Mother’s Day

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Photo credit: Patrick Dobeson
Mama Six loved that turquoise quilt, the one with the black horses and winding river. It reminded her of the time she was a little girl at the ranch, the first time she saw the wild pony grazing near the water’s edge. The thick blanket restored within her a sense of hope and youth, which is why we wrapped her in it after Cecil killed her.

“Isn’t it a little ironic?” Cecil huffed as he tore the rotten paddle through the algae-infested water. A brown leaf clung to his wet chin.

“Huh?”

Cecil stopped rowing for a moment. “It’s Mother’s Day, and…” His brown eyes darted from the turquoise quilt burrito at the center of the boat and back at me. He pulled his lips to the side, the same smirk that started it all. Who knew a sneer warranted an impaled shoulder? It gave another meaning to knife in the back.

The three of us skidded across the water in the boat, like a puck on ice hurling towards the net. Could he have been right? Had it really been Mother’s Day? Suddenly the ball of fire in my gut expanded. “Just keep rowing,” I spat, feeling his hot glare drill a hole between my eyes. “We need to make a story, a different one than last time.”

“What’s wrong with the one we used the first time? You can’t think they’d notice, or even care – just the thought of possible abuse knocks them sideways.”

We row in silence for the next twenty minutes, both of us simultaneously scanning for a good dumping spot and devising a convincing excuse. He could have definitely chosen a better day to murder Mama Six – that was for sure. I swear I could hear our skin scorching and bubbling under the hot, Texan sun. The water that splashed off our oars did little to cool us off, and only formed an annoying puddle at our feet. Mama Six’s blood leaking everywhere didn’t help matters, either.

Then suddenly I saw it. “There!” I pointed towards the darkest pit in the lake. “That’s where we’ll drop her.” Cecil begins unwrapping Mama Six, and I prepare the boulders. “One on each limb ought to do it,” I think out loud.

“I wonder what she would think of us.”

If Cecil kept it up, he’d be the one sleeping with the fishes. “What now?” I couldn’t tell if the exhaustion in my voice was from rowing God-knows-how-far with a boat full of stones, or from my brother’s sad attempts for small talk.

“Mom.” He smiled sheepishly.

I wait to reply after I got the last stone attached. “Who the hell cares, Cecil? She left us, despised us for being different. So why waste any thought on that bitch?” There’s no way I could tell him that I had wondered the same thing after all the other times. As each Mama stopped breathing, I can’t help but to think about a life where the accidents weren’t necessary. “We got each other. That’s all that matters, right?”

Cecil blinked tears away and gripped Mama Six’s ankles. “You’re right, Blaise. Now let’s drop this wench.”

On three, we heave the plump lady off the side of the boat, and she sinks like an anchor, the only evidence of her existence dancing bubbles disappearing on the green water’s surface.

“Now what?” Cecil asked. We both stared into the abyss, numb, hearts pulsing in our throats.

I took a breath before sitting back down and grasping the wet paddle once more. “Now we go back. I figured we’d use Mama Three’s story.”

Cecil giggled. “Seriously? That one again? I was thinking about Two’s, personally. I don’t know if I can fake that again. At least not as convincingly.”

We snickered together, tears staining our cheeks, but mostly from sheer anxiety and fatigue than from hilarity. My fingernails dug into my paddle, sending splinters in my nail beds. Blood dripped from my fingertips as I wept and laughed with hysteria. “Happy Mother’s Day, Cecil.”

Cecil barely held a straight face, forcing back frenzied shouts. “You too, bro. Maybe Seven’ll be the end?”

“Fat chance,” I chimed, winking. “There are still a few Mother’s Days in our future yet.”

 

Slash and Burn

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Photo credit: Kahlil Gibran

Another year, another harvest. Plow, sow, reap, repeat. It is this endless cycle of fragile expectation that keeps me at my post, always watching. Dale brought me in the day of his son, George’s second birthday; now, Dale’s long gone, and George has taken his father’s place at the farm. Every day is slave’s labor in the fresh oven of Hell, but it’s a living.

George looked at me, sweat dripping from his brow and neck, his shirt drenched and covered with soot. “I see you’re doing a swell job as always, Jem.” He sticks his pick in the parched earth and heads to the hose. “If only you can make it goddamn rain,” he spits.

The truth is that the old Whittaker farm’s seeing its last years; corn’s at an all-time low and the cows just ain’t producing like they used to. Much of the silo’s gone empty, thanks to a rough winter and an unplanned vacation to the Bahamas – George’s interest in the land has gone flat. I can see it in his periwinkle eyes; it’s in the way he walks – it’s hopeless.

“Take me with you,” I mutter, but the hot wind takes it away, just like it does everything else.

Suddenly, a glistening raven lands on my shoulder. Its beady eyes sported a moisture with which I am unfamiliar, like looking into a bubbling oil pit. Its very presence hushed the wind. “You know what happens to bags like you once the land is sterile?” it asks, tauntingly. “They burn ‘em. Burn ‘em all.”

“You’re lying!” I hiss, biting through my stitched jaw. “George will never let that happen.” Would he? But the raven was already gone, a single feather stuck tangled in my shoulder. It wasn’t the first time I encountered the black pest, this I knew, but the details of our past conversation are lost to me.

Hours pass, and nothing changes. George’s pick still rests where he placed it last, and his once full bag of seeds is reduced to a bag of bird feed and a wilted canvas. The bird’s words resonate in my empty head, and suddenly twilight arrives with a refreshing, cool dew; shiny crickets butt against my dilapidated post. The night grows thick quick, and before long I am left alone in the unwelcoming darkness. There is no light shining from George’s house; it’s the one that allows me to rest secure each night, one that shone consistently for the past 47 years. Extinguished and deserted, the wind steals my frantic pleas: “Please, maker, let it rain. Let it rain.” I don’t want to burn.

#

Another day, another second closer to oblivion. George has not shown, for days, and I am forced to endure the silence and shadows of the season without my best friend.

“What did I tell you?” The raven flutters above, before landing this time on my head, crunching my straw hat – it was Dale’s. “I have to say I’m surprised, though; you held up for nearly five decades and largely unscathed. You’re not like the others, Jem.”

Don’t call me that,” I warn, forcing the avian nuisance off of me. “They’ll show. He wouldn’t abandon his father’s land like that.”

No amount of thrusts can keep the bird from flying back on me. Its scaly feet ripped holes in my fabric. “Gone, gone, gone,” it sang, tearing stuffing from my interior, laughing. “So weeps the lonely scarecrow!”

Its cackles keep me awake for weeks.

#

Any sign of George and his family are obscured under a blanket of scorching sand. Sometimes I can make out the handle of the pick still stuck in the earth, and aside from the rickety, old house, it’s like they never existed. They took the truck late one night, along with the rest of their belongings. Looters got everything else. There was no goodbye, nothing at all, for me. All the time I kept the land secure amounted to nothing in the eyes of the deceitful human. Every modicum of hope I held in my flimsy body was eradicated with each thump of a hammer against a white For Sale sign near the house’s front porch.

The raven’s the only real friend I’ve ever had, I realize. While the traitors retreated into the unknown, the bird stayed at my perch, whispering its warnings and tales.

“Tell me about our first encounter,” I demand, my gaiety gone with the deserters. Visions of a different place, somewhere far away, fade in and out of my vision. “I recall a brown house and a little girl. What do you know about that?”

The raven is reluctant to speak, but eventually it gives in. “As I’m sure you’re realizing, this isn’t the first time you’ve been abandoned by the bipedal demons.” Rage boils within my sloppily stitched torso. “As a matter of fact, this is about the third time I’ve told you my stories,” the raven’s tone lifts. “I appreciate your attentiveness, given the circumstance.”

My eyes scan the empty, blue horizon, and suddenly it comes to me. “How many times would you like to tell those stories?”

The raven’s at a loss for words, ruffling its feathers.

Let me down. Let me ruin their world just as they’ve regularly ruined mine.” Passion surges from my head down to my arms and legs. In an effort to make me seem more familiar to George, Dale gave me a pair of gloves and some old boots – it’s a shame he had such a spoiled son.

It doesn’t take the raven long to clip my binds, and I fall to the ground. Memories of my past lives, of all my brethren’s lives, populate my mind, and I scream – my voice obliterating the thick wind. With renewed animation, I grasp the traitor’s old pick, the wooden handle cool against my glove.

Another life, another harvest. A cycle shattered. I get to work.

Fill the Mold

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Photo Credit: A.M.Martens
Nobody visits Grandma anymore. Some say a life without the heavenly aroma of freshly baked cinnamon cookies on a chilly Christmas morning just isn’t worth living; in the brick wall of reality, Grandma was their keystone. That is, until she brought in the ceramic head.

“If you listen close, you’ll hear it, too,” she whispered, waiting a few seconds before adding: “You hear its beautiful song?” But it was always a simple no from me. No, I did not hear the statue’s funny quips about why an apple is dangerous, nor did it explain its opinion on healthcare. “Just listen, Martin! It’s all you need to do! Listen!”

“Maybe you should ask Greta,” I shoot, grinning at the thought of Grandma bugging my older sister with such nonsense. “You know she’s Wiccan?” As if that was some clarification.

The statue stared at me from its post on the mantle, largely unfinished. She claimed she couldn’t find the right color for them, thus she left them blank. Many times, I found myself staring into the pearl pits for what seemed like hours, thinking of the conversations we would have if it could speak.

Grandma pulled me in closer, my nose nearly pressed into hers. She didn’t blink. “Abadii tells me of the things you do behind the door, Martin. Tell me you’re not becoming one of them. Are you listening?” She broke away, her words turning to tiny whispers as she paced around the room. Apparently, she gave the head a name.

“Becoming what, Grandma?” Despite my trying to appear unfazed, the nervous quiver to my voice betrayed me. She never gave me a straight answer, always a concerned eyebrow and a painful groan.

The statue was only on the mantle for a day before my dad had to call an ambulance. “I don’t know what the fuck is happening, Cheryl, but you need to come home – now,” I heard him yell over the phone to Mom. Then to me: “What did she do after you called for me to come get you?”

“Can’t remember,” I replied, a lie. There was no forgetting the moment Abadii opened its eyes and whispered the command, healing my shattered soul.

The ceramic head still rests on the mantle where Grandma put it, though it now casts its glares behind crimson eyes; blood-spattered lips prepare its dark decrees. And I listen. For the first time, I finally listen, and its song is beautiful.

Inheritance

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Photo credit: Dave Winer

While Beatrice enjoyed living in an upscale apartment in the heart of New York and loved her large paychecks from Crown Plow Inc., there were just too many people. She could give presentations to teams of superiors detailing a new marketing strategy she had developed – dozens of old, white men packed in a cramped cubicle – but put her on a similarly dense sidewalk, clopping past mustache machos and Vera Wang’s, and she loses it. Crumbles.

That’s why she tried talking herself out of going to the reading of her grandfather’s will. Or maybe it was simply that Beatrice didn’t feel like seeing those two-faced, overweight relatives of hers. She can picture them all crying, saying how sorry they were for losing such a great man, all the while eyeing a fresh plate of bruschetta and other treats her chef sister, Balie, whipped up. They say they’re there to celebrate the life of an old man, but they’re infinitely more intrigued with the passing of his $30 million estate and the award-winning hors d’oeuvres.

“You’ve got to come, Bea.” When Balie heard the news of their grandfather’s death, she was in the middle of a signing in Chicago. The second edition of her cookbook was earning her millions. “He would have wanted you there.”

Beatrice held the phone with her shoulder as she entered her apartment. The cat had made a mess with the lily bouquet her mother had sent her for her birthday. She seethed with irritation, but patted the damned cat anyway. “I’m drowning in work, Balie. And besides, he and I haven’t talked since I was a little girl. At Aunt Della’s wedding, remember?”

“I know how that feels, but it can wait until you get in Sunday, can’t it?”

“George is expecting a full report by 8am Monday.”

Balie breathed into the phone. “Beatrice.”

“I’m sorry, but I just can’t right now.”

“For somebody who hardly knew you, you’re sure getting off alright.” Now they shared irritation. “He’s leaving you his farm, Beatrice.”

The admission made Beatrice choke on her wine. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. That’s why you’ve got to come. Mom wanted to wait to tell you herself, but you know…”

She was shocked at the news. She had no contact whatsoever with the old man for nearly twenty years, and he decides to leave her ownership of his huge ranch? “Why would he do that? I’m not even his biological granddaughter. I’m adopted for Christ’s sake.” She chewed on a cheesy cracker. “Do you know what he left you?”

“I got his cabin in Wisconsin and some other things. So does this mean you’ll come?”

“I guess I can send an email to George…”

“Good girl. Listen, I have to go. Steve’s home. Love ya.”

Beatrice sat the cracker platter on the coffee table and flipped on the news. She drifted off on the sofa wondering what the hell she was going to do with a big ass farm in Pennsylvania.

#

“Honey!” A woman of about sixty, adorned with knock-off jewelry and White Diamond perfume clutched Beatrice, crushing her against two big pearl necklaces.

Forcing a smile, Beatrice said, “Hi, Mom. I’m sorry about Grandfather.”

Her mother joined her in a guest room upstairs. It was the only quiet place in the Victorian manor. “You must not have heard.” She watched as Beatrice’s face went to strained sorrow to white-washed confusion. “Honey, you’re grandfather’s death was no accident, and I’ll leave it at that.”

“Somebody…?”

She nodded. “It was a travesty. All over the news. But it’s too much for these Christian lips to mutter.” Her mother closed and locked the door, bringing a finger to her mouth, waiting for some distant relatives to pass. She resumed. “Now Balie told me that you already know about your inheritance.”

Beatrice cocked her head and smirked. “Mom, what’s wrong? You’re acting weird. Val didn’t slip you some of his Liquid Surprise, did he? Because, you know that’s just butterscotch and tequila, right?”

“No, no, no. Hush, baby. You have to listen.” She handed Beatrice a rubberstamped note. It had yellowed with time. “He and I both decided it was best to have you as the keeper of our secrets. Not even Balie knows of this, so you can’t say anything. Hear me?”

Beatrice figured the tequila got the best of her mother. “Sure, Mom.” She couldn’t take the woman seriously. Secrets? The only secrets they cared to keep were the family recipes and the fact that sometimes they skipped Sunday sermons to drink soda on the coast. They were such sinners. Rebels.

“I need you to leave here now and go to the farm. Don’t open the letter until you get there. Promise me.” The woman revealed in her mother’s eyes was not one with which Beatrice was familiar. This was a seriously ill lady who needed some professional attention. “Beatrice, promise me.”

Regardless of the lunacy of the case, Beatrice enjoyed the thought of escaping all the madness. “Fine, I will. It’s right off Milwey and next to the old food warehouse, right?”

Her mother yanked her arm, her sharp magenta nails drawing blood. “Heavens, no! Honey, it’s not that farm. I’m talking about the one just about thirty minute’s hike from this manor, maybe less if you walk fast.” Her face was flushed, nostrils flared. “It’ll all be explained. Just go. Don’t tell anybody. Hurry.

Beatrice was out of the house in a split second, evading Balie and the others with ease. They didn’t act like they cared at all that she had left. The fresh air lifted her spirits, which she desperately needed after the strange encounter with her mother. She made a point to inform Balie of everything when she got back. She was not one to keep secrets of any kind.

The fresh autumn breeze made the hike easy in black leggings and tennis shoes. Beatrice was relieved to have decided against the heels and skirt for the reunion. The last thing she wanted was to draw suspicion for her fancy dressing – the family had a disliking towards anybody who displayed their wealth so nonchalantly. But it meant everything that the lower-class relatives appeared financially comfortable. It was just a big sham.

Sure enough, there was a farm about two miles from the mansion. At least there used to be one. All that remained on the parched earth was a metal silo behind a bent, barbed wire fence. The silo had been refashioned into a larger structure, complete with a power generator and a door.

“Okay, Grandfather. What did you have to tell me?” She whispered, ripping the letter’s black seal. The seal was etched with a wingless bird. It was almost dinosaur-like upon first glance.

From the envelope, she found a tarnished, double-sided key and a note. While the letterhead consisted of strange symbols Beatrice had never seen before, the message was very clear: You know what to do.

Only she didn’t. Sure, she knew the key unlocked the silo, but what then? “I really should have stayed home. I’ve got a bunch of crazy fucks for family,” she mumbled quietly before popping the key in the padlock on the silo door. After a few twists, the lock fell and the door slowly waved open. The beastly creak echoed throughout the chamber and gave Beatrice a bad taste in her mouth.

The smell was foul, unlike anything Beatrice had ever experienced. She flicked the light switch by the door, and the inside of the silo was illuminated. But she didn’t find grain.

The silo was hollow save for a spiraling, wire staircase that went all the way to the top. Hundreds of savagely torn corpses, if not thousands, were stretched along the wall, some overlapping others, kept dangling on hay hooks molded to the inside. The floor was a toxic blood mire. Beatrice fell to her knees at the sight, horrified, tears streaming her face. She tried to scream, but nothing came out but a series of suffocated gasps.

Then she noticed a hatch leading underground, kept shut by another padlock, this one sporting the same strange wingless bird on the rubberstamp. Beatrice looked at the other side of the key and back to the hatch. She was paralyzed, unfazed by the pungent odor of decaying bodies. There was no way she was opening that hatch – for all she knew it was a portal to Hell.

Beatrice could not begin to understand what she was seeing. Every corpse was ripped in a similar fashion, and the longer she looked, she realized the bodies made a pattern just like the one on the letterhead of the note.

“Now you know.” Her mother came up behind and spooked her, the silo amplifying her scream. She fell and sobbed under her mother’s forceful grasp. Her nails sunk into Beatrice’s shoulders. “Now you know your grandfather was an artist. There’s no doubt he was troubled, but sometimes I find myself sitting right here where you are, just marveling.” Her voice smelled of stale Sulphur.

Beatrice was still speechless, fighting against the woman’s tight embrace. She just wanted to go back to her apartment in New York, back to her boring life at the firm, back to her mischievous cat.

“But I’m afraid this is not the secret I was talking about.” She pointed at the hatch. “In there. Go on.” The woman picked Beatrice up and pulled her towards the hatch. No matter how hard she kicked and screamed Beatrice could not get her to stop. The once frail sixty-something had found the strength of an athlete in an hour’s time.

“Mom, stop! Please just stop!” She was covered in the bloody mixture, it burned her skin and ate holes in her clothes. “Momma!”

The woman grunted and cackled menacingly. “Don’t you see, Beatrice. He chose you. From the very start.” She dropped Beatrice for a second to unlock the hatch. It wasn’t long enough for Beatrice to regain balance. “It’s why we adopted you. You’re the chosen one, baby.” Then: “You’re the one who will bring the Forgotten back to our realm.”

“Mom, stop!” She kicked the old lady and clawed at her face, allowing her ample time to get to her feet and sprint out of the silo. She jumped over the barbed wire fence, and darted for the manor. She saw Balie and her brother Brandon off in the far reach of the field. “Guys!” She caught up to them. “Please, call the police.” Balie was holding her phone, searching for a signal, while Brandon grasped a slugger.

Balie was dumbstruck. “What the fuck happened to you, Bea?” She hugged her sister. “Mom told me and Brandon to follow her out here, but we lost her. Did you see her? Is she okay?”

“We’ve got to get out of here.” Beatrice was crazed. Her heart was beating in her throat. She turned to her brother, forcing herself to speak between cries. “Brandon, something’s wrong with Mom. We have to get the police.”

Balie tugged at Beatrice. “Come on, Bea. I don’t have cell signal out here, so we need to go back to the –” A sharp blast whizzed past and struck Balie. The blood blinded Beatrice as her faceless sister was flung to the ground. Lifeless in an instant.

Suddenly Brandon cracked the slugger against Beatrice’s knee. He was dragging her by her hair back to the silo before she had chance to scream.

“I got her, Momma.” Brandon tossed Beatrice to the ground, who was wide-eyed with shock and fear. He flung off a fistful of hair that had laced around his fingers. “Val got Balie.” He didn’t sound disappointed.

“Such a shame about Balie. She had a bright future, but if Val felt it was necessary then I won’t argue.” She gestured toward the hatch. “Now throw her in, Brandon, so we can begin the ritual. Your grandmother is decidedly hungry.”

Awake

My ears burn from the doctor’s words and my fingernails draw hot blood from my soft palms. Terminal cancer. He also mentions another word that I don’t recognize – it might be the kind of cancer I have – but it doesn’t matter. He brought momma into the next room for more privacy, but they’re not being very quiet.

“I only brought him here, because he says he’s sleepy all the time, and I noticed he hasn’t been eating as much as he usually does. You must have done something wrong! My baby does not have cancer.” Momma chokes on the last word, and I hear her cry. If I close my eyes, I can almost see her crying; she did it a lot before daddy left. During those times she would get bruises on her arms and face, and when I asked what happened, she would pat my back and say she fell down the stairs or ran into the wall again. Eventually you would think she would walk more carefully!

Momma reenters my room and puts my hand in hers. We don’t say anything though, don’t need to; we just sit and listen to the screaming baby that is in the waiting room. I curl my arms around her and I can feel her wet eyes close on my neck. I’ll admit I’m not exactly sure what the doctor meant, now that I think about it. Grandma had cancer, but she was at my birthday party a few months ago, and she seemed just fine.

“What’s going on, momma?” I ask, my eyes tracing her sharp cheekbones as she lay on my shoulder. She always looks so pretty. “I’m going to be alright, aren’t I?”

Momma lifts her head, and her lip quivers. “You’re going to be alright, baby. It’ll just take some time.”

I want to say that that’s good, because I don’t want to miss the pizza party in Mrs. Atkinson’s class next Friday. But instead I just nod my head and smile at her. Unfortunately, that only made her cry a lot harder – which is confusing because she always says she loves my smile.

#

     A night in the hospital is not as bad as I thought it was going to be; they were giving me practically anything I wanted: ice cream, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Sponge Bob Square Pants on the television. I felt like I was breaking all kinds of rules eating after 8pm!

Finally, momma had to go back home – she wouldn’t tell me why, just that it was grown up stuff. But that was okay, because, after all, I am a big boy. I close my eyes, never breaking my smile, and think about how fun the trip in the helicopter is going to be tomorrow.

#

     Okay, the helicopter isn’t as fun as I imagined. The only time I was awake was when they were loading me into it; I didn’t wake up again until I was in another hospital room.

“How are you feeling, sweetie?” Momma strokes my cheek. She doesn’t look as pretty today as she did yesterday. Her makeup is smeared for the most part, and her hair is pulled back. The only days momma has her hair pulled back is during her “don’t-give-a-damn” days, or so she says. It could have been that the helicopter ride scared her, since she’s afraid of heights and all. I’m sure she rode with me on the helicopter. I bet she did; I just hate that I can’t remember. Thinking about things is starting to confuse me to the point that it’s possible I was awake during the helicopter ride. Wouldn’t I remember that though?

It’s not until momma gets up from my bedside that I realize she was talking to me. “I’m… Great.” The last word comes out garbled and much slower than I anticipated. Something is not right with me, and when I try to explain the truth – that I feel a little trapped in my own head – a nurse tells me not to speak. You need to rest, she says. But I’ve rested long enough; that’s all I’ve been doing since yesterday!

My new room is colored light blue and there are two big windows opposite my bed. The frilly drapes over the windows remind me of grandma’s house. But other than the machines I’m hooked into, a few baby toys, several colorful pictures on the wall, the chair that momma’s sitting in, a side table, and a closed curtain hiding what I imagine is an empty bed, the room is pretty empty and boring. I wonder why they even have such huge rooms if they don’t plan on filling them with more things. I’m about to ask why the curtain is closed, since momma and I are the only ones in here, but she speaks first.

“Grandma and Aunt Stacy are going to be here in a couple days to see you.” Hearing momma’s strong voice feels me with energy. Aunt Stacy means that I’ll get to see Aidan! I hope he brings a ball or something we can play with!

The words that leave my lips mistake me. “Why?”

“Because they want to see you. Your dad will be here tomorrow, too. He said he’d be here today, but he has a ways to travel, you know?” That is true. When I visit daddy during a few weeks in the summer, he picks me up in the early morning and we don’t get to his house until dinnertime.

Finally the question escapes my mouth. “Something is wrong with me, isn’t there?” I concentrate on momma’s face, wishing that I’ll just wake up from this dream. I’m probably still asleep on the helicopter. Yes, that must be it! There is no way daddy would come to see me this early in the year.

Momma nods her head slowly and widens her chapped lips to a grin. “Yes.” She cups my face in her hands. “But those good doctors are going to do everything they can to get you better soon.”

Suddenly I get very sleepy and before I could tell momma that I love her and that if she wanted to go home she could, my mind fills with darkness.

I open my eyes to a sunny sky. Other kids my age are scrambling around a playground, and I’m being whisked around and around on the merry-go-round – it seems to be pushing itself. I giggle after seeing a boy with a red cap and a girl playing tag.

With each turn the children playing at the park change, and the garden dies and regrows with different flowers. A few times around it rains and grows dark, then the trees die and snow falls and the place is empty. Before I know it, the sun turns pink and the sky is dyed purple and red. Other children return and are swinging on the swing sets and playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. They’re all having fun, and here I am hogging the best toy in the park.

Finally, I stop spinning and I’m left staring at a grassy field; there was no playground in sight, but there was a boy running at me. Even though I couldn’t see his face, he seems really familiar. “Hey!” I shout and run towards him. But no matter how fast we run at each other, he only becomes more and more distant until at last I see only white

I awaken, staring at a blank ceiling, and breathe an aggravated sigh. Why couldn’t I live in that world? That one seemed much more fun and interesting than this one I’m in now. Plus, if that was a dream, then all of this must be… Real.

I scream and push away whatever is touching me and kick my blanket off the bed. My foot tangled itself in some cords, causing the monitors and other machines to go crashing on the floor. I don’t want to do this anymore! Rage fills my body, but I’m trapped in my mind. My arms flail at my sides, my muscles exhausted and my heart racing.

Several pairs of hands fall upon my arms and legs, restricting me to this flat board of a bed, and I fight harder. They can’t keep me here if I don’t want to be here! This place is for sick people and keeping me here would only hurt the ones that truly need help. I have to get back home so I can do my homework and play outside and do all the things I did before I became prisoner of this bleached dungeon! I continue to gnash and squirm, until I feel a sharp pinch in my arm and a cold, unfriendly fluid slowly creep into my veins. Whatever had happened allowed me to escape myself, and what I come to scares me.

Four nurses dressed in foam-colored gowns tower over me, faces pale and astonished. The table that was once at my bedside had been thrown near the wall, colliding with the plastic bead toys. A busted bottle of water came to a slow roll on the tile floor, leaving behind a wet trail, and momma was in the in the corner crying with her head pressed against a red, raised hand print on her forearm. I must have slapped her in my fit.

I feel my face grow hot with humiliation, but before I can start to cry, whatever medicine they had given me began to work. My eyes grow heavy once more, but I vigorously shake the sleep from my face. “No!” I scream. “Please don’t make me!” The rest of my words are lost while I fade in and out of slumber: Just let me go home.

#

     “Hey.” A small hand pokes my side, rousing me from a medicated sleep. “Wake up.”

My eyes flutter away the Sand Man’s magic and I fixate on his face, captivated by his voice. My mouth forms words I haven’t been able to speak since I arrived at this new hospital. It’s weird feeling so normal. “Who are you?” It can’t be that they had let another boy stay in my room; there was an extra bed in here, but it was empty, or so I thought since the curtain hadn’t been moved. Besides, momma would have told me if I had a roommate, because that would mean I would have someone to talk to. The boy was dressed in a cream-colored gown similar to mine.

“It doesn’t matter who I am, or who you are. How about you come with me, and I’ll show you the rest of the hospital?” His tone sounds mischievous, like we would be up to no good if I went with him. But, as if he knew what I were thinking, he added, “What more could they do to you than give you another sleeping shot?”

I shrug and do my best to tear away the tubes linking my arm to the monitors and to the bag pumping a weird, clear liquid into my body; there are so many! I feel sorry for the nurses that have to attach and detach this stuff on every patient. I can mark “nurse” off from my list of things I want to be when I grow up.

He clutches my hand and I follow him out of the room and into the hallway, both of us trying to be as sneaky as possible – like that James Bond guy. Although I know eventually someone will spot me or alert the other nurses of my grand escape and take me back to my prison cell, the rush of energy this boy has given me is exciting. With him I can speak, I can walk, and I can think; three things that I haven’t been able to do clearly for a while. I’d give up pizza and ice-cream if it meant spending an hour or more with him.

“Look over there,” he says, pointing towards a trashcan in a room full of chairs. In the room are also a few fake trees, a television, and three snack machines. My eyes scan the candy bars and little bags of chips behind the thick glass. Like so many things right now, what I want is behind a solid sheet of glass.

“Dude, here.” He places a half-full bag of M&M’s, what he must have spotted in the trashcan, in my hand. “I don’t know about you, but when I was in here that’s what I mainly wanted: some freaking candy.”

“Thank you so much,” I say before dumping the rest of the bag’s contents into my mouth, but how did he know where to look? The sugary pebbles bounce between my teeth and my mouth waters like a faucet. If I were looking in a mirror, I bet I could see streams of blue and red flowing from my pink lips.

He nods and grabs my hand again. His warm skin feels like fire on my icy palms. “Now, come on. We’re not finished yet.”

“Where are we going next?” I ask, choking a little on the mouthful of chocolate and crunchy candy shells. Nowadays I’m not particularly a fan of surprises – I’ve had plenty within the past couple days.

We don’t walk long before stopping in the middle of the hall, facing a large window covering the entire wall. Outside, dawn was beginning to creep into the sky, displaying a wide array of warm colors on an otherwise gloomy sky. He brought me to see the sunrise.

“I have a feeling you’re not going to see many more of these,” he mutters quietly, squeezing my hand. “Given the chance, I’d wake up every day to watch the sun come up; it’s so beautiful, don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” I answer robotically, “but what do you mean? Momma says I’m going home soon.” Could this boy be insane? I’m not like the other people that go to the hospital; I’m perfectly fine as long as they don’t give me that sleeping shot.

He shakes his head slowly and I notice his lip tremble. In between wiping at his eyes he whispers, “You don’t get it and you never will. You only notice true beauty when it’s already gone.” Then, speaking more clearly, he says, “I’ve got to go now. I hope you can find your way back to your room.” His words bite me, and as I watch him walk away, I feel alone and scared. I try to ask him to stay with me, but my words change into slurred groans when I speak. Besides, I couldn’t even see him anymore; he just disappeared. As I walk back to my room and crawl into bed to sleep, I only hope that I see momma and daddy and Aidan tomorrow. I’d like to ask them each for another bag of M&M’s for when I get home.

#

     “Baby, can you hear me? I really hope you can.”

Daddy, is that you? Yes, I can! But can you please talk louder?

“I want you to know how much I love you – how much all of us do. Your momma, grandma, Aunt Stacy, Aidan, and I are all here with you. We’re going to stay here for as long as we can.”

Where are momma and Aidan and everybody else? I can’t see any of them.

“Miles,” grandma says, “I believe Gina needs you, more than anyone at this point. She’s locked herself in the bathroom and needs to be here with him. We don’t know how much time is left, and she’d never forgive herself if she missed him.”

What do you mean? What is going on? Can anybody hear me?

“Mom,” says Aunt Stacy, “I think Aidan wanted to say something, don’t you honey?”

Aidan! He came! But why can’t I see him? I recognize all these voices, but they’re coming in as echoed whispers. It’s like I’m in a valley, hearing people whisper at me from megaphones.

“Aw, now honey, you said you wanted to while we were in the car.”

“Can he even hear us?”

Of course I can, Aidan! Why do you think that?

“I don’t know, but what if he can? How would that make you feel if you could tell him something and choose not to? We talked about this earlier; this may be the last time you see him.”

My heart sinks and my gut bursts into flames. Where did that come from? I can’t be dying. It’s only been three days since I was at home! Three! Momma took me to the doctor because I had a little trouble sleeping – that is all! How can someone even die from something like that? I hate these doctors – it must be their fault. It is either that, or Aunt Stacy is lying to Aidan.

I feel more trapped than ever. When I try to break free, I am met with a fuzzy wall of darkness keeping me contained in this new, scarier dungeon. Please just let me come back! I’ll never escape my room and walk the halls with the boy ever again. I will stop staying up after bedtime reading my library book. Anything you want me to do, I will do! Why am I being punished?

“Hey, baby.”

Momma! Save me!

“I…” She chokes and cries. I can almost visualize her, burying her red face in her folded arms. “I…” Another cry. “Love…” A sniffle. “You…”

I love you, too! More than anything! I want nothing more than to cry with her right now.

Then I notice a bright figure in my covered vision. Everything about him is concealed behind a blinding light. He whispers something in another language as he creeps closer to me. His two shining arms rise and close in on my body.

“If I would have known you were sick, I would have brought you here long ago.”

Momma, don’t let him take me! You told me you’d always be here for me, but why can’t you help me now? I don’t want to leave you! Whatever I did to deserve this, I’m sorry!

I am now completely wrapped in his arms, and I feel his breath pouring clouds of hot steam into my head.

Please don’t take me away, mister. I will do anything just to see my momma again.

“I love you, baby.”

Momma’s last words disappear into the darkness as I am taken by the stranger.

Tell Mrs. Atkinson that I am sorry for missing the party.

#

     My eyes shoot open to a baby blue room. Painted scenes of playgrounds and clouds line the wall, which eventually opens up to two large windows revealing a city on a sunny day. Oh, the scene is so beautiful. I’d love to once again see the marvelous blue sky without the tinted glass window. In addition to the paintings some toys, a small table and a chair line opposite sides of the room.

I can also feel something different about myself that I never noticed. It’s like I’ve been given enough knowledge to skip a grade in school; things before that I did not understand are now completely clear in my mind – oh, my mind. I can actually think my own thoughts now! Did I die though? Out of all the questions I feel I know the answers to, why can’t I answer such a simple one as that?

“This is it,” I hear a woman say behind the door. So, caving to my instinct, I crawl onto the outermost bed and pull the privacy curtain around. Why am I so scared that I feel I must conceal myself? I’ve been taught that good people go to heaven after they die, so should I be afraid of this, if it is heaven?

Another woman speaks. “When will the doctor be in here?”

“It should be any moment. If your child comes to, let me know. I will be right outside.”

The door closes, silencing the room, and I cup my hand over my mouth to keep the others from hearing me breathe. I sit like this on the bed for what seems like days – behind the curtain and in this new place, time is very different and it goes by fast. At this time, the child has just finished having a fit, and I can definitely empathize.

All of this is just so familiar, and memories begin to come back to me in small pieces, though some pieces don’t fit together. What I recall most, however, is how I longed to stand while I sat in the bed for so long. Oh and there was the candy craving.

Quietly, I stand up from the bed and peek from beneath the curtain. A little light is showing from the back of the draped window, so it must be in the early morning. Then my eyes focus on the boy in the bed. His body, although still, appears tense and stiff. His arm muscles flex and his palms tighten and retract in disproportionate intervals. He was having a nightmare.

“Hey,” I whisper, poking at his side. “Wake up.” He doesn’t wake up during my first attempt, but soon enough after a few tries he does.

He seems a little scared and confused, but what I was going to show him was going to make all his pain, all his suffering, at least not as bad.

“Who are you?” He asks, still half-asleep.

Who am I? How would I know? “It doesn’t matter who I am, or who you are. How about you come with me, and I’ll show you the rest of the hospital?” If I were in his situation, would I randomly get out of bed to be shown something by a boy I didn’t know? If it meant getting out of that terrible bed and away from everything else, of course I would. Plus, being in this hospital, in a room like this, can only mean that bad times are coming. So I had to show him the one thing that is seen every day but seldom appreciated.

“What more could they do to you than give you another sleeping shot?” I add, to which he begins to quickly detach monitors.

Blue Skies

Nothing seemed real after thirteen years in space. The ground felt too mushy, the buildings too large, the people minuscule. This had been Ethan’s second successful mission, the first of which he only spent a few years at ISS so the transition wasn’t that rough, but this time was different.

Ethan watched as his comrades left the station, warm under their family’s embrace. He had been waiting nearly an hour for his beautiful wife Sharon and daughter Beth – the last time, Beth brought him a coffee mug she had painted in Mrs. Gella’s class and Sharon gave him unbelievable sex that night – but they never showed. Suddenly the space exhibition didn’t feel as extensive

It didn’t take long before the taxi arrived. Despite his insistence that Sharon would be there – he needed only be patient – Sergeant Blymh ushered the exhausted astronaut into the yellow cab and called it a day.

On the road, Ethan saw his girls’ faces in everything: they were in the bricks in the sidewalk, they were the faces on the billboards, and they were ripples in the water. Every sound was that of Willie Nelson – not only was he Sharon’s favorite singer, but he woke up to Always on My Mind every morning on the shuttle. It was another way he felt closer to his girls.

The only thing keeping him from going into full panic mode was their crumpled portrait in his pocket. He distinctly remembered taking the photograph during Beth’s seventh birthday party at Giggy’s Pizza – Sharon looked so goddamned beautiful even with a mouth full of pepperoni and his daughter was just as striking.

Suddenly Ethan felt a rise in his stomach: Beth was going to be twenty-one this year. After thirteen years, he wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t even remember him; hell, she’d probably moved away.

“Don’t do this, Ethan,” he thought. “All I need is the driver to think I’m a big-ass cry baby.”

But he couldn’t stop. He imagined Sharon wrinkled and gray. Their corgi Vinnie was probably dust in the ground by now, and, shit, she could’ve sold the house and be living with a tight 20-something surging with stamina and a jawline for days.

What an idiot he was to think things could simply go back to normal after he returned, he thought. He pressed his head against the window and firmly shut his eyes, allowing the darkness to drown him. Obscurity was his only friend. He should have told the doctor during the post-exhibition physical of his night terrors and the depression, but all that was on his mind at the time was kissing his girls.

Ethan’s reservations disintegrated as the car came to a stop. The house looked just as he left it; the only difference was the addition of a purple Volkswagen, but his white Saturn was still parked in his spot.

He rang the doorbell three times to no avail; however, he let himself in with the key concealed under the second stepping stone in the front yard. Sharon should have moved their key to a better location, but Ethan was overjoyed that she kept it there throughout the years. Ethan never felt more welcome.

The interior of the house had been renovated, Ethan’s grandparents’ old furniture had been replaced with a modern leather love seat, and the wall was nearly nonexistent behind a massive plasma screen. He heard footsteps in the back. “Sharon?” Ethan called, heading down the hall near their room. “I’m… Oh –”

Sharon had her back turned, fixing Beth’s golden hair. Ethan could not believe his eyes. The last time he saw Beth, she was picking boogers out of her nose waving goodbye.

“Hello?” A voice piped from the bathroom. It was a man’s voice, and something about it felt familiar to Ethan.

Abruptly, Sharon and Beth turned around – their faces horrifyingly cracked, frosted glass. Tiny whispers and raucous whimpers filled the room. Blazing fingers and checkered tongues swiftly tore through the walls, shattering picture frames and setting fire to the floral wallpaper. Thick gobs of black bile dripped from the ceiling, covering the two women in obsidian vomit. Beth charged, narrowly missing Ethan, before shattering into a million pieces on the floor. Sharon emitted a blood-curdling shriek.

Ethan ran before Sharon could attack him. He whipped past Beth’s old room turned office, and hopped over the chic glass coffee table in the living room. He dodged spiraling silverware and planet mobiles in the kitchen. Burning candles exploded as he past them, covering his shirt in clumpy red and orange wax. Tattered scarves and jackets latched onto his hands and feet. The plasma television sparked and blipped, static scrolling the screen.

Hundreds of pages of Ethan’s graduate research blanketed the floor; one in particular – the third page of his dissertation – caught his eye. Etched in gold ink on the page was a peculiar symbol. He recognized it and had seen it somewhere, but couldn’t remember where.

A covered figure blocked the front door. Ethan tried to run for the back, but was once again met with the same shadowed being. He lunged at the dark entity, hoping this was all a twisted dream he was having in the taxi cab.

But suddenly time stopped. Boiling water droplets and broken pickle jars hung frozen in the air, fragments of their family portraits and knives merely props. Ethan’s short breaths stopped. His heart was in his throat as the figure approached him, its brown eyes cutting into Ethan’s own.

“You really shouldn’t have returned,” it croaked. “You don’t belong here. Or don’t you remember?” The entity dropped its cloak and stroked Ethan’s cheek. It had Ethan’s face. It was Ethan. “Let me help you.”

Ethan was released from time’s grip and he closed his eyes. He couldn’t dare look the monster in its face – his face. It didn’t take long for a wave of relaxation to wash over Ethan. He found solace imagining he was back on the shuttle, alongside Blymh and the others. He missed looking out onto the bright expanse, dreaming of being outside cuddled next to his girls stargazing, looking right back at himself in the shuttle years away. The heavy weight of anxiety and loneliness lifted off his body, Ethan embraced the darkness.

Moments pass and suddenly the lyrics of Always on My Mind graced Ethan’s ears, penetrating the thick silence. He opened his eyes and smiled.

The Price

The laws of life and death are meant to be broken, this I knew. The Creator would not have put a species capable of such intelligible thought if he did not expect it to eventually realize rules are only governed by those to which they apply. With this epiphany anything is possible, so I set out to put it to the ultimate test.

I was going to bring her back; she didn’t deserve to die. All it took was a blessed herbal concoction and a recited sacrament under the light of a full moon. Sure, the ritual would be much easier with the staff of the Grand Wizard, Arca, but neither he nor the rest of the council would ever consider aiding me in an act they would deem blasphemous.

As I am standing atop Talonbreak Hill, having already recited the sacrament, the king intervened. “Alastair!” He hobbled up the hill to meet me at the top, his white hair glowing in the night. “Stop this insanity this instant!”

“Don’t you have a kingdom to ruin, Rock? Go back to that corrupted council of yours where you belong, and let me be.”

“Alastair, step away from the circle. I’ve got fifteen archers with you in their sights if you continue to disregard my orders. You’ve been warned on multiple occasions that the use of magic is strictly prohibited in accordance to last year’s incident.” The stress incurred from his reign is amplified under the moonlight – deep wrinkles stretched across his face.

My gaze turned to the potion; all that was left of the ritual was the pouring of the concoction over the grave. I was so close to seeing my precious daughter once again, but yet I faced another obstacle. “Oh, I know all about that massacre, Rock. My daughter and all of her students lost their lives that day by the blade of the magic resistance – a group mirroring your ideals. So you’re going to have me killed just as you did Emily?”

Festered, the king replied, “For the last time that was not my doing. You really think I would be capable of the slaughter of an entire school full of children and teachers?” His face was expressionless. “Now, I am very sorry for what happened to Emily, and honestly if her revival had no repercussions, I would personally see to it that all of those poor people were brought back. That’s not the case however.” He gestured at the night sky. “The cost of reviving your daughter is eternal darkness. Not even the council, as wise and powerful as they are, can reverse it either. So do us a favor and walk back with me to the village.”

“A world without Emily would be dark anyway,” I said, diving toward the potion. Unfortunately, Rock wasn’t lying about the archers, and before I reach the ground four arrows tore into my chest. However, before my last breath I spill the vial’s contents onto Emily’s grave, pouring the magic into the earth.

My last sight was of Emily, enveloped in a warm, heavenly light. She hadn’t aged one day, and was prettier than she ever had been. Her golden hair fell over her shoulders just as her mother’s had – if only I could tell her how much she looked like her mother. But before I closed my eyes and left the realm, the silver moon receded into darkness and the star-speckled sky turns black. The curse of eternal night had befallen the land, and I, blinded by sorrow, selfishly dragged Emily out of everlasting bliss and sentenced her to live the rest of her days under a black cloak. My final gift to my daughter was that of damnation.

Weeds In the Field

“How could he do this to us? We could lose the farm!”

“That’s enough, Gisette.” A woman of sixty-five clad in a tailored blue gown, her silver hair pulled tightly back in a perfect bun, waves a hand of dismissal toward her daughter. “Your brother is well aware of the risks he’s taking; he is a smart man after all.”

Patti, Gisette’s twin sister, uncharacteristically slams her porcelain tea cup down onto the oak table. “David cannot marry that… That gold digging whore! If he had an ounce of wits about him, he’d see through her act.”

“Patti, Gisette! Hush, both of you. I need to hear myself think.” Geraldine Hatchett pinches the bridge of her nose and closes her eyes. She was the eldest daughter of a wealthy politician – and the smartest, she would argue – but if there was one thing her father taught her before being sent to prison for embezzlement, it was how to remain calm in stressful situations. Her daughters have yet to pick up on this nifty skill, but they were going to learn one day.

After a moment of silence, Geraldine resumes: “For thinking of the good of the farm, you both are right, and until your brother met Beatrice, I believe he had a similar state of mind as well; however, now he is without the good sense his father left him. Something must be done to stop this blasphemous marriage.”

“What are you thinking, Mama?”

“Well, obviously I can’t get through to David; she’s already poisoned him.” Geraldine pastes a grim smile on her face, showing a set of dull, golden teeth. “It’s only reasonable she suffer a similar fate.”

That night, Geraldine and her girls crept into the cornfield behind the Hatchett manor, guided only by the light of a full moon. Despite the rumors, Geraldine wasn’t just a lonely widow pent on rotting in her web-infested mansion – she had an advantage that many other women of her time were without: she could read.

Specifically, she took to books of a mystical nature. So, when she found out her only son, David, was marrying a poor valley girl she knew her knowledge of the dark arts would come in handy. All she had to do was get her two stupid daughters on the same page, and to do this she fed them lies. “That girl your brother is marrying, I heard she was married before,” she once told Gisette. Then, to Patti: “I ran into David’s fiancée this morning; I could see such hatred in those twinkling blue eyes of hers. Pretty soon David will have the same hate in his.” It didn’t take too many lies to convince her daughters, as gullible as they were.

“Patti, you hold your sister’s hand, and both of you hold mine with your other.” It all came together perfectly; she was following the instructions lain out in the devil’s book completely. Together they formed an oval; in the center was a burning concoction containing crushed henbane and jimsonweed and a cocktail of other spices and chemicals – the smoke coming off the brew smells foul but that was part of it, she presumed. “Goddess Katriah, I call upon you.”

Truthfully, at this point Geraldine has no idea what she was doing – the chant was written in a language unknown to her. But she had followed every other step to the letter, so she believed all should be fine.

“Katriah, Goddess of the Harvest, bless this potion I have before you. You must have heard my prayers, so you know our situation. A threat has come upon our fertile land, intending to burn it all. I ask that you bless this potion, fill it with the power to stop this Beatrice Nocant. By your beautiful hand, the Hatchett farm can flourish once more.” The last words resonate in the darkness. That was it. But why was it that she wasn’t feeling any different?

“So, did it work?” Gisette was looking painfully perplexed.

Geraldine has no answer for her daughter, because she was wondering the same. Regardless, she keeps confident. “Yes, darling. It’s in Katriah’s hands now. All we have to do is wait for her gift.”

But days pass to no avail. Beatrice was still alive, and Geraldine’s patience was growing thin. What was it that she had done wrong? Surely everything was done correctly. Every day that her soon-to-be-daugher-in-law continued to breathe, the old woman skimmed the frail page of the spell book one more time. Finally, it came to her: “That potion was meant for me. It wasn’t just meant to summon Her.” With her spirit returned, she walks back to where she and her girls so foolishly tried to call on Katriah.

“How could I have not considered this?” she asks herself on the way to the clearing. “Katriah isn’t a vengeful Goddess – she can only transfer the power to protect her domain to a worthy soul!” Geraldine cackles, grasping the bowl of magical herbs and spices. Before downing the potion, Geraldine mutters, “Give me your power Katriah, so I can wring that girl’s neck.”

It takes a few gulps, as well as some control of the gag reflex, to drink the bitter mixture. The brew stirrs a rumble inside of Geraldine’s stomach, making her want to throw it all up. “That certainly is not your afternoon sweat tea,” she states, smacking her lips.

Suddenly, she a deep roar of laughter invades her mind. “Katriah!” Geraldine exclaims. “You’ve come to help me!”

The goddess scoffs. “Honestly, I was hoping for a stronger soul to steal, one with more years left, but I’ll settle with this one.”