Held within the tender palm
Of her sister, seldom seen
Did the brightest of them all
Feel the strength within her ween
Shudder, shiver, glow within
Shining bright against Autumn’s slow dance
The doe and the fawn found solace in last
Of warm days to come, and meadows to prance
A smile did cross Sister Summer at last
As meek Sister Autumn found strength to then stand
Her time had now come to lead the year’s cycle
The seasons together, to dance hand in hand
As Summer closed her eyes, so too did the sun
Its warm rays cooling as sky fled to night
Autumn turned away, but gave final glance
To the land stretched before her; a sister’s last light
Swirling in the quiet coast
A frozen giant slumbers deep
Curled around her waking host
Creation’s vessel rising steep
Whipped by storm and crashing waves
Seared with flowing earth of fire
The island covers nature’s grave
‘Neath molten rock, the forest’s pyre
Wind to cloud, these ashen skies
Cloak the ocean’s hidden gem
Spewing hot the landscape’s rise
And bringing forth new life again
This was never supposed to be a ghost story. My grandfather built this house with his own two hands, but I don’t think he ever meant to haunt it. He died peaceful in his sleep, the way everyone always says they want to go. Peaceful deaths aren’t supposed to make ghosts.
We all hear him in the creaking floorboards, we can feel the ridges of his fingertips in the faulty wiring. Nothing in this place is without his maker’s mark.
My grandmother has it the worst, though. She sees him lingering in every corner, but he’s gone before she can get a good look. They always slept in twin beds across the room from each other, like a TV couple from the fifties, and she keeps the bed made for him—dusting off the patchwork quilt every few days. Just in case.
Once, she tells me that she woke up to see him standing at the end of her bed. Watching over her along with the painted porcelain angels that line her bedside shelf like a row of holy soldiers.
“He looked good. Like the day we met,” She tells me. She lays her hand on mine and her skin looks like crumbled tissue paper stretched thin over her hollowed bones, “What I don’t understand is why he keeps leaving me here all alone.”
She sees other ghosts too, though none loom quite so large over my mother and I as my grandfather does. My grandmother tells me that her father came to visit one day, his legs finally healed from his accident in the coal mines. She asks my mother when her brother is going to visit again, since she keeps seeing him standing at the edge of her driveway working on a car that he had owned back in 1967. Her mind seems to run in a loop, so haunted by the phantoms that surround her that she becomes unsure of how each day bleeds into the next.
I start wondering if I too might start seeing ghosts one day, and I see the same fear sparking behind my mother’s eyes. We wonder if this haunting might be hereditary, as we watch my grandmother lose track of life and death before our eyes. Our fear is shaped like my grandfather’s silhouette, lingering in the corners of the house he built.
His wrists shackled together, burning his skin, Eli shuffled along, prodded forward by a Leo. He winced when the man pushed him a little too hard onto the platform, forcing him to his knees. Eli had been captured by one of the Cassiopeia, and of course without Tod, he’d been helpless to fight back. And if Tod wasn’t here now, he was done for.
He saw a pair of polished knee high boots appear in front of him, spurs flaming, sparking with electric energy. He looked up to see one of the Cassiopeia with the long sword they’d used for executions since the beginning of their realm. It wasn’t often that they performed public executions; the phenomenon had started quite recently, just after the Great War. The woman, Isolde, tipped his chin up with the sword to stare into his eyes. “Hm,” she said, and there was an odd smile on her face. “What a shame.”
She handed the sword to the executioner, the Leo behind him and Eli braced himself, when they were interrupted by more footsteps. Eli glanced out of the corner of his eye to see to his surprise, Tod and Sunny. Sunny? How had she gotten here?
The executioner spoke in a gruff voice: “No one else is allowed up here.”
Tod crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m ruling with Isolde, and this is my…assistant” – he gestured to Sunny – “so I think it’s perfectly fine. I help make the rules around here, right?”
Isolde’s mouth dropped open. “Just – just get on with it!” she snapped at the executioner.
But before he could, a bolt of light arced through the air, hitting the executioner squarely in the chest. He moaned and fell to the ground. Eli met eyes with one of the Cassiopeia, hand still raised. Immediately, some of the other Cassiopeia attacked her, beating her to the ground.
“What on Dross!” Isolde cursed, scrambling for the sword.
Just as she picked it up, Eli leaped to his feet, and joining hands with Tod, felt the familiar energy pulsing through him. But there was something wrong – Tod was weaker than he’d been before. Eli pushed past it and summoned all the strength he had. Isolde raised the sword, and Eli fired a wave of white energy, what looked like shards of broken stars, in her direction. She was blasted off her feet and fell dizzily to the ground.
She groaned in pain, and then tried to get to her feet, but she was hit again, what felt like flames attacking her face.
“No!” she screamed. The last thing she saw before she blacked out was her father’s face staring worriedly down at her, and his voice mixed with hers echoing in the distance.
When they reached the place of the execution, a wooden stage, right outside of the white and gold palace, Sunny’s mouth dropped. The palace sprawled so far Sunny had trouble seeing the end of it. Instead of gargoyles, there were golden statues of the Gemini peering over the ramparts. She looked up at the statues, then at the golden cupolas, then down at the darkened moat, a waterfall pouring into it.
The crowd was divided into the different groups, Tod told her: Gemini, Cassiopeia, Taurus, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Leo. And they all milled about, like lions in cages, shooting people from opposite groups nasty looks. As soon as they got there, Isolde went over to the other Cassiopeia, and Tod and Sunny stayed back, away from everyone else. He told her to keep her head down, not look at anyone.
“Aren’t there more groups than this?” she asked, and Tod shook his head.
“No, not all the horoscopes that you know have Setareh forms. Remember, humans named the horoscopes after us. Not the other way around.”
People were shouting and cheering and waving signs, one of which said, “Death to Tyranny.” Sunny frowned. If that person was really for Eli getting killed, she thought it was kind of strange and ironic, but whatever.
“Geez,” she said. “A lot of people sure hate Eli.”
“Are you surprised?” Tod scowled, looking at the crowd around them.
“I don’t know – ” She paused. “Like what happened with him? What happened with you guys? And why are people so mean?”
Tod sighed. “It’s a long story.”
“Tell it. They’re taking their sweet time,” she said. And she just needed something to get her mind off Eli and the terrifying place she’d found herself in. Maybe if she could understand, she could be more help.
When she’d asked Tod if he had a plan, he’d just shrugged, so she guessed he was still thinking. They still had time, because contrary to what Isolde had made it seem like, they’d gotten here way too early.
“Well…everyone used to be a lot nicer and friendlier. Like on Earth. Everyone’s pretty nice there.”
“Ehh,” Sunny said, shrugging her shoulders.
“But you know, they say that on Earth, most people are nice and do their best. But it’s the exact opposite on this planet. Everyone is rude and self-serving. I’d say 95 % of people are. People don’t even know the meaning of love. And if someone does love, it’s seen as a fluke. A mistake.”
“Really?” Sunny’s eyes widened. “But – it didn’t used to be like this?”
He shook his head. “No, well, at least not as bad. Everyone used to care about Earth and other planets and want to help grant the people there wishes. But then the Setareh started to get frustrated. We have long life spans. Up to a thousand years. And…people who’d been around a while saw that humans continuously made the same mistakes. They failed again and again. They turned to war and fought and killed each other. They hated others based on their beliefs. The Cassiopeia in particular were the frontrunners of the Anti Wish movement. They basically said we should stop granting wishes because humans no longer deserved our help if they were just going to mess up again and again. But the Gemini, as the rulers, disagreed and said we should continue to help. And that’s what caused the war. It was the first war on our planet.” Tod’s eyes darkened. “I wasn’t born then. But the war destroyed so much. And…” His voice cracked. “Nothing was ever the same. These people aren’t the people of the past. They’ve turned into everything they hate. They fight. They no longer care about anyone else except themselves.” He paused. “Humans aren’t perfect but you can’t expect perfection. That’s why they need our help. But no one can help now. We have too many problems.”
“Wow.” Sunny popped her tongue. “You weren’t joking. That was a long story.”
“So…what about you and Eli? What did you fight about?”
Tod scratched his neck. “Well, we at least agreed that we wanted to grant wishes again. But he wanted to continue to fight the Cassiopeia and mow down all the opposition and…I knew that we couldn’t continue to be at war. It had already destroyed so much but he just doesn’t seem to get that. Of course my parents were on his side, but as you can see – ” He gestured to the group around him. “A lot of people hate Eli. So he actually does need me. He finally got it through his big thick head – ”
“Tod.” Sunny grabbed him by the shoulder. “It’s okay. Calm down.”
Tod took a breath. He knew that he was acting just like the others, annoyed by Eli just because he had different views, but he couldn’t stand him sometimes.
“I can’t be ruler,” Tod said. “I can’t.” He bit his lip, his voice weak.
“Well, maybe you don’t have to. Maybe after we save Eli, we can figure something out,” Sunny said.
“No.” Tod shook his head. “I have to be ruler. I already am.”
“Huh?” Sunny said, tilting her head. “What do you mean?”
He told her everything, well, with the exception of the heir.
“You fused with her?” Sunny said. “Doesn’t that mean – ”
“Doesn’t that mean what? It doesn’t mean anything,” Tod said, turning red. “Anyway, I’m stuck here with these terrible people. And I have to figure out how we’re going to fix this mess.”
“Oh.” Sunny swallowed. “I’m sorry.” She paused. “But since you’re leader, you can just tell them to not kill Eli. Simple.” She smiled, but Tod didn’t respond with one of his own.
“Yeah. See how Isolde likes that. She’s basically the leader and I’m her sidekick that she dresses up like a little puppet.”
He paused and then said, “When Eli comes out, I’m going up there.”
Sunny felt like the hot temperature was finally getting to her brain. She let out a little gasp. “Um, what? That’s your brilliant plan?”
He swallowed. “It’s all I’ve got.”
Sunny crossed her arms over her chest. “Okay, but I’m coming up there with you.”
“Sunny – ”
“We’re in this together.” She put a hand on his arm, and he looked uncomfortable, but a slight blush appeared on his face.
He didn’t answer, just nodded, and they waited, staring straight ahead.
After Sunny wished, nothing happened. She sighed. Of course not. It wasn’t like she’d expected anything. She shielded her eyes against the sun, and then shook her head, her heart sinking to the pit of her stomach.
About a half hour passed before she felt the car lifting off the ground.
“Whoa.” She looked to her right, to see if anyone else had noticed, but everyone was focused on the road. A part of her said that the lack of sleep was causing her to hallucinate but it couldn’t be, because she saw the road growing smaller and smaller below her, before her very eyes. “What the – ” She started to panic, scanning the dashboard to see if there was some magic button she could push to get her on the ground, but there was nothing.
She’d never been on a plane before; she didn’t even like heights. Sunny shrunk against her seat, shuddering, her eyes tightly shut. “No, no, no, no,” she whispered. Another half hour passed, and then the car began to pick up speed. Letting out a breath, Sunny cracked her eyes open. The sky was dark blue and she saw a planet below, not earth, but a green and gold sphere, with black lines that looked like veins traversing it in every direction.
The car whooshed towards the planet, and Sunny gritted her teeth, trying not to scream. She failed at that.
When they hit the ground, she bit her tongue, her heart in her throat. Once her head had stopped shouting at her and her nerves were sufficiently jangled, she realized that music was still playing – banging in her ears. She ran her hands over her face, shaking. She couldn’t even focus or stop her fingers from trembling to turn it off. “Oh God, oh God.” How could she have gotten here? How could she even be alive right now? She was a human, right? Unless…
She looked at her hands and saw they were glowing. Like the sun.
She opened the car’s door and slipped out. Her feet crunched on black crunchy sand and she found herself in a small clearing. Surrounding her were tall green trees, and despite the fact that the trees were everywhere, it was still very bright.
Sunny shielded her eyes and turned around in a circle. She swallowed, and after a few moments, picked out the sound of running water. She didn’t like standing idle and so she figured she’d better follow it – at least, that was a start. She pushed through the brush and had been making good headway when she saw a small creature with green fur scurrying ahead of her. Curious, Sunny ducked under some brambles, thorns cutting her cheek and catching her hair. She yanked away, her hair tangled, and then tripped over a vine, falling on her face. “Oww,” she groaned. She realized then that the ground below her wasn’t really sand; it was more like bits of sharp black rock.
When she heard a panicked squeaking she jolted to her knees. What she saw first was a huge carnivorous plant. Its teeth dripped with an icky brown substance, and its stem, as well as its massive jaws, were mottled brown and gray. The squeaking came from the green rat like creature and Sunny could see that it was trapped underneath the plant’s thorny vines. Before the plant could dive at the ground, Sunny pulled out her pocket knife and hacked away. The plant roared at her, the brown juice spattering her face. Sunny yelled back. “Shut up, you stupid plant!”
Just a couple cuts and her hands pulled the creature out. She stumbled away from the angry plant and stared at the animal’s cute face. It kind of looked like a ferret, except it was green with a gray stripe from its forehead to its tail. “Aww! Hi there!” Sunny said, already thinking of names and bringing the creature back to Earth with her. However, the cuteness didn’t last long. The animal bared its sharp teeth and bit down hard on her thumb.
She dropped it and stuck her thumb in her mouth, the acrid taste of blood filling her mouth. “That’s how you repay me?” she spat. “Not going to save you again. Jerk.”
Wow. I’ve been here ten minutes. I’m already talking to small furry animals like I’m back home.
The familiar panic set in and Sunny fell to her knees, starting to hyperventilate. “Oh, God,” she murmured, and a lump gathered in her throat – she couldn’t do this. Why did she think that she could? Why did she wish to be here? She was helpless, and she’d be better off back home. The tears flowed down her cheeks and she felt her body burning up. She feared the worst: what if whatever was allowing to be here was wearing off? What if she was going to burn up and die? She screamed.
A familiar voice broke into her thoughts and she turned around to see Tod.
Her eyes narrowed. He was wearing a long green and white cape with a gray romper underneath. He was still wearing his sunglasses. And somehow, he looked less foolish than he usually did. “Tod,” she breathed in relief, getting to her feet and wiping tears from her eyes. “I – how’d you find me?”
He stepped closer, swallowing. “I can see you.” When she looked confused, he added, “It’s a Setareh thing.”
“A Setareh thing, huh.” She gestured behind her. “Are humongous carnivorous plants also a Setareh thing?”
“Yeah. Well, a Dross thing.”
“Right.” Her hands shook, and she had so many questions, but all she said was: “Um, the word dross? It means rubbish.’ Did you guys know that when you settled your planet?”
“No,” Tod said, shaking his head. “But I guess it makes sense because the Setareh – they made a garbage planet into something…better.” He paused. “You’ll see.”
“Where’s Eli?” Sunny said suddenly. “Did he get here?”
“Oh – ” Tod was about to reply when a woman crashed through the undergrowth and came to a stop in front of Tod. “I cannot believe you!” she yelled at him, smacking him hard.
“Ow.” Tod rubbed his jaw.
“Uhm – ” Sunny said. “Who are you?”
“Don’t talk to me,” the woman said, pointing a finger at Sunny. Then she turned back to Tod and said to him: “You get down on your knees and beg for forgiveness.”
“No.” Tod shifted his weight, knowing that Isolde was definitely serious with the getting down on his knees thing but also knowing that Isolde had a pretty short attention span. “Take us back.”
“Okay, guys, what is going on?” Sunny said.
Isolde turned to her. “Your little friend here tricked us,” she snapped. “He said he just wanted to protect you. Not bring you to our planet. Then he forced me to take him to find you.” She gritted her teeth. “Since he doesn’t have Eli, he barely has any of his power. Disgusting.” She spat on the ground.
“Eli?” Sunny felt faint. “Where’s Eli?”
“He’s going to be executed. And we’re going to be late to the party if we don’t hurry up,” she said, and for the first time, a spark of joy entered her eyes. “So let’s go.”
Tod shook his head. And this is the woman I’m having a kid with.
He wasn’t telling Sunny that anytime soon.
Sunny had had two panic attacks already, and she wasn’t ready for a third. But she was freaking out about Eli. What if they didn’t get there in time? While Isolde got ready, which meant fiddling with all her accoutrements, including her whip, her gloves, and her stupid forehead band, Sunny stared at Tod.
“I don’t like heights,” she admitted.
“Don’t worry,” Tod said, squeezing her shoulder. “I’ll be right next to you. Just shut your eyes and we’ll be there in no time at all.” He looked at Isolde. “And Izzy, you’re fine with carrying both of us?”
“What did you call me?” She put her hands on her hips.
Tod swallowed. “It’s just a nickname – ”
She grabbed him by the arm, jerking him hard, and gave Sunny the same treatment. “Ow,” she whined.
Isolde took a breath, then they shot off into the sky. Sunny shut her eyes tightly, then a horrid thought came to her. What if Isolde dropped her? She’d be dashed to pieces on the ground below. She really hoped this person was nicer than that.
What if I just dropped this stupid human girl? Isolde thought to herself. She’d be lying to herself if she said she wasn’t thinking about it. But the truth was, she wouldn’t do it. And she knew what was holding back, what would always hold her back. Nobody, at least barely anybody, on Dross were in relationships for love. Love didn’t survive on their planet. They weren’t wired for it. And people who fell in love usually ended up depressed or dead. Her mom had been Cassiopeia and her dad had been a Taurus. It hadn’t gone well when the war happened. But she’d been born out of their love. Sometimes she still felt it. But she pushed it down. Until it came to a choice like the one she was carrying right now.
And she thought of her parents and she couldn’t help but do the right thing out of guilt. If it even was the right thing.
Well, she told herself, it didn’t matter. It was at least what her mother would have wanted, and that was right enough, at any rate.
The ancient looking hand opens, slowly, and drops a bag of Peanut M&M’s onto the counter.
“Oh,” Mickey says, “Okay. That’ll be $2.25”
There’s a loud thump behind her as, presumably, Sid faints and hits the linoleum. Just as slowly, the front-most hooded figure pulls a five-dollar bill from somewhere on their person and retrieves the M&Ms. The hissing sound gets louder, and as they float back out the door Mickey takes it to mean, “Keep the change.”
Mickey turns to check on Sid, who has since come to. He rises slowly his feet, staring intently at her for a long moment before he gathers up the courage to actually speak.
“H-how long have you worked here, again?” Sid asks.
“About 15 years,” Mickey tells him.
“Right. Great. Please please please tell me that was the weirdest shit you’ve ever seen in here.”
“Oh, not even close,” Mickey leans back against the counter, “Welcome to the graveyard shift, kid.”
Exhausted the next day, Sunny chugged a cup of coffee and hit the road. When she’d opened her eyes that morning, she’d managed to convince herself for a few minutes that she was in Nashville with her normal family. However, that didn’t last long when she saw that she was entirely alone. She called her parents and said that everything was fine. Both of her parents were on their way to work so they didn’t talk long. Somewhat relieved, but still feeling like garbage, she stared out at the road ahead of her. “Great, here’s hoping I don’t get attacked,” she muttered to herself.
Even though she turned on her music, she couldn’t get Tod and Eli out of her head. She was angry at them, angry at Tod for keeping it a secret for so long, angry at them for arguing. But more than that, she missed them and she wanted to help them. She remembered Eli had said something about granting wishes. Maybe she could wish for something and they’d hear her. She cleared her throat, even though she wasn’t even going to say her wish out loud, and thought hard.
The cold night air took away Tod’s breath as the woman hauled him through the sky, toward the stars. “Hey, wait,” he tried to say, but the words wouldn’t form in his throat, and even if they had, he knew they wouldn’t have made a difference. They climbed higher and higher until Tod saw a gleam of gold below them – their planet. He could see the mountains from here.
“You know we can’t get through the barrier,” he said. “Not without Eli.” The only way he and Eli could go back in the first place was if they combined their energy and called for the other Gemini to help them. Tod going through alone – it would disturb the balance and their universe would fight against it. Without Eli, Tod was little more than a human.
The woman scoffed. “Well, guess you finally got lucky, Tadraz. I found a loophole.”
Tadraz. My real name. He grimaced. Her fingers latched onto his.
“Wait, what?” He tried to pull away. “What are you doing?”
He could feel her power coursing through his body. “No. No!” He tried to struggle, but she was much too strong. In a moment, she had merged with him and Tod was gone, seeing the world through her eyes, battling with her thoughts. It wasn’t long before her power overcame his and he blacked out.
Her name was Isolde and she was going to bring peace to the world. Well, that was the plan anyway. She pulled her hood down, watching Tod as he lay there on the floor. She crouched by his side, pushing his sweaty hair away from his forehead. “Poor baby,” she said.
“Isolde!” a voice echoed in her ear and she heard the familiar clomp of hooves. Smiling, Isolde leaped to her feet to see her father coming her way.
“Daddy,” she said, rushing over to him. “Look.” She pointed at Tod’s body.
Her father laughed. “I’m proud of you.” He kissed her forehead, then stooped lower to look at Tod, his muscles creaking with age. “What is he wearing? You can’t expect to march to the palace with him looking like that.”
She eyed Tod’s strange outfit. “Dad, you know the humans have weird superstitions. Obviously, those plastic things don’t work against us.” She pointed at Tod’s necklace.
Her father was a Taurus, since the line of Cassiopeia was all female. Horns sprouted from his head and tattoos burned into his skin flickered in the light.
“Certainly not.” He chuckled, running a hand over his beard. “So, did someone else get Eli?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’m sure they will.”
“Well, I’m proud of you. You’re going to be queen.”
“Finally. We worked so hard.” She felt the warm light getting steadily warmer inside her and the smile on her face grew brighter. She’d tell her father later. He’d be so happy.
“Tod’s gone?” Sunny yelled. She couldn’t believe it. She shook her head. “You were supposed to be watching out for each other.” Her voice trembled.
“I know – I know. It just happened so fast. I’ll find him, don’t worry,” Eli said. Better than anyone, he knew that was what he had to do.
“I’ll come,” Sunny said.
“No,” Eli said. “No, you go back home. You can’t come. You’re a human and you’ll die on our planet.”
“But you can’t even get home without Tod,” she protested.
“I’ll find a way,” Eli said, pushing past her.
Sunny ran after him. “But wait, you can’t just leave me – ”
He didn’t answer, slamming the door. Sunny wanted to run after him, but she knew he was right. There was nothing she could do – she was a human. She’d never hated being a human so much before. It always seemed like it was a gift – make a mistake, well, you’re only human. But now it was what was preventing her from helping her friends.
She checked the time. It was three o’clock in the morning. How worse could this trip get? She’d have to go home, tell her parents what happened. She just imagined how that would go.
“So the boys we adopted, they’re actually aliens from another planet. On the way to Nashville, we got attacked by this woman, who’s also from that planet, but they killed her, so it’s all good, right? But then another came to our hotel and kidnapped Tod. Of course I can’t do anything, so Eli left to go after him. And I didn’t even get to see the solar eclipse. That’s what I’m really bummed about.” Sunny burst into tears. She knew her parents wouldn’t believe her. Her dad would probably say something like, “Cocaine is a hell of a drug,” and her mom would think she was crazy.
Hey, even she thought she was crazy. She remembered that she hadn’t called her parents to tell them that they’d gotten here all right but she figured it was too late now. She lay back on her bed and rubbed her eyes, inhaling shakily. It would be fine. She’d go home, she’d make up a story, say that they found another family – it didn’t matter.
She’d just forget about them.
But she knew that wasn’t going to happen.
Through cold eyes I gaze upon perfection,
And yet a sigh would deign to cloud my view.
How could such stagnant silver bear a god’s reflection
And yet still hold its burnished glow anew?
How could it capture once the me that was,
To throw before me now that which I’ve seen?
How could it bend most adamant of laws
And toss His plan to ravens while I preen?
The question’s pull grows dull once more,
The face of Heaven’s beauty drawn and droll.
For in this silver portrait of my core
I see a canvas more of paint than soul.
It’s around 4 AM when the group of cloaked figures wanders into the little backwoods gas station. There are around half a dozen of them, shrouded entirely by heaps of dark fabric, moving in near-perfect unison, and huddled so tightly that Mickey can’t quite get an exact headcount. She clears her throat as they pass by the counter, hoping to get her new co-worker-in-training’s attention. Sid looks up from the stool he has stationed just across from her, in the one corner of the store with decent phone signal, and Mickey nods in the general direction of the group—who, she now notices, are haloed by what looks like a dark haze of shifting fog (or maybe one of them is vaping. It’s honestly difficult to tell.) They seem to float along the ground rather than walk (that one’s a bit harder to justify.)
“What the fuck,” Sid mouths silently. As the figures turn down the snack cake aisle, he shuffles over to her side behind the counter.
“Who—what—the hell is that?” Sid whispers. Well, tries to whisper. He’s only been working there less than a week, but Mickey can tell the kid is jumpy even on a regular night, and now his voice is loud enough to alert the dead.
“Out-of-towners?” Mickey guesses.
Before they can discuss it further, the cloaked figures round the corner again and slowly creep towards the register. Sid ducks behind her, as if she will somehow be able to protect him from whatever horrors lurk underneath those cloaks.
Mickey looks closely at the figure that stands closest to her but can’t see anything like a face in the darkly draped hood. He (Or she? They?) extends a single hand, mottled grey skin stretched tight across a very visible bone structure. The figure, or maybe the whole group of them, makes a low hissing sound like the air is being let out of a tire.
They rolled into the hotel around 10 o’clock and after they checked into their room, Sunny flopped down on one of the beds. “Man, I’m exhausted. I hope this silly eclipse is worth it.”
Tod sat down on the bed opposite and pulled off his shoes. Eli stayed standing. Do you really like Sunny…in that way? Eli’s thoughts were harsh and cold.
Hey, none of your business. And so what if I do?
We need to go back. I’m serious about this. You don’t know what it’s like up there. You can’t just run away from who you are.
Sunny tilted her head. “I’m sensing some tension in this room,” she proclaimed. “What’s going on? Talk it out.”
Eli just shrugged his shoulders, turning away from Tod and moving aside the curtain to stare out at the Nashville skyline.
“Don’t you need each other to use your powers?” Sunny tried. “What if more people try to attack us?” She got to her feet. Her voice was higher than she meant for it be, but she didn’t care. These boys were driving her crazy.
“It’s fine, Sunny,” Eli said, his tone turning cold. “Just stay out of this, okay? It doesn’t concern you.”
At his words, Sunny shrunk against the nightstand, rubbing her thumb against her knuckle. “Okay. Geez.”
“Eli – ” Tod said.
“Just shut up,” Sunny said, not even knowing why she said it. She knew Tod had just been trying to stand up for her. For some reason, she felt close to tears and she angrily turned away, staring at a picture of a purple river cutting through silhouetted trees, a sliver of a moon pasted in the upper right-hand corner. She stared at the stars sprinkled around the moon and then looked back at Eli and Tod.
Tod looked up at her, and Sunny saw the helplessness in his eyes, but she didn’t stay focused on him long before turning straight to Eli.
She looks right through me, Tod thought. Like I’m invisible.
“Of course she does,” Eli said aloud.
Sunny didn’t bother to ask, even though her stomach ached with not knowing. “Well, I’m going to bed,” she said. “Do you sleep?”
Eli nodded. “Some – “
Tod said, “We’ll just stay up and make sure that no one else is coming after us. Go to sleep.”
Sunny saw the softness in his gaze, the tender look that she must have missed a thousand times. She nodded thankfully. “Okay. Um, I’ll see you tomorrow.” After she went to the bathroom to get dressed she slipped under the covers. She’d never been afraid of the boys before, but now everything was different. She felt like she was in a room with two complete strangers. And looking up at the blank ceiling, she didn’t feel like sleeping.
Her husband decides to quit his job as an accountant to work at the group’s new soup kitchen full time. It’ll be fine, she tells herself. Her salary is enough to pay the bills, and he seems so much happier now. Who is she to take away his newfound sense of purpose?
Then, she starts finding the bank statements. Part of her is glad they never agreed to get joint accounts. All his savings start bleeding into the coffers of this group that calls itself “The New Era.” She knows what it is, but she can’t bring herself to say it.
Her husband says he still doesn’t believe in the religious stuff, but he starts to look at her like she’s a heretic. She calls around to see if there’s anything she can do, but everyone gives her the same response: “He’s a grown man; he can make his own decisions.” His mother tells her that she should be proud of all the good work he’s doing, dedicating his life to take care of the poor and elderly.
Before long some of the members of the group start talking about moving out to a compound in Arizona that The Father wants to build. Her husband says that he isn’t sure what that has to do with charity, but that he understands why everyone wants a place of their own. “People can be so judgmental nowadays,” he says.
Then one day, it happens: “Maybe there’s really something true about all the God stuff,” he says.
“I think you’re in a cult,” she tells him, and she can feel it crack the rift between them wide open. By the end of the month, they start signing the divorce papers.
She starts smoking again the day his mother calls, months later, begging her to stop him from moving out to the Arizona desert with a bunch of crazies. She tries to call him, but he’s blocked her number. She’s never considered herself a religious sort of person, but she prays for him. She prays for all of them.
He should have drowned that night;
He knows this
Deep-down as the water goes.
His mother thinks the sea
Must have taken pity
On his poor sinner soul,
But he is unconvinced,
Says there’s no benevolence
In the dark and the deep-down.
The water still speaks to him–
Its voice hushed and delicate
As it beckons him home.
Some mornings he feels the tide still rising
In the back of his throat.
When I get him home and haul his massive grey-and-dusty-brown striped body out of the carrier, I see death sparkling in his eyes. The bit of his tail that didn’t have to be amputated flicks manically. He sinks his teeth into my wrist and as I drop him I think to myself: Yeah, that’s fair. I, too, had been pretty pissed off when I was forced to go to a hospital against my will, and I could only be held for 72 hours. Technically, I could have left Hades there forever.
He swipes his claws against my lower calf, blood blooming up slowly in their wake, and now I’m a little irritated. Because I hadn’t left him there forever. I had picked him up and given him a ride home. That was more than anyone had ever done for me.
The irritation fades quickly as he scratches the front door to be let out. My landlord, an avid bird-watcher, hates when I let Hades roam the neighborhood. “That thing is a killing machine,” he told me once. I let him out anyway, figuring he’s been cooped up for long enough. Fuck birds, what have they ever done for me?
For half the night, I try to get him to come back inside. He’s nowhere to be found. I start to wonder if this has been the final straw, if the promise of a steady source of food and shelter is no longer enough for him to stick around.
Thankfully, there’s a dead mole on my doorstep the next morning. I’m not sure how I got to a point in my life where a motionless and slowly rotting rodent on my front porch would be considered a positive, but here we are. The mole isn’t torn to shreds like Hades’ prey usually is, so I nudge it a few times with a rolled-up newspaper to make sure it’s not just stunned. Hades hangs back, pacing like he’s waiting for my reaction. I figure it’s either meant to be a gift or a threat— ‘Take me to get stuck like a pincushion again, and you’re next,’ he might be saying. I lean down to pet him behind the ears, and he allows the touch without hesitation or bodily harm.
“A bloodless kill. That takes skill, man. Good job,” I tell him. He makes a low, rough noise that sounds almost like a growl. It takes me a moment to realize that he’s purring.
You and I melt into one another
Like the ice in my highball glass
Just past 2 AM, when everything is hazy
And perfect, too heavy and too bright,
But still faultless, somehow:
Holding on to your fingertips in a crowded bar,
Giggling like we’ve just met,
Stage-whispering over the bad club remix
in our own secret language.