The Blue-Nosed Reindeer by Mike Resnick

“Bah,” said Mallory, as he entered the office with a Racing Form tucked under his arm. “And while I’m thinking about it, humbug.”

Winnifred Carruthers turned to him and dabbed some sweat from her pudgy face.

“You don’t like the way I’m decorating the tree?” she asked.

“Christmas trees are supposed to be green,” said Mallory.

“Just because they were green in your Manhattan doesn’t mean they have to be green everywhere, John Justin,” replied Winnifred. “Personally, I think mauve is a much nicer color.” She pushed a wisp of white hair back from her forehead and stepped back to admire her handiwork. “Do you think it needs more ornaments?”

“If you put any more ornaments on it, the damned thing will collapse of its own weight.”

“Then perhaps some tinsel,” she suggested.

“It’s just the office tree, Winnifred,” said Mallory. “If people need a detective agency, they’ll come here whether we decorate the place or not.”

“Well, it makes me feel better,” she said. “I’d string rows of popcorn, but…” She glanced at the remarkably human but definitely feline creature lying languorously on a window sill, staring out at the snow.

“Yeah, I see your point,” said Mallory. “Though she’d probably prefer that you string up a row or two of dead mice.”

“I’d rather kill them myself,” purred the creature. “You do it too fast. That takes all the fun out of it.”

“We’re feeling bloodthirsty this holiday season, aren’t we, Felina?” said Mallory.

“I feel the same as always,” said Felina without taking her eyes off the falling snow.

“I think that’s what I meant,” said Mallory sardonically.

“I’m going to sit down for a minute or two,” announced Winnifred. “I’m not the woman I was fifty years ago.”

“You want me to put the star on the top?” asked Mallory. “My arms are longer.”

“If you would,” said Winnifred gratefully.

“You don’t want to do it now,” said Felina.

“Why not?” asked Mallory.

“Because you’re about to have a visitor.”

“You see him outside?”

She shook her head and smiled a languorous feline smile. “I hear him on the roof.”

“A visitor or a thief?” asked Mallory.

“One or the other,” said Felina.

Mallory walked to his desk and took his pistol out of the top drawer, then walked to the front door and waited.

“He’s not coming that way,” said Felina.

“Which window?” demanded Mallory.

“None.”

“There isn’t any other way in,” said Mallory.

“Yes there is,” said Felina, still smiling.

Mallory was about to ask her what it was, when he heard a thud and an “Oof!” coming from the fireplace. He walked over and trained his gun on the huge figure that sat there, dusting soot off his bright red coat.

“Is that any way to greet a client?” said the man, staring at Mallory’s pistol.

“Clients come through the front door,” replied Mallory, still pointing the gun at him. “Thieves and intruders slide down the chimney.”

“Slide is hardly the word,” said the man. “They’re building ’em narrower and narrower these days.”

“Maybe you’d better explain what you’re doing in my chimney in the first place,” said Mallory.

“It’s traditional. Now, are you going to keep aiming that gun at me, or are you going to give a fat old man a hand and maybe talk a little business?”

Mallory stared at him for another minute, then shoved the pistol into his belt and helped the huge man to his feet.

“Ah, that’s better!” said the man, brushing himself off and smoothing his long white beard. “You’re the guys who found the unicorn last New Year’s, and exposed that scam at the Quatermaine Cup, aren’t you? They say that the Mallory & Carruthers Agency is the best detective bureau in town.”

“It’s the only one in town,” replied Mallory. “What can we do for you?”

“Who am I speaking to?Mallory or Carruthers?”

“I’m John Justin Mallory, and this is my associate, Colonel Winnifred Carruthers.”

“And that?” asked the man, pointing to Felina.

“The office cat,” said Mallory. “And who are you?”

“I doubt that you’ve heard of me. I’m from out of town.”

“We still need your name if we’re to write up a contract,” said Winnifred.

“Certainly, my dear,” said the man. “My name is Nick.”

“Nick the Greek?” asked Winnifred.

He smiled at her. “Nick the Saint.”

“What can we do for you, Mr. Saint?” asked Winnifred.

“Call me Nick. Everybody does.”

“All right, Nick. How can we help you?”

“Something was stolen from me,” said Nick the Saint. “Something very valuable. And I want it back.”

“What was it?” asked Mallory.

“A reindeer.”

“A reindeer?” repeated Mallory.

“That’s right.”

“We’re talking a real, live one?” continued Mallory. “Not a ceramic, or a jade statue, or…”

“A real live one,” said Nick the Saint.

“I knew it,” muttered Mallory. “Unicorns, pink elephants, and now this. Why is it always animals?”

“I beg your pardon?” said Nick the Saint.

“Never mind,” said Mallory. “His name wouldn’t be Rudolph, would it?”

“Actually, his name is Jasper,” answered Nick the Saint.

“Not that there are a lot of reindeer in Manhattan,” said Mallory, “but it would help if you could describe him, and perhaps explain what makes him so valuable.”

“He looks like any other reindeer,” said Nick the Saint. “Except for his blue nose, that is.”

“He doesn’t like dirty books?”

“This is hardly the time for humor, Mr. Mallory,” said Nick the Saint severely. “I absolutely must have him back by Christmas Eve. That’s only four nights off.”

“This nose of his,” said Mallory. “What does it do–glow in the dark?”

“You know the way red shifts measure how quickly astronomical objects are moving away from you?” asked Nick the Saint. “Well, blue shifts measure how fast they’re approaching. There’s a lot of garbage up there where I work–satellites and space shuttles and such–and old Jasper’s nose lets me know when they’re getting too close. The brighter it gets, the sooner I have to change my course to avoid a collision.”

“He smells them out?” asked Mallory.

“I don’t know how it works, Mr. Mallory. I just know that it does work. Without Jasper, I’m a target for every heat-seeking missile that picks me up on radar.”

“I see,” said Mallory. “Where did you keep Jasper? The North Pole?”

“Too damned cold up there,” replied Nick the Saint. “I just use it as a mail drop. No, Jasper was stabled at the Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch just north of the city, up in Westchester County.”

“How long has he been missing?”

“About three hours.”

“So you haven’t received any ransom requests?”

“Not yet,” said Nick the Saint.

“Who runs the Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch?”

“An old Greek named Alexander.”

“Have you had any disagreements with him or his staff recently?”

“Nothing that would make him want to steal a reindeer.”

“Anything that might make him want to kill one?” asked Mallory.

“Bite your tongue, Mr. Mallory! Without Jasper I’m a sitting duck up there!”

“Aren’t you exaggerating the danger a bit?” asked Mallory. “I always heard flying was the safest way to travel.”

“Try flying over Iran and Iraq and then tell me that,” said Nick the Saint.

“I’ll take it under advisement,” said Mallory. “And you’re sure you can’t think of anyone who might want the reindeer?”

Nick the Saint shook his head. “Why would anyone want to steal anything from me? I’m the friendliest guy in the world. Always got a ready ho-ho-ho, always a cheery smile, I’m the first one to put a lampshade over my head at our Christmas party…. No, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like me.”

“Well, then Jasper is probably being held for ransom,” said Mallory. “Colonel Carruthers and I will see what we can do from this end, but I strongly suggest you sit by your phone. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a call in the next twenty-four hours, telling you how much they want for him and where to make the drop.”

“The drop?”

“The payment.”

“Then you’re taking the case?” said Nick the Saint. “Excellent! I’ll go right home and wait for a call.”

“Try using the door when you leave,” said Mallory.

“You have no sense of style, Mr. Mallory,” said Nick the Saint.

“No, but I have a sense of economic survival,” said Mallory. “We’ll require a retainer before you go.”

“A retainer? And here I thought we were getting along so well.”

“We’ll get along even better once I know we’re getting paid for our efforts.”

“How much?” asked Nick the Saint.

“Five hundred a day plus expenses, and a ten percent bonus if we get Jasper back to you before your deadline.”

“That’s outrageous!”

“No,” answered Mallory. “That’s business.”

“All right,” muttered Nick the Saint, pulling a wad of bills out of his pocket and slapping them on the desk. “But don’t be surprised if all you get for Christmas is a lump of coal.”

#

“Well, I suppose the first thing I’d better do is contact the Grundy,” said Mallory.

Felina hissed.

“Must you, John Justin?” asked Winnifred. “He’s so frightening.”

“He’s the most powerful demon on the East Coast,” said Mallory. “He’s the logical place to start.”

“You’re not actually going to his castle, are you?”

“No, I thought I’d invite him here.”

“I don’t want anything to do with this,” said Winnifred, walking to the closet and grabbing her coat and hat. “I hate dealing with him. I’ll do some shopping.”

“He was our first client,” remarked Mallory.

“I didn’t trust him then, and I don’t trust him now,” said Winnifred, walking out of the office and slamming the door behind her.

“How about you?” Mallory asked Felina. “You going or staying?”

“Staying,” said the cat girl.

“Good for you.”

“Oh, I’ll desert you in the end, John Justin,” she added. “But I’ll stay for a little while.”

“How comforting.”

Mallory picked up a phone, dialed G-R-U-N-D-Y, and waited. A moment later a strange being suddenly materialized in the middle of the room. He was tall, a few inches over six feet, with two prominent horns protruding from his hairless head. His eyes were a burning yellow, his nose sharp and aquiline, his teeth white and gleaming, his skin a bright red. His shirt and pants were crushed velvet, his cloak satin, his collar and cuffs made of the fur of some white polar animal. He wore gleaming black gloves and boots, and he had two mystic rubies suspended from his neck on a golden chain. When he exhaled, small clouds of vapor emanated from his mouth and nostrils.

“You summoned me, John Justin Mallory?” said the Grundy.

“Yeah,” said Mallory, as Felina hissed and backed away into a corner. “Ever hear of Nick the Saint?”

“A high roller from up north?” asked the Grundy. “Owns the Kringleman Arms Hotel?”

“That’s the one.”

“What about him?”

“His most valuable reindeer just turned up missing,” said Mallory. “I thought maybe you might know something about it.”

“Of course I do.”

“You’ve got power, money, jewels galore, everything a being devoted to Evil Incarnate could want,” said Mallory. “What the hell do you need an old man’s reindeer for?”

“I did not steal it, John Justin,” said the demon. “I said I knew something about it.”

What do you know about it?”

“I know who stole it, of course.”

“Okay,” said Mallory. “Who?”

The Grundy smiled. “I’m afraid it isn’t that easy, John Justin,” he said. “It is your function in life to detect, and it is my function in life to exalt the evildoers and hinder the moralists.”

“Do you always have to sound like a professor of Philosophy 101?” asked Mallory.

“It is my nature.”

“Fine, it’s your nature. Now are you going to tell me who’s got the reindeer or not?”

“Certainly not.”

“I’m going to find it with or without your help,” said Mallory. “Why not make my life easier and I’ll split the fee with you.”

“Making your life easier is not part of my job description, John Justin Mallory,” said the Grundy. He began laughing, and as he laughed his body grew more tenuous and translucent, then transparent, and finally vanished entirely, as the last note of his laughter lingered in the air.

“Well,” said Mallory, “it was worth a try.”

He poured himself a drink and waited until Winnifred returned.

“Did he show up?” she asked.

“He wasn’t any help.”

“Is he ever?”

“I have a grudging admiration for him,” responded Mallory. “Except for you, he’s the only person in this Manhattan who’s never lied to me.”

“Well, what do we do next, John Justin?” asked Winnifred.

“I should think Nick the Saint will be getting a ransom call any minute now,” said Mallory. “I mean, what the hell else is a blue-nosed reindeer good for? Still, I suppose it can’t hurt to start doing a little legwork, just to prove we’re earning our fee.”

“Where to?”

“The Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch seems the logical starting point,” said Mallory. “I’ll drive up there myself. You stay here and keep in touch with Nick the Saint. Let me know as soon as someone contacts him with a demand for ransom.”

#

“Welcome to the Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch,” said the old man as Mallory walked up to the barn. “My name is Alexander the Greater.”

“Greater than what?” said Mallory.

Alexander frowned. “I hate it when people ask me questions like that!”

“Well, actually I’m here to ask you some other questions,” said Mallory. “I’m a private investigator, working for Nick the Saint.”

“Ah,” said Alexander. “You’re here about Jasper.”

“Right.”

“Follow me,” said Alexander, leading him into the barn. “There are fifty stalls, as you can see. Jasper was in Number 43, up the aisle here. When I came out to feed him this morning, he was gone.”

“It snowed last night,” said Mallory. “Were there any signs of footprints or reindeer tracks?”

Alexander shook his head. “Nope. It’s like he disappeared right off the face of the earth.”

“Has this ever happened to you before?”

“Have I ever lost Jasper before? Of course not.”

“Has anyone ever robbed you before?”

“No. Most people don’t even know this place exists.”

“You mind if I look around?”

“Help yourself,” said Alexander.

Mallory spent the next few minutes walking up and down the barn, looking into each stall. There were forty-nine reindeer, but none with a blue nose. He considered checking the surrounding area for tracks, but it had snowed again since morning and he was sure any sign of Jasper’s departure would be covered by now.

Finally he returned to the old man. “I may want to ask you some more questions later on,” he said.

“Happy to have the company,” said Alexander. “There’s just me and my reindeer here.” Suddenly there was a loud screech. “And an occasional banshee living in the rafters,” he added.

#

Mallory sat at his desk, taking a sip from the office bottle.

“Where do you look for a reindeer?” he said. “Who’s got the facilities to keep it while they’re negotiating a price?”

“The zoo?” suggested Winnifred.

“The race track,” said Felina.

“The dog pound?” offered Mallory.

“I suggest that we split up,” said Winnifred. “We can cover more ground that way. I’ll take the zoo and you take the race track.”

I’ll take the zoo,” said Mallory. “Felina and I are no longer welcome at the track since our last little experience there.”

“All right,” said Winnifred, checking her wristwatch. “We’ll meet at the dog pound in, shall we say, three hours?”

“Sounds good to me.”

Felina suddenly leaped across the room and landed on Mallory’s shoulders, almost knocking him through the wall.

“I’m going with you, John Justin,” she said happily.

“Why am I so blessed?” muttered Mallory.

#

“All right,” said Mallory as they walked into the zoo. “I want you by my side at all times.”

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

“I mean it,” he said. “If you cause any trouble, you’re out of here.”

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

“Do you even know what a reindeer looks like?”

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

“Why don’t I trust you?” he asked.

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

They passed the sphinx and the griffon, which both looked chilly in their open-air confinements, and then came to a number of students, some of them human, some goblins, a few reptilian, who were picketing the gorgon house, demanding that the four gorgons on display be returned to the wild.

“Come on, Mac,” said one of the picketers, a greenish goblin about half Mallory’s height. “Will you and your ladyfriend sign our petition?”

“She’s not exactly my ladyfriend,” replied Mallory.

“This is no time for technicalities,” said the goblin. “Surely you don’t approve of keeping gorgons caged up?”

“I hadn’t given it much thought,” admitted Mallory.

“Well, it’s time to start thinking about it, Mac,” said the goblin. “Sign our petition to return ’em all to the wild.”

“Where’s their natural habitat?” asked Mallory. “Africa? Asia?”

“Grammercy Park, actually,” said the goblin.

There was a huge, building-jarring roar from inside the gorgon house.

“What do gorgons eat?” asked Mallory.

“Oh, you know–the usual.”

“What is the usual?”

“People,” said the goblin.

“How about goblins?”

“Are you crazy?” demanded the goblin. “You’d put a goblin-eating monster in the middle of Grammercy Park? What kind of fiend are you?”

The goblin glared at him for a moment, then turned and walked away, and Mallory, taking Felina by the hand, continued walking past the harpy and unicorn exhibits. When he found a keeper who had just finished feeding the unicorns, he caught his attention and called him over.

“Excuse me,” said Mallory, “but where do you keep your reindeer?”

“Me?” replied the keeper. “I ain’t got no reindeer. Got a dog. Got a wife who yells at me all day long. Got three sons who won’t look for work and two daughters who won’t look for husbands. Even got a 1935 Studebaker roadster. But reindeer? Where would I keep ’em?”

“I didn’t mean you, personally,” said Mallory. “I meant, where does the zoo keep its reindeer?”

“Don’t rightly know that we have any,” answered the keeper. “Got a pegasus, if your girlfriend is looking for pretty four-legged-type critters.”

“No, we need a reindeer,” said Mallory, flashing his detective’s credentials. “Are you sure one didn’t arrive today?”

“Ain’t seen hide nor hair of one,” said the keeper. “Got a real nice Medusa in the next building, if that’s to your liking.”

“Who would know for sure if you had any reindeer?” asked Mallory.

“I would, and we don’t,” said the keeper. “By the way, you better keep an eye on your girlfriend before she falls down and hurts herself.”

Mallory turned and saw Felina some thirty feet up the bole of a large tree that housed a number of banshees, who were screaming and hurling twigs at her. She had a predatory leer on her face, and as the banshees saw that their imprecations were having no effect on her, they flew to higher and lighter branches, with Felina following in nimble pursuit.

Mallory climbed over the fence that surrounded the tree and stood beneath it.

“Felina!” he yelled. “Get down here!”

She glanced down, smiled at him, and continued climbing–and suddenly Mallory heard an angry grunt directly behind him. He turned and found himself facing an enormous, broad-backed, elephantine creature with three heads.

“I say,” said the first head, “he looks absolutely delicious. Shall we eat him?”

“He looks like he’d go very well with onions and mushrooms, and possibly a wine sauce,” agreed the second head.

“We’re all in agreement, then?” said the first head.

“I ain’t talking to you guys,” said the third head.

“Oh, come on, Roderick,” said the first head. “I said I was sorry.”

“Don’t care,” sulked the third head.

“Now see here, Roderick,” said the second head. “Reginald has apologized to you. Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” said Roderick. “We always agree to kill people, and then he always ends up eating them.”

“It goes to the same stomach,” said Reginald, “so what’s the difference?”

“If there’s no difference, let me eat this one all by myself,” said Roderick.

“If that’s what it will take to get you talking to us again,” said the second head with a sigh.

“Now, just hold on a second, Mortimer,” said Reginald. “Who gave you leave to make the rules? I saw him first, so it’s only fair that I get to eat him.”

“It’s not fair!” complained Roderick. “Just because I’m near-sighted, he always sees them first and gets to do the eating. I’ve got half a mind to crush this puny man-thing to a pulp so nobody can eat him.”

“Uh, let’s not be too hasty here,” said Mallory, backing away toward the fence.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s bad manners to interfere in a family argument?” said Reginald. “Now please be quiet while we decide which of us is going to eat you.”

“As the potential dinner, I think it’s only fair that I have a say, too,” persisted Mallory.

“You know, I never looked at it that way before,” said Mortimer, “but of course he’s absolutely right. He certainly has to be considered an involved party.”

All three heads turned to Mallory. “All right,” said Reginald. “Which of us would you prefer to be eaten by?”

“It’s a hard decision to make on the spur of the moment,” said Mallory. “How about if I spend a few minutes thinking about it and get back to you?”

“All right,” said Reginald. “But you have to remain in the enclosure.”

“Right,” chimed in Roderick. “After all, fair is fair.”

Just then there was a huge amount of shrieking overhead, and Felina fell through the air and landed nimbly on the three-headed creature’s back.

“I told you not to leave my side,” said Mallory.

“But they looked so tasty.”

“You broke your word. If I survive the next couple of minutes, you’re in big trouble.”

“It’s not my fault,” said Felina.

“Then whose fault is it?” asked Mallory.

“Uh… I hate to interrupt,” said Mortimer, “but weren’t we deciding which of us was going to eat you?”

“She’s the reason I’m here,” said Mallory disgustedly. “Eat her.”

“Eat her? We can’t even reach her.”

“I’ll get her for you,” said Mallory, walking around the creature and climbing onto its back via its tail. “Well, no one ever said they were bright,” he whispered. “Can you jump over the fence from here?”

“Of course,” said Felina. “Jumping is one of the very best things cat people do.”

“Then would you please jump over it and bring back some help?”

“I thought you were mad at me,” said Felina.

“We’ll talk about it later,” he said. “Right now staying alive and uneaten is more important.”

“First you have to say you’re not mad at me,” said Felina stubbornly. “Then I’ll get help.”

“All right,” said Mallory, wondering what his blood pressure reading was at that very moment. “I’m not mad at you.”

She shook her head. “You have to say it with sweetness and sincerity.”

“Hey! What’s going on back there?” demanded Roderick.

“I’m just telling her I’m not mad at her,” said Mallory.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” said Reginald. “We’re hungry.”

“Felina, they’re hungry!” hissed Mallory. “It’s only going to take them an hour or so to figure out that if they roll over, I’m dead meat.”

“Oh, all right,” she said, leaping lightly over the fence.

“Hey, she’s running away!” said Roderick.

“That’s all right,” said Mallory. “You’ve still got me.”

“But we can’t reach you!”

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am about that,” said Mallory, looking across toward the unicorn house, where Felina was talking to the old unicorn keeper. Finally he nodded and trudged across the sidewalk after her.

“Okay, you guys,” he said when he arrived. “Let the detective go.”

“Aw, we were just having a little fun with him,” whined Roderick.

“And maybe a little lunch,” added Reginald.

“You know what I’ve told you,” said the old man. “If you keep eating the customers, pretty soon we ain’t gonna have none, and then where will we all be?”

“How about if we just eat a leg or two?” asked Roderick.

“You let him go, or there will be no PBS documentaries about your mating habits for a week,” said the old man.

“No! We’ll let him go!” cried Mortimer. “Get off our back now!”

Mallory slid down to the ground and raced to the fence.

“He looks kind of stringy anyway,” said Roderick.

“Besides, he’s a detective,” added Mortimer. “Did you ever try to clean one of those?”

Mallory scrambled over the fence while the three heads were busy rationalizing their loss and telling dirty stories about the last documentary they had seen.

“Thank you,” he said to the unicorn keeper.

“It’s people like you that give carnivores a bad name,” said the old man, turning on his heel and walking away.

Mallory checked his watch, saw that he just had time to meet Winnifred at the dog pound, and started walking toward his car, half-hoping Felina would stay behind. A moment later he felt a ninety-pound weight on his back and heard a loud purring in his ear.

“I’ll say this for my luck,” he muttered. “It’s consistent.”

#

“No luck at the track?” asked Mallory as he met Winnifred in front of the dog pound.

“None,” she said. “How about the zoo?”

“The only luck I had there is that I’m still alive.”

“By the way,” added Winnifred, “I checked in with Nick the Saint, and he still hasn’t received a demand for ransom.”

“That’s damned strange,” said Mallory, frowning. “What the hell else can you do with a reindeer?”

“Eat it,” suggested Felina.

“What do you think, John Justin?” asked Winnifred.

He shook his head. “If that was the motive, why steal the most valuable one? No one’s going to eat his nose.”

“Then I suggest we stop wasting time out here and check out the pound,” said Winnifred.

“Just a minute,” said Mallory. He led Felina back to his car, sat her down in the back seat, secured the safety belt, and then locked all the doors.

“She created problems at the zoo?” asked Winnifred when he had rejoined her.

“Not half as many as she can create at a dog pound,” answered Mallory. “I know that trouble is our business, but she seems bound and determined to turn it into our hobby as well.”

They walked up to the main office, where a large shaggy man with a face resembling a Saint Bernard got up from his desk and greeted them.**

“Good afternoon, dear friends,” he said, drooling slightly from the corner of his mouth. “Welcome to the Manhattan Dog Pound. How many I help you?”

“We’re looking for a reindeer,” said Mallory.

“One with a blue nose,” added Winnifred.

The man growled deep within his throat. “Why would you expect to find a reindeer here?”

“Just a hunch,” said Mallory.

“Well, you’re certainly welcome to inspect our premises, but I guarantee you won’t find what you’re looking for,” said the man, starting to pant slightly. “Let me get one of our employees to accompany you.” He pressed a button on his desk, and a moment later a lean man with chalk-white skin and black spots all over it entered the room. “Tyge,” he said, “please give these two visitors a tour of the premises.”

“Rrrright,” said Tyge. He turned to Winnifred. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” said Winnifred, extending her hand. Tyge took it in his own hands, held it to his nose, and took a deep sniff, then repeated the same procedure with Mallory.

Arfter me,” said Tyge, leading them through a door at the back of the office.

They found themselves in a narrow aisle between two sets of chain-linked runs, and inside each was a man, woman, or child.

“I thought this was a dog pound,” said Mallory.

“Yep, it sure is, yep, yep, yip,” said Tyge. “Each of these people wants a dog for Christmas, so when any stray dogs show up, we send ’em in here and see if they want to go home with any of them.”

“Back where I come from, dog pounds hold dogs, not people,” said Mallory.

“No dog deserves such ruff treatment,” said Tyge, barking the word. His upper lip curled back, revealing a row of clean white teeth. “I never heard of anything so brutal. Imagine, putting dogs in cages and letting people choose which ones they want!”

“Different strokes,” said Mallory. “Do you have any reindeer here?”

“Never heard of a reindeer wanting a dog before,” chuckled Tyge. “That’s a larf!

“Then we won’t take up any more of your valuable time,” said Winnifred.

“It’s been my pleasure, ma’am,” said Tyge. “I wonder if you could do me one little favor before you leave?”

“What?”

He turned his back to her. “Could you just kind of scratch between my shoulder blades a bit?”

Winnifred reached forward and scratched.

“Now under the chin?”

Winnifred scratched again, and suddenly Tyge’s left leg began shaking spasmodically.

“That’s enough, ma’am,” he said. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” said Winnifred, following Mallory back to the exit.

“Well, that was a waste of time,” said Mallory. “Maybe we’d better check in with Nick the Saint and see if anyone’s contacted him yet.”

“Maybe we’d better rescue the car first,” said Winnifred, walking out into the open, for Felina had somehow worked her way loose and had three dog pound employees, each more canine in appearance than the last, cowering on the hood of the car while she grinned and displayed her claws to them.

Mallory walked behind her and encircled her with an arm, lifting her off the ground while she writhed and spat. The three employees raced toward the safety of the pound, howling their terror.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” said Winnifred when Mallory had stuffed Felina into the car and started the engine.

Felina licked her forearm and turned her back on them.

“I’m speaking to you, young lady!” snapped Winnifred.

“I think it’s going to snow again,” said Felina, looking out the window.

“You know,” said Mallory, who had been silent since leaving the dog pound, “now that I come to think of it, my Manhattan wasn’t so bad.”

#

Winnifred hung up the phone. “He still hasn’t gotten any ransom request.”

“I think,” said Mallory, “that it’s about time we started considering the fact that the damned reindeer wasn’t stolen for ransom, and begin examining other possibilities.”

They were back in the office, and Felina had been banished to the kitchen, where she had turned on the tap in the kitchen sink and was watching, fascinated, as the water swirled down into the drain.

“I’m open to suggestions,” said Winnifred. “Why else would someone steal a reindeer?”

“Not just a reindeer,” Mallory pointed out. “But a blue-nosed reindeer with certain talents that none of the others had.”

“The military?” suggested Winnifred. “They’d give a pretty penny to get their hands on an animal that could dodge heat-seeking missiles.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Mallory.

“Why not?”

“Because they would give a pretty penny for Jasper,” he said. “If they wanted him, they’d simply appropriate the funds to buy him.”

“What if Nick didn’t want to sell?”

“Then they’d have found some way to confiscate him,” replied Mallory.

“All right,” said Winnifred. “If not the military, then who?”

“I keep going over it and over it in my mind,” said Mallory, “and I keep coming up with the same answer: a competitor.”

“He doesn’t have any competitors, John Justin.”

“Well, he does now,” said Mallory. “He’s without a lead reindeer, and someone else has one four days before Christmas.”

“Where’s the motive?” asked Winnifred. “It’s certainly not profit, not if this competitor is giving away presents all over the world.” She paused. “And the kind of person who has enough goodness to give them away isn’t the type to steal another man’s reindeer in the first place.”

“What kind of person does steal Nick the Saint’s reindeer four days before Christmas?” mused Mallory.

“I don’t know,” said Winnifred.

“I think,” said Mallory, “that I’d better pay another visit to Alexander the Greater first thing tomorrow morning.”

#

Mallory pulled his car up to the barn and got out of it.

“So you’re back again?” said Alexander the Greater, walking out of the barn to greet him.

“That’s right.”

“Got some more questions?”

“Better ones, too,” said Mallory. “But first I’d like to take another look at Jasper’s stall.”

“Be my guest,” said Alexander. “You know where it is.”

“Thanks,” said Mallory.

He entered the barn and started walking past the stalls, peering into each of them. When he came to Number 43, which had belonged to Jasper, he walked right past it and down to the end of the barn, then returned to Alexander.

“You’ve been doing a little business, I see,” said Mallory.

“Not much,” answered Alexander. “Things are pretty quiet right before Christmas.”

“You’re too modest,” said Mallory. “Just yesterday you were boarding forty-nine reindeer, and today you’ve only got forty-one. That means you sold eight of them since I was here.”

“Well, they come, they go, you know how it is,” said Alexander with a shrug.

“No I don’t,” said Mallory. “Suppose you tell me how it is.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Who did you sell the reindeer to?”

“That’s none of your business, Mr. Mallory,” said Alexander the Greater.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve got a feeling that it is my business,” said Mallory. “Was it the same person who took Jasper away yesterday morning?”

“You’re guessing, Mr. Mallory.”

“I’m a good guesser, Alexander,” said Mallory. “For example, I’d guess that you’re looking at five to ten years for aiding and abetting in the theft of Nick the Saint’s reindeer. I’d also guess that I’d be willing to forget your complicity if you’d supply me the name I want.”

“Not a chance,” said Alexander stubbornly.

“Then I’d guess that I’m going to walk into your office and find it on my own.”

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” said Alexander with a nasty grin. He put two fingers into his mouth and emitted a loud whistle, and suddenly three wiry little figures, each half the size of a grown man, raced out of the barn. “Meet my security team, Mr. Mallory,” he said, indicating the three leprechauns. “Team, this is Mr. Mallory, whose presence is no longer desired here.”

“We’ll kill him,” growled the nearest of the leprechauns.

“We’ll rip his head off his shoulders,” added the second.

“We’ll gut him like a fish,” said the third.

“There won’t be enough of him left to bury,” said the first leprechaun.

“We’ll slice him to bits with such dexterity that we’ll be awarded both ears and the tail,” said the second.

“The bigger they are, the harder the fall,” said the third. “He’ll never know what hit him.”

Mallory had been retreating toward his car. Once there, he opened the door and Felina jumped out. She faced the leprechauns, grinned, and stretched out her fingers. All ten of her claws glistened in the morning sunlight.

“Of course,” added the first leprechaun, “we could avoid a lot of needless violence and bloodshed and simply discuss the matter.”

“Right,” said the second. “Maybe we could cut a deck of cards, like gentleman. If he’s low, he leaves; if he’s high, he gets to inspect your records.”

“Besides, my lumbago’s been bothering me recently,” added the third leprechaun.

“Yours, too?” said the first, as Felina took a step toward them. “Suddenly my rheumatism is acting up. Must be the weather.”

“I’ve got weak kidneys, myself,” said the second. “In fact,” he added, “now that I think of it, I gotta go to the bathroom!” He turned and raced off.

“The door sticks,” said the first leprechaun, following him at a dead run. “I’ll help you.”

“What a bunch of cowards!” said the third leprechaun contemptuously.

“Then you propose to stay and fight?” asked Mallory.

“No, but only because my religion doesn’t permit me to fight on Tuesdays. It’s a matter of high moral principle.”

“This is a Friday,” said Mallory.

“It is?” asked the leprechaun.

Felina grinned and nodded.

“My goodness!” said the leprechaun. “It’s only four days from Tuesday. I’d better be on my best behavior, just to be on the safe side.” He turned to Alexander the Greater. “Sorry, Chief, but I’m off to sacrifice a fatted lamb, if I can find one.”

He turned and raced off across the landscape as fast as his muscular little legs could carry him.

“Well?” said Mallory.

“You win,” said Alexander with a sigh. “I’ll give you the name you want.”

“I’d rather see it in black and white,” said Mallory. “Somehow I’ve lost my trust in this place.” He turned to Felina. “Keep an eye out for the leprechauns, and warn me if Alexander tries to leave the barn.”

He went to the office, which was just inside the entrance, and started thumbing through paperwork that hadn’t yet been filed. Within two minutes he found what he was looking for. He put the papers in his pocket, waited for Felina to reluctantly give up waiting for the leprechauns and jump into the back seat, and drove back to town.

#

“You have a triumphant smirk on your face, John Justin,” said Winnifred when he returned to the office.

“Not without cause,” he replied.

“What did you find out?” she asked.

“I know who stole Jasper, and I think I know why,” said Mallory.

“But?” she said. “It sounds like there should be a ‘but’ at the end of that sentence.

“You’re very perceptive,” said Mallory. “I know who stole the reindeer, and I think I know why… but I’m not sure that justice will be served by pressing charges.”

“It’s your job to arrest criminals,” said Winnifred.

He shook his head. “It’s the police’s job to arrest criminals. It’s our job to make our client happy, and I think I see a way to do that, but first I’m going to have to confront the thief.”

“Is it safe?”

“I’ve met him once before, the first night I came to this Manhattan,” said Mallory. “He didn’t kill me then; there’s no reason why he should kill me now.”

“You probably didn’t have information that could send him to jail then,” Winnifred pointed out.

“He’ll know I’m not stupid enough to have it with me,” answered Mallory. “If anything happens to me, I expect you to use it.”

“I don’t even know what it is.”

“I’m about to lay it out to you,” said Mallory, removing the papers from his pocket. “And then I’m going to see what kind of deal we can make.”

#

The Old Abandoned Warehouse was practically hidden by the thick fog coming off the East River, but Mallory knew where it was, and he knew–or thought he knew–what he would find there. He parked in a lot about three blocks away, then walked past a row of bars and restaurants catering to goblins and a strip joint promising that Slinky Scaly Sally would shed everything, even her skin, to make her reptilian audience happy, and finally he came to the unmarked door that he sought, and knocked on it.

“Who’s there?” demanded a deep voice.

“John Justin Mallory.”

“You got an appointment?”

“No,” answered Mallory. “You got a good lawyer?”

The door squeaked open, and Mallory found himself confronting a huge blue-skinned man in a purple sharkskin suit, light blue shirt, violet tie, and navy blue shoes and socks. He stood just under seven feet tall, and weighed in the vicinity of five hundred pounds.

“Well, well,” said the Prince of Whales. “So the Grundy hasn’t killed you yet.”

“Have you got some place where we can sit down and talk?” asked Mallory.

“Why do I want to talk to you?” asked the Prince of Whales.

“Because I know all about the blue-nosed reindeer.”

“People have died for saying less than that to me,” said the Prince of Whales.

“Yeah, I suppose they have,” answered Mallory. “But they were stupid people. They probably didn’t tell you up front that whatever they had on you would be turned over to the police if you laid a finger on them.”

The Prince of Whales glared at him for a long moment, then shrugged. “All right, shamus,” he said. “Follow me.”

He led Mallory through the enormous warehouse to a small office built into a corner of it, then ushered him inside.

“Drink?” he said, holding up a bottle containing a blue liquid and scores of small fish swimming around in it.

“I’ll take a pass,” said Mallory, sitting down.

“Good,” said the Prince of Whales. “There’s that much more for me, then.” He lifted the bottle to his lips and drained its contents, fish and all.

“Do they tickle when they go down?” asked Mallory curiously.

“Not so’s you’d notice it,” answered the Prince. “Now cut the chatter and let’s talk deal.”

“What makes you think I’m here to offer you a deal?”

“If you weren’t, you’d have sent the cops,” answered the Prince. “So let’s have it.”

“Okay,” said Mallory. “Let me start with what I know.”

“That shouldn’t take long.”

“I know that you leased eight reindeer from Alexander the Greater this morning. I know you took them away with you. I know the lease expires in a week.”

“And that’s it?” asked the Prince.

“Not quite,” said Mallory. “I know you’re the biggest fence in Manhattan.”

“Everyone knows that,” said the Prince of Whales, “but they ain’t never proved it in court.”

“Now let me tell you what I think,” continued Mallory.

The Prince of Whales reached into his pocket, pulled out a penny, and tossed it the detective. “For your thoughts,” he said.

“I think that they’re getting awfully close to proving it,” he said. “I think you’ve gotten word that sometime shortly after Christmas they’re going to raid your warehouse, before you have a chance to hide or unload your merchandise.”

“You think so, do you?” said the Prince.

Mallory nodded. “And I think you saw a way to get rid of your inventory right out in the open, where nobody would even dream of trying to stop you.” He paused. “I think you stole Jasper and leased the other reindeer so that you could dump all your illegal goods on Christmas Eve. After all, who arrests Santa Claus for giving away millions of presents? And so what if this year there are a few more video recorders and toasters and boom boxes and a few less toys? Most of the people will be just as happy, and when the bust comes in a week or two, your warehouse is empty and nothing can be traced back to you. You won’t even have the reindeer, and I’ve got a hunch that Alexander will suddenly find poor old Jasper grazing in some nearby forest, where everyone will assume he’s been living for the past week.”

The Prince of Whales stared at him for a long moment.

“You’re pretty good,” he said. “I’ll give you that. You got everything but the tax angle.”

“Tax angle?”

“It’s the locals who are trying to bust me for fencing. The Feds don’t care what I do as long as I pay my taxes. I figured to deduct a couple of billion dollars for charitable contributions after I made the rounds on Christmas Eve. I could carry that forward for the next twenty years on my taxes.”

“Maybe you still can,” said Mallory.

“Okay,” said the Prince of Whales. “You talk, I’ll listen. What’s the deal?”

“What if I can get my client to agree to drop all charges against you?”

“What’s it gonna cost?”

“First, you have to return Jasper today,” said Mallory. “I assume he’s somewhere in the warehouse?”

“Yeah, he’s back there with the others in a bunch of stalls I made up. What else?”

“My client is a tough old bird, and I don’t know if simply returning the reindeer is enough,” said Mallory. “But if you sweeten the pot by turning over all your goods to him and letting him dump them on the market on Christmas Eve, I think he might go for it.”

“He’ll sign a document certifying that I gave them to him free of charge?”

“I think he will. Anything he doesn’t use this year, he can use next time around.” He paused. “Do we have a deal?”

“You bet your ass we have a deal, Mallory!” said the Prince of Whales. “The only part of this scam I didn’t like was flying around behind those damned reindeer. I’m scared to death of heights.”

“All right,” said Mallory, walking over to the phone. “Let me talk to my client and make sure he’s willing.”

The deal was official ninety seconds later.

#

“Bah,” said Mallory. “And while I’m at it, humbug.”

“What now, John Justin?” asked Winnifred.

“Here it is Christmas Eve, and that old geezer hasn’t come up with our expense money or our bonus yet. That’s a hell of a note, considering who he is.”

“You’d just spend your share betting at the track anyway,” said Winnifred.

“Well, there’s an elephant called Flyaway running at Jamaica tomorrow,” admitted Mallory. “I’ve got a hunch.”

“Didn’t you once tell me that you bet a horse called Flyaway in your Manhattan some ten or fifteen times and never won?”

“Eighteen,” admitted Mallory. “But it’s such a great name. The name alone is due to win.”

“I’m glad you attack our cases with more intelligence than your wagers,” said Winnifred.

“He’s here,” announced Felina, who had been sleeping atop the refrigerator.

“Who’s here?” asked Mallory.

“The blue-nosed reindeer.”

“How can you tell?”

Felina smiled. “Cat people know things that humans can never know,” she purred.

Suddenly there was a small clanking noise in the fireplace, and Winnifred walked over to it.

“Well, it looks like he kept both promises,” she said, picking up a small parcel.

“What do you mean?” asked Mallory.

“This,” she said, holding up a roll of bills, “is for us. I’ll take it over to the bank and put it in the night deposit window.” She paused. “And this,” she added, tossing him a small object, “is for you.”

Mallory caught it and examined it with a wry grin on his face.

It was a lump of coal.

The Ghosts of Blackwell, Maine by Emily B. Cataneo

“They really make very good companions,” Jo tells her mother. “You hear bad things about them, you know, about how they’ll get into your bedroom at night, shake their chains at you, howl and drape themselves in moss and all that, but really, that’s more ghosts down south or in Europe or wherever. But my ghosts, they’re not like that. They’re respectful, restrained. They love me. I love–”

“It’s all right, Josephine,” her mother says. “Not everyone has a career. Not everyone has children. It’s all right.”

The heat rises on Jo’s neck. She makes her excuses, hangs up the phone and peeks out her pane-glass patio window. Outside, shimmering figures play hopscotch behind the nine-by-twelve barbed-wire fence that hems in the crumble-stone graves in her muddy backyard.

#

Jo always pulls on her shearling-lined duck boots before she treks into the graveyard at this time of year–early spring but it feels like dead of winter, the puddles still frozen with dirty ice. But she won’t let the nasty weather stop her from heading outside. She’s never noticed the cold the way some people do–she was born here, after all–and after her latest conversation with her mother, she needs to be among her girls.

She hikes round back of the house, past the tiny weathered-wood shed where she stores the candles and the Ouija board in winter. She unlatches the gate and squelches into the pen. Addie is running her bitten-nail fingers along the Christmas lights strung on the chicken-wire fence. The lights aren’t plugged in, but when Addie’s index finger touches each of them, it pops with a silvery light that hurts Jo’s eyes if she looks at it too hard.

Addie’s prodding the lights urgently, whimpering and running her other hand over her patched dress. Her single playing card, the Queen of Spades, is shoved into the top of her boot. Jo crouches, pulls a white candle out of her oversize coat pocket, lights it, and screws it into the mud next to Addie’s broken boot. Addie examines the candle, then returns to popping the Christmas lights on and off.

Addie was the first ghost Jo found, back when she was sixteen years old and biked Old Route 17 to photograph an abandoned mill building for a school project. In the barn, Jo found Addie hanging from the rafters, a tangle of hair and patched dress. Addie whimpered and swung down, tugging on Jo’s coat-hem and ruffling her hair. Jo tried to shake Addie off of her, but Addie followed her out of the barn. As soon as she hit the cold air outside, Addie disintegrated, losing her form and drifting into smoke. Jo panicked, found a glass root beer bottle in her backpack, and scooped Addie right inside. Her hand trembled around the bottle all the way home. How was she supposed to care for a ball of vibrant cold energy quivering in glass?

Jo decided to wing it and trust her instincts: she loosed Addie in the small Puritan-era cemetery behind the family house.

Now, Jo doesn’t know why Addie’s ignoring her. She sinks to the still-frozen ground, the conversation with her mother clenching at her again, ignoring the cold seeping through the seat of her jeans.

#

The next week, Jo runs into her cousin Marcie in the grocery store parking lot in Blackwell.

“I need to talk to you about something.” Marcie leans on the handles of her shopping cart, which is overflowing with boxed macaroni and cheese and bottles of apple juice. “We, um….” Marcie licks her lips, avoids Jo’s eyes. “We want to sell the house.”

“Who’s we?”

“Um, well, me, my parents, Becca, Jerry. Even your mom said–”

“So everyone? You mean everyone?”

“My mom and your mom talked, and they think it’s for the best. We all could use…I mean, I have three kids, Jo, and this economy….Our moms said we could split the profits, even though Grandma left the house to them.” Marcie smiles with all her teeth and not with her eyes. “I’m sorry, I know how much you love it there, but, it’s time.”

#

Jo dreams of skyscrapers that night–their lights are hard, and yet she can’t look away from them. In those hazy moments between dreams and this low-ceiling room she’s known her whole life, Jo squirms towards the skyscrapers. Where would she put her 18th-century armoire, her china cabinet with the one wobbly leg, her Governor Winthrop desk, in those steel monoliths?

Then Jo wakes up fully in her sleigh bed, shakes off the skyscrapers and settles back into this house and clearing, comfortable as the suede quilted coat she’s worn forever. This is her place, among the pines of winter and the whispering Queen Anne’s Lace of summer. She’s stood here in this clearing her whole life, watching a parade trickling out of the house: Mom, to Florida. Becca, to Chicago. Jerry to Boston and Grandma to the Catholic cemetery next town over and Marcie away from their girlhood of hair braids and catching frogs in the creek to her family life in one of the developments near Main Street.

Now it’s just Jo and her ghosts, the girls, Addie and Em and Prudence and Samantha, and now Marcie and Mom want to take them away from her, too.

#

It’s March, but it’s still sleeting the day Marcie sweeps into the house without knocking.

“Oh Jo,” she sighs. “Oh boy. We have our work cut out for us, don’t we?”

Marcie’s nose wrinkles at the lumbering stacks of books, the four gleaming bottles Jo used to cart her four girls to the house, the Polaroids of her girls strung up on white string in old picture frames. Marcie runs her finger along the wide wood farmhouse table and examines it. “At least it’s not filthy.”

“I’m not a child, you know,” Jo says. “Although you’d probably be nicer to me if I was.”

“I’ve arranged for a real estate stager to come through, straighten all this up. Mom and Aunt Carrie are thinking of putting the house on the market next month. Does that give you enough time?”

Jo scoots herself up onto her counter, swings her legs against its wooden siding like she has since she was a little girl. “I don’t want them to sell it.”

Marcie plunks her purse on the table, slaps her hands against Jo’s knees, bends her head to try to force Jo to look her in the eyes. Jo ducks her head.

“We need the money,” Marcie says softly. “We all do. And–you need to get out of here. Come live with us for awhile, til you get on your feet. You know you’re always welcome with my family.” Marcie shoves off Jo’s knees, surveys the room. “Look, I’ll help you pack. It’ll be fun.” Marcie reaches towards the wobbly china cabinet where the girls’ four gleaming bottles sit, and Jo has time to bark out half a warning before Marcie grips the shelf, the cabinet shivers, and Adie’s bottle teeters and smashes on the cedar-plank floor.

For some reason, as the remnants of the bottle bounce over Jo’s wool-socked feet, a line leaps through her head, something she read a long time ago, or maybe wrote herself–who can remember? But the line went: in New York City, ghosts drift through the streets like steam through manholes.

And something lifts from Jo’s shoulders, the tiniest lightening lift.

Then Jo’s back in reality, shoving away that New York City line, shaking glass off her socks, glaring at Marcie, who’s saying, “I’m sorry, Jo, but come on, you can’t bring all this stuff with you.”

Marcie sweeps up the remains of Jo’s oldest bottle and throws them away, and Jo brews some tea and defrosts some blueberry pie to change the subject. But the whole time Marcie’s there Jo can’t stop thinking I won’t need to bring all this stuff with me, because I’m not going anywhere. This is my home. Those girls are my life. I need them. They need me.

After Marcie leaves, Jo slides open the trash can, where the shards of Adie’s bottle gleam among soggy teabags and the empty pie tin. Jo stares at them for a minute, imagines tying up the tops of this green plastic trash bag, hauling it out to the curb, never seeing that bottle again. She extracts the tea-slick shards out of the trash, one by one, and lays them on the counter.

Then she pulls on her trapper hat and hurries into the graveyard. The girls are huddled together, their long silver hair tangling together as they whisper among themselves.

“Girls.” Jo shuffles forward, her hands deep in her pockets. The girls turn, raise their eyebrows. “I have–Marcie–you remember her? She used to live here, a long time ago?”

The girls snort and shuffle. Of course they remember Marcie, who would never come into the graveyard, who scoffed when Jo asked her to leave candles at the gate.

“You know what she wants to do, don’t you? Well, I want you to help me,” Jo says. “I want you to help me stop her.”

Four pairs of eyes on her: Em’s, dancing with the bared-soul emotion of her hefty book of poems; Addie’s, scared and confused; Samantha’s, unreadable; and Prudence. Prudence’s eyes are angry: her eyebrows two silver lines, one hand balled in a fist. Jo hasn’t seen that expression on Prudence’s face since the All Hallows’ Eve ten years ago when Prudence gripped Jo’s hands and with the pressure of her ghostly fingers communicated to Jo the pain and rage of dying young.

“We’ll be able to stop her,” Jo says, “if–”

Something cold and rough explodes across her cheek. Prudence crouches with one arm cocked back, mud dripping from between her shining fingers.

“Prudence, what–” Jo starts forward, reaches out a hand, but Prudence snarls, her long braids swinging against her back as she crab-crawls backwards. Addie examines her playing card. Em flips through her book. Samantha simply glides away.

All afternoon, Jo tries to get their attention. She places planchettes just inside the gate for them, and they turn their noses up. She sets down cups of tea, her hand shaking so porcelain rattles on porcelain, and they skitter away. They whisper and glance at her, but whenever she raises a hand to them they veer away and race to the far side of the pen.

#

Two weeks later, Jo stands by her bay window. The days are getting longer, but slowly, and it’s already dark as she watches the girls glow in the graveyard. They’ve ignored her ever since she asked for their help. The real estate stager is coming in the morning, to rearrange the furniture that Jo has kept the same, just the way she likes it, for the past ten years. How will the real estate stager get the marks out of the carpets from the places where Jo’s china cabinet, end tables, dressers and desks have stood for so many years? Jo’s sure she has some kind of real estate stager trick. Not that it matters: if Marcie gets her way, soon this house won’t even be Jo’s anymore. If only the girls would help her, use the seething power of the dead that she knows accompanies their graceful games and bookish ways…well, then, of course they could stop Marcie. So why do they race off every time she squelches into the graveyard?

What if they can sense that line that leapt through Jo’s mind: in New York City, ghosts drift through the streets like steam through manholes. And there it is again, running through Jo like a train that can’t be stopped. What if they’re angry, because she keeps having this thought? What if they’re angry because as Jo shook the glass from Adie’s broken bottle off her socks, something lifted from her shoulders, as though the bottle had been a burden instead of a precious thing? But those were just thoughts. She kept the bottle shards. She wants to stop Marcie, wants to prevent her cousin from sending her out into the vast world of skyscrapers and manhole covers alone, prevent her from leaving her girls to fend for themselves.

Jo turns from the window, pulls on her boots and coat, and marches outside. She flings open the gate and stomps into the graveyard. The girls are draped around and over the graves, listless.

“The real estate stager is coming tomorrow.” Jo crosses her arms over her chest. Addie, who’s lounging on a grave adorned only with the faded outline of a winged skull, fiddles with her card and hisses. “Do you know what a real estate stager does? She’s going to move around all my furniture, throw away a bunch of my things. Get the house looking like some stupid catalogue, to prepare for some new people moving in here. Is that what you want?”

They ignore her. They fidget and shift and sigh and none of them make a move.

“I would think you’d help me,” Jo whispers. “Why won’t you help me?”

She trudges back inside, a sick feeling clenching at her stomach, that feeling before the drop, when you’re about to lose something bigger and more monumental than you ever dreamed of losing.

She sits at the kitchen table, fiddles listlessly with the shards of Addie’s bottle.

The bay window rattles. Jo looks up.

Addie’s standing outside the window, her palms pressed against the panes, her face stony and her teeth gritted, her arms already trailing into silvery ribbons. Jo leaps up. The girls never leave the cemetery and lose their forms. What are they doing? Have they changed their minds? Are they coming to help her?

A rattling at the front door, and Jo flees through the house, knocking over her chair in the process. She flings the door open. The girls stream inside, their footsteps making no noise against the faded carpet in the front hall. Their hair trails behind them, and they’re holding hands, and their dresses are shredding before Jo’s eyes, disintegrating into mist.

“Girls,” she says, “I–”

Addie hisses, and knocks a vase off an end table.

The vase falls to the ground and shatters.

Jo only has time to gasp in a breath, before the girls emit a collective shriek, a long and lonely and horrible keen that maybe comes from the earth itself.

And then they tear through the house.

They sweep books off shelves and the pages grow hoarfrost and melt away beneath their fingers. They shatter wine glasses and cut-glass decanters, they rip down paintings and put their fists through the canvas, they turn Jo’s African violet upside down and shake the plant onto the floor.

“Why are you doing this? What–why?” Do they want her to leave them? Have they come to hate her? Do they not need her anymore?

Jo screams at them to stop, as she watches her life smash and shatter and disintegrate around her, but they ignore her. As they destroy the house their forms fall away completely, until her girls are nothing but swirling shadows, ripping through her extra blankets and smashing a snow globe. When they sweep the three remaining catching bottles off the china cabinet, when Jo watches the hardy green-tinted glass explode against the floor, she fights back tears.

At last the howling, spitting shadows sweep down the stairs and flood out the front door. Jo’s left with her own thudding heart and the erratic tick of her injured grandfather clock, and the wreck of the things that she once held dear.

And her shoulders relax. Her clenched stomach loosens.

It bursts through her, this identification of the feeling sweeping through her body, the same feeling that swept through her when Adie’s bottle broke. It’s relief.

Why? Why are parts of her glad to see her precious things smashed and broken?

She steps out the front door, tiptoes to the cemetery. The girls are gasping, their howling shapes resolving back into ghostly arms and fingers and legs and hair. Addie’s on her hands and knees, and Prudence is leaning her head against Samantha’s shoulder, quaking. Em’s off to the side, stony-faced and straight-backed against the chicken wire fence.

“Why did you do it?” Jo whispers to the night, to her girls.

Samantha shifts, sits up. She looks almost ordinary now, the same old Samantha, although her edges still quiver slightly. She palms her chalk and scrapes its edge against her chalkboard.

YOU ARE NOT US.

Jo’s stomach swoops, and the hard mud beneath her seems to tilt. The scene burns into her mind: the acrid smell of woodsmoke drifting from some other house, the glint of lamplight on dirty snow, this moment, when she loses them.

When they give her permission to be lost.

Jo leaves the graveyard, carefully closing the chickenwire fence behind her. She steps back into her silent, destroyed house. She pulls black garbage bags from beneath the sink, and she picks up glass, torn books, all her scattered broken memories, drops them into the voluminous plastic. She sweeps the floor with her old splintery-handled broom. She wipes down the counters.

Light is seeping into the house when she packs her sleek leather suitcase, laying in just the few things she needs. No shredded books. No bottle shards. She clunks down her stairs for the last time, pushes out her front door, and steps into sunlight, into fragile hot dawn. She’s sweating in her coat and vines are twining around her front railings. The trees are heavy with the dusty leaves of mid-to-late summer, and bees buzz around the bluebells dotting her lawn. How did she become so suspended in time? How did roots and seeds shift within the earth, trees burst forth in bloom and spring rains wash away the snow, without her noticing?

At the back of the house, she pauses, memorizing the carvings on the gravestones, the slumped bodies of her sleeping girls. As she turns to go, Addie stirs, stands, and slinks between the gravestones. She presses her playing card into Jo’s palm, and before Jo can do or say anything, she’s gone, slinking back to her ghost-sisters.

And Jo closes the gate for the last time behind her, wondering what time the train rumbles out of town heading for points south.

#

The next time Jo walks up the moose path from Old Highway 17, she’s wearing a new coat. Her hair is short. She carries the playing card in her wallet, but its edges are creased and its picture is stained by hundreds of coins and bills wending their way past it.

An unfamiliar car idles in the driveway outside the house. The chipped white paint has been replaced by pale yellow. Jo hears a little boy’s shout, long and sustained, from somewhere inside.

She sneaks around back, past beds full of unfamiliar plants. Ahead of her looms the old gap-toothed graveyard. The wire pen is gone, the barn dismantled, but there, among the gravestones, glimmer her girls: Em, flipping through the pages of Emily Dickinson, Addie pricking her finger against a strand of Christmas lights, Prudence and Samantha leaping their way through a game of hopscotch.

“Girls,” Jo calls. “Girls.”

They look up. They cock their heads at her, frowning. And they turn back to their pursuits.

“Girls,” Jo whispers again.

This time, only Addie looks up. For half a second, her face changes, her cheeks soften and she gives Jo half a nod, a bashful smile. And then she holds up her Christmas lights, turns her back on Jo.

Jo shoves her hands in her pockets, sneaks out from behind the house and walks back out the moose path to Old Route 17 and to other lives.

Thinking in Pieces by Rhiannon Held

When the woman built her mind from crows, she chose them for their cleverness, their puzzle-solving. She had not expected to find them so stubborn, so resistant to thinking together. But she’d had few good choices with no mind of her own, she supposed.

The crows chose a seat at the coffee shop’s picnic table, outside in the intermittent spring sunlight, so her sunglasses wouldn’t excite notice indoors. Not that normal people ever seemed quite easy around her, however she tried to act. She set her croissant on the table and tore off tiny pieces, holding it still with her other hand. She scanned her surroundings as she ate. The coffee shop was a white, free-standing building, with long eaves. The garbage bins were stored at the side of the parking lot in a square of fencing.

But that wasn’t the direction the crows needed her thoughts to go. She reached for her truth to steady herself. The crows’ truth was that she would kill the sorcerer. It had been her truth for years, but soon that would change, and she’d need that truth no longer. She wouldn’t need any truth, because she would be able to rest.

But first she needed to find a way to enter his home without breaking his wards and warning him. He traveled in and out in his car, but that was warded too, taking him to places where an attempt on his life would be seen, stopped before it succeeded. The crows had trained her thoughts into enough order to get this close, but now she could get no closer. The waiting tried her control.

That was when the crows saw the sorcerer’s servant. She was surprised, then wondered why. She’d been the sorcerer’s servant, once, before she was the crows. There had been servants before her, perhaps stretching all the way back across the centuries to when he began his quest for youth. There would have been servants after her.

This servant had properly black hair and the sorcerer’s magic in the spaces behind her eyes. The crows wondered if the servant was far enough from the sorcerer the servant would not recognize the crows for what she was. The crows beckoned her over. The servant was interesting. The crows wanted to see her.

And perhaps the servant was the key, for the crows to kill the sorcerer. The wards would open for her and the crows could follow behind. The hard part would be preserving the servant when the sorcerer discovered them both. The crows did not wish another servant to die. The sorcerer had killed so many. After the crows was done, he would kill no more, but if his toll could be one less, that would be well. If, however, one more was needed to save all that would have come after, the crows would also make that trade without hesitation.

“Do you know your name?” the crows asked the servant, in her harsh voice, when the servant approached. The crows looked at the young woman from one side, and then the other. She had a lean face.

The woman’s brow furrowed. “I’m…getting coffee. I’m sorry. It’s very hard to remember.” Resolution firmed her expression, and she took two more steps for the shop’s front door. “I want…”

The crows knew what the servant wanted. To be able to think straight. To be able to escape. That she had made it so far in this small rebellion spoke well of her strength of character. But it would fail. That was why the sorcerer allowed it.

“Maybe I should go home.” The servant turned away, head down.

“I will come with you.” The crows left her unfinished pastry for those of a similar mind to hers who would come after, and stood. “Tell me when you remember your name.”

They let themselves out onto the road through a gate at the side of the parking lot. In this rural area, there were no sidewalks, only gravel settled flat by feet beside the asphalt. The crows walked on the asphalt because it was easier, and moved aside each time she heard a car. There weren’t many.

“Ashna,” the servant said, with dawning frustration, after they had traveled some few steps. The crows didn’t bother to concentrate enough to count. More than five, anyway. “I can’t believe I forgot that! I hate the way I can’t–can’t–” She pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead.

A car-crushed squirrel sprawled across the gravel, eyes not yet eaten. The crows stepped over it. “We draw closer. Do not fret.” That was all that was necessary, but curiosity caught at the crows. Memories of being like this woman made the crows feel a little more human. “How long have you been with the sorcerer?”

With each step, Ashna’s face tightened and her eyes filled up so the sorcerer’s magic was not so visible. “About two years. I met him my junior year at UVic, he was talking about hiring a research assistant, but then he showed me magic. And of course I wanted to learn magic–” She gestured, helplessly.

She planted her feet suddenly, blocking the crows’ way. “Who are you? How did you know about the sorcerer?”

The crows looked to the sky and thought briefly of gliding, wind ruffling–No. She had her truth. She was going to kill the sorcerer and the servant was the key to let her in. “My name is Virginia.” That was what it had said on her driver’s license, when she’d been able to read again, so she’d written it on everything since.

Ashna examined the crows. For an instant, her eyes were so full of intelligence that nothing of the sorcerer could be seen. “You’re the one he says died by her own hand, aren’t you?”

The crows took a moment to admire the conclusion, the beauty of it. Assembled whole, so easily. “I’m going to kill him. Will you stop me?”

Ashna kicked the gravel savagely. “Of course not. I’m a prisoner. The farther I get from him, the more I lose myself.”

“First you can’t remember how you were going to escape. But if you push on, you can’t remember why. And if you are too stubborn to stop then, you can’t remember that you were escaping at all and the only thought left is a longing to go home and have thoughts again.” The crows smiled in empathy, an awkward-feeling expression. Her attention skittered back to the squirrel they’d left behind them and the sky above and the metallic glint of a beer can in the weeds. She waited impatiently for her thoughts to align again.

Ashna nodded, eager now. “And he pretends like all his other assistants died from accidents, but I don’t believe him. You obviously didn’t commit suicide. Did he try to kill you? Is that how you got free?”

“He eats all their minds eventually.” The crows let her expression fall away again. “The minds won’t make him young, but they keep him from dying. When he first showed you magic, did he tell you that if you helped him find youth, you’d live forever with him? I don’t know if he believes that anymore. I don’t know if he ever did. But he still gathers young minds. First he gets his hooks in deep, and you can’t leave without your mind pulling away. And then he grows hungry for the time a mind grants him, and eats yours. I did not wait for him to grow hungry. That is why he thinks I killed myself.”

Ashna paced around her, so expressive in her face, in the wariness of her body when she could think. “But you’re–what’s wrong with you?”

The crows had known, she supposed, that when Ashna regained enough of her mind, she would notice the crows’ strangeness and be bothered by it. “I thought with bees first, when my mind tore free.” Memories of that buzz and wiggle and a certainty of a path were as removed from the crows’ thoughts as that human smile, but she touched their edges. “As I had planned. Bees already know how to think in pieces. That helped me, when I collected the crows.”

Ashna was directly before her, so the crows took off her sunglasses and showed the servant her eyes. They were so dark as to seem black, side to side. Ashna flinched, because she was more human than the crows would ever be again.

The crows resettled her glasses and started on her way again, toward the sorcerer’s house. Ashna jogged to catch up with her. “What about me? What happens to me when you kill him?”

The crows did not mention the danger the servant was in, if the crows failed. She suspected the woman could guess, and if she could not, the crows could not afford to have her take fear. “You take your mind back, quickly, before he’s gone.” She sought the servant’s eyes. “I need you to take me through the wards. Will you help me?”

They drew nearer to the house as Ashna thought with every bit of her mind allowed her. “Yes,” she said, finally. “I will.”

#

The sorcerer’s house had its garbage bins hidden away behind it. It was too grand for them, so much glass and stone facade. It was not the house that the crows remembered, but the crow was not sure she remembered houses. Faces were easier. They passed through the wards with no shouts inside, no signs of alarm at all.

Ashna opened the house’s door, and the crows walked in rhythm with her steps, into the hall, so extra footsteps would be blurred. The crows withdrew her knife from the sheath tucked into the back of her waistband.

“Dinner had better not be late,” the sorcerer said, emerging from a door.

The crows remembered his face. He was white-haired and so thin, balanced forever at the last moment of straight-backed power before he dwindled to nothing more than an old man. He looked no different for the passage of time, no older, but no younger either. No closer to his all-consuming dream of youth. The crows supposed her face had not changed either. She’d eaten the minds–and time–of so many crows she’d lost count, but then again she found it hard to count very high anymore.

“You–” he said, and his face went slack.

She stepped into him and gutted him in one smooth stroke across the abdomen, then another across the other way. She’d waited so long for this. She’d thought with sharp pieces that did not want to be whole thoughts, inhuman and alone among all other humans, for this.

He collapsed, no more dignity than the dead squirrel now, as the blood and the bowels slipped out between his fingers. Soon he would be tasty carrion, but not for the crows. She would be able to rest.

The crows found Ashna and pointed to the sorcerer with her knife. A single drop of blood gathered and trembled at the tip. “Take your mind. Quickly.”

Ashna stared at her and his magic shimmered in her eyes, filling rapidly widening gaps. “I don’t know how.”

The sorcerer smiled a rictus grin. “You can’t save her.” He relaxed his head back from trying to see what his fingers could not hold, and seemed to resign himself to death, if he could take one more servant with him.

“Please…” Ashna said.

The crows lowered her arm. The drop of blood fell. Her truth was that she would kill the sorcerer, and then she could rest, and no longer think with thoughts unsuited for the kind of thinking she needed. No longer pretend to be human, and fail at it. She had killed the sorcerer. But if she let the crows go now, Ashna would die too.

And if someone had saved the crows, once upon a time years ago, she wouldn’t be the crows now. It would be well to save someone else, the crows decided. It was not such a hard thought to think as she had expected.

The crows knelt in the blood and pulled minds from the sorcerer instead. His eyes widened at her strength, and she realized that she was stronger than him now. Crow thoughts did not hold together so easily as young human women’s thoughts pulled away.

She gathered up what she thought was Ashna’s mind, but the thoughts kept coming and coming. Too many minds, too many pieces of minds. Ashna, Virginia, a cascade of other names, growing more worn with the centuries. She could not sort out one set without all the rest slipping from her grasp, and she couldn’t grasp them all without continuing to think thoughts of her own.

The woman who didn’t know who she was, now, locked her strength onto a few crows, because they were familiar, and used that foundation to push half the thoughts into Ashna. The vacancy of her eyes filled up with the roil of Ashna and others and perhaps a crow or two, swept up by mistake.

Virginia and crows and others breathed for some space, while Ashna began silently to weep. With the shock of her new thoughts, perhaps. The hallway stank of blood and worse. She’d saved the servant. Now she could let her thoughts go.

“There’s…pieces of other people. Virginia, I don’t know how…” Ashna curled over on herself. “Please, help me.”

Not saved quite yet, then. Virginia and crows let the others go, and the crows filled the cracks to create something that felt almost…whole? At least in comparison. Virginia and crows wondered that Ashna was so upset. Thinking in pieces of humans was nothing to thinking in bees. “To think in pieces you need…your truths,” Virginia and crows said carefully. New thoughts shifted how she spoke. “What are your truths?”

“I don’t know. What are your truths?” Ashna knelt in the pool of blood too and clutched at Virginia and crows’ hands. Her eyes were all colors, blue and green and brown swirling like paint that would never agree to mix.

“I am Virginia and crows.” She’d killed the sorcerer and she’d planned to let all her thoughts go then, but she wasn’t so sure now. Virginia was sticky and held the crows to her when the crows had always been eager to fly apart. What was her truth now?

“I know how to think in pieces,” Virginia and crows said slowly, feeling it out. “But I want to think whole.”

“Yes.” Ashna squeezed her hands tightly. “Yes, how do I think in pieces?”

“I will teach you.” Virginia and crows smiled and it was so natural. Natural like grief that was welling up now, an emotion that needed more wholeness to encompass it than she’d had in a long time. Grief and fierce joy. “I am Virginia and crows. I want to think whole. And I will teach you to think in pieces so eventually you can think whole as well. Those are my truths.”

“I am Ashna and Virginia and crows and so many others…” Ashna’s breath made a sob, but she continued. “My truth is that I will learn to think again.”

“We have many things to learn together,” Virginia and crows added, because that was a truth, too.

Dead Records Part 9

Part 1: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/03/dead-records-part-i-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 2: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/04/dead-records-part-2-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 3: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/05/dead-records-part-3

Part 4: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/06/dead-records-part-4-2

Part 5: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/07/dead-records-part-5/

Part 6: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/08/dead-records-part-6/

Part 7: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/09/dead-records-part-7

Part 8: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/10/dead-records-part-8

We stayed there for two weeks, never setting foot outside the church.

Every night, we ate dinner with the church staff, helped to wash up, and to do other chores to help to earn our keep. As much as we were made to feel welcome we both knew it wasn’t a permanent solution. When we looked out the window of the room in which we slept at night, we could see a man leaning on the hood of his car, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette. We knew he was with Dolgov, because the spot in which he parked was directly underneath a silver maple – and thus almost pitch black – and yet he seemed to have no problem at all with the newspaper.

We had access to the internet through a laptop I bought online and had delivered to the church, so we could download movies and music, but eventually we began to get a little stir crazy. It wasn’t like the church hosted AA meetings or fundraisers. The best we got was eaves dropping on Da Vinci Code fans sure that the holy grail was actually hidden under one of the tomb stones of the old knights upstairs. Even that started to wear thin.

On the second Friday of our stay, just as the man with the newspaper parked his car under the silver maple outside, I heard a familiar sound coming from the Rotunda. Chunky bass and screaming guitars. It was a cover of O Come O Come Emmanuel, and it wasn’t half bad. Curious, I made my way down there and stood in the back of the room.

The band was unlike any I imagined would play in a church – emo punks with dyed black hair and elaborate leather outfits. Their name was “Flock” and after a few songs, I realized they were a Christian rock band and not ironic about it at all. Not even the name was ironic.

And, would you believe it, they were pretty good.

The crowd was young, but I spotted a familiar head of blonde hair in one of the pews.

“I never suspected you were a religious man, Rick,” I said as I slipped into a pew next to him.

Casterly rolled his eyes. “I’m surprised you didn’t burst into flames on the threshold, Reardon.” He wore a loose Rolex on his left wrist, and he fiddled with it before speaking again. “Look, the whole Wembley thing. I’m sorry, man. It was uncool. I had no idea Martine was off her rocker. I feel badly that it killed your girl’s career. She was a phenom.”

I was stunned.

Casterly was apologizing to me? Of course! He had no idea that I was the one who’d set Martine up. From his point of view, he’d booked a troubled young act onto a bill that was doomed from the start. “Water under the bridge,” I said generously.

“That was quite the stunt you pulled, the suicide thing. Who knew the press would take it literally? How’s she doing, anyways, your girl?”

I looked towards our room. “Good. She’s found religion. Speaking of which, what are you doing here?”

He looked at Flock appraisingly. “There’s a market for this stuff. I could name several bands that had their start in Christian rock. Creed. Evanescence. Et cetera.” I’d never heard of Et cetera so they couldn’t have been that hot. He winced as the boy with the microphone slipped into a falsetto, and then stood to leave. “Their singer is shite though, so that’s it then.”

I walked him to the door.

“Look,” he said, “I owe you one. You have my number, ya?”

The business card with the palm tree clip art held pride-of-place in my wallet. Rick Casterly of Performance Edge owed me a favor.

And I knew just how I’d use it.

#

Two weeks later, on a Tuesday in May, London’s only true Caucasian entered the Broken Doll with several of his goons at his heels. Dressed in a black suit and tie with a red rose in a buttonhole, he looked dramatically out of place, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He walked over to my booth and sat down. One goon stood behind him, and the other beside me, blocking the booth’s exit.

“You killed Dimitri,” he said, folding his hand on the table. “Let us start there.”

“Technically, not my fault. I didn’t lay a hand on him. It was Aura,” I said calmly, laying the blame anywhere but at this particular table in this particular gin joint.

He inclined his head. “And where is young Aurelia? I expected a phone call, a letter …an e-mail,” he said this last with distaste. “I thought that after paying for your studio, all your expenses, that she would have at least said goodbye. Most disappointing.”

I knew then that Dolgov would never leave us alone. We had humiliated him publicly. This was personal for him.

Behind me, the band on the other side of the chicken-wire fence began to play.

A steady drumbeat was soon joined by the bass, and we had to lean closer to be heard.

“If you leave right now, we can both walk away from this like it never happened,” I said.

His red lips split open, revealing a mouthful of fangs and he laughed. It was not a nice laugh. “Is that supposed to be an offer I can’t refuse? You are a funny guy,” he said. He faked getting up and laughed again. “You know I nearly had one of my boys put a centaur’s head in your bed over at the church. But he pointed out that was just a human head. Called me a psycho. I didn’t appreciate that. I’m not like that. I’m just a business man. So I killed him.”

I remained stone faced.

My confidence wiped the smirk off his face, and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What are you playing at?”

“The band you are now listening to is called Flock, and I think you’ll be interested to hear they’ve hired a new singer. You’ll recognize her. She’s a real nice girl.”

Behind me, Aura stepped onto the stage, dressed in tight leather pants and a white blouse, fitting the band’s emo image but somehow rising above it. She picked the microphone off the stand, found us in the audience, and nodded tightly at me. I nodded back.

My girl.

She began with a hum, a chaste, beautiful thing like a mother waking her sleeping infant. Her eyes closed and she swayed slightly, letting the music take her away.

Then she broke into song.

Dolgov lurched back in his seat and his goons fell to their knees. The Russian gangster clamped his hands to his ears as his bald scalp began to smoke.

“You really should have left when you had the chance, Yevgeny. Don’t you know how it works? No, of course not, you’re used to talking, not listening. Well let me explain what’s happening to you.” More smoke steamed off his head. For a minute there it actually looked like it was coming out of his ears. “Aura’s voice amplifies the power of the songs that she sings, so when she sings the Blues, well she’s suicidal, so all those guys out in the audience want to slash their wrists; when she’s poppy, she’s shiny happy people on acid, you get the idea?” I like to think Yevgeny nodded but he was long past nodding. “Flock are a Christian band. You know what that means?”

One of the goons stumbled backwards and fell across another patron’s table. Instead of smashing it, as a man his size should have, he collapsed and with a soft implosion powdered into a pile of dust and ash. The other goon broke for the door, but with every step he took, part of his leg turned to ash. Half a second later he was running on stumps and shrinking by the second. Unable to retain his balance, he too collapsed into a pile of dust.

“You should never have killed the Fortunate Fridays, Yevgeny,” I said. “Then maybe you wouldn’t be having a Terrible Tuesday.” The line sounded a bit corny when I said it out loud. It wasn’t exactly the most pithy of taunts.

He growled and leapt for me. He caught me one good one, leaving a scar on my right cheek, before he too succumbed to the faith of Aura’s song burning up inside him and turned to ash. I think the scar makes me look pretty distinguished. I could have had plastic surgery but I’m not that vain. I stood and dusted myself off as the music stopped behind me. Aura left the stage and came running towards me.

I caught her up in a hug and planted my lips on hers.

She tasted like a peach. She still does.

As we were leaving the Broken Doll, the man who’d been sitting at the table where Dolgov’s goon had burst into ash stopped me. It was Polanski, formerly of Red Sky Entertainment and, at one time, proud owner of an Aston Martin DB9. The original Rainmaker. “Who was that girl?” he asked. “Seriously. I have to know.”

I smiled at him. A fish on the hook. Well, more of a man on the fishhook I suppose. Or the siren’s hook.

“Her name is Shepherd,” I said. “The band’s called Flock.”

“As in wallpaper?” He looked genuinely confused by the idea.

I decided to help him out. I handed him my card with Dead Records stamped in gold foil over a siren on the rocks. And no, that’s not a kind of drink.

“Nope, as in make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here. C’mon, babe,” I said to Aura, “Let’s go make some noise.”

THE END

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place by David Tallerman

First published in Interzone #250.

Darlene had been shouting that morning, and I guess I’d been shouting back, both of us going at it pretty hard.

It was all about the pickup, who got to drive and when. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was about other things: money, and children, and forgiveness, and the way we didn’t seem to have much of any of those, even after five hard years. But neither of us was going to make the other see sense with all that language passing back and forth. I grabbed my coat, shouted something mean and easy that I knew I’d regret later, and got out.

The forest smelled fresh, like new snow. It wasn’t so far to the truck stop on the highway, not a bad hour’s hike. Fall had ignored the warning signs that hemmed the national park and set the trees on fire, and it felt good to be out there, too good for anger.

That didn’t mean I let it go. The best I could do was pack it deep down–something for later, for the next time. With Darlene and me there would always be a next time.

So I pocketed my anger like a dirty dollar bill and walked. The sun was bright but cold, as if it was dying but still trying its damndest. I kind of liked it that way. It made me think of hunting trips with my pa, before the cancer took him, when things were simple and decisions were something older people made. I walked, breathed deep, and didn’t think too much about Darlene, or the things she’d said that stung for being too near the truth.

When I got to the stop, it was all but empty. It was too late for breakfast, too early for the lunchtime trade, so there was just me and the sad-faced kid who serves when Judy’s busy. I was stuck with the same dilemma; I’d eaten breakfast two hours ago, wouldn’t want lunch any time soon. I settled on coffee, and picked a booth near the door. I sat staring into my cup, willing it to cool a little.

Both me and the kid looked round when a car pulled up. It had a well-maintained growl that told me it wasn’t from anywhere nearby. Sure enough, when I glanced out the window there was a sleek estate pulled up beside the pumps, some foreign make I didn’t recognise.

Two men stepped out on the near side. The driver was old, but well-preserved old, the only real telltale the grizzled beard lying past the collar of his white suit. The other wore a black shirt and silver-buckled black slacks that matched his goatee and slicked hair. Around the other side I thought I saw a little girl getting out, but when I looked again I realised it was a woman in her early twenties. Something in the way she moved made me think of a flamenco dancer–somehow awkward and elegant at the same time.

As the two men came in, the one with the Johnny Cash getup was saying, “Is this really necessary?”

“I’d like a coffee. Is that all right?” White-suit sounded English, I thought at first. Then I corrected myself, European. But that wasn’t really it either.

“You know what I mean.”

“I’ve got my duty, bro, like you’ve got yours. You’d think by now you’d have learned a little patience. Also, I seem to remember the coffee here is pretty good. Am I right?” he said, speaking now to the zit-pocked teenager hovering behind the counter. Not waiting for an answer, he went on, “Make mine black, kiddo.”

“White,” said Johnny, “two sugars.”

The woman, who’d just come in behind them, added, “Can I get the same to go?” To the men she said, “If you two are arguing again I’ll wait outside.”

She spun on a heel and marched back out, the door jangling hard behind her. They took it in their stride, as though this sort of thing happened enough for them to expect it. White-suit took his coffee to a booth at the far end and sat down. His companion trailed after. The next time they spoke, they’d dropped their voices too low for me to hear.

I looked around instead. Sure enough, the woman was waiting outside, slouched against the tail of the car. She’d lit a cigarette and was just blowing a first plume of grey towards the glassy sky. Again, there was something in her pose–the tilt of her head, the way her forearm rested on the trunk–that struck me as very refined somehow. When she exhaled again I thought of smoke signals. At the same time, I remembered the last thing Darlene had shouted, and how scrambled and ugly her face had been while she said it.

I got up and grabbed her drink in its takeaway cardboard cup from the counter, where the kid had left it while he hunted for something beneath the counter. Even as I shouldered through the double doors I had no clue what I meant to do, but there was a kind of relief in letting the impulse drag me. It felt like letting out a breath I’d been holding for too long.

She looked older close up; a well maintained mid thirties, probably a little past my own age. It didn’t make her any less attractive. I held out the cup and said, “Thought you’d want this.”

She didn’t look surprised, although I could tell she’d realised I wasn’t an employee at the ‘stop. She took the cup and sat it on the roof of the car, then pulled a battered cigarette packet from a pocket and offered it–some foreign brand I didn’t recognise. I hardly ever smoke these days, but I still had my old Zippo in a pocket of my jacket, so I took one and lit it, telling myself it was to be polite.

“Those friends of yours, are they always like that?”

“They’re family. And yes, when my father and uncle work together they tend to fight.” She let the shrivelled remnant of her own cigarette drop and ground it neatly into the tarmac. “I suppose when people do a job for a long time they get into habits.”

“You’re here on work?”

“I’m just along for the ride. So is uncle, I suppose; he argues about it, and then insists on coming anyway. Father is the only one actually working.”

“So what does the old man do?”

She looked at me properly for the first time. Until then she’d been concentrating on her cigarette, or staring towards her own outstretched foot. Her glance weighed me up. No, it did more than that. I felt like an open book, except it was as if she’d skipped through the contents and gone straight to the index. It took her barely an instant, and then she looked away again. “He’s making sure it’s all here,” she said.

Still taken aback by that look, I asked, “All what? The diner?”

“All everything.”

I was starting to regret this conversation, attempted seduction or whatever the hell it was. Her voice had that same not-quite-European twang as her father’s. Probably she thought it was funny to be out here in the boondocks, with some redneck thinking he had so much as a chance with her. Probably she did this all the time. I wanted to say something clever or funny, but all I came out with was, “Are you in property or something?”

She laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh, at least. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“You know what? Fine. It’s not as if it’s a secret.” Still, she only seemed half decided. She brushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes, pulled out another cigarette and lit it. Even then, she took a couple of draws before she began again. “Have you ever worked around computers? Do you know what a backup is?”

“Sure.” Darlene’s father works for some blue-chip IT outfit down near California, and every Christmas–mainly to screw with the rube that wasn’t good enough for his little princess–he’d bore me to tears with talk he knew I couldn’t understand. I’ve a good memory, though; after the third time I started to keep up, and even join in a little, which wound him up no end.

With a sweep of her arm that took in the diner, the pumps, the highway curling towards the mountains one way and the city the other, the glossy crests of the pines beyond, even the crystal sky sharp above us, she said, “This is a backup.”

I echoed her laugh with a nervous one of my own. “Right. Gotcha.”

“A copy,” she said. “For if the real one ever goes wrong. Father makes them. He makes sure they’re all there. And, when they’re finished with, uncle erases them.”

“I don’t get it.” Truth was, I understood perfectly, but I didn’t know what else to say. Was she joking? It didn’t seem too funny. The worst part was, as soon as she’d said it I had this sense, like the things around me had grown suddenly thinner, like if I pushed too hard at the car door or the rusting phone booth or the sign by the slip road my fingers might just pass on through. Any other day I’d probably have just shrugged it off, but on this one, her words dug in like fishhooks.

“Well maybe you don’t need to.” She glanced over my shoulder, and added, “Hey, don’t worry about it. You should just go back to your girlfriend and get on with your life.”

So that was it, she was some crazy friend of Darlene’s I’d never met. I almost sighed with relief. Instead, I laughed another awkward laugh, and said, “Maybe you’re right. Thanks for the smoke.”

“Don’t thank me. Those things will kill you.” She didn’t sound like she believed it.

I nodded, started back toward the diner. Half way there, I hesitated. I didn’t want to ask, but I couldn’t help it. “So how long do we get?”

She didn’t even pause to consider. “A while,” she said, “Not too long.”

I passed the two men on the way in. They didn’t look like guys who could make or break whole realities, but there did seem to be something about them–like they were a little clearer than everything around them. We exchanged a nod, and the one in the suit–who I figured, somehow, was her father–tipped an imaginary hat and said, “Time waits for no man.”

When I sat back in my place I had just time enough to watch them climbing into the car. The woman getting in on the other side looked far too old to be the one I’d spoken to, older than either of the men, but by the time I’d seen her she was gone.

My coffee was lukewarm. I carried the cup to the counter, gave the kid a nod, and went out. I glanced both ways up the highway, but the car was nowhere to be seen.

#

I was half way back to the house when the jumble in my head, the anxious confused mood I’d been carrying around since that conversation, turned into something else. It was as if I’d climbed higher and suddenly I could see how all the things around me were really just one thing, one single scene.

It was a good feeling, and a little scary. It began with a single thought, as clear and bright as winter’s first frost, and afterwards that thought kept batting back and forth, too big to shake itself loose.

Back home, the first thing I noticed was the pickup gone. Darlene would have gone to see one of her girlfriends in town. That would lead to drinking, and maybe she’d call to make up and see if I wanted to join her, but more likely she’d stumble in long after dark, set on finishing what we’d started that morning.

I went straight to find a piece of paper, as though the thought, so solid a moment ago, was now something that might vanish if I didn’t get it down. At the top, in big shaky letters, I wrote,

Darlene.

Then, like a gasp, came the thought:

Life is short.

I hoped there was something more behind this than what the crazy truck-stop woman had said–that it was an understanding I’d come to over years, a glacier of truth that had finally worked itself free of my ice-locked thoughts. That was how I felt. But in the end, did it matter much? I knew it was true. It didn’t make any difference if the world was about to blink out, not really. Life was too short for two people to make each other miserable.

I wrote a little more, not much. I said I was going away for a while. I’d take what I needed and some money, and everything else was hers as far as I was concerned. I’d ring Jack sometime about quitting at the mill; if she saw him, she was welcome to tell him, and if he coughed up my back pay she could have that too.

I didn’t say where I was going. I don’t think I knew.

And I didn’t write ‘I love you’. It was a lie, and I was done with those.

#

So how long is a while?

I’ve been walking for about a month, I think–I haven’t been bothering much with dates. If I had to say where I was going I’d mention my brother’s down in Denver, but there’s a long way between here and there, and I’m not hurrying. Sometimes I stop in a cheap motel. Sometimes I sleep rough. Sooner or later my money will run out, and maybe then I’ll have to get some work, at least for a while. Not yet though, not right now. And who knows what tomorrow will bring?

One time I thought I saw that car go by. The side window was down, and her face was just visible, hair all tousled with the breeze. She didn’t so much as look at me, and afterwards I wasn’t sure. Still, I whispered a ‘thank you’ under my breath.

Thanks for the warning. Thanks for the second chance.

How long is a while? Damned if I know.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s enough.

Gawania and the Banner Man by Daniel J. Davis

Gawania, Knight of the Rose, raised a clenched fist behind her. “Hold!”

Tom Bannerman cut the engine. The small motorboat slowed. He glanced over the side, looking for movement or dark shapes in the water. He didn’t see anything.

“What is it?”

Gawania shushed him. She slowly rose to her feet, holding the pole of the red battle standard that was fixed to the bow.

“Listen, it isn’t safe to stand up in a boat. You should really sit back down.”

“Be silent, banner man!”

Stupid kid, Tom thought. Didn’t know the first thing about boating. She didn’t want to learn, either. At least she wasn’t wearing the plate armor anymore. He’d convinced her to leave it back at the campsite before setting out.

The boat drifted forward. Gawania kept her attention focused ahead, at a cluster of partially submerged logs near the shore. She took up her spear as they drifted closer, balancing it in her right hand.

Tom scanned the logs. The dragon couldn’t possibly be hiding in them. He hadn’t seen it in years, not since he was a teenager, but he still remembered the sheer size of it.

What the hell could she be aiming–

With frightening speed, Gawania threw the spear. It lanced through a tiny opening between the logs, one no larger than a softball. Small splashes and frantic noises followed. A half-dozen shapes darted through the water, quickly scattering in different directions.

“Congratulations,” Tom said. “You just scared a family of beavers.”

Gawania shot him an icy glare. “Bring the boat around, banner man. I need to recover my spear.”

Tom grumbled, but he fired up the engine again. As he steered the boat closer to shore, he found himself wondering how someone Gawania’s age got into dragon slaying. She wasn’t much more than a kid, couldn’t be more than two or three years out of high school.

Maybe the ancient orders recruited like colleges nowadays. Maybe they sent out scouts, looking for the best and brightest talents they could find.

Tom guided the boat around the cluster of logs. The butt end of the spear stuck from the tangle on the other side. Gawania crouched down, reaching for it.

At that moment, Tom looked to the north. He saw it then: a large, scaly head on a serpentine neck. It rose out of the water beyond the shallows. It coiled backwards to look at them, pausing for a moment, before slowly sinking down again.

Tom held his breath. It was as majestic and as beautiful as he remembered. Please, dear God. Please don’t let her see it.

“Banner man! To the north!”

“It’s nothing,” Tom lied. “Just one of those beavers you scared.”

“Take me there,” she ordered. “Now!”

Tom brought them around, silently cursing.

“Faster!” Gawania climbed to her feet again. She hooked her left arm around the pole of the battle standard, using the free hand to shade her eyes against the sun. She raised he spear in her right.

Less than fifty yards ahead, the water rippled. The rolls of the dragon’s neck broke the surface, followed by the swell of its body. It ignored them as it swam peacefully along.

Tom’s mind raced. He couldn’t just slow down. That would be obvious. Maybe he could cut the engine; say it happened all by itself. No, she wasn’t stupid. She’d never believe it. His attention flicked up at her left arm, the one wrapped around the pole. He remembered the way she threw the spear. It was a long shot, but…

They were less than twenty yards away. Gawania widened her stance. She’ll let go with her left, Tom thought. Just before she throws.

Less than fifteen yards away, now.

Less than ten.

Gawania loosened her grip on the pole. Tom seized the opportunity and violently threw his weight to the starboard side. The boat pitched. Gawania dropped the spear and both hands fumbled to grab the pole of the battle standard. Then the pole-mount snapped and Gawania dropped over the side, taking the standard with her.

Tom cut the engine. Ahead, the dragon dipped below the surface. Tom glanced back. Gawania thrashed and struggled in the water.

She wouldn’t try to kill a dragon in a lake, he thought. Not if she couldn’t swim. She’s young, not stupid.

Tom watched, horrified, as Gawania started to sink.

“Damn it!” He fired up the engine and spun the boat around.

#

It was almost evening by the time they got back to Tom’s campsite. Gawania sat next to the fire, wrapped in Tom’s spare sleeping bag. Her leathers and gambeson hung nearby, drying on a line tied between two trees. Next to them hung the red battle standard. She had refused to abandon it when Tom pulled her out of the lake, nearly drowning both of them in the process.

Tom, now in his own dry set of clothes, handed her a steaming mug. “Drink this. It’ll keep the chills away.”

“What is it?”

“Mostly coffee.”

Gawania sipped. She immediately made a face. “Ugh! What’s the rest of it?”

“Mostly whiskey.” He fixed one for himself and sat across the fire from her.

The young warrior was quiet for a time. When she finally spoke, it was in a careful, measured voice. “You are sworn to help me in my quest, banner man. Are you not?”

“I guess so.”

“You are bound by family oath.”

No guessing about that one. The Bannerman family had served the Knights of the Rose since the Dark Ages. They swore similar oaths to the Brothers of Saint George, the Sons of Sigurd, and over a dozen other ancient orders. Tom had memorized each of them by the time he was twelve. The wording was different, but substance of them was always the same: If a hero rode out to face the monsters, a Bannerman carried the battle standard.

That was the tradition. That was the promise.

“Yes,” he said.

“And you know the punishment for breaking that oath.”

He did, all too well. A secretive order of knights could do a lot of damage if they put their minds to it. They could ensure that businesses failed, finances disappeared, and personal reputations were ruined. There was no need to get violent; they could destroy somebody without ever getting their weapons bloody.

Cross the ancient orders,” dad had warned him, “and you can kiss your life goodbye. ” That warning had only taken on more weight over the years. First with Marybeth. Then later, with the kids. Life started to look a lot more fragile when you had other people to feed.

“Yes, I know the punishment.”

“Then do not do what you did earlier. Ever again.”

“I saw something in the water. I swerved to avoid hitting it.”

“I know you’re lying, banner man. And I will forgive it. Once.” She fixed him with a hard stare.

Tom avoided her gaze. He swirled his coffee around in his mug. He drained the rest of it in a two swallows.

“Why do you want to kill a dragon?” he asked.

Gawania’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I mean they don’t bother anybody. What good does it do to chase one all the way up to the middle of nowhere? Especially when it’s just minding its business.”

She set down her mug before she answered. “Do you know where dragons come from, banner man?”

“I’ve heard stories.”

“So have I. Draconolgy was one of the subjects I studied at the Abbey of the Rose. They’re born from the unholy union of a demon and an earthly serpent. They have devils’ blood. They are monsters, banner man. They do not ‘just mind their business.'”

Tom didn’t buy it. He’d lived near the lake his entire life. His father and grandfather had lived here before him. The lake dragon was peaceful. So was the other one, for that matter, until one of these overzealous thugs killed it off.

“I’ve never heard of one attacking anybody.”

Gawania let out a short, harsh laugh. “There are thousands of recorded attacks against humans.”

Tom jabbed a stick into the fire, stirring the embers. “Legends, you mean.”

“Most people think they’re only legends. But they’re mistaken. The archives at the Abbey hold accounts of entire cities being wiped out.” Tom noted the lecturing, holier-than-thou tone she adopted.

“So? When was the last one?”

Gawania didn’t answer right away. From the way she fumed, Tom was sure he’d offended her. He wasn’t at all sure he cared.

“The dates are vague,” she admitted at last.

“Have you seen any of these archives yourself?”

Her voice took on a hard edge. “The Knights of the Rose would not keep false records, banner man.”

Tom decided to let the issue drop. You couldn’t argue with a true believer.

Gawania abruptly stood up, keeping the sleeping bag wrapped around her. “I’ll need to borrow a set of your clothes until morning. I’ll return at sunrise. Have my battle standard and my armor prepared.”

Tom sighed. He could say no. But then what? The Knights of the Rose could take a lot of things away from him. Away from Marybeth. Away from the kids. He jabbed the fire again.

“Whatever you say.”

#

When Gawania returned the next day, she was carrying a large poleaxe over one shoulder. She had a green duffel bag slung over the other, the kind you could buy at any surplus store. She still wore Tom’s borrowed clothes. Except for the poleaxe, Tom thought, she could be a college kid out for a day hike.

He let her use the tent to change back into her leathers and gambeson. Then he helped her into the plate armor she’d abandoned before yesterday’s boat ride. He started to protest, to remind her how close she’d come to drowning even without the extra weight.

She only gave him a stern look. “Remember your vows, banner man.”

Tom nodded. So it was going to be that kind of day. He helped her finish tightening down the straps.

“Where are we going?” he asked without enthusiasm.

“Nowhere. Fetch my battle standard from the boat.”

Tom disconnected the pole, grumbling. He’d just reattached it last night. At the same time, Gawania produced a large horn from the duffel bag. It was bigger than a steer’s horn, but it wasn’t smooth-sided. It was knotted and textured, more like a goat’s horn. Tom couldn’t readily tell what kind of animal it came from.

Gawania stood on the bank. “Take a your position seven paces behind me. Do not allow the battle standard to touch the ground. Only lower it if I fall. Understood?”

Tom nodded. He stood where he was told and held the standard high overhead. Then, as he watched Gawania raise the horn to her lips, he realized exactly what it was. Of course he hadn’t recognized it. He’d never seen one before.

After all, the dragon in the lake didn’t have horns. She was female.

Gawania blew the horn. It made a sound like a conch shell, only deeper. Not deeper in octave, deeper in memory, deeper in time. More primal. Yes, that was it. The sound called up images of things that used to prey on the hairless apes, back when fire was an uneasy ally. He heard the sound and understood their fears. He understood why they huddled together on the grass plains, watching the skies with wide, terrified eyes…

Gawania lowered the horn. “I stand ready, hell-spawn! Come for me! Come for one who will stand and fight!” She raised the horn and blew it again.

From out over the water, a sound rolled back to them, a sound very much like the one made by the horn. Then a dark silhouette appeared out beyond the shallows. Tom strained to see. It drifted slowly, the long neck and the large body making Tom think of a distant Viking ship.

He felt a sense of dread, then. He’d seen the dragon nearly a dozen times in his youth. It was always a quick, fleeting glimpse: the hump of its back, the coil of its neck. Each time it quickly dove or rolled back down into the water. But now it glided openly across the surface.

“What is that horn?” he asked. “What’s it doing?”

“Not now, banner man.”

The dragon got closer. Soon it was in the shallows, pulling itself along on its legs rather than swimming. Its movements seemed lethargic, slow, and almost trancelike. Tom saw details now that he’d never seen before. The body was longer than he’d imagined, and the end of the tail was slightly forked. The scales were two-tone, beginning as an emerald green on its back, gradually darkening to brown on its underside. The front legs were longer than the rear ones. There were two leathery flaps near the shoulders, and Tom at first mistook them for gills.

Wings, he thought. Those are old, atrophied wings.

Gawania threw the horn aside and took up her poleaxe. “Remember, banner man. Only lower the standard if I fall.”

“Please don’t do this.”

Gawania ignored him. She let out a battle cry and charged into the shallows, quickly sinking to her knees. She sloshed forward, still shouting, until she was within swinging distance. She raised her axe and–

The dragon struck like a cobra, its massive head moving almost too quickly for Tom to follow. It clamped its teeth around Gawania’s shoulder and upper arm, and reared up on its hind legs. It violently jerked its head from side to side, shaking her the way a dog would shake a chew toy.

Tom dropped the battle standard. He sprinted for the horn, reaching it in four long strides. Before he could think or talk himself out of it, he raised the horn to his lips and blew.

The sound was nothing like the conch-shell note that came before. It carried none of the weight and stirred none of the buried, ancestral memories. The noise had more in common with a trumpet, blown by a man who’d never seen one before.

Whatever it was, it was enough to get the dragon’s attention. It opened its jaws and let Gawania fall. As she collapsed into the knee-deep water and began scrambling backwards towards the shore, the dragon swung its head around to face Tom. He blew the horn again, and the dragon took a step in his direction.

Tom wound up and threw the horn side arm, pitching it as far out into the water as he could. The dragon’s gaze followed as it dropped into the lake. It started after it. Then the dragon shook its head. It almost seemed to snap out of something. The dragon blinked twice, and looked around as if confused. Then it plodded towards the deeper part of the lake, where it disappeared below the surface.

#

Gawania came around again, and she immediately hissed in pain. “What happened?”

“Lie still,” Tom said. “I’m going to bring the jeep over. Then I’m going to take you to a hospital.”

Gawania had managed to pull herself out of the lake before passing out. Tom had gotten her armor off and splinted her arm. He’d also used most of the gauze in his first aid kit to stop the bleeding. The dragon’s teeth hadn’t punched through the armor in many places, but where they had they’d bitten deep. Fortunately they’d missed the brachial artery.

“No hospital.”

“You’ve got a broken clavicle, some deep punctures, and a broken arm. And probably some other injuries I don’t know about. You need a doctor, Gawania.”

“No doctors.” Her voice sounded weak, but her eyes held a fire. “I’m going to rest here. Then I’m going to fight the dragon. Where is the Horn of Ragnar Lodbrok?”

“I threw it in the lake.”

“You need to recover it, banner man.”

“No.”

A flash of anger crossed her face. “Remember your vows.”

“Screw my vows. You’re lucky to be alive right now. I’ve never seen a dragon attack anyone before today. But whatever you did you with that horn drove her nuts. I’m not bringing it back.”

“I’ve been lenient with you until now, banner man. If the Knights of the Rose hear that you’ve disobeyed my orders, they’ll–”

Tom cut her off. “I don’t care what they’ll do.”

The muscles around Gawania’s jaw tightened. Her eyes were like daggers. “You should choose your next words carefully. I am not making idle threats.”

Tom thought of the haunted look in Dad’s eyes. He remembered how much it used to kill him to see it there. Do I want to see it look in the mirror, too? Do I want Marybeth and the kids to see it?

“Tell the Knights to take whatever the hell they want to. I won’t be a part of this anymore.”

“Coward,” she said. “Coward on the field of battle.”

“What battle?” Tom was on his feet and yelling before he knew it. “What is it you think you’re saving people from? Some secret club keeps an archive full of fairy tales. And you think that’s cause enough to throw your life away? To go stirring up trouble?”

“The dragons have attacked people for centuries. You saw how dangerous they are.”

“I saw you provoke her. And if you do it again tomorrow, she’s going to kill you.”

“At least I’ll die fighting.” Gawania tried to prop herself up on her good arm. She grimaced in pain and fell back down.

“No you won’t. You can’t fight. You can’t even stand up. Please, Gawania. Just let it go. Let me get you to a hospital.”

“Bring me my battle standard. I will not have a coward for a banner man.”

Tom shook his head. Kids. These knights and dragon slayers were nothing but kids. The ancient orders promised them secrets, gave them vows and traditions. But in the end, they were kids dressed in armor, fighting battles no one needed fought. He brought the standard over and propped against a tree.

#

It was night. Gawania slept soundly by the fire. Tom crept to her side and gently shook her uninjured shoulder. She startled awake and grunted in pain.

“Come with me,” Tom said. “I want you to see something.”

“What is it?”

Tom held up a finger, signaling quiet. Soon the sound, long and low, rolled over the water. It was almost like a whale’s song. Or a foghorn.

“Just come with me,” he said.

“Why should I follow a coward, banner man?”

Tom grimaced. He almost told her to forget it. But letting a stupid kid die for no reason would be just as bad as helping her kill a dragon.

“I’m not asking you to follow me. Hell, I’m not even asking you to trust me. I’m just asking you to get in the boat and take a ride. There’s something you need to see before you throw your life away tomorrow.”

Again the long, low sound rolled over the water. Gawania climbed to her feet, refusing Tom’s help. She reached for her poleaxe.

“Leave the weapon. You won’t need it.”

Gawania ignored him. She tried to lift the axe in her good hand, but it was to heavy and awkward for her to maneuver one-handed. She fumbled with it for a little while, trying more than once to use her splinted arm for leverage. Each time she hissed in pain and dropped it.

Frustrated, she whirled on Tom with an angry look. “If this is some trick, banner man…”

“It’s no trick.”

Gawania climbed into the boat, leaving the rest of her threat unspoken. She lowered herself gingerly, hissing and wincing, until she finally settled onto the forward bench. Tom pushed off from the shore and climbed in after her. But instead of using the motor, he locked a set of oars into place. He sat on the bench and began to row. Once again, the sound rolled towards them.

“What is that sound, banner man? Is it the dragon? Did I wound it?”

“No talking,” Tom said. “If she hears us coming, she’ll swim away.”

“This could be our chance! We need to go back. I need my weapons. You have to fix the standard to the bow.”

Tom held a finger to his lips, shushing her. He rowed, following the sound and occasionally stopping to check his position. His father had showed him the spot once. It was in that tiny inlet, past the mid-point on the north side of the lake.

This is where she goes when she remembers, ” his father had told him. “When you hear her out there, stay clear. She deserves her mourning, same as anyone.

They were close now. The sound was much louder. Gawania sat anxiously in the front of the boat. She was plainly nervous at being unarmed, constantly fidgeting with her uninjured hand. Tom considered handing her his pocketknife just to get her to stop.

He brought the boat into the small inlet. There was a rock in the middle of it, a glacial boulder that was mostly submerged. Only the top part rested above the water. The dragon sat perched on it.

At the sight, Gawania sat stock-still. The dragon arched her neck, raising her head to the sky. She opened her mouth and once again let out the long, low cry. It was a mournful sound, filled with sorrow, longing, and loneliness. They sat in the boat, watching as the dragon called over and over again into the night.

It was the sound of the lost.

It was the sound of the frightened.

It was the sound of a creature that knew it was alone, but didn’t understand why.

Slowly, Tom lowered the oars into the water. He pulled as quietly as he could, moving the boat away from the tiny inlet. The dragon’s cries followed them, rolling over the water, echoing between the pines. They were nearly halfway back to the campsite when Tom finally spoke.

“There used to be two of them,” he said quietly. “Back when my dad was a kid. He told me you could always see them swimming in the lake, rolling and playing like dolphins. In all those years they never hurt anybody. He didn’t know if they were mates, or if they were the last survivors of a herd, or what. He only knew they seemed happy. And why not? They had each other.

“Until one summer, when someone like you showed up.”

“Please, don’t–” Gawania began.

“Dad never forgot them hauling the body out of the lake” Tom continued. “He told me the dragon slayer was a proud, smug son of a bitch. He said the man’s armor never even got a scratch on it. The dragon didn’t fight him. It probably didn’t even know what he was there for.”

“Please–”

“That inlet was where it happened.” Tom unlocked the oars. He put them in the bottom of the boat and started to prime the outboard motor. “You’d hear her on that rock after that. Not always. Usually it was after a thunderstorm. Sometimes it was when a train rolled by, and they hit the air horn. She’d crawl up on that rock where he died, and she’d cry for him until morning.”

The motor puttered to life. Tom steered them back towards the campsite. “The other one’s been gone for more than sixty years,” he said. “And she still cries every time something reminds her of him.”

“Why did you show me that, banner man?” Tom couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like she might have been crying.

“I just wanted you to have a better look at your monster, Gawania.”

#

In the morning, Tom woke to find her standing on the shore, staring out over the water. Even with the broken arm and collarbone, she’d partly dressed herself in her armor. Tom couldn’t even imagine the pain that must have caused her. He stayed quiet, stoking the fire, boiling the water, and getting ready to make coffee. He watched Gawania.

Slowly, she removed her helmet. She held it up with her good hand, looking at it, twisting it, as if she were trying to see herself there. Then, with very little ceremony, she threw it into the lake. Next she awkwardly wrestled the poleaxe into an upright position, butt resting on the ground. She looked up at the blade, perhaps seeing it for the ugly thing it was. She let it fall in after the helmet. The armor was last. She struggled with it, making several pained sounds and uttering some curses. Tom stood back, knowing she wouldn’t want any help from him. Soon the armor joined the helmet and the poleaxe.

After a time, she came and joined Tom by the fire. Without a word, she took the red battle standard off of its pole and dropped it into the flames. Tom offered her a steaming mug.

She took it without smiling. “Mostly coffee?”

“No. Mostly whiskey.” He sipped his own, letting her enjoy it for a bit. “What will you do now?”

“That hospital doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”

Tom nodded. “And after that?”

“I don’t know. I might have to go into hiding for a while. The Knights of the Rose are pretty harsh on disloyalty.” She looked up at Tom. “What about you?”

“I’ll make it. We’ll probably have it rough for a while. We’ll have to start over. But Marybeth will understand. So will the kids, when they’re old enough.” Even so, he wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news when he got home.

“I’m sorry I got you involved in this, Tom.”

“Listen, Gawania, I–”

“Trish,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“My name’s Trish. If I’m giving up the knight business, then I’m giving up the name.”

“Alright, Trish. I’ve got a sister-in-law with a guest room. I can call her up if you need someplace to hide for a while.”

“Thanks.” Trish polished off the rest of her mug. She smiled ruefully. “So, do you know any good employment opportunities for ex-knights in shining armor?”

Tom looked out over the water. He thought he saw the surface ripple in the distance, but he couldn’t be sure. “How would you feel about wildlife conservation?”

“Maybe. Let’s talk about it on the way to the hospital.”

Tom quenched the fire, and helped her into the jeep.

Flare by Eleanor R. Wood

Marcie read aloud from the storybook, her brother tucked against her on one side, her sister on the other. They’d pulled Ben’s blankets around them on the bed, more for security than warmth. It was their nest of safety, somewhere they could hide and pretend the rest of the house was as calm and tranquil as this.

But the tranquillity was an illusion. Marcie held them close and read to them in a bright, loud voice to drown out the shouting and comfort their fears. Something crashed; a thud, a smash of breakage. She feigned bravery while her heart raced and her insides tightened in miserable knots. They were little; she was the oldest. Four years between each of them, with ten-year-old Ben in the middle. When their parents tore into each other, it was Marcie the younger ones turned to for reassurance. Their little haven became a welcome distraction from the terrifying anger that shook the foundations of their world.

Ben and Emily had her to turn to. Marcie used to wonder who she had. Then the bettas came back.

It started with Fernando. She was walking home from school one day, dragging her feet against the burden of dread that had grown heavier since her parents’ fight that morning. Marcie hated those days, when the prospect of home churned her stomach. She didn’t want to face what would be waiting at the dinner table.

A gentle flicker of movement brushed her cheek. She caught a glimpse of colour from the corner of her eye and stopped short with a gasp. Level with her face, regarding her with his sideways expression, was a little fish. Two inches long, with liquid purple fins trailing behind him and his body the colour of a summer strawberry, it was her Fernando. Swimming in the air beside her.

He had died three months before.

He followed her home, dancing around her head or settling on her shoulder as he’d once rested on plants. He didn’t look like a ghost fish. He was as bright and opaque as she’d known him in life, and when she reached out a tentative hand, she felt the familiar pecks of his tiny mouth against her finger. She watched the sharp beads of his eyes as he watched her in turn, and her heart beat faster at his surreal beauty. By the time she got home, she’d forgotten her dread.

From then on, if she was feeling morose, he would dance before her or rest on her shoulder. His simple companionship was enough to cheer her when a door slammed or a stony silence reigned or Ben asked her, yet again, if Mum and Dad were getting divorced.

Her current fish, Topaz, was a sparkling aquamarine crowntail. Whenever she approached his tank, Fernando was there as well. He took instant offence, flaring fins and gill flaps at his blue-green cousin in a classic display of territorial aggression. Bettas couldn’t abide each other, but Topaz took no notice. Like everyone except Marcie, he didn’t know Fernando was there.

Marlin appeared shortly after another row. As Marcie arrived home from school one day, Fernando began flaring at some unseen foe. His entire body quivered, his gills open like a mane and his fins to full expansion. He paraded angrily before her as she let herself in.

“ – not YOU. No, you’re NEVER wrong!” Dad’s yell greeted her.

“So says Mr Bloody Perfect. You are unbelievable, you know that?!”

Not again. Marcie fought the urge to turn back through the door and leave. If she’d been an only child, she wouldn’t have thought twice. But how long had Ben and Emily been listening to this screaming match?

She slammed the front door, announcing her unhappy return, and ran upstairs to find them in Ben’s room, upset and frightened. Emily flung her arms around Marcie.

“You’re home!”

“Yeah. It’s okay, Em.”

Fernando settled on her shoulder. For the first time, his tiny comfort couldn’t overcome Marcie’s anxiety. She fought tears as her little sister clung to her. Emily and Ben needed her to be the strong one.

A new fish swam into view and her breath caught in her chest. His silver-blue body was framed in a halo of golden fins and he gleamed with pearlescence. He swam up to her face, sending her cross-eyed in wonder. Marlin… the betta before Fernando, and the most gregarious of them all. Her sorrow dampened as though his appearance had doused it in water. She smiled.

“What?” Ben asked in a sullen voice. He saw nothing to smile about while their parents cursed and threw things below.

“Nothing. Come on, who wants a story?” She chose The Paper Bag Princess – Emily’s favourite – and beckoned them into a safe den of blankets.

#

Things were quiet for a while after Marlin showed up. It was the tense silence of two adults refusing to acknowledge one another, but at least it brought a sort of peace. Dad was sleeping on the sofa bed, but Marcie thought maybe that was a good thing. Perhaps time apart would remind them they still loved each other really.

Ritz debuted during science class one afternoon, appearing from nowhere and circling Marcie cautiously. Her very first fish, his bright blue colour was offset by red ventral fins and his dark head with its blue-smudged nose. Fernando and Marlin swam lazily about him. Marcie had to assume they didn’t see each other. No self-respecting betta would tolerate another in such close proximity.

She tried to concentrate on her lesson despite the distraction. It was ten minutes before final bell when they started flaring.

Something was wrong. Around Marcie, fellow pupils copied diagrams from the board. The classroom was calm. The corridor outside was calm. Several minutes passed, and school remained studious and peaceful.

Marcie’s tension only grew. The bettas continued flaring silently, shaking their manes and strutting their enlarged fins. Fernando had only ever flared for a reason, be it Topaz or her parents’ rows. Had Ritz appeared for this spectacle?

When the bell rang, Ritz was flaring at her, as if to push her into action. She shouldered her bag, bade her friends a distracted goodbye, and began her walk home. The fish remained agitated but ceased trying to get her attention, which only worried her more. Something was wrong at home.

Mum was already there. She greeted Marcie by shoving a piece of paper into her hand.

“Do you know anything about this?” she asked.

The three fish were flaring again – Fernando at Mum, Ritz and Marlin at the slip of paper. Marcie looked at it. Her heart was thumping.

I’m leaving and I’m not coming back, the pencil-written note read in Ben’s scruffy writing. Don’t bother looking for me. I can take care of myself. –Ben

“It was taped to his bedroom door,” Mum said. “I phoned the school. They said he didn’t show up today.” Her voice wavered. “Did you know about this, Marcie? Did you?!”

“No! No, Mum, of course I didn’t. You think I’d have let him run away?”

“I don’t know. You two tell each other everything, don’t you?”

Marcie was hurt by the accusation in her mother’s tone, but knew it stemmed from guilt. If she and Dad hadn’t been making life so miserable, Ben would have no reason to run away. Marcie almost said this aloud, but bit her tongue. It wouldn’t help. Marlin looked at her from the corner of his eye, as if warning her to keep her mouth shut.

“I’ve phoned your dad. He’s leaving work early.” She’d also phoned Ben’s friends’ mums and none of them had seen him. They’d promised to call if he turned up, but Marcie knew him better than that. If he didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t be.

“I’ve got to pick Emily up from ballet. Stay here, and phone me the moment he comes in. I won’t be long.” She gave Marcie a fierce hug and kissed the top of her head. Then she grabbed her keys and left.

Marcie looked around the deserted kitchen, feeling stranded and swamped. Sometimes she felt like she was the only one keeping things together. Like everyone else was at breaking point and she had to stay strong on their behalf. Tears threatened to well up and she knew if she let them, she would cry herself to exhaustion.

The fish were all looking at her, flicking their tails and nipping at the air as if mouthing silent words of comfort. Red-purple, silver-gold, and brightest blue, the light sparkled on their scales and she smiled despite everything. When the orange betta swam into view, she wasn’t even surprised. She’d been expecting him.

“Enri!” She offered him the tip of her finger and he peered at it, swimming around her knuckle to examine it in detail. Enri had been Ben’s favourite betta. He used to come and sit in Marcie’s room and talk to the red-orange fish.

“Where’s Ben?” she said to him, not really expecting an answer. But all four fish perked up. Enri began to swim towards the back door. Ritz and Fernando turned in the same direction. Only Marlin kept looking at her, almost as though asking if she really wanted to know.

Could they show her where Ben was? It was a daft notion, but surely no crazier than having four ghost fish swimming about her head. Maybe they could actually help. She knew she was supposed to stay put, but found she didn’t care. Finding Ben was more important than waiting for him. She knew he wouldn’t come home, anyway. Not until he’d stayed away long enough to make a point.

When she got outside, the bettas milled about aimlessly. She tried asking them to find Ben, but they just looked at her and fluttered their fins. Disappointed, she berated herself for expecting anything more. They were fish, after all. Not trained sniffer dogs.

She turned to go back indoors and then stopped. She’d been facing the woods behind the house. She abruptly realised where to find Ben.

Five minutes later, she’d bypassed the tangled undergrowth and found the secret path they’d always used. Marcie hadn’t been here in a while, but the cave fort couldn’t have changed much. She and Ben had discovered it years ago and had sworn to keep it a secret. Mum and Dad would have hated them exploring a cave on their own, even though it wasn’t much more than an overhanging rock face.

She found it again easily, despite its camouflage of rhododendrons and birch saplings. She pushed through the bushes. Four bettas swam with her between the branches. And there was the entrance to the old fort. The darkness beyond the lip of rock had never seemed threatening, and felt as welcoming now as it ever had. Secrecy. Safety. An adventurous place to call their own.

“Ben?” she called softly.

For a moment, there was silence. Then his face peeped out from the shadows. He hunched over to look out from beneath the rock and sighed visibly.

“You found me.”

“Well, yeah. This is our place, remember? You can’t have expected me to forget about it.”

“Did you tell anyone?”

“No. No one even knows I came looking for you.”

He relaxed at that. “I’m not coming back. You can’t tell them where I am.”

She could, of course. But she wouldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

“I won’t. I just wanted to see if you were here, and if you’re okay.”

He stepped back to invite her inside. She ducked under the rock face and breathed in the damp, musty air and the memories of a hundred childhood adventures. Ben had come prepared. His sleeping bag was laid out against the back wall of the cave, and he’d cleared a patch of leaves and detritus all around it. He had Dad’s battery-powered lamp, two pillows, a stack of comics, and three books. He’d also raided the kitchen cupboards and pilfered a box of Cheerios, three packets of crisps, four Penguin bars and a banana. He’d filled a two-litre bottle with water and Marcie could see spare clothes poking out of his rucksack.

She sat next to him on the sleeping bag. Enri swam up to Ben’s face in greeting.

“You’re planning on staying a while, then,” Marcie said.

“I like it here. It’s quiet. I’ve got everything I need. And I don’t have to listen to any more of their yelling.”

“Mum’s really worried, you know.”

“Maybe she and Dad will stop hating each other, then.”

Marcie sighed. “They don’t hate each other.”

“Yeah, they do. They’ve said it enough times when they’re fighting.”

“You told Emily the same thing last week when she wrecked your Lego space ship. But you don’t really hate her.”

Ben was silent for a moment. “That’s not the same. They’re parents. They aren’t supposed to say stuff like that.”

No, they aren’t, Marcie thought.

“So you’re going to stay here till they’re friends again?”

He didn’t answer that. “I just want everything to go back to normal. I want our family back to normal. I’m sick of all this crap.”

“So am I, Ben. But we have to stick together. You, me, and Em.”

“I’m not coming home.” He folded his arms to prove it.

“Okay. I won’t tell on you. But you can’t stay out here forever.”

She got up to leave. “Mum and Emily will be home any minute. And Dad’s coming back early because they’re worried about you. If you’re still here tomorrow, I’ll come and see you. But, Ben?”

“Yeah?”

“If you get scared or cold tonight, please come back.”

He picked up a comic book and stuck his nose in it.

#

Marcie was halfway back to the house when she realised one of the fish was missing. She turned in a circle, trying to see if he was hiding behind her head, but Enri wasn’t there. She glanced back towards the cave. He must have stayed with Ben. She smiled and carried on home with a lighter step, glad to know her brother wasn’t alone.

#

Mum was angry with her for leaving.

“I couldn’t just stay put – I had to try and find him!” she protested.

“I want to know where you are at all times!”

The anxiety in her mother’s voice told Marcie it was fear of her disappearing too that had Mum so worked up. “I’m sorry. I’m worried too.”

Dad walked in the front door, tension taut as a tightrope across his face. “Is he home yet?”

“No,” Mum said in a clenched voice. She was about to cry. Marcie was so tired of seeing her cry. For a moment, she was furious with Ben. She might have revealed him then. But Dad crossed the hallway and drew Mum into a firm hug.

“We’ll find him. I’m sure he’s fine. We’ll find him,” he said in a rough whisper.

They clung to each other, mutual love for their son overcoming the barriers they’d built in recent months. Marcie put her arm around Emily, who had inched closer to her big sister. They watched their parents caring for each other for the first time in forever, and Marcie’s anger at Ben dissipated. Could his ten-year-old’s protest remind their parents what they were supposed to feel for each other?

It seemed to. That evening, Mum and Dad cooperated and communicated as they hadn’t in weeks. They phoned everyone they could think of, alerted the police, and took turns to drive around looking for Ben. They were fraught and upset, but for once it wasn’t at each other. Despite their frantic anxiety, Marcie couldn’t help feeling glad at the change in their attitude towards one another.

Of course, Emily was frightened too. While Mum made phone calls and Dad scoured the neighbourhood, Marcie sat upstairs with Emily and read her stories. Emily insisted they sit on Ben’s bed, as always. Marcie longed to tell her that their brother was safe and hiding, but she didn’t dare. Emmy couldn’t keep secrets to save her life.

The bettas swam around them calmly, occasionally resting on Marcie’s shoulder or the bunched top of her knees. Marcie wished Emily could see them. She’d be mesmerised and it would take her mind off Ben’s disappearance.

Emily slept in Marcie’s room that night, while Fernando, Ritz and Marlin flared impotently at Topaz. Ben didn’t come home, but Marcie knew he wouldn’t until he was ready.

#

Something tickled her nose. She brushed it away, still half asleep. An insistent jab jolted her from her doze and she attempted to focus, cross-eyed, on whatever was moving about in front of her face.

Enri. The dawn light shone diffuse orange through his expanded fins.

Marcie blinked herself awake and sat up on one elbow. Enri was flaring back and forth across her vision, a terracotta blur of urgency. The other bettas seemed restless too, but Enri’s alarm was palpable.

“Ben,” Marcie gasped, throwing aside her covers. She got up, pulled on shoes and threw a jumper over her pyjamas, trying all the while not to awaken Emily who remained soundly asleep on the floor.

Should she wake her parents? And tell them… what? That one of her dead fish was trying to alert her to some danger to Ben, who she had known all along was hiding in the woods?

She could imagine how well that conversation would go down at 5.30 am. She ran for the back door instead. But Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of tea steaming beside him.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” he asked, startling her.

Marcie’s heart sank as she turned back to him. “Um… morning, Dad. I just wanted some fresh air.”

“It’s a little early for a walk, isn’t it?”

“I was only going in the garden.” She indicated her pyjama bottoms. Enri began his agitated pacing again as she stood still.

“I’ll join you, then.” He stood up, tea in hand.

Marcie was caught, unable to confess the truth yet rooted to the spot by it. She could see Dad hadn’t slept. He was still wearing his clothes from the day before. His eyes were bloodshot and his face looked drawn and grey.

Enri was flaring to twice his size, so close she could barely make out his features. The other three fish were picking up the tension now, parading their own displays around her. She had to go. Something was wrong. But just maybe she couldn’t handle it on her own. Maybe her dad deserved a break. As she looked into his harrowed face, Ben’s behaviour suddenly seemed selfish and unfair. She’d said she wouldn’t tell, but that was before. Before Enri’s panic.

She looked at the floor. “I know where Ben is, and I think he’s in trouble.”

“What?” Dad almost dropped his mug.

“I’ll show you. Just… don’t be angry. Please.”

He was beside the door already, pulling a jacket on. “Show me. Right now.”

They hurried across the lawn and into the woods. Marcie found the familiar path and led her dad along in silence. She hated to reveal their hideout. She hated to get herself and Ben in trouble. But her bettas had never been wrong. Her stomach twisted at thoughts of what might have befallen her brother.

They reached the cave and Marcie led the way through the concealing undergrowth.

“He’s in here,” she said as she ducked beneath the overhang.

But he wasn’t. His sleeping bag lay ruffled amidst crisp packets and comics, but Ben was absent. Dad relaxed at the evidence of Ben’s whereabouts, but Marcie’s anxiety only grew.

“Ben!” she called, running back into the woods. Enri was dancing about like a carnival performer, with Fernando, Ritz and Marlin his colourful troupe.

“Ben!” she cried again. Dad left the cave and lent his voice to hers; it carried much farther.

And then there was another voice, just over the ridge ahead.

“Here! I’m down here!”

Dad was ahead of Marcie, leaping tree trunks, heedless of scratching branches. He stumbled over the brow of the ridge and she got there in time to see him sliding down in a cascade of leaf mould, directly to where Ben lay huddled against a boulder. Ben reached arms up to his father, tears already falling, a frightened boy relieved to see his dad.

“I fell in the dark. I think I broke my ankle.”

“It’s all right. I’ve got you, mate. You’re all right.”

Dad picked up his son and hugged him tightly before carrying him back up the slope. He walked right past Marcie and didn’t say a word to her until they got home. Marcie followed, feeling the weight of his disappointment and watching the little orange fish who hovered about her father and brother all the way back.

#

Ben’s ankle turned out to be badly sprained, which he insisted on reminding everyone was worse than a break. He was grounded for two weeks, with no television or computer games for a month. Marcie bore the full brunt of her parents’ anger; they were too grateful that Ben was safe to be truly angry with him. But she should have known better, they kept telling her. She should have been looking out for her younger brother. She should have been the responsible one. She knew their anger was justified, but the accusations hurt. She did look out for Ben and Emily. All the time. Especially when Mum and Dad were too busy waging their stupid war against each other. She tried to keep it to herself, like always, but the day after Ben’s return, their disappointment still tangible, she came right out and said it. Just like that.

The conversation stopped in its tracks. Mum and Dad looked at each other, their clenched expressions speaking volumes.

“What are you talking about, Marcie?” Mum asked in a choked voice.

“Stop pretending you don’t know!” Marcie felt frustrated tears stinging her eyes. “You think it doesn’t affect us? You’re wrong! Why do you think Ben ran away in the first place?”

Marlin settled on her shoulder in moral support while Enri paced and Ritz and Fernando flared on her behalf. Her parents seemed at a loss for words, so she saved them the effort and left the room. She went to feed Topaz; her tears splashed into his tank. She’d better do a water change in case the salt upset him.

Later that evening, Mum and Dad called them all into the lounge and announced they were separating. Ben and Emily cried and had lots of anxious questions. “Maybe not forever,” Dad said as he hugged them, but Marcie knew better. She returned to her room and watched her four bright spirit fish displaying instinctive aggression to the oblivious Topaz. It was all posturing. They couldn’t get at him or each other. But placed together, they would fight to the death.

Some beings were better off apart.

Layer By Layer by Wendy Hammer

It’s Onion Night at Rusty’s Shed.

The event is never listed on the illuminated box that hawks the drink specials. Onion Night isn’t like Happy Hour or Friday Karaoke.

It’s not for everyone.

Onion Night always begins the same way. I pick a table in a dim pocket on the quiet side of the bar and place the onion in front of me. Tonight’s specimen is particularly handsome—a firm oblate spheroid with papery skin drawn into a tight topknot. I turn it so the produce sticker faces the room.

Rusty responds to this signal, as he always does, by ambling over to drop off a mason jar filled with a dirty martini and a cocktail spear loaded with olives. I salute with the glass and take a hearty swallow. “It won’t be a long wait tonight. I can feel it.”

He nods. Slow. Like he feels it too. “I’ll send ‘em right on over when they come, Miss Vidalia.” Rusty tickles the onion with a gnarled index finger all shiny from the lotion he slathers on to combat bar rot. He’s fighting a losing battle and I can see some telltale swelling by the cuticle of his thumb.

I need to volunteer to cut the lemons and limes for his next shift. My hands are already cracked and dry, thick with calluses. I never moisturize or fool with fancy manicures, and I keep my nails short and strong. They aren’t pretty, but they get the job done.

Rusty finds my first customer before I’ve had a chance to finish half my drink. I see the boy lean in to listen to the pitch and pretend not to notice when he sneaks a peek at me. I try to project serenity. I let my eyelids droop and pull the corners of my mouth up in a little half-smile. When he turns back to Rusty I suck in a quick mouthful of martini.

The boy nods to himself and shuffles over. “The old guy said you tell fortunes.” He thrusts out a hand clutching a crisp hundred.

I gently tug it out from between his fingertips. “He’s right. Sit. Please.”

The boy obeys. He blinks at the onion and then at me. A blush creeps up his neck and comes to rest on the plump apples of his cheeks. He looks too young to be in a bar.

I could talk to him about the mystical power of onions—their secret hearts and layers. I keep quiet instead.

“So do you, like, read cards or something?”

“Sure thing.” I always let the customer choose what form their reading will take because they’re all the same to me. I rummage around in my bag for the right bundle and make a show of unwrapping the deck from its parcel of indigo silk. I push the stack over. “Keep your concerns in mind while you shuffle the cards. Then make your cut.”

The cards slap and burr as he handles them. Words pour out of him at the same time. I pick up all sorts of useful details in the flood of trivialities. His name is William. He’s a diligent student, a small town boy—a soft touch who couldn’t dissemble if he tried. In short, he’s a cold reader’s dream.

I suppress a sigh. I’d hoped this one would be easy, but he’s sweet and in need of something more than a show. I adjust my strategy and skip the preliminaries. I’m guessing he’s not here about the past and his present is likely to be something he’s given a fair amount of attention to. He wants what he can’t touch on his own.

I flip the top card and don’t even bother to look at it. “This represents your future.” I draw out the sentence, trying for a tone somewhere in between the mysterious and maternal.

William stares at the image like a kid sizes up the candles on his birthday cake—like if he does everything right it will grant his dearest wish. It doesn’t work that way, but I can use the extra moment. His distraction gives me the time I need to do this right.

I ease my middle finger up to my mouth, find the edges of a chunk of hardened skin, and sink my teeth in. Power gathers. It knocks and punches at me, demanding entrance. I stiffen, finish the bite, and spit the strip of flesh into my hand. I close my fist around it to keep it safe.

The Opening is tiny, just enough to let me capture the answer to his unspoken question: codes, compilers, vectors, good. I say, “Don’t change your major. Stick to computer science. Take the graphics class and don’t stop gaming. It’ll pay off.”

William jerks back in his seat. His eyes widen. “The card told you all that?”

I nod and bring my index finger up to my mouth. The move will pass as nervous habit. I nibble off another piece of skin and crack the Opening wider. More power filters in. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I see a message lit on a monitor.

“This is tied to a girl, right? Olivia? You might want to check your email later. She won’t be in the picture after tonight.” I clear my throat before adding, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

William pales and stutters out a halfhearted thanks. He bumps the table and almost knocks over the chair as he shoots to his feet. The onion wobbles, but remains standing.

I stay still. It isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. Most genuine readings have a sting to them—the salty prickle of tears or a catch in the throat that adds a pungent edge to any hint of sweetness. They tend to linger.

I have a hard time shaking them off too. The energy I’ve summoned continues to pulse and my fingers twitch in response. There’s only one way to shut it down. I place both pieces of skin on my tongue and swallow them whole. The Opening slams shut and the tension eases.

Rusty can’t feel it the way I do. He just laughs and shakes his head as he watches the young man haul ass out the front door. He turns to me and calls, “Need a refill yet?”

I gulp down the rest of my martini and give Rusty the thumbs up. I’m ready for the next round.

#

Kandi shows up ten minutes later. She breezes right past Rusty and makes herself comfortable at my table. “I asked around about you. Doreen down at the Piggly Wiggly said you read her palm one night and that what you said come true for her. She got that raise.” Kandi pulls a roll of greasy twenties out from her cleavage and flips it on the table. The money almost unfolds, expands like it’s fighting for breath, and goes still.

“I’d like you to do it for me.” Her voice is loud, but quivers. “I need some answers.” A yellowing green bruise surrounds her right eye.

I push the wad of cash back over to her. “I was thinking about knocking off a little early, and…”

Kandi glances at my arms.

They’re covered tonight, but I know she’s thinking about what’s underneath the fabric.

She saw my scars last week when I was in her lane at the grocery store. My sleeves were too loose and they slipped back when I hefted a gallon of milk up onto the conveyor belt. A ragged two inches of fresh pink snaked below a shallow arch of scabbed half-moons on my exposed forearm. Someday the set will fade and blend into the larger crisscross of pale thin lines, but at that moment it had still been tender.

Kandi had drawn in a sharp breath. Our eyes had met.

Her look had said: I know you. I know this. She’d reached out to pat my hand and her eyes had filled. Sister.

Kandi is giving me the same look now, and just like before, I know it comes from kindness. It’s still mistaken.

“Please?” Her request is barely a whisper. She reaches out and rubs the onion. It’s no Buddha statue and I’ve never known it to bring much luck, but who am I to judge?

I take the money.

“Rest your palm face up on the table. Sit tight and take deep, even breaths. Close your eyes. Relax.” I force my tone into something low and soothing.

As I murmur, I pull my sandaled foot up to rest on my knee. My fingertips run over the misshapen nail on my baby toe and find the notch worn in its center. I get a grip on the outer corner of it and pull. The nail has been weakened by years of this routine, yet it isn’t about to give up without a fuss. I wiggle it—rock it from side to side. The pain is sharp at first and grows worse.

I grit my teeth against it. I want to stop, but I need what it will bring.

This Opening is going to be deeper and wider—the amount of power it will admit into this world, much stronger. I can feel it battering against me.

I force myself to pull slowly. Yanking too hard can tear the nail. I give it a slight twist, hoping to draw it out like a cork from a bottle.

The pain screams up the length of my toe before the root loses its grip. A rush of endorphins floods through me as I draw the nail out of its bed. The little digit feels hot and stretched thin.

My fingers are slicked with blood and I can feel more trickling down my foot from the pool the extraction left behind. The hurt will catch up to me later. For now I don’t care. The throbbing recedes as the power streams out of the wound. I concentrate and channel it all into the nail I’ve got cradled in my fist. The force thrashes, yet I prevail.

“It’s time.”

I use my clean hand to trace the lines on Kandi’s palm. The future is tangled and layered. Following its twists and changes is never easy. I couldn’t do it on my own. I need the energy to lead the way, to give me a steady look at what’s ahead.

Sometimes I don’t like what I see. Sometimes the truth cuts deep.

I drop all that heart-, fate-, love-line nonsense. I need to give it to her straight. “Levi will kill you within the month if you don’t get away,” I say.

Kandi shakes her head, grabs my hand, and squeezes hard. Then she laughs. It’s an ugly laughter, the kind that sounds like a hacking cough. The sort that’ll bring up blackness as deep and bitter as tar from a smoker’s lung.

I hold on to her hand and try to ignore the images still flickering around it.

“Well, shit,” Kandi says.

We sit quiet for a minute or two before I let go and nudge my mason jar over.

Kandi drinks, shivers, and hands it back. “I guess I had a feeling it’d be something like that. Guess I knowed it for a long time. Only I wouldn’t let myself hear it until now.” She sags in her chair. “I can’t just pick up and go though, right? Where…”

The power flares and I shudder with the force of it. I cover up by reaching in my pocket to pull out a card. I keep a little stash and try not to think about how many times I’ve had a need for it. “Call this number. These folks can help get you out. Get you set up elsewhere. You won’t be alone.” I press it into her palm. “Do it. Tonight.”

Kandi lifts her chin. Sets her shoulders. She stands and taps the onion’s topknot with the edge of the card. When she walks out of the bar, her back is stiff and her head’s held high.

I let the power ride a moment longer, to see. Her future hangs on a thread, thin as an onion’s skin.

I bring my stained hand up to my mouth. I lick off the residue of blood and place the nail I’ve been palming onto my tongue. I taste more copper as I chew. The power begins to break down as the nail softens and loses its integrity. I know I’ve swallowed a moment too soon when I feel another surge of power. It pounds at both my esophagus and the clot on my toe as it tries to escape.

I clamp down and force it back under control. One last bit of information squeezes through—a glowing map with a little teardrop bearing the letters KJ on it. I’m not sure what it means and don’t have time to dwell on it before Rusty sends over the next customers.

I don’t waste any skin on them. I gaze into a crystal ball, cast some runes, and pretend to consult a spirit guide. I joke about finding lost car keys—the usual. None of the customers notice how I fish for responses, how I fold their answers into mazes that lead to sugary dead ends. I know I’m not cheating anyone. I give comfort, flattery, and support—whatever it takes—and everyone gets their money’s worth in the theater of it all.

Some people want drama, not truth.

All they need to know of onions can be found in cookbooks and vegetable bins.

#

By the end of the night, I’m feeling better than good. Even after I tip Rusty out, I’ve got nearly seven hundred dollars in my pocket. It means I can make rent this month and maybe even take an extra day or two off. He keeps after me to do it and it isn’t bad advice. I could use a break.

My toe starts to throb as I walk out the door. The pain reminds me I need to bandage it soon or risk infection. I can’t afford that kind of weakness. I can’t let Rusty down either. He needs me.

I left him polishing the glasses. Said I wanted to stretch my legs in the night air. It wasn’t a lie. I love the cool of it and how the black sky brightens to deep blue around the lot’s sole street lantern. It’s peaceful once everyone’s gone but the two of us.

Gravel crunches behind me.

I turn and see Kandi. Her face has been pulped and her right arm is bent at an unnatural angle. The only reason she’s probably still standing is that she’s being held upright by a hand clenched at the back of her neck.

I recognize the man from my vision. Levi. He’s lean and roped with muscle. His skin is yellowed and pocked, shriveled up like a cob of picked over field corn.

He fixes me with a stare and shoves Kandi forward. She goes down hard and falls still.

“You the stupid whore that tried to fill my woman’s head with poison?”

I look down to see she’s breathing. It’s a good sign, worthy of hope.

“You look at me when I’m talking. She come see you?” He smirks. “Don’t lie. I got an app that tells me every move she makes. Phone’s smarter than that dumb bitch will ever be.” He spits and it lands by Kandi’s feet. “Doreen told me about Onion Night. Only time that one’s quiet is when her mouth’s full.” He jerks his hand up and down and thrusts his hips forward. “Know what I mean?”

I scuttle backwards and reach into my pocket. My fingers brush plastic and I grab hold.

“You need a lesson.” His voice is brittle and chill.

My feet freeze in the gravel. I panic and brandish my vegetable peeler.

He barks a laugh. “What do you think you’re gonna do with that? Cook me dinner?” His grin is toothy and wide with contempt. His gaze crawls over my body.

I hold out my arm, place the razor sharp blade in the crook of my elbow, and slice off a long ribbon of skin. It hangs in a loose spiral at a point just above my wrist. I scream as pain and blood and power surge from my body.

I see Levi’s plans for us.

Fistropebloodditch.

Coldcoldground.

He stares at my arm and the blood as it streams from the cut. His mouth falls open and hangs slack. He doesn’t move.

I fear his shock won’t last much longer. I take another swipe and watch another shaving of skin curl from my arm. The pain is distant for now.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

I sever the pieces from where they dangle and throw them at Levi. The strips hit his chest and cling there. He squeals. Spots of red bloom and spread in the fabric of his t-shirt.

Rusty asked me once what would happen if I didn’t close the Opening—if I didn’t channel the power or eat the flesh.

This is the answer.

The power goes wild and grabs Levi. It knocks him to the ground and strips him down layer by layer. Threads fly as his clothing unravels. He thrashes and screams, but there’s nothing for him to get a grip on. There’s no escape. He’s peeled down to hairless pink, then to red as the power continues to feed.

I jump when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t notice Rusty’s approach. He wraps a bar towel around my arm and keeps pressure on it. We stand and watch.

After a while Levi stops screaming.

When it’s over the only things left are the two curls of my skin, all shrunken and dull red like old apple peel. They still hum with power.

Rusty checks on Kandi as I pick up the pieces. I shake the grit off before shoving them in my mouth. I refuse to gag and force myself to chew instead. My jaws work and my teeth grind as I break the tissue down. The repetitive motion soothes away all that fear and anger, settling it into something I can’t quite get a grip on yet. It’s all tied up in knots.

I swallow the last of the flesh. The power doesn’t fight at all this time. It’s sated and sleepy.

I stand, bathed in the light from the lot’s lamp and the smear of the moon above as I contemplate the situation. I try to bundle up the pain and shove it into a far corner. It’s going to be with me for a while and I’m in no hurry for it to settle in and get comfortable.

Rusty cradles Kandi, sings a sweet little song just under his breath. She awakens and looks up. Her eyes look like they’re focusing and she seems relatively alert, but I figure she’s too far into shock to really know what’s going on.

The crying will come later.

I give him a nod and he places the call to 911.

I don’t think she’ll remember much about what happened out here in the lot and I see better days ahead for her. I’m glad she’ll get to claim them.

This time there’s no pressing need to ask the onion to tell me what’s what—the picture’s pretty plain to see. Then again, I’ve learned to never turn away from what’s been paid for. It’s for the best and I know it’s true.

I look into our future and nod at what I see. My eyes brim and I blink away the salt. It’s a good hurt, this knowing—got a power all its own.

It says: little by little, layer by layer, we’ll all heal.

The Singing Tree by Rati Mehrotra

The singing tree blooms once a year in May, for about forty seconds. We’d been trying – and failing – to catch it in the act for as long as I could remember. This year was no exception. We piled into the wagon and drove away from Ennismore, Dad singing loud, tuneless road songs that made me want to close my ears.

Mum twisted back and gave a big, fake, isn’t-this-fun smile. “We’re going to hear it bloom this year. I can feel it in my bones. I can smell it in the wind.”

I rolled my eyes. She said that every year. And every year we came back disappointed, while news channels gushed with breathless reports of lives transformed and wounds healed. All malarkey, as far as I was concerned.

Ria, my older sister, snorted. “Why can’t we do normal things on the long weekend like other families?” she said. “Go to the beach, stay in a hotel for a couple of nights. Something I can actually tell my friends about.”

Dad stopped singing and Mum’s mouth pressed in a thin line. “Hotels are dirty,” she said.

“And they cost money,” I added under my breath.

Mum frowned. “What did you say, Kitty?”

“The name’s Kitari,” I snapped. I hated it when she called me Kitty.

“I should know,” said Mum. “I named you, didn’t I?”

To my relief, June and Jade began to fight. I could always count on the twins to divert Mum’s attention. I looked out of the window, feeling the breeze on my face, smelling the bright freshness of spring. It was a sunny day, just perfect for being out, and if I hadn’t been feeling so rotten I would have appreciated it a bit more. All I could think was – here I was, stuck with my family on a stupid road trip, while Tanya and Mikkel made out on Cobourg beach. Their families had decided to go together this year, and Tanya had made no secret of her delight. Poor Mikkel, he didn’t stand a chance against her. Neither did I, with my flat chest and mousy hair.

Perhaps it was better this way. At least I didn’t have to see him kissing her. I sniffed and gulped back a sob.

“Getting a cold, ‘Kitty’?” said Ria.

I turned away from her. Rural Ontario whipped by in a blur of green fields dotted with horses. I concentrated on the scenery until I’d stopped wishing Ria deaf, dumb and mute. I had to remind myself that despite the fact that she was sixteen, two years older than me and way more beautiful, she had it harder than I did. Last summer she’d tried to kill herself.

Of course, Mum and Dad didn’t admit it, not even to themselves. They talked about Ria’s ‘accident’ as if the pills had walked up to the breakfast table and jumped into her cereal when she wasn’t looking. Her ‘troubles’ were whispered about as if they were something apart from her – the lank-haired boyfriend who turned out to be a small-time drug dealer, the eating sickness that turned her into a rake-thin shadow of her former self.

Ria had been clean for months now. She went to a counsellor every fortnight and I even saw her eat real food sometimes. But she’d dropped out of school and become all moody and withdrawn – not a bit like the sister I used to have. The Ria I’d known used to whisper secrets to me at night, play silly games with the twins, and bake cookies with Mum in the kitchen. Not mope around with a hangdog look on her face and a chip the size of a brick on her shoulder.

At least she was still alive.

Four hours and three restroom stops later, Dad brought the wagon to a stuttering halt. I jerked out of my daydream, annoyed – Mikkel had just begun to kiss me on the lips – and then I saw the jam of cars ahead.

“What the hell?” muttered Dad, sticking his head out of the window. “What’s going on?”

A trooper shouted instructions, diverting traffic away to the right. He neared our wagon and said, “Please keep moving, sir. You’re holding up the cars behind.”

“But we need to go straight ahead,” said Dad. “We’re camping at Singing Tree Park tonight. I have a permit.”

“Singing Tree Park has been closed,” said the trooper. “Someone vandalized the tree and it’s been fenced off for the season.”

“Who on earth would do that?” exclaimed Mum.

The trooper shrugged. “Some kids. They’re in custody, but the damage is done. Sir, I have to ask you to move now.”

Dad started the wagon. We sat in stunned silence as he turned right, following the line of cars leaving the area. People milled about the police roadblock, taking photographs of themselves.

“Bloody tourists with their stupid selfies,” said Dad.

“Language dear,” said Mum automatically. “Oh, this is bad news. They may never re-open Singing Tree Park. And there isn’t another singing tree in the entire province.”

“Thank God,” said Ria, rolling her shoulders with exaggerated relief. “Maybe we can go home and have a normal weekend now.”

Without any warning, Dad twisted the wheel of the wagon and we lurched onto a narrow county road to the left of the highway.

“Don’t be too sure of that,” I muttered. Ria gripped the sides of her seat and shot me a glare.

“This isn’t the way home, Dean,” said Mum.

“Want to show you something,” said Dad, and that was all we could get out of him. We bumped along the pot-holed road, teeth on edge. The twins fought and Ria and I bickered. Dad took another turn and the road degenerated into little more than a dirt track, cutting through dark green wood.

At last, when I was just about ready to scream from boredom, Dad brought the wagon to a halt. We got out, struck speechless by the sheer nowhereness of it all. Dirt track, tall trees that gathered thickly overhead, and the loud chittering of insects. That was it. Dad had really exceeded himself this time.

Ria, of course, was the first to find her voice. “Great. Just great. I need a restroom.”

Dad waved his hands expansively. “Left side or right? Take your pick.”

“Why are we here?” said Ria. Her voice had gone quiet and dangerous.

Dad didn’t seem to notice. “Want to show you something,” he repeated, and he grinned like he had something amazing hidden up his sleeve that would make us jump up and clap our hands. And maybe about ten years ago he would have, but he was old now, or maybe we were too old to fall for his tricks. Even June and Jade looked down and scuffed their shoes, like they were embarrassed for him.

“You’re crazy, you know that?” said Ria.

“Ria,” said Mum, “watch your mouth.”

Ria turned on her. “And you just encourage him in his craziness. Every year it’s the same. Like we’re stuck doing the same thing, over and over. Just because he heard it once half a century ago, he forces us to go on these stupid, pointless trips.”

“Ria…” began Dad.

“No!” she shouted. “Don’t say anything. If you tell us one more time what it was like, I swear I’ll scream. I don’t care what it was like for you, Dad. It’s not going to happen for me.” She began to cry, big hiccupping sobs racking her chest. Mum went up to her, and I drew the twins aside for a game of snap on the grass beside the path.

When the twins had won – they always cheated – I left them to squabble over the deck of cards and got up. Mum and Ria were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they’d gone to pee behind the trees. Dad stood by himself near the wagon, a lost look on his face. I felt sorry for him, even though it was his fault that Ria was having a meltdown.

I walked up to him. “Dad,” I said, “if we start now, we can be home before nightfall.”

Dad gave me a puzzled frown, like he couldn’t place who I was or what I was saying. I repeated myself, and he said, “I thought we could camp here tonight. There’s something special here, something I spotted a couple of years ago when I took the wrong turn for Roseneath. It was small then, but perhaps it’s big enough now.”

What’s big enough?” I said.

“The singing tree,” said Dad.

I stared at him. ‘Dad,” I said, with as much patience as I could muster, “you must have seen something else. It can’t be a singing tree. The Forest Department would have mapped it.”

“Not everything can be mapped,” said Dad. “How can you track the path of a song?”

It’s a fallacy that the singing tree reproduces through its songs. A single blossom from a dying tree carries the seed of the daughter tree. It’s why there are so few left in Canada – or in the rest of the world, for that matter. But I didn’t have the heart to correct him.

Mum and Ria emerged from the trees. My sister’s eyes were red, but at least she wasn’t crying or shouting any more.

“Dean, we’re going home,” said Mum in her no-nonsense, brook-no-argument voice.

I cleared my throat. “Dad says there’s a singing tree here.”

There was silence for a few moments while Ria and Mum digested this.

The twins, who had snuck up behind me, shouted in unison, “We want to see it!”

Dad beamed and stood up straighter. “Follow me. It’s a short walk from here.”

He strode down the path before Mum could stop him, the twins skipping behind. I ran after the twins – they needed someone sensible in case something happened – and Ria came after me, so of course Mum followed too.

Ria caught up with me as we entered the woods behind Dad. “Another wild goose chase,” she said, but I could see that she was curious, like me.

I pushed ahead through the undergrowth, cursing whenever something scratched my face or poked my skin, which was often. Ria laughed once when she fell– a high, crazy sound that made me wonder if she was taking her meds. Mum grunted with the effort of keeping up with us, calling out now and then to make sure we were all there.

A little later, I bumped into Dad. He stood at the edge of a small clearing, June and Jade on either side of him, clutching his arms.

In the middle of the clearing stood a small, black-limbed tree with silver-green leaves that caught the sun. A singing tree. I swear in that moment I forgave Dad everything. I even forgot about Mikkel.

“I don’t know if it’s old enough to sing,” said Dad. “But I thought I’d show you anyway.”

Mum stumbled up behind us and gasped. “It’s beautiful, Dean” she said, her voice all quivery.

“Our very own Queen of the Forest,” said Ria. “We could chop it down for firewood and no one would know.”

Dad rounded on her, eyes blazing, fists clenched. The twins shrank back and even Mum was paralysed. For a moment I thought he would hit Ria, and I prayed, don’t Dad, don’t. Can’t you see she doesn’t mean it?

Dad dropped his fists and said, “But you’d know. You’d go through life knowing you killed something beautiful. The way you tried to kill your own beautiful self.”

I closed my eyes, feeling sick. Ria made a gulping noise. Mum said faintly, “Dean, don’t…”

Dad ignored her. “What’s beautiful must be loved and cherished, the way we love and cherish you,” he said. “I’d give up my limbs to get back my girl, to take away her hurt. But I can’t. I can only tell her that I love her and I’m sorry I wasn’t there when she was hurting, when she was scared. And if there’s any way on earth to make up for it, by God, I will.”

Ria’s face crumpled. To my amazement, Dad held his arms out to her, and she stumbled into them.

We camped that night under the moonlight-dappled branches of the singing tree. It didn’t sing, after all. Like Dad said, it was still quite young. But we played an old recording of a song from Singing Tree Park. Maybe it wasn’t the same as actually being in the presence of a blossoming tree, but it was close.

The song was like nothing I can describe. I could say it was like spring: the trilling of birds and the pattering of rain and the smell of new life. But it was also like the crunch of autumn leaves and the feel of cool wind and damp grass underfoot. And that is also not true, for was it not something else entirely, something alien that I cannot put words to?

For as the song reached its crescendo, I saw, shining in the dark, the invisible cords that connected us. Silver cables ran like nerves between myself and the twins, the twins and my parents, my sister and the tree. The cords stretching from my sister to the rest of us were thin and frayed, almost completely unraveled. She was hanging on to us by mere threads. But the song was healing them, twisting the strands into thick cable, binding her back to us, until we were surrounded by a great silver web of light, so bright it hurt the eyes.

The recording finished and the light faded away. I found myself crying, and then Ria was crying too, and hugging me so hard I thought my ribs would break. I could no longer see the silver cords, but I knew they were there, just like the song was still there, echoing in the chambers of my heart.

All that night I lay awake, listening to the hum of wind and the whisper of leaves, and I wondered where it had come from, this lone tree that stood sentinel over us. How it had escaped the tourist hordes and the park officials.

I like to think of it as our tree, the tree that gave me back my sister. I like to think that no one else will ever find it, that it grows only for us, in those spaces where we overlap and belong to each other, and love and hate each other.

Just before dawn, I fell into a light sleep and then I dreamed that I ran through the forest, hand-in-hand with Ria. Every tree was a singing tree, and they were all in bloom.

A Thing in All My Things by Samuel Marzioli

There’s a thing in my closet, crouched in the dark, black lines accentuating every crease and fold of its shriveled face. A cherry-red eye peeks at me. The slash of a frown hints at untold regrets even as its croaking voice spills into the silence.

You should have died in your sleep and saved me all the trouble, it says.

After taking a moment to compose myself, I slip out of bed and hurry past that raw, corrupted space. In the gloom of the living room, I open the blinds and let the day pour through the slats in glowing strips of light. Breakfast consists of three bowls of cereal and a handful of pills meant – among other things – to squash the thing for good. I unfold the newspaper and try to cloud my brain, stuff the gaps with distractions so that, for one slivered moment, I might forget what’s waiting in the other room.

Not that it does a lick of good. For three years it’s haunted my life and there’s no rhyme or reason for when or where it will manifest next. A week ago, it appeared hunkered beside me on the porcelain ledge of the bathtub, its eyes staring curses – but only visible through the chrome reflection of the overflow plate. A month ago, it hid beneath my pillow, its fingers worming out from the edges like heavy tongues lapping at the air. Before then, it was behind an air vent, scratching and sobbing inside the living room walls, and on and on, through more days and places than I care to remember.

I head to the bathroom and dawdle through my morning routine: brush my teeth, wash my face, scrub my skin in the shower so it shines the pink of old, healed bruises. But after toweling off, there’s no more time to waste. My feet drag across the carpet like dead weights, room to room, until the bedroom closet looms before me.

A chill digs through my skin as I reach into the infected recess of the closet. The thing flattens against the wall, like it’s pretending to be a shadow or a patch of mold. As if it thinks I can’t hear the sound of its spectral lungs pulling in the thought of air. Though I know it will not scratch or bite, it takes some time for me to steady my nerves, assemble my clothes and prepare for work.

#

There’s a thing in the espresso maker of my barista station. It fiddles with the inner workings, making the shots burn too hot or steep too thin. Its scalded fingers wiggle from the spouts, deep red filling the gossamer cracks in its broken, bloated skin.

We’re slammed at exactly 6 AM. The line of vehicles stretches across the parking lot, like the boxcars of two stalled freight trains. My co-workers scurry around – with a manic intensity that makes the Café Stop’s interior feel small as a tomb – all of them barking orders.

On my best days, I can knock out eighty drinks an hour. But my best days never come when the thing is around. Its blood sprinkles into the milk pitchers, and I have to dump them out in the sink to start again. Its spit dribbles down the espresso spouts, forcing me to remove the portafilters and wash them. It even reaches out from the water reservoir and whacks at finished drinks, upsetting their lids and spilling the contents across the counter.

My boss yells at me for the mess. “Damn it, Tom! If you can’t get your shit together, maybe you should find another place to hang your apron!” Like a parent scolding an unruly child. As if I hadn’t trained him the day he stepped through those doors.

I almost say as much, until the thing knocks against the espresso machine’s plastic interior. Its whispered taunts, hidden behind the screech of steaming milk, are as stark as any shouted voice: Can’t you do anything right? You’re useless. A waste of air.

It drains the fight from me. I nod, apologize and promise, “It won’t happen again.”

#

There’s a thing in my cigarette lighter. It wets the wire so it can’t spark and clogs the jet valve so the butane won’t release. Sometimes it sticks its head into the torch stream, infusing my cigarettes with the scent and taste of rotting flesh and burning hair.

My co-worker, Cara, slips out of the Café Stop entrance and heads for the dumpster cage where we’re forced to spend our smoke breaks. She stands aloof, snatches the cigarette from behind her ear and lights it up. She avoids making eye contact with me, same as everyone on any given day. Because I’m intense, they say, and they sometimes catch me talking to the thing even though only I can see and hear it.

“Hi,” I say, to lighten the mood. Because Cara’s one of the good ones – beautiful inside and out – no matter how shy or scared of me she is.

“Hey, Tom.” She pauses to take a drag. “Mike’s a real asshole for yelling at you like that.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Don’t let it get to you. He knows you’re a good worker and it’s not like he doesn’t have his off days too.”

“Maybe.”

“Any plans for after work?”

Now is the perfect time. I take a breath to calm the vicious beating of my heart, assembling the words I’ve rehearsed since the day she and I first met. “Actually, I was wondering if maybe you’d like to–”

But the world around me comes alive, spewing the thing’s vocalized disdain. Lardo, from the gray smoke leaking from Cara’s mouth.

“No.”

“No what, Tom?”

Fatty plumpkin, from the insects burrowed in the dumpster’s rotting food.

“Stop it.”

“Tom, I’m not doing anything.”

Chubby little bastard, from my own shadow wedged beneath my feet.

“Just go away, goddamn it!” I shout, swatting at the voices hording in, crawling all around me.

She runs for the café’s entrance before I can explain, and I’m left alone. Same as always.

It proves too much. Though I’ve managed to push the rage aside till now, the pressure builds, causing my inner parts to tear from all the strain. The thing can’t hurt me, I tell myself. But I know I’m wrong because it always does and nothing – not therapists, doctors, or even pills – can fix it or make it any better.

No more. Today’s the day it ends. After three years, the time has come to put the thing to rest. I flick my cigarette away and head inside, to finish my shift and make my plans for later.

#

When work is through, I fill a cup of espresso dregs and take it with me. Down on Main Street, I stop by the florist and buy a red rose and then drive along Old Sutter Road. Before stepping out of my car onto the sun-baked cemetery parking lot, I ask myself what the point is. But I know the answer all too well: because there’s a thing haunting my life and it will never, ever go away until I finally confront it.

The quarter mile walk to the plot is a winding, deserted path of grass and static trees, all hedged in by a gaudy chain-link fence. Heat bears down like a crack to hell has opened up above me. I find the proper row, skip a few graves over and I’m there.

There’s a thing in my mother’s coffin. It scratches at the inside of the lid, shouting curses reduced to babble by the six feet of dirt above it. Nevertheless, the emotions are clear, stuff I’ve heard so many times I know it all by rote. Utter disappointment. Hate. But mostly regret for the life and freedom ruined by my unexpected birth. She killed herself three years ago. She should be dead and gone and yet she returns as the thing in all my things, a malignant voice manifesting the poison words she fed me all my life.

But now I’ll say my own words, kept locked away because of fear, because of deep-seated self-contempt. Because it hurts too much to voice aloud, no matter how true they are.

“For thirty years, you were a terrible mother. A monster, a hateful, selfish thing. I never said it before because I loved you, but I can’t let you hurt me anymore. You’re dead and buried and that’s all you’re allowed to be.”

I lay the flower on her plot, a symbol of my enduring love. As for the rest of me, the greater part? I dump the cup of espresso dregs, as bitter and cold as was her constant disposition. It drips down her tombstone, trickling across the words, “Loving Mother, Died Too Soon,” etched into its face. Then I spit on the grass above the remains of what has always been her small, decaying heart.

#

There’s a thing in my head, inhabiting the darkest grooves and wrinkles of my brain. It tells me terrible, degrading lies – lies that poke and prod and tear and hurt – and sometimes I still believe them. But now, for the first time since my mother’s death, my memories are the only place it haunts.