Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The League of Absolutely Ordinary Superheroes Part 1


When your IQ is so far off the scale that scientists are lining up to create new tests to measure it and Mensa is knocking on your door, there are only two ways to go in life. You can embrace your nerdly glory and live a life condemned to exist on the fringes, without any real human contact, or you can pretend. Or you can be an arrogant jerk like Greg, but he’s practically an entire category to himself no matter which way you slice it.

Like any other normal teenager, I just wanted to belong. Okay, at first it was frustrating that the rest of the class would take hours to understand what I’d figured out in three seconds, but that was easily dealt with: I just ignored school altogether. My real education happened in my spare time anyway; school was just somewhere I had to be, with people who I desperately wanted to like me.

They didn’t, of course. I mean, to begin with they accepted me and all, but there was always this vague sense of unease, like they knew I was hiding something, but couldn’t figure out what. And then bloody Mr Hangley had to perform what was tantamount to abuse on that poor, unsuspecting tangent secant theorem, and I couldn’t help myself: before I knew what I was doing, I’d opened my big gob and corrected him, and once the words started they just kept pouring out, a torrent I’d been hiding inside for so many years that when they finally spilled over, they flooded everyone within a five mile radius.

Actually, I can only vouch for the fact that they drowned my classmates, and very nearly Mr Hangley, who stood staring at me like I’d grown horns and started tap-dancing naked on the desk. Which, thinking back, may have been the smarter thing to do.

After that, there was no going back.

Megan cornered me right after class, fists on hips and eyes flashing. “What was that, then?” she demanded.

I did my best to shrink, to blend back into the crowd – but the crowd was no longer there. Instead, guys I’d just half an hour ago called mates were edging away from me, pointing and whispering, and I stood out like I’d always known I’d eventually have to, raw and naked and alone. So, eloquently, I shrugged and tried to pretend like I had no idea what she was talking about. Like lecturing your maths teacher on the subtleties of advanced trig was normal.

“I’m serious,” she said, tossing her hair. Man, you do not want to get Megan riled up. I swear, she’s part terrier or something, because once she’s latched onto something she does not let go, and she is scary. “What was up with that?”

“With what?” I snapped, shoving midgety year sevens aside so I could stomp away. Sure, that’s right, I thought. It’s not enough that my cover’s blown and I’m back to being Chris-fit again, bloody brunette Barbie has to come and rub it in, just to make sure I got the point.

“Your dazzling display of brilliance,” Megan said archly, tagging along at my shoulder.

I ground my teeth, staring fixedly at the far corner of the building, around which ladies never durst trod.

“Come off it, Chris,” she said, doing that hair-toss thing again. How do girls do that while they’re walking? How do they not lose their balance? I’ve seen even the most uncoordinated of girls manage the hair-toss feat without a problem. It must be another one of those mysterious things they get taught at Girl School.

“That was no act,” Megan continued. “You can’t possibly have made that up on the spot. I mean, anyone who knows anything at all about geometry could see Mr Hang-me was wrong from a mile away, but the cross products? Even I hadn’t thought about how that connected.”

Somewhere in all of that, I’d trailed to a halt, eyes wide and mouth gaping, frozen halfway through a step. Quickly, I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve and quit the zombie impersonation. “What the hell?” I said. “You understood that?”

Megan shot me a scathing look that left me cowering. “Just because you’ve been too busy trying to be a dick to notice the rest of us.” She did that ‘tsh’ thing that girls do when they’re exasperated and stalked away, leaving me once again doing my zombie act at her back.

“Wait, what?” I said, hurrying to catch up. “The rest of us? The rest of us what?”

Megan pressed her lips together and glanced sideways at me. “You’re not the only smart kid in the school, you know.”

“I…” I trailed off. I’d been going to say that I knew that, of course – only clearly I didn’t. All this time I’d thought I was the only freakazoid hiding out in this teenage shark pit, alone and misunderstood, when really… I shook my head like a dog twitching away a fly. “How many?” I asked as I tagged along at Megan’s shoulder. I had no idea where she was going, but she hadn’t told me to get lost yet, and that was something.

Megan murmured something too soft to catch, then stopped, hands fisted at her sides, staring at me.

I caught myself shrinking away from her again and forced myself to straighten. Geez, I was twice her height, and even if she was smart enough to understand what I’d said back in maths, I was still arrogant enough to know I was smarter than her. I didn’t need to shrink from her.

“Four,” she said, laser-sights blazing. “Five, if we’ll have you.”

“If you’ll… have me?” Once more, I found myself wrong-footed and gaping. I should have realised then what that meant, but no guy jumps to the conclusion that a tidgey girl half his size could whip him arse over nostrils with his own intelligence and then run three times around the metaphorical block before he’d even got his feet under him again. I’m not saying it can’t happen – bloody hell, Megan is a monster – I’m just saying it’s not expected, all right? I’m not sexist. Megan’d eat me alive if I was.

“Yes, if we’ll have you. And just because you’re smart, don’t think we will. You’ve been enough of a dickhead the last three years that Greg’ll blow his nut when he sees you tagging along.” She spun around and marched off again.

“Wait, what?” I said, beginning to feel that that might be a fairly standard comeback to any conversation Megan was in charge of. “Tagging along to what?

“You’ll see,” she said primly, turning a corner and shouldering her way through a glass door.

For a millisecond, I froze, mouth open like some gobbing goldfish, staring at the door. She had not just gone through that door without opening it. No way. I blinked. No, of course she hadn’t; there she was, holding the door open for me, impatience clearer than daylight. Of course she hadn’t gone through the door. Dimwit.

“Come on,” she said, continuing her march down the corridor. Before I could open my mouth and make an idiot of myself yet again – which would be what, like ten times in as many minutes? Dude, seriously: what was going on with the world? – she stopped outside a classroom door and took a deep breath. Her commando-queen façade slipped for a moment and she shot me a nervous glance. “Ready?”

I shrugged. “As I’ll ever be.”

[To be continued next month...]

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Glass

Isabelle took off her glasses, squinting in an attempt to see the hand she held outstretched in front of her face. All that her eyes showed was a great blur. Frustrated, she returned the glasses to their accustomed place and stared at her fingers thoughtfully.

‘How could you think they are artist’s hands?’ her mother’s voice echoed through her mind. ‘It is quite obvious that they are a pianist’s hands. Anyone could see that.’

‘It’s true,’ Isabelle’s father had agreed, adjusting his glasses. ‘No-one could mistake it.’

“Well, I obviously could.” Isabelle grumbled to herself. “Why can’t they see what I see?” Sighing, she picked up her pencil, began to draw.

In the town of Un Vue, named so because the view from the nearby hill, while not as great as the town of La Vue, was still somewhat spectacular, each and every person wore glasses. Upon the week of their first spoken sentence, every child would receive brand-new glasses and, upon the day of their death, those glasses would be buried with them. As if to mediocritize everything more, all of the glasses were the same, from colour to shape, not a single thing differed among them. Because of this universal similarity, not a single person noticed the presence of their glasses in any particular way, just as no-one would really notice that another person had two eyes. It was the way everyone was, from generation to generation.

Now, Isabelle was slightly unique among the rest of the town. She did not begin to speak at all for the longest time and so, unlike anyone else, could remember slightly what it was like not to wear glasses. Therefore, this particular instance of her taking them off in order to see differently could occur within the realm of possibility. She never did so in public, however, where the absence of glasses would be noticed like the loss of a limb. No-one would understand because no-one could remember that there had been another way of seeing things. But Isabelle could no longer see in that way. The blur in front of her face was evidence of that.

Then why? She thought. Why do my parents and I see so differently? All I want to be is an artist, but no matter how well I can draw, no matter what kind of art I create, Mama always frowns upon it. She thinks it’s stupid, and she doesn’t care if I know. The only thing she has wanted from me is that I become a pianist, just like her. Never mind the fact that I can barely tell one note from another, or the concept that black dots on a page somehow mean music is completely beyond my understanding. Isabelle drew angrily, having to stop and erase each time she accidentally made a line that was too dark or too thick. The slowly developing image on her page was that of a girl sitting in a dark room, her head flowering, glowing with ideas and impressions.

You can’t make me, Mama, she told herself fiercely. You can’t make me.
   
They are pianist’s hands,’ repeated her mother, followed again by her father’s affirmation.

No! Isabelle threw her pencil onto her desk with such vigour that it nearly broke. Unable to focus, she stood, running her fingers through her hair, repositioning her glasses. Why can’t they see what I see?
Outside Isabelle’s window, a gentle sunset delicately painted the sky a pink that was slowly deepening to purple, then to black. It mocked her with its very tranquility. She made a face at it and turned away. Everyone else in her family had gone to sleep earlier, and Isabelle wondered if she should do the same. Staying awake was accomplishing nothing here, only frustration.

Why can’t they see what I see? For some irrational reason, Isabelle felt she would be unable to go to sleep unless she was able to answer that question. “Go away,” she told it, hoping that, by doing so, she could ignore the problem. She tried to turn her mind to sleep, to her drawing, to something that would not take a hold of her mind in the way this question was. Instead, Isabelle found those seven small words growing in her mind, disturbing her attempted self-distraction. It seemed incomprehensible that her she and her mother could look at the very same thing, yet see it in two completely different ways. They both had eyes that worked, they both wore the same kind of glasses, the world should look no different to them. Even if they switched glasses –

A sudden wild thought entered Isabelle’s mind. Without a word, without even another thought, she left her room, stepping quickly and quietly down the hall to her parent’s bedroom. Easing the door open, she slipped in, her eyes scanning the room for her mother’s glasses. She spotted them quickly and nimbly picked them up, lifting them in such a careful manner as to not make the slightest sound.

This is preposterous! Her mind cried indignantly. Looking through her glasses won’t change things in the least! You idiot, they’re exactly the same!

Nevertheless, Isabelle returned to her room with the glasses, almost proud at they way she had been able to move so silently.

“Okay,” she breathed, “Now.” With a swift motion, Isabelle removed her glasses and put her mother’s on. Immediately, she noticed a change in the room. All the things her mother had scorned now seemed scornful. Isabelle’s most cherished drawings were now colourless, insipid, worthless. She looked down at her hands, now hanging nearly lifelessly at the shock of what her eyes were showing her. Pianist’s hands, to be sure. Her very fingers seemed able to conjure beauty out of even the most out of tune upright.

Slowly, Isabelle replaced her mother’s glasses with her own and sat down at her desk. Picking up her pencil, she continued to draw until the picture was completed, returned her mother’s glasses, changed, and went to bed. The drawing still showed the girl sitting, the same thoughts growing out of her mind.

But she wore no glasses.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Fool Me Once


Larelle sank into her armchair by the fire, cosy and pleasantly drowsy. The kids had been a riot today, and she was smashed. Thank heavens it was Friday.
A knock sounded at her apartment door and, staring into the flickering blue-orange flames and glowing embers, Larelle called out, Come in!
The door creaked open. Larelle waited for Jasons footsteps, but they didnt come.
Youre early, she said, pivoting around to the door, thoughts full of languid disappointment that she hadnt had time to change.
Her heart skipped then double-pounded. The figure smiling toothily on the near side of the threshold was not Jason. Partially because Jason wasnt six foot three with long, dark hair and muscles like something out of a firemens calendar—but mainly because Jason couldnt leer at her with jet black eyes and pointed, gleaming fangs.
Actually, the vampire-apparent said, I believe Im exactly on time. I do like to eat dessert before my mains. Bad habit, I know.
Better for the digestive system, Larelle said reflexively; her Year 3 students had been studying the digestive system recently. Not that shed told them the bit about dessert first, of course. She wanted permanency, not a civil lawsuit from parents. And cant you only enter houses when invited?
True, said the vampire, and he licked his fangs. And it was so sweet of you to invite me in. He rubbed his hands gleefully. Shall we begin?
Larelles chest constricted as the fatal words played through her mind: Come in.
Idiot. Shed even had a peephole installed in the door right after that werewolf had attacked old Mrs Franklin, but did she ever bother to use it? No. Too much effort.
Well, you know what else is a lot of effort? she asked herself scathingly as she stood and paced towards the vampire. Stalking predators. Next time, just use the bloody peephole. She grinned toothily, revealing the flecks of iron in her teeth—fillings shed had done specially.
The vamps cocksure smile slipped a little before he covered it with a grin even wider than hers—too wide, she thought. Hes covering.
Oh yes, Larelle said, raising the iron-and-hardwood-and-silver poker from the fireplace—the ultimate multipurpose weapon against the supernatural. Do lets begin.
The vampire lunged, but Larelle had done more than the basic training required by the government. She went down on one knee. He grabbed over her head. She stabbed upwards with the poker. He died a fast, gurgling death.
She hoped it was painful.
Someone knocked at the door. Probably this was now Jason, but Larelle pulled the poker from the vampires chest with a wet schlurp, wiped it off on his shirt, and headed to the peephole. She wasnt making that mistake again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

THE POLAR TERROR (Part 1) by Liana Brooks



Andrea scrolled through tumblr - hashtag supervillains - looking for a cosplayer who would fit the bill.
It was heartbreaking working with the Dreams Come True program at the pediatric hospital. Sure, it was wonderful when she could help the kids make a dream come true, but sometimes... sometimes it was all too much. Everett Jones was a special one. His parents had been in a car wreck when he was four months old and an improperly fitted car seat had thrown him from the wreckage. It had saved his life - the semitruck behind their car hadn't been able to stop in time - but it had left Everett broken and orphaned. He'd been in and out of the foster care system until his aunt graduated from college.
At seven, he should have been okay. But a little cold turned into bronchitis, and then they'd found abnormal growths along the bone. And then the doctors at Merriton Pediatric Hospital, the premiere children's hospital in the Yukon Territory, found out that the donor from Everett's last surgery hadn't been screened correctly. The bone cancer was sinking in.
Everett was seven and suicidal. His adoptive mother was a wreck.
Andrea wanted to do nothing more than make sure Everett had one dream come true. She'd gone to his hospital room with binders, folders, and brochures. Disneyland. Cruises. The Stanley Cup playoffs. She would make sure he got what he wanted.
And then Everett asked for the absolutely impossible: a day with The Polar Terror, the only supervillain north of the 66th Parallel.
She glanced at the clock. It was already two in the morning and she had her first meeting tomorrow at eight. Tanya Nothstien from the third floor (burn victims) was meeting with the Whitehorse Huskies and going to three days of hockey training camp, a reward for finally hitting her physical therapy milestone and being able to walk. Tanya had a long road ahead, and at least one more surgery to repair her arm, but she could be a hockey goalie as she was.
The Huskies had even invited her to come play goalie at one of their home games once the season was in full swing.
In the afternoon she had to meet with the Jenwa family. Three-year-old Doug was terminal. Dreams Come True was getting the whole family together -grandmas and grandpas too - and flying them to Hawaii to celebrate what was expected to be Doug's last birthday.
Unthinking, she grabbed a kleenex and wiped away the tears.
Tomorrow was going to be rough. She needed sleep. But...
Blurry-eyed, she hit the pencil icon on Tumblr and wrote a post...

WANTED: The Polar Terror for a day of fun and crime with 7yo Everett at the Merriton Pediatric Hospital.
Everett is a sweet boy who has had a bad run of luck. He wants to conquer the mountains with his favorite villains, and maybe rob a candy store.
If you're available, please email me at: andrea@canada.dreamcometrue.org

She posted it with a sigh and turned the computer off. Yukon Territory was not a geek hub with ten thousand cosplayers. But, who knew? Maybe she'd get lucky and some rich American who could afford his own batmobile would feel like dressing up in a traditional Yukon furs and flying up here.


***


The next day didn't dawn so much as slink in well after Andrea was at work. Winter mornings were an illusion more than a reality. By ten the hospital was sending home non-essential staff because of an incoming blizzard. Andrea shut her door, turned off the overhead light, and worked with the street light outside.
No one could send her home if they didn't know she was there.
Lunch was a bag of pretzels nabbed from the vending machine while the hospital director dealt with a car collision in the parking garage. And at two she went up to see Doug's family.
His room was filled with red toy robots, red balloons, and red stuff dog that was bigger than he was. Andrea confirmed all the details, checked with Dr. Harper to ensure that Doug was up for travel, checked with Doug's nursing staff to make sure all their paperwork was in order, and - worn out and ready to cry - she limped back to her office.
It was cold.
Bone-freezing cold.
She was Yukon born and bred, but negative 10 Celsius with snow swirling around her desk as she opened the door was too much. Her lips puckered as she sucked in a sob.
Someone - some utter bastard - had broken her window.
She closed her office door quietly behind her. There was no need to be rude, she told herself. There was cardboard behind the filing cabinet and the Good Lord had given her duct tape and common sense, more than enough to fix anything, as her grand-mère had always said.
Andrea turned to reach for the down coat hanging on the back of her door and screamed. There was a person standing there.
A huge, fur-covered aberration with a spear in one hand a rabbit-fur pouch at his hip. All the emotions of the day came pouring out in an ear-piercing wail that was swallowed by the howling wind outside. The bowl of tiny, polished rocks on her desk jumped and rattled as the despair and rage rolled off her. And then it finally stopped; her throat was swelling and scratching.
The snow stopped swirling and her window slammed shut.
"Sorry about the entrance?" the menace offered.
Andrea stalked behind her desk, sat down in her creaking, broken chair in a huff, and grabbed a kleenex. Then a throat lozenge. She glared at the face hidden by a black balaclava.
"You, um, asked for me on Tumblr." The voice was deep. Definitely masculine. Almost apologetic.
She opened the bottom drawer and pulled out a fresh bottle of water. It was against her policy to drink bottled water unless the pipes froze, but this was an emergency.  Sometimes her carbon footprint had to take a back seat to panic.
The person shuffled and took a seat in the stiff-backed client chair.
After several minutes, and half a bottle of water, Andrea sighed. "All right. That didn't go well. I try not to scream at anyone." She glanced at the window. "Who are you? And why is there snow melting on my desk?"
"It can't stay snow in this heat."
Andrea glared. "What I meant is; why didn't you come through the front door? We have a receptionist."
"They went home early. A security guard told me everyone had, so I came up here to leave a note."
"Through my window."
The masked face turned to consider the now-unbroken glass. "Eh... it made sense at the time?" He lifted his shoulder and dropped it. There was a slight twang in his voice. Almost...
"Are you from Newfoundland?"
He turned faster than she expected. "How'd you- "
"It's the accent. I dated a guy from there once. It didn't end well." Andrea realized her hand had tightened around her limited-edition Glamdring letter opener and dropped it. She wasn't going to risk getting blood on a collectible. At least, not a limited-edition one. She had a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey stick, signed by Leo Komarov.
She could part with that.
"You did want to see me, didn't you?" With gloved hands the man reached into his rabbit-skin pouch and pulled out a folded piece of paper that he held out for her.
Andrea stood just enough to reach out and take the paper between her pointer and middle finger, then plopped back down. Glaring at him, she unfolded it with great ceremony. It was a screen capture of her desperate Tumblr post.
She shut her eyes.
This was the problem with the geek community, when cosplayers got into something, they really went all out. She was willing to bet that later - much later - when she wasn't so worn out she'd find the string this guy had used to tug the window closed so it looked like he was using the wind.
"You don't look happy," the man said. "I thought, children's hospital and all, it might be time sensitive. And I was in town."
"Of course." Andrea closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry. I've had a very... rough... afternoon. I was expecting an email. There's paperwork to be done. If you cosplay for a living you can use your time as a tax write-off. We also have security checks and things like that."
"I won't pass those," he said. "I'm a supervillain. An ecoterrorist or a planet defender, depends on who you ask."
Andrea opened one eye to glare at him. "I appreciate your dedication to the role, mister...?" She held out her hand as invitation for him to fill in the blank.
"Terror. Polar Terror. Rhymes with bear."
She looked at her water bottle and willed it to become a Chilkoot Larger from Yukon Brewing Co. The color didn't blush the deep amber of ripening wheat, so she figured she still hadn't come up with the ability to spontaneously make alcohol appear.
"Do you want colder water?" the man asked.
"No. I want beer, but I can't have it during working hours and usually only drink on my birthday, Canada Day, and New Year's Eve. This is not a job where I need more depressants in my life."
"I thought bringing good cheer to kids would make for happy work."
Her sour smile was enough to make him lean back. "It's great when you actually can help. Some of our kids will recover. But they don't all walk out of here healthy and alive." She lifted her shoulder and dropped it. "This afternoon I had to talk to a family whose little boy probably won't live to see four."
"Oh." His head tilted to the floor. "Is that Everett?"
"No. Everett is seven, he was in a car accident and had several surgeries to fix broken bones. One the bone grafts left him with bone cancer."
There was a moment of silence, a place for grief.
"His parents must be devastated," the man said, quietly.
"They're dead." Andrea hated how callous she sounded, but she was out of emotion. "His aunt has custody. She's a very nice woman, but totally overwhelmed. Her sister, Everett's mother, was the only family she had. She's been working hard to raise Everett and be supportive through everything, but she really doesn't have anyone else to lean on." Andrea picked up Glamdring and spun the miniature sword around. "They have your comic books."
The man nodded. "All the proceeds go to college funds for kids from the Yukon Territory, you know. I don't get paid for that. I didn't license it either, but..." He shrugged, and Andrea thought she heard a hint of a smile when he said, "I had a word with the duo drawing the comics and we worked things out."
"They donate all the money, and you don't kill them with your freeze-ray?"
"See, the way you say it sounds so mean. And it's not a freeze-ray. That's something only fake supervillains need. I have superpowers."

PART 2 (coming soon!) 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Stillborn

A dark shape moved among the trees, nearly indistinguishable from ebony night. The wraith-figure stepped cautiously closer to the edge of the forest, glancing once up at the sky. The new moon teased the stars into shining but, despite their brightness, the could not remove the shadow that kept him hidden. He progressed with an almost sinuous grace, nauseating to watch, halting at last beneath the great pine near the house at the edge of the village. Searching each window with milky eyes, he found candlelight, the flame illuminating a young woman. He whispered her name, an exhalation of the longing of the universe. An agony of despair blazed within him. It nearly made him want to rip his heart out; but that would not cease the pain. Such things could kill him no longer. Immortality was not his, yet not a form any would envy.

What of his actions deserved this? Few memories remained of his transformation. The afternoon had been warm and summery as he strode through the forest towards her house. His hands had fiddled with the ring in his pocket; no one alive could have been as anxious as he.

Suddenly, there had come a shrieking cackle, the glimpse of a witch-hag’s face. Fire had blazed, leaving behind this wraith-body shivering on the ground. The witch had vanished, but her voice remained.

“Wish you to be human again? The curse will lift only if you kill she that you love. Unless you wish to live forever alone, for none will accept you now!”

The choice, however sickening, had seemed clear. Yet, now his heart screamed in denial. In stories, the hero could save himself and his love. Here, there was no such option.

A moan sounded, the embodiment of that one unanswerable question:

“Why?”

Dark storm-clouds reflected his despairing thoughts. A single flash rent a tall birch nearby. Lightning: that near-divine power, able to rip soul from body in defiance of immortality. The hairs at the back of his neck rose, warning of imminent proximity. He remained still.

“You say you love me,” his beloved had teased. “How will you prove it?”

She must never know.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Kitten Psychologist vs the Kitten's Owners



(Just jumping in now? Read the previous installment, The Kitten Psychologist Broaches the Topic of Economics, here, or the first story, The Kitten Psychologist, here.)

Boy, was I in trouble. I think it would have been worse if I hadn’t called my friends the day I left for vacation, which is exactly why I did that. But, man, give them two weeks to steam off and they were still mad.

And, okay, yeah, I deserved it.

When I got back, they demanded an accounting of exactly how much money their kitten had paid me out of their bank account for our sessions and how often. They didn’t need to. I’d spent half my vacation angsting about the whole thing and had all my documentation prepared by the time we met in their living room.

This wasn’t just some strategy to placate them and get out of trouble. I’d had a lot of time to think during vacation, and I couldn’t escape the fact that what I’d done was wrong. For someone who spent a lot of time and energy trying to ignore my conscience when it suited me, it was sure uncomfortable having it yelling at me from three inches away.

Consciences really need to learn a thing or two about personal space.
It also bugged me that I hadn’t gotten back to the kitten about its email when it found out what I did.
Fuzzy as it is, that thing can be darn intimidating.

But now I couldn’t talk to it. My friends had made sure of that.

“Why would our kitten even need a psychologist?” asked the one with the green shirt. (I may be a coward, but even I know to keep my friends’ identities private online. You’re welcome, friends.)

“It’s sentient. Even humans find that uncomfortable, and we’re supposed to be that way.”

They didn’t appreciate the joke.

“How could you take advantage of it like that?” asked the one in the worn jeans.

Wait, what? “It called me! I had no idea-”

“You could have refused it at any point. Heck, you should have!” Green Shirt fumed. “It’s just a kitten, for crying out loud. It doesn’t know any better.”

“It’s a kitten that-” I stopped myself. Thinking before I spoke was probably a better strategy in this situation if I didn’t want it to turn into a warzone. Well, more of one.

“What? A kitten that what?” My friend’s eyes had taken on the uncanny appearance of someone aiming a gun. I cringed.

“Uh. First: yes. I should have refused. I’m sorry I didn’t, which is why I called you in the first place. Second: you didn’t know your kitten was sentient until just over two weeks ago. How do you know it’s not capable of seeing the right and wrong of its actions for itself?”

“It’s a kitten!” exclaimed Worn Jeans.

“More than that, it’s a cat,” said Green Shirt. “Cats aren’t exactly known for their strong grasp on morality.”

“Well, they do know what it is,” amended Worn Jeans. “They just don’t follow it. On purpose. So, in the case of our kitten…”

“Cats will be cats?” I supplied.

They nodded.

“And, since your kitten is now too young to know these things, and will grow up not to follow them anyways, it’s up to us to make all of its moral decisions for it?”

“As much as possible, yes,” said Worn Jeans. “We do know we can’t be there all the time in every situation.”

“Which is why it’s so important that we only let it be with people that are committed to the same thing, and not boneheads like you,” Green Shirt said, arms crossed.

“Boneheads?” said Worn Jeans. “That’s a little harsh.”

“Well, it’s true!”

I fidgeted. “Should I leave?”

“That depends. Are you going to leave leave or go talk to the kitten again?”

“Well, see, it sent me an email that I haven’t responded to yet…”

“It has an email address?” asked Worn Jeans in bewilderment.

“And a tumblr, too.” I pulled out my phone. The kitten’s latest post was a picture of a fall forest, with the caption ‘We are more than we feel’. The previous was a sepia-filtered photo of latte art.

“It has a hipster blog?” said Worn Jeans. Green Shirt grabbed my phone.

“I’m not sure how to process this.” Green Shirt’s eyes were concerningly wide. “Is that latte telling me to live my dreams?”

“Maybe you should, uh, get to know your kitten better?” I suggested. “And, meanwhile, we can work on a payment plan for me?”

“Yeah,” said Green Shirt, still scrolling through the kitten’s tumblr. “But, uh, I’m beginning to see why it needed a psychologist.”

That sounded hopeful. I swear my bank account perked up at it. And, if I wasn’t still having an attack of conscience, that would have been that.

“You know, I think your kitten is plenty able to do what’s right. Enough that making those decisions for it is only going stop it from wanting to.” Damn, damn, damn. I knew from their expressions that that had been the absolute worst thing to say.

Green Shirt handed me back my phone. “I think we understand our kitten better than you do. We’ll work out a payment plan, but we’re not budging on our requirements for your behaviour with it.”

“Or we can just pretend I never said that.”

“Really?” said Worn Jeans. I gulped. “I can’t believe you.” At which point my friend upped and left the room.

This is what I get for being a psychologist to a kitten. Correction: for being desperate enough to be a psychologist to a kitten.

“We’ll, uh, work it out over email,” I said as I high-tailed it out of there before Green Shirt could do anything.

So, that was finally that. Years of friendship hanging precariously in the balance all because we disagreed about what their kitten could and could not handle.

It’s one of those moments where you’d like to laugh over the ridiculousness of it, but it was a little too serious for that.

I mean, we’d have never been in this situation if I hadn’t let the kitten take advantage of them.

But wouldn’t that mean that the kitten would have always been stuck? Aren’t I doing it a favour by standing up for it to my friends?

I don’t know.

Morality is hard, guys.

Dear psychologist human,
 

I cannot believe you showed my humans my tumblr. Do you not understand that it was meant to be ironic? They think it’s serious!
 

On another note: You still have not responded to my previous email. This displeases me. I require that you respond in a timely manner.
 

We must speak.
 

Sincerely,
You know who.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Desperate Measures


As always, Katrina gazed in awe at the rows of white dresses that lined the walls, some sparkling, some shimmering – all beautiful. She gripped her mother’s arm and squealed. “That’s it, that’s my dress right there!” She pointed toward a mannequin at the back of the store.
Her mother smiled. “Come on.”
The sales assistants, in their crisp black suits and white cotton gloves, were all busy with other customers, and a young blonde girl smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry ma’am, we’ll be with you in a moment.”
Katrina didn’t mind. She adored bridal stores – could spend hours in them, literally. Ever since she’d been a bridesmaid for Tanya two years ago, she’d been addicted.
She leaned against the counter. Honestly, the way some of those dresses glittered – especially that puffy-skirted one on the mannequin – well, she wouldn’t find it hard to believe they were alive.
A flicker caught her eye, and she looked down towards the mirrors at the back of the store. A thirty-something woman with dark, glossy hair posed, primping the veil in her hair. The sales assistant stooped behind her, adjusting the train and hemline.
Katrina smiled again. The snug fitting bodice showed off the woman’s curves perfectly, and the golden ivory of the satin made her tanned skin glow.
And the crystalling down the back… Katrina sighed wistfully. Her parents weren’t exactly oozing cash, and she and her fiancé lived the frugal life of students. Her dress was pretty – but it was plain.
The woman in front of the mirrors turned, flicking the train of the dress out behind her. The crystal beading caught the light, writhing like some fantastical snake around the hem and stirring envy in Katrina’s breast.
“Katrina?”
She turned back to the counter. A dark-haired, stern-faced assistant arched an eyebrow and peered over her glasses.
Katrina nodded. “Yes, that’s me.” She swallowed, suddenly nervous.
“And you’re here to pick up…” The assistant glanced down at the open book on the table. “A Glamorique gown and veil?”
Katrina nodded again, throat dry.
The assistant gave a curt jerk of her chin. “I presume you wish to try it on? When was the wedding, again?”
 “Er, tomorrow.”
The woman’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Yes, there, er, there were some issues.”
“I see.” The assistant stared.
Katrina shuffled. “Um, I’d like to try it on?”
“I’ll go fetch it, then.” One more glance at the book, then she disappeared into the back room.
Her mother squeezed Katrina’s arm. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “This time it will be fine.”
Katrina nodded, hoping she was right.
She should be right. There was no reason for her not to be.
But there had been no reason for her to be wrong last week, either. Or the week before that.
Katrina’s stomach twisted, and she wished the friendly sales assistant would appear. She’d been so kind last week when Katrina had opened the zip-up bag, only to find they’d sent the wrong one.
And she’d been wonderful the week before that when the gown had been the right style, but so tiny Katrina couldn’t even get it over her shoulders.
The sales assistant emerged from the back room, arms overflowing with a white plastic zip-up bag. She strode off towards the change rooms.
“Off you go,” said Mum in a low voice. “Here, I’ll take your bag.”
Katrina passed over her handbag and sunglasses, and took a deep breath. “I hope it’s okay this time.”
“It will be,” said Mum. “It’ll be fine.”
Katrina squared her shoulders, and marched after the assistant.
As she entered the change room, a movement caught her eye. She looked at the mirrors that covered the back wall. They showed nothing out of the ordinary – just a perfect reflection of the empty story.
That was odd… Katrina creased her brow. When had that dark haired woman left?
But the sales assistant had lifted the dress up and stared at her impatiently. Katrina jerked the curtain shut, shrugged out of her cotton day-dress and held up her arms.
You’d think after so many fittings I’d have ceased to feel vulnerable, she thought, standing with her arms above her head in nothing but a strapless bra and knickers. Apparently not. She shivered, even though the store was warm, and was glad when the satin dropped over her shoulders.
Over her shoulders, over her hips… It kept dropping, dropping, until at last it stopped, hovering around her upper thighs.
Katrina looked down at the dress, then up at the sales assistant, stomach sinking.
“Um, that’s not supposed to happen, is it?” The dress was supposed to be figure hugging. And in order for it to hug her waist, there was no way it ought to be able to fall down over her hips like that.
The sales assistant pursed her lips and took hold of the back of the dress. “Let’s do it up first,” she said.
She lifted the dress up so it covered Katrina’s torso, and Katrina hugged it to hold it up. She heard the zipper screaming up its track – but the dress didn’t seem to be getting any tighter.
“Hmm.”
Katrina’s pulse quickened. “What?”
The assistant’s fingers scrabbled at the inside of the dress. “What size did you say you ordered?”
“Twelve,” Katrina said, lifting her arms up, holding them away from the dress to keep the sweat off the precious satin. “Why?”
“Hmm.”
What?”
“The label says fourteen. I’m terribly sorry.”
Katrina took a deep breath. I am not going to cry. I’m not. She glanced up at her reflection in the tiny plate-sized mirror that hung in the change room. Not going to smash mirrors, either. She exhaled. “Ok. What can I do?”
“You said the wedding is tomorrow?”
She nodded.
“Then I’m afraid there’s not much we can do. If you’d come earlier in the day” – Katrina felt like smacking her for that accusatory tone – “then we could have had a seamstress work at it all day to take it in. But now…” She shrugged.
Katrina clenched her jaw, fighting tears and the urge to tear the stupid dress right down the seams.
“Although…” The sales woman tilted her head.
Katrina’s heart leaped at the speculative tone. “What, what is it?”
She hesitated, chewing on her lip.
Katrina blinked in surprise. The women who worked in bridal stores were always so professional, so snooty, so perfect. Chewing lower lips seemed right out of character – and it worried her.
“Katrina? How’s it going?”
Her mother’s concerned voice brought her back to earth with a crash. The wedding was tomorrow. She didn’t care what the sales assistant was feeling; if she could help somehow, anyhow, she was willing to hear it. “Um, can’t quite tell yet, Mum. I’ll be out in a minute!” Katrina turned to the sales woman. “Can you do anything or not?” She placed a hand on her hip and tried to project assertiveness.
“I… Well, yes,” said the assistant. “But it’s not exactly something we would recommend to anyone, and, in fact, we usually don’t like to think about it at all, but since your situation is so desperate, maybe it’s worth a try.”
Katrina frowned. Babbling was even less consistent with her mental image of bridal shop assistants. What on earth was going on? Katrina exhaled forcefully. “Look, if it’s going to make this dress miraculously fit me between now and one o’clock tomorrow afternoon, I’m willing to try it. Whatever ‘it’ is.”
The woman’s face tightened and she gave a curt nod. “We’ll go out then. But it might… take a while. You…” She swallowed, and Katrina’s stomach clenched. “You’d probably better ask your mother to leave. They don’t like… extras.”
Extras? Now Katrina was beyond confused. “You want me to tell my mother, who has practically organised this wedding single-handedly, who hasn’t slept in the last three days, who is just as stressed about this dress as I am, to go away?” She raised an eyebrow.
The sales woman nodded. “Please trust me. It’s much safer that way.”
Safer? This was starting to sound crazy.
Maybe it was. Maybe she should just duck down to the formal wear shop tomorrow morning and purchase the first dress that was white and fitted. Maybe-
“Katrina? Are you quite sure everything’s fine?”
She took a deep breath. “Uh, Mum?”
Footsteps, and then the curtain wavered. “Yes, dear?” she said from right outside.
“Well, it’s not a big deal, it’s just minor, they just need to do a slight refit. But it’s going to take a while.”
“But we need to pick the flowers up before five!”
“I know. You go on. I’ll stay here with the dress. It’ll be fine.”
“Okay. Message me when you’re done and I’ll come pick you up, okay?”
“Sure Mum, thanks.”
“Here’s your bag.”
Katrina took it and dropped it in a corner of the change room. “Thanks. Bye.”
“Bye.”
She waited until she heard the bell that hung over the front door of the shop ring, then turned to the sales assistant. “Well? I hope whatever you have in mind is worth it.”
The assistant nodded and smiled. “Definitely.”
Katrina felt she’d have believed the woman if her face hadn’t been so pale.
The woman swiped back the curtain. “Go hop up on the step.”
Katrina gathered up the skirt in her finger tips and tiptoed towards the raised step that took pride of place in front of the mirrors.
The carpet felt pleasantly scratchy under her feet, and she rubbed her toes against the edge of the step before stepping onto it. She released the skirt and it draped to the floor, the hem a bare centimetre off the carpet. Behind, the assistant fussed over the train, straightening and tidying and brushing of stray bits of fluff.
Why bother? Thought Katrina, struck by melancholy now that she could see her reflection. She held her arms out. The dress dropped, revealing a good inch of bra. She’s never going to be able to take this in enough overnight.
The assistant took her time fussing, and Katrina grew distracted. The sky outside had dimmed – probably another storm, and she hoped fervently once again that the weather would stay fine tomorrow – and the lights around the mirrors seemed to yellow. The dresses on the racks and mannequins glittered and sparkled and for a moment Katrina was sure that they moved... Surely they couldn’t sparkle like that by themselves.
With half closed eyes, Katrina looked back at her reflection and tilted her head. Hm. The dress didn’t look so bad. She smiled dreamily at the shimmering satin. Okay, so it didn’t have crystal beading, and it was devoid of lace or sequins or decoration of any sort… But it was beautiful in its simplicity.
The woman came up beside Katrina, a strange look on her face. “Keep quiet,” she said. “They’re coming.”
The tight, haunted look in her eyes spoke to Katrina’s subconscious and her responded with her voice low and urgent. “What’s happening?”
“They’re coming,” the woman said again.
“Who?”
The sky outside darkened and thunder rumbled. The building trembled, the motion setting the dresses on the racks dancing. The sparkles and glitterings went wild with the movement, and the mirror bloomed with white and gold fireworks.
Katrina blinked, trying to clear the blinding lights from her eyes.
“They’re here.”
The woman voice was hoarse, and Katrina turned. She strained, trying to see the woman past the afterimages burned in her vision. Through the flashes she thought she saw fear, raw and open, on the woman’s face.
The spots faded, and Katrina looked more closely - but the woman’s face seemed calm.
Who are here?” Katrina demanded.
The woman’s eyes gleamed and she gave a slow, dangerous smile. “We are.”
Adrenalin shot through Katrina’s body. The woman’s voice was no longer a tense soprano. Instead, it was rich and deep – and had a strange, echoing quality.
She swallowed. “Um, we?”
“Yes.”
The echoes behind the voice sent shivers up and down Katrina’s spine, and she turned back to the mirror to avoid the woman’s intense gaze.
The woman shifted, and in the mirror it looked for a moment like she had numerous limbs, like there was more than a single person occupying her space. “What is it you want?”
Before Katrina could answer, thunder cracked again. The dresses on the racks shuddered and in the mirror – Katrina gulped – the beading that snaked around the hem of the dress on the nearest mannequin was actually snaking.
“I will ask you again.” The woman stepped up nose-to-nose with Katrina. “What is it that you desire?”
“I… I…” Surely her eyes couldn’t be shimmering?
“Oh come now,” said the woman. “You must want something. Beads, perhaps?” She touched a finger to the sideseam of the gown, beads sprouting and spreading down Katrina’s hip.
Katrina gasped.
“No?” The woman arched an eyebrow. “Crystals perhaps?” she said, drawing her fingers over the neckline of the strapless dress. A few tiny crystals sprang into being, and she tilted her head. “More, maybe?” She rubbed her hand across the bodice, caressing the curve of Katrina’s breasts.
Katrina’s heart hammered and she jerked away. The woman pressed harder and despite her fear, Katrina’s body rippled in response. Soon the fabric was encrusted in crystals, but still the woman drew her hand back and forth across Katrina’s breasts.
Katrina moaned softly, feeling the tingles stretch down between her legs.
The woman glanced up, lips quirking at the corners. “No?” she said. “Then what?”
Katrina panted, chest heaving, legs tingling. “I… I just… I just want it to fit.”
“Want what to fit?” she said.
“The… the dress. I want it tighter.” Her heart hammered harder ‘til she thought it might break through her breastbone.
The woman pressed her fingertips down and Katrina moaned again. “Tighter I can do.” She placed her hands around Katrina’s waist and the fabric of the dress writhed under her palms, shrinking and tightening.
The satin caressed Katrina’s skin and she shuddered. Even through the fear, it felt good. She drew in a breath, trying to calm herself. As she exhaled, the bodice closed around her ribs, her breasts, her waist and hips… She tried to breathe in again. “Tight.”
The woman laughed and held her tighter. “Oh, you are a precious one.”
“No,” she gasped. “Too tight.”
She flinched as the woman reached up to brush her cheek. “Never too tight, my pretty one.”
The dresses in the mirror danced to the thunder, shimmering, flashing, glittering. The woman stooped and ran a finger around the hem of the gown, beads slithering out behind her fingers. They spread, unfurling like a vine, climbing, creeping, trailing, up and up towards Katrina’s hips, around her waist, over the rise of her breasts, and onwards.
Katrina squeaked, batting them down. But the beads, free of the dress, continued their upwards climb, twining themselves through her hair, wrapping around her neck. She screamed. “Stop! Stop, make it stop!”
The woman laughed. “Oh, I will my dear. When your dress is tight enough.” She placed her hands around Katrina’s waist again.
“It ­is,” Katrina choked out, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It is! Please, please stop!”
The woman leaned over Katrina’s shoulder and caught her eye in the mirror. “Never too tight, remember? You asked for tight. Tight it is.”
“I’m sorry!” Katrina cried, slapping at the beads that now crawled up her face, over her nose and into her ears. “I’m sorry, just make it stop!”
The woman laughed, a deep velvety sound. “That, my dear, is what you get for approaching the spirit of the bridal store.” She stepped back and clapped her hands.
The beads crawled faster, reaching up Katrina’s nose. She opened her mouth to scream, but the beads drowned her out. She sucked in a last gasp of air, clawing frantically at her throat as she inhaled the beads, choking, coughing, falling to the floor as they suffocated her...
And the woman stood over her, and laughed.