One part oatmeal and three parts magic, she was a mix of shadow and light, bitter and bright. She offered absolution in an outstretched palm and I - a shy child, faded and crumbling - refused with tears. She left and I could not say that she despised me. She walks with a potato-peeler, a mundane, stolen terror that reveals bone one confession at a time.
This morning I misremembered speech, and freed a god created in my kitchen by a wisp of errant prayer.
Zai stood guard outside of the hospital creche, keeping her eye on the hallway that could have stood in for any hospital hallway in any movie she’d ever seen. She hardly knew what to watch for as nurses and techs went from room to room as quietly as they could. Even though it was the middle of the night, no-one had slowed down, they’d only dimmed the lights.
The odd quiet and low light of the maternity ward made her nervous, but she didn’t want to leave Leah’s new baby in the hands of the hospital unsupervised, however willing they seemed to be to care for the little squid.
With one last glance down the hall, she turned and pressed her face to the glass of the viewing window. Leah’s little boy was easy enough to spot, sleeping like a tiny swaddled buritto in his plastic baby bucket.
She smiled to herself, a fond little smile. Where the other babies were had scrunched skin and ugly little faces, he had violet skin - the rich color of darkness and the chasm - and gently twitching tentacles that sprouted from his jaw to curl around his chubby arms and grip at the edges of his blanket.
“Some guard you are.” Leah startled Zai as Georgia wheeled her chair up to the window. Trailing them both, a rather dazed looking Nikki completed the quartet.
“Sorry.” Zai apologized, her gaze returning to the window and the baby beyond. “Have you decided what you’ll name him?”
Nikki spoke up when Leah shook her head. “She was trying to decide between something bog-boring that won’t get him teased, like Henry, and something weird enough to fit his face.”
Georgia tried to hide a smile and said, “Nikki suggested both Taicarilon and Cthuhlu.”
“Really, Nikki, really? You’d saddle a kid with Cthulu?” Zai gave her a look.
Nikki shrugged, her dangly earrings reflecting the green from one of the exit signs, “I was brainstorming. I only said that they share the whole ‘chintacles’ thing, so it would be more or less appropriate.”
“I might go with Zane. With a Z or an X. I haven’t decided.” Leah said, pressing her hand to the glass and staring off into the middle distance.
Never taking her eyes off the baby’s crib - Number #16. It had been a busy night for births - Zai teased Nikki, “The hell did you find Taicarilon? Was it in the glossary of one of your fantasy novels?”
“I made it up, if you must know. I told you, I was brainstorming. If you want something truly weird, go with something old and British.”
They all chuckled quietly at Nikki’s indignation, except for Leah. Zai was the first to notice the ripples in the glass radiating out from where her friend’s hand met the pane.
“Leah. Not here, sweetie.” She wrapped her fingers gingerly around Leah’s wrist and pulled her away, the ripples and tiny spiderweb cracks disappearing the moment her skin left the surface. “They’ll probably let us break protocol for him if we ask. He can sleep right next to your bed. I can bring him.”
“Sorry.” Leah began to cry and Nikki was on her knees next to the wheelchair with tissues as soon as she heard the tears in the apology. “Ask. Zai - ask, please. I don’t want to be this far from him right now.”
Zai nodded at Georgia, sharing a glance, and Georgia slipped away to find the doctor. Placing her hand on the glass beside her, Zai ran her fingers over the pristine surface. “Don’t worry.” She said. “Don’t worry. We’ll tuck squidbaby right into your arms and you can drift off to dreamland holding him.”
“Xavier.” Leah said, laughing as she blew her nose, producing the most unholy noise. “I’ve decided. Not squidbaby, but Xavier.”
Nikki made a small sound of approval. “Xavier.”
Anticipation is nine-tenths of any successful encounter. I don’t know what it says that it was my father who told me that right before he shoved me out to chew a few holes in some so-called superheroes.
It doesn’t say anything about how much I admired him, or how desperately I clung to his approval in a world that labeled me monster. It hints at his cavalier attitude and his confidence that a few caped meatheads carrying nunchucks and resorting to laser vision would never be able to conquer him. It very obviously gives me advice about sex, but he meant it to refer to my upcoming fight.
Not that I equate fighting with sex, mind, but it shares certain elements of conflict and resolution that I could draw some pretty strong parallels for.
He said ‘anticipation’. At the time, I thought he meant I should scare them. Flash my claws, bare my teeth, send a few to the hospital. So I did. We did. I and the others in my clutch swarmed out to meet the defenders, one for each. Short straw had to wait until next time to try her luck.
My opponent was Larry ‘Daggerpads’ Kerplefrumsch. I think his talent or mutation or superpower or whatever they’re calling it these days was along the lines of ‘terrible jokes’ and ‘falling out of his banana hammock’. Or it could have something to do with how he’d overcome losing his legs in that freak rollercoaster accident by replacing them with state-of-the-art kinetic-energy-storing multi-use prosthetics. He was a tech mutie. There had been gene-splicing involved so he could control his new appendages with his brain. I didn’t like his moustache.
But dad had meant anticipation on both sides, and not just fear. Daggerpads took one look at me - all sinuous eight feet of me - and every bit of him controlled by thought sprouted blades like a puffer-fish.
I spread my wings, mantling and rattling the loose scales on my spine, and he seemed to catch up, but in waiting for him to attack I realized what my father had really meant. I had to anticipate him, not just tease him. Perhaps it was supposed to be obvious from how dad’d said it, or how he phrased it, or because that’s what he meant in the first place, but I don’t often think that far ahead and at the time my ability to even think ahead at all was completely new. Decantation-to-maturation acceleration in cloning and chimera-design is an art, and dad hadn’t then figured out how to speed up emotional maturation beyond that needed to elevate logic above base instinct.
I’m saying I was a little slow on the uptake. I was young. But I understood eventually.
Daggerpads had a weak high-kick for someone whose claim to fame was sharp things on his fake feet. He went all-out and for a moment I was scared, anticipating. I had never really fought anyone before, only trained with my sisters.
Then I found that he telegraphed his moves. A muscle in his thigh would twitch. For all kickers, I recommend a less revealing outfit just as a precaution. My training activated. I knew who had taught him, what his conditioned weaknesses would be, and he was telling me everything else I needed to know.
But if I could tell how to counter him, I could also see how he was going to counter me. Thus, I played with anticipation.
I am still alive, so I pass on my father’s advice: Anticipation is nine-tenths of any successful encounter.
Ah, lover, I warn you: I use my nails.
Pay no mind to those who call them talons, nor to those who claim my eyes as black stars that sear. Fear not my encompassing wings, nor the press of flesh on flesh. I give only pleasure, and in the hollow of my chest beats a heart as made of muscle as any mortal’s. What scars I leave are gifts and mementos.
Nothing you have heard is true.
Except, lover, I warn you: I use my nails.
The otter head in her lap stared up at her and the suit itched. A woman was never meant to wear this much fur during July. “Lionel?” She asked, turning her head so he could hear her over the waves of static from the malfunctioning loudspeakers. She felt him shift, his shoulders warm against hers. ”Lionel? Put your head back on. I don’t think they know what mascots are.”
Just under 600 words. For my writing group. I promised not to write about aliens.
Shelving books in a corset only worked when it was extra loose. Bitta stood on her tiptoes, breath held, to slide a heavy volume on to the top shelf. There. Dropping back to the floor, she turned and slammed into the young man walking past. Her former armload of books narrowly missed her toes, and he caught her by the elbows before she followed them down.
He released her. “Are you alright?” He wore a threadbare t-shirt that proclaimed ‘It’s dangerous to go alone’ and depicted a kitten in an open palm. “I didn’t mean to run into you.” After an awkward beat, he amended, “Well, I did, but not so literally. I didn’t hurt you did I?”
“No, no I’m fine.” Bitta knelt, unable to bend at the waist, to collect her books. Crouching with considerably less grace, he helped her gather and stack them.
For an awkward minute, they did a bit of silent, coordinated reorganization, retrieving books from the ugly burgundy shag of Madam Lorella’s Bookshop and Burlesque Cafe.
When they finished, Bitta asked, “You were looking for me?” She offered him a wary smile, feeling suddenly vulnerable.
“I-” He took a breath and introduced himself in a rush. “I’m Leo and I saw you at the screening of Blade Runner at the scifi club at the college.” He gasped and finished, “So- um- hello!”
“You followed me to work?”
“I asked your friend where would be best to talk to you?” He made it a question.
“Oh.” Bitta fled behind the register, putting the espresso machine between him and her, and occupied herself tidying. Leo came over to claim a stool and lean, arms crossed, on the countertop.
As he settled, she paused mid-wipe, the counter half covered with crumbs. “She thought here was best?”
“I have no idea. She just said that you work here and if I wandered over on a Thursday, I’d probably get to see you dance.”
“I didn’t want to be a creeper.”
Bitta laughed. “Hands up.” She instructed, gesturing with her cleaning rag.
“I surrender.” He told her, wiggling his fingers in the air and lifting his elbows clear as she scrubbed up a splotch of half-dried jam. His scraggly moustache quirked at her as he smiled hopefully. “Do you want me to order something so I have an excuse to stay and talk with you?”
She tapped her chin in an over-exaggerated ‘thinking’ pose. “Sure. But only because you helped me pick up the books.”
“Then- a cup of coffee.” He passed her change. “I hope none of them - the books - were damaged.”
“Are you actually worried?”
He look surprised that she had to ask. “Of course?” Another question, as if he were uncertain his response was acceptable.
Bitta reassured him. “Bonus points, then. I don’t just work here for the tips.”
He smiled at her. She smiled back.
Sipping his coffee black, he said, “I was too busy looking for you not to run into you. How’s that for mad skills?” He looked like he wanted to ask for milk and sugar but didn’t want to push his luck.
Bitta leaned on the counter and nudged creamer his direction. “I am wearing a corset. Were you expecting me in a corset?”
Grateful, he flashed her another smile. “Well - no. She said you danced on Thursdays.”
“Also Wednesdays. You could stick around and watch?”
“Can I take you for dinner after?”
“We’ll never know unless you try.” Bitta agreed just before she was called away to make a double mocha frappuccino.
I wrote three. This is the third. I did not send this one in.
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. First, though, she needed a door.
She kept watch over her shoulder as she sought the slender wire that would trail from door to spine. Careful not to disturb the book and alert her minders of what she was about to do, she slipped the wire into its fastening.
A small spark burned her fingers and the gray, blank wall resolved into the glass door she sought. It opened with a touch and she was through, lingering only long enough to hear the alarms as she stepped into the story. They couldn’t follow her here, not while she was inside of her favorite book where the grass felt warm like shredded paper, and she filled in details to make the world her own.
The flowers jostled for her attention, and while at first she imagined it the wind, her darker worries brought forth the creature. In a smooth pirouette with the blade now in her hands, she slashed the beast down the side to rain crimson on parchment leaves. This, then, was why the garden book was her favorite. It gave her the tools she needed to defeat the darkness.
Panting, she watched the beast regather for the second of three attacks. The bulk of its body was formless shadow, too many legs and not enough, and only the face held its shape between one glance and the next.
Seven dark reptilian eyes.
Many rows of many teeth.
The railing of angry orderlies came through the door, but they knew better than to interrupt. Breaking her concentration, her connection, would leave her here as they pulled her body through. Perhaps that was what the beast was, former wards and patients.
She met the second lunge with a shriek and her blade bit deep, as of its own accord, following the memories of her hands and the words on the page.
The last was always the worst and when it came at her, claws extended - claws from nowhere made of nothing - she only just avoided its slash. It preyed upon her anxiety, her fear of returning to the sterile world beyond the door. She fought her own thoughts. The creature grew in strength, winning as it never had before, as she feared to go back.
She could die here fighting, or die there staring at blank walls and blank faces. The creature read her reluctance and ate her right arm.
That was not part of the story, and it was only a story so there was no pain, but it reminded her that this was a temporary place, no matter how often she longed to visit. The beast fed on what she brought to the book, and every battle fell along different lines.
Her sword sliced its head off, vorpal or near to it, and she sat up as the fog of the creature burned away. She would return to the hospital this once, her courage restored, and when she could no longer take the prognosis and the plastered smiles, she would return for another round. Maybe then she would stay.
Comforted, she stood. White light shone through the door and after a step she paused to feel the stump where her arm ended. Familiar. The story was growing to reflect her reality, and while even a day ago she might have cried, now the thought made her smile.
She left the sword bleeding shadow on the paper grass.
I wrote three. This is the first. I did not send this one in.
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. That was that, then: guestbook signed. She was committed to being here no matter how she felt about the day’s impending nuptials. Lingering a moment, she plucked a handful of butter mints from the candy dish and faded into the background like aways. Just because she decided to go through the archway, with its faded stained glass and ugly cherubs, didn’t mean she must right this minute.
Aunt Key shuffled past in her pastel pink Sunday best, her ankles wrapped in neon orange and green compression bandages. Among all the other guests, the elderly woman was the only one who looked pleased to be there, happy for the couple. She was the only one who noticed Marie.
Breaking away from her escort, she hobbled over to the niche between the sign-in table and the door and placed a hand on Marie’s arm.
“Not happy with his choice?”
“I love Kailey, but he could do so much better, Aunt Key.”
“Your brother made his bed, Marie.”
“But he’s the doing this for them, and they all hate it. He doesn’t have to prove anything to family. He doesn’t need a beard for us.”
The older woman reached passed Marie and picked up the guestbook. “They should be signing. Whether or not he and Kailey part ways later, they’ll want this signed by everyone.” She handed the book to Marie. “Would you take care of that, dear heart?”
“Why are we celebrating this mistake?”
“Because neither of them deserve our censure.”
Marie clutched the book to her chest, ignoring the curious looks of the guests as they filtered in. When she was ready, that’s when they would sign. Until then, she would hold the book hostage to her indecision. She was ready to support her brother, but- “I can’t agree to this.”
Mints crackled between Aunt Key’s dentures. “He doesn’t need your agreement. Just your good wishes for a bright future or something. Support him. Love him. Even when you think he’s stupid.”
“He’s going to be miserable.”
At this, Aunt Key dropped a mint back into the dish and rounded on Marie with one gnarled finger extended and a stern expression that caused her niece to shrink back. “And you know this how? How do you know? How can you know? Kailey is the best friend he’s ever had and she knows what she’s getting into. How can you be so cruel to expect this to be horrible for them? Not everyone marries for reasons you agree with. Those marriages don’t have to look like whatever nonsense you have in your head.” She paused for breath, wheezing and listing sideways enough to make Maire put out a steadying hand. “Treat Kailey like a queen. This is her day. They’re doing this in spite of all your stares and gossip and unhappiness, because they want to. Whatever reasons they have, they’re good enough to face you, so- so-” Overcome, she sputtered to an angry stop.
Marie whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“Get over it.” Aunt Key didn’t bother with sympathy. She merely turned and wobbled away, demanding an arm to lean on, neon bandages so very bright.
Clutching the book to her chest, Marie took a deep breath and turned toward the chapel arch, the cherubs watching her with their beady little eyes. Finally, she decided to walk through the door.
Ellia clung to the dingy’s low side and tried not to cringe away from the watery shape pacing the boat as her brother rowed for shore. “Serpent to starboard, Kemet.”
“I see it.” He said, deliberately ignoring the curious, scaled head that rose above the water to peer at them. It showed every inclination to remain, leisurely swimming alongside the siblings until they struck rocks and became food. “Tell it to go away, Ellia.”
“Do I-?” Ellia asked, but Kemet cut her off mid-thought.
“Yes. I don’t want it nudging us into the reef. Low tide is dangerous enough.”
Clenching her jaw, Ellia nodded and passed a hand over her face to wipe away her expression. With a breath and a sigh, she shut her eyes and blocked out the choppy water, the impending storm, and the sharp-toothed, semi-intelligent predator pacing them. When she had composed herself, she blinked and locked gazes with the serpent.
Her irises, leeched of color, glowed with a faint silver light as her pupils contracted to tiny points. The serpent swayed with the impact of her regard and reared further out of the water.
“Leave, Serpent.” Ellia commanded.
“Leave, Serpent.” The creature echoed, its voice a hollow duplicate of Ellia’s. Each syllable came from the thin, orange vanes along the sides of the serpent’s neck, caught and returned without inflection, only an accompanying vibrational hum.
Frustrated, Ellia narrowed her eyes, the silver light dripping, half-liquid, down her cheeks. “Don’t mock me, just leave.”
“Mock.” The serpent trilled as it returned her word, leaning in close to Ellia until its scaled snout touched her nose. “Mock.” Its rough skin itched, but she did not pull away.
“You would eat me, now that you know what I am?”
There was a pause before the serpent replied, “Know.”
Ellia smiled, then, and laid her hand on lightly along the spines of the serpents jaw. Her gentle caress traced the gaps between the opalescent scales and the serpent thrummed in pleasure and amusement. “Leave, Serpent. You will find no meal here.”
“So we hope.” Muttered Kemet, pulling hard on his oars.
The serpent withdrew. “Leave. Leave.” As it backed away, its vanes still vibrated and it did not drop to the water to mute their sound. A faded, thin wail rippled across the boat, an unnatural cry for help repeated from a source unheard. Then, with a shift in color as the vanes turned a brilliant yellow, it used Kemet’s voice to say “Hope.” Once more orange it continued, “Meal. You. Find.”
“Meal?” Ellia’s eyes flared brighter, sending more shimmering tracks down her cheeks. “Find it? Where? Who?”
The serpent, however, slipped below the water and muted its vanes, leaving Ellia to stare at the empty surface. “Kemet?”
Her brother shook his head, slipping the boat through a narrow channel between two sandbars. “Someone the serpents regard highly enough to repeat their cry for help.”
“Like me?” Ellia wiped her face and let the sea rinse the silver light from her fingers as her eyes faded to their natural brown. “Do you think so?”
“We can’t look until after the storm, Ellia, no matter how much you want to.”
Staring after the serpent, she let out a small frustrated sound. “Hope, then, Kemet. The serpents do not repeat words without cause. Hope whoever it is will survive just a little bit longer.”
“Did you see what I just saw?”
“What? The whole golden light and angelic chorus thing?”
“Well, I’m not sure about you, but it didn’t really do anything for me.”
“Was that a sign? I mean, was that a sign for me?”
“I don’t see anyone else here but you and me, and I’m pretty sure I’m exempt.”
“He _was_ cute -”
“Go get ‘em, tiger.”
”- But I don’t think I trust angelic choruses.”
“If I had your record, I don’t think I would either.”
“This is a problem.”
“No it’s not. Go talk to him. Tell him about the light and see what he says.”
“If you don’t, you’ll always wonder what the special effects were for.”
The cake obviously needed eating.
“Madam?” She tried to block out the scratchy, tin sound of the automatic busboy as he paused by her table. She waved him off, but his programming was busted and he repeated, “Madam? Done?”
“Away with you,” she said, chastising him with the handle of her fork. His hollow chest cavity rang with the blow. “Can’t you see I’m not finished with this?”
Unperturbed, the busboy backed off a few feet and out of range of her utensils. “Apologies, Madam. I simply required confirmation.” The busboy canted toward the register. “The management wishes to inquire if you would like me to box that for you?”
“Is it a problem if I want to sit here and stare at this piece of cake for the rest of eternity?” Her matte-red lips curved in a mockery of a smile. “I’ve not been here for more’n an hour.”
“Apologies, Madam.” The busboy left her to return to its masters.
She wasn’t getting any younger and the cake wasn’t getting any fresher.She wielded her fork, hesitating with the tines a hairsbreadth from the chocolate frosting.
“This is for you, Elanore. I hope you’re happy wherever you are.”
Dante polished his nails with clear lacquer and eyed the men on either side. All down the line they were sewing, oiling leather, fixing gear, sharpening weapons and the rickety bench beneath them shifted every time one of them tried to acquire better light for their task. Of all, however, Dante was the only one with polish and a file.
“When do you go out?” The man next to him, a thickly-muscled redhead, asked as he used a thick needle to fix the net in his lap.
Dante did not look at the speaker. Instead, he smiled at his nails and affected carelessness. “Eleven. I should be back in time for lunch.”
Snapping the thread with his teeth, the man next to him grunted. “If you’re not dead.”
“If I’m not dead.” Dante replied, amiable as always as he filed his nails into points.
She kissed his shoulder and wrapped her fingers around his dogtags. The metal bit into his neck as she backed him against the wall and tightened her hold on the chain, forcing his chin up and exposing his neck to her mouth. With her palm over his heart, she could feel his breathing quicken. A slow smile spread across her lips. “Mine.”
Panic. Panic panic panic. Panic panic flail panic. Panic flail panic. Panic.
The breathing part is difficult. Much easier to run in circles and get nothing done. Passing out means not being held responsible. Panic boxed under pressure. Task doable.
“Obviously,” Viviana said, adding one last flourish to the brilliant orange curlicue arching from the corner of her eye down the line of her jaw. Finished, she tapped the brush on the side of the sink, spattering paint on the porcelain. “We’ll just have to use the explosive quarrels.”