicatessens, pulled up in front of strip joints and movie theaters. He’d driven from ocean to ocean, to tattered boardwalks and pristine sands. He’d given out kite shaped popsicles in East Oakland and white chocolate bonbons in Boulder. He’d driven through Detroit and Pittsburgh. Chattanooga and Crown Heights. Pulled up at a rodeo outside Bastrop and the symphony at Rockefeller Center.

Every single person he’d encountered man, woman, or child – prostitute or banker, football star or chemist, admin or mechanic – they’d all heard the chimes when no one else around them had. They all stepped forward to the yellow counter and asked for what they thought they wanted. It was never what Henri had, but he always had just the thing. Not quite what they expected. Surprising. Delicate. Delicious.

Surprise. Yes. Sometimes he stayed just long enough to watch them start to shimmer with it as they sniffed and chewed and swallowed. Their faces would freeze for a moment. Then soften and relax. A shimmering light crept up into their eyes.  He never stayed past that point, though. Never stayed long enough for them to ask him questions. That wasn’t his job, answering things.

This world was either blinded, hurting, hungry, or numb. His job was to have just that little thing behind the counter. A taste of sweetness. A hint of darkness. The flavor of mystery, with the promise of some light.

With all of that, they could learn to feed their hunger on their own.

Once the magic was inside them…one less cardboard tasting dinner. One more tuneful song that caused loins to stir and hearts to wonder. One more book. One more painting. One more dance. One more building that called people to look and not pass by. One connection. Then another.

It was going to take some time. But Henri had that. And he had an ice cream van.

___________

Week nine of the story-a-week challenge. 2174 words

Finished June 13, 2014 

Our Lady of the Knife

Henry ran his long dark fingers over the carved silver square. He opened one of the small drawers at the top of the mahogany chest and took out a polishing cloth. The figures on the two inch square winked in and out of view as the light blue fabric rubbed them gleaming.

He saw his reflection in the mirror above the chest of drawers. The white shirt he wore offset his skin. Black hair pulled tightly from his face, already in a neat braid down the middle of his back. Carefully, he took a black hair band from the dish on top of the dresser and threaded it through the hole incised at the top of the square. Secured it at the top of his braid, just at the nape of his neck.

The silver shone at the place spirit came. The place the ancestors whispered. The place of vision, light, darkness, and sound.

The square was a sign of his dedication to the Gods. It was inscribed with symbols that showed he was favored of Ilyana – She Who Walks the Crescent. Lady of the Gleaming Knife.

The bedroom was simple. Wooden bed frame holding a queen mattress, covered with cotton sheets and a burgundy blanket. The mahogany chest and mirror.  A closet for the remainder of their clothing. Everything else was contained in the altar room: his drums, rattles, offering bowls, scrying mirror, bones for divination, herbs for sacrifice and to induce Seeing. And the paintings. The paintings made by his beloved Paco, whose bright eyes saw everything so real, so clear. Paco, whose head tucked just inside his shoulder when they slept at night. Paco, who would bring him cold tea in a green glass in the middle of August. Paco, whom he cooked for, laughing. Who would swing him away from the stove to dance to the music always blasting through the kitchen speakers.

Paco, who was gone. Missing for seven days. He would wander sometimes, it was true. When a vision took him he could get a little lost, but he never was gone for more than the time it took for the moon to go from dark to the size of a baby’s smile. When Her knife appeared again in the sky, he always came back home. Not this time.

Henry walked into the kitchen, emptied the old grounds into the metal compost container on the tiled counter. Tamped new ones in. Added a shake of cinnamon. The smell of the grounds alone woke up his mind. They cleared his head. He placed the old silver espresso pot on the stove, turned on the gas and lit a match. His mother had used the battered pot daily when he was a boy. Now she drank green tea. The burner whoomfed into flame. Someday, when they had more money, he’d get a new stove. Paco had been bothering him for one for two years. “I like old things” was all Henry would say. But really – the painter slash substitute teacher and the priest  – they just never had the cash to hand.

He brought his coffee outside to the terra cotta deck just off the kitchen door. A saguaro lifted arms in praise to the morning sky. The small flowers were just starting to give soft color to the bushes. Henry took in a deep breath of the desert air, drawing in the scents of sage and earth. The earth here was almost as red as the tiles. A far cry from New York City, but he loved this place like home. It wasn’t just because of Paco, though that was what drew him in the first place. The desert had seeped into his pores. It honed his stillness, sharpened his gaze. Ilyana was alive here in a different way than the Williamsburg streets. There, she was about cutting through the crowd, slicing up the bullshit. Living hard as steel, quick as the flash of a blade under a streetlamp.

In the desert, She showed another face. Here, She pared him down to work and love. He read the bones and ground the herbs. Ran a small shop that catered to the working people who needed a little extra help to get by sometimes. Guidance. A prayer for money. Health. Enough rain.

The clamor inside him had died down enough that he caught Her other lessons: simplicity, clarity, clean lines in and out. The horizon was a blade drawn opening between earth and sky. The shadows showed Her contrast: bright and dark. He had learned that the city judgements were the byproducts of living in close quarters, trying to carve out a deeper way to feel and see. Things were so muddied there, he’d had to use more force to hear and see. Part of that was forcing things into shapes they didn’t hold naturally – like calling something good or bad when it just was.

Out here, day and night, cool shadow and searing sun were just that. And Paco just loved him, no agenda.

He sipped at the rich espresso with the hint of cinnamon. The white cup was tiny. Paco would tease him. “Your hands are so big, Henrico. Why don’t you make a regular cup of coffee in a mug?”

“I like old things,” he would reply again. He loved the connection to his mother every time he used her old espresso pot. He also secretly liked the delicacy of the cup, the way he had to grip it between two fingers with care. Delicacy was a teacher, too. It was another way to hold the Lady’s knife.

He hoped he didn’t have to pick up Her knife tonight.

***

He was out under the night sky, listening, rattle ready, knife strapped to his hip. The breeze that crossed the desert during sunset had died down. Ilyana’s blade was on the rise. A nighthawk trilled off to the west. Something small rustled in the sage, shifting the scent toward Henry’s nostrils. He closed his eyes. Turned his head, one ear toward earth, one ear toward sky, head beginning to nod. The hand holding his rattle began to shake in time with the nodding. His right foot stomped the rhythm, soft at first, as Henry let his body accustom itself to the energy. The dance always took its own time. Nothing he could do would change it. After sixteen years he had finally learned to just listen and let go.

A low keening rumbled in his throat, rising into the air. He felt the square of silver begin to buzz. The ancestors were gathering around. He could feel their whispers starting, “What is happening? How are you? Do you know what little Henry is doing? I love your new dress, chiquita! Do you think he needs our help?”

The rattle grew louder. Now both of Henry’s feet were marking time, stomping on the packed red earth. He was dancing. His head raised to track the knife blade crescent of the moon. The ancestors were all well and fine, he would feed them later, but for now, he was waiting for the one who came out of the night.

He danced in a circle, shuffling and swooping, stomping and rattling. The air began to bend, putting pressure on his skin. He kept dancing. Kept moving clockwise then outward, clockwise, then out. Marking the directions on the ground. A sunwheel pattern danced under the moon.

It was getting harder to breathe, like he was dancing underwater. But it wasn’t quite here. Not yet. Not yet.

Sweat pooled on his upper lip. He could feel it there, and in the small of his back. A warm prickling sensation as the water beaded on his skin. Ran down into his jeans. Henry looked at the moon. She was wavering. No. The air was stretching and contracting. The moon was constant.

Henry danced faster, more precisely. He made sure his feet touched the red earth just so. The pattern was exact inside him. He danced out that exactness. The rattle wound its sound around his head, he met it with his singing. The pressure grew stronger and stronger, like it was coming from outside and inside, ready to bust out through his chest and into his belly.

He couldn’t hold it anymore. He dropped, knees and palms hitting the ground, rattle rolling out of his right hand. He’d feel this later. Right now, he was just relieved to be able to take in a heaving breath. A coyote walked out of the shrub, silvery gray in the darkness. It trotted right up to where Henry was crouching, still gasping to take breath. The coyote touched a nose to Henry’s forehead. Henry looked into it’s eyes. And fell in.

Red rock rising from the desert floor, pale tips lifting to the sky. Sunlight. Full day. Paco's spirit, struggling with something. Paco was there.

Henry fell face down onto the dirt. The vision left him. The coyote touched a paw to Henry’s head. He rolled to one side, staring at the fur on its legs. This close, he could see white, gray, tan. As varied as the desert flowers when you took the time to look.

“You’ll be wanting water,” he croaked out. “Me too.” Henry crawled over to the cluster of rocks where he’d stashed a small day pack. Pebbles ground into his hands and knees, but he couldn’t muster the strength to walk. Not quite yet. He pulled out the bottle of water, and a small offering bowl. Henry always came prepared. Pouring water onto the earth first, he muttered a prayer to the ancestors and the spirits of the place, thanking them for the vision. He then filled the bowl and set it around a foot away. Coyote drew closer. Drank. Henry drank himself, wincing at the pain in his cheek where it had slammed into the ground. Damn. He washed the coppery taste of blood and saliva from this mouth. Spit it out into the desert, another offering of water.

The silver square buzzed against his braid. “Shit. Shouldn’t have done that.” It was dangerous to spit out blood when spirit was this close. Too easy for anything to track him down, if they had the mind, or wanted a taste of priest dreams. He crawled to where the spit had landed and washed it away with more water, tracing a sigil in the mud for good measure. A confusion glyph. A symbol that said “Look away.” New York City magic. Sometimes it worked.

That was the best he could do. He pushed himself up off the ground, testing his legs. He should be able to manage a walk back home. The coyote was gone, the crescent moon was heading toward the west. Henry put the water and bowl in his pack, found his rattle, and began limping.

His heart was still enough of a New Yorker to want to charge off and find Paco right away. His mind and body knew better. He’d set out after first light. After more water, food, and sleep.

***

Henry had decided he’d need help getting Paco home once he found him. He called Lupita, Paco’s cousin. She’d stay clear headed about the whole thing, both the physical rescue and any metaphysical elements that might arise. They were cruising through the desert in her jeep, heading for the mesa. The one with the tower of white tipped red that rose even higher than the table itself. The Praying Rock, Paco called it. Henry should have known he’d be up there.

Paco liked to go out walking with a Camelback water pack, a small sketchbook, and a little tin of watercolors. Throw some protein bars, a jacket and bandana in, and he was good to go. But not for seven days.

Sometimes Paco’s visions gripped him. That’s why his paintings were so powerful. He painted what he saw, alright, he just saw things that the rest of us never would. Once, Henry found him scratching giant figures in the earth. Ten feet long, some of them. He was working methodically, carefully. It was clear he’d been working for several hours every day, because there were around twenty of the things out on the desert floor. “My sketchbook was too small this time, handsome. You know how it gets.” They took pictures of the figures with Henry’s phone before he dragged Paco back home for a shower, some beans and tortillas cooked on that old stove, and then to bed for twelve hours.

Henry did know how it got, he thought, staring out at the red desert as the jeep ate up the road. They’d be off the tarmac soon, onto one of the dirt roads that criss crossed the vast spaces out here. To get to the Praying Rock, they’d have to leave even those. Lupita’s jeep had handled worse.

He knew how it got because sometimes the Gods and Goddesses were too big for his head to handle. He would be rocking on the patterned rug in the altar room, trying to breathe as they spun through his body, cracking open the back of his skull. Once, Paco had found him there, whispering nonsense syllables and tracing the pattern on the carpet with his hands. The silver square at the base of his skull was white hot. Paco had poured blessed water over it before wrapping his fingers in a shawl to slide it off, and loosening Henry’s braid. Sometimes the Gods used Henry. It seemed like a fair trade off. He had been known to use them, too.

“Where you think he’s at?” Lupita asked. Her dark hair whipped around her face where it had escaped from her baseball cap. She had a great profile. Beautiful like a falcon. Paco sketched her when she would sit still long enough, which wasn’t very often. She drove with precision, hands always at nine and three on the wheel. Eyes always looking for what was coming.

“I saw him at the very top. We’ll have to climb.”

“You have your walkie talkie?”

He nodded. They shouldered their packs and moved toward the red giant rising toward the merciless blue sky. When had he ever expected mercy from the land? Henry’s skin was dry as a porcupine’s quill. They started up the footpath, worn from years of teenagers looking for a place to drink beer and pilgrims seeking a vision that they couldn’t find behind the safety of their doors.

Thirty minutes into the climb, Henry was beginning to regret the fact that he didn’t go hiking much. His boots were wearing blisters on his heels and his thighs and calves were starting to complain. Lupe barely looked winded. She was one badass woman. Trained in Kenpo for a decade. Roped horses for her day job. She caught his look and paused. “Drink some water,” she said, holding out the flexible tubing attached to her pack. She was carrying the bulk of their water. Henry had a canteen attached to his pack, but the bag was filled with medical supplies, just in case, and a long coil of Lupe’s rope.

He drank, then poured some water on his kerchief, and wiped his face before tying the damp cloth around his neck. Looking up the tower, he saw that they were almost there. Another fifteen minutes should do it.

“Let’s go.”

He began to chant a prayer inside his head, keeping time with his steps. The incline was getting steeper and he was starting to wish he’d worn gloves. He grabbed at some scrub to steady himself, and pulled himself up the last five feet.

Paco. Henry’s breath whooshed out from his chest. Oh Lady, look at him. He was lying stretched out in full sun, face up, arms and legs spread like a golden eagle’s. Henry could see the blisters rising on his face and the palms of his hands. Thank the Gods he was wearing a long sleeved cotton shirt and jeans.

Henry and Lupita scrambled toward him. Henry dropped to his knees, barely wincing as last night’s bruises hit the rock. Lupita crouched at Paco’s head, fingers on his neck, checking for pulse. He laid his ear on Paco’s chest. Felt it rise.

“His heart is beating.”

She dribbled some water into Paco’s mouth, then wet a clean handkerchief to lay over his burning face. Henry ripped through the pack, looking for salve and bandages.

“You’ll have to rope him to me, so we can get him down. We can’t wait up here for rescue to arrive.”

***

They had gotten him down, strapped to Henry’s back. It took too long for Henry’s peace of mind, Lupe leading the way, helping him when the path got rough, bracing him when he started to slide.

Paco was finally out of the hospital. He’d been in the burn unit for awhile. Henry visited every day. Sometimes Paco was lucid, other times, he was in dreamtime. Henry could catch occasional words: Luna. Deusa. Demon. Sometimes Paco was smiling. Other times he shook. Henry sat, hands on Paco’s legs to get some contact. He couldn’t hold his ravaged hands.

Nights, after a small dinner of pozole, or nopales, Henry would retreat to the altar room, burning sage, and lighting candles. He took down his biggest drum and called upon the Gods to heal Paco, and to show Henry what the lesson was. “What do I need to know? Whom shall I avenge? Some spirit? Human or divine? Malevolent, mischievous, or just brutally unaware?”

He knew sometimes, when the spirits came, they didn’t understand the skin and bones that humans wore. They could be hard on flesh, being made of light or wind, emotions or fire. He’d seen priestesses whose bodies finally broke. Artists who raved.

He never thought Paco would be one of them. If anything, Henry thought it would be him.

***

The moon had waxed to full and waned to dark again, three times. It was the night of Ilyana, the Lady of the Gleaming Knife. Her crescent was just rising in the sky.

There is nothing to avenge, the spirits had told him, night after night. This is just the testing Paco needs. Henry knew all about testing, but he hated seeing Paco’s pain. He lay so careful next to him, trying not to hurt the new pink skin. Their lips were denied the kisses they so loved. But Henry could kiss him elsewhere. He placed his lips on Paco’s breastbone, and the hollow of his neck. He kissed the space inside his elbows, and the spot above the knee. He kissed the rise of hipbones. And sometimes he suckled at his cock until Paco arched up on the mattress, crying out. Sex was good for the spirit, for the healing of body, mind, and soul. Henry knew this, as a priest and as a man.

Tonight, he’d left Paco sleeping, brought his rattle to the desert once again. His rattle, and his heart. He was seeking Ilyana. Seeking Her knifeblade. There was wisdom in the cutting. There was wisdom in the healing of the wound. He wasn’t sure exactly what he needed anymore. Though he had appreciated the pared down, spare lessons of this place, of his work and love, in some ways, honoring Ilyana in the city had been easier. He didn’t have to be so pure.

Before he even began, he heard a rustling in the sagebrush, smelled the scent of the leaves as something brushed against them. No coyote stepped forth this time. This time, it was a barefooted woman in dark jeans and a crisp white shirt. A wash of black hair fell across her face. Her face was pale and sharp. She moved lightly, her posture straight as a cactus spine.

“Henrico.”

“Lady.” He bowed. Dropped to his knees again. Ouch. He had to stop doing that.

“Rise up, priest. There is no need for kneeling between equals.”

He pushed off the earth and stood. “I am no equal to you, Lady.”

She smiled, and gave a sharp nod. Pleased. She cracked her hands together and two nighthawks flew out from the darkness, speeding past his head. Henry ducked, throwing his arms up. She laughed then, like crystal breaking. A rough sound, sharp and beautiful.

“You still have fear. That is good. It will protect you. But not so much fear that you refuse to come out at night to pray. You throw up your arms, but stand your ground.”

She walked closer to him. Henry felt the hairs along his arms quivering. The silver square at the base of his neck began to hum. “Shit” he said softly.

“Paco’s lessons are not yours. You have mistaken your love for him for your work. His visions are his own. He walks the path of earth and water. You walk the path of moonlight touching earth and air. Together, you make fire that warms body and soul. You may drink of him sometimes, but the way of water is not yours.”

“But…”

She placed a single finger on his lips. Her hand was cool against the blood that rose to meet it, beating in his upper lip. Her eyes. Black, with fingernail crescents of white. The Lady’s knives were everywhere. The wind increased, just slightly, began tugging at the hairs wrapped in their braid. He could see the moon rising higher from the corner of one eye. The red dust puffed lightly around them. He could taste it, clay-like, at the edges of his mouth. He could smell it.

“Feel the air. Taste the red dust and the night. Call back the birds.”

His mind had a moment of confusion, then stilled itself. He closed his eyes and felt the sure, smooth stone inside his belly, so quiet above the blood circulating from legs, to sex, to heart. Nighthawks, his mind whispered.

And they came. Alighting on his shoulders. He could feel their weight there, and the gripping of their feet.

And a release of the soft pressure on his lips. Eyes opening, he saw the Lady drop her hand.

She looked around. “I like it here,” she said. “This is a good place. Different than New York or Soweto. I haven’t visited here in a very long time.”

He caught a flash of mastodons, tusks gleaming, running between red earth and brilliant blue skies.

“Find the way to practice here. Your way. Not exactly the way of this land, but not the ways the city knows. Your way. The way you speak the wind. The way to call the birds at night. The way you hold the knife. The way you sheath it. In the city? You were an apprentice. Clumsy. Here? A journeyman. Pretty good.”

His breath was slowing down. Evening out. The birds preened on his shoulders, nibbled at his ears, letting him know that they weren’t his exactly, but they would come to call. The silver square was still, quiescent, tucked up against his skull. The space inside his skull? It was growing. He could feel himself grow larger as he stood before her.

“Are you saying I’m a master?”

The breaking crystal sound again, she threw her head back and laughed.

“Not yet. Not yet. But you will be. If you give yourself the chance. Hold out your knife.”

He undid the catch at this hip. Unsheathed the blade. Quick as light, she grabbed it from his hand and slashed his left palm. Licked the blood off from the blade. Then she pressed that hand in hers. “You hold the power of the moon now. Always think before you choose. But never be afraid to do the choosing.”

She dropped the blade and he reached out to catch it, right before it touched the earth. The hilt smacked into the palm of his right hand.

“There will be more tests to come. Make sure you pass them. And Paco? He’s a good man. A good choice for you. But don’t let your pathways become confused.”

Holding two fingers to her lips, Ilyana kissed them. She held them out toward his forehead. And disappeared.

Henry breathed out in the night. Held the knife up to the sliver of the moon. The birds lifted, took one turn around his head, and flew.

---------------

Week Eight of the Story-a-Week challenge, 4055 words

Chains

Clara punched down the dough, flipping it on the big wooden board, kneading and punching. Flipping. Kneading. The kitchen was bright with sun. It glinted off the white ceramic bowls, the silver mixer. The yellow walls were lustrous with it. The kitchen was her favorite room. It was where she spent her money when she had it. The scarred wooden table was home to organizing meetings, breakfast with friends, even the occasional romantic dinner when she’d found a woman who interested her. That hadn’t happened for awhile. And she baked less when she was getting regular sex.

She loved the sensuality of the dough changing texture under her hands, and the scent of yeast and flour, and with the sweeter versions, of sugar and cinnamon. She loved the sound the dough made when it hit the wooden board. But more than that, she loved the feel of a woman’s skin. The smell of mushroom or amber. The sound a woman made when she was riding her body, straddling her thigh. Yeah. It had been awhile.

Punching dough was good for working off steam. She had plenty of steam following a winter of doing nothing but reading cards for clients every day, shoveling the sidewalks, and going to bed with a book. The sap aching in the trees ached in her body, too.

“I.” Punch. “Need.” Punch. “To.” Flip. “Get.” Smack. “Laid.”

She paused to get a sip of water. Began to gather up the dough, readying it for the waiting ceramic bowl. She’d cover it with a tea towel, let it set for the second rise.

The smell of yeast doing its thing made her think of her grandfather. He’d come home from work laying brick, take a bath, lay down for fifteen minutes and then, every weekday, he was in the kitchen making bread. Sweet little rolls. Pale bread loaves. Dark rye sometimes. And, for her birthday, gingerbread so rich and moist it tasted like chocolate.

After awhile, he let her help him, showing her how to punch her tiny fists into the dough to make it rise. The more they punched and pulled, the stickier it became.

“You see that, Clara? That will rise with the heat and be soft like you.”

“I’m not soft, Nano!”

“Show me” he would smile.

Flour streaked down her little arms, she would make a fist, offering a bicep for him to feel.

“Getting pretty big. Soon I’ll be taking you to work with me.”

For awhile she’d thought of doing it professionally. Opening a shop somewhere. She had worked in bakeries off and on when money was tight, but hated the hours. She never could get used to getting up before dawn. Reading the bright tarot cards at lunchtime in a local shop, or evenings in a cafe suited her much better. Or on the phone or computer these days, mostly.

Clara had always been nocturnal, even Nano couldn’t change that, though he’d tried. By the time she was a teenager, he’d all but given up. Except that one time, a Summer Solstice morning, when he gotten her awake to listen to the first birds.

She missed him. Two years gone now. Her phone began to ring. She looked at the time.

“Shit!” Usually she gave herself at least 15 minutes to prepare for a client. She had lost herself in the dough.

Fishing her headset out of her pocket, she jammed it in her ear, answered the phone and grabbed another towel to wipe her hands. Slowed down her breath.

“Clara here. Blessings. What is your question?”

A woman’s voice sobbed out some words into her ear. So many of them cried. Sometimes she thought that was the only reason they called. They needed an anonymous place to shed some tears.

She went into the small dining room that abutted the kitchen. Her work space. The wood table was already laid with the purple velvet cloth. Three decks were waiting. She picked up the one with the worn pattern on the back: blue diamonds banded with gold.

***

That night she lit the red candles in their pewter holders and placed them at the edges of the purple cloth. Dimmed the lights in the wall sconces.

She laid out the cards. A simple five card spread.

“Give me some direction.”

Knight of Swords. Ace of Wands. Three of Cups. Two of Discs. “Huh.” Usually the cards wouldn’t arrange themselves in elemental order like that. “So far, OK.”

She turned the last card over, the one in the center of the square.

“Three of Swords.”

A broken heart. What the hell did that mean? She was a little bit lonely, but not too bad. She was healthy as of her last check up six months ago. She worked out. Sort of. Well, she walked and did some push ups.

“It’s for me.” The voice came out of nowhere. Female. Quavery.

“Holy shit.” She’d never had this happen before. Never had someone manifest. She was just a reader, for Goddess’ sake, not a medium. She should have noticed the air in the room smelled slightly different. Was that…heliotrope? Who wore heliotrope?

“Read for me.”

Clara stood up from the table, her breath sounding loud in her own ears. She flipped the light on in the kitchen, too bright after the candles, but she needed bright. Found a bottle of Pinot in the pantry, hostess gift from some party she barely even remembered. There just wasn’t time to steep some chamomile tea. Wine was quicker. Fumbled open the overstuffed utensil drawer, rattling through, searching for a corkscrew.

“Ouch!” Clara put her finger in her mouth. The tip of the corkscrew had bit her hand.

Two fingers of ruby red glugged into a jelly jar. Should be enough. She stood. “Focus on your feet, Clara.” She slowed her breathing. Brought the wine up to sniff. Rich. Slightly tannic. Took a sip. The tastes unfolded on her tongue. A little fruit, not too sweet. Slightly dry. She was sure there were better descriptors, but she rarely drank alcohol. Didn’t have a sophisticated palate. She liked this wine though. And she was stalling.

As she sipped at the wine, she turned to stare at the door into the dining room. Her reading room. She could see the shadows from the candles slightly flickering on the walls. What was moving them? There should only be a slight glow to the room, not these shadows.

Inching her way forward, quietly. Clara looked into the room. The flames were each two inches high, and wavering. Like something was moving in the room. And it wasn’t her.

“Read for me.”

“Who are you?” Clara gripped the jelly jar and looked around the room. Dark wood paneling hung with framed linotypes of the city in its early days. Nano loved those prints. And one small framed Charles Vess drawing that he had gifted her on her 18th birthday.

The candles wavered once more. Clara sat down at the reading table. It hadn’t been used for dining purposes since Nanna had died, way back when Clara was six. From then on, it was Clara and Nano, Nano and Clara. Nano preferred the kitchen table. And now there was only Clara. Left in this house all alone. A house designed for families, not for an old man and a little girl. Not for a young woman on her own. But she couldn’t bear to leave it or rent it out. Certainly she couldn’t sell the place. She kept waiting for someone to come. The right woman.

“Read for me.”

She set down the jelly jar of wine. “OK.”

Knight of Swords. Ace of Wands. Three of Cups. Two of Discs. Three of Swords.

“Everything seemed so clear. Straightforward. Happy. True. Some balancing needed, it was true, but overall, life was good.” The images began to rise inside of her. “And then you lost the child. She was already in her stroller on the front stoop. You were ready to lock up, and realized you’d left the keys on the kitchen table. You were back in one minute. She was gone.”

Clara felt the air in the room go very still.

“Read for me.”

She took another sip of wine. She never drank and read, it messed up the reception, dulled her senses, but she needed a little dulling about now. Took another breath.

“It broke your heart. You grieved for three years. Your husband left after one. Couldn’t get past the anger. Neither could you. You started cutting yourself. Up and down your arms. At night, you would pound on your chest in grief. Then you gave up.”

Clara paused. Looked around. She rose to pull the drapes more tightly closed.

“Don’t you know all this? This isn’t exactly a reading, is it? But the cards aren’t giving me anything else.”

“Read for me.”

“OK.” Clara wiped her hands on her jeans. When had they started to sweat? She could smell the candles smoking in the air. The room was getting warm with it.

“Let’s get some clarification here.”

She pulled out three more cards. Turned up one. The Sun. The Devil. The Tower. Reading for ghosts was turning out to be straightforward. Dang.

“OK. OK.”  She slowed herself down inside. Years of meditation practice could calm her down in seconds. “Right. There’s a child. The child is happy. Joyful. Free of care.”

Suddenly, she knew. “The child is with its rightful parents. You stole that child. You stole that child. It wasn’t yours!” She shoved the chair back again. Went back into the kitchen and poured out more wine. Drank. A big swallow this time.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

The sense of waiting started to press on her. Impatience. “You can just go ahead and wait.”

Clara wondered if she should call someone. Anna was pretty good at these situations. Her coven was meeting tonight though. Dark moons and full moons without fail. There wasn’t really anyone else who would get it.

Clara took another drink of wine. At half a normal glass, she was already starting to feel the slight expansion that occurred just before the buzz came on. “Better go back in.”

 She leaned over the table, slammed her jelly jar down, causing a ripple in the candle flames. “You want to know? Do you?” The pewter holders were streaming with wax. The purple velvet would be wrecked. Clara grabbed the remaining two cards. Held them up.

“The Devil. Pure life force bound up by our fear and delusions. You tried to trap that girl, but you only trapped yourself. The stolen child was stolen back and you were left with your own chains. You are still chained. By your own choice. The Devil has no power over us that we don’t give it. We can accept the life force or we can accept the chains. You forged your chains and you can take them off.”

Clara looked around. The flames had grown still again. She resisted the urge to smear some of the warm sticky wax across her fingers, to let it dry and peel off images of her own fingertips.

She held up the last card. “The Tower. The only way out of this is to destroy everything you think you know. You have to let the Tower fall. It is the only way you’ll be released from this suffering you’ve made. The child is happy. The suffering is all about you. It always have been. Everything you’ve lost, you gave away yourself.”

Clara set the cards back down on the velvet. Soft. She bit her lips. Thinking. Dropped back into the messages again.

“If you ask yourself for forgiveness. If you let go and just let yourself fall. If you let the chains that bind you dissolve…You’ll catch a glimpse of what you want and need. You’ll be a little bit more free next time around. If there is a next time. Jury is still out on that question for me, but I’m just telling you what they’re telling me.”

She was so ready to be done.

“Can you move?” The candles flickered once.

“I”m going to take that as a yes. Follow me into the kitchen. I need to get back to my bread.” Blowing out the candles, she went back into the bright yellow walls and the heavy old table.

She took the tea towel covered bowl down from the top of the old white refrigerator. The flower and the cleaned wooden board were ready. Waiting. She strewed some flour on the wood, lifted the yeasty smelling dough out of the bowl and slapped it on the board. She began to punch the dough back down.

“Look. As far as I can tell, you have a choice here. You can stop insisting that you were wronged. You can admit that – weird as the situation is – the baby you stole was stolen back.”

Clara flipped the dough again, and sprinkled a bit more flour. She loved the feel of the flour, smooth against her skin, and then meeting the sticky dough. Working dough always helped her emotions calm down. Which helped her think.

“I don’t even see how this happened…” She paused. Took a sip of wine, leaving floury fingerprints on the jar. What had gotten into her? She wasn’t drinking much, but more than she ever did, that’s for sure. Must be more than a little freaked out.

Something in her brain kicked over then. Pieces, random fragments of vision and sound, falling together for one instant before they were whisked away.

“It was your sister’s child. Wasn’t it?” The lights in the kitchen flickered. “Well.” Clara closed her eyes and felt it all, seeing snapshots and an occasional stab of feeling. “Your twin. You had a miscarriage. Nine months later, she gave birth. You thought your baby had come back. Oh. You’re never going to heal this way. That’s what the Devil’s chains are. You just keep binding yourself, over and over again, trapped by your sorrow and grief.”

She turned the oven on. Began to shape the dough into loaves. Sisters. That’s why she didn’t go to prison. No one reported the crime. As her hands worked, she prayed. Prayed for the guidance to help this soul.

“OK. Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to get cleaned up and get some things ready. I'm going to put this bread into the oven. Then I’m going to help you, with the powers vested in me as a priestess, to break your chains. To cleanse your connections. Then we’ll find you the door to the light.”

She looked around the room. “Is this what you want?”

The lights flickered again.

“You have to actually say it.”

“Yes,” a voice said.

Clara felt another stab of grief clutch at her belly. “It’ll be better soon. You’ll see. I’m glad you found me.”

***

The loaves in the oven filled the small house with a warm, comforting scent. The scent of Nano. The good smell of home. Her home.

Back in the dining room, Clara had re-lit the candles. A large black bowl of water mixed with rock salt sat in the middle. She had cut a small bunch of rosemary from the pot outside the kitchen door. It sat on the table next to the bowl. Her black handled blade glinted in the candlelight. There was also a small dish of oil, a piece of bread from last week’s baking, and a goblet of red wine.

Her hands and face washed, she had changed into a simple white shift that floated around her body. She didn’t always dress for workings, but this time, she needed all the support of practice and tradition on her side.

“Are you ready?”

The candles moved. “Yes,” said the voice again.

With the image of chains around the woman’s neck and hands, Clara took up the blade, passed it through the candle flames.

“Mighty Ones, we beseech you! We offer bread and oil and wine. We offer our respect. We ask now for your help. This spirit has been suffering for seven years. She wishes now to be set free, to loose the bindings of her own making, to travel through the door. Give me aid. Guide my hand.”

She raised the knife. Breathed upon it three times. Held the image of the woman and the chains clear in her mind. Then, with three great slicing motions down, she cut the chains. They fell away, and before her, stood the woman, flickering in and out of view.

“Are you ready to be cleansed, now that you are free?” The figure nodded.

She picked up the rosemary, it’s scent clearing her head. Sharpening her senses. Dipping it into the salt water, she said “May these creatures of water and the good earth come together, bringing cleansing, healing, clearing. In the name of She Who Heals, I act.”

Shaking the water toward the figure in front of her – up, down, left, right, then three times to the center – she felt the air around them change. A heaviness she hadn’t even recognized was now gone. It was as though someone had opened the windows, letting in the spring air. Her own soul grew lighter. Felt clearer.

Placing the rosemary back on the velvet, she picked up the knife again. “It is time now to depart, to go to the Mystery that awaits all beings. We know not what the journey looks like, we can only trust in the going.” Clara sent her breath across the blade again, and carved the shape of a door into the air. She then willed it to open. Light streamed into the space, blinding. White. Clara’s eyes teared with the brightness. Too much. She hadn’t seen this since Nano's passing.

“You may cross.” The figure bowed at her. Moved through. The door closed on the brightness.

Clara drew in a great, shuddering breath. “Thank you, Healer. Thank you Mighty Ones, for giving witness and lending power. I give thanks. I give thanks. I give thanks.”

Licking her fingers, she snuffed out the candle flames. They hissed, and smoke rose in the air.

The oven timer dinged. Fresh bread. Just what she needed. Bread, some kumquat jelly. And a cup of tea. She'd dump the rest of this wine.

Clara picked up the phone and dialed.

“Anna? I know it’s midnight, but I figured you’d just be finishing. I have bread fresh from the oven. And a story to tell you…”

________

Week Seven of the story-a-week challenge. 3094 words.

Shards of Light

He lost his wings. There was an aching where they should have been. Aching wasn’t even quite the right word. There was a void around his shoulder blades under his t-shirt. It felt uncomfortable. When he rolled his shoulders, instead of feathers unfurling there was just…air.

The bartender, a white dude with a goatee, early 30s, set another Jameson on the dark wooden bar top.

“Want to keep a tab?”

“Yeah, man. Thanks.”

Jessemine – Jessie – took a sip and rolled the smooth liquor across his tongue. It was mellower than what he usually liked, and sweeter, but what are you gonna do? Bar like this didn’t stock Laphroig or Ardbeg. He looked at the rows of bottles on the back of the bar. Shades of green and amber. Clear for the vodka and gin. A few beers on tap. Dim lights glinted off the glassware.

It wasn’t that he’d so much lost his wings. Really no way for that to happen. He’d lost the ability to will them forth. They lay dormant in the in-between, while he was in the here-and-now.

Jessemine had most certainly lost his shine. He wasn’t sure exactly when it happened. Sometime in the last week or so. After Sarah… He looked across the bar to the silent television. Some talking head bleating on about another war. At least it wasn’t sport’s night, when the bar would be filled with fans screaming at the glowing box and spilling their beer on the floor.

He liked bars on off nights. A few hardcore patrons drinking quietly after work. Or having conversations that didn’t have to include the whole room in drunken loudness. Four guys played darts in the back. A trio of women leaned across the table of a scarred booth, jeans and dark sweaters a contrast against the red seats. He wondered what they were talking about. Could be men. Could be stock options. Could be local mining for natural gas messing with the water table.

He’d watched women for centuries: working in the fields or the trades and then cooking, cleaning, spinning, caring for children. He’d watched men, too, of course. Watched commerce, celebration, discovery, famine, and war. He watched their souls.

“My heart beats only for you…” sang a woman’s voice on the sound system.

“Bullshit,” Jessemine mumbled. The bartender looked up from where he was washing glasses, dunking them into suds and letting the three stable bristle-brushes do the scrubbing. He sent an inquiring glance, eyebrow raised. Jesse shook his head.

He missed her. Sarah. Missed her long dark hair. Her crazy laugh. The way she furrowed her pale brow when she was working on something in the lab. That was the ache. Not his damned wings.

She had just…fallen… from the window after the men had cornered her there, thinking he would catch her. He saw that look on her face that said “I trust you”. But he was too slow. The men had drugged his wine. Jessie had fought them anyway. Even slow, he hurt them. Vases crashed in the apartment. Tables shattered. She had fought alongside him until it became impossible. They had still lost. She had been lost. His wings had been lost. His soul felt forfeit.

He’d come to earth to learn. And to serve the Bright Ones who were seeded here so long ago. The code was in all human DNA, and some of the other animals too: octopi, whales, silverback gorillas, condors. The brightness was there in all of them, but needed activation. His bosses never knew, watching Earth, who exactly would awaken. Though conditions were set in certain places, too much was out of their control.

But he’d also come searching...

Jesse touched his face, running fingers lightly over his cheekbones. His jaw. He healed too quickly to be sore anymore, but the skin was still sensitive to his touch.

She wasn’t lost either. She was broken on the sidewalk, then put into a bag and taken.

The women at the table gave a loud guffaw. They must have been drinking for awhile. He needed to catch up to the rest of the bar, clearly. He lifted his glass toward the bartender, who nodded, giving change to another solo flier at the other end of the bar, before grabbing the green glass bottle and sauntering over to pour.

The Bright Ones were always meant to save the place. To eat the fruit, figure things out, and help spread the news. Sarah was his charge. She’d been getting closer and closer to something that felt important to the larger pattern, something that would shift the wheels a quarter turn. It was his job to protect her.

Jessemine didn’t deserve his wings.

“Two more.” That voice was unignorable. Deep as the ocean, smooth as the down on a week old baby starling. He had felt him approaching, but figured to ignore him. Raniel. Big. Black. Beautiful. Well, all angels were beautiful, but Raniel was particularly well formed. The Golden Mean had been made to his measure, not the other way around. Renaissance artists would literally slobber, open mouthed, at the sight of him. One of them had even shit his pants, not from fear, but from the sheer inability to process so much beauty.

Raniel had learned to tone it down. The women from the booth still noticed. They’d grown quieter. Jesse glanced at them. Smirked. They were perfectly still. Barely breathing. Not even able to go into preening mode. “Gobsmacked” Sarah would have said.

The bartender set two more whiskeys down. Jessie finally turned to look at Raniel. Raniel stared right back. Massive shoulders strained at the deep red dress shirt he wore. Jessie felt underdressed as usual. At least his t-shirt was clean.

“You didn’t kill her.”

They both took a long drink of the sweet amber.

“I did.”

Raniel sighed and placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. It felt cool and went a little way toward easing his discomfort. Where Jessemine was a Protector, Raniel’s job was Healer. He relaxed into Raniel’s presence, letting the healing flow move through him, twining its cool stream with the warmth of the Jameson.

“You always did take too much on. We aren’t supposed to take things this personally, you know? Maybe it’s time for you to come back in from the field. Visit Haven. Take a rest.”

Jessemine fought against the healing, tensing against the release of his anguish, his grief. “No. I failed. My soul is forfeit. I need to do something to them.”

Raniel laughed softly, shifting his hand from Jesse’s shoulder to his arm. He took another sip of whiskey.

“To forfeit your soul, you’d have to do a lot worse than allow yourself to be drugged and lose a person in the process.”

Jesse shook his hand off his arm. “Fuck you.”

Raniel grabbed his wrist this time. No light touch. Bone and muscle gripped him until it almost hurt. Jesse set his glass down, hard, on the wooden bartop. Took a shaky breath. Being an angel was supposed to give more perqs than this. It was supposed to make him better. When had the world gone so wrong?

Raniel leaned in. “You think you’re the only one to care? You think you’re the only special one who made a big mistake? You think you’re the only one who failed in your mission or gotten someone killed?”

Jesse pried the fingers off his wrist. Grabbed his coat and stumbled toward the steel clad door, pushing through it and onto the darkening street. Looked around for a cab. Cars whooshed by, booming bass and rattling with treble.

Raniel was a few beats after. Must have settled the tab. “Jessemine, stop. Slow down. Think.”

Raniel touched him again. Jesse blacked out. Before he fell he had one thought: “I didn’t know angels could faint.”

***

The light was too bright. His eyes felt dry as he looked up at the pale yellow ceiling. Raniel sat calmly at his side, in the purple stuffed chair pulled up to the white couch Jesse was lying on. Sarah had loved that chair and would always sit in it when she came to visit. Jesse struggled to sit up, blinking at the light. He must have slept through the night. Raniel had put the whammy on him. Typical. Healers always think they know best.

“Orange juice?” he asked.

Raniel went to the kitchen. Jesse could hear him getting a glass. Shutting the fridge. Liquid pouring. He walked back into the living room, red shirt and white trousers still pristine.

“How do you do that?” asked Jesse, as he took his first swallow. Oh. Good. Not as good as freshly squeezed, but still good. A little tart under the sweet.

“Do what?”

“Stay so clean after carrying me home and watching me all night.”

“It’s just my nature. Healers need to be clean, so we are. I am. You haven’t figured that out yet? After all these millenia?”

“I just never thought about it before. It didn’t matter so much when we all wore robes. I hated those things. Always got in the way during a fight.”

Silence.

“You don’t have to give up your wings, you know. You can still fly.”

“Just. Don’t.”

Raniel fished into his back pocket. Brought out a phone. He started scrolling through. Held out the device. A photo of a child in a brightly woven shawl and a red hat, face lit with a smile, hair straight and black, white teeth with gaps waiting for adult teeth to fill in.

“Peru?”

“Yes. In Arequipa. Down near Chile.”

“Another girl.” Jesse drank more juice. His breath was coming more easily.

Raniel shrugged. “She’s just the next one on the list. Grandmother is a shaman. She’s been having dreams about DNA.”

“The girl has?”

Raniel nodded. Stepped forward. Placed his hands on Jessemine’s temples. Jessemine saw it then. Saw it again. That thing he hadn’t thought of in a long time. He’d been too fixated on Sarah, on her research, on her laugh. On her beauty. He’d fallen in love with the particular. Always.

“See the big picture. Look.”

He saw. Pinpoints of light on mountaintops, in cities, on the ocean floor. Clusters of light and isolated beams. Light though. Light all over the world.

“It’s happening.” Damn.

“It is. Are you ready?”

No, his mind screamed under Raniel's cool hands. I'm not ready. I'll never be ready. Leave me alone!

But his body knew better. His body betrayed him. It always did. His cells were always called to protect the light, no matter how shitty he felt. No matter how much he wanted to lose his mind to drink.

He started gasping for more air and felt something shift along his back. Adjusted himself on the couch. Not good enough. Raniel removed his hands to give him room.

Jesse stood. His lungs filled and his eyes rolled back in his head. There. His wings moved out, moving through the fabric of his t-shirt, getting bigger, he raised them up. They went all the way to the ceiling. He could feel himself start to hum. The shine was coming back.

He shrugged his shoulders. Up. Down. Flexed his fingers. Testing.

“If the host will still have me, I guess I’m reporting for duty.”

Raniel nodded once again. His own wings unfurled, larger than Jesse’s, so big the tips poked through the ceiling. Raniel brought Jesse into embrace. He felt the last of Sarah’s spirit go winging on its way. The ache remained. But there was nothing to do about it anymore. Fuckers never gave him more than a week to mourn.

“What’s her name?”

“Ascencion.”

-------------------

Finished 5/24/2015

Week six of the story-a-week challenge, 1955 words

Driving

He went over the details again. Pick up Ms. Corcoran at the airport. Drive her to the hotel. Call Jack…

Jaime tapped his stylus against the iPad. Call Jack. To let him know she had arrived. Jack, with his smooth, clear skin, muscled arms, and blue eyes. One scary cabrón. Always polite. Always with the smiling white teeth.

A bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. He swiped at it, let go of a breath and pushed away from the old roll top desk. Jaime wove his way through the overstuffed horsehair couch and little tables and began to pound the old double-hung window up, grabbing an empty Coke can to prop it open.

Abuela Marta liked to keep the house warm, but she wasn’t around anymore to complain.

He switched the fan on and the blades whirred into motion, squeaking and rocking as they hit velocity. He usually left it off because of the noise, but his brain was shutting down for lack of air. Get the room cleared out. Clear out his head.

Nothing really made sense anymore. Not since Hector got shot after a “routine” stop. Like thousands of others. He’d forgotten to replace the tiny bulb over his license plate. That’s all the excuse a cop needed. Next thing he knew, Mama Sanchez was calling him to let him know Hector was dead. And that they’d found cocaine and a gun in the side panel of his restored but ancient VW bug.

Bullshit. Hector didn’t even drink anymore. Hadn’t touched anything in a decade. All his focus was on the car shop, Angela, and their daughter, Lisa.

Driving while brown. Always a risk.

Jaime popped the tab off another Coke, felt the mix of syrup and bubbles enter his mouth, then down his throat. Not as good as Mexican Coke, but it was all the stores had, now that he was out of the barrio.

He missed the smells of home the most. Chicharones deep frying, sending the scent of pig fat into the air. Tortillas freshly made. The fresh salsa mix of tomato, cilantro, and onion. And the colors, especially the bougainvilla climbing the walls in a riot of purple or red.

Silverlake was nice. He liked the old pre-War apartment building. Even liked Abuela’s old furniture. But he never understood why she wanted to live here after Grandpa died. Grandpa, who’d worked the Black Dahlia case, and would be ashamed at where stop and frisk and all the rest had taken the force.

There was always corruption, Jaime knew that. Grandpa Lopez had complained about it enough in his sideways fashion. But it wasn’t this bad, surely? He shook his now empty can. Turned off the fan.

He should head to the airport.

As he navigated the streets to LAX, Jaime hummed to himself. Kept him calm even in the shitty traffic that forever clogged the streets, no matter what time of day it was. His eyes stung like they always did at the beginning of summer. It had been too long since the rains had washed everything clean. The hills would be dry as tinder, just waiting for the fires to come. He clicked the button to roll the windows up, though he hated canned air almost more than the smog that caused his skin to sting and eyes to water. It even left a bad taste at the back of his mouth, like bitter diner coffee that had sat on the burner too long.

It always felt like fire to him these days. He wished he had never taken this job. Thought it would be a lark, driving big wigs around. Not so difficult. Decent pay. But over the past year, things had gotten clearer and clearer in his mind. He was working for thugs and criminals. He was working for people who were thieves of the highest order. They were sucking the blood of artists and poets, of architects and healers. They were literally farming these people.

Sure, the payoff was great: enough funding for whatever project the chumps had the imagination to ask for. Most of them never knew they could have asked for the moon and gotten it. Rand Corporation, patron of the arts, was getting one hundred times more.

They had evolved along with everyone else, but the stories hadn’t kept up with the times. That kept them safe. Jaime wasn’t even sure he could pinpoint when he’d figured things out. It had been one clue here, one there, all pointing to the undeniable fact that his bloodsucking corporate overlords really were bloodsucking corporate overlords. They just didn’t need to sink fang into flesh anymore. They harvested ideas straight from the brain, talent direct from synapses, and the vigor that ensouled it all? They got that from the aether in the dance studio, the recording room, the building plans. They had figured out how to syphon it off. Had banks of it in the uninteresting middle floors of the glimmering tower downtown. No one wondered why there were never meetings on floors nine through thirteen. They were just impressed to be whisked to the top.

Three years ago, Jaime’s aunt Rosa had been hired as a mechanic to service some of the machines. She knew he worked for Rand. They began to compare notes after a few beers of a Friday evening.

“There’s nothing there, Jaime. Not really.” She squeezed a lime wedge into her Corona. He preferred his plain, the clean taste, crisp and tangy on his tongue. “I’m recalibrating the strangest machines. They remind me of the clean rooms in that biotech I worked for a decade ago. But there aren’t cell proteins. There’s no medicine. I don’t need to wear a sterile suit, but it feels like I should. They let me waltz around with my toolbox, like there’s nothing I could learn anyway.”

She drank more beer. “Company like Rand should have tight security. I didn’t even sign a non-disclosure. It’s like they know there’s nothing to see. What they didn’t figure on is that a mechanic like me? I’m not no dumb Mexican. I can see that nothing is something.”

When the artists came out of their meetings, they always seemed a little drunk. It was his job to get them food. In a restaurant if they wanted it, or he was to order room service for them at the Bonaventure hotel. It was the restaurant meals that made him suspicious. Rand Corp wasn’t philanthropic. They didn’t own a record label or building firm that he could track down. And he started looking two years in. And these people, fat or skinny, men, women, twelve or sixty five, all ate like they were starving. Every one. Ploughing through plates of refritos, rice, chicken, and tortillas. Devouring steak, potatoes, salad. Hamburgers. Carnitas. Bi bim bop. Always with the protein. And he was never allowed to drop them at the hotel on their own. There was some fear that they would just go to sleep. He had to order that food. Even for the ones who said they were on a diet.

Exhausted and hungry. Like they’d been drained.

When he asked them about it, they talked about the paintings they’d worked on. Or making music for four hours. Or going over blueprints and getting in the flow building scale models.

It was a prestigious gig, the Rand Fellowship. Once an artist, musician, dancer, writer, designer, or architect left those offices, their careers took off big time. The vampires gave back.

Jaime slowly gathered the info from Tita Rosa, his own observations, and then, one day, this artist, Sheryl Lanyard, had to pee between headquarters and the hotel. Wasn’t going to make it the extra few miles. He turned into a filling station and she ran out, leaving behind her tablet. The screen still glowed with the document she’d been perusing with her paint covered fingers before, in a voice rising with tension, she had instructed him to pull over. He reached over the seat back and palmed the device.

A contract. Stating that she would return to LA once a year for a career consultation, show her new works and work on a piece or two on site. In exchange, Rand would fund her publicity campaigns, get her work into three major galleries, and take two percent of the profit on her career for ten years.

He heard her heals clicking on the tarmac, made as if to stretch, and dropped the tablet back on the upholstery just as she opened the door. That was six months ago. The pieces were all making more sense.

So here he was, back to pick up novelist Terry Corcoran. She hadn’t quite made it yet, though he read her one novel and a couple of stories she’d put up on the web. He knew the drill now. Wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Calling Jack was getting harder to do.

He stood at the foot of the escalator with the sign that read “Ms. Corcoran.” The signs never had any identifiers.

A thin black woman approached him. “Mizz Corcoran?”

“Yes.” She was dressed neatly, in loose black slacks and a flowing white shirt. Chunky amber jewelry wrapped around her neck and a black bag was slung over one shoulder. Flying business class from New York was A-OK. Business and first class people never looked exhausted like the poor pendejos that flew coach. Jaime always flew coach. His pay was good, but not that good.

“Your luggage should be up at carousel 5.” He led the way.

Once in the car, she thanked him. He hated the really nice ones. And that was most of them. On the rare occasions that some prima donna showed up, he noticed they never ended up coming back, genius or no. They went on their merry ways, got a little career boost, but didn’t get the rocket ship provided to those who came back year after year.

This was Terry Corcoran’s first trip to LA. He figured it wouldn’t be her last.

He glanced back at her as he navigated onto the freeway. She was looking out the window at the brown haze, the cars, and the city.

Caught his eyes in the rear view mirror.

“Are you an artist, too, Mr…?”

“Lopez. Jaime. No. Not me.”

He boosted the air conditioner up a notch. Just thinking about the bloodsuckers made him start to sweat.  Accelerating smoothly past a green Jag, he steered toward the silver towers of the Bonaventure.

“I just drive.”

------------------

Week 5 of the short-story-a-week challenge. Finished on 5/17/14

Food for the Sun

The light was muted, moving through the fog, through the glass, on through the sheer white curtains. It met the curling steam from the mug of coffee on his desk. He’d gathered an old door from the sidewalk, sanded and refinished it. Set it up on boxes with deep cubbies filled with notebooks and other artifacts of paper and glue. Plus pens. Glass globes and weights. Solid things. Sam liked solid things. He’d made that desk with his own two hands.

He made it back when it seemed that making things still mattered.

The world was ending. Sam just knew it. Felt it in his belly, coiling like a Chinese dragon under the sea, pearl clutched in a mighty claw. The world was ending and he wasn’t yet sure what to do about it. How to organize against dissolution? How to rally people when they would look at you like you were crazy. I mean, sure things felt hard sometimes. Sure there were too many factories, and yeah the decimation of forests were fucking with the mountain gorillas, but you know? What are we supposed to do about it?

This isn’t a war! He wanted to shout. This isn’t about gorillas, or polar bears. This isn’t children starving or women being raped en masse. All of these things were horrific, yes. He cared. Sam cared to the smallest perforations in the middle of the marrow of his bones.

But they weren’t the reasons the world was ending. Not even the symptoms, really.

The things most people worried about? The things most people organized around – locked themselves to one another in massive blockades; wrote letters to congress people; cried in despair at the tragic photos – all of these were not the ending of the world. They were just changes. Extinctions. Maybe even of humanity. But what was coming was bigger still. What was coming was so subtle, so different, no one would see it. No one – well that wasn’t quite fair. There were a few people who had trained themselves to read the aethers, and were organizing in their own small ways. Most people, however, would just take a breath one day, and it would end up being their last.

There would be no pain. There would be no screaming. No fighting against it. Not even time to decide to succumb. Everything, and Sam meant everything in a way that was inconceivable even to him… everything would change.

Just like that.

Massive ego death. The necessary shift that the whole planet had been staving off for millenia, clinging to the old ways by finger nails and talons. But it was time for the dragon to let go of the pearl. Past time. Too late time.

He pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Once he figured out the change was coming – that they were running out of time – he realized there was no reason to have quit. Tapped one out. The tar residue had stained his usually pale fingers a deep tea color. The tobacco was sweet. The smell of sulphur from the lucifer stick was sharp.

And the taste. The dryness of the smoke filling his mouth. Slightly acrid, slightly sweet. The smell of things dying as they burst into flame. Dried husks of tobacco giving up the ghost. No lies. Just immolation. Purity.

There used to be cults who worshipped the coming oblivion. Sam’s teacher, Shekinah, used to say that they knew something deep inside, that their leaders had tapped into some small piece of the information floating out there, that her teachers had passed down, studied, and slowly built up over hundreds of years. Her teachers teachers teachers had started with small seeds to insight and information. Over the centuries they had experimented, and slowly tested the information, getting closer and closer to what approximated a truth.

“We still can’t know,” she said, sipping at her tea. He could still taste that, a subtle white blend. Delicate on the tongue. No tannins. Brewed for exactly one minute. No longer. She was precise that way. It paid off in many ways. But it still wasn’t enough to save the world.

Time to get out of this apartment. Hit the streets. Test the air. He tried to do this at least once a day. It was good to read the winds and the chattering of the birds sometimes. All of his calculations weren’t enough on their own. “Every system needs outside input or it becomes quickly moribund” Shekinah used to say. In other words, there was only so much he could do on his own in the office crammed into the corner of his bright Oakland apartment.

Sam humped his ancient bicycle down the stairs and onto the streets. Heading toward Chinatown, pick up some herbs he needed. Then on to the lake to talk with the cormorants and geese. Maybe even scare up a night heron or two. He loved the night herons, called them the “grumpy old men.” They looked like Freudian analysts, or what he imagined Freudian analysts would look like. Whenever he was talking with them, he always expected them to pull out a pipe and nod sagely.

“Your work with the birds is a gift,” Shekinah said. Her specialty was plants. Not just the herbs and teas that crowded the shelves of her kitchen, or the garden that always seemed to be growing something gorgeous and nourishing, regardless of the time of year. It was California, but most people only got three seasons worth of food out of a plot. There was always food on Shekinah’s table she had grown. She could talk to any plant, really. Tumbleweeds in the arid desert of the Central Valley knew her name, he swore. The roots of what remained from the giant tracts of produce once irrigated by the diverted Colorado river were long gone to the likes of him, but Shekinah could still get information there.

He’d been waiting for her to show up one day, and then spied her out the window. She was crouched down, staring at the sidewalk. Turned out she had found a patch of pineapple weed shoving its way up through the cracked concrete. “I can tell a lot about a neighborhood by listening to the plants” she said, when he finally came down and joined her.

He missed Shekinah terribly. Missed having a teacher to ask “what about…?” or “How do I…?” He had friends, but no one who knew more than the day to day. No one who could listen beneath the surfaces of things.

A jay screamed from a tree overhead. “Stay away! Stay away!” That used to freak Sam out. He thought it was a personal message until he figured out the jays were just building a nest. Staking out territory. That was a big thing he’d learned with Shekinah and since: not everything is personal. As a matter of fact, most things aren’t, we just like to think they are, self-centered bastards.

This end of the world thing? Sam thought. It wasn’t personal, but it was our fault. We hadn’t moved fast enough. We hadn’t been generous enough. We had guarded things too closely for too long, and when we finally opened things up, we forgot to tell people that the discipline was the only thing that would make the information work. Sam had the discipline. “Old school” his friends called it. They were new school, every one.

Sam pedaled down toward Chinatown, passing his favorite cafe. They made the best donuts ever. Their baker must have had a Gift. No time to stop. He was focused now. Slid down, weaving through the other bikes as they rang their bells and jeered good-naturedly at a person dumb enough to try to get a car down Telegraph Ave. Really? Bikes were supposed to share the roads if needed, but most carzies avoided the hassle and stuck to the car thoroughfares that threaded across town, leaving the main streets alone.

Information got mistaken for knowledge. It was killing us. Killing everything. Food for the Moon, crazy old Gurdjieff used to say. We needed a lot more people to feed the Sun.

Evolution wasn’t possible. Not this time. So the die off of consciousness would come, along with the die off of matter. They'd all been hoping consciousness would continue. it didn't look that way. Not anymore. No time.

The old theater was approaching on his right. Something from the early 20th century, when they built things fancy. “Moorish architecture” he’d learned in school. His friend Jasmina was part of a collective that showed old movies there once or twice a week. Bands played there most Saturday nights.

Bicycle traffic began to thin out. Folks had peeled off to side streets, work or shopping. Doctors appointments. A visit to the prognosticator.

And… Chinatown. His favorite. He needed ginseng. Ginko. He was also almost out of liniment. Sam liked to have it on hand in case someone strained a muscle. Chinatown was one of the first places Shekinah took him, introducing him around.

He tethered his bike to a pole, wrapping a chain around three times for good measure before locking it tight.

“Hey Sammo!” The voice greeted him as soon as he pushed through the door. A painted white cat waved a friendly paw his way. Adam was stacking boxes of small vials on the shelf behind the counter. The shop smelled like musty and spicy all at once, with notes of medicine just beneath the other two. It was an herbalist’s dream, but Sam often had to hold back the urge to sneeze.

“Adam! How goes life?”

Adam grimaced, gesturing to the half empty store. “No customers, man. Dad is freaking out.”

Dad was Mr. Wong, who had inherited the business from his own father, who had been trained by his mother… back enough generations it sort of left Sam in awe. Sam’s own family were normals. Sam was the only one with a Gift, and his Gift, Mom liked to point out, was not the most useful one in the world.

“You couldn’t have money magic?” she used to tease. Except she was only half teasing, Sam knew. They needed the money, bad.

“Well, here I am, man, to give you filthy lucre.” As Adam filled his order, Sam examined the small chess board that lived perpetually in mid-game near the rear of the store. “Looks like someone’s been studying again.”

“Yeah. Dad still lobbies for us to play Go, but Marianne is a chess fiend. She found a stash of old books in the library and won’t let up.”

“Lost art, man.”

Adam snorted. “What isn’t, man?” He placed the small bundles into Sam’s bag, a bleached linen satchel Shekinah had given him long ago. Sam counted out the coins and placed them in the dish on the counter, guarded by a three-legged frog who faced the door.

“Come by Sunday night if you want. We’re having drinks and food around seven, then heading to the outdoor movie downtown.”

In nice weather Jasmina’s crew commandeered the side of a building and people dragged chairs and cushions out to watch movies in the street. It was pretty cool.

“I’ll do that. Thanks.”

Heading out, he noticed the birds in the park across the street were up to something. Four gulls circled overhead. OK. That wasn’t too strange. But beneath them, six crows also circled. And a ring of geese walked on the grass. In the middle of it all, a hummer dived and swooped in a territorial dance pattern Sam had never seen before. A group of towhee gathered on the grass just outside the circle. They weren’t eating. They were just standing there. And all the pigeons were standing too, but on the sidewalk around the park.

There was one person in the park, sitting against a live oak. A man with thick, braided hair falling down around his shoulders. He was thin and muscular. Wearing jeans and an orange t-shirt that warmed his dark skin. Sam was rooted. Couldn’t move. A bird singer. Dude had to be a bird singer.

A pigeon pecked at some crumbs near Sam’s feet. “What’s happening, my friend?”

The images that came back were slightly confused. He bent to look into the pigeon’s red eye. Opened up his awareness. All the pigeon could tell him was that something had changed, and it seemed pretty OK. Not startling. Not frightening. Soothing.

“Thank you, friend.” He straightened up and crossed the street.

The birds made a space for him to walk through the park, parting slightly to open the way, and then closing the circle after him again. The man appeared to be in a state of meditation, cross legged, hands palms up on his thighs.

Sam approached. Closer. He could smell the man now, over the scent of grass, trees, and birds. He smelled like laundry hung out to dry in the sun.

The man opened his eyes and smiled. “Hello Sam. Shekinah sent me.”

“How?”

“Sit down.”

Sam did, though he wanted to cross the street, get back on his bike, and get the hell out of here. Either that, or kiss this man and drown in his lips.

“Before she transitioned, she told me to look for you in five years. It’s been five years. She said you would have figured out enough about the birds by then that I could show you some of my magic, if you will.”

“You’re my new teacher?”

The man laughed. He literally threw his head back and laughed. Sam thought people only did that in movies. He could feel heat rising on his face. Shit. He hoped he wasn’t blushing. His damn skin showed everything.

The man held out a hand. “I’m Terrance. I’m not your teacher. Shekinah just thought we’d like each other. Hoped we could be friends. She also thought by now you’d have figured out enough shit on your own that I wouldn’t be a bad influence.”

Sam took the man’s hand – Terrance – and shook it.

“She also told me to tell you that even though it looks like the world is ending, we might still have two generations to make shit right.”

“That doesn’t sound like her.”

“Not the shit part, you’re right. Shekinah never used imprecise language. But she said you worried too much and might be giving up right about now.” Sam felt like he was staring at his tobacco stained fingers and shoved them under his legs.

The birds were still circling. Terrance looked up at them and sent a small puff of breath into the air. Some of them flew off, others settled in the trees or began hunting for food in the grass.

“Why were they circling like that?”

“Had to get your attention.”

“You controlled a bunch of birds just to get my attention?” Sam shook his head. Started to rip up a tuft of grass. Stilled his hands. Shekinah’s influence still held sway.

Terrance stood up. “The birds were amused. Gave them something to do besides hunt and doze. No one controls birds. You should know that. They do whatever they damn want.”

Sam looked up. Terrance loomed over him, bright, limned in the sun. Shit. Sam would fly circles if this guy told him too, most like. The dragon in his belly uncoiled a little, relaxing its claws.

“Let’s get our bikes. Mine’s chained over there. Get some noodles. Talk about how we gonna save this world.”

Sam got to his feet, slapping his hands over the seat of his pants. The hummingbird dove again with a loud pop.

Eating noodles with a handsome man in Chinatown was better than heading over to talk with the grumpy old men at the lake. Besides, the night herons preferred to talk at dusk.

“You like herons?”

“Those night herons at the lake? Yeah. Stodgy. Not as talkative as the ducks, that’s for sure. They’ve got some weird magic, those night herons. Think they’ll help us?”

Help us. Us. “Maybe.”

Sam crossed the street to his bike. He could feel Terrance watching him.

Maybe he’d quit smoking again. He bent to unlock his bike. Smiled.

_______________

Finished 5/9/14

Aisle 9

Jane’s ankles were killing her again. All the little tendons that held her feet onto her legs were throbbing. Inflamed. All from walking. Walking. Walking. In these sad-ass shoes with their run down heels and squashed arch supports.

Walking up and down these aisles, replacing stock that people had left all the hell over the place. Chocolate drops in the laxative aisle. A hair net tucked in next to the tampons. A box of strawberries in the middle of aisle six, as far from produce as you could get before ending up in the cleaning products.

She walked under the harsh lights, on the waxed linoleum that was little more than a sheath for the concrete bunker of Save-Mart. Past the coloring books and wrapping paper squares. Over to the small appliances: rice cookers, hot plates, air-poppers, electric kettles. For a while, those hot sandwich makers were popular. And the fat-free grill. Appliance fads for the late night TV crowd.

She’d iced her ankles last break, but it didn’t last long enough. Doctor said she needed to rest the tendons. Tried to get her into walking casts. Like the store wanted her hobbling along worse than she was. Not that many people noticed her in the first place, except as a last resort when they really couldn’t find the honey. Aisle three.

Sixty-five. Slightly overweight, whatever that meant. Whose weight was she over? She’d always had a little tire around the middle. Always had heavy hips and thighs. They balanced out the breasts that were the bane of her life since they started to come in at age thirteen.

The stares. The grabs. The catcalls. The pain. The ever increasing size of them. The back strain. The expensive old lady bras she had to suffer through in the changing room, all the while knowing her friends were making off with the small, whispy, sexy things - cotton if their moms were picking them out, sateen and lace if they won first choice.

Harold had loved her breasts. But he was long gone. Cancer. Fifteen years ago.

She’d run away once, to meet him. He was in college and she was a senior in high school. They’d met in a coffee shop just outside town. He’d gotten a motel room. The sheets scratched at her bare legs. It was her first time. He had hurt her. She cried afterward, allowing him to hold onto her. Wouldn't return his calls the next week.

Didn’t seen him again for ten years, by which time she’d figured out the hurt thing wasn’t his fault. She hadn’t really had any friends to tell her that. Hung with the boys mostly. Dungeons and Dragons crew early on, then yearbook and chemistry club. They all had crushes on her.

She finally got used to having sex. Finally hooked back up with Harold, running into one another when he moved back into town after a starter marriage. That man had loved her.

No one had a crush on her now. She wasn’t sure anyone loved her either. And she wouldn’t be running away anywhere. Not on these tendons.

Jane heard a crash. Sounded like aisle 9. Toilet cleaner. Scrub brushes. Dish soap. She hobbled over. “Hope nothing broke.”

Last week, someone had smashed a bottle of grape juice in aisle five. The janitor was out sick, so Jane had to clean it up. That was fun.

She walked past the corn chips and rounded the aisle. Nothing. Literally nothing.

Aisle 9 wasn’t there.

She stared into a gaping hole in the store. How had that sounded like a crash? How had this not sounded like a giant tornado ripping apart the store? Why weren’t people running and screaming? Granted, there weren’t many people in the store this time of night, but still.

The air smelled funny. Not the usual cleaning product scent. Something…like the smell of water off the lake in summer. Fresh and nice on the surface with a swampy undertone.

A woman moved forward, out of the swirling dark. Were those stars? Her skin was white. Not pale. Literally white. She wore blue trousers and some sort of flowing shirt. Fashion had never been Jane’s strong suit. Thank goodness Harold didn’t mind. He used to quip “I’m more interested in taking your clothing off, anyway. Wear what you want.” Not super original, but sweet.

Jane’s heart was beating fast. The woman stepped onto the cracked linoleum that used to be the edge of aisle 9. She was staring straight at Jane.

“It is time.”

“What?”

“It is time.”

Jane realized she was clutching the edge of a shelf. Pried her fingers off it and stepped back, further away from the giant hole. “Time for what? I don’t understand.”

Her mouth was flooded with spit, coppery tasting, like she wanted to throw up.

“We wanted to wait until you were free.”

“Free? I’ve been free for fifteen years! Waiting for what?”

Jane looked around. No-one had noticed the hole yet. There were no shoppers. The manager was probably looking at magazines in the office off the stock room. She was alone. With this lady.

“Sorry about that. We had meant to come to you thirteen years ago your time, once you had some time to process your grief. There was some organization trouble. Then a window closed. The right window only just re-opened a week ago.”

“Excuse me, but what are you talking about?”

“We’ve come to take you home.”

Jane thought for a moment. Then she remembered.

Age four. At the foot of the garden was a tree. An old oak with a small hollow between two raised roots. She would toddle down there to play with matchbox cars while her parents gardened, or lounged around during the summer in lawn chairs, talking, reading books, and drinking beer. One day this lady appeared and laid her hands on Jane’s head. Jane liked it. The lady smelled like summer nights and her hands were comforting, causing a warm feeling to run through Jane’s body.

Two years later, they moved to Baltimore. Jane started school, and forgot. Forgot all about it.

“How do you look the same? Who are you?”

“My name is Seshilaria. I come from just beyond the edge of your galaxy, and mostly I live beyond the arrow of material time. So I don’t really age. And fifteen years doesn’t mean that much, which is another reason I am coming so late to you here.”

“Are you really here?”

The lady paused and tapped a finger to her mouth. “I suppose you could say I am a materialized hologram. A Sending with substance.” She paused again. “Speaking of substance, in this space-time the window will only hold for so long before time starts again. We need to call you to your rightful home. I can’t describe it in words that you will understand. All I can tell you is that we have a place for you there.”

Jane looked around. Felt the throbbing at her ankles. “Do I have to keep this body? It’s getting kind of run down.”

“Come with me and you can choose whatever material you like, if you want to materialize at all.”

“I don’t…”

“Here.” She put her hands on Jane’s head again.

This time, Jane saw. Felt. Heard. Tasted. Smelled. This time, Jane remembered further back than she thought possible. “How did I end up in a market on the edge of Baltimore? Why?…” She saw that, too. That one day in the twelfth grade. She saved Tamika from a bullet. Knocked her to the sidewalk during a drive by. Tamika, she heard later,  got a scholarship to Johns Hopkins. Became a neuro-scientist. “All because of that? I’ve lived here all these years to help her?”

“She is a key. We needed her or things would have gone really wrong here.”

“Worse than they are now?”

“So much worse the humans here could barely even imagine.”

Jane looked down at her body. Swollen ankles hidden by baggy pants. Smock over her t-shirt. Hands cracking from dry supermarket air. She'd gotten pretty tired of constant pain.

She looked back at the hole. Held out one cracked hand.

“I don’t exactly know where you’re taking me, but let’s go.”

_____________

Week two of my "write a short story weekly" challenge. Finished 4/25/14

The Long Hello

There wasn’t anything she didn’t like about this place. The wind chimes sending low tones into the air under the gazebo. The scent of honeysuckle from the arbor. The planed wood table from the fast growing trees they had here. She’d forgotten the name already. But this glass of wine the host had set before her? This, she wouldn’t forget. It glowed golden under the light of the suns, filtered through the protective UV panels that enclosed this refuge of a cafe.

It had been a long time. A long, dirty time. Gods. It was good to be clean and in a pleasant place.

A place that felt like home. Sort of.

The wine was on the dry side, but smooth. Not a lot of tannins. Just the way she liked it. How did they grow the grapes here? It must have been difficult to get the right conditions where the vines had to struggle, but not too hard. Just the right balance in the soil. Not too much moisture. Just enough heat. A cold snap now and then.

She supposed the new VernaTime chips could calculate all that within millimeters and milliliters of accuracy.

The days of her family’s farm in the rolling, arid hills of Sonoma County were long gone, destroyed by drought and poison, and too many holes punched in the sky. Her grandfather grew grapes just like these. Her mother, too. Until Cami turned 13 and the waters started to rise too high and things got harder and harder. Four years later it was clear there wasn’t any holding on. They had left for space. For this hermetically sealed and calibrated land in a solar system with two suns and three visible moons. Places the ancestors had only dreamed of.

“May I join you?” His voice was smooth, like his blue-black skin. Timomo. A local. Scientist. His family had lived on this planet for centuries. They had been an early wave of migrants from Earth, from a place called Atlantis. The drowned land. Saved by alien beings made of light, the legends said. The art here was filled with those legends – shining tall beings, beautiful and fair. The humans they brought with them had to adapt to the multiple suns. Even protected, they grew dark over the years, darker with each generation. Those that started out dusky ended up this blue-black, like Timomo.

“Of course. Please!” Fumbling at her wine glass. Gesturing to the chair across the table.

Cami wasn’t sure. She thought that he was courting her. But things were different here. Different customs, different ways to be men and women. She liked him. Felt some stirring of juice when his voice rolled across her skin.  But she’d been at war for too long to remember how to do this dance. How did one do anything besides furtive fucking in the bunkhouse on stolen breaks? What was this long hello?

Timomo folded his long body into the chair, rested his tapering fingers on the smooth table top. The waiter hurried over.

“Shall I bring a second glass?” she said.

“Yes please. And some cheeses if you have them.”

He looked at her. Directly. He always did that, with those blue eyes of his. Dead opposite of her dark brown eyes, her paler skin. She’d grown so used to people glancing up and then away. To addressing her with bowed heads. It wasn’t just the scars along her temples. Small pocks from her old helmet, shattered by a laser beam that had upgraded faster than her face shield. The scars didn’t actually look so bad. At least she didn’t think so. Mostly the weirdness came from the authority she’d been carrying these last five years. The power to send or make stay. The power to give someone a gun, laser, or a Tase4, or to send them out with only a meteor knife.

Yes, there was plenty of tech in this part of the world. Plenty of resources if they were well managed.

But out in the field? All of that went quickly away. Things broke down. Things became lost in sink holes of melting pitch. Things flew out of airlocks, to revolve forever in some strange ad hoc ring. Space trash. Not dissimilar to what she’d been called after moving here. Earth Trash. Out of element. Not fitting anywhere. Orbiting along the edge of things.

She’d wanted a place to be made to fit. Hence the military instead of bioculture studies – farming, hydroponics – like her mom wanted. Cami wasn’t carrying on any family traditions.

“You’re breaking yourself apart, girl!”

Her mother never let up.

“Psych says I’m fine. They checked me out after last tour.”

“Do something else for awhile. Have kids. Take over the sprout business.” Her mom was chopping celeriac for dinner while Cami cleaned a fish into the sink.

“Why don’t you come home?”

“Home is underwater, Mom.” She threw the guts into a bucket for the compost. Walked it out of the house.

Yeah, sometimes she sent people into combat with a knife. There was nothing worse than that. No way to keep them safe, so she tried to just keep them in the middle of the troop, as much as possible. They still died. Going back was her penance. Placating the ghosts.

The cheeses arrived. Two creamy lumps and a slab of pale green. Farmers had managed to domesticate an animal they called a goat, which looked more like an ostrich with fur. It lived in the wild lands just outside the protected dome space. Two hooved legs, fat body, long neck, the goats seemed happy enough to live in corrals close to human structures, in reach of easy and regular food. The milk had taken some getting used to. She still didn’t really like to drink it. But the cheese was lovely. It tasted sharp and very slightly bitter. Perfect.

Cheese. Wine. A beautiful man across the table. She was too hard for this place now. But she’d reached the end last tour. Ended up in screaming fits in the middle of the night at first. Not so unusual, though squad leaders were expected to keep their shit better together. Then came the day when she started to shake. Surprised, fell over, seizing on the metal floor of the bunkhouse. Not grand mal. Myoclonic. A tiny shard of face plate working its way into her brain. It meant she lost control without the small grace of checking out for the duration.

She begged them to not discharge her. Not to send her outside. Stupid. As if she was safe to lead anyone anywhere. She wasn’t.

Mom had offered her space, of course. Cami couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t bear to be taken care of that way. Couldn’t bear the unspoken years of words. The careful asking. The un-named I told you so.

So here she was in this new place that still felt nothing like home, drinking wine with a stranger, not sure how to be normal.

“Cami?”

She sipped more wine. It was growing warm. She’d let it sit too long.

“I can’t do this, Timomo.”

“This what? Drinking wine and eating cheese? Sitting under an arbor with me?”

Her fingers gathered crumbs into a pile. The soft cheese stuck to her fingers. She supposed it would be uncouth to lick them. Another thing to get used to on the big outside. Right. There was a napkin in her lap. She wiped her fingers off.

“I can’t be normal.”

He poured more wine, then stood, offering her a glass. She took it. He picked up his own.

“Walk with me.”

“Shouldn’t we…” she gestured to the table. The half eaten cheese. The remaining wine. No one had been by to scan their chips yet.

“We won’t be going far.”

He led her down a pathway cut between tall ferns. In this place, it was possible to forget the UV panels high above. A different world, this. She’d heard there had been places like this on Earth. Primeval forests in places far, far south. Tasmania. New Zealand. And now here, transplanted from seedlings, she supposed. A new Eden built of micronutrients and oxygenated soil. And seeds from planets far away.

“Look.” He pointed down to some rotting logs arranged around a seam in the crust of the soil.

“Bugs? You’re courting me by showing me bugs?”

“Am I courting you now?” There was a smile in his voice. Like he’d just been offered ice cream by a five year old.

Cami bent her head toward the split in the ground, in a V where two logs were rotting on the ground. She crouched to get closer.

“Look at their activity.”

Always the scientist.

They were small, half the size of her pinky fingernail. Bright green carapaces. Some were carrying objects in their front…mandibles? Legs? Others were shoving at soil and tiny rocks, building some structure around the split. A few were carrying other insects. She couldn’t tell if the carried insects were sick or dead.

“What are they doing?”

“Going about life, Cami. Building. Gathering food. Aerating soil. Carrying the injured. Making a home together. A city.”

She stood up. Drank more wine.

“Is this supposed to be inspiring?”

“No, Cami. It is supposed to just be life. Everything fits in somewhere, together.”

There were a few insects heading in toward the main throng, carrying things from the ersatz forest floor. Bringing news from distant places.

She crushed one under the toe of her shoe, smearing it into the dirt. Looked at Timomo. His blue eyes stared back at her from his dark, dark, face.

“I. Don’t. Fit.”  Her own, much paler hands were shaking. Her whole body started to shake. Wine spilled over her hand. The lights began to gather at the corners of her eyes.

Quickly, he took the glass before her jerking hands could throw it. Set the glasses on the dirt. Put hands upon her shoulders. Still shaking. Pain starting up again. He held her close. She let him. He smelled of wine. Smelled of sun. Smelled of some undercurrent she couldn’t quite place. Like the Earth forest they used to visit once a year. Pine. Loam. Balsam.

He began to sing to her in the language from his childhood. Space Language she called it upon first arrival. Light Music they called it. From those Beings long ago. Every child here learned the song-stories. She arrived too old. She didn’t fit. She never fit. Atlantis was a stupid idea. There was no real escaping. All her cities were drowned. Grape vines and hills were underwater now.

And still she shook. Timomo lowered her gently to the ground. Cradled her head as she spasmed there under the ferns. He never stopped singing.

Finally, the jerking stopped. She started to sit up.

“Can you just stay?”

She felt her skin flush, but lowered her head back to his broad thigh. One hand brushed her temple, the other rested on her arm, light enough that she could move if she wanted, but heavy enough to let her know he held her, too. What part wanted up and what wanted to stay?

“I hate this. So embarrassing.”

“It’s no weakness, Cami. Just an abused portion of your brain misfiring.”

She shut up again. Tried to unclench her jaw.

The green insects moved around them. Building. Carrying. Going about their business. Cami saw what he meant. A glimmer of it, at least.

Something inside her chose then, to relax. Not forever. Maybe not even for five minutes. But for now.

She turned her head to look up at his face.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Am I crushing your leg?”

“No. You can stay as long as you like. Though we’ll have to get our chips scanned eventually if we ever want to eat here again.”

She turned her head back toward the insects. Felt his hand upon her hair.

There was nowhere else to go. It might never be alright. But sometimes it might just be OK to drink wine. Eat some cheese. Look at a beautiful man. Watch bugs building things on a forest floor under UV panels in the middle of space.

Two suns. Three moons. Everything a little strange, still.

"Help me up." She got back to her feet. Brushed off her clothing. He handed her the glass of wine. It had gone warm again. But it still tasted good.

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This was story number one of my "write a short story weekly" challenge to myself, I wrote it the week ending in 4/19/14