Wednesday, December 21, 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 fiancĂ© 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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
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?”
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.

Friday, December 9, 2016

If the World Were Flat

There once was a world that was flat. On one side, the sun shone all the time and, on the other side, the moon and stars reigned. Right in the middle of the moon's side sat a woman who spent her days staring up at the stars with sadness and hope in her eyes.

One day a pelican flew from the side of the sun to the side of the moon, and saw the woman, cross-legged at the centre of the world. It landed next to her and asked:

"What are you looking at?"

"The stars and moon. I wish they were bright enough to show me myself."

"The sky on the other side of the world is much brighter than this one," said the pelican. "What if I took you there, where you could be lit up by the sun?"

"Oh, no." The woman drew her legs to her body and shook her head. "This light is all I am meant to have. Any more and every would see how hideous I am." The pelican paused for a moment, as if to think, then flew away. After a while, it returned and placed a rock in the woman's hand.

"This is a gem of great beauty," it said to her. "But yours is greater by far." The woman smiled politely and turned the stone over in her fingers. It looked like nothing of value in the light of that side of the world, but it felt smooth.

"Thank you. It's nice," she said, setting it aside, and resumed her staring. After a pause, the pelican flew off again, this time returning with a full mouth of more smooth rocks which it placed next to the woman.

"These are gems of great beauty," it said, "But yours is greater by far."

"They look like nothing to me," said the woman gently. The pelican shook its head and flew off again, returning with more of these rocks. It proclaimed the woman's beauty, and the woman politely disbelieved, which only caused the pelican to go and return again with more. This continued until the pile of rocks next to the woman had become a mountain, but the pelican's insistence did nothing to change the woman's mind.

Then, while the pelican was away, an eagle came to the moon's side of the world. It noticed the woman, the hope in her eyes, and its heart fell to see the sadness that kept the hope powerless. It flew down and settled next to the woman, asking the same thing that the pelican had, and received the same answer.

"My lady," the eagle said, "I am an eagle, and my eyes are the strongest of all creatures, but even the blind mole could see your beauty, no matter what lit the sky." Then it flew away, but its words echoed in the woman's heart and the hope shone bright in her eyes.

"Even the blind mole?" she asked herself. On a whim, she stood and stepped towards the mountain next to her, suddenly hungry to see its supposed grandeur. With that step, the balance of the world shifted and it started to turn upside down, rotating slowly at first, but with greater speed the closer she came to the mountain. Before long, a bright light peeked over the edge of the moon's side of the world. It rose gently from the horizon, filling it with blue. The woman stopped moving, watching the sun as the world settled again, watching as the brightest of lights came to rest in the centre of the sky. And when the woman looked back at the mountain, she put her hands to her mouth in surprise.

The mountain blazed with colour, with ruby and emerald, sapphire and diamond. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen...

Until she saw herself reflected in it.

May you see your beauty as clearly as those who know you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fox Red: An Interlude

Seventeen: An Interlude

Imagine, if you will, a young boy—about seven, say—who thinks he’s the cleverest thing in the whole damn world. Sadly for him, he’s not far wrong—but clever doesn’t mean wise.

This kid, this boy—this genius—has played in the bush behind the house forever, wandering all the way down to the pine plantations that line the highway that’s the lifeline of this little two-bit town called Jilamatang. Regional Victoria, back of the Snowy Mountains, over an hour to the nearest thing they’ve got to a city. He’s outgrown the place and he isn’t even in double digits. Good thing they have the internet, even though the connection’s slower than the post from Melbourne.

He wanders far and wide, spends the whole day exploring while his parents think he’s a good lad in school—an easy ruse because school’s also easy—and one day, he discovers something worthwhile. Not far from town, a couple of kilometres or so, there’s an old train line. Barely anyone remembers it, and even the real old timers hardly know it’s there. But he knows. It’s always been a sort of demarkation, the eastern border of his domain, and he’s had it in mind that he probably oughtn’t cross it. Crossing it, he feels, is maybe a step too far from his parents’ world.

But of course, one day, his curiosity gets the better of him and, breath held by tightly pressed lips that quiver with anticipation, he skips across old rails rusted to the colour of fox’s fur. At first, nothing seems to have changed. The air tastes the same, the same wind blows against his skin, and the same sun beats down upon his shoulders.

But then the trees overhead grow denser, gnarled eucalypts and wattles give way to lofty, straight-trunked pines, needles flared against the bright sun and crisp air of early autumn. Their leaves will not succumb to the on-coming cold. Never mind that neither will the eucalypts’; the pines would have everyone know that needles, at this altitude, this close to the highest mountain in the whole entire country, are superior, which is why their trunks are so tall and straight while the poor little natives twist and bend, backs crooked in submission to the wind.

The thick mat of rust-coloured needles devours the boy’s footsteps more effectively than any carpet, and for a while it’s eerily quiet. It grows colder, too, and the boy shivers, even though summer still lingers in the air in long, hot afternoons and the true bite of winter is months away.

Through the trees, something shifts, and he catches glimpse of something moving, something big—something alive. And although his heart pounds like it wants to escape his chest and run right back home to the safety of his kitchen, the boy continues. This, he knows, will be a sight worth seeing.

He follows the half-glimpsed beast for maybe thirty minutes, though it seems that either seconds or hours have passed, and then—at last—he reaches a clearing in the pines where granite boulders pile up high like someone has torn away the skin of the world and exposed its spine. And there, atop the boulders, head thrown high against the sky, antlers broad and strong enough to tear apart the clouds, stands the last thing he’d have expected to find in alpine Australia: a giant grey deer, easily as tall at the shoulder as the boy is himself—and he is hardly short for his age.

The stag tosses its antlers, and the boy can feel—feel—the words the stag would say, if it could talk—if it would talk.

Welcome, the stag says. Welcome to the home of the Winter King.

The boy bows politely, because it seems like that is a thing that should be done, and when he straightens up again, the stag is gone.

But he knows, now, the boy, where this Winter King lives, and now he'll never leave it alone.
Time after time he returns, at any hour of the day: the crisp, bright light of of a dew-covered morning, the frosty bite of a late autumn evening, the blazing hot midday summer sun as he runs through the bush, wild and free while school is out.

Time after time, the boy returns to the Winter King, and slowly, he begins to love him. Both hims, that is, come to love the other him, and they stand with each other for hours, foreheads pressed together or flank to flank, saying all the things the Winter King would say if the Winter King decided he wanted to speak.

The boy rubs the knot at the end of the Winter King’s spine, right before it turns into a tail, and brings him sweet carrots and apples and old-fashioned lumps of cane sugar. The Winter King whispers secrets into the little boy’s heart, right before it turns into his consciousness, and feeds him joys and delights too subtle for words to make out. Probably the Winter King enjoys it as much as the boy does, for although the boy is lonely—at school, at home—at least his has his parents, and they love him very much.

The Winter King has no one.

Well, that is not quite true, the boy learns. The Winter King has his storm foxes, ethereal spirits that ride the winds like hawks, soaring and diving and tumbling. The storm foxes love the spring storms best of all, when thunder splits the sky like canons and the lightning flashes strobe-like across the forest. They love the storms because storms bring freedom: the Winter King cannot contain them when the heavens open and rage, and through spring and summer his power wanes almost entirely.

Then, one day, the boy has no one either. His mother and father fought, and although that wasn’t unusual, the fact that his mother left and didn't come back was.

He didn’t realise until years later what the little plastic stick in the bathroom bin had meant; why his mother had cried for three days straight before the fight that ended it all; why his father had been so relieved to see her go. Not that he ever said he was relieved, and the boy knew his father missed his mother—but he also walked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. An important weight. A weight of about seven or eight pounds, if the boy understood things correctly, that would last some eight or nine months and then the rest of their lives.

The boy thought he might have quite enjoyed that weight. It might have been just heavy enough to hold his family together.

But alack, the weight had vanished—from his father’s shoulders, his mother’s body—and so his mother vanished from their family, and the boy felt all alone.

That was the night it happened. The night he told the Winter King what he wanted—and the night he learned that sometimes, what we want is the worst thing we can imagine.

He was supposed to fly.

Instead, he thudded to the ground. And he learned that even foxes can cry, if they’re really, truly sad enough.

If you enjoyed this story, check out the That Moment When anthology, which contains the first part of Fox Red!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Plane Travel

            Plane Travel:

You                              start
like                              this

            elbows in
         ankles crossed
         never touching

       but      s    l     o      w       l        y

you start to  s

Because       HOUR   HOUR   HOUR
                     HOUR   HOUR   HOUR
                     HOUR   HOUR   HOUR
                     HOUR   HOUR   HOUR
                     HOUR   HOUR   
                                                is a really long time.

            Elbows bump.
            Knees touch.
A baby’s foot brushes your leg.
It’s not a problem. Also, he’s adorable.

This is how friendships begin.

Is fourteen hours long enough to make
                        a friend?

     in the right time
     in the right place
with the right people.

            Either way,

             You   can
              now sit

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Kitten Psychologist Broaches the Topic of Economics

There once was a little kitten. No, not the kitten I wrote a story about in September.

Definitely a different kitten. A very different kitten.

Oh, fine. It’s the same kitten. So I’m reusing characters. So what?

This kitten had had a hard time going outside. Which is as much to say as it didn’t. Not after its first experience with snow, which is probably like a person’s first experience with horseradish: you either like it or you don’t. And, in this case, the kitten didn’t like it.

In the last story, wherein the kitten realized that there was probably maybe some benefit to going outside after paying me good money to sit around and ask it questions containing answers that it decided it had come up with all on its own, wondering what I was doing with my life being a psychologist to my friends’ nine week old kitten.

The only problem with this picture (I mean, aside from the obvious) was that the kitten wasn’t paying me out of its own money. Let’s be serious: I can be a kitten psychologist all I want, but we have to admit that a kitten having its own income stream at nine weeks stretches credibility quite thin. Which is as much to say as that this kitten had mastered the use of arcane computer enchantments and pulled the money from my friends’ – its owners’ – bank account.

Frankly, I thought my friends would have figured it out on their own. It might have been a bit cowardly of me to wait until they got a clue and started investigating but either this kitten was more clever than I thought or my friends had an awful memory for their own spending habits. I’m not actually sure which is more concerning, but I had plenty of concern on hand to spend no matter which it turned out to be.

In other words, while my friends were out of the country a couple of weeks later, I house-sat. And, as I sat the house, I had a conversation with my friends’ kitten.

“You really have to stop this,” I said.

“I don’t pay you to have an opinion,” the kitten said with a swish of its tail.

“You pay me to be a psychologist. That’s exactly the same as paying me to have an opinion.”

“What happened to unbiased objectivity?”

“Fine. In my unbiased, objective opinion, you have to stop this.”

The kitten tapped its chin. “Stop what?”

“Paying me from my friends’ bank account without their knowledge or consent.” As if it didn’t already know.

“If you don’t like it, I can always find another psychologist…”

“That’s not the point.”

“And how do you propose I tell them about it when the idea of my sentience is patently absurd to them? Certainly you can’t. They already think you’re crazy.”

Obviously, I was going to have to have a conversation with more than just the kitten. “And how would you inform a potential new psychologist of this patently absurd idea?”

“That’s different. They’re not my human. They aren’t used to me. They don’t have ingrained ideas or habits about me to contend with.”

I bit back a sarcastic remark about the strength of eleven week old habits. For the kitten, that was a lifetime. That and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had plenty of ingrained habits and ideas of my own about the nature of kittens when this one hired me. I wondered if maybe I should have kept one or two of them. No amount of income was worth this trouble. Well. Perhaps not certain amounts of income.

“Well, just give it some thought and see what happens,” I finally said.

The kitten avoided me after that.

Which could have been the end of that, I suppose. Certainly it seemed like it, which I was a bit peeved about, to be sure. But, in a few days, I received an email:

Come at once. My humans are away. Sincerely, you know who. 

I wondered if the kitten had finally got to my friends’ YA collection. That and I went.

“So, I told my humans.”

“How did they take it?”

“Now they’re seeing a psychologist.”



“You know-” the kitten stretched- “I’ve come to a realization.”


“This is a ridiculous situation. I’m a kitten. Why do I even need a psychologist?”

I shrugged.

“Exactly. I should be going my wild way on my wild lone. Except…” it glanced at the couch. “…I don’t think I’m prepared to give up the amenities of my current living situation.”

“Then don’t.”

“Oh, I’m not. This may not be ancient Egypt, but this is certainly something. Do you suppose you could talk to my humans? Now that I have, that is.”

And admit that I’d been complicit in what was essentially theft? Um. “No.”

“Drat. I had a feeling this was my fight.”

Sure. That’s exactly what it is.

“Well, do you have any advice on what I should do next? Some words of wisdom I’ll probably ignore when I inevitably come up with something better? Like nothing? I rather like the idea of doing nothing.”

“If you’ll just come up with something better, then why do you need my advice?” No, theft was too harsh a word. Underhanded dealing, perhaps?

“It’s amusing.”

“So, am I psychologist or court jester?”

“Whichever makes you feel better, I suppose.” The kitten yawned. “I’m going to have a nap. If you come up with something, email me. Or stop by. I’ll pay you as soon as you do.”

Who was I kidding? It was definitely theft. By the time I’d got home, I realized that. I also realized that, despite the fact that the kitten really should be acting responsibly with its humans, so should I with my friends. With a sigh, I picked up the phone.

I wondered how long I’d be paying them back.

Dear psychologist human,

I’m not entirely sure what you stood to gain by informing my humans of your part in all this. My intention had been for you to merely vouch for my sentience. You have done me a service, and it is right that you should be compensated in turn, not that you should throw that all away.

But no matter. We shall speak when you return from vacation. I think you will see things much more clearly when this is all over.


You know who.

The story continues in The Kitten Psychologist vs the Kitten's Owners.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

One Bad Man

It is cold. That is my first thought as I stand against the Bielgorod, the walls of the White Town, watching the Neglina River rush past. Of course, October in Moscow is never what one might call tropical, but it has been many months since I was last up in the hours before dawn.
I draw my cloak closer around me and hunker down into the gloomy shadows, waiting for one Vasiliy Ivanov to appear. He will, at no later than two minutes past six, and I pull out my pocket watch – the bronze one with the green roving eye set in the lid, a token from Alexsey, my sponsor, and a not-so-subtle reminder that he is ever watching – and determine that I have but three minutes left to wait at most.
My breath puffs out, a misty white miasma in front of me, and my mind wanders back to the Chernye Miazmy, the black miasma that presently infect the town. They are spreading, quicker than before, and for all that they are careful to maintain face in public, I know that the administration is concerned. Three deaths in three days would leave any governor anxious, and although the century is old, it is not so old that Moscow has forgotten the Plague – fifteen years ago and more than half my own lifespan, and yet as real as the warmth of my breath on my hand when I remember the faces of my parents as they died.
Thankfully, Gospodin Ivanov appears around the corner before I can fall further into reminisces. Fifteen years ought to be time enough to put away the memory of my parents’ faces; alack, some days it is not. But Ivanov draws closer and I reach up to detach the little gears-and-rods contraption that cuffs my right ear; I don’t plan to let him out of my sight, so I should not need the sound-enhancement the earcuff provides, and I do not want it broken. Alexsey would not approve of that.
I slip the earcuff into a pocket, exchanging it for another cuff that this time fits over the tip of my finger. I glance down, twisting it so the nib, similar to a quill but fashioned from metal, sits over my nail. If I had a pot of ink at hand, I might write thusly; but this nib is not designed to hold ink. Instead, a tiny well is concealed in the band of the cuff. I apply light pressure to it, testing its hold.
Ivanov draws close and for a moment I hold my breath. If he spots me lurking in the shadows, I will have to forfeit today and come back again tomorrow – and that is assuming that he does not look close enough to learn my face. But my mission is blessed – I cast a grateful glance skywards – and Ivanov passes me, entering the city centre through the gate. I fall into step behind him, my footsteps kept light so the rushing of the tributary can muffle them.
My pulse pounds as we tread through the murky pre-dawn in the White Town. Above, the stars are diminishing and light touches the eastern sky. I chew the inside of my lip and run my thumb nervously over the cuff on my finger; logic tells me I should act now, while I can still be certain of both darkness and the element of surprise. But I have to be sure.
Alexsey would be proud. The very notion of wanting to make sure that I am doing the right thing means that some small part of me questions my orders, and that means questioning the Order that disseminates them, which in turn means questioning the One who orders. Alexsey is an atheist; he approves of questioning. I am a Shard; I am supposed to follow my orders.
My orders – God-given, monastery-ordained – have never been wrong yet, but a man’s life is not a thing to trifle with, and so before I send Gospodin Vasiliy Ivanov, who has a wife and a mother and a dog and friends, from this life, I must make certain; I must see that he is a bad man.
That is why, as he pauses in the doorway of an old building whose paint is flaking and brickwork is crumbling, I do not seize the opportunity to lunge at him. That is why, as he glances around, failing to see me, and enters the building, calling out a greeting to others inside, I do not give up and go home. Others pose a problem, but not so large a problem as murdering an innocent man.
I hesitate by the doorway, uncertain. Should I enter, and risk making myself seen, or should I stay back, and risk losing my quarry? A scream echoes in the building, cut short but nonetheless answering my question. I adjust my hood over my head and ease open the door. The scraping and thumps of a scuffle come from the right, so I take a deep breath and run.
It’s been too long since I did this last. Not the running; that I do regularly. No, it is the adrenalin that my body is not accustomed to, the way nerves thrill through my stomach and my blood rushes past my ears. I know that afterwards it will leave me with a high that is very nearly addictive, but for now, the stress is greater than the excitement. At the end of this corridor, I will kill a man.
Another cry rings out as I reach the door. I fling it open and it crashes against the wall, making the occupants of the room flinch mid-stride.
There, that one is Vasiliy, with his great-coat flapping around him like bat wings, silver pistol a giant claw in his hand. He swings towards me, pistol raised, and I lunge towards him under the barrel of the gun. As I dive, movement blurs to my right and I tackle Vasiliy, swinging him around to block me from whoever else is in the room. I land heavily on my hip and just have time to register the fact that I’ll have a spectacular bruise there tomorrow before Vasiliy is drawn down on top of me.
I look up over his shoulder at a young woman whose bruise over her left cheek could be the twin of my forthcoming one. The strap of her sarafan is torn and her blouse ripped loose. She grins wildly at me, but before anyone else can act I wrap my arm around Vasiliy’s neck. He struggles, but I draw the nib on my finger across the skin of his neck, pressing firmly. The well inside the cuff compresses, squirting poison like ink down inside the nib, which pierces his skin and delivers death into his veins.
He kicks against me and I push him away, kicking in my skirts to untangle my feet and right myself. I am not worried about him any longer; this building has long been rumoured to be a centre for slave traffic and if I had any doubts, the fact that the woman can do no more than gnash her teeth at me from where her chains bind her in the centre of the room is confirmation enough.
It seems Gospodin Ivanov was indeed a bad man. And now – I glance at him dismissively – he is a dead man.
“Who are you?” the woman – probably not more than a girl, now I look again – asks of me.
I smile. “I am a Shard.”
Her eyes widen and she shrinks back a little, gaze darting nervously to the body on the floor that once was called Vasiliy. “Oh.”
I shrug and move towards her, flapping out my skirts as I tuck the now-empty poison nib away. “He was a bad man.”
“Yes.” She bites her lip, twisting her fingers subconsciously in her sarafan. “Yes, he was.”
I shrug again and gesture to the chains around her ankles. “The key?”
She glances up at me, then back to Vasiliy. “Around his neck.”
I sigh deeply. Killing when my God commands it is something I do because it is necessary. Touching the dead, however, I much prefer to avoid.
Nonetheless, there are others in this building and if I am to get the woman out unharmed – or at least, without further harm – I must move. I kneel beside Gospodin Ivanov and peel back his clothing, layer by layer, until I find the key on a chain around his neck. The clasp is stuck fast, but the chain just fits over his head, if I don’t mind squashing his nose.
There is something absurdly perverse about mangling the face of a corpse to remove their necklace.
Footsteps slap in the hallway. I throw the key at the woman – “Here, hurry,” – and press myself against the wall by the door.
As expected, the woman hunches over immediately to loose her chains – right in the centre of the room, in plain sight from the hall.
“Hey!” a man shouts. He is near: ten, fifteen steps at most. I stiffen. “Hey, stop, girl!”
Five, four, three… I raise my arm, committing to my stance.
One. He bursts into the room and lunges at the woman who is scrabbling frantically at the last lock.
I lunge at him, catching him in the back of the neck with a blow that knocks him soundly out. He slumps, landing awkwardly across the woman’s leg.
She shakes him off and hugs herself, still shaking. “Dead?” she whispers.
I shake my head. “I had orders only for one,” I say, stooping to unlatch the final clasp of her chains. I take her hand and encourage her to step away.  “Come,” I say. “You are safe.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Glimmering Green Hope

Galen Andez crossed the threshold to his living quarters and set the door code to private. There were times when he would welcome the intrusion of his flight. Some days he left the door open hoping he'd catch someone from the training fleet to come and join him for an evening meal. Today his head ached, his muscles screamed in protest after extensive use, and he was the kind of fatigued that would end either with eighteen hours of sleep or with killing someone.

There wasn't an in-between on days like this. Too many hours linked to a Daylion Pride fighter could kill a man. This week he'd been hitting his limit every day ending in Y.

Stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt he tossed it in the general direction of his room before prowling over to the kitchen. Food. Lots of food, heavy on carbs and vat-grown proteins, and then he was going to sleep like the dead. Showers could wait.

He eyed the remains of a kitchen that had gone through this carnage six days trying to find something. Going out shopping was out of the question. Having his food delivered would require more human interaction than he could mentally entertain at the moment. There had to be something. A ration bar if nothing else.

A wink of emerald green caught his eye.

He tilted his head, watching the shimmering green to see if it would wink away, a hallucination caused by too many hours uplinked to a machine. Nope.

Stalking into the receiving area he stared down at the emerald green bra draped casually over the arm of one of the low, comfy chairs. None of the women in fleet wore bras under their body armor. It was, he'd been told, both uncomfortable and redundant. The body armor did an excellent job of keeping bouncing to a bare minimum. This... he ran a finger over the curve of the plush bra before picking it up. This was a fancy cage for full breasts.

The scent of warm wood and fresh grass lingered on the fabric like the memory of a ghost. Lyrian treesilk... expansive and luxurious. He caressed the fabric. Oh, hell yes!

There was only one woman he knew who would wear Lyrian made clothing. Last time he'd seen her he'd been a junior cadet still fighting for a chance to become a fighter pilot. She'd been... something else. Nothing like fleet. Nothing like the station-raised normcore people he'd been raised with. No ground pounder or starchaser could compare.

Just remembering her set his blood burning. The taste of her kiss was addictive, her voice hypnotic... Women like her were trouble. Sometimes the cause of it, but sometimes just there, like a rogue catalyst in the chemical equation of life.

A background sound he hadn't registered in his fatigued stupor became silent. He looked toward to the refresher room where the sound of water had stopped. Oh, hell no.


The door cracked open and a vixen with brindled hair curling from the refresher's humidity grinned at him. "Hiya, handsome. Dinner's in the chiller. I'll be out in a moment."

"Oh. No." Galen shook his head as his body tried to divide into two equal halves. One half wanted to run like a star was about to collapse in front of him. The other half wanted to rush to her embrace.
She tilted her head to the side, the little coquette. "No?" One bare foot crossed the threshold between the door and the living area. A tanned, toned leg followed, hinting at the naked body hidden from view. "Should I come out now?"

"What are you doing here?" His mouth was dry. Aching muscles found new life. She could have asked him to dance across the vacuum of space and he wouldn't have stopped to grab an EVA suit.
"My room wasn't ready, and I needed to shower. I didn't think you'd mind. Do you?" Her voice was pitched perfectly, a cross of sweet innocence combined with the fluster of a girl who knew he was cross but couldn't quite understand why.

Which was a bloody lie. Shyla was a 'pathic, one of the rare humans who could touch other human minds.

Every computer could read a person's fingerprint. Every 'pathic could read a mindprint, the unique pattern than belonged to an individual. She wouldn't have had to consult anyone to find him. She'd probably walked past, felt the impression of him in the room, and waltzed in without further thought.
"What if this were my girlfriend's room?" Galen asked, crossing his arms across his chest.

"I checked for women's clothes and signs of a lover. I wouldn't have stayed if I thought you were with someone." She stepped out of the refresher room wearing the shortest dress he'd ever seen on a woman. It might have been a long shirt. The navy blue fabric dropped from a string around her neck and unapologetically covered only the most spectacular views. Her back, arms, and legs were free to view, and he did, reveling in the sight of her.

Shyla reached out and stroked the side of his face with a gentle hand. "You're hurting."

He closed his eyes and took her touch too. The pain in his head eased, his muscles relaxed, the tension that wrapped around him like a boa loosened its grip. "Shyla..." He'd meant to rebuke her, to push her away, but it came out as a prayer.

One moment she was standing at arm's length, the next she was pressed against him, the heat of her body washing through him. Her lips found his, and he was lost.

When he opened his eyes he was laying on his bed with Shyla propped up on one elbow beside him. His pants were still on. The magical blue dress was still clinging to her and hiding everything he wanted to see. Shyla had added a knowing smile to her wardrobe. And he felt better than he had since the war started.

He flopped back on the pillow with his eyes closed. "Shyla."

"You needed it."

"No. I was fine."

"You were close to breaking."

"I was fine. I needed some nutrients and some sleep, not a full healing."

Two points of warmth touched his bare chest. Fingers, walking from his navel to his sternum, then dragging back down with the faintest hint of pain as her nails abraded his skin. He arched his spine involuntarily as she pulled her hand away. Every nerve in him thrummed with needing.

"You need so much more than healing, Commander." Her breath was hot against his ear.

"Shyla." This time her name came out as an impatient growl. Seven years without her. Seven years of thinking of what he would say next and all he'd managed to grind out was her name. Galen pressed his palms to his eyes in a desperate attempt to center himself. "Why is it that I can't think around you?"

"Because you haven't had a decent sex partner in three years and you've spent every waking hour since we parted beating your body into a pulp for the glory of the fleet and the safety of humanity."

"It's not about glory." Not anymore.

"Dying to save the rest of the species isn't a very efficient plan," Shyla said. She shifted on the bed and he felt the weight of her pulling the mattress down, the heat of her body near but not touching. "You should at least donate to the gene pool before you kill yourself."

A horrible thought occurred to him. "You're not-"

"No." She didn't need to hear the question. She probably didn't need to hear him talk at all. "Breath, Galen. I'm on the station for work. Lawfully hired. You aren't aiding or abetting a fugitive."

"This time."

"This time," she agreed. "Nor did I come to seduce you, well, not with the intent to procreate. Children aren't really in my five-year-plan at this point." The bed bounced as she got up. "Come on, flyboy. You need to rehydrate before you fall back asleep."

He let her take his hand and pull him out of bed. "Shyla?"

She stopped in the doorway, silhouetted by the light of the kitchen. "Hmm?"

"I'm glad you're back."

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Crystal Mountain

Somewhere in the world is a crystal mountain. People often ask it why it's made of crystal, to which it replies:

"Why does green make you feel happy?"

To which a number of psychologists opened their mouths, but the mountain quickly added:

"It's a rhetorical question. I don't know why I'm made of crystal. Why would I know the answer to that?"

To which the philosophers opened their mouths--

"Rhetorical question, guys."

Now, inside the mountain were several angler fish and goblin sharks, and they could be seen through the sides of the mountain. They swam about within the mountain, completely unperturbed by the implausibility of their own existence. Various people tried to ask the fish how they could possibly survive inside a mountain, and how they could survive without food, for none of them were ever seen to eat.

This proceeded to do nothing but give the mountain a headache, about which it complained loudly.

At the centre of the mountain was a star, which shone very brightly at night and faintly during the day.

"How does it change brightness like that?" the people asked the mountain, correctly assuming that trying to ask the star this would end the same way as the fish interrogation.

"What about my questions?" asked the mountain. "Why do you get to ask me all the questions? Don't I get answers, too?"

The adults all looked at each other, trying to figure out if they should be offended.

"What answers?" said a five-year-old.

"Oh, I like this one. This one's smart." Then the mountain leaned in close - complete with its implausible fish and changeable star - and continued in a quieter voice. "Why do people say they'll be friends forever with someone only to not call them when they move away?"


The mountain harrumphed. "Well, why do children make fun of one child just like them and exclude that child from their number?"

"Because they're weird."


The five-year-old thought about it. "Probably not."

"Then why?"


"You're not being particularly helpful."


The mountain leaned back. "Does anyone else have an answer?"

All the people around the mountain began speaking all at once, but none of them could agree on the answers to the mountain's question. After more of this than it could stand, the mountain shouted at them all to be quiet and leaned in towards the five-year-old again.

"I gather no one else knows the answers to those questions, either. They just take more words to finally say it. Why don't they know the answers?"

The five-year-old, who had never considered that adults might not know something, had to think very carefully. "Maybe they're not old enough yet."

"What do you mean?"

"Sometimes when I ask questions, my parents say:" the five-year-old pointed a finger at an imaginary child and said in a lower voice "'You'll understand when you're older.'"

"What do you do when they say that?"

"I stick my tongue out at them. Then I play with my toys." The five-year-old held up a set of Lego. "These are my favourite."

"I've never played with toys before." The mountain looked sad. "I don't even have toys."

"Do you want to play with mine?"

"May I?"

"Yeah! Here, you can be this one…"

So, while all the people looked on, the mountain and the five-year-old sat down together to build a kingdom, with a unicorn and a dragon and lasers and spaceships and mountains and cars and aliens and knights...

Frankly, they ignored everything else so thoroughly that all the people left them to their play.

It was the best day ever.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Morgan Fewster: Goddess

The worst day of Morgan Fewster’s life was the day her parents left her behind at the zoo when she was four, because they came to pick her up again and wouldn’t let her stay with the lions. The second worst day was when her best friend moved away in Year 5. Which made today only the third worst day, though with the bright sunshine stabbing her retinas like silver blades and her mouth tasting like dead mice, Morgan thought at first that it might give the others a run for their money.
“Urgh,” she said, and flopped off the bed onto the floor. It wasn’t that continued sleep on the floor was impossible; it was just less comfortable, especially as she’d landed with her elbow under her hip, and that combined with the alarm blaring on the far side of the room made it ever-so-slightly more likely that she’d actually a) get up and b) be on time.
The sweet, sweet smell of coffee percolated its way into Morgan’s brain, and her nostrils twitched. Mmm. Coffee.
“Morgan Fewster,” Breanna called from the kitchen. “If you don’t shut that alarm off in the next ten seconds, I swear by everything good and holy, you won’t get a drop of your precious wake-up juice this morning.”
Morgan, conflicted by opposing messages in her brain, performed a stagger-flop with astounding grace and hit her nose on the bed leg as she simultaneously tried to get up and stay lying down. “Ow.”
“Five seconds!”
Clutching the throbbing nose that now matched her seared eyeballs and pounding head, Morgan disentangled herself from the sheets and stumbled across the room, flipping her phone over to silence it. She sagged against the dresser in relief, having successfully passed yet another Herculean round of Morning: Getting Up. “Coffee,” she muttered, dragging her hands over her face and through her hair. Her appearance was probably something close to the living dead right now, but as her thirst for caffeine was probably something close to a zombie’s thirst for brains, that was probably okay. Probably. She shook her head and shambled out towards the kitchen, following the smell.
Breanna, blonde hair gleaming gold in the sunshine that streamed in through the wide kitchen windows, was the picture of domestic goddessery: blue-and-white apron neatly tied around her neatly-belted waist, hair neatly twisted into a neatly-perfect bun, neatly-manicured hands pouring a neat stream of –
“Gimme gimme gimme.” Morgan made grabby motions at the mug and Breanna handed it over, lips pressed to hide amusement.
“Morning, Sunshine,” she said.
Morgan slurped the coffee down in one long mouthful, eyes streaming as it scalded her throat. Coffee, my one true love, I’ve missed you. She finished with a contented sigh and plonked the mug back on the bench. “Hi.”
Wordlessly, Breanna handed over an envelope before turning back to the sizzling frypan.
“For me?” Morgan murmured as she tore it open. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I didn’t,” Breanna replied cryptically, stirring the eggs.
Morgan wrinkled her brow as she pulled a playing card and a folded piece of paper out of the shredded envelope, then remembered what her mother had always said about frowning. Quickly, she smoothed her fingers over her forehead.
Breanna returned to slop scrambled eggs onto a pair of plates already bearing thick, rustic-style toast slathered in butter. “So,” she said, scraping out the pan, “what is it?”
Morgan flourished the contents at her. “A card that I believe is supposed to tell me I’m about to die,” she wriggled the playing card whose front bore a picture of a black-robed skeleton on a white horse, “and a Wikipedia article on bull worship.”
Breanna made a noncommittal sound as she rummaged in the drawer for cutlery, a noise somewhere between an entire orchestra tuning and a thousand plates all shattering.
“Dear heavenly elephants,” Morgan swore, squeezing her hands over her ears. “Must you?”
Breanna arched an eyebrow in her direction. “It’s Thursday. You should have been home sleeping soundly last night.”
“I was!” Morgan protested, throwing her arms wide in a gesture of intended innocence. “I slept like a baby!”
“Yes,” Breanna agreed wryly, shoving a plate across to Morgan. “Exactly like a baby: from about one a.m. until seven, with numerous awakenings in between.”
Morgan took her plate and marched to the table, nose held high. “It’s all right,” she said loftily. “I couldn’t expect you ordinary people to understand.” She flopped onto a chair and snatched at the salt shaker. “So, is it a hint?”
“Is what a hint?” said Breanna, setting the second plate of eggs down on a placemat and bracketing it with cutlery.
“Vuh car,” Morgan said around a mouthful, waving her knife at the remains of the envelope on the bench.
Breanna glanced cursorily at it on her way back to the kitchen, summoned by the popping of the toaster. “I have no idea.”
“Wew ven…” Morgan swallowed. “Who’s it’s from?”
“I went to a psychic.”
“Ooo ven—“ Morgan cut off as she breathed in egg and spluttered. After hacking and coughing for a moment in which she made a whole mental noteboard covered in metaphorical memos-to-self about not talking with a mouthful of eggs, she cleared her throat and tried again. “You went to a psychic? Also, I nearly died here, and you are heartlessly eating muffins! What is up with that, I ask you?”
“Don’t be melodramatic, you’re not dying. If falling from a third-storey window or ingesting an entire bottle of drain cleaner can’t kill you, I seriously doubt some scrambled eggs down the wrong tube will. Also,” she said, setting a glass of juice down on the table by the other plate, “you never said I shouldn’t go to a psychic. Doctors, yes; psychiatrists, yes.” She counted them off on her fingers. “Psychologists, teachers, parents. You never said anything about psychics.”
Morgan scowled. “Psychics are a bunch of…” She waved her fork vaguely.
“People who might be able to finally figure out what you are?” Breanna suggested.
“Ha ha. I don’t need figuring out,” Morgan said and shovelled another forkful of eggs into her mouth. “Mm perfec uz uh mm.”
“Just… Go see the psych, okay? She was interested in you. She might be able to help.” Breanna folded her arms over her chest and pinned Morgan with a challenging glare. “I want you to know why you can do…” She fluttered a hand in irritation. “That stuff. You need to know.”
For a moment, Morgan considered doing exactly ‘that stuff’; if she fluttered her eyelashes winningly, parted her lips just so, and widened her eyes like Bambi incarnate, all but the rocks would be unable to breathe and would beg to do her bidding. Instead, she sighed and pressed her face into her fork.
“Fine,” she said. “For you, I will suffer this fate worse than death. But if she wants to out me to the media and the paparazzi find out where we live and they lay siege to the house day and night, and our doors are broken down by people who have seen my smile and are unable to resist, and I’m carted away to some scientific laboratory so they can dissect me for testing, I’m holding you responsible.” She gave Breanna a sidelong glance, checking for remorse.
“Fine,” said Breanna, remorseless.
What am I doing wrong? Morgan heaved another deep sigh. Some days, you just can’t win. She fluttered her eyelashes at her reflection in her fork, just to make sure she still could. Her heart trilled at the sight and this time her sigh was of contentment. “Hi there, pretty girl.”
“Morgan, stop making out with your reflection and finish your breakfast. The address for the psychic is on the back of the envelope. She’s expecting you at nine.”
“At nine?” Morgan turned her innocence up full blast. “But Breanna, darling, I have school! I can’t possibly be there at nine! What a ridiculous time to make an appointment for me. And how did you know I’d go anyway?”
“One,” Breanna started, again with the counting on the fingers, “you cut school every other week for inane whatever-it-is you do, and two, I didn’t make the appointment, she did.”
“But how did—“
Psychic, Morgan.”
“Oh.” Morgan sat back in her chair, temporarily flummoxed. “But I can’t see a psychic today, I have—David! Good morning!” she finished brightly as the third occupant of the house emerged from the hallway. Mention of anything relating to Morgan’s ‘special qualities’ always sent David into a dither and so were unofficially banned when he was around.
He peered at her suspiciously through eyes that looked weak and pale without their usual magnifying lenses. “What have you done?”
“Me?” Morgan beamed at him like a human sun. “Absolutely nothing!”
“Mm,” he disagreed, sliding in his chair. “Thanks for the eggs, hun.” This last was directed at Breanna, who stooped from her muffin-munching to nuzzle against his neck.
“Children, please,” Morgan said with longsuffering. “You have a room for that sort of sickening display.”
Breanna rolled her eyes and picked up her handbag from the chair at the head of the table. “Behave.”
“Angelically,” Morgan replied, posing with her very best saint-like expression.
Breanna rolled her eyes again and departed.
“So, really: what have you done?” David eyed her contemplatively over a mouthful of toast.
He chewed like a cow and had the same approximate intelligence, but, Morgan reflected, he could be stupidly persistent when he wanted to be. And besides. That was probably unfair to cows. “It isn’t what I’ve done,” she said, flashing him a gleaming smile. “It’s what I’m planning to do.”
He froze, fork halfway to his mouth. His eyes darted towards the front of the house where Breanna was pulling away in her dinky little hatchback. Seeing the all-clear, he reached his foot out under the table and rubbed against Morgan’s ankle. “You mean…”
Disgust filled Morgan’s stomach and she pushed her unfinished breakfast away. “No!” She really had to try harder to remember not to be charming when David was around. “You creep. Breanna, remember her? You’re practically married to her!” She stood up from the table and headed towards the bathroom.
“That didn’t seem to bother you with Simon,” David called after her, cutlery dinking against his plate.
Morgan fought the impulse to freeze. Bastard. How did he know about Simon? Besides, that was another mistake, a momentary lapse where she’d forgotten to keep her charm under control. It wasn’t like she’d meant to steal Jessie’s boyfriend.
Bastard. Whatever. She didn’t have to reply to him. Instead, she slammed the door to the bathroom and hurried to the mirror. The reflection confronting her had a serious case of bedhead and panda-eyes, but she turned a sultry smirk on it anyway, and it smirked back. “Hey there, sexy. Let’s get you looking decent.”
Her reflection willingly complied, and for the next careful hour, as she painted and brushed and sculpted and flossed, nothing was wrong with the world.
David bashing on the door broke that illusion. “Hour’s up,” he yelled. “Time to go.”
The mere thought of sharing a car with him this morning sent shudders through her, nearly making her smudge the last coat of eyeliner she was applying. “No thanks!” she called back. “I’m catching the bus this morning!” And apparently she was seeing the psychic after all, because the alternatives were car-pooling with David, or catching the school bus with Simon and Jessie, and right now, despite the imminent threat of scientific mutilation, the psychic seemed like the lesser of three evils.
David moaned at the door, something about how she could have told him earlier, and then he could have been early for work, or something equally trivial, and then he was gone in a jangle of keys and muttering and finally, the motorbike engine roaring to life in the garage.
Morgan sighed and unlocked the bathroom. She’d been keen to make an entrance this morning, too—that new fellow, Jason, he wasn’t half cute, and the bike did wonders for her reputation. Still, she’d gotten careless with David earlier, and that meant she’d have to try to avoid him as much as possible for the next twenty-four hours, since he seemed more susceptible to her charm than most. Stupid, given how besotted he was supposed to be with Breanna. Wasn’t true love supposed to protect against lust, or something like that?
Sighing at the complexity of life, Morgan snatched up her Louis Vuitton bag, gathered up the shredded envelope from the bench, and emerged into the sunshine to do one of the three things she’d promised herself she would never, under any circumstance, do: see a psychic.