The Runalongs

Another boring weekend meal at the home of Friends of a Friend of Mom and Dad. A stout housewife in heels that were either cut low or compressed under her size pushed once-a-year-used silver trays of tartlets and stuffed mushrooms in our faces with a smile embedded so deep in her apple cheeks that I swear I saw her molars. Mom graciously took or denied a bite at each pass; My boredom led to the discovery that she took from every two offers. Dad sat with a crystal glass half-full of sherry and enthusiastically engaged in banter with buzzwords such as “dividends” and “fiscal” and – my personal favorite of the evening – “fiduciary.” 

These Friends of a Friend had no children for me to engage with and partake in my own new fancy words, such as “fuck.” I sat politely, as previously instructed in the car on the way to dinner, and accepted hors d’oeuvres as they came at a rate of one-to-one. Exponential is the word Dad might have called that. Mom warned me more than once to watch my intake or else I’d spoil my appetite come dinner, but if I was forced to commingle with adults, I was going to take advantage of the free, painstakingly-prepared food. As far as I was concerned, she should be grateful to have a child who loves mushrooms as much as I do. 

The dinner itself was nothing short of overdone in regards to both the effort of the wife and the texture of the roast. Fortunately for Mom, Dad, and me, we were provided with serrated steak knives that effortlessly glided through the housewife’s science project. Unfortunately for Mom, Dad, and me, our teeth were not of the same strength as the cutlery. We ate, though, and complimented the Friends of a Friend, and made it to dessert which — although I’d hate to admit it — I was too full to eat. Mom was right, and I did spoil my appetite on the mushrooms from earlier in the evening. Another glass of sherry for Dad before we departed. The husband handed each of us our jackets, and made sure to help Mom into hers, before we bid them adieu and piled back into Dad’s car. In my opinion, he had one sherry too many, and Mom should have driven, but God forbid she gets behind the wheel of his Mercedes. She has her own. 

“It was a lovely evening.” Mom spoke like a B-flat in the sticky air of the car, the remnant smells of Friends of a Friend’s house dangling from the ceiling. 

“Mhm,” Dad said, trying to focus on not swerving. 

“Why do we have to do these things anyway?”

“It was a very good business connection for your father, dear.” Mom answered on Dad’s behalf because I think she, too, knew he was trying his hardest to focus on the lines of the road. 

“Whatever,” I replied. 

Thirty minutes into the drive I found my head moulded into the car door and I watched the white line of the road’s shoulder glide alongside the vehicle. Each yellow-orange street light just blink blink blinked along. It may have been the massive amount of food I ate, but I swore something was making its way along the side of our car, at the same pace as Dad. A man? Maybe some wolf-like creature? I’m not entirely sure, but the longer I looked, the more real it became. It used the guard rails, fire hydrants, lamp posts — jumping and leaping along as if it needed to deliver a message. I watched intently at the shadowy figure, hoping it wouldn’t lose its balance. Part of me wanted to tell Mom and Dad to look out the car window and see what I saw, but I knew Dad was too busy to focus, and Mom was too boring to care.

This creature — runalong — found its cadence eventually and ran well-enough beside us to make me forget that it was unnatural or abnormal in the first place. For the first time that evening I felt less lonely, and also forgot about my upset stomach where I imagined prosciutto piled on mushrooms piled on meat-flavored brick. I put my face in my palm and leaned my elbow into the car door so I could watch more intently, but just as I became comfortable, Dad turned a corner and continued down our street. I let out a sigh of frustration. 

“Oh, what? Now you don’t want to go home all of a sudden?” Dad snapped. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. It was the first time he spoke to me all night, except for the pep-talk in the car on the way to Friends of a Friend’s house, where he told me to be on my best behavior or else he’d drop me off on the side of the road. Watching the shadow beside our car, I wished I goofed off at the dinner party. 

Once the car was off I leaped from the backseat and ran up to my private bathroom where I washed my face and brushed my hair, brushed my teeth and gargled, and got into my bed. It was up against my windows, and instead of falling asleep, I perched myself up far enough to get a good view of the street and lights that surrounded the end of our cul de sac. Anxiously, demanding in my head, I wished for the runalong to come find me. 

“Where are you? Come on…” I whispered into my safety blanket and cursed — quietly enough that Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear or try to come into my room. I locked my bedroom door anyway. I often heard about friends from the private school whose parents argue a lot after dinner parties, but mine never disagree. In fact, my parents don’t talk very much to one another. Mom goes along with whatever Dad wants to do — whether it’s a dinner party, or punishing me, or a new business venture — and everyone is happy. Everyone but me, I guess. 

It was about three in the morning, and I felt myself strain to keep a minimum one eye open for the runalong, when I saw a shadow zip from the pine tree on the front lawn to the street light across the street. My heart jumped out of excitement, not fear, that the thing I thought I saw really existed. 

“What are you,” I whispered. “Come closer. Come to the tree again.” I sat up tall and gestured for the runalong. I didn’t know if it could see me, but I wanted to at least try; I’d been awake far too long and wasn’t planning on going to sleep with failure on the brain. 

To my surprise, the shadow jumped back from the street light to the pine tree. Its movement was so smooth, but the shadow was far bigger than it appeared from where I sat in the car earlier, and I jumped back a little when it moved. I didn’t know if it could speak, but I said hello to it, and opened the window. 

“What are you?”

The runalong only stood perched in the tree branch. I couldn’t see its eyes — that is — if it had any. I could only make out vague appendages that wrapped around the branch and held it in place. Little swirls of shadows and darkness blotted out the street light behind it. I asked again, but it still didn’t answer.

“It must be so nice to just jump from treetop to treetop. Do you like chasing cars? Are you like a dog?”  

The shadow only moved a little. It inched closer to my window. I didn’t want it to think I was afraid so I didn’t move. My deduction was if the runalong wanted to eat me it would have done it when I first opened the window. Maybe it was never noticed before and just wanted a friend. Either way, I had questions. 

“Are you alone? Are you lonely? I get lonely. Mom and Dad only wanted one kid and even though I asked for a sibling they said no, so I just stopped asking. We were coming home from a dinner party. I hate dinner parties. There are never any kids. Do you know what kids are? I’m a kid. My parents are adults. And you — I’ve been calling you a ‘runalong.’ I hope that’s okay.”

The runalong appeared to sit up and mimic me. I determined this was its way of communicating so I patiently waited for its next move. It seemed to grow a head and a neck and even though it didn’t have eyes, I felt like it was looking into mine. 

“I bet you are lonely. I would like to be your friend, if you’ll let me.” 

Mom and Dad expected me to sleep in late from all of the excitement of childless, mushroom-filled dinner, so it was no surprise to them when I didn’t come downstairs for breakfast. It was slightly more suspicious when I wasn’t present for lunch, but Mom had a hair appointment and Dad was in a meeting. When dinner came around, and I didn’t show up, Mom walked up the spiral staircase and knocked on my door. When I didn’t answer, she jiggled the handle to find it locked. Mom ran downstairs and rummaged through the junk drawer for a spare key, ran back upstairs to shakily open my door. She finally called out to Dad when she saw my room was empty, the lights off, and the bedroom window open to the evening air. 

Dad grabbed the keys to the car and they peeled out of the driveway, out of the cul de sac, and down the road for any sign of where I might be. Mom cried for the first time in years, and Dad’s lower lip disappeared from how hard he chewed on it. They looked ahead, to the left and right — but not up — so they didn’t notice two shadows running alongside the car. 

There is Only one Devil

Deeper, deeper we descended into the abyss. Before exiting topside, I stood on top of the mound of red clay and sand that accumulated from weeks of digging and watched the last of the sun drip into the horizon. It was foolish of me to hope the last of the day’s light found its way into this cavern. 

My lantern swung wildly on the steep walk down in the empty space and made the clay appear as flames around me. My partner instructed me to lower it closer to my side so it would steady. He was right. He was always right, that’s why I am the assistant. It’s a role I take seriously and with pride – and admittedly a little fear when we go on expeditions such as these. I observed with a knot in my throat as hired hands cleared piles of earthen flesh for little money at a very specific geographical location. I found myself with the desire to sit, my gut pulling into my spine as if God himself was trying to remove me from the dig site. My partner remained silent for most of those weeks, sipping coffee from an old metal thermos and occasionally directing the unofficial foreman of the angle required to reach the cavern. 

“This will make everything better for me,” he said the night before our descent. 

I nodded and drank some of the bourbon he shared, but I didn’t ask him to specify what exactly would be better. Everything is a lot. Of course I speculated to myself in the twilight hours, as sand patted down my tent, what was in the cavern. What – or who, maybe – has patiently or impatiently sat in the deep, deep darkness waiting for a rescue party to rediscover it. Or him. Or her. Any average man may have suggested oil or gold, but I knew my partner. Quiet, yes – a businessman, no. My partner was a collector of artifacts – mostly religious paraphernalia. And it didn’t matter the religion, as long as it was held by someone with great faith in their god. 

“The energy exists within the item,” he’d say, turning whatever it was at the time over and over in his palms. Sometimes he would hold his hands close to the fireplace as if to soften the barrier of flesh before squeezing the item, like he wanted to absorb them. Of course I found it bizarre but I never asked questions. I’m an assistant. I’m only paid to assist. 

The air in the cavern was thick and hung like the velvet drapes in my father’s old bedroom, although the space smelled like our family crypt. It resembled slow organic decay and sweetly rotting flesh, encased in porous, chilled stone. My partner turned back and saw me flare my nostrils and exhale hard from my nose to banish the smell. He laughed and it echoed in our theater. 

“Smells like a graveyard.”

“Quite so,” I said. 

“Come now, not much further.” 

I obediently followed, my lantern at hip height behind my partner. He walked with no light of his own, guided only by the whispering glow of mine. I thought he must have spectacular eyesight – and it made sense the longer I thought – because his estate was often dimly lit. Something that I chalked up to saving on electrical expenses. My partner was extremely wealthy, though. His worth – I’m not sure of the exact amount – could have covered the lighting of a hundred estates such as his. After further deliberation in my mind, I settled on the theory that my partner simply had very sensitive eyes. 

We walked for what felt like hours, and I noticed my lantern light was low. Still, I continued behind my partner who marched dutifully forward with no light – and no map. He must have memorized an old, found parchment prior to our exhibition, I concluded. My inner dialogues ended when my partner began to speak. 

“You have always been a wonderful assistant.” 

I felt a bead of sweat produce at my hairline and trickle down my cheek. 

“Thank you, sir.” 

“No, truly. Thank you. You’ve never questioned my hobbies, methods, or exhibitions. You do exactly what is asked of you, and I never felt I’d find such an exceptional help in this very long lifetime.” 

“Well, sir, I’m humbled,” I panted. The air thinned in some way. What a horrible time to begin a conversation, I thought. 

“Oftentimes, my previous assistants either questioned – or were offended by – my wide collection of various religious artifacts. As if there was only one answer to their higher good. I never understood that – the judgment.” He turned back. “You don’t judge me.”

“Who am I to judge what brings another man joy?”

“My point exactly! Who is man to judge what brings another joy? See? There is still some good in this world.”
I was always told, only God can judge us.” I blinked hard and slowed my descent on the rocky steps in an attempt to catch my breath. I felt hot around my neck and back. My partner, fading from my lantern, strolled ahead. He carried no pack, no water – just himself. He turned to see me struggling and waited for me to catch up. 

“Out of breath, old boy?”

“The air feels thinner. Forgive me. And it feels warm. I feel so warm.” 

“I know, isn’t it great?” He hugged himself. I couldn’t understand his resilience. I envied him in that moment. 

In the final throes of my conscious wobbling into the hot, unforgiving void, I noted my hunger and thirst rise as my flame grew smaller. We didn’t pack water. We had no food. My partner kept pace with me, although he was entirely unaffected by our surroundings, and I lumbered onward, heaving my legs one in front of the other. 

“To continue,” he said, “almost everyone who believes seems to be under the impression that their interpretation of the highest being – God, if you will – is the best version, and all others are wrong.” 

“At least there’s only one Devil.” 

My partner grinned in the dying glow of my lantern. He helped me up with ease and steadied me to my feet. We were finally on some sort of flat surface, and just in front of me, I could make out an impossibly large wall. I tried to raise my lantern, but was too weak; All I could see was a thick, vertical crack in the stone. 

“Yes my boy, there is only one Devil, and to some believers, the Devil is their God.” 

“What are you saying?” My vision blotted in and out in the already dark, oven-like space. 

“I’m saying, you have been an excellent assistant. But I need to go home for a while. Thank you again, for believing in me – for following.” 

The crack in the cavern wall began to glow and I was overcome with a white-hot light. My skin felt as if it would melt from my bones. Whatever air I had left in me escaped with a final bloody scream as I was engulfed in fire, my partner holding me, laughing. 

I woke up on the dirt mound. Red clay and sand stuck to the sweat on the back of my neck and behind my knees. Slowly, I sat up from what felt like a horrible, horrible dream only to notice my partner was gone. I placed my hand on my chest to make sure my heart was beating, when I felt something solid in the inner pocket of my vest. In it was a thick envelope, and in that envelope was the deed to my partner’s estate and a will. Both written over to me. I stood carefully and looked over to see an apparition of yellow raise up over the horizon. My partner seemed to have gone home, so I used my hands and began filling in the hole. 

January 26, 2020 7:17 AM

It wasn’t that I gained a conscience for her, but I spent so much time hovering around her mother that I felt like something was owed. It had been a good fifteen years of watching this kid, front and center, go through hell. I never stay around so long, but in special cases like hers — the slow burn deaths — I tend to leave a little something for those who have to live in suffering. 

Dreams, in the long run, are given rational explanations for why they occur. Losing your teeth in a dream is thought to be the coming of changes in your life; overflowing toilets is supposed to imply a literal shitty situation, pressure, mental or emotional unavailability. For some reason, she dreamed a lot about overflowing toilets. She never told anyone, and I wouldn’t spoil it for her either, but I never really saw someone dream about overflowing toilets so much.  

Ever since she was small she had night terrors of the Shadow Man who lurked in the doorway. She’d wake up and he’d still be there, unmoving, glowing red eyes, watching. She thought he was there for her — but she was wrong — he was there for her mother. The Shadow Man and I work in a similar business, different departments, I guess. He has a habit of haunting the children of the afflicted individuals and lingering around like a malignant tumor until he finally gets what he wants. When she lived at home, the girl would dream of him almost nightly. She told her mother about it, who rationalized that she had too much sugar in her diet, and brushed it off. Her mother never believed the girl’s sense of impending doom. 

The Shadow Man is a demon of death, a harbinger of what horrors are to come. He generally arrives before I do and he likes to leave first. Being Death, I try to keep things simple — swoop in, take the soul, get out. The Shadow Man hovers in the subconscious and warns of things unseen. He never gives an explanation as to why he’s there until the last minute. 

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

That’s what the girl uttered after she heard her mother was in the hospital. That’s what she said after she threw her books across her room and crumbled to the floor. Her roommates tried to bring comfort but she knew already, that it was the end. I watched her for fifteen years and for the first time I — dare I say — felt something? Her head spun and spun and she thought about her mother, her mother’s disease, and the Shadow Man. That black shadow stood behind her, invisible. The demon that spent two decades watching her finally came back for what he wanted  — her mother.

The Disappearances of Duckworth Falls

1.

Rosalie McGinnis disappeared from her bathroom on Wednesday afternoon. Her mom was home when it happened, but when interviewed by police she claimed to hear no forced entry and no sounds of Rosalie in distress. In fact, her mother only noted the disappearance a full two hours after Rosalie went into said bathroom to get ready for the movies with two of her friends. Mrs. McGinnis was supposed to drop all three girls off for the matinee, and noted it suspicious that her daughter didn’t come out of the bathroom. She opened the door, fearing she would find her beloved Rosalie unconscious, maybe from hitting her head on the tub. Mrs. McGinnis was taken by quite the surprise, you can imagine, when she opened the door to find no Rosalie at all, only her comb on the floor next to the toilet. The window, still locked from the inside, lacked even a smudge of dust. It was all very abnormal. The police agreed, and Mrs. McGinnis’s alibi was solid. The members of the McGinnis family themselves are a very normal, boring, happy foursome – Rosalie the big sister to Tyler McGinnis, my best friend. 

“My mom says I can’t play with you anymore, Barry.” We sat in Tyler’s backyard under the only tree. He jabbed a pointy stick into the dirt over and over. 

“Me? What did I do? I didn’t kidnap your sister.” The words felt harsh coming out of my mouth, meaner than I meant. But Tyler didn’t react, just kept prodding the lawn.

“It’s not just you,” he sighed. He paused his excavation and looked up. “She says I can’t go anywhere with anybody. I can’t leave this stupid yard, and they said something about liability of other kids here.” 

“That’s dumb,” I said. I sat back and put my hands behind me to support myself. “Parents are dumb.”

“Yup.” Tyler lifted his stick and continued to dig. Rosalie went missing two weeks earlier and the cops were none the wiser to who did the kidnapping or how it happened. I felt bad. Tyler was my best friend and I was also madly in love with Rosalie. You’re supposed to fall in love with your best friend’s sister, at least, that’s how it always looks in the movies. She was two grades older than us but she was always so nice to me – how could I not fall in love with a nice girl? No other girls wanted to date a guy named Barry. 

Last year, Greg Hargrove told me I looked like a Barry. I looked up at him from where I landed after he pushed me down on the playground. I didn’t know how someone could look like their name. A name was just a name. 

“Because,” he laughed, “you’re fat and awkward. You have an old man’s name.”

“It is my old man’s name,” I said, still on the ground. I figured if I got up again, he’d just push me down again. And I didn’t like confrontation. 

“Dumb Barry’s parents can’t even think of a new name for him! Come on, get up!” He egged me on, but I just said no thank you.

“You’re so weird.” Greg grimaced at me and walked away. I made sure he was far enough that I could get up without a fight, and that’s when Tyler walked over and extended a hand. 

“He’s a jerk,” he said. 

“No doubt in my mind.” I took Tyler’s hand and he helped me up. Greg was right though – I was a fat kid named Barry. But those were facts and I couldn’t take facts as insults. I wiped any dirt from the butt of my pants when she walked up to us.

“You alright? Greg is just a sad kid, don’t worry about him.” Rosalie smiled like an angel and put her hand on my shoulder and that was when I fell in love.  

Hello?” I popped out of my daydream to see Tyler staring at me. 

“What?”

“Did you hear anything I just said? You looked like you were in space.” 

“I wish I was in space,” I laughed. “Sorry, I was just thinking about… Rosalie. And how weird this all is.” I moved off of my hands that were both very much asleep and leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. “Sorry,” I said again.

“It’s cool. I guess I’m thinking a lot about it too.” Tyler let out a long sigh and lay backwards onto the grass; his head just missed the base of the tree. 

“What if she’s dead?”

“What?” I asked, not because I didn’t hear Tyler, but because I thought he could read my thoughts. 

“I shouldn’t say that,” he corrected himself. 

“Try to be positive, Tyler.” I patted him on his outstretched foot. We sat in the sun and baked a while longer, the dirt mound between us. 

“Thanks for hanging out,” he said.

“Hey! Maybe if my ma talks to your ma, you can come over to our house to hang out.” 

“Yeah, maybe.” He didn’t look at me when he responded. I knew it was futile. My family was poor and our house sucked. There was no way Mrs. McGinnis would let Tyler come over, even if Rosalie wasn’t missing. 

Tyler really had no reason or need to be my friend. He was popular enough, and we all knew I was not. His parents were still together, and my dad left when I was eight. Not to mention both of Tyler’s parents made a lot of money. His dad managed the Duckworth Falls Power Plant, and his mom worked for the Duckworth Falls Town Hall. My mom managed the Till, the everything store that had a little bit of everything someone might need at a slightly elevated price. We didn’t shop there. 

Before Tyler wasn’t allowed to leave his house, we would walk or ride our bikes to the comic book and baseball card store across town. My bicycle is Tyler’s old one; he got the new Schwinn for Christmas and gave me his old one the next day. His old bike was only two years old and I was still riding around on my dad’s ten-speed that he left at our house. The comic book store on Cornwall Street was our mecca. I’d just sit and watch him use his allowance to buy packs of baseball cards, always searching for one or two specific players. He tore through the shiny wrapping of each pack, and let out a huff here and there when the card he wanted was missing. 

“Dang.” He slapped the fanned cards against the top of his leg. “No dice. Here.” Tyler handed me the whole pack, opened, to keep.

“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t know too much about baseball or their cards, but Tyler had a zillion of them and he was the only person who gave me things, so I put them in my backpack. 

I was thinking about my backpack full of cards when the sliding glass door to Tyler’s back deck caused him to sit up straight, and me to crane my neck around. I expected to see Mrs. McGinnis at the ready to tell me it was time to leave. We were both shocked to see my mom, though, in the door. 

“Barry Bear!”

I hated that nickname.

“Barry Bear! Time to go. Come on we have to go now.” 

My mom has never set foot in the McGinnis house. She always said they were too stuffy for her, that they had too many things. She said it felt like a museum. Usually, when she picks me up from Tyler’s house she just honks from the street until I make my way outside. Something had to be wrong, I was sure of it. Maybe my dad came back and he was wondering where his ten-speed went. 

“Well,” I sighed, “see ya later, Tyler.” I rolled over to my knees and pushed myself up to my feet and dusted the grass clippings from my shorts. My mom stood impatiently in the typical impatient mother stance: arms crossed, one foot out and leaning heavy to one side from carrying my inconvenience as a son, or even the phantom imprint of holding me constantly as a baby because I was very whiny and collicky. She liked to remind me. 

I passed her into the McGinnis house with a smile and she raised her eyebrows in return. We walked to the car together and as I said goodbye and thank you to Mrs. McGinnis, she almost beamed at me, like she was happy to see me leave her house. It didn’t hurt, not really, because that’s just how she was. 

“What’s going on?” I buckled myself into the front seat as my mom made a U-turn to head south back towards our neighborhood. She didn’t reply immediately so I asked again, thinking she just didn’t hear. 

“I heard you the first time, Barry.” 

“Well, then what’s going on?” 

My mom bit her lip a moment and fumbled with the air conditioning unit before she slowed down. Only two blocks away from Tyler’s house there were three cop cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance in front of Chris Fleming’s house. He was my classmate. 

“Woah what happened there? A fire?” 

“Chris Fleming is missing.” My mom fiddled again with the air conditioning and then returned both hands to the steering wheel. She drove straight on, not looking at the Fleming house, only slowing down either out of respect for the emergency workers, or so I could see. It was then I realized why Mrs. McGinnis seemed so happy as I left – she was no longer suspicious for her child missing, especially if the circumstances were the same. She was relieved. 

I didn’t reply to my mom and kept my face turned towards the window and watched the flashing daytime lights of emergency vehicles fade in the distance as we drove closer towards home. I tried to think of the last time I saw Chris Fleming. Homeroom? Gym? Why were the kids in my class going missing? And in Duckworth Falls of all places? It was a small town, easily overlooked, and generally only driven through by people trying to get to the major cities that shadowed us. There weren’t even any falls in Duckworth Falls. Come to think of it, there weren’t any ducks, either. And if things kept going the way they were, Duckworth Falls wouldn’t have any kids. 

Two Pieces

This story, along with the one before it Death is a Woman were rejected from a writing contest. I wasn’t allowed to publish the stories unless they were rejected, so, here!

Swarms of people gathered at the terminal and waited impatiently for it to open. All walks of life – men, women, and children formed like hungry animals, eager to board the next ferry across. The terminal was more frightening than the boat ride, it seemed; Wet, dirty cobblestone and high cavern ceilings of what surely felt like the center of the earth gave way for a symphony of echoes from nervous voices and shuffling feet. It wasn’t just the echoes, though, but the stink of tragedy that still hung to the freshly departed passengers. The growls and groans of a three-headed beast on the other side of the foggy river was a welcome tune.

And then there was Ellie. 

She didn’t recognize any of these people. Moments ago – it seemed – she was crossing the street with her family when she dropped her doll. Next thing she knew, Ellie was in this place. She must have fallen into a sewer, she thought, and these were all sewer dwellers. She wanted to cry out for her mother, but Ellie was taught to never cry out if she was lost, because a stranger would see her alone and take her. So she stood very still instead, and looked earnestly around for her parents. 

The jolt of an ancient whistle grabbed the attention of the passengers, and Ellie found herself swept up in a wave as they gathered in an orderly line per the instruction of the ticketmaster. Slowly, she felt herself sucked backwards as large feet, petite shoes – ball gowns and hospital gowns – pushed forward. Ellie heard an old woman complain that she waited her whole life for this moment and now she was stuck behind a destitute.

“Two pieces!” the ticket man hollered. Two pieces of what? Ellie wondered. She had two clips in her hair, two shoes on her feet – two pieces of what? She was last in line, still unable to locate her parents, although compelled to wait exactly where she was, certain they would come find her. And at the back of this line, she figured, it wouldn’t be long before she found out what two pieces the ticketmaster required. 

It felt like an eternity before Ellie could actually see the call box. Just beyond it was a short pier and – at the end of that – a long boat waited in the fog. She couldn’t see the captain’s face, but he was tall and thin and she thought maybe she didn’t want to ride this boat. She’d keep her clips and her shoes. Ellie couldn’t understand why these passengers wanted to cross into the fog – and it was almost her turn – so she tapped shyly on the back of an old woman’s arm. The lady turned around and looked down at the little girl. Her face softened, sad, to see someone so young in this line. 

“Oh, you poor thing. How did you get here?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “I can’t find my mum and dad.” 

“Oh dear. They didn’t come with you?”

“I was just with them,” she replied. “I lost my doll.” 

“Don’t worry, dear.” The old woman put a soft hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “My husband didn’t come with me either. We can ride the ferry together.”

“Where is it going?” 

“To the afterlife, of course.” The old woman flashed a warm smile down to Ellie, but all she felt was the cold chill of fear run down her little spine. 

“I want to go home!” Ellie stomped a foot and it echoed across the floor, prompting those ahead of her to turn and stare. 

“Oh, child,” the old woman said, “you’re going to a new home. Your parents will find you there one day.” 

Ellie wanted to cry. She looked frantically for an exit, and saw none. She was alone, and only had the old woman to guide her. Eventually, it was the woman’s turn to pay the ticketmaster. 

“Two pieces,” a voice called from the shadow. She opened her hand and dropped two pence on the counter. A large palm covered the pieces and slid them into a drawer. She walked to the boat. 

“See you soon, dear,” she said. 

Ellie gulped and approached. He demanded the same two pieces. She checked her dress pockets, though she knew they were empty.

“I – I don’t have to pieces,” she said. Her throat was dry and hoarse.

“No pieces, no ferry,” he replied. His pitch didn’t waiver for anyone, not even a little girl. 

“But where do I go?”

“Nowhere,” he said, and slammed the callbox window shut. Ellie was left speechless as she stood alone at the pier. She watched the old woman turn around and saw her face change to sadness. The old woman lifted a hand in a limp wave goodbye, her head falling to one side. The boat pushed off into the fog, taking with it whatever light there was. 

Ellie sat on the ground in her dress. Her mum would have scolded her – but her mum wasn’t coming. She knew that now. She wrapped her arms around her knees and cried for what felt like hours, until a hand touched her shoulder, frightening her. 

“Why are you crying?” The woman smiled down at Ellie on the cobblestone. 

“I can’t go on the ferry, and I can’t find my mum and dad. And I’m scared,” Ellie wept. 

“You can ride with me,” the woman said.

“Do you have an extra two pieces?”

“I don’t need two pieces,” she laughed. 

Another boat arrived, different from the last. It was bigger, newer, and there was no ferryman in sight. Death took Ellie by the hand and walked her to the end of the pier. She picked up the little girl and placed her on a cushioned seat. Ellie felt safe for the first time since she arrived at the ferry terminal and thanked Death for taking her in. 

“No worries, darling. Let’s go find that old woman.” They rode into the fog.

Death is a Woman

I looked over my land one early July morning while my children ran in between rows of vegetables, ready for harvest. I inhaled the cool Tuscan air and admired my plot of land, as I do each morning. I thanked the gods for my family — and for my loyal mule, of course. I thanked Gaia for the bounty. I thanked every being to whom I owed, which is why I did not recognize the mysterious rider who came upon my land, or the snow that followed behind him. 

His horse — black — echoed and pounded towards my home. He was a lone, cloaked rider but the hoofbeats mimicked an army. The backdrop of our mountain village amplified the sounds, frightening my children. They stopped in the fields and stood frozen, their gaze on the dark figure that approached. I called out to them but they did not hear — or could not. I leapt forward and ran to the children as the rider drew near from between the mountains at impossible speeds down the sloping hills. I couldn’t tell if the rider and horse were merely floating over the land — if the hoofbeats were mere trickery — for he did not waiver. Nonetheless, I rushed to my children and grabbed one in each arm. They squealed in fear before realizing it was only their father’s protective embrace. I stumbled a moment in the muddy field and noticed the air was cold. I looked down and saw frost on my harvest, my vegetables wilted before my eyes. Dead. This was no act of man. I shook off the thought and ran as hard as I could from the rider, followed by snow and the beating echoes of a vengeful tribe against my own panicked heart. 

I placed my children in the house and into the arms of my wife, who looked at me with a grieved, pale face. She held our babies as they wept in fear, as if they knew who rode down the hill. I didn’t know  how to comfort them. 

“He brings frost and snow,” my wife said. “He will bring death. Why, my love? What did we do?”

“I will ask,” I replied. I had nothing to hide, nor to fear. 

I stood up over my family huddled together on our floor and noticed how deathly still the world became. The hoofbeats stopped. I picked up my scythe for protection and looked beyond the open door where the rider appeared to wait  at the edge of my property. With one hard swallow, I exited my home and instructed my wife to secure the door behind me, then marched across my frost-covered field in the biting July cold. The rider’s horse stood like a statue, but breathed heavily out of its nostrils, leaving trails of mist that snaked and coiled into the sky. I noticed a smell of decay — most likely the horse. It seemed entirely unaware of its exposed ribcage under the boots of the rider. When I got closer to the rider, I saw a man — not quite a man — gaunt, sickly looking.  He lowered his hood and straightened his spine. He lifted a hand and bit into one of my rotten vegetables.

“Rider,” I asked, “what are you? Why have you brought this weather?” 

“I am Famine,” he said. His voice cut the air heavy and thick. My skin tightened and my spine chilled. A Horseman of the End Times.
“Forgive my boldness, Horseman. I didn’t know it was you. Is this the Apocalypse?”

“No,” he said. “I am angry at Death.”

“What does your anger with Death have to do with us? With my family? I thank the gods everyday for my gifts. I pray everyday!” 

“I am not the gods,” Famine said. “Death will be busy.”

Famine turned his horse and rode away from my fields, a thousand hoofbeats following. I stood at the edge of my ruined crops and turned my head towards the sky. Snow gently fell — a peaceful summer snow. 

The mule died first. She was loyal and hard working, but we needed to eat. The famine lasted months, summer’s winter turned to autumn’s winter, then true winter. Eventually we ran out of mule meat. My wife and I took less than our children, but the winter sickness gripped them both. I sat beside them, each delirious from fever and begged them to hold on as my beloved wife cried silently. I prayed for help and thought an answer came when my wife called to me.

“Hoofbeats! Maybe a doctor!”

“What color is the horse?” I stood, suspicious.

“White? Pale-colored.” she said. 

I exited my home and waited for the individual to approach, and told my wife to tend to our children. The rider in white stopped before me. He leapt from his horse and I froze in the door. His scythe gleaned in the moonlight. He was no doctor.

“Death,” I breathed, “I pray of you. I beg of you. Do not take my children. Take me!” I tried to reach for his robes, ready to battle the Horseman, but he did not try to pass me. He did not fight. Instead, he extended a delicate hand and placed it on my forearm.

“But you are healthy,” a calm voice replied. It was not a deep, piercing voice like Famine. It soothed me in some way. Death lowered his hood, and I saw he was no man at all. 

“You’re a woman,” I gasped.  

“No, I am Death,” Death said. “I must apologize for Famine, but do not fear. I will end their suffering.” She walked past me into the house. I froze. I wanted to scream, but no one could beat Death. I stood outside and watched the shadows of winter clouds pass over the mountains as tears trailed down my cheeks, and waited for the Horseman to return to her steed. 

My son died first, then my daughter.

Foresight

Foresight

I hate first dates. I hate dating in general. I hate awkward small talk — I hate letdowns. More specifically, being the let-downer. My job, my life — my commitments — all play into the conclusion I made decades ago where my personal timeline will remain solitary. It’s best that way. And when your job is timelines and time — when you know how everything plays out — dating seems a little frivolous.

    As a timeline keeper is it my sole responsibility to make sure time does what it’s meant to do — go forward. No hiccups, no hitches, no unplanned natural disasters. Many of the people in my own dimension feared the idea of possibly being assigned as a timeline keeper when they graduated the School of Intergalactic Maintenance and Monitoring, but as a type-A personality I prayed for it. My friends became black hole monitors, space debris cleaners — most of it done at home in our galaxy. But I always wanted more. I wanted to see everything, and more importantly, I wanted the opportunity to know everything. To be a timeline keeper is to know everything whether or not you want it. And once assigned, I was placed into the Think Tank — a very bland name for a very complicated, brain-stuffing process that loads the outcomes of all possible timelines I have to travel into and monitor. As soon as my brain was opened up and prepared for all things intergalactic knowledge, I was given my portal jumper and sent out into the universe. I go in, I monitor, I do maintenance; I right a wrong or two, and I go home.

And I don’t date.

    Why date when I know how and when everyone I come across will die? It’s on an individual basis, thankfully, so I am not overloaded with billions upon billions of lives. But who wants that? Every person I see, I scan. I can’t help it. The only one I can’t see is myself — they spare you that in the Think Tank. Could you imagine? Every time I brush my teeth, seeing my expiration date? Like a hard-working milk carton. Awful. I can’t complain about everyone else, though, because this is the life I wanted.

    My favorite chaotic little orb to visit is Earth. They are so primitive yet so confident in themselves. Even their language — communicating with their mouths in codes and words. Overly complicated if you ask me. Most of the living planets I visit are one language, or they just speak through their minds. Earthlings will get there someday if they don’t blow themselves up first.

    That’s my first order of business whenever I visit for maintenance and monitoring, more recently at least. I pop over to Earth every seventy years or so. My primary directive is to make sure all of their little nuclear buttons are still in the “off” position. They aren’t meant to self-destruct, and it honestly baffles me that every time I go to Earth there are less people in charge but they adversely have more power over things such as war. Earthlings still treasure wealth over efficiency and collectivism, individual power over forward-thinking. I don’t get it. Just because I am an interdimensional maintenance and monitor employee who knows all about every planet doesn’t mean I fully understand every race of beings.

    They have come a long way, though, even if they don’t see it. I certainly do. They’re slow, but they have a lot of little ones who are louder than past humans. I was surprised when I did my Think Tank update this time around, to see so many younger Earthlings demand what’s right instead of what’s easy. I told myself if things seem to be in place once I get there, I’ll hang a little longer in the dimension. Technically, I’m not supposed to linger; Timeline keepers are surprisingly lacking in the realm of free time. But I landed near Chicago, did a global scan, saw things in order, and decided why not? I work hard, I deserve a glass of wine. When I found a hole in the wall bar — I love that expression — I stopped in for a beverage.

We don’t have alcohol where I’m from. It seems like the more we learned of the vastness of the universe, the simpler we became. There’s no need for a drink after a long day because I always know exactly how long my day is supposed to be. There isn’t stress — or rather, there is the foresight of the stress — so there’s no need to crack a beer with friends at the end of the day. Conversely, there’s no need to celebrate anything either. There aren’t really any friends. There aren’t the connections like I see here where humans are busy fighting for their lives, their freedoms, their loves — and they come together after a long day and pour a drink and they laugh. If they don’t drink, they don’t, but they’re welcome anyway. And if they’re alone, they’re alone, but at the same time they aren’t. Not in a hole in the wall like this. Because everyone is collective in this space. I find it endearing. It’s something worth understanding.

I arrived at the hole in the wall and ordered a glass of merlot. Blackburn’s Belle from Cactus Park. It sounded like a fairy tale, something humans rely on because they want to believe in things like me. The space was small but inviting — safe compared to the galaxies I jump through. I sat alone and observed the people, scanning each one and watching them all as I slowly sipped my drink. I love merlot. It looks like power, tastes like Earth and its many fruits, and warms me like love and the dates I don’t have. It makes human-watching more enjoyable.

Then he walked in.

    His eyes looked like his soul was not from this planet. Usually when I see humans I see what I imagine they observe when in a zoo. Simple gazes, teeth-bearing, hugging — primitive affections that are almost wholesome to watch. But not him. He wasn’t endearing, he was engaging. It can happen sometimes — a humanoid gets stuck on a planet and adapts. It’s impossible for other humans to tell the difference, but I saw right away. He walked to the bar and ordered a beer and I observed as I always do. Then I scanned him. It was his last night alive. Poor thing.

“May I sit here?” He gestured to the open seat at my two-top and I nodded. He didn’t know what he was — old blood buried deep somewhere in the cosmos. If I wanted to I could have done a more thorough scan, but then he’d think I was just staring at him. So I nodded and smiled instead. The small bar was at capacity, and maybe I seemed to be the least-threatening to approach for some unfamiliar company. He probably wondered why a woman-passing, human-passing person was alone in a bar drinking a glass of merlot.

“Sure,” I replied. Then cringed. I never have to use my human voice. I never talk to anyone on these jobs. Rather, I’m not supposed to talk to anyone. But it was his last night on Earth, and I felt pity for him. I didn’t want him to have to spend it alone.

“What are you doing here alone?”

“Oh, you know, just passing some time after work.” That sounded legitimate.

“What do you do?” He took a sip of his beer and got mostly foam.

“Maintenance.”

“What kind of maintenance.”

“Intergalactic maintenance.” Why lie to him? He was going to die anyway.

“You work for NASA?” He seemed impressed.

“Yes.” I lied. “What do you do?” I wanted the attention off of me. Each passing moment on the Earth dimension could cause a hiccup. I should have excused myself and walked out, jumped portals, but I didn’t. I sat and listened, and watched. I had this tingling feeling in my belly — maybe of lowered inhibitions — but I was curious. I wanted to learn. That is my primary job description, anyway.

    He spoke easily and his human voice carried like a melody of some song bird I learned about in the Amazon. His eyes grew wide when he talked about college — something similar to my School of Intergalactic Maintenance and Monitoring. He wasn’t from Chicago, but he always liked it. He had dreams and hopes, friends and family — passion. Humans have so much passion.

“Can I buy you another merlot?” He pointed to my empty glass. An hour must have gone by. I didn’t even realize I finished it.

“If you buy me a drink then this becomes a date,” I said, trying to deter him.

“So what if it is?” He smiled and left the table without granting me a moment to protest, and returned moments later with a full glass of wine.

    I took a sip. A date. A first date. I checked my intergalactic watch which began to buzz because I was on Earth for too long. I was stalling, I knew, but he was interesting — and he was going to die. So I stalled. I talked about NASA; Even though I never worked there, I know all about its primitive space programs. It was easy to make things up as I went along, like a human saying their A B C’s. I rambled and hid my wrists in my lap as my watch jolted and vibrated. He talked about humanitarian projects. I checked my watch again. Almost midnight. Perfect. A nice little hiccup to help him along. Timeline keepers can create small bursts for themselves in the event of emergencies. Just make it to the next day and cause a minor slip — it will correct itself before the next solstice. I have done it for myself when trying to preserve a planet, but never on Earth, and never for someone else.

“Do you have somewhere to be?” He pointed to my watch, which I must have checked ten times in ten minutes.

“Just the bathroom,” I said. I left my half-glass of merlot on the table and walked into the women’s room. I checked my watch once more and took my portal jumper out of my jacket pocket. One minute after midnight. I took a deep breath and looked back at the door, as if I could see him seated at the table. I stayed far longer than I should have, and I would have to make up some excuse when I returned home. I didn’t get his name; I didn’t need it. His eyes were enough. And besides, he’d be dead by my next Earth visit anyway. I opened the portal and left Earth smiling, knowing the car would miss him — give him at least one more day.  

Fairy bad Business

I’ve been writing micro and flash fiction for essay contests the last couple of months and this one came to mind on a 5:40 AM walk with my dog. I know the Letters to Loretta series will be taking up most of my posts here, and they will always be available in the category link I created for them. This page is first and foremost creative writing. Enjoy!

The professionally manicured lawn on the corner of Waverly and Longfellow was routinely sprayed down in order to eliminate any weeds or imperfections. The homeowner – a proud, portly fellow – stood like a jiggly lawn ornament and canvassed his property with great prejudice. Everything, as far as his sweaty eyelids allowed him to see, was green. 

Except for the front right corner. 

A ring of aggressive and resilient mushrooms popped up on the lawn and refused to leave. No amount of weed killers, trips to Home Depot, or manual mushroom extraction could keep the fungi at bay for more than a few hours. That’s why we’re here. 

“Fairy ring.” 

“Son of a bitch.” Marshall reached into the inner breast pocket of his blazer and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“I thought you quit.” 

“I did.” He blindly slapped the pack onto his palm a few times. Like riding a bicycle, I thought. Marshall flipped the box open and picked a cigarette from the dozen or so left over since the last time he quit. He pinched it delicately between his lips and returned the pack to his blazer while his free hand fished around for a lighter. So prepared. He never really quit. I looked back down at the mushrooms. 

“On a front lawn, no less. Very suspicious.” 

“Must be a turf war,” Marshall replied. He inhaled his cigarette like an old lover and blew her out, smooth and steady. Marshall hated fairy rings. 

“Reckon we should call the new guy down,” he said. 

“Who? Gallagher? Green horns have no business meddling with fairies. They never take them seriously.” 

Marshall only scoffed. He wanted to get a new guy on a fairy case ever since our last rookie went into a ring and didn’t come back. Cocky. I’m not sure if he just didn’t like new guys, or if it was his way of fighting off the guilt of that morning. 

“Three years,” Marshall said. “Three years since a rookie came on a fairy ring case.”
“They don’t have the experience to withstand them -”

“Pssh.” He waved his cigarette hand. “Don’t tell them your name. It isn’t hard.”

“It’s more than that and you know it.” I raised my left hand in front of my face and gave Marshall a reminder of why we stopped bringing new guys on fairy problems. 

He grimaced a little at the sight of my hand. We’re together on the beat of magical and mythical management almost every day, but Marshall never really looks at my hand unless I make him. Three fingers – gone. Munched right down to the bone from those tiny, magical assholes. Marshall shut up and looked at my pointer finger and thumb. 

“Well,” he said, “nobody told you to go in after that rookie.”

Isolated Week

I spent the week driving and writing and walking.

So much walking. So much thinking. So many changes that I feel but don’t quite see yet. I cleaned my guest bedroom closet out two weeks ago, not knowing why I had to, but just that it needed to be purged and reorganized and opened up. Then this Tuesday, I find due to unforeseen circumstances my brother will need to live in my guest room for the next month or so.

I knew something was happening, I just didn’t know what. I’ve been trying to listen to what the universe has to say and to lean into what I perceive as messages. Sometimes they’re unclear compulsions to purge a closet. Other times they’re blatant and in my face, like the truck I drove behind yesterday afternoon in Maine that said “IT’S ONLY TEMPORARY.” So much stuff has happened, is happening, and will of course continue to happen. It’s overwhelming, sure, the uncertainty and the sometimes guess-work. I always think of the song Hold on Loosely by 38 Special. My mom listened to it a lot.

Just hold on loosely / but don’t let go / if you cling too tightly / you’re gonna lose control

It took me thirty years to learn that when everything feels like it’s happening at once is when you need to stop and let the world move freely from underneath your feet.

Listen.

To cracking ice, to creaking pines – to the sound of mud as it moves, welcoming your boots. Listen to stillness when animals are silent and the wild is asleep, because they’re resting up for the next big thing.
When the universe is busy, be keen to how the trees stop chirping.

Tully Pond
Continue reading “Isolated Week”

Uninvited Guests

“Night terrors again? You didn’t wet the bed did you?” There was the guilt. She was eight – “already,” as her mom put it. She didn’t need to wet the bed anymore; no one needed to wet the bed ever, she thought. Unless they were on fire. No one needed to have nightmares of the Shadow Man all the time, either.

“It was the same one. About the Shadow Man.”

MC’s mom waved a hand limply away at this before bringing it up to her coffee mug.

“It’s just a nightmare.”

MC sat dejected before her bowl of cereal. Since her dad left three years ago, her mom could only afford off-brand cereal in large plastic bags with crudely drawn cartoons on the front. She wasn’t very hungry but ate anyway – and fast – because even if it was all in her head, the off-brand cereal seemed to get soggy faster, too.

MC and her mom had been “alone” in their small cottage for only three years, although she heard her mom say on the phone that she was alone for the last ten years. She used to not understand what her mom meant when she told her friend Marta that her ex-husband minimized her. MC decided it probably was how she feels when her mom gets mad about bed wetting and dismisses her bad dreams. Like she isn’t important.

“That bastard will get what’s coming to him even if I have to do it myself,” MC overheard one morning.

“I might know someone who can help you with that,” Marta said. MC was six then. Her mom was really angry about her dad but she wasn’t entirely sure why. Something with money. “Aloe-money” she heard a couple of times. MC didn’t want her mom to hurt her dad, even though he left, because that was bad and she knew bad people went to jail. Who would she live with then? Marta? She hugged too tight.

MC just as soon forgot about it all until Marta showed up one night with another woman who she introduced as Kiva, but didn’t say whether or not she was a friend. Kiva had a book with her – as big as a bible – but it looked very old and had writing on the front in a language MC didn’t understand. In her other hand, Kiva carried a large bag full of things – some smelled strong, some not at all. There was a knife, candles, rocks of different colors, and some other oddly-shaped items that she never saw before. Kiva hoisted the bag up onto the kitchen table with a strong arm. 

“Hello.” She didn’t shake her mom’s hand. MC thought she was rude.

“Joanie, Kiva is here to take care of your problem. You know, like we talked about.” 

What was the problem? MC tried to think. Was it her dad? Marta’s voice was pitchy and a little nervous. Normally when she came to visit, MC could hear her mom’s friend boom full stories all the way to her room across the cottage. Apart from hugging too tight, Marta often talked too loud.

Joanie appeared alarmed at this somewhat-unexpected guest, but interest nonetheless. She pointed at the knife Kiva had just gently placed on the table.

“So, what? Are you a contract killer? Are we stabbing him? Because I am not going to jail. I just want what he owes… and maybe for him to be as miserable as he left me.”

Joanie’s eyes then fell to MC. She couldn’t understand entirely what her mom meant, but the stare she gave put a knot in her stomach and made her feel like she did something wrong. Kiva’s eyes soon followed Joanie’s to the small girl standing in the doorway of the kitchen.

“A child shouldn’t be around for this.”

“Why not? It’s all just hocus pocus.”

“We are helping you get what you want from a… darker source.” Kiva said this in a low voice, with a half-sigh. She didn’t seem too happy about being in their kitchen anymore. Maybe that’s why she didn’t shake mom’s hand, MC thought. 

“Dark energies are particularly drawn to children. A child should not be here. That’s all I’m saying.”

Joanie gave MC an indignant glance before looking back at Kiva. “Fine,” she said, before waving MC off in the same fluttering dismissal she knew so well.

“Go to your room until the adults are done. I’ll get you later.” 

MC didn’t reply, only stared back at Kiva and obediently turned around and left the three women in the kitchen. Once her bedroom door was closed, MC grabbed her pillow and comforter off of her bed and set up on the floor. Next to the door jamb, MC strained her ears to try and decipher anything going on down the hall. She clutched a bedtime book in her lap, just in case someone came in unexpectedly. She could pretend to read. 

After twenty or so minutes of nothing, MC smelled a combination of burnt-out matches and herbs creep under her door. It smelled like weird cooking, burning flowers, sharp, prickly scents that stuck high up in her nose. She put her ear to the door, but still couldn’t make out what was happening down the hall. All she could tell was one voice – probably Kiva – saying something slowly, followed by two other voices saying the same thing back. She sat a little longer and then jumped back at the sound of her mom scream. MC’s heart raced; she wanted to go to the kitchen but feared trouble, and feared whatever Kiva said about things wanting children. 

Instead, she cracked her door open and poked half of her face out into the hallway. Then she heard her mom talking very loudly,

“Maybe you could warn me next time! What are you, crazy?”

“It was only a drop of blood, Joanie.”

“Shut it, Marta. You didn’t have some witch stab you in the hand.”

“Finger,” Kiva corrected. “And that’s all the blood I require from you. For now at least.”

MC stood a moment longer in shock before shutting the door again. The click of the latch felt like a band of drummers in her should-be quiet space. She put her back against the wall and sat onto her comforter. 

“A witch,” she whispered to herself. Kiva was a witch. Did that make Marta a witch? Was her mom one? That wasn’t possible, she decided, they were Christians.

The only witches MC ever knew about at six years old were the ones on television during Halloween. She was a witch just the year before. And now there was a witch in her kitchen, stabbing her mom in the finger.

MC’s bedroom lights flickered off, then on once more before turning off for good. She gasped and yelped in, holding her breath. Her eyes adjusted to the dark with the help of the moon outside and the glow of the hall light under the crack of her door. MC rolled onto her belly and wrapped herself up in her comforter, and then placed her left ear to the floor. She focused to see under her door, and jumped at the shadow of two feet running silently across. She waited a moment before putting her ear back to the floor. Two feet again – swift and silent – ran back in the opposite direction. 

“What are they doing out there?” she whispered.

The shadowy feet stopped in front of MC’s door. She held her breath and watched, thinking her mom would open the door to find her spying on them. She’d just pretend to be asleep; her head was already on the floor, she was already wrapped in her comforter. An easy excuse. She watched the feet under the door shift weight impatiently before her doorknob began to shake back and forth. It wasn’t locked – MC wasn’t allowed to lock her door – but she continued to watch, although increasingly frightened, as the door handled shook and turned. After a few moments more the shaking stopped. MC felt clammy. Her throat was dry and she could hear her heart pound in her head, thumping off the floor. She didn’t dare move. 

“Mommy?” she squeaked.

The door began to shake violently on the hinges like a dozen fists were banging on it. MC leapt back into the middle of her room and screamed. In less than a minute, the door flew open to reveal a familiar face illuminated by the moonlight. Joanie was panicked and concerned, as a mom should be.

“What’s going on? Why are you screaming? Why are the lights out?” 

Joanie directed her attention from MC to the light switches next to the door. She flicked them each several times to no avail. With a huff of frustration she turned on her heels to leave the room again. 

“Why did you do that to me?”

“Do what?” Joanie turned around, confused. “Do what to you?” 

“Bang on the door like that. Why did you do it? It scared me.” 

MC’s mom softened for once, and she knelt in front of her child. “I didn’t do anything. I don’t know what scared you. Nothing is here. Your lights just went out.”

Another figure appeared in the doorway before Joanie. Kiva stood wringing her hands. They looked dusty and much older than her face. She then smoothed out the front of her skirt and twisted a couple of rings around her fingers.

“Did you open the door?”

“Wha – of course I did.”

“Not you, Joanie,” Kiva said. “Her. Did you open the door when it was banging?”

“No,” MC said.

“Well,” Kiva said, clapping her hands together, satisfied. “That’s one person in this house who did something right on the first try tonight. I’d better be going.” She turned to Joanie, “Expect results before the new moon.”

Joanie nodded. “Should I be worried about opening doors in my own house now?”

“Well, no,” Kiva began, “not the right doors.”

“What about my door? Who was banging on my door?” MC was still in the middle of her room, tears dried up on her cheeks.

“Just something we didn’t invite. You did the right thing by not letting it in.” She turned back to Joanie, “Really shouldn’t have children around for this. Put rosemary over her door.”

Joanie ignored Kiva’s instructions and said, “Sure, I’ll be sure to find a babysitter with all that alimony that comes in.” She gave a sneer at her guest.

“Right then. Rosemary. Don’t forget. Good evening, ladies.” Kiva turned delicately on her heels and back down the hallway. Within a minute or two, Joanie and MC heard the front door close followed by Marta walking down the hallway. She stopped in the doorway of MC’s room without going in. 

“Well,” she sipped, “that was nuts, huh?”

“What did you do, Mom?” 

“Nothing,” she paused. “Justice. Make your bed up and go to sleep. I have to check the circuit breaker in the basement and figure out what’s going on with these lights.” 

A small, six year old MC put the blanket and pillows back on her bed, illuminated by the moon, and crawled up to sleep. She still felt scared. Marta hung in the doorway, still sipping her wine. 

“You alright?”

“Was that lady a witch like in the movies? Is she bad?”

Marta let out a playful huff. “Oh,” she said, “that lady isn’t a threat. There are other things to be scared of.” She sipped her wine. 

“She stabbed Mom with a knife!” 

“Why don’t you just get some sleep?” 

MC frowned as Marta took a dismissive sip from her glass. She noticed, even in the dim hall light, that her mom’s friend had red-stained teeth. MC stared at Marta’s mouth until the lights in her room came up all at once, causing her to startle. 

“Is it on?” came from downstairs.

“Yeah,” Marta called back over her shoulder. “Goodnight, MC,” she said, and began to turn.

“No hug?” MC expected too-tight hugs from Marta with each visit, and she felt like she needed one after what happened earlier that night.

Marta only hovered in the doorway before leering a smile that seemed too wide to be hers. She put her wine glass to her lips and drank the rest in a large, deliberate gulp. 

“Good thing you didn’t open the door.” 

MC said nothing. Marta maintained her toothy smile. Too many teeth in her mouth. She turned delicately on her heels and became a shadow down the hall. MC didn’t know that was the last time she’d ever see Marta. She continued to watch fearfully at her open doorway until Joanie appeared. 

“Marta left already? Without saying bye? Bitch,” she said. “Goodnight, MC, sleep well.” She stepped into her room and gave her a kiss on the forehead. As Joanie turned to shut the lights off MC stopped her. 

“Just for tonight, please.”

“Oh, stop,” Joanie said, “it was all just some hocus pocus.” And she flicked off the lights.