Darren had never been to an arcade, but they’d always seemed like fun when he saw them on TV. So, when his best friend proposed that they check out the new one that had just opened across town, Darren had initially been excited by the idea.
“So you’ll come with me this Saturday?” Jake asked, grinning over the homework that only Darren was bothering to do.
Darren slumped, feeling defeated. “I can’t, you know how my mom is. I never get to do anything fun. She’s only letting me hang out with you because she thinks I’m tutoring you.”
“You could tutor me just as effectively at the arcade,” Jake argued, leaning back in his chair and twirling his pen between his fingers. Darren rolled his eyes.
“You mean because I’m completely ineffective as a tutor?” Darren said, glaring at Jake’s unfinished, unstarted, math homework.
“Nah, you’re a great tutor, dude,” Jake said. “I totally understand this stuff thanks to you, and if I actually cared, you’d have gotten my grade up to an A ages ago.”
Darren snorted, turning back to his own homework with a shake of his head. Jake’s math grade was a lost cause, and everyone knew it.
“So! Arcade?” Jake asked, leaning forward again and slamming the front legs of his chair down. The librarian shot them a dirty look, and Darren gave her an apologetic smile.
“Jake, I’d love to, but my mom’s never gonna say yes,” Darren said, shaking his head in dismay. “Sorry man.”
“So don’t ask!” Jake said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Just say you’re going to the library or something.”
“And what if someone sees me at the arcade? If it gets back to her that I lied, she’d never let me out again,” Darren said. “It’s too risky.”
“So then we’ll disguise you!” Jake said. “Look, tell your mom you want to spend the day studying, then I’ll meet you here with a killer disguise that no PTA mom would ever see through, and then we can sneak over to the arcade and actually have fun and be normal teenagers for once! Then we sneak back to the library, you change back into your boring regular clothes, and your mom is none the wiser! It’s genius.”
“It’s certainly something,” Darren said, giving his friend an eyeroll.
“But is it something that you’ll agree to?” Jake asked, looking at his friend imploringly. Darren knew that if he said no, Jake would respect his wishes and drop it. Jake was a good friend like that, always encouraging Darren to have fun without ever really pushing him out of his comfort zone. If he wanted to, Darren could end this conversation. But I don’t want to.
“Alright, I’ll meet you here on Saturday and if your disguise for me is convincing enough, we can go to the arcade,” Darren said. “But only if it really is convincing!”
Jake grinned, “Whoo!”
“Shhh!” the librarian practically hissed, and Jake at least had the decency to look ashamed.
“Sorry, Ma’am,” he said, “I’ll be quiet.” The librarian didn’t seem very convinced, but she left them be.
“Alright, well I’m gonna go get started on your disguise,” Jake said, shoveling his things into his backpack. All of his papers were going to be crushed, but Darren did his best not to be worried by that fact. It wasn’t like Jake was going to turn any of them in. “I’ll see you Saturday morning at nine, okay?”
“Okay,” Darren said, putting his own homework away, though much more carefully than his friend had. Saturday was three days away, and Darren couldn’t wait.
I didn’t know who or what decided the weather, but around here, when it got cold, it was cold, and I felt pity for anyone who didn’t have the option of retreating into the relative warmth of a dorm building.
Mostly, I felt bad for Polyhymnia, as her ongoing attempts to break into the building only got more desperate on days like today. She’d spent the last hour or so attempting to climb the fire escape, and the windowsill I was sitting on gave me the perfect view. It wasn’t going well.
“She still at it?” Calliope asked. She had given up on watching Polyhymnia fall and was now digging through the accumulated food in the small room. Why the humans piled up perfectly good food with random stuff and locked it all up in a small room was beyond my understanding, but I appreciated the ease of access.
“Yep. She’s trying to use a little tree to lean over onto the metal platform. It’s not really working,” I said.
“Poor Polly,” Calliope said. “I wish there was a way we could help her out.”
“How? She can’t fit through the holes we use to get in and out,” I said. I like Calliope, but sometimes I think she’s a little too nice for her own good. Maybe it’s a mouse thing?
“I know, Tals, but what if we could get the humans to open a door for her? Or maybe prop one open!” Calliope said. I sighed.
“Cali, I love you, but that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” I said. “You know how the humans get when they spot us, we’d never pull something like that off. And even if we did, they’d spot Polly in an instant. What if she got hurt?”
Calliope sighed. “I know, but I hate seeing her struggle like this.”
Just as she spoke there was a crash outside, followed by a human screaming. I looked back out the window to see that the little tree Polyhymnia had been using had been uprooted, and had crashed into the building. There was now a human screaming and pointing at Polyhymnia while another human chased her away with a broom.
“I think she’s giving up now,” I said, watching her walk off.
“We should bring her something to cheer her up,” Calliope said. “I think I smell some pizza in here. The humans never try to stop us when we drag that around.”
“Sure, let’s do it,” I said, hopping down from the window to help Calliope look.
We ran as fast as possible between the trees and the moss and the long green plants brushing against our skin. The sound of bombs dropping all around us rang in our ears, as we bled and sweat in our uniforms. Each with an injury, causing us to slow our pace and let the enemy get closer so they could kill us easier. A bassist. An engineer. A drag racer. A barber. An accountant. All sons. We all had an identity somewhere. In a state, in a country where this was supposed to be our choice. Not our parent’s, not the president’s, not the government’s, ours. High pitched screams sounded as bullets pierced hot exposed flesh. Several tripped because of the jungle floor, some because of a lost limb, some because we were klutzy from fear. I looked back from my fear-ridden path and saw my friends being trampled on by marching soldiers and tanks. Johnny, Biff, Rick, Tommy and even Julian. All guys I had once seen smile when I told jokes to them. I slept in the same room countless times with these guys. I watched as they spit blood from their lips and their eyes rolled back in their head. This was the glory I heard my father speak of, when bragging of military service. Protecting the promise of the promised land was our duty. Protecting the lies of the “promised” land was what we did. I ran until my body felt completely depleted. The ground exploded from underneath me and I was almost killed several times. Sweat and blood poured down my arms and legs. I panted, hoping for the breath to come back to me, but it seemed as if it would never happen.
The upside of living on a college campus is that students tend to leave food everywhere. Sometimes they’ll even just give you food, if you do something funny for them.
The downside though is that they never give you the food you want. Ask for the hot dog, and you get part of the bun. Just one piece of pepperoni? They’ll give you a glob of cheese. Trying to get some of that divine smelling chicken? Hope you like pickles, cause that’s probably what you’ll get instead!
Personally, I don’t like trying to get food from humans. It’s a lot of effort for very little reward, and I always run the risk of being met with screams when I let them see me. Also, it only works outside (students hate finding a rat in the dorm rooms, found that one out the hard way).
Calliope, however, loves getting humans to give up food, and as I am her best friend, she drags me out with her occasionally, and since today was the first time in months it had been warm enough for students to actually go outside, we left the relative comfort of the dorm room to make the journey to the campus Starbucks.
Calliope bounded up to the patio to beg for scraps, immediately getting a reaction from the humans. I decided to hang back, since Calliope was way better at this sort of thing.
“Awww, what a cute little mouse!”
“Ew! Rebecca, it probably has rabies!”
“Oh, don’t be mean, Kaitlyn. I’ll bet she’s just hungry.” The human was already pulling at whatever food item she had on the table. “Are you hungry, cutie?”
“Yes! Very! Give me your food, human!”
“Just listen to those happy squeaks!” The human cooed again and then tossed down some kind of bread. “There you go! Enjoy!”
Calliope grabbed the bread and returned to the bush I was hiding under. “Check it out, Thalia! It’s got something really yummy smelling on it!”
The bread did smell good, but it was still only bread. “Great work, Calliope!”
“Are you gonna try and get something, Tals?”
“I’m not sure they’d give me anything,” I said.
“So steal it.”
Calliope squeaked and practically jumped ten inches into the air at the unexpected voice, but I’d seen our new companion approaching from around the side of the building.
“Hey Polyhymnia,” I said, giving the raccoon my best smile.
“Polly! You scared me!” Calliope said, recovering from her fright. “And what do you mean steal?”
Polyhymnia grinned, letting her mischievous nature shine through. “Watch and learn, Cali.”
Polyhymnia crept towards the patio, keeping out of sight whenever she could. She was only a few feet away from the humans Calliope had begged from when she pounced, hissing and baring her teeth.
The humans screamed, dropped their food and drinks, and then ran away. “This is why you don’t feed wild animals, Rebecca!”
Polyhymnia dragged her bounty off the patio, and Calliope and I rushed to help her.
“Woah! You got so much food!” Calliope said, investigating a sweet smelling bread.
“Not just food!” Polyhymnia said, nosing at the cups. “This human drink is amazing! And these ones are cold, so no burns!”
“What is it though?” I sniffed at the white drink; it smelled sweet.
“I dunno. But you should try it!” Polyhymnia said, trying to pry the lid off of the cup she’d grabbed. The liquid in her cup was brown. I slipped my head into the opening at the top of my cup, and gave the mysterious drink a taste.
“Ian! Check out that crazy rat!” Kyle pointed towards the edge of the patio, where a rat was going nuts after having gotten into someone’s coffee.
“Dude! We gotta get that on film; we can put it on Tik Tok!” Kyle said, already pulling out his phone. “You go, coffee rat!”
Aliene looked up past the branches into darkness. “Yes it was.” Aliene stood pulling her sword and bow out of her pack.
As Jacobus loosed his reach and contracted it, the muscles in his arms visible grew. With a blast of wind from the brush a voice called to them, saying something just out of hearing. The pair exchanged glances until Aliene froze, visibly disturbed. “Did you hear that?”
“There it is again,” Aliene stood from her crouched position. “It’s calling me to it.”
“I don’t really know,” Aliene started walking sword still raised. “Come on, grab the brick from my bag.”
Jacobus didn’t answer, just obeyed and followed behind her, leaving his own pack and the rest of hers. He looked past Aliene into the inky blackness that enveloped her, then it filled his own vision. Until the faint glow of something in the distance appeared, and a voice came from all around saying, ‘Go towards it and fire an arrow.’
“Now that I—” Jacobus was cut off by Aliene shushing him.
After the sounds of a bow creaking followed by the whoosh of its release, an explosion of light rushed past them. What had been a black abyss was now filled with countless flecks of light. Swirling like firefly’s in a dome, that then became still appearing to be stars in a clear sky. Jacobus felt a hand on his shoulder force him into kneeling, he fought it in vain till he saw what it was. A man taller and broader than any Jacobus had ever seen, and as the being passed by him he saw the legs of an equian. It was in fact a full body of an equian as the beings lower half, the feet of which were large thick talons, the digits linked by webbing. His whole body had a rough skin that glistened like scales, and a pair of long folded fins sprouted from the sides of his left forearm.
“Daughter do you know me?” the voice from earlier said as the being approached Aliene.
She had fallen to her knees staring at it, “Yes,” her voice was meek.
“Say it, child of starlight.”
“Aquar Equias, Chief of hunters, Centauri,” Aliene flinched as the being flexed, extending his left arm and watched him pull his right hand along his left arm like you would a bow. She looked on in amazement as a sliver of pale blue light manifested, Centauri aimed upward and fired the sliver. It claimed into the air and burst becoming almost like a sun that began filling the area with soft blue light.
“Dear child how long I have watched you grow,” Centauri spoke with a voice that made the air shiver. “Your strength is something beyond mortal limits. You bring me honor,” the being turned to Jacobus, “So you will quiet your mind boy, I am one of the avatars for her pantheon of gods.”
Aliene coughed out a breath tearing up as she looked to the being who would be her god. “Why Me?” Aliene says finally letting tears flow down her cheeks. “Why would you do this to me,” Aliene screamed it clutching her chest.
Centauri was silent for a moment, “If I knew child I would tell you, truly. It is your mark, it was made by your magic, I have watched over my tribe for a thousand generations. I have seen heroes be foretold come to pass and be welcomed amongst the starlight households.” The being of hunters bent to place his hand under Aliene’s chin lifting her face. He looked into her hazel eyes that begged for relief, to have this burden lifted. “You are different, you have something more than what I know, how you live, how you deal with this, will be up to you. All I can do is arm you with what I do know, give me your bow.”
Aliene lifts her weapon with both hands bowing her head, as she does the weapon changes flashes of light force her eyes closed. When the light subsided, she looks at what her bow had become. Heavier than before and almost pulsing with magic. It was thinner, but as she gripped it the ends fanned out like the gods own arm. “Give it a try.”
Aliene stood her mind asking why there was no bowstring, but her body just moving. Her arm went through the motions and as she drew her magic was pulled from her hand. She aimed at a tree that appeared some ways off, half rotten and released. With a hiss and whistle her target more splattered than splintered but was missing a huge section in an instant.
“Raw power has its uses, merely think sharper to pierce a target, though try not to use this more than ten times a day child. Don’t lose it I have blessed it but Hafwen did spend weeks making it for you in the first place,” Centauri smiled at her beneath his star filled eyes and nodded at Jacobus, “He is more than he seems, don’t discard such faith.”
Jacobus had stayed a good distance form the girl and the god, kneeling and as the being of hunters nodded at him he stood only to drop the meteor stone. “What the,” Jacobus picked it up as Centauri appear beside him, no sound, no warning. The being took it, examining the stone for the moment.
“Interesting, this is the star that fell to you?” Jacobus nodded to answer him. “This is from the House of Crafting.” Centauri looked up towards the sky, seemingly past the darkness. “I give you this advice young one, in the heart of a mountain north of here lives a being much like myself, should you find him give him this stone.”
Aliene opened her mouth to reply but was suddenly blinded by white hot light, when she blinked rapidly to adjust her eyes she heard the buzz of insects calling and the song of birds fill the air.
After all the noise of the night before, I think it was the silence that woke me up. The rain had finally stopped, and the world had finally gone quiet after the wild panic of the night before. The candles around the room had gone out while we slept, but now that the sun was up there was dim light shining through the curtains. The door was still locked, and it seemed undamaged despite the best efforts of whatever had attacked the room earlier.
Now that there was nothing trying to force its way in, I felt safe enough to investigate the room. The wood cabinet was locked up tight, but the work table had more then enough weird things on it for me. Besides the cauldron, there was an assortment of herbs and stones, and several rows of shelves holding dozens of little bottles filled with powders, liquids, and what appeared to be bones. Each bottle was labeled in Aunt Pen’s neat script, but not in English. There was also a book filled with recipes, but none of them looked like they made food. At least, I hoped they weren’t food.
The moment the sky went dark, Aunt Pen was grabbing us both and pulling us out of the room. I could hear howling from outside, followed by the familiar cawing of crows, and while the noises scared me, the panicked look on Aunt Pen’s face was what kept me from asking questions. Her face had lost all color, and as she pulled us through the halls and up the stairs she kept looking around like she expected something to jump out of the shadows at us.
When we got to the third floor, Aunt Pen started leading us down a very familiar hallway. It was where we’d first started looking for the passage to the tower, and when Aunt Pen stopped in front of that blank wall it occurred to me that she might not have been completely honest when she said she’d never found the passageways.
There was a crash behind us, and Macey and I turned to see a crow had crashed through a window down the hall. Before I could even try to identify him though, there was a scraping sound, and we turned again to see the stone wall opening up to reveal a staircase. Aunt Pen grabbed us and pushed us through the opening.Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 5→
Demon deals are perfectly ordinary. Sure they’re a terrible idea, but an ordinary one. And despite the fact that they’re illegal, and despite the fact that demons aren’t trustworthy, and despite the fact that making a deal will guarantee you a spot in hell, people are constantly making them. And, in the especially stupid cases, breaking them. People think they can get away with it by moving away, either to a Haven or a big city, as if hiding behind a barrier or getting lost in a crowd could actually stop a demon. Slow them down a bit maybe, but never stop them, not when they had humans to act as debt collectors.
The sky had darkened with the rain, but it wasn’t until the sun started to go down that the large windows that lined the ballroom no longer provided enough light for us to see by. There were no light switches anywhere that we could see, so Macey was forced to end her impromptu ball in favor of finding Aunt Pen for dinner.
As Macey and I made our way towards the kitchen the rain only seemed to grow heavier, beating on the windows with new force. In the time it took us to reach the kitchen, the noise of the storm had swelled so loud it was almost enough to drown out the voices arguing in the kitchen. I stopped upon hearing them and pulled Macey back from the open door when she didn’t.Continue reading Castle of Crows – Part 3→
After this Sunday’s game, police arrested John Morrison for streaking his way across the Hard Rock Stadium. Morrison’s decision to streak across the field was a protest against the Miami Dolphins’ brutal loss to the Buffalo Bills. When asked to comment Morrison stated that “the Bills are the worst football team in American history, and losing to them was totally unacceptable.” The Dolphins have been having a rough season this year, and they’ve suffered quite a few losses. This one, in particular, has fans riled like never before, and Morrison wasn’t the only audience member upset with the outcome of the game. Many fans had harsh comments in the wake of this loss, some going so far as to accuse the Bills of having cheated their way to victory. Scott Jones, a lifetime Dolphins fan, said he “wouldn’t be surprised to hear about another ‘Deflate-gate’, or a similar scandal.” The Bills have denied all such allegations, and the Dolphins declined to comment on the loss.
As upset as fans were with the team though, they were even more upset with Morrison. Helen Brannon, whose family has attended every Dolphins’ home game since 2014, had this to say: “I don’t know what the [censored] he was thinking with that stunt! For [censored] sake, there’re kids here! How am I supposed to explain to my kids that some people have such massive [censored] inferiority complexes that they just strip down and run [censored] naked across a [censored] football field?” Many other parents in attendance seemed to agree with Brannon’s sentiment, though they did balk at her wording. Other fans have cast blame on the stadium staff for failing to catch Morrison before he was able to make his way onto the field, though the cameramen have been praised for keeping the man off of the jumbo screen. The stadium has apologized for the lack of security for the field and has made promises to ensure that it will not happen again.
“How long have I been down this path?” Lazuli thought to himself. He scratched his fingers along the wall, simply glad to have another sound over his breathing and the crunching echoes from boots on stone that reverberated through the tunnel as Lazuli walked on. A sense of time was always the first to go when travelling outside of a large city. Lazuli mentally kicked himself over his foolishness for only packing one time-piece, a rookie mistake. The ticking of cogs was often enough to stave off the maddening effects of travel into the long sections of black road between cities.
The trouble started when Aunt Pen set us loose while she worked on the library. We were too young to be helpful, and she didn’t have anyone to watch us, so we were given instructions not to bother her and to be in the kitchen at noon and at six for lunch and dinner. Macey took this as a sign to play princess, and I took this as a sign that I was on my own when it came to getting out of it.
So while Macey ran off to get dressed, I decided to explore the castle grounds. The lake was huge, or at least it seemed so to me, and there was a short pier with a little wooden boat tied to it. It would have been perfect for swimming, but the water was freezing. It was like trying to wade through ice water, and I couldn’t seem to adjust to the temperature, even after standing in the lake for five minutes.
The lake was a bust, but it was also the most interesting thing within the fence. Aunt Pen’s one rule was still stuck in my head, but I figured that I could still investigate it, so I left the lake and walked to the edge of the forest. When I reached the fence, a crow landed on the fence next to me. It was large and familiar, so I smiled at him.
“Hi Baron! I don’t have any meat for you right now, I’m sorry.”
Baron cawed softly at me, and I took it as a sign that he forgave me.
“I was going to walk the perimeter though; do you want to come with me?”
Baron cawed again, hopping along the fence and then turning to look back at me. I grinned back and started walking, with Baron following along on the fence.
“I’m glad I’ve got you to keep me company this summer; it seems like it might get kind of lonely here. Aunt Pen is cool, but she’s really busy, and Macey and me don’t get along very well.”
Baron cawed sympathetically.
“Do you have a sister, Baron?”
Baron cawed again, and then he was joined on the fence by a smaller crow, who cawed a greeting at me.
“Hello! Are you Baron’s sister? Wait, Aunt Pen introduced us yesterday, didn’t she? Your name is Nixie, right?”
Nixie cawed, hopping around and bobbing her head, almost like she was nodding.
“It’s nice to officially meet you, Nixie. I’m Dillon.”
Nixie cawed again, and the three of us walked on together. We followed the fence around the castle, until I could no longer see the lake. The forest trees were different from the trees inside the fence. The treeline was surprisingly orderly, for a forest. Nothing grew past the shade of the trees, and the trees didn’t grow within a foot of the fence. There were no tree branches hanging over the fence either, and I wondered if Aunt Pen trimmed everything back. It seemed like a silly thing to spend time on, and I didn’t think she could have found the time anyhow, but someone must be doing it.
As I studied the treeline, I noticed something glimmering a few feet passed the fence. It was bright and gold and beautiful, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was, no matter how much I stared at it. Nixie and Baron were cawing again, frantically this time, but the noise seemed far away and unimportant. All that mattered was the glimmer. It wasn’t very far in, and if I hopped over the fence I knew I could get it. It wouldn’t be hard. It wasn’t a big fence; it was more of a border than a barrier. I could be over and back in seconds. I just needed to get the glimmer.
“Dillon!” Suddenly there were arms around me, and Aunt Pen was hauling me back from the fence, and I felt like a veil had been lifted. Nixie and Baron were still cawing, loud and panicked, and they’d been joined by several other crows too. I didn’t understand how I could have ignored them.
Aunt Pen breathed a sigh of relief. “Dillon, you scared me. What did I say about going over the fence?”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Pen. I was just trying to get the…” I turned back to point out the glimmer, but it was gone. It was like it had never been there at all.
“There’s nothing in the woods but trees, Dillon. Now come inside. It’s going to rain soon.”
Aunt Pen led me back inside, and while it hadn’t looked like rain to me, it started coming down shortly after we got back inside.
“Well, I’d say that’ll be the end of playing outside today. Why don’t you go find your sister? She was looking for you earlier. I think she’s in the ballroom.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the ballroom, getting yelled at by Macey for stepping on her feet.
“Just shut up” – Hafwen had turned to her abruptly – “and come on.”
Aliene didn’t respond. She followed her mentor towards the healers’ hut catching the last rays of sunlight as it was swallowed by the clouds above. The building was lit from within, becoming more and more visible as the two approached. Something twisted in Aliene’s stomach, fear and emotions welling up from uncertainty. Hafwen led her through the door, catching the end of their guard captain questioning the stranger.
“Tell me again, how did you find us?” The guard captain was trying not to yell.
“I just did, I was wandering the southern countries for a few years until being lead here.” Jacobus was sitting on the bed gripping its edges as the guard captain inched closer and closer to him.
As Aliene entered the room a bright flash made everyone flinch until the light faded back into the satchel Jacobus had brought. The guard captain lunged to the pack, dumping its contents onto the floor, with items bouncing away until a set of rocks thumped hard into the wood.
The captain went to pick them up before Jacobus could stop him. The guard captain cried out as a loud hiss filled the air. The captain looked to his hands that were now blistered and pink; he tried to focus on pulling magic into his hands. The action made him scream louder than before, dropping the man to his knees.
“What are those?” Celestaon questioned as Hafwen wrenched Jacobus to the ground in an instant.
Jacobus looked up from the ground, fighting off Hafwen’s hold on him. “The pieces of the falling star, what gave me the revelation.”
Celestaon inhaled through her nose as if she had been holding her breath. “Child, show him the star.”
A moment passed as Aliene finally understood what she had been told and unlaced the top of her shirt revealing her stained outline of an eight-pointed star. The monk stared at Aline longer than anyone had before. “What?” was all she could say before Jacobus finally stopped and stood, Hafwen having to step back as he rose.
“If you would let me go, please.” The monk wasn’t asking, as he slipped from Hafwen’s hands, leaving her with a scowl on her face. “I am Jacobus, and with this gift, I pledge to serve you in your purpose.” The monk had gathered up the stones barehanded, presenting them to Aliene while kneeling.
Aliene reached out to take them unconsciously, her fingers flinching slightly as they brushed the warm rough surfaces. When she pulled them back to her the pieces trembled and pulled into one another forming a clean-cut brick in her palms. “I, how did they do that?” Aliene looked to Hafwen, then Celestaon. Both women wore wide disbelieving expressions.
Celestaon swallowed hard, looking at the mass of rock from the sky, pulling her hand back from the piece in fear. “I don’t know, nothing like this has ever been recorded for our tribes, my child. You two must leave, now.” The Elder looked at Hafwen and nodded, signaling her to leave. She spoke to the guard captain as he stood: “Go out front and calm the people. They need but a moment.”
The large man grunted and left stomping as he went to the front. Celestaon motioned to the healer as she went to open the back. “Quietly now, come with me.” The old woman’s voice was soft and shaky. The three went out the back door and through the wall marking the edge of the village. The exit was more a small hole each had to squeeze through before pushing into a bush of thorny leaves.
“Aliene,” the old woman’s voice came out in an exhale before she grabbed Aliene’s arm. “I need to say this; you have something none of us do, the strength to leave.” Aliene looked wide-eyed, taking in the face of her elder as she continued to speak. “You, dear child, have been made to endure our rejection; few gave you the acceptance you rightly deserved. I asked Hafwen often how you were doing. She watched you grow, and you never wavered against a path you didn’t choose.” Celestaon gripped Aliene with a strength that betrayed her age, and Aliene had nothing to say. “I have held my tongue long enough; how, how do you not hate us?”
Aliene clenched her jaw for a moment until she tasted metal. “I did, for a long time; it made me better. I thought one day they will have to accept me.” Aliene had only said this once before to Hafwen, years ago. “One day I just couldn’t be angry anymore; I couldn’t.” Tears welled in her eyes, blurring the old woman till Aliene blinked them away. “Hafwen explained it over and over until I just stopped asking. If I ignored it maybe the hurt would fade.”
Hafwen had returned suddenly beside them, making the kneeling Jacobus flinch when he realized she was there. Hafwen handed him a pack and the bag he came with, then she looked at Aliene. “The world is large, and the monsters are sized to fit it.” Hafwen griped Aliene’s shoulder while pushing the pack into her chest. “Fair is something life is not, but you have the strength to carve your own path.” Aliene slipped the pack onto her back as Hafwen gripped her arms, fixing her stare on Aliene’s eyes. “Now my sister, child of starlight, run.”
Hues of pink and purple streaked the skies as Aliene walked to the center of the village. She stared up, lost in wondering what challenges the world would give her. Hunters hunted, builders built, and so on, but what could Aliene do? The center was prepared with lanterns and a dozen or so people, including the seven elders.
Aliene was running harder than she had ever thought possible. Sucking in the warm air and exhaling with a hiss, she bolted across the open water. The water walk technique embedded in her body over the past decade was taxing to her magic. She spun around on one of her steps and balanced as she froze more of the area. The flush of heat rising over her bare legs soothing the ache in her muscles.
This week in Palm Bay, Florida, police responded to a domestic disturbance in the home of Jake Meyers. Several concerned neighbors called to report a possible fight between Meyers and his girlfriend, Melissa Davison. When officers arrived on scene they found the cause of the argument to be Meyers’ collection of stolen shopping carts. “The entire living room was filled with shopping carts,” said Officer Joan Martinez in her official report. “There were carts from all sorts of major department stores; there was barely room to walk.” Davison wasted no time informing Officer Martinez that Meyers had been stealing shopping carts for years, slowly filling their home with carts from across the city. “He’s a hoarder! I’ve been asking him for years to get rid of them all, but he just kept stealing more!” Davison said. “If this is the only way to make it stop then so be it!”
It took police three hours to empty the house of shopping carts, which have since been returned to their rightful owners. Marvin Greene, owner of the local Walmart, says he’d “known that the carts were being stolen, but [he’d] never imagined it was all one guy.” In the aftermath of the raid, there were 11 Walmart carts, 9 Target carts, 6 Winn Dixie carts, and 5 from various local grocers. One of Meyer’s neighbors, who wished to remain anonymous, said that Meyers “was a very nice young man. I never would have suspected him of filling his house with shopping carts. These days you just never know.” Meyers is being charged with 31 counts of petty theft and a fine of up to $25,000. Meyers declined to comment but has entered a plea of not guilty and is now awaiting trial.
*** This is a short story that will be published in this years Exit 109. The arts and literary magazine will be up for grabs at The Octopus Garden Premier on April 18 at Heth Plaza from 4:00-6:00pm! Come see us and grab your own copy to read this short story and view many other pieces! ***
Bethany clicked “Send” and her message posted to the forum. She had been sending messages back and forth with Matt for a little less than three months now. When she had first been contacted by Matt’s screen name, “USNavalstud”, she figured that he was some loser. She had him pegged as a sad, bored, married man in his early thirties who resented his family, career, and life; and, for the most, she was right. He was a frightened little man who only flirted with a sexual identity online.
He was fun to flirt with. They would chat about risque subject matters; various sexual scenarios they dreamed of, fantasies which he never dared share with his wife. One night, she snapped a photo of herself in just her bra and panties; he fell silent for a few minutes, and then asked if she wanted a picture of him in return. Playing the part of a good tease, she said that she could wait as she had to go to bed.
Bethany had not been lying on that account, she was a freshman in the local community college and she had Intro to Statistics at 8am. She knew that Matt would be practically chewing on his keyboard until he could send her a picture of what would most likely be his erect penis. He would have to wait. After Intro to Statistics, Bethany was meeting her best friend and partner in crime, Emma, for lunch and a study date. After which, she had Composition at 2pm and then US History at 4pm.
Emma gabbed at her about the new Hollywood Undead album on iTunes around mouthfuls of a flat-bread salad wrap. Bethany couldn’t help but think about Matt. She had all but figured out exactly how she would seduce, and then have, this new guy. Emma had to throw a ring of sliced onion at her to get her attention.
“You’re playing with fire,” Emma said, “Meeting guys for sex on the Internet? Are you stupid or just tired of life on this planet?”
“Whatever. They’re all alike – they think with their dicks.” Bethany waved off Emma’s chiding by pointing out that in the past two years she had become quite the man eater. It was true. From her first encounter at 16 to her recent foray into BDSM; men were but playthings to her and they all thought with their dicks. She always came out satisfied, glutted, and repleted. Only one had ever escaped her, Jason; a 36 year old welder. Jason was an odd one. Aside from having a strange obsession about salt in his food, he had a knack for avoiding messy situations and a kind of luck that was just uncanny.
“Ever see that movie, ‘Strange Land?’” asked Emma around a half-chewed mouthful of what seemed to be chicken salad. “Where Dee Snyder plays a psycho and meets girls online and then tortures them?”
Bethany laughed. “No one is going to want to torture me when they see tits like this.” She grabbed her bosoms and squeezed for emphasis. “Besides, all of that stuff about serial killers online is urban legend.”
“So, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and New Orleans John were all legend? Try reading a book sometime.”
Before she was able to offer up any more on the subject, she was cut off loudly by Bethany. “Tits!” Not only was she squeezing her breasts, but now she had hopped up and was trying to hit Emma in the head with them. Emma did her best to glower as she almost lost the last of her salad but quickly gave in and laughed with her best friend.
He looked at the pegboard on the wall of his workshop. Refusing to become a creature of habit, he perused the selection before him. One must not grow stagnant and remain with the same instrument for too long, after all. Systematically he went over every tool which hung before him. After several long moments, he selected the three-pound sledge hammer, lifted it from its pegs on the board and placed it into a brown leather duffel bag.
Bethany had been driving for over three hours now and was beginning to merge onto I-40 W when the psychic i-Pod began playing “Still Remains” by The Stone Temple Pilots. This was her most recent “favorite” song, having discovered it about two months ago on the local classic rock radio station. She adjusted the volume slightly inside of her white Escort and began to sing along with Scott Weiland. She hoped that she and Matt would be able to make love while this song played.
Slightly annoyed that Emma had bowed out of acting as safety net and travel companion, Bethany cracked open a Red Bull with one hand and sipped tentatively. As the song ended, she grunted her disapproval in her choice of energy drinks. “This lone wolf shit is for the birds. How any guy does it is beyond me.” Emma’s alleged excuse for bailing on her this weekend was studying. More likely that Emma was jonesing for some Black Ops and the PlayStation Network was hosting a double experience point weekend.
Bethany refused to allow the lack of Emma to turn the weekend into a total wash. However, if Matt was a no show or even worse — a sissy, a troll, ten years older than his pictures suggested or some gimp – she would simply excuse herself outside of his hotel room because she forgot her bag of toys in the car. Then, she would run like hell.
Of course, once freed of the undesirable, she had a weekend to kill in Nashville. Jason had once mentioned a place called Jack’s World Famous Barbecue. With a guy like Jason, this place was most likely worth checking out. Saturday would be leisurely sightseeing. If she was in no rush to come home early on Sunday, the Titans were hosting the Carolina Panthers.
First things first, she decided; don’t put the cart before the horse. She would first find out if she was getting laid tonight. Then, she would have a bite to eat.
It was just slightly past 8 when she finally arrived at the hotel. The sun had fully set, and the sounds of a Nashville night were beginning to stir. Even before she set foot out of her white Escort, she had made up her mind that she loved this city. She sent a text to Emma letting her know that she had arrived. Three minutes later, with no answer from Emma, Bethany checked her makeup in the rear view, grabbed her overnight bag and got out of the car.
After the final set of texts with Matt confirming the room number, Bethany knocked on door 214. As she watched the shadows move across the small peep hole, she immediately snapped herself into something that most would consider to be good posture. The door slowly opened, revealing a tall man with short cropped brown hair, large brown eyes, and a spattering of freckles. He was of an average build wearing a green and black rugby polo and khakis. He smiled shyly at her. If this was indeed “Matt”, then he was even more of a loser than she had imagined.
Awkward, she noticed a slight twinge in her stomach. Not butterflies or the anticipation of a new lover’s first kiss. Something different.
“Why do these guys always look better in their pictures,” she wondered to herself. “Matt?” she said, giving a beaming smile.
He smiled a little more widely. “Yeah…”
“Oh. My. God! It is so good to meet you!” She hopped up and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him on the cheek.
A whiff of the fragrance he was wearing made her frown slightly against his neck. It was light, not too overpowering, Notes of sugar, vanilla and something fruity.
She drew back and looked up at him, fluttering her eyelashes and then breathlessly whispered “Are you going to invite me in, baby?”
He blushed despite himself and smiled. It was quite genuine, and she was suddenly glad for her smoldering display. He stepped back and to the left and allowed her to come inside. As he was closing the door, he slipped the “Do Not Disturb” sign onto the outer handle.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs at the knees and smiled at him. He regarded her briefly and looked down at his lap in which his hands were folded. “How was your drive?”
Bethany was now beginning to lose her patience and decided to take the bull by the horns right there and then. She slipped off her sandals, and stood up, stretching as she did so.
“Well, I have been on the road for the better part of six hours…” she began as she pulled her top off over her head and dropped it on the floor. She reached behind herself, unclasping her bra and sliding it off of her shoulders and down her arms allowing her breasts to spill out. “… and I am all sorts of tense”. She walked slowly towards him and without waiting for any nod of approval, sat down in his lap and kissed him fully on the mouth. “Do you know where a girl like me can relieve some tension?”
It was not long at all before he had her tied to the bed. In fact, Bethany could have sworn that Matt broke some sort of speed record for getting a woman’s hands secured to a headboard. Her hands had been tied with nylon cord that went around the back of the headboard and hung across the bed knobs which adorned the corners. Her legs were spread eagle by means of nylon cord around her ankles which ran down and between the mattress and box springs. He had allowed her a few moments to get her panties off before he tied her in place, but aside from removing his shirt, he remained dressed. He had placed a brown leather duffel bag on the dresser and was rummaging through it, probably for toys.
Growing slightly bored, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the sultriest voice she could muster. “Come on baby, get out of those pants and show me what you have for me.” She became aware of his heavy breathing and that he must be standing near her now. She smiled, opened her eyes and looked up at him.
Over his head was a sort of sack, a pillowcase perhaps . . . his eyes shining at her through two holes which had been encircled by black streaks of what was perhaps shoe polish. A horizontal line which must have been there to represent a mouth was several inches below the eyes. The sack was off white, dirty with sweat stains, dark smears and fingerprints of sienna, onyx, and viscera. She also became very aware of the large hammer which he held in his right hand over his head.
She had enough time to blurt out a rather surprised “Oh shit,”. Then the hammer plummeted towards her face.
He washed himself in the shower. The cold water sprayed over his body, and he felt calm. Lathering, rinsing, and repeating would have to wait until he got home. He did not want to leave them too much evidence, after all. As for the body, he would be taking it with him and disposing of it somewhere far away from this hotel.
He turned off the shower, stepped out and toweled himself dry. He began to dress and smugly looked at his reflection in the mirror. It was at that moment that he noticed something was terribly wrong. The mirror also held the bed in its reflection. The bed, with its gore-soaked pillow and stains; the nylon cords were still looped around the bed knobs and across the mattress. However, there was no girl. The girl, whose face was obliterated, smashed into nothingness, was not on the bed where he left her.
He took four deliberate, bold strides out of the bathroom and into the main room, stopping just before the foot of the bed. That was when something heavy, most likely his hammer, struck him in the back of the head.
He first became aware of the pain in his head and neck. Not only from the blow which had incapacitated him, but also in which the way he was sitting. He was tied to the bed, but in an upright position with his back against the headboard. He then became aware of the dryness in his mouth as well as the particular aroma of the gag in his mouth. Viewing himself in the mirror which was on the wall, it appeared that whoever had restrained him had used the girl’s panties to fashion a makeshift gag. His eyes then settled on the woman sitting in the chair by the door. Only the nude lower half of her body was visible in the low light of the room.
“A gentleman would make sure that a lady was satisfied before he finished up, you know. . . .” This was the girl’s voice, but the woman in the chair could not be her. Her legs were much longer, more muscular, and had not been shaved in weeks. The hands and forearms which rested upon the arm rests were far more rugged than the girl’s, but that was her voice, soft, sweet and mocking. The person in the chair leaned forward, her breasts considerably shrunken against the muscles of her chest and two rows of nipples running down her abdomen. “And to top it off, you just had to cum in my eye, didn’t you?” The face looking at him was hamburger. “That stings worse than anything, you know.” The face, pulling itself together resembled Bethany’s, but it was flattened, hairy, and fierce. She stood up out of the chair and walked- padded- towards the bed. What should be a five-foot-one girl was now a hunched-over Amazon of nearly eight feet. “Is this what guys like you are into?” Her voice was becoming deep, raspy, and guttural; almost as if she were beginning to growl her words rather than speak them. “I mean, is hurting a little girl what it takes to make you happy?” Her ears, pointed and broad, began to poke out of the mane of hair that was completely covering her face. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth for a long moment. “You’ve really cramped my plans for the weekend.” She looked at him one more time and then her blue eyes faded to complete black. “On the plus side, though. . .” The werewolf began to salivate. ”I won’t need to call out for dinner tonight.”
We sat in silence for nearly an hour. The rain was just beginning to let up, though a slate-gray sky kept the atmosphere dark. Beside me Will was stationary in his seat, only breaking the stillness with the flicks of his thumb on the phone in his hand. Vague shapes passed us by behind fogged windows, but we paid them no heed as the bus tumbled along towards our stop.
“Hey—Aaron reply to the text yet?”
Will’s voice nearly startled me. I was beginning to drift off, but quickly straightened myself and gave a shrug. I took out my phone and checked the lock screen, but no notifications were there. “Nope. Probably hasn’t seen it yet.”
“You sent it to him at lunch, though!”
“You’d think he’d have told us what he needed, sending a message like that. Sounded urgent.”
“If it were urgent, he probably would’ve called.” I straightened my arms out in front of me, stretching the weariness from them. “And if it were urgent, he wouldn’t’ve called us.”
Will sighed audibly, but the turn of his head to the front of the bus was all the agreement I needed. There were several more minutes of silence.
“You bring any of those pills, man? I’m starting to get a headache and this ride is lasting forever.”
“Nope. Ran out.”
Will furrowed his brow. “Don’t you think you should get those filled?”
“I will. I’m seeing him tomorrow.”
“Well damn, man, I probably could’ve just slept through this!”
“You’re the reason I ran out so fast.”
Will gave a quiet snort, but let the subject fall. We were beginning to slow, the quiet whine of the brakes announcing the end of our trip. Aaron’s neighborhood was not too much of a walk from the stop we were getting off at, and it seemed like the weather would refrain for the time being as we disembarked.
Only the sound of our footsteps on rain-soaked pavement accompanied us as we walked the sidewalk, punctuated here and there by the hum of a cars engine and the hiss of their tires through puddles in the road. My leg protested almost the whole way to Oak Grove, the enormous bruise on my shin crying out against any activity.
I kept moving, though, and Will did not notice the slight winces that crossed my face with each step.
Aaron’s house was not grandiose to any extent, but it was reasonable enough for his tastes. With two floors and a dull beige paint job, it stood as the clone of several older buildings put up for sale down the street. It was clear that he had not taken a power-washer to the place for a while, as small dots of mold were beginning to pop up here and there between the exterior paneling. Will winced.
“You’d think Sarah would’ve gotten him to clean the place up. It’s not like her to let it get this bad…”
His words faltered under my withering glare, and he brought a hand up to fix his mussed hair. Though it was no longer raining, a low-lying fog had moved in and was beginning to mist our clothes and skin.
“Sorry, I know—”
“You’re fine,” I said.
“Yeah, but I know it wasn’t cool for—”
“You didn’t care then, why should you now?”
“Dude, it was her choice. And you know it wasn’t like that.”
“It’s fine. She probably just hasn’t seen it yet. His problem now.”
Will looked at me for a little while longer, with an infuriating air of what could have been pity. It did not much matter to me at the time, though, as I was not really paying much attention. I climbed my way up the short flight of steps to the house’s porch, waited for Will to get up beside me, and rang the doorbell.
We waited half a minute, growing colder by the second in the misty weather. Will reached out and hit the bell again. We both heard the tone play throughout the house, but received the same response. I turned to watch as Will checked the driveway again, but Aaron’s blue ford was still parked where I remembered it.
“This asshole better be home. I have shit to do today.” Will shivered and replaced his hands in his jacket pockets.
“Maybe he can’t hear us?” I offered, albeit halfheartedly. I punched the doorbell two more times and waited. When once again answered with silence, Will stepped forward and reached for the door’s handle.
“Why’s he leave this stuff unlocked?”
“It’s Aaron,” I said. Once again, this seemed enough for Will as he gave a deprecating shake of his head and pushed the door wide. Inside there was darkness, and a brief moment when my heart sped up and sweat ran colder than the insidious vapor that clung like a damp blanket. Then we stepped in, and turned on the light.
It was a handsome entrance room, with an open archway to the kitchen on the left and living room on the right. Stairs set into the right wall climbed up to the second floor, and in the middle between the stairs and kitchen was a shortcut to the dining room. Aaron’s shoes were piled beside the doormat, with Sarah’s flats beside them. The walls were painted white, darkened here and there by odd shadows and aged blemishes. Will looked at the shoes quizzically before taking his own off and walking into the kitchen. I turned, setting the door’s deadbolt and hanging my jacket on a nearby hook.
“Hey, come check this out!”
Will sounded excited, and despite my leg I moved quickly to investigate. He was no longer in the kitchen, but the dining room. I cast my eyes around to see what he was referring to, and it didn’t take long. One of the chairs was upturned, lying on its back, and the table was slightly crooked, pushed nearly a foot forward on the right side.
I furrowed my brow. “What’s that?”
Will, who had probably looked around a little bit before calling me, narrowed his eyes and cast them around the room and down the hallway. His voice was quiet, his tone suddenly serious. “You think someone broke in here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Shh! Shit, man, what if they’re still in here?”
“We rang the doorbell four times.”
“Where’s Aaron? Where’s Sarah?”
His steely glare was disconcerting, definitely, and I hardened my expression as well. We stayed in that room for several more seconds as the soft sound of rain suddenly began pattering against the roof. A tree branch, blown by the wind, scratched against the nearby window. He seemed at the same time worried for his friend and scared to leave the dining room.
“Maybe they’re upstairs?”
His words, or at least their tone, were almost pitiful to hear. I had never thought of Will as a coward, but this was a side of him I had not seen before. He seemed genuinely frightened at the thought of going up to look for Aaron and Sarah . . . so much for the bravado he always seemed to show. When he finally moved away from the table to venture for the stairs, I turned my eyes back to the dining room one last time. The chair had not moved from last I remembered, and a low-set bench was still knocked to the side of the room.
My shin gave a throb.
Every step we took stairs creaked under our weight as we climbed the stairs, the carpet on the steps doing nothing to muffle our sound. It was growing steadily darker. None of the lights were on. Every picture hanging from the walls seemed to be watching us. I stopped when I reached the top of the staircase, but kept my eyes on Will as he slowly moved on. My heart racing in my chest, my senses clear, I made an effort to stay silent as I crept after him as he reached the end of the hallway and Aaron’s and Sarah’s bedroom.
I didn’t have to look up to see the scene that kept Will motionless, that brought his hand up to his mouth and held back the words struggling to rise to the surface. I did not have to see the two forms lying in utter stillness on the bed, an expression of confusion and fear frozen on their face. All I had to feel was my aching arm, pushed to exertion twice today already, and it snaked under Will’s jaw and locked.
The phone on the bedside table buzzed in reminder of its unread texts. Will’s hands tried wrenching the arm away, growing weaker by the second. I turned my eyes on the woman in the bed as the body fell limp in my arms, and kept squeezing.
The water-slicked asphalt reflected the slate-gray sky above as the bus screeched to a halt in front of me. Its doors opened, and I climbed in, stretching out my arm and wincing at the pain of each step. I laid my head against the cold, fogged window, and closed my eyes.