Monday, March 30, 2015

Welcome to Dark Dale


The sign is broken. Parts lie on the ground splintered and splattered with blood. What remained of the rotting stomp in the ground was charred, and gnawed on; teethed on I corrected myself. There was still a tooth sticking out of the wood.

Marzrels went through several sets of teeth as babies, or larvae perhaps, they were carnivorous worms and I had never stopped to ask one what it called its young. Dinner maybe; but probably breakfast.

I flicked the tooth loose with my dagger and watched it arc through the arid air. I tossed the dagger after it. Marzrel teeth kept their venom for months, sometimes even, years after they had been shed. It was a good venom but useless unless you were a Marzrel, the toxins would poison the air they evaporated in and corroded metal at a record pace.

Just another joy of Dark Dale.

A shadow caught my eye, a small yellow scorpion no bigger than my thumb darting away from where the tooth had landed. As it came near I stepped on it. Those I occasionally call friends often laugh at my odd footwear. They have told me on numerous drunken occasions that I would do better to leave the iron out of my boots and run faster. I lifted my foot and used a second dagger to dig out the still wriggling arachnid. I killed it before I left the body to lie in the dust. One doesn’t survive the Dale by being kind and loving. Of course, I’ve never asked anyone about surviving the Dales, as far as I knew I was the only one who could make the claim.

I sauntered toward my destination, a nondescript rock of little intrinsic value. I slashed at bushes as I went and stabbed at shadows. The bushes burned and the sand crackled under the loving brush of my sword of fire. Most people like to collect mementos of their adventures. The average sword-for-hire collects gold, others take bones, teeth, ears, treasure, whatever catches their fancy. A fair number in this region collect skulls.

I collect swords.

The swords of slain heroes, and I’ve killed every one. I also keep daggers handy because I know the weapon I’m carrying already failed one protagonist and I’ve never been one to take undue risk.

At the rock I paused and growled in frustration, this was the part of visiting the Dale I didn’t like. “I am she that is summoned. I am she that answers,” I recited the chant from memory and watched with a bored expression as the rock steamed and smoked. The smoke coalesced and formed in to an ashen skinned demon with glowing silver eyes.

“Took you long enough didn’t it?” the creature demanded petulantly. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting?”

“Two days,” I guessed since I had only received the summons two days prior, in the middle of a barroom brawl no less, which had been most inconvenient. “You were here last time, make someone in the council mad did we?”

The demon sniffed. “You know not of what you speak mortal!”

“Of course I know of what I speak and don’t call me mortal unless you intend to prove the point.” My free hand wandered closer to the abyssal whip I had picked off the body of a half-eaten necromancer.

Some people will never learn to leave well enough alone. At least not in this life.

“You will die!” the demon cried. Demons do this sort of thing; it’s habit more than anything else and not something that had particularly bothered me once I realized they all did it. I was nearly eight when that happened. Some little girls play with dolls, or horses, or looms, or swords, but I was deprived and forced to play with demons because I lacked parental supervision and income.

“You’ll die too eventually,” I observed, “does that make you mortal?”

“Of course not.” The demon peered at me. “One of these days I’m going to make you flinch.”

“Don’t count on it,” I advised.

It shrugged. “Here.” He held out a miniature portrait and dropped it at my feet. “Kill this.”

I picked up the likeness of a brawny man. “Nicely painted, oils?”

“Oils?” the demon asked. “How should I know?”

“You didn’t paint this?” I looked at him suspiciously. Having a demon hire me was not unheard of, but if this demon was hiring me for its own personal reasons than there was no reason some other creature should have painted the likeness.

“It was given to me by the council.” The demon looked as apologetic as it could.

“This is a council assignment?” The answer was important, it affected pay.

I always charged the council more. It was spite, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t like the council. One of the idiots on it sired me, possibly mothered me, I wasn’t quite sure. But I was spawned by one of them and they had dropped me in the mortal realm with no more than a spell book and a handful of silver. That’s hardly decent parenting in my book. Gold is what loving parents give to their spawn, or offspring, depending on species.

The demon rubbed the bald space between its horns. “You won’t charge to much will you?”

“For a rush job on a brawny barbarian?” I tossed the miniature in the air and caught it thoughtfully. The demons silver eyes followed the jumping portrait. “Triple my usual rates for a rush job. Plus the weight of the hero in gold.”

“Outrageous! You worked for the liche in the summer valley for a quarter of that fee for the same sort of outlander!”

I tossed the portrait to the demon. “Then find another assassin,” I suggested. “If you can find one that will survive.”

That was my trump card every time. No one survived Dark Dale. Those that didn’t die outright were turned. Some were zombies, some liches, others hideous constructs of the Madness, souls ripped and torn beyond recognition. The lucky ones, or unlucky depending on your moral outlook, were turned into lesser demons, imps, succubae, incubi, and other half-mad things that did the bidding of the powerful. They would never be true demons, not with parts of their human souls intact, but they lived like demons.

“Double plus the weight,” the demon bargained.

“Triple plus the weight.” I stood firm. “You won’t be able to find anyone else.” The demon grumbled something foul under its breath. “Just tell yourself it comes out of the council's treasury not yours.”
The demon tossed its head in a nod. “Not my soul,” it muttered. “Find the hero. Kill the hero. And your pay will arrive as usual.”

“Good enough,” I agreed placidly. A funny thing most humans don’t know about demons is that they are actually bound by their words, unlike humans who can lie constantly without punishment.

No blood or vows are actually needed just a firmly worded agreement. The demons promise was contingent on my finding and killing the hero but since I would find and kill said hero there was no problem. “How many days ahead is this hero?”

“Three.” The demon held up three pointed talons. “He nears the east gate even now. Within two moonrises he will have reached the portal.”

“Are you not attacking him?” I asked with more suspicion than usual.

“We have thrown everything at him since he arrived.”

“The east gate is nearly impossible to reach unless you have a demon guide,” I noted. “Does he have a demon guide?”

“No.” The ashen demon squirmed.

“Tell me,” I ordered.

“He is impervious to magic. He nulls it. Nothing we do works.” The demon with its monstrous horns, bulging muscles, and venomed talons pouted.

I sheathed my sword of fire and pulled out a sharp iron spike. “Is he mortal or a demigod?”

“Mortal, most assuredly.” I gave the demon a pointed look. “Probably mortal,” it amended with an apologetic shrug. “No divine influence has been seen on him.”

“Well that at least is encouraging,” I traded my iron dagger for my favored offhand weapon, a sword breaker.

There are two kinds of sword breakers readily available for those who want to crush their enemies and deprive them of hope as you do so. The first is the traditional iron rod with no sharp edge. It’s heavy, sword length, and if you strike hard enough swords break. The second is a long dagger with a sharp edge on one side and a deep-set jagged edge on the other side. You catch your opponent's weapon in the deep-set serrations and twist.

Snap!

Such a lovely sound and so useful when you are forced into confrontation with berserkers, especially those who tie their souls to their blades. The look of panic as they realize their pride has killed them is priceless. Well, no, not priceless, I can put a price on anything.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Winter

It’s winter, whatever that means in a place where the temperature never varies by more than a double handful of degrees, and I’m out beyond the yard collecting firewood when my neck prickles – the sense of being stared at. I snap the branch I'm holding, forcing myself to focus only on what I’m doing, willing my breaths even and my heart calm. Only when I am certain I give off no sign of having noticed do I risk a glance up. Nothing but trees.

The light crackle of a footstep sounds to my right, and despite myself, I stiffen. It’s barely audible above the mundane, everyday sounds of the forest, but I am listening for it – have been listening for it since I was seven, and he ran away. I’d know the footfall of my wolf anywhere.

I twist the last couple of branches into my rope-knotted bundle and heft it onto my back, all the while willing him closer, closer. My brother shouts out from the house, and the spell is broken, and though sound neither confirms nor denies it, I know my wolf is gone.

With sighs heavier than my burden of wood, I trudge back towards the house.

Inside, my remaining three brothers are making a ruckus around the kitchen table. I stamp my feet in the doorway, more for show than any good that it will do, and drop my bundle at their feet. “At least put these away while you mutter,” I say, scowling at them. I am a person of few words, and their idle conversations still irritate me, even after so many years.

Jasper turns to me, eyes wide. “Haven’t you heard?” he says.

I shrug out of my light coat and frown at him. ‘Don’t know, don’t care,’ I mean, and he knows it well. To my annoyance, it doesn’t stop him from continuing.

“Big news,” he says, and I sigh. Big news always means even more idle chitchat than usual, and if it’s big enough, even the parents will join in, and my only hope for quiet and sanity will be outdoors. Of course, that’s my preference anyway, so that's hardly the end of the world.

I shrug again and make to leave the room, but Shull stops me and peers at me seriously. “You’ll want to hear this,” he says.

I shrug again, but stay.

It’s Fil who tells me the news in the end, something noteworthy in and of itself: he is nearly as reluctant to participate in conversation as I am, although it seems to give him pleasure to listen to it.

“Winter,” he says with characteristic brevity. “Real winter.”

I open my mouth to make a dismissive noise, but the repetition hits me, and his meaning sinks in: real winter, honest-to-goodness, genuine winter, the likes of which I’ve not yet lived to see. A shiver runs down my spine. “Honest?” I ask, drawn against my will into exchange because winter, real winter, is something I’ve been dreaming of since I was young enough to dream.

“Honest.” His eyes are alight, and then they all spill over themselves in an effort to tell me where, and when, and who told them, and how it is they know, and through all the noise I tune out and ignore them because none of that matters, none of that is important; the only thing that matters is that my wolf is back, and a real winter is coming.

I leave the room while they are all mid-sentence, smiling to myself.

Winter. At last.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Published Author

Horace Jones chewed his lip as he rode the elevator up seven floors to his Manhattan apartment. At the door he hesitated. Was it really over? Unlocking the door he pushed it slowly open and peered into the dark. “Hello? Domino?”
His black-and-white shorthaired terrier ran toward him, ears perked up.
“Is it safe?” Horace asked as he flipped on the light. 
Domino thumped his stubby tail on the wood floor.
“All right then.” Horace stepped inside. Slamming the door he secured the lock and scanned the near-empty living room: one couch, one table, one chair, one empty bookshelf.
 The dog ran to the couch barking. His tail knocked the table. A piece of paper fluttered gently to the ground.
“No!” Horace threw himself at the ground, sobbing. Fists beat the hard wood floor as hot tears streaked down his face. “No! Not again!”
Domino whined in confusion.
Defeated, Horace crawled forward. With trembling hands he lifted up the paper, dreading what he would see…
“A bill! Oh, thank all my lucky stars, a bill! Look!” He shoved the bill from the dog-walker in Domino’s face laughing giddily. “A bill!”
He rushed to the bookshelf to check the layer of dust.  
“Empty!”
Horace collapsed on his plush red couch, smiling at the empty shelves. “No one understands, Domino. They don’t realize the burden I live with.” For the first time in weeks he felt safe, completely at peace with himself.
Domino put his nose on the couch, brown eyes gazing up with total adoration.
“Right, food. Let’s see what we’ll have for dinner, shall we?” Horace hit his legs with forced enthusiasm and stood up.
“The gala today was awful, all those flashes going off. Five microphones shoved right up my nose. My mouth positively aches from smiling. I mean, really, how many questions can you have about a book? I’m a private person! I want a private life. Is that too much to ask?”
Tail thumping in expectation, Domino sat front of his food dish.
Horace opened the fridge. Leftovers from the week were piled in front, while older dinners lurked in the back enjoying complicated lives of their own. “I have steak tartar left from the dinner with Jay Leno yesterday. Cake left over from the buffet with Ellen the day before. And something pasta left from the lunch with Oprah that I went to on Monday. What would you like?”
A bark and a growl.
“Steak it is.” Horace emptied the Styrofoam box into the dog’s dish. “Eat up.” He pulled a left over sandwich from the back of the fridge and read the scribbled handwriting. “Writer’s conference? When did we last go to a writer’s conference?”
With a steak in front of him Domino was too distracted to comment.
“Probably not good for me then.” Horace tossed the wrap in the trash. He looked back in the fridge and, with a shrug, tossed the rest of the leftover food.
Domino whimpered, covering his eyes with his paw.
“We’ll go shopping tomorrow,” Horace promised.
He pulled a candy bar out of the vegetable drawer. “Cold, but tasty!”
The dog growled at him.
“It’s healthy!” Horace protested. “It has peanuts.”
He sat down beside Domino on the floor and watched the mutt enjoy his steak. Being a dog certainly looked nice. Easier than being a best selling author at least.
While his sixth book in three years was out, breaking earning records, Horace worried. The New York Times couldn’t get enough of him. His agent, who had started three years ago with a client list of one, was now the most sought after agent in New York. She still kept a client list of one.
And the Most Successful Agent expected her one client to keep her wealthy. When Evil Editor Madeline called The Most Successful Agent demanding to know when the next bestseller was going to be on her desk, The Most Successful Agent would turn to him.
Horace covered his face with his hands.
If he were lucky, very lucky, that sixth book would be his last. Maybe he could fade into obscurity. Maybe all this would just go away. He hadn’t meant for things to get out of control like this. It had been a joke, at first, a way to needle his friends at the coffee shop by showing them his finished manuscript while they slaved away at their own editing.
Sending a query letter had been a fun game… until the agents started calling. After that everything had snowballed and there hadn’t been a chance to explain the joke to anyone but Domino.
He peeked through the kitchen doorway at the bookshelf. It remained empty. Maybe the nightmare was coming to an end.
“Come on,” he said, patting the dog, “let’s go take our showers and get some sleep. Our devoted agent will be calling in the morning, bright and early, to drag me off to another interview. I don’t want to look as if I haven’t slept.”
He stumbled off to shower, trying to avoid looking in the mirror. He was over fifty and he hadn’t aged well. His PR people didn’t care; they told him he looked affable and jovial. Horace considered that over-kind. He was middle aged, overweight, going bald, and had bad teeth. But he never posed for the cover of the books so it didn’t matter.
He shaved, letting Domino play in the water while the shower warmed. Domino stepped out, shaking himself dry and trotted off. Horace tested the water, stepped in, washed, and groped around for his towel.
And groped some more, dripping water on the floor.
“Blast!” He scurried into the air-conditioned hall, shivering. Ran to the linen closet to grope there for a towel.
He pulled out a manuscript.
“Domino! Domino, we’ve been attacked!” The dog raced down the hall, skidded on the wet floor, and looked up at his sopping wet master. Horace shook the manuscript at the dog.
His ears flattened as his tail tucked.
Horace held the book near Domino’s face. “Try chewing it a bit.”
Domino yelped and ran.
“Coward!”
Horace threw the infernal manuscript into the puddle of water and left it there while he dried.
Determined not to endure a seventh run as the New York Times’ best-selling author, he paraded past the manuscript to his room. He pulled on flannel pajamas, hands shaking as he did up the buttons.
A quick peek around corner confirmed the manuscript hadn’t vanished.
He cleaned the bathroom, scrubbed the toilet, disinfected the dog’s dish, and hung a dry towel by the shower.
The manuscript hadn’t moved.
Fear growing by the moment, he tided the house, dusting, mopping, straightening….
Realizing he’d run out of all possible chores except mopping up the puddle with the manuscript, he picked up the unwanted pages.
Times new roman, twelve point font, double-spaced. Just the way his agent liked it.
The water hadn’t even ruined the edges.
“Blast!”
Shuddering, he slumped back to the bedroom, turned on the bedside light, and sat down to read the book. Domino hopped up beside him for moral support.
“Look at this first page!” Horace wailed. “It’s perfect!” Gripping, intense, passionate… “The New York Times are going to rave about this, I know it.” Tears blurred his vision.
He tried page two. Perfect.
Page three was even better.
“I know what the New York Times will say,” he said with a sniffle. “A brilliant masterpiece of cunning wit, enduring love, and a timeless metaphor for the human condition. They’ve done that to me before.”
Horace sobbed.
Domino played dead.
“We have to get rid of this. I can’t face another book signing. I can’t go on Oprah again! No more parties! No more reviews! I can’t stand the pressure!”
He looked down at the dog.
“We burn it. No one will ever know. I’ll fade into comfortable obscurity. I won’t go insane and you won’t have to live in the pound with cats. No one will ever know that I can’t write to save my life. We end it. Tonight.”
Domino followed him to the living room and watched him start the fire.
“It’s for the best,” Horace promised.
He tossed the manuscript in and watched. The fire merrily burned away around the book. Flames kissed the manuscript. Hot breezes rifled the pages. Burning logs popped in accolade. But the pages didn’t singe.
The manuscript wouldn’t burn.
“This is a nightmare!” Horace threw another log on the fire and ran to hide under his blankets, praying the manuscript would turn to ash in the morning sunlight like the like sucking vampire it was.
All through the night he tossed and turned. Awards shows haunted his dreams. Hollywood directors calling for movie rights turned angry when he couldn’t remember the character’s names…
The next morning his sheets were drenched in sweat. The smell of animal fear permeated the room.
A key clicked in the lock of the apartment- his agent! He had to hide the manuscript before she found it!
 Horace stumbled into the living room, bleary eyed and nauseous with worry.
 His perfectly groomed agent perched on the couch devouring the latest, unsinged, manuscript.
“Horace! This is brilliant!” She gave him a very stern look. “Why was it in the fire place?”
“Oh, uh, well, you know how I feel about first drafts.” He gave her a weak smile. The future loomed dark with the promise of lies and television appearances. He would tell her. Right now, he’d confess that he hadn’t written the book. She could make everything go away.
But she laughed, smiling up at him as if he could do no wrong. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Resolve crumpled.  Horace echoed her with a nervous laugh of his own. “The books just…. come to me. Isn’t that how it works for everyone?”



Monday, March 9, 2015

Understanding

Walking into the house again after five years, it still smells exactly the same. You still use that lemon and vanilla brew on the stove to freshen the kitchen, still use the same brand of shoe wax on Dad’s boots in the hallway. And underneath it all, I can still smell the Windex.

Windex and vanilla, shoe wax and lemon: the smells of my childhood. Val is four, now. Her childhood smells of lab chemicals, frozen dinners and oil paints. Mum, I’m sorry.

I found Dad in the kitchen, peeling potatoes of all things. I’ll never know how you manage to wrangle him into kitchen work like you do when we grew up with him swearing it was women’s business, girl jobs. You’re amazing. A force of nature.

Dad hugged me, congratulated me on my promotion while he handed me an apron and your second best peeler. Hasn’t anyone told you yet that the only people who categorise their peelers are washed out, nineteen-fifties housewives? Mum, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I’m not everything you ever dreamed of. I’m sorry I’m not Ramona, with her two-point-one children and her white picket fence, her stay-at-home lifestyle and her church-every-Sunday. I’m sorry I followed in Dad’s footsteps and forsook yours. I’m sorry my brain wasn’t built for cleaning, that I could never find any joy in endless, cyclic, thankless scrubbing. I’m sorry that I find the make of genes more intriguing than the ironing of jeans, that my child knows the taste of frozen carrots and store-bought cheesecake, that I grow my greens on a petri dish instead of a home-dug garden.

I’m sorry, most of all, that this makes you sorry.

Val, at least, can’t disappoint you. Although I’ve already applied to enrol her in the advanced science stream next year when school starts, she loves the kitchen too, loves mixing and brewing and beating. She owns more cooking equipment than I do – she thanks you for the cupcake set, by the way.

What she loves most of all though is art. She’ll sit and watch her father for hours at a time. A four year old! Sitting still! It’s astounding. I used to have these dreams, when I was pregnant, when we found out we were having a little girl… I used to dream that she’d grow up just like me, practical and unromantic, logical and not at all homey.

And then she grew up, and she loves glitter and sparkles and ponies, loves dress ups and tiaras and pink. Oh, she’s logical, my darling little baby logician who demands why she has to eat her pumpkin when carrots are better for making vitamin A anyway; but she cooks, and she loves to paint.

I know, all children love to play at house, love to get their fingers messy and smear colours across a page. I probably even did. But Mum, how do you bear it? What do you do, that moment when you first realise that this person that was once like a second heart in your own body is now someone distinct, someone different – someone not you

Mum, I’m sorry. I love you. Thank you for everything. 

Xx Angie.


Monday, March 2, 2015

The Boy Named No

Two straight lines of unwanted waifs stood at military attention by their cots. Matron L. R. Rus’ heels clicked as she marched down the rows, inspecting hospital corners, checking under the beds for debris, ordering hands held out so she could verify the children were properly scrubbed.
The last cot stood alone, the blankets folded at the end of the bed where the orderly placed them the night before. The cot’s tow-headed owner was missing.
Again.
Matron Rus scowled. “Justice Saber Rus, get out here this instant!” Not expecting much, she checked under the bed. Nothing. A twinge of clan pride kept her from screaming. He was a Rus, even if he was unwanted, the very least he could do for the clan was be intelligent.
She eyed his footlocker. With practiced ease she overrode his lock code and looked in side. Shredded uniforms and a shredded gray bag.
Furious, she turned to the boy across the aisle. “Where is Justice?”
“He left last night, ma’am.”
She scrolled through her mental list of names trying to place the dark-haired child. Yes, Virtuous Shield Pantros, another unwanted. Age six, large for his age and clan. Probably not a full Pantros. “Why, Mister Shield, did you not inform anyone when Justice left?”
“We were told not to make any noise, ma’am.” His dark brown eyes slid upward, watching her.
“You didn’t consider the consequences of allowing him to wander away?”
“I did, ma’am. But I can’t break the rules, ma’am,” he said with infuriating calm.
Matron Rus smiled. “Rebellion by obedience, how very charming. Unit!” she bellowed. “Move out to the cafeteria. You will be fed when Mister Saber joins you.”
The children marched out.
With a sigh, Matron Rus collected the sad gray duffel and dropped it in the carbon recycler. It was always the first thing he destroyed when he threw a tantrum.
She opened the hall closet looking for a replacement.
“Matron Laura?”
“Yes?”
Terssa Camlin Fisher stepped around the corner. “Unit Five just arrived in the kitchen and the little Rondros Pantros girl told me they were waiting for Justice. Where is he?”
“A very good question, Miss Camlin. He’s run off again.”
Terssa sighed. “The poor dear. He was so upset when the claims list came in yesterday and he wasn’t on it.”
“He’ll never be on the claims list. He’s been here for six years and his name has never been listed.”
“Little Erinna Sandol Rus was listed this year, and she’s nearly nine.”
“Erinna’s mother brought her to the crèche. The enforcers found Justice wrapped in a bag in a trash can.” She slammed the closet door in frustration. “Children found in trash cans are not later claimed by their ecstatic family. Now, where are the gray duffels?”
“W-We’re out. I can put in an order for more.”
Matron Rus grumbled and opened the closet again. “No matter. If the boy didn’t shred his things every time he was upset, he wouldn’t need a new bag.” She pulled out a bright navy blue bag meant for the children two years younger than Justice. Each year group had their own color,  a simple strategy to help the children find their things. Writing names on the inside was the other part of the strategy, and the major sticking point for the little Rus boy.
“I’m going to wait for Justice. Keep an eye on the other children. They’ll have to sleep in the cafeteria tonight. I don’t want one of his cohorts smuggling him food.”
“Yes, Matron.”
She returned to the room lost in thought. If I were a six year old boy, where would I hide?
Fan-shaped leaves rapping the windowsill drew her attention. The Aral mountains rose in the distance. Thick copses of pine, snow in high summer, and bitter cold tarns. Yes. That would tempt a boy away as the frost cleared from the grass.
Matron Rus took a seat on the boy’s footlocker and waited.
Early morning light brightened to noon. Noon warmth faded into early evening. Cold wind rushed down from the mountain heights. As the supper bell rang she saw one shadow moving in the lengthening shadows.
Over the window sill two white ears appeared. A furry white face with distinctive black stripes followed. Ice blue eyes glared. Whiskers twitched.
Matron Rus stood up and brushed imaginary dust off her skirt. “Well, Mister Saber? Have you finally decided to grace the house with your presence?” She heard his stomach growl.
The little, white tiger cub slunk over the windowsill, green burrs clinging to him. Blood matted the fur on his left leg.
“Playing rough were we, Mister Saber?”
Justice sat down in front of her and deliberately licked his paw as if to say she had no control over him.
“Stand up, Mister Saber. I demand an accounting.”
The pale blue eyes narrowed. The cub straightened, shoulders arching back. He sat tall and kept growing taller. Stretching and flowing out of the form of a white tiger and into that of a chubby-cheeked blond boy with dark tan skin and ice blue eyes.
The burrs fell to the floor with a papery whisper.
“Give me your hand,” the matron ordered. He held out his left hand for inspection. “Neatly done. Why didn’t you shift the injury away before you came in?”
“ Didn’t wanna,” the boy whispered, his voice rasping.
“Hmmmm. Turn.” She inspected him head to toe as he pivoted. “No other signs of injury.” Although his ribs were showing. “How many times a week are you shifting?”
He shrugged. “Lots.”
“You need to eat more if you are changing forms on a regular basis, Justice. If you are shifting more than once or twice a week, I need to know.” Her heart bled for the pathetic little boy. Unwanted. Unheeded. And, may the ancestors forgive her, so unlovable. Prickly as an urchin. There were days she suspected the boy didn’t want to be loved.
He glared at the ground, nose scrunched and lips pursed.
So much for the nice approach. “Mister Saber, I asked you a question. I expect an answer. How often are you shifting?”
“Lots!” he wailed. The cub’s bottom lip jutted out in a pout.
“Daily?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Do you shift every day?”
A nod.
“More than once a day?”
Another nod.
Matron Rus sighed. “I expect you’re hungry.”
No response.
“Mister Rus, are you hungry?”
He shook his head. “I ate something.”
“What?”
“I dunno. It hopped.”
She blinked. “A rabbit? You ate one of the school rabbits?”
“Not a rabbit!” Justice said, sounding insulted. “It was black, and kinda crunchy. And small.”
“A locust?”
“Do they look like giant grasshoppers?”
“Yes.”
He nodded. “It tasted funny.”
“You need more than a bug for dinner. Get dressed and I’ll take you down to eat.”
The cub nodded, looking eager, a small smile dimpling his cheeks.
She held out his blue duffel. “Your new bag.”
The smile vanished.
“Justice,” Matron Rus warned. “Every child at the crèche has their own bag. With name in it.”
“It’s no’ my name,” he muttered.
“Your name is Justice Saber Rus. You will write it in the bag, and then you may eat dinner.”
He took the bag between thumb and forefinger - and dropped it on the floor.
Turning, the cub went to his locker and pulled out his clothes. He dressed slowly, with a furrowed brow of concentration. He turned to her, jaw set in a defiant line. “My name is not Justice Saber Rus.”
“Yes, it is.”
“That is your name for me,” he said. “It’s not my real name. My real name is what my family calls me.”
Matron Rus closed her eyes. Would telling him the truth crush him? “Justice, the crèche is your family. We raised you. We named you. We’re here for you.”
“But you aren’t my real family,” the cub persisted.
“We’re as real a family as you’ll ever know.”
Pale blue eyes narrowed. Justice growled.
“You are not here because I enjoy these arguments, Mister Saber. No one in the crèche is holding you hostage. We welcomed you in your infancy and gave you a home.”
“Because no one else wants me,” he whispered.
She sighed and sat on the foot locker, holding out a placating hand. “Not everyone can keep a child. There are times- “
“When it’s okay to wrap a baby in a bag and put them in the trash?”
He’d been listening.
“No, Justice, there is never a time when that is acceptable.”
Justice nodded. “I was stolen. A bad man took me from my real family, and threw me away. When my real family finds me I’ll have a mommy and a daddy. And sisters. And cousins.”
As fanciful delusions went it wasn’t half bad. “No one stole you, Justice.”
“Yes they did! My real family wants me! They have a real name for me!”
Matron Rus stood and pulled a pen from her pocket. “We’re not arguing this. You are here. This is your life. Until such a time that your family arrives to rescue you, your name is Justice Saber Rus. Write it in the bag, and you may eat.”
“No.” He crossed his arms.
She held the pen out, adamant. “Write. Or you will go hungry.”
Justice stood in front of her, bag at his feet, and glared.
The sun set.
Night crawled past.
Terssa Camlin Fisher snuck into the room to get someone’s stuffed doll so the rest of the unit could sleep downstairs. And still the cub glared.
As dawn light filtered through the trees, fat tears rolled down the cub’s cheeks. He grabbed the pen and sat.
Another hour passed with Justice staring at the bag.
“Write your name,” Matron Rus ordered as the breakfast bell rang.
Shaking with rage, he opened the bag. She watched the tears fall as he scowled at the white tag.
Justice sniffed.
He opened the pen, leaned forward, and scribbled.
Dropping it all, he stormed out of the room.
Matron Rus waited until she heard his feet running to breakfast before she bent down to inspect the bag. Only one word was inscribed on the tag:
NO
She folded the duffel and put it in Justice’s foot locker. Forty years as a crèche matron taught her patience. And that, sometimes, to force a small bend would break the child. Justice could find his bag now. If he didn’t shred it then they were taking the first step toward healthy adulthood.

And, who knew? Maybe some day the boy named No would find his real family.