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Soul’s Passage (excerpt)

Chapter Seven: Fallen Soul

 

 

 

Yonaguni Islands, Japan

 

            So many thoughts passed through his mind that it was at times difficult to quiet his spirit, to focus only on what needed to be done, and why.  His masters had given him a great deal to think about, enough that the assassin felt the boundaries of his imagination taxed to the point of irritation.  On one hand he had been sent by his lords to the barbaric and often violent island of Japan to accomplish a definite goal, though on the other, he was being sent after a legend he cared nothing for.

            He didn’t know why his superiors wished him to retrieve the unknown sword, though he highly suspected it had to do with consolidating their power, and to further their dominion over China’s greatly contested borders.  Not since the time of his forefathers had the warring country ever been truly united, and he saw no indication that it would happen in his lifetime.  Standing still upon the floating composite of stout wooden logs that constituted a raft in this part of the world, Li Long scowled as he thought upon the mission he had been sent to complete. 

            It was beneath him, though it was also his stock and trade.

            He had been a warrior in service to his lord for many years now, and had proven him more than a few times in the service of the Emperor.  Being sent to assassinate the head of the Vakou pirates that had for so long plundered and troubled the Ming Dynasty was just fine, he could live with such an order.  It meant doing what he had been trained to do, what he had been bred to do, but that was all.  Being sent as a retrieval hound however was not something he appreciated.  If they desired an item found and brought to their step, he would have much preferred that the emperor send forth a courier or similar expert, one whose talents were not wasted upon such an endeavor.

            The gentle rocking of the raft was broken in the next moment by the shrill cry of a hawk, somewhere behind him and above. Li Long did not believe in omens, nor did he put much, if any, stock in anything other than what he could see, touch, and hear.  His life was not bound by the mystical forces that so many wished to believe in and live by, he was his own master when it came to such matters, and would not allow his thoughts to be influenced in such a manner.  Tilting his head up just a bit he could see the rocky walls of the channel that the raft now traversed, the guidance of the oarsman steering them expertly along the swift currents that bore them along.  A deep frown creased his lips as he continued to think about his mission, and what he meant to do versus what he surely would do.

            Japan was a seriously flawed country in his mind, a place where the damage of civil war was always a possibility, and unity was a fading dream that very rarely ever solidified with any force.  Of course, his own country couldn’t be said to be any more unified. China had more than its fair share of problems, though that wasn’t his concern now.  At this moment, he was to assassinate the head of the Vakou pirates, though unbeknownst to his lord, he would soon enough decimate the dainyos’s the feudal lords that dominated much of this country.

            It was not a part of his orders, though he had decided to do this on his own initiative.  It would mean traveling from his current destination, the Yonaguni Islands, back to the main island, though he would make the trip easily, hiding away his own actions from his lord until it was time to return home.  He knew his own level of skill, and knew that he could accomplish this mission. And when he did, his actions would be greatly appreciated back home.  The Emperor would no doubt shower him with praise, in the appropriate manner, and he would be lauded as a hero.

            The raft lurched a bit to the right, catching a swift eddy within the current as Li Long stood absolutely still, allowing his body weight to shift only slightly as he kept his attention fixed straight ahead.  Soon enough he would arrive at his destination, and his initial task would be completed.  And soon after, the legend of his prowess would begin.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

Honshu, Japan

1 week later…

 

            It had been an eventful week.  The head of the Vakou clan had fallen quickly to his masterful tactics, in fact it had been almost an insult how easily he had gained access to the pirate’s stronghold.  His weapon, Falcon, had taken many lives without fail and performed as beautifully as always.  Many thought little when confronted with the deadly twin flails known as nunchaku, though if one was skilled enough and possessed the strength of arm, the hard wood batons could crush bone and pulp flesh. Li Long had more than a few pairs within the pack he carried, each set wrapped in cloth and well-cared for.        Though only in his twenties Li Long was an accomplished warrior, and had taken more than one trophy to incorporate into his weapons over the past several years.

            Some were fashioned to remind him of the battles in which he had won the materials that had gone into the implements, while others were merely a hodgepodge of this and that, items that strengthened the weapons in such a way that they were either far more powerful or far more intricate than Falcon.  He would always favor his original weapon however, even over the dreadfully powerful weapon he had dubbed Twin Thunder, a set of nunchaku that were created of an extremely dense hardwood and had crafted into their ends razor sharp points of metal that could flay flesh to bone with little effort.  Even with all this power at his disposal, Li Long favored the simpler approach.

            After disposing of the pirate lord, and thereby dissolving the clan into chaos by dint of the other minor lords arguing over who would take control, Li Long had taken his leave.  There was no need to follow up the kill by eliminating any others, they would accomplish such a task all on their own.  Instead he had traveled back to the main island, finding passage aboard a rather leaky junk that had taken him on without questions, and with only minimal cost.  Intimidation was a useful tool, if one knew how to apply it.

            Not a single day had passed after his feet had hit the soil of the island when he had discovered the whereabouts of one of the many lords he still sought.  Finding and eliminating the first had been relatively easy, though not entirely satisfying.  Though one feudal lord was not always the same as another, he had expected more protection, more prestige, and far more difficulty in finding a single lord within the island’s confines.  But the first, Hashiro Metsurame, had been quite easy to locate, and even easier to silence.  The ripples that should have emerged from the death of a noble lord should have been far greater, but thus far Li Long had been upon the island for days, and had yet to be fingered for the deed.  He had left none alive within the private room of the bath house where he had found the lord, and judging by how poorly the matter had been investigated, he had obviously done a superb job of covering his tracks.  It was his trade after all, an assassin who left directions on how to be found was a fool, and one no doubt eager to die.

            Li Long was neither.

           

The Western Edge

The Western Edge

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Spring 1998

Saturday, May 29th

 

 

“It’s so nice out here.”  Tyler smiled at the young woman as they stretched upon the sands, their bare feet moving just slightly as they sought to keep their balance upon the grainy surface.  The young lady was not the knockout that his girlfriend was, but she was undeniably cute with her long wavy black hair and young features.  Madeline Rohen had become his friend earlier in the year and had stuck by Tyler’s side since that time, always making it known how she felt about him.  They had quickly become good friends despite the high school hierarchy that kept them apart at times.

Tyler was a jock and a scholar, liked by many and idolized by more than a few, while Maddie was the shy girl that didn’t talk to people and kept mostly to herself.  For the last three years Tyler and Maddie had spoken to each other now and then, but their friendship had only been cemented this year, which Tyler found as odd.  He liked Maddie well enough to consider her a very good friend, but until this year she hadn’t decided to open up to him, and he had found out just why back in September.

“Yeah, it’s a nice day today, too bad Kera had to work on her research paper.” Tyler said, stretching out his arms as he groaned lightly.  It was still relatively early in the morning, but as their Track and Field coach always said it was important to get a good start to the day.

“Is she almost done? We only have a few weeks of school left.”  Maddie felt her heart clench just a little as she realized the truth of her own words.  She knew that Tyler and Kera were going to be leaving home not long after graduation.  The two of them were going to be heading for Vancouver, nearly three hours away.  Maddie would be stuck here for another three years until she graduated.  She had no idea what she wanted to do yet, but she had at least a few interests.  She was one of the students within her class that had no true path set ahead of her just yet, finding that her prospects for college were rather grim unless she began to apply for scholarships and really decided upon an interest she wanted to pursue.

Unlike so many other kids Maddie just didn’t know what she wanted to do.  She liked to draw and was good at it, but she was also domestically skilled.  She could build anything within shop class that she was instructed and she could pull straight A’s if she really tried in any class, but her home life often intruded upon her desire to actually push herself, impeding her progress as a human being at times.  She’d never had a boyfriend despite being so damned cute, no one seemed to be able to get close to her.  She had sought out Tyler and Kera, not the other way around.  Her two friends ran in different groups than she would ever do, they were popular and she was not, they were the people that everyone wanted to be like, she was the shadow on the wall that watched everyone else and envied.

Tyler and Kera had always been kind to her no matter what, whether it was saying hello in the hallway or being her lab partner in science classes.  They’d always smiled with her, genuinely enjoying her company once she’d opened up to them.  Not many people in their high school would take the time to be nice to someone who didn’t seem inclined to talk all that much, but Tyler and Kera were good people, they liked talking to her, they’d said so.  Just last week, watching them practice on this very beach, had been like heaven.  She had almost cried as she’d witnessed the beauty and grace of the martial art they’d practiced with their teacher, Mr. Delong.  Afterwards they had spent the entire day with her, even going so far as to invite her to dinner that night.  She’d called her mother and asked her tentatively if she could stay for dinner, that Tyler and Kera would drop her off later.  Thankfully her mother had said yes.

That had been undeniably one of the best days of her young life.  Tyler and Kera had introduced her as their friend, their friend, to Tyler’s parents, Evelyn and Gary.  It had been easy to see how Tyler and Kera had grown up to be such wonderful people after meeting Evelyn and Gary Ferris, in fact Maddie had found herself wanting to move in with the family that night.  She envied the Ferris’s just a bit, but she also respected her friends enough to know that she was their friend, not a part of their family.  When Tyler and Kera had taken her home later on she had been forced to fight back a wave of sadness as she had stepped from Tyler’s truck.  Her shabby, run down mobile home that she shared with her mother, two sisters and little brother was a wreck compared to the nice home that the Ferris’s kept.

Tyler and Kera had never judged her no matter what they had seen of her life.  They’d always been happy to see her, they’d always had a smile on their faces for her.  Maddie had at one time believed that Tyler’s kindness had been given out of pity and had nearly chewed him a new asshole over the fact.  That had been the only time she had shown a hint of fire within the halls of the school, but later on she had apologized profusely, mortified that she might have driven away someone who genuinely cared.  Tyler had shaken his head at her apology before stating that she had no reason to say that she was sorry.  He’d explained slowly and with great care that no one had any right to pity her, that she was a great deal stronger than anyone seemed to see.  Those words had touched Maddie so deeply that it had been in that moment that she had fallen in love with Tyler.

The love she felt for the young man was far different than the misguided lust that teenagers often shared during their high school years, but Maddie had kept it to herself, thinking that no one would care to really understand.  She loved Tyler much the same way as she loved her younger brother Seth, who was among the only kind souls she knew.  Like Tyler, Seth didn’t assume, he didn’t pity and he didn’t accept pity.  Though only in the sixth grade Seth knew the situation at home was not the best.  He knew that their mother worked her fingers to the bone and required a great deal of help at home, but he also didn’t accept this excuse when the woman could not find time for her children.  Their mother hadn’t been given a fair draw at life any more than her four children had, but unlike them she was in a position to do something about it.  Not a single one of them blamed their mother for having to work so hard to provide for them, but it was hard when on her rare day off when the woman could not find time to spend with them.  Maddie knew that she and her siblings loved their mother, but it was a conditional love at best.

She loved Tyler in a way that went beyond physical means.  He was handsome and she had actually wondered at times what such a thing might be like, but she had already figured that it wasn’t quite like the smutty soap operas that her mother and her sisters seemed to enjoy.  Maddie couldn’t quite see someone like Tyler acting so melodramatic as the ridiculous people on the TV.

“Yeah, we don’t have much time left do we?” Tyler grinned at her as Maddie smiled back.  She had no doubt at all that he knew what she was thinking.  Tyler seemed to be able to read people so easily it was uncanny at times.

“I’m not going to get to see you guys any more.”  Maddie said, sounding just a little sad as she inhaled through her nostrils.  Tyler opened his mouth to speak as Maddie continued, snapping his mouth shut again as she waved one hand at him to interrupt.

“I know you’ll come back now and then, you’ve told me how much you love home, but I won’t get to see you as much, like at school and stuff.  I’ve really enjoyed you two this year.  It makes me feel dumb for not having tried to hang out with you before now.”  Tyler had to admit that Maddie was a lot more open now than she had been only a year or two before.  It was as though the young woman had found a measure of strength that she’d not realized she possessed.  In truth it was nice since Tyler could see a far tougher persona emerging now than Maddie had ever shown, a face that was far more adequate to handle the rough environment of high school.  He only hoped she could keep that attitude once he and Kera were gone.

“You have others who will hang out with you Maddie.  There’s Sarah, the Mack twins, Alex, hell even Tiffany might be nice to you if you talk to her.”  Maddie smiled at him sarcastically then as she replied.

“Yeah right, if her friends would let her talk to anyone else.  They’re likely to call me a lesbian if I try to talk to Tiffany or maybe they’ll make up a few rumors about me just to make sure I can’t show my face anymore.  You know how vicious they can be.”  Tyler nodded as he conceded the point.  For all the genuinely nice people there were in high school there were just as many who sought to ease the pressure of their lives by making sure they were seen as superior in some way to others.  Tiffany Kischener was a genuinely nice person, but she was too easily influenced by the friends she kept.  As one of the ‘upper class’ of the high school she had been dubbed into the life of a cheerleading, athletic, snob-nosed scholar, which in Tyler’s opinion was not who she really was.  She was a good student and a good friend, but she was not a snob.  Her younger brother on the other hand was a different story.

“I think if you could get around the friends or just ignore them altogether you’d be fine with her.  She’s good people Maddie, you know that.”  Tyler finished stretching as he rolled his shoulders out, looking out upon the horizon as he watched waves roll into shore.

“Yeah, you’re right, I know.  I just wish that high school didn’t have to be the way it is sometimes.  It’s bad enough we have to study so hard to make sure we have a future, but peer pressure and trying to keep up with everyone else makes it worse.”  Tyler smiled as she spoke, keeping his eyes out on the water as she joined him, standing at his left upon the sand.

“So quit trying to keep up with them, just realize that they’re trying to make themselves feel better.  You should feel fine about who you are.”

“That’s easy for you to say Tyler, you come from a good home with parents who are there all the time.”  Tyler frowned just a bit as he listened to her words, not liking where this discussion was going.

“Stop that Maddie.  Your mom does what she can.  You don’t want anyone to pity you and I’m glad because you’re stronger than that.  Don’t talk like you envy us.”

“I do Tyler.  I do envy you, but,” she held up one hand to forestall another comment, “I also know that you’re right.  I don’t want pity, but I also don’t want to deal with the snobby, stuck-up little bitches that think they’re so damned important because of their designer clothes and flashy hairdos.”  Tyler laughed briefly as he looked over at Maddie, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

“You do what you do best Maddie, just be you.  No one else can do that.”  Maddie smiled at him as she leaned towards his shoulder, feeling his bared shoulder under her cheek as she leaned far enough to her right.  Tyler was always so warm it seemed, no matter how chill the winds on the beach were.

“So are we going to run or talk all day?” she asked.

“Are you in a hurry?”  Maddie shook her head briefly as she too looked out at the incoming waves.

“Isn’t this about where that kid was said to have drowned last year?”  Tyler sighed as he nodded, remembering the tragic tale of Colby Durbin, the sophomore that had gone missing last October.  The young man had been reported to have snuck out of his room one chill Sunday morning and made his way down to the beach.  The report filed by the police and later written in the local paper, the Chinook Observer, had stated that the sophomore had been known to frequent the beach front more often than not.  His parents had been quoted as saying that Colby had been fascinated in the presence of ghosts and had at many times claimed to see them in the waves.  It was an interesting and somewhat disturbing bit of trivia about the dead boy, but Tyler and Kera hadn’t been too surprised.

They’d both known Colby at least somewhat, the younger boy had kept mostly to himself for the most part.  His family lived only a half mile away down I Place, the road that ran in front of the Ferris home.  He’d always seemed a bit strange to both of them, as though he weren’t all there in the head, but he’d been nice enough.  Maddie had not known Colby except from seeing him in the hallways at school.  The sophomore had kept mostly to himself, always engrossed it seemed with one or more ghost stories that he kept with him at all times.

“Yeah, somewhere around here I guess.”  Tyler replied.

“How many people does that make in the last few years that have drowned off this coast?”  Maddie asked.  Tyler raised his eyebrows as he tried to think of the reports that had come in within the last few years of swimmers being caught out to sea by the powerful currents.  He found it odd that those who were such strong swimmers could be towed out to sea without the knowledge of how to avoid such a thing or keep themselves calm enough to paddle back to shore.  He knew the currents were deadly, but never had he felt in danger of being sucked out by an errant wave.

“I think that brings the number up to around four or five with Colby.”  Tyler said.  It was a bit harsh to think of the young sophomore as just another statistic, but in all honesty that was life upon the coast.  Those who played with the ocean at their leisure were wise to always remember that it was a wild thing, apt to take what it wanted whenever and wherever.  Tyler held a great respect for the ocean currents and knew not to tempt such a thing.  Still, he knew that each time he waded into the waters his luck might not hold out, that one time or another he might be swept out to be come just another statistic.

“Are the Durbin’s still moving?” Tyler nodded as she asked this, he’d seen the For Sale sign in their front yard covered over by a rectangular SOLD sticker.  The Durbins had no doubt had enough of the coast for the time being, finding it prudent to leave what had once been a good home to avoid the memories of their son.  Tyler couldn’t help but think that the memory of Colby would follow them no matter where they went.

“Is this coast really that dangerous?”  Maddie kept her cheek upon Tyler’s shoulder as they spoke, standing close to him to share his warmth.  For some reason he just always stayed so warm no matter the temperature.

“The western edge of the continent is no worse than any other stretch of coastline, at least here we don’t have as many sharks off the coast.  People don’t seem to realize though just how strong the currents are and as a result they don’t seem to think that swimming in the ocean is a big deal.”

“There’s sharks off this coast?” Tyler looked down at her with a raised eyebrow.

“Are you sure you pay attention in Mr. Milner’s class?”  That earned him a light punch on his arm as Maddie straightened up, yawning as she stretched her arms up to the sky in that moment.  As she looked at him again Tyler grinned as she narrowed her eyes.

“I’m betting my grade in that class is better than yours.”

“I’m not taking that bet.”  Maddie laughed at Tyler as he shook his head, grinning back at her.

“So are we going to run?”

“I’m just waiting on you Mads.”  Tyler replied, rolling his shoulders again.  Maddie arched one eyebrow at him as her grin deepened just a bit.

“If I’m not mistaken I’m the one who made the districts for the long distance run.”  Maddie preened just a bit before she broke down laughing, moving away from Tyler as he leaned towards her, acting as though he meant to stomp on her foot. She knew he wouldn’t ever try to intentionally hurt her, but the mock play was fun.

“Just because you’re a runner and an accomplished letter-winner now you think you’re so cool huh?” Tyler said with a grin, advancing a step towards Maddie as she continued to back away.

“Of course,” she replied, “It’s not every freshman that gets to wear their own jacket before they’re a sophomore.”  Tyler grinned as she continued to back away, her pace quickening just a bit as she eased into the simple warming up rhythm she’d established during this last track season.  Maddie had always been a competitor, but in this her freshman year she had found a true reason to compete and had found in Tyler, Kera and another girl named Brooke Landis people who were willing to encourage her and spur her on.  The three friends had urged Maddie forward every meet, inspiring her to try harder than she ever had and eventually cheering for her when she had placed sixth at districts. She had gone to the state finals with the team, their head coach had insisted on taking her, but she had not competed due to her low ranking.

“So now you’re big and bad, but can you prove it?”  Tyler took off running as he spoke, smiling as Maddie easily paced him, her much lighter form allowing her to almost skim over the sands as his heavier frame almost sank with every other step.

“First to the finish again?”  Maddie asked as they began to run. Tyler merely nodded as he decided to save his breath for running, keeping his pace even and steady as Maddie ran beside him almost effortlessly.  He knew that eventually she would pull ahead and no doubt win their little race, but he wasn’t about to go down easily.

Tyler had always been a thrower, never a long distance runner or a jumper or a sprinter.  He was built sturdy enough to run for a good while, but his endurance for long distances had never been all that good.  At this time he could run nearly three miles without being terribly winded, but his pace was nowhere near what Maddie could hold.  As a long distance runner Madeline Rohen had competed since the seventh grade, learning the tricks and secrets of how to pace herself during a race so that she wouldn’t use too much energy too soon.  Tyler had never learned those particular tips.

*                      *                      *

 

Nearly nine minutes later Maddie was still in front of Tyler as he could feel his leg muscles burning slightly with the strain of trying to keep up with the petite freshman.  She had kept her own pace easily from where they had started to the Surfside beach approach, which was a full mile from where they’d began.  Maddie had gone so far as to jog in place as she had waited for him to catch up just a bit, smiling at Tyler as he had rounded one of the tide markers as they’d stipulated before taking off on their run.  She’d been barely winded as she had jogged in place, her dark hair bouncing upon her back, bound up in the long ponytail she’d placed it in.  Tyler had growled just a bit at her playful mood, shaking his head as she had then taken off like a nimble deer, actually increasing her pace for the second mile as he’d began to huff and puff his way along.

He was in shape, but he wasn’t a runner.  Tyler could outdo a great many students in the weight room, he could maneuver his way down a football field and sack nearly anyone that came into his line of sight, but he was not a distance runner.  He was made for short bursts of speed and perhaps a mile or two at his own leisure, but Maddie, she was a born runner.  It was child’s play for her to increase her pace as she’d continued down the beach, seeming not to notice the shifting sands beneath her as she kept pumping her arms, striding forward with each passing second as she’d easily kept the distance between them.

Tyler didn’t mind losing to anyone, he knew it was a part of life to lose at times, but losing so horribly at times was a bit embarrassing.  Had he not already planned to lose to Maddie he wouldn’t have challenged her to such a race.  It wasn’t pity that had caused him to suggest this little race, it had been a need to keep the smile upon Maddie’s face.  She had tried her best at districts and she had performed beautifully, beating out all but five other competitors, each one of them at least a year or more ahead of her in age.  The girls she’d raced against had undergone years of training and had the benefit of having teammates who’d always believed in them instead of ignoring them for so long.  Maddie had been cheered on by her entire team at districts as well as at sub-districts, the surprise she had given her teammates elevating her quite a bit in their eyes.

He’d always known she was someone special.  Tyler didn’t judge people by what they did or didn’t do or say, he preferred getting to know them for who they were.  Maddie had always struck him as a little quiet, a little reclusive, but still a very interesting young lady.  He couldn’t imagine why she didn’t think so much of herself, but he’d always done his best to make sure that she knew just how he felt about her.  The rest of the track team had found out later on just how skilled Maddie was, which in Tyler’s eyes had been regrettable since Maddie had never hidden her talent for running.  In the high school hierarchy though Maddie had been barely a blip on anyone’s radar save for his and a few others, meaning she was beneath notice to many people.  He had to agree with her when it came to high school, it was often hard enough without having to worry about status.

Tyler pushed himself a little harder as he tried to catch up with Maddie, but he already knew he was beaten.  He would have to treat her and Kera to lunch and a movie later, which he had fully expected.  The bet had been for lunch if he won, but he had added a movie if she won.  There was no pity in his actions, Tyler enjoyed being around Maddie, she was an interesting young lady and a good friend.  He’d known that she had no money to take him out to lunch, meaning he would have gladly paid anyway, but the bet had been more to keep Maddie’s competitive fire from guttering out after her defeat at districts.  Maddie was the type that became easily depressed if she was suddenly cast back into the shadows of obscurity and Tyler meant to keep her in the light as much as he possibly could.  Neither of them owed each other anything, this was simply the way of good friends, to be there when they felt they were needed.

Maddie stopped as she reached the mark they’d designated, turning around as she continued to jog in place, grinning at Tyler as he was still a good hundred yards off.  Tyler shook his head as he grinned back, his gaze turning in that second to the incoming waves as he found his smile fading quickly at what he saw.  Maddie didn’t notice anything was amiss as she continued to grin at him, waiting patiently as she blew out a long breath of air.

Tyler couldn’t help but keep his gaze towards the breakers as they continued to roll in towards the shore, each wave curling after the one before as the two figures he saw standing within seemed to appear and disappear with each swell, looking outward, looking at him.  Around him time seemed to slow as Tyler could feel the winds that came in from the coast stiffen somehow, as though they’d somehow been thickened into sheets of unseen force that slapped instead of caressed.

The western edge, how appropriate a moniker.

            Will he join us?

            No, he will not join us.  He is meant for other things.

Frowning in confusion Tyler barely felt as he began to stumble, his feet kicking up sand as he continued to stride forward.  The figures continued to appear and disappear with the waves, as though they were only figments of his imagination.  He wanted to believe they were, but each time he saw them each person was so vivid, so there, that he couldn’t help but at least partially believe what his eyes told him.

One of them was a young man that he could easily recognize as Colby Durbin, his youthful features and skinny limbs standing out in his bulky coat and regular shirt and scuffed jeans.  That couldn’t be though, Colby had been missing for months, presumed dead since his parents had been unable to comprehend that he might have run away.  That option had been too painful for the couple, which was why they’d had their son presumed dead.  Colby had never been unhappy at home they’d said, a statement that had been backed up by nearly everyone that had known the boy.

The other figure he did not recognize, but there was something about her, some quality he couldn’t fully identify with that seemed to draw Tyler in to her strange gaze.  As he stumbled suddenly he lost all track of either of them, hitting the sand hard as he felt the dry particles grind into his exposed skin.  Tyler rolled several times, feeling as sand was ground into every possible place it could go, from his shoes up to his hair.  Sputtering and spitting he finally came to a stop, wincing as he closed his mouth only to crunch down upon a fine layer of grit and sand particles within his teeth.  There were certain drawbacks to running on the beach, particularly if one did not watch where they were going.

As he rose slowly to his feet he heard as Maddie ran up to him, exclaiming even as she giggled over his fall.  Tyler waited until she was within range before shaking himself briskly, grinning despite the sand still in his mouth as she protested being showered with sand.

“Serves you right.” he said in a low voice, keeping his tone light as he began to rake his hands through his hair in an attempt to rid himself of the intrusive gray material.  It would take a long shower before he could rid himself entirely of every last bit of sand but the least he could do was ease his discomfort just a bit for the moment.

“You were almost there.  What happened?”  Tyler shook his head again, bending over slightly as he did in order to shake himself all over again.  Raking his fingers through his hair again he tossed it back, squirming around as felt sand within his underwear as well.

“That can’t feel good.”  Tyler grimaced at Maddie as she giggled again, the sound causing him to roll his eyes as he looked back to the waves.  There were no figures in the breakers now, only rolling blue waves crested by white.  He frowned briefly as the image of what he’d seen came back to mind again.

“So where are we going to lunch then?”  Tyler brought his attention back to Maddie as his eyes widened just a bit.  He could see Kera attempting to sneak up from behind the girl, stepping lightly as she depended upon the noise of the roaring ocean and the other natural sounds of the beach to mask her approach.  Tyler made a show of ridding himself of the overabundance of sand that still clung to him as he carefully watched Kera approach, doing his best not to grin as she came ever closer.

“Well, I got paid yesterday so I thought we’d go to Doogers and then just go the movie from there.”  Maddie’s eyes widened as she heard the name of the restaurant, she was still oblivious to Kera’s presence as the young woman was almost within arm’s reach.

“Doogers is kinda spendy isn’t it?”  Tyler smiled genuinely at Maddie as he continued to notice Kera in his peripheral vision, still trying not to laugh as Maddie was so hopelessly unaware.  As Kera finally closed the distance she pounced, gripping Maddie by the arms suddenly without saying a word.  Maddie’s reaction was as expected as she jumped nearly a foot in the air, her body tensing as she turned quickly to see Kera smiling at her, laughing lightly as Maddie held one hand to her heart.  In the next moment Maddie couldn’t help but laugh along as she shoved Kera away lightly with one hand, her eyes still wide as she kept her one hand over her heart.

“Oh you witch!” she breathed, still laughing as she turned back to Tyler, “And you, you knew she was there!  God almighty you almost gave me a heart attack!”  Maddie continued to laugh as Tyler and Kera stepped closer, still chuckling as Kera clapped a friendly hand upon her shoulder.

“So we’re going to Doogers then?” Kera asked.

“Yeah, and then a movie I guess.”  Maddie replied, still catching her breath from the shock of being surprised.  Kera raised her eyebrows at Tyler as she pressed her lips together, nodding a few times before speaking.

“Feeling generous today are we?” she asked, smiling to show she was joking.

Tyler shrugged before wiping at his face once more, “What can I say, I like their Cajun seafood.”

“What movie are we seeing then?”  Kera asked.

“Well, the theater’s playing Office Space and The Sixth Sense, I thought we’d leave that up to Mads here.”  Tyler said.  The freshman waved one hand in front of her as she looked between the two seniors, taking a breath before speaking.

“Oh no, no.  I don’t want to pick the wrong one and have you two sit through a movie you don’t want to see.”  Kera put one arm gently around Maddie’s shoulders as she looked up before looking at the freshman.

“Mads, we want to see both of them, so trust me when I say that you won’t make the wrong choice.”  Maddie looked uncertainly to Tyler and then Kera, seeing as each of them looked to her expectantly, waiting for her to make a decision.

“Well, I’d like to see Office Space if that’s okay.”

“Office Space it is then.” Tyler said, “First though I need to go home and have a shower, I feel a bit gritty.”  Kera laughed lightly as she looked her boyfriend up and down, arching an eyebrow at him as she spoke.

“Were you trying to take the beach home with you?”  Tyler grimaced at her as he flung a bit of sand in her direction, smiling as she flinched away.  As he and Maddie gathered their shoes and socks Kera waited for them, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her jeans as she felt a stiff breeze roll by, sending a snaking curl of sand skating across the ground.  She smiled at this small manifestation, she’d always liked the way the wind whipped the sand around, it was cool-looking.

“We ready to go?” she asked, hopping up and down once as she turned to go.  Maddie and Tyler followed, making their way up the gray sands until they reached the dunes that separated the beachfront from the acres of dune grass and the lands beyond.  Each one of them turned around then, Tyler and Maddie setting their shoes down as they each brought their hands together.  Kera did this as well, bowing at the waist just as Tyler and Maddie did in a show of respect.

Maddie had expressed how weird this practice seemed to her before, but Tyler and Kera had been very patient in their way of explaining to her how it just seemed to come naturally, a way of showing respect to something far greater than themselves.  To others it might have labeled them as kooks, but to Maddie it made them seem even more interesting and in a way, even more respectable.  She found things out about her friends every week it seemed, which made it all the more difficult to think that they would be graduating soon.  She didn’t want to let them go, she would miss them too much.

Tyler looked up before the others, his eyes scanning the waves as he sought to catch even a glimpse of the figures that he’d seen just before he’d stumbled.  As he’d expected though he saw nothing, only more and more waves as they curled forth to break upon the shore.  It didn’t sit well with him that he’d seen something, and he knew he had, when he couldn’t confirm such a though.  Letting out a breath he turned around once more, bending down to pick up his shoes and socks as he, Maddie and Kera began their short walk home.

Wakerunners

Wakerunners

By Tom Foster

 

Fall 1997

Saturday, October 17th

 

There were ghosts in the water, he had seen them.  He’d read countless ghost stories in his young life, had studied histories of such events and had even once, against his parents’ wishes, tried to use a Ouija board.  When they had found the box it had come in they had been rather incensed, taking away his allowance, television and video games for two weeks.  Needless to say he hadn’t tried that again.  Besides, it hadn’t worked anyway.

Though he was only sixteen years old he often found himself waiting for the moment that would define his life.  He didn’t pay attention to the adults who told him that he had many years ahead for such a thing, don’t rush it and whatnot.  In his mind he was destined for something that he couldn’t yet understand, though there were days when he wished it would just hurry up.  The fact that he was too young for such thoughts never entered his mind most of the time, and if it ever did then he was quick to think of something else.

Colby Durbin was a dreamer, he’d been accused of this so many times that he’d finally just accepted it.  He knew his own faults in the way all adolescents do, though he saw no real need to improve upon them at this time.  Whatever he did that others didn’t like, tough beans, he wasn’t hurting anyone. If he did then he would be quick to apologize and make amends, after all he wasn’t an ass, he was just eccentric.

Of course, being eccentric didn’t take away what he had finally seen one day on the beach in the foaming white breakers he and his sisters so loved to play in.  That day had galvanized his beliefs in everything he had studied and read over the past few years.  Yet he hadn’t gone to his family, nor had he even gone to his friends, knowing that any of them would have simply laughed and even gone so far to mock him.  Colby was used to this, he’d spent the last four years of his life being laughed at thanks to his hobby.

He knew what he’d seen however, it was no fluke, no stretch of his imagination and no fever dream brought on by his overnight camping trips on the beachfront.  His right eye twitched slightly at the thought of another cold night spent only yards away from the waves.  Only a year ago his father had had to retrieve him one night from the sands because he’d tried to spend a chill November night on the beach.  Timothy Durbin, his father, had scolded him every step of the way back to the family vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee that had definitely seen better days.  The blast of heat from the vents had woken him up like his father’s words had failed to do, making him more aware of the trouble he’d been in.

Yet here he was again only three months later, still standing out in the cold staring at the incoming waves, just looking for another sign.  He wasn’t crazy, he just knew he wasn’t.  As each wave formed several hundred yards out he kept his eyes focused on as many of them as he could.  Out of twenty-eight miles of coastline he chose this one section since it was here that he’d seen the faces in the waves.  He’d been up and down the peninsula in the last three months and he’d never once seen any sign of the wonder that had set him on this course.

His typical day anymore was to wake up, write a few notes from his well-worn books on every possible ghost story imaginable and then shower and eat.  After that he was either off to school or work, the former a piece of cake and the latter a downright snooze by comparison.  It paid well enough however, especially since all he did was strip a few sheets and blankets, wash and fold them and then do it all again.  His job at the Motel 8 in town had been made possible thanks to one of his good friends, a fellow junior at the high school that he’d known since grade school.  Her name was Amelia Hudson and if she were asked she would most likely state that he was without a doubt the craziest person she’d ever met.

The two of them were as good of friends as he could hope for however.  She put up with his crazy hobby and at times even encouraged it, though she did not join in.  While her own views as an Agnostic did not completely abolish the existence of ghosts, she did at times question his motives.  Colby was by extension of his family a Lutheran, but in all truthfulness he didn’t know what that really meant.  In any case he trusted Amelia enough to know that if he needed her input she would gladly give it.

Her mother however, his boss, did not share either of their views, always willing to give him a hard time over what she claimed was just ‘young foolishness’.  There had been a few times when the old woman had taken him inside the back office, sitting him down before their little ‘conversations’.  The memories of how loud their voices had actually gotten almost brought a smile to his face, since they had been told that the noise had carried to the third floor of the building.  Having only three stories to its structure he hadn’t taken that as a compliment.

Turning his memories back to that first moment he found that he could actually remember exactly what the face in the water had looked like.  Pale eyes had looked out upon him underneath bushy sea green brows, a smooth forehead leading quickly into long, flowing blue-black tresses that had waved wildly with the motions of the waves.  Her lips, it had been a woman there was no doubt, had been full and rather enticing, though the level look the female apparition had given him had been anything but alluring.  In all honesty he’d thought his heart would stop at that moment, the shocking cold of the water combined with the sighting proving too much even for a young heart.  There had been documented cases of people from all ages dying from fright, though he couldn’t honestly say that joining those people would have made him feel vindicated.

With high cheekbones and a pert nose she had been quite beautiful, though in a macabre moment he had quickly realized that she possessed no body, at least none he could see.  Strangely enough he hadn’t been bothered by this, accepting the mystery of her missing limbs and torso with not a bit of worry aside from his initial fright.  The face had continued to look at him for several moments, switching from breaker to breaker as the waves had kept rolling in, sometimes rising higher, sometimes going lower.

Colby had been rooted to that spot despite the strong pull of the current, the sand around his feet being washed away, though he hadn’t felt it.  Before it had disappeared back into the greenish-blue waters Colby had seen it do something that only helped to affirm that he was not imagining things.  With only the slightest hint of a smile upon her watery lips, the apparition had winked at him, sliding backward in the next second to disappear into the waves.  His parents had been yelling for him at that point for the last ten minutes, wanting him to come in to shore for lunch.

Shaking his head briskly he had began to head back in, not watching the waves that had been waist deep at that point.  His attention had however been captured quite effectively when the same natural occurrence he had found so entrancing caught him squarely in its midst.  Two breakers, each of them moving rather quickly, had combined with him right in the middle, catching Colby completely off guard.  Salt water filled his mouth in a rush as he tried his best to spit it out, almost losing his balance as he wind milled his arms madly.  Just as he was thinking that he wouldn’t fall a strong slip of the current caught him, spilling Colby into the chill waters of the Pacific.

He had no chance to close his mouth or his eyes, the murky salt water revealing little in the first moment but offering him once more its salty flavor as he felt air bubbles trickling from the corners of his mouth.  With his eyes open he was able to see something else in the water, or rather several somethings, before he surfaced.  The first face had been something of a wonder, enough to get his heart racing but nothing like what he’d seen only a short time ago.

In the waves he had seen one face, one female countenance that had seemed rather benign.  Of course his mind had already gone over the multitude of facts concerning ghost sightings, from the benevolent to the most vicious, coming to the conclusion that the woman’s face had been in the former.  What he’d seen upon going face first in the water however had not been overly friendly.  Instead of one face he’d seen several, too many for him to easily count.  Where the first face had been sharp and distinct these were hazy and out of focus, no doubt thanks to the murky water he tried to look through.

Sputtering madly he rose from the water, slapping the turbulent surface as waves kept crashing about him.  The raised voices of his mother and father had reached his ears again, telling him for the last time to come in for lunch.  He made all haste towards the shore then, pumping his legs as fast as he could despite the pull of the water.  His mind, in all its glorious methods of deduction, began playing tricks upon him, making it feel as though a multitude of watery hands and fingers were grasping at his legs.  Colby ran on, knowing that this feeling was unfounded despite what he knew he’d seen in the water.

As soon as his feet hit the wet sand beyond the waves Colby sprinted towards his family, his feet pounding sand as he ran.  He could already hear in his mind what his father would say while his mother simply went about the business of fixing lunch.  His two younger sisters would be either helping her or playing a game with each other, paying little attention to their brother’s latest scolding.  In four years they’d both heard so many that it was a common occurrence.

“Dad, dad there’s something in the water!”  His father just rolled his eyes at that, his thoughts already traveling down a well worn path that he and his son had traveled many times.  Heaving a great sigh Timothy Durbin threw his son a towel from atop the cooler they’d brought for their picnic.

“Yes son, there’s jellyfish, crab parts and even a few bass swimming in the shallows, that’s all.”  He finished his point with a severe arch of his eyebrows, the bushy brows beetling up with meaning.  Colby shook his head however, water flying everywhere as his father held up one hand to ward off the shower.  For the umpteenth billion time in his life he thanked the lord above for the patience he had with this kid.

Most people would have left him in an orphanage or shipped him off to military school by now.  However goofy or flipped out he might be at times however Colby was still his son, and despite everything he loved the boy.  Still, there were times when his obsession with ghosts and sightings became a little too much to easily handle.

Currently the family was in the fifth month of his most current fixation, ghost sightings, history and current events.  Colby had supposedly been seeing things in the shadows for that entire time, looking for things that weren’t there and seeing them often thanks to his vivid imagination.  That was one thing that the family could not deny, the kid had an imagination to him that defied easy explanation at most times.  Now however, after nearly one hundred fifty days of this, Timothy was a little tired.

“No dad, I saw a face, just like I’m seeing yours right now.  I swear dad, this is no joke or shadow, I saw it!”  If he was about to speak again he was rudely interrupted as his mother, Vivian Durbin, shoved a turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich into his open mouth.  Gagging for only a moment he bit down, chewing dutifully as his mother offered him a look that suggested he just eat and give the ghosts a rest.  Sighing to himself he did just that, enjoying the taste of his mother’s food as his sisters, Katie and Lynne, joined the rest of the family in lunch.

*                      *                      *

 

“I know I saw it, I just know I did.  It wasn’t nothing like dad says I know it.”  Such crazy babble should have worried Colby, though if he heard himself there was no sign.  He stood huddled near the water in his insulated ski jacket, its hood pulled up over his head to keep out the wind.  In reality it kept out only a minimal amount, the wind seemed to know each and every trick for getting in where it wasn’t wanted.  Still, it was better than feeling as though his ears might soon break off due to the cold.

These coastal winds were downright vicious at times, but it was a small price to pay for living in such a small, quiet area.  He’d heard stories and even seen what it was like to live in cities.  Aside from the interesting ghost tales he’d picked up Colby had seen only a few things that would ever inspire him to move to the city.  Among those was the fact that there was more there to do, more distractions from a simple life.  He was only sixteen but he found that in his mind he could do without arcades, ten different theaters within a ten mile radius and more department stores than people actually needed.

There were plenty of city folk that either moved down to the coast or had homes here, houses that stayed empty for much of the year.  He’d seen plenty of those houses fall into disrepair thanks to neglect by their owners.  Though it was really none of his business Colby had felt just a little saddened when he saw such beautiful homes go to ruin.  His own home was modest enough with three bedrooms, one for his parents, one for him and another for his sisters.  They didn’t have all the money in the world but they did well enough.  None of them had ever had to go without or-

“There, there I see you!”  The exclamation was heard only by him, though he didn’t pay this any mind as he saw what he firmly believed was the distinct shape of a face within the incoming waves.  Yanking his hands from his the pockets of his jacket he ran forward, stumbling several times as the loose sand underfoot shifted uneasily.  Ignoring this along with all else but what he’d seen he kept running, stopping only when he felt the

cold water seep into his clothing.  His heart raced as he saw a trio of waves come towards one another, smashing together as the left over force was sent quickly to the right, the crest of a new and larger wave rolling swiftly towards shore.

“A wakerunner, I knew it, I just knew it!”  He stood looking at nothing in the next few moments as his elation crested, not unlike an incoming wave.  Colby knew he’d seen the face in the waves, there was no doubt in his mind at all.  Maybe it hadn’t been the same exact countenance, but he had seen something nevertheless.  And he’d seen it just before the three waves had created the one, a theory that he’d come up with despite the impatience of those who’d he’d told it to.

Colby knew that he’d heard the appropriate scientific name for such an occurrence but he still preferred his own.  His personal term, ‘wakerunner’, came from his perception of the small event.  When the waves crashed together it looked to him like nothing less than something running just below the spray, racing along the top of the crest until it finally sank back beneath the water.  It was a simple thought, but it was the best he had ever been able to explain it.

Standing there staring off into space he felt a rush within his veins that had nothing to do with the short sprint he’d just run, a charge that he had never attempted to explain away.  It was the rush of self-assurance that he was not delusional as others called him, his knowledge that what he saw and believed was in fact real.  A gull cried in the distance, snapping him back to the present as the chill water that lapped around his ankles finally registered.

“Colby!”  He spun at hearing his name, almost spilling to the right as he overbalanced, still not quite in control of his senses.  Catching himself however he began to unsteadily walk away from the water, his footsteps splashing noisily as he went along.  Looking up at the dunes he saw his father standing there, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his rust colored Carhart jacket and his face drawn into a deep scowl.  Colby hung his head as he walked forward, knowing that he had a lecture coming at the very least.  The elation he’d felt only moments ago faded as the cold set in, promising nothing but wet socks for the entire trip home.

*                      *                      *

 

After a ten minute car ride and a thirty minute lecture on how his hobby was becoming an obsession Colby found himself in his room like always, poring over thick paperbacks and notes he’d written over the years.  His chicken scratch handwriting was illegible to everyone save him and there were times that even he couldn’t read it.  Strangely enough his homework assignments were written in perfect penmanship, showing not a trace of the anxiety that was found his notes.  Each time he’d written down what was considered fact or speculation he had found himself almost giddy with excitement, his hands at time shaking so much that he’d found holding onto pen and paper a challenge.

Now however he simply looked at everything in his reach with a sense of longing that he did not enjoy.  His parents had each laid into him with a decided purpose, telling him that until dawn he was by no circumstances to go anywhere near the beach.  They’d explained this well enough in their terms, telling him that his hobby had become

detrimental to his physical and mental well-being.  It wasn’t healthy they said to stand alone on the beach in the wind and cold, with no one around save the gulls and crows.  He knew they worried over him because they loved him, but Colby still didn’t want to accept that they might be right.

Colby knew what he’d seen.  In his mind there was no dispute, no word that could change the fact that he had seen something that defied all rational explanation.  What he’d experienced out in those waves was writ in black ink upon the pages in front of him.  Ghost tales, urban legends, even old folk tales dealing with spirits of all types, it was all here.  He had an inkling why his parents as well as others didn’t believe, it was something he’d heard in a conversation between a teacher in school and a few fellow students.  Once a person grew up, their belief in the impossible and improbable took a serious turn for the worst.  At a certain age people stopped believing in the world as a magical place, finding instead that life was only what they themselves made of it.

His teacher, a kindly middle-aged man named Mr. Nash, had told him that right around the time kids reached high school was when it really began.  This was the age during which children often began to lose the last shreds of their innocence, realizing that the world wasn’t like the movies.  He’d even claimed that despite the sadness of it all, those children that realized the harshness of the world early on were the lucky ones.  Colby had found this to be a harsh statement, though Mr. Nash had explained his point rather well.  Aside from this Colby respected Mr. Nash like so many other students did, knowing that he rarely said anything without reason.

Thinking back on this now filled him with at least a measure of hope that such was his parents’ main problem.  Their concern for him drove them to disbelieve what he said, wanting to keep him safe rather than indulge in what they considered his wild fantasies.  His father had gone so far as to call him reckless, telling him he allowed his need to believe in the supernatural to override his sense of reason.

Colby didn’t deny this, but at the same time he couldn’t help it.  Some people collected stamps, some people enjoyed flying kites.  Nothing so mundane had ever held his attention, it simply couldn’t.  There was something about believing in the world that lay just beyond, or next to, or even under this one that appealed to him.  He needed to believe in ghosts like children needed to believe in Santa Claus, or the Easter bunny, because it gave an explanation that very few could ever achieve.

That was why he was going back tonight.  Despite his parents both having forbid this he was going.  Where this sudden compulsion came from he didn’t know, but it would not be sated by simply reading passages and stories he’d read several times now.  Colby had memorized almost every word, the pages were worn and dog-eared from the number of hours he had put into flipping the pages.  They were no longer enough.    The words, the pictures, the compiled stories, both reported truths and pure entertainment, they were no longer enough to sate his ravenous appetite for the supernatural.

There was only one balm he could think of now, and that was to go back.  Colby already knew how he’d get by his parents.  He’d snuck out of the house a few times without being caught, the window that led outside his room an easy way to go about undetected.  Having nothing but sand and soft grass as a landing spot helped a great deal as well.  With this in mind he sat back on his bed, letting the papers fall to the covers as

he reached for the remote control behind him on his headboard.  Clicking on his television across the room he eyed the few movies he owned that lay scattered about the room.  There were four on his dresser near his door, three scattered around the tall entertainment center in which his television sat and two more on the bookcase at the end of his bed.  Flipping through channels he decided instead to settle on a sitcom he hadn’t watched in a while, content to sit and wait until his family went to bed.  Within a few moments he was laughing at the antics of the people on the screen, pushing the thought of returning to the beach to the back of his mind, for the time being at least.

*                      *                      *

 

It took only about another three hours until both his mother and father opened his door, telling him that it was time for bed.  The next day was a Saturday, so there was no school to worry over, this was just their nightly routine.  They both knew that he and his sisters often stayed up well past their bedtimes on the weekends, so making sure they were all in their rooms was merely a formality and nothing more.  Colby almost felt sorry for the deceit he was about to pull on his parents, but his need to go out and see the faces again had continued to rise during the last few hours.  His concentration on the television screen had wavered greatly, his eyes unable to focus as in his minds eye he kept seeing the face that had winked at him before disappearing.

She had been so beautiful, so enticing, but he couldn’t even explain to himself why this would be so.  Something like that would have sent most people running towards solid ground as though the devil himself were on their heels and gaining.  He’d been mesmerized however, not wanting to leave while at the same time feeling as though he might wet his pants.  It was a strange feeling, not quite fear but not pure excitement either.  He wanted to feel it again.

The sound of his parents deep, rhythmic breathing reached his ears as he listened in silence, smiling to himself at how truly predicable they were.  Colby set his remote control down lightly on the blankets of his bed, reaching over with his left hand to unlatch his window as quietly as he knew how.  The catch was well oiled and made no noise, the window track making just as little as he pushed it along.  Popping the screen out of place would be the trickiest part, so he turned up the volume on the television just enough to hopefully mask the sound.

Colby winced as one of the catches that held the screen in place grated against the aluminum frame of the window, squealing for a heart stopping second as he froze.  After nearly a minute of waiting he heard no sound of his parents waking, no feet hitting the floor and no moan of exasperation from his father.  Blowing out a silent breath of relief he leaned out of the window, setting the screen quietly against the side of the house before once more sitting upon his bed.  Keeping his eyes upon the television screen for a few moments Colby attempted to steady himself, knowing that if he got caught this time his parents would no doubt take away much more than they ever had in the past.  Perhaps his father’s threat of military school would finally come true and he’d be shipped away to only God knew where.

It was a risk he was more than willing to take.  He had to know just what or who he’d seen in the waves.  For the last three hours Colby had managed to convince himself

beyond all doubt that he was not crazy, he had seen those faces, and he would see them again.  Keeping the television on he slipped on his sneakers and a warm sweatshirt, grabbing a jacket as a mere afterthought.  Dropping from his window ledge he landed upon the green lawn outside in a crouch, kicking up a small amount of sand at the lawn’s edge.  Again he waited for any sound of his parents’ waking, this time allowing several minutes to pass in order to make sure.

Walking across the lawn he avoided the driveway, taking the extra steps in order to not wake everyone with the sound of his sneakers crunching on gravel.  Reaching the asphalt of the road he found the need to look back once more at his home, the two windows facing him belonging to his room and his sisters.  The two average-sized lots that their house and garage stood on were more than adequate for a family of their size, having allowed them to host several parties over the years and have a place for visitors to stay in either tents or the large mobile palaces that some of his parents’ friends traveled around in.

Starting once more on his way he slipped his arms into the sleeves of his jacket, shivering in the growing chill that nights on the coast often brought on.  Stuffing his hands in his pockets Colby continued walking, focusing his thoughts more towards what he hoped to see once more when he arrived.  The anticipation of what might be to come tonight set his every nerve on fire, goosing him into walking slightly faster as the wind began to pluck at his clothing, as though either willing him forward or trying to get him to stop.

But he wouldn’t stop.  Colby was a young man on a mission, he had a goal and was bound and determined to either recapture the sight that now drove him or stay on that beach until the moment occurred.  Never in his young life had he felt a pull like this, tugging at his mind like a fisherman’s hook that’s landed a prize catch.  Colby didn’t even stop to ponder over the implications of what might happen were he the catch.

He’d read so many stories, dug up so many histories and documented cases of haunting that eventually every motive of wayward spirits had become common knowledge to him.  Some who wrote down the documents of the spirit world claimed that those who walked beyond the physical realm were bound just as those who still lived were.  They followed the same rules, performed the same actions they had in life, but on a different level from everyone else.

Others however disputed this, claiming that those who were removed from this life had little to no limitations on what they did.  Such were the makings of poltergeists and haunting stories in which spirits took it upon themselves for whatever reason to either plague or try to inform the living.  In this view spirits, or ghosts, as many would have said, did not depend on the belief of their existence, but rather existed independently of the world of which they had once been a part.

Colby felt his feet hit sand as he came back to his senses with a start, strands of dune grass crinkling beneath his sneakers as he found himself on the trail that would take him to the beach.  Looking behind him he saw that the dwellings he passed were each dark, their residents either gone or already in bed.  The large condominiums that lay to the left were dark as well, a dark monolith that barely stood out save for the moonlight that shone down upon it.  For all he knew this structure could have been abandoned it was

so dark, standing out against the dunes and waist high grass like some silent predator, waiting for its next meal to come close enough.  He shivered as this thought crossed his mind, keeping his eyes on the structure as he traversed the short trail.

In his ears the roar of the mighty Pacific grew louder the closer he came to the dunes that hid the ocean from his view.  In the moonlight he could see the outlines of the dune grass that lay to each side of the path, their stalks waving gently back and forth in the winds.  He loved this place, it was strange thought to have at that moment but it came so suddenly that he couldn’t help but allow it to enter his mind.

Reaching the top of the dune he could now see the ocean in the silvery light that came down from above, highlighting the breakers magnificently.  Breathing deeply Colby was afforded a cleansing lungful of salt air, the wonderful aroma clearing out his sinuses and comforting him as had always happened.  Nowhere in the city had he found such calm as he did here.  Every time he felt hemmed in by his own world he could simply come here, and it would all just go away.

Come walk with us.

Colby snapped back to attention, looking all about for the source of the voice.  It sounded feminine, young but not too young.  The shadows of the beach however could have hidden any number of individual, leaving him guessing as to whether he was hearing things or someone was messing with him.  Walking down the dune towards the water he kept his ears open for anything else, hearing only roar of the ocean in front of him.  Once more he became entranced with the constant ebb and flow of the tides, the constant rhythm lulling him into a semi-stupor once more.  Colby continued walking forward, heedless of anything save the soothing call of the tides.

He didn’t even notice this time as his footsteps hit the water, nor did he notice the chill as he kept walking, his only area of focus being straight ahead.  Colby didn’t see anything, he didn’t hear anything, he didn’t even feel anything, there was just the need to keep walking.  His clothing soon became well saturated, the water reaching up to his armpits before he saw it.

Come with us.

The face, the same one he had seen before, suddenly appeared in front of him, hanging in midair it seemed as the woman looked at him in just the same manner as before.  Her smile was contagious; causing him to return the gesture as he casually ignored the numbing cold of the water.  Nothing else mattered right now except the woman’s face; her smile was just so wonderfully radiant.

It’s so lonely here.

Colby didn’t know how to respond to this, thinking instead that it was so sad, that yes, it was lonely down here when no one understood.  He found himself feeling so sorry for this mysterious woman, feeling a kinship with her that he didn’t fully understand.  As he closed his eyes he felt a soft hand caress his cheek, the chill of its touch feeling to him like the gentlest caress in the world.  There was nowhere else he would rather be now, no single person he would rather be with.  This woman, whoever she was, needed someone to be here for her, and he was the perfect person to fit the bill.

Colby didn’t feel the sensation of sinking, the cold had invaded his body so deeply that his body had almost ceased to function.  It was still February, one of the

coldest and most harsh months on the coast, his body wouldn’t have lasted long even had he been outfitted in a heavily insulated wet suit.  So at peace was he that he didn’t feel his head as it slipped beneath the waves, the features of the woman holding his attention as his body gradually ceased to function.  So intent was he upon her lovely visage that he didn’t even notice the other faces, the ones that had made him flee in icy dread the last time.  All he knew now was her face, and that she needed him so badly.  Colby found himself more than willing to oblige.  As he guided him forward he didn’t even feel his conscious mind slipping, wanting nothing more than to please her, no matter what.

*                      *                      *

 

 

 

Sunday, October 18th

 

 

Both Vivian and Timothy Durbin awoke thanks to the touch of a chill breeze that neither of them understood.  Waking fully they had frowned at one another at first, wondering where the cold was coming from.  While it was still winter the house was well enough insulated that they didn’t need to leave the wall heaters on constantly.  Letting them stay on for close to an hour was enough to heat most of the house, and they were shut off at night.  A chill such as this however usually meant an open window or door somewhere, and none of their three kids would have left either of these open.

The two of them rose slowly, Vivian gaining her feet first as she donned a woolen robe and a pair of slippers before waling towards the door that would lead out into the hall.  Tim was still rubbing sleep weary eyes as she stepped into the hallway, feeling the chill most distinctively from behind Colby’s door.  She could hear that their two daughters were still sleeping, though in her son’s room the television was still on.  Shaking her head she guessed that he had fallen asleep and forgotten to turn it off.

God bless the boy but damn if he wasn’t at times so far beyond the rest of them.  He was a handful, always had been, but he was their boy.  There were times like last night when they’d had to come down on him, but in heart she believed he understood why they spoke as they did.  They were concerned for his well-being, mentally as well as physically.  At first this little obsession of his with the world of ghosts and spooks had been cute, though not once had they ever encouraged it.  It was just his hobby they figured, and until his stints at the beach, especially lately, they hadn’t been overly worried.

“Colby, are you awake?”  She opened the door slowly, thinking that he might already be awake.  No doubt he hadn’t forgotten last night, but hopefully he had come to a better understanding of their words.  What she saw however both frightened as well as irritated her greatly as she took one more glance before walking back into her own room.  Her husband was slipping on his own robe and slippers as he yawned deeply, looking at her only after a moment of scratching and lip smacking.

“What’s wrong?”  His tone held a note of irritation which told her he could tell by the look on her face he wouldn’t enjoy her answer.

“Colby snuck out, his window is open and the screen’s popped out.  And even better, he isn’t here.”  Timothy didn’t bother to ask how she knew this, since on a winter’s day Colby would most likely be inside.  If he were inside then the noise he would be making fixing breakfast or otherwise would be enough to wake the dead.

Sliding his robe off of his shoulders Tim walked into their large closet, picking out a shirt and set of jeans.

After this he selected a jacket, socks and shoes before offering his wife one last glance before exiting the room.  No words were necessary, this had become a common practice as of late.  The scolding the boy would receive this time however would have to be something even worse than the previous times.  Grabbing a baseball cap as he exited the house he fished in the pocket of his jacket for the keys to the family vehicle, already running through his mind the words he would begin with.  Oh this kid!  Why couldn’t he realize that his parents were trying to keep him safe?  It was as his own father had told him long ago, sons were put on this earth to trouble their fathers.  Sometimes Tim wondered if Colby realized just how true that was.

*                      *                      *

 

The footprints led down to the water, that was all he could see.  Timothy frowned in confusion at the footprints that could only be his son’s, mostly because the prints led straight into the water.  He’d called out to his son many times already, even looked in the thickets of dune grass closest to the trail.  This was the only spot Colby ever came after his supposed sighting, Tim had found him here a number of times since that day.  The sun left really no place to hide, banishing most of the shadows save for deep in the grasses, where his son wouldn’t be anyway.

Now he was getting rather concerned.  There was a chance that Colby had been angry last night, but surely not angry enough to run away.  Both Tim and his wife had felt that while the conversation wasn’t entirely resolved it still hadn’t escalated to such a point.  Looking up and down the beach he tried to quiet his mind, not wanting to believe that his son would have gone anywhere but here.  His heart told him that this was so, but his mind was doing its world class job of devising each and every scenario, no matter how harmless or how malevolent.

He didn’t want to go home without his son at his side, but how did he go about that task when he couldn’t even find the boy?

*                      *                      *

 

Colby saw his father.  He saw as his old man yelled for him time and again, looking up and down the beach as though his son might just suddenly appear.  To be honest Colby didn’t know how to feel about this, the woman he had come to share his company with preoccupied much of his time now.  She was so lonely, and he brought her so much happiness that he couldn’t help but think of everything else only in passing.  His father however, Colby could not fully ignore.  As the waves all about him continued to roll in towards the shore his vision grew hazy as he heard the insistent call of his new friend.  Turning towards her he stole one glance back at the man upon the shore, already beginning to forget just who he was and why he was there.

There were ghosts in the water, he knew this to be true, he’d seen them.  He just never believed he’d become one of them.  That too however began to fade in the face of the woman’s smile, her deep sea-green eyes taking away everything save the need to keep her company.  She was so lonely, but not anymore.

12 Miles (excerpt)

Part One: Vince

 

 

“I’ll pray for you.  Be safe.”  The man snorted derisively at the old woman’s words as he sauntered away, keeping his balance despite his current state of inebriation.  He didn’t give a damn about her prayers.

“Do yourself a favor mom,” Karl said, “Save your prayers for someone who needs ‘em.”  His words came out fine, not slurring, but he couldn’t help feeling that he should quit talking.  Looking back over his shoulder he could see his mother silhouetted in the doorway, her features hidden in shadow as the lights of the warm bar behind her glared at her back.  The interior of the R&R Tavern looked so welcoming, so peaceful that maybe, just maybe-

No.  This time his brother had gone way too far.

“Please son, just be safe.”  His mother was pleading now, actually begging him to do as she said.  It almost broke his heart, but Karl kept on walking.  He even snorted in disdain, knowing it would hurt her that much more.  A part of Karl, a part he had long forgotten about, railed at him to stop, to just goddamn stop and listen to her, but the problem was, he didn’t want to listen to himself.  She already knew he wouldn’t do whatever she suggested if only to piss off the family and distance himself even further from them.  If his father, who was also inside with the rest of the family, couldn’t talk sense into him then no one could.  Well, there was one person who could, but she-

No.  That wasn’t a good thought to have right now.

“Whatever,” Karl replied before turning away.  The night around him was cold as his boots struck against the pock-marked parking lot, but not uncomfortably so.  He could hear the door squeal close behind him as his mother went back inside, no doubt in tears or well on her way to such a deluge.  He didn’t care; he’d meant every last goddamned word he’d said before leaving.  Zipping up his jacket Karl blew out a long, frosty plume of air.  This was going to be a long walk home.

*                      *                      *

 

“I said I was sorry goddammit!  What more does he want me to say?!”

“Please don’t use the lord’s name in vain again Gary.”

The middle-aged, pot-bellied man gave his gray-haired stepmother a long-suffering look as he tipped back his pint of beer, taking a deep swallow before setting it back down on the beer-soaked wooden table between them.  All along either side of the table was his family, or least a good deal of them, and none of them looked happy.  Gary kept his eyes upon the littered wooden surface, his eyes darting first to a crumpled napkin with barbecue sauce on it and then to a twisted drink straw, its slender form bent into a jumble of confusing angles.  All the glassware from the shot glasses to the pints to the wine glasses were either empty or getting there.  The plates and utensils that had been used for the feast had already been taken away by either his stepmother or other family members.  They had the run of the bar tonight since his uncle happened to own the place, which was the only reason why the underage kids were allowed in here right now.  Washington didn’t allow minors into a bar for any reason, but Uncle Jack didn’t care when it came to family, especially with private parties such as this.

Despite the size of the group that sat on either side of the scarred tables that had been pushed together no one seemed too eager to speak.  After another few awkward moments however one of the older men, Gary’s father, stood up to speak.

“You didn’t need to bring his wife into the discussion Gary, that was uncalled for and worse-“

“But-“ Gary tried to protest.  His father held up one hand quickly in a gesture that Gary knew too well.  It meant shut up and listen, or God help you if he had to go further than the hand.

Gordon glared reproachfully at his eldest son as he continued to hold up his hand, which was beginning to develop a few telltale signs of liver spots, “What’s worse is that you knew, you knew that it would rile him up.  Dammit Gary you should have known better!”  Gordon slammed his palm down hard on the table, still fixing Gary with his hard stare as Gary could see his father’s eyes misting over.  Glasses rattled and the sauce-covered napkin jumped slightly as Gordon’s hand met the table.  Even a few of those seated around him jumped just a bit at his vehement act.  No one seemed inclined to step in between father and son at that moment, no matter if they were all family in one way or another.  The subject at hand had been a tender one for nearly three years to this day and remained so.

“He’s just so goddamned sensitive!” Gary protested, still holding onto his glass of beer.  The two young faces his eyes suddenly alit upon tore at him as their wide eyes and frowning lips seemed to accuse him without words.  The six-year old twins, Tina and Jessie, loved their father very much, even if he was emotionally distant to them at times.  Nothing had been right since their mother had passed away it seemed, and Gary had no doubt just made things that much worse.

“Gary!” his stepmother, Ellen, scowled at him as she said his name.  The twins huddled close to their grandmother, no doubt hearing the severity in her voice.  Gary decided just then that he’d had it, he was done being sorry.  He scowled back as much as his blackened left eye would let him, not backing down an inch.

“Oh go on and defend your little baby boy, Ellen.” Gary spat, not meeting his father or Ellen’s heated stares in that moment.

“Be careful Gary, you’re crossing a dangerous line.” This came from just down the table, the eyes of another older gentleman, his Uncle James, pinning Gary as he locked gazes with the man.  Uncle James wasn’t the type to back down to the glare that Gary now gave him, in fact none of his family were that way.  His throbbing left eye attested to that fact.  It was a damned good thing his younger brother hadn’t aimed lower, Gary might not have been able to speak up in his defense just now.  Unfortunately it wasn’t like he was doing any good.

His little brother, well actually he wasn’t so little really, was the one that everyone seemed to be defending at the moment.  It wasn’t fair, the family always sided with his adopted brother, even if he was in the wrong like now.  Gary’s eye hurt like hell dammit!  And here they were, ready to defend the over-sensitive bastard that had done it!

“So what, you’re all against me now?” he asked in an accusing tone.

His younger sister Sarah spoke up at that moment, “You had no right to mention Anna, Gary, especially not in that context.” Gary’s jaw dropped as he glared at his sister, his real sister.  Out of all the people here he’d expected to understand his side of this, she’d been numero uno.  Of course she also thought their little brother had been fully entitled to the cheap shot he’d gotten in.  Gary had known the punch was coming, but he would swear up and down to end of his days that his adopted brother had sucker-punched him.  And there was no way he’d ever admit to being put on his ass, even though he had been.

The notion of calling the cops that were stationed just down the road to arrest the bastard had been tempting, but Uncle Jack wouldn’t have allowed it.  Plus, seeing as most of his family was here, no one else would have allowed it either.  He was convinced now that he would have been tackled before he hit the door if he’d tried to run to the station.  Hell, even if they didn’t stop him Gary would probably have a coronary before he got halfway there.  Despite being a healthy runner in his youth, age had taken away much of that vigor and spirit.  These days he was lucky if he could weed his own flowerbeds.  What he did wonder was if the family would have pulled Karl off had the asshole decided to keep going.  Gary almost suspected that they would have just let him go, wailing away until he was nothing more than a bloody smear.  Wouldn’t that have been fun to explain to any customers?  Oh sure, don’t worry about them strange stains, we just had some plumbing problems, or maybe Uncle Jack would come up with something equally ridiculous to explain away the faded bloodstains.

“You’re damn lucky he only punched you once Gary,” his father said.

Gary slouched sullenly in his seat as he replied, keeping his eyes turned away, “I could’ve taken him.”

“Dad, he would have flattened you.”  Gary looked to his right to see his sixteen-year old daughter, Beth, raising her eyebrows as she sipped at her drink.  It was a non-alcoholic drink, he knew, he’d watched Uncle Jack make it.  As his daughter looked at him squarely Gary saw that she too was against him at the moment, his own daughter.  Great, now absolutely everyone was against him.

*                      *                      *

 

It was damned cold as Karl began the long trek home, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his heavy Carhart jacket.  The thick material was designed for heavy duty labor and protection, but it didn’t do much against the cold.  Of course it probably wouldn’t with the zipper halfway down either.  He didn’t care about the cold, it was actually helping to keep him awake and cleared his thoughts just a bit.  He was still plenty angry, but no longer felt even the slightest bit remorseful.

For years now half of his family had been dying to see him take down his older brother, while the other half had always warned him away, telling him to be the bigger man.  In truth he was a bit surprised that things hadn’t come to such a head like this years earlier.  His brother had been tormenting him for years now, even when he’d finally grown bigger and stronger.  Gary had few reasons if any to be the arrogant asshole that he was, but for some reason he was just that way.

Karl’s home was all the way back down Mill Plain, a good ten miles, probably more since he’d never calculated it.  Vancouver wasn’t the biggest city around, in fact some folks still considered it a town.  The ‘couv, as it was called by so many, lay sprawled over a wide terrain with more than a few outlying suburbs that tried to be their own little townships.  His home was set just off of Franklin Street, along where Brandt and Mill Plain intersected.  It was a simple place, a single-story, three-bedroom house with one and a half bathrooms and a nice-size yard both front and back.  He expected that the yellow Labrador that had been around since Tina and Jessie were babies had already gone inside via the doggy door he’d installed early on during her potty training.  Luna was a good girl, she’d been easy to train and even easier to raise.  His kids on the other hand, well, maybe that wasn’t such a good subject to think of just now.  They were good girls, but after what had happened three years ago, Karl didn’t really want to think about how he was failing them.

The neighborhood he and his daughters lived in was called Harney Heights, which was really an absurd name he’d always thought.  At least the homes in his neighborhood didn’t have names like they did over in Aurora, Oregon, where his parents lived.

As Karl continued to walk forward the air surrounding him became just a bit colder as he shuddered in response.  Huddling a little deeper into his jacket he could hear his teeth chatter until he clamped them firmly together, stifling the noise as he frowned.  Winter was always an uncertain time in the pacific northwest, it could range from a sunny, warm day to a blinding snowstorm on any given day.  The weathermen were rarely correct and when they were it was normally a wide-eyed, “how did that happen”, moment that was shared by all.  As he continued walking Karl grinned, thinking to himself that it might very well snow this winter.  Tina and Jessie would like that at least.

“Hey buddy, I need a dollar.”  Karl jumped slightly at the gravelly voice that came from the shadows just to his right.  Wait, that wasn’t right, why would someone be walking in the street?  Karl had crossed the four six lanes of blacktop only a few hundred yards back, preferring to walk on the left side of the street since the sidewalk ran for far longer on this side.  He knew enough of Vancouver’s streets to know that he didn’t want to be caught walking on the edge of the road at this time of night.  The drivers around these parts weren’t always that considerate to pedestrians.

Looking over to the right he saw a bearish man walking up to him from behind, his features mostly obscured from the street lights overhead. Karl could see though that he was a brute, his long hair and facial hair bushy and just barely kept within his hood.  The man’s voice as almost like a growl, though Karl didn’t pay much attention to this.

“Sorry man, I’ve got nothing.”  Karl didn’t even think it too strange that the man was walking upon the short width of concrete that separated the sidewalk from the street, some people didn’t care about the laws of traffic or even physics, meaning that a car outweighed a person by thousands of pounds.  It didn’t even take a high school physics student to know that the car would always win.

“That’s too bad,” the man said, his voice continually rough as he kept his hands huddled into the thick woolen jacket he wore.  Karl was about to move on, though he’d never stopped walking he realized, when the man spoke again.

“I still need a dollar.”

The stranger was pacing him, Karl suddenly realized, those big legs, clad in what almost looked like coveralls, pumping as Karl tried to speed up without being noticed.  Still the man kept his pace.

“I told you man, I’ve got nothing.”

I told you man, I’ve got nothing.”  An almost girlish chuckle came from his left then, startling Karl so that he almost forgot about the man to his left.  Looking over in that direction quickly he saw a woman, obvious from her voice and her build, as she came across a grassy sward that was part of a front lawn that sat in front of an AM/PM gas station and convenience mart.  He felt his heartbeat increase in tempo just a bit, though he kept walking.  Karl knew that crime in Vancouver was sometimes as prevalent as anywhere, but muggings on the street didn’t just occur now and then, if at all.  But for some reason, he didn’t get the feeling that these two were interested in his polite company.

“Maybe we should let this guy go Dio,” the woman said, her own features hidden away within the shadows of a hood, except for her eyes. Karl could see the manic, brown orbs from the light shed by a street light as the three of them continued to walk forward, the two shadowing the one.  He could only make out hints and bits of her face, though that seemed enough to know that she was rather striking.  But the ill light he could see in her eyes was more than a little unnerving.  Suddenly he wanted to be far away from these two, and was thinking that he should have stayed at the bar.

Such irrational fear wasn’t like him, nor was thinking that he might be in very real danger from two strangers he’d just met, but Karl felt it all the same.  He’d said before that he feared no one, no matter if they could kill him with barely any effort.  Fear was something he didn’t like to admit, though it happened just as it did with most other folks.  He denied it as much as possible, but when his heartbeat betrayed him it was hard to put aside.

“He’s got something,” the woman said, pacing Karl on his left even as the big brute of a man continued to do the same on the right.  Karl was feeling just a bit nervous now, so much so in fact that he didn’t notice that there wasn’t a single car on the road, nor even a single person to be seen on the streets.  While Vancouver wasn’t exactly a city that never slept, there were gas stations and other businesses that didn’t close, remaining open all day and night so as to offer more convenience.  But in his current mood, he didn’t notice that not a single person seemed to be present.  If he had it would have been just another curiosity anyway.

“Lady, I don’t know what to tell you but-“ Karl didn’t get the chance to finish as the woman interrupted him with a barking peal of laughter, the sound grating on his nerves as he instantly thought of nails screeching across sheet metal.  It was a vivid mental image, and one that he didn’t really enjoy.

“You can tell my friend that you’ll give him a dollar, that way we can both get across the river.”

Now that made no sense.  Get across the river?  Images of toll booths and small metal and wooden boxes where people sat and made sure that the toll for passage was collected entered his mind, and Karl couldn’t rightly remember the last time when he’d seen such a thing, apart from movies and television of course. Many films shot in New York, New Jersey, and even further to the west of the nation showed toll bridges and roads that collected money in order for one to continue onward, but here in Vancouver there was no such thing as a toll bridge. And to cross the river, one only had to choose between the I-5 and I-205 bridges, and neither of those demanded a toll.

In fact, he could remember at that second the only toll bridge that he and his family had seen had been in Astoria, when he had been a child.  Every weekend and holiday they’d been able they had gone to the beach, and crossing over from Astoria to the Longbeach Peninsula had required a toll.  But that toll booth had been taken down years ago, after it had been decided that it was a service no longer needed.  He could recall that there was apparently talk of it coming back however.  And there was talk of an addition to the I-5 Bridge, one that would require a toll booth.  For people who traveled back and forth between Washington and Oregon for work and other pursuits, that would be a real bitch.

“Hey stupid!” the woman called, her voice almost shrieking as Karl jumped just a bit, “Stop daydreaming and give my buddy a dollar!”  He almost yelled right back at her, not appreciating the tone she was taking. That seemed just a bit ridiculous since she and the man were obviously trying to force him into something he didn’t want, but all the same Karl didn’t like being yelled at.

“Bite me you screeching bitch.” Karl had no sooner spoken the words when he heard footsteps coming up from behind him.  Before he could turn he was struck soundly upon the back of the head with something very hard, something that forced him to stumble forward as the world tilted crazily in his vision, the street lights almost blurring into long, orange lines as the shadows crept into his sight just a little more.  Sound seemed to distort in that moment as the woman and the first man converged on him, each one of them grabbing an arm as Karl tried to fight.  He was rewarded for his efforts by a vicious kick to the balls from the woman, who was wearing pointed shoes he soon found out.

Karl didn’t even have the wind to yell or groan as the man socked a huge fist into his stomach, folding him instantly as he went down.  They let him go before his arms would have been wrenched painfully in their sockets, to crash hard upon the cement walkway as he thankfully turned to the left, not landing on his face and breaking his nose or anything else.  That was a small thing at least.

“Check ‘im,” he heard a deep, masculine voice say, and then he felt as the woman and the first man rifled through his pockets, turning out nothing but an empty wallet with a few pieces of plastic, namely his debit card from Wells Fargo, a FUNLAND card from the coast when he’d taken his girls, and a battered and beaten USBANK employment debit card.  He’d not needed the card since he’d gained a job several months back, but the letter it had come with had advised him to keep it, and so he’d tucked it away and forgotten it was there.

The rest that came out of his pockets was nothing more than a few pieces of change, pennies and a few dimes really, and a couple pieces of folded up paper with notes and phone numbers written on them.  He heard a snort of disgust as the two stood up, the crumpling sound of the papers being wadded up and thrown aside abnormally loud in his head.

“Punk was right, he didn’t have anything.” The woman sounded almost surprised.

“The boatman won’t accept this little,” the first man said, his voice just as rumbling and disturbing as Karl continued to listen, cradling his injured manhood as the lights continued to dim.

“It doesn’t matter,”  spoke the third voice, the one that Karl hadn’t seen yet, “We’ll find some other chump, someone who’s actually got something.  Let’s go.”  He thought that would have been it, that they would have left him alone, but hey, that would have been too simple.

The woman looked down at him as the trio began to move back in the direction they’d come from, her insane gaze making Karl’s skin crawl as he looked up at her.  He could almost envision this woman laughing at the scene of a horrific car crash, or dancing a jig when 9/11 had come about, or doing something equally perverse during some other unknowable tragedy.  The madness he saw in her eyes didn’t allow him to think anything less.

“Enjoy your stay asshole,” she said, and then she kicked him, hard, in the temple. And for a little bit, the lights went out.

*                      *                      *

 

Reason suggested that someone should have called the cops, that someone would have seen a man lying upon the sidewalk, curled into the fetal position, and thought that something was wrong.  But of course, reason wasn’t always reasonable, especially in an age where a lot of people figured it was better to mind their own damned business.  Karl might have been an oddity lying there on the sidewalk, or he might have been seen as a disgusting bum, a drunk who’d gotten so passed out on his ass that even walking down the street hadn’t been something he could accomplish without needing a place to rest.  All that might have been possible, but at the moment, as his eyes began to slowly open, it hurt just to see the light of the street lamps at the moment, Karl figured that it didn’t matter.  The only thing he was worried about at that second were the overgrown, throbbing melons that had once been his balls.

Pain was his only true sensation right now, the swelling in his pants making a rather persuasive argument that it should be the one and only thing on Karl’s mind at that second.  Unfortunately he couldn’t disagree.

“Hey, hey pal, time to get up.”

He wanted to tell the anonymous stranger what to do with himself, but the words wouldn’t come, making him wonder if the three muggers had done something to damage his windpipe as well.  Karl was conscious enough at that second that he could feel no pain in his throat and neck, but the agony in his head and his crotch was more than enough to make up for the apparent lack.  Good G-, wait, why couldn’t he form that thought?  How hard had the damned woman kicked him?

“Hey, get up man.”

Karl managed a groan this time, though that was about it.

“Get up man, I’m not gonna drag your ass up on my own.”

Opening his eyes Karl expected to see a cop, or another citizen of the town intent on doing just a small bit of good. Or maybe someone who just didn’t want to take the second or two to walk around him.

Instead he saw a tall black man hunkered down next to him, left knee upon the pavement and the other raised as he balanced on the ball of his right foot.  He was no doubt taller than Karl, and yet he instantly decided that the man couldn’t have weighed more than a buck eighty or just a little over.  He was lithe in the way that a lot of tall people were, all bone, muscle, and skin, hardly any fat.  Of course, that was a crude generalization, but at this moment Karl’s capacity to think straight wasn’t firing on all thrusters.

“Did you see them?” Karl groaned, feeling as though the question was a bit ridiculous. It was like asking someone if they’d knew what was happening in an undetermined location to people they’d never met.

“Nope, but I can guess who did it,” the man said, his face betraying nothing more than mild irritation, “The three I can assume did this have been waylaying people for longer than  I care to admit.”

Karl frowned, the small gesture paining him greatly as he closed his eyes again. The three people?  The muggers had been doing this before?  You would have thought that such a thing would have been on a local newscast once or twice.  But maybe they were quiet about it, taking out people that wouldn’t dare say a word.  Or maybe it was just one more screwy part of the world that seemed to slip in and out of its many cracks.

“Who are you?” Karl managed to ask.

The black man issued a long, bored-sounding sigh that immediately made Karl think of his brother, and how the prick had always seemed irritated with him for no reason.

“Are you gonna ask a bunch of questions or can we get going finally?”

What had he just said?  Karl wasn’t quite sure, in fact he was as confused as he could be in his own opinion, but at the moment all that really mattered was the pain he was in.  With another sigh the stranger stood to his feet, where Karl was almost sure he would either just leave or kick him and then leave.  For some reason he didn’t feel like he could expect a great deal from this man.

“Get your ass up man, we need to be going.”

“Call me a damned ambulance or something,” Karl groaned from where he lay, still cupping his crotch as he was almost certain he could feel it bleeding.

“Is that all?” the man asked, “You’re worrying about your tenders?  Oh for crying out loud. I’d forgotten how big of babies guys can be about their equipment.”

Without warning the man hunkered down again, and before Karl could protest or even try to move away, the man’s large hand was upon his crotch.  It lasted only a second, but what came next would remain stuck in his memory until the day he died.

Karl was about to move, or try to at least scoot away, when the man took his hand away.  He didn’t know what to say or expect, but in the next breath he found himself unable to do anything other than squeak as his mouth opened wide in a horrified O of agony.  It felt like someone had shoved a steel spike into his privates and twisted, the wrenching pain lasting for only a moment but still incapacitating him without fail.

And in the next instant, it was over.

His head still ached fiercely, and his neck was a bit stiff from having lain upon the sidewalk at an angle, but as to his crotch, well, it felt normal.  Karl couldn’t think straight as he suddenly sprang to his feet, fully intent on showing the man just what he thought of such treatment.  His palms were abraded slightly as he pushed himself to his feet, but he didn’t care, standing up quickly as he swung one fist at the black man, only to discover that the bastard wasn’t there.

“If this is how we’re going to start out it’s going to be a long trip.”  The voice of the stranger came from behind him, though Karl could have sworn the man had just been in front of him. How the hell had he moved so fast?  At that moment it almost felt as though he were inside a badly written movie, something where strangers who just showed up helped in the most strange ways and had supernatural abilities that defied any mortal reasoning. It was almost like something his daughters might have read or watched on television.

“I’d keep those kind of thoughts close to the vest, if you catch my meaning,” the man said as Karl turned around, “Stuff like that can get you twisted faster than you can blink where we’re going.”

Karl did blink, turning around just as quickly as he stepped away from the stranger.

“Who the hell are you?” He barely noticed as the man winced.  Instead of answering right away however, the stranger looked around, almost as though he were nervous, which Karl of course did not understand.  Was he running from someone?  Maybe the cops….but no, no that was an essentially racist thought, or at least had the possibility of being one, and Karl didn’t entertain it any further.

“Keep that kind of talk down big guy, especially when we cross the river.”

“What river?” Karl asked, growing more exasperated each second he stood there talking.  A large part of him just wished to keep going, to marvel about how his nether regions no longer ached and what it meant, whether or not he’d met the real life equivalent of John Coffey or not, but his feet wouldn’t move.  He wondered if the character in Stephen King’s stunning novel, The Green Mile, had felt the same way when the big black man had touched him in the certain spot.  Of course, Karl hadn’t been suffering a urinary infection before now, just a painful kick from a very pointed toe. He wondered briefly if either pain would feel the same, and decided quickly that he didn’t want to find out.

“The river you were heading towards, without knowing it of course.”

Karl rolled his eyes, “The only river I know of anywhere close to here is the Columbia, and I wasn’t planning on crossing it tonight.”

The black man gave him a look that suggested he was being quite tiresome, and to be honest Karl didn’t like it, but then, he didn’t like the stranger all that much either right now.  Something about him just didn’t seem natural, and it was more than just the strange healing touch he’d exhibited.  He was grateful in a way, but it wasn’t every day a guy just reached out and grabbed you, unless you batted for that team of course.  No, even gays had to have a sense of propriety, they were human after all, aside from what the cartoons that slammed them might believe.

“Have you always been this thick? Or is tonight a special night?”

“What in the hell are you talking about?!”

“Watch the word man!” the stranger spat, looking around once more as though in fear that something might soon present itself.  Karl was more than a little confused right now, but he didn’t care. He wanted an answer, he wanted to get on his way and leave this crazy black man behind, and he wanted all of that within the next five to ten seconds.  Of course he wasn’t likely to get it, he knew this. Crazy people often took a little longer to get to the point.

“Just tell me what the-“ the man narrowed his eyes at him, “-heck, is going on here, who you are, and why I shouldn’t just keep walking my happy ass down the road, towards home and company a lot more stable than your own.”  Karl felt his hands clench into fists, and he knew that he would throw down soon if the man didn’t get to talking. The black man looked at Karl’s fists, almost amused it seemed, and then took a deep breath.

“Fine.  You want to know?  I suppose you’re entitled, it wouldn’t be against the rules to tell you at least something.”

Karl just frowned, not understanding but at least willing to listen to something approximating an answer.  It was a start at least.

“My name is Vince, and I’m your guide. As to the river I keep mentioning, as in the one we’ll have to cross to get on to where we’re going, it’s not the Columbia, or the Willamette, or any other river in the vicinity that you might or might not know about.  Those rivers have gone bye-bye my friend.  Well, they’re still there, but the names are going to be different if you’re unlucky enough to be sent that way.”

Karl kept listening, though he knew that he would regret it.

“As much as you might think we’re still on Mill Plain, in Vancouver, WA, in the great US of A, and located on the world known as earth, you’re wrong.”

Karl blinked, “And where are we then?”

Vince shook his head, rolling his eyes again as he replied, “Welcome to the first step before Hell Karl.  Feel free to throw up before we head out, most people do the first time.”

Phonebook (excerpt)

Prologue

The Game

 

Woodburn, OR

April 2nd, 2010

9:07 pm

 

 

“See, this is how it goes.  A name was picked, and it was yours. There’s no riddle to it, no purpose other than this: it’s a game, and we play to win.”

The old woman sat up, her lined and wrinkled cheeks flush with anger as she spoke, “This isn’t a game!  You’re torturing innocent peop-aggh!”  Blood and pieces of teeth flew as the butt of his trusty (trusty trusty never rusty) sidearm smashed into the old biddy’s lips, mashing them against her teeth and splitting them open in the process.

“Stow it old bag, you know what I’ve said about that.”  He waved the index finger of his left hand at her in an accusing manner, but the smile never left his face.  No, one had to be at least somewhat civil, he couldn’t be disturbed and agitated, that was left to those who joined The Game later on.  Everything was going just fine, like the time before this, and the time before that, and the time before with old Jack Sprat.  That thought almost made him laugh, though the smile was enough as he looked upon the older couple with a cold, hard gaze that did not share in the glacial chill of his predator’s smile.

Eppie was scheduled to arrive soon with the new “recruits”, or “contestants”, as he liked to call them.  The old, saggy-skinned couple would sit in the Loser’s Circle soon, and then The Game would continue, simple as that.  The Game had to continue, that was simple enough to understand, but there always had to be losers, so that the winner could feel some sense of accomplishment, some rush of adrenaline that winning managed to bring.

“Young man,” the old man said, almost pleading as his droopy eyes looked small in his face, almost like one of those old basset hounds.  All he had to do this time though was raise his gun, and the old buzzard shut right the hell up.  It was good to have power over people, especially when all one had to was gesture.  This was what God must have felt like back in His heyday.

“You’ve talked for as long as you needed sir, for now you can just sit there, soil yourselves, and listen to your bodies continue to ferment for all I care.  All that matters is that you keep those lips shut unless I say so. Got it?”  His smile broadened at the old couple as the woman glared at him.  Her bloodied lips were trembling, though he couldn’t decide if this was from fear or anger.  Either way it didn’t really matter, they were being quiet, which meant they were being good as he’d told them.  That was what really mattered, that they realized who was in control, because it sure as hell wasn’t them.  This was just too much fun.

Looking off to his left, through the dining room window that sat just beyond the heavy wooden table that could have seated six or eight, he could see that the night was fast approaching, the last few wisps of daylight clinging stubbornly as the darkness tried to crowd them out.  That was good.  He almost laughed at the sight, finding that the struggling light was almost in a way like the stubborn old couple, who had at least tried to give him a hard time over the past two days.  It had taken some doing, but they’d learned their damned place finally, especially when he’d beaten both of them about the hips and abdomen, two areas he knew from experience could be problem areas on people in their advancing years.  He hadn’t been able to avoid laughing when the old woman had nearly shit herself after being struck hard in the lower abdomen.  The stench that had come from her was horrendous, but it had made him laugh all that much more.

Nighttime was always easier to work with, it dulled and masked features that otherwise stood out.  He’d pulled the vertical blinds over the glass sliding door that led out to the back patio as well.  Despite there being little view except from the upper floors of the homes on the other side of the couple’s fence, it still wouldn’t do for anyone to just happen to glance out their window and see something they shouldn’t.  That was how The Game could get complicated, and the more simple it was, the more chance that he could continue.  He’d taken every precaution he could think of, in fact the process he’d clung to for so long had undergone only a few changes each time, in order to keep those that arrived late to the party guessing.  Thus far The Game had run for many years, and no one had been the wiser as to figuring out his pattern.  That was simply because there wasn’t one.

His attention was diverted in that moment by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway outside, it’s purring engine barely noticeable save to those who were waiting for such a thing.  Craning his head to look out the window just a little further he saw as headlights turned from the residential road just beyond the driveway, highlighting the cracked and patched cement that made up the simple drive.  The car, a sedan he could see, pulled into the drive just a little too quickly, and as the engine was cut off, the headlights were cut with just as much haste, causing him to frown in irritation.  Turning back to the old couple his smile returned as he shrugged his shoulders in a “what are you going to do?” gesture.

“I told that kid to slow down, not make it look like he’s in a hurry. And what does he do?  He guns the car into the driveway like a maniac and snaps off the headlights like he’s afraid someone will see him.  Like he’s trying to be inconspicuous.  Kids,” he said, shaking his head, “Patience is not a virtue of the young.”

Stepping closer to the old couple he glanced at his watch while still keeping the smile on his face.  The old woman had one hand over her bleeding lips now, the blood dribbling past her gnarled fingers and down her chin as it dripped down onto her lap, staining the tan slacks she’d chosen to wear.  Her eyes were filled with a hatred that might have stopped his heart cold if such a thing were possible.

“Damn kid took longer than I thought he would.” Now he really wasn’t sorry about what he had to do.  The sound of car doors being shut reached his ears as he closed his eyes briefly, not worried that the two elderly folks would try anything. They’d be fools to do so, he could overpower both of them with one arm, and besides that, they weren’t anywhere near healed from the beating he’d given them, with an item from their own home no less.  It was a wonder what a normal, wooden rolling pin could be used for.  From rolling cookie dough to smashing in an elderly person’s stomach it was a tool that had many uses, though incriminating him would not be among them.

The sound of the front screen door opening was followed quickly by the slight rattling of the knob as the door was thrust inward, squealing only slightly on its hinges as hurried footsteps followed closely on the heels of the light noise.  His smile did not fade as the steps echoed mildly on the hardwood floor of the entryway.  He could hear a soft, plaintive snuffling as a young couple, maybe in their mid-twenties, were followed by Eppie and his large, ridiculous-looking .357 Magnum.  He’d told the kid more than once that the Magnum wasn’t a practical weapon, it was a hand cannon.  It would blow a hole the size of a fist or bigger in whatever it was aimed at, but truthfully it was the worst choice for someone like Eppie.  The eighteen-year old was a hundred pounds soaking wet, maybe.  From his tousled brown hair down to his scuffed Reeboks the kid looked like a skater punk through and through, but in reality he was just a scared, excited little nobody.  That was why he was so perfect.

“Did you get lost or something? I gave you the directions.”

Eppie glared at the younger couple before responding.  It was in that moment that he could see a large bruise on Eppie’s jaw and could only assume that it hadn’t been caused by an accident.  His smile grew a little wider.

“Dick-face here,” Eppie waved the barrel of his gun at the man, who surprisingly didn’t flinch, “had to get all noble and try to save his bitch.  I told him no one was gonna get hurt, but he didn’t believe me.”  He almost bristled at Eppie’s vulgar language, but held himself in check.  He could see from the evidence of bruises and a long cut down the woman’s left cheek that Eppie had gotten a little rough.  That was not normally how The Game was played.

He felt the need to apologize to the woman, but doing so in front of Eppie would be bad form, and worse, it might signal to the young man that all was not proceeding as it should.  It didn’t matter much he knew, in the next day or two he would be doing much worse, but formalities still had to be followed.  It wasn’t proper to get rough unless there was no other choice, or until the rules had been explained.  He had to admit though, despite the cut on her cheek and the terrified look in her eyes, the woman was quite pretty.  Her long, strawberry-blonde locks were mussed up a bit thanks to Eppie’s regrettable rough treatment, though he could easily imagine them tied back into a long ponytail, with perhaps a few wisps dangling over her eyes, which were a rather dull shade of blue.  No matter, she was still attractive.

Bringing himself back to the present he looked to Eppie, “You made sure you weren’t seen, right?” Eppie nodded his head impatiently, his mop of hair moving with the motion as it flopped into his face before he combed it away with his fingers.  The new couple were both nice-looking, clean cut, and very afraid.  This was good, this was very good.

“Well then,” he said, turning his attention back to the older couple, disregarding the new folks and Eppie for a moment, “Ed, Rose, it’s been a helluva good time, and you’ve been for the most part cooperative and entertaining, but now The Game has to continue.  So, if you wouldn’t mind, well, even if you do mind, it’s time to enter the Loser’s Circle.” Before the old man or woman could even blink he raised his weapon, squeezing the trigger once as the old man, Ed, his name was Ed, went falling back to the faded, floral print couch, a chunk of blood-spattered brain and bone preceding him by only a split second.  Rose did not move, she had no chance to, as the second bullet took her right between the eyes, sending her backward to sprawl against her husband’s body, where she sagged almost instantly against him.  It was a pose that brought to mind the gentle caress of lovers from so many different cinematic depictions, Rose leaning against her husband’s chest, her cheek pressed against his body as Ed acted as the woman’s support.  He spent only a few seconds looking at the couple, his smile never fading as he imagined those that would find the old couple soon enough.  He doubted they would find the warmth in the couple’s current pose, which was quite random and yet somehow perfect.  They would just see a homicide, a terrible crime committed upon two elderly folk that might not have had that many years left anyway.

Behind him came the sound of a stifled scream, making him smile even more as the threat of being next had obviously kept the woman from letting loose with the peal of terror she no doubt wished to voice.  Turning to the couple he saw as the woman buried her face in her husband’s shoulder, while the man simply glared at him and Eppie.  That was okay, anger was allowed, but if it prompted action, then The Game might get a little more complicated.  Interesting no doubt, but complicated still.  Even as he watched though, the man’s gaze traveled from him, then to Eppie, and then to the old couple, where it remained riveted as though by some irresistible force.  He narrowed his eyes, thinking that this was somewhat interesting.

There was little time for speculation however.  Even with a silencer to stifle the shots, the muzzle flashes could have been seen lighting up the interior of the living room, which was a risk he knew was calculated but unavoidable.  If those around this neighborhood knew the old couple they might think something was amiss if they’d happened to see the flashes, and there was little if any need to draw further attention to the current proceedings.  Looking to his accomplice he nodded.

“Eppie, you’re up,” he said, taking a step back from the old couple in their gentle repose, “Give me your gun and get those slugs out.”  Eppie pushed his way past the younger couple, who shied away from him as though in disgust. He couldn’t blame them, Eppie was a disturbed young man, though he had his uses, at least for this moment.  The two didn’t even look as though they were considering running, which was good.  That would only complicate The Game, and he had no qualms about shooting them in the back and making Eppie pull the slugs out of their bodies as well.  Hell, the young man would probably climax with the sheer thought.

Eppie almost thrust the Magnum at him as he cast his wild eyes to the old couple, his mop of dark brown hair falling into his face again as he licked his lips.  Oh yes, this young man had issues.  As he took a step to stand in front of the elderly couple it seemed as though his pants had tightened up a bit in the front more than a little.  Now that was just a bit disturbing

The young man knelt eagerly upon the carpet in front of the elderly couple, not seeming to mind the random blood spatters that adorned the carpet in front of them and the surrounding areas.  He licked his lips again as he reached for the old man first, his fingers almost trembling as the excitement in his eyes could be easily seen.  That excitement was quickly erased with confusion as he felt the soft surface of a couch pillow thrust against the back of his head.

“Hey, what-“  He’d been about to ask what was going on, or what he was doing, but unfortunately, poor, misguided Eppie never had the chance.  His last thought was over before it had the chance to fully form, his expression never changing as his brains and several chunks of bone were thrown violently against the old woman’s front.  The bullet lodged quickly in Rose’s midsection, meaning it would be a messy excavation to remove.  Oh well, it wasn’t to him that such a task would fall.

Even with the pillow to muffle the noise the Magnum was quite loud as its slightly muffled boom went off in the confined area of the house.  He heard another smothered cry from behind him, turning to see the couple had still not tried to run.  That was rare, but it was also fortunate.  His smile was still in place as he turned to regard the younger couple, almost gleeful over what was to come next.

“Now that that’s over, I have one little task for the two of you, it’s really important and time is unfortunately an issue.  If you could just pick up where my young friend left off, we can get going that much sooner.”  Before the man could even open his mouth he’d grabbed hold of the woman, dragging her by her luscious reddish-blonde locks as she cried out more in pain than surprise.  Oh this was just wonderful, in fact he was beginning to get a bit excited just at the thought of what he could possibly do to her.  As the woman reached pleadingly for her husband he yanked hard on her hair once more, keeping his own weapon trained just beneath her jaw as he drew her close.  He’d dropped the Magnum, useless weapon that it was, in order to keep a hold on the woman.  And his smile had never once wavered.

“Keep in mind just how loud that shot was Mr. Layman, and try to remember that we’re on a rather serious timetable.”

“Your friend already told us,” the man said, his tone flat and tinted with only a hint of anger. Oh yeah, this guy was damned near gone, almost completely disassociated with the current reality.  That would have to be remedied, but not now, and not here.

Smiling still, “Then he was good for something wasn’t he?  Now if you please, chop chop.”

 

 

West Linn, OR

Baez Residence

9:57 pm

Close to an hour since the time Eppie had brought the Layman’s, he was seated in the back of the young couple’s, Peter and Amelia their names were, Ford sedan.  Its dusky gray interior was far different from its deep, metallic green sheen, though its backseat was at least comfy enough.  He’d not stopped smiling in all that time since he’d watched Peter dig the bullets from the heads of the elderly couple and the one slug from Rose’s abdomen.  He’d allowed the man to use a carving knife from the old buzzards’ kitchen, though since he’d still held Amelia at gunpoint Peter had been wise enough not to try anything.  He was in control of The Game, just how it was supposed to be.

This had so far turned out to be a good and very entertaining night. Seated behind Amelia, he held his pistol to the back of her seat, fully confident that even if the half-comatose Peter tried anything, the woman would be the first to die.  A punctured lung, a shot to the heart, neither would be a very good death, and as a devoted husband Peter seemed capable of realizing this.  The night had been good, and it was only bound to get better.

As his cell phone chimed in the front pocket of his custom-fitted leather jacket he reached for it, flipping the phone open to see who was calling first.  His smile widened just a bit as he saw who it was.

Placing phone to ear he smiled wider as he spoke, “Andy!  I was hoping you’d call on time you dog!  So, are you ready to play?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fairy Tale (excerpt)

Fairy Tale

By Tom Foster

 

 

Prologue

 

 

 

Only a story.

It’s only a story she’d said. But mother had been wrong.  It wasn’t just a story, it was real.  All of it.  Nolan could prove it, but he would have to make mother believe.  Adults never believed kids, they never listened to what was really important.  That was their biggest mistake, and it was one he meant to show them.  Nolan Dorsey would make them believe.

He was only ten years old, but he’d seen too much to remain a child, but Nolan knew he wasn’t an adult, not yet.  The things he and his sister Tina had seen, the things they’d done, those experiences had marked each of them in ways they couldn’t understand.  Really, how could they?  They were only kids after all, even if Tina was a big kid.  His older sister was a teenager, she could almost drive, but not yet.  Even with that going for her she’d still fallen for a trap that Nolan had seen coming from a mile off.  Sitting in the dark shadows of the small space he’d crawled into, Nolan thought that maybe that Queen Mab had been right.  Once kids learned they would die someday, their imagination, their innocent spark, began to fade.

The Celtic goddess, a relic of an era long gone and almost forgotten, had his sister in her dark clutches, and she would not be letting her go, not even if Nolan gave himself to her as a trade.  He’d already tried that.  Mab and her minions had not only laughed at him, they’d chased him and hounded Nolan throughout the twisting and dilapidated hallways of Crims, the domain of the recently deceased Red Queen’s domain.  Nolan knew they’d only been toying with him, keeping him disoriented so that he wouldn’t know where he was going.  It had worked.

So far he’d tried everything and anything he could think of that had come to mind, but to this point Nolan had only made things worse. The worlds he’d once thought were only fantasy were being torn apart bit by bit, and it was his and Tina’s fault.  None within the worlds that had been disrupted so badly would come to help, and he couldn’t blame them.  How many children could claim that they’d been chased around by evil, demonic fairies and even threatened by Paul Bunyan?  Nolan didn’t figure anyone else could say that, and he was sure that he was right.

“Little boy, have you gone missing little human boy?”  The silken purr rattled his nerves in that moment anew as Nolan huddled into a ball, wishing that the Cheshire would just go away.  The darned cat, he couldn’t say damned like his father, had not left him alone for the past two days he’d been attempting to find a way out of the ruin where Mab had left him entombed.  It could appear and disappear at will, and it was always smiling, a hideous leer that Nolan could no longer stand.  Nolan didn’t want to know what the double-dealing feline was smiling about this time.  It couldn’t be anything good.

“Go away,” Nolan whispered fearfully.  A low, purring chuckle was the only reply for several moments as he could see a strange glinting aura begin to dance and sway within the shadows of his hiding hole.  He knew what this was, kind of.  The Cheshire couldn’t be contained or kept out as it had boldly stated more than once, the strange ability to make himself invisible and travel through solid objects made that possible.  As Nolan could see the cat’s toothy appear he wanted so badly to be holding his baseball bat that he could almost feel the taped grip in his hands.  He wasn’t a violent person, but Nolan would still like to knock a few of those gleaming teeth out, just to see if it would hurt the Cheshire.

“I know what you’re thinking little human boy,” the Cheshire purred.  Nolan had no doubt that the cat did, he’d been one step ahead of him every single stride of his doomed retreat.

“Don’t call me that.” Nolan said, feeling as he began to grow angry.  It didn’t matter, nothing mattered to the Cheshire, except staying alive of course.

More chuckling, purring, as the cat began to appear, “Oh my, have I offended you?” the cat chuckled, still purring. Nolan ground his teeth as the cat continued, “Have you not claimed to be just that?  Then why-oh my.”  There was more chuckling as the air shimmered right in front of Nolan.  In all his curious, multi-colored splendor the Cheshire appeared, first his horrid, gleaming teeth, then his mesmerizing rainbow-hued eyes, and then finally, he was there.  The delicate-looking pink nose pressed closer to Nolan as he cowered, twitching slightly as the Cheshire took in his scent.

“You think you are one of us,” the Cheshire purred, still grinning as his voice dropped, “Perhaps now, you are.”

The Jade Fairy

The Princess Chronicles-Book One

The Jade Fairy

By Tom Foster

 

Chapter One

Lahlia Island, Jade Kingdom

 

Rain fell upon the broad, vibrant green and yellow leaves of the towering kuomo trees that surrounded her, pattering upon their velvety surfaces with the tap, tap, tapping noise she so loved. The bark of the trees was rough, sweet-smelling, and quite intoxicating. Her people used the bark for everything from the parchment they made to a wonderful, blended tea that could dull pain and briefly enhance ones tactile sensations. To her it smelled like home, a pleasant, calming scent that always brought back the days of her childhood.

So much had happened since then, so much that she had never counted upon, and so much that been both wonderful and frightening all at once. There had been hardships to be sure, every life within the Jade Kingdom, her kingdom, and beyond was fraught with such daily challenges. But those who lived on day by day learned to forego the chance to cry and claim that such obstacles were unfair. They learned quickly that they could make their own fate if only they would stand up to those things that vexed them. She had done this, and had faith that anyone could.

She might have flown to the top of the nearest kuomo tree to enjoy the gray, leaden sky that loomed above, exulting in the feel of the rain against her unprotected skin, but alas, her wings were already far too wet. To dry them would require far more drier climes than this, and she had no intention of returning inside anytime soon. Stepping around the thick bole of yet another tree she looked up, catching the barest hint of a dark, star-filled sky within a gap that had aligned within the cloud and the blanket of branches and leaves above. Smiling, she looked upon the distant heavens, recalling a night that, long ago, had become one of the defining moments in her long, illustrious life. It had been so like this night…

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

 

Thirteen years ago…

“Mother, what are those called?”

Her small, slightly pudgy hand reached to the sky, as though she might poke at the speckled darkness between the leaves and branches. It was slightly damp beneath the thick canopy of leaves, but her mother had kept them mostly dry as they’d made their slow, ponderous way along.

They often did this, mother and daughter, taking long walks amidst the forested regions beyond their home, leaving their father, the King of the Jade Kingdom, to his own matters of state for a night or more. Jayden often missed her father during such times, but he more than made up for it when they returned, spending as much time with her and her mother after the kingdom was seen to.

“Those are stars my dear,” her mother, the Queen of the Jade Kingdom, replied, “They are very far, far up in the sky, but we can still see them through the night. Do you know why?”

Jayden shook her head, her reddish-blonde curls bouncing around her shoulders as they tickled her wings, which had already began to outgrow her body.

“The stars shine for us because they are happy Jayden,” her mother said with a smile, “And they are happy because they are the spirits of our ancestors, long since gone, looking down on us from above.”

“Like great-grandfather, and great-grandmother?” Jayden asked, her vibrant green eyes wide as she looked up at her mother. The queen was smiling, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears as she nodded. Jayden had never known her mother’s grandparents that well, but she had heard that even for fairies they’d been old, well into their two thousandth year of life when they had been accepted into the clearing. She still didn’t know what that meant, but as she saw her mother look down at her, eyes still shining wetly, Jayden hugged her close.

“Yes Jayden, just like them. They look down upon us and smile, all those who have come before us. They smile because they are happy for us, happy that we can continue their line, and have remembered their names.”

“I will always remember,” Jayden said with childish enthusiasm. The queen laughed, a gentle, tinkling sound that always made Jayden feel special. Her mother then picked her up, careful of her wings as they rustled behind her.

Her wings, not fully matured yet, were still a gentle blue color along the outer edges, with a silver lining along the vanes. The inner parts of her wings ranged from a slightly mottled green and reddish color to a faint lavender. Her mother’s wings were truly wondrous, with the full array of colors that a mature fairy was known to have, along with the sparkles of light that adorned their uppermost edges. The same sparkles adorned the tops of the queen’s delicately tapered ears, and the tops of her cheekbones as well. Her golden eyes were quite beautiful to behold, and more than a little mesmerizing. Jayden simply thought her mother was the most wondrous person she’d ever met.

By contrast her father, the king, was a bit darker in color as far as his wings and bodily sparkles went. He didn’t shine so much as glimmer, like a stark shadow thrown upon a solid wall. Yet he was not lacking in color when it came to his wings, as his were a riotous blend of dark blues, greens, with silver and gold interspersed throughout the veins. If her mother was a beauteous creature to behold, her father was both strong and wise, solid in a way that was, at times, far unlike any fairy.

“Mother, will you and father one day be in the sky?”

The queen’s smile faded just a bit, but her eyes did not lose that twinkle that Jayden had come to love. As she nodded, Jayden felt her heart quicken just a bit, but as the queen reached up to touch her slim finger to the princess’s little button of a nose Jayden giggled, grasping her mother’s finger as she did.

“Yes Jayden. One day, your father and I will look down upon you from the heavens, and we will smile. And you will know that we will love you, always.”

“I love you mother,” Jayden said, melting into the queen’s arms as she readily accepted her daughter.

“And I you daughter.”

It was a touching moment, but as always occurred in such times, it was not to last.

“Your majesty!”

The familiar roar of Tono, the loyal majordomo and fiercest warrior amongst her father’s kingdom, threw both queen and princess off guard as the long, sinuous form of the emerald-hued dragon came crashing through the foliage above, keying in on where they stood immediately. It was said throughout the kingdom that no one could ever hide from Tono, not even the royal family. Jayden had certainly tried more than once however.

“What is it Tono?” the queen asked, her heartbeat accelerating quickly, “What is wrong?”

“The kingdom, my queen! The kingdom is besieged! Trolls, bull-men, even the traitorous darks of my own race are at the gates! The king has sent me here to fetch you!”

There was nothing else to say as the queen nodded, her wings fluttering madly as she lifted herself and Jayden from the ground, seeking to return home swiftly as possible. But as Tono’s massive claw reached out to close protectively around her, Queen Herath frowned, her wings still humming swiftly but only to keep her aloft.

“Tono!” she barked out, “What are you doing?”

“What I swore to my king I would do my queen: keeping you and young Jayden safe. Forgive me for this.”

Before she could cry out a negative, or even hint at what she was thinking, Tono’s long, serpent-like body began to curl up and around itself, his hind legs tucking in so that he became more compact, his entire form spinning and spinning as Queen Herath and Princess Jayden felt themselves already being drawn in to the translocation vortex that was Tono’s main avenue of escape in a hopeless situation. Even as they were torn from the world for a brief moment however, nothing could still the queen’s cry of utter sorrow.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

It was hopeless.

There were enemies at every possible entrance, even the subterranean tunnels that were supposedly hidden and not known to every last creature and sentient being in the kingdom. Someone had betrayed them all, and he meant to know who before the end came.

His blade felled another foul creature, a hideous troll with long, gangly arms that had sought to take advantage of its much greater reach. Wings were a great equalizer in that he could increase or decrease his elevation at will, giving him a decided advantage over a purely ground-based adversary. Plus, being king, and one of the fiercest warriors in the entirety of Lahlia did help quite a bit.

“Majesty, rally to us, to us!”

He grinned as his first sergeant, the elf lord Mikkel Luminare, gestured to him to rejoin the tightly knit group that was nearly all that was left of his forces. The king could see pockets of resistance here and there within the throne room, but despite their courage and skill, his people were surely doomed. Giving up was not in his nature, but with their magical gateways blocked, the skies above the castle being guarded closely, and all manner of egress landward taken from them, the royal guard was soon to be obliterated.

King Tomis, the eighteenth king of a royal line spanning eons into the past, carved aside another hideous beast, this one a bull-man whose horns bore many notches from past kills and conquests, his blade ending those particular boasts without hesitation as the beast lowed in his death throes. That opened up at least a semi-clear path to the remnants of the royal guard, but as he stepped forward he was blocked yet again, this time by something he had not expected to see, especially not in the company of living creatures.

“Kiiiilllll,” rasped the thing in front of him, its plate armor housing little more than shadow and malice as the wraith moved forward, its spectral blade glowing with a malevolent, almost sickeningly gray energy. It had been a great deal of time since Tomis had seen such a creature, but he knew the sight of a revenant well. He’d not faced such a horrid animation of spirit since the Ash Wars, but he knew very well how to take care of such an abomination.

“Wellas!” he cried out, seeking the aid of his chief cleric and the head priestess of their primary church, that of Aumun, the goddess of the moon. Had the other priest, Dumes, been available, or for that matter still alive, he would have called upon him too. But Tomis had seen the sun priest torn apart by a wraith wyrm, a foul, beastly dragon that had little true intelligence and power great enough to fell an elder priest. Their enemies had certainly chosen their allies well.

“Here my king!” cried out Wellas, her dark mane of hair flying as she bashed aside a lumbering troll with her two-handed Morningstar. The priestess was within view, though he could not reach her, not yet, and she could not possibly reach him or the revenant, unless…

“Call to Aumun!”

“Yes my king!”

There was no need to question what he wanted, this tactic had served them quite well during the Ash Wars, and with more than just his own enchanted blade. As he watched the horrid, undead thing come closer, its own weapon twirling as it prepared to strike, Tomis heard the high, fluting chant of the priestess, and he felt the power of her prayer almost instantaneously.

Moonlight, pure and unfettered, struck the revenant as it stalked towards him, emerging from thin air to send a lance of its brilliance cascading down upon the dread spirit. Caught in the sudden illumination, the wraith warrior howled in absolute agony, a painful wail that only increased as Tomis struck with his own blade, gathering the moonlight even further as his weapon absorbed it, drank it in, made it a part of itself, even if only temporarily.

“Back to the grave foul one,” he spat, raising his greatsword for a hard, chopping blow that the wraith could not avoid. Empty armor fell with a harsh clank to the throne room floor, hitting the flagstones as it shattered into pieces before drifting away into flakes of corrupted iron, no more real than the thing it had had housed. King Tomis raised his blade in salute to the elder priestess, his darkly colored wings fluttering slightly as he began to make his way forward.

It was just then that he saw the peril the other fairy was in.

            The blow that bashed her to the ground was not particularly hard, but  the magic behind it was enough to thrust Wellas to the ground, where a solid kick from a troll that took advantage of her impaired situation sent her flying fully ten feet away, her ribcage no doubt seriously compromised as Tomis lost sight of her.  Even as he was looking after the priestess he saw the tide of battle open up, allowing for a single figure to step forth as he grinned evilly at the king, his stark white smile a hideous thing to look upon as Tomis growled under his breath, cursing the decision that had inevitably led to this.

            “Hello my old friend,” spoke the dark, wasted form of the dreaded sorcerer, the one being in all the realms that Tomis would have done anything for, until the bastard had attempted to replace him.  There was no word in elvish, fairy, human, or even dwarvish to adequately describe the betrayal that this figure had perpetrated, nor would Tomis care to know it if there were.

            “Maligus,” Tomis almost hissed, his grip tightening upon the grip of his blade.

            The former advisor and most trusted among his retinue, Maligus Lacwall, now known only as “Oathbreaker”, a term of great shame within the Jade Kingdom, had once been Tomis’s greatest friend and most valued asset.  Now he was simply what he had become, a traitor, a brigand, and worse, a necromancer.  It made sense now, the revenants, the trolls, the dread feeling that had seemed to hang over the entire invasion.  Maligus had been behind all of it.

            “Is that any way to greet an old friend?” Maligus sneered, approaching the king without fear, slowly, with measured steps as he held out both hands, seeming not to worry that he might be injured by one of his own troops.  It was just as well, as Tomis could see that the battle had already moved away from them both, as though those around them were wary of being too close to this figure.  The king could not blame them, enemy or ally alike.

            “Come forward and I’ll greet you properly, traitor.” The king all but snarled the words, keeping his sword in front of him and pointed at Maligus as the necromancer chuckled.

            Maligus “tsk-ed” as he waggled one finger at the king, as though scolding a child, which made Tomis all the more angry as he took one step forward. Maligus smiled, as though he’d been anticipating this.

            “Manners my old friend, manners.”

            Tomis saw Maligus’ eyes shift to something just beyond his shoulder, but even as he turned in that direction he was too late as he felt clawed hands grip at the base of his darkly-colored wings, wrenching them this way and that as he felt the membranes stretch and then tear. The king howled in pain as he tried to whip around, his blade leading as it glanced off of the thick hide of the bull-man that had attacked him so heinously, the strength leaving his arms as he was then spun back around to face Maligus, who was no longer smiling.

            He saw much in that one hundred and eighty degree turn, not the least of which was the utter ruination of the grand throne room where he and his faithful subjects had made their stand, the floors awash with blood and the fallen, their eyes glassy and far-seeing in death as he looked upon them.  Missing were those who had stood with him to the end, those who had carried the most clout and the most power within his kingdom, and those he had known for centuries or more.  Where had they gone to?

            “Do not worry o’ king,” Maligus spat, as though reading his mind, “You will see them soon enough.”

            As the necromancer placed his hand fully upon Tomis’s pained face, he tried to rally back, to do something to stop whatever horrific fate the other fair had in mind, but he was too weak, too drained of energy already, and thus could do nothing.  As Maligus’ hand closed over his eyes he knew only darkness, and for a time following, he knew nothing at all.

The Christmas Song

Summer’s Tales 5

 

The Christmas Song

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

The sound of Summer’s alarm woke her up quickly as she almost fell out of bed, catching herself just before she rolled over the edge.  She really didn’t like her alarm, it made a really annoying sound that she didn’t like.  It sounded kind of like the television when one of the stations decided to run a test, the many different colors that filled the screen followed by a blaring sound that went on for several minutes.  It was like that, but a lot more shrill, and worse than that, it was right near Summer’s head on the nightstand that sat only a little ways to her right.  So it was sure to wake her up.

Reaching out she slapped at the top of the alarm, trying to find the OFF button that would silence the alarm.  Her hands and arms were still asleep too though, which didn’t help since she had to beat on the top of the alarm until finally she heard a small “click” as the alarm turned off suddenly.  Summer groaned into her pillow as she let her arm hang down the side of her bed, her eyes still closed as she sank back into her pillow.  She didn’t want to get up this early, especially when there were only a few days left of school.  Couldn’t they let the kids out a little earlier?

“Summie, time to get up!”  her mother called from the door.  Summer just groaned again rolled over, her left arm lying over her eyes.  It was still too dark out!  Her Grandpa Jack had told her more than once in her life that winter was a time when it stayed darker longer, because the earth rotated away from the sun or something.  It got colder too, which was why she put her arm back under the covers.  Grandpa Jack and Grandma Darlene kept their house warm when they were up, but turned the heater off once they went to bed.  Then it got just downright chilly.

Her door opened as a warm shaft of light fell over Summer, causing her to squirm as she rolled over again, wanting to sleep a little more.

“Summie come on,” her mom said, “You’re going to be late for school!” Summer grumbled as she rolled over, her feet coming out of the blankets as she felt the cold instantly.  She shivered as her bare feet reached the carpeted floor, holding her arms around her body as she did.  Her eyes wouldn’t even open yet!

“Come on sweetie, go on and get your shower and get dressed, we need to go,” her mom said as she walked off towards the kitchen.  Summer shuffled her feet slowly across the carpet, still holding herself as she made her way to the left, down the hallway.  Her eyes opened wide as her feet came in contact with the hardwood floor that lay between the hallway and her room, her teeth chattering as she went “Brrrr!”  She almost ran to the bathroom after that, just because the hallway had carpet!

At least the bathroom was warm as she entered, sighing in relief as she closed the door.  It wouldn’t do to let the heat out!

*                             *                             *

 

Summer didn’t take a long time in the shower, she got cleaned up and wrapped in a towel before heading back to her room in a hurry.  Her mom had at least turned on the heat finally, and the house was getting warm quickly.  Her grandparents and mom had been making improvements on the house lately, and as a result the insulation had been replaced, the walls had been redone, and it made the house warm up a lot quicker!  That was a very good thing during the winter months, especially considering they lived way out in the country, up in the hills where it got really cold!

Closing the door to her room she quickly got dressed in a pair of dark blue coveralls, her favorite red shirt, and her good sneakers, white Reeboks that her Grandma Darlene had bought her not long ago.  Her grandparents were really good to her and her mom, they helped her mom out when she needed it, and had even let them move in when Summer’s mom had been let go from her job. Summer and her mom had moved back in months before, and it had been fun ever since.  Summer liked living on a farm, it was a lot of fun during the warmer months.

As she was tying her hair back with a small black hair tie Summer saw her door open, showing Grandma Darlene in her big fluffy purple robe that she wore on days she didn’t have to go to work.  Her grandma smiled at her as she spoke.

“All ready to go Summie?” Grandma Darlene asked.

“Yep,” Summer replied, smiling at her grandma.

“Okay, you’re mom’s already out warming up the car, come on and get some breakfast,” Grandma Darlene said, moving to walk out the door. Summer stopped her when she spoke again, stepping forward to ask a question.

“Grandma, did you tell Tommy and Heather what day my Christmas recital is on?”  Grandma Darlene smiled at Summer as she opened the door again.

“Yes I did,” Grandma Darlene said, still smiling, “I told them over a week ago, and Heather wrote it down on their calendar.  They’ll be there Summer, don’t worry.”  Summer returned her grandma’s smile as she followed her out to the kitchen, feeling a little better that she’d heard her grandma say that Cousin Tommy and Heather would be coming to her recital once again.  This was probably the tenth time or more that she’d asked, but she wanted to make sure.

She was going to sing in a church recital for a Christmas program!  Summer was so excited, she liked to sing, and she liked it when other people got to listen to her sing!

“Aunt Sheryl and Uncle Dave will be there too,” Grandma Darlene said, “And Aunt Carrie and Uncle Eric and their kids too.”  Summer smiled, jumping up and down a few times as she continued to follow her grandma into the kitchen.  She would be glad to see everyone , but she was always really glad to see Cousin Tommy and Heather!

“What do you want to eat Summer? We’ve got toast and Pop-tarts since you don’t have a lot of time.”   Summer looked at the toaster on the counter and then the colorful box that her grandma pointed at, seeing that the flavor was cherry.  That was good, she liked cherry, and brown sugar and cinnamon, and the s’mores kind too!

“Pop-tarts please.” Summer said, saying thank you as Grandma Darlene handed her one of the silver packages from the box.  There were two of the filled treats in the package, more than enough to fill Summer up for the morning.

“Okay, grab your bag and head out to the car, I’m sure your mommy’s waiting for you,” Grandma Darlene said, placing a hand on Summer’s back to gently push her toward the front door.  Summer didn’t fight, walking with a small groan to the door as she picked up her teddy bear backpack.  The bag part was the bear’s body, while the arms and legs dangled about as she walked.  The head was right behind her head, staring out behind her with its cute little dark eyes.  Summer shrugged on one of her heavy coats before shouldering the gerbil bag, feeling the few books she had in it and her lunch.  Her mom was always really good about packing her lunch the night before, and even putting it in Summer’s bag just in case she forgot.

“Have a good day at school Summie!” her grandma called as she made her way back into the kitchen, “Love you!”

“Love you too grandma, bye!” Summer called out, closing the front door behind her and then pushing past the screen door.  She made her way across the wide porch that led to the corner of the house.  Snow had begun to fall only a week ago, the weather cold and breezy up in the mountains, making it necessary to wear a coat and warm clothing.  A thin layer of cold, pure white snow lay over everything except a patch of ground that lay beneath the big, purple-leafed tree that sat in the center of the lawn, its big canopy creating a big circle of green all around its trunk.  It was a funny sight to see since it was winter, green grass surrounded by all white.

Turning right she passed the garage door before making her way to the rear passenger side door, opening it with her free hand as she hopped quickly into her booster seat.  She was still small enough that she needed to use a booster seat, but she hoped that soon she wouldn’t have to use it any longer.  It wasn’t a bad thing, it was meant to keep her safe, but in all honesty it was kind of embarrassing.  Babies and little kids used car seats and booster seats.  She was a big girl now!

“You ready to go Summie?” her mom asked her from the front seat. Her breath came out in a big plume of steam, the car was still real cold despite that it was warmed up.  Her mom hadn’t turned on the heater yet, using the defrost instead so she could see out the front windshield.

“Almost, hang on mom,” Summer said, not seeing her mom’s smile as she tried to sound like a big girl.

*                             *                             *

 

Summer had a hard time concentrating on her homework assignment, she didn’t like math!  They were working on fractions and percentages today, and it was really hard!  She was in one of the advanced classes for her age, even though she’d told her mom she didn’t want to be.  Grandma Darlene and her mom had told her she needed to be in the class though since she was so smart, it would help her learn a lot more.  But it was sooo boring!

She was almost done with the assignment already, and other kids were still having problems, so she’d decided to doodle, drawing pictures of her Cousin Tommy and Heather and herself, picturing them all as they’d been at Halloween, when Cousin Tommy and Heather had invited Summer and her mom over to their house in Jantzen Beach.  That had been a lot of fun!  She’d dressed up as a black gerbil, with a nose that squeaked when you pushed it, and a long gray tail.  Her mom had gotten her a black leotard to wear with black leggings, and she’d worn a big black coat too!

Summer could remember that it had been a nice night on Halloween, kind of cold but dry at least.  She’d gotten a lot of candy, and Cousin Tommy and Heather had even gotten her a pumpkin filled with treats!  That had been really fun night, she and Cousin Tommy had gone slipping and sliding all over his and Heather’s kitchen floor only a little after they’d all sorted through her candy to see what she’d gotten.  She’d gotten a lot!

Her picture showed Cousin Tommy and her sliding around the kitchen floor, with Heather and her mom laughing while Heather recorded the two of them slipping and skating around.  Summer smiled as her pencil formed the features and lines of the kitchen, and of Cousin Tommy trying to help her up.  She’d slipped around a lot!                 “Ahem.” Summer looked up immediately as she saw her teacher, Mrs. Davis, standing over her.  Mrs. Davis was a pretty woman, she had short dark hair and deep blue eyes that always seemed really friendly.  Her teacher was a nice woman, but she was sure that Mrs. Davis wouldn’t appreciate Summer playing when she was supposed to be working.

“That’s a nice picture Summer,” Mrs. Davis said with a smile, “But aren’t you supposed to be working on your math?” Summer smiled, nodding as she did.

“I’m almost done though.”  Mrs. Davis’s eyebrows raised slightly, her smile widening just a bit.

“Oh are you?  Can I see then?”  Summer handed her assignment to her teacher with a little groan, seeing as how her picture was drawn on the back of her assignment.  As Mrs. Davis looked over her work Summer fiddled with her pencil, her thoughts still on Cousin Tommy and Heather, and of course the Christmas recital she and her cousins were going to be singing in.  Mrs. Davis belonged to the church she and her mom went to, and would be there as well she’d said.

“Well, I don’t see anything you missed, this is very good Summer, but I would like you finish if you could.  You can finish your drawing on recess or when I give this back after grading it.  Does that sound fair?”  Mrs. Davis asked, setting Summer’s assignment back on her desk, with the homework side up and the drawing on the bottom.  Summer twisted her lips as she looked up at her teacher, the look fading as she smiled, nodding to Mrs. Davis instead.  Her teacher smiled at her before walking away to help another student, leaving Summer to work on the last few math problems as she sighed.  Unseen by Summer, Mrs. Davis smiled, shaking her head slightly.

*                             *                             *

 

The recital was only a few days away, and Summer was getting more and more excited with each passing day!  She couldn’t wait to see Cousin Tommy and Heather, and Great-Uncle Dave and Great-Aunt Sheryl!  And she couldn’t wait to see everyone else who would come, she was so ready for the day to be here!

She would be singing with her cousins and friends from Sunday school in only two days, and she couldn’t wait!  Her mom and Grandma Darlene had helped her to memorize the words, and she’d sing for them at home.  Summer was so excited that she got to sing in the recital, even if she didn’t get to do a solo.  She was just glad that everyone would be there, that she would get to see everyone at least a week before Christmas came.

Her mom had already told her that they couldn’t get the whole family together for Christmas, which had made her a little sad.  But they had a lot of family all over Washington and in Oregon, and her Uncle Paul and Aunt Nikki were all the way down near Astoria!  They had a lot of family far away, but it was good enough to see them when they could.  Cousin Tommy and Heather would be spending Christmas early with Great Aunt Sheryl and Great Uncle Dave, and then they would be spending Christmas day with Heather’s family.  Heather had told Summer that she had a big family too, and it was hard sometimes to get everyone together.

That was okay though, she got to see both of them this Sunday, that was all that mattered.  Every time she got to see her Tommy Summer was happy, it made her smile and she knew seeing Cousin Tommy made her mom happy too. The two of them had grown up together, almost like brother and sister, and her mom really cared about Cousin Tommy a lot, and he cared for her too.

At the moment she was singing one of the songs that she would sing in the recital while she tried to concentrate on the last of her homework. She’d already finished her math and her social studies, now she was working on her English homework and then she’d be done.  After that her mom had told her they’d have dinner and then Grandma Darlene and Grandpa Jack had said they would all sit down to play a game!  She liked family game night, it was always  a lot of fun, especially when Grandpa Jack could play. Sometimes his shifts at work would change and he would have to sleep or go to work, so he didn’t always get to play, but tonight he would.

“Mom?” Summer called out, finding that she was stuck on a question in her homework that she couldn’t really understand.  Her mom tried to help her with her homework now and then, but sometimes even mom didn’t know everything, but could still try to help at least.  Summer had had Cousin Tommy help her with her homework before, and he was smart!  He didn’t know everything either, but when it came to English homework, he knew a lot!

“What is it Summie?  I’m helping grandma with dinner.”  Summer turned around in the semi-circle booth that sat to one end of the kitchen, she hadn’t realized her mom was behind her.  Grandma Darlene was at the stove, while her mom was making biscuits to go with the fried chicken that her grandma was making. Grandma was a good cook, she always made really yummy meals!

“I need help with a fraction, what’s one and three eighths plus eight sevenths?”  Summer saw her mom’s eyebrows rise slightly as she shook her head, which meant she either didn’t know or had to think about it.  Her mom was smart, but there were some things that Grandpa Jack had told Summer before that adults didn’t always remember.  They remembered the important stuff at least, but she couldn’t blame her mom for not remembering fourth grade math, it was really boring sometimes.

*                             *                             *

 

It was snowing outside!  The farm was covered in white, even the pig pen and the chicken coop and the goat’s pen were covered, which was why grandma and grandpa had moved the goats inside the barn for the winter, like they always did.  The small hutch that Grandpa Jack had built for the animals wasn’t warm enough in the winter, but the barn was.  All three Billy goats, the rabbits in their hutches, and the two horses were cozy enough in the barn, though every now and then they needed to be let out to romp, to stretch their muscles as Grandpa Jack said.  For someone who worked in the city, Grandpa Jack knew a lot about animals, just like Grandma Darlene did about gardening.  Somehow Summer’s mom had never gotten into either animals or gardening as much, preferring television and hanging out with her friends when she was younger.

Summer could remember her mom telling her that Grandpa Jack and Grandma Darlene had tried to get her into animals by putting her in 4-H competitions, which she had enjoyed, but after hitting her teenage years that interest had lessened.  Summer liked animals a lot; she just didn’t like to clean up after them.  Looking out through the window that gave her a perfect view of her grandma’s garden and just barely the hog pen beyond, she could see the white ground that lay just outside the pen, covering the mud in a thick layer of frost and ice.  It would be kind of miserable for the pigs to come out now, but her grandparents had fixed special heaters within the pen and within the chicken coop to make sure that the animals stayed warm.  If the weather got really bad then the pigs and chickens would have to go in the barn as well, but until then they were supposed to be okay.

There was just one more day until the recital, and she was growing so anxious that she could hardly sit still!  Every time she got to see Cousin Tommy and Heather was special, it was like a present whether it was her birthday, Christmas, or not!  Summer could hardly remember a time when Cousin Tommy hadn’t been in her life, and to be honest, she didn’t want to.  As far as her mom had told her, Cousin Tommy had always been there, from when Summer was just a little baby all the way to now.  She didn’t always get to see Cousin Tommy and Heather; they lived kind of busy lives over in Portland, Oregon.

Both of them worked all the time for a company that Summer couldn’t remember the name, but they worked hard and long hours to make sure they could take care of themselves.  Heather was just as good for Cousin Tommy as he was for her, and it made Summer happy to see them together.  She’d liked Heather from the first time she’d met her, she was really nice and really liked kids!  Heather said she and Cousin Tommy were going to have children of their own one day, and Summer had told her that their kids would probably be just like them, which had made Cousin Tommy laugh.

He’d told her that it was a good thing, but Summer’s mom had agreed with him when he had said that it also meant they would have to pay attention at every moment.  Summer hadn’t understood that completely, but she thought that Cousin Tommy would be a good daddy, and Heather would be a good mommy, they were really nice people.

Summer hummed to herself as she looked out the window, smiling as she watched the snowflakes fall here and there, the white outside pretty to look at.  She couldn’t wait until she got to sing in the recital, it was going to be so much fun!  Summer liked to sing, she sang all the time in the shower and when she was taking a bath, and she’d told her mom she wanted to sing in choir in school this year, which was a lot of fun so far!                 Cousin Tommy had even talked to her about it months before when he’d picked her up to go to the beauty salon with Heather and her friend Mrs. Jacqueline and her daughter Julia.  Summer could remember that day very well, she’d gotten to meet Cousin Tommy’s friend David too, he’d been really nice.  She’d told Cousin Tommy that day about wanting to sign up for choir, and Cousin Tommy had told her it was a good thing to like to sing, that it was a lot of fun.  Cousin Tommy had even been in the choir he’d said!

Of course, he’d been in a high school choir, and then sang in college too, but she’d never heard him sing!  Heather said Cousin Tommy had a very nice voice, but he never sang anything!  He’d told Summer that his voice was okay, but not as nice as hers.  Summer didn’t know about that, but she would have very much liked to hear Cousin Tommy sing, if only to enjoy it for herself.  Maybe one of these days she could get him to sing something for her, just for her and no one else.

Maybe she could get him to sing tonight!

Then again, maybe not.  Summer was excited today for another reason, Cousin Tommy and Heather and Great-Aunt Sheryl and Great-Uncle Dave were all coming for dinner!  Aunt Carrie and Uncle Eric had been coming too, but at the last minute something had come up and they had to cancel, which was too bad.  Summer liked spending time with her family, all of them, but they would see each other tomorrow at the recital, so it was okay.

It was only afternoon, which meant that Heather was still working while Cousin Tommy was at home probably writing or cleaning house.  Summer thought it must have been hard for Heather and Cousin Tommy to work opposite shifts at their job, it meant they spent a lot of time apart.  But they were so happy together it didn’t seem to matter.  Every time she saw them they were so happy!  Her mom had told her a few times before that Grandpa Jack and Grandma Darlene hadn’t seen a lot of each other because they worked so much, but looking at how happy her grandparents were together Summer figured that sometimes it didn’t matter how much time people had to spend away from each other, it was the moments they were together that mattered.

She could understand this because she didn’t always get to see all of her family either, but she was really, really happy when she did.  Seeing everyone whenever it was possible was like a holiday all by itself!

*                             *                             *

 

Summer giggled as she sank into the big, comfortable chair that sat in the far corner of the living room, feeling Cousin Tommy’s back as he sat on her.  They were just playing, she was more off to his side than beneath him, otherwise he would have crushed her.  Cousin Tommy was a big guy!  She was kind of hot and sweaty from playing so much, but that was okay, she liked rough-housing with Cousin Tommy sometimes, it was a lot of fun!

Great-Aunt Sheryl and Great-Uncle Dave had gotten here before Heather and Cousin Tommy, since they didn’t work as late.  Heather hadn’t gotten off work until around six forty-five, and then the two of them hadn’t gotten here until almost an hour later.  It was a long drive from Hillsboro, Oregon, to Washougal, but the two of them agreed that it was worth it.  Summer had to agree.

She giggled again as Cousin Tommy pretended to squish her, tickling her tummy and armpits as she squirmed and laughed, trying to get away, but not too much.  Summer enjoyed when Cousin Tommy played with her, it was one of the best parts of getting to see him.  Heather played with her too, but she would talk to the other adults a lot more sometimes, which was okay, adults had to talk, Summer understood that.

“So are you excited for your recital Summie?” Heather asked

“Yep!” Summer said, before giggling again as Cousin Tommy tickled her belly.

“What songs are you singing again Summer?” Great-Uncle Dave asked, repeating himself as she tried to sit upright.  Cousin Tommy stopped tickling her as he helped her up, where she could see Great-Uncle Dave.

“Uhhhm, we’re singing some old songs and some new ones,” Summer replied, smiling at her great-uncle as he smiled back.  Great-Uncle Dave was a fun person, her entire family were good people, they liked to smile and enjoy one another all the time.  Summer knew that like any family they had their arguments and problems sometimes, but no matter what they were always family.

“Can you sing something for us honey?” Great-Aunt Sheryl asked, sipping at a cup of coffee as the rest of the family looked at her.  Summer’s eyes widened, so did her smile.  She almost shook her head, deciding to be shy, but she knew that it might be fun.

Looking to Cousin Tommy she asked, “Can you sing with me?”

His eyes widened and he started to say no, but Summer did the trick that both her mom and Heather had taught her, lowering her chin as she opened her eyes up big and wide, pouting slightly even though she still felt like smiling.  Heather had told her that this look would work on Cousin Tommy because of how he felt about her, but she’d never used it yet.  Well, she’d used it, but it had never worked.  As he looked back at her it didn’t look like it would work this time either.

“I don’t know what song you want to sing Summie,” Cousin Tommy said, “I don’t know any new Christmas songs.”

“Well then sing an old one,” Grandma Darlene offered, smiling at Cousin Tommy.  He knew this look, it meant that the pestering wouldn’t stop until he sang.  Summer smiled a little, thinking that Cousin Tommy would have to sing now!

“My voice isn’t really that great,” Cousin Tommy said, shaking his head.

“Oh your voice is fine,” Great-Aunt Sheryl said, “You sang in choir and you were wonderful.” Summer’s smile widened a little, she thought Cousin Tommy was going to sing!

“The best part about choir is that you have so many people to back you up if you’re voice isn’t all that good.” Cousin Tommy said, laughing slightly as he shook his head.

“I think you have a wonderful voice,” Heather said, “I’ve heard you sing.”

“You’ve heard nothing,” Cousin Tommy said, still smiling as he looked at Heather.  Summer giggled, Heather and Cousin Tommy often played with one another like this, one of them claiming that the other had either heard or seen nothing.  They played with one another all the time, it was funny to watch and listen to.

“Please Tommy, pleeease?” Summer asked, bringing her hands together in front of her.  Cousin Tommy wagged a single finger at her, shaking his head even as he smiled.

“Oh alright,” he said, shaking his head as he rolled his eyes.  Summer nearly exploded with joy, hopping up from the big comfy chair as she stood up in front of the big TV, almost bouncing with excitement.  Her grandparents, mom, and great aunt and uncle settled back into their own seats, each of them smiling as Summer and Cousin Tommy stood facing each other.

“What song should we sing?” Summer asked.

“How about the Christmas song?”  Summer shook her head as Tommy finished, not understanding which song he was talking about.

“Which one is that one?”

“The one about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  Do you know that one?”  Summer nodded her head immediately, it was one of the songs she was going to be singing in the recital!  Cousin Tommy nodded his head as they turned to face the family, taking his hand as she leaned in close to him.  This was her Tommy, and he was going to sing!

As he started off, Summer followed, her voice matching his as they sang the words:

 

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,  Jack Frost nipping on your nose,  Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,  And folks dressed up like Eskimos.  Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe,  Help to make the season bright.  Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,  Will find it hard to sleep tonight.  They know that Santa’s on his way;  He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.  And every mother’s child is going to spy,  To see if reindeer really know how to fly.  And so I’m offering this simple phrase,  To kids from one to ninety-two,  Although it’s been said many times, many ways,  A very Merry Christmas to you “

 

Summer closed her eyes for part of the song, trying to listen to Cousin Tommy’s voice as she followed along.  He really did have a good voice!  She wondered why he didn’t sing all the time, he really knew how to hit the notes as her Sunday school teacher would have said.  Summer felt all warm inside as he sang the words with her, making the song seem so much more special as she held onto his hand, feeling the warmth from him as Cousin Tommy squeezed her fingers gently, as though telling her that she was doing just fine.

Summer almost felt like Cousin Tommy’s voice was overpowering hers, but in the next second she realized something, he was helping her!  He knew how to keep his voice low enough and slow enough that she could keep up when she forgot a word, and he knew how to coax Summer along much like her Sunday school teacher did.  She felt more feeling in her words this time than she had before as Cousin Tommy sang with her, and in all honesty it felt really good.

As they finished  the song Summer felt another burst of warmth as her family clapped for her and Cousin Tommy, each one of them smiling as she could see upon opening her eyes.  Her mom was really smiling, so were Heather and Great-Aunt Sheryl!  It almost looked like Great-Aunt Sheryl and Grandma Darlene were about to cry!  They must have really done well!

*                      *                      *

 

The next day was the recital, and Summer was so excited!  She was wearing her pretty green and black dress, with a heavy coat since it was so cold outside, and she had her hair done up with a pretty red bow in it!  Her grandparents and mom had told Summer that she was so pretty, she looked like a little angel!  They’d left early enough to account for all the snow on the road, taking Grandpa Jack’s truck since it could handle the weather a lot better than either Grandma Darlene or her mom’s cars.

Their church was all the way in Vancouver, a long ways from Washougal.  Summer had attended Sunday school at the church for a few years though, and had been a part of two other recitals in the past, but she couldn’t remember them since she’d been so young.  The church she and her mom went to was Aunt Carrie and Uncle Eric’s church too, and they took their kids with them every Sunday as well.  Summer was at the moment with the other kids, including her cousins, listening to the Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Telley, talk about what they were going to do.

“Okay everyone, the recital is going to start soon.  Does anyone need to go to the bathroom or do anything else before it gets started?”  Summer looked around, no one spoke up, even her younger cousin Bubba, who had to go to the bathroom at some of the most awkward times.  He was smiling along with all the other kids though, he was having fun too.  Standing near Summer were her other cousins, Savannah and Maya. They were very pretty in their dresses too, Savannah in black and white with  her long brown hair all done up in curls, and Maya in a pretty green dress with her hair all neatly combed and curled.

“Okay then,” Mrs. Telley said, smiling at all of them, “It’s almost time, I want you all to go out there and do what we rehearsed all those nights.  And remember to have fun!” she said, smiling at all of them warmly as she spoke.  Summer liked Mrs. Telley, she was a really nice lady.  She was also the pastor of the church, and had been for many years!

When the time came for the kids to shuffle out onto the stage for the recital, Summer’s heart was pounding a little bit as she saw all the people in the pews, each one of them smiling or waving to their own children.  She couldn’t see her own family for a few seconds, but then she saw them, smiling up at her and the other children as they all sat close together. She saw Aunt Carrie and Uncle Eric, with Uncle Eric holding a camcorder in one hand.  She saw Great-Aunt Sheryl and Great-Uncle Dave, she saw Grandma Darlene and Grandpa Jack.  Summer even saw Uncle Paul and Aunt Nikki, with her cousins Jack and John!  And then, as she kept looking, Summer’s heart slowed down as she saw Cousin Tommy and Heather, their smiles big as she waved to them.  And Cousin Tommy waved back!

The recital began not long after, though Summer barely noticed as she started singing, moving her body a little to the music as she got into the songs.  She liked the new songs, they were a lot of fun and the way Mrs. Telley had directed them to sing was even more so!  The pastor was a good teacher, she knew how to talk to kids without making them feel like kids, which was something she’d told them she liked to do when they’d first began practicing.  It was easier to get people to do something without talking down to them Mrs. Telley said, and it made people feel better about themselves.

Summer listened to the other kids singing as she sang, smiling the whole time as she got into the songs.  When it was time for Savannah to sing her solo she listened with a smile, thinking that her cousin had a beautiful voice.  But it still wasn’t quite enough as she kept listening, waiting for that one song that she knew they were going to sing.

As Mrs. Telley announced the next song though, the Christmas Song, Summer felt her heart swell just a bit, remembering to just last night when Cousin Tommy had sung with her.  Her smile only widened as she and the other kids began to sing, hearing Cousin Tommy’s voice in her head again as she began to sing.  To Summer, it was the sweetest song she’d ever heard, and if she never heard another song again, that one would be more than enough to satisfy her.  Even as she and the other kids continued to sing she could still hear Cousin Tommy’s voice, and it made her smile.  This was the best Christmas ever.

 

The Tea Party

Summer’s Tales

 

The Tea Party

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

 

Summer drummed her toes on the plastic stool she was using to reach the sink, or at least she tried to.  Her mother could drum her toes, so could her Grandma Darlene, even her Great-Aunt Sherryl could drum her toes!  As much as she tried though all Summer could really do was wiggle them, but that was fun too, it made her happy.  It also was something to do while she took the time to clean herself up, standing in front of the three-section mirror that hung on the wall of the bathroom she shared with her mother.  Humming a song she’d learned in Sunday school only a few days ago Summer bobbed her head from side to side, scrubbing at her teeth with her toothbrush as the white, minty stuff began to foam from her mouth.

She smiled, baring her teeth as she went “Grrr!” like a jungle cat.  Summer could still remember how much fun she’d had at the zoo only a few weeks ago with Cousin Tommy and his girlfriend Heather.  She was going to get to see Heather again today!

Cousin Tommy wasn’t going to be there, but that was okay. Her mother had already explained that today was a “Girl’s Day Out”.  That meant absolutely no boys!  So far Summer had heard that her mother, herself, Heather, Grandma Darlene, Great-Aunt Sherryl, Great-Grandma Jean, Aunt Carrie, her cousins Maya, Savanna, and Haley were coming too.  That was a lot of girls!  Summer kind of wondered what the boys would be doing today, especially since her mother had told her that the boys were having their own little get-together too.  What did boys do when there were no girls around?

Shrugging her shoulders Summer growled into the mirror again, laughing as she watched her reflection do the same back at her.  As she leaned forward she looked to the other panels to the sides of the middle mirror, frowning just a little since she knew her arms were too short to reach them.  Summer knew how funny it looked when the mirrors were opened, it was like looking at a bunch of different hers that all looked back or looked the other way!  It was confusing, but it was funny too.

She was leaning back when she heard a light clink as something rattled into the sink just below her.  Summer looked down, just in time to see her favorite ring, the one Great-Grandma Jean had given her for her last birthday, disappear into the dark hole that was the drain for the sink!  Her heart sank immediately as she dropped her toothbrush on the counter, splattering toothpaste everywhere as she reached into the hole.  Her fingers were too short though and the drain was too long!

Summer had a problem now.  She could just barely see the silver ring at the bottom of the drain; it hadn’t gone all the way down at least!  She couldn’t get to it, but she had another problem that she had to deal with.  She had a mouthful of toothpaste and she really, really needed to spit it out.

She couldn’t call out to her mother or Grandpa Jack since her mouth was so full, but that meant she couldn’t get them to help her either!  Looking from the door to her right back to the drain Summer wore a helpless expression on her face, not knowing what to do as she gripped the edge of the counter with both hands.  As she looked back to the doorway though she saw as Grandpa Jack appeared, walking down the hallway that would lead to his bedroom at the back of the house, not noticing her at all.

Summer waved her hands as much as she could, hopping up and down until she nearly lost her balance in order to get Grandpa Jack’s attention.  He went right by!  As she almost slipped off the stool though, she held onto the counter thankfully, she looked up to see him walking backward, a curious smile on his face as he raised his eyebrows at her.

“Hey Summie,” he said, a laugh forming in his voice, “Do you need help with something?”  Grandpa Jack could always be counted on to smile and laugh at anything, even if it wasn’t that funny at the moment.  Summer closed her mouth as she tried not to swallow, nodding her head at Grandpa Jack as she did.  This was a lot for a little girl to accomplish all at once!

Summer motioned with both hands to the sink drain, pointing down into it as Grandpa Jack watched, still smiling.  She waved her hands in the air to indicate how important it was, pointing again down into the drain as Grandpa Jack laughed softly.

“Something went down the drain I take it?”  Summer nodded in response to his words, bobbing her head up and down as her mass of dark hair swished along her shoulders.  Her mother hadn’t gotten around to doing her hair yet, nor had she finished ironing out a few wrinkles in her pretty green dress.  Summer was awful glad she wasn’t wearing her favorite dress yet; she might have gotten toothpaste on it by now!

“Okay, let’s see what’s down there, oh wait,” Grandpa Jack leaned down just a bit, noticing the broken silver chain that hung around Summer’s neck.  Looking just a bit guilty Summer looked back at him, seeing the smile fade just a little as Grandpa Jack understood what she’d lost.  Shaking his head he then looked into the drain, his eyebrows raising as he saw what was there.

Summie, Summie, Summie,” Grandpa Jack said, clucking his tongue once as he looked back at her, “Didn’t your mom tell you what would happen if you kept playing with that necklace?”  Summer nodded guiltily, still trying hard not to swallow the toothpaste that still sloshed around in her mouth.  She really needed to spit.

The ring was too large for her fingers, that was why her mother had bought Summer a nice silver necklace, a chain really, that she wore around her neck.  Unfortunately Summer had developed a habit of playing with the chain, twisting it so that the ring would spin when she held it away from her body.  Her mother had warned her more than once what would happen if she played with it too often in such a manner, but in the way of all kids Summer had done it anyway.  It was pretty to look at, and even prettier when the glittering pieces of diamonds (her Grandpa Jack said they weren’t diamonds but Great-Grandma Jean swore they were) caught the sunlight, sparkling this way and that.

Grandpa Jack reached easily into the drain, it must have been nice to be an adult, nothing was ever too big it seemed like.  Pulling out the ring he looked at Summer, who really, really, really needed to spit out the toothpaste now, her eyes widening as he turned on the water, motioning for her to do just that.

*                      *                      *

 

Her dress was so pretty, its soft green with black trim was pleasing to the eye, so her mother said, and it felt nice too against her skin.  Summer was strapped in as usual in the backseat of her mother’s car.  It was for safety her mother said, just in case anything happened on the road.  Her mother was a good driver though; Summer knew nothing would ever happen.  She hadn’t been given a juice box or anything like usual, her mother didn’t want her spilling anything on her dress.  She was a little thirsty, but Summer didn’t want to mess up her dress either.  Besides, there would be plenty to drink she was sure when they got to the place they were going.

It was called the Hidden House, a very nice restaurant her mother had told her.  Summer had asked her mother just why anyone would hide a house, to which her mother had replied with a laugh.

“The house isn’t really hidden Summie,” her mother had said, “That’s just its name is all.”  Summer had still wondered why anyone would name their house, it seemed kind of silly.  Her mother had just laughed some more and told her that it was a restaurant, not a house.  That had just confused Summer even more.  How could a house be a restaurant?  She’d been to a restaurant more than once; they were a lot different than a house.  Her mother had simply shaken her head and called her silly, which meant the subject had eventually been dropped.

Sitting in the backseat now Summer couldn’t wait to see everyone.  They were going to meet up at the Hidden House with everyone else for a tea party!  Summer had never been to an actual tea party, but her mother had told about one or two she’d gone to when she was younger.  Her mother had said that at a tea party all little girls, or little ladies, as she’d said, had to be dressed up nice, do their hair up all nice, and be well-mannered little ladies.  Summer didn’t know much about this, she was what Grandpa Jack liked to call a “tomboy”.  She didn’t really know what that meant, but she liked to get dirty sometimes chasing the chickens around her grandpa’s back field.  She would sometimes run with the goats, with her grandpa or mother watching of course, and she would even feed the pigs that were out back of the large garden that her grandpa kept.

Today though she had to a “little lady” as her mother had said.  Summer didn’t mind dressing it up, it was fun really, but she wouldn’t mind getting back into her coveralls and chasing the chickens when she got the next chance either.

“Is my little lady all ready to go?”  her mother asked as she stood where Summer could see her, hands on her hips as she smiled at her daughter.  Summer nodded, thinking her mother looked really pretty in her own red and black dress.  It went down just past her knees and had no sleeves up top.  Her mother looked really pretty, especially with the diamond earrings that she’d had for longer than Summer could remember.  Her mother’s blonde hair was all curled and brushed behind her shoulders, but a few coils managed to sneak forward as her mother leaned down to check Summer’s seatbelt once more, bouncing a little as Andrea leaned back, bumping her head accidentally on the inside of the car.

“Oh!” her mother said, “That hurts!”  Summer couldn’t help it, she laughed as her mother rubbed the back of her head, frowning until she looked down at her daughter.  A smile crossed Andrea’s lips as she saw her daughter giggling, her teeth showing as she leaned in again.

“Oh that’s funny, huh?”  Summer’s eyes widened as her mother leaned closer, her hands creeping up slowly as Summer’s mouth opened wide, she knew what was coming!

“Then what about, this?!” her mother cried, tickling Summer’s armpits with her fingers as Summer squealed in delight.  Her laughter was loud as her mother tickled her for several breaths, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek after as she straightened up again, carefully this time.  Summer wrapped the fingers of her left hand around the ring that hung on the chain around her neck, not tugging at it but just holding it.  Grandpa Jack had been nice enough to fix the chain and put the ring back on it, but he’d told her once more to be careful, that the ring Great Grandma-Jean had given her was special.  Summer had promised to be more careful, though she knew it might happen again. She was a kid, of course it would.

*                      *                      *

 

The drive from their home in Washougal was always a long one when they were going into the city.  It was always a long drive anyway, even when they were just going into town, but Summer’s mother had ways of making it fun, like singing songs as they were doing now.

“Wild thing!” Andrea sang, looking to the rearview mirror where she saw Summer giggling, moving to the music as it filled the car.

“Dah dah dah, da da!” Summer crowed.

“You make everything!”

“Groovy!”  Summer and her mother sang together.  Summer laughed, as did her mother, as the song continued, the sound of the guitar and whatever instruments giving her the rhythm she needed to bob her head and move her arms to the music. Summer liked to dance, she liked to sing, and she liked to do both with her mother when the mood struck them.  Grandpa Jack had even joined in a time or two back at home, of course when it was just the three of them.  When company was over Grandpa Jack seemed to enjoy talking a lot more than being silly. Summer supposed it was a grown-up thing, but she knew her grandpa could be just as silly as she and her mom could.

The guitar ramped up again as Summer smiled, anticipating the words again as her mother didn’t disappoint.

“Wild thing!”

“Dah dah dah, da da!”

“You make my heart sing!”

“Dah dah dah, da da!”

“You make everything!”

“Groovy!” They sang together, finishing the song as it faded on the radio, becoming quiet as the radio began to switch to the next song.  Her mother smiled at her in the mirror, a gesture that Summer returned in her own gap-toothed fashion.  She’d began to lose her baby teeth a while ago, which in her mind meant a long time ago. Summer was no longer a baby, she was growing up too fast, or so her Grandpa Jack said.  One day she’d be going out with boys, driving a car, going to college and then eventually moving out on her own.

Summer laughed when she heard Grandpa Jack say such things, she was still a little girl!  She liked boys, well, playing with them at least, when they were nice, but otherwise boys were just so, weird.  They did the strangest things, they liked weird stuff and what was worse a lot of them thought that girls had cooties.  Summer didn’t even know what a cootie was, but she was sure she didn’t have them.  Like her mother had told her, the doctor would have told her the last time she was in for a checkup if she had anything like that.

“Mommy, how long is a tea party?”  Summer was really excited to go to her first tea party, even though her mother had told her she’d been to one already.  That had been a long time ago though, when she couldn’t remember anything.  She didn’t think her mom was fibbing, but it would be nice to go to a tea party she could finally remember.

“Well, depending on Great-Grandma Jean I guess it could last a couple of hours.  I think by then we’ll all be ready to head home.”

Summer thought about that, she knew that Great-Grandma Jean didn’t often go out; she had health problems that prevented her from being able to go out when she wanted all the time.  Of course Summer had heard Grandpa Jack and Great-Uncle Dave say such problems were largely in Great-Grandma’s head, but she hadn’t understood that well what they’d been talking about.  They’d been laughing about it though, so Summer assumed it was a joke, nothing serious.  She knew that Great-Grandma and her Great-Uncle Dave and Grandpa Jack didn’t always get along, but they were nice to each other most of the time.

Summer grew serious in that moment as she looked at her mother in the rearview mirror, “Mommy, are you going to tell Great-Grandma I almost lost my ring?”  Summer knew just how special her ring was, Great-Grandma Jean had told her when she’d given it to her for her birthday.  Since that time Summer had been very careful with the ring, never letting it out of her sight and never losing it until today. Well, almost anyway.

“You still have it right?” her mother asked, glancing at her in the mirror.  Summer’s only response was a nod as she looked out of the window to her left, her eyes big and her lips set into a straight line.

“Well then there’s no reason to say anything.  No harm, no foul, just like grandpa says right?” Andrea smiled at her daughter as Summer returned the look in the mirror, smiling wide as she did.

“Oh Summie! Here’s another good song!”  Her mother turned up the radio a little bit as Summer listened, smiling even wider as heard the tune.  The gentle sound of a xylophone filled the car as Summer and her mother swayed to the beat, waiting patiently for the words to come.

Together they sang, “Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer, goin’ faster than a rollercoaster, love like this will, surely come my way, a-hey, a-hey hey.”  Summer liked singing in the car with her mom; it was always a lot of fun.

*                      *                      *

 

They arrived in Vancouver not long after the song “Louie Louie” had finished, pulling up to the curb not far from a big, old-looking house where Summer could see her cousins, great-aunt and great-grandma, grandma, aunt, and Heather waiting.  Each one them looked so pretty!  They were all wearing dresses except for Great-Grandma Jean, who were instead a nice pair of pants and a pretty sweater with the picture of a dog on the front.  Great-Grandma Jean really liked dogs; she’d had at least three for as long as Summer could remember, which was a long time in her mind.

The three dogs that Great-Grandma Jean had now were  the same three that she’d had when her mother and Cousin Tommy had been around her age, which made the dogs really old.  There was a shaggy-looking dog named Baby, a really old, cream-colored dog named Taffy, and a wiener dog, that was a funny name, called Gretchen.  Each one of great-grandma’s dogs barked a lot every time someone came to her door, but they were nice dogs.  Taffy was a little grouchy sometimes, but Gretchen and Baby were always happy to see people.

Summer could see the dog on her great-grandma’s sweater wasn’t any of the dogs she had, but instead a big picture of a puppy, something that looked like Gretchen but without the long body.  Summer didn’t know as much about dogs as Great-Grandma Jean, but her sweater was cute anyway.  As her mother unbuckled her Summer was bounding out of the car, eager to see her family as they saw her and her mother coming towards them.

She hugged her Great-Aunt Sherryl, Great-Grandma Jean, Grandma Darlene, Aunt Carrie, and then Heather in turn as Heather picked her up, smiling at her as she always did.  Her cousins said hi to her, but Summer only rarely hugged her cousins, it was just something she didn’t do.  Kids hugging kids was okay as far as she was concerned, but hugging adults seemed like something she should do, even though it was often something she really wanted to do.

Summer had grown attached to Heather not long after meeting her, surprising some of her family since it had been well known that she’d become attached to Cousin Tommy in the same manner.  Heather was a lot like Cousin Tommy though, she was really nice and didn’t ignore her like adults sometimes did to kids.  Heather never ignored any of the kids when they were around, dividing her attention as much as she could between the kids and the adults.

“Hi Summie!” Heather said, holding her on one hip.  Heather’s blonde hair was curled much like her mother’s, but instead of hanging over her forehead a little Heather kept hers swept back, which made her look very pretty.  “Ooh I like your dress, it’s so pretty!”  Summer giggled as she hid her face in Heather’s right shoulder, a little embarrassed but glad that she’d noticed.  Heather hugged her tight as Summer returned the hug, clinging to her as they all began to make their way to the walkway that would lead to the front steps of the Hidden House.

“That house isn’t hiding!” Summer crowed.  Heather looked over her shoulder, smiling at Andrea as Summer’s mother just shook her head, rolling her eyes as she smiled back.

“Remember to be polite now Summie,” Great-Aunt Sherryl said as they made their way up the steps.  Great-Grandma Jean had to be helped by Aunt Carrie and Grandma Darlene as she made her way slowly.  Savanna, Maya, and Haley were already at the top of the steps waiting patiently, each one of them looking very cute in their dresses.

“Yep, we have to be ladies today.” Heather said, looking at Summer with a smile as she lightly touched her nose with one finger.  Summer wrinkled her nose as she pulled away, raising her own finger to touch Heather’s nose as Heather pulled away too, still smiling.  This was just a small thing that Heather and she did.  Heather and Cousin Tommy did it too, though Cousin Tommy always went “beep! beep!” when he did it to Heather.  It was funny to watch.

“Okay you two, shhh.”  Great-Aunt Sherryl said with a smile, raising one finger to her lips.  Heather let Summer down as they reached the wide front porch of the restaurant, holding onto her hand as Summer quieted down.  Looking behind her, Summer could see that the day was still sunny as it had been, which made going inside seem kind of silly.  But if a tea party was held inside then she guessed that was where they needed to go.  This was going to be fun!

*                      *                      *

 

There was so much food!  And all of it was so little!  Summer and the other three girls eyed the delicacies hungrily as they sat at the large table that had been reserved for them, but none of them tried to grab for them.  They were being perfect little ladies, as they’d been told, and would wait.  Summer felt a little proud of herself that she could eye all these tasty-looking treats and not proceed to simply stuff her face.  She was getting to be a big girl finally, not a little kid.

Maya and Savanna, the closest to her in age, were just as polite, sitting with their hands in their laps as they looked around the restaurant.  It was a nice place, but the lighting was kind of low, unlike most of the restaurants that Summer had been in before.  Heather sat to her right, while Haley sat to her left, each one of them sitting patiently as their hostess, a very nice-looking, gray-haired lady, made sure they all found their seats.  Great-Grandma Jean was the last to sit down, easing into her high-back chair with only a little difficulty as she smiled at Aunt Carrie, saying thank you for the help.

“Now then ladies, may I start you out with something specific to drink, or the house blend?”  Summer didn’t really know what that meant as she looked to Heather, who, seeing her confusion, leaned close to whisper.

“It’s a tea party, she wants to know if we want something other than what they serve everyone.” Summer’s eyebrows rose in understanding, sort of.  She’d seen her mother and Grandpa Jack drink tea at home, but when she’d tasted theirs she’d wrinkled her nose, not liking the bitter taste of it.

“I don’t think I want tea,” Summer said, twisting her lips as she remembered the bad taste.

“You can put sugar in your tea Summie, or even milk, it’ll make it taste better,” her mother said, picking up the slim menu that had been laid in front of her.  Summer watched as the others did the same, each of them looking over the menus as the gray-haired lady waited for them to decide.  Looking at her own menu Summer couldn’t really understand what she was looking at, but she did recognize a lot of words.

She was more used to places like the Sizzler, or Old Country Buffet, or if Grandpa Jack was feeling really generous the Outback Steakhouse.  That place was great.  More often than not her mom and Grandpa Jack would cook meals at home, they didn’t go out a whole lot, so it was a treat when they did.

“See anything that looks yummy Summer?”  Heather asked, still looking at her own menu.

“What’s es, escargot?” Savanna asked, pronouncing the word just as it looked.  The other women laughed just a little bit, the older woman with the gray hair chuckling as she clasped her hands together.

“That’s escargot dear, the “t” is silent.  I’m not sure you’d like that.”

“Why not?” Maya asked, “What is it?”

Aunt Carrie looked at her daughters with a raised eyebrow, looking to Great-Aunt Sherryl just then.  Summer, Savanna and Maya all looked to Great-Aunt Sherryl then, each one of them wanting an answer as they waited patiently.

“Oh dear, oh my,” she began, taking a large breath, “Escargot are snails girls.”  Summer’s eyes widened as she thought of slipping a slimy, slippery snail into her mouth. She almost stuck her tongue out right then, but then she remembered that she was supposed to be a perfect little lady today, which meant no rude behavior.  Sticking your tongue out was pretty rude as her mother had told her so many times.  Looking over to Maya and Savanna she saw that they too were just barely holding it in, trying not to look as though they were about to scream that that was gross, that was nasty, that was just plain sick. Why would anyone want to eat a snail?  Who in the world had decided that was okay?

“It doesn’t sound that good,” was all Savanna said.

Summer nodded as she agreed, “It sounds,” she looked to her Great-Aunt Sherryl, “postivly dreadful.”  There was absolute silence for several moments as each eye was directed at her, making Summer blush as she took in their looks, thinking she’d said something wrong.  Then they all laughed.

The gray-haired old lady laughed along with them, “I agree little lady, I agree, but some people like them.”

“Some people are weird then.” Maya said, still laughing.

“Maya!” her mother scolded lightly, still laughing.  Maya did not stop smiling as the gray-haired lady told Aunt Carrie that it was perfectly alright, that such a thing didn’t make anyone less of a lady.  Maya beamed at the woman’s words, sitting up a little straighter in her chair as she held onto her menu.

“Is there anything on the menu that would be a little more, acceptable I guess, for the little ones?”  Grandma Darlene asked, looking to the gray-haired lady.

“Oh we do have meals that would be perfect for children, but from the way they’re eyeing the china dishes I’m assuming they’d just as soon feast on goodies.  Am I right?”  Summer, Maya, and Savanna all nodded silently, smiling in anticipation as they eyeballed the goodies stacked on the plates.

“Oh yeah, me too.”  Haley said, earning a laugh from the gray-haired woman.

“No sweets until after dinner, or lunch, or whatever we’re having.”  Great-Grandma Jean said, looking a little serious as she looked to the kids.  They continued laughing, though both Summer’s mother and Heather did their best to quiet them down at least a bit.  The three youngest girls did quiet down, paying attention as they’d been instructed.  Her mother smiled at her, saying a quiet thank you to Summer as Aunt Carrie did the same to her daughters.  This was more fun than she’d expected!

*                      *                      *

 

The food was good, if just a little spicy.  Summer had ordered a Greek salad, something that had sounded good when Heather had read everything that was in it, and it really was pretty good.  She’d been told to eat closer to the table though so she didn’t spill any onto her dress.  The old woman that served them, her name was Apollonia, but she told them to call her Polly, had been back several times to ask how their meal was and to even talk to them from time to time.  Business within the Hidden House was slow that day she said and it was always a delight to speak to her customers as though they were well-known guests instead.  Summer had already decided she liked the woman, she didn’t talk to just the adults and knew how to make her, Savanna, and Maya feel as though they were part of the talk at all times.

She’d left them alone when they were eating, that was nice of her, but she’d asked how they were doing many times, to which they’d all replied they were doing just fine.  Everything was so good that Summer knew she would probably fill herself to bursting before she left.  As she’d been told though she acted like a lady, asking for things instead of reaching for them, wiping her hands and lips with a napkin instead of her forearm and enjoying her food rather than gobbling it down.

Heather had helped her out when the tea had come.  Instead of the house blend Grandma Darlene and Great-Aunt Sherryl had ordered several different types, telling Polly that they wanted to try at least a few so that the younger girls could make a decision.  Polly had understood completely and had wheeled out a large tea cart that was bedecked with frilly lace and knitted things called doilies that were really very elegant.  Summer had been impressed by everything she saw, her eyes widening as her jaw had nearly dropped.  Heather had helped her with that, lifting her jaw until her teeth clacked lightly together.  That had elicited a few laughs as Summer had blushed.

She was very careful as she took a lady-like sip of the tea she’d selected, something called Assam Black Tea.  With sugar and cream it was actually pretty good, but the trick she’d learned from Polly was not to use too much, or you wouldn’t taste the tea at all.

“A good tea is like a good story,” Polly had said, “If you water it down too much you won’t get to experience the full flavor, and then you won’t know what’s really there.”  Summer hadn’t fully understood this, though Heather had managed to help her just a little.

“It means if you can’t taste the tea, then it wasn’t worth having.”  Summer nodded as she managed to understand just a bit better, though she still couldn’t really understand why Polly had tried to say about how a good tea was like a good story.  Heather couldn’t help her there, but she said that Cousin Tommy probably could, which Summer fully agreed with.  But he was a boy, and this was a lady’s day, no boys allowed!

“That’s right,” Heather said with a smile, “The boys are off doing boys things and we’re here enjoying the day like ladies.”  Summer smiled as she took another sip of tea, enjoying the sugar taste and the slightly bitter aftertaste that followed.  Her eyes widened as she looked to Polly, who was standing near Great-Grandma Jean and Great-Aunt Sherryl.  The old woman was smiling warmly as she caught Summer’s look.

“I can taste the tea!” Summer exclaimed in a calm voice, smiling from ear to ear as Polly nodded, nodding her head as she closed her eyes briefly.

“Then it was a good choice.”   Summer really liked Polly, she was a nice lady.

“How long has this place been here?”  Savanna asked, looking around at the ornate decorations that could be seen throughout the restaurant.  Despite the dim lighting it was a very lovely place, with old, antique furniture everywhere and artwork that none of the girls were very familiar with.

“Oh, for quite some time,” Polly answered, “I was a little girl when my family came to this country, and we started out on the east coast, where we had another Hidden House, much smaller than this one thought.”  Summer cocked her head curiously as she could see that Polly was remembering something far back in her past.  She’d seen her Grandpa Jack and Grandma Darlene do this as well at times, seeming to lose focus as they thought about parts of their lives that they didn’t always speak about.  It was kind of neat to think of the stories and many things that older people had seen, maybe one day Summer would be able to do that.

“The Hidden House has been in Vancouver now for, oh I’m not sure, at least two decades or more.”

“Twenty years.” Heather told her, placing the amount of time in better perspective for Summer and the other two girls.  Their eyes went wide as they thought about how long twenty years was.  That was a really, really long time!

Polly laughed as she saw their expressions, “Yes, when I came to this country I was not much older than you girls.  My parents came here to start a new life, bringing a touch of Greece to America they said.”  Polly sighed as she paused, closing her eyes briefly, “I can remember so well their dream to open this place and others all across the country.  For a short time it seemed as though we would become one of the most famous families in America, but then things changed, just like they always do.”

Summer could hear the sadness in Polly’s tone, but the woman was still smiling, perhaps remembering what her life had been like to this point.  She couldn’t imagine what it was like to remember so much, she could barely remember that much of her life and she was still a kid!  Maybe her memory would get as good as Polly’s once she got older.

“So is still a family run business?” Grandma Darlene asked.  Since they were mostly finished eating the plates had been taken away, leaving only the desserts that lay so tantalizingly close on a sideboard buffet that was only a short distance away.  Summer, Savanna, Maya, and Haley had all eyed the desserts hungrily even through lunch, but had not once asked if they could have one. They were being perfect little ladies.

“Oh for the most part,” Polly said, “My two sons handle much of the business, and one of their friends, a good boy but not business-minded, does much of the cooking and baking.  Oh Steven is a wonderful cook and quite the baker, I feel lucky to have such an interesting young man in my kitchen.”

“He is a very good cook.” Andrea said, taking another sip of her tea.”

Polly laughed as she saw the girls eyeing the pastries and cakes once again, “He’s just as fine a baker I assure you, much as these girls would like to find out I’m sure.”  The others looked to the younger girls, laughing as they saw the wanting looks on their faces.  Still they did not ask for a single treat, minding their manners as they’d been told.  Summer’s mother smiled at her, looking to Grandma Darlene as though to ask if it was okay.

“They’ve been so good.” Great-Grandma Jean said, “Can’t they have a treat?”  The girls’ eyes lit up as they heard this, surely they couldn’t be told no now!

“Oh I don’t know,” Great-Aunt Sherryl teased, “They’ve been good till now, what’s to say a full load of sugar won’t change all that?”  Summer smiled at her great-aunt, she knew Great-Aunt Sherryl was only kidding, that she too would want a treat.  It was a tea party after all, they couldn’t not have at least one!

“Oh I suppose,” Grandma Darlene said, rolling her eyes comically as she smiled, “Can you bring them on a cart so they point out which ones they want?”  Polly laughed along with the others as she clapped her hands once.

“Oh I can do better than that if you’ll permit me.”  Grandma Darlene nodded as to say it was okay, looking to Aunt Carrie and Summer’s mother in turn as they nodded as well.

“Okay then.” Polly said, turning to the four young girls as her eyes lit up, “Girls? If you’ll follow me I’ll allow you to pick out your own  treat, and then we’ll let the older ladies do the same.  Does that sound fair?”

“Yeah!  I mean, yes, that sounds fair.”  Maya giggled at Savanna’s sudden change in mannerism, sliding from her seat as her dress rumpled slightly.  As all four girls followed Polly over to the dessert cart Summer looked back to see that each one of the older ladies were looking after them with wide smiles, waiting patiently for them to return.  This was so much fun!

*                      *                      *

 

Only about an hour later they were on their way again, heading back home after saying their goodbyes to everyone.  Summer’s tummy was full up and she could already feel herself starting to nod off as she hugged her family goodbye, thanking them as her mother had told her to do before they’d left the restaurant.  Polly had wished them all a good evening and told them to come back anytime.  She’d even let the younger girls take another treat home with them!  Summer was decided, she definitely liked Polly.

As her mother buckled her in to her seat Summer felt her eyelids beginning to close.  The treat she’d been given was in a small cardboard box on the seat in front next to her mother so it wouldn’t slide off onto the floor.  Summer didn’t mind right now, she was close to falling asleep and couldn’t eat another bite.

“Did you have fun Summie?”

“Mmm-hmm.” Summer responded sleepily, her eyes already closing.

“My little girl’s first tea party, I was very proud of you today Summer.”  Summer smiled as she continued to fade away, her hands resting in her lap as her head began to loll forward.  Before they were even away from the curb she was asleep, dreaming of running on the farm again in her coveralls.  The tea party had been fun, but she was a tomboy, whatever that was.

Of Love and Duty

Of Love and Duty

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

 

Many, many millennia ago…

 

 

She’d erred somehow, Sivis had heard her coming and had been quicker than she could have imagined.  How had he become so powerful? What dark secrets did he hold that had enabled him to drop her so effectively and with such force?  Aliyana felt her body tingling as every nerve seemed to scream with pain, seeking to drive away the darkness that had been unleashed against her.  Never in her life had she felt pain on this level as her teeth clacked together over her tongue, drawing blood as she scrunched her eyes shut in the worst agony she’d ever experienced.  She knew Tumus was somewhere near, but at this moment she could do nothing more than thrash upon the ground, unable to call out for aid, unable to even speak to her former love, to ask why he had done this.

Her heart had torn the moment she’d realized he was lost to her, the breach unable to be bridged even by the notion that she had done as she was charged.  The precious balance her kind was charged with keeping could not be sundered in such a way, it was their duty to make sure that neither the Dark nor the Light were allowed upon this realm save by invitation.  Unfortunately the elder who had closed the rift, an old man named Eldis, had stated that this had already happened.  Eldis was among the few Shapers who did not seem to revere the balance, though neither did he embrace the utter chaos that would emerge from its absence.  Bound to serve his people, he still much preferred his solitude among the wilds, where the troubles of his kind seemed to rarely find him.

This time however, there was to be no hiding from the responsibility their race carried.  Not even Eldis, who was ancient among even their race, could be allowed to sit idly by and allow the world to pass on its way as he watched.  Even the ancient Shaper would need to join the battle, no matter his desire for peace.

There was no telling if the single rift that Sivis had opened had been the only one, or perhaps one of many.  Even Eldis, who was more in tune with this realm than most, could not be certain that the dark being had managed to pierce the unseen veils between this realm and so many others.  If such was the case there was no telling how many rifts Sivis had created, nor how many denizens of the darker and far chaotic planes he had invited into their world.

His own clan had already disowned him in spirit if not in flesh, for such a thing was not yet possible.  They would no longer recognize him as a part of their clan, nor would they speak his name lest it be to curse him.  Aliyana knew that this was the way of their people none could be allowed to shift the delicate balance that existed upon this world, not with sever repercussions.  But her heart still hurt.

She had loved Sivis for many years now, in fact the two of them had toyed with the idea of becoming officially known as man and woman, the most sacred bond that any Shaper could hope for.  They had spoken of beginning a family, perhaps one day their own clan, apart from all others as they made their own way within this vast world.  Sivis had been so different in those days, so full of life and ready to charge ahead and make a life for them both.  But he had changed somehow.  Somewhere and at sometime that she did not know, darkness had claimed his heart.  At one time she would have believed such a thing impossible, that it could never hope to happen in a million years.  But her love had become corrupted, a twisted thing that she barely recognized any longer.  He’d gone willingly to the darkness it seemed, a devoted student of the Dark.  Such a realization warred with her denial that he had been tricked somehow, that his mind had been subdued by another force that he could not withstand.

He was a powerful Shaper, a true prodigy to his clan and a valued asset, until now.  If he so much as set one foot within the lands of his birth Sivis would be bound by the power of his clan as well as others, judged as traitor and no doubt executed.  There were crimes among their people that called for exile, for other punishments that would not be forgotten, but the price of betrayal was and most likely always would be death, a sure and swift meting of judgment by his people so that his evil would not spread and infect others.

Her head swam as Aliyana finally began to come to, the attack leveled against her body by her former love lessening with each breath as she could finally struggle to sit up.  Both hands went to her head in agony as she cried out, feeling hands upon her arms as she tried in vain to shrug them off.  She was far too weak though and could do nothing more than move from side to side, crying out as the pain spiked within her head and limbs, causing her arms to shake uncontrollably as she was helped to her feet.

“Aliyana!  Calm girl, calm yourself!  You are safe now, the dark one is gone”  The shouting voice echoed within her mind, clanging far too loudly as she jerked and tried to tear free of those who held her once more.  She felt a strong pair of arms encircle her then, holding her tightly even as the owner of the arms took care not to harm her.

“T-Tumus?” she breathed, her breath hitching as she tried to turn her head.  Tumus had been a good friend for many years, a childhood companion that had at times vied for her attention with Sivis.  No matter how he had tried however Tumus had always fallen just short of her affections, her heart had belonged to Sivis alone and it had vexed the far more statuesque Shaper in no small way.  Many times she had spoken to Tumus of this, making her mind known upon how she viewed him as a brother and a friend, but nothing more.  After a time Tumus had accepted this, though never had he and Sivis been the most steady of friends.  In fact it was safe to say that the two had never even once seen eye to eye on anything, including her.

“No child, Tumus is gone.”  Aliyana’s mouth opened wide in a shocked O as she heard the words, unable to accept what had just been said as tears began to spill from her eyes.

“W-what-?”  She could not finish her question, her tears flowing freely as she struggled slightly in the grip of the one that held her.  The voice sounded vaguely like her father, Lomis, but at this moment she was hardly in the mood to pay attention.  She couldn’t have possibly heard what he’d just said.

“The dark one my daughter.  Tumus fought valiantly, but the dark one has gained far too much power, Tumus was no match for him.”  Aliyana struggled for a bit more before going limp in her father’s strong arms, a wracking sob escaping her lips as she sagged against him.  Closing her eyes she could not tell if she was crying for Tumus or for Sivis, but after awhile she found it didn’t matter, neither one was ever coming back to her.

*                      *                      *

 

Several months later…

 

 

 

Her heart had not yet become stone, though it had hardened noticeably since that fateful night when her love had gone the way of the shadow.  Tumus had been given his final respects, his remains being cremated upon the beachfront at dusk so that his soul might find its way to the clearing at the end of the path.  No matter which clan they came from, each Shaper knew well enough that upon their exit from this world they would begin life anew in the next.  Death was only a transition, a gateway to another realm where the living soul would have a chance to make yet another life.  Aliyana knew that Tumus was not truly gone, but his passing still marked a time in her life when yet another piece of her innocence had been lost.

She’d joined the hunt for Sivis without prompting, insisting that she be among the few that were sent out in advance to ascertain his whereabouts and how much damage he’d already inflicted upon the land.  Thus far not a single being had found a trace of the dark one upon the peninsula, so it was that they had expanded their search to the neighboring lands, scouring the countryside for the dark beast.  It had already been noted that there as a definite change to the land, a feeling that could not be denied.  The Dark had been invited into their world by Sivis, its minions entering in droves as they swarmed forth to ravage yet another realm.

Measures were already being taken to insure that the entire world would not fall prey to their insanity, and Aliyana had been a part of many such acts.  The first among many had been the securing of their home upon the peninsula, an act that had taken nearly a month to achieve and several lives spent in keeping the dark things that wished their demise away long enough for the effect to be enacted.  When all was said and done the peninsula had been successfully hidden away from the creatures of the Dark, veiled behind a silver mist of such immensity that it covered the entire peninsula and much of the waters beyond.  Not a single creature of the Dark, no matter how powerful, could hope to penetrate the barrier that had been created.  Their home was safe at least.

The creatures that had been summoned were vast in number and diverse in form and race, though among them all undoubtedly the worst that had ever been encountered were the daemons, creatures of such ancient origin that many Shapers could not divine just how they had come to be.  Some claimed they were fallen angels, while others believed them to be bits of the Dark that had separated and somehow developed their own sense of self.  Aliyana didn’t care, she knew only that they were dangerous and as a result needed to be destroyed.

Among those who ventured forth into the surrounding lands to search for Sivis she was the only one who did not bring a weapon of any seemingly serious quality.  Her white wooden staff was a marvel to behold, its rune-inscribed length carrying a great deal of power that was not readily apparent.  Many would believe from first sight that it was little more than a white stick, hardly effective as a blade.  That was where they were wrong.  Though it was indeed not as initially useful as a blade or a heavy club it was still more than effective against the creatures of the Dark.

Blessed by the most powerful among their numbers and bound with the energies of which they were so skilled in, the Staff of the Shapers had come to Aliyana much to the amazement of many.  She was still little more than girl, hardly a warrior in the eyes of their people, but her power was such that she was seen as far more than what she appeared.  Like Sivis she was a prodigy, one among their kind who seemed years beyond her ken, an old soul that had emerged within a new form so to speak.  The staff had responded to her touch immediately, its runes flashing with a brilliant silver-blue fire that had caused not even a single blister to raise upon her flesh as she had gripped it fearlessly, accepting the staff with as much humility as was required.

She’d been charged with the capture and ultimately the execution of her former love, the dark lord known as Sivis, whose name would forever more be cursed.  Though she had taken the vow, had indeed agreed to the final measures that would fall upon her shoulders should the dark one prove too powerful, Aliyana’s heart was still heavy.  She did not know if she could be the one who cast the final stroke against the dark one, nor was she certain that she could accept the full charge of what had been given to her.  There was no choice but the one she had accepted however, no matter how much she wished it were not so.

“We’ve found something!”  Aliyana’s head turned as she panned her gaze from the arid landscape in front of her, shielding her eyes briefly against the stabbing sunlight as she saw one of their many allies, an Ellevayne of all things, come bounding towards the group.  They’d traveled farther south than any of them had ever gone, traversing the wooded and untamed hills beyond their home and crossing vast bodies of water in order to reach this area they now stood upon.  There was nothing more than desert to be seen for as far as the horizon could show, but she knew that lush forest existed on the edges of this barren land.  They had come from one after all.

“What is it?” Aliyana asked, her patience wearing dangerously thin as the heat continued to beat down upon them. This land was far too arid for her tastes, she enjoyed the feel of life around her, of the lush forests that lay upon the fringes of her home.  Here there was little more than rock, sand and hardened vegetation that somehow managed to survive the damning heat that baked down from the sky on a daily basis.

The Ellevayne, his name was Taeven she remembered, stopped as he came near, hearing the heavy tone of her voice.  Ellevayne, though immortal like Shapers, were just a bit weaker than Shapers.  Her kind could bend and manipulate both energy and matter to their whims when required, the Ellevayne were composed of that same energy.  If pitted against one another an Ellevayne would be hard pressed to defeat even the weakest among her kind without a fight.

“We ah, we didn’t find, um, you know who.” Aliyana’s gaze hardened as Taevan hurriedly continued, “But we did find where he’s most likely to show up next.”  Her stare grew icy as Aliyana crossed her arms over her chest, her staff held in the crook of her right arm.  Taevan looked to those who stood around and near her, Shapers all, as though for help.  None would be forthcoming she knew, since those who had allied with her in this quest would not side with an Ellevayne against one of their own.  The importance of their quest was far too great to be placed upon a guess.  Unfortunately at this moment that seemed to be all they had to go on.

“If you’ll just come and see I think you’ll agree it’s really something.” Taevan began to move away as he kept his eyes upon Aliyana and the others around her, perhaps thinking that they would strike him down for presenting them with absolutely nothing.  She was not so vindictive, but her temper was short these days and as a result could flare more often than she was used to.  As Aliyana followed after the Ellevayne she motioned for the others to remain behind, wishing that she could simply go home, that Sivis would finally give himself up and realize the havoc he was wreaking upon the world.

Her former lover’s path of devastation had thus far been wide and quite expansive, demolishing entire forests, razing what might have been considered early civilizations and obliterating any trace that they had ever existed.  Aliyana had not wept for a single soul that had fallen to his depravity, though she had felt her heart tear even wider as the rent within her soul deepened with each passing act of such horrid destruction.  This was not their way, they were bound by the will of Creator to keep the precious balance of this realm, to insure that neither chaos nor order consumed the face of this world.  Yet Sivis would so gladly ruin everything to spite those who had done what was dictated as right and just, he would destroy the world to spit in the faces of his own kind.  Still Aliyana could help but be saddened by his loss.

Her graceful strides finally brought her to where Taevan stood near the dark opening of what looked like a natural cavern hewn into the rock, its shadows claiming much of what lay inside after only several feet of visibility.  Even the glaring sunlight did little to offer any further illumination into the hole.  Looking to the Ellevayne she shrugged, shaking her head as though to ask why he had thought this was so interesting.

“Can’t you feel that?”  Taevan asked, his voice becoming a bit more exuberant as he leaned towards the hole.  It was at that moment that Aliyana finally did feel a tingle upon her senses, a feeling she had not experienced since leaving home.  Power, pure and unfiltered, touched upon her being as she stiffened slightly, her eyes closing as she gripped her staff tightly to her bosom, gasping as the influx of energy suddenly raced into her body, alighting upon each nerve in turn as she arched her back, unable to contain it all as spikes of radiating power flowed out from in all directions.

Taevan could not avoid the emanations as he was struck, shaking visibly as the power of the Shaper in front of him overwhelmed his senses momentarily.  The Ellevayne had grudgingly accepted his role among the Shaper’s group, though as he felt the power flow through him in that moment Taevan knew that he was without a doubt in the right place.  Whether or not his kind and the Shapers got along on a regular basis did not matter, he would follow this woman as long as he could and for as long as she would have him.

As the two, Shaper and Ellevayne, opened their eyes once they turned to look behind them, seeing as the sands began to swirl madly, churning as though some force had stirred them to life.  Neither of them moved, watching as several figures took form within the folds of the storm, their silhouettes the only visible aspect of their presence as they moved about in hurried, aggressive motions, attacking and falling away, defending one another, rising and falling with each heartbeat as the two of them watched.

“What is tha-?” Aliyana cut Taevan off suddenly with a raised hand as the storm slowly abated, the swirling sands calming once more as the figures began to fade and then finally diminish, disappearing entirely after several moments as the landscape became the normal, rolling sands once more.

So you reach the wellspring before me. Well done Aliyana, I must confess you win this time.

The sending, a means of communication between Shapers, hit Aliyana like a slap to the face, the putrid odor that assaulted her nostrils almost making her gag as she closed her eyes in revulsion.  Taevan, who could not perform a sending and did not recognize one in progress, had no idea of what afflicted her and as a result could only watch as she straightened up a bit, her eyes opening as he could see a fire within their depths that scared even him.

Enough of this Sivis, she returned, come forth and receive judgment for your crimes.

From you, or from your people? Sivis sneered within her mind.

They are your people as-

            No longer!  The mental barrage that hit her in that moment sent Aliyana reeling as Sivis lashed out with enough force to send the raven-haired Shaper to her knees.  Her grip upon the whitewood staff only strengthened as the runes inscribed along its length began to lick gently with bluish-white flames, offering her warmth and strength against the chilling assault of her former love.

You will fall my dear, perhaps not this day, but when next we meet, you will fall!  Sivis’s voice was a thunderous roar within her mind as Aliyana struggled to focus, gritting her teeth against the lancing pain within her mind that even her staff could not banish.  There was absolutely no way she could gain a bearing on where he was as was normal with any sending, the swirling maelstrom of his anger was simply too great, threatening to swallow her in that moment as she fell to the ground, writhing upon the coarse sand of the valley floor as Taevan could only watch, helpless to do anything.

Farewell for now my dear, I hope you enjoy the company I have sent in advance to welcome you.  Aliyana could barely understand his words, though the menace within them was easily felt as she began to regain control of her senses, rising once more to her knees as her temples throbbed in pain.  How had Sivis grown so powerful?

A deep rumble from beneath her knees alerted Aliyana to something approaching as Taevan’s gaze suddenly went to the tunnel mouth, widening at what he saw.

“Dark and Light, what is-?”  Taevan never got to finish his question as a massive, clawed hand slammed hard into his chest, catapulting him backward through the air, his clothing and chest torn wide open by the wickedly barbed claws that led back into the gnarled, muscular arm of the creature that now emerged from the darkness.  Aliyana glared hard at the daemon, a thing of such pure malice and hatred as to be considered worthy of nothing more than destruction.  Her eyes narrowed in anger as the thing snarled at her, flexing its claws as several pops and cracks could be heard from its many joints.

Its head was little more than a smooth orb, its lower half dominated by jaws that sprouted fangs too numerous to be counted.  The daemon’s eyes were beady points of light within its dun-colored features, soulless chips of ice that regarded her with the worst type of hatred as it stalked closer to her.  Aliyana could hear from behind as those who had been her companions were set upon as well, though she did not dare turn to look.

The daemon in front of her was far too dangerous to turn her back upon, its nearly ten foot height and bulk making it difficult for her to imagine how it had hidden so effectively from both her and Taevan.  That point quickly became moot as it strode forward, the heavily corded muscles of its body rippling as it reached one claw out for Aliyana, seeking to draw her into its deadly embrace. She knew this type of daemon, it was known as a verdugn, or “champion” among its kind.  Within the ranks of daemons there were castes, just as there were with the creatures of the Light know as angels.  The higher the caste, the more distinguished and more powerful the member, which in her current situation did her little good.

Aliyana had learned to fight within her clan, she had learned how to defend herself and how to use the power within her veins to stave away the corruption and aberrations that sought to take root within this world.  But this was a champion, a daemon unlike any she’d ever seen in her life.  Those she had witnessed had been much lesser daemons such as the milikedes, or “soldiers”.  Never before had she borne witness to something so fearsome or so obviously lethal.

Sweeet, sweet meat.  Come to Da’rak sweeet meat.  The creature’s voice invaded her mind like questing tendril of rot, tainting her every thought as Aliyana squirmed under the mental assault, holding tightly to her staff.  The daemon reached out for her, its claws coming closer and closer until they were only a short distance from brushing against her face.  That was when the world seemed to explode.

*                      *                      *

 

30 years later…

 

 

Daemons, Ellevayne, Shapers and angels had scoured the face of the earth, warring with one another in such capacity that their battle had reached even the lowest depths of the Dark and the highest reaches of the Light.  No one had remained completely unscathed from the ensuing war that had spread quickly from the tide that Sivis had enacted.  Aliyana had thought herself dead upon the site that was now known as Echoes Pass, fodder for the daemon that called itself Da’rak, but she had been wrong.

Her staff had come to life then, its divine fires burning with such intensity that they had sprung to life of their own accord, bathing the entire valley in such a rush of light and righteous fire that not a single daemon had escaped.  She knew too well that they were not destroyed, that like the Ellevayne they would find a new form, but for the time being she and the others had been saved.  Taevan’s wounds had been mended, though the lives of three of her companions had been ended before she had acted.  The burden of this still lay heavy upon Aliyana’s heart even after the passing of three decades of little more than continual war.

The races of Shapers and Ellevayne had become divided slowly after the fiasco at Echoes Pass, each race experiencing the damning schism that had divided their peoples so effectively.  Aliyana had remained true to her heart as she had stood against the darkness time and time again, never once forsaking the duty she had been born with and was bound to uphold.  Taevan had nearly followed several of his kind to the side of the Dark, but in the end had decided upon exile instead.  Many others had gone this route as well, choosing to not choose as they placed themselves as far away from the war as possible.

That day in Echoes Pass Aliyana had felt something within her heart stir, a feeling of such purpose as she had never felt before.  Images had come to her mind then, faint, fleeting things that were there and then gone within moments, far too quick for her to hold onto.  She could still catching glimpses of them within her mind, but they were gone even as she looked upon them, as though to gaze upon the visions for even a breath was too long.  She was still greatly confused by the many things she had seen, though within her heart and her mind was the sadness that she had carried with her for the past three decades, the unwavering agony of what had eventually become of her race.

Seated upon a large, cold rock that overlooked the span of water in front of her Aliyana closed her eyes, damning her former lover even as she pined for him still.  Why could she not hate the man?  Sivis had done nothing more than destroy everything they had once held dear, laying waste to entire swaths of countryside to further his own twisted ends.  He had done this for spite, for hatred and for nothing more than the sick, manic glee that it brought him.  He had become a monster, no longer the man she had once loved.  So why could she not bring herself to hate him?

Idly fingering a small bauble around her neck, a red pearl that Sivis had given her, Aliyana closed her eyes, looking for one of the visions she’d seen yet again.  She was upon this same stretch of land, a rough footpath carved by the passage of many feet into the side of the mountain at her back, but it was not as it appeared now.  Instead of the mountain face extending to the water line as it nearly did, there was a large swath of black that snaked around the face of the mountain, close to the water.  Along this strange black surface there were several markings, dashes and curving lines that she could not decipher.  They were in no language she knew of, nor were they any type of rune she could recognize, yet she found herself believing that they were of some importance.

Rocks, boulders much like the one she sat upon, lined the river, elevated several yards up from the lapping waves.  Across the river she could just make out the forested hillside, its lush trees and thick scrub having sprouted among them several strange structures that Aliyana could not understand.  Her vision panned slowly to the left, taking in the strange appearance of a vibrant green and dull, gray-colored structure that lay in many crumbling pieces along the width of the river, as though it had been broken long ago.  Tendrils of moss and other bits of vegetation hung upon the many separate pieces of the structure, attesting to how long it must have been sitting in its current position.

You did this to us, a voice spoke within her mind.

Aliyana’s gaze panned quickly to the right, seeking the owner of the voice as she was startled for just the barest of moments.  She saw a form standing upon one of the rocks not far away from her, a dark cloak pulled about its features as a raised cowl hid away the stranger’s features.  She did not reply save for to rise to her feet, using one end of her staff to steady herself upon the slick surface of the boulder.

Who are you, and where am I? she asked, trying to sound in control of the current situation.  In truth her heart was fluttering in her chest like a trapped bird, screaming to get out.

You are in the now, the then and what lies between.  As you taught me, so it will come to pass.  The words made no sense to her as Aliyana frowned.  Taught?  Who had she ever taught?  She’d still been a student when the war had begun, barely able to hold her own within a fight.  Who was this person?

You didn’t answer my question, Aliyana challenged.  The figure did not turn as a gust of wind brushed against its cloak, fluttering it just enough to outline the masculine form of the stranger.  So it was a he, her heart fluttered just a bit as he considered that it might be Sivis she was talking to.  But no, she would know her former lover, wouldn’t she?

I answered half your question, Lady of Mists.  You must wait for the other half, for all will come in its time and place.

The vision began to recede as Aliyana listened, her eyes widening as she tried to hold onto what was there, not wishing to be left with such a cryptic and rather vague statement as the stranger’s only parting words.

Wait! she cried, Tell me who you are!  Please tell me! The desperation in her voice would have disgusted her at any other time, though now Aliyana could not help but let her emotions run forth as she attempted to halt the receding vision, seeking more answers than questions.  As the silence of the fading dream continued the figure turned, his eyes the only thing visible within the darkness of his hood as Aliyana gasped.  She could see his eyes, deep, dark pools of such blackness that it hurt almost to look at.  Throughout each orb ran strange, silvery mists that defied anything she’d ever known in her life.  Who was this man?

I am the Champion, last of the Chosen.   I damn you Aliyana of the Shapers,  I damn you Lady of the Mists, and I salute you.  Aliyana couldn’t breathe in that moment as she looked into the dark eyes of the stranger, her mind awhirl with the confusion that had suddenly been thrust against her conscious thoughts.  There was nothing in that moment as she suddenly felt herself descending, fading from the edges of the vision like an errant thought.

Her eyes opened as she found herself seated still upon the large rock that overlooked the water, the red pearl still between her fingers.  Aliyana’s heart was rocked to its core, though it had not yet become stone, not yet.  Even with the decimation of her race, even when they had enacted their last, most desperate plan of the Joining, she had not turned inward, preferring to live her life much in the same way she always had, as the free-spirited girl she had always been and always wished to be.  Raising her head to the winds she felt as they ran their delicate fingers through her long black locks, closing her eyes as the gentle breeze played across her skin.

The sensation of decay, corruption and rot reached her only moments later, announcing the presence of the one whom she’d been waiting for.  As she opened her eyes Aliyana was somehow able to draw strength from the most recent of her visions, finding it somehow bolstering as she thought of the stranger’s words.

I damn you Lady of the Mists, and I salute you.  Closing her eyes once more Aliyana inhaled through her nostrils, opening her eyes again as she turned to face what must be done.  She would perform the duty that had been given her, damned or not.  For her people, for all those who had been lost, she would forsake her love.  The scales would balance, she would make sure of it.