Lydia

0394 - BrideShe’d told them – the doctor, his wife, the sad creature they’d meant her to marry – she’d told them that she didn’t want this life.

“But we saved you,” they said. “You were in a box, in the ground, and we saved you.”

She remembered that, she thought.

Not the box. But… the before-time.

She remembered drunken nights with eager lovers. She remembered the pricking of the needles as the ink was injected into her skin, making her body into a living scrapbook. She remembered all the times she and her friends had left their dorms to hang out with the townies at the amusement pier.

And she remembered the calliope playing and the carousel spinning.

It hadn’t been an ordinary carousel.

No painted ponies and prancing unicorns. No pretty swan boats for those who weren’t interested in catching the brass ring.

That carousel had been populated by grotesques. Leering goblin faces, twisted features of nightmare horses.

She remembers the night the carousel spun out of control.

She remembers the faces whirling around and the screams that filled her ears.

Her own screams.

And then nothing.

And then a storm.

And then the doctor, and his wife, and that poor miserable creature.

It took her a while to regain herself. A lot of screaming in the mirror. Even more screaming at Them.

Her speech returned slowly, like her faculties.

But she was able, finally, to articulate her feelings.

“You brought me back without consent,” she said. “You gave me a new life I never wanted. But that doesn’t make me yours.”

Her arguments fell on deaf ears, so she resorted to the methods she’d used as a kid. She watched  – learned the codes for the doors, learned the pin for the atm card, learned the floorplan of the castle. (Why did these types always have a fetish for castles?)

And one night – during another storm – she went to the creature’s chamber. She was just going to give him the standard line – It’s not you; it’s me – but he was so lonely, and so sad, and she felt it as viscerally as if she were generating the emotions herself.

She hadn’t realized he was a projectile empath.

She’d slept with worse for less worthy causes.

So she gave him her body for one night, and corrected him when he tried to twist his tongue to shape her name.

“Eve is the name They gave me,” she told him. “My name is Lydia. Like the song.”

A tilt of his head, a stroke of his hand moving her hair back from her face – she’d washed out the fright-wig perm during her first shower, though the white streak remained. Maybe she’d dye it pink – curiosity flooded from his eyes.

She knew he responded to music.

So, she sang the words the calliope was playing the day she… she had to think it, if she couldn’t say it… the day she died.

Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia
Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady

Then she dressed again. She’d kept the gown they gave her but cut several feet off the bottom, so it skimmed her knees. She’d stolen a pair of boots from Them.

“I have to go,” she told the Creature. “Find your voice. Make them let you go. You’re not as scary as people tell you. And if you need me… find me at the carousel.”

She didn’t tell him which carousel.

She wasn’t even sure if her carousel still existed.

She practically danced out of the castle. She took maximum cash from five ATMs in town before she muffed the PIN intentionally, and let the card be taken.

Then she hopped the train out of town.

Years passed. She’d convinced the authorities it hadn’t been her in that grave. Told them the carousel accident had left her disoriented and she’d gone away with friends. Flashed them cleavage and cash, and presto-change-o, her new life and her old one had been reconnected.

She joined a band, went on tour, stopped at every carousel, checked every newsfeed for word of her Creature. (He’d become Hers, in her head, over the years.)

One rainy night, in a town between here and there, she stood outside the wrought iron gate of a carousel – this one also lacked the painted ponies and genteel swans – and watched the children riding the ostriches and elephants and giraffes, she felt him.

Not the same sadness and loneliness as before.

Contentment. And hope.

His presence loomed behind her.

His voice  – made of gravel, but musical even so – sang her song.

Their song.

Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia
Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady

By the Shore

0393 - By the Shore

Eleanor sprawled on the warm sand and popped open her parasol in order to keep her face from burning in the bright sun. “A creamy complexion is a sign of good breeding,” her mother would have reminded her. “As well, good grooming habits are a sign of a strong character.”

Well, her mother was right about one thing: she was a strong character. While the other girls were perfecting their skills with ink or learning the best way to serve crabs, she was typically off exploring.

She had the treasure-trove to prove it, too. A veritable hoard of pretty shells, wave-worn sea glass, and the occasional found object – her current favorite was a mirror set into a wooden frame so water-logged it had darkened to near-ebony in color.

And of course, there was her parasol. She’d found it in the remains of a ship-wreck, and it was perfectly intact, if slightly green on the fringe. No matter; she liked green.

She also liked solitude.

Here on the sand, she didn’t have to listen to the other girls gossiping about the boys they liked – oooh, Brian’s tentacles are so much thicker than Michael’s. And Benjamin does amazing things with ink.

Well, they had a point. Benjamin had skills with ink that were mind-blowing, but even so, squealing and swooning was not Eleanor’s style.

The sun continued its ascension and the temperature grew warmer. Recognizing the need to hydrate, Eleanor closed her parasol and staked it into the sand. Then she rolled down into the waiting ocean, where her strong arms and graceful tentacles propelled her into swimmable depths. For over an hour – maybe two or three –  she frolicked in the waves, giggling when the foamy crest tickled her nose, and diving deep to play chase with a pod of dolphins.

When she reached the point of being pleasantly tired, she emerged from the water and moved to collect her things.

“Come here often?” a voice asked.

Benjamin. Here. Did that mean the others were coming, too? Eleanor sincerely hoped not.

“When I can sneak away,” she answered. “Are you alone?” He nodded an affirmative, and she smiled. “Then you may stay.”

“Why thank you, gracious Lady.” He was teasing her, but it held no malice only… was that affection?

“I have some prawns here, if you’re hungry,” she offered, settling onto the warm sand once more.

“Thanks!”

They ate without talking until Eleanor had to know. “I thought Priscilla had her tentacles wrapped around you, these days.”

“She decided Ronald had more powerful propulsion.”

“She would,” Eleanor’s tone was hardly complimentary.

“Besides, I heard you knew about a shipwreck… is that where you found the parasol and jacket?”

Eleanor glanced down at herself. The school uniform she’d also found in the wreck had become sun-bleached during her time out of the water. “I could show you where it is, if you want.”

“I’d like that,” he said. “My family isn’t generations old, like yours. I’m only first-generation hybrid. My mother – she was fully human. Dad said she used to believe that mermaids had fish tails instead of being part squid. Can you believe that?”

“Fish are food,” Eleanor said. It was one of the first things they’d been taught in school.

“Exactly.”

The breeze changed directions and Eleanor shivered slightly. “It’s getting cold.”

“May I sit closer? Dad says I run warm because I’m closer to human. Did you know that if they stay in the water too long, their body temperatures can drop dangerously low? It’s amazing they’ve taken over the surface of the planet!”

“As long as they stay on the surface, it’s fine,” Eleanor said, shifting her position so Benjamin could sit right against her. He was right; he was noticeably warmer than she was – than anyone was. It was… nice. Comforting.

“But they don’t,” Benjamin said. “You’ve seen it. Out in the Middle. That swamp of used things. They call it ‘plastic.’ And you’ve seen the turtles and the sea-birds that get choked on those weird Circles of Six.

“Yeah,” Eleanor said. “Mother says we used to Take humans to keep our species alive. We can only interbreed for so long… But I keep thinking, maybe we should Take a few and show them what their wastefulness is doing to us. They won’t listen to the whales or the sharks or the turtles – ”

He cut her off. “Some of them try, but they don’t speak the same language. Literally.”

“… but we can speak like they do. So maybe if….”

“Maybe,” but Benjamin’s tone was dark. “Or maybe they’ll Take us and put us in their glass cages for people to point to and gawk at. Maybe it’s better if they think we’re part fish, or just mythical creatures.”

“Maybe they’ll change,” Eleanor said.

“We’ll figure something out. We both need a senior project. Want to be partners?”

“Meet here day after tomorrow to exchange ideas?” She suggested.

“Seal it with a kiss?” He wasn’t teasing… not exactly.

A conch shell rolled up to them just as their lips met. As they twined their longest tentacles together, it began to speak. “Eleanor and Benjamin, you are truant. Please return to school immediately, or your parents will be notified.”

Reluctantly, the pair broke apart. “We should go,” Benjamin said. “They’re going to give us a ton of demerits.”

Eleanor folded her parasol and collected the rest of her belongings. “Race you back!”

Both youngsters leapt for the water, but Benjamin changed the rules by grabbing her hand. “Together,” he said.

He was right: they did get a ton of demerits. But, Eleanor reflected, it was worth it for a day by the shore.

Like Clockwork

0392 - Ticking“It’s good to see you again,” he tells me. “I’m glad you’re home.” He leans close to give me a welcoming kiss – and I can’t deny I’ve missed his kisses – but something skitters up his arm to perch on his shoulder.

A spider. But not the typical kind. One of his creations.

“You’ve been tinkering again,” I observe, and back away.

“A bit,” he hedges. “More than a bit,” he amends, off my accusing glare. “A lot, actually. You were on tour for six months, love. I had to fill the nights somehow. Besides, it was a distraction from the pain.”

Before I’d left him to go on tour, he’d been diagnosed with the wasting disease that had decimated the human population of Earth. (The aliens and the hybrids, like me, were immune.) I’d offered to stay, but it had been my farewell tour – my last chance to dance the lead roles I’d loved so well – Giselle, of course, Aurora, and – somewhat appropriately – my very last performance had been Coppelia.

“Did you have to build spiders, though?” I’d always feared the creatures. They had too many legs, and too many eyes, and tended to appear in places where I was wearing too little clothing – the shower, the deck of the hot tub, our bed.

“I didn’t build him,” my partner said.

“But I can see the clockwork.”

“I enhanced him. Come, let me draw you a bath, and I’ll explain.”

I let him lead me through the bedroom, into the luxurious master bathroom that had been the selling feature for our house. He’d made sure the bed was freshly made for my arrival, and I smiled at that detail. I undressed as he lit candles and filled the tub with hot water and scented bubbles.

“Join me?” I invited.

“Not tonight,” he said. “Would you like wine or tea while you soak?”

“Not tonight,” I echoed his words, as I stepped into the tub I sighed as I sunk into the water. My forty-five-year-old body was pretty battered after six months of performances and travel, and I’d danced five years longer than many of the women I’d started with, ten years longer than some. I could easily have closed my eyes and fallen asleep, but the bubbles tickled my skin and reminded me… “So, the spider?”

“Ah, yes. The first month you were gone, I was a bit sore, but I managed, but as the disease worsened, I knew that there would be no medical marvel for me unless I created one. I started with spiders because – gods forgive me – I didn’t care so much if they didn’t survive the process. Then I moved to small mammals; don’t worry, they all survived.”

“So, what, you were making clockwork prosthetics?”

“At first, yes, but I learned to recreate entire joints, even organs. It was as if someone was directing my ideas, guiding my hands. When I woke one morning and couldn’t walk, I called Sam.”

Sam was my partner’s oldest friend, a fellow tinkerer, and a specialist in robotics. “There was a Doctor Who marathon, and we spent the weekend watching it.” He chuckled ruefully, “I’m afraid it only gave us more ideas. In any case, we needed to test our creations on humans, and Sam’s wife is a surgeon, so…”

He rolled up his sleeve and displayed his elbow, then pressed inside the joint, causing the skin to open and reveal more clockwork.

I gasped. I couldn’t help it.

My partner knelt by the side of my tub and began to unbutton his shirt. He didn’t speak, but the seam in his chest told me all I needed to know.

“Maybe don’t open that just now,” I said, managing to infuse my words with a tiny bit of humor. “Is that why you didn’t want to join me in the bath?”

“You mean, will I rust? No. Totally waterproof, or, as much as I ever was. I just wanted you to have room to stretch.”

“How much?” I asked. “How much of you is… still you?”

“My knees, elbows, and heart are clockwork. The rest… the rest of me is still very much organic. I haven’t cured myself, love. Just arrested the progression of the disease.” He lowered his head a bit, the way he always did when he was sheepish. “The patents made us a lot of money… if you ever want – ”

“NO! – ” I cut him off. “I mean… I’m sorry, but… no. It’s not for me. I’m glad you’re not in pain, though.”

“Not in pain,” he said, and then, waggling his eyebrows, he added, “and no longer impotent.”

I’d been gone for six months, but we hadn’t had sex for at least as long before my tour. “Prove it,” I challenged.

* * * * *

Later, sated and sleepy, I rested with my head on my lover’s chest, and listened to the ticking that came from deep within his chest. “Well, I said… that still works.”

“It does,” he agreed, “like clockwork.”

Etiquette

0361 - Medusa

The hissing of her serpents echoed in the stone chamber. He’d followed all the clues: the puzzle games on the open internet, the more difficult tests that came first through the dark web, and then, later, through the mail.

 

The mail! Seriously! Who even used the postal service anymore? Well, other than Amazon and politicians, anyway.

 

But after months – years – of Facebook friendship, Discord chats, and late-night text marathons, he’d worn her down.

 

“I want to meet you,” he’d said for the seventy-millionth time.

 

“Find me if you can,” she’d challenged.

 

And he had.

 

The legends said people froze because she was hideous. But she wasn’t. She was power embodied: sinuous beauty, with eyes that could penetrate your soul, legs that were long, toned, and tanned, and a voice that coiled itself around you almost as tangibly as a warm scarf.

 

He couldn’t help but stare.

 

“What, forgotten how to use your words?” she teased.

 

He could only nod dumbly.

 

She rolled her eyes. All of them. Not just those on her face. “It’s not polite to stare,” she said, a note of sadness coloring her tone. “Didn’t your grandmother ever warn you that your face would freeze that way?”

 

A drop of drool pooled in the corner of his mouth.

 

“She was right.”

TSR: For Your Health. For Your Future

TSR For Your HealthThe presenter is a woman in her late forties. Old enough to convey gravitas and command respect. Youthful-looking enough that appearance-oriented audience members will not read her as “old,” and tune out.

 

Her dark brown hair is pulled into a loose bun. Her make-up is subtle. Her pearl necklace and diamond-stud earrings are the epitome of taste

 

She is wearing a red sheath dress with a lab coat – a perfectly tailored lab coat – over it. Her black pumps have a conservative heel.

 

When she speaks, it is in a low-pitched soothing voice, halfway between a flight attendant and a psychotherapist.

 

The projected images on the screens to either side of her change to mirror her topic.

 

“TSR – Total Spine Replacement. For decades our orthopedists and neurologists have been working together to refine this process.”

 

“As so many projects did, it began with a spark. Our chief of R&D nearly lost his son in a car accident – that was before ground-cars were banned and replaced by CTG flitters. Cloud-to-ground vehicles are one life-saving mechanism.“

 

“TSR is another. “

 

“No longer will survivors of devastating accidents be relegated to years of pain management, rehab, braces, and mobility devices. No more will children born with severe spinal defects have to live with diminished capabilities and physical therapy.”

 

“With TSR we can replace the entire human spinal column, first replacing the main neural connections with retractable synthetics, which allow us to remove the spine as one unit.”

 

She continues, walking her audience through a procedure that looks awfully realistic for a computer model. (It is a computer model, right?)

 

“Finally, we complete the procedure with our Bio-Orthopedic Reintegration Geometrics machine. How many of you are Star Trek fans? Well, we are, too, but we promise: this BORG has nothing to do with assimilation.”

 

She holds for the expected laughter. “Clinical trials – human trials – are set to begin in two weeks, on rigorously vetted volunteer subjects. Thanks to TSR our patients will be walking, running, climbing – or just picking up their children – by Christmas.”

 

The lights come up. She favors the audience with a pleasant smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Thank you for coming today. I’ll take your questions now.”

 

Later, behind the curtains, she faces her superior. “It went well,” she says. “I think we’ll see increased numbers of volunteers. This group of physicians specializes in severe spinal trauma.”

 

“Excellent,” her superior responds. “I require nourishment. Join me for dinner; we will discuss the launch of phase two.”

 

The woman in red gives a nod, but her neck locks and she must lift her hands to straighten her head.

 

Her superior stares at her through slitted eyes. “Get that servo checked out. We can’t have you glitching during a presentation.”

 

The presenter’s eyes widen ever so slightly. But she gives the appropriate response: “By your command.”

 

The Audition

Danse Macabre via Flash PromptIt’s not like any instrument I’ve ever seen. Or rather, it is, but it’s as if I’m looking at its reflection in a warped mirror.

“I can’t play that,” I tell our Host.

His gaze feels like how I imagine it must be like when an anvil is dropped on your head. “Are you not a Cellist?”

“I am,” I say. “But that instrument looks more like a bass.” And not a double bass, either, I think. More like a quadrupal  – no – octupal – bass.

“And do you know how to play a bass?”

“In theory. A normal one anyway. I mean the strings are different, tuned in fourths instead of fifths, and G is the high string, but… the physics are the same. But this one… In order to play it, I’d need at least two more hands. Maybe three.”

“That can be arranged,” the Host replies, as blandly as if I’d asked for a glass of water.

A shiver goes through me. When I agreed to sub for my friend Karl on this gig, I had no idea what I was getting into. All I’d been told was to show up at the mansion on Aerie Drive just after dusk, and to wear black.

“It can?” I ask, inwardly pleased that my voice remains steady. (I’d been certain I would squeak.)

“Easily.”

The word lasts three times as long as it should, and then I feel it… my body is changing. My shoulders and rib cage are expanding and suddenly instead of the two arms I was born with, I have six, and when I move them, it’s as if I’ve always had six.

“I don’t know what to say,” I tell the Host.

“Say nothing, Cellist. Just play.”

And suddenly the instrument makes sense, with its eighteen pegs and eighteen strings. I’m playing chords I never knew existed, and my body just knows what to do, where to put my fingers. The music and I are one being, and I feel like I’m flying, like I’m connected to the universe and it’s energizing me with every stroke of the bow, every press of my fingers against the wire and the wood.

When I finish my impromptu audition, my heart is racing and I’m breathing hard, and I can feel sweat on my brow and under all of my arms, but I don’t ask for feedback.

I don’t have to.

I know.

The Host remains silent for a long moment. When I think a moment can’t possibly be stretched any thinner he speaks the word “Brilliant.” The final ‘t’ is almost its own syllable. “Follow me to your room. You’ll do well here.”

I don’t mention that I thought this was a one-night gig, or that I have an apartment waiting for me. Somehow, I know I’ll never be going back to it. I belong here, now.

Here where the music will never stop, and there’s an instrument only I can play.

Undetermined

Unknown Saint via Flash Prompt“Are you ready to leave?” My husband’s hand rests gently on my shoulder as he speaks, and his thumb is cool where it brushes against the skin of my neck.

“Soon.” I know we’re meant to be meeting friends for dinner, that a lengthy visit to this old church was not on our itinerary, but there’s something about this statue that has me transfixed.

“Might I remind you that you answered ‘soon’ ten minutes ago, and fifteen minutes before that?” His tone betrays only the merest hint of impatience.

“I know, but there’s something about her that… I feel like there’s something I’m meant to be seeing, or… comprehending… that I’m not.”

“The informational brochure describes her merely as an unnamed saint.”

“I know,” I tell him. “It’s just that I can’t decide… is she human turning to gold, or gold turning to human?”

My husband, who typically has a response for everything, does not reply.

Star-Crossed?

Naiad Spring via Flash Prompt“Hello, Naiad,” he chuckled. “How’s the water?”

It was the same greeting he offered every morning, as soon as her head broke the surface of the water.

And every morning, she gave the same response, “Jump in. See for yourself.” It might have seemed like a brush-off, save for the warmth in her voice and the flirtatious wink with which she punctuated her reply.

But all he ever did was flash his insouciant smile and turn away from her, walking into the forest until the sound of his hoofbeats was completely overwhelmed by the rushing of the falls.

She, of course, watched him go until the mist and spray coming off the tumbling river obscured his form. And it was a beautiful form. His top half featured a broad chest and muscular arms while the lower part of him sported chestnut hair, firm, strong hindquarters, and fetlocks that were positively swoon-worthy.

Their little ritual was repeated every morning, and the looks that passed between them grew longer, the tones of their voices more intense. Still, they never deviated from their script.

The day his lips found hers almost at the very second she surfaced – before he had straightened his neck and spine from bending to sip from her spring – was the day she knew she had to send him away forever.

“I don’t get it,” her sister shared. “He’s single; you’re single. What’s stopping you from just going for it?”

“You know that saying about if a bird and fish fall in love, where do they live?”

“Yeah, so?”

“How much more difficult must it be for a siren and a centaur?”

Her sister had stared at her for a full minute before throwing a rock past her head. The younger woman’s laughter rippled forth like the concentric rings on the surface of the water.

“What’s funny?”

“You are. I mean, I thought you were supposed to be the smart one.” When she didn’t reply, her sister asked scornfully. “Honestly, where do you think seahorses come from?”

Published Elswhere: Not Exactly Persephone

Not Exactly Persephone

Today I have a story over at Modern Creative Life. An excerpt is below, and you can read the full text of Not Exactly Persephone at this link.

It was her trademark, she said. A beret with a butterfly pin was how the world would know she was herself.

The first time she saw him, it was when she rounded the bend just this side of the creek. He was preternaturally still, focused on the winged creature perched on his fingertips (he had long, graceful fingers, she noticed) and she froze mid-step, afraid to disturb him, or spook the colorful insect he was studying.

But even one small-ish woman’s breathing is enough to change the melody of the forest, and when he glanced up, their eyes met.

It wasn’t a cosmic thing, not really. Just two people acknowledging each other’s presence, and moving along on separate paths.

I’d love it if you visited the link for the full story and told me what you think

Not Exactly Persephone at Modern Creative Life

A Pinch of Stardust

Pinch of Stardust via Flash PromptI’ve always loved playing in the kitchen.

I remember all the times I watched as my grandmother and my mother and all the aunties would bustle around, measuring out ingredients and filling kettles, stoking the fire of the big old coal-burning oven and testing things for doneness.

Sometimes they’d give me some dough to shape. I never twisted it into the classic pretzel-shape everyone expected, though. Instead, I’d outline continents or trace the lines of constellations, then dab on the egg-yolk and sprinkle a bit of cinnamon sugar or salt, as my mood dictated.

I always suspected that they gave me the dough to keep me from seeing what they were really cooking.

But I knew.

Too many things that weren’t food came out of our kitchen.

Aunt Helen, for example, always baked the loveliest quilts, patchworks of strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry with squirts of lemon juice for a punch of color.

Aunt Delia poured galloping horses out of her kettle, and Aunt Patricia blended the most amazing stories – you could taste the voices.

Mom… Mom dabbled in a little of everything, but when she was at her best she’d toss a few ingredients into a hot saute pan, and out would come a complete outfit, inspired by the latest cover of Vogue or Elle or (when she was making something for me) Seventeen.

My grandmother, on the other hand – she had the real talent in the family. She’d layer things into one of the big lasagna pans, singing while she worked, and an hour or so later, she’d pull pots of African violets out of the oven.

She sang to them, too, of course.

But that’s a different kind of magic.

It took me a while to figure out my specialty. At first, I wanted to blend stories like my aunt, but we have different voices and different experiences in the world, so my stories are different than hers.

She blends things from root vegetables and sharp cheeses, red wine, fresh bread, and long walks in misty woods.

My stories… they’re made of other ingredients. Dark chocolate, spicy chili, sometimes a little wasabi, other times a whole, creamy avocado. And I don’t blend. Sometimes I saute, like Mom, and sometimes, I bake, like my grandmother, and often I use the crockpot, because some stories need to be stewed slowly… And I do sing while I’m working, sometimes.

Now, each of us has one, special, secret ingredient that we use when we’re in the kitchen. As with magicians, we don’t reveal what those ingredients are. Or at least, we would never share what others might be using.

But I don’t mind telling you what mine is.

It’s very simple, and incredibly hard to find, both at the same time.

It’s a pinch of stardust.