“You know you can take a breath now.” I hear the displeasure in my voice but don’t care to change it. “You’d think that as long as you had been in my pond you’d need a good breath by now.”
I take a closer look at the person I’m dragging back to the side of the pond. She’s turning purple. “Oh for the love of…” I notice what it is I’m holding onto. Shit! I let go of the camera strap. Before she can slip beneath the surface again I slide my arm under hers and around her chest kicking a little harder for the edge. She still hasn’t taken a breath. Reaching the side, I realize it’s going to be a little difficult to get her out.
My pond is of a good depth and has steep sides. Placing my arm on the soggy side I adjust my grip to her armpit and hoist her none to gently onto the grass. The jolt of hitting the ground seems to knock the breath back into her. Back arching the air seems to force its way into her lungs. Suddenly she starts coughing and I pull myself out of the pond. Turning her on her side she vomits bile and water, coughing up any that got in her lungs.
When she’s finished she lays back. Her eyes are closed and I start to think she has gone unconscious again. It is the perfect time to study her features. She isn’t the first person to appear in my pond but she certainly is the first one who seems familiar. I look at those petite features and can’t place where I’ve seen them before. The round cheeks and pixie chin aren’t what stand out to me. The dark hair could be on anyone and since it’s wet I can’t tell if there is anything remarkable about it. What seems the most familiar is the indent on one cheek and the slight slant to her eyes.
Startling me those eyes pop open. I freeze as I notice the color when her eyes meet mine. Silver. I’ve seen silver eyes before.
I hear the static from a blank television set, and when I finally open my eyes I can see it on the wall beside me. As I pick myself off the gray carpet I notice that there’s no one around. The room is nice — one of those fancy penthouses you’d find next to Central Park. There’s an empty bottle next to me. I’m not sure what was in it, but whatever it was is gone. The room is empty except for a glass coffee table and a few chairs. Walls are empty.
There’s a note in the kitchen.
“Hey Baby, sorry I can’t be here when you wake up. I had so much fun with you last night. Maybe next time you could throw a party at your place (even if it’s just the two of us!). I left you some soup on the table. It should still be warm when you wake up. Love, Cadence.”
Cadence. Is that the dancer from Frezino’s club downtown? My mind is flipping through my mental log, but only that Cadence comes to mind. Big blonde wavy hair. Tan skin. Thighs thicker than mine.
What am I doing here? This isn’t Maria’s apartment. She’d freak out if she knew I was at another girl’s place, especially if she knew I stayed the night with someone like Cadence.
On the table I see a white bowl with some soup. I dip my spoon, fill it completely with the dark broth, and then lather my tongue with it. It’s good, real good. I fill my spoon again. The rich flavor makes me more hungry. Eventually my spoon isn’t enough and so I pick up the bowl with my hands, place my lips next to the edge of the bowl, and down as much of the broth as I can. I can’t remember the last time I tasted something so delicious.
I had just gotten out of my massage when I got the text. It was a picture. An old gentle face i knew and loved with a breathing mask strapped on it, clearly in a hospital gown. The words were short and simple from my twin brother, Dan. “He’s going”.
I took a deep breath and let it out. I sent the response I could muster.
“Be there in 20.”
The next message was to my husband, Phil. He was ready to leave work and pick me up so we could drive to the hospital.
I took a quick, hot shower. The steam was soothing. Not like the way people say it feels like the womb–that kind of analogy of soothing has always weirded me out. It just feels like the air molecules can get in and out of my lungs a lot easier. That’s all.
At the hospital were most of my siblings. Patty and my mom were in the room with him. Julie was on a flight from San Francisco, sprinting as fast as she could since the morning to get here in time. Dan. John.
John was there. That was what made a tear almost escape my ducts. Seeing John made this feel more real. John wouldn’t show up if he didn’t feel the gravity we all felt. He wouldn’t show up unless he had no doubt that his father was dying.
Dan was trying to make conversation with John, who was remarkably animated. I mean, it wasn’t anything impressive for anyone else: he cracked a smile a couple of times; he didn’t keep his hands folded in his lap, comfortable with silence; he responded to Dan’s questions with answers and then questions of his own. Simple conversation was actually impressive from John.
Seeing John like that almost made me forget the circumstances we were meeting in. I didn’t have to really fake enthusiasm. I was grateful. When Dan saw me, he stood, we hugged and he kissed my cheek.
“Hey sis! Look who we’ve got here!”
“John, hello!” I wasn’t loud. Just cheery.
To my surprise, he got to his feet and smiled.
“Valerie!” he came to me for the hug.
When we broke, I held him by his shoulders for a moment to take him in.
“You look good, John.” It wasn’t a lie. I loved not having to pretend that this was easy. I loved that he was putting forth effort too.
Up close, I could see that his eyes were a rich, deep brown, they must be the color of his mother’s. Yet, they had the same shape as our father’s. Funny how that could be. And I noticed that on top of his head was the same hairline I recognized from my childhood hero. The volunteer firefighting businessman I knew as my dad.
“Well,” John breathed in thoughtfully, “I’m making peace” he breathed out. He smiled warmly. He repositioned his body so the three of us were facing each other.
“Can I just say something before we go forward? Like, before the rest of–” he gestured vaguely to imply our siblings, but he couldn’t conjure a word he felt comfortable with “–and before your mom comes out of that room.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve actually thought a lot about what this might be like. When this moment came. When we’d all–well mostly when I’d have to face the music. And I just want to apologize. I know that I’ve been cold. And I hope you can understand. I so hope you can understand. I mean we’re talking about a really sleazy move,” he chuckled, I smiled. Dan’s face was soft. Almost a smile. He would not give up being our father’s champion. Not even in the face of someone who could testify firsthand of his misdeeds.
“But,” John continued “None of this mess was any of your faults. I’m sorry for taking my anger out on you all for so long.” He paused. He swallowed hard. “What he did really hurt my mom. It really hurt me. It really made us feel like second class. Like last place. And like I said, I’m working on making peace. And this whole-” he gestured in general to the hospital surroundings “-thing that’s going on is making it glaringly obvious that I’m running out of time to forgive him. But I’m grateful that I have you. You always made it easy for me to feel like you were my family, even if I never liked to acknowledge how we became so. Walter, whatever kind of man he might be, he’s our dad. I have him to thank for you.”
Stunned. I was paralyzed. I hardly realized the tears running down my cheeks.
I grabbed him and pulled him in for a hug. Dan included himself in a dorky three person hug. “We love you, John,” muttered Dan into someone’s shoulder. Still through the muffled voice Dan ruined the moment.
“Besides, you’re the executor of the will.”
He knocked on the mahogany door. A moment passed before footsteps could be heard coming closer. The door opened, but before he could get a word out, the door was slammed shut.
He could hear disgruntled sounds from the other side coupled with distressed breathing.
A meek, far away voice that was barely audible to him said, “What’s the problem?”
‘What’s the problem?’ Not ‘Is there a problem?’ This person must be the nervous type, he thought, Easy. Best be charming.
After some not so quiet whimpering, the door opened much more slowly than before.
“Hi,” the woman was middle-aged and squinting vaguely at him. She seemed to be generally unkempt, but, bless her heart, she was trying. There were traces of mascara on her left cheek and just below her right brow. “Do you have a name?” As soon as the words left her mouth, he could see the regret and cursing across her face.
“Hello, may I come in and ask you a few questions? It shouldn’t be long.”
“By all mens – uh, means.” She looked down and motioned in, but he motioned to follow her. Stuffed in a nearby plant sat a pair of think pink glasses.
The living room clashed horribly. Colors, material, size, and style. It was awful. In the stale air hung a pungent mix of cat and musk. A woman with graying hair sat on a metal folding chair, teacup and saucer in hand.
He smiled, “You are Lily Smith?”
The middle-aged woman nearly missed the tacky ottoman, “I am.”
“Oh!” there was something girlish about the older woman, “What a lovely name. Lily. I only know her by her pen name – Virginia M Samoinella.”
The man faked confusion, “Pardon?”
“You’re not from the publishing house?” Lily picked at the clasp on her broken watch.
“No,” said the man, “I’m with the National Security Agency. I would like to ask you a few questions about your search history.”
Another crack of thunder and immediate flash of lightning, but louder this time than any before. The echo reverberates through the house, from the rafters to the floor boards; framed pictures flutter on the walls, a gurgling belch rumbles down the pipes beneath my bare feet. The burst of light coming through the windows blinds me for a moment, leaving sparkly motes twinkling wherever I look. The cat hates loud noises and might take this cacophony as an impetus to flee the house. So, I run upstairs to find her. “Cat?” I hear nothing but feel everything. The house has come alive around me, populated with shadows, and ghosts of a sunny day in California–when the grass is dead, and you only wear as much clothing as you have to. Kids running through sprinklers down my narrow hallway—disappearing behind the attic stairs; a group of wanna-be Indian dancers swaying and turning and hollering around my minimalist bedroom; fire trucks and barbecues and weekend sleepovers–appearing and vanishing in the corners of my pink-tiled bathroom.
The familiar taste of bile has risen to the back of my throat, assaulting my tongue, attacking my taste buds. I cover my eye–like I used to do when my brothers and I would watch scary movies, while Mom and Dad were gone—movies that Jared snuck in from the neighbor’s. My big toe hits the threshold of the bathroom doorway, my knee bangs into the towel cupboard—but I don’t put my hands down until I know I’ve reached the porcelain vanity; my eyelids are squeezed shut so tight that I think I feel the back of my skull pressing forward, sucking my brown irises past hollow sockets and into the past I have been running from, unsuccessfully, for two decades. I drink cold water from the bathroom sink, flushing the bile back down; shake my head, and finally force my unwilling eyes to rip open—like tearing out crooked seams from a summer quilt top–hoping that the host of apparitions have retreated.
I am alone again, but now my nose, mouth, sinuses, and tortured eyes are keenly aware of a thick, caustic mist, spilling down the attic stairs. My ears suddenly activate–quick, harsh. The deep aural canals fill with a low grumbling, followed by the crackling chatter of sparking flames, tap-dancing across the floor above me, each skipping movement echoes through the ceiling, building to a crescendo of conflagration. It consumes the contents of my dusty little attic, while its vibrations, the resonant clatter and occasional crash of seared wooden beams, claw insistently at the ragged edges of gray matter filling my skull—the snaking jumble of tissue retreats, turns on me; my own brain a traitor as it shifts into survival mode—attacking me with flashes of memory, eruptions of guilt, blazing a circular path, around and around the recesses of my mind.
The smoke billows now, having decimated the attic; it seeks more fuel. And I am frozen amid the flames, crumpled into a useless, helpless pile of nothing at the columned base of the vanity. I am a destitute wanderer in a rich sea of dazzling orange waves, sparkling with recurrent golden crests—never ebbing, only flowing, closer and closer; as though to ease the dry existence I have struggled through—bringing a compassionate end to the desert aimlessness that has been my adult life. My heart is thirsty and the thread of sanity that I have clung to is slipping into the proffered cup of salvation before me, held out by the delicate extension of a flaming tentacle.
He pushed against the freezer door but it wouldn’t budge. His hands had started to shake. Cold seeped into his bones and suffocated him. Shallow breaths. This time he threw his shoulder against the door. Nothing. Lungs spasming, he rubbed his arms, trying to warm them.
“Help!” he called through the door. No answer. “Help!” he called again, louder. Still nothing. The door was almost a foot thick—of course no one could hear him. His mind wandered back to a dark closet. He was four years old again. He could see the shadows of his Dad’s feet under the door. Please, he’d begged. Let me out. Nothing. Yelling would have been better than silence. He tried to remember his tricks. Deep breaths. But his lungs forfeited the air immediately. Again. No, they still won’t hold anything. He tried clenching each muscle in his body but they wouldn’t hold on. He was losing control. Get your ass back in that closet, his father’s voice said. Darkness. He slumped back against the wall of the freezer. Ice carved into his back as he slid down to the floor. He pinched his arm-it was supposed to keep him in the present. You ungrateful little bastard, his dad’s voice again. It wasn’t working. He pinched harder.
“Help,” he cried out, but it was only a strangled plea. His teeth began to chatter. His stomach moved in tiny jerks like he was asphyxiating. Trying not to blink, he began to count: 1. You’re trapped in the freezer. His heart constricted, sending a chill down his spine. 2. Someone is bound to come in and let you out. The counting was supposed to help him move toward a solution. He tried to think of something for number three, but cold stole his fingers and toes. 3. You might die before they find you. His heart tried to race against the frigid air. 4…4…4 He couldn’t think. It was getting worse. Dad’s belt on his back. Each muscle in his body tensed and released in erratic shuddering. Mom walking out to get her hair done.
He laid his head down on his knees. The cold was making him tired. I just need to lay down, he put his legs out so he could lay on his side. He should be pacing, trying to stay warm. The freezer floor cut through his chef’s coat and straight into his bones. Get up! Get up you stupid little runt, his dad’s voice assaulted him again. A foot in his abdomen. I can’t get up. I can’t get up. I can’t get up.
So I heard you found somebody else and at first I thought it was a lie
I sat at the end of my bed next to the cardboard box I filled with the stuff you had given me over the past eight months. I had stormed around the apartment, collecting items that had any emotional connection to you, letting my roommates wonder at the state of my sanity. The book you had bought me for Christmas went in, even though I hadn’t read it yet and it was supposed to be good. A Blu-ray copy of The Darjeeling Limited, although that was technically yours. I didn’t care, so it went in the box. The spatula you’d used to cook chocolate chip pancakes with the morning after the night you stayed over for the first time. Box. Hell, I would have even tried to fit the couch considering how many times we’d made-out on it.
Kara had tried to warn me. “Hey, I think she’s been hanging out with Lexi lately…”
I had shrugged it off. You were friends and you’d told me I looked cute jealous. All while our limbs were entwined and we couldn’t tell where one of us began and the other ended. All while one of your hands was running through my hair and the other was running a finger underneath the waistband of my favorite jeans.
I was scrolling through the pictures I’d found a week after she’d warned me. On Facebook, on Instagram, even on Snapchat. Selfies of the two of you, filtered to make your eyes look brighter and your smile happier than it ever did when you were with me. There you were running a hand through her hair. There you were planting a kiss on her cheek, while my chest contracted painfully. A kiss on her lips and my ribs all but punctured my lungs, inching painfully close to my heart.
I took my scarf off and threw it in the box.
I gave a small smirk up at the cloudy sky because it was my absolute favorite type of weather. It was overcast and a little cool, but not cold enough to need longer or thicker layers of clothing on. My partner and best friend, Jed, and I grabbed our guns and empty duffle bags that we threw over our shoulders before shoving each other in our rush to meet the Commander for our patrol duty. We waited for the large, metal gate to open and we stepped out while barely managing to avoid getting squashed by it as it came flying down once we had stepped just a hair out of reach. Flinching, we waited for the echo to die as we raised our guns and stared around the area, waiting with bated breath for any sound or sign of movement. Jed glanced at me and I gave a sharp nod before we crept like the ninjas of old through the abandoned streets we had memorized from a map as we headed to the nearest drugstore that our district hadn’t hit yet for supplies, which was sadly about seven blocks away. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were in a cheesy horror film as we slipped through the cracked streets. Several decomposing corpses and disintegrating skeletons littered the streets along with burned out cars.
Something crunched under my foot and I crouched down before gently sifting through the ashes to find a small doll that was extremely old and had definitely seen better days. I lifted it up to my face and my eyes searched around until I found the tiny skeleton nearby with a tattered dress covering it. Tears pricked my eyes when I saw the larger skeletons holding that small skeleton as if trying to protect it from anymore horror and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had lost in such a short time as well.
A hand softly fell on my shoulder and I followed the arm up to the face of my best friend. His chocolate eyes held the same sorrow and horror that I’m sure mine had, but he was being strong for the both of us while I had my moment of grief for the young life that was lost. I took a deep, shuddering breath and slowly tucked the doll into the back of my jeans before rubbing my eyes to get rid of any tears. Standing up, I gave a minuscule smile to Jed and we continued on our way to the drugstore. It wasn’t long before we reached our destination and I immediately headed into the back to get all of the medication and bandages that were stored there since the Commander and the Chief Medical Officer made sure to tell me that those supplies were the main focus of the mission. A sudden yell broke me out of my thoughts and I froze when I heard shotgun rounds being shot as fast as they could.
I tried and failed to memorize where we were going, but with all the turns and doors we went through, I knew it was a hopeless cause. He touched a door that looked as thought it belonged in Versailles Palace with its crème colored wood, and gold filigree that I giggled slightly at the oddity. Hades stopped and glanced at me over his filled out shoulder. “As part of the Fates decree, you will live in Persephone’s quarters.” My laughter died. “Will I never make a home here of my own, or will I forever live in her shadow?” He shrugged. “That remains up to you.” He opened the door and left me staring into the bedroom fit for a princess of Versailles, from the pearls adorning nearly every surface, down to the feathers adoring the top of her canopy four-poster. Oh boy. I learned a lot about her as I went through her things that now belonged to me. She had a specific taste for things that were delicate and all things French it seemed. Her dresses were a good five inches too short for me, and the styles were nothing like I would wear. She could easily fit into Dallas glam with all of the diamonds adorning everything she wore—it was more like body armor than fashion.
A small cough alerted me to a maid’s presence. I lowered the diamond-studded gown I was holding and looked at her. She was a young girl, and was neatly dressed in a maid’s uniform. She introduced herself as Bess and informed me that the ‘Master’ would like to have dinner. I paused at her carefully orchestrated sentence. “So does that mean I have to attend?” Bess tried not to fold in on herself as I directed my question to her. I sighed. “Bess, if you are my maid, then I need to you to be yourself. I don’t do well with timid people. I’d prefer if we were friends, however the choice is yours.” She thought about what I said for a moment, and I carried on looking through the closet, deciding that I would have to remove all the clothing. My size six would never be a size zero. “Master Hades had a deal with my lady that she would have dinner with him every night.” I sighed. “Well, then I best get dressed.” Bess perked up considerably as I let her choose from gowns in a different closet that were somehow miraculously my size. She chose a black lace cocktail dress that was barely above the knee with cap sleeves. I nodded my approval and slipped on the dress. I wasn’t prepared at all when she sat me down and I saw my reflection for the first time since I was crowned. Gone were my long locks of black and blue. Instead I stared at my reflection of Jungle green eyes—like mothers—surrounded by honey blonde hair. Persephone’s powers had changed my freaking hair color. I didn’t altogether hate the color; the blonde just wasn’t me. Bess finished curling my hair I stood and praised her work. “When I get back, I want to see what the real you looks like. No more of…this.” I waved my hand around the room gesturing the overall gaudiness that was Versailles. She nodded and gave me a small smile, which made me feel as though I had won at least one friend today.
I left and thought of Hades. I knew it would take me forever to locate the dining hall, or wherever he was eating, so I hoped I could teleport to his side, saving me time and preventing me from looking like the idiot I felt like. Turns out I could teleport, and I found the dining hall wasn’t very well lit, save for the massive Gothic fireplace, which put out heat into the medium sized room. The dining table was a black polished wood that gleamed as it reflected the firelight. Hades didn’t say anything about the dress, or much to me. When I asked about the roles and responsibilities I had to do, he stared at me in surprise. “You’re going to actually do the job?” I nodded. “Fine. I’ll email you the list.” I finished the snow crab and steamed vegetables. “Hades? I’m sorry I killed Persephone. I reacted, when I should have walked away.” He stood, making his chair scrape against the floor. “My relationship with her died a long time ago. Just do your job, and ask me if you have questions.” He turned, and yet paused when I said to his back, “I’ll do my best, and thanks for dinner.” He didn’t turn around, but continued out the door, and when the room echoed with it’s closing I began to realize just how alone Persephone had been, and how alone I would be.
Just as I was looking over, Marshall stopped at my desk. “So where’s your buddy?”
“Which buddy? Meredith or Bhaskar?” I replied jokingly.
Marshall frowned, “Your buddy Dylan.”
“Oh he must be in the restroom.”
Hands on hips, Marshall informed me, “Tell him he can use the restrooms on his break.”
I sat there tapping my desk to no particular rhythm giving a fake, closed-mouth smile.
Marshall stared blankly in return.
I piped out a quiet laugh and said, “Speak of the devil, I think I’m gonna use one of those breaks to go to the bathroom now. It’s funny how these things work, right? You start talking about one thing and then you—”
“Just go get him.”
I rushed down the metal staircase and burst through the door of the bathroom.
“Hey, Dylan. Dylan!”
Bhaskar was washing his hands. I gave him an inquiring shrug and he nodded towards the corner stall.
I pounded on the stall door.
“You gotta get up man. The boss is asking about you, wondering why you’re not appeasing the Australians.”
I peered through the tiny gap in the stall door and saw Dylan, pants on, sitting on the toilet lid, slow to get up.
He yawned, stretching his arms high up to the fluorescent lights, and rubbed his eyes.
“I’m up! Just give me a moment.”
I checked my phone and saw that Mary had texted me a thousand times, so I locked it. Finally he got up, unlocked the stall and asked me, “How long was I out for?”
I rolled my eyes, “Like 45 minutes. Long enough that Marshall asked about you.”
“I’ll just tell him I was having stomach problems. I ate one of those rotten Lunchables in the breakroom or something.”
“Yeah, right. This is the third time you’ve done this in the same week. He’s not gonna buy it.”
Dylan shrugged, “Well that’s his problem.”
The leaves crunched beneath her feet as she held her vivid, white shawl as close to her chest as she could away from the clawing wind. Sheets of rain soaked the land behind her nearing as quickly and loudly as an explosion. She bent, wrapped herself anew, and tucked inside a hollow of trees that were only high enough for her to curl into a ball under. Despite their height the trees were packed tightly together and did well to keep the rain off of her. Was all of this worth it? The falling darkness permeated her thoughts and she began to doubt. Am I worth all of this? Is it really so bad back home? The bruise on her cheek visible from the moonlight which lined her face protested that it was, in fact, so bad back home.
At that moment there was a loud bang that made her heart feel like it had burst and was trying to keep up with the high frequency situation by beating fiercely and in a lopsided fashion. There was the sound of metal scraping against everything near fence posts, railroad tracks, and finally a cow who shrieked like the banshee of death when it was mowed over. She thought it was odd that she heard no people and then the sound of someone’s sobbing grief as if they were pouring it straight from their heart, out of their eyes, and into the air pierced her drums as though the sorrow were a pair of railroad spikes someone picked up and jammed into her ears.
She wanted to run toward the noise and run far away all at once. It was then that she, from her little nook of trees, heard another car pull up. There was shrieking, and the sounds of someone struggling to get away then three gunshots and the night was still again. She wasn’t sure what her ears had just witnessed and wished she could just erase it all. It was then that she felt a clarity that rang in her ears as loudly as the scuffle up the road, ‘nothing will ever be the same.’
General Braltin exploded into a fit of derisive whinnying laughter. His rear hooves clattered against the floor, and the sound echoed with peculiar menace around the chamber. “You mean to engage me in a duel?”
“If it shuts you up. No magic. Just weapons. Do you want a minute to fasten your horseshoes?”
That got his attention. “You shall pay for your impudence, runt.”
“Ooh, someone needs their saddle uncinched.”
“Saddle!?!” The general roared.
“If I win, this blacksmith stays, and you don’t bother him again,” Sarisha stated firmly, “nor me, for that matter.”
“Conversely,” Braltin interrupted, “when I win, both you and the smithy shall taste my steel on your knees.”
“Deal,” Sarisha agreed coldly, her eyes a pair of chilly, rough-cut emeralds.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the blacksmith panicked. “He’ll trample you!”
“Well, I’m sick of sitting here and stewing,” Sarisha said shrugging. “I want to move on, whether that means going forward or six-feet under.”
“The old man has a point, child,” Braltin sneered. “I might mistake this for a death wish.”
“I’ve never had anything to live for,” Sarisha replied dully. Then a grin like the Cheshire cat’s spanned her lips and sharpened her eyes. “I guess the look on your face after I make an ass out of you would be a good place to start.” She raised her blade, catching a ray filtering in through the crumbling vaulted ceiling above. “Shall we ride?”
“Are you mad?” the blacksmith hollered as Braltin charged.
“Is that a rhetorical question?” Sarisha replied, before leaping to her left. Braltin’s blade sailed downward, striking the floor again. Sarisha darted around to the side and took a swipe at his flank. The general reared up and took a mighty swing sideways. Sarisha bent over backwards, supporting herself with her sword, and Braltin’s blade swooshed over her nose. She pushed back up and stabbed him in his lower shoulder. The general howled and threw a wild and ungainly reverse swing. Sarisha ducked and rolled to her left, winding up next to Braltin’s flank. She took a swift pair of slashes before backing up to avoid a vicious lash from the centaur’s back legs.
I thought I was prepared for what I would see at school after the holiday break, but the moment I entered the doors, I felt ill.
Jason’s locker had been turned into a shrine: a picture of him in his football uniform covered the ugly maroon locker door and students had littered the ground around it with stiff carnations and notes stamped with “RIP” and other random items like a can of coke and a baseball. What would happen to all of that stuff? Would a janitor just throw it all away? Would everything be boxed up and given Jason’s family? There was a group of girls crying in front of the locker, one of them kneeling and rearranging flowers around a small teddy bear holding a football. I don’t think I’d ever seen Jason talk to a single one of these girls.
His girlfriend Natalie was standing a little ways off, completely motionless. Almost everyone that passed her squeezed her shoulder or said something to her, but she didn’t react, except for an occasional nod. She wasn’t crying, just staring, her eyes hollow. But they’d been hollow like that for weeks, though I doubt anyone but me noticed. Her eyes flicked up and met mine, and we stared at each other, unsure if we were enemies or comrades after everything that happened. After I warned her. After she didn’t listen.
After he died.
An announcement came over the PA and broke our connection. I put my head down and skirted around edge of the crowd around Jason’s locker. I only vaguely heard the principal’s voice saying something about the school counselor being available if anyone wanted to talk about Jason.
As if everyone wasn’t already talking about Jason. As if they hadn’t always been talking about him.
Mrs. Horowitz repeated the message in homeroom, along with the news that the start-of-semester assembly was postponed and there would be a memorial for Jason after first period instead.
Everyone spoke in whispers, punctuated by the occasional sniffle. I stayed silent. I didn’t trust myself to open my mouth and not scream.
It takes two days to incubate.
Pulling his shield off his arm, Maldor holds it with both hands and brings it over his head, the woman mimics his action and brings Althrin over her own head. Maldor hurls his shield at the woman, who brings Althrin down, striking the shield and shattering it to pieces. Maldor dives through this debris, ignoring the shards of metal that slice into his face as he does, tackling the woman again, only this time he grabs onto Althrin as he drags the woman to the ground. The two grapple over the sword, neither one willing to let go, the woman claws at Maldor, trying to gouge his eyes. In response Maldor punches the woman, who responds with a series of punches of her own. The two fight on the narrow trail, pulling and punching as each one tries to gain the upper hand.
Maldor finally manages to drag the sword from the woman’s grasp, kneeling over her he expertly spins Althrin around and drives it into the woman’s chest. Her screams tear through the mountains, echoing all around them. Maldor uses Althrin to push himself to his feet, the woman continuing to scream as her body ignites. Soon she is engulfed in an inferno that forces Maldor to release his grip on Althrin and move back, for fear of being consumed by fire himself. He falls against the steep mountain behind him, using it to hold himself up as he watches the woman burn, her screams fading away on the wind as her body is consumed by the inferno. The fire stops as abruptly as it started leaving behind a pile of ash and scorch marks on the ground as the only signs of the woman having been there.
Maldor steps into the ashes and grips Althrin’s black handle, the metal cool to the touch, despite having been engulfed in flames a moment ago. He easily pulls the sword from the ground, and brings it close to his face. Examining the black jeweled handle, the blood red guard, curved up like the horns of a dragon, and the silver blade rising above him, curving slightly at the tip to meet the back of the sword. Maldor gives Althrin a quick swing, enjoying the familiar crackle of energy as the blade moves through the air. Looking up from the sword he spies the pile of supplies the woman dropped. Using Althrin as a cane he slowly makes his way up the trail to the discarded pile.