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. 

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.”

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. 

One-Way

I looked toward the mismanaged row of trees – leaning into each other and pitched curiously forward as they looked back at me. I can’t rightly explain why I chose France as the place to spread her ashes, but something about a chateau in the mountains posed an opportunity to put her where she wouldn’t want to return. There was the beach, sure, or the creek she grew up on. But I recalled an afternoon when she got the most brutal sunburn on her knees, and I recalled all the horrible memories she had in the house on the creek. I couldn’t let her burn again, or spread across the water, blanketing the murky, salted mire until she sunk beneath the surface forever.

She jokingly said, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” at the deli counter of our local grocery store every time the portly butcher asked what she wanted. It turned into a ritual for them. I only remembered the phrase because I was very young at the time – that and the free slice of bologna he hung down over the counter for me each visit. I’d reach up to grab at the free food and look through the glass panes to his discolored apron pressed against the display case. He’d laugh at her jokes and she’d order meat and cheese for the week, and I’d return to my seat inside the cart alongside boxes of cereal and canned goods; I wondered to myself in my sea of groceries if the butcher was in love with my mother and what it would be like to have free bologna all the time. There aren’t too many memories that live in the forefront of my mind anymore but for some reason, as the years passed in their domino succession, out of order with the way things should be, I always remembered her comment about France.

Her death was just as much a shock as much as we weren’t surprised she died young. It had been twenty years since her last doctor’s appointment; She drank every night – and eventually every day; She never went without a cigarette between her middle and forefinger.

“Merit Ultra-lite 100s, please. For my mom.” I would hand the cash up to Kevin, the grocery store manager. He’d hand back change and two packs of cigarettes to me, a seven year old, and I’d run back to my mother in the checkout line feeling accomplished and responsible. By the time I was nineteen and she’d ask me to go buy cigarettes for her, I’d stand in defiance. “I may as well just hand you the gun along with the bullets.” 

She gave up asking me, the same way she gave up saying, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” and the same way she stopped going to the grocery store altogether. A driver’s license became my freedom ticket and her death sentence expedited because I’d run all the errands and she could drink in silence and in secret without the worry of peering eyes. I could deny trafficking her cigarettes, but I couldn’t keep her from a bottle. Eventually  I looked forward to leaving, so I didn’t have to watch her hurt herself. I began to go to the deli counter on my own, but I just ordered a half-pound of ham, half-pound bologna, and a pound of American cheese. I never asked for France – France wasn’t far enough away. 

I went away to college, traveled around Europe, and by the time I was ready to start my life I had to come home to watch hers end. The hospital was only a short drive from where we lived, but it was certainly the most foreign place to me those two weeks. Bright white walls and high ceilings didn’t take away from the mental prison that I lived in. Each day, a little more of her escaped her body and crossed through veils we couldn’t see; Veils searched for with large overhead fluorescent lighting but never found. I sat in a room cramped with wet eyes and runny noses and mentally found myself as far away as possible. I stared at her body and saw a woman who wanted to escape the grocery store, the town, the house on the creek – and only found her answer in death. After we closed her casket one final time, I found myself waiting for the same thing. I wanted to be back in the cart, with her, wherever she was. 

Instead, life happened. Her urn found itself in the back of my walk-in closet, all but forgotten between a pair of suede pumps and an empty laptop box. My time with her was spent opening and closing the door to look for a sweater or a scarf. A picture of us hung in a thrifted frame on my wall where she stood next to the three year old me and looked out at my bedroom and watched me judge my changing body, saw my heart break more than once, saw my dog die – all trapped in silence, unable to escape. Sometimes I caught myself gazing into her eyes and wondering where she was in the photo. Not the catering hall where she held me on her hip – but mentally, where was she? Had she already predicted in 1993 that she wasn’t going to live 20 years more? Was the sadness always there? I asked myself where she wanted to be. Looking up at her urn on the shelf, I knew in my heart that my walk-in was not her plan of escape. Weeks passed until one afternoon the encounter with the butcher rushed to the front of my mind like he was placed there by someone.

France.

It was much easier to bring the cremated remains onto a plane than I originally anticipated; I could stow the ashes of my mother in my overhead compartment, but not more than three ounces of liquid. There are three essentials to transporting a compact container of a dead person: 

  1. They must be in an x-ray friendly box 
  2. They must be carry-on and not checked (honestly though could you imagine an overly-jostled container of dead mom exploding all over? I thought my mom would have liked that chaos)
  3. A copy of the cremation certificate from the crematory and also a death certificate for good measure 

Easy.

My mother never left the country before that day. When I was younger, I heard a story where she told my grandmother that she had a trip planned to Florida, but instead moved to the Southwest for three months to live with a boyfriend. Eventually, she returned, met my father, and married. She stopped flying in 1998. She stopped leaving town in 2009. She stopped leaving the house in 2011. At times, I blamed my own birth for her lack of exploration. I felt guilty whenever I traveled around, or when I studied abroad, because she was stuck at home. We would email back and forth – she’d say she was proud – but I also felt like she was longing. 

When we landed in Toulouse I felt more energized than exhausted from a flight to Paris followed by a flight to the south of France. It was finally happening and all it took was a couple of swipes of my credit card. With my mother rolling comfortably behind me through the airport, I picked up the keys to a small rental car and fastened her to the front passenger seat before making my way further south to the chateau. 

Toulouse itself became the perfect place to start my adventure. The city is juxtaposed between new and old, with its museum of natural history only a short distance from its space museum. In one time, a mammoth stands next to a space suit. Ancient artifacts next to tools intended to explore the universe – neither in a race with the other, both fueled by the thrill of discovery. There, in Toulouse, existence isn’t in dominoes of life and death, but rather bundled together in beauty and feeling. Time was free. It was the perfect place to release my mother.

My childhood itself was frozen in amber. I had no choice but to suspend it in time, lest the joyful moments be overrun with the crawlin, toxic monster of the end of my mother’s life. There was a time where I thought about learning to sail with her, or kayaking on the creek, or roasting myself on the dock in the summer. I rested my head on the memory of salt water and the constant smell of cigarettes and hairspray. After she died, though, my mind shifted to the odor of cleaning chemicals, the sounds of hissing oxygen, and the taste of my own tears. In order to preserve my memories, I had to displace the horrors. I turned to journals, articles, publications, and blogs – anything to keep the realities out of my mind and away from my innocence. And in order to preserve who my mother was, I had to put her where time stood still, where existence itself was one great moment. I didn’t rightly know why I chose that chateau – just south of Toulouse – but as I turned the car towards that structure, backdropped by mountains, flanked by wildflowers and a pond, seated between snow and Spring, I knew it was where she would want to stay.

The boy who Feared Thunder

The young boy sat idly on the backyard swing as the July sun moved lower and lower, seemingly hotter – closer – than it was earlier that day. The chains creaked and popped unevenly as he rocked back and forth – an imperfect assembly done by his father. Dinner would be soon. He wasn’t trying to move, rather, the earth was moving under him. His bare feet dangled, big toes lightly kissing the patch of dirt where he and his sister spent countless summers before kicking off and jumping, trying to reach the sky. 

He observed his own shadow growing and stretching out before him, the sun to his back, as if he was watching his future and how tall he would get in the coming years. A breeze curled under his bangs, dry with salt from where they were once dampened by sweat and play. He kept his eyes on his shadow – longer, longer, until it was nothing more than a black stain across the grass. He thought to himself that he would die someday, but that didn’t frighten him. His mother told him when his grandfather died, that it’s only natural, that it happens to everyone. The young boy asked where he would go – if he would come back again. She said she didn’t know. He didn’t know how to tell his mother that’s how it worked – that he recognized his grandfather in his dreams – that he was afraid of thunder for a reason. 

The summer of 1942 held a large amount of promise and fear for the American people. The United States was already at war with the Axis Powers following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of the previous year. Artie and Harold knew from a young age that they wanted to serve in the military, but the twins weren’t prepared for killing, enemies or otherwise. Being the youngest two in a family of nine children with German immigrant parents, the boys knew that they’d be men of military – at the very least to help support their parents. Their father was a milkman in New York City, trading in his horse-drawn cart and bottles for kegs once Prohibition ended and taking on the role of a brewer; He played guitar at bars and bus terminals for extra money at night. Their mother was a homemaker who made all of the children’s clothes and maintained a home of eight boys and one girl. 

Once the war began, Artie enlisted in the Navy, being a lover of boats and summers on the lake house. His twin chose the Army Air Corps, with his eyes fixed on his second love, the B-17 Flying Fortress. For the first time in their 22 years, the twins parted ways to serve what they both believed to be a higher purpose. Harold learned the ins and outs of repairing a plane engine. Artie mastered gunnery school and prepared to leave for the Pacific. The boys kept in touch through letters; Harold always so poignant and proper. Artie, the jokester of the two, scribbled his way along with quips and poor spelling. They always looked forward to knowing the other one was safe. As twins, they shared everything, including gut feelings – the letters helped. 

Artie sat staring out at the Pacific Ocean, a letter from Harold in his hand. He had just gotten married on leave and only a few days later was called off to England to fight with the 8th Air Force against the Germans. He was proud. He was scared. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach. Artie didn’t know where to send a return letter, so he instead addressed a note to Harold’s new wife, congratulating the couple and requesting for a way to contact his brother in the future. Once he was finished, Artie returned to the humid, sticky reality that was the Pacific Islands, watching the sun blaze red-orange as it sunk over the horizon, turning the water to fire before him.  

At night he lay awake under the mosquito net, the lamplight moon projected shapes and shadows against the barrack wall. It reminded him of when he was a young boy and his father brought home a Magic Lantern. They turned on the lamp before bed and fell asleep to the images of lions and elephants against the ceiling, a whole world within their crowded Depression home. He missed those days and thought back to them as if they happened a lifetime before, as if they weren’t his to remember. He was worlds away, killing men, and for what? To stop more men from killing more men? 

On the night of November 13th, Artie was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. It seemed easy enough, almost childishly simple. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155. Artie held his breath as water lapped up against the sides of their boats. They crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island, guided only by beach silhouettes and the stars. 

The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes that came from a mile north of the PT boats. Seconds later was the boom of the artillery the lights belonged to. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming towards the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews, bobbling around, maneuvering through the black. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat like thunder under Artie’s feet. Direct hit. The third round went unnoticed as he blew towards the sky in an explosion that turned his body around and over, landing on whatever broken part of the boat remained.

The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as another shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as whatever was left of PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Artie lay on the deck of the boat, calm and numb in a dream. Water sprayed over his body from the unrelenting rounds against the already-dead crew. He felt the world move below him, agitated water stirring around with the earth. Artie gazed up at the November sky, flecks of magical light dancing along the ceiling of the world. He thought of his brother Harold and closed his eyes. 

The young boy woke up, sweating from the memory. His night light projected images of lions against the ceiling. The dreams never felt the same as when they first happened, and as he got older, he remembered less and less. The sky wasn’t as bright this time, the stars blurred a little more. He sat up and walked to his window where the clouds threatened to wake the world with flashes of heat lightning and the roll of thunder. One, two, three… He counted the time between the crash and the spark, just like his mother taught him – just like his grandmother taught him. He remembered the bombs more than anything else. The last thing he heard in 1943. The young boy felt goosebumps on his arms wake him further. He turned around and jumped back into his bed, eyes fixed on the lions. Soon the storm would be directly overhead. Soon, the war would be back.

A Dialogue Between Death and Karma

Death and Karma sat across from one another, sharing a cheese plate in their favorite UK shop, The Cheese Society. Stores came and went – especially in the last couple hundred years – so when they found a place they liked, they’d make it a point to visit as often as possible; a hundred years was nothing to Death and Karma. The shop was quaint – and popular, according to its Google review that Death checked before this particular outing. Death found Google to be an incredible invention – almost as incredible as the wheel.

They liked to blend in every once in a while and food was always a good mixer. The name of the store gave them a sense of belonging, and the cheese was to die for. Death joined the cheese subscription, and happily received his packages when he wasn’t out collecting souls. He got to choose his delivery dates, too – so, win-win. Death stared over his brie at Karma as she sipped her tea and knifed her goat cheese, knowing he never had a shot with her, but always enjoyed the company when a like-minded astral being such as Karma was available for some small plates and conversation.

Death always found discomfort in the size of the tables in most restaurants. The restrictiveness bothered him, especially when he would reflect on existence before time. Everything was just one big open space, he thought to himself as he clanked his knees together, avoiding touching Karma’s knees or feet as she sat across from him. His distaste for tables was in contradiction to his fondness of a cheese plate. Death admired the way humans were so cute in their arrangement of food – making each slice neat and stacked, spreading the crackers as if they were playing cards, putting the knives on the proper side of the plate – it was so made up and so cartoonish to him. The food was to be consumed, all go to the same place, and the knife would cut and spread regardless of what side it was on. However, this presentation mattered to humans. His explanation for this behavior was that humans were aware of their fleeting existence on this tiny planet, and it was best to do as many things with care as possible, even if was arranging water crackers. He smiled, gently picked one up, and added some cheese to it.

“You know,” started Karma, “we really never do this enough. Or do we do this too much? I guess it doesn’t matter.” She had wild eyes. Death looked into Karma’s eyes and saw eternal, unbiased justice. He saw retribution and a tinge of macabre; it excited him.

It was difficult for them to gauge what was too much, or what wasn’t enough, because both beings were in a constant state of maintaining the living world. They were present when catastrophe overtook mortals in the first War of Wars. They collected on the people of Vesuvius – albeit a couple hundred years earlier than anticipated, but that wasn’t their fault. Death and Karma existed as a Bonnie and Clyde before Bonnie and Clyde, although collecting them was an accomplishment to hang on the refrigerator.

Death swirled his cup of tea, staring down and to the right of it at his dirty cheese knife. “I really do enjoy being around someone more my speed.” He continued swirling nervously, “It’s nice to discuss things that only you and I have been around for. It’s just – “

“No,” Karma begrudgingly exhaled, “we are not having this discussion again. You circle like existence on this, you know that right?” She gave him her eyes, except they were the eyes of retribution and unbiased justice and someone very, very tired of having to turn down romantic advances. Death felt sweat, but he didn’t sweat, he was Death. He was experiencing the illusion of sweat. Man this is bad, he thought to himself.

“Yes, this is bad,” Karma projected, “we are essentially the same, you and I. We have set purposes that we have adhered to since the dawn of time and our companionship exists in the way that we keep life moving. You collect the souls, I collect the debts on the souls; the souls are our livelihood.”

By this point, Death ceased his tea fidgeting and anxiously reached for another water cracker and some brie. He was always a stress eater, but at least he took a liking to human food rather than his previous diets of mass extinction. Nothing in the universe concerned Death more than Karma. She was his mirror image, and because of that, he was unable to always keep an understanding of her.

“I understand,” he lamented with lowered eyes and a mouth full of cracker. Death wiped the crumbs from the corners of his mouth with a thumb and forefinger and reached again for his tea, which at this point had gone cold. He took a sip, displeased, and returned the teacup to its saucer. With his right hand, he covered the top of it for a moment. When he removed his hand, the tea was once again hot as if straight from a fresh kettle. Death returned the lip of the cup to his own and carefully drank. “Better,” he said to himself, satisfied.

“What’s gotten into you, anyway?” Karma looked at him with a furrowed brow as she reached for more goat cheese.

“I don’t know – I had a personal call to a stroke victim not too long ago, and he was so concerned about leaving his wife behind. It got me for some reason. We were talking in his head and I was seeing his thoughts as well as hearing him; I haven’t had to do that for some time. It was so… intimate. I usually have my reapers out on the job.” He sipped again, “The guy was just motionless there – aware. We’re always moving, you and I, and sometimes it feels like we’ve been moving for so long that we aren’t actually in motion.”

Karma understood. “I get it. But that’s what we’re here for, to collect on debts and collect on lives; it’s how the world balances. If we didn’t do this, people would live forever and souls would turn to poison; the world would crumble.”

“I feel like they do it to themselves already, with or without our guidance.” Death frowned. “They do have free will, you know. The Creator was nice enough to throw that ingredient into their evolutionary process. Like giving a toddler a pair of scissors, if you ask me.”

“Oh, you’re just bitter.” Karma let a smirk peek out the left corner of her mouth. “You’re starting to feel things, aren’t you? Is that – compassion – I smell?” From her forefinger and middle finger, she tossed a cracker across the table in his direction. It bounced off the cheese plate and landed in his lap. Death picked it up and ate it in one bite. The table suddenly felt smaller, “I do not feel compassion, that’s impossible. I pine for you every couple millenia, sure, but I do not feel for humans; if I felt for every human I would have figured out a way to kill myself by now.” Karma threw her head back and let out a singular Ha! “If you could die, a human would have figured it out by now – selfish lot, they are.”

The cheese shop was silent, as well as Death and Karma for a moment while they replenished their mouths with cheese and crackers and gulps of tea. A symphony of crunching, knife to porcelain, porcelain on porcelain, surrounded them and encased their lunch in a bubble of sound. Death got tunnel vision and realized how frighteningly beautiful Karma was, even as she picked goat cheese crumbles off her lap, returning them to her plate. Too bad it will never work out.

“You ever hear of the ‘Red Thread?’ Or the ‘Twin Flame?’” Karma looked up, still chewing, and nodded. Death took this as a cue to continue on his explanation, “The Red Thread is two people always connected at the heart.”

“But we don’t have hearts,” Karma said very matter-of-factly. She was right, of course. Her and Death were astral, ancient beings. They were made up of everything and nothing; there was no room for a heart.

“Right. So, I guess I consider you my twin flame. We’re made of the same material, both give off heat and light, but not the same purpose. One of us heats, one of us destroys, etcetera…” He trailed off as he caught himself rambling; Karma always made him ramble when she made eye contact.

Karma nodded. For the first time that afternoon, she actually agreed with what Death had to say; she liked that analogy of their relationship. “That makes sense.” She liked it when things made sense to her.

I Wish I was in Hell

“Well, since no one is answering my prayers…”

 

    Otis stood before the Peace Fountain in Manhattan. He looked over the sculpture; it really was a beautiful piece of work. If there was one thing mortals had going for them, it was art. He always found himself to be a supporter of the humanities and human expression in the form of creation, as opposed to the alternative – and seemingly favorite option – destruction.

When he first arrived to Earth by order of Satan, Otis was better known as Botis, an Earl of Hell. He was powerful, could see all things past and present, and carried the ability to reconcile friends and foes. At the start of the First War between Sumer and Elam, he was dispatched to watch over the destruction and chaos and death to ensure mankind would not eliminate themselves before Christ even showed up, no less before the Second Coming. He existed before time, after time, and in time. Botis didn’t alter fates, but sometimes found himself tipping the scales every once in a while when things got hairy, only to make them hairier. When Satan expressed his desire to have Nero, Botis took it upon himself to cause the eruption of Vesuvius in an attempt to take out the ruler, who happened to be on vacation in the neighboring city of Baiae at the time. Hell wanted him, and Botis felt it a civic duty to Hell to get him. Instead of taking down Nero however, Botis botched his job and took out thousands of lives – innocent and sinners alike. He acknowledged his failings, albeit without remorse as a demon would be, and Botis opted to sit back and wait for Karma to find Nero – and she did, when he committed suicide after being found guilty during his trials.

Botis often found himself getting messy in earthly situations despite his power in Hell, and he spent millenia trying to hone his force. Eventually, he took a passive approach to the chaos, to the time, and settled in as a civilian. He altered his appearances to maintain inconspicuousness, but never lost his gap teeth. As a viper in his true form, Botis found himself in the shape of a human with odd hair or hats to mask his horns, and always those damn gap teeth. It wasn’t as big of a deal prior to modern cosmetic dentistry, but recently he found himself overly conscious of his physical standing-out. As a touch, his scales often hid under his clothes. It’s not that he couldn’t become the full form of man, but he didn’t want to lose himself completely.

 

Botis peered up again at the peace fountain. Saint John got to reside amongst all the soft-looking woodland animals. Satan was portrayed as a creepy head underneath the fountain with crab claws. Why do we always get put with the shellfish? Bears are almost always mean; why don’t we get bears? He read the plaque, “‘…dedicated to the children of the Earth…’They don’t care anymore.” His eyes continued upwards again to the figure on the top. “Saint John was never that buff.”

Botis fingered around in his pants pocket only to find a hole and, on the other side, his scaly leg.

“Shit.”

He promptly switched sides to the other pocket as his chest cavity tightened a little. He thought to himself how he used to laugh at the idea of fear, and how he’s been on this planet way too long. Suddenly he found what he was looking for. “Thank, Satan.” Botis pulled a coin out of his pocket that originated in Lydia. It was one of the oldest known coins in the world, and he was going to use it as a direct line to talk to one of his colleagues. He turned his back, recited an incantation in Aramaic, and flipped the coin over his right shoulder into the fountain.

    A shadow was cast over the fountain of Saint John and Botis. Both began to float in space and time, a familiar ground for the demon. He saw flashes of stars and clouds and began to feel the familiar burning of his home; how he missed the fires of Hell. Space and time stopped as he shed his tattered jeans and acid punk look to reveal his true form. He came to a stop at the gates, and as they opened Botis was greeted by a less than welcoming face.

“How many of those forsaken coins do you have left? For the love of Baal…” Malik stood threateningly between the entrance of Hell and Botis. He looked down at him, tired of seeing his face so regularly over the past hundred years.

“What do you want, Botis? Or should I say, Otis?” He chuckled and it roared through the entrance of the Great Hall to the underworld.

Botis tightened his tail in a knot behind him to control his anger, “I need to get out of Earth. I need to talk to someone. No one will let me talk to Satan but, fuck, I gotta get away. I’ll even talk to Belphegor at this rate.” The angel of Hell merely scoffed at the demon’s urgent request, then sighed.

“You know why you’re there, Botis. You need to do something in your job description. Why don’t you actually use your powers? What? Afraid of causing another Vesuvius?” Botis’ eyes narrowed, and Malik took it as a cue to continue badgering him. “You oversaw the times of war and times of peace. You’re supposed to know past and future. You need to prove yourself again. Look, I’m not letting you in, because I know I won’t get you back out and I don’t feel like doing a demon hunt on your tail. Go back, figure it out.” At that point, Malik almost pitied him. Botis,, obviously defeated, turned to slither back into time and space. He knew he wouldn’t get past an angel of Hell such as Malik. As he reached the edge of space and time he paused and coiled his head around to sneer at Malik once more. “You know, Malik, you’re not even mentioned in the Bible.”

    There was a flash of light and Botis was once again standing in Manhattan before the peace fountain. Although still cold for New York, the season was attempting to roll over into Spring. He pulled at the lapels of his winter coat and cursed the snow that lingered under the fountain. Botis had to think of something, and it had to be good.

   

    He strolled past one of the president’s office buildings, Secret Service lingering among the bustling public. It was always easy to pick them out; they were overly alert. One thing Botis liked about Manhattan was that the public – locals – didn’t give a shit about anyone or anything except where they were going and how they were going to get there. He could always pick them out, because they more often than not were equipped with backpacks and headphones. They kept their heads down, hands in their pockets, and they marched along all on little personal missions. He smiled and thought how adorably flawed they were. Sometimes, Botis found himself reading their minds as they trudged past him. More often than not, they were thinking of exploration, being loved, or how to make a difference. Sure, he’d come across the occasional serial killer, but it was Earth – the melting pot of weird minds. Botis felt bad for the humans if he thought long enough about how they were all gonna die anyway, so why try to make a difference? He could see time and space. He knew past and future. They, however, only had the day in front of them – if they were lucky.

    When Botis arrived back to his apartment in the Bowery it was already night. Sure, he could have teleported himself home, but he often enjoyed the two-hour walk – reading people, blending in. He certainly didn’t miss being picked out of a crowd in Hell. Generally that meant trouble. When Botis caused Vesuvius, he got it from both sides and was grateful to be on Earth with the lava when it all happened; he threw off a lot of fates for one person that he failed to kill. Death, Karma – Heaven and Hell – all wanted a piece of him.

“Alright, now, you’re the demon. You’re the viper. You know past and present. You can bring together enemies and friends. In fact, you’ve got plenty of friends… you’ve got plenty of enemies too but hey, balance.” Botis stroked his viper chin while his cat, Gilgamesh, chuffed quietly for attention as he rubbed his face against Botis’ scales. Botis looked down fondly at Gilgamesh, the slayer of monsters and builder of walls, “I’ve gone soft, haven’t I?”

    He sat down and turned on the news. Tension. Fear. A terrible president. All the ingredients for an all-out nuclear war sat before him at the click of a remote. Of course, he lost the remote – most likely stolen by Gilgamesh – so he flicked his finger back and forth, looking for inspiration. Well, I can’t kill anyone again; they’re doing well enough already. He concluded that night that something outrageous was to be done. Some M. Night Shyamalan, plot twist ending to get him the fuck off Earth; he was ready to telecommute his work of the mortals, and had been for at least he last two millennia. Suddenly, it hit him, the seer, the reconciler.

 

    Tensions around the world continued to boil and bubble as weeks went on, and Botis waited for his time to come. He scavenged his apartment for another Lydian coin and packed in preparation to escape the planet.

He looked down to his friend at his feet, “Gilgamesh, I hope you’re ready.” The killer of monsters and builder of walls let out a soft, “mew,” and sat in one of Botis’ empty boxes. “Alright, good.”

    One April morning, Botis watched the sun come up, red and deep. It reminded him of home. Botis was ready to teleport himself to the Peace Fountain and stare Saint John in his beautiful face one last time. He clutched the coin again in his pocket to make sure he didn’t put it in the one that had a hole in it. Once the sun hit noon, Botis calmly placed his apartment keys on the kitchen counter, gathered Gilgamesh, and a small box of things that he collected over the years. He thought to himself how he would miss Earth, maybe, but the time had come. He watched in the bathroom mirror as his viper face took human form for the last time in order to get him out of his apartment building and onto the street. As he opened the door, ready to depart, his neighbor stopped him in a panic.

“Otis! Hey, man. Taking your cat to the vet? Did you see what’s happening right now?” Botis stopped. He smiled a gap tooth smile at his neighbor. He knew he was getting out of Earth.

“No, tell me.” His viper eyes lowered cooly.

“North Korea and South Korea signed a peace treaty today! How crazy is that?”