Greta

Greta

She rummaged through grease-coated bins of ancient tools and junk — things far older than her and certainly useless. She had no particular outcome in mind; Greta wasn’t looking for anything. But the most spectacular things always seem to happen when we aren’t looking. 

The old tool shed on the back of the farm sat adjacent to an old red barn on an old dusty plot of land. Nothing grew on that farm — at least as long as Greta had been alive — which was exactly nine-years and forty-two days. She learned to count using her birthdays and the old calendar that was left in the kitchen when Ma died three years earlier. On that day, Greta was six-years-old plus one hundred days. She knew three years had passed, but she didn’t know that the days moved with the years, so as far as she was concerned her birthday always landed on a Monday. And that was fine – a good way to start that week, she thought. 

No one came when Ma died, because no one knew who Ma was. Only Greta. No one knew Greta belonged to Ma, or that Ma even had a daughter. When she did pass away, over under the clothes line while hanging delicates one morning, Greta spent two hours trying to wake Ma from her deep slumber and then covered Ma in the sheets from the basket. That night Greta heard, from her bedroom window in her sleepless house, a strange screeching hiss that she never heard before. 

She tried her best to visit Ma and sit near her until the rot set in. Ma smelled awful for weeks, but luckily she died towards the beginning of autumn, and the snow and thaw reduced Ma to a pile of bones that Greta took and buried in a shallow grave next to the old oak tree. Greta didn’t cry moving Ma’s bones, but she did cry out in frustration when the hole took longer to dig than her seven-year, eight-day-old arms could handle. Into the night and under the guidance of a full moon, Greta used Ma’s gardening spade. There she heard that unmistakable hissing, screeching sound. She wielded Ma’s spade like a weapon and stood in fear. 

“Who’s there?” she cried out. 

Who

Greta couldn’t see through the cover of night. The screech rang out again and there, up in the old oak tree, Greta saw the culprit. A barn owl, illuminated by silver moonlight, spied on Greta from the safety of its branch. Greta lowered the spade. 

“This isn’t easy, you know,” she said. “The ground is still hard.” 

The owl screeched once again and flew off. Greta tried to watch the owl until it was absorbed by the evening. She returned to her little grave, settled with a shallow plot, and buried Ma. 

Later that evening, near the wood burning stove, Greta warmed her little hands. The winter would have been unbearable if Ma didn’t spend the whole year before piling wood and kindling, and canning fruits and vegetables, drying meat, and storing grain. More than they’d ever need, Greta reminded Ma. Ma only smiled and coughed some into a napkin before stashing it in her apron. Greta thought to herself, at least now she had enough to get by, and that summer before Ma died, she learned to build a fire. Ma showed her. 

“Here,” Ma said weakly. “Put the kindling here. Strike a match like this, but be careful of your fingers. Don’t put too much wood in because the fire needs to breathe.” 

“The fire breathes?” 

“Everything in nature breathes if you listen carefully.” 

Greta struck her first fire on her sixth birthday. Now that she was almost ten, Greta noticed the wood pile was low. The basement full of jars was sparse. The stove crackled and Greta boiled water for Ma’s tea leaves and while she waited she chewed on the last of her dried meat. A screech was heard outside. She removed the pot of water and walked along the old cottage floor to the back door where, in the old oak tree, the barn owl sat. Under its claw and pinned to the tree branch was a dead rabbit. 

“I would love some rabbit stew,” she mumbled. Greta returned inside. 

The next day, struck with boredom, Greta set out for the old tool shed. Her usual routine for the last three years was to wash her face with the well water, eat porridge off the stove, and walk around the perimeter of the property. It was marked with heavy, ancient stones on each corner and in some spots Greta came to low, broken stone walls. She stayed within them, in the safety of the property, close enough to Ma, and memorized the landscape. Greta learned to count even more; She made it to one hundred steps, one hundred times, plus eighty-two. And, every so often, Greta laid her head on the dead, golden-brown land and listened for breathing. 

Dissatisfied in the silence she came to expect, Greta changed her routine and walked to the old tool shed. The door was open and hung off the hinges, ready to collapse into the earth. It swung lazy and heavy in the late spring wind as the metal creaked and bellowed for Greta to enter. She carefully stepped into the musty room; everything looked coated in a thin film of black — not quite dust, decay, or dirt. It looked like an old memory, mostly forgotten. Greta took a deep breath in the clean outdoors and stepped carefully up into the shed. The darkness engulfed her and she disappeared inside. 

The interior of the shed seemed far smaller than Greta thought. Whether it was the row of too-high tool benches, the low-hanging hooks that swung delicately from the ceiling in her presence, or the mess of old dirty bins filled to their brims with junk — Greta made sure to tread carefully. Ma told her. 

“Don’t cut yourself on anything rusty, now. Stay out of that shed.” 

The words floated around Greta and wrapped her in caution. Ma was gone, and Greta was bored, and the land wasn’t breathing. Greta crouched down in front of the first box and picked it apart. She pulled old tools with manual cranks, hammers — a wrench. Nothing of note. But again, Greta wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Elbow-deep in the second bin, Greta heard the screech of her elusive friend. In the corner of the room, in plain sight (how could she have missed it?), the owl sat perched in a corner. Shrouded in the cover and safety of blackened windows; The owl must have lived in the shed. Greta was probably a bother. 

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just bored.” 

The owl made a low sound not unlike a coo and settled in, as if to let Greta know it didn’t mind. She watched it as it blinked in a slow and hypnotic rhythm. It made Greta sleepy, but she continued her search for nothing. Greta picked a few more items before she found the thing she wasn’t looking for. From the bottom of the bin she pulled out an old key. Greta held it high and far from her face to marvel at it before giving it a hard shine on her pants. Ma would have lost her mind at that, she thought. 

“I wonder what you belong to,” she said. Greta’s owl friend screeched, frightening her. It dismounted from its perch and left the tool shed. 

“Wait!” Greta stumbled out, shocked into the daylight, to see the owl disappear into the old barn.

She followed as fast as her legs would allow and stepped into the cavernous space. Greta’s shoes scratched along the dirt floor and she marveled at the size and emptiness of it all. A shell, as if she were inside Ma’s ribs. The air was filled with the stench of mothballs and decay, like everything else on the land. With the key clenched tightly in her hand, Greta craned her head back and searched the rafters for her white and gold friend. A flutter led Greta’s eyes to the back corner of the barn, where the barn owl sat on top of a rusted, dead tractor. Behind the owl she noticed a gentle glow, like sunrise, although there were no windows. A thrum-thrumming filled her ears but it wasn’t her own heart. 

The owl let out a gentle screech and flew behind the tractor. Greta ran to catch it and peeked behind the machine. The owl was gone, but she found the source of the glow — a small door, not much larger than her. The thrum-thrumming grew louder when Greta looked at the key in her hand and back to the door where a small lock hung. She carefully placed the key in and turned it to the left. The lock opened with a clunk, and the door breathed open. 

Evolutionary

Evolutionary

We hovered our rear ends above the sand and waited until the tide went out, passing the time by making miniature teepees out of reeds and seaweed that our nana would toss in the garbage the moment they entered the house. Our ultimate mission was mussels, black-and-blue-shelled, oval little things that hugged the rocks, half-buried in sand. My brother and I spent cumulative hours ripping them from their oases — never taking more life than necessary for the work of bored, unsupervised creek children. We used the end of the private beach’s spillway, made of solid, jagged concrete, to line them up one at a time and bash them open with a rock. We’d use the meat to catch blue claw crabs off the edge of the dock to later cook and enjoy, or we’d toss them back to the creek for the fish — or we’d just leave them to the birds. No matter how many mussels were cracked open, I understood everyone was the same inside. I never felt guilty about ending their little lives because I don’t think I was old enough to understand that I was killing something over and over. My life still went on.

We experimented with building large, extravagant sand castles that had little moats which led to the water’s edge, designed with fiddler crabs in mind. We’d use our index and middle finger to penetrate the sand and push the crabs from their burrows before displacing them into a world of luxury. I preferred to find the female crabs because they lacked the extra large male claw that — to a child — was extra large. Once in my life the tip of my thumb was caught in between the might of an angry fiddler crab and I screamed and cried to my nana until she made the pain go away. The fiddler crab lost his claw that day from my writhing, and from then on I dedicated summers to sand architecture. Once the tide was right, my moat would push foamy water around the castle to protect the fiddler crabs; Sometimes, a bait fish would make its way in as extra muscle. Ultimately, the crabs would reject the abundance and disappear back into their holes under the castle.

I was told at an early age that jellyfish lived forever unless they had no salt water to keep them gelatinous. It was very rewarding to split them into thirds and toss them back into the creek. I felt like God. Moon jellies only, though — the ones who liked to hover close to the surface of the creek. If the moon wasn’t out we could sit in our kayaks on the inky-black water and watch them glow like fairies or ghosts of dead relatives. My sympathy ended for stinger jellies when I swam through a school of them and had red, burning stripes all over my body that seemed to never go away. They did, eventually, just in time for my growth spurt and for more red, uncomfortable lines all over my body that never went away. 

My legs grew longer, as did the rest of me, and I lost my penchant for smashing open mussels and propagating jelly fish. I spent more time on top of the creek than under its deep, empty, black-green veil. I traded salty skin for tanning oil, and gave up on crab castles. Broiling under the sun like a lobster in my nana’s stove, I spread my arms wide and beautiful like the wet creek loon sunning himself. My life went on and the creek stayed static, with probably a few extra shellfish. When it became too hot to bear, I ran through the sprinklers on my nana’s lawn; One time, I did it fully clothed in a light pink shirt. I looked down at myself and then to my mother. 

“I think I need to buy a bra,” I said. 

“Sure. Nan will come.” 

My nana wanted to buy me my first bra, and growing up as a creek child I was accustomed to bathing suits and towels, or choosing between the two. There was no store to acquire a bra, so we made the great excursion to WalMart, thirty-five minutes away. A whole to-do over my new body. I was becoming a woman, apparently. That meant new tops, new bathing suits, and new ways to show myself to the world. The male fiddler crab donned a large claw, but what did the female fiddler crab have? Certainly not cleavage. Maybe I should expose myself like a wet loon. 

“Your first bra should be modest,” Nana said. “Here.” 

She handed me a white training bra, and I took it obediently although the rows and rows of exciting, sexual, provocative ones sat dangled in front of me like bait on a hook. There wasn’t any fighting a woman of God like her. I said “thank you” and took the spoils home, where I’d forgotten to wear the bra two to three days a week for about six months, until I sat in gym class in a white tee and nothing underneath knowing my nipples were there. Woman nipples. Around pre-teen boys. I never forgot again. 

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.” 

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. 

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.

Two Pieces

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

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

And then there was Ellie. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh dear. They didn’t come with you?”

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

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

“Where is it going?” 

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

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

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

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

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

“See you soon, dear,” she said. 

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

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

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

“But where do I go?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have an extra two pieces?”

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

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

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

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 crawling, 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.

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.