His Lips

0105 - His LipsShe runs into him  – quite literally – outside the coffee shop across the street from old campus, the one where they make the mochas with proper bitter chocolate and understand that whipped cream shouldn’t be sweetened.

“Excuse me,” she says, “I’m so sorry, I was looking at my phone and…” Said phone has fallen to the ground and she crouches to retrieve it rather than bend. When she looks up it’s his mouth that catches her attention. His mouth. His lips. Pressed together. Plush in a way that men’s lips typically aren’t.  Kissable.

In that moment, the stranger in his vintage clothes and the hat that obscures his eyes has become the object of her desire.

He doesn’t speak, but extends a hand to assist her as she releases her squat and stands straight. “Thank you,” she says. “Again, I’m sorry.”

He touches his hand to the brim of his hat and disappears into the shadowed twilight of the university district.

A week passes by, then two.

Halloween is over. Thanksgiving is coming fast.

There’s an annual party at the university, and as a professor, she is required to attend. It’s hosted by the English department this year, and the folklorists have chosen the theme: firelight. They’ve got fires in the giant fireplaces at either end of the hall and set the tables with lanterns of living flame.

The portraits of past presidents, past tenured professors, high up on the walls, look down in judgement and envy. Possibly more of the latter.

She half-expects to see him there, immortalized in oil paint.

Instead she spies him over by the hot hors d’oeuvres. He’s serving himself some of the stuffed mushroom caps.

Across the room, she finds herself once again entranced by his lips.

She goes to him, observes that the chafing dish that once held mushrooms is now empty. He must be watching her, too, because a cool hand touches her shoulder and he is offering a second fork, gesturing for her to share his plate.

“You’re very kind,” she says.

He gives the slightest of shrugs and leads her to a quiet alcove.

They spend the evening watching the rest of the party. They leave together; he escorts her to her apartment.

“Do you want to come in?” she asks.

He touches his hat again, and the muscles in his cheeks contract slightly, drawing his lips – god! Those lips! – into a subtle smile.

They share a pot of tea, and then a bottle of wine.

She does all the talking, but somehow, he conveys his opinions on her observations. Yes, Ayn Rand is overrated. No, modern students don’t read enough romantic poetry.

As dawn light turns the window shades pink, they each move to the center of her sofa. He takes her hands in his. She leans close, under his hat-brim with him, and touches her lips to his.

In the space of a kiss, she understands… the hat hides his demon eyes from human gawking, and also protects them from bright light. And his lips hide teeth meant for cutting and chewing human flesh.

His voice… when she hears it… is mesmerizing. Julian Sands married to Alan Rickman mesmerizing. He tells his story in a few succinct sentences. His father was a demon, his mother his human mate. When she learned what he was, his mother made his father promise that he could live a human life. He chose to dwell among books.

* * *

“Why don’t you speak?” She asks, much later in the morning, when she’s resting against his smooth chest.

“My voice is where my power lies,” he explains. “If I’d wooed you with words, you would be in thrall, and I didn’t want that, don’t want that.”

“Is that what happened to your mother?”

“Yes. But becoming pregnant broke the thrall, and now she remains with my father out of choice.”

“It wasn’t coincidence, was it? Me running into you?”

“No.” His answers are brief, but she hears the more in them.

“How long can this last?” She means the connection they’ve forged.

He answers by kissing her.

“You’re wrong you know,” she tells him, several days later, as they’re walking to the coffee shop as the season’s first snow falls around them. “It’s not your voice that draws people in. At least, it wasn’t with me.”

“What was it then? The hat? The clothes?”

“No,” she says. “Guess?”

In the privacy of a darkened doorway, he smiles at her with a closed mouth covering his deadly teeth, and she stretches a gloved finger up to caress his lips.

Coda?

0175 - PianoInstruments are meant to be played. They’re not to be left alone, untuned, unused , unloved.

 

They have souls, you know. Not fully-formed ones such as ours, mind you. Rudimentary souls. Proto-souls, you might call them.

 

Or maybe they’re not souls at all. Doesn’t matter. The name you give them isn’t important. That you recognize that there’s a spark of something – a spark of some THING – suspended in the wire and the wood, or curled up inside the brass of the bell, or hiding tucked up against the reed – that’s what matters.

 

And those things. Those THINGS… when they’re ignored long enough they go crazy trying to make music without a human hand, a human heart, to guide them.

 

You know how when you walk by a cello on a stand, sometimes you hear a hint of resonance? Or you think you hear a piano note late at night?

 

Those are them. The sparks trying to become flame.

 

We talk about great musicians being connected to their instruments, playing as if the violin or saxophone an extension of their body? That’s because the spark has found ignition.

 

A raw, new, unplayed instrument will fade into dust.

 

But one that’s felt the loving touch of elegant hands on its keys, the special balanced weight of sticks being held to drum, the soft slide of a virtuoso playing a glissando – those instruments quite literally go mad.

 

They cry out loneliness in crazy concertos that fold in upon one another like cobwebs. They fill empty rooms with the dissonant sounds of their grief.

 

“I’m sorry, ma’am, what were you saying about the music room?” Sarah had been lost in thought, seeing the poor old piano.

 

“Piano comes with the house” the woman in the gold blazer repeated. “Previous owner was a classical star until arthritis killed his career.”

 

Sarah made some polite response as she and Gold Blazer Woman moved to the next room in the walkthrough. But she cast a final glance at the deteriorated instrument and the collection of empty chairs.

 

“Don’t worry.” She willed the ancient Steinway to hear her thoughts. “I’ll save you.”

Basic Cookery

0412 - DemonFnarglyl sprawled on the dining room floor leafing through his granddam’s cookery books. He had no plans to actually make anything. He just enjoyed reading the recipes and trying to imagine what the various exotic dishes might taste like. Far too many of them seemed to involve vegetation like crabgrass and dandelion greens. Granddam always said that greens were good for his digestion, but he was pretty sure she made him eat them because her granddam had made her eat them, too.

He tossed aside a book that was dedicated to plant-based foods: Ivies for Immortality. Being immortal sounded cool, until you realized that it meant leaving your friends and your family all alone and getting old and broken but never actually dying. Pheh. They could keep their immortality, especially if it meant a diet based on ivy.

Although… the poison kind did have a nice bite to it.

He skipped over three books about stewing roadkill – not interesting enough, and then he found a book that was different than the rest. Instead of having a brightly colored cover with pictures of sumptuous food, this one was black, and leather, and smelled faintly dangerous.

And it didn’t have a title.

After glancing around to make sure Granddam wasn’t paying too close attention, Fnarglyl opened the book, and began paging through it. Some of the pages had recipes, but they didn’t seem to be for food, and they involved drawing symbols on the floor in chalk… or blood.

Just as he was reading a chapter called “Humans: How to Summon and Care for The Pink People,” his grandmother interrupted him. “Glylly, sweetie, it’s time for your bath, and then into bed.”

“Aww, Gran, can’t I have just a few more minutes?” he asked.

“Not tonight, Glylly. You know I have my garden club tomorrow morning, and I have to be up early.”

Fnarglyl reshelved the cookbooks, but the black one, he tucked under a wing. Granddam usually left him alone for the two or three hours she was with her gardening friends. Most of the ingredients for summoning a human were in the house, and she’d never notice if he drew a chalk circle down in the basement… at last, he didn’t think she would.

“Glylly… don’t dawdle.”

“Sorry, Gran,” he said, and got up. He kissed her cheek and caressed her hand with his tail and slid past her toward the bathroom. He was almost sure she’d looked at him funny, but she hadn’t said anything.

Tomorrow, he thought, I’m going to meet a human for the first time!

He hoped they didn’t bite.

 

 

Monster See, Monster Do

0323 - Stolen Toy Monster“Becky, that’s mine! You can’t take it!” Harry yelled after his sister as she goose-stepped across the house toward the kitchen, her black patent-leather shoes tap-tap-tapping across the wooden floor. “Mom! Becky stole my Human Hammer action figure.”

Their mother didn’t answer, but Becky yelled back. “It’s not your toy, Harry; you stole it from an assigned Child, and you know you’re not supposed to take their stuff. You’re only allowed to move it to an Odd Location where they will find it weeks later and be Very Confused about how it got there.”

“I didn’t steal it! It was in the trash. See how the arm is hanging loose?”

“Stealing from the Humans’ trash is still stealing. Though trash is certainly where this thing belongs. Pink skin? Only two eyes? It’s disgusting. And it probably uses that hammer to murder innocent Monsters!”

Harry came out of his room to confront his sister. “So, what if it does? It’s just a toy, Becky. You had a Firefighter Fred doll two years ago, and I remember you used to let him pretend-kiss your Slithery Sallie doll. Monsters and Humans killing each other is way less weird than Monsters and Humans kissing.”

“That’s not the point, Harold,” Becky said, invoking her brother’s first name.  “Firefighters are heroes to monsters and humans. They don’t hunt and kill monsters. Besides. I’m older now and I know better.”

The children continued their argument, unaware that their mother was watching from behind her half-open bedroom door. When the verbal shots escalated to tentacle pulling and slime spitting, the older woman sighed, and slid out of the cool darkness to confront her offspring.

“Rebecca Jane and Harold Maurice be silent.”  She didn’t raise her voice. A firm tone and the invocation of middle names was enough.

“Sorry Mom,” Harry said.

“Mother, did we wake you?” Becky asked.

Their mother didn’t address either statement directly. Instead, she said, “I’m going to say this once, and I expect you to remember. Playing with human toys is a phase we all go through. Becky, if I remember correctly, your Firefighter Doll was left behind when your Child’s family moved.”

“Well, yes.”

“And Harry, dear, you know you’re not supposed to scavenge from the Humans’ trash bins.”

“I know.”

“You are almost eight hundred and two, Harry. I know their toys are tempting, but if they catch us playing with them, we cease to be scary.”

“Okay…”

“Becky, give him the doll.”

Becky held the thing pinched between two fingers, as if it smelled like roses, or something equally disgusting. “Fine. Take it.”

Harry snatched back his prize, and looked toward their mother intending to thank her but the older Monster wasn’t done.

“Harry, you may continue to play with the… Human Hammer… for one more week, and then you must return it to your Child’s house.”

“But they threw it away!”

“I know. But our job is to Scare Children. A toy returning from the trash after a week – ”

” – twelve days – ”

“Don’t interrupt me, Harry. A toy returning from the trash will be Very Scary. You might even get a Putrid Pentacle for the act.”

“A Putrid Pentacle? Really?”

“Really,” their mother said. “Becky was nine hundred before she got her first one.”

“Cool!”

“Mom!”

Both children responded at once.

“I’m going back to bed for a while. All this sunny weather is making my head hurt. I expect you to honor our agreement, Harold… and Rebecca…”

“Yes, mother?”

“Mary-Janes are a Human affectation. Do we need to have our talk about proper attire again?”

Becky rolled her many eyes at her mother and said nothing.

“I didn’t think so.”

And the older Monster glided back to her room and closed the door, praying her children never learned of her addiction to Ghost Hunters.

 

Cold Reflection

0406 - Armored Visions

Katja had gone through hell to acquire the gazing ball. She’d fought off zombie soldiers and negotiated with dragons. She’d waded through a river of a viscous substance she was grateful she couldn’t identify, and she’d found the portal from the Otherworld to her own. She’d even managed to activate it correctly, despite the fact that the instruction manual was printed in a language she didn’t speak, and likely translated from another she’d never even heard of.

Now, though, it was time to put her prize to use.

Some gazing balls allowed you to revisit the past and make sense of the choices you’d made and the paths upon which those choices had set you. Others allowed you to glimpse the future, to prepare yourself for what might be coming.

But this gazing ball…

This gazing ball let you face your darkest fear.

That’s why, after the ritual bathing, and a simple meal of fruit, cheese, and nuts, Katja had dressed herself for battle. After all she was a mighty warrior. Her darkest fear was obviously going to be an ogre or an orc or a swamp monster… something bigger and stronger than she was, with teeth and claws instead of an external weapon… or maybe in addition to one.

Katja uttered the ritual rules and turned the ball three times, widdershins.

Then she waited.

She was expecting the crystal sphere to grow cloudy with mystical smoke. She was expecting the lights to flicker, or even burn out, as live flame was wont to do… instead, she gazed into the formerly clear ball and saw her own reflection.

Startled, she sat back in her chair, as by creating space between the gazing ball and her body it would break the connection.

Instead, her mirror self simply shook her head in silent chastisement.

Katja sat up straight again and squared her shoulders. Then she looked – really looked – at the other version of herself. That woman was not clad in a warrior’s armor, but a peasant’s dress. Her hair wasn’t rich with color, but faded and wispy. Her face, too, was lined with age, and her eyes seemed sad.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

Mirror-Katja held a finger to her lips, indicating that she couldn’t communicate with speech. She beckoned, meaning that Katja should lean closer.

Down and down, she bent, until her forehead touched the glass. There was a crack, and then blackness, and then she was looking at her reflection again, but it was in reverse. The face in the gazing ball was young and fresh, and wearing sturdy armor.

Panicking, Katja turned away, hoping that her fear was unfounded. A polished looking glass hung on the wall and she moved to check her true reflection. But something was wrong. Her body hurt when she moved, and her legs felt weak.

Still, she shuffled to the glass and peered in, seeing, not her youthful self but the aged version from the gazing ball.

She hurried, as best as she could, back to the table, where the second gazing ball waited.

And she was filled with horror.

The crystal sphere on this table was not a different one, not half of a set, or even a temporary manifestation, it was the very same ball she’d struggled so hard to acquire. She looked into it again, and saw the other Katja, whom she now realized was her future self, laughing.

Her worst fear hadn’t been any kind of creature she could battle, after all.

Her worst fear had been her own old age and failing body.

Katja reached for the sphere again, leaning toward it to attempt to reverse the switch. If she could just touch it with her forehead once more…

But her reflected self, her future self residing in her youthful body, was too quick. She took her sword and sliced through the air, cracking the original sphere in two.

Her sons, grown men, found their mother’s cold corpse with her head on the table two days later.

The gazing ball was nowhere to be seen.

Falcon

0404 - Falcon

 

Movement below her woke Eyris from her long sleep, and she turned her great head to focus on its source. Her mechanical eyes flipped back and forth between lenses with tiny whir-click­ sounds, until she had a clear image.

Two humans in a boat. She checked her internal database to clarify the type of boat. A gondola. But it was floating through the air, just below her perch, rather than on water.

Hadn’t boats been meant to sail on water?

Eyris moved her great head ever so slowly, tracking the boat. The taller human held a staff that seemed to be the vessel’s source of propulsion, while she shorter one kept turning in circles and pointing.

She zoomed in on the pair and learned that the smaller one was a child while the larger was obviously its parent.

“… turning, or you’ll capsize us, Sash,” the larger one said, and the smaller paused in his? No, her. She was definitely female. The smaller one paused in her spinning.

“But Mom, there’s a giant pigeon!”

“Yes, honey, that’s a gargoyle. During the Second Golden Age they were brought into use again, not just as decorations on buildings, but also as part of the security systems. It’s said that some of them gained true intelligence, but no one really believes that.”

Eyris knew she wasn’t supposed to interact with humans, but she was clearly a Falcon and to be mistaken for one of those trashy street-walking birds would literally have ruffled her feathers, were they not made of stone.

She knew she’d be admonished. Maybe even suspended from her job as a gargoyle, but she couldn’t help it. Honor was at stake.

Summoning the strength of long-idle gears and pulleys, she leaned forward, until her shadow moved across the boat, and the occupants looked up at her.

“Mom… are they supposed to do that?”

“Do what, Sasha? Ohhhh!”

“What do we do?”

“There’s a ritual for greeting one of the Grotesque Ones,” the larger human said. “Let me think a moment.” She brought the gondola to a halt, and faced Eyris, bowing. “We apologize for interrupting your sleep,” she said. “We are merely observers and mean neither offense nor harm.”

Eyris’s first instinct was to knock the humans from their boat and watch their tiny forms plummet down, down, down to the ground, relishing in their screams.

The ritual greeting halted that process.

Grudgingly, she responded, her voice raspy from disuse. “I am Eyris, she who Guards. You have not caused harm, small ones, but you have caused offense.”

The taller human took an instinctive step backward, nearly capsizing the craft the way her daughter had not actually come close to doing. “I… apologize, but… I am uncertain how we offended you.”

Eyris sighed. “Humans have always been oblivious. ‘Seen one bird, seen them all,'” she quoted a phrase she’d heard over and over during her life. “Check your ornithology references, small one. You will find that you have misidentified me.”

The taller human was apologetic when she replied. “I am sorry, Eyris. I have no such references. Avian species are largely unknown to us these days. The sky is inhabited by poled gondolas, such as mine.”

“No… birds?”

“Not in the City, no.”

“Then I will explain, and I will forgive you… this time.” And she opened her beak to display the rows of metal teeth there (an addition that was not based on her organic inspiration). “I am no pigeon, small one.”

“You’re not?”

“No. I am a Falcon.”

 

 

Death and Taxes

0403 - Death and TaxesShe was asleep when they found her. Or, more accurately, dormant. Her guardian stone was still active. Had there been any real possibility that the pink-skinned humans with their measly two arms could have removed her from her cradle, the guardian would have awakened her.

So, yes, to their perception she was asleep. Asleep and hungry – why did intruders always make her feel hungry?

But the two-arms were no different than any who had come before, or any who would come after. They didn’t run in fear from her visage, her six arms and bladed weapons. No. They… persisted.  

But she was protected. It was part of the deal.

She was protected. They persisted.
And they were punished.

Those who tried to pry her weapons from her hands had their own skin split open in the process. Those who attempted to remove her headdress found themselves blind, and in blinding pain. Those who had the gall – the unmitigated gall! – to use chisels and something called a ‘crow bar’ (though according to her guardian it did not bear any resemblance to a crow) to remove the armored carapace that protected her soft parts and her legs, had been forced to crawl from her chamber on their hands, dragging their useless legs behind them.

None of their injuries were permanent, of course. Harming creatures who were weaker than you was unethical, or at least tacky.

And in truth, there were a few pink-skins who visited her resting place to try and understand her people and her culture.

Of course, they got it completely wrong.

They referred to her as ‘Kâli,’ who was apparently a goddess in one of the two-arms’ cultures. (Had she been awake, flattery would have gotten them everywhere – what woman didn’t appreciate being referred to as a being to be worshipped? Maybe not always, but, you know, as a change of pace.)

But she was not Kâli.
And she was not deserving of worship.
And this resting place, this cradle, was not the chamber of beloved royalty.

Rather, it was a prison cell. Here, under the guardian’s care, her body remained death-still, but her mind… Her mind was hooked into the Great Collective, where it served out a centuries long sentence as an accountant.

A tax accountant.

Her crime was symbolized in the weapons she held in her tertiary hands: a stylized knife and fork.

She hadn’t meant to devour her mate on their wedding night. But he’d smelled so good, and she’d been so hungry, too nervous to eat before the ceremony, and too busy during.

But, the elders had chastised her, cannibalism had been outlawed centuries before, and even then, it had only been permitted to the victors in war. Not, despite her protests, to the winners of Pawns and Leaders.

“How much longer?” She asked the guardian in charge of her case.

“Five hundred more years.”

“Home stretch,” she quipped, and returned to her work.

She wondered what would happen to those two-armed pink-skinned adventurers when she and her fellow inmates were released.

She also wondered if they were worth eating. She was just so hungry.

 

Nothing Like Sea Monkeys

0380 - Mermaid Tail

‘Essence of Mermaid’ read the label on the envelope. ‘Empty crystals into a wet towel  and keep damp overnight while they grow into your new Mermaid Friend.’

Josie had saved her allowance for three months before her mother had finally agreed to go to the website and click ‘buy now.’

“You know this probably isn’t real, J-girl,” her mother said. “When I was your age, these ads were in the backs of magazines and comic books and they promised us sea monkeys.”

“Did they eat sea bananas?”

Her mother laughed but it was the kind that meant she was missing her own childhood. “No; they weren’t really monkeys at all, just a kind of shrimp, and they never seemed to work the way the label said.”

“But you bought them anyway?”

“I did.”

“And you’re letting me buy the mermaid.”

“I am.”

“Why?”

“Because sometimes it’s worth it to spend a little money on hope and magic.”

And so, the payment had been made and the envelope had arrived. An envelope within an envelope. Josie had taken one of the old kitchen towels to soak, and poured the blue and green crystals into it, then soaked it.

And then she waited.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to peek, and she tried not to, but it was harder than not shaking the packages under the Christmas tree every year to see which were toys and which were underwear. After four hours, she peeled open just one quarter of the damp towel.

Jelly. All she saw was blue and green jelly.

She rewrapped the towel, brushed her teeth, and went to bed. The next morning, she had to get ready for school, so she put the towel in the tub, where it would be out of the way. Maybe by the time she got home, her mermaid would have grown.

“Mom! Mom! Is she here? Do I have a mermaid?” Josie ran up the porch steps and into her house. “Mom?”

“Hey, kiddo, there’s chocolate cookies on the – Josie! Slow down!”

But she’d already pushed past her apron-clad mother, dropped her backpack on the floor near the stairs, and made her way to the bathroom.

The tub was empty.

“Mom! Mom, come here!”

“Josie, what is it? What’s wrong?”

The little girl pointed at the empty tub. “The towel with the mermaid essence. It’s gone.”

“You started them without me?”

“I wanted it to be ready when I came home from school.”

Josie’s mother pulled her close. “I’m sorry sweetie, I didn’t realize. The towels are in the washer, now.”

“There wasn’t a baby mermaid in the load was there?”

“No, honey. Just a wet towel.” Josie started to cry, but her mother tugged gently on one of her braids. “How ’bout I order another packet of mermaid essence? When it arrives, we can set it up together.”

“I – I guess.”

“Would a cookie help you feel better?”

Josie sniffed. “Maybe.”

“Shall we go find out?”

“Okay.”

Mother and daughter left the bathroom and walked down the stairs in tandem. As they passed the laundry room door, they heard a loud thump-a-thump-a-thump sound. “Laundry’s off-balance again. Let me go fix it.”

Josie headed toward the kitchen but after a beat, her mother called her back.

“Something wrong, Mom?”

“I’m not sure ‘wrong’ is the correct term, kiddo. Let’s just say… Essence of Mermaid is nothing like sea monkeys.”

Her mother stepped aside to reveal a mermaid tail – a grown-up sized one – protruding from the open door of the washer.

Chalk

0396 - ChalktopusStephen loved to walk from his tiny garret apartment overlooking the river to the university where he taught. His first class was a geography section that met at ten minutes past seven every morning. Most of the year, that meant his walk was illuminated by the first, warming rays of the morning sun.

He would walk the first section along the river, where fog often diffused the colors of the sunrise, then he would turn toward the center of the city, stopping at his favorite newsstand for the daily paper – he reveled in the inky texture of newsprint against his fingers – a coffee, and a cheese Danish. His lunches and dinners were always healthy but having coffee and pastry in the morning had been a ritual since his student day, when eating on the go had been more important than balanced nutrition.

Besides, his daily walks, rain or shine, warm weather or cool, kept him trim. He could afford the ’empty’ calories.

The last section of Stephen’s walk brought him through the Chalk Alleys. These were narrow streets between great brick buildings, their external walls covered in layer upon layer of chalk drawings. He enjoyed the work of the different artists, and while he could never decipher the tags that represented their creators’ names, he recognized each distinct style.

There was one chalk artist who was obsessed with machine age cityscapes, and another who thought themself a contemporary Degas, covering walls with stylized dancers in modern club attire. There was the illustrator who memorialized local personalities on the bricks, and there was another who created trompe l’oeil windows onto other worlds.

More recently, however, a new artist had joined the extant crew. Stephen had glimpsed some of their work on warehouses along the waterfront and become intrigued by the monsters they depicted. A white shark with three-dimensional teeth swam on the wall of the old boathouse, and a dragon with scales that glittered like the stars was on the wall opposite the university gates. Creature-Feature’s (Stephen’s private nickname for the skilled creator) monsters were all based on real animals, but given heightened realism, and exaggerated danger.

As he turned the final corner, Stephen saw Creature-Feature’s most recent work: a giant squid that seemed to undulate along the wall, several of its tentacles even curling around the corner of the building. In the weak light that hit these bricks, it seemed as if the squid had was following him on his path. Indeed, when he turned the corner, the tentacles followed him, stretching off their flat surface to reach for…

No! This could not be happening!

Stephen quickened his pace in order to reach the next corner, and where he could cross the street and climb the stairs to the pedestrian bridge.

The great beast followed him.

It made no sound, but when Stephen had to step closer to the wall to side-step a puddle, he caught the scent of seawater and something faintly rubbery and slimy and sinister, and felt the sucker on the tentacle’s underside brush the back of his neck.

Dropping his coffee and pastry, Stephen broke into a run. Most of his brain was occupied with breathing and not tripping and wishing he’d thought to wear running shoes to work and change upon arrival, but another, smaller part, wondered if any of his students followed this route to school, and what would they think?

The sunlight grew brighter, bringing more of the brick expanse into its warming glow and Stephen cast aside his newspaper and ran faster. If he could reach that corner, he’d be out of the shadows. Surely sunlight would stop the thing, right?

Right?

But he’d forgotten: just before the corner one of the old building had been supplanted by a skyscraper, as was happening more and more often in the city. The tall structure blotted out the sunlight, and the squid reached for him again, and this time, the suckers caught him.

As the chalk creature dragged him into its dusty embrace (why had he thought it was slimy?), Stephen screamed.

But there was no one to hear him.

The seasons changed. Stephen’s class was reassigned to the bewilderment of students who had always enjoyed their original professor’s lectures. The landlord eventually emptied the apartment and leased it to someone new at twice the rent.

Rains erased the cityscapes and dancers, and new illustrators came to create new chalk picture, but the squid, on its sheltered bricks, remained. It wasn’t technically indelible, but no one was willing to touch it. It felt too weird, they said.

Still the image of the giant sea-monster had been altered. If asked, people would say the image changed around the time of Stephen’s disappearance.

And the alteration?

The figure of a man in khaki pants and a jacket with elbow-patches, a messenger bag slung across his body, was visible in the curl of one of the squid’s tentacles, his mouth open in a perpetual scream.

Stitches

0400 - StitchesJeiyiz stood in front of the looking glass in her room and surveyed her work. So far, one arm was completed, and work on her torso had begun. When the final stitch had been completed, she would be considered a woman in the eyes of her people and could leave their village and make her way in the universe.

The embroidered flowers and symbols that were sewn into her skin represented the people who had raised her, the friends who had supported her, the animals which had given themselves for her nourishment, and the Great Path that all her kind walked.

The Path was a spiritual one, that lead each of the Embroidered Ones to their personal fulfillment. For some, this resulted in marriage and children, while for others it led to a life of ministry or activism. Some found that their branches of the Path resulted in demanding careers that allowed them to give back to their communities, while others lived lives of creativity, adding to the collective Story in words, music, and visual art.

Jeiyiz was not yet certain where her journey would end, but she knew that she was anxious for it to begin. Her plan was to go to the City to the great University there, and study as broad a curriculum as possible.

After that, she wished to travel. On the newsfeeds, she’d seen the giant starships that sailed into orbit around her World and been dazzled by all the different kinds of People who came down to visit. Some were green-skinned, and some were pink. Some had horns, and some had hair. Some had art on their bodies – not thread like hers, but ink and scars.

Jeiyiz wanted to meet all these different People. She wanted to taste the diversity that existed in the universe and discover her true place in it. She’d been told she could write; maybe she would chronicle her experiences.

But first she had to complete her stitching.

She pulled her kit from the bottom drawer of her dresser, and threaded the needle with clean, white, thread. She’d filled each spool herself, first gathering the fluffy white fiber from the thread-plants, then cleaning it, carding it, stretching and spinning it until it was fine enough to be sewn into living skin.

With the first stick of the needle, blood ran down the fiber, staining it red-brown. It didn’t hurt much, but she would not have objected to a little pain. “Pain is what lets us know we are alive,” the elders said. “Pain is a signal that we are part of the Universe.”

The angle at which Jeiyiz was working was awkward, and she had not stenciled a design in chalk or marking pencil, but she was certain her imagination would lead her stitches in the correct direction.

She worked for an hour, finishing the first two of many water plants. Water was her element, and while she had heard that there are People who come from desert planets, she could not imagine living on one. The very thought left her parched.

At the end of her hour, she tied the knot, snipped the thread, washed her blood off the needle, and replaced her kit in her dresser drawer.

Standing in front of her mirror once more, Jeiyiz surveyed her work. The once-white stiches have absorbed her blood, and dried to almost the color of her skin. She runs the hand of her un-sewn arm over the earlier sewing of the opposite side, and smiles at her reflection.

Her torso was nearly half finished. By the end of the Hot Season she would be ready to claim her adult status and begin her Adventures on the Great Path.

Perhaps one day she would find a life partner and agree to a marriage. She lifted her unembroidered arm and studied the smooth flesh there. If that partner was not one of her People but another kind of Person, would they be willing to stich their story into her skin?

For the moment, Jeiyiz could only wonder.