Friday, July 31, 2009
You probably wonder how it came to this. How I, your best friend, am leading an army of what you must think of as the forces of darkness and evil. But you know, if you think about it, it’s not really that much of a surprise. I always said I was going to be a great knight and go forth into battle and do all kinds of great deeds.
I’m sure you remember how unhappy I was as a child. I never wanted to be a proper lady, to learn embroidery and etiquette and penmanship (you can see from this letter my penmanship never did improve) and wear pretty clothes that are impossible to move in, and marry and spend the rest of my life having children. But as far back as I can remember, I knew that that was the only life I would ever be allowed. Most people have big dreams as children, then grow up and are disillusioned, but for me it was the opposite. I always knew that my dreams were impossible. Until that one day…
You probably don’t remember it. We were six, and I’d managed to convince you to play at fencing with me. So we were whacking at each other with sticks a little down the road from my house when a rider on horseback galloped right up to us. You shrieked and dropped your stick and ran away then, and I never did tell you what happened next.
The rider dismounted. To my shock, it was a woman, but she was dressed in rather rakish men’s clothes and a sword hung at her waist. She was not, I will emphasize, disguised as a man. She wore her hair in a long black braid down her back, and her clothes did nothing to hide her figure. So it was quite clear that this heroic-looking figure was a woman, and at seeing her, my dreams came back from the dead.
I stared up at her as if she was a god. I’m sure you think that’s blasphemous, but that’s how I felt. She looked me over, taking in the stick-sword I was still carrying, and smiled. And then she drew her blade and told me, “En guard!” And we dueled.
Even then, I knew that she was not really fighting. She was an adult, and a trained swordswoman, and I was six and using a stick. Had she wanted to, she could have defeated me in far less than the thirty seconds that passed before she finally touched the tip of her sword to my nose and said with a grin, “You’re dead.”
“Are you riding out with Lord Arthlbee’s troops?” I asked her. I’d forgotten, until I wrote that just now, that that was the day they left for battle. I’m sure you will remember the day then, if not that incident. But surely you remember when we sneaked off to watch them ride off, the sun glistening on their shiny white armor. And I said, “I’m going to ride off like that someday,” and you just laughed, but then I really knew I could. But anyway, back to telling what happened in chronological order, the woman—her name’s Antheria, I didn’t know that then but I’m tired of using pronouns so I’ll use her name anyway—got a mischievous gleam in her eyes and answered, “Something like that.” I didn’t understand what she meant, then. Then she asked me where the troops were gathering, and I gave her directions, and she left, and my life went back to being a miserable series of things that ladies were supposed to do that I didn’t want to. But it was better than before, because now I had hope.
I’m sure you remember the day I finally did run away? I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I didn’t know I was going to until it happened and then it was too late. It was, what, four years ago now? We were sixteen, and it was the day the troops came back from the war. You remember that, of course—how could anyone forget that sight, with all the banners and trumpets and celebrations in the streets? And you looked at the captain and got all dreamy eyed and said, “I’m going to marry him.” And I looked at him and was probably equally dreamy eyed, though in a different way, and I said, “I’m going to go join his unit.” I was such a fool back then, seeing only the glamour and hype and believing all the “We are the forces of good and righteousness and the gods are on our side and the enemy is evil and we will defeat them!” crap.
So anyway, I went right up to him, and said, “Sir, I want to join your unit.” Now, if I’d been a boy they’d have taken me right on. I was a good fighter, and after the heavy losses they’d taken they were recruiting aggressively. I should have known better, though. I’d lived in that world for sixteen years, I shouldn’t have been surprised at his reaction. But I was. When he started laughing, and called over all his buddies so they could laugh at me with him, I was cut to the core. And when they, still laughing, began to make crude remarks about what I could do… I’d never been so livid and disappointed and heartbroken all at the same time. I spat in his face, and ran off.
I don’t know what I would have done then. Probably went and told you about it, now that I think about it. I wonder what would have happened if I had, if you’d heard it from me instead of him, if I’d stayed at least a little longer? I would have left soon anyway, I’m not made to live that kind of life, but still… it would have been different.
Anyhow, I was running away from them, well, I’d slowed down once I was out of sight so now I was stomping away, not to anywhere, just away. I could barely see through the hot tears welling up in my eyes. I wiped my eyes before the tears could spill, and it was then that I looked over and saw Antheria.
She looked the same as the last time I’d seen her. Well, older, of course, it had been ten years, with a scar on her cheek that hadn’t been there before, but she had the same long black braid and cheerful features and she wore the same clothes—well, of course it wasn’t the same clothes, but you know what I mean—and had a sword at her side.
She didn’t recognize me, of course. An adult may look much the same after ten years, a sixteen year old does not look the same as a six year old. But once I went up to her, introduced myself, and told her how we’d met before, she remembered at once.
“You had such…independence,” she told me, “I hoped that you’d manage to get out of this place somehow.”
“Me too,” I told her emphatically. “I thought I was about to, but…” and I told her what had happened. “If those assholes are fighting for all that’s good and righteous, I’d hate to see what the evil ones are like,” I concluded.
She laughed, not at me, as they had, but at the absurdity. I didn’t quite understand, then, but I could tell I was not being insulted. Finally, she stopped laughing and told me, “It’s not really a fight between good and evil.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, shocked. That went against everything I’d ever been told. “Of course it is, they’re fighting evil so it doesn’t overtake us and ruin civilization and everything and kill the gods and um….”
Antheria laughed again, and this time she was laughing at me, but I knew how foolish I sounded so I didn’t really mind. “Fine,” I admitted, “what is it then?”
She grew serious. “Order versus chaos, so to speak. Your side—or their side, rather—wants to bring order to the world. To civilize the uncivilized and impose their rules on everyone else.”
“That sounds… bad,” I said.
“I can’t claim to be unbiased,” she said. “I’m telling it how I see it, and to me, that is bad. But do you think I’m wrong?”
I thought about all the times I’d been told exactly how things should be, how I should be, and I knew in my heart that she was right. I didn’t have to answer her, she could see it. “Then what’s the other side?”
“I said chaos, but it’s more than that. Freedom, I guess. The ability to live your life however you want to. Sure, there’re more risks and less… I don’t know, stability? But we can chose how we want to live. And the people are a hell of a lot more interesting.”
Having met her, I believed it. “But why do they want to kill us?”
“Like I said, I’m biased, but they way I’ve always heard it is that they want to kill us, or at least bring us under their rein. And since we like our freedom, we fight to keep it.”
I thought about it, and realized that it was always our armies who went out to “destroy evil.”
Antheria continued, “Do you know what entropy is?”
I shook my head.
“It’s basically the principal that the natural order of things is disorder, and efforts to create order create more disorder elsewhere. That’s my understanding of it, anyway. So by trying to impose order, they just cause more chaos—and of the bad kind. War, hate, intolerance, death and destruction.”
“Is there a good kind of chaos?”
She smiled. “You’ll see.”
I looked at her quizzically.
“You said you wanted to get out of here. This is your chance.”
I didn’t even stop home. There was nothing I wanted there; I owned no clothes fit for travelling, no books on subjects other than etiquette. What little money I had I had with me, and if I’d told anyone I was leaving, they would have stopped me. Antheria had a spare horse she let me ride. We had to stop to let them rest more often than she would have otherwise, but it was no great inconvenience. We reached the camp in three days. And I discovered the good kind of chaos.
The camp was located between a forest and the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. When we first came out from between the trees I was utterly overwhelmed. I stopped and just stared and stared and stared. It wasn’t the numbers that awed me; the army I’d seen ride in as I’d left was larger. But this was… like a carnival, bright and loud and filled with good spirits and hectic energy. It was noon, and summer, but still there were fires burning and I could smell things roasting. Tents of all shapes and sizes and colors were set up all around. And the people! There were men and women of all descriptions, as well as… beings that aren’t quite human. I saw a shirtless man and a green-skinned woman practicing throwing knives; a beautiful woman with six horns growing from her head locked in a kiss with a barbarian of a man; a little girl playing with a baby dragon. A boy about my age galloped past on a unicorn, a woman with snakes for hair lounged against a tree with a book, and a series of tiny hot air balloons filled with people no more than six inches high floated past. And everywhere huge black butterflies larger than my face flew overhead.
“You’ll get used to it, eventually,” Antheria told me. I didn’t really believe her. But by dinner that evening I was sitting around a campfire with a woman dressed in motley who spoke only limericks, the horned woman and her boyfriend, a rainbow-skinned swordswoman, an elderly couple no taller than my hand, a man who seemed normal enough until he began discussing, in very technical terms, on the merits of fire magic as opposed to blood magic with the tiny woman, and a pirate who said he’d promised to bring back some food for a mermaid who was just outside of his ship. After I got over being intimidated, I was worried about how boring I was compared to them, but they listened to my story with real interest, and when I confessed my worry, assured me I’d grow into the place soon enough. The magician taught me how to light a fire (magically, I mean), and when I proved fairly good at it, got some other magic users together to teach me how to turn invisible, conjure food, speak across distances, and other such useful bits of magic. Some were easier than others—I never did quite get the hang of invisibility—and I’ve only ever learned such basic magic. I spent much of my time practicing fighting, and eventually became good with a sword, proficient with a bow, and capable of throwing a knife without killing anyone accidentally.
It’s funny, I always dreamed of marching off to battle, but once I actually got the chance, found I had no taste for it. There’s nothing glorious about being in battle; it’s just killing and trying not to get killed. But though I dreamed of being a great knight, it was never really about that. I just wanted to get out of the box I was kept in. I don’t know if you understand, because you always did want that life, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it should be a choice. And though I don’t love the fighting, this is my home now; these are my people. I’ve never had that before, and I’m not going to lose it. So I fight on.
Our armies, being the armies of chaos, are far less organized than those you’re used to. We don’t stand in lines and march out to fight. We have spies and raiding parties beforehand and berserkers that lead the charge into battle. I won’t go into more detail than that because, as much as it pains me to think it, you’re on the other side.
I fight in all the battles—most of us do, though like everything here, it’s not mandatory. Though I don’t like the fighting, I don’t lose my head during it, and I do fight well. Over time I also realized I was good with tactics and strategy, and good at guessing what the enemy would do, both in the long run and in the immediate instant—comes from growing up among them, I guess. Anyhow, there’s no rank system like there is in your armies, but people started following me and I started leading them, and eventually I kind of drifted into a commanding role.
So we’d had word of an imminent attack, and I led my troops out to meet it. As we drew closer, I recognized the banners of the town I’d grown up in—but what was I supposed to do, retreat and let them attack? Abandon my people? Anyhow, there was no one there I had any attachment to—well, there’s you, of course, but I mean no one in the army. So I gave the signal for my berserkers to attack, and the rest of us followed. I was in the thick of the fighting, my sword already bloody, when I came face to face with the captain who’s unit I’d tried to join. He lifted his sword to attack, I blocked it. We fought for a bit, and finally he let his guard down and I ran him through. He died instantly.
You have my sincere condolences on your husband’s death, Elizabeth. I send my deepest sympathy and hope this letter finds you well. Know that whatever has happened and whatever the future brings, I remain
I thought fast. “No, ma’am, I’m not. My name is George, I’m Bob’s identical twin and-”
She cut me off. “Sir, I have no idea who you are, but I am Bob’s mother and I assure you, they only pulled one baby out of me. Now who are you and where is my son?”
I was about to say that I was actually Bob’s illegitimate half-brother who happened to look exactly like him, but after a second look at the woman I knew that wouldn’t fly. The form I was currently in was the splitting image of his mother, if younger and more masculine. No, I’d have to tell her the truth. “Why don’t you come inside and sit down, and I’ll explain,” I offered.
“Nuh-uh. I’m not letting you get me alone. You’ll kill me, just like you must’ve killed my son. POLICE! MURDER! HELP!” she screamed.
I sighed. “I haven’t killed anyone,” I told her calmly. “Bob’s in Hawaii. If you don’t want to come inside, you can call him from out here if you have a cell phone.”
She eyed me suspiciously and took a large step back, but pulled a cell phone out of her tiny flowered purse and made a call. I assumed it was to Bob, it was too many numbers to be 911, and the side of the conversation I could hear confirmed it.
“Bob? This is your mother. Where are you? Don’t lie to me. Robert Caspian Jones, I am at your house, and that man is not you. How could I tell??? You’re asking me how I could tell? I am your mother! Now where are you? Hawaii? What are you doing in Hawaii? You’re snorkeling with your new girlfriend. You just take off in the middle of a work week to go snorkeling with some girl you just met, without telling anyone. You can explain? Fine, I’ve got to hear this.” Up until this point her voice and expression ranged from infuriated to exasperated and back again. But with whatever she was hearing now, her eyes widened, then darted around nervously.
“But you’re sure you’re safe there?” she asked him finally. “You promise? Do you want me to come out there? Are you sure? I’d feel so much better if I was there with you. Promise you’ll call me if anything happens? Okay. I love you, sweetie. Bye. Don’t forget to call me.”
Finally, she turned back to me. “So what’s your role in all this?”
“How much did Bob tell you?”
“Just that someone’s trying to kill him and you’re a friend who’s helping him out.”
I nodded. “That’s true, as far as it goes. Come inside and I’ll explain the rest.”
She didn’t argue this time, just followed me inside and sat down on Bob’s couch.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your name?” I asked her.
“I’m Nick.” As I introduced myself and while I was shaking her hand, I shifted into my true form.
She blinked, twice, but to my surprise that was her only reaction. I’d have expected her to shriek and run out of the house. Most people who actually see me shift without knowing what I can do beforehand get pretty upset. It’s not like there’s some disgusting morphing thing either, like I go all squishy and mush into another shape. I just suddenly look different. It’s just the shock of it that can upset people. But I guess Ethel’d had enough shock in one day to be immune for the moment.
“Ah. That explains it,” she commented. “Now, who is trying to kill my son, and what are you doing about it?”
“I wish I knew,” I confessed. “To both questions. Right now, I’m pretty much acting as a decoy and hoping someone’ll show up and try to kill me, thinking I’m Bob.”
“That’s obvious,” Ethel said. “But surely you know more than that. What makes you think he’s in danger in the first place.”
I shook my head. “I have a friend who’s a psychic, or a prophet, she’s not exactly sure yet. But she knew that someone is trying to kill Bob, and she told me that I could stop it... Basically, I guess she sees thousands of different possible futures, depending on the course of events, and the ones where I step in… turn out better than the ones where I don’t.”
She sat staring at me. “A psychic said that someone wants to kill my son, so a shapeshifter is sitting in his house pretending to be him.”
I grinned at her. “Yep. Sounds crazy when you put it like that.” I shifted back into Bob’s shape. “Anyway, you should probably go, in case anything does happen.”
She agreed, and I walked her out to her car. I’d just turned to go back inside when I heard her scream.
I spun around in time to see a masked man with a gun pulling Ethel into a van, which was beginning to drive away. I shifted my legs to those of an Olympic runner and began to run after her. The van was moving fairly slowly; I could have caught up with it. Even running like a normal person I probably could have caught up with it.
That’s why I stopped.
Cassie (yes, my prophet/psychic friend’s name is Cassandra, how ironic, prophetic, weird, whatever, ha ha ha, now get over it) had said that the futures where I was here were better than the ones where Bob was, and now I realized why. It wasn’t just because I had more experience with this sort of thing, or even because I can shift shapes. It was because I didn’t have the emotional attachment to Ethel that Bob did. Sure, I’d liked the woman, but she wasn’t my mother. If it had been the real Bob here, he would have run after the car, and he would have been killed.
So I glanced at the van’s plates, watched it drive out of sight, and shifted into Ethel’s shape. I took the cell phone out of my little flowered purse and called 911.
I didn’t have any particular reason to take Ethel’s shape, except for the vague hope it would confuse the kidnappers, but it felt like the right thing to do. I spent the time waiting for the police to get there trying to decide what to tell them.
When they finally arrived, I told them, “My sister was kidnapped!” I explained that I’d been house sitting for my son while he’s on vacation, and my sister Mildred had been over to hang out, and she’d been leaving when a van pulled up and a man dragged her inside and drove away, and the license plate was….
When the police left, I went back inside the house and waited. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later the phone rang, and when I picked it up a technologically blurred voice told me, “That was stupid, calling the police. If you ever want to see your mother again, you won’t make a second stupid mistake.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, filling Ethel’s voice with confusion. “I think you must have the wrong number. This is Ethel Jones. My mother’s been dead for nearly forty years.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then I heard in the background, “He must be faking it!”
I grinned. Despite using a machine to make his voice unidentifiable, my caller didn’t know how to use a mute button.
“Naw, it sounds like her. Hey Jimmy, go to the house and pick up whoever’s there. Once we got ‘em both here, we’ll sort it out.”
“Damn waste of an exploding van,” someone commented, and I shuddered. Then the muffled voice came back on the line. “Mrs. Jones? I don’t know if you’re you or this is you, but I can tell you this—do anything stupid and the other you will die.”
“I won’t do anything stupid,” I said, then made it a lie by waiting quietly for them to come kidnap me.
There were three of them, all wearing masks. I went with them willingly, struggled feebly a bit for show, but let them bind and gag me and shove me into the van.
They brought me to a warehouse. There were a couple more of them, also in ski masks, and Ethel. Her eyes widened when she saw me, but she said nothing—probably because of the duct tape over her mouth, but I thought she had enough sense not to give me away when they took it off.
Almost as soon as they’d shoved me on the ground next to her, they ungagged both of us. “Where’s your son?” one of them demanded. I didn’t know which of us he was talking to, and I don’t think he did either.
“Florida,” I said. “What’s this about? What did he do?” Sure, I didn’t really think they’d tell me that easily, but I really did want to know.
“What did he do??” one of my captors repeated angrily. “He hacked into our accounts and stole $50 billion from us.”
The explanation actually made sense—stealing money from mobsters from behind the safety of a computer screen was exactly the kind of thing Bob could, and would, do.
“Now where the hell is he? And don’t give me any of that ‘Florida’ crap!” He took out a gun and aimed it at me.
It wasn’t until that very moment that I had a plan. I shifted into Bob’s shape, which startled them for long enough for me to maneuver so the gun was pointing at my stomach. I know, some plan, right? I’m stupid and foolhardy and all that. As soon as the guy realized what had happened, or at least that the man they’d been looking for was standing in front of him, he pulled the trigger. Which is what I’d been counting on, of course, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. I writhed in agony. It was real, but I managed to make it seem just a little more fatal than it actually was.
“Distract them,” I somehow managed to whisper to Ethel. I think I managed to whisper it. Actually, I probably just thought it really hard. Anyway, whether it was through my intervention or not, when I let my head fall to the ground, eyes rolled wide open, a pool of blood all around me, Ethel began to wail. “My baby!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You killed him!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuuuuuuuuughhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You killed him!”
It gave me the time I needed. It was harder than I expected. Normally, shifting shapes is nearly as easy for me as breathing. All I need to do is concentrate on the shape and just… shift into it. But since I was using most of my powers of concentration on just staying alive and conscious, it took every ounce of will I had to shift.
But I did it. I shifted into my own shape first, since I knew it best and couldn’t have managed another. I can’t describe how wonderful it was to shift into my own, unwounded form. I had been dying from a gunshot wound to the stomach, and suddenly there was no gunshot wound no pain, no bullet lodged inside me.
Before they could notice anything, I shifted back into Bob’s shape, but a healthy Bob. The puddle of blood was still there, and I lay in it with my eyes wide open, unmoving. I steeled myself to stay as still when they dragged me out of there, but they didn’t. They completely ignored me as they gagged Ethel again, and then ignored us both as they cleared out of the warehouse.
I waited and waited, just in case. Finally, I whispered, “Are they gone?”
I sat up and pulled the duct tape from her mouth.
“You’re…” she stared at me.
“I’m fine. I can shift my physical shape in any way I want, so I can shift injuries away. Of course, if I’d died I wouldn’t have been able to.”
“What’ll happen now?”
“Well, they think they killed Bob, so they’ll be leaving you alone now. It might be a good idea if he stays in Hawaii for a while. Hopefully the police’ll pick them up soon.”
“And if they don’t? Will Bob have to hide for the rest of his life?”
“No. If the police don’t get them, I’ll track them down and make sure they get put away. And I doubt Bob will mind staying in Hawaii for another month or two.”
The police did get them though, the next day. I testified as three different people in that trial, and I guess the jury believed all three of me.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
“I’m not a witch,” she said calmly.
“Try telling them that when they have you tied up to a stake and doused with oil.”
“What, you people burn everyone who passes through town? I can’t imagine that helps your economy.”
“Not everyone. It’s just, your reputation precedes you.”
She rolled her eyes. “So you burn everyone interesting who passes through town.”
“Yep. Look, I’m not saying I agree with it, which is why I’m warning you.”
“Well, I thank you for that. I’ll be gone as soon as I finish what I came here to do.”
He didn’t ask her what that was, just handed her her change and watched her walk out of the store.
Mindful of his warning, she eschewed the main roads, taking a more circumspect route through unsavory alleys that grew even less savory as she reached the poorer part of the town. Finally, she came to a ramshackle tenement. She circled around to the front and climbed up the rickety stairs to the topmost apartment, the cheapest due to the long climb and extreme danger in the case of a fire. She knocked three times on the door.
It was opened by a middle aged man who crossed his arms and stared at her suspiciously.
“Yes?” he demanded.
“I’m here about your daughter. May I come in?”
The suspicion did not leave his face, but he let her inside. The room was small and shabby, and had no furniture but for a large bed and a wood stove. A woman and a girl of perhaps ten were sitting on the floor in the far corner, next to the window that was the only source of light, sewing.
“What does she want?” the woman asked without looking up from her sewing.
“She says she’s here about Kayli.” He turned to their visitor. “I’d offer you a seat, but as you can see, we don’t have any.”
“That’s not a problem,” she replied with a smile, and gracefully seated herself on the floor next to the child. “Are you Kayli?”
The girl nodded but said nothing. The visitor turned back to her parents. “I hear they burn witches here.”
“So?” the man demanded.
“So if someone from here were to have magical ability, it would be wisest for them to study away from home.”
“What are you saying?” demanded the man as the woman told her daughter, “Kayli, go play outside.”
The girl wordlessly left the room, and the visitor had to suppress a smile as the finding spell she had used to get here told her that Kayli was right outside the door listening at the keyhole.
“Surely you’ve noticed.”
“Noticed what? What are you going on about?” Kayli’s father demanded, but the girl’s mother ignored him and said quietly to their visitor, “Yes.”
“You can’t really think she’s safe here.”
“As safe here as anywhere,” Kayli’s mother said bitterly.
“Riantha, what’s going on? What are you talking about?”
Riantha ignored her husband. “You see? If her own father doesn’t know, it’s hardly likely anyone else will.”
Their visitor shook her head. “For now, maybe. But when she starts levitating things or causing explosions or turning people into rats? There’s too much magic in her to stay quiet for long.”
They both stared at her. Finally, Riantha demanded, “So are you saying she’s doomed?”
“Only if she stays here.”
“Are you saying my daughter’s a witch?” Kayli’s father demanded.
“No. Witches, and most magicians, are merely people who know how to use magic. Kayli has magic in her blood.”
“So you’re saying my daughter’s worse than a witch?” he demanded furiously. Without giving her time to answer, he bellowed, “Then you don’t have to worry about her staying here! I won’t have a witch under my roof!”
“Wait,” Riantha pleaded. “Maybe she can be cured, exorcised, something…”
Their visitor shook her head. “It’s not like that. She can learn to control it, of course, but she’ll always have magic. It’s not some kind of disease; it’s part of who she is.”
Riantha began to cry. “So she really is doomed,” she said. “She really is doomed.”
The visitor looked at them sadly. “If that’s how you want to see it.” She turned towards the door. “Kayli, do you want to come with me?”
The door opened slowly. Kayli’s eyes were red and wet with tears, but she nodded. The woman took her hand and looked back towards her parents, but neither protested.
“I promise she’ll be safe,” she told them anyway, just before she and Kayli disappeared.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
My loneliness was so intense that I was almost glad when Liana and the others showed up. Almost, but not quite. Loneliness is awful, but pain and humiliation can be worse.
It went exactly as I expected, exactly as it always did whenever I see them now. They used to be… well, we were never friends, but we were all cordial to each other. I guess now they feel they need to make it very clear that they hate me as much or more than anyone else, so they won’t be tarred with the same brush. Not that that excuses them.
They started off making fun of me, then moved on to vicious accusations, and finally started hitting me, knocking me down, kicking me, spitting on me. Tears ran down my face, and I screamed out in pain.
“HEY!” a female voice yelled out, and they stopped, probably more in surprise than anything. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Leave her be and run off before I call the guards!”
“Like they’d care about that piece of trash,” Liana muttered, but they slunk off.
The woman who’d chased them away helped me to my feet. “Are you alright?” she asked.
I nodded. “It hadn’t gotten too serious yet. Thank you.”
“I’m glad I could help. I’m Crisabella.”
“Ohh,” she said in sudden understanding as the friendliness left her face, and she hurried away.
“I did the right thing!” I called after her, but she didn’t look back, and no one else looked my way.
That’s when you’re the very most alone—when you’re in a crowd of people who don’t know you exist, but if they did, they’d hate you.
It wasn’t always this way. Back when, I was… not famous, but well-known, well-liked. It was an honor to be chosen to go on the quest. I’d have been a hero if I’d succeeded. And I did succeed. Then, I ruined it all by doing the right thing.
Not that I regret it. Not really. Not that part, anyway. I regret finding the damn thing. I regret agreeing to go in the first place—agreeing, I would have killed to go. Sometimes I regret being born. But I don’t regret what I did.
What happens in stories, what’s supposed to happen, is that a hero goes on a quest, succeeds, brings back the fruits of their victories, the kingdom is restored to health and prosperity, and they all live happily ever after. What happened in real life is that I went on the quest, I succeeded in finding the Talisman, I brought it back, and I destroyed it. We got attacked from two sides and the kingdom barely survived the war, the crops failed, the economy collapsed, there’s been political dissent and the crime rate has gone up. It’s all my fault, of course.
I will freely admit that had I delivered the Talisman to the king as I had been expected to, as I had originally intended, none of that would have happened. We would have lived in peace and prosperity, or in prosperity, anyway, for surely if he’d had something that made his kingdom undefeatable, he’d take advantage of it. And it would have taken advantage of him, and of everyone around. It would have sucked up happiness and hope and replaced it with greed and malice. I held it in my palm for only a few moments, but it was enough. I know its nature as surely as I know anything, and it was pure evil.
It wasn’t hard to destroy. I smashed it between two rocks and it shattered into a million pieces. I fed the pieces to a goat. Goats will eat anything. I will note that the goat suffered no ill effects. Evil has no hold over goats.
It’s rather a miracle that I wasn’t executed. I don’t know why I wasn’t. I once heard it said of the king that he was a good king, as kings go, meaning he usually had some kind of reason before torturing people to death. But I’d given him plenty of reason, and never even been arrested. Maybe he figured a lynch mob would’ve done his job for him by this point.
But the most recent attempt at vigilante justice hadn’t done me any serious harm, thanks to my regretful rescuer, so I went home, moped around for a while, and eventually went to bed. I fell asleep crying, “I did the right thing,” over and over into my pillow.
I was awakened by a pounding on my door. I shot up in terror. Was it Liana and her gang, come to finish what they’d started? Or the king’s men, with a warrant for my execution? Did it much matter?’
I decided it was better to get it over with, whatever it was, so I went to open the door.
It was no one I had expected, no one I knew. A tall woman in a dark green cloak was standing at my door. “I’m quite sorry for the noise,” she said when I opened it. “You didn’t wake up when I first knocked, and it would have been rude of me to come in uninvited.”
“I keep my door locked, anyway.” I was still to half-asleep to make intelligent conversation.
“There’s that too,” she said with a smile that made me think the only reason she hadn’t come inside, locked door or no, was politeness.
“Anyway, you managed to wake me, you might as well come inside.” I belatedly realized how rude I sounded- I had been jolted from my sleep in the middle of the night. “Would you like some tea?” I offered as I locked the door behind us.
“If you’re having some. You could use it, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
I nodded. As I began brewing the tea, I explained, “I thought you had to be either guards with a warrant for my arrest or a mob with torches and pitchforks.”
“I’m very sorry.” I could tell she meant it. “My name is Malexandra. Do you know of me?”
I did, everyone did. Lady Malexandra was some kind of sorceress, and had a sort of school or something just outside of the city. Her politics were anarchistic, but the king mostly left her alone, as had his father and grandfather before him—it was debated whether she was immortal, I remembered, as the woman standing before me didn’t look more than thirty-five. She was, now that I think of it, the one who’d made the comment about the king not torturing people to death without a reason.
“Yes. And you know who I am, I assume?”
“Of course. I don’t wake complete strangers in the middle of the night for no reason.”
I waited until the tea was done, and we were each sitting on my sofa with a mug of it, before asking, “So why are you here?”
She took a sip of tea before answering. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. I came across the information that the king has ordered your arrest for treason.”
I shouldn’t have been shocked, and guess I wasn’t, but there’s a difference between worrying that you’ll be killed and knowing that you’re to be tortured to death, and her words hit me harder than the fists of the morning’s attackers. “When?” I managed to ask.
She looked at me sympathetically, but her voice was matter-of-fact. “Perhaps an hour ago. You should have a few more hours before they come for you.”
“I have a few hours before I’m arrested, and we’re sitting here drinking tea?” I asked, but my voice held no emotion, and I found I really didn’t care. It all seemed so far away, the king’s guards and Malexandra and my hand holding the mug of tea.
“Aniya,” Malexandra’s voice was stern. “Listen to me. I understand this is very difficult, but you can’t go into shock right now.”
“Why not? I haven’t anything better to do for the remainder of my life.” But I knew she was right, and took a sip of tea and tried to force my mind back into place.
“Nonsense, you need to go pack whatever’s important to you.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
She gave me a look that said to stop being stupid. “You’re coming back with me.”
“I am?” For nearly a year, nobody would speak a civil word to me, and now I was being offered a place to stay. “Why are you recuing me?”
“Because you need it, for one thing, and I dislike executions.” As I got up to pack my things, she added, “And because you did the right thing, destroying the Talisman. Someone as brave as that should get at least a few breaks.”
I spun to look at her. “So you don’t hate me for it?”
“Gods no. Could you imagine the king, or anyone, with that much power?”
“Right. Well, you’ll fit right in at my place.”
And I did.
Monday, July 27, 2009
“Oh, yes, I spent the afternoon with her. Quite mad, she’s to be shut up in Sarrow’s,” Tomathon replied.
“That’s hardly unusual, what’s so different about her?” I asked.
“It’s not so much that she’s very different from most…. It’s, well, she’s quite lucid. Delusional, but very coherent delusions. If it wasn’t completely impossible, I’d believe she was telling the truth.”
My heart nearly stopped for a moment, though I told myself that it was premature to fear—there were many things a person could have coherent yet impossible delusions on, there was no reason for me to jump to conclusions. I told myself this, yet I know my voice held something more than curiosity when I pressed, “Delusions of what?”
“She claims to be from another world, a quite odd one in which people sit in boxes that move about on their own power and many other such fantastical things.”
“It’s not possible she’s from some remote country in which magic is used for such trifles?” Though of course I knew better than that.
“She claims there’s no magic there- though even by her own account, that would be untrue- and it’s not merely a country she speaks of but a whole world. She claims to have flown from continent to continent, and that there have been men on their moon; she claims all manner of lunacy, I can’t say I listened to much of it.”
“I would speak with her.”
He looked at me curiously. “You? But you are the king’s own physician. And her case is really nothing so extraordinary, I merely mentioned it as a curiousity.”
“The king is in perfect health; he shan’t miss me, and I must insist on speaking with her.”
He shrugged. “It’s your call. Shall I have her brought here?”
“If you would be so kind.”
And so it was that a trembling teenage girl, in chains, was dragged into my office by two thugs- erm, guards- from Sarrow’s. “Has she been found to be dangerous,” I demanded sharply of one of the men.
“No, but it’s standard procedure to subdue all patients on such events as this,” he replied in a tone that suggested even I couldn’t possibly dream of breaking standard procedure.
“Do I look like I give a fig about standard procedure? Unchain her.”
He shrugged. “It’s your lookout if anything happens,” he told me as he undid the chains. “We’re just here to deliver her, we don’t stand guard for you.”
“Thank the gods,” I said. He shot me a nasty look, and slammed the door as the two men left.
“I am Dr. Panthea Rosestone, the king’s physician,” I told the girl. “Please, have a seat.”
She did, grudgingly. “So you think I’m crazy?” she asked warily.
“Not having heard your story, I’m in no place to judge.”
“But that’s why they brought me here, isn’t it?”
“They brought you here because I told them to. Now, what is your name?”
“Clary,” she told me grudgingly.
“Pleased to meet you, Clary. Now I’m sure this is getting quite tiring, but would you mind telling me your story?”
She told me much what I expected to hear. She was an ordinary person, currently in her second year of university, from a world that she considered ordinary but no one here did. She described it in great detail- countries, cities, inventions, historical figures. And then one day, she had been walking in the park, and had very nearly been hit by a bike- “That’s a, well a machine with two wheels and you press the pedals with your feet to turn the wheels and make it go.” And then, suddenly, there had been no bike, no park. It was not daytime, and there were two moons in the sky. She’d wandered around in confusion for a bit before coming to the attention of the authorities, who wanted to lock her away. “And you think I’m crazy,” she concluded.
“No. I believe you,” I told her. Perhaps I should have told her more, but there were truths I had concealed for near twenty years, and even now they did not come easily to the tongue.
I served her some tea and allowed her to wait in my office, suggesting that she could pass the time with my books, and I went out to find Tomathon.
He lived not far from the castle, and was at home. He invited me in, we sat down, and I began without preamble, “She’s not mad.”
He knew who I was speaking of, of course. “Surely you don’t believe she made the whole thing up? She seemed far too emotional for that.”
“I didn’t say that. She’s not mad, and she’s not lying. She’s speaking the literal truth.”
“But… That’s impossible,” he protested.
“Do you remember how you first met me, Tomathon?”
“Of course. You were brought to me by a man who had found you half unconscious in the snow. You didn’t have a memory in your head. You never did recover it, did you?”
I took a deep breath and told him, “I never did lose it.”
“But…” he was confused, naturally.
“I faked it quite well, of course. I was a psychiatrist in that world—that’s a kind of doctor who deals with diseases of the mind, like you do. When I figured out what had happened, I knew I’d never be believed. Amnesia was so much simpler.”
“In that world… Are you saying you’re from the same place as Clary?”
“And you’ve never tried to go back?”
“I’ve never wanted to. I wasn’t very happy there, and here… I’m the physician to the king, magic is real, I have friends…”
“So she really is from another world? If you were anyone else I’d think you’d gone mad. Gods, after finding you’ve been lying to me for twenty years I don’t know why I trust you. No, that’s unfair, you acted quite rationally. I wouldn’t have believed you then, of course, any more than I believed that girl yesterday, and I suppose since then there’s never been any reason to tell me. I prefer to think that than that you don’t trust me.”
“I do trust you. It’s just… By the time I knew I could tell you it didn’t matter anymore. That’s not my life now.”
He nodded. “So what should we do about my patient?”
“If you could arrange for her to be released into my custody?”
“I’ll start on the paperwork right away. And Panthea… I hope this doesn’t change anything between us. We’re still friends?”
I sighed with relief, for he was the one who might have wanted to end our friendship. “Always.”
When I returned to my office, Clary was deeply engrossed in a book. “You’ve been released into my custody,” I told her.
“So what, you’re going to try to cure me now?”
I shook my head. “I told you, I believe you—no, I know you’re telling the truth.” And I told her my story.
When I was done, she shook her head in disbelief. “So that’s why—well, I guess it explains a lot.
You’ve never tried to go back?”
“I never wanted to,” I told her.
“I guess I can see why,” she held up the book she’d been reading, a treatise on fire magic. “So this stuff really works here?”
“Oh yes.” I remembered the first time I’d seen a display of magic, and realized it was real.
“I guess I’ve wrecked my reputation here already, if I stay? I mean, I don’t have the faintest clue how to get home, and I don’t really think I want to, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in an asylum…”
I shook my head. “You’re unlikely to see anyone from Sarrow’s again, and besides for them, the only people who know are Tomathon and I, and I explained it to him.”
“So nobody thinks I’m crazy?”
“Nope. You’ve got a blank slate of a reputation.”
“Okay then, do you know how I’d go about learning magic?”
“Actually, I have a friend who’s a mage who happens to be looking for an apprentice. I’ll introduce you.”
Sunday, July 26, 2009
No one has crossed the Great Mountains in a thousand years, if ever, so I started off exploring other, somewhat more accessible places. Though I saw many wondrous things, my ventures always failed in the fiscal sense. And so at the age of twenty-nine, I found myself about to be thrown into debtor’s prison.
I, naturally, had reservations about spending my life in a cell. I considered suicide, but decided I quite like being alive, and anyhow, there were still places I had never seen. But, as I had nothing much to lose, being bankrupt and never having settled down long enough to start a family, I decided there was no reason I should not die at least attempting to follow my dream.
So it was that I set off across that impassible range with little more than the clothes on my back, a few simple tools, and a pack of trail food. There was no way I could make it, of course. Fully prepared expeditions, with mules loaded with food and supplies, had failed. Had I not decided that it would be preferable to die traversing those peaks than in a prison cell, I would never have had the courage.
I will not speak much of the crossing, but to say that it was horrible and difficult and wondrous, and it is a miracle I survived with all but a few toes intact. I cannot begin to describe the sensation I felt when I realized that I had crossed the Great Mountains, that I had succeeded in doing what no man had done for over a thousand years, had succeeded in fulfilling the great dream I’ve had since childhood.
And then it began to snow gold.
At first, I did not realize what it was. I thought it was simply snow, and even when I saw the color, the gleam of it, thought it was simply snow colored by some particle. It felt like snow, cold and soft, and when I caught a flake on my tongue it melted into the purest, sweetest water I have ever tasted.
But when I gathered up a handful of the flakes, they were pure gold. I am an explorer and a man of the world, and I know gold when I see it. It was not colored snow, or fool’s gold, or any other element in this world. This was pure gold.
So of course, I thought that I had not succeeded, that I had died up in those mountains and this was my afterlife, that I had been thrown into prison and gone quite mad, even that I had dreamed the whole thing. But I do not think that is true. This was as real as every moment of my life before hand, if quite a bit stranger.
I grabbed handfuls of the stuff and flung it in the air, held it, smelled it, tasted it, rolled in it. I would be rich, not just able to pay off my debts, but rich; I would be famous, known throughout history as the man who discovered Eurfrynlend!
It was not quite like normal gold. It retained many of the properties of snow. It fell in flakes, no two alike, and it melted in even the moderate warmth of my cupped hands. I was sure that, when it was summer in this strange place, the rivers flowed with it as the stories say. Yet it was gold.
I was so enraptured by it that I did not notice the woman. She was but a few yards away from me, and coming closer. Though the hood of her thick violet cloak shaded her face, she was clearly beautiful.
“You act as if you have never seen snow before,” she said, amused. I did not think to wonder that we spoke the same language, though her words were accented.
“I’ve never seen one such as this,” I told her. “I come from across the Great Mountains.”
“So there truly are people there,” she said in wonderment. “There are stories, but no one believes them. Welcome to Eurfrynlend. I am Melaenia.”
I introduced myself, and began to question her about her land. To my astonishment, she saw nothing special about the gold that is their water but its life sustaining properties, no different than the water at home, and, when I pressed, its beauty.
“But don’t you understand its value?” I asked her.
“Yes, it keeps us alive,” she answered, but did not understand what I meant.
She invited me into her home to continue our conversation. It was a small house, made of wood, not much different than our houses at home. She gave me dinner, a soup of vegetables in that amazing gold water, and we talked for hours, of her country and of mine, of my story, of hers (she was twenty, and had had a rather uneventful childhood in a happy family and recently moved out to live on her own and study botany in a nearby university). She told me of her family, her friends, her world, which did not seem so different than my own.
We talked of our hopes and dreams, and it was then that I mentioned that when I returned home with news of this place and even a small amount of their gold, I would be rich.
“And we will be dead,” she told me matter-of-factly. She cut me off when I started to protest. “No one has come over those mountains in a thousand years, it is true. But if they know that we have what you say is an abundance of riches, they will. You managed, and if others have reason enough, they will as well. They will want it all and they will slaughter us. I know human nature, and I do not believe it is any different on your side of the mountains.”
I was shocked, but I felt no disbelief. It had never occurred to me before, but now that it had I knew it for the truth. I had not thought the stories were true, had not thought of people living across the mountains, had not even truly believed I would make it. I meant no harm to these people. And yet…. This was more gold than kings dreamed of, and it could be mine. And it was not only the gold I wanted. I would be forever known as a great explorer. That was what I had always wanted out of life, and it could be mine. But at what cost.
“I need to think on this,” I told Melaenia.
She nodded solemnly. “Take your time, but do think on it.”
I promised I would. It was late, by then, and I was tired from the last leg of my journey, from the succession of sleepless nights before, from the day’s great discoveries. I asked Melaenia if she would permit me to stay the night, assuring her that I would be a model of propriety and sleep on her couch.
“Are you sure about that?” she asked me with a flirtatious smile.
I suddenly found that I was not really so tired.
I stayed there for more than a night. I found that this land was not so different from my own, though I do not think drinking gold could ever seem mundane to me. I met people who were not much different than anyone I’d ever known, though they had far more respect for me, seeing me as a great explorer from a far away land. And then there was Melaenia, who was like no one I had ever known. I don’t know when I realized that I was in love with her. I do know it was after I’d decided that she was right, that I could not bring gold and my story to my land and invaders to this one.
So I had no reason to return to my own birthplace. And if perhaps I hadn’t any more reasons to stay in this golden land, I was determined to make some.
And I do know that it was just a little more than two years after I arrived in Eurfrynlend that Melaenia and I were married, on the banks of a river of flowing gold. And as a honeymoon, we decided to explore the far reaches of the continent, for Melaenia’s heart is that of an explorer as well.
Yes, I could have been rich and famous. But I regret nothing.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
After an amount of time, she stopped crying. She got up from the dog’s bed to wash her face and reapply her makeup. The load of her guilt had not lessened, but she managed to push it, if not out of her mind, at least out of the foremost place in her thoughts.
Clutching the chain handle on her purse, Natasha collapsed into a sobbing heap for the second time that morning. Now, on top of having committed the worst mistake a human can possibly make, she had been robbed. Even worse, she knew perfectly well who the culprit was- her only daughter.
Unlike her mother, twelve-year-old Megan Freeman was feeling no guilt whatsoever for what she had done that morning. Nor was there any particular reason that she should have been. That morning, as on every other morning of the school year, Megan’s mother had still been asleep when Megan woke up, and, for that matter, when she left to catch the school bus. Normally, Natasha left her daughter’s lunch money on the table before she went to sleep, but on that particular day she had forgotten. Megan, knowing that her mother did not get enough sleep without being woken up early in the morning just so Megan could ask for something for which her mother would undoubtedly give permission, had simply taken the money from her mother’s purse. It was no big deal. Maybe, possibly, had she stopped to think about it, and had she not already almost been late for the bus, Megan might have written her mother a note explaining the circumstances. As it was, by lunchtime, Megan didn’t even remember that the five-dollar bill she was holding had not been on the table that morning.
Megan was just at the front of the impossibly long lunch line when the event that ruined her day took place. Calvin, the boy who sat behind her in science, pushed in front of her in line and bought the last piece of pizza, leaving only Megan’s least favorite food- meatloaf.
This affected Megan much more than it should have. After all, tons of kids cut in line every day, and last week she’d been forced to eat meatloaf twice. What really upset her was the feeling that something that was rightfully hers had been stolen. While before she had never particularly noticed Calvin, she now decided she hated him. Twisting her charm bracelet in annoyance so hard that she hurt her wrist, Megan shoved the money at the lunch lady grabbed her meatloaf, and stomped away, not even remembering her three dollars and fifty cents change.
Calvin knew his history teacher’s policy for giving makeup tests perfectly well. You had to be in the classroom at lunch the day after the test, and you had to be there before the second bell rang. And he really had tried. After all, this test could change his grade by a whole letter grade, and Calvin was already getting a C.
Had he been anyone else, Calvin would have skipped lunch to make up the test. But since he was diabetic, skipping lunch was not an option. So he ran to the front of the lunch line, grabbed a lunch, shoved his money at the lunch lady, and ran to his history classroom.
Unfortunately for Calvin, the bell rang just as he got there. His history teacher walked out of the classroom. Calvin stopped him.
“Mr. Kayeti, could I please take the test now? I really tried to get here on time, but I had to buy lunch, and I can’t just skip lunch because I have diabetes, and I came here as fast as I could.”
“I’m sorry Calvin, but you know the rules,” said the teacher in a semi-apologetic voice, and walked away.
Fingering the chain on his medical ID tag, Calvin leaned against the wall and tried not to cry.
John Kayeti really was sorry he couldn’t let Calvin make up his test. He knew Calvin was a fairly good student who didn’t talk much in class, usually did his homework, and was, in general, a good kid. He also knew that Calvin had been telling the truth and his lateness was not his fault.
It didn’t matter. Had Calvin arrived thirty seconds earlier, John could have given him the test and sent him to take it in the classroom of the teacher across the hall. However, assuming that there weren’t any students needing make-up tests, she had left her classroom. Although she would be back in a few minutes, since she always spent lunch in her classroom, he could not simply leave Calvin alone with the test until she got back. And had John stayed to give Calvin the test, he would never have been able to pick up his daughter from kindergarten, drive her across town to her daycare, and drive back to school in the twenty five minutes left of lunch.
John drove the three blocks to the kindergarten, picked up Katie, who was babbling about an art project she’d done, and drove through the traffic-infested streets to Sarah’s Daycare.
When he walked Katie into the building, Sarah, the approximately thirty-year-old woman who ran the daycare, was talking on the phone.
“Yes, I realize that his father is supposed to pick him up, but his father was supposed to come two hours ago. Well, you’ll just have to leave your work early, won’t you? Honestly, no, I don’t particularly care if you get fired. Well, I can’t watch him all day! Hello? Hello? Are you still there?” She hung up the phone. To Katie she said, “You can go watch TV or play outside or whatever.” To John she said, “What do you want?”
Shocked at her rudeness, he could only reply, “Just dropping off Katie,” and leave. Holding the chain of his late wife’s locket, which he always carried with him, he worried whether Sarah’s Daycare was really the right place for Katie.
Sarah Dubay was worried, upset, scared, and annoyed. Seven-month-old Davey was supposed to have been picked up by his father two hours ago, or one hour and fifty-two minutes ago to be exact. She had not been able to contact him, and when she’d called Davey’s mother at work asking her to pick up her child, the mother had hung up on her. Sarah was licensed only to take care of six children at a time. Davey, along with the six kindergarteners she was actually supposed to be taking care of from 1:00 to six, made seven. It was quite possible that the daycare inspector would come that day, and if Davey was still there, she could get her license taken away.
Carelessly jerking the chain on the baby gate, she silently cursed Davey’s father and went to give his son a bottle.
It was not Davey’s father’s fault that he was a little, or rather a lot, late to pick up his son. Mike Smith had been driving along when another car had smashed into the driver’s side of his car. The car had spun to the right and the airbag had puffed out, bruising Mike’s ribs and releasing a cloud of dust. Mike had stumbled out of his car and onto the sidewalk. The woman in the other car, whose face was wet with tears, called the paramedics on her cell phone. Mike exchanged insurance information with the woman, Sandra Cod, before the paramedics arrived and whisked Mike away to the hospital for x-rays of his ribs. His car was totaled. He wanted to call Sarah’s Daycare to explain his lateness, but unfortunately for everyone, he didn’t have the number memorized and it wasn’t in the phonebook. He waited forever in the hospital room, toying with a chain that had been part of his car which he had accidentally carried away from the wreck and cursing the stupid woman who had plowed into his car. Then he was x-rayed, told to wait for another eternity, and finally told that he had no broken bones. He was released to go, except that he had no car. He called a taxi, which took almost forty-five minutes to arrive, and was finally delivered to confront the irate Sarah. With the memory of Sarah’s screams in his mind and Davey’s wails in his ears, Mike thought, Damn that idiot that plowed into me! It’s all her fault.
He was not entirely correct. Sandra Cod was driving home from visiting her parents so that she could be in the hospital when her husband woke up from his emergency heart surgery. Toying with the chain from which her car incense was hanging, she worried about her husband, and about whether the hospital knew to contact her two adult children, and about whether anyone would have fed the cat if her husband was in the hospital, and about how soon she’d be home, and about… Her cell phone rang. “Hello, this is Sandra Cod,” she answered.
The voice that spoke through the telephone was low pitched and comforting. “Mrs. Cod, this is Brad Weaver, from the hospital. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. The surgeon operating on your husband tried her best, but it was her first major surgery, and she made a fatal mistake, and well, your husband passed away.” Tears began to run down Sandra’s face, and she forgot to look at the road. “We’re all very sorry, and Dr, Natasha Freeman will be contacting you to apologize herself.”
At that moment, the car crashed.
Friday, July 24, 2009
So when I saw the girl sitting at the bus stop, I could tell she was… more than upset. Traumatized, maybe. Like she was just barely holding onto her soul, though I didn’t know then just how true that was. It wasn’t that her expression was a mask of grief or anything obvious like that. It was just something in the way she sat, head bent slightly, carefully trying to avoid all eye contact. And, when she finally did meet my gaze for an instant, the weird, kind of haunted look in her eyes.
“Hey, are you okay?” I asked her. I don’t know what I expected. I mean, she’d never seen me before in her life; she’s not going to pour out all her troubles to me. The most normal thing for her to do would have been to just say, “Yeah, I’m fine,” and continue ignoring me.
But her response wasn’t normal. She jumped up and screamed, “Get away from me, you bastard! I hate you! You evil, sick, twisted, evil… You’re worse than them! I hope they do kill you, you stupid horrible asshole!” Her eyes blazed with anger and hatred and behind that, terror.
Like I said, she didn’t know me. For an instant it crossed my mind that she knew someone who I’d based my current shape on, but that wouldn’t fly because I was wearing my own skin at the moment. So I backed away, thinking, Okay, maybe I’m not so good at reading people. That look in her eyes was insanity. So I left her be, went home, and put the whole incident out of my mind.
I really didn’t think about it much more. It’s not like I had nothing better to do than worry over crazy people who scream at me for no reason. After all, I was in the middle of a little job I’d taken up to help a friend, trying to frame a guy for murder, which sounds bad when I say it like that but trust me, he deserved it. And then I started to feel like I was being followed. You know the prickling on the back of your neck when someone’s watching you? It was like that, but twenty times over. And malevolent. And it happened when I was all alone, in my own shape, at home or out in the open, at times and in places where there was no possible way that there was someone else there.
You’d think I’d know better than to say something’s impossible, wouldn’t you, seeing as how most people would say that about what I do?
So on top of being busy taking all kinds of shapes and pretending to be dead, to be a cop, to be a witness, to be the guy I was working on putting away, in my free moments I was distracted by whoever or whatever was or wasn’t following me. So, I really didn’t think about that girl much at all, till a couple days later, when I was having a few beers with a friend of mine who happens to work in a mental institution. He started telling me stories about his patients, and I remembered, “I had an encounter with a sanity-challenged individual the other day,” and told him about it. He made some comment in reply, I can’t remember what, and I said, “I’m starting to feel like I’m going crazy.”
“What, multiple personality disorder?”
I laughed. “No, seriously, I keep getting this strong feeling I’m being watched or stalked or something… it’s pretty freaky. It’s only been happening for a couple of days, and I’m already starting to feel paranoid.”
And that’s when it clicks. I first felt whatever was watching me right after meeting her. She’d been paranoid and terrified and had said I was worse than “them.” Therefore… Um, I wasn’t sure what it meant. She’d called down a curse on me? The “them” that were after her had moved on to me? But I knew in my gut that something big was going on, and it was because of her.
I didn’t know how to find her again. I went back to the bus stop, but she wasn’t there. I sat down on the bench and waited. She didn’t show up, but after a little bit I felt the air grow heavy with evil and a presence behind me. I didn’t see anyone there, of course. But I felt them.
“I know you’re there!” I called, aware that if anyone was watching I would seem as crazy as the girl had to me. “Show yourself!” There was no response. “What do you want with me?” Still nothing. “What do you want with her?”
And then they appeared. Appeared is the wrong word. They were still invisible, but they were revealing themselves to me. I couldn’t see them, not really, but I could sense their presence with my eyes. It’s like how looking through a completely clear window with no spots or streaks isn’t the same as looking through an open window, how things that are completely clear are still visible. So I could see them. There were seven of them, whatever they were, floating a few feet above the ground. I’m not sure how to describe what they looked like. They were kind of humanoid and kind of not, like how a djinni has a human head and torso that trails off into smoke at the legs- but their whole bodies were like that, halfway between being solid and not.
They were terrifying. It wasn’t their appearance but the mood they created. I said I could feel their malevolence when they were watching me, but that was nothing compared to this. The girl was right to be terrified. These…beings were pure evil.
“We want her soul,” one of them said, in a voice that matched everything else about them.
“She owes us,” another added.
“We will make her pay.” They began to advance towards me. I shifted my legs to those of an Olympic runner, and ran.
I managed to stay ahead of them for long enough to be in the middle of a crowd of people, and then I shifted. I sensed confusion over the beings’ hatred and anger as they drifted back towards the bus stop.
Maybe the smart thing to do would have been to stay away from them, but it was too late for that. And I have to admit, my curiosity tends to overrule my common sense. So I took on a really inconspicuous form, and followed them.
A couple blocks away from the bus stop, the girl appeared out of an alley. The things surrounded her. I wanted to do something, but I kept back, watching. I do have some sense.
“I didn’t even know him!” she was saying to them. “Haven’t you realized by now? I won’t do it, no matter how many people you kill. Go find someone else to haunt!”
“She is close to despair. We will have her soon,” one of the things leered, and they were gone.
I put on my own shape and stepped forward. Her eyes widened and she asked in surprise, “They didn’t kill you?”
“No, but I think they want to.”
“I was hoping they wouldn’t. That they’d think I wanted you dead, so they’d let you live. I should’ve known they’re not so easily tricked.”
“I think it worked, at least for a while,” I told her. “They’ve been following me, and I’m still alive.”
“They’ve killed every single person I’ve interacted with in the last six months. My family, my friends, a cashier who rang up my groceries, complete strangers who happen to make a passing remark to me…”
I was horrified. “Why?”
“I… I made a deal with them. But I didn’t understand what I was agreeing to, and I just couldn’t do what they asked, so I went back on the bargain. Now they’re trying to drive me to despair so they can turn me into one of them.”
I thought about that, then told her, “You need to just end it, once and for all.”
“I can’t give in. They’re killing people now, but if I become one of them I’ll be killing people, for thousands of years.”
“I didn’t say anything about giving in,” I said, as a plan began to form in my mind. “What you need to do is make another deal with them- or not a deal, more like a bet. If you win they leave you and everyone around you alone, if they win you become one of them.”
“What kind of bet? How can I get them to agree? What if I lose?”
“Bet them that they can’t kill me within twenty four hours, by noon tomorrow. I think they’ll go for that. And I’ll make sure you don’t lose.”
“I couldn’t do that to you!”
“I’m volunteering. They’re going to try to kill me anyway, aren’t they?”
She nodded. “You’re sure about this.”
“Absolutely.” And I was. Scared, but sure. I started to leave, then turned back. “Wait, what’s your name?”
I shifted to another shape and backed off a bit, and she called them and made the deal. She added that if they lost they leave her and everyone else alone, and leave the earth for a hundred years. They agreed and left to start looking for me, so I was off.
I took on the shape of a woman, to make it confusing for them, and kept to crowded areas. For a while I could see them sniffing around, but not realizing I could shift skins, they were looking for the man they’d seen before. But after a couple of hours, they did figure it out. That was when things got difficult.
I was at a crowded park, sitting on a bench watching the beings out of the corner of my eye when all of a sudden they swooped towards me. I ducked into a crowd of people and shifted, becoming a little boy. People never seem to notice when I shift, even if it’s right in front of them, and while the thing must have known I’d shifted, they didn’t know what form I was in. So they were inspecting all the people around me, and being small, I managed to slip away unnoticed.
After awhile they found me again, and again I managed to shift shapes and get away. This pattern repeated itself for a while.
Then it started to get dark. People were leaving the park, so I left with them. It was a bit harder to find a crowd once it got dark, but I finally slipped into a nightclub. It took a while for them to find me that time. It was past midnight when they showed up, and I managed to evade them for another couple of hours before the place closed. I couldn’t think of anywhere else that would have enough people that time of night, so I spent a while in the emergency room, shifting from injured-seeming form to injured seeming form as they chased me.
Finally, morning came and I left. I meant to go back to the park I’d been at, but somehow they found me and managed to chase me down a deserted alley. They split up and managed to corner me, with half of them at one end of the alley and half on the other. I knew there was no way I could go, no shape I could take, that would save me.
But then, just before they approached, I had an idea. I ducked behind a dumpster and shifted into an exact copy of Laurel. There was no way it would work. They’d seen me come into the alley, they’d know it had to be me.
But it did work. They surrounded me, demanding of “Laurel” where “he” was. I cowered from them, pretending not to know. Three of them went off to search for me, while the other four circled me, demanding an answer, telling me in gruesome detail how they would kill “him”, and how they had killed each of the so many others. They tormented me for hours, and I understood why the real Laurel was so close to the brink of despair, admired her for having the strength not to give in. I almost shifted, to get away from it, but that would have meant my death, and her transformation to one of these things.
A few minutes before noon, the other three returned. “We haven’t found him,” one of them told the others.
“Should we kill her? We can at least get something out of this,” another suggested.
“We have a deal, and my death isn’t part of it!” I objected.
They looked at me suspiciously. “There’s something different about her,” one of them commented. I snuck a look at my watch. It was 11:59. If it took them another minute to figure it out or if I could stall that long, I’d be home clear.
But just then, the real Laurel began to walk down the alley towards me.
I began to run, away from her, so that they would follow me without noticing that there were two of us. They were almost on me when Laurel screamed, “Laurel!” They thought she was me, so they all turned and rushed towards her.
“No, it’s me!” I cried. The beings looked around in confusion. They would have rushed towards one of us, or more likely both of us, but at that moment the clock struck twelve.
They stood still in the air. “Don’t think this is over,” one of them said. “We’ll be back in a hundred years, and if you’re still alive, we’ll kill both of you.” Then they vanished, not just turned invisible but were gone.
“If I somehow live to be a hundred and twenty five, remind me to kill myself first,” Laurel said, and we both laughed.
So the only “music” around while I’m scrubbing the floor is my idiot stepsisters’ incessant chatter about the ball. Should they wear short dresses, or long? How should they do their hair? Isn’t the prince dreamy, wouldn’t it be amazing if he chose one of them to marry? Ooh, and however will they find the perfect pairs of shoes to match their dresses?
It’s not that I even really want to go to the ball. I mean, I dance even worse than I sing. But it’s a once in a lifetime occasion, I mean, there may be other balls but the prince will only chose a bride once, I assume. And I really do need to get away from this, to do something different if only for one night. So I start thinking about how to go. I don’t have a dress, but I could probably “borrow” one from one of my stepsisters. Celia’s two years younger than me, Ellen three, but we’re all close to the same size. They’d be livid when they found out of course, but hell, that’s part of the fun.
So a couple nights before the ball I sneak into their closets and shop through their dresses. I finally settle on a long red dress that Celia hasn’t worn in a couple of years and probably won’t even recognize. I take a pair of my stepmother’s shoes that go with it okay- she’s the only one with feet the same size as mine. The heels are higher than I’m used to, but if I walk to the ball barefoot- the castle’s not all that far- and put them on before going inside, I should be okay.
So I hide the dress and the shoes under my bed, and the day of the ball I get up really early and have all my chores finished by noon. The house is spotless, so as to give my stepmother absolutely no excuse for complaint. She hasn’t actually forbidden me from going to the ball, but I don’t plan to tell her my plans. She’s going with her daughters as their chaperone, so she won’t be home to see that I’m gone.
So I’ve finished my work, and they’re all out getting their hair done and I assume they’re going straight to the ball from there, because they’re in their dresses and everything. So I get cleaned up and put on Celia’s dress and am working on my hair when the door opens and all three of them come in. They stare at me in shock for a moment, and I think they’re about to start screaming, but they just burst into laughter.
“You think you’re going to the ball? In that?” Celia finally manages between bursts of laughter. She’s laughing so hysterically that her eyes start to water and Ellen has to remind her not to mess up her makeup.
I think I look fine, but their reaction makes me doubt. What if I enter the ballroom and everyone starts cracking up? But I really don’t care so I just stare them down. Finally, they stop laughing, and Ellen says to Celia, “We don’t have to admit we know her, do we?”
Their mother marches into the kitchen, probably trying to find some spot that’s not perfectly clean so she has an excuse not to let me go. I know she won’t find anything, and she doesn’t, but she comes back into the room with a whole bunch of sacks of grain. It’s actually a really funny sight, seeing her standing there in her evening gown holding them, and I have no clue what’s going on. She takes one of the bags and upends it, pouring rice onto the floor. She does the same with sacks of oats, corn, flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, wheat kernels, barley… all the grain in our house, and she mixes it together with her toe. She gives me a long, cold look and says, “You may, of course, come to the ball… once every grain of this mess is sorted properly.” Her daughters burst into laughter again, and they all leave.
I stare at the mess, wishing for once that I had befriended some twittery little birds who could sort it for me. It’s an impossible task, which of course was the point. I kneel down on the floor and push a few grains of rice away from the rest of it, when I suddenly feel like an idiot. Why even try sorting it when I can go out and buy some more grains already separated from each other. I grin at the thought of my stepmother’s face when she sees that I’ve succeeded at the impossible task she set me, and sweep up the pile. I don’t really want to waste it all, but I’m sure not going to sort it and most of the stuff in it wouldn’t be any good cooked together. So I take it outside, and sure enough, there’s some birds sitting in a tree. Not a flock of annoying little songbirds, either, but crows, seven of them. I toss the grain on the ground under the tree and sure enough, they swoop down and start pecking at it, so I go off to the market to replace our stores.
Maybe half an hour later I’m back with the sacks of grain. The pile on the ground is gone, as are all but one of the crows. I go inside and put the bags in the kitchen, then go back outside.
The last of the crows is gone. In its place is a man, leaning against the tree. The phrase “tall, dark, and handsome” is cliché, but it fits him to a tee. “Heading to the ball?” he asks me.
“I guess,” I tell him. It’s getting late, and it’ll be even later once I get there, and my feet are already tired from all the running around at the market.
“I was just wondering why someone all dressed up for a fancy dance like that was going around feeding the birds.”
“How’d you know-”
I break off when he continues, “Not that we’re not grateful.”
I gawk at him. “Are you saying... that you’re a crow?” I feel foolish just asking.
He grins at me again. “Only sometimes. My name’s Kay.”
“That’s not much of an answer.”
He smiles, but just says, "You’re going to be late, you know.”
“Meh,” I say. I don’t much care anymore. The ball no longer seems like such a once in a lifetime event.
“You could be missing your chance to marry the prince,” he says teasingly.
“Oh, yeah right.”
“He’d be a fool not to choose you.”
I blush, and don’t believe it for an instant, but I play along. “But why would I want to marry him?”
“He’s rich, powerful, handsome, famous?” Kay suggests.
“Famous schmamous. I prefer my men more mysterious.” I’m flirting shamelessly, and probably sound like an idiot, but he smiles.
“In that case, rather than waste your presence on fools who don’t deserve it, let me take you out to dinner?”
I agree, of course. By this point I don’t even remember why I ever did want to go to the ball. So we go out to dinner and have an amazing time, passionately discussing everything and nothing until we’re politely kicked out of the restaurant at midnight when it closes. We walk around town for another few hours, reveling in each other’s company. Our goodnight kiss is perfect, and we plan another date for the day after tomorrow.
My stepmother is too distracted by the fact that the prince proposed to Celia to notice how late I come in or be surprised about the grain. Celia waves around the enormous diamond on her hand and asks us, “Aren’t you just horrifically jealous?”
“Oh, yes,” Ellen breathes. But I’m not.