The Ninth Circle

When evil took over earth, we didn’t anticipate a landscape of frozen tundras, ice, and life lost in time. I personally expected — and now find myself longing for — blazing heat and dust. We weren’t worthy of that, though. Media outlets and prominent political figures tried to blame it on environmental disasters and human irresponsibility for the Great Freeze. They pointed to scientists to back up the claims who — when put on the spot — denied any of it having to do with humans. 

This is happening too fast.

We had at least another fifty years.

It’s your fault. This is supernatural.

I remember when I heard the head of the World Health Organization blame a single group of leaders for the Great Freeze. They blamed evil and greed. They blamed lust and laziness. I looked at the family Bible on the shelf that we hadn’t touched in years and thought, there’s no way in Hell. But here we are, three years into the Great Freeze and no other logical explanation other than Satan himself. Crops froze over in the first year and people looted relatively quickly. There was a theory floated around by some surviving world leaders that involved controlled nuclear explosions to try and break the ice but the ice surrounding the bunkers and hidden locations was glacier-thick, or so I heard, and the men and women in charge of guarding (or operating) the weapons were all dead. 

Having a background in theology and mythology led me to deduct that we, as a human race, were placed in the Ninth Circle of Hell. My mother thought my exploits in old books and ancient history were for nothing, and now look at her. She’s in a block of ice somewhere, and I’m roaming the frozen tundra that was once home to someone. I haven’t eaten in months, but I haven’t been hungry. I’m not sure if it has to do with the supernatural events surrounding me or if maybe I’m dead and don’t know it yet, but the desire to satiate myself is gone. I also have no clue if there are others; I don’t know if I’m here because I was deemed good, or if I’m still alive because I was evil. Do evil people really know they’re evil? Regardless, I’ve been placed in the Ninth Circle. Or the Ninth Circle was brought up to earth — or the Ninth Circle just… appeared — I can’t really say. But whatever was written all those years ago in Dante’s Inferno was correct to an extent. It hasn’t happened often, but the writers and thinkers of previous millenia have had predictive abilities before. I just wished it wasn’t the Ninth Circle. A traditional Apocalypse would have been more manageable, honestly.  

No matter what, there’s no denying man did this to himself. Very on-par with the way everything else has been going for the last hundred years, if I’m being honest. I’m not surprised, I just wish I wasn’t alone so much. 

I did travel for months on foot looking for shelter that wasn’t sealed shut, or for a person who wasn’t frozen in fear. It was a fruitless hunt, however, and eventually I stopped looking around me. I kept forward, walking over ice and snow in the boots and puffer jacket I left home with. Tucked carefully inside of my jacket was a heart-shaped locket. My mother’s. I lost track of time, and I would have lost hope if I had any to begin with; The first unnaturally large storm cloud that blew in however long ago sucked any semblance of maybe it’ll pass out of me. 

My walking came to an unfortunate and abrupt pause when I came across a shallow, mostly-frozen river. Mostly frozen didn’t happen in the Ninth Circle. Beyond the banks of the water was a church. It wasn’t frozen. I saw lights. It couldn’t be, I thought. But I had to try. Even though I wasn’t religious, a priest was better company than no one. A log thick enough to sit on lay on the shore, as if waiting for me to embark. It was the first thing I could touch in that endless winter that moved from its place, and I felt a tingle throughout my body just to have connected with something earthen. Carefully, I eased it into the water and grabbed a long, wide branch to try and maneuver myself across. Luckily, because it was mostly-frozen, the water wasn’t moving very fast. Unluckily, neither was I. I paddled carefully, using my arms for the first time in months. My teeth chattered in the sharp air and I tried to not let that distract me from the shoreline. 

Fifty feet felt like an eternity, and I exhaled with relief at the sound of my log hitting dirt and ice. The church sat only steps ahead like a warm, inviting beacon. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t frozen over; I was used to glancing over smooth large bubbles of what once were homes and businesses. It looked like a safe place to me. It looked like Heaven. 

I didn’t knock. You never knocked in churches. You just went in, because it was always a place of safety, and always inviting. The feel of the carpet under my feet made my legs wavy. I spent months (years?) wandering a frozen, desolate wasteland. Even my hair was rigid and stood still in time. I marveled at the paintings, the stained glass – and then I saw the priest. He stood behind his podium at the altar as if he knew I was coming. 

“Father,” I said, “how have you survived here?”

“Come in, my child.” He waved me down the aisle. I noticed he didn’t answer my question.
“Father, how have you managed to survive in this frozen wasteland?” 

I glanced quickly around me to the fixtures on the walls. All of the crosses looked melted and hung upside down around me. They glinted in the sun. 

“Father,” I said, “how did these melt? Was it hot in here last night? Do you have fire?”

“It was below freezing last night, my son,” he replied. 

“Father…” I took a step back. “Father, why is this church the only building that has not been frozen in ice? How did this survive the Ninth Circle?”

“Well,” he sighed, “I let the Devil loose.” 

Decay of the Farm

Old Man Jack’s yellow recliner sat at the entrance of the red barn on the back of the property. Like Jack, the recliner was also very old, with fabric pilled and pulled along the back and arms from years of lingering in the elements. I was often tempted to call him “Uncle Jack,” because I had an Uncle Jack, but my parents were adamant to never call him that. He never has been, and never will be. It was well enough, I figured, since he always threatened to feed our barn kittens rat poison for letting them climb all over his yellow recliner.

It always smelled a certain way in the barn, like almond liquor and oil. I didn’t know what almond liquor was at the time, but when I first smelled Amaretto it brought me to the belly of our barn where the monstrous tractor sat dormant, its keys in the ignition. The floor was strewn with kitty litter and saw dust to absorb the oil, and I dragged my sandals along the cement and felt the scrape of time. More often than I was probably permitted, I climbed the tractor with slipper little hands and dusty shoes, bits of gravel and litter raining from my feet to the ground beneath me. The seat was high and hard; The vinyl was cracked and decaying like everything else in the barn. I touched the keys as they tempted me to hear the motor and smell the oil, and take the tractor from the time capsule – but I was instructed to never touch it, so I let it continue to rot.

One day, Old Man Jack just stopped sitting in the recliner at the entrance to the barn. My parents forbade me from claiming the chair as my own due to filth, and no one wanted to touch it, so it stayed. And as I grew older, the memory of Old Man Jack faded; we never talked about him. I couldn’t recall if he ever truly was the sentry of our barn, or simply a ghost that vanished as I lost my innocence.

The recliner remained as a symbol of someone or something I knew. It went to the barn kittens – now cats – who worked the fabric down to springs and bone – and like many other things – the recliner eventually made its way to the local landfill. The barn cats were sad to see it go, but they were young and had so much more to discover. They were born in a hole behind the barn. Six babies in total – all different colors – to a sleek black mother that vanished shortly after they were born. She could have been scared away by over-excited farm kids who knew nothing of space and everything of soft, plush, kitten desires. Or, more likely, she could have been killed by a fox – an unfortunate truth of farm life.

When the mother didn’t return, the kittens were moved to the chicken coop – a small, offspring of the barn. I recalled seeing chickens once bursting out of the wooden latched door, full of life and enthusiasm. But, like Old Man Jack, the memory became a dream and I couldn’t remember if the chickens were real or just more ghosts of the barn. We plugged up the egg chute – evidence that chickens did exist one time – and kept the kittens warm. I waited under the maple tree next to the coop everyday for weeks until one finally chose me. She was black, fluffy, and mean. She was a perfect hunter, and like the other cats, remained feral to the farm. Eventually, four went away to family and friends, but two – mine and my brother’s gray short hair – remained the new keepers of the barn.

We were forbidden from entering the second shed, the one directly across from the chicken coop. It wasn’t locked up, like the recliner wasn’t hidden away, and like the keys never left the tractor, but our temptation was tested at the easy wooden latch that kept the door closed. Eventually, our curiosity overtook us on an unsupervised afternoon when the kittens were no longer kittens, and we entered the space. It smelled like oil and old blood. Two work benches sat on opposite ends, one for repairing, and one for destroying. One side held tools and the other had blackened metal hooks that hung from chains on the ceiling. The shed was cold and the air was heavy, full of iron and death. I felt, as a young child, that things were killed and skinned, flayed and cut, but not a way conducive with nature. Not for survival or sustenance, but for entertainment. Evil. The space was dirty, but it felt dirty – filth in its bones and stains behind the walls. I feared touching anything, so we put the wooden latch back. We never talked about it again, and shot out the windows with a bb gun.

The barn never changed much. It stood past the edge of our grass in perpetuity, beyond a treacherous sea of gravel and rocks – something designed and intended to deter barefoot children of summer. But we grew immune with calluses and strong will – and determination to witness the slow decay of our farm and the life that came after. I often stood in its open mouth, breathing vapors of rat poison and dust, risking my health without knowing any better. In the winter the barn stayed closed, but it watched our house from afar, and peered in through our kitchen window long after we fell asleep and until the thaw of Spring. Then, we’d return to the tire swing outside and watch barn swallows use the broken window to make their nests and feed their young in the rafters above the tractor.

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. 

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.