Monday, April 28, 2014

The Dog Is Dead

A half-moon hung above the pine trees in the noon light. It mocked me with the promise of a life I couldn’t have, shouldn’t want. The wind whispered, stirring the flowers around my feet as they wilted. I was no good at gardening.

I wasn’t good for much actually. Maybe a few hundred years ago when humans eked out a living by growing their own food it mattered but in a modern world where schooling was a matter of tissue programming and jobs were provided for everyone without question being useful for something wasn’t necessary.

The entire purpose of my life was to exist. To fill a slot created in a government program decades before I was born.

I was born into money, which was nice. It meant that my family could afford to own land here on Earth. It bought me a modest education so that age ten I spent three hours having reading, writing, and basic mathematics programmed into my cerebrum. When I was fifteen my parents bought me a secondary education allowing me to discuss classic literature with everyone else of my social strata. They’d all been programmed with the same six lectures so our conversations usually became a game of seeing who could recite the pieces best.

At eighteen I was tested, found intelligent enough to receive a basic civilian file that was programmed into my head in fifteen minutes, and then I was shunted into Slot 37B-12D5: housewife.

If my parents had been poor we would have been relocated to Prima, the main lunar base that hung like a golden star on the moon’s surface. If they had been wealthier I would have received a fuller education, maybe one that prepared me for more than balancing a checkbook. If I had been more intelligent I would have earned a place in the ranks of scientists who filled Stellar base on the far side of the moon and who would be the first chosen for any new colonies in the stars beyond our own.

In the secret watches of the night when I stepped away from my cold bed to watch the stars that is what I secretly wished for, a chance to do something new. A glimmer of an opportunity to be someone else. To remove the choking grip of societal norms and replace it with the heady sensation of not knowing what would happen next.

But here, in the noon light, under a moon pale as the clouds I knew I would never have those things. I knew it now. I knew it as a child. I will faithful to that truth until the day I turn ninety-seven and report to the hospital to be humanely put down without pain or fear, sure in the knowledge that some young girl will arrive at my house the next morning to wear my clothes and walk my dog because that is what Citizen 37B-12D5 does three times a day rain or shine.

It’s not a real dog, which would be cruel. It’s a Canine Companion with FeelReal-Furr and a life-like bark. None of my schooling included information on dogs so I have no words to describe it…him…her…It… that bothers me. I wish I knew what words to say if I ever brought my pet up in conversation, but I didn’t. I never would.

It was black. It came to my knee. It was programmed to need five kilometers of walking every day which ensured I received the necessary exercise for my age and metabolism. With one last wistful glance at the moon I checked the mail (nothing) and returned to the house.

As I did every day I watered a bowl of dead petunias on the front step, swept the wooden floors, and checked that the computer had ordered dinner for us. We were having pot roast. Everyone on the block was having pot roast. As far as I knew, everyone in my social strata was eating pot roast tonight. With slightly overcooked carrots and a choice of water or apple juice to drink.

Something clicked in my head. Some trigger was pulled. I didn’t want pot roast. I didn’t want to water petunias. I didn’t want to wait for another hour until my lawfully wedded husband arrived home from work at his government job to eat dinner.

I went to the door, twisting the handle even though I knew it was futile.

A melodic chime signaled the end of my rebellion. “This door is locked for your security. Please state the reason you wish this door opened at this time.”

“I want to go outside.” My hand dropped to my side. I knew it was fruitless. I knew I couldn’t go. It wasn’t in the script. Citizen B37-12D5 never went outside in the afternoon.

“Did you forget to check the mail?” the computer asked.

“No.”

“Would you like to watch some television?” Unbidden the television in the corner turned on to a popular comedy about life in the corporate world. “Your friends and neighbors all enjoy this show. Why not join them in a light-hearted laugh as Randi and Co try to make Mister Meeker forget his glasses?”

“I don’t wish to watch television. I want to go outside.”

“Perhaps you would like to call a friend?” the computer suggested.

“I would like to go outside.”

“Why don’t you log in to your social network and plan a picnic. Everyone loves picnics.” A screen on the kitchen table shimmered to life and showed a running stream of my “friends” thoughts. They were all very similar, we did all have the same twenty thousand word vocabulary.

“Thank you,” I lied to the computer. “That sounds engaging.”

I sat down and watched as people typed the lines from the show they watched as it played behind me in the living room. As Mister Meeker outsmarted Randi and Co once again a gray car drove up to the house. My husband exited it, checked his tie, locked the door, and counted forty-eight steps precisely.

The door unlocked for him and he stepped inside. “Hello, dear. You look well. Did you have a good walk with the dog?”

“Yes.” The word was past my lips before I even considered another option. “Dinner is ready.”
“Good. I had a busy day. I’m hungry.”

I mouthed the words with him. In our four years living together our conversation never varied. Sometimes I wondered if he was as robotic as the canine companion now laying inactive by the fake fireplace. “What would you like to drink?”

“Water, please.”

I stood, and again rebellion flared. I arranged our dinner plates and gave us both apple juice. Instead of taking the seven carrots allotted to me I piled all sixteen carrots on his plate and took both slices of meat. “Dinner is ready.”

My husband took off his tie and looked at our plates. “D..d…d…”

“Your line is, ‘Dinner looks delicious.’” I folded my napkin on my lap and waited for him to sit.

After a minute or so he sat beside me. “Dinner looks different.”

“I tried something new today. You’ll like it.” I hoped I was lying. I hoped he hated it. I hoped he threw his plate and broke a window so I could run through the grass and watch the moon set in the darkness.

He ate his carrots. “Dinner was delicious. Thank you.”

And it was over.

Now he would go to shower, change into a bathrobe, and watch two hours and thirty one minutes of television before yawning once and going to bed.

I sat at the table staring at the two slices of meat on my plate.

I was only hurting myself by not eating. No one else would notice. No one else would care. And if by some small chance I was able to resist food for days on end until I made myself sick I would only be transferred to the hospital and be reprogrammed. Or put down.

I dumped the meat on the canine companion’s food bowl on top of the fake kibble I put in a bowl for verisimilitude. The canine companion could only eat on command and I’d never ordered It to eat before. Now I did. “Dog. Eat.”

Wagging its tail the robotic construct chewed on the real meat, and choked. Its eyes sizzled for a moment, flashing red, and then it fell over with a hollow clang.

My husband laughed at something on the television.

I walked over, standing in front of the screen so I could block his view. “The dog is dead.”

My husband struggled. This wasn’t part of the script. This is not what we did every day. This was new.

I nearly clapped with joy. This was new! I didn’t know his answer! I didn’t know what came next!
“Why is the dog dead?”

“The dog ate food. The dog chocked. The dog is dead.”

My husband stood up and turned to look at the canine companion. “Dogs should not eat people food.” He sat back down and laughed even though the television was showing a commercial for toothpaste. Everyone loved that commercial. When I ordered groceries online on Tuesdays the screen always told me it was the one my friends all liked.

I wondered about that. Was there any other kind of toothpaste? If I wanted to buy something that none of my friends had tried would the computer let me? Would I like it if I did? There was no way of knowing.

I sat beside the dead dog. My husband watched his television shows and went to bed. The lights in the house turned off. The steady hum of electronics died as the computer decided we were asleep.
Why it followed his schedule and not mine I wasn’t sure. The computer would remind my husband to go to bed, but never me. Once he was home and I was safely locked inside nothing else seemed to matter. Proof that the computer was just as dumb as everyone else.

I watched the moon set, Prima shining like a gem.

Was there someone out there who wanted to be me? Did that person have a number like I did, a place in society like mine? Or did they have a name?

I showered after the moon set, dressed, and lay in bed waiting for sleep to come. It never did. I wasn’t tired. I was bored. I wanted… something. I wanted to go outside.

When my husband woke up early I picked up the dog and followed him to the door. This wasn’t in the script. Fear filled his eyes.

“I’m putting the dog outside.”

“I think the dog wants a walk.”

We both looked at the spot where the canine companion should have been jumping with its tongue hanging out.

“Yes. I guess I should walk the dog.”

“Have a good day.”

As the door closed I shoved the dog’s body in the way. The lock clicked shut and the television turned on to the morning news. I stepped outside as the reporter detailed what a beautiful morning drive it was.

A canine companion can’t walk on grass so we always followed the sidewalk on a loop through the neighborhood screened by pine trees. On the way I’d see glimpses of the highway in the distance. At one point you could even see the spires of the city buildings. I didn’t know which city, geography cost extra.

This morning I walked on the grass, watching in bend under my heavy tread. Each step smothered to death countless plant cells. I was incautious. Uncaring. I reveled in their tragic demise.
I twisted the toe of my shoe into the turf, relishing the feel of grass dying under my feet. I imagined little screams of plantae terror echoing to the cold stars above. I imagined the gasp of shock and denial as someone from Prima looked down and saw me savagely destroying a plant they could never touch because they were banished from the very planet of their birth.

The sweet scent of cut grass invigorated me.

I ran.

Over the lawns and past the pines to the edge of the highway where auto-piloted cars flew past, their passage whipping my hair up.

My heart raced as I realized I could end it all here. None of those cars could stop. None of the drivers even knew how to stop. I could leap in and in a moment of blinding pain everything would be over.

I jumped.

The cars stopped. They hung in the air like frozen hummingbirds, almost unreal.

Tentatively I reached out a hand to touch a bright red cruiser. The car was hot. The driver inside looked back at me, confused, uncertain. We were off script. Off the script. Off the page. Off the writing desk and floundering.

I stepped through the space between cars. Skipping. Almost dancing. They moved around, resumed their flow. Everything was as it should be except here and there – where I stepped – they froze. I was the queen of chaos. Suspending the birds in their flight.

Life happened around me as I wandered down the lines of the highway.

People went to work.

One car I stopped had an old man with a dark face, somber and sad. I knew without a word that he was on the way to the hospital. He was going to die. When I stepped away his car moved on, rolling with the tide of humanity to the ever present future. Inevitable. Unavoidable. Inescapable.
I followed.

It was that or find my way back to the pine trees and the quiet suburban house where my canine companion lay dead. If I went back the doors would lock. If the doors locked I’d never escape again. If I never ran I would never know how far I could go.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Happily, Red

Occasionally, it is possible to have a happy ending. Not a happy beginning; those are frequent enough. And certainly not a happy middle, because middles are always either one of two things. Either you know you’re in the middle, and that makes you sad, because either you have such a long way to go until the end, or because you’re already halfway through and that means you’ll only ever have less; or you don’t know you’re in the middle, and you get occasional flashes of happiness.
Much, much harder to have a happy ending.
It is possible, though. It’s in the bees buzzing officiously around their daisies, the wild lace flowers strewing grass so lush it’s thigh-high and crisp, the fresh pinch of early morning air that pinks the cheeks while the glorious golden sunlight promises a warm day; and in the feel of your warm arms around mine.
This doesn’t have to be an ending of course, and depending on your perspective it’s also a beginning, also a middle; perspective is everything.
But that’s just the point; perspective. It would be just as easy to sit here and document the mud stains in the yard, the dead, dull branches on the trees infected with barkbug, the feel of the empty bed beside me when you’re gone for days at a time. It would be easy for my mother’s words to ring true, to fester in my heart until I was sorry I said yes, until I regretted your smiles and wiles, days spent hand in hand, picnics with scones and clotted cream and fresh-crushed raspberries with sugar.
No. I could never regret those things. Not even on the nights when it feels like you have been gone for a month and I fear you may never return. You know the woods well, and as you have saved me once I know that you will save yourself a hundred times – and one day, perhaps, I will save you, though you say I already have.
It is possible to get a happy ending. It’s in the melody you whistle as you cut across the yard, the gentle werking of the chickens as they bustle in search of grubs, and the flutter of life inside my belly.
I know they said it wouldn’t work. But some people don’t trust happiness.
It’s not that this is what I’d have chosen, though the early springtime air and the smell of baking apples isn’t far from heaven. Let’s face it: f I’d have chosen, I’d have chosen not to need rescuing in the first place. I’d have chosen… But no. There’s no way to replay things that doesn’t leave one of my family dead, me or grandmother, or maybe even you. And you couldn’t have saved Grandma the way you’ve saved me.
It’s lucky there was anything to save. That’s a happy ending of its own – and of course, that’s where the stories usually end. But happily ever after doesn’t begin just because the monster’s slain. Not when the monster leaves a special gift behind.
I still remember the look on Mother’s face the first time the moon rose full. To see what her beautiful, ringletted daughter had become… She’s not one who trusts in happiness. I think she’d always suspected something like this would happen, ever since she was tiny. She’s never trusted hope.
But you… As you pause in your labour to smile at me over the furry backs of goats that bleat like traffic at the markets, my heart flutters in time with the kicks in my stomach, and I know that you believe in hope, that you believe in happiness. That’s why I’m with you, in the end. Not because you saved me from the belly of the wolf, and not because you saved me from the curses of the moon that the wolf so lovingly bestowed, but because you believed that despite it all, I could be happy. That’s a power all its own, you know.
You’re coming towards the house now, my red cloak slung casually round your neck. It means nothing to you, that symbol of blood, of horror, of innocences lost. I love you for that.

The blood you bring me, still warm from the veins of the wolf it ran in, tastes good, sharp and iron-like. But I wouldn’t drink it if it wasn’t for the glimmer in your eyes that promises me laughter when I’m done, the love the outshines fear, the notable lack of tremor as you bid me drink up my tonic. If it wasn’t for that, I’d never drink; I’d gladly lose myself in fur and fangs and lack of thought. Mother’s ending wasn’t worth living for. Yours… A happy ending’s always possible. You just have to find the path. Thank you. Thank you for believing. For you, for hope, I’ll drink the wolf’s blood forever. Hope is the most powerful tonic of all, and who knows how long this happy ending will last.

Friday, April 18, 2014

When War Came To Town

When she rode into town on the demon horse, nobody knew it would happen. Sure, old Marley had just been ripped from his slumber in the room over the pub, dragged into the streets and flayed to within a half inch of death, but those kinds of things happened sometimes. All it took was a downturn in the economy, a few farms going sour, whispers in the wind of a witch, of black magic… No. That was sad, ludicrous even, to think that people really thought Marley was clever enough for magic, but it wasn’t It.

The bodies lining the street to see her, that was unexpected, the way they thrashed and elbowed and tromped, all try to catch a brush of finger over plate mail, or the sharp, crackling hair of the deep-black horse. Unexpected, but not It. If people had thought hard enough, they might have known she’d draw them to her, and it wouldn’t have been so unexpected. No. Not It.

The body, more meat now than human, with strips that hung from its limbs and a torso that still, days later, shuddered torturously in a parody of breath as it lay in a cage that hung over the town square – that was a pity. Not a tragedy, because Virani had deserved, more or less, what he got – you don’t steal from the Mayor’s own treasury and deflower his teenage daughter without flirting with death as well. The flogging was perhaps a trifle unnecessary, as least to that degree. But: not It.

Because, see, the thing is, all these things are terrible. And if anyone had bothered to stop and look into the eye of the demon horse as it pranced into town on Tuesday at dusk, they would have known immediately by the flicker of fire deep within that bad things were going to happen. And if they’d taken a moment to stare past the woman’s utter beauty with her porcelain skin and hair of flames, they would have seen not the same flicker in her eye, but something worse. Much worse.

And so really, all the violence? While it surely wasn’t expected, it also wasn’t surprising. Not when she could start an argument just by walking into a room, a fist-fight by the lift of one perfectly-sculpted eyebrow. Heaven forbid she flutter her lashes.

No, really: Heaven’s forbidden it. It would cause a nuclear meltdown.

So what, then, was It? That one surprising thing that nobody knew would happen, than nobody could have predicted, that one thing that reminded everybody who they were and what really mattered? It all started with Tikva.

Tikva was only seven when War came to town, and like the others, she’d joined to press and throng in the main street as the glorious woman on the coal black horse had paraded past, a bigger fancy that the town had seen in decades. Like the others, she’d stretched out to catch a glimpse of finger against hair, and because of her small stature and resourcefulness in hiding behind an upturned crate that had forced the horse to weave in its path, Tikva had succeeded where most others had not: she’d touched the demon horse. Her fingers had crackled against the deep black fetlock as though electricity bridged the gap between them, and Tikva was left cradling fingers slightly burned with heat and a memory singed with hatred: it was she who’d first warned her mother that the horse was a devil, and because her mother was the town’s wisest Elder, the rest of the town had listened.

It hadn’t lessened their fascination with the woman, of course, or the horse. But at least afterwards Tikva could stand in the town square with her arms folded over her flat, seven-year-old chest and proclaim with all the sass and certainty of one who has lived nearly a decade that she’d told them so.

It was as she’d crouched behind the upturned crate, nursing injured fingers and blinking away horrors that she couldn’t quite grasp, though, that she first had an inkling of her own future: one day she too would ride into town on a horse, and all the world would come to see her pass. She shook her head, shoved aside memories and burned fingers, and got up. The crowds were closing in around her now that the woman on the horse had passed, and she brushed the dirt from her undyed woollen tunic, she pursed her lips. Mother, who’d been far too sensible to stray from home this morning, needed to know.

That spark of connection when Tikva touched the demon horse was astounding, and by all rights and accounts should never have happened – changing the course of history because it did – but still: not It. It is sometimes possible, after all, for strange coincidences to occur, and in much later times the populations of that world would grow to such enormity that million-to-one chances occurred every hour. So. Not It.

Perhaps it is best to skip the intervening hours wherein Tikva hurried home and consulted with her mother, wherein her mother frowned as though she’d heard Tikva’s father was back in town and left the room abruptly to dig out her best shearing knife from the shed, oiling it with lavender and valerian before returning to sheathe it in the kitchen block, wherein a steady troop of neighbours began and, in fact, continued until the moment Virani was condemned to be flogged in the square, wherein Tikva’s night-time repose was plagued by feverish dreams in which she was torn from herself over and over and over again to be thrown into the heat of battle, and wherein she stood, a calm epicentre in the midst of terror, and let the desire to fight wash over her, and move instead to the moment wherein Tikva next saw the woman.

It was some days since that first meeting when Tikva was sent down to the shop on behalf of her mother, who had run out of the carrier oil for her famous lavender-valerian-lemon balm tonic, so popular was the tonic this week. Tikva eased her way down a street full of scowl-faced people, all ready to bite at each other at the least sideways glance, and climbed the steps to the shopfront with much relief.

Midway along, something nipped at her skirts. Tikva turned to see the demon horse tethered to the hitching post and being given an extra wide berth by patrons and street traffic alike. Tikva craned her neck to and fro, but there was no sign of the red-haired woman who’d brought trouble upon the town – so her mother said, and so Tikva knew to be true.

Lip consideringly between her teeth, Tikva stared at the great black stallion. The electric spark she’d felt last time – had it been a coincidence? And if so, did it still matter? And if not, then… what? Breath held in her too-tight throat, Tivka reached for the horse.

His nostrils flared and his eyes rolled. Great, square teeth the colour of blood-stained bone nipped at her. Tikva sniffed and rapped the stallion’s nose. “No.”

He stilled, snorting and shivering, ears flickering as he waited for her touch.

Tikva gave a satisfied nod and rubbed her thumb over the soft, delicate velvet of his nose. “Much better.”

Footsteps sounded on the wooden steps and Tikva leapt away from the horse. She whirled and entered the shop before she could see who approached, hustling towards the oils with great concentration. It was only when she reached the counter, carefully clutching two large bottles of oil, that she realised the owner of the footsteps had been Mistress Spector, a great, bosomy woman who now leaned over the counter conferring with Mister Avery.

As Tikva neared, Mister Avery lifted his green striped apron from the vast expanse of his belly and wiped his face. “Well,” he said gravely. “That is a concern.”

“What’s a concern?” Tikva asked in the tone of someone ten years older and with as much expectation of being answered. Being her mother’s daughter had its benefits.

“Virani was found with Miss Allum,” Mistress Spector said, bosom heaving as she rearranged it on the counter. “And a rather large suitcase of the Mayor’s own funds. The court has ruled for immediate flogging to be follow by imprisonment in the cage until death.”

Tikva felt the blood drain from her face. This, this was the thing she’d been waiting for all week without ever knowing it; this was the culmination of all the whispered mutterings, the fights, the tiffs, the quarrels; this was the powder keg now lit, and someone had to stop it.

The bottles of oil clunked to the floor and rolled away under a shelf, unheeded.

As Tikva approached the square, she knew she was too late; the shouts of the whip master mingled with the agonised cries of Mister Virani, both a counterpoint to the bass harmony of the crowd’s jeers.

Tikva jostled her way through until she could see the flogging post. For a brief instant, her stomach churned, but then she reminded herself that she’d seen worse out back of the butchers, and almost as bad on her mother’s healing bench, where often she’d assisted. He shouldn’t have tried to run away with Miss Allum; not this week, at any rate. Stupid, stupid man.

The whip master raised his hand to strike again at a thing already more flesh and bone than man. “No. Enough.” Barely anyone heard Tikva, and they never understood the truth of her words until much, much later, but at Tikva’s command, the whip master froze. Beneath him, Virani shuddered and moaned, and for a moment there was a hush.

Then the crowd began to shout. “Why did you stop? Keep going! He’s not had even two hundred yet, come on! Is your arm getting tired? Come on! Flog him some more!”

Tikva closed her eyes against tears that threatened to drown her fury, and reached out to the anger that filled the crowd. Softly, she began to sing.

Peace, my child, now will rest
Upon your head while bluebirds sleep
Close your eyes and be you blessed
For peace abides here river-deep.

The words of the song unfurled through the crowd like blossoms, and slowly, one by one, people began to sing with Tikva.

It was only when the whole crowd lifted their voices together and Tivka could feel the harmony emanating from them that she released the whip master. He collapsed to the ground, shuddering, tears gushing from his guilt.

The demon horse pranced into the middle of the square, and the red-haired woman stared imperiously down from its back. “Who dares halt justice?”

Tikva tossed her head and marched forward, halting in front of the horse she had no fear of and folding her arms. “I am the one you seek.”

The woman on the horse started visible as she stared down at the tiny creature in front of her, thin and small boned. She laughed, a sound that set the men in the crowd on their toes ap-=nd the women on the arms of their men. “You are not the one.”

Tikva tossed her head again for good measure. “Look me in the eye,” she told the woman, “and tell me I am not.”

Still laughing, the woman dismounted and strode forward, reins looped casually in one hand, hair rippling like flames in the breeze. She knelt down in front of Tikva, eyes dancing, and looked deep into Tikva’s eyes.

Tivka knew the moment when the woman recognised her for what she was: her eyes tightened, the fire dampened, and her whole body went stiff. “No,” the woman whispered. “You cannot be she.”

Tivka smiled, and it was the smile of the crocodiles in the swamp when they cornered their unwary prey. “Oh yes,” she whispered. “I am she.”

The woman stumbled in getting to her feet and stepped back a few paces before bowing curtly. “My Sister.”

Tivka nodded in return, for even though her power was newly arrived, it bore with it all the knowledge of the centuries; she could feel all the others before her who had worn the mantle of Peace, and she knew the truth of War’s greeting: they were sisters now indeed. “Sister.” She send a trickle of her power outwards, probing at the edges of War’s defence, and although they were locked as ever in a battle between two equals, she knew that right now, at this time, in this place, the battle was hers to win.

The woman knew it too, and stepped back once again. “What would you have done?” she asked, not deferential, but without the earlier command.

“You will go,” said Tikva, a fact stated as simply as the colour of the sky, not a request, not an order. “And you will not return.”

The woman nodded. “And him?” She gestured to the tattered lump of flesh that once might have been called Virani.

“He will hang in the cage, as the law decided,” Tikva replied.

Around her, people muttered, and the woman called War raised her eyebrows. “From you, Sister? That is not what I would have expected.”

“Peace too has a price,” Tikva said in a voice that could sharpen diamonds, gaze never leaving the red flame eyes of War. “And this is my town.”

War stared back thoughtfully for a long moment, then nodded. “I’ll see you again one day,” she said before swinging up onto her demon stallion.

“When you do,” said Peace, “I will have a horse too. And I’ll know how to fight.”

War chuckled, a sound for their ears alone, and reached out to ruffle Peace’s hair. “I’m sure you will,” she said, not unkindly. “I look forward to it. Until next time, then,” she added as she straightened in the saddle.

Peace nodded, jaw clenched tightly. “Until next time.”

War’s demon stallion reared his farewell, then galloped off into the gathering gloom.

Peace looked around the square at her town, and told them sternly: “Go home, and stop being ridiculous. I’ll deal with you all in the morning.”


The town, bowing to the wishes of a seven-year-old girl, recognising the authority of a millennia-old Power, did, and in the morning Tikva told them off, and that, of course, was It.

Shallow Grave

Another vignette from the Miami Witch universe. Darius Kendall, scion of the powerful Kendall family, is being targeted for assassination. To make matters worse his ex-girlfriend wants to talk. 

Other stories in this universe:
WISHFUL THINKING  (high school Ember)
DANGEROUS AND BRIGHT (graduation night with Ember and Darius)

***


Darius slammed his phone down and stared out the window at the palm fronds gently swaying in the ocean breeze. It was a great night: full moon, white sand beaches, the surf’s gentle song, the local PD was cooperating with the operation, and no one had tried to kill him in nearly a week. That had to be it. Everything was too perfect. So the universe tried to throw a wrench at his head and conspired to give his ex-girlfriend his phone number.

“Someone hates me.”

“Obviously,” came the dry reply from across the room. Ember Li was the Miami police department’s liaison with Miami Society – a magic users who lived in around the South Florida city – and when the death threats came in he’d been given the choice of working with her or her boss. Since Miss Li answered to a dragon he’d gone with the one option that didn’t risk getting his head literally chewed off.

Which meant working in close confines with a woman he’d known since they were pimply teenagers.  She’d been easier to deal with then, tall and gangly and prickly as a cactus. If there was such a thing as a time travel spell he would have gone back and warned himself that the quiet ones were always the deadliest.

She leaned over the map spread out on the table, trying to pin down a time line of the assassination attempts, and her white shorts molded to her perky rear end. Darius pulled his eyes away, only for his gaze to snag on the gold ankle bracelet glittering over her bare foot. Long, milk chocolate legs sculpted to perfection, curves, black hair with hints of cinnamon, a creamy white shirt that left one shoulder bare... A groan escaped his lips.

Ember shot him a quizzical look over her shoulder. “What?”

“I’m hungry.” That had to be it. Low blood sugar was the only reason he was thinking about licking her like an ice cream cone.

“Fridge is over there.” She pointed off to the left in case he’d forgotten in the last ten seconds. They were in a private resort suite used by Miami PD on the very rare occasions they needed a safe house no one had heard of. Or so Ember said. He strongly suspected her draconic boss owned the property and was letting him hide here because there were magic wards strong enough to make even a fae high lord think twice about invading.

Darius rummaged around and found a salad left over from lunch. Popping the lid off the container he decided to dump his problems on his unwilling companion. “That was my ex on the phone.”

“Does she want you dead?” Ember asked as she made another mark on the map.

“She wants me to get back with her.”

“So, this is a pointless conversation and you’ll stop yammering now?”

He stabbed at his salad. “I guess. I... do your exes pop back up from time to time?”

“Nope. I don’t dig shallow graves.”

The clock ticked in the following silence. Darius stood frozen, fork full of lettuce half way to his lips. “Um...”

Ember froze, then slowly thawed, her back arching with sensual grace as she stood up. “Did I say that out loud?”

“Uh huh.”

“Oh. Awkward.” She turned with a little half-smile. “I was joking. I hardly ever kill my boyfriends.”

“Hardly ever isn’t the same as never.”

She pressed her lips together and batted her big, black eyes. “Nobody missed him?”

He took a bite of his salad. “Did I know this guy?”

“No! He was a college boyfriend, not someone from Society.”

“You don’t date anyone in Society.” He’d checked. Regularly. Ever since their paths had crossed one night in Atlanta he’d felt a desire to keep tabs on her social life. Once she moved back to Miami he’d taken their working relationship as an excuse to ask around. For security reasons.
Ember wasn’t ranked as a sorcerer and so in Society she was seen as a minor player. Having seen what she could do with Earth magic, Darius privately ranked her as one of the top ten deadliest people in Miami.

He waited for her to explain. “You’re not trying to kill me, are you? This isn’t some elaborate ruse?”

“Are you dead?”

“No.”

“Then I’m not after you.”

He finished his salad in silence and when she still hadn’t divulged any more information he went and sat on the table. “Spill.”

“What? You’re my confessor now?”

“I’m the enforcer for Miami Society. Eventually, I’ll find out. Why not explain why you’re ex is six feet under now and save us both time?”

She frowned at him, a delicate look filled with disapproval and mild disgust. “He’s not buried. He was cremated.”

“By you?”

“By the state of Louisiana.” She rolled her eyes and sighed. “You aren’t going to give up, are you?”

“Nope.”

Ember pulled a chair over and sat back. “So, my sophomore year at Tulane there was a serial killer in the area. He drugged his victims, raped them, and then gave them an overdose of one of the more popular party drugs. Everyone thought it was bad parties until one of the girls found dead was a known anti-drug activist and lesbian with a long-term girlfriend. Since she clearly would be having sloppy sex with boys during a drug rage people started asking questions.”

His stomach twisted. “You didn’t tell anyone at home about this?”

“His targets were all white girls. I thought I was safe. And I’d just met this really nice guy. We had biochem together. We studied together a few times. Ate dinner out once. And then he asked me to go see the local theater production of Guys and Dolls. I thought it would be fun, and it was.”

“But?”

Ember shrugged. “During the intermission he brought me back a water he’d already opened. I didn’t think anything about it, but it tasted a little bit off. Almost stale, like it’d been sitting in a hot car all day. I drank a little, but not much. On the way home he kept nagging me to drink more water. Telling me I’d get dehydrated or whatever. So I drank it.”

Darius’s fists balled up. “What’d he do to you?”

“He walked me into my apartment and started groping me. I told him to knock it off and threw a hex at him. A little one. Used a little bit of alder powder. It should have made him run off. It killed him.” Her lips twisted in a studious frown. “The drugs he slipped in my water upped my natural powers.”

“Fear does that too,” Darius said quietly.

“So I’ve heard.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I called my friends, we drug him to the car, drove across town, and dumped him in a bad part of town. The police found the body in the morning, wrote it off as an overdose, and when the DNA test came back matching him to the rape victims no one mourned his passing. I’m a little more careful now.”

“A little?” Darius smirked. “Have you dated anyone since then?”

“Nope.” She turned back to her map. “Can’t seem to find anyone who interests me.”

He walked around the table to peek over her shoulder. “Liar,” he whispered in her ear.

The look she tossed over her shoulder was heated, seductive, and promising. “You wish.”

Darius reached out and caressed the thin gold chain hanging around her neck until he caught the pendant, a small gold seahorse. It had been a graduation present, an apology for the four years of hell he’d put her through. She’d worn it that night in Atlanta when he finally stole a kiss. And she’d worn almost every day he’d seen her since her return to Miami. “Sometimes, I think you like me more than you’ll admit.”

“Sometimes, I think you’re right.” She pulled a picture from the suspect pile. “But right now, I’m going to worry about arresting your would-be killer. Guess who?”

Friday, April 4, 2014

In The Evening, Where The Deserts End

In the evening, when my heart
is full as the sky is of stars,
then I will go out to the dunes of
sand that stretch endlessly to the sea, and
there I will wait.
In the sparkling
starlight of the night, I will wait
for you,
and when you come we will leap
hand in hand
down slopes that fall away under our feet until
we can fly,
and together we will soar
through the night like fruitbats,
great, leathery wings of belief
pinning us in the sky.
We will dip and twist and glide and turn, and
when we have flown high enough, your hand clenched
tightly in mine like we are locked together forever,
we will reach the stars.
The sand will stretch below like a sea,
waves of sand frozen in place only
by time and perspective, and
we will see that the boundaries of our desert
are finite;
that the barrenness of our minds comes to
an end;
and that outside it all is fertile.
Together
we will swoop back to the ground and remember
what we have seen from our vantage
point of the stars: we will walk onwards
with steps that achingly climb, only to slip
back halfway to where they came from, and
our muscles will burn
as we scale the heights of our
disappointments
– but we will not forget.
We have been to the stars,
and they have shown us:
the desert too will
end.

One day, we will find the fence, and scale it.