For workshopping: 26Sep17

When I open my eyes, the stone walls feel far away. I stretch my arms above my head and let out a deep yawn. There’s just enough light filtering through the window fifteen feet above me to reveal the floor covered in human waste and food. I wonder if they’re mine, and then realize I’m in the middle of it. I remove my orange shirt and roll it into a ball. I use the dry parts to wipe my back and sides, and then chuck it across the room. The putrid smell makes me gag, and I have to face the wall to hold back my vomit.

My fingers find four scars across my chest. I look down and don’t recognize them. My eyes discover the tattoos, and I’m at a loss for words. My skin is also different. I look up but find no mirror. In fact, I don’t recognize the room at all. My headache must have something to do with that. I look at the four stone walls, but my eyes focus on the door. It’s made of some type of blue metal that I’ve never seen. I hurry over to it, carefully avoiding the pile on the floor, and look through the slit three-fourths the way up.

A hallway is on the other side. The walls and floor are made of the same material, a type of white plastic that reflects the fluorescent bulbs above. A man stops at my door and stares at me.

“82579,” he says, and then lists more numbers, but I don’t understand. I look away, but that just makes him speak louder. “…251. Time for our routine check.” The sound of a key sliding into a lock, turning, and a spring recoiling, fill the cell. I step back, half-expecting the door to swing open, but it instead retracts into the wall.

I’m wondering if I know this man. He’s tall; clean; his hair is pulled back and to one side, and his skin is soft; he’s dressed in a white coat that hangs to his ankles, and he’s got on a white shirt, black tie, and slacks. He’s writing on a clipboard, but his dark eyes are on me.

***

Seeing the time, I left the restaurant and descended into the Underworld’s main entrance meant for guests and not souls. I waved to my brother Charon who nodded back, as I boarded his boat that would ferry us into Hade’s realm, he stared at my black leggings and whispered to me, “You need to change into proper attire Skiá. You want to look your best when your father and his mortal bride see you.” Not wanting to disappoint, I called my shadows to me as one would call a small adorable kitten to them and snuggle them close to the heart. I felt their caress as they obeyed my commands to weave into an array of grey, blue, and black threads and beading. When I dropped the shadows to reveal my floor length, empire waist, perfectly beaded masterpiece, he smiled and nodded his approval. Reaching the shore, and passing through the castle, I found and stood with Mother and watched as my father married his mortal. Mother left soon afterward, but the celebration was still in full swing thanks to Dionysus, who was loud and full of drunken energy.

I gravitated towards the shadows being cast by the giant chandelier, which made the gold veins in the black marble columns gleam and sparkle. I didn’t get to admire much more of the room before the haughty, bratty, very drunk platinum monster in heels clacked over to me. She had no real cleavage to speak of, and the plunging Grecian neckline didn’t do much to emphasize anything other than the fact her chest made her look like a small girl playing dress-up. The merlot she was guzzling ran down her chin and dripped onto her shiny silver dress, staining the corded belt she wore around her tiny girlish figure. Her haughty brown eyes bore into me as she teetered on her pointy, matching silver shoes that were bedecked with white diamonds. She was very…sparkly.

“Why did Nyx even come? Hiccup. It’s not as though anyone wants her here. She is a nobody, passé. The same with all you Titans, you all belong in Tartarus.”

The light in the room steadily vanished as though someone had flicked a dimmer switch down. “Shut. Up. Persephone.” The platinum harpy shrieked. “I AM QUEEN HERE, YOU INSOLENT, BASTARD, LOVE-CHILD.” I rolled my eyes and sighed. There was no point to even speak to this harpy. I would have gotten away did she not grab me hard enough for her pink nails to break the skin on my arm.

“Don’t.” I let the ice that hides in shadow color my words. What I didn’t expect was the heat from her power to smack into mine. Persephone slapped me across the face. I felt my face stinging in the shape of her annoyingly delicate, callous free hand. Rage, pure and unadulterated flooded my mind. I wanted nothing more than for her to die. With that emotion came the power, it surged from my heart and desire for her to simply disappear, down to my hand to fulfill my command. I looked at her widening, washed out blue eyes, as they stared at my glowing being. As I snapped my fingers, the outpour of power was more than I anticipated and I felt slightly raw and sore from the exertion. Her frame bent and contorted as her skin turned an ashy blue-grey color, her life force being drained as my shadows took her form apart, molecule-by-molecule. Wine stained clothing and ash was all that remained. The silence in the room was eerie, and slightly creepy. The moment was broken when I felt her presence coming towards me. Mother’s thoughts invaded my own. “What. Have. You. Done?”

Dark shadows, a deeper, colder hue than my own spread across the landscape of the Underworld and into the throne room, announcing the Titaness Nyx’s arrival back into the Underworld.

***

It had been six months since the fires had begun devastating the hills of lower Appalachia.  All around the town of Fayette, the smoke pumped into the sky, the sun harmless to look at in daylight because of the insulating screen of ashy sky.

Bobby sat on his roof, chin on hands and hands on knees, watching the sky, perplexed.  He was starting to forget what the sky looked like before now.  He cocked his head to one side as something unusual seemed to catch his eye.  It was a speck of solid black on the horizon.  The speck seemed as though it was being blown about by the turbulent, ashy winds, but somehow resisting.  It was as though the speck had a will of its own.  The speck grew larger and Bobby could see it had wings.  It grew larger and larger as it came closer and closer.

“It’s a bird!” he exclaimed.  Bobby was on his feet now, excited by the unknown.  He wanted to call to Drex or his mom or somebody who could come be excited with him.

“Drex!” he yelled out, at the sky.  “Drex! Mom! Lilly! Patrick! Anyone! Come here! You have got to see this!”  No one heard, he thought.  No one would believe him at the dinner table.  Drex would make fun of him.  His mom would pretend like she understood but if he brought it up after today, she would tell him to let it go.  Aaaghhh!! He was so frustrated! If he stayed here and saw it alone, he wouldn’t be able to help but tell about it later and no one would believe him.  If he went to grab his mother or one of his brothers or sisters, he would miss it and then they wouldn’t believe there was something he wanted to them to see.  So he stood alone, regretting confiding in his older brother about the things he saw that no one else saw.

“Bobby?” Drex’s voice suddenly sounded from the backyard below.  “Bobby, you on the roof?”

“Drex!” burst Bobby!  “Drex come up here!”

“What’re you doing up there!”

“Drex, just come up!  There’s something you gottta see! It’s amazing!”

“Bobby, are you seeing things again?”

“No! Drex! Come up here!”

“You’re not supposed to be on the roof anyway!  You could fall!”

“Please!  Please just come up here!”

Drex sighed, reluctantly.  He didn’t want to keep indulging Bobby everytime he thought he saw something.  But their mother had asked Drex to watch out for his little brother.

“No nine-year-old has the kind of imagination Bobby has,” she had said to Drex.  “Please make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.  I’m worried he’s got something wrong with his mind.”

Drex was reluctant, but he felt responsible.  He was the man of the house after all.  He was fourteen, but he was the man of the house.  That’s just how it was when your dad was gone away on a year’s deployment with the Air Force. You had to take care of things, look after your little brothers and sister, respect your mom. So up the tree he climbed.  Branch to branch to branch.  Then he slipped off of the branches onto the roof and carefully but quickly made his way over to where Bobby was standing. It wasn’t a whole lot of time but all the while Drex was moving from ground to roof he was almost hoping that there would be something out of sorts when he got to Bobby.  Just so that Bobby wouldn’t be making things up.  It worried their mom when Drex had to tell her that Bobby was imagining too well.

Bobby lit up as Drex crossed the roof to where he stood.

“Look!” he pointed at the bird.  “Do you see it!” he looked to Drex and scanned his face to see his reaction.  “What is it?! Can you tell!?”

Drex looked hard to the tangy golden sky where his little brother was pointing.

“See it wiggling?  It’s a bird!  You see it right?  It’s flying away from the smoke!  Isn’t that crazy?!”

Drex looked and looked.  He knew exactly what Bobby was referencing.  He breathed out and realized he had been holding his breath.

“I see it Bobby.”
“You do?!”

“Yeah. I see the bird.”

Bobby looked up at Drex with big, grateful eyes.

“How ‘bout we get off the roof, Bobby?  Let’s get out the boards and go to the park?”

It wasn’t a bird at all.  Bobby was seeing an airplane.  And it was getting closer.  It was making a crash landing.

***

Time travel isn’t all the romantic writers tell you it is. Sure I fell in love but when your future catches up to you…

There are places in this world that are gates to different times. Most often they are dormant waiting for the fated one to walk into the gate. Jamie has mapped quite a few of these. He is an addicted time traveler. I don’t know what century he was born in but I know it wasn’t this one. I don’t think I’m telling this right.

I met Jamie when I appeared in his backyard after an unfortunate step on a certain spot of ground in the future. I’m still not telling this right. I’ve made it sound as though Jamie was the person that was most important when I ended up in the past.

It all started on September 14th 2015 in Naknek, Alaska. I had taken a cruise to see the whales and visit some friends I had made the last time I had been there. It was the last day of my visit and I’d decided a walk along the beach was in order. This turned out to be what fate wanted me to do.

 

Walking along the beach enjoying the view of a September day. The sky is grey which doesn’t change my mood. The whole scene is grey with flashes of white and blue that excite me. I’m hoping that I’ll see whales, the locals tell me that this is the best kind of day to see them. So here I am standing on the beach staring out at the ocean.

The fact that I was even standing on a beach in Naknek, Alaska was amazing to me. Every summer I have been invited back to King Salmon, a small town just up the road. I’d turned down the invite because of school and money. Now I have my degree but I’m still strapped for cash. So when I had won the Alaskan cruise I was elated. I had entered the contest on little faith of winning.

***

Maldor reaches down and breaks off the arrow shaft, hoping that will keep him from moving the arrow around too much. He forces himself to his feet as the giant approaches, towering over him. Maldor tries to ready himself, but his injured leg can’t support him and he once again falls to his knees. The giant laughs at Maldor’s distress, his deep throaty laugh echoes around them. Maldor again tries to rise as the giant laughs and again he falls to his knees, thinking quickly Maldor comes up with a plan. As the giant continues to laugh, Maldor shifts his position as best he can, then he hurls his sword like a javelin. The sword slams into the giant man’s chest, impaling him clean through. The mountain falls eerily silent as the big man’s laughs die away, replaced with a single thud, as the man falls to the ground.

Maldor struggles to rise again, this time leaning heavily against the steep side of the mountain to support his weight. As the man with the ax moves to his fallen companion’s side, Maldor takes the opportunity to glance down at his injured leg. Crimson blood continues to seep from the wound, adding to that already staining his leg and boot. Maldor is startled from his examination by a bellow. Looking up he is just in time to see the man racing down the trail at him. Maldor manages to bring his shield into position just as the man brings his ax around, resulting in a deafening crash. Maldor is slammed against the mountain, his body ringing from the impact, as his opponent is nearly thrown from the mountain trail from the recoil of the blow.

Maldor is the first to recover and he presses his advantage. He brings his shield around using it like a battering ram, trying to knock his opponent into the clouds below. However like his companion this man seems born from the mountain. He moves along the trail with an almost unnatural ease, even dazed he is nimble and graceful in his movement along the trail. The man strikes back, slamming his ax again and again into Maldor’s shield. Maldor blocks each blow, his adrenaline numbing the pain in his leg, allowing him to counter each of his opponent’s moves. However this strength fades fast, and Maldor knows it. Soon his body tires, and his wound begins to hurt again and drag at his strength.

***

“Bozhe Moi!”

 

The exclamation cut through the silence of the early morning and awoke

Ivan from his half slumber. It wasn’t comfortable resting in the

damp,murky mess of a trench, having to lean against the wiry branches

that were supporting the walls, but that didn’t stop Ivan from cursing

the rude awakening.  He unconsciously scratched the small, brown

moustache on his lip before wiping the drool that oozed from the

corner of his mouth.

 

“What is it now, Gregory?” Ivan asked, lifting his head to squint at

the youngest member of his squad. Gregory was the only man awake in

the unit, though the rest were supposed to be as well. The squad of

cossacks had been awake for at least thirty-six hours, staring through

what remained of the yellow and green forest at the German lines,

paying special attention to the large craters that  now dotted the

landscape in case some overly brave Krauts tried to sneak up on them.

The older men had decided that a watch should kept in order to catch

some sleep, and made the youngest stay up. It was good experience for

the boy and his eyes were better anyway.

 

“Ivan, you need to see this. The Germans are up to something!”

Gregorii whispered.

 

The youth seemed barely able to control himself, pacing in circles and

peering at the German lines over and over through his small rifle

scope. His tall, wiry frame combined with the unconscious facial

twitch in his left cheek earned him the name ‘Krolik’ amongst the rest

of the squad. While Ivan refused to call him by that name, even he

agreed that the young man could come across like a rabbit in constant

fear of being eaten, with brown eyes wide open with fear.

 

Ivan pulled out a small silver pocket watch from his breast pocket,

peering at the diminutive hands in the moonlight. It was 3:55 in the

morning. With a sigh, the soldier slid the watch back in his pocket,

grabbed one of the support branches and pulled himself to his feet. He

did not stand upright, his shoulders stooping out of habit as he

walked, though he doubted he could straighten his back at that moment.

 

“Damn it, Grisha, Those bastards had better be charging, because I was

finally able to dream again.” Ivan said, taking a moment to adjust his

visored cap.

 

***

Tray ran as fast as he could. It wasn’t very fast. He didn’t know why he bothered to run, they always caught him, and then he’d be winded before they started to beat him up. Tray was constantly bullied by the other kids in his neighborhood. Part of it was probably because he was an easy target, he was smaller than average, so he couldn’t fight back. The other, probably bigger, part of it was his mother.

Tray was about ready to give up his flight. He couldn’t run for much longer, maybe if he wasn’t completely worn out when they caught up to him it wouldn’t be as bad. As he slowed down, Tray heard one of the bullies cry out, “It’s a knight, scramble!”

A shadow passed overhead. Tray looked up, but he missed it. How fast had it been going to already be out of sight? Something crashed down next to Tray, making him jump and fall over. It wasn’t a something, but a someone. A knight was next to Tray, as if he had fallen from the sky. The man was wearing armor that looked like it was built from the scales of some huge beast. He turned his gaze on Tray, and Tray shrank under his stare. The knight’s eyes were a startling red color, but Tray blinked and they were brown. His glare was no less intense underneath a normal eye color.

“Do you know where I can find the man called Gap?” the knight asked.

It took a moment for Tray to comprehend the question. He was still trying to decide if he had actually seen those eyes or not. “Oh, y-yes. Gap l-lives pretty close to here.” Tray didn’t normally stutter, he’d managed to get over it a few years ago, but sometimes it still showed up when he was surprised.

“Can you show me?” the knight asked.

***

 

I wasn’t there when the Mexican state police kidnapped my brother. I say kidnapped, not arrested, because that is what it really was. An officer had been driving erratically and struck my brother’s minivan, with him and his three sons inside. Rather than take responsibility for the accident, the officer, and his counterparts who arrived moments later, decided to arrest my brother, without benefit of the usual rights that an arrestee would receive. I’ve wondered many times if the whole incident had been planned ahead of time. Being a dual citizen, and earning a hefty salary in the medical field stateside, my brother and his family made themselves targets by living comfortably on the other side of the border. Driving a nice car, having their children attend a private collegio, and my brother crossing the border daily in his bright, freshly-pressed scrubs; they couldn’t have been more conspicuous.

He was left in an empty cell for three days, without a cot, or so much as an elevated cement block to sleep on. A bucket sat in the corner, like a scene from a primitive 19th century prison. I assume they at least gave him water, but he did lost fifteen pounds before being released. All of this was after the now notorious all-day ride through the desert. Shackled and hand-cuffed, he sat in the open bed of a state police pick-up truck, surrounded by men in black commando gear bearing machine guns. None of his questions were answered; in fact no one said one word to him during the thirty hours that he was driven around in the desolate wilderness outside of San Juan. The average daytime temperature at that time of year hovers around 118. He had no hat, no shade. He never said if they gave him anything to drink. Along for the ride were several other state police vehicles, filled with still more armed officers, all equally intimidating and equally silent.

One can only guess at the intended result of the exercise, but my brother had determined that he would never return alive from that forced foray into the Mexican desert.

His wife later told me that when she was finally allowed to see him at the jail, that not only did he look painfully thin, fatigued, and desperate, but he also bore noticeable bruises and more than one obvious scratch. The officers blamed this on the initial auto collision, but we knew better.

The American Consulate negotiated my brother’s release and advised him in no uncertain terms to get himself and his family out of Mexico as soon as possible. Having been once targeted, his family would not be safe again and the police’s failure to extract a bribe from my brother would leave him continually open to abuse, allegation, and incarceration. The police had confiscated my brother’s van, demanding that he pay a large fee to have it returned and that he also pay for the damages that the involved police cruiser had sustained. My brother refused, and has never regained ownership of the van.

He took the advice of the consulate and began immediately to make preparations for returning his family stateside. The house needed to be sold, a new family vehicle acquired. He was able to secure hospital-owned temporary housing in Yuma, Arizona, just down the road from the Emergency Department he worked in. The few times that he returned to Mexico, whether for meetings with the realtor or to make final preparations, he did not go alone and drove in a small, beat-up, inconspicuous, compact car, with more dents than horsepower. His trips were quick and made only when absolutely necessary. He was able to journey to other parts of Mexico without trouble though; like taking his wife to visit her parents in Guadalajara, far south of the border, and just a ways north of South America. There he was able to enjoy himself with little fear of reprisals.

State police function seemingly independent of the government authorities. There are federal troops that patrol the entire country, but the state police govern their individual domain mostly autonomously, and are generally corrupt.

***

 

***

A gunshot.

Snarling and jaws snapping shut.

A scream that suddenly chokes to an end.

I sat straight up in bed, heaving for air. Something warm presses against me and I flinched for a second before giving a minuscule smile to my dog. He was trained as a police dog by my father and I can remember the day my father brought him home. I was only twelve and, boy, was I excited when the beautiful dog walked in.

“Alexa! Come down here for a moment!” I set down my guitar and plodded my way downstairs when I heard my mother’s call. I saw her and my dad talking in the entryway, “What’s up?” They both looked up at me and gave me their familiar grins filled with love that they always gave me. My dad nodded towards the door and winked at me, “Why don’t you take a look for yourself, sweetheart?” My brow furrowed in confusion, but I trusted him with anything. Heck, even knows who I’ve been crushing on the entire school year.

I skipped the last three steps and that’s when I saw him. The most beautiful and amazing dog in the universe. My mouth dropped open with a gasp and chuckles sounded behind me, “Alexa, meet my new partner. His name is Steel.” My emerald eyes stared into the chocolate brown eyes of Steel and my dad clicked his tongue before giving a command to his canine partner, “Steel, meet Alexa,” my dad clicked his tongue again and the dog tilted his head, “Steel, protect. Understand?” The dog seemed to sit up straighter and regarded my father in a serious way before looking back at me. He came close and held out his front right paw to me and I glanced at my father in confusion.

***

A lot of memories flickered through my mind as I raced down the 15 South going ninety-something miles per hour. Like shooting hoops in my front yard until it got dark. Like that time Karen and I waltzed in the park to Iron & Wine. Like walking up and down University Parkway to and from college classes when I first moved to Utah. This was another walk of sorts. A walk back. And I can’t tell you all the reasons why I was going back, just that I had to. It was like a light was left on in my childhood bedroom that I needed to put out before I could truly leave home.

See, it was actually the worst possible time for me to pull a stunt like this, that is, driving all night to my hometown in Southern California on a whim, because I’m graduating this Friday. At least I think I am. It depends.

Fiction was the last class I needed to graduate. I completely recognize that it was my fault that I wasn’t going to pass. I had done absolutely nothing in that class all semester but stare at the hem at the bottom of Professor Fender’s dress shirts. He seemed like the kind of person that would tuck his shirt in, but he didn’t, and I ran through all the possible theories in my head as to why. Maybe he thought it was edgy to be a professor with an untucked shirt. Maybe his shirt wasn’t quite long enough and it kept untucking when he bent over, so he decided to hell with it. Maybe a student called him uptight on Rate My Professor, so this was his defiant response. I didn’t have a definitive answer or a passing grade in the class.

So after class one day Professor Fender told it to me straight.

***

Taeryn Stormwrath

I’ve lived in this secret haven for millennia. I used to be among the Prime Firekeeper’s elite guardians, the Valdraven Guardians. I came to this paradise with the Prime Keeper Kaelyn, but she was not herself that day. She cursed me to remain here until the day I died. After the curse on her was lifted, she came back to release me. All her efforts were in vain. Not willing to kill me, for there was no guarantee I could be revived, she left me to my long solitude. She could not bear to tell anyone what had happened, thus she was my only visitor.

It has been quite some time since she has visited me. I know it is likely because she died. It is the not knowing that really tears me up inside. Recently I got an answer to what happened. A young lady was hiding from some vile necromancer’s faerie underlings in the deep caves. They were going to find the new Firekeeper soon, so I had to slip her away quickly and quietly. So I swam up behind her, opened my great mouth and held her gently inside. Then I sunk back into the water and swam through the waterlogged caves of the old mountain, up to the valley paradise where its peak used to be.

I set her down as carefully as I could out of my mouth onto the grass on the island in the lake. Apparently she is mortally terrified of dragons. She fled before me whenever I drew near, and seemed to not understand my words. So I changed to my elven form and returned to her. She seemed wary, but I managed to find a way to converse with her. Kaelyn was long dead, as were many of her successors. This tortured, frightened, innocent maiden the next in line. After some time we managed to understand each other and become friends. She wanted to help me. I wasn’t expecting to be beaten unconscious by a cast iron frying pan, or drowned thereafter while bathing in the lake water. I awoke on my back near sunset, outside my paradise prison, and she was missing. I must find her.

***

Jamie sighed as she dragged her assignment into the hand-in folder on the computer. She looked up at the clock. There was still almost an hour left in the class period for her Multimedia 1 class, and, as usual, she’d proven more than a match for the work. Yawning immensely, she took out her notebook and began scanning her French notes, hoping to cram a bit more study time in before her test next period. They’d been told the test would have essay questions on it, and she wanted to make sure that she had the vocabulary down.

Something soft bounced off her head. Annoyed, she looked up. Someone had thrown a paper ball, hoping to hit someone behind her. She rolled her eyes and returned to her notes. Today was not a good day. She’d gotten a grand total of three and a half hours’ sleep due to an ugly set of coinciding assignments for Pre-Calculus, U.S. History, and English, as well as being at the hospital for the birth of her older sister’s second child. To say she was drained and exhausted would have been a gross understatement. She did not want to be here. She would’ve loved nothing more than to lay her head down on the keyboard and see on her computer how many z’s (among other letters) she could catch before waking up.

This plan was made impossible by the arrival of a pair of loud boys at the computer beside her. They began conversing in obnoxiously loud tones with their friend, just as they did every day. Jamie didn’t know them personally at all. She knew they were called Eric, Nash, and Dalton. She preferred to think of them as Fluffy, Beanie, and Mop respectively, due to their individual hairstyles…though perhaps “hairstyles” was the wrong word. There was a French phrase for it…faux pas—that was it. French. Time to get back to studying.

“Yeah, she likes tattoos…”

Tired as she was, Jamie couldn’t help pick up the fragment of the conversation going on next to her. Why couldn’t they socialize elsewhere? Out of the three of them, why’d it always have to be the one that sat next to her that hosted the other two? Wearily, she turned a couple pages of her notes, trying to ignore her noisy neighbors.

“…yeah, just look it up on Google Translate and draw it on my arm.”

***

The ring of trees created a perfect circle, and the clearing was devoid of any kind of vegetation. The soil was black, blacker than any soil Victoria had seen before.

“Where do you think this came from?” she asked, bending down to examine it.

“Don’t touch it!” Fredrick hissed.

She turned around to look at him, surprised at how pale his face looked. “Why not? It’s just dirt.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “It gives me a bad feeling.”

“Nonsense,” she said, removing one of her soft leather riding gloves and running her fingers through the soil. It was soft and springy, almost like running her fingers through feathers. “Fredrick, you must feel this!”

He remained resolutely in one place. “Let’s go,” he pleaded again.

She straightened up, replacing her glove, but instead of turning away from the strange clearing, she stepped forward onto the soft soil. “We must be in the middle of the forest. Why has nothing grown here?”

Fredrick didn’t reply. She turned around to face him, but he was gone, and so was his horse. Had he just left her here? “Fredrick?” She charged back into the ring of trees, panicked. She lifted her skirts as she ran, calling his name, but there was no reply.

She tripped over a protruding tree root, and found she didn’t have the strength to stand back up. How could he have left her out here? As she tried to catch her breath, she took in her surroundings.

Something was different now.

The forest was alive. Not just that the birds were calling or that the trees and moss were a resplendent emerald, but the breezes that whistled through the trunks felt oddly like an exhale, and the sunlight that fell in the dirt in splotches through the canopy pulsed like a heartbeat.

Then all at once, it stopped, and everything was complete silence and stillness.

Except for a warm breath on the back of her neck.

***

I watched the clock on the stove gleam dull green as I drank my coffee in the lavender light of the morning, while the sun still hid itself behind the mountains, struggling to stretch its fingertips over the horizon. How early was too early to be awake?

My great-grandfather once told me, leaning on his carved oak cane like the lazy, tall tale-telling cowboy he was “the dead never sleep before dawn.” I didn’t either after that. Maybe it was fear at first, gaping like a tar black pit in my chest. Later, I believe, it was curiosity poking its nose out from under the sheets two beats of silence after an unfamiliar creak of the aging floorboards or a book had fallen off the bedside table.

Was there mist, like that of waterfalls, that fell from ghosts leaving puddles of fog pooled on the ground if they flickered in one place too long? Were the black sockets of their long-decomposed eyes devoid of any feeling? Or could one see their silent shrieks pleading, reaching from the darkness of their deaths?

I never found out.

That was before I started a new office job six weeks ago an hour’s drive away from home, and I had to wake up right as the moon was pulling the mountain peaks like a blue fleece blanket above its head. In the twenty minutes before dawn I would brew two cups of coffee, sipping on mine (creamed and sugared) while the mug of black beside me would slowly disappear as if dissolving into the blushing atmosphere of the morning.

***

Nick sat hunched over his desk next to the washing machine. The desk was a plastic Fischer Price picnic table they’d bought for twins last Christmas. Sour smelling dishrags and soiled baby bibs with mashed green bean stains sat soaking in the gray water.

Beads of sweat coalesced at Nick’s hairline and dropped onto the laptop as he pecked at the keys. The story was for his online fiction-writing course. He was revising. Always revising. A new draft had to be submitted in the next twenty-four hours.

The H key was loose on the keyboard. It stuck up and kept catching Nick’s fingernail. Finally, he tried to pry the black tile off its plastic tab. He could fasten it on straight if he could just see the screw that was supposed to hold it in place. Instead, it shot off and landed between the washer and dryer. Nick slammed the computer shut.

Jenny had crashed a couple hours earlier after pulling a graveyard at the hospital. And by some miracle, the twins were still asleep. When he had peeked into their bedroom both toddlers had been lying face down in the bed, their doughy limbs splayed at obtuse angles. For a split second Nick had considered moving them onto their backs but he didn’t want to wake them. He had work to do.

The venetian blinds sliced the September sun as it slanted through the window and into the front room of the basement apartment. A lot of natural light for a unit like this. Mrs. Kratski had mentioned this when Nick and Jenny had toured the basement. Jenny had shuffled from room to room, a little off balance at twenty-nine weeks. Mrs. Kratski had neglected to mention that in her old age she got cold, even when the temperature outside was holding steady at ninety degrees.

***

Within the borders of a magical land known as Italy is the once sovereign land of Florence. Up until a few years ago, you could see part of its history as you walked on Plexiglas above old blacksmith workshops, then deeper and richer, before Caesar’s soldiers settled the land, Remus was murdered by his brother Romulus. But that’s what you get when you’re raised by a she-wolf.

All I’m getting to is that the history of the ground itself is older than me. Who am I? Imagine a gorgeously toned bronze body. That would be my twin brother. He’s Greek and I’m Roman, but that doesn’t bother us. To be honest, I haven’t seen him since I was born. I’m white, but I think that gives me an extra je ne sais quoi – that’s latin for “bodacious”.

Have you heard of the Renaissance? Leonardo? Donatello? Michelangelo? I knew Michelangelo when he was just a little boy. He would come visit me with his teacher in the Medici garden. The Renaissance couldn’t happen anywhere else. The beautiful Arno River, the distance from the Pope, the volcanic earth, the banks, the distance from the Pope, the medieval architecture. Florence is nothing like Rome, because we would never let this place become a dump.

Savona used to visit sometimes. His dark beady eyes made me wish marble could squirm. That bitch burned stoned.

I had a wonderful home in the Medici’s garden. I was appreciated, and there was always something to be appreciated. Like a new guy named “David”. He’s little and flowery, but I like him. He’s a child of the Renaissance. He had some interesting ideas. That’s what happens when you live with humanists. Even if you’re not a human, like yours truly, this free flow of ideas and possibilities opened up the heart and the mind. Savona Rollo came in the night and left in a storm, screaming and shouting, damning my dying homeboy. This would have never happened if he told everyone the Medicis were the Anti-Christ. Takes one to know one, bucko.

Have you ever seen something that touched you to the very core? When I saw Venus and her gentle birth, I knew she would grow into something special. She was so young and so beautiful, and just as soon as she made her way into the world, she had to be hidden away. She was lucky. Mr. Rollo went on an absolute rampage. Never in all my years – the raising of Rome, the enslaving of the Greeks, the plagues – had I seen something so heartbreaking. I heard it called “The Burning of the Vanities”. Masterpieces young and old were set aflame, fueled by the same books which inspired the ending of bloodshed and poverty. I watched my friends vanish into smoke. I wish I could have looked away, but I turned to stone from the inside out. Have you ever felt cold marble? Have you ever seen a stone cry?

***

He was late. Sharon was already there—off playing with Ben in the other room. Brandon pulled on his jacket and patted his pants’ pockets for his keys, searching frantically until he saw them on the counter from the corner of his eye. He hadn’t been late a single day at this job, and he wasn’t planning on ruining his streak.

“I’m headed out Sharon!” he called. No answer. But he was certain she’d heard him, and he didn’t have time to wait. He rushed out the door and down to his beat-up Ford. He slid in easily, throwing his bag down on the passenger seat. His sunglasses had fallen on the floor and he had to bend over to reach them, at which point he heard the car door latch. His heart started to race and he sat up straight, throwing the door back open and trying to control his breathing. He kept one arm on the door to make sure it didn’t swing shut again, letting the panic race through him. This had happened before, but he hadn’t yet figured out how to stop it. His muscles were tensed up involuntarily and his fingertips shook with tiny little tremors. All he could do was try to breathe through it and let the feeling subside, but it wasn’t getting any better.

He clenched one hand around the steering wheel and tried to focus on the grip instead of the constriction he could feel around his heart. You’re okay, he thought to himself, and then he began to count, taking a deep breath with each number and then letting it go before he moved on. When he got to five, the tremors started to subside and he managed to loosen his grip on the steering wheel. Still keeping one hand on the door, he used his other to put the key in the ignition and start the car. But even when the engine turned over, it took him another few seconds to pull the door closed. There was no way he’d make it to work on time now, but he was just grateful he’d been able to pull himself out of the episode. Sometimes when things happened unexpectedly like that it took him half an hour just to get back to normal.

***

In a teeny, tiny town in the middle of northern nowhere, there was a girl named Gabriella. She had warm amber eyes and honey skin to compliment her beautiful, sweet temperament. Her hair was dark but with the odd dynamic of natural gold highlights which made her appear to always be haloed in light. Even if her hair had not been so effervescent, her smile would certainly have cast the same glow about her face. She was an otherworldly beauty with the benefit of also being endearingly kind and exceptionally tender hearted. Unfortunately because of her good looks she was so popular in the local high school that she was treated like a celebrity by her small town. The pressure of being so high on the town pedestal caused Gabriella to put up walls and to protect herself, she acted rather shallow. It seemed to her that if she hid her depth and lived like a clear pond with nothing to hide, no way to displease anyone, that she would not live in fear of disappointing her beloved town.

Her kind heart was buried below layers of dirt at the bottom of the clear pond but it was still present and tested daily. The other popular kids made fun of those they thought were lesser and tried to get Gabriella to do the same. On one occasion, her friends were making fun of a girl named Ceilia’s arm fat in the locker room without regard for the fact that the girl could hear them. Ceilia’s face burned red with sheer humiliation as she pulled on her clothes as fast as she could. Irregardless Gabby made her way across the locker room to the Ceilia. She threw her arms around the poor dear and whispered something in her ear. Ceilia’s eyes brightened and she teared up, “thank you.”

“What did you say?” one of the girls that had been bullying tilted her head and her long, straight blond locks spilled over her shoulder.

“I told her that she looks just like her mother and that no one should feel bad about looking like their mom.”

“What does it matter if she looks like her mom?” there was a brunette leaning against the locker next to the blond and when she addressed Gabby she sounded like she really did not care to hear the answer.

Gabriella’s eyes slid half closed warning both girls that she was not amused, “because her mother died a week ago.” She did not chastise the girls for their behavior because she knew the depth of the human heart and even if her friends would not admit it, she knew they were feeling terrible right now. It was not her intention to make them feel bad but it is kind of the nature of bullying to come back to bite whomever dares to participate in it and when it does so, it does so hastily. Unfortunately Gabby herself knew the consequences all too well not by participating in the foul behavior herself but through the passing of someone close to her due to bullying. As long as her heart remained buried she would never talk about it and so her shallow life went on and the only times her real personality revealed itself were in times like these with Ceilia. Times where she was tested by those that wished to catch her being more than just popular.

 

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