Swing on a Star

0921 - StarMaidThere are many kinds of mermaids. Sirens. Whatever you want to call them.

The mermaids you know, the kind on earth, the kind that spend their lives in the ocean –  they have fins and tails and can breathe saltwater as well as they can breathe air. Their inspiration is bilingual, in a sense.

These sirens, their bodies hybrids of human and fish (well, really porpoise – they’re mammals, after all – how else could they interbreed?) are thought to call ships toward rocky endings in order to find new blood  – new partners – with which to mate.

It’s not true, of course. Just a tall tale told by sailors who saw lonely comrades jump overboard because they fell in love with a voluptuous figure, a beautiful face, a lustrous head of hair.

But my kind… my kind swims through a different sea. Instead of starfish, we have actual stars to play with… like that old earth song. “Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar?”

And we do. Swing from one astral body to another. Play hide and seek inside nebulae. Have incredible games of follow-the-leader through asteroid fields. Surf on solar flares. Like humans, and saltwater mermaids, we are made of stardust, but we are a bit more of the star than the dust.

Also like our cousins on that big,  blue and green marble, we love to dance.

Our cousins – sisters, really – dance on sand or stone, under constructed roofs, or under the moon. They dance with partners, sometimes just for fun, sometimes as a precursor to another, more private sort of dance.

But while we do merge with others of our kind from time to time, our dancing is pure art. Or pure physics. You decide.

I have pirouetted around Pluto and jitterbugged in and out of the rings of Jupiter. I’ve mamboed from earth’s moon to the mountains of Mars and bopped my way to Betelgeuse. Or at least, that’s the closest description I can come up with in human language.

Because when we astral mermaids – starmaids – dance, we make dark matter wish it were light. We grab onto the tails of passing comets and let the whiplash whirl us across the cosmos. We spiral around the Milky Way to the beat of the Universe’s heart.

And then we rest.

We are not the sirens you thought you knew. We don’t call astronauts to mate with us… though we do peek into passing ships, and flash space station viewports, and when we aren’t dancing, we do sing.

Our call isn’t easy to discern, but if you listen to the sounds your scientists refer to as “space noise,”  – listen with all your imagination – you might – just might – be able to hear our song.

Image copyright: Hugh Pindur

 

 

Xenia’s Bedraglon

0930 - Bedraglon

 

“Mama! Come look! There’s a bedraglon on the beach! We have to help it!”

 

“A what?” My child confused me sometimes.

 

“A bedraglon,” she repeated. “You know, when a thing is all mussed and tired and fade-y it’s bedraggled, right?”

 

I couldn’t fault her vocabulary. Since moving to Vios, she’d had little to do but read. She read in the house when I was preparing our meals, or in the back of flitter when I made house calls. And as the only xeno-veterinarian in the colony, I made a lot of house calls.

 

But the girl was still talking.

 

“Well, the animal on the beach is a dragon. And it’s bedraggled, so it’s a bedraglon, and we have to help it.” She looked up at me with her liquid blue-grey eyes, the color precisely the same as that of the stormy skies above us. “You can help it, can’t you, Mama?”

 

Ah, the faith of fools and children! You must never intentionally break either. “Let me get my bag,” I told her. “And I’ll see what I can do.”

 

The little girl half-led, half-pulled me down the beach from our back door, to where the poor creature had collapsed in the surf, and I had to admit, her name for it was sadly accurate.

 

I’d only ever glimpsed these native flyers in the air, and once I saw the evidence one of them left behind on one of Mr. Copnick’s sheep, but I’d never been up-close-and-personal with one, and even as a sodden heap, it was a bit intimidating.

 

“Easy there,” I said to it, speaking as I would to a spooked horse. “I’m here to help.”

 

It seemed to understand that I meant no harm because its dark eyes brightened slightly.

 

I walked around the creature making a visual assessment, and that’s when I realized what had happened: the poor beast had been snared by a fisherfolk’s drift net. Long since banned for ocean use, these nets were used on Vios and other colony worlds to catch aerial prey. Specifically, the fisherfolk here cast them out from trawling shuttles to snare the flying turkeys that had become one of our staple foods. Apparently, even when used in the skies instead of the seas, they still caught other creatures unintentionally.

 

“Xenia, darling, will you do Mama a huge favor and bring the big shears from my bag?”

 

“Okay!” She trotted over with them, carried point-down as I’d told her so many times. “Can I help?”

 

I hesitated. I needed someone to keep the dra – bedraglon – calm, but I wasn’t certain it was safe. I did my own sort of casting out, probing the creature with my vet-sense. There was no return crackle of danger, so I took a chance.

 

“Go sit near its head, sweety. If it lets you touch it – like this -“ and I demonstrated, giving the animal’s side a firm but gentle stroke with my flattened hand “- then pet it, and talk to it. Talk soft and slow, like you do with Spot.”

 

Spot was our dog. Or cat. I hadn’t yet determined if the local domestic was analogous to canine or feline house pets, but we referred to them as Viosian Cloud Leopard Dogs, and almost every family had adopted one.

 

“Okay, Mama.”

 

I gave the bedraglon – I was thinking of it that way, now – a few minutes to settle, and was relieved to see that Xenia had dropped into a cross-legged position and coaxed the great beast’s head into her lap. Then I went to work with my shears.

 

Freeing the first wing was easy enough, but the second was folded backwards and the ribs were straining. I had to find the tension point before I could start snipping and balancing it with one hand while I clipped the strands of the net with the other was a little awkward. But I managed, and even though it felt like hours, it was only a few minutes before the animal was completely free.

 

I sensed the bedraglon’s motion before I saw it move. “Sweety, move back,” I warned, but my daughter was already up on her feet.

 

The animal rocked back and forth a few times, then got to its feet. It snaked its thick neck around to look at me, then blew warm air into my face. I could have lived without the strong scent of masticated fish, but I understood it as a gesture of thanks.

 

“You’re welcome,” I told it.

 

I walked toward the front of its body, running my hands along its side as I did so. Nothing felt wrong, but what did I know? What surprised me was that it wasn’t scaled like a lizard or leathery like bats. Rather it had the coarse hair of a Terran hunting dog. A pointer, maybe.

 

By the time I got to where my daughter was standing, the bedraglon had turned back to look at her. She also received the animal’s breath of gratitude, and her expression of disgust only matched her delighted giggles for pure adorableness.

 

We watched as the creature launched itself into the air, and if its first few wing strokes were a bit wobbly, who could blame it.

 

I expected that would be the end of our first encounter with Bedraglon Xenian, as it was officially named, but about a week later as we were sitting on the sand right below our house, a shadow obscured the twin suns for a moment and then our friend was standing before us.

 

Xenia was racing toward it before I could even get up, but I needn’t have worried. The bedraglon had lowered its head so my daughter could hug its neck, just like she had with our ponies back on Earth.

 

My husband came out to join us then, bringing me a glass of iced mint tea. “What’s going on there?” he asked. “Should I worry?”

 

“Nope,” I told him. “That’s just a girl and her bedraglon. It’s all good.”

 

And it was.

Art by: Rasmus Berggreen – http://conceptartworld.com/artists/rasmus-berggreen/

 

 

Twirly Girl

0893 - TwiirlyGirlShe twirls.

She has to, you see, because Mommy put her in the dress with the floofy skirt to take pictures for Grandma and Grandpa, and it swirls when she moves at all, so full-on twirling is required.

She manages to stand still for the pictures. Out on their wooden porch, leaning her back against it, she smiles for the camera, but in her head, she’s already on the lawn, twirling in the soft, cool grass.

As soon as Mommy says the pictures are done, she kicks off her shoes and runs down the steps, stopping near the big tree where Grandpa hung her tire swing last year.

She twirls.

She spins round and round until her head is as dizzy as the wind-tossed leaves on the branches above her, and then she collapses onto the grass and squinches her eyes closed and lets herself get lost in the spinny spacey feeling that comes from twirling.

When she opens her eyes, she thinks she’s become one with the earth, because she can feel the world spinning and see the clouds circling above, and she thinks it’s the best feeling ever.

She twirls.

Even when she’s twelve, fifteen, seventeen, twenty-two, she keeps doing it whenever she has a private moment in the yard, or on the beach at the summer place Mom bought with her new husband.

She doesn’t need a special skirt anymore.

But when things press too close, or her head and heart are too full, she channels her inner child and spins and spins until she can’t keep her balance, and falls, laughing to the ground.

She likes the beach best… warm sand, the ocean tickling her toes… she’s lying there, feeling the world spin with her when a shadow falls over her.

“You okay?” a male voice asks.  “I saw you fall.”

She sits up, and her brown eyes lock onto a pair of blue ones that rival the ocean for depth and purity.

“I’m good,” she says. “I was… it’s hard to explain.”

“Spinning,” he says.

Twirling,” she corrects. “It’s like getting high… only cheaper… and…”

“Can I try?” he asks, interrupting. He extends a hand, and she takes it, letting him help her to her feet.

She twirls, and he follows her, only this time instead of collapsing onto the sand, they spiral into the waves and come up, soaked and silly with joy.

“I’m Eric,” he tells her.

“Sophie. I mean, I’m Sophie.”

They go for a burger and a beer and talk long into the night. She’s too old to need to sneak back into her mother’s house after a date, but at the same time, she’s a little disappointed Mom isn’t on the couch, waiting to grill her.

She twirls.

Only now it’s not always literal twirling.

Sex with Eric, that’s a kind of spinning, swirling dance, too. It’s so good. He’s so good. And he gets her. Like, really gets her.

At their wedding… they dance respectably while people are watching, but after the guests leave, they go back to the arbor that was placed on her grandparents’ broad, cool lawn, hold hands and twirl under the stars until they’re twice drunk, once from the champagne they drank earlier, and once from their shared motion.

“I’ve been thinking,” Eric says, “about what brought us together.”

“You found me lying on the beach,” Sophie answers.

“No, that’s how we met. What brought us together was centripetal force.”

“Centripetal?”

“It’s when spinning pulls an object toward the center. You’re my center. And I’m yours.”

“I love you,” Sophie says, because what else can you say when your heart is still swirling?

“I love you, too,” he answers, “Twirly girl.”

Bead by Bead

0746 - Bead by Bead

For years, decades even, Mama Louise had been known for her beadwork. Every velvet bag, every fancy dress, every bridal gown in their small town had been hand-beaded by the old woman.

Her work was impeccable, of course. She still used silk and cotton thread when commercial beadwork had switched to synthetics, or even glue. She never seemed to measure, but the spacing between her beads, whether it was simple trim or an intricate pattern, was always precise. Not a millimeter offset. Not a fraction of a millimeter in error. And when she was asked how she created these items of wearable art, Louise would smile and answer, “Bead by bead.”

More than her actual work, however, was what Louise instilled in her work. Before making a bag, Mama Louise would ask where it would be used, and she would have the eventual owner talk about their hopes and dreams for the event. The purse would then seem to carry the faintest scent of the floral archways of a specific restaurant, or glitter with the starlight of an open-air theatre.

If she were beading a dress for a ball or party, Mama Louise would listen to the sort of music likely to be played and her old feet would tap out the rhythms as she worked. (Somehow, her arthritic knees and ankles never objected to such movement.) Later, the women who commissioned her work would share that their feet never seemed as light, their energy never seemed so strong. “I could have danced forever,” one woman shared, glowing with happiness and enthusiasm.

Bridal gowns had always been Mama Louise’s specialty. She limited her commissions to two a year and quoted a five-month turnaround. It was much longer than it took to have a custom gown from one of the bridal shops on Main Street, but her customers never objected. They knew that a dress from a store was just a dress, while a creation sewn by Louise would be a family heirloom.

For those gowns, Louise would ask for stories of the bride’s childhood. She would collect memories from her parents and friends, her cousins and sisters and partners in youthful crimes and misdemeanors (which is how she jestingly referred to youthful exploits). She would also ask that each woman provide a well-wish for the bride-to-be.

When the recipient of such a gown finally tried it on, it would be as if each memory was whispering to her, and when she walked down the aisle on her special day, to meet her partner at the end, she would feel the love of all the well-wishes wrapping itself around her, and sending her into a happy future.

With so many girls and women being connected to Mama Louise through her work, it was inevitable that someone would notice when the old woman began work on another piece. This dress wasn’t pure white, like a bridal gown, but buttery, like French vanilla.

“Who is this piece for?” her visitors would ask – for it wasn’t unusual for her clients to stop by with baked goods and have coffee or tea with Louise. “Is this a wedding dress?”

But Louise didn’t share the recipient’s name. Instead she would lead her guest down memory lane, collecting a story of when that person wore a Creation by Louise.

Bead by bead, this last dress was nearly finished, but work on it stopped suddenly, when Louise had a heart attack one night.

Her son was the one who found her. He was a quiet man. A concert violinist with elegant fingers. He could have done beadwork as fine as his mother’s but that wasn’t where his heart led him. An only child of an only child, he’d considered his mother’s clients to be the sisters, cousins, and aunties he’d never had.

“My mother,” he said, “never sewed for herself. But this dress… ” he choked up as he told the people who had gathered in the old woman’s apartment. “This dress was meant to be her burial gown. She knew, I think, that her time was running out.”

There were three days until the wake and the funeral. Three days to find a shop to finish the beadwork… except.

Except Vanessa, the owner of Mama Louise’s last wedding gown, came to sew on a few beads from her dress. And Caitlyn who had no fewer than six of Louise’s velvet handbags, brought three beads from each.

The contributions continued. Each of these former clients added pieces of their favorite dresses and purses to the last few rows of beads, laughing together at their uneven rows, sharing memories and stories as they worked.

They finished at midnight, the night before the wake, sitting back and sharing a collective sigh.

Somehow, the soft breeze that wafted through Louise’s living room didn’t surprise them. It just felt right. Similarly, the appearance of their friend and neighbor in her rocking chair, looking peaceful, if slightly transparent, was not scary, but somehow soothing.

“We finished your dress,” the women said. “We couldn’t come close to your talent… but we tried to do the work with love.”

“And so, you did,” the ghost of their  beloved friend shared in a thin voice. “Bead by bead, you finished the gown. Bead by bead you strengthened your connections to each other and your community. Bead by bead, you spread love into the world.”

They wanted to hug her, but you can’t hug a ghost.

They wanted to share all their stories, but she was already fading.

Still, she held up an ethereal hand. “I know all your stories,” she said. “I know your hopes and dreams, and they will warm me in the next life. You’ve shared them with me… all of you… bead by bead.”

 

Just Desserts

666 - Route 666

They were somewhere in the desert, the one that spanned Nevada and Arizona but changed names, or spellings anyway, at the state line. Mojave, Mohave, either way it was Mo-freaking-hot-as-hell.

Tracy could even see the heat waves rolling up from the ground, making the endless stretch of empty road look more like rolling sea than a black asphalt river bleeding its way across the parched flesh of the empty land.

Sure, there was another car from time to time, but mostly the only thing that punctuated the monotony was the occasional mournful whistle of a cargo train – they were automated, those things – and over a hundred cars longs – and their whistles made Tracy shiver every time.

“Too much a/c?” Steve asked? The outside temperature gauge read 106 but it was 72 in the car.

“No, just the train whistle.”

“You like trains,” Steve reminded her.

“I like passenger trains,” she said. “These cargo things… they’re more like ghost trains. Sometimes I think maybe it’s just one endless train on a loop, never ending or beginning…”

“Drink some water, babe; you’re dehydrated.”

“I’m not!” she insisted, but she reached for her water bottle anyway, and took a healthy swallow. “How’re we doing on gas?” The design of the dashboard meant she couldn’t read that information from the passenger seat.

“We can make to Flagstaff.”

“Oh. Goo – Shit!” A red sports car had come zooming up beside them in the wrong lane, nearly clipping her mirror. “That wasn’t the same car we saw leaving Vegas?”

“I think it was… ”

Tracy reached out and teased the nape of Steve’s neck. “Crazy.”

“I know.”

They kept on driving, stopped at a couple of truck stops for bathroom breaks and gas. And then, just outside Flagstaff, they turned off the interstate, following suggestions to a tourist destination on the old Route 66. “I-40 parallels it along this stretch,” Steve told her, when Tracy questioned the detour. “There’s a ghost town with a burger joint that supposed to be to die for. They keep it open for tourists.”

“What tourists?” Tracy wanted to know.

“I guess there are more than we think.”

Tracy shrugged. “Sounds fun.” They weren’t in a race, after all.  They were headed to a new life in a community of artists and writers in Taos, New Mexico, but their schedule was their own. So why not enjoy a slight diversion?

Unlike the Interstate, the road they turned onto was faded and crumbling at the shoulders. The paint marking the lanes was barely discernible, but ruts in the road marked the divisions as well, or better.

The burger joint – a roadhouse, really – had a rusty highway sign on the top, Tracy froze looking at it after they got out of the car. “Steve. There are three sixes on that sign.”

“What?” he said. “Baby, we really need to get some protein in you.”

When Tracy looked again, the sign was a normal Route 66 sign.

Inside, the place was full of tourist kitsch. Stuffed jackalopes and Route 66 t-shirts were everywhere, and the song – that song – blared from the speakers.

A tired waitress in a polyester uniform greeted them with a dusty smile. “Welcome to the Roadhouse.” She reeled off a list of specials and left them to decide while she went to get drinks. A few minutes later, they were sipping iced tea and waiting for bacon and cheddar burgers.

“You headed somewhere specific?” the waitress asked, when she brought their food.

“Taos,” Tracy said.

“Nice town,” the other woman answered. “You’ll like it there. Best cheese enchiladas ever come from Gloria’s. Don’t miss them.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Tracy said.

The burgers were wonderful. Steve ate his own and half of hers, but that was typical. She ate all of her own fries, though. They had garlic on them. They watched people come and go as they ate – families mostly, and a few couples like themselves – but then he entered.

Tracy could tell he didn’t fit. Didn’t belong. His teeth were too white. His sunglasses were too expensive. His t-shirt had a logo that meant it had cost more than their typical electric bill.

“Can I get service?” he asked loudly. He’d barely been waiting fifteen seconds.

“I can seat you at the counter,” their waitress offered. “If it’s just you.”

“Fine, I guess. Could you wipe the grease off it first, though?”

Tracy couldn’t see his face, but she could practically hear him rolling his eyes.

“Asshole,” Steve muttered under his breath.

“Bet you anything he’s the guy in that red penis-car that keeps almost killing us,” Tracy whispered back.

In an attempt to wait him out, to not be ahead of him on the road, they decide to order pie and coffee. Tracy went for peach – her favorite – Steve was excited that they offered strawberry-rhubarb. “Good choices,” their waitress approved. “You want a la mode? It’s on me.”

“Because we’re going to Taos?” Tracy asked.

“Sure. That.” The waitress gave asshole-customer a furtive glance. “And because I know you don’t want to be on the road with him. I can tell.”

“He’s… we keep running into him. I guess the upside is that he’s the one who’s been caught in every speed trap since Vegas,” Steve said.

“Don’t doubt it.”

“A la mode sounds fantastic,” Tracy smiled. “It’s summer, after all. Thanks.”

“You bet.”

They finish their dessert, by which time the guy with the attitude has disappeared. “Bet you anything he’s from L.A.,” Tracy said, as they paid the check. “Leave the waitress a generous tip.”

“I left twenty-five percent,” Steve said.

“And that’s why I love you.”

“Not for my hot body?”

“Well, that too.”

They paused for a selfie in front of the roadhouse. It was dark by then, but there was so much lighting in the parking lot that it might as well have been noon. There’s a mark on the ground telling people where to stand so they can guarantee the sign is in the picture.

Back in the car, they headed back to the Interstate, only to be halted by flickering red and blue lights. “Sorry folks,” a highway patrol officer says, coming up to their window. “Gotta redirect you. To get back on Eastbound 40 do this…”

Tracy took down the directions with the “Notes” app on her phone. “Can I ask what happened, Officer?”

“Bad accident,” he said. “Speed demon in a red car wrapped himself around the signpost on the ramp.” He took a beat, then added. “These roads… they may seem flat and empty, but they make you cocky. You drive safe, hear?”

“Sure thing, Officer.” It was Steve who answered.

They follow their detour directions which take them to a ridge on the other side of the Interstate. Looking down, they can see the car that was smashed. No surprise, it was their “friend” from the road. The asshole from the  roadhouse.

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Steve said.

“Hush, honey. No one deserves that. Not really.” She paused. “We should go.” But their vantage point also let them glimpse the sign from the roadhouse, and Tracy shivered when she saw it. Checking her phone, she confirms what she’d seen before. The sign on the roof. One side was the normal road sign for America’s most famous highway.

The other? It had three sixes.

Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

Uneasy Lies the Head

662 - Uneasy Head

“They whisper,” the Crowned one heard her confession. “They whisper all sorts of things to me, and I’m never which advice to follow.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Big Nose said I should trip Samuel as he was reaching the top of the stairs. I thought he might tumble and slide. I didn’t expect to hear the cracking sound. Or for his head to turn all the way ’round like that.”

The Crowned One frowned. “Samuel died at the bottom?”

“He was very pale… and so quiet. There wasn’t any blood though. I thought there was always blood when people die.”

“Not always, Georgia. Not always. What other whispers have you heard?”

“Twisted Lip said Nanny was plotting against me and I should switch my teacup with hers.”

“And did you?” the Crowned One was concerned as well as curious. What would the child’s answer be?

“Yes, I did. We’re looking for a new Nanny now. Because that Nanny started foaming at the mouth and then went all twitchy and fell off her chair. She’s not dead though, just really sick.”

“I see. It would seem Twisted Lip’s advice was wise, then.”

“Yes, but… I miss Samuel.”

“I am certain that you do. You and he have always been good friends.”

“Except he said that he would ascend to the throne because he’s a boy even though I’m six weeks older,” the little girl announced. “And Mother said those rules don’t matter anymore, because she sits on the throne now, after all.”

“Yes,” the Crowned one confirmed. “Yes, she does. Have you spoken to your mother about these things, Georgia? Told her what the Advisors are whispering to you?”

“I have,” she told him, nodding her head up and down. “She said it’s the way of things. People always try to eliminate the people who have power so they can have power instead. And sometimes we must act to protect our own interests.”

The Crowned One understood his role in Princess Georgia’s life. As a former head of state and current, well, state head, albeit a disembodied one, he was to offer the child as much wisdom and guidance as he could. He had hoped this could have happened without so much intrigue. He had fervently wished for a lot less murder. But it was the way of the world. The other heads – former guards and statesfolk, all – would whisper to the Heir, their advice to be heeded or not, as the child’s will dictated.

But his counsel was given openly.

At that moment, he wished he could give more than counsel. A friendly hug, perhaps. A pat on the head. But the reality was that this small girl was, at ten, already more ruthless than half a dozen mercenaries. She had to be, if she truly meant to take the throne someday.

All he could hope was that his wisdom would temper her more… expedient… choices.

“Dark Eyes also whispers,” the young princess offered, perhaps to assuage his obvious unease. “Dark Eyes says I must remember to be compassionate, when I can.”

“That is wise advice,” the Crowned One said.

“I’ve tried to heed it. Benjamin and I have been playing together since Samuel left us.”

“Since he died, you mean?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s good that you’ve reached out to his little brother.”

“Benjamin will never sit on the throne.”

“It is highly unlikely that he will.”

“But… he makes me laugh, and when we are together, I don’t focus so much on the whispers I hear from the Heads.”

“It’s good,” the Crowned One said, “that you can still be a child from time to time. Stay young as long as you can, Georgia.”

“I will try.”

“It is late. You should rest.”

“Yes…”  She released the magic holding him in place, and the Crowned One floated up to the Keeper’s Space. “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, Georgia.”

The little girl was soon asleep. But the Crowned One was still fretting. She was becoming too hard, too cold… he was concerned. A leader must be able to act swiftly and make tough decisions; it was true, but a leader must also be able to be lenient, to know when kindness was the better path. He would speak with Dark Eyes in the morning. They would push Compassion at her a bit more heavily.

A line from Shakespeare went through his brain, and he chuckled softly. Old Will had really nailed it with that one.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

 

 

 

 

Eternal Companion

656 - Eternal Companion

You’re the same in every city. Every country. Every continent. You have been so ever since Velázquez first used you as the model for one of his gods.

You knew he would.

How could he resist?

Your flowing platinum hair. Your alabaster skin. The faint glow of otherness about you. These things made you compelling to men and women of all walks of life, so why not one of the world’s greatest painters?

But then his vision changed.

Ever the storyteller, Diego chose to tell different stories with his paintings. Instead of capturing encounters between gods and men, he focused on the earthiest of the earthbound. The kind who most people made a point of never seeing: the poor, the ugly, the ill, the malformed.

But you; you were beautiful, and you knew it.

So, you went on a mission to show off your terrible, dangerous beauty.

Killing sprees across every city in Europe. Milan. Paris. London. Madrid. Amsterdam. Rome. Berlin. There was no pattern. You went wherever your bloodlust took you, leaving your crimson stain on the statuary, since you couldn’t leave a tintype or photograph.

And I watched you.

I watched you grow paler and more luminescent as last vestiges of humanity were bitten from the necks of your victims and spit, sizzling, to the ground.

Your humanity, not theirs.

And I began to wonder who the real victim was: those whom you killed; you, who did the killing; or I, who allowed it all to continue.

If I were a stronger person, if my resolve were better fortified, this is the point in which I would inform my readers that I’d left you, or better, that I’d committed the ultimate act of altruism and driven the final stake through your marble-esque chest.

But I am not that strong.

And love can be so weak.

And so, because through it all, my angel, my demon, my eternal companion, I do love you, I offer you my neck, and hope beyond hope that in doing so, some of your madness is abated.

After all, the blood is the life.

 

 

Good Kitty

Like the Prose: Challenge #26 – Find a picture and use it to inspire your story. (My image is from the Flash-Prompt Facebook group.)

Good Kitty

They’d looked at ten other houses, but finally settled on that one. It had everything they needed: three bedrooms, so each of the kids could have their own, two full bathrooms, plus a half-bath downstairs, pool in the fenced-in back yard, even a proper front porch where they could sit and sip morning coffee or evening wine and watch the neighborhood go by.

The mural at the top of the attic stairs didn’t thrill them, but they could always paint over it.

Besides, the price was unbelievable.

“I have to ask,” Karen said, almost afraid of what the realtor would say. “Why is this place so affordable?”

“You do know you’re required to disclose any deaths on the premises,” her husband Chad put in.

The realtor seemed slightly flustered. “There haven’t been any deaths. No injuries either, I promise. But there have been… reports.”

“Reports? Of what?” Karen wanted to know.

“Well, really more like rumors,” the older woman amended.

“I think you’d better explain,” Chad said.

“Previous residents mentioned hearing odd noises in the attic. Some said that their pets were always on alert. No one ever found anything, though. I guess, you might say the house is haunted.”

“Haunted?”

“As I said, it’s just a rumor.”

Karen and Chad consulted for a while, privately. “It’s too good a deal to pass up,” they said. “We’ll take it.”

* * *

“Mommy, why are there eyes at the top of the stairs?” Karen rolled over to find her pajama-clad daughter staring at her with frightened features.

“It’s probably just a reflection. The eyes of the cat in the painting glow in the moonlight. Go back to sleep, sweetie.”

“I can’t go back to my room alone.”

“You want me to walk you back?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why were you up?”

“I heard purring… and then I had to pee.”

“Purring?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You didn’t bring home another kitten, did you?” The little girl was prone to finding stray animals.

The child shook her head no. “Uh-uh.”

Karen rolled out of bed. “Alright. Let’s get you back to bed.”

Mother and daughter walked hand-in-hand down the dim hallway. The nightlight in the bathroom cast weird shadows that almost seemed to move, but Karen shrugged it off. It was just her daughter’s overactive imagination affecting her perceptions, she was sure.

Still, after she’d tucked her little girl back into bed, Karen paused at the bottom of the attic stairs and peered up into the darkness. She was about to head back to bed when she caught the gleam of something that did, in fact, look like two eyes staring back at her.

Startled, she took a step backwards, her hand colliding with the wall, but that reminded her of the switch that was right there. She flipped it on.

And laughed.

The painting on the wall at the top of the stairs was the image of a cougar in tall grass, it’s green eyes eerily realistic in the light of the single bulb.

Damn, that thing is realistic, she thought.

Shaking her head at her own skittishness, she turned out the light and went back to bed.

* * *

“Did the cougar sneak into your room last night, Scarlet?” Karen’s son teased her daughter at breakfast several days later.

“Marky! That’s not funny!” the little girl protested.

“Mark, I’ve told you not to tease her. You know it’s just a painting.”

“Yeah, but it’s a painting that moves or haven’t you noticed that it’s never in quite the same position, or that the grass keeps extending down the stairs?”

“Mark, that’s enough.” Karen uttered the words in the patented warning tone all mothers have. But secretly, she knew her son was right. There was a patch of jungle at the top of the attic stairs and it was growing closer to the upstairs hallway every day. It was subtle, but it was true.

“Sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” Karen asked. She and Chad had read in a parenting book years before that generic apologies were meaningless. They had to be specific.

“I’m sorry for scaring you, Scarlet,” Mark said, sounding almost sincere. “And I’m sorry for not listening to you, Mom.”

“Thank you, sweetie. How will you change your behavior?”

“I’ll try not to tease Scarlet and be better about being more responsive.”

“Alright.”

“It’s almost time for the bus,” the boy pointed out.

“Alright then. Your lunches are on the counter. Watch out for your sister.”

Both kids ran from the room.

* * *

Life went on. The grass on the wall crept steadily downward. The cougar sometimes appeared below the top step, as if they’d caught it while on patrol. Scarlet suggested that they make friends with it, and so one night, when Chad was on a business trip, they left a saucer each of milk and leftover hamburger (cooked) on the landing. Just to see what happened.

Both saucers were empty in the morning, and both children swore they hadn’t touched them.

Karen repeated the process every few days… she didn’t want to make offerings every day, she said, because she’d read in a book that wild animals shouldn’t get used to being fed by humans. They had to know how to hunt.

It was about three weeks later that Karen and Chad woke up to find an offering of a dead rat outside their bedroom door.

Chad had never owned pets, but Karen had grown up with cats. She understood. The cougar at the top of the stairs had accepted their offer. They were friends.

* * *

A stormy night. Another business trip for Chad. Like the horror stories Karen and her friends had told at slumber parties when she was a girl, there was an escaped serial killer in their neighborhood. She and the children were a bit spooked, but they’d checked the locks and set the alarm, and her cell phone was charged.

She wasn’t surprised when Scarlet had crept into her bed during the height of the storm. Lightning and thunder were still scary to the little girl.

She was slightly surprised when Mark joined them a bit later, but by then the power had gone out, and even though he was ten, he was, after all, still a little boy. And Mom meant safety. Always.

They heard the rattling at the door at the same time.

Karen reached for her cell, but there was no signal. Stupid storm. She tried to remain calm for the children.

The yowling and screeching came at the same time that the door burst open.

“Jesus, fuck, what kinda creature is that!” they heard a male voice say.

And then there was more yowling. And more screeching, both feline and human.

And then there was silence.

“Stay here,” Karen told her kids. She tip-toed to the bedroom door and cracked it open. The cougar was sitting on a prone human form, licking its chops. It turned its head toward Karen as if to tell her it would keep her safe. Her and her family.

“Good kitty,” she told the creature. “Good kitty.”

The power came back. The police were called. The lock on the door was fixed.

“Good thing you have such a mean cat,” the officers said.

“Yes,” Karen said. “Yes, it is.”  She couldn’t wait to tell Chad all about it when he got home.

 

 

 

 

Buzz

Like the Prose: Challenge #7 – Write about a culture you know nothing about and give your protagonist a profession you’re unfamiliar with. (I confess: I cheated a bit and invented both the culture and the profession.) Photo courtesy of the Facebook FlashPrompt group.

carrier bees

The truth is, Fenella resented that she was required to carry the blade with her. She had never believed the horned buzzers would revolt; she knew they enjoyed the service they provided to their humanoid companions.

And it wasn’t as though they were enslaved.

When her ancestors had come to this world, decades before, fleeing the polluted environment and equally polluted governments of Old Earth, they had taken with them only positive ideals.

Equality. Unity. Socialism where it was necessary, but capitalism where that was more beneficial. A two-tiered financial structure where people bartered where they could and only used credits when bartering wasn’t practical.

You couldn’t really barter a bushel of apples for a new roof, for example; it wasn’t practical.

But you could trade those apples and an equal number of yams, and maybe a monthly supply of field greens for a side of beef.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was working so far.

A blend of old and new.

Just like the professions.

Fenella’s parents had wanted her to go into a Traditional Profession. Her mother was a surgeon and her father enjoyed being a greengrocer.

But she was a child of this world and she insisted she wanted to be entirely of it. And when she had met one of the Wranglers outside her school one day, she’d fallen in love. Not with him – he was far too old for her – but his buzzer had let her touch his furred side and, and she’d felt herself in harmony with the great winged creature.

They had smaller buzzers on this world too. The ones bred from Old Earth honeybees. They were pollinators.

But the horned buzzers… they were bred up from carpenter bees, and their mass made them able to carry baskets capable of transporting goods or people across the great continents, or even the oceans (though it required stopovers on small islands en route).

They weren’t entirely sentient. More than a dog or a horse. Less than a human. Easily directed. And they could work in, well, swarms, if a job dictated it.

Still, every so often, they said, a horned buzzer would go rogue. It was pheromones. Or resentment. Or exhaustion. No one was sure. And for that reason, the Wranglers carried the blades.

The first step was to make the blade vibrate and touch it to the buzzer’s horn. It would sort of… reboot its nervous system.

And if that didn’t work, well, there was a reason the blades were sharp.

As a catch-and-release Wrangler, Fenella wasn’t assigned to just one buzzer, and she was glad of it, because if she had a hard time just carrying the blade, how much harder to consider having to put down a creature you worked with every day?

Not that she believed it would happen.

A voice came over her headset. “Five buzzers, income.”

“Catch and release station six, ready,” she responded.

Fenella stood on the cliff watching for the impending arrival. She felt it before she could see it. She could feel their buzz.

 

 

Pelt

0459 - Pelt

The snow was cold beneath the pads of her feet, and there was ice matted between her claws, but she reveled in the bitter cold, the bracing wind. To move on four feet instead of two was to embrace her true self, the one with thick fur that was designed for life in a harsh environment.

She sniffed the air and caught the familiar scents of home and family – her human family. When she’d told them that she needed to go for a walk, her husband had understood what she meant, but her children had not. They didn’t know what she really was.

A rabbit scurried across her path. She considered chasing it, bringing it home for dinner, but she knew what the kids would say… “Rabbit’s gross. It’s so stringy. Mama, we can’t eat Thumper.”

She would never judge them for their human tastes, but sometimes – most times – she missed the chase, the kill, the way fresh venison had that slightly gamey undertone.

A mournful howl cut through the wind. It wasn’t one of her kind, but she answered anyway, her return song one of reassurance. “You will be alright,” she sang. “Winter won’t last forever.”

The sunlight was beginning to fade as she turned for home and she paused at the edge of their property just to look at the cozy house, all aglow with lamplight. Subtle wisps of wood smoke emanated from the chimney. Wood smoke and beef stew. Her husband had been cooking.

Shaking the snow from her back, she climbed the three steps to the back porch. She stepped out of her pelt, as she climbed, laughing as her shadow appeared to have six limbs at one point.

She dressed in the clothes she’d left on top of the bench, and bundled her cast-off fur into a soft, cloth bag.

Her husband was waiting just inside the mud room. “Feel better?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.” She leaned to nuzzle his neck and then kiss his whiskery cheek. “Here,” she said. “You keep this.”

But her husband shook his head. “You know I can’t accept it. I want you here out of free will, not out of some compulsion.”

They had the same argument every time.

“You’re not taking it from me,” she explained, yet again. “I’m giving it to your care, just as you’ve given me your heart.”

“But I can abuse it,” he said.

“But you won’t,” she countered. “Any more than I would abuse your heart.”

Reluctantly he accepted her offering. “The second you want it back…” he began. But he didn’t finish; she knew what he’d say. Instead he simply asked,”You hungry? Dinner’s ready.”

Sometimes, she thought, a bowl of stew and the smiling faces of a family meant more than any hunt.