Posted in Stories

Fiction Friday: Immortal

The Hill

The Hill was what the Americans called their parliament building. It was all stone and endless hallways with no windows. It was boorish. Julian knew it was not ‘parliament’ but he stood with his hands clasped behind his back looking distastefully at a statue of one of the founding fathers. He was parliament and found the American system of government to be barbaric. The fact that he had to be in Washington DC at all disgusted him.

“You look like you’ve swallowed a sour orange.”

Julian smirked, turning to face Gloria Marcus. The woman was half his size with twice his power level, despite being fully human. Julian was not, nor was the other man chosen to represent the PeaceKeepers. The three together – Gloria, Julian, and Christian Lyle – had founded the now-global team of Evolved and were now desperately trying to defend it. The incident in Chicago left a bad taste in the mouths of all Americans with chaos exploding in all directions. All of the Strongholds were shut down, many teams disbanded and high-ranking members demoted to mere Agents of the A.E.C. If the trial did not go well, the fear was that other nations would follow suit and begin shutting down their Strongholds. The only one Julian had no concern over whatsoever was the UK. They loved their Evolved like they loved their tea and biscuits.

“I’d rather not be here,” Julian admitted to the aging woman that stood before him. They might have had a future once, if she’d not been so adamant about staying in the States. Such a wretched place. No ley lines, no groves – Julian honestly did not understand how Christian stood living in such a vile place. The time in Chicago nearly drove him mad. Gloria, however, merely smiled.

“Well, I appreciate your sacrifice for the greater good,” she teased. Christian joined them, a man who appeared in his early forties. Julian knew better. Their secrets were laid bare for each other many years ago. It always upset Julian how slowly the man aged. He was twice Julian’s actual age and looked half of what Julian did. It simple was not fair.

“Christian,” Julian sniffed. The other man smiled, his eyes squinting behind black-rimmed glasses.

“Good to see you again, Karma,” the man replied, using Julian’s given name. In the mortal world, it was the name of his Evolved alter-ego. In reality, Karma was his true identity, his true form. Explaining that outside of Britain never worked, however, so smirked when his true name was used. “We’re almost ready to begin.”

“Oberron be blessed,” Julian sighed. “I don’t want to miss tea again…”

Cats Game

“You have to pinch it the other way… no – have you never played Cats Craddle?”

Geoffrey Gao snorted, watching Lady Saraya Nigel and Agent James Kendall play a children’s game while they waited outside of Capitol Hill. The trials regarding the PeaceKeepers’ fate in the states began today, something no one was looking forward to. Geoff let his second in command take over as a representative with Agent Osprey seeing as how the man had a great deal more seniority within the PeaceKeepers than Geoffrey did. He was not a leader, Christian always said, so maintained a stand-by role instead, much like Karma did with Zephyr.

I played!” the young UK team-lead argued. “When I was five. Why do you play so often?”

“I have a niece and an annoying need to do something with my hands or I get twitchy,” James countered. “You’re all tangled.”

“Is that why you still smoke, Agent Kendall,” the woman threw back. James made a face at her. He was a good fit as her second in command.

Geoff smiled. A lot was riding on the trials. It made him nervous, made his skin prickle. He frowned. It was not normal nerves that prickled his skin. Auspex was his alter ego, his Evolved ability banking off of clairvoyance. Something was wrong.
“Aus?” Zephyr said – no one actually referred to her by her given name. “What is it?”

The question was answered with a resonating explosion that threw all three PeaceKeeper members to the ground and set car alarms blaring for miles. The entirety of the capitol building was just blown apart, creating a rain of dust and debris that settled all over the Evolved heroes.

“JULIAN!!!”

Auspex heard Zephyr scream as another blast tore the earth apart not five feet from where they lay. His ears sang a high-pitched song and his chest constricted painfully from inhaling marble dust and dirt. People around them screamed, many protesters and supporters surrounding the capitol that day all scattering in a panic. Auspex had to focus, had to find the source of the danger. It did not take long, his instincts zeroing in on a woman in a hoodie that had been part of the protest crowd. She grinned at him, her eyes all black and hands out as she ‘directed’ the explosions.

“Backlash!” Auspex called, directing Agent Kendall’s attention to the woman. Fire burned everywhere, hydrants shooting water up into the air and the earth churned as if stepped on by a giant. It was the fire that Backlash went to, absorbing it into his hand and then redirecting it at the woman in the hoodie. She was not expecting such a bold attack, screaming when her clothing caught fire and dropping to the ground. Only then did Backlash redirect the water to her, literally sitting on the woman and slapping her with a large, flat patch that robbed her of her ability to use her power.

“Julian!” Zephyr cried again, running towards the destroyed capitol building. Auspex debated, running to Agent Kendall instead.

“Go!” he said, directing Backlash towards where Zephyr went. “I got this one.”

Mourning

No one spoke, heads bowed and tears falling to rain-soaked ground. The weather turned just before the funeral services began, clouds parting to reveal bright sunshine. James stood beside Z, Eric opposite him to make a sandwich of support as the set Julian Nigel into the earth. Gloria Marcus remained comatose in DC but the rest of the PeaceKeepers gathered to mourn the loss of one of their founding members. Not that his death mattered. It was the nail in the proverbial coffin for the PeaceKeepers. The US PeaceKeepers were completely disbanded and Evolution outlawed. How do you outlaw something entirely out of your control?? It made no sense and had the A.E.C. scrambling like chickens with their heads cut off. Camps were being made for Evolved – prisons to keep them contained; heroes included. It was ridiculous.

One by one, the mourning heroes left until only Eric, Zephyr, and James remained.

“Think he’ll come back?” James asked after too much silence. He knew what Julian was. It was a rather interesting surprise and, yet, made more sense than anything else. Zephyr was the same, both fey-born and both, theoretically, immortal. Karma – like Zephyr – was the fey, their human alter-egos serving as some sort of strange vessel for the fey to exist in the mortal plane. Zephyr, James learned, was the daughter of Oberron and Karma her uncle because, why not? Nothing else made sense in the world, why not add faeries to it too? Now it seemed like the only thing James could hold on to. In theory, Karma could return; in theory.

“I hope so,” Zephyr said softly, voice choking up as she spoke. “I don’t know how I’ll do this without him…”

Eric hugged her as they stood there, her rock. James looked at the other man and sighed.

Fey-Bound

The man that stared back at Owen Grace from the mirror was someone he did not really recognize. Eyes were hollow, face gaunt with a growth of stubble covering sallow skin. His whole body jerked when someone pounded on the door, demanding he get out. He sighed, splashing water on his face before stumbling back out into the pub. People looked and whispered, tossed dirty glances in his direction. What did they know?

He pulled the last of his money out of a worn leather wallet and threw it on the bar before stumbling out into the slick, wet street. He could still smell the rain on the air; the storm was not over. How ironic.

He coughed, a hacking, throaty sound that echoed into the late night air and down the narrow alleys. The sound of his own echo caught his attention, making him twitch. Hands went into pockets and shoulders hunched, his steps quickening just a touch. The dark bothered him. Something in the alley to his left caught Owen’s attention, making his steps speed up. He didn’t want to see the shadows in the dark, the terrors that haunted him in his sleep.

Owen…

He winced, turning down a street with lights and raucous noise. Pub after pub lined the cobbled street. He ran into the first pub he saw, nearly tripping over the sawdust on the floor in his haste. People laughed, the bartender rolled his eyes.

“Whiskey,” Owen said knowing full well he had no way to pay for the drinks he ordered. Unfortunately, so did the bartender.

“Gonna pay the tab this time, Owen?”

“Just pour the damned drink, Norm,” Owen growled. He knew Norman; he knew all the pub workers. They were the reason his marriage dissolved, his bank accounts dried up, his business collapsed.

“Go home, Owen,” Norman answered instead. “I’ll hail a cab.”

“Forget it,” Owen snarled, stumbling back out into the misty night. The lights outside flickered, briefly dimming then growing brighter before popping one by one as he passed them. He flinched at each one, shrinking further in on himself until nearly falling into a pile of garbage.

Owen…

“Go away!” he hollered though he knew, logically, there was no one there. It did not stop the alluring whisper from tickling the back of his neck, the shivers from racing up his spine. He swore there were sparkles on the air and a haunting wind that had nothing to do with the weather or his state of inebriation. “Please go away…”

Oh, darling Owen, I’ll be with you for a long time to come…

Posted in Chelle, General Updates/News

Weekend Warrior: New Year, New You?

Changes

Pastel praying hands with mandala design behind and on them.

All things in life must change. Some are good, some are bad, some just have to happen because things get old and moldy. Every year folks start with a list of changes they are going to make. They raise up their scratch paper full of resolutions and declare “This will be my year!”… and then that enthusiasm generally starts to fade within the first week or two of the new year. I’m as guilty as the next person. Heck, we’re only twelve days in and my resolve is already faltering back to my old, lazy ways.

Bottom line, change is hard. However, it is also necessary.

As I not only share my words but also my life, I have to say that changing to be a better me is not as easy as it might seem on paper. On paper I have a list: Eat better, Be more active, Read more (yeah, I know, I’m a writer that should be a non-issue; mom of 4, people), FINISH projects, De-clutter all of the things. Do you know how many I’ve done? None of them. None. I have no shame either. Life is hard and not always as accommodating to change as I’d like. Oh well.

Baby Steps

So, what do we do about it? Take little, tiny baby steps.

First up on that slab is the ‘eat better’ – well, I went and bought us some nice veggie and fruit selections this week instead of all the carbs we naturally have in our pantry because kids. My stomach appreciates the rabbit food, let me tell you.

So, what about the rest? I said baby steps! Don’t rush me!! I’ll work on the others little by little but, I am finding, that taking decent control of one of my things first helps me to take control of thing 2. This goes for finishing projects on time too. I am, after all, a writer and publisher(in case everyone missed that last bit, yes, I co-own my own publishing company). Deadlines matter and getting things done is grossly important.

Project 1 – Ashes to Embers. It is in revision.

Project 2 – Cold as Death: A Zombie Anthology. It is now in the formatting phase and cover-art is my task. That is also, at 80% completion. Go me!

Project 3 – Formatting for a friend’s personal work. It is around 40% done

And that is where we STOP for now. Why? Baby steps. One thing at a time. When Project 2 falls away, I can then move on to Project 4, and then repeat the same cycle when Project 1 falls away, and Project 3, until all of my Projects are done. Yes, I work on multiple projects at a time; the brain will not always cooperate with what I want so I have to move on to what it will cooperate with or else fall victim to staring uselessly into the void.

The Truth

Resolutions are not about the end result; not really. They are about re-training yourself to think differently, to do things differently so that those goals can be attained. If you don’t retrain your brain (rhyming, it’s my jam) then you’re doomed to fall right back into the same pit of despair that you were in the year before when you made the same resolutions. I’m in several groups that offer support, encouragement, even ideas. Keep writing, keep reading, try this recipe, vacuuming does count as activity, you don’t need to finish everything on your list…

BUT – and it’s a pretty big ‘but’ – if I cannot change how I think, all the encouragement and support or ideas in the world will not change a single thing.

It is time to retrain, rethink, redo me.

New Look

No, I’m not changing how I look. Not really. I think I’ve finally decided to stop dying my hair mostly because it’s just too much dang effort but that’s about the extent of what I will change about how I look. I’m still short, still live in tees and yoga pants despite best efforts from Stitch Fix to make me look more like a grown-up, and I still have a wild mop of curls that refuse to be tamed. Welcome to my life.

But I can change what Taming Chaos looks like. It’s time for a refresh as I launch into more writing, take firm hold of my publishing company, learn new things, and dip my toes into new genres under a new pen name. I will be introducing her a little later once I get the site changed up and pretty but, suffice to say, there will be some new things coming for 2019 so that we can get the new decade rolling with a bang. Yeah, I get it, we just started the final year of this decade but do you know how long it takes me to change things on a website?? I’m a writer, which means I’m poor, and have the most amazing drag and drop skills you’ve ever seen! So, yeah, it’ll take me a while. Don’t freak out if things start to vanish or change or migrate. I’m here, promise.

Retrain, rethink, redo.

Into the weekend we go…

Posted in Fantasy, Stories, The Black Bard

Fiction Friday: Power

Everything Floats

Glowing Molten-Blue Magic

Reven Si’ahl sat with arms and legs dangling over the flotsam that sufficed as a bridge between two anchored ships. He groaned with nausea, his stomach churning as the bridge, the ships, the entire city, in fact, swayed back and forth with the ocean tides. He clung to the ropes, toes bobbing in and out of the cool water. Everything in the city of Avir floated. That’s why it was called The Floating City of Avir as Liam had so eloquently pointed out. Reven didn’t care what the stupid place was called, he wanted it to stop moving.

The city itself was comprised of hundreds of ships all anchored near the tiniest island ever recorded. It was a single mountain fortress, the ships and barges all spreading out like tentacles from the head of an octopus. They put out bridges like the one Reven sat on or plank boards to walk from ship to ship. Business was conducted over a cask of ale on floating pallets that were considered ‘neutral ground’. Liam Roe, a duende thief-taker, sat among a group of unique individuals during such a session, periodically glancing over at Reven. The tirsai olven man did not feel the need to return eye contact, head hanging over the rough ropes so that he did not have to move when his stomach heaved of its own volition.

Into the Caves

Reven learned after that moment of indiscretion to never let Liam discuss business outside of his presence again when it could be helped. Sometimes it couldn’t, but that day in particular, his opinion might have changed their path. As it was, Reven walked through ankle-deep muck in insect-infested marshes at the head of their three-person line into the heart of Yama towards the border of Pulani. Liam followed, with Reven’s own personal salvation, Ajana Dai – a half-olven woman of cantari descent, her skin as copper as any coin and her voice sweet as honey – bringing up the rear.

“Is this why you said to not wear shoes?” Reven asked, his toes squishing in the muck as they walked.

“Quiet,” Liam hissed. “Keep goin’.”

“Towards what?” Reven asked, stopping to look at the duende thief-taker. They did not get on, not really.

“Liam, perhaps I should lead,” Ajana offered, maintaining peace between the men. Liam scowled. “Reven does not know what to look for.”

“Yeah,” Liam scoffed. “Reven don’t know nothin’ do, he? S’what happens when ya bring in strays. Keep goin’. You’ll know it when ya see it.”

Reven only rolled his eyes and continued on, his steps slowing when he saw ‘it’. A gaping maw of a cave came out of the blight all around him, the marshes creating a blanket of hot steam that hid anything further than a few inches from his face. The cave loomed up out of nowhere with jagged stalagmites giving it a skull-like appearance. Reven shrank into the muck. He did not remember a life prior to Ajana and, if this was what was in store for his future, he didn’t want to remember that either.

“What’d ya stop for?” Liam hissed again, shoving Reven at the center of his back. That was strike one.

Power Unleashed

The inside of the cave was no better than the outside. Narrow passages made movement difficult and the muck that sucked at Reven’s toes outside was even worse inside. Several passages were flooded, forcing the small crew to wade through waist-high water full of bugs and floating bits of things that made Reven’s nose wrinkle. Eventually, Ajana did lead because not only did Reven not know what he was looking for, he was also not a very good navigator, running them into dead-ends at least twice and nearly dropping them into a pit once. The payout, however, was worth the fuss.

“Now ain’t that a pretty bauble,” Liam cooed. He held a gem the size of a raptor egg in his hands. It gleamed in the torch light, an opalescent green that sent rainbow sparkles across the walls of the cave. Reven watched the sparkles, mesmerized by the patterns they made.

“Oi,” Liam crowed, shoving Reven in the back again. Strike two. “Satchel.”

Reven frowned but pulled the satchel he carried around so that the gem could be placed inside. He’d been reduced to a moderately intelligent pack mule. How glorious.  He could see another statement forming in the duende thief-taker’s face, a statement Reven was not likely to appreciate, when the entire cave rumbled, throwing them off balance.

“Are caves supposed to do that?” Reven asked from a rather awkward position bent at the waist with arms spread wide for balance. The others were no better, arms out or legs spread to keep them stable.

“Idiot,” Liam grumbled. “C’mon ‘fore somethin’ crawls up an’ starts bitin’.”

Reven did not argue, turning to leave the way they came. He was caught up by Liam grabbing his arm and tugging sharply on the strap of the satchel. Strike three.

Something inside of the tirsai man exploded. Rage, perhaps, or great annoyance, but it showed itself in a concussive blast that radiated outward from Reven, throwing the thief-taker clear across to the other side of the cave. The ground beneath his feet trembled, rocks bouncing as he turned a fierce, white-hot glare on Liam Roe.

“Don’t,” Reven barked. Heat filled his veins, burned through the whole of him and seared his core with supernatural Power. The realization made every ounce of it rush out of him like water from an overturned bucket, nearly dropping him to his knees. He could cast.

Secrets

The journey back to Avir was entirely silent. Not a single word was spoken or thought uttered. Reven let the other two conduct business, trading the gem for the agreed upon amount and simply prayed that nothing was said about what happened. He knew what the world thought of casters, he’d seen it already in Pulani where Ajana found him and heard the talk of it among the sailors and thief-takers on Avir. Casters were wicked; mortals that dared to steal the Power of the gods for themselves and punished for their crime accordingly.

Despite knowing he could easily handle anything that came his way – hopefully – Reven still flinched when a shadow loomed overhead. He glanced up slowly as if expecting a lynch mob or, at the very least, to be struck for his stupidity. How dare he show his Power; how dare he take what was not his. Instead, Liam stared down with impatience growing on his tanned features.

“Gonna sit there all day or what?” the thief-taker drawled. “We don’t get paid by sittin’ ‘round, ya crow.”

Reven’s first reaction was to argue, to question, to wonder. He opened his mouth to say so, then looked at Ajana, smiling kindly at him and quickly shut his mouth. He could learn and he would take his secrets – what few he had – to the grave.

Posted in Chelle, General Updates/News

End of Year Reflection

Clock at midnight with confetti

   I understand that we still have a couple weeks until the official end of 2018 but  I will notoriously get busy, the cHaOs that rules my life will intervene, and nothing will get posted. So, I reflect upon 2018 now while I have the synapses to actually do so. This will not be the long diatribes of how awful the year has been, how eager I am to see the turning of the clock and be rid of 2018 for good.

   No, actually, most of 2018 has been rather phenomenal. Business is booming, I acquired one of the best little part time jobs a SAHM-Writer could ask for, and I even volunteer at the school regularly. I went to Disney World and Vegas, and I have to make plans to go to Hawaii (no, really, it is part of our time share package), and I have two new books in the works for the early part of next year. My health is actually improving for once despite the Great Fibro Flare of 2018 that struck me recently and sapped all of my will to remain upright for longer than a couple hours at a time. The flare is passing (finally) and the rest of my health issues are now managed nicely. My children are in great schools, I got a new car this year, a new house – life is good.

   The pessimists of the world will now take this opportunity to poop on my rainbows with the inevitable “Ok, now where’s the downer? Cuz if it hasn’t happened, it’s coming!”

   Well, what if it isn’t? That dear readers, is what I reflected upon today while I sat in complete fascination of the ‘dipping’ process being done on my torn up fingernails (a story for another time). While I do believe in balance, karma does not always work in immediates. I have put in my time in the realm of negatives. I have struggled and suffered, worried, been ill, been afraid, been at a point where rock bottom thought it would be fun to add a few spikes to drive that hateful point home. This, right now, what I am experiencing is my balance. This is my positive for all the negative I have been pulled through.

   Reflect on that for a minute, my friends. We are writers, creative thinkers, weavers of the spoken word, artists of the imagination – – and the gods above and below know that we suffer for our passion. Accept your positive. Don’t second guess it, embrace it. If you are riding a high, enjoy it – don’t look for the low that you ‘know’ is lurking around the corner because it may not be. And if you are in a low, please keep going! It will get better and you will have your positive and it will be glorious.

   For now, I say, thank you, 2018. You have been decently good to me. I look forward to what 2019 has. It will be full and busy and covered in all of the cHaOs that I love so much but it will be worth it.

   We will have new books, new pen names (oooh, fun, right!), new adventures, and probably a new blanket to hide in because blankets are always needed. 

   Here’s to 2019 – may it be truly fantastic!

Posted in Stories

Fiction Friday: London Stronghold

Wide image of London.   It was oddly satisfying to watch the ships roll in and out of port along the Thames River. They seemed neither rushed nor lazy in their movements, each one skimming the water at its own pace. The ripples they created intersected, touching one another in half-moon patterns that kept the surface of the otherwise murky water in constant motion.
   “Backlash, report to London Citadel immediately.”
   The order came from a tiny, clear patch no larger than a dime that was pasted just behind the back of James Kendall’s right ear. It was standard issue to all members of the PeaceKeepers, a worldwide network of superheros that operated autonomously in cooperation with Interpol and the United Nations. It was the one thing about his new job that he absolutely detested. The thing could be removed, if necessary, or ‘muted’ for privacy purposes, but was otherwise expected to stay on at all times. The fact that the stupid thing could also link members telepathically did not help James’ opinion of the device. It was invasive.
   “Copy that,” James said softly so as not to attract too much attention. He finished his cigarette, rolling the butt between his fingers and dropping it in a waste bin on his way back towards London Stronghold. People mostly ignored him, though some eyed him askance as he walked with hands stuffed into the pockets of his fatigue-green coat. Natives said it was because people could ‘smell the Yankee’ on him, James said it was because people were nosy or rude. 
   James made the walk from London Bridge to the Gherkin in relatively good time. ‘Immediately’ meant different things depending on who gave the order and the tone used. This time around, it just meant he needed to report in and not that someone was filling a local coffee shop with duplicates of himself. That happened the week prior. Things with the PeaceKeepers were vastly different from how things were with the Agency for Evolved Control where he had been before. The A.E.C. operated much like any other government agency. The PeaceKeepers… well, mostly they tried not to cause too much damage when handling an issue. He had once equated them to the Justice League from D.C. Comics and learned very quickly never to make that comparison again.
   For one, London Stronghold was not orbiting Earth. It was, in fact, a subterranean establishment that sprawled out beneath a good chunk of London. Also, there were no elevators or magic portal tunnels to get into London Stronghold. James had to descend, first, into the bowels of London Underground, find a specific archway, descend down those steps, and then punch in a code that opened a pressurized sewer flap in the ground to get to where he needed to be. They were global Ninja Turtles. That was also not an appropriate comparison, or so he was told once.
   “Justice,” he said to a hologram of a page boy complete in Victorian garb and newsie cap. The transparent being was always present no matter the time or day and in every Stronghold across the globe. James first encountered Justice in Chicago and had been pleasantly surprised to see the ten-year-old-looking hologram when he first arrived in London.
   “Good afternoon, Agent Kendall,” Justice said, using James’ last name. The hologram was the only one that ever used real names for the members within the Stronghold. It was a curiosity that James had yet to puzzle out as most members were incredibly protective of their identities for obvious reasons. “Your presence has been requested in Laboratory One. Proceed with caution. Agent Richter set off a particularly bothersome bomb earlier today during his trials.”
   James made a face but nodded all the same. “Thanks for the heads up.”
   “You’re welcome, Agent Kendall.”
   The creepy little thing was always so polite and usually more informative than he needed to be. Agent Richter otherwise known to the rest of the team as Neurophage, was their resident genius and weapons manufacturer, among other things. If he set something off, then that something was bound to linger for a while. Regardless, James had been summoned, so to Laboratory One he went.
   Each of the Strongholds had their own set of rules per the person that lead that particular team. In London Stronghold, unless there was specific events, missions, or training, no one was expected to walk around in ‘costume’ – which, he was told, was also not the right word for the uniforms they wore. So, he trundled along, hands still in pockets until reaching the designated meeting space. The crisp white doors opened automatically with a sterile hiss. Everything was white, a common theme in the Strongholds. Chicago Stronghold had been the same way, all antiseptic white walls and crisp corners. Some rooms were open aired, others with glass that could be frosted for privacy but, the general decor for the PeaceKeepers was ‘white’. When the door opened, James’ nostrils were accosted by the most rancid smell ever set loose on olfactory glands.
   “What the flying fun hose did you do, Neuro?” James asked as he entered the room, hands covering his nose and mouth. Two other members stood in the room with the resident genius: their leader, Saraya Nigel, otherwise known as Zephyr, and Aiden Craig, code-named Aerial, their transport expert. Both stood with the same disgusted face, both staring at the red-headed genius for creating such a horrific stench.
   “Neuro was trying to adapt a smoke bomb to include a tear gas agent,” Aerial explained. “He failed.”
   “I noticed,” James grunted. “What’s up?”
He was easily one of the oldest members of the London team which sometimes bothered him and sometimes didn’t. So far, everyone had been rather gracious and accepting if not inviting.
   “Well, we were going to do a mission briefing,” Zephyr intoned. “But now we need to air out the Stronghold because this is being sucked into the automated air vents. You get to stay here and fix this fuck up, Neuro. Call us when it’s safe for us to breathe again.”
   “Me? But…” Neuro spluttered as Zephyr walked out of the lab, taking James and Aiden with her.
   “We calling Eric in on this?” Aiden asked as they walked. The man was of equal height to James if ten years his junior. He was also miraculously capable of flying, driving, piloting, or any other -ing that could be done for every vehicle known or not known to man. Fixing them came naturally to him as well. Eric Kreedy was a mercenary that was sometimes hired on to assist in missions that were not always straight on the up and up. He was also Saraya’s fiancee.
   “No,” she practically growled. Or, perhaps they were not an item anymore. No one told James anything.
   “So what are we looking into, this time?” James dared as the three heroes walked out of the stank-hole that had been created by Neurophage’s failed smoke bomb.
   “Not a what,” Zephyr commented. “Who. Levi Amadour, otherwise known to the world as Dr. Love. He’s a terror on par with the Collector.”
   “Worse,” Aerial threw in with a look of disgust on his face. James remained silent. He was, after all, still learning a great deal of life as a superhero. His first few missions were small, so far, things to help him acclimate to his new enhancements and recently unearthed Evolutionary gifts. Apparently, he had more than what he originally believed, things that were discovered during the enhancement process. Now, rather than being known as Agent Falcon, James was known to the collective team in London as Backlash. Adjusting to the name was not the only thing he was still adapting to. Knowing the various heroes and villains that ran in their particular circle was also expected, something he was still catching up on.
   “Enlighten me,” James said. “I fail to see how anyone can be worse than the bastard that eats souls.”
   “Because this shit head forces Evolution on anything with a heartbeat,” Aerial countered. James’s mouth nearly dropped. Forced Evolution?
   “Is that even possible?” James asked. Enhancements were one thing. They were engineered to augment something that already existed. If there was no Evolution to augment, then at best you might get some spiffy new eyeballs or enhanced hearing; maybe even taste the color of a rainbow if someone was feeling saucy. But to force Evolution, to purposely tamper with someone’s DNA to give them a power seemed oddly horrific.
   “That’s the big question, isn’t it?” Zephyr answered as they cleared the first level into the old undercity of London towards street level. “There’s debate on whether it is or not, should be or shouldn’t be and everything in between. Regardless, we do know that Dr. Love, at least, has succeeded in doing something. He’s known for creating vile mutations, things that were once animals or men but have been lost in whatever genetic manipulation he’s done. It robs them of everything and, most of the time, gives him full control over these pathetic creatures. He made a name for himself in Geneva not too long ago when he set loose an entire pack of mutated wolves on the populace. Their infection spread like wildfire.”
   “Infection?” James asked. “He uses it like a plague?”
   “Sort of,” Aerial said. “The theory is that there are some people with the genetic coding for Evolution that was never triggered. If one of those things bites someone with that coding, it triggers them. If they bit anyone else, those folks just get sick like… like rabies. The ones that are triggered… well, I’ve yet to see any of them survive.”
   “Fun…” James said with a concerned grimace. It was the opposite of fun, in fact. “So where are we going?”
   “Scotland,” Zephyr answered. “Once Neuro clears out the Stronghold. Currently, we’re going to the pub. Talisman and Essence are on their way.”
   “Cuz that’s what I think of when I think ‘mission briefing’ – a pub,” James chortled, sucking in breath as the icy cold November wind hit his face at street level.
   “Things are done differently here, detective,” Zephyr grinned. “Get used to it.”

Posted in Stories

Fiction Friday: The Problem With Chocolate

Classic_robin_logo_by_machsabre-d4lg7y5** This is FANfiction. It is an old piece, but one of my favorites. All characters are property of DC Comics. **

“MOM!!!”

 Dick shot up in bed with a strangled gasp, the sheets tangled about him like tentacles waiting to squeeze for the kill.  He panted wildly and tried to regain some semblance of peace and order, some grasp of where he actually was.  Slowly the over-sized, monolithic room came into focus and his pants of fear turned to heavy sighs of longing.  This was no mere room – it was practically an apartment.  All manner of expensive toys, computers and other trinkets filled the grand space.  There was even a small sofa and entertainment center off to a corner with every game console known (or not known) to man waiting to be played.  He’d not touched any of it since moving in to Wayne manor.

The nightmares continued no matter where he slept, how much or little or how often.  The same horrible vision played out in his mind like a video on replay, each screen capturing the terrified faces of his parents as they plummeted to the ground.  His own horrified screams echoed in his ears, ringing loudly like church bells that wouldn’t let you go back to sleep on a Sunday morning.

He brought a shaking hand through his hair and let his feet dangle over the edge of the bed.  His toes didn’t quite reach the Chinese rug that lined the swath of flooring beneath his bed.  He stared at it for a long time, the patterns making his eyes cross.

“I wanna go home,” he whispered softly.  Even the whisper echoed in the vast space he had been given to reside in.  No one wanted to see a little boy in a huge house, what better place to put him than in here?

* *

Bruce snored lightly onto his polished desk, the washed out blue of three different screens spilling over his sleeping form.  One of the screens flipped rapidly through a series of numbers only a genius would understand while a second cycled through several different newspaper clippings.  Books that had been pulled off the shelves lined the open spaces of the desk and floor.  Alfred would have had kittens if he saw the mess the room was in.  The thought made Dick grin if just a little bit as he hovered in the doorway.

His feet were bare and twisted against themselves on the cold wood of the floor.  The manor was drafty even with all the expensive heating and piping.  There was just no way to adequately heat a mausoleum.   A raggedy old half-bald bunny was clutched in his left hand while his right fidgeted with the hem of his pajama shirt.  He wanted so much to speak, to call out so it would be known that he was there; that he was alive and real – and very much in need of a friend.  But nothing came out.  No words, not even a whisper.

Bruce’s senses kicked in almost on instinct once Dick planted himself in the doorway to his private library.  He woke with a snort and first stared blearily at the three screens in front of him as if they were the cause of his disturbed sleep.  A slight jump to his left made his eyes instantly shoot towards the doorway, every hair on edge and ready to fight.  But the apparent cause of his startled state was only an eight-year-old boy with a dirty bunny.

“Dick?” he asked, the annoyance already thick and heavy on his groggy voice. “What are you doing up?  It’s gotta be after two in the morning.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Dick answered meekly, regretting his words even before he spoke them.  Tense would be a delicate word to put to his relationship with Bruce.  For all his hard thinking, Dick still could not really understand why the billionaire decided to take him in.  Bruce floundered horribly whenever he was forced to be alone with him, so Dick took it upon himself to remove the cause of Bruce’s agitation – he simply stayed out of sight.  Out of sight, out of mind, is what his father used to say.  Never had he expected it to be so true – or hurt so much.

“Oh,” Bruce said, the agitation and nerves hitting almost instantly.  He had no clue how to deal with a child.  He often wondered what stroke of insanity possessed him to take the boy in in the first place.  Necessity, to be sure – the kid would still be in Juvie if Bruce hadn’t intervened.  Sitting in a jail cell was the last place a kid needed to be after the death of his parents.  He’d agreed to take Dick until a foster home could be found but that was six months ago and there was no sign of relief in the near future. Conversations with Dick were short at best, absolutely terrifying at worst.  Of all the things to bring fear to his heart, it was an eight-year-old kid with blue eyes.  He knew, somewhere in the back of his brilliant mind, that there was a better way to handle the situation with Dick but it wouldn’t surface.  It remained elusive, taunting him as if saying ‘you can have everything else but this’.

Dick stared at him expectantly, the boy’s fingers twisting nervously in his shirt.  It was an annoying habit he had and it bothered Bruce immensely for reasons the young billionaire could not explain.

“Stop doing that,” Bruce said absently with a bit more bite to it than he intended.  He was tired and cranky and Dick wasn’t helping.

“Sorry,” Dick replied, bowing his head so that he stared at his toes instead of at Bruce.  He could never do things quite right.  Six months and he wished he’d died with his parents.  He wanted to say something more, to ask the many questions that had been pounding inside his head but Bruce’s tone silenced them all to stillness.  “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Bruce watched as Dick turned himself around and started shuffling back down the hall.  He sighed heavily and chided himself for messing up yet again.  The kid would never come out of the shell he built around himself if Bruce kept knocking him down with every word he spoke.  The problem was, he didn’t know how else to interact with Dick.  Corporate assholes he could handle.  Robbers – no problem; psychotic criminals – piece of cake; information super highway – easy street.  An eight-year-old orphan – clueless.

Dick felt the looming presence behind him before the shadow even engulfed him.  He froze instantly and did his best not to flinch when Bruce stopped at his heels.

“Hey,” Bruce said catching the tiny flinch from Dick.  He didn’t want to scare the kid but the minor reflexive act seemed to set a flame of red somewhere in the pit of his stomach all the same.  “Want some coffee?”

Dick blinked and slowly turned around to look up at Bruce.  There was almost a smile on the older man’s face – of course it could’ve been gas too.  “I – I can’t have coffee.  I’m only nine.”

“I thought you were eight?” Bruce asked, suddenly panicked that he didn’t even know the boy’s age.

“Well, eight and three quarters,” Dick finally admitted.  The shadows hid the flush of crimson that filled his face and his hands instantly started to twist up the ears of his bunny.

“Oh,” Bruce responded, the obvious eloquence flowing from his lips. “Ok … well … um …”

“H-h-how ‘bout hot chocolate?” Dick ventured.  It was the longest conversation the two of them had had since Dick’s arrival.  He was positive it wouldn’t survive to the kitchen.

“That’s Alfred’s specialty.”  Bruce kicked himself the second the words left his mouth.  The kid was trying to help, honestly trying to join in on some part of the world around him and he’d just shot it down.

“Oh.”  The look of dejection on the kid’s face was heart wrenching and infuriating all at once.

“Cold,” Bruce blurted out suddenly, making Dick’s eyes widen a little and his grip tighten around that blasted animal of his.

“Huh?”

”Cold chocolate,” Bruce said dumbly then frowned at himself. “Just regular chocolate milk, not hot.  I can do that.”

“Oh,” Dick said, then suddenly understood what Bruce was saying.  “Ok … sure.”

Bruce nodded as if confirming the ‘plan’ they’d just made and led the way to the kitchen.  The walk was nerve wracking as his office was clear on the other side of the mansion from the kitchen.  Dick didn’t say anything, silently shuffling along just behind Bruce, his small feet making tiny padding noises across the tiles and wood flooring.  Bruce looked back at him once and then couldn’t bring himself to do it again.  The kid was a pathetic sight to be seen.  He looked dejected and frail, so small and insecure like the world was going to squash him at any second.  There was nothing about Bruce’s world that was not solid – well, almost nothing.

What made it worse was that Bruce wanted very much to reassure the boy that life wasn’t horrible all the time, that there was strength to be found and hope.  He just had no way of conveying that to him without causing further harm.  Trauma was a powerful thing.  It bred fear and uncertainties so strong they were practically rooted.  Trying to dig at those roots usually hurt more than they helped in Bruce’s experience.  Besides, it wasn’t actually his job anyway.  This was only temporary.

The kitchen finally let itself be seen and Bruce all but ran to the refrigerator if for nothing else than to have his mind occupied by something other than Dick.  The boy followed like a lost puppy, climbing up onto one of the breakfast stools without a word.  He set the ragged bunny down on an empty stool beside him and waited, hands folded on the counter, for Bruce to serve up the promised chocolate milk.  Much to Bruce’s dismay however, there was no chocolate to be found.

“Damn,” he cursed after digging through three cabinets with no success.  Dick seemed to shrink in his chair.  Bruce took a deep breadth and turned to face Dick with what he hoped was a reassuring grin.  “Uh … ok … so … looks like we’re all out of chocolate.”

Dick said nothing, those big blue eyes staring with a silent plea that the child could not yet voice.  This time Bruce had no outlet to run to.  He stared back, his fingers drumming on the pristine counter top as his mind raced to find a solution that would make Dick stop staring at him.  He was one of the most brilliant minds of his time! Surely he could think of something that would not involve running to Alfred’s room in a near panic.

“Up … for a drive?”  It was the best he could do.  It was two forty five in the morning on a Friday; the kid should be in bed – he had school in a few hours.  But, it was still the best that Bruce could do.

“It’s Friday,” Dick said, pointing out what Bruce already knew.

“Yeah … you want chocolate milk or don’t you?”  Again the words came out harsher than intended but he was sick of walking on eggshells with this kid.  Six months and nothing – somehow Bruce doubted a miraculous foster family would drop into his lap at the unholy hours of the morning.

Dick thought about it for a moment, trying to puzzle out a problem he wasn’t really aware existed.  After a small eternity he finally nodded, “Ok.  I’ll – – I’ll go get my jacket.”

“Good.  I’ll … meet you in the garage.”

“Ok,” Dick nodded, slowly sliding off the stool as if he didn’t quite believe Bruce would be there.  And, in all honesty, he might not be.  But it was a risk Dick was willing to take – the first of many.

By the time Dick found his way to the garage, Bruce had already warmed up the Ferrari.  Dick’s running steps slowed to a near halt when he saw the car and it took a mental kick to actually get him moving again.  The car was gorgeous, he felt like he would contaminate it just by looking at it.

“Getting in or not?” Bruce asked, bending down so he could look at Dick from the driver’s seat.  That was enough to set the boy hopping, the kid all but leaping into the passenger’s seat.  He wore his jacket on top of his pajamas, the dull gray flannel pants in stark contrast to the vibrant green of his winter coat.  There hadn’t been a real snow fall since mid January but the freezing temperatures still clung to the air even in the beginning of March.

Dick looked all around him, his small hand touching the leather interior almost in disbelief as Bruce drove to the only all-night diner in Gotham that was not guaranteed to have you shot before the sun rose.  Bruce clicked on the radio if only to drown out the stifling silence.  Dick didn’t complain, letting his hands rest in his lap instead.

Inside the diner there were only a few other late-night snackers.  The entrance of an easily recognizable icon and a boy in pajama bottoms caught some attention even if it was from only three people.  Doing something like this during the day would have had half of Gotham’s reporters beating down the door.  What Bruce hadn’t been able to decide is if they would be there for him or for Dick.

“What’ll you have?” the waitress asked after a moment of staring at them both, sizing them up.  Her hair was an unnatural color of red and stacked on top of her head in a poor attempt at a 50’s beehive.

“Hot chocolate,” Bruce answered.  “Two of them.”

“Ain’t got no more, honey.  Truck don’t come in ‘til four.  Get you some coffee?”

Of all the rotten luck.  Not even a diner had chocolate.  Was the world suddenly chocolate free to torment Bruce further?

“The kid’s only eight – he can’t have coffee,” Bruce grumbled.  Dick looked at him with an apologetic expression and it only made the self-anointed heir sink further into the red bench.

“What ….,” Dick began softly in a hoarse whisper that was barely audible.  “What about a shake?”

“Shakes I got kiddo – what flavor?  No chocolate, mind.”

Dick looked to Bruce as if asking permission to order such a thing.  In his mind, what they were doing wasn’t right anyway.  He wasn’t allowed up past nine on a school night and here he was at some diner at almost three a.m.

“Vanilla,” Bruce finished, the smallest of grins curling his lips.  “Too many problems with chocolate anyway.”

* *

The sun had already crested the horizon by the time Bruce and Dick left the diner.  They’d gone through three shakes each, a piece of rhubarb pie and an order of chili fries without saying more than a few sentences to each other.  Still it had not been as bad as Bruce originally thought it would be.  The kid was smart, if horribly quiet.  It turned out the bunny’s name was Boff and was a gift from a member of the circus for his first birthday.  Bruce let it slip that, he too, had had a stuffed animal when he was young – a bear with only one eye.  He wasn’t brave enough to share the name with Dick and wondered if he ever would be but did manage to let slip that he still had the silly creature and kept it in his room.

Blessedly, conversation was put on hold once they got in the car.  Not two seconds after buckling himself in, Dick fell asleep.  Bruce allowed himself a few glances over at the kid as he drove home, mentally sighing with wonder.  Who would want a traumatized circus kid who’s only real talent involved walking across a tightrope or tumbling at high speed across the floor?

“No one,” Bruce said aloud, surprising himself with the sound of his own voice.  He took one more look at the sleeping boy in the passenger’s seat and drove a little faster towards the manor.  He didn’t want to actually think about the possibility that crept into his mind.

* *

“Where on Earth have you been?!”

The voice broke through the tense silence that washed over Bruce as he carried Dick into the house.  He hadn’t bothered to try to wake the boy up once they arrived but hadn’t expected an attack on the way in either.

“It’s almost seven in the morning!” Alfred scolded, standing with folded arms in Bruce’s direct path.  “Is it really beyond your capacity to leave a note?  There are several white boards throughout this ridiculous expanse of brick and marble for that very purpose!”

Bruce could only gape.  He hadn’t expected to be scolded for trying to actually involve himself with the child he’d agreed to shelter – if temporarily.  Alfred’s scolding only seemed to wake Dick anyway which, oddly enough, made things even worse.  Bruce had had a good explanation until Dick woke up.  The words suddenly died on his tongue as those blue eyes looked up at him with a bit of scared curiosity.

“Um ….” Bruce managed, setting Dick down now that he was awake.  The boy rubbed his eyes and yawned a bit, standing very timidly next to Bruce – or rather, just behind.  Alfred didn’t spare the boy any of his scrutiny or scolding looks either.

“We ran out of chocolate,” Dick said, still half asleep and bleary eyed but fiercely clutching the bunny as if it were a shield.

“I beg your pardon?”

“There’s no more chocolate,” Dick said, his sleep deprived subconscious letting him speak rather than hide away in silence.  “Bruce took me out to get some but the diner didn’t have any either.  We had shakes and pie and chili fries.  It was good.”

Both men only stared down at the small child still rubbing his eyes just behind Bruce.  His voice was very small but firm with a hint of happiness neither Alfred nor Bruce had heard from him since he’d moved in.  Bruce looked almost as abashed as Dick should have been and simply glanced over at Alfred, expecting a harsh tongue lashing for doing something so irresponsible with a child.

“Do I still have to go to school?” Dick asked suddenly, his hand flopping to his leg, the futile attempts at rubbing sleep from his eyes failing.

“No, Master Dick,” Alfred answered at last, relieving Bruce of having to do so. “Come, let us get you into bed.”

Bruce watched with a bit of jealousy he could not explain to save his life as Alfred led Dick away by the hand.  Just when they were about to round the corner, Dick turned around and waved at Bruce.

“Maybe we can try again tomorrow!” he called back, letting himself be dragged out of sight.

Without thinking Bruce reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.  He only had to push one number on the speed dial as he turned and headed back towards his office.

“Good morning Maggie,” he said into the receiver as he walked.  “No, no – nothing’s wrong.  I have a favor – how much NesQuik can we get a hold of before noon?”

Posted in Fantasy, Stories

Fiction Friday: Skinwalkers Pt. 2

Cougar emerging from black backgroundBy the time I made it up to Blind Jack’s it was late afternoon and the sun hid behind the canopy of verdure above me. The small shack the old man lived in looked like it might fall over or just crumble to pieces. The porch creaked and the wind chimes made of bones gave it an eerie look. There was an eerie feel to it too, a smell of death that always lingered.

“Jack?” I knocked. No answer. “Jack, you there?”

I listened instead. He wasn’t one to answer if he didn’t feel like it. The wind blew through the trees in a soft symphony. The chimes hanging from the eaves clattered together. The cats that followed all stayed at the bottom of the hill, all mewling anxiously. Even with the stench of death that surrounded Blind Jack, I could smell them; that same scent that set my hairs standing on end at the Baxter home. It was worse here. My stomach knotted.

“Jack?” I banged on the door this time. The screen recoiled back, rattling. Dust fell off the screen but there was no answer. They’d already been there, I realized. In fact, they were still there. “Shit.”

Running did no good so I just very calmly walked my way back down the hill. Or, as calmly as a knotted stomach and twitchy shoulder blades would allow. At the base of the hill, my pace came to a halt. Ever stood there with the cats circling her feet.

Double shit.

“Do you know that not a single goddamned officer on my squad actually knows where Blind Jack lives?” she said to me. “Not one. They just – and I quote – leave the old coot alone.”

The smell grew stronger and the tattoo on my back burned something fierce. My skin crawled, needing to shed itself for something else. It would be the only way we might stand a chance. Thirteen years ago I’d been too young. Now…

“Well, he is known for violent outbursts,” I said, hooking my arm through hers. “About that drink. I was thinking now.”

“You’re certifiable. How high are you right now?” she said. I looked at her. “Oh yeah, I looked at your record too. Your file is bigger than the files we have for traffic infractions, Mr. Curtis.”

“Is it?”

When the burning spread across the whole of my back, I stopped moving. When it shot down my spine, I felt myself go rigid. The cats that had followed from Mrs. Baxter’s hissed and snarled. The wind shifted and the chimes went still. I looked at my chest, at the beads Mrs. Baxter gave me and slipped them off. I put them on Ever instead and shoved her back into her squad car.

“Go to my house. You’ll be safer there. Don’t ask, just do. Dinner and a drink.”

She gave me a look but then blinked as I knew she would. Hazel eyes grew wide with shock, then terror as my skin peeled away and my form shifted. I became one with the world around me, felt the earth beneath me and the sky above. From deep inside my chest came a primal roar that was answered by a series of threatening howls. I dropped to the ground as bones cracked and shifted, the sounds around me resounding in my head.

I thought of my brother and his stupid girlfriend. I thought of Cessa who liked pancakes with sprinkles and was not nearly as stupid as her sister. I thought of Susan and Mike and the countless hours I spent at their bar. I thought of the guitar on my bed and the dreams I’d once had to be a musician instead of a junkie. I thought of the homework for class that was due in two hours; I hadn’t even started it.

“Holy shit!!” I heard though it was an echo into a mind that thought more clearly and along different patterns than it had mere moments before. I stood in front of the squad car, not as a man, but as large cat, facing my enemies with idiotic bravado. Emerging from the woods were three wolves as large as the squad car that roared to life behind me.

I was expecting her to leave. Instead, my now overly sensitive ears rang with the sound of gunshots. She hit all three wolves square in the chest. Not one to overlook a gift, I took advantage of that shock and attacked the leader. I felt the power of my strike across its face. I felt a carnal need to sink teeth into flesh and tear it apart. I came close, tasting the blood of my enemy on my tongue. They’d been trying to get rid of us for ages. I’d be damned if they succeeded on my watch.

Despite Ever’s help, a three-to-one fight was simply not going to go well. They were stronger but I was faster. I lead them on a goose hunt away from Ever and back down the hill. I had the advantage of stalking amongst the trees while they were left to paw at the bark. The closer I got to my home, however, the worse I felt – like a stone of dread that weighed me down.

My nightmares came true when I reached my house ahead of the squad car. I saw my brother beneath one of the wolves still as death. I don’t know that I really thought things through when I jumped on the wretched dog’s back. There were three more still coming down the mountain and I got it in my head to attack a fourth.

It cried out as my claws dug into its flesh and rended it apart. We crashed into the tire towers or rusted cars. This one was far bigger than the other three – the alpha. We had no alpha because we had all forgotten. The only ones left were my brother and I and Blind Jack – – and they’d already gotten Blind Jack. By the looks of my brother, they’d gotten him too so it was just me and I was hardly alpha material. We fought and rolled, the wolf and I. I wondered what nature lovers might make of this fight. A cougar and a wolf the size of small sedans rolling around in a graveyard of old cars and rusted metal skeletons.

I shouldn’t have been thinking about things like that. It gave the wolf the advantage. I felt its’ jaws sink into my shoulder and cried out, wrenching myself around and kicking in a form that was not quite as natural as it should have been. I embraced what I was but skin walking didn’t come easy when one was high; or drunk; or hungover. Either way, I managed to get the stupid wolf off me, knowing it would be mere moments before it gained the upper hand.

Instead, I got to watch my new crush drive her squad car right into the bastard and crush it against the lift in the garage. I panted, limping towards the garage cautiously in case she’d missed. She hadn’t. The bloodied, broken body of a young man was now draped over the hood of her squad car. Perhaps he wasn’t the alpha. Damn.

“I just killed someone,” she said as she stumbled out of the car and leaned against it.

“Noah!”

I let a low growl out at Reina as she ran to my brother. He lay in a pool of his own blood, face the color of ash. He was alive, barely, but not well. Reina’s little sister stood sobbing in the doorway with her stuffed bunny clutched in dirty arms. He’d been trying to protect them.

The concern was broken by a series of howls that tore through the area. Ever moved first, then Reina. They struggled but managed to get my brother inside while I remained outside. I needed to focus and recenter. I needed a warding – something that would give me just a little more time.

By the time I got inside, I was covered in dirt, blood, grease, and soot. To my credit, however, I had a wide ring of flames surrounding my house that would burn for a good long while and keep the wolves at bay; might even turn them away with the amount of vinegar I’d poured everywhere.

My arm hurt – no, my arm was numb with pain. That seemed impossible but that was the truth. It just hung there, flesh torn where the wolf had bit down on my shoulder. It showed up differently on my skin than it did in my other form. There were other scratches too, claw marks and bites that would linger.

“Noah needs a doctor,” Reina said. She had tears rolling down her dark face. I just sighed – we weren’t getting out of there any time soon and she knew it. Realistically, my brother would be dead by morning.

“Did he shift?” I asked. She frowned at me.

“What the hell does that -”

“Did he shift?” I repeated with more force. She looked down at him, her face bunching up in pain and disbelief and nodded. I sat on the sofa with my brother and put my hand to his brow. He was cold and clammy, shivering – dying.

Don’t give up on me yet, asshole. You don’t let me give up on you.

Noah twitched but otherwise didn’t move. I looked at the wound and grimaced. It was deep and fatal if not tended to. I sighed, looking at Reina and knew she was entirely useless. I looked at Cessa and saw only fear. I didn’t expect much else out of her – she was only seven.

“Hey,” I said to her. “Do you know where my private box is in my room. The one you found and I made you promise to keep secret?” She nodded. “Can you go find it for me now? Please?”

She nodded again and ran off, eager to do anything but stand there and watch her loved ones fall apart. Reina frowned at me and at the Sheriff who still stood there in silent shock.

“Did you just send my little sister to go get you your drug stash?”

“Yeah and I need you to get me some water and find our first aid kit – or tear up some sheets if we don’t have a kit in here.”

I saw the argument in her golden-brown eyes but shot her a glare of my own that ended the argument before it began. She sneered at me and got up to go do what I asked. That left Ever and my brother. I got more discomfort out of feeling Ever’s eyes on my back than seeing my brother in the state he was in. I knew this was how he had felt when he had found me in the same state thirteen years ago. Our dad had died protecting us from them back then. They were desperate to be rid of us, to take what they wanted. And they would win now that everyone had forgotten and the elders were no longer around to keep the peace that ensured another massacre never happened again.

“Ask,” I said. I didn’t turn around, but the statement was directed at Ever. She flapped her arms at me in exasperation.

“I don’t even know where to start.”

“We all have our secrets, Ever,” I said. “You want to be a girl and I’m really a big cat. Just part of life.”

“That is – – did you really just dumb it down to that level?” she said. I grinned. “There are three GIANT wolves outside! I watched you melt into a giant lion!”

“Cougar,” I corrected, though really it was a form of lion if you read its biological break down but I wasn’t going to get into it with her at that moment. I smelled the vinegar and smoke, heard the howls and sensed their presence. It prickled my shoulder blades too much. I wanted to run out there and rip them all apart but I knew I’d never win. It was a primal need that had existed for time eternal. Somehow, I found myself explaining that to Ever.

There had always been skinwalkers that reached through the Otherworld to this one in order to find a new life by taking over early man. There, in our small little town, we had existed without incident until the massacre of ‘51. Then, suddenly, there needed to be laws and treaties instead of just loosely respected boundaries. It worked for a while. Those laws were broken thirteen years ago. We were the last, my brother and I. Everyone had forgotten because it was too painful to remember and believe. They’d come back to finish the job – and why not? What fight could we possibly put up?

“Everyone in town is like that?” Reina asked. I had not heard her return. She stood with an armful of torn sheets. Cessa had come back too, sitting beside me with a carved wooden box the size of a small footstool.

“They were at one point,” I gruffed. “Most people are still sensitive though. Why do you think they don’t like you? It isn’t cuz of your age, Reina – – you’re one of them. They may not know it, but they feel it.”

“Are you shitting me I cannot-”

“Half-breeds are no less part of the pack,” I cut in. “They can smell you for miles – especially when you’re in heat.”

“You jack-ass.” She tossed the sheets at me and stormed off into the kitchen.

“My sister is always horny,” Cessa explained, looking at Ever. I smiled. I liked Cessa. She was sassy and too smart for seven. She knew what she was and believed instead of running from it like her sister. It was a shame she wasn’t full blooded or she’d have made a great skinwalker. As it was, she’d make a great Seer. She helped me clean Noah’s wound and grind the herbs that would prevent infection and feed him the opioids I had that would take the pain away.

“What’s your favorite restaurant?” I asked, now turning my attention to the wound on my own arm. There was nothing more I could do for my brother. Ever snorted a dry laugh and shook her head.

“Why?”

“Humor me.”

“Cipriano’s. It’s in the city.” She looked at my arm and cleaned the wound. “Why do you care so much?”

I shrugged. I didn’t want someone from town. I knew them all. It was incestuous and weird. Ever wore a little too much makeup and had an obvious – to me anyway – identity crisis but I wasn’t generally too picky and she was nice besides. I turned into a giant cat and my brother was in a serious relationship with a half-wolf. We had the trifecta on weird in our lives so adding a little more didn’t really hurt any.

At that moment, the snarls and howls outside my house grew louder. I heard hissing from the cats that had stayed on the porch, a warning that my wards were not going to hold until morning like I had hoped. Reina came back into the living room, walking backwards from the kitchen with a bottle of whiskey in her hand.

“They’re kicking dirt up onto the fire,” she said breathlessly. “What the hell do they want?”

“Us,” I said easily. “We’re it. I’m it, really. Noah isn’t a threat to them anymore.”

“Why?” she cried softly.  I shrugged. Why not? Wars had been fought for less among men for centuries. We had a lake full of fish and a forest full of good hunting on a ley line. Skinwalkers literally killed for places like this. The wolves were succeeding. Or, so I thought.

We all flinched when we heard the echoing clap of shotguns ringing out into the night. Six shots in rapid succession that could not have possibly come from the same gun.

“..riff…opy?”

Ever fumbled for her radio, trying to find the right signal. Not that it was very strong at my house – we barely managed to get cable television.

“This is Sheriff Jackson; Lowry, is that you?”

“…riff…you…y”

“Lowry??”

There was another rain of bullets that were answered by snarls and growls, whimpers or howls. We heard screaming from those that were attacked. I stood to join them but Cessa stopped me, shaking her head. I dropped back down to her level and smiled.

“I have to go, Princess. It isn’t fair for them to fight for us without help. Take care of Noah for me, ok?”

She nodded. I looked at Ever who had the same look of desperation in her hazel eyes. She didn’t want me to go which made me feel a little better.

“Cipriano’s huh?” I said in more of a statement than a question. She smiled. “How ‘bout we start with Denny’s and work our way up to Cipriano’s?”

“Deal,” she chuckled. I walked out my front door after a stern look at Reina. She knew what she had to do. By the time I hit my porch, I’d shed the man and become the animal. To my surprise, there were three more of my kind waiting for me. They had remembered.

Dawn crept up over the edge of the horizon with the fires around my house burning to mere embers. Two of us remained plus five police officers, including Ember and Lowry, and a handful of townsfolk that had come up with shotguns and rifles – Old Man Howard even brought up a pitch fork. Seven wolves were littered across my junk yard, their forms reverted back to the men they walked around as.

Muscles that had been fueled by adrenaline now withered with exhaustion. Pain radiated across my shoulder. I could still smell them on the air, though there were considerably less than there had been a few hours prior. This was not over by any stretch of the word, but it was coming to a draw, at least, for the time being. We all knew it too, waiting on my front porch with solid grips on weapons or twitching tails. The tension still hung in the air, the concern that this was not the only place where a battle had been fought. It went without saying that the click of guns being raised and cocked and the growls of large cats echoed across the junk yard when one of the larger of the wolves stepped forward.

Its fur was grayed, but in a way that gave it a sense of age and wisdom. A large scar ran across its left eye. The other eye was a golden-brown that saw clear through to anyone’s soul. I didn’t want to look at that eye, but I felt like it was my responsibility to be the one to face this wolf. I stepped forward.

I See you, mosi. The voice I Heard was decidedly female. Not sure why that surprised me, but it did.

I See you. I opted not to add a title; no sense pissing her off more. I already felt my lips curl back from sharp teeth that yearned to taste more blood. I couldn’t afford another fight. I would never walk away from it. And then, just like that, she barked and turned back around. The others followed without question, dragging their dead with them.

“Are they leaving?” Ever asked, her voice no louder than a whisper. I had no way to respond to her really. I wasn’t ready to let the beast go, not yet. It felt like a charade. At that moment however, that was what I had. I felt the fur shed off of me, the bones crack and shrink as I lost control of my alternate form. My bare back hit the gravel-pitted ground a few minutes later, ears ringing. Time slowed around me. I felt each granule of dirt and rock beneath me, the coarse threads of my denim jeans against the backs of my legs. I stared up at the sky, watching the sun set it on fire, burning away the darkness.

Had we really won?

“Eli?”

Ever spoke to me. I was aware of her on the periphery. My eyes remained focused on the sky above. I had no energy left to move them. Her voice sounded distant to me, overpowered by the continual ringing in my ears. I felt a deep throbbing at my side and across my chest. There was a heaviness that settled around me and blurred my vision until tears rolled out of their edges. I felt them pool in my ears and finally gave in to the weight around me.

It is an odd thing to watch the chaos of panic from an outsider’s perspective, but that was exactly what happened, just as I knew it would. I had no fear of the Otherworld; I walked through it too regularly to fear it. I had no fear of death because we were intimate lovers, constantly courting each other. No one else knew that though. They screamed my name, pounded on my chest, or just clung to each other and waited until the EMTs could get to me; if they got to me.

Things in the Otherworld were different. Colors were brighter in some points, more dull in others. Sounds from the real world did not quite reach through that veil that separated the two realities but the one crystal clear thing that was always heard in the Otherworld was the sound of running water. Not like a shower or waterfall, but a gentle bubbling like that of a creek moving downstream.

I turned to face the creek behind me. Charon waited as He always did. I nodded to him and He nodded back. I’d stood on these shores countless times from my own stupidity.

“Well, well,” came a tantalizingly husky voice. “Elijah Curtis, son of Eloelle; daughter of Omar. Back to Charon’s shores already?”

I bowed to the woman that spoke. It never ceased to amaze me how little we actually knew of the Otherworld. Men fought wars over the right and wrong of their beliefs, hated their neighbor over the pendant on their neck. It was all the same; all of it.

“You come here too often,” she continued. “Too often without guidance. Why?”

I shrugged. I didn’t have a good enough answer. ‘Because I’m a jerk heroine junkie’ just seemed a little … flat.

“Is he here?” I asked. She smirked, dark, full lips no longer just conversational, but predatorial.

“There is a price to pay for all things in the Otherworld, Elijah Curtis, especially for Bast’s children.”

“Has he crossed over yet?” I persisted. She smiled, reaching for my face. Dark fingers caressed my cheek. The scent of her was overwhelming – ginger and dried grass on a damp night. She wore a gown of blood red that simply draped over her perfect form with bangles of gold at her neck and wrists. They shimmered in a light that was neither bright nor dark.

“Will you give payment?” she purred in my ear. I swallowed hard against the sensation it sent down my spine and let out a slow breath.

“Yes,” I whispered. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d struck a deal with spirits of the Otherworld. I did what needed to be done.

She smiled, her hand on my bare shoulder now. Long fingernails were lacquered in black, filed to a point that dug into flesh and then ripped into the muscle with a swift precise motion, drawing my heart into her hand. I cried out, dropping to my knees, watching from above where I would be for the next year, a prisoner to the demons of the Otherworld.

On the sofa, in my living room, beneath a pile of blood-soaked rags, my brother gasped with renewed life.

Posted in Stories

Fiction Friday: Skinwalkers Pt. 1

Dream catcher on a sunsetFat droplets of rain collided with the packed earth beneath me. My body rocked back and forth, shivering in the cold. I was aware of a chant being sent up to the full moon hiding away behind a blanket of ominous clouds that carried the first storm of the summer. It took several moments before I realized the chanting erupted from my own chest.

All around me was the magic of the Earth made tangible. Every rock and tree lit up in my vision as tiny pinpoints of light with the first crash of lightning that struck the ground. I saw the power and spirit within each living thing, saw the Gateways and Paths to the Otherworld. I smiled, ready to take my first step along that Path but as I did, the scenery shifted.
Instead of bright pinpoints of light, my surroundings shriveled and diminished. Fractals of blue turned blood red. The thunder I heard turned to terrible growls that ripped through me, lancing me with agony. I know I screamed like the Devil had taken me. I screamed every time it happened.

Something in Heavenswood was wrong; a looming threat that would drown our tiny little town. Trouble was, no one believed me.

There was a point in time when the people of Heavenswood would actively seek out my mother, ask her to read the patterns on the wind or step into the Otherworld for guidance. When she died, folks stopped coming, stopped talking to us all together, stopped believing.

Eventually, my screams diminished to pathetic gurgles and my chanting to whimpers in the rain. The rain beat against my brow and bare chest. It flooded my nose and ears and surrounded me in mud that I felt myself sinking into until I was one with the Earth.

“…jah! Elijah!!”

Light flooded my unfocused eyes. It was painful. I cringed and spluttered, rolling like a beached turtle in a pool of thick mud and castor oil. Every part of me was sore, made worse when my brother shoved me in the chest.

“Jesus Christ you asshole!” he spat. “What the hell is wrong with you?! You wanna die too?? What’d you take this time?!”

The list was too long to give a proper answer so I opted for silence. I still felt as if I were part of the Earth, my body absorbed into the cold suction of freshly made wallows. An answer wouldn’t ease Noah’s anger anyway. He didn’t believe anymore. I did; I had to. It felt wrong not to believe.

“Answer me, damnit!” Noah demanded again. He liked shoving my chest which only seemed to shove me further into the earth. I felt mud ooze into my ears and cradle my neck. I wasn’t coherent enough to speak without slurring it all up into a single syllable; I wasn’t strong enough to pull free of the earth either. Truth be told, I didn’t want to.

“God you are such a waste,” Noah cursed. I knew he didn’t mean it, but in that moment, it certainly felt like he did. Maybe I was a waste, but I was a waste that was trying to save what he loved so much – the people of Heavenswood. No one believed the town idiot though, no matter how much he might beg or plead to be heard. Rather than argue, I simply lay there in the mud.

I listened to my brother leave. His heavy, squelching footfalls traveled through the earth to the tiny drums inside my ears filling with mud. When I could no longer detect his presence within the earth – or any other capacity – I choked through a coughing fit of foul tasting vomit and dirt. Still, as I lay there in the mud, I felt the land around me trying to send out a warning, to tell me what so desperately needed to be known.  

Eventually, I crawled out of the mud, naked to the world and trudged my way up to the flat above my father’s old garage. It was archaic and rickety. The stairs made noise as I climbed them. The walls were ‘painted’ with soot that never washed away after the fire. There was a smell to it, too, that I could never place but felt bereft when it was not around.

I washed the memory of my vision away in the shower that only had one pressure setting. I stood there for long minutes, letting the scalding water burn it all away until I was able to stand without support. I could hear my mother’s sweet voice telling me to hold on to my faith, to listen to the winds for they would guide me when I needed it the most. I wanted to believe her. Belief was hard when I stood alone, however.

I can’t do this without him. He needs to believe, I thought, hoping my brother might ‘hear’.

Our home among the foothills of Heavenswood was small, divided into two different ‘parts’. Noah lived in the main house with a large garage a few yards away from it. He was a hard worker, provided for anyone that came across his path and, usually, loved without condition – unless that person was me.

I lived above the old garage in the burnt out shell of what our lives had been when we were children. The twisted shell of our father’s car still sat in the garage, weeds and flowers taking over the soot and gravel thirteen years after the accident. I tried keeping a job and, technically, had one at the local bar in town but I wasn’t always sober enough to stand up let alone serve drinks. Herbs and visions aside, I knew my shortcomings. No one really ‘saw’ the Otherworld high on heroine but I did that as much as I did peyote herbs.

I knew that’s why people refused to believe. I’d done it to myself. I wasn’t the only one though. So many of the Seneca drown in liquor or gave in to the drugs that Mother Earth provided – especially the ones still on the reservation. We were just off the reservation – far enough away to prosper, but close enough to still get caught up in their crap.

 

My steps echoed into the new garage as I shuffled in. I wore sunglasses and flip flops beneath ragged jeans and no shirt. I wove my way around the towers of rubber tires that stood as sentinels in the dusty lawn outside.They guarded against the armies of rusted, busted cars that filled five acres worth of crab-grass. The junk yard was one of the few eyesores in the small mountain town, but it was tolerated for the talent that was held within.

Noah hung halfway down into the engine of an old ‘67 Chevy C10. It was a restoration job for a member of the local sheriff’s office. The price tag on the restoration would easily pay the bills and upkeep on the yard for the next three months and then some.

“Lookin’ good, No.”

He shoved himself out of the Chevy with a heavy sigh. Sweat poured down his temples the bandana that held back his blue-black hair collected what pooled at his ears. Muscular arms twisted his hands into a dirty red rag that I knew he wished could be my neck sometimes. Sometimes I wondered if his life really would be easier without me like he always claimed when he was mad. I answered the question as soon as it hit me but I wondered all the same.

“It’s noon, Eli. Noon. I asked you to come help almost four hours ago when I slapped you out of your drug-induced stupor. You weren’t breathing this time, by the way – aiming for a new low?”

I shrugged, lighting up a cigarette. Noah only rolled his eyes at me.

“Why do-”

“I’m doing it again tonight,” I cut in. “They’re coming. We need to be ready.”

“No one is coming, damnit. No one,” he barked. He didn’t believe it though, I could see it on his face. He remembered what happened thirteen years ago. We both still had the scars to prove it – his across his face and mine across my stomach.

“You need a smaller ratchet,” I rasped. Noah had turned away from me, trying to ignore the truth in my words by immersing himself in work. He growled and threw the ratchet down into the dirt. I glanced at it through a swirl of nicotine that I blew out through my nose then back at my angry twin.

Stop fighting, moron. Seriously, when did you stop believing? When mom died, or when I did?

Noah looked at me sharply then turned to the tool chest that had belonged to our father. Neither one of us liked to talk about what happened thirteen years prior when they had come the first time. No, that was not entirely true either – they came every thirteen years but, usually, no one noticed. The last time anyone had really noticed was in the fifties when almost the entire town was wiped out in a single night. The media had called it one of the most gruesome serial killings ever recorded and took black and white pictures of mutilated corpses or blood-soaked trees. Thirteen years ago there were only four people in those pictures and two boys lying bandaged in a hospital all shoved in a dusty box as an unsolved crime and easily forgotten.

I wanted to say more, but my attention was diverted by the crunch of gravel rolling up to the garage. Noah looked at me as soon as he saw the sheriff’s car but all I could do was shrug. There was nothing illegal about ashes in a conch shell and I was currently devoid of anything more potent than cigarettes and a case of cheap beer.

“Afternoon, gentlemen.”

I arched a brow as a woman climbed out of the driver’s seat and Steve Lowry climbed out of the passenger’s seat. The woman was nearly a match in height to my brother and I which meant she reached Lowry’s shoulders quite easily. She had her hair in a braid that was tucked up into her wide-brimmed hat. It was like she stepped out of a TV show with the get-up she wore but what got me more was the aura around her. She looked…fuzzy.

“Boys,” Lowry said. “This is our new Sheriff, Ever Jackson. Y’all got a minute?”

“Wasn’t me,” I said as I tossed the cigarette to the ground and shuffled back to the house to brew some coffee. Noah only sighed and followed.

 

“Are you serious?” Noah asked after the new Sheriff and Lowry finished their explanation for their visit. The Baxters were having some sort of issue, but the old woman would not talk to anyone except me, of all people. The Sheriff made an apologetic face and opened her mouth to speak but I cut her off.

“You’re driving and I’m not putting a shirt on.”

There was no further discussion, I simply shuffled my way out to the squad car and lit up another cigarette on the way. The ride into town only took fifteen minutes. I rode with the window down letting the wind hit me in the face and blow through my long hair. When we got to the Baxter home, I tied my long locks back into a messy man-bun and pulled a multi-colored scarf from my back pocket, tying it around my head.  I’d worn it the night before and every time I wanted to touch the Otherworld. My mom had worn it too, when she had done what I do now.

“Mrs. Baxter?” the Sheriff said. Her aura wavered, shifting with a crack in her voice to something more solid. She was hiding something that made me grin a little; a secret she kept just to herself. “Mrs. Baxter it’s Sheriff Jackson – I brought Mr. Curtis with me. Can we please talk now?”

A few minutes passed but, eventually, the door opened. I’d known Mrs. Baxter my whole life. She taught first grade way back when and now enjoyed a retired life with her husband. They sat in their rockers sipping steaming mugs of coffee watching the comings and goings of a small town every morning. Now she looked at me with the desperation of a woman at her wit’s end.

“Come in,” she said.

The house smelled of mothballs. She was seventy, maybe; a little older. There were pictures and afghans and little handmade doilies all over the place but there was no warmth in the home at all. I rolled my neck uneasily, shivering.

“Alright, Mrs. Baxter now, can you tell Mr. Curtis what you won’t tell us? We can’t help you find your husband until you do.”

“You won’t find him,” I said. Or, rather, heard myself say. It was like a part of me detached and flew away to the pre-dawn hours at the dock just behind the Baxter’s home. “You won’t… tell her I love her; tell her I love her and to run; tell her… they’re coming; they’re all coming.”

I watched Mr. Baxter from a distant, hazy vantage point walk onto his dock with a fishing pole and tackle box. It was a morning ritual. Mrs. Baxter wanted trout for dinner and, by golly, he was going to snag her some trout to fry up. She had her reasons and would do some weird voodoo with its guts but that was her ways and he was alright with that. I watched him settle in to his chair and then felt his pain. I couldn’t see anything because, in that moment, I was Mr. Baxter. He didn’t know how or why, just that he hurt and they were doing it to him and then – nothing. There was no light, no dark, just an incredible amount of pressure that suddenly burst like a bubble when I shot up off Mrs. Baxter’s floor like a weed.

“Ok, relax, breathe slowly – you had some sort of seizure or something,” the Sheriff was saying but I knew better. So did Mrs. Baxter. I looked at her and she knew. The tears welled in her eyes. I watched her walk back into her bedroom and come back out a few minutes later with something in her wrinkled hands. She draped a set of beads around my neck, nodded, and walked out her back door.

“Mrs. Baxter!” I called, trying to get up but I was dizzy and tripped. Her house kissed the woods, touched the lake and sky – basically lived on the edge of reality and the Otherworld. “Wait!”

“Mr. Curtis sit down!” the Sheriff called, chasing me as I chased Mrs. Baxter. I made it ten steps out onto her back porch when I caught scent of them. The hairs on my neck and arms stood on end and the large tattoo on my back suddenly burned with ferocity. Mrs. Baxter had already gone, willing and ready to join her husband without fear. This was normal for her, this is how it always happened and she was ready. She’d met her husband that fateful summer when everyone else had been killed, out of town at the university. She knew. Everyone in town knew even if they’d forgotten. Maybe that’s why they were so angry and wanted so much. Everyone had forgotten.

“Mr. Curtis, please, I’d like for you to go see a doctor,” the Sheriff said. “Lowry, go find Mrs. Baxter.”

“No!” I barked. “Stay out of the woods.”

Lowry looked at me then at the Sheriff, clearly torn. He was starting to remember but he had a duty to obey his superior officer.

“Oh for the love of Christ, someone needs to go find that woman! Stop being such an infant!”

“Lowry, I don’t like you,” I said with pure honesty in my voice as I stared at the woods. “You were the biggest asshole in high school and still rank high on my list of douche bags. I’m begging you – stay out of the woods.”

There was uncomfortable silence from the elder man and then a rough cough as he cleared his throat. “How many?”

“All of them,” I said. “We’ve forgotten.”

“Eli, I have little girls, man, they’re only two.”

“I know.”

“Would either of you like to explain to me why you’re both staring at a bunch of trees like you’ve just seen the Devil walk through them.”

I snorted, “Trust me, Ever – may I call you that? – not even the Devil would go in there right now.”

I turned around and walked back through the house to the squad car. Lowry and the Sheriff followed, arguing with each other the entire time. “I need to go see Blind Jack.”

I lit another cigarette as I spoke. I was feeling a little twitchy from all the visions and lack of heroin in my system. It’d been two days since my list hit of that particular poison. I climbed into the back of the squad car and waited.

“This isn’t your own personal taxi service,” Ever said. “I brought you down here to help me question a witness about a missing person. Now I’ve got two missing people! And now you’re telling me you want to go talk to someone else – stop smoking in my squad car!”

She snatchd the cigarette from my lips. I caught a momentary glimpse of a little boy in a dress with a black eye and bloodied nose, sobbing, not because of the pain, but because the dress was now stained.

So that’s your secret…

I looked at her, very calmly got out of the squad car, lit another cigarette and started walking up the road back into town. Blind Jack lived along the woods too, like the Baxters just north of my own home. He didn’t talk to anyone. He got all that he needed from weekly deliveries that his niece left on his front porch. He was like me, like my mother had been, but grouchy and nasty. The Otherworld had touched him in a horrible way, had taken the light from his soul and turned it dark and ugly.

“Hey!” she shouted. I ignored her. I smoked and walked and glanced at the cats that had run out of Mrs. Baxter’s house. They all followed me, all three of them. I smiled at that, wondering what the Sheriff might make of that, wondering if ‘she’ knew what she’d stepped into. I felt bad for her, after a fashion. This was the thirteenth year and it was going to be an awful one. For her sake, I hope she took the hint and got out of dodge before things got rough – she seemed like a nice guy.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket as I walked and dialed my brother. It was three miles back to town and then five to Blind Jack’s.

“Curtis Auto,” Noah said. I shook my head. Always working, always serious.

“Reina back yet?” I said.

“Been arrested yet?” he threw back.

“I’m serious, Noah – she back yet?”

“Why do you care? You’re not exactly her number one fan.”

“Just tell her to pack Cessa’s stuff and her stuff – they need to leave. I’m going up to see Blind Jack.”

“What, why? Elijah, what’s going on? Eli-”

I hung up as the squad car rolled up beside me. I had faster ways of getting to Blind Jack’s and I was tempted to show the Sheriff just what that was but my head was still spinning from all that had already happened. I would need to save my strength and focus for bigger things.

“Mr. Curtis-” Ever started.

“Eli,” I corrected.

“Eli,” she adjusted. “Mrs. Baxter went to great lengths to make sure you were there. You very obviously had a close connection to her and, presumably Mr. Baxter as well. I want to bring them both back safely but I feel like I can’t-”

“No, you can’t. They’re already gone, Ever. The best you can hope for is saving everyone else. You look like a smart woman – I assume you read the town’s histories and old case files – we don’t have many. Do me a favor and count back…five sets of thirteen years.”

“You’re talking about the Massacre of ‘51 – ok, what does that have to do with a crazy couple that just walked off into the woods?”

“They weren’t crazy and it’s about to happen again.”

“What’s about to happen again?” she asked. She stopped the car and got out; I kept walking. The cats followed, their tails up in the air as if on alert. They knew. “Eli! Don’t think I won’t arrest you for – – for – -”

“What’s your actual name? Did you get Ever from something longer? Everett maybe?”

She stopped walking and stared at my naked back for several minutes before realizing that I’d moved on. She ran to catch me then grabbed my arm to turn me to face her. Again, I caught a glimpse of her past, of a boy sitting on a sofa while an elder man hollered that no son of his would love another man. I looked at her when the glimpse went away, looked at her eyes and saw the weight she carried in her heart clearly displayed in pools of hazel blue.

“I like Everett too,” I said and kept walking. “I think I like Ever better – has a… I dunno… ring to it that Everett doesn’t. Everett sounds too boring. Go read those files again, Ever.”

“Oh hell no you are not doing this,” she said, running to catch me again. Again, she grabbed my arm and turned me around. This time I saw a man staring at his reflection in the mirror, makeup perfectly done and short hair growing out to tight ringlets that would have to be tamed soon. “Explain yourself.”

I blinked and refocused on the Sheriff. “Telling you that you’re out of your league seems a little cliche, but it is the honest truth. This isn’t just a normal small town. There’s history here and expectations. People don’t like to be reminded of that though. If they’re smart, they leave. If not… well, I shouldn’t talk. I’m still here, right?”

“You aren’t making a single bit of sense and – – are you seriously going to walk to wherever you’re going?”

“Yeah, it’s only eight miles or so back the way we came. I’ve walked further,” I said. I had. “If we survive, wanna have a drink with me?”

“What??”

“I’ll take that as a maybe,” I said, winking at the new Sheriff. She made to follow me but this time Lowry stopped her. I heard him tell her it wasn’t worth it, I was a different brand of weird even for this town. Ass.

Posted in Stories

Fiction Friday: Damaged Goods

Black and white image of shattered glass.

Every morning, the mirror showed me the same damaged loser as it did the day before. Nothing ever changed for me even if the surroundings changed constantly.

“William! Hurry up, baby, or you’ll miss the bus!”

 

I sat in the front, head down, buds in ears pretending like everyone else that I did not exist. Most of the kids on the bus had known each other since preschool. The ones that didn’t sat like I did – silently praying to go one more day unnoticed.

“Watch it, jerk!”

I felt my shoulder twist in its socket as it collided with another mostly-solid mass. It was the same every day in every school I set foot in. School was just something I did to pass the time and make my mom  happy. My demons were my own, but she worried all the same. It’s what moms do, after all, mine more than most.

 

I rubbed my thumb along the rough fabric of my shirt while waiting for English to finish. I could feel the long, puckered line on my forearm even through the thinning thermal. It had a twin on the other arm. I still remembered the sharp pain, I remembered the numbness more.

Mom said I’d gone into a rage before locking myself in my dad’s old Chevy with a butcher knife and his stashed bottle of Jim Beam Whiskey. I don’t remember anything but the heat of the knife sliding across my arm.

We moved off base after that. Then we moved again, and again, and now one more time with Peter until the day he decides my sister and I were too much to handle like everyone else did; ‘til he decided I was too much to handle.

“William Burke.”

I looked up at the teacher standing at the front of the room. She held a paper in her hand.

“Doctor Mendi wants you upstairs.”

There was a ripple of whispers and snickers that followed me out of the classroom. It was seventh period; I wanted to leave, not go upstairs. For half a second I even considered it but then obediently shuffled on up the stairs anyway.

The paper in my hand had a giant ‘304’ scrawled on it. The door with the matching number had several construction paper butterflies and pipe-cleaner flowers pasted to it. Somewhere, some kindergarten class was grossly envious of this door. Inside wasn’t much better. Just the little peek I got from cracking the door raped my eyes with rainbows and tissue paper wreaths.

“We only bite if you ask.”

Three faces stared back at me from an eclectic array of sofas and padded chairs. Two girls, one guy.

“Doc’s not in yet,” the guy continued. “Whatcha in for?”

I stared at him, deciding if I wanted to answer or not. He had dark hair tied back in a messy tail and an old Black Sabbath shirt on. The girl beside him looked like a moth got hold of her laundry and the other just huddled on the only single-seat chair like a scared kitten waiting to get beat. I opted to maintain my silence.

“Strong silent type,” Black Sabbath shrugged. “I can respect that. I have an obsessive compulsion to spin yarns so…”

I tuned him out. If he noticed, it did not deter him. Moth Girl stared at me and Mute Girl just tried to make herself invisible. I couldn’t blame her – we were two kids short of a dysfunctional Breakfast Club.

Somewhere, at some point in our lives, an adult of questionable education decided that we were all damaged goods. As such, we were forced to sit together in the Rainbow Room of Zen and pretend like we gave two shits about the labels placed upon us.

We didn’t.

“Hadrian, please stop trying to run people off with your endless diatribes,” a woman in a tight business suit said. “We’re here to help each other, not bore each other.”

She sat at in the empty spot beside me, fluffed her bright red hair and settled in with an iPad at the ready. I’d have shot myself on the spot if she was older than thirty.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Meetings. So, how was everyone’s weekend? Katie?”

The mute girl in the corner shrank into a tighter ball. Apparently, her name was Katie.

“I only had two hits of coke this weekend,” Hadrian blurted. Whether he was serious or not, he spoke to pull attention away from Katie.

“That… is an improvement,” the suit said. I assumed she had to be Doctor Mendi. She screamed ‘psychiatrist’ down to her fake Gucci flats. “Amber?”

“Same as last weekend, Doc,” Moth Girl drawled. “Ain’t nothin’ ever changes.”

Dr. Mendi sighed and set her tablet down. It was immediately obvious that she fought an uphill battle with these ‘damaged goods’ she’d been given. She looked at me with a mix of hope and resignation on her face.

“William, you’re new to us – care to tell us where you’re from?”

I stared at her until I saw defeat start to wash over her then said, “Spokane.”

“Washington! Must be a big change for you, coming here to Jersey.”

I shrugged and rubbed my arm again.

“Is there really a place called Forks in Washington?” Black Sabbath asked. I grinned – Katie looked up from her knees.

“Yeah,” I said simply.

“Are there vampires there?” he smirked.

“Uh, no, but the wendigos moved in shortly after sasquatch relocated to Canada,” I threw back.

“Oh you’ll fit in just fine here, Spokane,” Hadrian said while the doc rubbed her temples.

 

Six weeks passed in that fashion. Hadrian and I made it a game of sorts to banter until Katie smiled and the doc gave up on ‘group therapy’. By Valentine’s Day we had exasperation down to a five minute battle of witty words. Much to her great dismay, none of us were as damaged as she thought we were.

Hadrian was a drug addict and compulsive liar. He also lived with his sister and helped raise his niece. Katie refused to speak. No one knew why but she liked to draw and eat celery sticks with Nutella. Amber was a diagnosed nymphomaniac that got herself off twice in front of everyone despite the doc begging her to show some self control. Neither of us hung out outside the Rainbow Room of Zen but we had a good time of it while we were there.

Then, Amber stopped coming.

The problem with being damaged was that very few people actually noticed when something went wrong. The only kids to show up at her funeral was us.

“She had two weeks left,” Hadrian said. He cried for her, for the girl everyone took advantage of but no one remembered.

“Two weeks ‘til what?” I asked.

“She turned eighteen. That was her out. She was gonna leave; go to Paris or something, be a model or a porn star, I guess. Just two weeks…”

Amber’s dad was arrested two weeks later for child molestation and murder.

 

“Anger management,” I said one day in group after Amber’s death. No one else was talking, not even Hadrian.

“I’m sorry?” Doc said.

“Hadrian asked what I was here for my first day,” I explained. “Anger management.”

“Seriously?” Hadrian snorted; he didn’t believe me. I nodded and looked right at him.

“My dad used to beat us up – me and my mom, my sister, even the dog. Snapped the little thing’s neck cuz it kept barking. He was beatin’ on me one day, mom tried to stop him…”

I paused, feeling an uncomfortably familiar tingle rise up my spine.

“I heard her scream,” I said. “I don’t… I don’t remember anything after that. All the doctors that saw me said it’s like amnesia or something. I killed him. Grabbed a butcher knife and put it through his chest. Mom says it was like someone else took over. I just lose it anytime I get mad – can’t remember nothing after. Beat up a little kid was picking on my sister. Put him in the hospital. Every time we move its cuz I’ve done something to someone else. I tried stopping it…”

I rolled back my sleeves for the others to see. Thick white and pink scars ran up the length of my arms from wrist to bicep.

“You want us to talk, to open up and help us solve our problems – do you even know what our problems are, Doc? Did you know about Amber’s dad, what he was doing to her? Or did you just think she was ‘sick’ –  a broken doll you have to play with.”

“William…”

“She’s useless, dude,” Hadrian said with a hand over my white-knuckled fist. “They all are.”

I looked at his hand on mine and felt a rush of adrenaline ooze out of me. I stood up, stood ready to fight. I wanted to fight. To speak out for those that wouldn’t, to tear down the bullshit everyone waded through. I was not OK – we were not OK – and sitting in an overly colored room wasn’t ever going to accomplish anything.

I don’t remember walking away. I don’t remember climbing onto the small bridge near my school or decking Hadrian for trying to get me down. I don’t remember Katie hollering my name. I only remember being angry, filling with rage, and then smelling antiseptic plastic in my nose. There was a bandage around my arm and another just above my left brow. I heard the blip of a heart monitor and felt the icy cold rush of fluids being pumped through my veins.

“Your mom left just a minute ago.”

I let my eyes roll towards Hadrian’s voice. It was distinctive, almost nasally. He sat in a dark corner with a little girl at his feet brushing out the tangled mess of hair on a naked Barbie doll.

“She said she’d be back in the morning,” Hadrian continued. “I told her we’d stick around til you woke up. Say hi, Lexi.”

“Hi.”

The girl had a short-cropped pixie cut and pink cat-eye glasses.

“Niece,” Hadrian explained. “Aubrey works here; she’s a nurse. She’s off work in like an hour so we’re just hanging here with the beeps.”

The spot just beneath Hadrian’s eye was black and blue that spread across his nose and up into the corner of his other eye leaving it all bloodshot.

“All the crazy leak out of you yet?” His insatiable need to hear his own voice was both endearing and maddening all at once. “You do that often? The freakout HULK thing?”

I didn’t actually answer. I turned my head back towards the ceiling and sighed. Every time I moved it was because I ‘freaked out’, because I hurt someone before hurting myself. Seven times in five years.

“How many times?” Hadrian asked.

“Seven,” I croaked.

To his credit, Hadrian only nodded. Sort of. “Never remember anything?”

I shook my head. Nothing ever surfaced when I had an ‘episode’ except the damage left behind.

We didn’t talk about it much after that. I home-schooled for a month then went back for two days a week with the behavioral kids. Everything happened in an old church rectory that the school bought with the same four teachers and the Doc taking turns babysitting us. Katie sat beside me on the days I was there. She still never said much and never when anyone else was around. Hadrian would meet us after class everyday until we became the only ‘normal’ we knew.

Then, of course, it happened again.

“No fags on the porch.”

“John,” Kayleigh said. We walked Katie home every day and, every day, her sister Kayleigh sat on the front porch waiting for her. That day, her jackass of a boyfriend sat with her. A jock that flunked out on a knee injury but still thought he could act like an athletic god. His voice was the first tick on my annoyance scale.

“Find a different place to be, fag,” John continued.

“No worries,” Hadrian chimed in with a too-casual shrug. “We’re just depositing our newest convert to the world of heterophobic overlords. We won’t be here long.”

Katie smirked. So did Kayleigh.

John moved before we blinked and landed Hadrian on his back with a welt forming on his cheek, blood oozing out of his eye like unholy tears.

That time, I remembered the rage welling and the twitch in my muscles. I remembered the smell of blood, the taste of vomit, and the sound of sirens screaming all around me. Then, I remembered the all-too familiar smell of the oxygen tube in my nose. My head hurt. No, not hurt. It felt like it’d been simultaneously crushed and burned and stabbed with ice picks all at once.

“Hi baby.”

Mom. She sniffled, wiped her eyes and squeezed my hand. The first thing I tried to say ended in a choked off croak.

“It’s OK,” she said. “Everything’s gonna be OK.”

“Who’d I kill this time?” I said finally. It felt like swallowing sandpaper. My mom blubbered, sniffed again then:

“I can’t, I can’t…”

She let my hand go and all but ran from the room. I lifted my head, watching her crash into my step-dad’s chest and fall apart. Who had I killed?

“You’ve got no tact, Spokane,” Hadrian said from a corner I hadn’t even noticed. I saw the welt on his face and flinched.

“Did I-”

“No,” he said, moving to my bed. “John did. I think he got the worse end of the stick though.”

“Is he-”

“In ICU. Sadly, he will survive.”

I shook my head, thoroughly confused. “What the hell, man – why’d my mom flip out like that if John’s ok?”

“Survive,” Hadrian corrected. His arms were folded across his chest. “OK is still up for debate.”

“Then–”

“It’s you, William. You. You’re not OK.”

He’d never actually used my full name to my recollection. Will; Billy the Kid; Spokane; Hot Pants – never William. I didn’t have to ask for clarification. All I did was look at him, see the pain in his face and knew.

“I’m dying, aren’t I?” I asked. Hadrian nodded. He told me what my mom could not. I had a tumor the size of Baby Jesus in my head. It affected my memory, my inhibition, my aggression. It was the reason I flew off the handle when I got agitated and why I could never remember any of it. It was too big to remove. None of the doctors understood why I was still among the land of the living. They also couldn’t tell how much longer I had left.

“So… are you and Katie, like, a thing or what?”

I frowned. “You just told me my brain is being eaten and the first thing you wanna know is if I’m dating Katie?”

“Yeah.”

I snorted and shook my head, chuckling at my absurd friend. “No, we’re not dating.”

“Pity, you’d make a cute couple.”

I smiled and let my head rest against the hard pillow behind me. An hour later, I sat in the back of Hadrian’s sister’s tiny ass car with Katie hanging out the side window as we raced down the Jersey turnpike.

I only left a note tucked up under my untouched pudding. I refused to remain trapped in the suck of my life. I would not sit through anymore useless lessons. I would not listen to anymore shitty therapy advice that had no bearing on my actual problems. I existed on borrowed time and I was gonna make the most of it.

So, I dated Katie. We had sex in the back of that car at least once a day while Hadrian drove. We went to Graceland and Atlantic City and drank until we puked and then screwed each other in the giant soaking tub the next morning. We ate three-pound steaks, watched crappy movies, toured museums, and read every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

We learned more in six months by living than we ever could in school. We sent postcards to our parents and posted stupid selfies taken with wax figures to Facebook and Instagram all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Katie still never said a word but she always smiled. Hadrian said too much, recounting our adventures with personal embellishments. I listened to every syllable with my toes in the sand.

“There’s a whale watching thing tomorrow – wanna go?” Hadrian asked.

“Sure,” I said. I was tired. Not just sleepy either. It was honest and true exhaustion. Katie ran her fingers through my hair and kissed my forehead. She knew what I did.

“I love you,” she said quietly while Hadrian prattled on about humpback whales. It was soft, meant for my ears only.

“I love you too,” I whispered back, nuzzling the tiny swell taking over her lap. She sat with me all night, holding me in her arms until I drifted away to eternal sleep.

I was seventeen years old when I died. My son was born six and a half months later in a hotel bathroom in Laguna. Hadrian stayed with them and gave my son a half-brother two years later. They never settled down, never stopped moving and learning. They did what Amber and I and any of the other damaged goods of the world couldn’t do.

They lived.

Posted in Chelle

The Month of Insanity!

Official NaNoWriMo 2018 poster. NaNoWriMo is... Everything.Let the insanity begin!! The flurry of action that occurs every year in November has returned. We collect our candies, our snacks, drinks, comfy sitting spots, and tools of creation. We mentally prepare for the onslaught of words, words, words!

I am, of course, talking about NaNoWriMo. It’s here. In but mere hours we, the insane participants of this glorious month, will put fingers to keys or pens to paper in a desperate race to the proverbial finish line. Words will fly from our minds to the keys (we hope). Family members will be ignored, productivity in all other aspects of our lives will fall by the wayside. But, why?

BECAUSE!!

Because without this month of complete and total neurotic insanity we might never get those words on the page. Our ideas remain bound within the curves and bends of our pink wrinkles, waiting for the clock to strike 12 on November 1.

NaNoDeclarationI declared my intent to write last week. As I did so, I realized that I actually have a lot to write. Not only do I have this year’s NaNo project to work on, but I also have another project to finish up, plus edits to Ashes and a final revisit to Zombie Babies. This is in addition to my new albeit incredibly (blessedly) part time job, the work I do as marketing director for both my own business and someone else’s, publishing duties, events, holiday markets, and #momlife.

I know you all know how nuts I am. You know that I tend to do All of the Things despite not actually having any time for it. Example: I have a poor doll still in pieces because he was due for a good soak and a new round of tattoos. He’s still in pieces. He’s very angry with me. But such is my life. I live in cHaOs, I wallow in the insanity that it brings, and I pray to come out mostly intact at the end of the month.

Plus, I can’t let my NaNo streak come to an end. Thirteen years, I’ve been doing this. Should mean I have thirteen books to show for it, but I don’t cuz my brain hates me and the revisions that come after have been atrocious. But, it’s a step in the right direction.

Who else is doing NaNoWriMo this year? Who else walks this path of mind-numbing creativity?

Let the words fly! Bring it on, November.