find-a-story magic box

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Worth It

Doran frowned at her gray dress. Seven different fabrics. One of which was illuminated here and there with faintly silver threads. Eleven different shades of gray and almost-white, the palest never quite so pale as the whiteink coating her skin or the whiter-than-white snowblind of her waist-length hair. Her eyes were dyed a luminous purple and she sighed at the darker lilac of her irises as she stared at herself in the mirror.
She wished her dress was lilac.

Her mother swept into her room, elegant in a pearl gray tunic and storm gray leggings, supple granite colored boots to her knees and ebony hair caught in a silvery clasp to cascade down her back. She smiled at Doran, her cat-green eyes centered with golden irises a-sparkle with pride. Doran tried to smile back, and it must have fooled her mother, because the tall, willowy woman gave her daughter’s shoulders a fond squeeze before plucking the silver and moonstone necklace from the dresser and placing it around Doran’s neck.

Doran’s room was white. Her bed was mist-gray slashed here and there with charcoal and black and the bedspread alone was made of four different fabrics. Texture and weave gave the appearance of even greater variety. The pearl-gray carpet was like a cloud beneath Doran’s slivery-gray high heels.

Perched on the chair in the corner, Doran’s pet caline sprawled in a puddle of violet and indigo fur, the plume on the end of her prehensile tail a vivid splash of orange where it curled across her tiny pink nose and pale yellow whiskers. The caline opened silvery eyes, the pupils vertical slits, and yawned at Doran, showing a pale gray mouth.

Doran stared at herself in the full-length mirror, and tried not to weep as her mother fastened the moonstone necklace around her neck. The dress was beautiful. The shoes were beautiful. The necklace and her hair were beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Ellon would be handsome when he picked her up in his black and charcoal suit, his skin stained one shade darker charcoal, his hair a deeper ebon than his clothing. The slivery orchids he would bring for her corsage would be beautiful, and the crystal and sea-after-a-storm decorations at the gala would be beautiful.

Doran’s eyes darted towards her caline.

But they would not be that.

“Doran,” her mother’s voice snapped her mind away from its misery. “Tell me you are not thinking of wearing…” her mother’s mouth twisted as though she had bitten into excrement laced with unripe sourmelon, “…colors again.”

“No, Mama,” Doran murmured, trying to hold her mother’s eyes in the mirror and not to stare at her feet.

“This is a childish fancy,” her mother chided, fussing with Doran’s perfect hair. “We have been over this. Only animals wear colors. Only animals display color.”

“Because they are uncultured,” Doran replied dutifully. “Because they lack the sophistication to express themselves in tone, texture, weave and gilt.”

Her mother smiled. “That is it exactly, my love. Now.” Her smile grew. “Finish up here. Your young Ellon should be arriving at any moment.”

Doran smiled back in the mirror as her mother left, closing the white, white door behind her. The smile vanished as soon as her mother did, and Doran stared at herself with something close to loathing. The caline leapt down from the chair and circled Doran’s ankles, purring.

Doran lifted the hems of her long skirts and stalked towards her closet, shoving aside black, white, gray, pearl gray, ebon, storm cloud, charcoal, snow white and seastorm colored shirts, dresses, pants and skirts. Like an accusing brand, a dress hung at the back of her closet, forbidden, dangerous…

“Beautiful…” Doran sighed.

It was made of only two different kinds of fabrics. It was the most perfect amethyst and moon-kissed violet. It had a sash of spangled indigo like twilight fallen to earth and ribbons of enchanted forest green threaded through with warmest thread of gold winking like an accusation in the light from her room.

Doran pulled the forbidden dress out and held it to herself in the mirror.

“I would shame my parents,” she whispered. “I could be thrown out of the school.” She stared at herself in the mirror, her purple eyes and violet irises shining with unshed tears. “Ellon would never speak to me again and all my friends could cast me aside, or worse, stand with my accusers should I be brought before a tribunal. My life, as I know it, would be over. Ruined.”

The doorbell rang. Dimly, Doran heard her mother greeting Ellon as she welcomed him into their home.

Doran grinned at herself in the mirror, tossed the colorful gown onto her monochromatic bed, and quickly began to undress.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Family Dinner

Helen hung up the phone and tried to hold back the tears gathering around her eyes. One, only one, slid free as her second to youngest daughter stepped up and put her arm on Helen’s shoulder.
“What is it?” Sara frowned in concern. “Don’t be sad, mom.”

Helen brushed away the solitary tear and smiled at her ever faithful daughter. “It’s nothing,” she said, the smile brittle. “Your brother Tommy won’t be making it after all.”

“Oh that rat bastard,” Sara breathed.


“Well he is. He’s been promising since August that they’d come today and now he cancels at the last minute? He’s an asshat.”

“Yes dear, but he’s our asshat, and we’ll miss him.”

Together the two women walked towards the kitchen. The entire house was redolent with smells of turkey, pies, homemade cranberry sauce and fresh baked bread. Helen and her husband, God rest his soul, had bought this big house with its huge kitchen, giant dining area, and spare bedrooms so that all of their children and, when they came along, grandchildren could visit for the holidays.

But it just never seemed to  work out.

Her eldest son, Tommy, was not coming because he and his wife were going to her father’s house. Her second oldest, Donald, was not coming because he had work. Julia was eating out with the partners from her firm, Sara was here with her, but even her youngest daughter, Emily, was not in the house, choosing to spend Thanksgiving with friends rather than family.

And Helen had let her go.

She did not want to force anyone to attend a family dinner. They should come home because they wanted to, because coming home should be a desire of the heart, not an obligation of the conscience.

That left the Uncles, Aunts, and a small smattering of cousins who still lived in town.

The doorbell rang. In short order cousin Al had arrived, wincing as Sara took his coat. A bandage wrapped his left arm, an accident at work, or so he claimed. Albert was a paramedic, usually he fixed accidents, he did not participate in them. Aunt Clara, Helen’s sister-in-law, and Helen’s own brother, Uncle Terry, arrived together with their spouses. Terry was sick and so was his wife; Clara’s husband, Gary, kept asking for the Lysol and then laughing as though he were funnier than a bucktoothed alligator juggling knock-kneed midgets—his own words, in fact.

Helen kept her smile fixed in place and began seating everyone. She was halfway through carving the turkey, much to the appreciative murmurs of her family, when the doorbell rang again. Helen wiped her hands on her apron (it was spotted here and there with token samples of everything they had cooked; she had never understood women who wore aprons but did not sully them, nor did she understand women who wore aprons and treated them like surgical scrub rags), and took a step towards the front door.

“I’ll get it, Helen,” her brother-in-law said. “Give me a chance to hose off with that Lysol again, eh? Eh? Eh?” Guffawing, Gary stood and went to answer the door.

His initial happy, surprised cry, calling out Helen’s second oldest son’s name, made Helen’s heart leap with joy. Donald was here? He CAME? But Gary’s happy greeting tapered off into confused, muffled speech that quickly escalated into cries of terror.

And then pain.

The guests exchanged confused glances in the moment of silence following.

And then Gary dragged himself into the dining room, one hand clamped to the spurting, torn wound in his neck, the other reaching for help even as he collapsed onto the ivory carpet, insensate.

Donald staggered into the room and the carving knife dropped from Helen’s numb fingers to clatter upon the sliver serving tray.

Her son, her baby boy, was…

Well, dead.

Donald’s head hung at an impossible angle, his eyes were fogged over with white, his flesh hung in a precarious condition of accelerated rot that no ordinary cadaver could achieve and he was dragging a leg behind him that had been broken in three obvious places. With a guttural moan, Donald dropped down to the floor and began to eat Gary’s still warm body.

Clara shrieked.

Sara grabbed the knife her mother had dropped, Helen’s brother Terry fell out of his chair after spewing forth a gout of black vomit over the Thanksgiving feast, and Helen realized that cousin Albert had not moved since sitting down beside Clara, his eyes were closed, and his chest was not moving.

Then the doorbell rang again, and things began happening rather quickly.

In due order, all of Helen’s children arrived at the large house in various states of animation. A stray cousin or two as well. And before it was all over, even her dearly departed husband managed to show up, the gravedirt still clinging here and there to his worn, backless tuxedo. Helen huddled behind the overturned “children’s table” with Sara, holding her second youngest to her chest and weeping while what was left of Gary dragged itself across the now offal stained carpet to grab at Tommy’s ankle. Tommy was using a carving fork to fend off Terry and Albert was chewing on Aunt Clara where she still sat at her place at the table. Emily was eating brains from Julia’s caved in skull and her long-dead husband was about to tackle Tommy in what would be the fatal stroke.

Helen’s  apron was tied around the bites on Sara’s arm, but there were more on her daughter’s legs and already Helen could see tendrils of green-black infection spreading from the wounds. Tears ran down her cheeks unchecked. Sara reached up with her unbound free hand, and, trembling, tried to wipe away the tears.

“Oh mom,” she whispered, “don’t cry. Don’t be sad.”

Helen mopped at her eyes and smiled through the still flowing tears. “Oh but sweetie… I’m not sad!” She looked up to where her husband and Terry were consuming Tommy, to where Albert dined on Aunt Clara and Emily nommed on Julia’s neck. Helen beamed out at the blood and gore splattering her home, at the cousins devouring brains and flesh, the turkey, pies, dressing and green beans quite ignored. Helen kissed Sara’s head as her daughter lost consciousness, holding her child close and speaking to no one as she waited for her to wake as the others had woken.

“Don’t you see?” She smiled with delight through the tears, through the blood splattered on her face. “We’re all finally going to eat together for Thanksgiving!”

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Plague Doctor's Face

They were burning bodies again before dawn. Plague doctors with faces like malevolent avian arbiters oversaw the purge with flat black lenses for eyes, hooded cowls rendering their countenances further inhuman, the effect aided by the premorning gloom.
Gilead Lucas watched the smoke billow, revealing and obscuring the ominous black and gray cloaked figures until it seemed almost as though they were a part of the miasma themselves, wraiths born of pestilence infused ash and soot. Death followed them. Days ago they had arrived in Harmon’s Den, searching for signs of illness, speaking to no one but the mayor and then through him organizing examinations in hastily erected tents of ecru canvas; Gilead had avoided his examination, ducking out of line when he noticed that the canvas bore odd dark stains in places mildew would not gather. The reverend said that mistrust gathered in the heart and festered there, but Gilead was one of the few who had not be examined, and he was one of the few who had not taken sick.

Scarves and shawls tied and looped around faces, men from the village delivered the bodies by cart and wheel barrow, dumping them often without ceremony or care into the charnel pit. One of the men collapsed as he went about this woefully necessary chore, his body wracked by coughs and spasms. Black purulence seeped from his nose and was aspirated from his mouth in misted gouts. Instead of rushing to aid him, the others barely seemed to notice beyond a cursory glance, a few seeming to make note of his progression only in so far as to wonder how long before they would have to tip his body into the pit with the others.

Gilead himself saw the swollen black protuberances on either side of the man’s neck, saw how his eyes bulged red with hemorrhages, and knew there was no helping him now.

Someone came and tipped the fallen man’s wheel barrow into the pit.

The plague doctors stood by and watched it all burn.

Gilead slipped away through the forest, uncertain if the unreadable lensed eyes of the plague doctors had seen him, and uncaring. It was time to leave. Time to get his family out of Harmon’s Den and away from this plague before they too fell victim.

The village lay not a quarter hour’s walk from the burning pits, but despite the short time Gilead had been gone, he returned to a place almost unfamiliar; the sounds of terror reached him before sight of the town, the smell of burning set his feet running even as the first shriek registered in his mind. Feet pounding on hard packed earthen roads, Gilead sprinted towards Harmon Den, the quiver on his back rattling with arrows, the bow at his side held half-raised for whatever unseen trouble lay ahead. Just as the first buildings came into view, a figure emerged from the smoke and morning mist.

“Lucas! Stop! For the love of God and your hope of redemption, stop!” Simon Abel grabbed Gilead’s arm, his features becoming clear even as he slowed the other man’s head-long plunge towards the village, pulling Gilead with panicked urgency towards the shrubbery and underbrush to one side of the road.

“Leave off, man! Leave me be!”

“Lucas—Gilead! No! Be still, brother, and listen!” Abel’s tugging turned into frantic yanking as the sound of pounding hooves went from a distant rumble to an imminent thunder. “Get off the road! If you’ve any desire to save Cara and Anne, move.”

It was more a bad step than a decision that allowed Abel to pull Gilead into the bushes, Gilead’s ankle twisting on a half-hidden rock costing him his balance and in turn likely saving his life.

From the prone position Abel forced him into below the brush, Gilead watched as men on sable horses coursed by, blood streaming from their eyes and ears as the hemorrhagic fever tore through their bodies.

“They’ve gone mad,” Abel whispered in his ear as half a dozen of Gilead’s friends and neighbors rode past, each dragging a body behind him.

Not all of them were dead.

“The fever. It’s made them lunatics. They’re looking for someone to blame. Anyone.” Abel moved off of Gilead’s back and faced the other man with horrified eyes. “They’re talking witchcraft, Lucas. They’re…they’ve hung folk. Matty O’Connor.  Purity Belle. Old Mother Higginson. Jeremiah and Emily Burroughs. Lucas…they hung the entirety of the Goodwin family. Even…” he closed his eyes. “Even the babe. Lucas. What sort of people hang an infant?”

Gilead’s stomach twisted with each name Abel mentioned. “Get up,” Gilead growled, getting to his feet.

“But what if they—” a darted glance in the direction taken by the horsemen left no question who he meant “—come back? Perhaps it is best to stay under cover until—”

Gilead was shaking his head. “There’s no time. We must make it back into town before they return.” He put his back to Abel, striding through the undergrowth towards the buildings just visible through the trees. Abel grabbed his shoulder, turning him around.

“Do not be a fool! Didn’t you listen to what I was saying—they’re not just hanging anyone, Lucas! They’re hanging the uninfected. They’re hanging the healthy.

Without preamble Gilead grabbed Simon Abel by his dirt-smudged shirt, the laces tangling in his fist. “And my Cara and my Anne are in there.” He paused, his eyes narrowing. “And what did you mean when you said if I had any hope of…saving them?”

Abel swallowed thickly, his eyes bulging with terror. Gilead shook him, lifting his feet off the ground as the light in his eyes went from dangerous to frightening. Abel’s head twitched from side to side, “Healthy…” he gasped, “your wife and daughter…are part of the healthy…”

Gilead dropped the man, leaving him to lay gasping in the tangle of vine and leaf as he sprinted towards town.

Five steps into his village, Gilead nocked an arrow into the bow and ran with the weapon half-raised. Harmon Den was a chaos of anarchy and despair. The dead and dying littered the street; twice he stepped over what he thought to be a plague corpse only to have his boot grasped by what he had believed to be a skeletal cadaver and to find himself staring down into the sunken eyes of one too far gone to know who or where they were.

The bleeding fever gripped the town, spreading madness. What had been contained by family members, the ill restrained and tended, had become an outbreak.

Slipping between two buildings, Gilead was assaulted by a woman clad only in her shift, blood staining the thin linen undergarment in a path from her chin to her barely concealed navel. She lunged at Gilead, thin white fingers digging into his shoulders as her teeth gnashed at his face and throat. The unexpected weight of her threw him to the ground and it was only a childhood spent wrestling older brothers that let Gilead throw her off. Surprise depleted the manic strength that had allowed the frail woman to knock Gilead from his feet and the sick woman was launched further than he had intended. Just as the woman, staggering, swaying, regained her feet, a man came hurtling out of the smoke mingled miasma of smoke and morning mist and launched himself at her. Black sputum and mucous streamed from his mouth and nose, further besmirching the woman’s stained shift as the man clawed at her stomach with his hands, bit at her face with teeth rendered protrubent by disease receded lips and gums.

Gilead scrambled to his feet, snatching his bow but leaving the arrow he had dropped in his haste.

For a moment he ran blindly, dodging the groups of shouting villagers, barely avoiding a mob as they dragged Goody Abbot from her home, another as they set torch to the church. Gilead plunged into the mist, and at first did not notice how quiet things had become, how distant the dissonance of chaos had grown, until he realized the buildings had receded into vague shapes and he stood in a grassy clearing rendered infinite by the concealing fog.

He had come to the town square.

Moving forward with greater caution, Gilead felt trapped in a surreal nightmare. His footfalls made no sound on the damp grass. Ahead, the great tree in the center of the commons slowly came into view, the veil of mist thinning with every step.

Something seemed odd, the tree misshapen. Something too wrong for Gilead to realize what it was; without guidance from his stunned mind, Gilead’s feet pulled him closer to the massive oak until the wrongness resolved into something his mind could decipher, though he wished with every sickening twist of his belly that it had not.

The ancient oak in the center of Harmon Den, so often decorated with bows of red for the holidays, candles for harvest, ribbons for spring festivals, hung now with the swollen fruit of humanity’s folly.

Bodies dangled from every branch thick enough to bear the weight of a human being.

The shrouds of mist concealed faces too swollen to identify, turned heads covered with sackcloth and burlap into faceless horrors. Gilead’s mind counted the corpses even as he willed his eyes to look elsewhere; six, a dozen, two dozen. Twenty-nine bodies dangled from the great oak’s branches. Bodies in all sizes. Bodies in skirts, dresses, night clothes. Bodies of men. Bodies of women. Bodies of the old…and bodies of the young.

Squeezing his eyes shut against the sight of a tiny body swinging from a rope on the lowest branch, Gilead collapsed to the cold ground and prayed. When he set forth from the town square, it was with a colder heart and a hard eye.

Before reaching his home some little time later, Gilead saw the mayor crawling on all fours, gasping for breath as the swellings on his neck closed his airways. He saw bodies, faceless in the smoke and drifting mists, hanging from the peaks of houses, businesses. Men and women, barely sick, marched with torches, searching out the healthy, distributing “mercy” to the sick with hatchets, kitchen knives, knitting needles, and cudgels.

And around every corner, a plague doctor stood in the shadows, watching, their masks concealing any human expression, the bird-like beaks making them seem monstrous.

If they are doctors, Gilead thought as he rounded the corner to his home, why do they not help. Why when they visit the homes of the sick does no one get well?

Why was there no plague until they came?

A mob stood outside the Lucas home. Brennan Doyle spoke with reasonable tones to Gilead’s sister where she stood with the door barred, speaking and listening through the small window set within. Gilead saw her waver. With a warning cry on his lips, he took a rushing step forward, his hand outstretched to tell her no, no, don’t open the door, but it was too late. The second Leah pulled free the bar from within, Brennan Doyle kicked the door open and he and the mob surged into Gilead’s home.

Gilead ran. Using a trick his mother had never discovered, he bounded between the stone wall of his home and the neighbor’s to leap over the fence in two richocetting steps, running along the edge of the neighbor’s slate roof for a moment before dropping into his own rear garden, tearing up the porch steps and bursting through the back door of his home. Gilead surprised two of the mob as they searched the kitchen for evidence of witchcraft. Eileen Myer was holding up a sprig of rosemary with triumph glittering in her bleeding eyes and Connor Ward was shouting at Gilead’s wife Anne about a jar of eucalyptus ointment—something Gilead knew for a fact had been purchased from Ward’s own wife not two weeks past.

A different sort of fever seized Gilead when he saw Ward, the corners of his mouth stained with black, his eyes weeping blood, screaming at his wife, holding a knife to his throat.

An arrow he was not aware of having seized from the quiver flew from his bow and struck Ward in the throat.

With every arrow loosed from his bow, Gilead saw the bodies hanging from the oak. He saw the woman, her mouth and teeth bloody, flying at him from the mists, and the man who had in turn attacked her, eviscerating her with his bare hands.

But mostly, he saw the flat, shining eyes of the plague doctor’s masks, and the small, small body dangling from the lowest branch of the ancient oak tree in the town square.

When it was over, Gilead stood panting amongst the bodies. A man should not have been able to fire so many arrows, in such close quarters, with such speed, but a man should also not have to see his home destroyed, his town laid low, his friends and neighbors driven mad by a plague they did not deserve.

Anne dropped the knife in her hands. Cara, barely nine years old this autumn, crawled out from beneath the kitchen table, but did not release the hunting knife clutched in her hands. Both raced to Gilead, wrapping their arms around him and clinging to him with fierce love that he returned with double the desperation. His wife and daughter were safe.

From the front of the house, Leah and her husband Isaac emerged, each injured, but otherwise whole.

Supplies were gathered. Anne was an even better shot with the bow than Gilead; he gave her the weapon with little trepidation. Cara clutched the hunting knife; Isaac held his father’s old sword and Leah bore a cudgel. While they gathered food, clothing, and blankets, Gilead climbed the worn stairs of the house that had been his family home for generations, his steps weary but determined as he sought the closet at the end of the hall. He removed neatly folded piles of bed linens and blankets; beneath them lay seam hidden in the floor. Beneath that, a polished box that he removed with a sigh.

Within, the bright gleam of two slender blades caught what little sunlight filtered through mist, smoke, and window. The weapons had belonged to Gilead’s grandfather. Meant to be wielded together, one sword was long and slender, the other short and slightly curved. Gilead pulled them from the velvet casing with a sigh. His mother had called his father and grandfather fools for teaching him to use the blades; Anne’s grandparents had disowned her father for teaching her the bow.

And yet it was those lessons that might well save them now.

Gilead had snuck off into the woods in the predawn hour, ostensibly to hunt game for supper, in reality, to see how extensive the deathtoll in Harmon Den had become. When he returned to the town, the sun had barely begun to light the morning mists. Such little time had passed between his waking and now his second leaving as he and his family slipped cautiously out the back garden gate, that the mists still clung to the hollows, the trees, and clearings, the sun barely lit their way through the forest behind the Lucas home.

Everyone shouldered a pack of precious supplies; food, clothing, blankets, what medicines had not been smashed by the mob. Gilead and Isaac lead them through the trees, circling around Harmon Den towards the south. There was hope the plague had not spread to Piety Fields; or if it had, that escape lay on a ship in the harbor. Along the way, they found other refugees. Men armed with old swords, bows, or what they could use as weapons, women and older children carrying the little ones. A dozen survivors of Harmon Den, those who had not gone to the examinations, those who had not taken ill, followed as Gilead and Isaac lead, and hoped for safety.

No one saw the plague doctor until it rose from the mists of a hollow like the spirit of one dammed.

Gilead’s body reacted without thought, driving the pommel of his sword into the plague doctor’s masked face.

It was like hitting stone.

Gilead moved like water over rock, but the avian-faced thing before him moved like smoke; wherever Gilead struck, the plague doctor was not. He had not a moment to spare for thought, but distraction cost him what little advantage skill might have gained him—other plague doctors had emerged from the mists and advanced on the men armed, poorly as they were. Gilead drove his foot into the plague doctor’s stomach; unlike the unexpected hardness of the masked face, the thing’s chest seemed too soft, it gave in a way that would have disturbed him had Gilead not glanced away to see one of the other bird-masked people remove a black glove to touch Ben Hake on the temple with one finger where the man knelt, exhausted.

Ben trembled. He shook. Seizures wracked his body but he remained upright on his knees. Blood seeped then poured from his eyes and ears, black effluvium coursed from his mouth, spilling over his lips in a flood. When at last he collapsed, his skin was sallow and pale, his limbs shriveled, his face skeletal. Black bulges discolored and distorted the flesh of his neck.

It was as if the entire plague had run its course in a matter of seconds.

A cry went up from the survivors. They tried to scatter. Plague doctors removed gloves and reached for those nearest.

An arrow sang through the mist, striking through the black glass lens of a doctor’s mask. It twitched, gibbering as though suspended by the arrow skewering its head before crumpling to the ground.

Seven more arrows shot through the thinning mist before confusion could even beset those still standing. The remaining plague doctors fell in silence.

Anne stepped forward. Ignored, despite the weapon she carried, she had needed only the opportunity to act. So many underestimated her for being the fairer sex. And she, the savior of them all.

The survivors gathered their things quickly, supported the wounded. Those who had been touched by the plague doctors were left where they lay, relatives weeping with quiet grief.

Anne came to stand beside Gilead, the quiver half empty on her back. She reached to retrieve the arrow sticking out of the plague doctor’s eye but Gilead caught her wrist and shook his head.


“Safe,” Anne sighed. She trembled. Gilead took his hand in hers.

“I want to see,” he said, with a small gesture towards the prone figure. “Were they ever human?” He traced the round line of Anne’s sweet face with his hand. “Look away if you need, my love. Or tend Cara. But I’ll show this demon’s countenance to the light of day before we quit Harmon Den.”

Anne squeezed his hand in hers. She shook her head.

Gilead’s hand hovered over the beaklike nose of the plague doctor’s mask; he hesitated, unable to bring himself to touch it with his bare skin. Anne tore a scrap from the hem of her shift, ripped in the flight from town, and handed it to her husband. Gilead grasped the mask, and pulled it away from the cowled figure’s cloaked countenance.

Anne’s hand grew tighter in his grasp. Gilead’s jaw creaked as he clenched his teeth against a groan.

It had no face.

Beneath the plague doctor’s mask was nothing.



Anne pressed gently on the hand gripping the mask. Gilead let her guide his hand to cover the empty face with the avian façade. He could not see. The world was fogged with scarlet. Gilead blinked as a wave of dizziness blanketed his consciousness. He sat down hard, the forest unsteady around him. Something hot and wet crept down upon his cheek. Wiping a hand beneath his eye, he blinked away the fog long enough to stare at the red fluid staining his finger.

Anne clung to him. Red seeped from her eyes. They sat, flushed with heat, every breath a torment.

And then, it was over.

Anne pressed gently on the hand gripping the mask. Gilead let her guide his hand to cover the empty face with the avian façade. As they wiped the blood from each other’s faces, Gilead could imagine all too well what it had been like in those tents, the ecru canvas stained with black that was not mildew. He could see the townsfolk dutifully lined up outside by the mayor’s decree.  See them going in one by one. And inside, the plague doctors. Waiting.

And unmasking.

“Will we…?”

Gilead dropped the bloodied cloth onto the plague doctor’s limp form and helped his wife to her feet.

“I don’t know,” he whispered. “It’s dead. Perhaps…”

“Perhaps it’s lost its power,” Anne murmured.

They looked into each other’s still red eyes. Tears spilled from Anne’s, tinged pink as they cut clean lines across her cheeks.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Misha the Schizophrenic Saves the World

Misha knew the samurai wasn’t real; he knew this because Oblixa created a connection in his mind that he had been born without.

The unicorn wasn’t real either, but Misha knew its name was Table, just as he knew the samurai was Blue.

Oblixa didn’t cure schizophrenia, but it made things more manageable.

Hallucinations that once would have dominated a schizophrenic’s life, leaving him or her to guess at what was real and what was not, were suddenly decipherable from reality. They didn’t go away, but to people like Misha, they all but wore shining neon signs reading I AM NOT REAL.

Misha’s friend Dominic sometimes hallucinated uncontrollable loose bowels. The sensation of befouling his underwear was still there, but he no longer had to go check his pants every time his malfunctioning brain said, hey, you, you’ve shat yerself.

Misha stood on the street corner waiting for the light to change and tried not to watch Blue attempt to climb onto Table’s back.

As far as he knew, he was one of the few schizophrenics whose hallucinations played well with one another.

Pi was a Slurpee with human eyes and the feet of a mountain lion.

Sometimes people Misha knew, or wished he had known, made appearances.

A girl he had wanted to talk to in the twelfth grade but had been too shy to open conversation with; a deceased cousin he missed every day; the occasional celebrity (when Angelina Jolie showed up in his bedroom, Misha sometimes wished he was not taking Oblixa).

The do not walk sign began flashing a white stick figure. Misha moved with a small horde of other people across the city street. Blue the samurai rode Table the unicorn into traffic with a challenging yell.

Pi sighed and blinked his human eyes, blue Slurpee slushing in his domed head, as he plodded after the rampaging unicorn and samurai.

Pi was the mediator, the peace maker, the long-suffering older sibling of Misha’s hallucinations.

An alien landed in the middle of traffic. Cars swerved to avoid it. Misha blinked. This was new.

Like his other hallucinations, the alien was surrounded by a faint nimbus of light, translated by his brain as this is not real.

A woman grabbed Misha’s arm, screaming, pointing to the street where the hallucinatory alien was climbing from its ruined craft. Misha glanced at her with a frown. Her grip felt real. Her head was not surrounded by the light of this is not real. But she was screaming and pointing at the alien as though it existed.

Misha looked around. Quite a few people were screaming at the alien as though it existed.

But the slight glow around the alien, what Oblixa patients called the aura, was undeniable.

The damn thing was a hallucination.

But everyone saw it.

Panicked people ran in droves away from the amphibious looking alien in the street. Cars crashed to avoid it.

Two, three, four more craft landed amongst the crowds and in the street, touching down with more grace than the first creature. From each, a tentacled monstrosity with frog-like eyes emerged; each surrounded with an Oblixa aura.

Misha was an island of stillness amidst an ocean of human chaos.

Across the street, he spied a woman standing with similarly paralyzed confusion.

They looked at each other and shrugged.

Between hallucinatory eruptions of fire a steam from presumably broken imaginary pipes beneath the street, the woman crossed over to Misha’s side.


Misha nodded. “Unicorn, Table. Samurai, Blue. A Slurpee named Pi.”

She stood beside him, watching the aura’d aliens chase people up street signs and light poles. “Cat, Thirteen. Bipedal turkey, Six. The letter B.” She frowned at the chaos around them. “What is going on?”

“Haven’t the foggiest.” He watched Blue chase after an alien, Table charging another landing spaceship. “Gas leak? Bio-terrorism?”

“Look there,” the woman said. “Do you see that alien with the breathing apparatus?”

Misha followed her pointing finger. He nodded. “What’s it running from? It seems scared as hell.”

She shook her head in wonder. “It’s running from Thirteen.”

“Your cat hallucination?”

She nodded, befuddled.

Misha pointed to an alien firing its weapon. “Do you see that one, the one shooting the orange bubble bomb things?”

The woman nodded.

“What’s it shooting at?”

She shrugged. “Nothing, as far as I can tell.”

“Hmm. Looks to me like it’s shooting at my unicorn, Table. And that one there, using the manhole cover as a shield?”

She nodded. “Yes?”

“It’s fighting my samurai, Blue.”

“Our hallucinations are fighting the mass hallucinations.”

“Looks that way.”

“What the hell is going on here?”

“I don’t know.” Misha watched Pi stab an imaginary alien with his straw. Blue foaming fruit-flavored slush poured out of the alien’s back where the straw skewered it. Something caught Misha’s attention. “Look. Over there. Sitting at the café.”

“I see him,” the woman nodded. “No aura.”

“No aura,” Misha agreed. “He’s real.”

“Let’s smack him in the head with something.” She picked up a bowling ball someone had dropped while fleeing the aliens.

“Too hard. Here.” Misha handed her a plate from a café table as they walked past the outdoor dining area. He held a salad bowl in his hands, and together they walked towards the person half-hiding at one of the tables. The man’s back was towards them. He never saw them coming as, one at a time, Misha, the woman, and all their hallucinations smacked him in the head.

The device in his lap clattered to the ground.

Blue gave Pi a high-five. Pi drank himself after toasting Misha.

Thirteen, Six, and the Letter B hugged each other.

A few thousand people were staring around in complete confusion as a couple dozen pissed off aliens vanished into thin air.

Misha shook his head. “No wonder people think we’re nuts.”

“We’re not nuts,” the woman said, taking his hand. “In a world gone mad, we’re the sane ones.”

Pi was nodding, as much as a giant Slurpee was able to nod.


“Delighted,” the woman smiled at Misha.

Together they walked into the café, leaving the city to sort out its own problems. God and their psychiatrists knew, schizophrenics had enough difficulties without dealing with sane people’s craziness.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Comestibles Correlation

I work between two and five part-time jobs at any given time. For two days a week, I work at a national chain copy and print shop. For three days I work as a barista at a local coffee bar and café. During the spring “prom season” I worked evenings at a small tuxedo shop, and during the holiday months I pick up ten hours a week at any one of three major retailers who always hire extra hands to cope with the shopping madness between Thanksgiving and New Years.

But the weekends…on the weekends I have what I consider my real job.

It pays nothing. (Though there are, occasionally, odd bits of loot that can be sold on Craigslist, or, failing that, eBay.)

It will never show up on any tax return.

I could never, ever put it on a job application under the “last three places you worked” box.

And it will likely one day kill me.

It has, in fact, killedmy mother, left my father in an asylum, and driven my older sister to accountancy.

But I would give up all of my paying jobs, go broke and live homeless on the streets before I would ever quit my weekend work.

At two in the morning on a Saturday night, instead of furiously pounding the keyboard during an MMORPG boss fight, sliding steadily into an alcoholic coma while dancing madly at the hottest clubs, or pub crawling with a mob of friends, I stalk the abandoned in-between-places of the city with my cantankerous (yet curiously loveable) Uncle Dennis—or Uncle D as I call him, much to his disgruntlement—looking for dead people that won’t stay dead.

On the weekends, instead of partying, gaming, drinking or furthering my social status in any way, I, Lara P. Jacobs, hunt vampires.

It’s one fifteen in the morning on a Saturday night, and I am following Uncle D through the sunken, abandoned remains of a hotel that, thanks to eighty years of neglect and settling, is two and a half stories below street level. Most people don’t know that places like this exist; a few intrepid photographers obsessed with old and decaying places abandoned by humanity and time, they find spots like this, take pics, and evacuate the premises before anything can collapse on their precious artsy heads. Once in a blue moon, a cluster of desperate homeless will discover what seems like a miracle of hidden habitation, but quickly turns out to be a buffet with them as the sole item on the menu.

Vampires love abandoned places.

And no, they don’t sparkle.

Unless you spray them with glue and roll them in glitter but dammit that was New Years and we were drunk, don’t judge!

“Stop drifting, Lala.”

I scowled at my uncle, more for the use of my nickname than for his admonishment. Calling me Lala like I was still a kid was part of the reason I persisted in calling him Uncle D.

Seriously, though, the guy just does not look like a Dennis.

I pulled my attention away from the antique candle holder, and yanked my thoughts back from wondering how much a brass candelabra circa 1898 would fetch on Antique Roadshows. Sometime around the turn of the century, this hotel had begun to sink. Foundation unstable on earth unpredictable, the owners gave up trying to save it and just…left. Maybe they meant to come back to their investment one day. Maybe they were trying to find engineers who gave a better prognosis. Either way, they left everything behind, and sometime in the mid-to-late-30’s, most of the place had sunk as far as it was going to go. Everyone had forgotten what was there, new investors plowed over the bit still sticking up above street level, and built a new building—never knowing that the only thing keeping their bank or office building or retail shops from sinking below the street was a hotel that had already sunk thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years ago.

There are places like this in every city. More than anyone will or wants to admit.

“Stop drifting, Uncle D.”

D stopped fingering a dusty gilded ashtray and flashed me a scowl that was have irritation, half guilty chagrin. He moved ahead, lighting the way with a specially designed flashlight that gave off increased UV radiation.

Rare was the occasion that we needed it.

Perhaps I was a bit misleading when I said we hunted vampires.

Only an IDIOT would hunt vampires.

Those things are stronger, faster, and, thanks to all that extra time on their hands, often smarter and craftier than humans. And forget everything you’ve heard about hunting them during the day, while they sleep—fool’s endeavor. They’re not sleeping, weak, or vulnerable—they’re bored and pissed off, and anyone stumbling into their home wielding holy water and wooden stakes is just gonna make them mad as hell.

My mother had been an idiot.

Uncle D and I run more of an…extermination service.

We go in at night—like tonight—find the nest, and leave nice, timed, nasty surprises that go off once we are safely topside in the sun, working our “normal” jobs and playing at being mundane.

Books, movies, fanfiction, even old texts with nifty monochromatic wood block prints of Nosferatu would have folks believe that it’s best to hunt a vampire during the day, and at night avoid its nest at all costs.


Night is when the fuckers are all out drinking blood and raising hell.

Night is the safest time to attack a vampire’s nest because—duh—the vampire isn’t there.

Snug in backpacks carried by myself and Uncle D, three to five timed UV and incineration devices waited deployment. The bigger the nest, the more devices we would use. Around dawn, when all the vamps living in the nest were home safe and sound from the sun, the littler timers would go off and BAM! No more vamps. The traps burned clean and quick, the UV blast wouldn’t harm humans, and to the best of my knowledge we had only accidentally burned down one building, and really, don’t we have enough Starbucks?

Don’t look so worried, no one was inside.

D and I have eliminated over twenty-three nests since I disregarded my father’s and sister’s advice and took up the family business.

Despite this, I am still considered a noob.

I figure D will consider me a veteran vamp hunter sometime around my fortieth birthday. Or once all my hair goes gray, whichever happens first.

Ahead of me, D pushed through one of four sets of semi-rotted doors leading from the buried hotel’s lobby.

The smell hit me as soon as the doors opened.

Rot, mildew, and a dry musty sort of smell one usually associates with reptiles and low-income nursing homes.

“Ain’t it just like a phage.” D snorted, looking around the room with his UV-flash.

I blinked. “Isn’t what just like a phage?”

D gestured around us. “This. This is just like a phage.”

I stared. We were in a dining hall. Plates still held places that no one would ever fill. Silverware (real silver by the tarnish, my eBay senses were tingling) still set beside each plate. Crystal glasses. More candelabras. Moldering linen napkins and even a few silver-domed carts abandoned between the rows of circular and long rectangular dining tables.

“It’s a damn restaurant, D. How is that like a vampire?”

Uncle D continued to advance, scanning the room for the best places to lay our timed traps. “Hemophages, or Hemovores, Nosferatu, dhampir, vampir, the common vampire…”

Dammit I hate it when he lectures.

“…they’re all the same basic monster, Lara.”

At least he was using my real name. But I’ll be damned if I call him Dennis.

“They live off the blood of others. Preferably humans. Apparently we taste better. But phages have all given up two things that they long to get back. One, the sun.” He turned over a pile of rotted wood with his toe; linen napkins turned to dust by dry rot rose in a cloud around his foot. “And two, food.”

Beneath the disintegrating pile of table and cloth, there was an iPod.

It looked new.

There was blood covering the lower half of the small electronic device.

For some reason, hemophages liked to bury the bits and pieces left behind from a kill. Like a wild animal burying its scat.

D turned towards me and grinned his most irascible grin. “This is why you’re still a noob, Lala.” He played the light from his UV-flash across the far wall. “What you don’t know could fill more pages than one of those damned books by George R. R. Martin.” He pressed on through the dining hall. Everywhere were signs of the nest. Cast off items from victims. Careful stacks of books. Clothing not covered in dust and the occasional phone charger.

But no footprints. Never footprints. Vampires do not leave footprints in dust, mud, dirt, blood…nothing.

I still haven’t figured that one out.

And yet they never noticed when we did it. I wondered if it was pure arrogance, nothing more than the conviction of superiority that made the phages ignorant of the stark evidence of our visit. Whatever the cause, not once had one of our traps been avoided because one of the phages in the vamp nest said “Hey, guys, what’s this size six boot print doing here?”

Shut up. So what if I’m short.

“So…” I stepped carefully around a fallen chair, dancing my light over this and that, making mental notes of what I wanted to grab for later selling, once my backpack was emptied of its load.

Once we found the actual nest part of the nest.

Vampires sleep in a pile like puppies.


I tried not to scowl. “So…what’s with the dining hall?”

“Pay attention and I might let you go scouting with me next time, instead of just helping to blow shit up. The dining hall,” oh God help me, he was lecturing again, “falls under their obsession with food. None of them can eat any more. They miss it. They begin to develop an outright neurosis for food and anything that has to do with food. They collect ketchup packets and line the nest with them. They hoard plastic sporks and silver knives alike. They get tattoos of turkeys, ice cream, sushi, whatever, and when their eternal hides reject the ink in five or fifty years, they get more tattoos of PopTarts, Twinkies, empty plates and empty goblets.” He swung his arms wide, flash in one hand, an illegal semi-automatic rifle in the other.

Hey, we avoid them whenever possible, but we’re not stupid.

“They nest in dining halls.”

D followed the line of his arm, across the room to where his UV-retro-fitted flash caught a pile of what looked like garbage mounded under and around one of the long dining tables.

The nest.

Quickly we unloaded the traps from our packs. Three from mine, two from his. They went into the piled debris of blankets, clothing, corpses and—I noted for the first time—single serving sugar packs and, yes, ketchup packages.

One charged trap, timer set, went into the basin of a chandelier still clinging tenaciously to the tilted ceiling. Another was balanced on the metal prep table just inside the swinging doors to the kitchen. The last trap went near the only exit to the surface; the door we had entered through.

A quick glance at watches told us we were almost out of time.

It was unlikely for a phage to return to its nest until it absolutely had to, but apparently the damn things sometimes suffered from depression or homesickness because hunters like D and I had been caught with their proverbial pants around their ankles by early homecomings.

Packs emptied of traps, we pilfered a few items of dubious worth, but undoubtable awesomeness and headed back for the surface.

Uncle D replaced the chain and lock we had cut to slip through the business now above the hotel; there were other ways in but for us, this had been the safest option. Skulking through sewers may seem like fun, but trust me, it smells way worse than TV makes it look.

The rifle went into a case, the flashlights into backpacks, and we walked single-file down the narrow alley trying not to look suspicious. Out on the street, the nightlife was still moving hard and heavy; Uncle D and I split up, staying close but moving as independents.  I trailed after him trying not to look like the five-foot weirdo I was, out at two-thirty in the morning, dead sober, and dressed in military surplus everything. The raised hoodie helped. I at least looked like a ne’er do well hoodlum, a delinquent criminal out to pick a few pockets.

A band of neopunk rave girls giggled their way past us, furred boots to their knees in eye-watering shades of pink, green, and yellow, legs bare despite the cold weather, skirts shorter than their bums and makeup liberal, artful, and bold. I rolled my eyes as my uncle turned to follow the bouncing line of twenty-somethings move down the sidewalk.

He didn’t see the girl slip in behind him, so focused was he on catching sight of extra leg, exposed bossom, and tanned flesh.

The girl following my uncle was about as tanned as a dead fish belly.

Uncle D turned down the third alley from our sunken hotel and instead of going past and hitting the fifth alley like I was supposed to, I followed him.

The alley was abandoned, empty and lonely compared to the vivacious street behind us.

I twisted my wrist, freeing the apparatus strapped to my arm. In two steps I was behind the girl following my uncle, my wrist up and my finger depressing a button that sent six inches of slender Brazilian Ebony (one of the hardest woods on Earth) stabbing through the girl’s back.

She arched against my arm but did not cry out. Instead she turned flaring eyes of ebony flecked with gold and red towards me with what can only be called a shocked expression.

The fire in her eyes was mimicked by the cracks of glowing cinder radiating out from the stake in her back. The tip would have just pierced her heart.

She slid off the stake, falling to the ground in a heap of club-girl clothing and lightly smoking flesh.

She had followed my uncle with not a care for another human following her. We mattered that little to them. I guess it is arrogance that keeps them from seeing our footprints.

My uncle spun around, his expression less shocked than the dead phage’s, but still more startled than I had ever seen before.

He glanced at the corpse by my feet with unforced aplomb.

“How did you know?”

I pointed with one toe.

“The cupcakes,” I said.

He leaned forward. The dead hemovore had kawaii-style cupcakes dangling from her earlobes and one arm was a tattoo sleeve of cupcakes, candy, birthday cake and icecream cones.

He gave me a sharp, approving nod. “Just don’t go thinking you’re a hunter like your mama.”

“No sir,” I murmured, stepping over the body to follow him down the alley and to our car. The sun would take care of her. Or her nest would. No one would find the body; even if they did, they wouldn’t last long enough to talk about it.

I wondered if she was a part of the nest we had trapped.

Yawning, I slid into the passenger seat of Uncle D’s silver Prius.

That was three weeks ago.

Tonight is Friday. I’m supposed to be scoping out a run-down factory in the middle of what D and I jokingly call Clubville (a two block area littered with haute clubs, hotter clubbers, and hungry vamps). But there’s a small pack of teenagers watching me more closely than I’d like.

The girls have chopsticks in their hair.

Two of the boys have donut subdermals in their temples.

All of them have eyes way more ancient than their teen-something faces.

There’s an alley ahead. I’m pretending to talk on my cellphone and breakup with a boyfriend I don’t have. I’m pretending to stagger while I walk.

Everything about me says victim.

I’m about to find out just how much of a hunter I really am.

I twist my wrists, right and left, and hope like hell that the hemophages following me really are as blindly arrogant as they seem.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Traveler's Tale

The world has learned three vitally important things since the times of Malcolm’s Chaos (a thinly veiled reference to a late twentieth century fictional character if I remember my middle school history correctly).

One: Aside from an airplane, or your mother’s-in-law at Thanksgiving, a space station is the absolute worst place to experience a zombie outbreak.

Two: Humanity is not alone in the universe; there are alien life forms out there, and they will shoot down your space station and all the ships parked on it in order to keep the zombie virus from spreading, with only this for an introduction: “Be back in a thousand years or so, when y’all have figured out how not to accidentally reanimate your dead.” And in regards to the space station and a few thousand flaming zombies rendering the majority of Asia uninhabitable for fifty years, a brief message that translates most directly into “Oops, our bad.”

Three: Naturally occurring human time travelers can not be stopped, contained or controlled by any government. Even if they cooperate; some government somewhere is too unstable to cooperate for long and enough Travelers, as we call ourselves, slip through long enough to have babies and, well, Travel.

That’s how my grandfather came about. Great granddad slipped away from his home state during a revolution, fell in love somewhere in America’s mid-south, and quickly propagated enough offspring to render what little measures of control that had been in place, useless.

The thing about Travelers is, we don’t just Travel in time, we Travel in space.

To be more accurate, we come unstuck from where we are and sort of…fall…

I was leaning forward over the spotless linen of a very expensive tablecloth in a very expensive restaurant, about to kiss my date and seal the deal, when I came unstuck from my time and…fell…

…face first into an iced-over drift of snow.

The other thing about Travelers is, we Travel naked.  Or at least, we did, until one of us discovered that certain fibers can travel with us, but only in limited amounts.

So it was that I fell face first into a freezing pile of icyness wearing only a thin brassier and underwear.

Sputtering, I staggered to my feet, swiping the ice and snow from my face with enough anger to heat me for the moment as I threw a royal hissyfit in the middle of wherever I had landed, complete with thrashing and kicking and screaming, most of which amounted to bad words and a shrieked “You’ve gotta be kidding me! I was gonna get LAID!”

In the midst of stomping and screaming, I realized I couldn’t feel my feet.

In the years since Traveling has become identified as, first, an uncontrollable disability and now, secretly, a slightly controllable Ability, those of us who can Travel, and a few who are sympathetic, have taken measures to help out Travelers newly arrived. That is to say, folks have hidden piles of random clothing in odd places and marked it so that freaks like me can find it before they either freeze to death or are carted away in a paddy-wagon for indecent exposure.

I ran through the still-falling snow, taking in the sort of town-square I had fallen into, and the accents of the people I sprinted past, judging myself to be somewhere in England. “Lovely weather we’re having,” I said, shouldering past a couple bundled to the eyeballs in scarves and hats and barely able to move in their thick coats. There was a blue light blinking ahead; most people believe these to be some sort of notification of police presence. To some extent, they are, but in cities they also indicate the location of a stash of clothing. “Lost a bet!” I gasped, all but leaping over a pair of old men walking a very excited dog on a rhinestone leash.

The blue light blinked, dim enough that I knew I was lucky to have found it. Not ten yards away, the darkness of a river rushed below a walkway abandoned now that the wind had risen and the square behind me had fired up a half dozen warming braziers.

I slid to my knees beside the light. A lamp post with a thick base nearby had a blue rectangle painted on it; another sign, a joke of sorts between time travelers. With my bare hands I dug through the snow until I found the panel in the bottom of the lamp post and popped it open with fingers gone as numb as my feet.

Blessed be the person who made this stash.

There were boots, (too big, but unless you were a large person all stash clothing was by necessity large), sweat pants, a gigantic sweater (or was it called a jumper here? Or was that Australia? I never could remember), a black peacoat big enough to swallow a sumo wrestler, and much to my unending delight, a package of those little chemical hand-warmer thingies.

I pulled the clothing on as fast as I could, activating four of the warmer packs and dropping two into each boot before putting my feet inside. Frostbite was the mortal terror of Travelers; losing feet prevented running, and a Traveler who can not run is a dead Traveler.

Dressed, I stood to take account of my surroundings, to get a feel for whatever time I had fallen through to, to see if I could activate the Ability end of my disability and send myself home sooner, or if I was stuck here until whatever triggered this unsticking in us unstuck me again and sent me home.

But the second I turned around to head back to the square and the welcoming glow of its brazier warmers and lights, the rainboots slipped on the ice, I fell backwards, and right before my head cracked against the frozen concrete and everything went black I thought, I should have been getting kissed right now.

I awoke an unknowable time later, wrapped in a thick blanket, wonderfully warm, and staring at a gaily decorated Christmas tree.  A man stared down at me, an anxious, questioning smile on his lips.

“Happy Christmas?” I made it a question because, A.) I was not 100% certain I was in the UK and B.) it might have been mid-January and this fruitcake just wasn’t ready to let go of the holiday season.

“December nineteenth,” he said, followed by the year and another, warmer smile. His accent, at least, confirmed my suspicions about being in England. As for the year, he wasn’t too far away from hitting the time of Malcolm’s Chaos. It was an interesting time to be alive; more important, it was an era when Traveling was just becoming known.

I sat up, less wary. “You know about Travelers.”

His expression was unreadable, to me at least. Something seemed to close off in his eyes, but the smile remained, albeit… was that amusement now?

“You could say that.”

“Well,” I said, throwing the blanket off and sitting up with a sigh of relief, “I won’t be bothering y’all much longer.” I could feel a sort of…disconnection… building between myself and the world around me. There would be no worry about trying to force myself back home; it was happening naturally. I was coming unstuck. “Thanks for the blanket and not letting me freeze to death…” I gingerly touched my head where I had fallen. “And for the Band-Aid.”

I stood. When I swayed on my feet, he reached for me, I think to catch me or steady me, but I waved him back. “You might not want to do that. People have lost limbs holding on to a Traveler while she Travels.” That was more of an urban legend but I didn’t even know this guy’s name; granted he had taken me in and tended my wounds, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a weirdo.

Time was growing thin around me. I gave what I hoped was a jaunty salute and not a drunken battle with gravity. I was becoming unstuck, beginning to fall, the happy Christmas apartment before me, along with the handsome Brit who had rescued me, becoming indistinct. “So long, total stranger.”

“So long, E.”

My brow furrowed. “What did you call me?”

But he was already gone. Instead of a warm British flat, I stood in my own old drafty house. It had been my parents’ and their parents’ before them, and we would keep handing it down as long as we could because when Travelers returned “home,” it was to what was most familiar; or to what would become most familiar. Sometimes you Traveled to an unfamiliar house or apartment, filled with unfamiliar people, because it would one day be somewhere you lived. In those cases, it was always best to walk past the family eating dinner with a straight back, despite being only in your underwear, and say “I think I might live here one day,” and head for the door before they could call the cops.

But for now, I was in my current home, not a future or past home, and I was utterly befuddled.

That man had known my name.

Well, one of them at least.

Or rather, the letter. The initial of the name that I told no one.

Frowning, I went upstairs to find my spare cell phone and call my date to apologize for vanishing and leaving all my clothes behind, and could he please drop off or mail my good phone soon because this one was very small and barely held a terabyte of information.

I went to bed wondering how the British man had known my name. Especially that part.

I’ve always been closest to my great-great aunt, despite the fact that she died before I was born. Come on. I’m a freaking time traveler. What good is time traveling if you don’t get to meet and love relatives you’d otherwise never get the pleasure of knowing?

She was at my baptism, being one of the first of our family to gain some control over Traveling (in fact, she was one of the first in the world to do so, not that anyone other than Travelers and those closest to us know even now that we’ve begun turning our disability into an ability). I was actually named for her—well, her and a few other random historical figures.

Mostly I go by nicknames. Amelia E. Lovecraft Roberts is a bit of a mouthful to introduce yourself, though it does look lovely on stationary.

My father calls me Bobbi; supposedly it’s a play on our last name, I think he secretly wanted to add a fourth name to my long list of nombres. My mother calls me Love. My brother calls me Doofus, and that’s not anywhere on the birth certificate. And my aunt, uncomfortable with calling someone by her own name, calls me AmyBee.

But no one calls me E. And no one but my parents (and the, likely still giggling, nurse who signed the birth certificate) knows what that initial stands for.

The Brit remained a mystery for almost three months. I hadn’t Traveled much by accident, except for a couple purposeful jaunts to visit with my great aunt, and one visit to that damned house again (“Huh, maybe I really AM going to live here one day. Dinner smells great by the way. Don’t mind me. Mmm, pot roast. Are those rolls homemade?”) so when I did come unstuck again, it was sudden, and almost without warning.

I was also in the shower.

That familiar feeling started, and I had just enough time to duck my head under the water to rinse the soap from my face before I was gone. Buck naked, covered in soap suds, I found myself standing in the middle of a cobbled street. Thankfully, it was summer, not winter, and a breathy “Oh,” sighed from my lips as I found myself standing in front of a familiar face.

I was in England again.

The absolute shock on his face lead me to believe that this was a summer before he rescued me in the snow. For him, this was the first time we had met. He blinked rain out of his eyes, squinting through the downpour.

“Have we met?”

Then again, maybe not.

“I-I don’t think so,” I stammered. “Leastways, I don’t think you’ve met me.”

“You’re a Traveler,” he said, working very hard to keep his eyes on my face, despite the fact that rain was rinsing off at an alarming rate what little concealment my soap bubbles offered.

“Yes.” What the hell do you say to a guy when you’re standing naked in front of him, covered in soap suds, in the middle of a street?

“I’m Peter.”

“I’m Amelia E. Lovecraft Roberts,” I said, and kicked him as hard as I could (with a bare, soapy foot), right in the middle of his chest. I vanished back to my shower stall before the car that had been about to hit both of us could turn me into squished Traveler soup. Ducking under the stream of still-hot water, I tried to calm my pounding heart. At least I knew he was alright; in about four months, for him, he would be pulling my half-frozen butt out of the snow.

We began running into each other a lot more often after that.

I usually Traveled (accidentally) about twice a month. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. After that day in the English rain, I found myself Traveling twice a week. It began to interfere with work, but since Traveling is officially a disability, there wasn’t much my boss could do about it, and I gave up on dating completely when, three times in a row, I Traveled somewhere between, “Hi! You’re right on time,” and “Oh, the flowers are lovely, thank you!”

Nine times out of ten, I Traveled to wherever Peter was, albeit at different whens.

I wasn’t surprised to find out he was keeping a journal in an attempt to bring some kind of order to our unusual, unasked for rendezvous; though in all honesty it was just as confusing for me. Neither one of us ever knew how often the other had been met—opening a conversation with “Hey! You look much better, how long did it take you to get over that broken nose?” might well be answered with “I’ve never broken my nose…” And it was very difficult to reminisce about things you weren’t certain had happened yet for the other person. “That time, with the coffee, when you balanced it on that duck--!” Blank stare, confused smile. “Oh…ah…hasn’t happened yet for you, eh?”

Despite it all, I began to feel something very like the sensation of coming unstuck from time when I was around him.

A feeling like…


I left Peter’s time, having been sprawled on his couch watching old TV shows (well, old to me, current to him) while he cooked dinner in the small kitchen of his flat. And I Traveled. Accidentally. Always before, when leaving Peter, I went home, or to where I had been when I left. This time, I went to that house again.

“I don’t know where this is,” I said to the family in the dining room, “but I must eventually really like it. I’m telling you, one day I’m going to live here.” I grabbed a fresh dinner roll as I walked past, wearing nothing but my underwear as usual. “Too much pepper on that fish, mama,” I said to the middle aged woman serving dinner. “Smells great though. See ya.”

I walked through the door and onto the street and--

“Oh! You’re here. I thought you said you’d be late. Here, I brought—oh.”

Peter stood in front of me holding a bottle of wine. Chill autumn air brought out goosebumps along my arms and legs, making me wish, not for the first time, that we could Travel wearing more than a bit of fabric around our chests and privates.

“You’re not you,” he said, a sheepish smile on his face. “That is, you are you, but not now you, you’re then you and…oh dear… E? Are you alright? E?”

Shaking my head in denial, the world grew dim.

I fell through time and space back to my home, arriving with no breath. I crashed through my own dark, cold living room (there was dust on the shelves, how much time was I spending with Peter? How much less time was I spending here? If was with him too long, in his time, in his home, I would come untethered from this, my real home, my true home…I could drift…) I realized I was hyperventilating. I clutched my chest, willing it to loosen from the agonized knot constricted around my lungs, and sank to the floor in the hallway. I didn’t know when it started, but I found myself weeping.

Trapped.  I felt trapped.

I cleaned myself up and Traveled to my aunt without bothering to dress in the pile of clothes, still slightly me-shaped, beside my bed.

“It’s like…my life has always been this open field,” I told her, laying with my head pillowed in her lap. We sat on a blanket spread across the grass of a park, a picnic arranged around us. She was stroking my hair, soothing me after my panicked, sobbing outburst. My nose was red and my cheeks were blotchy, but I was beginning to feel calmer. “But now, this hedge maze has grown up through the field, and where before there was openness, opportunity, where anything could happen…now, no matter where I turn in this maze, there’s him. There’s no way out. No way back to the field. Everywhere I turn, no matter what I do… I’m trapped.”

“You’re talking about fate, my AmyBee. And I promise you, there is no such thing.”

“Then why? Why do I keep Traveling to him? My mind keeps saying things like, it’s meant to be, but I just…I can’t…oh God, they must have been his parents, that house was his house, his family home…and I keep going back to it. I’ve been going to it since before I met him. You say there’s no fate but…”

“You fight against things that seem prescribed for you. If someone tells you, ‘You must do this,’ it is in your nature to say ‘No, not unless I want to.’ Just as if someone tells you, ‘You cannot do this,’ it is your nature to say, ‘Yes I can.’”

“I get that from you.”

She smiled. “Yes, you do.”

If anyone was the queen of denying ‘fate,’ it was my aunt. For Travelers, there are a few rules to which we must attempt to adhere. One, already discussed, was, don’t lose your feet. But the number one rule for Travelers is never, ever, ever fly in an aircraft, go up in a space shuttle, live on a space station, take a trip in a hot air balloon—basically, never be up in the air in anything, anywhere, ever. Because most often, when Traveling, you return to where you were (when you don’t just go home). That means, if you Travel while in an airplane, and return to where you were… the plane will not be there. And you will fall. A very long way down, and not through time or space, but just air, until you splat.

Despite this, my aunt had become a pilot. They said don’t ever get in a plane, and she said, ha! I’ll fly the damn thing.

I sat up, wiping at my face with my aunt’s lace handkerchief. “But what do I do?”

She sighed, her expression turning serious. “Time has…ripples. They go backwards and forwards. Somewhere, somewhen, along your zig-zagging timeline, ripples have been sent out strong enough to pull you to this man again and again and again.” She touched my face gently, and the smile and wonder that lit up her own transformed her from plain-bordering-on-pretty, to lovely. “There’s a reason you’re drawn to him, AmyBee. Find out what it is.”

“He calls me E,” I said suddenly.

“Did you ever ask why?”

I shook my head.

“Does he know what it—”

“No. I’ve never told anyone.” I frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone.” I stood up, dusting grass from my pants. “Thank you.”

“Do you know what tomorrow is?”

I thought about it. “Tuesday?”

“Tomorrow is your baptism. Tomorrow you will be one year old.”

I laughed. “This time travel stuff is more confusing than…than…”


“I was going to say quantum entanglement.”

“Aren’t they the same thing?”

When I left, a pile of clothing fell to the picnic blanket behind me, and I Traveled with a will.

Traveling on purpose is not like Traveling by accident. Accidental, or random Traveling just happens. It’s like being a baby, (or an elderly person) with no control of bowel or bladder. Sometimes you can feel it coming…but there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

But we’ve begun to learn control. Sometimes, when that feeling comes, that sensation of coming unglued from reality, of falling through, we can stop it, or at least direct it. And some of us have begun to be able to Travel where and when we want. But it is always easiest to Travel somewhere you…belong. Traveling to see your grandfather as a child is much easier, for instance, than going to see the dinosaurs (something that no one, to the best of my knowledge, has managed yet; not that I’ve tried… oh come on! What kid doesn’t want to see dinosaurs? The best I’ve managed was medieval France. I was almost burned as a witch, despite being all of eleven years old).

Traveling to Peter was as easy as Traveling home.

For Peter, I visited along a string of three years. For him, our first meeting in the rain happened four months before he rescued me from the snow. He didn’t see me again for two more months, then not for five… after that the timing was scattered. Sometimes he saw me two days in a row, when for me, those two days were actually six weeks apart. And in a different order. So when I Traveled to him now, I didn’t know where on that timeline I was; had we just met? Had we been seeing each other for months?

He turned around and saw me.

His face lit up, a smile stretching his features to the breaking point. Before I could say anything, he had crossed the room and taken me into his arms, and before I could react to that, he was kissing me.

Quite well, I might say.

I must have gone stiff in his arms, because he pulled away, looking abashed. “I’m sorry, E. I didn’t think to ask…” he cursed soundly, though not as well as he had kissed. “You’ve warned me before… It must be like getting assaulted by a stranger… It’s just, I haven’t seen you in weeks and…” He ran his hand nervously through his hair. “Soup?”

I blinked. “What?”

He pointed towards his small kitchen. “Soup? I was just…I made minestrone.”


“Or just grab some clothes and hit the couch or…go for a walk… I can stay here. Oh! The clothes. Hall closet, third door—”

“I know where the clothes are.”

“Thank bloody heaven, I was afraid you hadn’t been here before…”



“Why do you call me E?”

“S’one of your names, isn’t it?”

“It’s a letter.”

“Stands for something.”

“Do you know what? Do you know what the initial stands for, Peter?”

He shifted from one foot to the other, and for a moment I felt my chest ache. I thought my heart was breaking. But then he told me. And when I started to cry, he took me into his arms again, and this time it was I who did the kissing.

Peter lived in the years preceding Malcolm’s Chaos. And for the most part, after that night, so did I. Occasionally I felt the pull back to my home. But the connection was growing thinner; more of a lifeline and less of a tether, I could follow it as I liked but I was rarely pulled back there. I Traveled from Peter’s time. I slipped through to random moments; sometimes to moments from our lives together. Once, I saw him as an old man. Once, I saw myself, half naked, walk through our house (that had been his family’s house) and steal a roll off the dinner table.

Sometime this year I’ll turn ninety-eight. Or maybe ninety-nine. Time travel does funny things to the aging process. There are extra days to keep track of, and missing days to subtract. I’m old. Peter is old. But we are happy. I left him sleeping in the sun, a tablet on his chest showing (in extra large font) an article about Asia almost being clear of the infection. They expect it to be habitable in another five years. I could have told the author of that article that he was off by about fifteen years, but we’re not supposed to tell people the future.

We’re also not supposed to go up in airplanes, or visit the space station, but like my aunt said, my family isn’t one to do as we’re told.

I Traveled.

Malcolm’s Chaos was years away yet. A certain meeting between a soapy, naked young woman and a startled young British man on a rainy England day was at least a decade ahead.

I sat in a black, wrought-iron chair at a corner café and sipped coffee. Some Traveler-Friend had left a set of clothes in a hidden compartment of a donation box, marked with that blue rectangle. It was an odd set, I believe the style was once called ‘steampunk’ but whatever twisted sense of humor lead the friend to leave such odd clothing also prompted enough guilt to leave £100 in the pocket. So I, elderly, with my white hair done up beneath a large, unexpectedly elaborate hat, wearing a dress that was somehow a cross between 19th century Victorian and early 21st century punk rock, was not certain he would come when I called.

But he did.

The ripples, it seemed, effected everyone.

His friends called him back, but the boy who would one day be my husband carried the soccer ball under his arm and came to me anyway, despite the teasing, the cursing, the friendly threats.


For a moment I thought he was calling me his mother, addled as my old brain was, til I realized he was saying ‘ma’am.’

“Hello, Peter.”

“Do I know you, mum?”

“Not yet. But attend me well, young man. One day you will meet a girl, and you will fall in love. And she will have a very odd name. But odder than the rest of her names, will be the one she keeps a secret.”

He smiled, humoring me. “A secret name. A girl in my future.” He took in my attire. “Are you a fortune teller, then?”

“Something like that.” I smiled back. “Now listen. When you meet this girl, with the initial E, you must never let on that you know what it stands for. Not until she asks, have you go that?”

“Easy enough, seeing’s how I don’t know. Or are you going to tell me, mum?”

“She was named for someone, Peter. A wild-haired old man who tried to explain Traveling before people knew there was Traveling. A lot of his work helped build the foundation for explaining how the whole mess of time and space really work.”

Peter frowned. “Einstein?”

I smiled and nodded. I didn’t need to ask how he guessed so easily; even now Peter was studying things that most scientists wouldn’t attempt without years more experience.

“I’m going to meet a girl named Einstein?”

“Something like that.”

He laughed, tossing the soccer ball (though for him I suppose it would be a football) from hand to hand. “Well that’s worth a quid.” He reached into his pocket. I stopped him from tipping me, (fortune teller indeed!) and sent him back to his friends.

The waitress came to refill my coffee. Already I could feel the tug of home pulling at me, but I fought it. It was nice here in the sun, and besides, I’d paid for the espresso and back when Peter and I were living, coffee was at a premium since our visitors blasted the orbiting space station out of the sky.

“Is it true?”

I looked up at the waitress. “Is what true?”

“What you told that kid.”

I nodded, sipping the coffee.

She turned to watch Peter and his friends run off down the block towards the park.

“Will they fall in love?”

“Yes,” I said, sipping the espresso. “They will fall so much in love that she will follow him to the moon, despite the danger. And from there, he will follow her to where no Traveler has ever dared go. And they will be so much in love that they will accidentally cause a minor zombie apocalypse and almost bring down the wrath of an alien species.” I chuckled into my coffee cup. “And to think, all my aunt did was fly around the world and vanish over the Pacific Ocean.”

The waitress was staring at me with a look that said maybe this old lady has escaped from somewhere that ought to have padded walls and very patient nurses.

“Oh chill out,” I said, and carefully set the cup down on the iron table before it could drop. “It won’t happen for another thirty something years.”

And I Traveled, leaving a pile of pseudo steampunk clothing on the wrought-iron chair, and a confused waitress staring at the spot where I had been.

I Traveled home.

Peter was awake, and waiting, and I knew, as I had for years, that wherever he was, home would be, and when the wonderful old man who was my husband took me into his arms, I felt it.

A ripple.

Spreading out in every direction.

I kissed Peter and we sat in the garden to watch the sun set.