Action and Consequence

I opened my mirror to be sure everything was perfect, not that I ever had anything to worry about. I was born perfect. Anyway, I had to check out the rumor that new people were arriving. In my territory. How dare they? Didn’t they know they needed my permission? I could kill the principal for allowing this. No matter, I’d get to that later.

Oh, that must be them. Both were rather tall. Maybe even taller than me, which, of course, was impossible. Hairstyle was loose and layered, which was so yesterday. They wore a black and white pinstriped shirt dress with Greek sandals. Only I could pull off that look. How dare they copy me?

An old lady was with them when they walked away from the Administration Building. So the rumor must be true. That might pose a threat to my existence.

Why should I even worry? Although I still needed to inspect them. Since they didn’t pass, they needed to be eliminated on a permanent basis. Yes, it had to be so. Yes, indeed.

I slept through the entire morning as usual and didn’t miss a thing. With a few well-placed brainiacs in the room, I had it under control. The teachers never knew. Even if they did, there was nothing they could do about it. My parents supplied them with the funds they needed for whatever they needed. If I got expelled, there goes their funding and it would be their fault and not mine.

The sweet Little Miss Princess over there. Too golden-haired, too short, and too popular. Why did she have to be here? She would ruin everything. With her around, my brilliant plan to get rid of the newcomers would fail. I. Never. Fail.

The last three-day holiday was right around the corner. A perfect opportunity to get rid of them. Somebody always died for one reason or another. They would be the ones to appear on the morning news. Three teens drowned to death in big and bold black letters. I would get so much attention for eliminating them. Everybody would be so thankful.

On my way out the door the next morning, mother dearest called me. She too needed to die, but that would be much later. After graduation sounded good.

Mother approached me. “Oh, Estelle dear. I will be there to pick you up. I will bring along with me a change of clothes so you can change in the car. There is a very important woman I need to meet. Yes, I expect you to be there. Do not keep me waiting.”

“But Mother. Not even a little?” I pouted. Someone is important if I said they were important.

“Do you expect me to believe this act about you being sweet and innocent?” She laughed. “You have privileges only because your father insists on it. In case a plan emerges into your rodent sized head about getting rid of us, always remember, your father and I are ten steps ahead of you. Three o’clock at the front gates. If you’re late, there will be consequences. Understood?”

“But Mommy… .” I pouted again. She had to fall at some point.

She walked up to me face to face. “Am I understood?”

“Fine. Three o’clock then. Ta ta, Mother dearest.” You will be eliminated earlier than planned. You are the one with the rodent-sized brain.

She turned around and left.

I went to school and continued to sleep until lunch. There was a quiz in that boring class that talked about nonexistent people. What was it? Some sort of history or something. The brainiacs took care of that for me. I expected to get an A average for graduation. Nothing less would do.

The real competition would be God himself. Oh, and Little Miss Angel came into the cafeteria at last. I needed to stretch my legs. She stepped over them.

One of the old lady watchers came to me. “You really shouldn’t do that. You could trip someone. On purpose or not really doesn’t matter.” The hag left.

The bell rang, and I had other classes to sleep through.

The last bell rang, and Mother Dearest was supposed to pick me up. I would tell her that—

“Let’s go,” Mother said. “Now.”

I turned around and stood there. She would not tell me what to do. I didn’t need to follow the rules. They were below me. I needed to inspect my nails.

She left me alone. Perfect. On my way to find out what that waste of oxygen was up to one of our minions picked me up.

Once I was put down, I had something to say. “You will be eliminated, you old hag.”

“Is that all? I thought you would be more original by now. You’ve been saying the same thing for years. One grows rather bored with hearing the same thing time after time. Get in the car.”

Of course, I didn’t move unless I needed to. The next thing I knew, she pushed me into the car. I picked up the phone to dial… what was that number again? It started with a nine or something.

“In case you didn’t know, the number would be to your father. Get dressed. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“I refuse to follow you.”

“I suggest you do get dressed.”

“Mother, you are the one that needs a miracle. I have always been positively perfect.”

“You do need a miracle if you expect to graduate this year. You really can’t get any lower than straight Fs. So yes, you need to get dressed. This would be your last chance.”

“I think you’re confused with somebody else. I am so intelligent. They don’t have a score any more perfect than an A. Are you really getting that old?”

“Are you really that stupid? I get daily reports about your performance. All of them tell the same thing. The only reason you’re still enrolled is because it isn’t the last day yet. Then you will find out what your destiny holds. I really do suggest you put those pants on.”

How could she know? Nobody was supposed to know. I’ll blow up the entire school for defying their leader.

We continued up the road alongside a river. That wouldn’t be the one that led to Mirror Lake, would it? What a perfect spot. This trip might turn out to be worthwhile after all.

The minion helped Mother out of the car, but not me. Too bad the minion left before I could get rid of the nuisance.

“Arabella, thank you for meeting me,” Mother said, as she left me.

“These are my twin daughters, Seren and Vesper. Girls, why don’t you stay here and socialize while we talk. Be back in one hour.”

“All right,” one of them said. “Meggie will be here too.”

“Fine. Fine,” Arabella said. “Just be back in one hour.”

The adults walked away, which left me with these two. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to end my misery. The green rocks and clear rushing water would provide the perfect area to make it all seem like an accident.

That couldn’t be her. That was Meggie. The sweet Little Miss Princess who I’ve been trying to get rid of. That was her? Well, then all my dreams and wishes would come true.

“Sorry. So sorry.” She came closer. “Vesper and Seren.” She hugged them both. “It’s been a while since we spent any time together. It’s good we’ll be in the same school again. How’ve you been?”

I tuned out the rest of the conversation. It was so stupid. Why would I even bother?

I went over to the board with the layout of the property on it. Up the hill was where it should be done. No body has ever been recovered.

Maybe if I pretended to trip, I could push all of them into the water. They would drown and die. I would be happy. That plan was so brilliant. It couldn’t be more brilliant.

“You know what would be fantastic,” I said, as I tried not to throw up. “What would be so super fantastic would be a picture by the water here.”

“Yeah. OK.” Meggie walked over. “We could take a selfie and exchange it.”

I made sure to get in the middle. I had enough arm’s length to pull all of them in. We got by the water’s edge and I pulled them in. I grabbed onto a branch at the last minute so I wouldn’t fall in. I thought my luck ran out when the patrol came by.

Of course, they would only bring validity to my story. “Oh, you have to help us. You have to. They’ll drown.”

One of them got on the radio and said a bunch of things to someone else. A man in uniform turned towards me. “Don’t worry. We’ll get them at the bottom. It’s calm now. It doesn’t really flow like it does at the beginning of spring. They’ll be OK. They may be a little cold, though.”

“Oh. Thank you. Thank you for your help.” It was a beautiful plan to get rid of them. Why couldn’t they die?

About that time that old woman and Mother came back. “The ranger came to get us,” Arabella said. “The girls are expert swimmers, so this wouldn’t have been a problem for them.”

Mother walked to me step by step with a smile on her face. “It is lucky for you they did not die as you had planned.”

I looked at her, shocked she knew.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t know? Now I know you’re stupid.” She walked away.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Maybe if I pretended to faint. I smiled when I heard someone call for help.

Someone put something under my nose. Ew. Get that away from me. The only thing I should smell is the most expensive perfume made for me. “What—”

“You can open your eyes now,” Mother said. “Everybody’s gone. Get up and get in the car. That is, unless you want to walk all the way. The choice is yours.” Mother walked away from me. I hated it. I should be able to wish everybody was gone. Why couldn’t people die? Nobody else was as superior as me.

I got in the car all right. Mother sat there playing with her device. She turned it off and turned towards me. “Your plan to drown the girls failed. All of them survived. Next time you plan to drown someone, double-check a few facts first. They were trained in water rescue.”

It didn’t matter.

“Right now, however, we will meet your father at his office. From there, we will meet with the girls again. However, I can’t guarantee how well you will be received. Especially after what you pulled.”

They better have what I demand. The food must be of the most excellent quality. I deserve nothing less.

We parked underground with everybody else. Did I look like everybody else?

“Get out of the car or you will be pulled out of the car. It won’t be me that would be embarrassed.”

Hmph. As if. I raised my nose at her and got out of the car. I turned my back on her.

I heard her walk away. From me. How dare she? She was my minion. She was supposed to ask me for permission. Grrr. How rude.

“Charles pushed the elevator button already, Estelle. You better run.”

I stood there and waited. When those doors close, I could go back home and find someone to eliminate those three.

The elevator doors opened, they stepped inside, and the doors closed.

Perfect. I turned around and left the building. Wait. Why are the gates closed? They were not supposed to be closed.

I walked up to the guard and knocked on his window.

“Yeah?” He turned towards me. “What do you need?”

“Can’t you see I need to leave?”

He laughed. “This entry is for automobiles only. The entry and exit for people would be back in the direction you came. Turn right and follow the exit signs.”

“Why do I have to walk all the way back? Can’t you see me? Didn’t I tell you I need to leave? Are you that stupid?:

He raised his eyebrow at me. Too bad I didn’t have any of my minions to eliminate him.

“I only work here, ma’am. I cannot let you go through this gate. Those are the rules. I’m only here until a new unit gets installed in a couple of days. Then everything will be electronic. In the meantime, turn around and walk all the way until you get to the exit sign. Big, huge red letters. Can’t miss it. Follow the arrow to turn right. You will come to a door. Open the door and you can walk through. OK?”

I turned my back on him. He was the one that was rude. I had to walk all the way back from where I came. Why doesn’t anyone know how important I am? Why is it I had to follow the

rules?

“It’s about time,” Mother said as she leaned against the wall. “You better move before your father gets down here. He hasn’t had a good morning.”

I stood so close I could see all that trashy make-up she insisted on wearing. “Why is it I have to follow the rules when I don’t believe I have to?”

The elevator door dinged and out stepped Father. He grabbed my arm and pulled me inside. When the elevator stopped, the doors opened, and he pulled me all the way into his office.

My hired brainiacs stood in the office along with those other girls I tried to drown. All of them looked at me.

Meggie stepped forward. “In case you don’t recognize anyone here, my name is Megan van Middleburg. Only a select group of people can call me Meggie. These four people here are the ones you copy from. You will hear from them later. Vesper and Seren are newcomers whom you also pulled into the water along with myself. Their mother is also the head of the school board committee. Lucky for you, we know how to swim, use our brains, and therefore could rescue ourselves from the river.”

A bald old man in a cheap grey suit stepped out. “I’m Mr. van Middleburg. Your school principal. We were supposed to meet first thing in the morn. I thought it best to confront the one who tried to hurt these girls. I am also here to inform you that you will not be graduating this year. As a matter of fact, we have expelled you. What that means is you can no longer attend Angel’s Academy for Girls. The board and I feel your actions are inexcusable. Your parents and I have discussed this at length. They will talk it over with you when we are done here.” He turned his head. “Come along, Meggie. It’s time for us to go.”

Megan stepped out and walked by the old man. They left the office. The other girls stood there and crossed their arms over their chests.

Father turned towards all of them. “Girls, could you do me a favor? I’ll call you later to confront Estelle about what she’s done. Meanwhile, the three of us need to talk. OK?”

The Newcomers and the Brainiacs left the office. They closed the door so it wouldn’t make a sound. Ha! The only thing that mattered was that everybody that didn’t matter left. It. Was. About Damn. Time. “Now that—”

Mother grabbed my shoulders and pushed me into a chair. “Sit there.” She turned around towards Father. “Now, do you see how she is?”

“I am sorry, sweetheart. She was my daughter and this old man wanted to believe. Forgive me this?” He held out his arms.

“Oh. All right. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about this. Is the doctor ready?”

“Wait, a minute. What—” I stood.

“You will sit down and keep your trap shut. Do you hear me?” I couldn’t believe Father yelled at me. How dare he?

“I don’t have to do what anybody says. I’m leaving.” I stood up from the chair.

Mother got in front of me. “You leave? Fine. You get in trouble? We won’t bail you out. You turn homeless? Oh well. Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, if you get sick, there might be a free clinic that might have a qualified doctor.”

“Rules are for everybody else, not me.” I stomped my foot. “I don’t have to do what anybody else says. If something goes wrong, it’s all your fault and not mine.”

“You will stop screaming,” Father said. “And Dr. Osbert is waiting.” He came towards me and stood on the other side of me. “Eins. Zwei. Drei.” He nodded.

“Hup,” Mother said, as they picked me up. I tried to kick them but it didn’t work. They handed me off to their minion.

“Charles, would you take her down to Dr. Osbert for us, please?” Mother asked. “We would appreciate it.”

“Of course,” he said, as he bowed. He picked me up and put me over his shoulder. He laughed. “You think you can hurt me? My nephew kicks harder than you. And he’s three. Oh, and thanks for massaging my back.” He kept laughing.

Someone parked a small white thing with four wheels in front of the elevator. The minion put me inside. “Here she is, doctor. She’s all yours.”

“Thank you. I will take care of her from here.” The door closed.

I screamed and kicked him.

“We will go somewhere to work out why you feel the way you do.”

“This is kidnapping.”

“You can scream all you like. I don’t mind. Your parents signed you over to me already. So I suggest you sit back and enjoy the ride.”

The House Is Alive

Things sort of got turned upside down since the pandemic hit. I didn’t so much lose my job as they told me there was nothing I could do. If I had other skills such as answering the telephone or typing, then they could keep me. Otherwise, it would be best to find other means.

It was an office complex that kept food on my plate and gave me the ability to drive a car. I worked in the mailroom. It didn’t satisfy any need I had other than that. I had dreams of doing something more physical.

I wanted construction. It’s what Dad did, what Grandpa did, and so on down the line. Mom did the catering, Aunt Doris and Aunt Ethel cleaned houses, and Grandma stitched anything that needed to be stitched.

Me? I was supposed to fall in line with the women, but I couldn’t thread a needle for the life of me. That little thread never got into that little hole. I burned water more times than I dared to count.

If it wasn’t for the microwave, I’d starve. Dad worked in a construction company, and that’s what I wanted to do.

I had a vision of owning a construction company. With Dad’s help, I thought we could be on top. It meant a lot of hard work, but I believed we could make it work.

So when an opportunity to redevelop an area came up, I jumped at the opportunity. With Dad’s and Grandpa’s help, we could do it. An application needed to be filled out and submitted with detailed plans along with one thousand dollars to buy the property. If approved, then a lending company would donate one hundred and fifty thousand dollars as the funds to buy materials and hire the necessary subcontractors. The winner would then have the opportunity to create their own construction business. The money from the sale of the house would go to a veteran’s non-profit.

Everybody would win. It was a great idea.

I went to the designated area and had flashbacks. The area used to house those that worked in an iron factory. After World War II, the factory got shut down. A dairy company then bought it, but after so many disasters, they pulled out along with the population that used to live in this area. Somebody bought up the area and do something with it.

The houses had peeling paint, holes in the porch, broken windows, graffiti, and dead animals. All of them could be demolished and rebuilt again. However, that would take more time and money than what was given.

The one I wanted was the one with the porch swing. It seemed to be the most intact, meaning that if I dared to walk on the floor, a hole wouldn’t appear out of nowhere. I gathered up the money and did the paperwork. We were approved. From that point forward, we had seven weeks.

That was a lot to accomplish in seven weeks.

We worked night, day, and weekends on that house. Thank God Mom provided food. My aunts volunteered to do any cleaning that needed to be done and that helped a lot. Grandma, being Grandma, made sure all of us had clean clothes every day.

We gutted it. That way, we could see what was underneath and talk about what needed fixing. Which was everything.

We didn’t get outside yet, so that meant the swing was still intact. As a test, I put a full tool box on it and it didn’t fall. It stayed put. I sat down with the intention of it only being for a few minutes.

“I hope you like it here,” a girl said. “It’s an old thing. Needs a group of peeps to keep it.”

What? I did not know what she was talking about. I didn’t even know how she got here. “Uh. I just sat down here to rest a little. Your parents might miss you.”

“Na. Dad still at work. Mama went to town to get some stuff. Probably a sack of taters or some rat poison. The baby died last night. Dad burried it in the backyard before he gone to work this mornin’.”

Oh, my god. Why does this child sound so cold? As if nothing happened. “I gotta get back. It was nice meeting you.” If I had a dollar, I would’ve given it to her, but I didn’t think to bring my wallet.

I walked a few steps away when I realized she could help us by picking up the trash. That would help. I turned around to talk to her about it but she disappeared. Maybe she left, and I didn’t realize it.

It was about the middle of talking about whom to hire to do the electrical when something crashed. Aunt Doris and Aunt Ethel went home to take care of their families. Grandma went home for the day. That left Dad, Grandpa, and me standing around a table to work out the kitchen.

Dad went out back, Grandpa stayed inside, while I went out front to see what happened. The swing was still there. No new holes in the porch. So the only thing I could think of was the fireplace was falling apart. It had been doing that every day since we got here. We were going to demolish it anyway and put in a new one.

Dad and I found Grandpa in the future kitchen. He kneeled on the floor with a coin in his hand. “This is a 1932 penny. Not shiny, but it doesn’t have any holes in it. This house must be about that old. They say a found penny brings good luck. I’ll put it in my pocket.” He checked his watch. “It’s best we get goin’. The open style kitchen would help to sell it to the new buyers. So we’ll go for that. I still don’t like the idea of the bleach white cabinets, with the bleach white countertop, and bleach white walls. This ain’t a hospital. It’s a house. I say we use wood for the cabinets and keep them that way. We just use a lighter wood. That would be best, I think.” He stood up with a lot of moaning and groaning. ”Tomorrow at nine. Night and God bless.” He ambled out the door.

The house was too small to have walls other than in the bedrooms and the bathroom. Leave everything else open. A more modern style. I heard that moan and raised him two yawns when I finished that thought. It sure felt good, though. “So tomorrow at nine?” I said through another.

“I hear ya. Light wooded cabinets are fine. We still need to work on the layout, though. Maybe Dad is tired, so his mind couldn’t function.” He laughed. “I knew I got it from someone. Night kiddo. Take care of yourself.” He kissed my forehead.

Kiddo? I wasn’t a kiddo. I was twenty-eight.

Since everybody else left, I might as well, too. I needed a shower, some food, and some sleep in that order. “Good night, house. See you in the morning. We’ll take care of the rest later. Night.”

I always thought people might see me as being crazy for talking to a building. I might be, but I had a reason. A house that sits deteriorates quicker than one that’s being lived in. Since we broke it down to bare bones, it had to feel something. Didn’t it?

On the way home, I dropped into a burger place and grabbed a cheeseburger and a Coke. Maybe the caffeine and the sugar would help to give me enough oomph to make it to the door, or maybe to the shower. Whatever.

The following days were coming along. We finished the kitchen with Grandpa’s insistence that the sink be in front of the window. Why? Because that’s where Grandma likes it. We shrugged and moved along to the family room.

I didn’t see the girl during that time. There were only about three weeks left. We took alternating naps to get the place ready for inspection and for sale.

With about a week left, we started work on the outside.

Dad wanted the front porch to be more than a front porch. He envisioned a screened-in porch. I had to say goodbye to the porch swing. I liked that swing because I could sit on it. It also felt like it belonged.

That was when things sort of went crazy. Walls would collapse. Holes in the floor would appear out of nowhere. Windows would shatter and millions of tiny pieces of glass would fall to the floor. These were brand new. We didn’t install them that long ago.

Dad almost got his head smashed by a flying hammer. I told him I didn’t do it. We had our differences, yeah but, that didn’t mean I wanted to kill him.

Grandpa had chest pains. He said it didn’t feel like a horse. It felt more like an elephant. Grandpa was a healthy man. Grandma made sure he took his vitamins, drank plenty of water, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. They walked for an hour everyday plus construction. Yet he was complaining of chest pains.

A box of nails marching on the floor. Then somehow coming into formation to build a wall in the middle of the air. I ducked for my life as they came right at me. I heard them slam into the wall behind me.

Dad came running in and he yelled about me being reckless. I didn’t do it. I didn’t want to nail myself to the wall. Of course, he thought I did it to get attention.

That was when I had second thoughts about this project. Last-minute fixes coming up was to be expected. That’s how things worked sometimes.

Between the deadline and finishing the house, along with Dad’s and Grandpa’s issues, I started to have second thoughts about all of this. Maybe my dream of owning my company wasn’t going to happen.

Dad left after the nail incident. He was angry with his stiff jaw, even though he said he was fine. Of course I didn’t believe it but it’s not like I wanted us to be together at that moment either.

I took on the front porch by myself. The project had to be completed. Even if we don’t win this thing. We could look back on it with thoughts of it being an honest day’s work.

I took down the swing, but instead of getting rid of it, I thought of redoing it with new boards and fresh paint. The sun was about to set and that meant getting out the lanterns. I couldn’t work in the dark.

“All right, house. What do you think? We got the cement poured early in the project and that’s why it’s hard now. That way, we don’t worry about falling through the holes.” I laughed. “Tomorrow, hopefully, Dad will be here to do the backyard. That’s always been his thing. While he’s doing that, I’m going to go to a sort of rummage store. They have a whole lot of stuff to choose from. Most for free if you know how to refinish it. Then, you’ll be beautiful. Oh wait, I have to install the screens, so you’ll have a screened-in porch. Yeah. OK.”

I got the screens from someone’s trash. They weren’t broken beyond repair and only torn around the edges. I worked on that until I couldn’t work anymore. Someone I knew worked with glass. I hoped I could talk to him about of the possibility of getting windows to fit in over the screen at a reasonable price. There were piles of red brick scattered around the property. Most were in good shape and maybe there was enough to provide a finishing touch.

After a good night’s sleep and a hot shower, I returned the next day. Dad was in the back doing the backyard. He started pouring the cement for the backyard when something came right at him. I grabbed the closest thing I could, which was the trashcan lid, to stop it. It worked and Dad didn’t look up. Of course, my arm hurt, but at least Dad would be OK.

“Morning, Dad.” I waved.

“Morning, Pipsqueak.” He smiled.

Yeah. Things were OK. I shook my head and went around to find Grandpa.

The kitchen was finished, and that led out to the family room. It was an open area instead of the closed off option, which might’ve made the space feel smaller. After looking at the completed area, it looked better than I thought it would.

Grandpa was finishing the floor tiles in the bathroom. We agreed it wasn’t big enough to have two bedrooms. So we arranged the floor plans to have a master bedroom with a connecting bathroom and a small office space.

“Morning, Grandpa.”

“Morning. Got my coffee?”

“You didn’t order any.”

“I coulda sworn I did. All right. When I finish up here, I’ll go out and get some.”

“Just be careful.”

“Always.”

I made my way to the front, and it looked gorgeous. The red brick would show it off. Be something different to sort of glam up the space.

“All right, House. I’m going to put up the brick. While that’s sitting, I’m going to redo the swing. Not get rid of it, no no. Redo it and put it back up. Then there will be a nice sitting corner, I think. You’ll love it.”

I spent the entire morning doing that. Thank God Mom came by with food. I was starved by then. Outside the house, I sat on a tree stump and looked at it. I stood up and took a couple of steps back and smiled. “Now, you look fantastic.”

I spent the rest of the day picking up. My aunts agreed to come by and clean it up before we go back and tell them it’s done. Of course, we needed to get the inspection paperwork in before doing that.

Everybody else had gone home while I stayed and sorted through the paperwork.

“So. You done now?”

That voice sounded familiar. I looked to my right, and that girl reappeared. “Hi. You need something?”

“Nah. Just sittin’. I got worrisome when this chair was gone. I got angry.”

“Dad wanted to get rid of it. I didn’t. I just took it apart, got some fresh supplies, and redid it. There was a picture in my head of the perfect front porch. All I needed were the parts. The house supplied the rest.”

“You done good then. You gonna be here?”

“Uh.” This conversation went from typical to creepy. “What do you mean?”

“Gonna live here?”

All the time that we had been talking, she looked at the ground. I didn’t mind that much. Lots of people do that, including me. When she looked at me there were no eyes where there should have been.

I got up and made my way towards the door. “We just rebuilt it. We don’t have plans to live in it. There’s some paperwork to finish before submitting it to the county office. They’ll put it up for sale. That’s how this works.”

“I see.” She stood up and walked to me. “So you tore me up and put me back together ‘cause you felt like it?”

I gulped. That was when what she said penetrated my brain. Tore her up and put her—she’s the house. “No no. House, listen to me. We didn’t tear you up because we were mean. We tore you up and put you back together to give you another life. So that you can feel useful again. That’s why we did it. You got tired of sitting here and doing nothing. Right? Well, this will give you another life.”

“I suppose. You better be right ‘bout this. I know who you are and how to find you.”

“All I can say is it might not happen right away. It will happen, but it will take time. You look beautiful now. Right? The factories are gone, but I know there’s a company that’s going to come in. Someone will take care of you when that happens. It will take time.”

The girl blinked, turned around, and went inside. When she did that, I collapsed on the floor. I looked over at the swing and remembered that the paperwork still needed to be finished. I stood up and walked over.

The paperwork was completed and stacked on the table. “Thank you.” I grabbed all of it and locked the place before I left.

I turned it in and needed to wait six to eight weeks for approval. After that, another two weeks before they made a decision.

Those six to eight weeks felt like sixty to eighty years before I got a letter telling me they approved. It only took another two days before another letter came telling me they had plans to put it up for sale. It seems that I was the only one that finished. Two other groups tried and left after the first day.

Rumor went around that two other groups couldn’t finish because their tools kept disappearing. They ran out of money before completion. They left.

Another group didn’t finish because the general contractor got nailed to the wall. The others in the company ran out and left everything behind. None of them got over the vision of seeing their boss in that state.

It seemed I was the only one that finished and they had plans to make my house a showpiece of what the future might hold. I had no idea any of that happened. I only knew there were two other groups.

When I told Dad, he laughed. Grandpa gave his usual yup and went back to reading the paper. Neither helped, not that I was looking for it.

I went back to the historical society and looked up the area. Nothing happened there that I didn’t already know. So how did those houses become possessed? There were always people coming in and out. Maybe one of them did some horrible things, and we suffered for it?

It didn’t take any time at all before they sold the house. It seemed the CEO of a new incoming company loved it. Couldn’t pass it up because of the screened-in porch. So House could feel useful again. It still made me wonder about the other two.

Border Bridge

I stood against the wall to wait to be called. There were four others that waited with me. This would take me to the other side of the island. Away from Queen Natalia. With the money I could make doing this, I could get a bath, a bed to sleep in for the night, a hearty meal, and some new clothes. How? That was easy. This was the place people went to if they wanted to become an oarsman.

The promised pay would be somewhere between five and forty grammas of gold, depending on the location, length of the journey, the captain, and a bunch of other factors. People left after punching a hole in the wall or after a celebratory yell.

My time came. I had to remember to stay with the rhythm of the drum. That was important. After that, it was a mind game of convincing your body it wasn’t done yet.

I breathed a sigh of relief when it was a simple, steady rhythm. Back and forth, to and fro, back and forth, to and fro until they stopped. Then I had to pull a barrel from one end of the room to the other. It felt like they filled it with dirt or sand. It didn’t slosh around any. The last test I almost laughed at. I had to run up and down a set of stairs until they called time.

My body started to wear out as my legs got tired and my feet ached. I could do anything as long as I set my mind to it. I did that.

I was never so glad when they blew that whistle. “All right. That’s enough.”

I thanked any deity that looked over me.

The man stared at the paper in front of him. “For being so small, I didn’t expect you to last this long. A woman would’ve quit when asked to pull the barrel. You kept going and then some.” He looked up with a smile. At least I thought it was, but it was hard to tell through that big bushy face hair he had. I used to call it a bear’s face. “I have two options. One fit for a woman. It’s short. Not a lot of work. It’ll pay enough to get some beauty supplies. The other is longer, thereby being harder with a majority man crew. There will be a stench and a lot of sweat. So which is it?”

I should’ve expected this. “What’s the pay for each?”

“Oh. All right. The first will pay fifteen and the second forty. No negotiations.”

I had no plans for coming back here. Chances were my betrothed’s mother would still look for me if I came back. So that left the first choice. “I’ll take the first offer. I don’t need to come back here.”

“Right. Take a seat until we’re done.”

I found a seat in the back and felt all eyes on me. Before all of this, I expected it. After a hasty retreat, I did a lot of things to not look like a woman. It took shaving my head, letting my facial hair grow, not wearing any scented oils, and wearing pants instead of skirts to do it. It has worked so far. I realized it wouldn’t work forever, but for now, it did. I was thankful for that.

This experience brought a question to my mind. After everybody finished, I went up to the examiner and waited for him to look at me. “What made you think I’m a woman?”

He laughed. “You think you’re the only one?” He stood and left.

I followed the others to a bunkhouse not that far from the main building. Two beds on top of each other, a single sheet of linen, and a flour sack as a pillow to lie on. A locked box at the foot of the beds I assumed to put any personal possessions inside of.

The examiner entered the building and whistled. Of course, it got everybody’s attention. “We leave here at sunup. If you’re not on board at that time, tough. You missed it. You get paid when we arrive at our destination. Not before. You will get paid in full. If you would like to stay, then talk to me at that time. I suggest getting some sleep instead of gambling or going on a drinking binge. Sun up, people.” He left.

I got the bottom bunk against the far wall with nobody on top. At times like these, I missed my feather-filled mattress with the finest of silks as my sheets. These so-called beds had to be filled with rocks. The flour sack was a flour sack. Nothing in it. I put my hands under my head and tried to close my eyes.

May any deity watch over me. Please make me deaf and unable to smell.

Of course, that brief prayer didn’t work. The worst night I’ve had yet. I thought the first night away from the castle was horrible.

With no place to go, I stepped outside for some fresh air. The rotten fish smell was a lot better.

I sat on the docks and watched the sun go up. Of course, I would suffer for it later, but I couldn’t do anything about it at that moment.

I looked for the guy and found him in front of a boat. I sat and waited a few steps away. He must’ve seen me because he waved me over. “You are going to find a hatch. It should be open. Climb down the steps and keep going until you find the oar room. Since you’re new, I’m going to put you in the back. These are three-man oars. That is where you will sit. Now git.”

I understood everything he said. I only wished he didn’t put me next to someone with more muscle than brain and didn’t smell. Of course, anybody would smell after this. Maybe the tiny port would allow for some air to come through.

I went all the way down and found a seat in the back. The tiny port was only big enough to allow the oar to go through. Oh boy. Well, I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.

It seemed everybody arrived at the last minute. Every one of them with enormous arms and chest muscles, no hair, and grunted.

The first that sat on the edge of the bench was the leader. He had the weight and muscle to work the oar, while the others supported him. The drum may set the rhythm, but it was the leader that set the pace.

Knowing that, I made it a point to be sure I kept up. I couldn’t say it was easy, it was anything but, but not that bad either.

I was never so glad to pull into port. Every muscle in my body screamed. It was at that time I wished I paid more attention to my magic lessons. Then I could float out instead of trying to convince my feet to move. Not that it would do me any good since I lost my magic.

I waited for everybody to leave because I knew I would be slow. I even waited for the drum man to go up. He and I went back and forth with the you go first argument. I gave in and went ahead.

I started laughing because, on the way up, he kept pace.

“Left. Right. Left. Right,” he said.

I turned around and thanked him. I needed that laugh.

The guy that hired us stood by the plank with bags in his hand. He handed one out to each of us. When I got mine, I looked inside. Gold coins and not nuggets like I expected.

Each coin weighed one gramma. Since there were fifteen coins, that meant I got the promised amount. I went out to look for a bathhouse. Sure enough, it was a few steps away.

Nothing was as glamorous as seeing a hot body of water with which I could scrape the filth off me with. It could’ve been in my head, but I felt lighter after scrubbing myself raw.

The local inn next door had one room available, and I took it. Of course, they offered me a shave, but I declined. I got used to that beard. It has served me well.

The mattress smelled, and it was hard, but neither of that mattered. It wasn’t the bunkhouse. I fell asleep right away.

I had enough to pay for one night, and that was what I got. A new set of clothes was what I had enough for. I planned on a pair of pants and a nice shirt. It didn’t need to be silk. It needed to be made to last, however.

A shop down the road a bit had what I needed. They even gave me new stockings and string to hold them up with. I felt brand new again.

The only thing left was to find out how to prove I didn’t kill my betrothed. One minute we were making love, the next I got picked up and thrown into a cell. One guard came back to tell me I was charged with murder. I got out, thanks to a straw cart, and have been trying to hide for over two seasons now.

I washed my old clothes as best I could and gave them to a young girl on the streets. She said nothing. She only nodded and ran.

I had a lot of forest ahead of me. Her guards took Mother and Father to Serpent Isle on the charge of wrong teachings to an innocent. It wasn’t a high charge, but Queen Natalia bought the arbitrator to decide in her favor. That meant they would need to stay there until otherwise decided.

I left the village and walked away to the forest up ahead. Something should be in there where I could sit and think. If I was honest with myself, I was tired. In more ways than one.

I learned early on that there were noises in the forest. Most couldn’t be explained. The noises I heard at that moment seemed different. I could’ve sworn that something panted as they followed me.

Most animals stayed away. I was a stranger and strangers meant something might happen. This one kept following me, though.

I bent over and picked up a branch. It took my entire hand to grab a hold of it. I stepped around a tree and readied a swing.

When it stopped, I swung and hit something. I watched it drop, and it transformed from a wolf to a naked woman. Someone sent a tracker after me. My guess would be she did.

While it was down, I ran away as best I could. I couldn’t jump high enough to reach the branches. If I could, I would’ve swung from them instead.

Between the fallen trees, bushes that grew in the middle of my path, and deep holes, I thought I made it out all right. A cave up ahead would provide enough shelter for me to hide.

“So there you are,” she said.

Uh oh. I straightened up and turned around. For all the trees, that woman was tall. I gulped and waved. She found clothes to dress herself with.

“You must be Princess Phoebe.”

I nodded.

“The one accused of murder.”

“I did not murder anyone. Somebody else did.”

“Do you have proof?”

“Did Queen Natalia give you anything that says I did?”

“I cannot name the one that brought your attention to me.”

I laughed. “So she paid you enough to buy your own island if you don’t mention her name. So, since she paid for you, and you found me, that must mean you’re going to shackle me.”

I presented both wrists. “Go ahead.”

She held the shackles in her hand.

“You don’t know? Well, I would educate you, however, it would be best to do that with the documents in hand.”

“That would be if you had the papers.” She smiled.

I saw her smile and gave her one of my own. “I have documentation that supports my story. As well as documents to prove my parents’ and the go-between’s validity. She has nothing except a lot of money to pay people to decide in her favor. With her son being married to me, she loses power, thereby loses the throne. He gains power and sits on that big and ugly gold-trimmed red velvet chair should the marriage occur.”

“And?”

“And that would be all for now. As I said, everything would be clearer with the proper documents in hand.”

She sat there and looked at me. “I am going to build a fire. You move, I kill you.”

“Where would I go?”

She disappeared for a while but returned with an arm full of wood. Once the wood was arranged, she got a flint and stone, and flames appeared.

I still wondered if she was going to put the shackles on me. That and the fact that, unless I missed my guess, we passed the bridge that marked the border between the queen’s territory and my family’s. Whoever this woman was, she couldn’t bring me in unless I volunteered.

The flames showed her hair. It was shiny and black. I missed mine. Last night I dreamed of a time of long gowns and table long feasts. A time that would never come. Not anymore now that I was found.

Forest sounds and the crackling of the fire were all that were heard. She left again but brought back a couple of stripped animals. I guessed they were once forest hares, judging by the legs.

“She promised me ten kilos of gold when I brought you in. Paid in full when I returned. You could be lying. Somehow though, there is a sense of truth in what you say.”

“Also keep in mind, you cannot arrest me since we are in my family’s territory.”

She laughed. “You are wrong.”

“Let me guess. She gave you a map that marked her territory but failed to show a bridge. She might’ve even told you that when you bring me in, she would divide her massive territory with you.”

“She did.” She looked at me.

“And you checked with the territory office to be sure of her claim.”

“I didn’t think it was necessary.”

“So greed blinded you.”

“Seems like it.”

“I’m going to lie down here and try to get some sleep. I’ll still be here in the morning. Should I lie, I have nothing to gain.

I didn’t sleep at all. I couldn’t. Too many thoughts in my mind about what sort of execution she would hand out when I showed. All of my papers were back at the castle. They were hidden, and I hoped not found.

I could tell the sun rose, although it didn’t make that much of a difference. I could only tell that because I saw it in between the trees. What little I could see of it.

I got up to find a bush. When I came back, she sat in front of the fire with fish roasting above.

“My name is Otana, by the way. I have a reputation to protect. Part of the reputation involves bringing people to justice. Getting what they deserve. I don’t play the part of a fool well at all. She played me for one. So did you. I have no proof to say you didn’t. So what I think we should do is get you back to get your proof before I bring you to her. That way, I can decide on my own who is lying and who needs to pay.”

“The castle should not be too far away. Once we get back to the bridge, I would be better able to tell where we are versus the location of the castle.”

She handed me a fish, and I took it. I couldn’t help but stare at the eyes. They said the eyes hold vital foods for anyone who needs to survive in the wild. I was never sure I was that desperate, however. I stuck to the rest of it.

After we ate, I helped to douse the fire before we moved on. Somehow, the distance always seemed shorter going downhill than it did up. Either that or we took a different, shorter route.

“That is the bridge over there. The queen was supposed to finish her end. Therefore, marking the union with a public structure. However, she never did and always had an excuse. Anyway, my castle should be right behind us.” I turned and surveyed the area to be sure. Sure enough, I saw it in the distance. “There. That structure over there. I bet she paid off the soldiers to leave the castle to be open to thieves.”

Otana laughed. “That she did. I thought it was an old ruin. Nothing was left. Even the pots were taken.”

I started walking ahead with thoughts of Queen Natalia screaming in agony. It gave me more energy. I was a precious little princess. I should never have such thoughts. Nobody had their magic taken away. Nobody had their life looked after with a sword. No one had their life questioned with such scrutiny. What right do they have to tell me how I should think or what thoughts should go through my head?

Should I trust Otana and that she will not kill me? Should I follow this through even though it could mean my death? This wasn’t supposed to be complicated.

What we needed I buried in the stables. Not too many people were willing to go there to get anything. After that, I hoped things would return to normal. Mother and Father free to rebuild. Queen Natalia dethroned and set for execution.

After Graduation…

It was graduation day and I was so psyched up about it. Done with school and done with everything that involved childhood. I could take a year off before ever looking at a textbook again.

Then my joy turned to disbelief. I only laughed because it was either that or screaming.

“Daughter,” Dad said. “I have been charged with giving you a lecture about the next phase of your life.”

Why did Dad always have to sound so formal?

“After this, we will no longer be responsible for you. Whatever consequences come as a result of your actions, you will face on your own. Of course, we will be here to see you graduate, but after this, we expect for you to leave by the end of summer. Goodbye.” He turned and left.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I turned on my left side. I turned on my right side. I ended up on my back wondering what would happen if I came home with Prince Charming. It wasn’t even that time of the month. Before the sun popped up, I went downstairs and left the house. Maybe a walk would help.

It seemed a little too quiet since people were still sleeping. No dogs barking or cats hissing. Birds made themselves known, but that was about it.

I found my way to the cafe and applied for a job. The lady at the front counter saw me and nodded. She patted a space at the far end of the counter. “I put you over here so he can’t see you,” she whispered as she pointed to the cook. She came back with a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. A glass of OJ on top of that. “I know, hon. I know.”

I ate that and it felt good. About to leave, she tugged on my finger. “Can you start tomorrow? It’s dish washing. If you don’t have a problem getting dirty and wet you got the job.”

“I’ll take it. Thank you.”

“Wait a week before you say that.” She laughed. “Eight in the morning.”

I nodded.

“Dress accordingly.”

“Got it.” I left in a better mood than when I came in. I was relishing in the sunlight so much I wasn’t paying attention and bumped into someone. “Oh. I’m sorry. You OK?”

“I’m—Gisa?” She said something in a language I didn’t recognize.

“Hey. Que pasa?”

“Oh. I apologize.” She covered her mouth and shook her head. It was hard to see behind her dark sunglasses. The loose long dark hair shone like glass. I’d kill for hair like that. The dark suit not so much. I could never dress up. The walking stick with the glass bauble on top was something I never seen before.

“You just look like someone I used to know.” She took off her sunglasses and came closer to me. “Something happened. Didn’t it? Talk to me little elf. Come on. It’s Myaire.”

I had no idea what happened but I went with my gut. My gut told me she wasn’t bad. Maybe a little weird, not that everyone was sane, but not bad.

“It’s nothing and I’m not that little. Keep in mind not everyone is what six, six-one.”

She smiled. “I can’t help if you don’t tell me. You used to be able to—just tell me.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing.”

She cupped my cheek. Not sure what that was supposed to do but she did it. I watched her as she tilted her head.

I held up my hands. “OK. All right. Fine. Just don’t come back at me with a sledgehammer.”

She straightened up. “A what? Why?”

I told her what happened. She growled before she walked into the cafe. She came back a moment later and took my hand.

“You always had such cold hands. OK, Gisa. I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

I started to get used to that name. “It’s Emmersette.”

“OK. Emmersette, I need you to do a few things for me. I’m going to tell you what I can do and I’m going to trust it to stay with you only.”

“What does that mean?”

“Uh… right. That means not to say anything. Do not tell anyone what I am about to say or show you.”

Visions of mass murders and a room full of torture stuff came to mind.

She laughed. “You do have an imagination. Nothing like that. I promise.”

How did she know? “Oh. Kay.”

Her long legs carried her at a faster rate. I had to double-time it to catch up.

We ended up in that abandoned factory that the city was supposed to demolish. “A little bit of history before we go in. Before WWII, it was a milk factory. At the start of WWII, it turned into a gunpowder factory and went out of business when the war stopped. Due to the large homeless population that took over, the city turned reluctant to the idea of getting rid of it. They needed to rethink the original plans.”

She looked at me. “I had no idea. Every time I came nobody was here. Who would’ve thought it turned into living quarters.” We walked a few steps into a large area. It smelled and on top of that, the building creaked, groaned, and smashed. Other noises came from somewhere in the darkness. Maybe they were rats or stray cats. “While I can’t show you everything, I will show enough for you to understand. No, I can’t show you who Gisa was.” She swallowed hard. “Not yet.”

“All. Right.”

Between the dancing trash and the talking building, I got the idea that she wasn’t normal. Of course, I had to be sure. “Yeah. I get it. You’re a magician. All of this could’ve been staged.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe to show off.”

“There are a lot of ways to show off, Emmersette. Spending needless energy to do so would not be one of them.” She waved her hand in front of a wall.

I saw images of me when I was a junior. The spikey hairstyle that Mom insisted I get rid of because it wasn’t even human. I had it for one year for that reason alone.

Then it turned to me and Becky Thompson. We knew each other because of math. I was never sure about how Becky felt, but I knew how I felt. I wanted to find out what the draw was between two women.

After school, we went out to the parking lot dumpster. There was a side that nobody could see. We didn’t do anything but kiss each other. That was it. We left each other and never talked about it.

“All right. All right. Just shut if off.” Something fell somewhere. It made me stop yelling. “I never told anyone about that. How did you know?” I went right up to her face and looked her as straight in the eyes as I could. Even though she had about a foot on me.

“I got that memory from you. You have nothing to be ashamed of. It is natural to wonder. You investigated. You came up with your own conclusion. Didn’t you?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” She didn’t need to know the details. “I’ll make you a deal. I don’t brag about you. You don’t say anything about this.” How dare she?

“It’s all right. I only needed to prove to you what I can do. I will not tell a soul either living or dead. That is a promise. You know that. Huh?” She cupped my cheek.

I wasn’t sure what to think about that. I put it in the back of my mind to think over later.

 She grabbed my hand as we walked outside. “In order for you to work for me, I need you in a place that I have ready access to. That is a bit of a distance away. It does come with furniture and modern living standards. Apart from that, you need to do some shopping for your own clothes and whatever else you may need. Pass that expense onto me and you will be rewarded for it. In the end I am paying for it, so yes, I expect the best. You will work reasonable hours. Meaning from sunrise to sunset. No earlier. No later, unless otherwise necessary. You set the days. Anything else, we will talk about. Questions?”

“Pay? Healthcare?”

“Ah yes. I am sorry. I seemed to have forgotten that. How does two thousand five hundred every fortnight plus expenses sound? As for healthcare, if you are in a state that is beyond my skill I will take care of it.”

“Wait. What’s a fortnight?” Is that even a word?

“It is a period of fourteen days.”

Holy cow. Two times twenty-five hundred means five thousand. That’s… that’s twelve times five which is… sixty thousand a year plus expenses for only a high school graduate? There’s gotta be a catch.

“No catch, darling. I believe in paying people so they can live without having to worry between comfort and health.”

“Yeah but. Yeah but. Sixty thousand a year? I don’t mean to be a pain but… .”

“I promise.” She smiled and patted my hand.

The last thing I noticed was the smell of bread when we passed the bakery. Then somehow we ended up in a parking garage. Nobody better ask me how we got there. I wouldn’t know how to explain.

For some reason, I expected a stretch limo. The silver long car made anyone dream that there was a superstar inside with a handful of his or her closest friends riding along. Instead, we ended up at a blue Porsche. We got in and then pulled out of the garage.

At some point, we ended up at a red brick building. I thought the cobblestone street was cute. Even better was the planter of flowers with a tree in the middle.

The building had three windows across and five high. The forest green door had to be the front door. The white trim made it look cute. I pictured gargoyles sitting on top. I loved that cartoon when I was a kid.

“Well, this building is yours to manage. I own it. You manage it. That means that if there’s anything that has to do with it, you need to let me know before making a decision on your own. There are five people that live in here currently. You need to be responsible enough to be sure to manage the necessary expenses. Yes, I am working on an electronic payment system, however, for now, it needs to be done by hand.”

“OK. Do I get a place here? Or?”

“Oh, of course. Yours is on the fifth floor. There is an elevator on the main floor. Simply turn left. The mailroom is to the right side. The laundry room is a little further down the hall on the left. Everything is marked.” She held out her hand.

I looked at the two sets of keys. I wondered if this was a test or something, so I only picked the one that wasn’t marked, Porsche.

“The other one too.”

Huh?

“You are not that old.” She laughed and opened my hand to put the other keys inside. “You are adorable, Gisa. You always have been.”

I looked at the two sets of keys and remembered what the car felt like. I wished my mouth would remember how to work. About the only thing I did was stare at the keys.

“It is unfortunate that I have to go. I must meet someone detestable.” She growled like a cat. “Tomorrow, you will go shopping. Try to find colors of the season. They must appear professional. Skirt or pants I leave up to you.”

“Oh. Right. OK. Uh… dinner in an hour?” Where did that come from?

“I cannot. My time will be taken up. Perhaps another time.” She cupped my cheek before she left.

I turned around to look at my car. My brand new Porsche.

I went back to take a look at it one more time. I couldn’t believe it was mine. About the only thing I ever drove was Mom’s Ford.

My new Porsche had an automatic transmission, which was good. A car like that costs a bunch. Oh my God, it had to be a dream.

After I stopped drooling, I looked around to find a secure spot. As luck had it, there was a guarded parking garage across the street. Move the car over there, do whatever it was I had to do to be I could leave it there, and be able to sleep.

Getting in wasn’t a problem. Pull up to the machine, get the ticket, watch the gate open, and go in. No expected paperwork to fill out. The only problem was finding a space. I ended up finding a space on the second floor. I had to remember green B16 Row 2. I made sure to lock the car before I left. Signs everywhere that warned of people watching you. I almost laughed at that.

I returned to the building to realize I needed to go back home. After I got the car back, I returned home. I took a breath in and out to ready myself for whatever came.

I had other priorities so I ignored my stomach monster. Whoever Gisa was, I counted on her to get me through this. I had a chance to think about the situation and it sounded too good to be true. It did happen though.

I knocked on the door and Dad answered. “Why are you here?”

OK. Here we go. “It’s good seeing you too. If I could come in?” Remain nice and calm. Nice and calm will always win. Yeah right, I was an elf in real life.

I planted my feet and folded my hands in front of me as well as trying to smile. “I am only here to give you an update. I found a job working as Myaire’s right hand. Yes, I know who she is.” Althought, it took me a while to remember.

“You only have a high school education. No skills. No advanced training.” She laughed. “We’re not stupid you know.”

“No. I never said you were. She spotted me right outside the cafe after I went in to fill out an application. She came back out and told me I worked for her from that moment forward.”

Both laughed. Dad snorted. “You mean to tell me that only the most prestigious woman in this community hired you? She has more style than that. How much did she pay you to tell us this? What did you take?”

I should’ve known. “Yes, she did hire me. I don’t even know why I bothered to come here. As for the last question, I refuse to dignify that with an answer.”

I watched the both of them and they continued to stare at each other.

“I see. In that case, we’re done then. Goodbye.” Mom opened the door. “I guess you have nothing to explain. We’re done.”

Dad stood there. No expression.

I got back in the car and made the long trip back wondering about the whole thing. No apologies. No attempts at an explanation. That was it. Did they even care?

I only had to be sure where I was going. There were some spots I remembered seeing and used those as my markers. Sure enough, I found it without getting lost.

My stomach growled again. I closed my eyes in an attempt to hold back the tears long enough to get something to eat. Down the street from the building, there was a food store. Fresh produce out front with other things inside that needed to be refrigerated.

I grabbed an apple, a small loaf of bread, and an assortment of lunch meats. I tried not to look at the man for fear my tears would start rolling. He put a cup in my hand when I left.

For the sake of wearing myself out to be too tired to feel anything, I walked up the steps and counted them. I counted one hundred and five steps to get up to the fifth floor. Another few to get to my place.

I reached into my pocket and grabbed the key. A big gold key with a five engraved on it. I unlocked the door and holy cow it was gorgeous. She said it was furnished but I didn’t expect any of this.

The back wall was one big window. That’s where the light came from. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. The wall behind the two-seater sofa was forest green. The sofa had a velvet touch and the cushions were soft. The tan color was nice.

The glass table in the middle would break next week though. An open shelf unit had several spots with books and a spot in the middle with a TV. Behind that was something brick-colored. I went to take a look and my mouth dropped open.

A mattress on the floor. A nightstand on the side with a clock. A dresser against the far wall. By that was the bathroom with a shower stall. I went downstairs again, and it was a closet.

Wall-to-wall shelves, a spot in the middle with a table, and a secure spot I assumed for jewels. All of this was mine. Of course, I had to work for her, but this was mine.

OK, Tomorrow I had to do some serious shopping. A lot of stuff to get.

I put the food on a counter. There was a desk in the kitchen by the fridge. A telephone and a charging station but no router. At least I didn’t see any. That was when I found a note in the drawer. Electronic tablet and WiFi router would be delivered in the morning. Wow.

I went back to the sofa and sat. My day started something awful, but in the end, it turned out all right. I may get in over my head, but I could manage.

I went back to get the bag. I ripped the bread apart and ate the lunch meat along with it. The cup had coffee in it. On the side someone wrote, coffee made everything better. I laughed.

After a few minutes, some things came to mind. I had to remember to tell her that my name was Emmersette. Gisa was a nice name but not mine. I could tell she loved her an awful lot.

I noticed on the main floor of the building there was no pictures. Even the boring ones with a tree in the middle would help. Get back to her on that.

Here it was. An assistant to an important woman. She gave me an opportunity and I accepted.

Thank you, to whoever listened. I raised my cup. “Cheers.”

The Mistress and The Servant

However unusual it was, a day with nothing to do, did happen.  All too happy to enjoy the day, I got the servants’ boat to use for a little while. This bit of freedom would never last long.  

The boat did not belong to the King, because it was rather plain looking, and the fact it did not present well with visible patches. The staff kept it to use on their own time and would fix it as the need arose. 

After asking around, I took the boat out to the lake.  The sun was bright that day. The long cold nights with snow- and ice-covered land did indeed melt. Perfect day to enjoy. 

I pushed it out far enough so I could still get in without getting too wet. At last, in the middle of the water and all around were trees. As green as could be. They seemed to have grown during the winter season as they poked the clouds. They somehow looked taller than I remembered. If I looked to my left, a cliff stretched over the water. Two people were on it, but too far away to recognize who they were. 

The birds sang their song. A bright tune. Maybe happy that the dark grey skies came to an end at last. 

I turned around when something splashed. I rowed over as fast as I could to take a look. I didn’t want to grab their hair. I knew that pain and I knew it well. I tapped instead and didn’t get a response. I reached into the water and felt for a chin that I could maybe tip up and out.  

I did that and found out it was the king’s daughter. Everybody knew her sculpted face with long raven hair. Why would she end up in the water though? That was a question only she could answer. The better question was how to get her out? 

She had a shirt on, so I used that to tug her along while I made it to shore. It was a long and slow trip back but for the lack of a better idea… . 

I dragged her up the shore and rested her against a boulder. After catching my breath, I patted her cheek. No response yet, so I tried a little harder. “Mistress. Mistress.” I sat back and waited after I heard a groan.  

She turned and looked at me. I knew those eyes as I had seen them pointed at me as she yelled for not doing things as she told me to do them. Some said they were eyes of her mother. Those of us who have been around her for a long time called them evil eyes. 

“You.” She reached back and tried to push off the ground but sat back down again. She turned towards me again. Strange how her eyes turned white. “Someone on my staff tried to get rid of me. I need you to get me a serum. Something to dull the effects until I can get to an apothecary.” 

“Mistress, I need to know what it was.” 

“Isn’t there a general dulling serum?” 

“No such thing exists.” 

She looked at me as her eyes turned black. “How would you know? You’re one of the mindless ones.” 

I gritted my teeth. I would carry that label forever since my prior owner made that lie known. “I am not mindless. If I was you would not be here. Early in my life, I did serve someone who spent their days and nights mixing serums. He would always laugh when someone asked for such a thing. There was no remedy like that.” 

She closed her eyes and groaned. “All right then. Is there anything you can recommend?” 

“If you can describe to me the smell or taste, I could come up with something that might help. I am in no way trained, but I do know a few things.” 

“Clear liquid, like water. Bitter with a slight flower taste. The most awful thing I ever tasted.” 

It sounded familiar. “It didn’t smell like anything at first, but the more you drank it the more a sort of a pungent odor became known?” 

“Yes. You know the remedy?” 

“Yes. However, the ingredients are not here. They would be in the mountains above. It would take time. I’m not sure how much time you have.” 

She gave me a sideways glance and laughed. “Oh, the irony.” She laughed again. “OK then. You better get moving. I’m not going anywhere. If I die in the meanwhile, then maybe the animals here would make a meal out of me.” 

“Mistress?” 

“Go. Go. Go on now. The sooner you leave the sooner you can get back.” 

“Yes, Mistress.” 

“We will talk more when you return.” She waved me away. 

I may have had strong feelings that pointed to hate, but she needed mercy at that moment. So, I went. 

I knew the trail I needed to take. It would be easier if I had an animal underneath me, but they would need care that I couldn’t spare the time to do. Maybe someone wouldn’t mind a stranger riding with them. 

As luck had it, a family filled a wagon with their goods to go up the same trail I needed to take. I could ride with them as long as I promised to look after their children. I did that and it made the trip a lot easier. 

We parted ways at the first village we came to. I needed to go up farther, but thanks to them, it wouldn’t be such a long way. Taking care of their children wasn’t so bad. The baby needed her mother’s attention, but the older ones I amused with stories and games. 

At the top of the hill, there was a body of water. A river from the sounds of it. Perfect for what I needed. This particular plant grew in rushing cold water. The roots and the stems had something in it that could neutralize what the Mistress took. It tasted awful and felt even worse in the mouth. It did work though. 

After I gathered some, the way back was easier because it was downhill. The sun had set for the night and that meant I couldn’t go anywhere until the sun rose again. With the plants in my hands, I lay down under a tree for the night. Not so cold and the ground was dry. 

Why was it, I had the awful luck of the sun rays poking me when it rose? I couldn’t linger anyway. I needed to get back. 

I was familiar with the flora around the area and picked some wild berries as I went along. It wasn’t much but it could sustain until I got back. Maybe a few extra to help chase away the bad flavor of the roots. 

Once I made it back to the lake, I found her again still leaning up against the rock. I shook her shoulder to get her attention. 

“I thought you forgot about me.” She laughed and opened her eyes. 

“What I am about to give you will taste bad and feel even worse in the mouth. But it must be done. It’s best to eat rather than drink anything I could derive from the plants. It works better that way.” 

She gave me a sideways glance. This time her eyes turned grey. “Oh, dragon’s breath. I think the last time I heard that was when father tried to get me to eat something the hunter’s brought in. He didn’t even know what it was. He wanted me to eat it to tell him about it.” She held out her hand. “I survived that so I’m sure I can survive this.” 

“Yes, Mistress.” She held out her hand. 

I put the roots in her hand and watched as she ate them. She kept making faces as she chewed on them. A hard swallow later she looked at me. “Tell me that was all I had to take.” 

“Yes, Mistress.” 

“Good. I think there’s something you didn’t tell—” She turned around to the other side and threw up.  

That was when I left her to find something to use as a water vessel. Something kept hitting my leg. I looked down and found a cup. It looked like one of the kids’ cups. One of them must’ve tied it on me when I was playing with them. 

I untied it and used that to get some water. When I got back, I put the cup in her hand. “Drink this.” 

“If this is more of what I ate, I will see to it you get the same for the rest of your life.” 

“It is water.” 

She drank the water and held out the cup. Somehow the berries didn’t get squashed at all along my journey. I put them in the cup and gave it back to her. “I hope these will help.” 

She grabbed the cup and put it up to her mouth. She chewed. “These are good. Where did you find these?” 

“Along the same trail as I found the roots.” 

“Won’t Father be surprised when I show up.” She laughed. “Give me a little bit of time before we head back. There’s something I need to do yet.” 

I looked over toward the lake and noticed the sky. “It won’t take long before the sun sets for the day. We can make the trip in the morning. It will give the roots time to work.” 

She nodded before her head dropped back. I didn’t have any blankets with me, but the dry leaves might work well enough to keep the chill air off her body. I piled them on top her as much as I could before I went back to the water.  

Between a rock and a stick, I was able to make myself a spear. It took a bit, but I did catch some fish. I remembered trying to eat raw fish when I was younger. There was something about it that repulsed me. Having remembered that, I took the time and effort to start a fire to cook the fish. 

I left the innards by the lake for some of the small animals to take. I hoped that would be enough for them to stay away from us. I cooked two. One to have now and one to give her in the morning. I only had a fresh leaf to wrap it in to keep for the night. 

Cooking done, I put aside the morning meal and doused the fire. I put my hand on her leg to check her body temperature and she wasn’t cold. I lay down next to her to get a little sleep. 

As expected, the sun poked me in the eyes. I got up and ran to the bushes. After that, I got the fish and put it in my lap when I woke her up. 

“Let me guess. It’s time to behead the prisoners?” 

“No.” 

“It’s time to poison the kitchen staff?” 

“No.” 

“It’s time to kill the horses so we can get new ones?” 

“No. It’s time to eat. I cooked a fish yesterday so you can eat it before we leave. It should still be all right.” 

“There goes my amusement.” She reached out her hand.  

I have it to her. She opened her eyes and they were blue. The river roots worked. They did their job. So, all we had to do was get back to the castle. 

I left her to look around and find someone to take us to the castle. It was fine by myself, but with the Mistress, she would demand a better means of transport. 

“So, what are we looking for?” 

I turned around and looked up. For some reason, I forgot how tall she was. “I was looking for someone to take you back to the castle. I can walk back but you must need something to take you.” 

“Since you are walking so can I. Let’s go.” 

She was the Mistress so I had to do what she told me to do. It was an uphill journey and I thought that since she was well enough to stand then she would should be well enough to walk. 

We passed through the village and onto the trail between the trees of the apple orchard. The leaves started to grow back so it shouldn’t be too long before they fruit. I saw the familiar smoke as it made its way up the chimney. It came from the cooking fires of the kitchen.  

I stopped and turned around before we entered through the back. “Mistress, I hope you are well.” I bowed. “I wish you much peace.” I watched the ground to see her leave. Then I could stand. With the guards around, I needed to be careful. 

“You can stand up you know.” 

“The guards will know.” 

“Guards. Shmards. I know the lot of them and all of them owe me something. So stand up straight.” 

I did that and expected to hear the alert horns. They did sound. It didn’t take long before they arrived.  

“Let me take care of this. This I can do.” She turned towards the guards. “Oh, let me see. The five of you in the back.” 

I heard clanking, which could’ve been their feet coming together.  

“The bunch of you go and find the king’s advisor. Put him in holding. Lock and secure the area before you leave. Let him stand there. Do not pay any attention to him. When you are done, start a hot bath for me would you? My unexpected journey made me need one. No, I’m not asking.” 

They ran away from the area. 

“The bunch of you in the front. Each one of you had something to do with my unexpected trip away. I never forgive. All of you lost your rank and privilege and will have living nightmares. Let me explain. You will have a nightmare. That is not a matter of if but a matter of when. You will stay in that nightmare until your demise.” She waved her hand in front of all of them and they lost their armor.  

I tried everything in me to keep from laughing. The one time I dared to look up and it happened to be that time. 

“Why are you sorry excuses still standing there?” 

They side-stepped away from the area. I looked back down when she came back towards me.  

“And you my little servant. I need you to do me one last favor. I know where he got the herb that he gave me. That leaves you to get the herb you gave me. That leaves you to go get it. In the meanwhile, I will let my dear Father know what happened.” She bent down and kissed my cheek. “Now shoo.” 

“Uh… Mistress?” 

“Later. Those awful things now.” 

I nodded and ran up to go get some. They were never hard to find. All one needed to do was look for a river. The only thing that mattered was using them before they dried up. Without water, they tended to do that in a hurry. 

On the way back, I made a detour to go back to the lake to get the boat. Lucky for me it was still there. I put the boat back where I found it. I grabbed the plants from the bottom of the boat before leaving to give them to the Mistress. 

I bumped into someone. Without looking, I bowed. “So sorry for being thoughtless and rude.” 

“I wondered what kept you. If you told me about the boat, I would have sent someone to get it. Besides that, that boat isn’t worth saving.” 

“It is all we have, Mistress.” 

“We’ll talk about that later. The herb?” She held out her hand. 

I gave them to her and went about my afternoon duties. The animals were kept in the back part of the lot. Far enough away so that it didn’t matter which way the wind blew, the king wouldn’t be able to notice their presence. I went to clean up after them and to be sure they were fed. 

On my way back to the cooking area, I received word that the King’s advisor’s assistant needed my attention. No time to clean up, I rushed to his room on the other side of castle. The corner most room with no sun. It was always shady whenever he sent for me. 

When I arrived, I crouched down on the floor. “You sent for me, Master.” 

“Well. Well. Well. The little bag of nothing saved the dear princess. Her father’s daughter. The one who was destined to take the crown.” He grabbed my hair and lifted me up. “That golden crown of jewels belonged to no one but my master.” He threw me down on the floor. “That concoction was supposed to put her to sleep. While a gentle push would land her in the water where she would drown. The poor father would be so stricken with grief that his little girl perished. He would be so vulnerable to any suggestions made to him. It would’ve been so easy.” 

So it wasn’t the advisor like Mistress thought. What now? Would he end my life? 

“You are looking rather fat. I like my servants small and skinny.” He came towards me and ripped off the clothes I wore. I tried to cover myself but he grabbed my arms before I could. That was when he looked down and laughed. “You’re with child. My child. If anybody found out—” 

He threw me down on the floor. I grabbed my clothes and put them on. I looked around for a way out. I had no idea why because I knew there was no way out. He stood in front of the door. 

He talked to someone, too quiet for me to hear. When he finished, he slammed the door. He came over and grabbed me. We left the room with my arm grasped in his hand. 

I dared to look around and recognized the route we took. It was to the bottoms. A place that was dark, damp, and disgusting. A place where they put people to be forgotten. 

Nothing lived down here. If they did, their inner most persons would not live for long. Trapped in darkness and despair.  

All the way back and as far down as this passageway got, was a holding area. It was a dungeon a long time back. No one told the king about it so we thought nobody knew. Somehow though, this man found it and brought me there. 

No light. No persons. No hope. The last place anyone would be put and expected to survive. 

I was put somewhere and pushed inside before I heard the gate close. That was it. My life came to an end. 

The Rose Box

Bridget traced the wooden flower on top of the box. Tears flowed down her cheeks as the banging got louder. Something had to have exploded. Maybe an outer wall had fallen.

Rats left traces of their existence by the holes in the walls. She still didn’t know how they did it, but they managed to go through rock. One hole seemed to be the right size to make it fit. She pushed it inside as deep as it would go. She thought she had hidden it where no one could find it. With the surrounding rubble, a couple stones in front of the hole, they would never think to look in the wall. It would be too obvious and they would never fall for it.

Soldiers outside banged on the door. “Come out, oh Mistress of the Castle. Come out now and maybe we will go easy on you.”

“No. I won’t.” There had to be a place where she could hide. The bookcase fell and all the books had scattered around the floor. If she could crawl over and pile the books on herself, they might leave and never find her. On the other hand, they might get bored and further their search for the Rose Box.

The door fell. Three smiling soldiers stood in the doorway, arms at the ready. One stepped forward and grabbed her chin. He pushed his lips on hers and squeezed so hard she felt pain and not satisfaction. “Ha.” He laughed. “More to follow.” He put chains on her wrists and pulled her behind him.

Everybody left the room, she guessed from the footfalls. She thanked whoever would bother to listen.

The last thing she wanted would be for them to find it. She would go through hell in both body and soul before allowing anyone to search for it. He threw her up on a tall black horse and he sat behind her.

Her body ached, hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink for days. She wouldn’t dare complain. Not that he would care.

She bounced along as she felt droplets from something. She could only imagine what. Not being able to turn her head, only allowed for her imagination to take over. Back to his camp where he would have his way with her.

She wanted to save herself for the one that would take her heart if that was ever possible. They stopped at last.

“Bridget, oh Bridget, oh apple of my eye,” he said, as he grabbed her chin, “won’t you pleasure me as only you would dream.”

She gathered whatever energy she had and spit in his face. “Never, to the likes of you. I would rather scream bloody murder while being eaten by a dragon.”

He grabbed something on the other side of his body before turning away. Someone must’ve called his name. She heard someone call out Commander Mortimer. That name sounded familiar but she couldn’t place it.

Hands and feet tied, tired, and in pain, didn’t allow for a quick escape. However, maybe with a little effort, she might be able to. Rodents were always hungry. Everybody knew that. The trick was to attract them with the right treat.

Sweetness lingered in the air, among other odors, so she expected the cooking area to be nearby. They might have the right treat.

Either nobody expected her to be able to do anything, or they forgot about her, she was left behind where she was dumped. No guard or even the occasional taunt. Strange.

She didn’t question it, and used that to her advantage. Commander Mortimer didn’t come back yet, so she scooted towards the sound and smell of cooking. The pain started again. She tried to convince herself that the trick to not feeling any pain, was to not mind the pain. It worked up to a point, but something must have broken because it was beyond any mind trick she could think of.

The kitchen staff was often too busy to pay attention to anything else. Honey jar on a table. The perfect bait to lure the only animal with a mouth strong enough to go through stone.

It took a few bumps but she was able to coat enough of the rope and her body for her plan to work. She made it outside and encountered something she should’ve thought of. Tiny bitey little creatures started crawling all over her and around the areas honey had poured onto. It made things beyond uncomfortable.

By the sound of it, a water stream was nearby. A quick roll, or maybe two or three, and she made into the river. A fist-sized mound surfaced as she splashed hard enough to get them off her. She stopped as she hoped nobody heard her.

She didn’t hear anything or anyone. A sharp rock by the water’s edge gave her another way to become unbound. She rung herself out as best she could. At least to the point she couldn’t track water.

She knew how to ride, but any loss of the horses would be noticed. Her only choice was to go on foot. That was when she heard the call out to find her. Out of choices, she grabbed a horse, hopped on, and hoped for the best.

 She knew the direction she had to go. It was only a matter of getting there. The horse would tire soon. It ran long and hard to camp. She stopped by a boulder and climbed down.              

After a pat, the horse trotted away. She still needed a way to get back. Unless she took to the trees. The only problem with that was her dress was too long. It would get caught on the branches.

 It had already been torn and ripped in a lot of pieces. Using that as her guide, she took an already present tear and ripped as much of her skirt as she could. Wrap around a high branch, they would never know unless they looked up. By that time, she would be on her way back to the castle.

 She flew from branch to branch using the techniques she learned as a child. It was fun back then. Necessary now. Who would’ve—that was it. Commander Mortimer was the one who taught her battle skills. He would know everything she would need to do to get back there.

The one thing he hated her doing because he couldn’t, was that she had the ability to form wings. It came from her mother who taught her everything she needed to know.               

Once transformed, things were easier. She flew high enough that she could remain undetected. Of course, doing so took a lot of energy to accomplish. She didn’t have a long way to go.

Once she reached her destination, she transformed back and ran through the halls. Old clothes scattered the halls so she took what she could and put them on. Better than going around naked.

Back to the room, back to the hole and pushed aside the rubble she opened the box. As expected, everything was there for her to take the crown. Mother’s flower, a letter describing the one to take the crown, and another letter to dictate who would be giving orders.

All were necessary documents in order for her to take her mother’s place. That was why she guarded the box. It held her future.

She closed and locked the box before she left the room. The counsel was being held in the mountains above with the religious order for safety. They hadn’t reached the castle yet. They would’ve stormed in like they did the last time. They were never subtle.

It would take the time she didn’t have to get up there. She didn’t have a choice. Do or die. There were trees along the way so they would provide cover.

She rested along the way up. Strange Commander Mortimer hadn’t reached the castle yet. It made her wonder if they took over the religious order. That meant the cousel would be compromised.

Her mother once told her, only in cases of extreme emergency, could she act alone. Either the council had been captured or compromised. There were no guards left. No guards were left and there was a possibility that the council had been compromised. She had to act alone.

Box in hand, she did the last thing she hoped she had to do to save her home. Her father hired the best people he could to teach her weaponry, fighting, horseback riding, and enemy identification. Her mother taught her how to use the gift she had been given to her advantage.

She disrobed and transformed. She flew up to the sky, and with every ounce of will, she summoned all the animals. Turn against their knowledge and use that to destroy the ones who took advantage.

She couldn’t keep it up for long. There was still lingering pain and exhaustion played a role in her ability to carry out her wishes. She had to come down from the sky and put the clothes back on. She hoped it was enough.

Something cold and wet woke her up. After a couple blinks, she realized it was the horse she rode earlier. Somehow it found her, It seemed to like the offered nose rub.

About a moment later, she stood and watched as the horse walked away. She still needed to see if everything or everyone was all right. It didn’t take long to reach her destination.

Flying insects all over the place. She could not only hear them but see them as well. The vast majority of them seemed to have centered around the back building. Out of curiosity, she walked in that direction.

She stopped in the doorway. She forced a swallow as she saw bugs crawling over the bodies against the back wall. Wood burrowing bugs still crawled over the remains of a wooden door. Against the back wall of the room, the counsel huddled together.

One of them stepped out in front of the others. “Bridget. Our savior. Have you come for us?”

“Yes. I have. I take command of this kingdom as the former queen had wished.” She patted around herself and realized she must’ve left the box back at the castle.

“Do you have the box?”

Bridget nodded. She wondered how he knew. Mother told no one but the next in line. “We must move quickly.”

She jogged ahead of the counsel as she celebrated for going downhill. Commander Mortimer still hadn’t shown yet. It made her wonder.

She remembered the path she took and used it the same way as she looked for the box. There it was against the tree. She picked it up, opened it up, and presented it to them.

The one council member picked up the contents and stepped out front again. “Everything is here as described. You are now our leader until you have met your demise.”

She heard that phrase before. “You were the one. You were the one that convinced Commander Mortimer to get rid of me.”

The council member smiled. “You do not believe that a woman could rule over a kingdom. It takes skill and knowledge. Something only a man is capable of. Your father was too weak. I had to choose.” He held up the box. “Now that I have this, there is nothing to say a woman will wear the crown.”

She heard squeaking from somewhere. Maybe a rodent made the noise, but whatever it was, there were more urgent matters at hand.

A line of giant rats came towards them. The council members in the back screamed as the rats crawled over them. They stopped when they reached the traitor. He screamed as they chewed. She turned her head. She couldn’t watch. No matter the reason why his heart turned black, he didn’t deserve this kind of suffering.

“M’lady. It is I. Uh… they have… devoured everything. Have left. M’lady?”

She opened her eyes and blinked. Nothing was left but cloth and bone. Uhg. She shook her head. She straightened herself up and nodded. “Do me a favor would you? Find someone who would be willing to clean up this mess. I have to go find Mortimer.”

“Of course, M’lady.” The surviving council members bowed.

She watched them bow and wondered who they were bowing to. She didn’t deserve it. She could’ve done something to stop the rats but didn’t. She caused his demise.

The local villagers came to help clean and bring in the day’s harvest to help feed their new ruler. It had been a good fortnight since all of that happened.

She did find Mortimer and the rest of his army. They were trampled to death. She didn’t need to find out by what when she saw a horseshoe by one of the bodies.

Death by fighting or other means, it didn’t matter. Not any more. She dug thirteen holes to put the bodies in. They were not gravesites. That would mean a marker of some sort which also meant somebody cared. They were dead body holes.

A lot of work still needed to be done on the castle. The villagers were willing to help make everything right again. On the outside, everything would look as it should.

On the inside though, a black hole existed in Bridget’s heart as she wondered if she was indeed responsible for everybody’s death. Did they have to die that way? Was there another choice? What about their families? What would she tell them?

Those questions and more lingered in the back of her mind. She took a deep breath and painted a smile on her face as she left her room. The emotions that surrounded her were anything but happy. Hence the painted smile.

She left the room as horns announced her arrival. She sat down as she wished her mother’s shoulder was there to lean against. She almost laughed out loud as she remembered what her mother told her once. “Bridget, I have just finished the beginning of your entry into the darkest period of your life. I hope beyond all hope you do not find out what that means.”

 Oh, Mother. I found out. A scent carried by a slight breeze made her turn her head. She expected to see Mother and that she did. Mother’s spirit would always linger as long as Bridget remembered love.

The Christmas Present

“Come on.” I pulled Natasha after me. “You’re about as stubborn as a male elf who insists it’s time to nap.”

She tried to peel my fingers off her wrist but I kept hold. I stopped and turned to look at her. “I don’t know why you’re having such an issue with this.”

“Because I don’t want to. Christa, let go.”

“Natasha. The bags have been cleaned and stitched. The team has been declared physically and mentally fit for duty. The onboard computer has been updated. The lady has gone over our lord’s suit. We’re a part of the fourth wave. We have nothing to do until the clock strikes midnight.”

She looked down. “Because I don’t know how to ice skate.”

“Is that all?”

She looked up at me with a clenched jaw. “What do you mean is that all? I would be so embarrased when we get back to work.”

When I let go, she crossed her arms in front of her chest. So, plan B. “There is nobody here. The first and second waves are putting the last-minute touches on the toys. As for the third wave, they’re asleep. Who would laugh?”

She straightened her arms. “I never really learned how. I mean, when I was little I wanted to but I never got a chance to. So here I am. The only elf who doesn’t know how to ice skate.”

I cupped her cheek. “You worry too much. Put your skates on and go with it. If you fall you fall. Besides the snowflake fairies are about to come out. They will help you.”

“You’re telling tales. There is no such thing.”

“That’s what everybody thinks. Mortals can’t see them. Those of us who reside in Celynville can. They only come out on the shortest of days and coldest of winters, but it is said they will come out soon. They only need a little inspiration.”

“They’ll laugh.” She pouted.

“No. They won’t.” I grabbed her hand. I got tired of this conversation so I pulled her along with me, and put her skates on. Then I put mine on and pulled her after me before she figured out how to walk in them.

I kept my pace slow and simple. Up and down, back and forth around the ice. Natasha didn’t fall during that time so I let her go. She screamed and kept going until the snowflake fairies took a hold of her.

I got off the ice to let them have it all. They were so magical to watch. Glittering snow always fell while they were out. They glittered a sort of light blue that gave them a magical touch.

I couldn’t help but laugh at Natasha’s wide open mouth and eyes. She calmed down after a while.

They showed her much better than I ever could. Step by step, the eyes and mouth relaxed as they moved around the ice. That wide-eyed look of fear changed into a smile. It had to be pride that took over.

The sun began to set. “Natasha, it will be time for our last meal of the day. We must go.”

She skated towards me with a smile so wide, it stretched ear to ear. “You were right. They were so… So… How do you explain it?”

“You can’t.” I sat down to take the skates off and set them by the log. Natasha did the same and followed me back to the main building.

The dining bell sounded, and we kept moving to the dining hall. The long wooden tables were always a treat to see. Covered dishes lined the table with wooden cups on the side filled with hot apple tea. The traditional egg nog wouldn’t be served until the task was done.

After a meal of roasted chicken and vegetables, we went to our room to rest until the clock sounded.

“It shouldn’t be too long. I overheard the first and second wave finished sooner than expected. Quite a few names were crossed off the list. Not because of misbehavior, but because of this illness that plagues the mortals. Too sad to think of the ones that died too soon.”

Natasha nodded. “What do they do?”

“Who?”

Natasha came over to my bunk and laughed. “You know who.”

I laughed too. “I don’t think anybody knows. They’re magical beings that come out every now and then. I don’t remember anyone ever observing them. Like all creatures great and small, they are given space and respect.”

Natasha nodded and went back to the window.

Someone knocked on our door. I opened it. “Noelle. Greetings. Is it time already?”

She shook her head. “Our delivery has gone down by fifty-seven percent. Therefore, the bags have been stuffed and readied for delivery sooner than expected. All we need to do is wait for the launch. I came because there seems to be some trouble in the mortal world regarding their tree production.”

“Oh. How can we help?”

“It is frowned upon for any of us to go into their world. There is always a risk of being seen. However, these circumstances have made that rule null and void. There are poor people there that have no way of sharing their joy. So it has been suggested that we execute a plan thought up by our lady.”

“Oh,” Natasha and I said at the same time.

“We cannot take the Sleigh with it being so close to launch and it still needs to be looked over, washed, and waxed. It has been thought to go there, find a forest of trees, and decorate them instead of delivering. Easier and less expensive.”

We nodded.

“There are four other elves coming along. With us, it will be seven. That should be enough to do what we need to do and leave in time to view the launch.”

“How will we get there? What will we use for decorations?” I asked.

“Our lady will take us there. She already found an area that we could use. As for decorations, keep it simple because we won’t be seeing them again.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Natasha said. “We are ready now.”

We followed Noelle outside and waited by the gates for the rest of the crew. Once everybody was there, we only had to wait for our lady to show.

“Oh good,” our lady said. “Everybody is here. I don’t want to leave anybody behind or get lost so we’ll keep the route simple and easy to follow. I studied the maps and it didn’t seem too difficult to get there.”

She led the way and the rest of us followed. We went to a cave and through a long tunnel to the mortal world. Once on the outside, we focused on the route to a nearby forest.

Get there and get it done. That was our objective. The surrounding flora had bright red berries. Not edible but they would make wonderful decorations.

We walked by the rejected pile on our way out of camp, and I was able to grab some gingerbread men. They were thrown out because of they didn’t meet specfic standards. Between the red berries and the rejected gingerbread men the trees were decorated all right but something was still missing.

Twinkling came from above. I looked up and there they came. The snowflake fairies flew around and touched the trees. They lit up and sparkled after that. Such a magical moment. A trail of lights were what was left when they finished.

Noelle passed around a jug of hot chocolate to celebrate. I sat down on a felled tree and that was when I heard crying. After a quick glance around, it wasn’t one of us. A few were snoring and others were laughing but nobody crying.

I stood up and walked around to find a mortal baby tucked inside the log we sat on. I pulled it out and took a look.

“Oh my,” Natasha said. “Too small to fend for itself. What are we going to do? We can’t take it with us. Can we?”

“No. We can’t. I have to tell Noelle about this.”

“Christa, you know she would tell you to leave it be.”

“She is our leader and she must know. I don’t think she would ever say such a thing.”

I was proven wrong. I couldn’t understand how she would even think such a thing. That baby had to be crying because it felt cold, hungry, and unloved. We couldn’t leave it behind.

I jerked back with every word of the last command I heard. “We will not have anything to do with that creature. We have no place for it. My word is final.”

I heard footfalls disappearing and took a look. Noelle left and sat on a log. That gave me a chance to find the baby a place to belong.

I looked up. It would have to be soon before the sun set.

“Natasha, help me find something to pull. It’ll help.”

She went one way and I another. About to give up, Natasha came back with half a log attached to a vine. Where she found it, I didn’t know, but it was something. I wasn’t going to question that.

We placed the baby on it, and I pulled it along after me. I hoped Noelle wouldn’t notice me gone before we left.

“Oh hush now, little one. You see, I am called Christa. I’m an elf that works in the toy factory.” I looked behind me and nobody there. We continued. “You see, I live in Celynville with the rest of the elves that work in the factory. We came here to help all of you rejoice and be happy during this season.” The baby started to calm down. A smile spread across its face.

Not that far away, a male and a female human couple were walking around the forest. The female smiled and kept chatting about starting a family. The male continued to smile but I had a feeling he didn’t want to be having that conversation. I couldn’t read minds, but some of his thoughts I heard in my head.

Maybe he could be persuaded otherwise if I presented this baby to them. I only hoped I had something to cover the baby with. I pulled it along until I came to a tree stump. A lone hare didn’t take much persuasion to run in front of them. All the hare had to do was hop towards the tree stump. With that accomplished, I heard a gasp. They ran towards it.

I ran back without knowing if they found the baby. I hoped they did. Maybe after that, everybody would be happy.

I returned to the campsite and a scowling Noelle. “Finished?”

I gulped. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Let’s go then.”

I followed after her as we returned home. I couldn’t help but wonder what happened. For some reason, the trip back took longer than the trip away.

Time arrived for the launch of our lord, Santa Claus on his sleigh. I hoped he had a safe journey around the world to deliver the gifts.

Egg nog and sweet biscuits went around to all the elves in celebration for this time of success.

About to go back to our huts, someone stepped in front of me. Those red shoes looked familiar. “Excuse me,” someone said. “Would you be Christa?”

I looked up and it was our lady, Mrs. Claus. I nodded. My mouth refused to work.

“Oh good. It was a nice thing you did with that baby. I hope everything turns out all right. What do you say, we go back to my house and sit down with a cup of hot apple cider.”

“Yes, m’lady.”

“Oh, don’t be stiff. That’s Noelle. Just call me Mrs. Claus and we’ll get along fine.”

I followed alongside Mrs. Claus back to her house. I couldn’t help but wonder about what happened after that. Maybe they weren’t meant for each other and presenting the baby would’ve been a mistake.

I couldn’t worry about that. It wasn’t my place.

Well, another season had gone well. The toys were made, packed, and delivered without a problem. All that needed to be done was the clean-up.

That was when we were called. Clean-up duty involved sweeping, mopping, taking out the garbage, cleaning the stalls, and a whole bunch of other stuff. I did the stalls while I thought about that baby. How could someone leave something that precious? Maybe they didn’t have a choice though.

After we finished our duty, we went to the frozen lake to ice skate. I laughed as Natasha ran ahead of everybody to get on the ice. It was out of pride not because I wanted to tease her. So adorable.

The snowflake fairies came out once again and skated among us. A sweet time it had been. The end of the day, and the next crew needed to get ready for our lord’s return.

Mrs. Claus waved me towards her. I looked up and smiled. “Greetings.”

“Greetings. I have some news. The couple you found adopted that baby. It seems it was too precious to pass up.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that news. “That’s wonderful.”

“Yes, it is. I couldn’t leave until I found what they named the baby.”

I bounced because I got excited about learning more.

“The baby was a girl. They named her Christina.”

Yippe. Hip hip hurray. I did summersaults and ran all over at the news. The best thing that ever happened.

“I thought you would be happy with the news.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “We are going to have a cup of hot tea you and I. We have some planning to do next year.”

I got off my seat and looked out the window. Up high, in the sky, the biggest and brightest star shone. After that, I had a feeling that everything would be all right.

It felt wrong to celebrate, but a good thing happened. The greatest gift was offered and accepted

Holiday Feast

Well, Halloween wasn’t too bad. A few came to the door and got their candy. I almost laughed at some of the costumes. Kids nowadays had everything made for them. When I was their age, we made our own.

Her picture still sat on the mantel. “Goodnight, darling Ida. Here’s your wine.” I put the glass down. After being sure the house was all right, I went to bed.

Ida always slept on the right, that’s why I slept on the left side of the bed. She always yelled at me if I didn’t get to bed by nine o’clock. It would be the middle of the night otherwise, and she couldn’t have that.

Her pillow still smelled like her. I didn’t change the linens after she went away. She wasn’t there, per se, but I stilll imagined her warmth. Maybe I should’ve faced the window, but I couldn’t. I slept facing her side as I always did. “Love you.” I kissed her goodnight.

First thing in the morning, some stuff had to be taken care of. The necesssary expenses like life insurance and long-term nursing care payments were done. She pushed me to get it and I refused. It wasn’t until… well… I did that before I forgot.

That was when I looked at the calendar. It was November already. That meant Thanksgiving would be here soon. I guess I better plan a supper. Only if Ida was here. She used to plan everything from the salad to the pie.

It was only me and I started wondering if maybe I should put in some time and help. The local shelter always asked for extra people. I could maybe help stack something or do some minor repairs. Something to consider anyway. Ida would push me out the door and tell me not to come back until I was good and dirty.

Things became more difficult since this whole thing began about the virus and lack of drivers. If they asked me I would take the job. Lucky for me, though, I had a neighbor who owned a meat market. I could have ordered my turkey through him.

The clock read a quarter after nine. Brian should be up by now because he had a job. I dialed his number.

“Hello, Dad? Look, I’m busy right—”

“Hi, son. I was wondering if you were planning anything for Thanksgiving. It’s a big holiday with all sorts of food for the family.”

“Oh. Candace didn’t tell you? I guess not since you’re asking. Uhm… listen… I really gotta go.”

“No. No one called me. I’ve just been here puttering around the house. ”

“No. Dad. It’s not like that. It’s just that we thought it would be a good thing. You know, to get away from it all. After Mom’s funeral, we thought you would like to be by yourself. Spend some time mourning.”

“All right. You go ahead then. I guess I’ll see you when you come back.”

“Yeah, look. You caught me on my way to a meeting. We’ll talk later. I’ll text Candace to fill you in on the details.” He hung up.

“Brian?” Young people were always so hectic. Too busy to say I missed you or let me know about any upcoming events.

I didn’t need to worry about the turkey, anyhow. Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, corn, those soft buttery rolls, and pie. Couldn’t forget about the pumpkin pie. The entire house used to smell so good for days.

They didn’t have to see it, but I put out the decorating table, anyway. That old cardboard box in the back of the garage labeled Thanksgiving had it all. My back gave out, but it wasn’t too bad since it was on the floor. I had to make about six mini-trips, but everything turned out OK.

I pushed the table into the sitting room right by the window. Once all the dust was off, I lay that off-white tablecloth on. The pumpkins, grapes, apples, cheese blocks, cornucopia, and corn were laid out. Everything was plastic, I didn’t need to worry about anything spoiling.

Since it would only be me, I needed to find something that resembled turkey. I went into the kitchen to check the freezer when the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Oh, Mont.”

“My name is Montgomery.”

“That’s so long and so old. And you’re so rude. Listen. I’m really busy right now so no time to chitchat. I have to pack my own clothes, and then I have to be sure the cleaning service knows we won’t be here. My sister is declaring war on Mom, and OMG, both of the boys got into huge trouble for fighting. No turkey day this year. We decided that since Ida died, that we didn’t need to celebrate any holidays. OK? Bye.” She hung up.

I hung up the phone. Why wouldn’t it be appropriate to celebrate? I still existed. I guess that meant no Christmas either. So I didn’t need to do anything this year.

Forget them. I went back to what I was doing and opened the freezer. There was only one thing left, and it was in a zipper bag. Her writing was on it. Tomato sauce it read in the white area.

Her tomato sauce was always made with basil, oregano, garlic, and onions. That sounded good to me. I didn’t need turkey, anyhow.

I took that out of the freezer and put it on the stove to heat up. It would take a few minutes, so I sat down at the table. I grabbed the paper to find out how the game went.

Popping noises came from the stove, so I went over to look. I put that on the back burner while I got the pasta started. About ten minutes later, my Thanksgiving dinner was on the table.

About as good as I remembered. Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. I put the fork down when I realized that it was the last thing she ever made. There would be nothing left when this was eaten all up.

That was when I heard her tell me to enjoy it. Food was meant to be enjoyed not stared at for decades. I enjoyed that pasta dish one noodle at a time. “Thank you.” I washed the plate and put everything away.

A couple days later and it was Thanksgiving. I called my son to wish him happy holidays but he didn’t pick up. I left a message instead. He was still my son. No matter how much of an empty space he seemed to have between his ears.

Later that day, I got out that pasta dish again to finish it. The doorbell rang and I thought maybe they changed their minds.

I opened the door, shocked to see the little girl from next door standing there. “Hi. I came to wish you a Happy Thanks for giving, Mr. Weatherby.” She reached over to the chair and held up a plate. “It’s turkey dinner. We thought you might like some. You have to wait for the pie though. Dad forgot to bake it so it has to cool down.” She smiled and waved before she ran down the steps.

I was never so happy in all my life. I took off the foil wrap and inhaled the turkey. Everything was there including the cranberry sauce and it smelled so good. All of those herbs and meaty smell came to my nose.

I threw away the paper plate the dinner sat on. The doorbell rang again and it was the same girl. “Here’s the pie. I put whipped cream on it. It always tastes better with whipped cream. Happy Thanks for giving.” She ran down the steps again.

The pie was so creamy and so flavorful I enjoyed every bit of it. It went perfect with a cup of coffee. Here I was going to eat spaghetti.

I took out two wine glasses and filled both. I put one on the table for her to drink, while I had mine. I split the pie and gave her the other half. “Happy Thanksgiving, Ida. Cheers.”

Nighttime came and went and still nothing from my own son. He should’ve called me to at least wish me Happy Thanksgiving. If he still lived in this house, he wouldn’t be able to sit for a week. What difference did it make if he was a grown man?

Monday morning, I put away all the decorations and made a thank you card for the house next door. It sure was good to be thought of. Even if it wasn’t family.

I took a walk around the block to feel the wind and look at the changing colors. I wasn’t that old yet so I could enjoy it. When I came back, Brian and his family leaned up against the car. I could tell he wanted something. It was never what he showed, it was always he looked at me side-eyed with that smile of his.

“Dad, can we talk?” he asked.

Deep breath in and out. “Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.”

He scartched his head and the rest of them filed in after him. “Dad, things haven’t turned out like we thought it would. Candace isn’t as busy as she used to be and the boys are still growing. We have one car between us now.”

I kept waiting for him to get to the part where he asked for money. No home because he had to sell to pay off some sort of debt. Whatever else there might’ve been. I crossed my arms.

“We put up the house and somebody did buy it. That money is gone now though. There was stuff that money needed to go to. So we thought that since you live alone we thought that you might, you know, then all of us could get what we needed without any hassle.”

When was he going to get to the point? At least he got to the paying off a debt part. As for me missing something, I wasn’t missing anything. Someone in particular, yes. Something, no. That was when I looked at the boys with those puppy dog eyes they displayed at me. Their mother taught them well. Who, she herself, were displaying.

I needed to say something. “Brian, instead of going on an endless rant, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to come out and say it? Huh? Just once, be a man. Yes, I know. Every boy does grow into a man. Let me tell you something though, Boy. You are a man when you own up to your own mistakes. You are a man when you defend your family. You are a man when you take responsibility for your own actions. That’s to start. On top of all of that, you went on a fancy trip during Thanksgiving and didn’t even bother to come over. I got a better feeling from the neighbor’s daughter than I did from my own kid.”

The youngest of the boys came over to me. “We’re sorry, Grandfather. We got too excited and just forgot. Besides, Mom can’t cook. Her grilled burgers turn into hockey pucks. Chris was going to do something but he got his smartphone taken away before he could.” He hugged me. “So waddaya say? Huh? There’s a Mickey’s up the street. I saw it. I know if we put our pennies together we could do something. Right?”

I looked into the set of brown eyes that looked up at me. Dammit, I saw Brian when he was this boy’s age. More gumption than he ever showed but that wasn’t the point. “My name’s Grandpa.” I put out my hand. “What’s yours?”

He smiled and put out his hand. “My name’s Adam. Nice to meet ya.”

“What do you say, you boys get cleaned up and we’ll go get some food. The bathroom is the first door on the left. Each of you gets ten minutes. That means I’ll wait twenty minutes. If you take longer than that, I’m leaving without you.”

Both of them screamed down the hallway. Then I looked at mine still angry, but I had to keep myself from using the nasty words. “This only means that you can stay for two weeks. I want to see progress. I don’t care if you end up picking up cans or fill up people’s tanks. You will do something. During that time, I want to see you wish your mother a Happy Holiday season.

“Dad, you know the boys’—”

“Do you understand me?” So thick-headed. I tried to drill into his head to see if I could get a reaction.

“Yeah.”

“That would be a yes, sir.”

He gulped. “Yes. Sir.”

At last. “Good. Up the stairs, there are two rooms that are open. Pick. Mine is at the end of the hallways, which you may not use. I expect somebody to help with the cleaning. Somebody to help with the cooking. Somebody to help go to the store. I see four sets of hands. You decide. Am I clear?”

“Yes. Sir. I understand.”

“Good.” He stood there and looked at me before he looked at his wife. He nudged her and they went upstairs.

By that time, we finished talking so the boys stood by the door. “Ready?” Adam asked.

“I’m ready. I want to remind you boys something. Manners and respect will always be appreciated. I leave it up to you to figure out when, where, how, and why. As for lunch, I’ll pay this time.” I didn’t have any food in the fridge anyway. “Come on. Let’s go.”

We brought back enough food for everybody to eat. After lunch, I told the boys to go outside. Adam looked at Chris and both nodded before going out the door.

Brian stood and approached me while he balled a paper in his hands. “Dad, we had a chance to look around. We thought that maybe we could set up that room downstairs as a sort of office, With a WiFi router, it would be great. Each of us has our own laptop so we wouldn’t need a desktop computer. As for cleaning, we could always hire a housekeeper.”

“Where is all of this money going to come from? I’m not paying for a housekeeper. As for this WiFi router thing, that expense is yours. I’ve been able to do without it. Candace is a woman with her own needs and wants. You can’t rely on her to pay for everything. She can also learn how to do housework. It doesn’t take anything to learn how to clean a bathroom or vacuum a floor.”

Brian threw away his trash. He ran upstairs.

Candace never looked up from that device that seemed to be glued to her hand. “Mont, he’s just trying to help. That’s all. He was devastated when he lost his job. He hated telling the boys that the trip had to be canceled or we would be walking everywhere.” She put it down and crossed her arms. “Besides, you don’t have a wife anymore to celebrate the holidays with. We could’ve gone to my parents you know. They would’ve been glad to have us. All of us could’ve gone to Aspen during the holidays. That’s in Colorado you know. They have modern devices like a WiFi router, we could’ve done their schooling while we were up there.”

I stood from the table and pounded my fist on the table. She screamed when I did that. Good. I hated that woman. I leaned towards her. “Look lady, you’re an adult. Start taking responsibility or didn’t anybody teach you anything in that prestigious ivy league school? Like good old-fashioned respect.”

Somebody cleared their throat. That was when I saw Adam smiling. “Let me just say that we like it here. OK? And uhm, do you have anything to drink?”

I looked at him and got him a glass of water.

Adam took the glass and drank it. He looked between the both of us, put the glass in the sink, and went back outside.

I looked at that woman again. “What?”

She looked up at me with tears in her eyes, covered her mouth, and stood. She put her hand down and kept looking at me while she bit her lip. When nothing happened, she ran upstairs.

I went over to Ida. “Oh, honey. I’m sorry. You’re just going to have to put up with me for a little while, while I work the kinks out. I guess this means, I have to decorate for Christmas. The boys would like that.” I wiped the little bit of dust off the top.

With the boys outside, the kids upstairs, I got the paper and kept reading that beginning line about this new budget plan the state came up with. I couldn’t get my mind off wondering if this new living arrangement was a good thing. Every family had their faults and we had ours. If I survived these two weeks it would be a miracle. God help me.

About the time I got my head straight, Brian stood in front of me. “Dad, this is hard on all of us. I miss Mom. She was such a part of the holidays it would’ve been awkward to be here without her. The experts suggested that each family member take time to mourn especially through the holiday season. So that’s why we did what we did. You didn’t have to be so mean to Candace.”

I think these kids had a death wish. I folded up the paper and stood from the chair. “I don’t know what she told you. I don’t want to know what she told you. Remember this, respect is earned. Never threatened.”

I picked up the paper and sat back down on the chair.

“Yo. Dad. Hey. Mom needs help.”

I looked over to see who said that. It was Chris. He nodded his head when we looked at each other. I had no idea what that meant, but until he told me otherwise, I thanked him for the reprieve. Too old to deal with all this stuff. I might die before my time if this kept going.

This was the price I paid for not speaking my mind. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Old Cedar Road

Well, with it being fall, I had to go up to Grammy’s house to help her with setting up for the holidays. Things would start in the middle of October and not finish until about the middle of January.

It would take a series of trips between her house to my apartment in the middle of the city. She was Grandma, so if never came to mind, but how many times it would take before my car collapsed. After all, it had been several years since Grammy and I spent any time together.

I bought the car dirt cheap, knowing a new car would replace the hunk of junk. Except I got too used to it so the thought of replacing it never came up. I even named him Oliver. It seemed like a decent old-fashioned name. Every other month, something needed to get fixed, but I didn’t care.

At least until he clunked out on me the weekend before Halloween. I was on my way to Grammy’s when that happened. We were supposed to go to a pumpkin patch to pick some out to set up for decorations.

I heard somewhere that if the car won’t start the first time, don’t try to force it. Accept the situation, and move on. That’s what I did. However, the next problem was how to get to where I was supposed to go. Somehow I ended up somewhere else. I got out my cellphone, turned it on, and tried to dial for help. Nothing happened, however.

Purse in hand, I got out of Oliver and got on my way. Where, though, I didn’t know. I looked around and laughed at the Old Cedar Road sign. An all too familiar street sign from all of those scary movies I watched. I wondered if it was an omen. The sun was still out, so that helped a little. Although, with the way the branches formed a ceiling on top, about the only light that shone came from straight ahead.

These things could’ve been a product of my imagination. Mom always told me it would get the best of me, but the trees came alive. Not as in they had green leaves and their trunk looked healthy. As in, they seemed to move towards me. The branches wiggled as if they were trying to reach for me. Somewhere, something whispered with the wind to keep going.

I ran to the end of the road, at least I assumed it was. The street stopped at that point and dirt was on the ground the rest of the way. Dad always told me to bring along a flashlight. I resisted because I didn’t see why, so he got me a small flashlight instead of having the go-around argument.

I took it out in case I needed it. No more wind and the only noise was me walking on the dirt. There was something in the air. A sort of indescribable smell. It wasn’t a stench. It sort of hung there to let anybody know something wasn’t right.

Scarecrows lined the street. The heads looked almost human even though they were carved pumpkins. Crows sometimes rested on them as a sort of teaser. I thought. They weren’t even there.

The further along I progressed, the more things went from bizarre to scary. I should’ve turned around at that point, but I didn’t. Oliver didn’t even run.

I kept going and found a long line of people. Old and young were there, and I stepped behind them. We kept going.

I tapped the shoulder of someone in front of me, but they didn’t respond. “Hey. Hey.” That didn’t work either.

At last we stopped. The ground rumbled as a void opened up. Out came a giant scarecrow, about as tall as the barn it stood in front of.

“Greetings,” it said. “All have gathered here to pay homage to our prominent leader. When the moon has risen to its highest, we shall see Kukamaroo.” It laughed.

I ran out of there when it had its back turned. I forgot the exact route we took. We turned here, there, and everywhere, so it was whatever route was open.

I ended up at a house with a pumpkin patch out front. I shone my flashlight on them and there were slits on the front. About to poke them, the slits became eyes and a mouth. I ran up to the house and banged on the door.

A woman in a tall, pointy hat opened the door. A bit early, but there were always a few. “Yes, my dear?”

I pointed towards the pumpkin patch. “Your pumpkins. They… they—”

“Oh good, they’re ready then.” She laughed. “Would you mind picking them for me? There’s a potion I must finish.” She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a knife. “There you are, dear.”

My eyes opened wide. “You want me to pick one? Oh, no. I’m not doing that. Not even if you could give me a million dollars. Nuh-uh.” I ran out of there.

As odd as it sounded, she cackled like the ones in the old movies used to. The pumpkins tried to chomp me to pieces as I ran by them. I stopped when I didn’t hear them anymore. Street lanterns came from somewhere and lit the road. I didn’t notice them until that moment. I took a deep breath in and let it all out to try to control how scared I became.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Dad always told me to put markers along the route I took, or make a mental note of landmarks so I could find my way back. Of course, I didn’t listen because Dad told me, but I thought I came to the same road that I was on before. The scarecrows looked familiar.

I must’ve dropped my flashlight somewhere because I didn’t have it on me. My purse was gone too.

The streetlights helped somewhat. They kept me from tripping over the dividing line between the asphalt and the dirt. Without a light though, there was no way to tell which way to go or even how far. I turned around and wondered if anyone back the other way would be willing to give me a flashlight. They weren’t that expensive, and if they wanted it, I could give them my contact info to get the money or flashlight back.

There wasn’t a choice was there? Well, there was but I wanted to get to Grammy’s and I couldn’t do that. So on I went.

Street lights stayed lit even before you moved under them. These though, they only lit when I walked by them. A weird sort of blue light shone around a cemetery. With bats the size of cats and full-size pumpkins hanging from the trees, I didn’t dare go in there. Would’ve been interesting though. Maybe.

An old two-story house stood at the end of the road. Didn’t I think that before when all of this started? I shook my head and kept going. Maybe he or she had a working phone and I could call Grammy.

A ghost, vampire, and a witch the size of children stood at the door. They held up something and stood in front of it. I got behind them and all of them turned towards me. They didn’t have eyes. As in none. As in they were pits.

I ran out of there, down the hill, and I somehow ended up with Oliver. I slammed the door shut once I got inside. Without my purse though, I didn’t have a key.

“Oh, Oliver, I wish you had a push button or something to get you started. I wanna get outta here.”

It started on its own and drove me all the way to Grammy’s house. I thought I screamed but I didn’t know. I never did that before.

I ran away from my car and into Grammy’s house. “Grammy!”

“Oh. There you are.” She came up to me and hugged me. “You were on Old Cedar Road weren’t you?”

“Uhm. Yeah.”

“You get yourself cleaned up then come into the kitchen and I’ll tell you the story of Old Cedar Road. Don’t worry. Strange things only happens once a year and you’re here now.” She patted my shoulder and walked into the kitchen.

I looked at my feet to sort of willed them to move. They somehow got stuck there. A deep breath in and out, I did as she said.

Grammy put down two cups with steam coming from them. “It’s hot cocoa. Anyway, you remember what it was like. It never smelled good, even without the wind, but we did have some good people. They raised Holsteins, Angus, Halfbloods, Morgans, etc. Other than the once-a-year pumpkin patches.”

I nodded. “Yeah. I remember. After high school, I had to go away to college so I couldn’t visit. What happened?”

“In a word, trouble. The market didn’t dry up but with things changing, people weren’t interested in animals. Those ranches sold everything and moved to the big city. Some even moved out of state. That was when trouble came but never left.”

“You keep saying trouble. What kind? Gangs?”

“Gangs of a sort. These were people who practiced dirty magic and believed in evil things. They scared most of the population out of here but those of us who are still here… well… anyway they didn’t take everything along with them.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’ve seen it. What more needs to be said?”

I took a sip of my coco and watched as Grammy’s eyes flashed. Hers never did that before. I wondered what was up with that but didn’t ask.

A ring of brown stuff clung to the bottom of my cup. I looked up at Grammy again and she held her cup and looked at me. I smiled back.

“You didn’t name your car did you?” Grammy asked.

“Yeah. Oliver. I had a professor named Oliver.”

“Then I suggest you find another way home.”

I couldn’t leave him here, but with the way I got here, I started second guessing that thought. “I’ll just take a Bible along with me.”

Grammy nodded and left the table. She came back a minute later with a Bible. “That was Gramps’.”

I nodded and held it. Out of curiosity, I opened the front page and stopped at the writing. To Oliver from Father Richards. All this time, I thought his name was Olly. Never thought about it being a nick name.

Could he—no. TV uses that for entertainment. It couldn’t be real. Yet, I experienced it first hand.

Grammy had gone to her room so I went outside to test my theory. I stood in front of my car. “OK. I have here a book. The Bible. King James Version Bible. In it, it mentions the name Oliver. Now, if that’s you do something to tell me you’re here.” I waited. Of course, I didn’t consider the fact that I talked to and expected a reply from a car.

My car flashed its headlights. So then now what? I couldn’t do anything other than go in and go home. What about Grammy?

I got to my car and pulled the handle. It wouldn’t open. Maybe I forgot to unlock the car but no key. Now what? I couldn’t believe the thought even entered my brain. “Do you expect me to stay?”

The headlights flashed once. I laughed. Granted I could’ve stood there and asked twenty questions but what would be the point.

Not knowing what else to do, I went back inside. Grammy’s room door was locked. I knocked but she didn’t answer. She could have fallen asleep. It was six-thirty at night which was a little early. On the other hand, Grammy never slept regular hours after Gramps died.

Well, that left going back up to Old Cedar Road, on foot if I had to. I started walking in that direction when I heard a car behind me. I turned around and sure enough. Since Oliver opened his door, I accepted the offer and got in.

Back where everything started, I went up the same road I came back from. No more streetlights, but I didn’t need any light. Something bright shone from the top, and the closer I got, the more I got a good look at it.

The biggest Jack O’Lantern I ever did see. About the size of a two story house. Its eyes and mouth were wide open. Not sure if that was an invitation or not, I didn’t go in.

“Oh, come now. You know you want to.”

There was nobody else here. At least nobody stupid enough to follow along with me. That left the pumpkin.

“Yeah, but. I’ve got a job and a grandmother to take care of. Why would I go in?” Of all the stupid questions.

“Tisk. Tisk. Tonight of all nights, you are supposed to let yourself have fun and enjoy the day. You don’t believe in the old stories do you? Hmm? Besides, they were thought up years ago. They’re not real.”

Strange noises came from around me. I turned my head to see an army of skeletons marching off the property. How?

If it’s not real, then why did I hear your voice? “I’ll just go.” I started walking until I stopped. My whole body wouldn’t move.

“I’m just a little ol’ government employee. Why would you need me?”

It laughed and I moved backward. It didn’t matter how hard I tried nothing worked. Why didn’t I bring that Bible along with me?

About the only thing that came to mind was Amazing Grace. I knew that by heart because we sang it every Christmas. About the third go around, I stopped. I turned around and watched as it popped here and there. The once army of skeletons shattered and clanked to the ground. I ran for the closest bush I could find and hind behind it.

Pop, pop, pop, pop everywhere until it exploded. When that happened, I ran all the way down the road and heard screams, explosions, and saw light emanating where it didn’t before.

All the way to Oliver and got inside. I didn’t expect for him to start up so I stayed inside and hoped I wouldn’t get sucked in. He started up on his own though and made it to Grammy’s house before it puttered out on the driveway. It fell apart at that point.

I ran inside. Salvation and safety at last. It had to be the end. Grammy came out, as if things couldn’t get any weirder, she floated up off the floor. Wings sprouted and she laughed.

“Grammy!”

She said a bunch of stuff I couldn’t repeat and didn’t understand. A bright yellow glow emanated from her.

“What the hell is going on? All I want is for everything to get back to normal. Whatever that means.”

Grammy fell to the floor and all was silent. I went to her and held her. “I love you. A little late. I’m sorry. Leave it to me to bring trouble.”

“Oh. Tell me it worked?” Grammy asked.

“Did what work?”

“Oh. OK.” She stood up and walked to the door.

I followed her curious as to what she was talking about. Oliver was a car again. I kept following Grammy back up to Old Cedar Road. I was never so happy to smell stockyard animals.

“There now you see.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “That’ll last a little while until they get enough energy to do the same thing all over again. Halloween brings out the best of them. Now, come morning we need to get some pumpkins.”

Did I miss something? “Huh?”

“You remember. That big orange thing we cut up and decorate every year. Either that or turn it into pie.”

“Yeah. But… .” I pointed down the road.

“Oh him? I’ll just fight him again when the time is right. Leave it up to visitors to get into something they don’t understand.”

It felt like I missed an entire movie. The plot escaped me for some reason. All of those unexplainable things and she said that visitors did it?

I followed Grammy back to the house and got ready for bed. Of course I didn’t sleep. How could anyone sleep after that?

That was the longest night of my life. If I told anyone about this, they would throw me into an insane asylum and throw away the key.

I made a mental note of all the phone calls I had to make. The only thing scarier would be going to the DMV to get my driver’s license and explaining what happened.

Finals

The final elements exam was coming up and I needed to study. I didn’t even know why we had to know it. Conjure whatever up and that was it. We only needed to know how to work the spells.

Fire came from a combination of… what? Oh, teach me not to take notes. This big and old thick book that took centuries to look anything up.

And magic won’t work on it.

I’m going to flunk this, and then I’m going to have to take this series of studies all over again.

Why don’t I quit now and pretend to live in the nonmagic mortal world happy and cozy? It wouldn’t be happy and cozy. It would be miserable. Those days of wishing for anything I wanted disappeared. Until I learn all of this stuff anyway.

I hate this. All right. Try to find something to relate to the stuff I need to know.

Somebody cleared their throat. I ignored it because I had more important things to worry about. Go ahead and turn me into a frog. Go ahead. It would give me an excuse.

It got louder.

“What? Can’t you see I’m busy? I’m trying to find some information that I need to know but I don’t have that information. So I have to find another way of getting that information. So if you don’t mind… .”

“What is your name again?” a woman asked.

“Call me Gigi. It’s easier. What? Just turn me into a frog already.” There had to be something here.

“My name is Hortense by the way. From the Eastwick House. We could put our resources together and study. That would be better. Right?”

I looked up.

She laughed.

Wait a minute. Hortense Eastwick came from the House of Blood. “You’re not a Magic Caster. You’re a vampire. A recruiter of sorts. Vampires have the ability to seduce and hypnotize anyone. So the term recruiter is more of a label than anything else. Why are you here?” I stood up and papers and books fell off my lap.

She floated towards me which confirmed my suspicion. “Because I need a new member of the family. New blood needs to be added you see.”

I backed away. “Not mine. I deny your request.”

She hissed and backed away from me. “We will see.” Out she flew.

Deep breath in and out before getting back to my disaster. Somewhere among all of this I had to have the answers. I didn’t want to fail.

I fell to the floor and picked up each individual piece of paper, note, scrap, or whatever I had any writing on and put them into a pile. I wanted to stack them, but with the way my luck was running, it would collapse as soon as I did that. So studying on the floor it was.

When someone sat on the floor, that spot provided the best view of shoes. Everybody wore the same ugly black ones with the brass buckle in the middle and about as heavy and comfortable as a cauldron. Good size ranges though. It went from tiny to gigantic and back again.

“What are you doing?” someone behind me asked.

“I need the notes to the elements lecture. I was hoping I had it but I couldn’t find them, which meant, I had to look at the big book of answers but I didn’t want to because those answers would take an eternity to search for.” Ketchup? Why did I need ketchup? Why do I even still have that receipt? Focus, idiot. Focus.

“Why didn’t you say so?” She put papers on my pile that had the elements notes.

“Yes. Thank you. A combination of hot and dry produced fire.” I should’ve know that. It was basic.

I spent the night grabbing snacks, copying notes, and sorting them in order to study. By the time the sun streamed through the window my mind had turned to mush. That flavorless goop that was mislabeled as food. Maybe I could grab a little sleep. Only a few winks.

Head on top of books, close the eyes, and—the morning bell sounded. I stood up and hoped beyond hope that I remembered all of what I read. Who was I kidding? I forgot everything.

I got cleaned up as much as I could. At the very least, I didn’t want to look like I never slept. Made it to breakfast and finished said meal. That left a few minutes between the morning routine and the first test.

I leaned against a wall and closed my eyes. Not quiet and not the the best place but it had to do. A stench reached my nostrils. I knew that stench.

“Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping by now? Not to mention, you could use” – – – I scanned her from top to bottom- – – “some color. Please leave.” I closed my eyes.

She must’ve leaned in closer because that smell got stronger. “You owe me.”

“I owe you nothing. Now just go away.” I tried to push her away but it didn’t work. She stood there and stared at me.

“You will after I grant you a gift.” She smiled enough for me to see her fangs.

“Any gift granted to anyone from a vampire must pay with their soul. Vampires will do anything for such a prize. So beware. Not necessarily a lesson, so much as a rule of survival one of my teachers said once.” Damn. The bell rung. Thanks a lot. I picked up my books and left the area.

I made sure to walk in the sun. The route took longer but I did it in order to keep her away. Then the smell of flowers filled the air. Never so glad.

The first class was composition. We had to write an essay on our favorite spell and why in five paragraphs. That one wasn’t so bad. I only hoped there were no spelling errors.

The next one was formulation. Put together a potion and the results of said potion being sure the herbs and amounts used were correct. The wording used to inform the person about the potion needed to be correct as well. Any misinformation would cost us a higher percentage point.

Then came the elements exam. The students that came before me didn’t show any emotion, so I couldn’t tell if they passed or not. There were no max points or such. It was either you got it or not.

With fifteen people in class, I was chosen as being the last one. That gave me opportunity to watch the students before me. I heard some of them answer questions, and based on our teacher’s reactions, only a few got a nod. That nod would make a difference later.

Everybody left, so it was my turn. The question he asked me seemed basic enough. I needed to fill in the blanks. “First element and transformation powers.” I smiled. It couldn’t hurt.

He nodded. I got a nod.

Then he told me to conjure lightening. Lightening? I didn’t remember any notes on lightening. I knew what to do and how to do it so I had to accomplish the unexpected.

Sorting through my tired brain took a bit. I put pink lightening in the sky. I liked that color and I thought it would look pretty.

He lowered and shook his head before he looked at me. “Pink? Is there pink lightening in nature?”

“I could change it but I thought it would look”- – – – I yawned – – – “pretty.” Not a time for that.

“Very well. You have passed the test. And get some sleep before you do something that can’t be reversed. Clear?”

I was so happy I could conjure an entire fireworks display. “Yes, sir.” I passed. I could sleep.

I some how made it back to the room. With bed in sight, I went for it. I lay down on the cot, and closed my eyes. No intention of getting up any time soon.

“Well, well, well,” Hortense said in my ear. “Who do we have here sleeping in this nice warm bed?”

“I’m going to find the sharpest and the pointiest stick and stab you with it if you don’t stop.” I opened my eyes and lifted my head. “Why me? There’s plenty of other, I don’t know, people out there. So go bother them.” I lay down on my bed while hoping she took the hint.

“Aw. I’m hurt.” She sniffed a couple times.

“Yeah. Right.” Wait a minute. The sun is up and it’s shining right on her and she did not disintegrate. “Why aren’t you powder?”

“Oh. Well. You see, I’m not a full blood. I can go out whenever I want. So, can we play?”

“You gotta be lying to me.”

“Wake up and look for yourself.”

“Don’t want to. Don’t care to. Go crawl back to those underground tunnels you guys took from us and go feed on rats or something.”

“Yuck. Have you ever tasted one? Those are disgusting.”

I had it. “Leave. Me. Alone. I. Deny. Your. Presence.” I held the pillow over my head.

“You’ll be sorry.”

I didn’t hear her any more so I assumed she left. I went back to sleep for what I hoped would be the rest of the day, but no.

“Oh. Gigi, love. They posted the results.”

I sat up. “They did.” I didn’t need to sleep anyway.

We ran towards towards the Results Boards and looked for our numbers. “I got into the ninety percentile rang.” I passed. I did great.

“So did I. So. Rome? London? Oh wait. Skip London. I got family there and if they see me that means the end of my fun. Oh, how about Edinburgh.”

I smiled. “Rome it is.” I wandered around the room to see what I could pick up was mine. I so wanted to get back the ability to conjure spells, but until the results were confirmed, it was doing it the mortal way.

I found my carpet bag and put everything in. Lucky for us, the travel station had pathways that led to certain areas of the world. All one had to do was get there. Well, proper ID and money were involved but it was possible.

Down the hill, through the woods, to the right, and into the city. From there under the bridge and into the tunnels. Blood suckers tended not to use these because of the holes in the top. They let in light.

Turn right and then left and up to the ticket booth. I let Agatha choose. A door opened and in we went.

Pathways came into being as one ended. Then that smell again. Why couldn’t this be simple?

“Hold on. Agatha?”

“What? You want to rest?”

I pointed to Hortense with my head.

“Oh. Let me know if you want help.” Agatha put down her bags and sat on them.

“We’ve been through this already. Twice. Are you that dense or that stupid?”

She laughed.

This got damned annoying. “What part of that was funny? The dense or the stupid part?” I went through my head of possible spells. Problem was, vampires were often quicker than anything that might work.

“Hmm. Oh.” She smiled and floated towards me. “You see. Not everyone is forgiving. As a matter fact, our interactions have come to the attention of others. It has become a challenge. A challenge with the prize of your blood. So you see, you need me.”

“Like I need a wart on my nose. Who would come after me during the day?”

She smiled even wider. “You have no idea.” She flew away.

We got going again and into Rome. The Roman Coliseum would forever be a beautiful sight. To go back in time and sit next to Julius Caesar. As long we’re careful, nobody would know.

“Oh. I know what you’re thinking.” Agatha smiled. “Let’s get something to eat first. Then we’ll go.”

“Oh right. OK.”

We stopped by a local place and had some pasta. Never so happy to have something normal as pasta. People said I was addicted. I didn’t have a problem with that. The herbs, vegetables, and textures suited me perfect.

We returned to the Roman Coliseum and walked through time. We sat next to each other with the other people, and watched the gladiators fight to the end.

Swords, daggers, nets, maces, and hand to hand combat made for an exciting time both against each other and animals. All that blood but the excitement was palpable with all of that energy. The fact that one was a woman and the other a man made it more intense.

When the games were done, we returned back to our time. At least we saw a game. The sun began to set and Agatha was hungry again.

This time, it was seafood. Fresh seafood had a flavor all its own. No matter how fresh frozen it was. There was no comparison. Butter and lemon were all that was needed to season our dish.

At sun up the following day, we returned back to our academy. We had a good time and needed that break. At least I know I did.

I went back to my room and found somebody else in my bed. “Excuse me. You’re in my bed.”

He was a small boy with brown hair. A little over weight too with buck teeth. “No, I not. I here.”

I left the room to look for the room assignments posting. I made it to the housing office to ask about my room.

“Happy travels, ma’am.” I nodded my head. “Where can I find the room assignments posting?”

A clipboard made itself known. “Name please?”

“Gingin-Ambretta Digiello. I’m a product of two houses that haven’t formed a union. The age long dispute over property hasn’t been solved yet.”

Papers flipped. “Yes. There you are. You are housed in the Western Province building. Third floor. Left room.”

What? That couldn’t be. “Do you need me to repeat the name?”

“That is not necessary. According to our showings, you are now in the Master’s Class. You scored high enough to make it to the highest level we offer.”

Oh my magic wand. It couldn’t be. Did I do that well?

I ran out of the office to look for the scores sheet, again. Maybe I missed something the first time. I found it hanging on the door of the main entrance. I almost fainted. Ten students, including me, made into the top percentage category. How was that possible? Should I even have questioned that?

Oh my magic wand.

Without any knowledge of how I got there, I stood in front of the door with the letters L-E-F-T on it. I was one of the elite students.

“Gingin-Ambretta I take it?” somebody asked.

Something touched me. With my mouth open I turned towards the voice. “Huh?”

She laughed. “There is still time to recover from the news. In the meanwhile, my name is Cressida. I am of the highest rank here, and therefore, the one responsible for everyone’s behavior. When you can function again, turn the doorknob.”

“Huh? OK. Nighty night.”