Archive For The “Short Stories” Category
The arrow slid from the quiver without a sound. The wild boar was within range as Torin nocked the arrow. After stalking the pig for days, the moment was at hand. A hawk screeched in the trees, drawing the pig’s attention. It was a fraction of a second, as the arrow flew to find its mark. The boar dropped with a final grunt allowing Torin to exhale in relief.
That was easy enough; unlike the last one. Torin approached the boar, nudging its snout with his toe. With you down, the piggy population should get under control for a while. At least until I make my rounds again. Looking towards the horizon, a few hours remained in the day for him to drag the carcass to town.
Biting his lip, a loud whistle echoed among the trees. A few minutes later, Sienna trotted to him and nudged him in the chest. Torin chuckled and said, “I’m sorry you had to stay away for so long. He was harder to sneak up on and you make too much noise.” The tan and cream horse snorted, bumping him hard in the chest with her muzzle. “Come on, let’s get this pig into town.”
The sun made its way below the horizon as the ramshackle houses came into view. Sienna trudged along as they headed towards the butcher’s shop. A crowd was gathering along the sides of the street, cheering and congratulating Torin on his victory.
I hate this part. Why can’t we ever just dump the carcass, get our gold, and leave? It’s always a huge ordeal over a pig. Yes, hi to you too. No sign of the tubby mayor yet. Maybe I’ll get lucky this time.
At the butcher’s residence, the man came out to greet him as Torin untied the ropes used to drag the pig from Sienna’s saddle. “Now that is a right and proper boar, Torin. Well done. Have you taken your token?” Torin held up a large tusk with dried blood at the root. “Come inside and I’ll get a few more gold for your trouble. He’s bigger than the others. Boys.” A few young boys set about untangling the carcass from the ropes as the two men went inside.
With the sun gone for the day, a coin was given to the stable hand for good care of Sienna for the evening. Heading towards the inn, hope still lingered in his thoughts about avoiding the mayor of the town. The smell of warm beer and familiar patrons welcomed him as he walked to the hearth to warm his hands. Closing his eyes, the warmth embraced him like an old friend.
The corner table awaited him as relief washed into his legs and back as he sat on the wooden chair. A young woman brought a large mug of beer to him. “Would you like some potato soup? It’s a little bland, but I could sneak some herbs away for you.” She smoothed back her saddle brown hair and poked a few loose strands into her braid. Her dress was a deep brown and spotted with stains from work.
Always looking out for me. Bet no one else gets this treatment. Nodding, he took a swallow of warm beer. My favorite mug as well. It’s good to be home, for a while. She left him to tend to the soup.
“Ah! Torin! Just the man I’ve been waiting for.”
Crab apples! Not once can I enjoy a meal without him poking his fat, greedy face in here… Come on, waddle on over here so we can get this over with. Torin lifted his beer and placed the best smile he could fake on his face. “Mayor Green.”
“Word has reached my ear that you have brought down a mighty boar! The town in indebted to you as always. You must tell me the tale.” His clothes were clean, something that the other people of the town couldn’t boast about. It was a small town, so keeping something secret from the mayor was something only the skilled knew how to do with the edge of a knife.
A sigh pushed past his lips, “We made it back to town just as the sun left for the evening. If you don’t mind, I’d like to have my dinner first.” The two men stared at each other until the mayor broke eye contact.
“Yes, of course. Please excuse my rashness. I’m always entranced by the stories I hear of your hunting. If I weren’t the mayor of this town, I should love to join you on a hunt. But, I fear that my loyalty towards the townspeople is more important than my own indulgences.”
Judging by your waistline, there isn’t many you pass up. “Thank you, Mayor Green. Now, if you will excuse me, my dinner has arrived.
Speaking as he stepped aside, “Of course, of course. Our master huntsman is what keeps this town flourishing with meat. I will, regretfully, respect your wishes for the evening.” A steaming bowl of potato soup and a chunk of bread was placed on the table, along with a spoon. The mayor licked his lips as he stared at the bowl of soup. It wasn’t until Torin cleared his throat, that the mayor turned on his heel and left the inn.
I can’t believe that worked. The girl brought him out of his thoughts as she reached forward to give him some strands of parsley. “Thank you.” A smile was all she offered in return as she stood there watching him shred the parsley with his fingers. Without looking at her, he asked, “Would you care to join me, Sara?”
With a quick glance around, she sat. “Are the stories true?”
Raising a spoonful and blowing on it, he couldn’t help but smile at the question. “Which ones?”
She leaned in and asked in a hushed whisper, “The ones about how you can go days without food or water while hunting?”
“No. I know this land and it’s secrets well.”
“The strength of ten men? How are you able to take down the bears and pigs by yourself?”
“That secret stays with me.” She let him take a few spoonfuls of soup as she mulled over more questions.
Curiosity was clawing at her mind as she asked, “What about the stories the women talk about?” The redness rushed to her face as she dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to intrude on your meal.” She started to get up, but Torin put a hand on hers. She sank back into her chair.
After resting the spoon in his bowl, he wiped his mouth with his cuff. “I don’t mind your company. As for what people say about me, all lies. Especially the ones the women tell. Why? What stories are people telling now?”
The sparkle had returned to her eye, “Some say that you can hunt anything, blindfolded. Others, that you took a doe by chasing it on foot. One story says that you can see the warmth of a sleeping bear in his pitch-black cave. Another says that you waited for a buck three days in the cold mud.” Torin smirked at the exaggerations.
“Those are big stretches from the truth. To answer your questions; yes, I can hunt anything. But, not blindfolded. Who could do that, anyway?” He tore into the bread As for the doe, I chased her into a snare. Bears are easy to hunt because they breathe so loud. The last one, well, I don’t speak about it. Largely in part due to the fact that I had too much beer and the memory is fuzzy. I did wake up in the mud, though.”
The front doors flew open drawing all eyes to a man in brightly colored clothing. He stepped into the room followed by several men in heavy armor. Everyone in the inn was silent as the man made his way across the room to the bar. The guards stood near the entrance. Facing the patrons, “I come on behalf of the King. We are summoning a man by the name of Torin Longpaw. He is a hunter by trade and the King demands an audience with him.” The room was silent. People feared the king, but they feared betrayal more. Sara scooted her chair back and made her way to the kitchen. “Young woman, do you know of the man we seek?”
She turned around slowly with her eyes to the ground. “I do, sir. But, I am not sure that he would like to be found at this point.”
The man approached her, “Withholding information from the king is unwise.” He reached up with his gloved hand and stroked her cheek. “It would be in your best interest, to tell us where to find him. Now, speak up, or face the penalty.” Sara pushed his hand away as two of the guards marched to her and held her in place. “This is your last warning; where is he?”
“Leave her alone.” Torin stood up and walked towards the men. “I’m the man you seek. Let her go.” The guards pushed her away as she mouthed, ‘I’m sorry.’
“You, are Torin Longpaw? You look nothing like the stories I’ve heard.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear. Read the summons. We are simple people around here.”
The man’s face screamed with resentment as he unrolled the summons.
Torin Longpaw is hereby summoned to appear before King Elmwood. The subject of the matter is not for public discussion and will be disclosed in private with the King. Torin Longpaw will fulfill this summons, or face the death penalty.
Long live King Elmwood.
After finishing reading, the man rolled up the summons and tossed it to Torin. “We leave at dawn.” A satisfying smirk crawled across his face.
The days that followed were long and harsh. Hours in the saddle with little breaks were beginning to wear on Sienna and Torin. On the fifth day, the snot nosed man announced that they would arrive at the castle within a day’s ride. Torin kept to himself as he rode, allowing the king’s men to fill the air with their petty conversations of servant girls and sweet beer.
The castle was a smaller, cheaper version of the King’s original castle. King Elmwood had built these smaller versions on the borders of his kingdom. Torin could see the sandstone blocks used in the corners of the castle. If he ruled with the same mindset that he built his castles, his rule would be short-lived.
Arriving at the castle, Sienna was turned over to the stables and roughly unloaded by the older stable hands. Torin flicked a gold piece to a young stable hand to brush her down. The wide eyed boy with red hair and freckles nodded with enthusiasm. Torin was marched to a private room to bathe and freshen up.
Is that steam? It is. Don’t remember the last hot bath I took. Can’t remember the last bath at all now that I think about it. Torin undressed and tenderly slid into the water. A small table littered with toiletries stood at attention beside the tub. “Soap? At least I get some luxury from this.”
A knock at the door followed by a male servant ended his cheerful moment. “Sir, I have been sent to assist you.”
“Okay. Stay over there, though.” Torin held up the bar of soap, “How do I work the soap?”
The servant rolled his eyes. “Get it wet and rub it over your skin. Would you like assistance?”
“NO! That is all I need. I got this bath thing. You can leave now.”
“As you wish, sir.” He left Torin alone in the room.
Torin finished bathing and dried off with the towel hanging off the end of the table. After dressing, he stepped out into the hallway. “Follow me, sir.” The same servant led him to the King’s private meeting room.
The room was dark, damp, and drafty as the King’s nasal voice welcomed him. “At long last! Torin Longpaw. I have waited far too long for this moment. Come closer, come closer.” The King’s chair was at the back of the room with a single candle burning next to it, casting abnormal shadows throughout the room. “I see you have fulfilled my summons.”
“A man doesn’t ignore the wishes of the king.” You didn’t leave me with much of a choice either.
“You are here, because I need your services. Some months ago, a troll was reported to be terrorizing one of my towns north of here. I sent my best warriors and hunters to deal with it, but, none have returned. I can spare none of my men which is why I need you to locate them, whether they are dead or alive. Also, find the troll’s whereabouts so I may send my army to kill it. That is your job. I have heard your name and the stories behind it. You will now prove to me whether the stories are true or not.”
“What is my pay? I cannot do these errands of my own means.”
“Your pay is your life. You may visit the armory and pantry before leaving tomorrow. Report back to me when the troll is located. That is all.” Torin bowed to the king and left the room. “If he is half the man people says he is, this nuance will be dealt with soon enough.”
The same servant was waiting outside the door. “My lord.”
“Take me to the armory, please.”
“As you wish.” His bright, padded feet led Torin down to the lower portion of the castle. The sound of hammering grew louder as the smoke stung his eyes. Open air blacksmiths were hard at work making various pieces of armor and weapons. The servant rubbed his eyes and tried to stifle a cough.
“What are you doing down here, priss-pants?” A filthy man covered in soot and hair, got in the servant’s face causing him to backtrack a few steps.
Torin spoke, “I’m looking for a whetstone.”
The man faced Torin. His labored breathing smelled of cabbage, “Only a fool goes without a whetstone.”
This man’s breath alone would kill the troll. “The king’s men were too rough with my bags. I heard it break when they unloaded my horse. So, I’ll have a replacement, now.” The sooner the better. The man bristled up and marched over to an anvil, grabbing a whetstone and throwing it at Torin’s head. Torin casually reached up and caught it, spiting the man more. Turning to the servant, he said, “Pantry.” The servant nodded and briskly headed towards the stairs.
Visiting the pantry was uneventful and the servant was clearly glad to be among the higher people again. Dried meats and other foods were packed for his journey and sent to the stables to be packed. Torin was allowed to eat with the servants and kitchen staff that evening. After the meal was done, the tables were pushed against the walls as songs were sung with enthusiasm beyond any Torin had ever heard in any tavern. He was soon enjoying the spectacle and clapping in time with the song. It wasn’t long until a female servant grabbed his hand and pulled him into the dance. Wine was broken out and several glasses were filled with the sweet wine mixed with water.
The next morning came with its harsh sunlight and thundering drums. A whisper amplified a hundred fold in Torin’s ears as he stumbled to the stables after breakfast. It would be several days until he was in the troll’s territory and his mind would clear by then. The same stable boy helped him onto Sienna and wished him good luck. Torin managed a crooked smile and an erratic wave goodbye as Sienna sauntered out of the castle under her own direction.
The days and miles blurred together as Torin endured in the saddle. He stopped now and then when fresh signs of small game were close to the road. After stopping in the town, directions were given to him concerning the location of the troll. It frequented the area and was expected to be close by. Enduring the lengthy descriptions tested his patience until he finally felt content to set out again.
The signs along the road began to change. Blackened circles beside the road spoke of troll territory as they were the only ones brave enough to have fires this close to the road. The smell of the air changed as well. It smelled of rotten flesh and dung. Troll territory was never fought over as it held no value due to the troll’s constant defecation.
Torin brought Sienna to a halt. In the middle of the road some distance away stood a troll. This should be interesting. Torin dismounted and started approaching the troll. Sienna let out a snort causing him to stop and turn in his tracks. “I’ll be fine. Don’t go far.” The horse turned and trotted south, away from the fight. I hope this goes well, Sienna.
Turning back around, the troll had taken the opportunity to close the distance. His form grew as his massive strides brought him closer. Torin swallowed the lump in his throat and stood his ground. It took less than a minute for the troll to be upon him as the ground vibrated with his strides. It dropped to all fours and let out a gut-wrenching bellow. Its massive form was heaving from the effort. Whether or not this was the right troll made little difference now, as there was no way Torin could avoid the fight.
The troll began to crawl forward like a wary cat. Saliva dripped from his open mouth. His speech was gravely as he labored to speak. “Why you here, human?”
“I’m looking for a troll that’s attacking the town south of here.” The troll stopped his advance and a smug smile was all he offered. He stood to his full height, rolling his shoulders. Crap. He’s big. Really, big.
“We fight, human.” His fists hammered on his chest as he let out a long exhale. “I protect land from humans.”
“Protect? I find that hard to believe.” The troll wiped his nose with the back of his arm. “Trolls rarely keep to themselves.” Again the troll showed his crooked smile revealing missing teeth.
“When I kill you, I eat horse, too. Hard to catch, but good to eat. We fight now. I want to eat horse.”
Torin took out his sword and stabbed it into the ground. He began to unbuckle his leather armor as the troll watched with confusion. “What? No one ever fight you man to man?” The troll shook his head slowly. He tossed aside the last of his armor leaving him bare chested before the troll.
“What your name?” The troll had suspicion in its eyes.
Holding up his hands, his fingers grew into long claws while fur began to cover his skin. His mouth and nose began to stretch into a snout as large teeth shined with the yellow of a beast. The sound of cloth ripping filled the air as his voice was replaced with the bellowing of a bear. The two were nearly eye to eye as they challenged each other.
“I eat good. Bear and horse in one day.” The troll crouched down as his saliva watered to the ground.
Let’s hope that he’s all brawn and no brain. Otherwise, this might be bad…
“One… two… three… four…” The whispered words echoed across the lonely room, breaking the unsettling silence. “Don’t do this to me, not today.” The man mumbled to himself as he desperately tried to compose his thundering heart. A large exhale escaped his lips as he smoothed his oiled hair perfectly back in place. “Of all the days, you had to choose this one didn’t you. Couldn’t wait another day, or even give me a few hours to do this, could you?” His foot was fidgeting up and down, trying to distract him from the situation. Glancing towards the door marked ‘RESTROOM’, he bit down on his lower lip to push away the awful feeling building below his belt. Checking his watch, he had one minute before the interview started.
Bolting out of the seat and flying towards the restroom, the door locked him into this small sanctuary. Going to the toilet, he unbuckled his slacks and sat down, releasing all the built up anxiety since last he was here. It was frustrating to say the least, but this was his only way of dealing with it.
Cradling his face in his hands as he spoke, “Why are you doing this to me? Why today? What is it going to say about me if they come looking for me and I’m in the toilet?” His eyes went to the door waiting for the inevitable knock that would highlight his luck for the day. All was silent except for his deep breathing as he reigned in his thoughts. He grabbed his tie and yanked the knot, loosening its grip. The seconds ticked by like a thundering drum as he desperately tried to produce anything for his efforts. A few teaspoons of fluid was all that he could force out.
Finishing, he stood in front of the sink and gazed deep into his eyes while tucking in his shirt. “Too bad you’re too broke to afford the pills, huh? This would be so much easier if I had just one more. But, I don’t. So we have to do it the hard way, peeing every twenty seconds and convincing myself that there’s nothing left. It’s great! I don’t know why I would want it any other way. Do you?” Turning the water on, he focused on washing his hands once again. “I can’t be this way. Gotta put my best foot forward. I can do this. There were sixteen other people that were in the room earlier, now it’s our turn.” Grabbing a handful of paper towels, dried his hands and left the sanctuary.
The moment he stepped out the door, a feminine voice from across the room called his name in a flat voice. “Mr. Jefferson, if you will follow me, please.” Not waiting for him, she turned and walked through the open door. He could hear her heels clicking on the tile floor and raced to catch up to her.
Following the woman, they passed countless hallways and offices, every thing was painted the same light grey color. Turning this way and that, he had no idea which way was out. Coming around a corner, he bumped into a man looking at a paper and without stopping, apologized to him. The number of people packed into this building was unbelievable. Taking a deep breath to pull his heart rate down from the breakneck threat of a heart attack, he continued trailing the woman.
Finally, she turned down a hallway toward an elevator. Pushing the upward arrow, they waited for the elevator to reach their floor. Standing motionless waiting for the elevator was almost enough to make him want to scream. The tension was again building in his gut and just when he was about to ask the woman where a restroom was, the doors dinged open. Without hesitation, she stepped inside to face the control panel. With clenched fists, he followed her. Inserting a key, she turned it to the right and pressed the top floor button.
In the confines of the elevator, her perfume permeated the air. He welcomed the floral distraction as he tried to sway slightly from foot to foot. The floor numbers grew as he looked to see where they were going to. The top floor was the glowing number on the display. Ted Jefferson couldn’t hold back his thoughts any more. “Why are we going to the top floor?” His fists were bumping the sides of his legs.
The woman turned to face him, allowing him a good look at her professional attire. Her voice was softer now, “What they didn’t tell you Mr. Jefferson, is that Mr. Campbell does all the hiring. He wants to know exactly who is working for him on all levels.” Ted’s face went pale as a sheet. His inner voice was screaming in fright as he wanted more than anything to leap out the nearest window. The woman reached forward and fixed his collar and snugged up his loosened tie. “You’ll do fine. Remember this, Mr. Campbell is a person just as you and me. The only difference is that he has enough resources that he can do without either of us. So, it’s up to you to give him a reason to keep you around. Everyone here is replaceable, don’t forget that. I didn’t make it to this level just because I’ve got legs and a pretty face. He wants to know who you are as a person, so, just be yourself. Even if that is a nervous wreck.” The elevator dinged, announcing they had arrived to the top floor.
As the doors opened, her body went went rigged as she stepped out with Ted in tow. “Mr. Campbell, this is Ted Jefferson, the last applicant for the day. Do you need anything from me, sir?”
A man’s scratchy voice came from across the dark room, “That will be all.” Turning on her heel, the woman reentered the elevator as Ted watched the doors swallow her, leaving him alone with Mr. Campbell. “If you can find your way over here, I’ll give you a job.”
Looking across the dimly lit room, Ted could barely make out the outline of Mr. Campbell standing in front of the windows. “Just walk across the room? That’s it?” There was no response from the man as silence echoed through the room. A faint rustle of clothing came from behind him just before he was tackled to the ground and felt his arm wretched behind him and a knee placed on his neck.
“I never said it would be easy, Mr. Jefferson.” The man slowly started to shuffle closer to Ted as he lay on the floor, paralyzed in fear and pain. When the man was a few feet away, he looked down on Ted asking, “Are you just going to lie there?”
Confusion riddled Ted’s thoughts as his mind raced to come up with an answer. Defeat pushed his words out, “I…I don’t know what else to do.”
Mr. Campbell groaned as he came down to the floor, placing his face within inches of Ted’s. “First rule, don’t roll over like a pathetic pansy at the first sign of trouble. Fight back! Show this punk on top of you what you’re made of! Secondly, why should I give you a job in my company? I don’t see any drive in you at all. You let this pig-headed imbecile take you down without a fight. I didn’t make this company what it is by hiring gutless people like you.” He was breathing heavily as he spoke to the person holding Ted, “Get me on my feet.”
The weight on Ted was lifted, allowing him to take a deep breath and bring his arm back to its normal position. Mr. Campbell was helped to his feet and shuffled steps carried him away as he spoke over his shoulder, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jefferson, you have no place in my company. Take the elevator down to floor twelve where Stephanie will give you your final instructions.”
Light flooded the room as the elevator doors opened, casting long shadows across the room. Ted’s heart was pounding as he pursed his lips tightly together and got to his feet. Looking down at the behemoth shadow he was casting, he saw the power and fierceness it portrayed of him. With his shoulders rising and falling with each breath, he pulled at the core of his soul, “No, Mr. Campbell. I’m not going to just walk out of here with my tail between my legs like the coward you think I am. I’ve had to fight for every chance and opportunity I’ve ever got just to be here today. What makes you so much better than me? Money? This company? Big deal. All I wanted from you was a chance to show what I’m capable of. Instead, you’ve only cemented the idea that only idiots run companies any more. And now, I would tell you kiss my rear end even if you did offer me a job. If you cared about the people of this company, instead of just yourself, this place might actually be something someday.” Turning, he stormed towards the elevator. “If you will excuse me, I have another job interview later today that I would like to prepare for.”
A sudden jarring motion woke me from the sleep that I had unknowingly slipped into. “Mr. Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson. Mr. Campbell will see you now.” Blinking away the sleep and seeing the acne covered face in front of me pulled me back to reality. The other men in the room where shaking their heads and chuckling to themselves. ‘Let them laugh,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to nail this interview.’
The polished blade drew closer to the tender, scared flesh of my arm as I wonder what others will say when they see the sleeves again. It was no secret I was a cutter. I couldn’t help it. It was the only way I felt relief from the pains. My best friend Kylee would probably be the most upset with me. She was the only one that was willing to put up with my stupid antics. My biggest fear was losing her as my sole friend.
It was a bad one this time. My parents and I never seem to agree on anything, especially my friends. I wanted to be able to hang out with the skaters, but they insisted I try to find better friends. Kylee was who we argued about the most. We yelled and screamed for almost an hour before I stormed out of the house with my backpack in hand. I would sleep at anyone’s house but my own tonight. Normally I would go to Kylee’s and crash on their couch, but they were out of town for the weekend. I ended up in an alley beside the skate park sobbing in the corner. No one understood me. No one cared for me. It would be better if I could just disappear.
My knife came out of my pocket and I fingered the edge on it. Those conversations with Micah proved useful as he taught me how to sharpen a blade. He was learning to be a taxidermist and told me that a sharp knife was crucial for a good mount.
A small cut not deep enough to bleed showed me the blade was ready for service. I would have to be careful to not cut too deep. The last time Kylee cut herself laying in a tub of water, she nearly bleed to death before someone found her. I never wanted to go that far; I just wanted to somehow feel alive.
The first cut was always the most delicate until relaxed and allowed the blade to taste my flesh. Two inches from my elbow was generally where I started but this time I didn’t care. Something inside me snapped and four irregular cuts appeared before my eyes as the blade played and danced upon my skin. It hurt like mad.
“What are you doing that for?” A unfamiliar voice questioned.
“What do you care?” I snapped. I didn’t care who it was, I wanted to be left alone.
“You have such a pretty complexion. Why are you making yourself ugly?” The voice was deep and masculine. As my tears intermingled with strands of blood, my eyes searched for the man.
“What are you talking about? I’ve never been considered pretty.” The venom spewed forth, warning him about the my self-loathing.
“Not when you do that,” pointing at my arms. “What is so bad in your life that you would do that to yourself?” Wiping the tears from my eyes, I noticed for the first time that he was the biggest African-American I had ever seen. Dressed in a black suit with a light-pink handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket, a smile hinted at the corner of his mouth.
“Since when is an ugly white girl of any concern to you?” I didn’t care who he was, I just wanted to left alone.
He casually lowered himself into a squat and held out his hand, “May I see your knife?”
“If you keep it, I’ll just get another one,” I said as I handed it to him point first. He grasped the blade and allowed me to release my grip. With a quick flick of the wrist, he held the knife by the handle. This was not his first time with one.
“I know. I just want to make sure that you’re using safe equipment. A dull and rusty blade will do more harm than a knife of this exceptional quality.” He continued inspecting the knife, including testing the edge. “You superstitious?”
Closing the blade, he handed it back to me. “That’s a nice knife. It will come in handy one day during your travels.”
Crossing my arms over my knees, “I’m not traveling.”
Rising, “No? Where are you staying tonight? Got a home to go to?” He was seeing right through me like a pane of glass.
Looking down at my aching arm I said almost under my breath, “I’m not going home tonight.”
“I thought as much. Come. Let’s clean your arm and dress it and then get something to eat.”
My eyes met his. “I don’t even know your name and you want me to go with you?”
Holding out his hand, “I’m Greg. Greg McDonald.”
I didn’t know what to do. I would sleep on the street before I went home. But, I felt so alone and wanted more than anything for someone to see me for who I really was. Returning the handshake, “Cindi Blackshire.”
He pulled me to my feet with an unexpected strength from someone with so much grey in his hair. We walked around the corner and entered a narrow doorway. He turned sideways to fit through, I felt small following him up the creaky stairs. On the second floor we went down a few doors and he rapped a peculiar rhythm on a door labeled 2D. I heard someone unbolting it and watched it open a few inches. He turned to me and signaled to follow. I still couldn’t figure this man out. We had nothing in common except that we were both living in the same city.
The room smelled of something sweet. Greg said over his shoulder, “Grannie is an excellent baker. Her parents ran a bakery when she was growing up.”
I looked around the room. Outdated furniture and items that looked older than I was occupied the room. It reminded me of my late grandmother. I didn’t realize how much I missed her.
An older, feminine voice called out from the kitchen, “Would the two of you like some apple cobbler? Its fresh.”
Greg took a deep breath, taking in the aroma of the wonderful smells. Exhaling he leaned towards me, “We won’t find a better dessert in all the city. You want some?” He was rubbing his round belly. I never had real baked desserts before, only the boxed garbage that my step-mom tried to make on occasion.
“Sure. Is there a bathroom where I could clean my arm? I don’t want to make a mess on Grannie’s floor.”
“Yeah. Down the hall to the right. Clean it, but don’t wrap it up. I want Grannie to look at it when you’re done.”
“I’m a big girl now. I think I can clean it myself.”
Grannie’s voice barked from the kitchen, “What are you two talking about out there? Greg, you better not be getting my floor dirty.”
He shooed me along, as he spoke to Grannie. “I’m showing her where the bathroom is. Can you make us both some cobbler please?”
I hurried down the hall being careful not to brush up against anything. Grannie seemed particular about her things. The bathroom smelled of soap and other fresheners. Oranges and lemons stood out among them. I really didn’t want to show her my arm because she would probably accuse me of being stupid just like everyone else did.
Watching the blood swirl around the drain and finding an escape down the drain made me want to disappear. I didn’t deserve these people’s hospitality. Maybe I could sneak out if they were in the kitchen. It was worth a try. The water on my arm was burning the cuts. The blade cut deeper than usual this time. Grabbing some paper, I pressed it to the cuts to stop the bleeding. Grannie’s floor was important to her and I didn’t want to leave a stain in the carpet that would remind them of the stupid white girl.
Coming out of the bathroom I heard Grannie scolding Greg for something in her thick accent. “Greg! I told you to stay out of that until my guest gets here. You know better than that. I know because I taught your momma. And I also know that she broke lots of wooden spoons over your thick head teaching you the same.”
Greg was laughing as he sped out of the kitchen, “Hey there you are. Come in the kitchen so we don’t have to wait any longer. Her cobbler tastes fantastic fresh from the oven.”
“I, uh…just remembered I have to met a friend downtown. Thank you for all you did.” I tried to make a break for the door but Grannie’s voice stopped me in my tracks.
“Young lady. You get in here this minute and let me look at your arm. Your friend can wait.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and followed Greg.
Grannie was busy shuffling through drawers and getting silverware placed on the table. Our mismatched silverware at home was cheap and bent. Grannie’s were perfect with flowers trailing down the handles. “Let me see your arm, dearie.” She approached me with her hands held out as I surrendered to her. Her glasses were thick and made her glowing eyes shine bigger and brighter than anyone I knew. She brought her face in close, making me feel uncomfortable as she examined my arm.
Clucking her tongue in a chiding way she leaned back upright. She shook her head in disappointment. “Dearie, dearie, dearie” she looked me in the eye with a broken heart. “Why do you do this to yourself? You have a beautiful spirit within you.” Gently lowering my arm, she turned without waiting for my answer and went to another room. I heard her mumbling to herself as she rummaged through things looking for something. As she came back she had her arms full of small bottles and cloth.
“What is all this for?” I was expecting a big bandage and some ointment. Greg was the one to answer, while Grannie mumbled to herself.
“Grannie’s grandmother was a nurse in the war. She eventually served as a nurse in a village and she learned a lot about natural medicine from the locals. She passed it down to Grannie’s mother who passed it to her. It will help, just trust her.”
“Why do you and Grannie want to help me so much? Nobody else even tries. They just scold me for cutting myself and say stupid things like, ‘You shouldn’t do that.’”
Greg dropped his head and rubbed the back of his neck as Grannie worked on my arm without missing a beat. Greg let out a long sigh as he slowly brought his eyes to meet mine. I had struck on something deep. Had I offended him? What did I care if I did anyhow?
Greg allowed Grannie to finish wrapping my arm with a loose gauze and let her put all the ointments and oils back before explaining. “There was a young man about your age that needed help once, and no one around here would help him. He struggled in school, society, basically everywhere. He thought no one cared about him.”
“It was then that he started cutting to gain the attention of people around him. No one seemed to notice. So he started cutting more frequently and deeper as well. No one wanted to deal with him. One day, as he was running water for his kid brother, one of his cuts starting bleeding and dripped into the bathtub. His brother wouldn’t bathe in the water because it wasn’t clean.”
“He ran away that evening and sat alone in an alley. When darkness had swallowed everything in sight, he decided that it would be better had he never lived and wanted to disappear forever. That was when he brought the razor blade to his wrist and opened up his arms from wrist to elbow. As his arms began to get cold, he shivered and embraced the loneliness that the night had brought for him. He would be alone forever on this night.”
Grannie jumped in and took over the story. “That was when I found him half-dead in the alley. He was slipping into unconsciousness and I knew that if I didn’t do something that he would die in the filth of the alley. I brought him home and nursed him back to health. I was much younger then. Now he is making a difference in his community by encouraging others to be more.”
“What is he doing now?”
Greg laughed softly as he began rolling up his sleeves to reveal a set of enormous scars running the length of his arms. He laid his arms on the table much to the disapproval of Grannie.
I caught my breath. “You were the cutter?” Reaching out, I ran a finger along the length of one scar as thick as my little finger.
He didn’t flinch but merely sighed at the revealing of his past. The pains and memories were still as fresh as they had happened yesterday. “Yes. I was a cutter once.”
“You were lucky that a family member found you and was able to help you.” Greg and Grannie both chuckled at this statement.
“I’m not his grandmother, child. We are in fact not even related unless you go back to the flood.” Grannie said with the sincerity and love that was undeniable.
Greg rolled his sleeves back down, “She puts others ahead of her own needs even if she doesn’t know them. It’s what God would have all of us do.”
Shamefully looking away, I said, “God could never love me. Nobody could.”
Grannie held my hands in hers, “Why do you say this, dearie? God loves all those He creates. He doesn’t do anything out of waste. He created you for a reason.” Grannie spoke with conviction.
“I’ve never seen anything that told me He cares for me. I’ve not seen anything from anyone that tells me they care.” No sooner had the words left my lips did I wish I could take them back.
“Child, look at me.” Lifting my eyes to the only woman to show me love and compassion, she reprimanded me as I deserved. “Look at those bandages on your arms and tell me that no ones cares for you. How do you think you got here if no one cares? Why did you come to me if no one cares? Hmm? Answer me.”
She had pushed deep into my thoughts and pulled out the truth; people did care about me, but I was too stubborn to acknowledge it. “Greg found me on the streets and spoke to me. He was the first one to speak to me since I left home. You’re the first woman to show any kindness to me.” Tears ran down my face as I choked the words out.
“Wipe those tears from you eyes, dearie. We only cry around here when we lose a loved one. You have just gained two loved ones this evening and if you allow Him, He will be another in your life as well.”
I never cried as hard as I did that evening. I never knew that people could care on a level that they did for those they didn’t know. The following weeks firmed these thoughts in my mind.
I got to spend more time with Greg and Grannie. Going home to open arms and tears changed the way I saw my parents. Things began to improve once I started taking Greg’s advice about people. I also learned that Greg was a minister for a local church. I went to see him speak on several occasions and eventually became a believer. Since then I’ve gradually became a much happier person.
Grannie always has a warm smile and loving embrace when I come to visit. Before meeting Grannie, I had always thought people like her were different. It turns out that I couldn’t be farther from the truth. They can be just as loving and caring as anyone else. I owe my future to Greg. Had he not talked to me that evening, who knows where I would have ended up in life.
I never cared for the clicking that the heel plates cried out with as I pressed my way to the front of the crowd. Some saw them as a sign of prosperity and achievement, I saw them as a way to lessen my steps. The crowd was pushing in hard today, the affects of the war were driving people mad at the hardships placed upon them. I was only able to escape the troubles of the lower classes because my job fed off the inequalities of society. If ever there were a chance at becoming king of the hypocrites, I would surely take the throne.
A quick check of my hand proved my press pass was still in place. It was my life, that small four by six card with red lettering on a golden-yellow background. How my life had changed since that night Mr. Jefferson offered me the job.
With my target dead ahead of me, there was no deterring my aim. I would have my questions answered so that others could twist them to suit their fancy later. It was a bittersweet relationship with the Global. A love affair that I dare not upset for fear of death. While they wouldn’t dare kill me physically, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill my reputation. In this day and age, a man’s reputation was worth his weight in gold if he could live up to it.
“Mayor Greggor!” He was ignoring my shout but I knew I had to pursue anyway. “Mayor Greggor! Is it true that you stand to lead the way in the war resistance?”
“I have no time nor comment for you, vagrant. Be on your way.” He never broke stride as he made his statement.
“Mayor, is it true that you are no longer supporting the war efforts?”
“It matters not whether I answer your questions truthfully. Media members always seek to undermine those in authority to improve their standings with the masses.”
I was about to fire off another question to try to trap him in his words when a fist collided with my jaw, snapping my head sideways and sending me to the blackest darkness of the deepest nights. I laid there half in the street and half lumped over the curb like another drunk that littered the streets of the city. No one thought anything of me for hours. The horse refuse that soiled my pant leggings proved this fact. That was the biggest problem with this city, no one cared for anyone else. I regretfully counted myself among this population as well.
The street lighter at least had the decency to wake me. Albeit with a nudge of his peg legs as he couldn’t bend down from his height. He was also the one that reported the dead to the street sweeper. I guess when I think about it, he was just doing his job.
I never felt so awful in my whole life. My head swirled as the migraine inside pounded away like the lively band at the local saloon. This was not a good start to the evening. Now I just hope I could survive the verbal thrashing Mr. Jefferson would pelt me with for being late to the office. The sound of hurried heel plates clicking on the brick street echoed through the night.
“Well, well, well. Look who finally decided to come to work tonight.” Everyone’s eyes turned on me as Mr. Jefferson chuckled lightly at his jest. “I hope you have a good story for being this late.” What ever they had been discussing before I got there was now sidelined.
“I was questioning Mayor Greggor about his involvement in the war. He didn’t give me anything to go on.”
“No. But somebody gave you something judging by that eye of yours.”
I hadn’t noticed that my eye was slowly starting to swell up. It must have happened when I hit the ground. “Someone caught me flat footed and laid me out on the street. These things happen.”
“These things do NOT happen. Not to my reporters. If you want to go back to lying on the streets, then be done with it. Otherwise, you will bring me my story, understood?” There was no arguing with this man, so I nodded with silent regret. “You are dismissed, Mr. Leigh.”
The walk home stretched out over time that night. Not that it was any considerable distance, but more due to the heavy steps that dragged along. My world seemed to be slipping from my grasp. Like being in the bottom of a well with the slimy muddy walls preventing me from climbing out. It felt as if the bottom of this pit were consuming me slowly without mercy.
“What’s the matter, tapper? Hard day at work?” Snickering followed the jest as I turned to face the voice I knew so well.
“What do you want, Broadbent? Nobody else smaller than you around to pick on? Or am I just lucky tonight?”
“Normally, I just jump people and ask questions later. So I would say ‘lucky’, for the moment anyway.” For being a large framed guy, his nasally voice never seemed to do him any favors.
“I’ve had a long day and I would like to be on my way, goodnight.” I managed to turn and get a few paces before Broadbent called out to me.
“Hey Tapper! The next time you talk to the Mayor, let me come along. I got some unfinished business with him.” I turned to question his motives, but he was gone.
My hand was fixed in the air as I hesitated to knock on the door. I was about to wake a sleeping bear and didn’t know if I would survive the anticipated outcome.
“It’s now or never kid. Either knock on the door and face your fear or run and hide from it.” I didn’t know the man that spoke those words to me that day. It was the first and last time I ever saw him at the office. Letting out the pent up breath I harbored, my knuckles fell heavy on the frosted glass of Mr. Jefferson’s door.
“Come in.” Twisting the handle, I entered the den and sealed my way of retreat behind me. His office was dark with the shades drawn and the only light in the room emanating from the lamp on his desk. The smoke trailed its way to the ceiling as he sat back in his chair and removed his glasses. “Mr. Leigh. What brings you here today? Reporters don’t clock in until five o’clock.”
The silence that stretched its wings in the room was unbearable. “I’ve come to turn in my press pass.” The tip of his cigar glowed as a red hot cherry while he contemplated what he heard.
“Do you smoke, Mr. Leigh?”
“I’ve never been able to support the habit, sir.”
With his cigar in hand he pointed across the room, “They’re in that box on the top shelf. Help yourself to one. You won’t find a better one in all the city.” Walking the short distance to the shelf, I felt his heavy gaze boring into my back. The thick smell of tobacco assaulted my nose as I gently lifted the lid of the box. I had seen people smoke cigars, but never had I seen such variety in one man’s possession. Long fat ones and thinner short ones lined themselves up at attention as I searched for the one that called my name. Knowing nothing of cigars, I blindly reached inside and felt for the first one.
Walking back to his desk, I felt his presence looming behind the desk as he ask the question I dreaded. “You smoked one before?” Dropping my gaze, I shook my head. “Hand it over.” How humiliating. I thought that I would finally stand up for myself today but only managed to fall flat on my face. Once he had the cigar in his hand he followed up his previous question with one of equal magnitude. “Have you ever dreamed, Mr. Leigh?” I couldn’t tell what he was doing as I tried to think of a coherent answer. I felt like a fool for letting the silence stretch on for as long as it did. Eventually a sharp snip was heard and he handed it back to me.
“Yes. As a boy I dreamed of becoming someone great. But, as I grew older, I realized that dreams are for children and the real world has a way of squandering one’s efforts for doing so. I don’t remember the last time I dreamed, sir.”
He slid open the middle drawer as he wheeled backwards. Removing a stick, he stood up and dipped it into the lamp’s flame. Another flame joined his brother in the room as he held out the stick for me to take. “Don’t light it directly. Let the flame do the work.” He sat back down and took another draw from his cigar without letting it leave his mouth. A small smile curled his lips.
I struggled to get the cigar to glow its tender cherry hue. After what felt like an eternity, Mr. Jefferson beamed with delight as I extinguished the stick. “Draw softly and don’t inhale the smoke.” I had never seen anyone so alive as this man was at the moment.
Releasing a puff of smoke into the air, I asked the burning question on my mind. “Mr. Jefferson, why did you ask me if I dream?”
“Mr. Leigh, I was once like you, poor and destitute. But I still had dreams.” He let that statement hang in the air as he puffed his cigar. I never knew that he came from such humble beginnings. “But, I was different than you. I reached out and embraced the dream, letting it pass through my inner core until I became my dream. I don’t believe that you have anything to grasp onto at the moment, do you, Mr. Leigh?” I didn’t know how this man could see right through me, but he could.
“You said that you wanted to become someone great. Someone that people look up to, right?” I merely nodded, afraid that my words would reveal too much of my inner fear. “Then let’s start at the bottom. It matters not where we come from, but where we are heading. Our dreams serve as our compass in this. If you dream of things above you, then keep your head up. Don’t lose focus of the target or you forget where you are going. To become someone great, you have to work at it slowly. Establish your roots, and stand strong.”
“Why me? Out of all the others that were there that night, why me?”
“I saw how you pushed and shoved your way to the front of the crowd. That is the kind of attitude I want in my reporters. You don’t let others stand in the way of what you want. That is why I chose you. Which surprises me that you want to turn in your press pass.” He picked up the card from his desk where it lay like an elephant in the room. I sheepishly avoided him.
“I don’t think I have what it takes to be a reporter. There are others that are more qualified than I am that should be given a chance.”
He flipped the card at me, “I refuse to let you quit. First off, you’re aiming too high for a story. I have ‘others’ that give me what I want to know about the mayor so leave him alone. What I want from you is to know what is going on with the people. You know the people from where you’re from, give me those stories. Show me the inequalities of the classes. You can become someone great by reporting on things of that nature. The people will see you as a hero for shining the spotlight on their troubles. That is how things get addressed in this city. Do you think that the politicians are the ones that fixed the war between the unions? No. It was the media that brought it to light that got people to discuss it among themselves. This is the job that I have in store for you. Bring me the news and I will change the city with it. But, if you still feel like you are ‘inadequate’ for the job, then turn in your press pass.” His hand lay open towards me. The decision of my life was now on the table.
Placing the press pass in my breast pocket, I looked him in the eye and said, “I have an idea.”
Ever since Christi’s brother disappeared, a hole appeared in her life. Wesley was always there for her like a true friend. Since his disappearance, she was slowly slipping into a pit of depression without anyone to pull her out. She found herself visiting Rasheed’s bar more than her own home. Lost in thought, she tried to drown out her woes with a soft drink. Someone in a black trench-coat climbed up on the bar-stool beside her, pulling her back to reality.
“Hi. I’m Easton. I’m looking for someone named Christi, are you her by chance? I was told I could find her here. She’s got brown hair, green eyes, and her face has lots of freckles.”
She furrowed her brows, hiding under her shoulder length hair. “Who wants to know?”
“I don’t want to be rude, but, if you’re not Christi, I need to know. I don’t have a lot of time to waste hanging out in bars.”
Christi took a second to look the guy over while his attention was elsewhere. His black hair was pulled over the right side of his face exposing the near-shaven area around his left ear. A lip ring with a black bead caught her eye as it danced on his lower lip as he spoke. He was youthful, 20, 22? She wasn’t sure why anyone would be looking for her, she felt transparent majority of the time.
“Did you hear me?” Easton was looking at her with a small hint of a smile tugging at his mouth.
“Sorry. What were you saying?” She turned to face him for the first time.
“I was asking your name.”
“Oh, um, Christi.”
“Yes, that’s me.”
Easton’s eyes came alive at the confirmation. “Will you come with me? I need to talk to you, and I can’t risk other people hearing it.” He leaned uncomfortably close whispering, “It’s about your brother.”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear what he had to say. The thought of her brother being dead was more than she wanted to hear at the moment. But the way he looked at her told another story. Reaching into her coat pocket, she checked for her pepper spray. What if he’s a rapist? Suppose he’s telling the truth? No one had breathed a word about Wesley since his disappearance until Easton. It didn’t look like there was any other choice, “Okay, let’s hear it.”
Easton slid off the stool, “Not here. Come on.”
“At least tell me if he’s alive.”
“Yes, he’s alive…for now at least. I can’t tell you anymore than that in here.”
“Can you walk slower?” Easton’s pace felt like he was dragging her along.
“Sorry.” He stopped and turned to face her as he took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Do you want the beat-around-the-bush version, or the short and sweet version? I don’t want to throw too much at you at once.”
Adjusting her grip on her pepper spray, “Short and sweet. I like the truth without all the B.S.”
“Okay, here it goes. I’m a member of a secret group called The Four Winds. We’re guardian angels for certain individuals of importance. The others call me ‘East’, and I’ve been assigned to you. I prefer the term ‘protector’, but whatever. And no, we don’t have wings, although I wish I did. That would make things so much easier. I can’t tell you anything more about us, but, we need your help for a mission. There really isn’t an option for you to say no. Which is why I hope that you will help us. I’m not suppose to bring you in by force, but, I will do my job no matter what.”
“Fancy story. Do you have any proof to back it up?”
“So, you’re in?”
“Show me proof.”
“I can do better than that.”
Someone grabbed Christi from behind as a damp cloth was placed over her mouth. Struggling to get free, the last thing she saw was Easton mouthing, ‘I’m sorry.’
Christi shook her head, trying to shake the fog that had appeared there.
“Hey, how are you doing?” His voice was soft, like curtains pushed by the wind.
Christi tried to look around as she laid on a cot. “What happened? Where am I?”
“We have to keep this place secret. North goes a little too far sometimes. I’m sorry about drugging you like that, I tried to convince him not to do it.”
“Remind me to punch him when I see him.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Why not? He drugged me!”
“You’ll see what I mean.”
Wiggling her toes and fingers, she slowly worked her limbs, pushing out the soreness. “Will you help me sit up?” Cupping her elbow, she swung her legs over the side of the cot. The cool concrete floor sent chills through her socks.
“Where is my shirt?” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“You were sweating, so South took your long-sleeve shirt off.” He went to the foot of the cot, grabbing her shoes and shirt. “She said you had a cami on under it and that it wasn’t a big deal. Here.” Handing her the denim shirt, Christi tugged it on, buttoning the front buttons. Easton placed her shoes in front of her, trying to hide the redness in his cheeks.
Lacing her shoes, she glanced around the room. Numerous cots were lined up unoccupied. Duffel bags lined the walls and a white plastic table with metal chairs sat waiting at the far end of the room.
“Sleeping Beauty finally woke up, huh?” A bubbly, young woman with purple hair and white bangs pushed off the wall and strode over to them. “I’m South. You know East, and that hunk of beef over there is North.” Turning in the direction she pointed, Christi saw a man so cold that made a snowman look warm. He was a mammoth of a man with skin as dark as the moonless night. His lime-green mohawk added fierceness to his impressive frame. He wore a trench-coat unbuttoned with the sleeves ripped off at the shoulders, allowing his tree trunk arms to move freely. His pectoral muscles danced under his coat, reaffirming Easton’s statement about not punching him.
As she turned back to South, she noticed a diamond labret piercing adding an energetic flair to her never ending smile. A hunter green trench-coat covered most of her curvy form, but could not conceal her inner beauty. She was a radiant display of joy and happiness. “Let’s go. Hephaestus is waiting for us in the next room.”
Christi looked up at her, “Who?”
“Hephaestus? God of fire and metalworking?” Christi could only shrug her shoulders. “Come on.”
With Easton’s help, Christi was able to stand with minor dizziness. The next room was larger than Christi guessed it to be. Metal lockers lined one wall while a vast array of weapons and armor displayed in the center of the room captured her attention. The downtown museum would lust after these items that were being casually displayed in the open air. Christi was about to ask what the weapons were for, when a door in the rear of the room opened, and she could hear an abnormal walking pattern. It was heavily one-sided with a metallic click between steps. It reminded her of the too many horror movies she watched late at night.
A thick, deafening voice boomed throughout the room as Hephaestus came closer, “Ah, good. The young lady came. This will make things smoother for us. Come, we have much to discuss.”
As they headed towards the voice, curiosity overwhelmed Christi as she craned her neck to see around a case. The form she saw wasn’t far from her imagination. A figure that dwarfed North stood in the middle of a small sitting area. She wondered how he was able to squeeze through the door until she realized the height of the doorway. His hair was flaming-red, and he would periodically stroke his beard. She could see spots where it was singed. She couldn’t detect an ounce of fat on him as his muscles hummed with anticipation. He gripped an intricately detailed walking cane composed of more types of metal than she could recognize.
“Christi, I am Hephaestus.” Stroking his beard out of habit. “I’ve brought all of you here because something very dear to me has been stolen, my son, Talos. I forged him ages ago, and he served me well until Jason and Medea interfered. After she removed the bronze nail, all his ichor drained out, leaving him lifeless. Ichor grants us immortality. Which is why I brought him back home, keeping him safe until the day that I could restore it to him. I used some of my own ichor the first time, but now I fear that I don’t have enough to complete the task.”
“What does this have to do with me? Where do I fit in all this?”
“Your twin brother, Wesley, received the West Wind blessing two years ago, adding himself to the Four Winds. Which is why he suddenly ‘disappeared’ from your life. The secrecy surrounding the Four Winds is important, as you can tell. He has already gone ahead to confront Glaucus alone. I have underestimated Glaucus, and now I fear for West. Which is why you are here, Christi. If he is dead, then you have a very good chance of receiving the blessing of the West Wind.”
Easton took a step forward, “Christi, there must be someone for each Wind blessing. Wesley had the West Wind, strongest of all, which is why he went alone. We all thought he could handle the mission. If something has happened to him, we need you to take his place.”
“I underestimated Glaucus once. Believe me when I say that it will not happen again. I need all of you. I cannot go because I fear that Glaucus will capture me, drain my own ichor, and use it to turn my son into a monster. I’m not as strong as I was all those years ago. Glaucus is much younger and stronger than I. Please, bring my son and Wesley home.”
Christi looked up at him, “I’m going to save my brother.”
Kneeling down so he could look her in the eye, “That’s the spirit I need. But, you cannot go alone. Which is why, all of you will need some new toys to play with. All made by yours truly, of course. Follow me.” Hephaestus struggled to get back to his feet. “I think it’s only fitting that you have the finest I’ve ever made and collected to save my son.”
Hephaestus led the way to a room that was a step back in time. Christi let out a gasp as she entered the room. The furniture and tapestries were of priceless quality as she drew her hands close to her chest, afraid to touch anything. “This way,” Hephaestus’s voice drawing their attention. “North, come here.” North strode forward, awaiting his orders. “North, I recognize a selfless soldier when I see one. I also see the scars that tell me your fighting style.” At this, North puffed up to his full size. “My point exactly. Which is why you will need the Nemean Lion’s hide.”
North’s heavy feet carried him to a case in the wall where a lion hide hung on a faceless bust. Casting his coat aside, he reached up and grabbed the hide, pulling it around his bare shoulders as a smirk of pride crept over his lips. As he came back to stand in front of Hephaestus, the arms of the hide swung with his steps.
Hephaestus gestured with his hand, “Put your arms through the sleeve bands. It has the claws intact which can cut through anything, giving enough force.” He winked at North, resulting in a gold-capped smile. Hephaestus pulled the mane up on North’s head. “The Nemean Lion hide cannot be cut or pierced except by the claws you bear. It will also help keep you cool in hot climates.” The upper portion of the lion head rested on North’s head with the teeth being a dazzling contrast to his near-black skin. It looked like he was being attacked by a lion from behind. North was obviously well-pleased with this gift.
“South, you get a shield of feathers.”
“See for yourself.” He pointed to a case.
She looked at the others before walking to the case. As she got closer, she shielded her eyes from the intense glare coming off the shield. Hephaestus called from across the room, “Do be careful how you handle it. There is no sharper metal in all the earth than the feathers of that shield.” South hesitated in front of it. She knew how deadly the throwing knives concealed under her coat were, and how sharp she kept them. Delicately, she reached around the edge, feeling for something to grab. Her fingers found a leather strap she used to pull it of the case.
“It’s so light.”
“Yes. I kept a stymphalian bird for a time. I’m not partial to living pets, I prefer my own metallic creatures. As with any bird, it molted its metal feathers much to my annoyance. I thought the feathers were too beautiful to waste, so I made this shield with them. It was a tedious task because I didn’t want to lose the details of the feathers. However, it is still a tool, and I expect you to use it so.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
“And now, for you two.” Easton and Christi came to him. “East, you are serving as Christi’s guardian angel.” Easton rolled his eyes at the words. “However, you will also need protection. Hold out your hands.” Hephaestus placed a velvet cloth containing various polished stones in Easton’s palm, describing each in turn.
“They take effect when they touch your body. This one, is the shadow of Erebus. It will allow you to blend into the shadows.” It was black, reflecting Easton’s face back at him. A brown-striped tiger’s eye followed, “The dreams of Hypnos. Be cautious with this one, time can be lost sleeping. Next, we have the strength of Kratos.” A rough, crystal clear piece of muscovite joined the others in his hand. “And finally, the luck of Caerus because you’re going to need all you can to defeat Glaucus.” A twisted, multicolored pebble stood out among the others. Easton poked the stones with his gloved hand, rolling them around, taking in the different colors. His lips mouthed the names of each one, committing them to memory. Christi leaned in to see the stones better.
“And one more thing, East. Being Christi’s guardian angel is important and dangerous work, but should you fail, use this.” He tossed a golden sunflower seed at him. “Blessed by Apollo himself, it gives one person, a second chance at life. He gave it to me after I brought Talos home, but I think it would be of more use to you during this mission.” He looked Christi in the eye, speaking cautiously, “My dear, I have nothing that will aide you on this mission because you are a mortal. But, I can give you something that even my second wife, Aglaea, never wore.” He walked to a case with his cane clicking in rhythm as she followed him.
“This is a necklace I made to escape boredom. I don’t need to tell you what it does because that will be obvious soon enough.” Christi’s jaw dropped at seeing the golden serpent with jeweled scales and two heads forming the clasp. “Not everything I make is for war, my dear.” He leaned his cane against the case, and removed the necklace. Christi turned around, pulling her hair out of the way. A shiver ran down her spine as the cold metal touched her skin. When she heard the snap of the clasp, she dropped her hair. It was heavier than she expected it to be, as she traced a finger along its scaly surface. Raising her head, she saw Easton staring at her slack-jawed.
“What?” He only continued staring at her. A cat call whistle from South, and North raising an eyebrow made her turn to face Hephaestus. A smile lifted the corners of his face as he handed her an intricately detailed hand mirror from the case. As she looked into it, she hardly recognized the face that returned her gaze. The split ends and dryness of her hair were gone. She touched her face, searching for the missing freckles. She felt beautiful from the inside out. A smile spread across her face, displaying a dazzling set of perfectly set, white teeth. It felt like someone had filled her with happiness. No longer were her thoughts plagued with negativity. No more hiding under baggy clothes and long sleeves. She could finally see life within her, and she didn’t want to part with it. The value of the necklace became clear, as she thought about how much money someone would pay to possess this magical necklace. As she was handing the mirror back to Hephaestus, it slipped from her hands. Tiny pieces of glass scattered across the hard floor.
“Don’t worry about the mirror, Christi. It’s nothing that I can’t fix. Now, I suggest the four of you get going.” He handed them a folded paper. “Take this. It will show you how to find Glaucus’s island. He has the power of prophecy, so don’t be surprised if he knows your coming.”
Lush, green vegetation covered the surface of the island. The recent storm had washed the leaves clean, allowing them to give the visitors a vibrant greeting. The white sandy beach stretched for miles in both directions as the top of the metal speed boat slid open.
Something colossal bellowed behind them, and before she spun around to see what it was, it slid under the water with uncanny speed. North beached the boat as everyone scrambled to get to shore. Just as Christi was about to jump, her foot slipped causing her to tumble into the water. Easton was quickly there to help her with a big smile on his face.
“You okay? What happened?”
“I’m fine. My foot slipped or something. I don’t know why I’m so clumsy all of a sudden.”
As they followed North and South, a dark-cloaked figure emerged from the tree line, holding a trident and net. South was the first to express her distaste, “Great. Company.” The figure began walking towards them, and Christi couldn’t stop herself from running forward.
The figure threw back his hood, revealing the familiar face of Christi’s twin brother. “What are you doing here?” The surprise evident in his voice.
“Hephaestus sent me here to get the West Wind blessing in case something happened to you.”
“Let’s hope nothing does. Glaucus is this way.”
At the end of the hallway, the expansive room that opened up before them reminded Christi of paintings of ancient bath-houses. In the middle of the room surrounded by steps leading down to it was a pool of dark-blue water. Steam escaped through cracks in the corners of the room elevating the room’s humidity. In the middle of the pool, a man reclined bare-chested against the steps with his eyes closed. He appeared to be in his thirties and fit.
The signal was given; to split up, and surround him. As Christi took a step, her foot caught on the edge of a raised floor tile, causing her to let out a small shriek as Easton caught her arm. The man’s eyes instantly narrowed down on them as he grabbed a conch shell that lay on the step beside him. “Who are you? Why are you here?” He held the shell close to his lips, prepared to sound it in a moment’s span.
South spoke up, “Hephaestus sent us to retrieve Talos for him. Where is he?”
“Hephaestus is seeking Talos. Of course.” As his eyes searched the group, they stopped on Christi. “Who are you? I recognize the Four Winds but…” His words trailed off as both Easton and Wesley stepped in front of her. Everyone was on guard.
South barked at him, “Stop playing games. Tell us where Talos is, and we’ll let you live.”
“Ha! You don’t even know why Hephaestus sent you here. Did it ever occur to you to ask why I would want a giant, egotistical manifestation of Hephaestus? I’ve seen through prophesy, what he plans to do with it, which is why I’ve stolen his precious son.” Putting the shell on the step, Glaucus hoisted himself out of the water to the first step, showing his scaly, fish like lower half. “Come closer, and let us speak in peace. There is much you do not know. I’m not the monster in this story. Please.”
No one moved an inch. Finally, South took cautious steps forward, tailed by North and the others. Glaucus gestured for them to sit but they remained standing. “Very well. Hephaestus plans to revive his metal son with ichor. Ichor can only be found flowing through the veins of a god, which is why he sacrificed some of his the first time to give Talos life. It was fortunate that Talos was stopped the first time before he could overthrow any of the gods. I fear Hephaestus will try again, but I do not know which of the gods he now targets. Which is why I arranged for Talos to be brought here, where I can keep him under a careful eye. Your arrival has only cemented my thoughts.”
Glaucus again looked at Christi, “What is your name, mortal? I find it annoying to refer to you as ‘mortal’.”
“Christi, may I say, you are one of the most fair skinned maidens that I’ve seen in many years. Tell me, have you always been so beautiful?”
“No.” She touched the serpents encircling her neck.
“I thought so. Did Hephaestus give you that necklace?”
“Yes. I never saw myself as pretty, but this necklace has made me perfect.”
“Of course it did. It is the Necklace of Harmonia. Blessed with beauty and cursed with ill-fated luck. Have you noticed that since wearing it, you’ve experienced a bit of bad luck?” Christi furrowed her brows as she thought back to the broken mirror and falling into the water. “It was cursed by Hephaestus himself eons ago.”
Christi lifted her hair as Easton tried to undo the clasp, but the more he tried the tighter the serpents gripped each other. “It won’t loosen.”
“Hephaestus doesn’t give up easily. No doubt it will hold until the job is done, your death that is. I’m surprised it hasn’t succeeded already. Harmonia didn’t last long wearing it.” Glaucus turned his head slightly as if listening before a look of fear came over his face as he grabbed the shell and dove into the water. The wall behind him blasted inward, throwing the large bricks towards the group. North gritted his teeth, as he raised his arms to shield himself. South crouched behind her shield. Easton took Christi to the ground as West created a barrier of wind blocking the bricks headed at him.
As the dust cleared, Easton whispered to Christi, “Are you okay?” Silence was his answer. A golden, limp snake fell on his arm. He turned Christi’s face to his. Her eyes dilated, and blood pooled on the floor. “NO! No…” Christi’s skin lost its perfect smoothness and her face once again displayed its freckles.
A voice whispered in Easton’s ear, “Second life…blessed by Apollo himself…”
Easton furiously dug in his pocket for the seed. As he pulled it out, it began glowing. He cracked it between his teeth, placing the seed in Christi’s mouth. As soon as it touched her tongue, the glow crept over her skin. It slowly increased in brightness, until Easton could no longer bear the light emanating from her body.
A massive shadow filled the hole in the wall followed by two metallic bears. “I see everything is going according to plan.” Hephaestus raised the large gun he carried, and fired a shot, hitting West square in the chest before he could react, sending him flying against the wall.
“Here,” Easton said as he tossed North the strength stone, and South the shadow stone. No sooner did South catch the stone, she disappear into a shadow. North put the stone in his mouth, charging Hephaestus. A metallic bear intercepted North before he could reach Hephaestus. As North threw a right-handed uppercut punch, the bones in his hand shattered when they made contact with the jaw of the bear. Refusing to give up, North threw an elbow with his left arm to the mid-section of the bear. The loud crack sent him to his knees, groaning in pain. Seizing the opportunity, the bear knocked him over while clamping its jaw around his throat, pinning him in place.
Hephaestus looked down on North, “You’re a fool to think that I would give you the true strength of Kratos. I would lie still if I were you.” North carefully spit out the stone. Hephaestus turned his attention to Easton. “As for South…” He shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “You’ve done well, East. I couldn’t have achieved all this if it wasn’t for you. Christi is the true prize I seek here. I’ve waited a long, long time for this moment. Now, I will have ichor blessed with the West Wind thanks to you. That is why I gave you Apollo’s seed. It not only granted her new life, but turned her blood into ichor.” He was tasting the words as he said them while a second metallic bear slowly stalked around the pool towards him.
The air began swirling with gusting wind, picking up the dirt and dust, pelting all those in the room. Hephaestus shielded his eyes, as the bear lowered its head trying to escape the dirt. Easton lost his balance as the wind’s intensity escalated behind him, throwing him to the side. Peeking around his arm, Christi was standing on a miniature tornado as her hair whipped and snaked about, resembling Medusa. The wind died down as her feet touched the floor.
As Hephaestus lowered his arm, a gleeful smile spread across his face. “Excellent! The Fates have truly smiled on me this day.” Pointing the gun at her, he fired a shot. Before the bullet could make contact, it slowed in its path until it came to a stop in front of her. Christi casually reached out, plucked it out of the air between her finger and thumb. “I don’t need a bullet to wring the life out of you.” Hephaestus hissed, tossing the gun down. As he pulled a sword hilt from his belt, the blade rapidly extended from it.
Christi bent down and picked up the trident dropped by her brother. “You’ll regret this, Hephaestus.” Her eyes narrowed at him, with hate and rage. “It’s one thing to screw with me, but to kill my brother…”
A smile lifted his lips, “Shall we dance, my dear?”
Christi launched herself across the room on air with a feral snarl. The flurry of blows exchanged by both was dizzying. Hephaestus narrowly avoided a thrust to his heart as Christi ducked under a blow aimed at her neck. The wind gradually increased until the two were surrounded by a swirling wind, concealing their movements from the others.
“Fight fair, witch!” Hephaestus bellowed at her. A piece of rubble came flying at him, crashing into his leg brace and sending him down to one knee as he cried out in pain. Using her trident, Christi ripped a tube loose that ran the length of the brace, spilling a blue fluid across the floor. “No, it won’t end this easily for you. Take a look at your boy.”
The bear had Easton pinned against the wall. He was beginning to turn blue in the face as the bear continued to press its weight against his chest. He stuck his tongue out and touched something on his lip. It was the twisted stone of luck threaded through his lip piercing. Christi furiously spun, picking up all the loose stones in the room with arms of air, slinging them at the two bears relentlessly. A large stone hit the bear holding North, sending it toppling over. The same was done to the other bear pressing against Easton.
Easton caught his breath and lunged for the necklace, sending it spinning through the air towards Christi. As she caught it, a ball of wind from Easton collided with Hephaestus’s sword, knocking it from his hands. Unarmed and lame on his back, his raised his hands in defeat. Christi quickly wrapped the necklace around his wrist and fastened it. Hephaestus’s went wild as he tried to wretch the necklace off but the serpents only increased their grip refusing to let go.
“That’s for my brother.” A loud blast from a Glaucus’s shell sounded outside. The ground began to rumble as a roar from Cetus echoed into the room. “He sounds hungry.” She winked at Hephaestus. They helped North to his feet and got Wesley’s body, dragging his feet as they left through the hole in the wall.
“Fools,” Hephaestus said as he pulled a knife from his belt and placed the tip against his wrist above the snakes.
Loud booming sounds like thunder woke Richard from his sleep. He threw the covers off and stumbled to the window. Peeking through the blinds, flashes of light blinded him as spots littered his vision. Blinking them away, he opened his window and looked out at the night sky. Search lights could be seen from a distance as they focused on a point in the sky while gunfire rained heavily on one area. World War 2 had just began, and everyone’s anxiety level was high because of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Knowing his father, Carl, was a hard sleeper, Richard rushed to his parents’ room. His mother, Patricia was rousing him as Richard dove into the bed.
“Dad! Wake up, we’re under attack. Wake up.”
“What? What’s going on?”
“Honey, somethings going on.” Patricia’s Ozark upbringing drawing out her words as she hurried into the front room.
Carl staggered into the front room and walked outside into the chilly, February night followed by Patricia. “It’s those damn Japanese attacking us again, that’s what it is. I knew it would only be a matter of time before they launched another attack on us.
“What should we do?”
“I’ll get in touch with Eugene, a friend of mine in the real estate business. We’re getting away from the coast. We’re not safe here anymore. Especially since that submarine shot at that oil plant in Ellwood. Maybe we can find a place in Missouri to live, close to your parents. There we would have mountains on each side that planes couldn’t get past. I can’t think of a safer place to go, can you?” She was deep in thought about her nine-year-old in the bedroom watching the night sky.
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll try to get in touch with them in the morning.”
The next day, the news headlines were feeding the hungry eyes of everyone wanting answers. Weather balloons, Japanese planes, and war anxiety were among the top headlines. But, the one that was hardest to explain was the photo published by the Los Angeles Times showing search lights focused on one area of the sky. It seemed no one had a logical answer. Carl and Patricia wasted no time on theories or false alarms, and within three days, they had contacted her parents about purchasing a farm in Missouri and were packing to leave.
Four months had passed as the Cospers found new safety and security in the hills of southwest Missouri. Carl was working in the fields for various neighboring farmers as Patricia tended the housework and gardening. The transition from California to Missouri was difficult and arduous for the family with work and food, hard to come by.
The front door closes as Richard strides barefooted and shirtless in overalls to the weather-worn barn. The mundane task of gathering eggs and tending the chickens had fallen on him since he was old enough to defend himself from the bully of a rooster his family owned. There was no love lost between the two as they constantly were at war with one another. The rooster would attempt to flog his shins only to dodge a foot aimed for his head. Besides the rooster, Richard enjoyed the other farm animals.
Coming into the barn, the red-brown chickens were busy scratching the floor searching for bugs and grains hiding under the litter. The large door creaked and squeaked as he pushed it along the long bar, blowing his straight, blonde hair out of his eyes, allowing the cool morning breeze to come rushing in stirring up the animals. The chickens quickly ran into the surrounding yard to forage and scratch for goodies. After scattering a few handfuls of corn in the grass for them, he turned inside to tend the others.
Climbing the stair-stepped bales, he grabbed a twine string in each hand, flinging the bale off the stack with a grunt, sending it toppling and rolling to the barn floor. After hopping down, he popped the twine with a jerking motion as his father taught him. All the tools and equipment that came with the farm were heavily used, including the animals and the land. The fields were not producing much forage, so Carl was forced to ration some of the last season’s hay to the animals. Using the dilapidated pitchfork, he pitched hay for the two larger animals, George and Maybell. George was an older, working horse his father bought for a cheap price, that always leaned into a gentle rub above his nose and under his chin. They would soon be working partners in the hay field and Carl wanted them on good terms with one another. George wasn’t fast at anything, but steady.
Sighing as he gave George a final rough pat on the neck, Richard took the bucket off a post and set to work milking Maybell. Maybell was the oldest resident on the farm, but still produced enough milk for her owners. To keep her calm, he sang or whistled church hymns and farming songs, allowing the peaceful melodies to flow out of him and fill the air. Carl never lost focus while he worked as his father taught him to keep his head down, and focused. Richard was anything but focused while he worked, as any nine-year-old would be. George’s ears perked up the first time he whistled and Maybell always relaxed when he sang his favorite church songs so he made a conscious effort each time to fill the barn with his cheer.
The sunlight pierced through the small cracks in the roof as Richard finished milking. He hated milking at first because his fingers would swell and cramp, putting him in a foul mood by the time he finished. Speed and dexterity now guided his hands, allowing him to quickly get his morning chores out-of-the-way. Putting George and Maybell out to pasture for what was available, he strained the milk through several pieces of cheese cloth into a second bucket, removing any bugs or debris that frequented the bucket as he milked. Richard struggled with the weight of the bucket as he took it to the kitchen, placing it in the cool corner to rest before his mother started her part of the work on it.
After giving his mother a kiss, he was racing out the door to the backside of the barn. Pulling his cane pole out of its hiding place, he reached between some boards and clasped his lucky tin-can. Carl disproved of his frequent fishing trips but never turned down a fresh bite of sizzling-hot, breaded fish straight from the fry-pan. Running to the tree-line, he pulled back layers of moist leaves revealing healthy worms wriggling about. Plucking four of the biggest, dark-red ones, he dropped them into the tin can and put a fresh layer of damp dirt on top of them, keeping them cool as he started towards the creek.
The dry grass crunched under his feet as he picked his way around the prickly thistles he hadn’t dug up yet. The familiar trail wound its way through the trees that grew denser as Richard’s feet picked up into a skip as he went along. The coolness of the bare dirt was a relief from the crunchy, stiff grass the animals grazed upon. His mother, Patricia, would always scold him after he visited the creek with dirt and mud smeared up to his knees when he returned home. She never liked her home dirty, however, Carl and Richard always kept her busy with the cleaning.
After the fallen log and the second bend in the creek, he arrived at his coveted fishing hole. This gentle-flowing creek was never lacking for fish. Bluegill, flat-head catfish, and small-mouth bass riddled the banks and terrorized the currents. If Richard went home empty-handed, it was because he spent most of his time skinny-dipping instead of fishing.
A quick glance around proved that no one had been here recently and that the fish should be in their usual spots. Kneeling down, he pinched off a small part of a worm and threaded the wiggling piece onto the hook. Crawling on his hands and knees allowed him to creep up to the bank without casting a shadow on the water. He was careful to slowly edge his head over the edge just far enough to see below him. A darting movement in the water spoke of fish.
The cane pole inched out as the baited hook swung over the water, slowly placing the baited hook in the perfect spot. The piece of cork would hold the hook off the bottom, allowing the current to bring his bait to life. Fishing here was a matter of patience rather than skill. A minute crept by without any fish falling for the bait. He raised the hook out of the water and set it further up the current, letting it sweep down past him. The cork disappeared under the water. Wide-eyed, he gave his pole a hard yank as the hook captured the lip of a bluegill thrashing and jerking trying to remove the hook from its mouth. With a gentle sweeping motion, the fish was soon on the bank as Richard rolled over and grabbed the fish. It thrashed against his grip with every muscle to no avail. Holding it by the tail, he smacked it on an exposed rock, ending its struggle. Placing it on a smooth rock, he baited up his hook and went in search of another loaded hole to fish.
The next bend in the creek produced a deeper hole that usually housed a catfish or two. Carl forbade him to noodle for catfish until he was older and able to hold the larger catfish this creek could produce. His uncle had drowned accidentally when Carl and he were younger while noodling for catfish. Richard was capable of hauling them to a shallow part of the creek and then pulling them out of two feet of water or less, but he didn’t dare try to pull them from their dens.
Shading his eyes, Richard couldn’t see the dark outlines of any fish but decided to fish it anyway. Not bothering to conceal himself, he swung his legs over the edge of the bank and dipped his line in the water. The water was deadly still after the rings spread outwards from the cork and bait. The current didn’t reach back this far into the bend, permitting algae to grow along its shallow edge. As he sat there, his mind began to wander off. He couldn’t read or write yet, but he would imagine stories like those he heard in Sunday school at their church and on the radio.
Vast armies would collide head-to-head as they fought for coveted land or Holy items. Dragons would swoop down ruffling his blonde hair before soaring off into the distance. His cane pole often became a magic wand waving it about casting different spells and turning bullies into toads and the like. In spirit of the war, he would be a front-line soldier, fighting for his country. It wasn’t until the hook got snagged or hung in a bush did he awaken from his daydreaming.
Normally, the birds were calling out to one another as they fluttered from tree to tree searching for food or mates. But something had alarmed them into concealing themselves and it was the silence that brought the hairs up on the back of Richard’s neck. Pulling his hook out of the water and placing the pole on the ground, he spun on his seat looking around. Removing his pocketknife from the front pocket of his overalls, he extended the longest blade he had as his eyes darted about in search of the disturbance. He knew all too well that mountain lions lurked in this part of the woods, mostly due to the stories the locals told him to put the fear of the wild woods into him. He had yet to find any tracks of the large cats around this area of the creek, despite checking each time he came as his mother instructed.
If it was a mountain lion, Richard didn’t know if he would be going home for lunch today. They were double his size and weight and his three-inch long blade wouldn’t be long enough to do any damage to it. Holding his breath, he continued looking around for the golden-tan fur. A small rustle of leaves drew his attention back to his first fishing hole; now he had a bearing on it. Before moving, he spotted a stout branch the thickness of a baseball bat. As he crept over to it, he carefully removed the leaves that covered the end of it and tested the strength of it, it would hold well enough for a scrap. He tiptoed back to the path and slowly crept along, silently praying that an armadillo made the commotion.
Hiding behind a white birch tree, Richard peeked around towards his fishing spot. Catching his breath before it could reveal his presence, he saw a large, coal-black wolf sniffing his dead fish laying on the rock. His heart began hammering as panic took hold of his senses. He had never seen anything like it before. Carl had told him stories about the wolves from when he was a logger in Montana, but when Richard was cowering in fear on the couch, he reassured him that wolves didn’t come this far southeast because there wasn’t enough big game living in the neighboring woods. The tears began to flood Richard’s vision as he bit his lip trying not to make a sound. Wiping his eyes with the back of his trembling wrist, he peered around again at the wolf.
It easily stood as tall as Richard. The shining coat was a tell-tale sign that it was a good hunter. As the gentle breeze changed direction, its head snapped up, sniffing the air. Richard bit harder as the blood began to flow from his lip as a warm sensation ran down his leg. He couldn’t outrun the beast, nor climb a tree fast enough to escape the wolf as it cautiously stalked closer. “They are more scared of you, than you are them,” his father’s gruff words echoed in his head. He was brave alongside his dad, but out here alone with a wolf, he was frozen in place. Losing all control, his feet stamped in anger fueled on by fear. The wolf’s head pinpointed his spot, flattening its ears back as it closed the distance in two large strides. The menacing growl rumbled deep within its chest, there was no fear in the wolf as it slowly circled the tree, bringing Richard into its sight. Baring its dripping fangs at him, Richard whimpered as tears flooded unceasingly to the ground.
Raising the shaking club in front of him, Richard wanted to growl back as he did the coyotes, but found his voice choked off. The wolf’s lips pushed up exposing a perfect set of glistening, pearl-white teeth while the hair along its spine stood on end. Never in his wildest dreams did Richard ever think that he would be killed by a wild animal. His father was always with him when they encountered coyotes terrorizing the chickens, bolstering his confidence. Now, this wolf was going to kill him and eat him.
Without warning, the wolf sprang onto Richard, knocking him to the ground with such force that he dropped his club and his breath pushed out in a pained grunt. The massive beast pressed all its weight down on him, immobilizing him under an icy stare and intense body heat. Saliva dripped onto his cheek as the wolf raised its head, giving warning growls to some unseen enemy.
A white blur flashed through Richard’s peripheral vision as the piercing cry of a mountain lion behind him met the aggressive challenge of another animal he couldn’t see. He still had a grip on his knife and luckily, his arm was out straight and mobile. With everything he had, he brought the knife up towards the head of the black wolf in one last, desperate effort to survive. The blade tip hit bone and glanced off, producing a small cut on its cheek. The wolf snapped at his hand, opening a small cut on his fingers causing Richard to drop the knife. Looking down at him, a guttural growl silenced any further thoughts of escaping.
He closed his eyes as the fight continued behind him. The ear-piercing scream made him cringe under the wolf as he wished this was all a bad dream. The spotty sunlight illuminated the dust being stirred up as the growls and screams continued. He lost track of time as he lay helpless underneath the wolf.
The black wolf began barking as another similar bark joined in. Richard’s only guess was that the white creature had driven off the mountain lion or killed it. The wolf raised itself off Richard and towered over him as a smaller-framed white wolf joined in looking down at Richard. He didn’t know what to expect as a feeling of comfort and security calmed his mind. The two wolves retreated several steps as Richard rolled to his side. Closing his eyes and letting the tears flow freely, he clutched his bleeding fingers.
The two wolves laid down beside each other and waited for Richard to recover himself. He finally turned his head and met two sets of eyes as blue as the lake. There was a peacefulness about them that Richard didn’t understand. They had just saved him from a mountain lion and were now as peaceful as new-born pups. As he sat up, he shook the dirt and leaves out of his hair as they followed his movements, exuding a noble confidence.
“Thank ya,” his mother’s accent mirrored in his words.
The white wolf perked its ears forward at this and voiced a little yip. Calling to them, “I don’t got no food, except for that there blue I caught earlier.” The black wolf nosed the white one and it got up, inspected the fish and started eating it in large bites. “You sure gave that cat hell back there. Had ya’ll not come along, I’d be long gone by now.”
“Do ya’ll have names? All our animals got names like: Maybell, George; Mr. Whiskers, and Fluffy.” As the white wolf came back to lay beside the black one, Richard felt a sense of the chill of midnight and then the warmth of dawn. “Night and day? What does that even mean?” Again a chilling sensation came over him as he saw a picture of the moon and then the warmth of the sun as it rose over the horizon. “Moon and Dawn?” The white wolf yipped at the mention of her name, but the black wolf continued to stare at Richard with unblinking eyes. Pointing to the white wolf, Richard affirmed his guess, “Dawn?” She gave another approving yip. “If your name is Dawn, then what is your name?” looking to the black wolf. In answering, the wolf stood up while arching its head back, singing out its resonating voice that echoed among the trees. With the final echo, it finally occurred to him. “Midnight! Your name is Midnight!” Both wolves gave small yips of approval. “I wish I could keep ya’ll as pets, but Poppa wouldn’t have it. He says ain’t no good ever come out a wolf. But…” his voice trailed off as his mind once again returned to the earlier encounter.
An image of the creek trickled into his thoughts, rousing him from his thoughts. Hopping to his feet and dusting the debris from his hands and clothes, Richard headed towards a low spot in the bank to splash water on his face. As he walked, he looked down at his overalls and saw the dark spot on his overalls, flushing his cheeks as he thought about what his father would say if he found out about it. Unbuckling the shoulder straps, he stripped to his underwear and headed to the water, carrying the overalls.
“If my pa finds out I peed my breeches, he’ll beat me black and blue. He says you ain’t a man if you piss your breeches.” Richard was scrubbing furiously on the overalls as he said this more to himself than the wolves. Holding it up, the water cascaded out the leg hems. Turning it around to look at the backside, he noticed that the seat was brown with filth. As he dropped the garment into the water, he looked around for a rough rock to scrub with. With the constant flow of water, stones in the creek were polished to a smooth, glass-like surface. As he got closer to the edge of the bank, scrutinizing every rock and picking some up only to toss them away, something dropped into the water in front of him with a plop, splashing him in the face. As he wiped his face, he let out a pained cry when his fingers traveled over his split lip. Holding his hand out, the watered-down blood trailed down his fingers. Stooping down, he began splashing his face with a grimaced look.
He stood up and shook vigorously from head to toe. Looking up at Dawn, a big grin exposed a few missing teeth, “I learned that from Coon, my dog. Poppa put him down last year when we still lived in California.” Dawn glanced to Midnight. Richard felt around for the roughness of the new rock. It wasn’t a large one, but it was flint and he handled it carefully, adjusting his grip on it to avoid the sharp edges.
Grabbing his overalls, he tramped over to a deeper area of the creek and sat down on the smaller pebbles in the water. He scooted down until he was up to his stomach in water and began wiggling his backside into the small pebbles, burrowing into them as a toad does in the mud. This was his favorite way to relax in the creek when he wasn’t helping his father. “I sure do miss Coon.” Richard worked the flint rock with an absent mind along the denim of the pockets, scrapping the dirt and mud off occasionally dunking it into the water and rubbing it with his open hand. One of his fingers started bleeding and Richard placed it into his mouth. Looking up at Midnight, “Why’d you bite me so hard for?” The black wolf huffed and turned his back to him and laid down.
Time passed slowly as Richard finished getting the mud off his overalls. Holding up his work, “That’s gotta do.” Richard stood, putting his legs in and fumbling with the clasps. His stomach was rumbling as he placed a hand on it. Looking up and shading his eyes, “No wonder I’m hungry. I missed lunch time,” rubbing his stomach. A picture of him getting his hair wet stopped him in his steps. Looking in the direction of the wolves, “Why do I need to get my hair wet?” A new image of him reaching out with his cane pole trying to get unhooked from a low-hanging branch and falling into the creek explained the answer. “That way, I’m soaked from head to toe?” Midnight appeared over the side of the bank, gave a small nod and turned away down the path. Walking back to the deeper area, he set his feet into the pebbles underneath the water and doubled over, dunking his head in the water. Standing tall, he again shook like dog, flinging water droplets in every direction. Climbing the bank, he ran to catch up to the wolves.
“I’m gonna get me some lunch and I’ll be back later for some more fishing,” he said as he ran between the two towards his home. Spinning to face them, “It would best if ya’ll stayed away from the house, just-in-case my poppa is home early. He hates wolves.” His dirty heels kicked up dirt as he left the two wolves standing in the path.
“Momma! Guess what?” the words flew from his mouth as he burst through the door. “Some wolves saved me from a mountain lion today.”
“Richard Elliot! Just look at you, you’re a filthy mess. Out. Out. Out.”
“But Momma, it’s true.”
Drawing her words out, “I don’t wanna hear any ifs, ands, or buts about it. Outside, now. I’ll get you some clothes and a warshcloth.”
“Argh, fine,” as the door closed behind him. As he waited outside, a high-pitched caa rent the air. Turning around, a common grackle was walking towards him. Something was different about this one, it didn’t have iridescent colors flashing in the sunlight, but was solid black. Another caa brought his attention up to see an all white grackle gliding towards him on stiff wings. Landing with a few hops, they two birds looked at him with inquisitive, beady eyes.
“Heaven sake’s alive, they’re a coming in the yard now. Get out of here! Shoo! Shoo!” Patricia was flailing the clothing at the birds trying to scare them off. The two birds let out a loud, alarmed screech as their wings spread out, lifting them to the safety of the air. “It’s bad enough they’re a eating our cornfields, now they’re after my garden as well. After lunch, I want you to walk down to the field and check on it. Okay?”
“Sure, ma.” His head was downcast as she placed the clean overalls on his shoulder and handed him the washcloth.
“You don’t need to use soap, just get the most of it off.” She placed a hand on his head. “Why are you soaking wet? Can’t you play in the creek without laying down in it?”
“Oh, my hook got hung up on a root and I was a trying to get it out. I was reaching way out over the creek and fell in.”
With a gentle hand, she lifted his chin, “Your lip is swollen. Did you hit it when you fell?”
Looking around, “Yeah. I don’t know if it was a rock or a root though.”
With a smile, she bent over and placed a kiss on his forehead, “You’ll be okay. I’ve seen much worse out of you when you were little and you’re still here giving me grief. Wash up and I’ll get your lunch ready.” Turning, she disappeared into the house, leaving Richard walking sullenly towards the rusty water pump over the well.
Richard’s lunch was a distracted blur as he spent most of the time looking longingly out the window. Now following the fence row towards the field, his mind kept going back to the black and white birds in the yard. They had looked like grackles, but, he couldn’t recall any being white or lacking the colorful flashes of blues and purples.
Barking dogs brought him out of his thoughts. Looking around, he spotted a pair of Labrador Retrievers eagerly approaching from the treeline. The larger of the two was solid black, while the other was white with a pink nose. The white dog began wagging its tail as it got closer.
“Dawn? Midnight? Is that you?” A yip from the white one affirmed his suspicions. “I thought you were wolves though?” Proving the point, Midnight hunched over in a bracing stance and Richard’s eyes went wide as the Labrador slowly increased in muscle and tissue as it took on a wolf-like appearance. After the hair extended to the full length, the wolf let out a long, howl to the sky.
Carl was closing the mailbox beside the road, when a sound of his past echoed over the land. He knew it from when he was a logger and vowed never to forget it; the call of a wolf. Dropping everything, he raced down the pot-holed driveway cursing himself for not getting another dog for Richard. Adrenaline surging through his body, he leapt onto the porch, clearing the steps.
Throwing the front door open, screaming, “Patricia! Patricia where’s Richard? Where is he?” His Winchester model 94 gleamed in its owner’s grasp.
“Honey, what’s wrong? Why…”
“Where’s Richard? Where is he?”
“He went to check on the field, but he could be down at the creek. What…”
Carl didn’t wait for her to finish as the screen door slammed against the house. The creek was closer and he knew that his son would more than likely be there than anywhere else. As he sprinted across the yard, his cap fell off leaving his oiled, grey and black hair dancing as he ran. The tears threatened his eyes as he blinked hard to push them away.
The shadows began to swallow him as he plunged into the treeline. He knew his son’s favorite spots to play and fish, making a bee-line for them. With ragged breaths, he came to the first spot along the creek. He wasn’t a dedicated tracker, but deer season aided him in deciphering the scene. The damp, loose dirt along the creek held the recent tracks as he saw his son’s footprints along the path. He looked at the ground, searching for blood or torn clothing. Noticing a mud-hole along the path, he clearly saw Richard’s footprints heading back to the house. Going further along the path, the ground was gouged and torn with claw marks. The distant protruding nails of the wolf littered the area. Looking through the disturbed leaves, he saw another set of tracks; mountain lion. Carl’s head began to spin as he tried to understand the tracks. Giving up, he ran back to the first area where most of Richard’s footprints were. He found a fishing pole, intact and laying on the ground. Again, he searched for signs of blood and found none. If he wasn’t here, he was in the field. With a quick wipe of his face, Carl flew down the path, making haste to the field.
Richard was sitting in the shade in awe as images of the night in February flooded his mind. He never forgot that night the search lights lit up the night sky. It was hard to comprehend that it had only been a short few months ago that their ship was the reason for that night’s excitement. Midnight interrupted the images with a picture of a man running with a desperate look, as a gun swung back and forth in front of him pulling him forward.
“Pa!” As he looked towards the gate, his father’s voice calling his name echoed the concern on his face.
“Pa.” Richard ran into his father’s arms.
“Son, you’re okay. I was so worried about you. What are you doing out here?”
“Ma asked me to check on the field and I got to playing with some dogs that found me.”
Carl looked ahead at the two dogs sitting a few feet away, “Are they friendly?”
“Sure. They’re smart too. Could we keep them? You talked about getting another dog after Coon died.”
Carl broke free from Richard and walked over to the dogs with his gun in front of him. The dogs were calm as they looked up at him with their deep, intelligent, blue eyes. He could see that they were not threatened by his gun. Holding out a limp hand to the black Labrador, it leaned forward and sniffed his hand and returned to a resting position. He did the same to the white one, it also leaning forward to sniff his hand and then bumping his palm with its nose for a head rub. Carl gently rubbed behind the right ear as Dawn leaned into his hand.
“Have you named them yet?”
Richard stepped up beside his father, pointing first to the black one, “This is Midnight, and that one is Dawn. Can I keep them?”
Carl was silent, looking between the two dogs, “We’ll talk to your ma about it when we get home.” Grabbing his son by the shoulder, he pulled him into his side as they turned toward their home with the two dogs close behind.
*Warning- This story contains violence. PG-13 rating at lowest for your information.*
The darkness concealed his form while gliding into a small clearing. With a slight rustle of the tall grasses, a quick glance around secured the unease racing throughout his head as he placed the burlap bag at his feet.
“Did you bring them?” A soft voice from behind a nearby oak tree.
“I couldn’t carry all of them tonight, so I brought half of what I had. Perhaps another night I can bring the rest of it.”
A man appeared from behind the tree, “Thank you, Atticus.”
He came closer and rummaged through the bag as Atticus looked to the sky with darting eyes, tucking his off-white wings in closer.
“These seeds will help a lot. The crops are getting harder to gather seeds from. These will add some variety to them and hopefully, cross-pollinate for us. Otherwise,… I fear we may need to raid the towns.”
“Don’t raid the towns. The Enforcers will hear of it. You know how ruthless they are.”
“Yes,” rolling his shoulders, “I know all too well what they are capable of doing.”
Clasping the man with a friendly grip on the shoulder, “I need to leave, but I’ll be back again soon with the rest, I promise.”
“See that you do.”
Atticus unfurled his feathered wings and leapt into the air beating the grasses aside with the turbulence. The exiles starving out in the wilderness haunted him. But, there was little more he could do within the limits of the law without becoming a wingless exile himself. A sigh brought his focus back to the landscape around him.
The next few days crawled by as Atticus worked his land and tended his animals. A monotonous undertone muddied his thoughts as a sense of uselessness overtook him. Hunger clawed at him, forcing him to return to Oaken-home. His son, Lucien met him at the doorway.
“Dad, is something bothering you? You don’t seem yourself lately.”
“It’s,…it’s nothing. How is the race team coming?”
“We’re getting better. Elmwood still beats us at the sprints, but we have some awesome distance racers. I improved my time on the mile, but I still can’t beat Jay from Elmwood.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re improving to me. One day, maybe you can beat him in a fair race.”
“Yeah, maybe. I’m was heading out, I’ll see you later tonight.” Lucien extended his dark-blue wings and dove backwards off the landing, twisting mid-air, and letting the world know of his delight in flying.
Atticus slipped out of bed permitting the darkness to envelop him as he gathered provisions for his journey. In the kitchen putting a few of his wife’s homemade protein bars in his flying vest, a delicate set of hands rested on his wings, “Do be careful, dear.”
“I’ll do what I can. I can’t make any promises though.”
He turned to face her. Brushing aside a tear dividing her cheek, he gazed into her eyes as she blinked away her concern. She reached around his shoulder and laid a hand on his left-wing and traced its outer edge several times. Her platinum-blonde hair was in stark contrast to the deep velvet-red wings she tucked against her back. He placed a small peck of a kiss on her forehead as she closed her eyes, leaning into him. The dangers that surrounded them would never suffocate the love they held for each other.
“I should be going, it’s not getting any darker out there.”
“But think of the good I’m doing for those people. It isn’t much, but anything to bring hope to people is worth it.”
She was silent as his last words hung heavy in the air. Pulling him close, she held him tightly for a moment before breaking his embrace. They said nothing else as he finished his preparations and stepped to the front door. Looking back through the open doorway, his silhouette wore the heaviness of the night’s burdens. With a small click, the door closed and Atticus was soaring through the night towards his storage shed to retrieve his bag of seeds for the exiles.
Grabbing the bag and latching the door closed, he glanced over his shoulder towards Oaken-home. There was enough light for him to see his wife’s outstretched wings on the landing. Not hesitating a moment more, fear and determination drove his wings to aid the exiles.
Fog crept through the meadows adding to the concern Atticus had about the night air. Something heavy hung on his mind, but he was unable to pinpoint, nor shake it off as he neared the clearing. Landing softly among the tall grass, he noticed the trampled area off to the right of where he stood. Another minute and he would make a break for it. He was too unsure about this meeting.
“Do you have it?”
The voice came from behind the usual oak tree. There was something different about it, higher pitched and slightly nasally. It also held a note of familiarity behind it.
“Yes. This is the last of them.” Every square inch of his body screamed at him to turn and flee.
A pair of blinding lights illuminated the area, slowly bobbing side to side closing the distance. It was too late now. The lights belonged to that of one of the Enforcer’s bodyguards. The color drained from Atticus’s face as an Enforcer marched to face him.
“When I was told that someone was helping the exiles, the last person on my mind was you, Atticus.”
It was Jimna, one of his close friends he grew up with. Atticus dropped his head upon recognizing his friend, knowing that they would soon be enemies. The risk of being discovered was high, but that didn’t bother Atticus half as much as knowing his friend would carry out the sentence. Cold metal of a second bodyguard’s gun pressed between his shoulders, he knew that all chance of escape was gone.
“The Council has sent me to bring you to justice,” pulling the official sentence from the front pocket of his black leather attire. “May it be known that justice has been brought to Atticus Strongheart. Should the Enforcer find you guilty of the crimes brought against you, your wings shall be broken and removed. You will then be exiled from existence, and forgotten. Atticus, the charges I bring before you this night are: conspiring against the Council, treason against the people; and aiding the exiles. Do you deny these charges?”
Squaring his shoulders, “No.”
Jimna turning to his bodyguards, nodded as Atticus held out his hands with the inner wrists touching. A band was placed around his wrists and tightened, nearly stopping the blood flow. No remorse or pity was seen on the men as Atticus blankly stared ahead at Jimna. One of the bodyguards forced him to his knees, as Jimna stepped forward with a small piece of rolled up leather. Looking up at him, Atticus knew that this would be the last act of kindness he would receive from the Enforcers before the sentence was executed. Opening his mouth, Jimna pushed the warm leather between his teeth and stepped back.
A small nod from Jimna began the process. Atticus held his head high, unfurling his wings to their furthest expanse. Each wing was now in the merciless grasp of a heavy armored bodyguard. The grip tightened on his right wing as the large man brought his knee up to meet the outer bone, breaking it clean with a loud snap. The pain surged through his body as he lurched forward, a muffled cry escaping him as the man worked the bone back and forth to ensure it was broken. The tip of his wing now hung limp, completely useless. The throbbing increased as the swelling immediately enlarged the area around the break.
He could feel the man to his left grin, adjusting his grip preparing for his duty. Anticipation danced among his fingertips. It was no surprise he was an Enforcer, giving him the legal right to inflict pain on others. The man pulled his left knee up and placed it between his hand-grips. The pressure slowly increased as the bone bent around the knee until it finally cracked. The man dropped his knee, regained his balance, and brought it up again, this time with a striking force causing the break to fully develop through the bone. Atticus heard a small chuckle come the man as his broken wing now matched the other.
The pain that coursed through his body was almost more than he could bear. Being knocked out of the air once when he was a young racer in school and crashing through the tree limbs, followed by the ground knocking the wind out of him was a walk in the park compared to what he felt at this moment. He wished they were done, but nothing is short and sweet with the Enforcers.
His inner wing bones were now the focus as they moved in closer and grasped the larger bones. The man on his right took to his work first. Removing a black, metal cudgel out of its dormancy, the man readied his grip on it. Atticus relaxed every muscle possible to allow the break to happen easier. As the cudgel contacted his wing, he felt a small crack in the bone. The man huffed, raising his arm to rain down a harder blow. With pinpoint accuracy, the man hit the same location, allowing a pop to disturb the still air. The man brought down the final blow, finishing the break. Clenching his teeth, Atticus tried hard to remain conscious while desperate moans filled the night.
Tears fell from his eyes as it was now the devious one’s turn. The smaller of the two bodyguards hesitated as he contemplated how difficult it was for his comrade to break the larger bone. Looking to the man, Atticus shot him an icy glare. The dull thud following the blow told there was little hope of the man successfully making the break alone. The larger bodyguard recognized this as well, coming around the backside of Atticus. Stretching his wing out to the side while placing a foot on Atticus’ hip, he pulled the wing taught with an audible grunt.
With a twisted smile, the smaller man used both arms to bring down the cudgel onto the bone as strike after strike only resulted in tiny snaps with each. The fury built inside him until he voiced it with guttural noises. Finally, the bone gave way. Bile rose as Atticus spit out the leather choking. The man was doubled over, panting from his efforts.
“Atticus,” Jimna’s voice slow, “it pains me to say this,… you are hereby exiled, and cutoff from the people.”
The larger man kicked him in the back sending him face-first to the ground. A knee was placed at the base of his neck to pin him down. If being broken was punishment, being cutoff was a welcomed finale. He took in the warm smell of the earth, somehow, it was comforting to know the ending was near.
Metal sliding against its holster brought fear to the surface as his numb wings were pulled backwards, exposing the joints connecting them to his back. Atticus struggled under the weight of the man. A loss of feeling came from his right shoulder as the metal blade cut through the joint effortlessly. The blood pooled in the cavity and began spilling down his backside. His left wing was yanked to the side and removed in the same way with a soft squelching noise as the surrounding muscles lost their hold around the joint.
“Cauterize the wounds.” Jimna’s voice was cold towards the exile. The two bodyguards turned a questioning look towards him. He looked down at them over his nose with fire in his eyes. An electronic whirring brought the tip to life as it glowed with increasing heat. With the tip white hot, it was pushed into the wounds and the sizzling of burning flesh and tissue made the air turn rancid.
Howling with pain, Atticus tried to turn his mind away from the moment. The fact that he would never see his wife and son again carved an enormous cavern in his heart. Was this all worth it? He couldn’t trust himself to answer as he lay prostrate on the ground.
The bodyguards each gathered a wing and bound them up in a cloth, while Jimna spoke his last words. “I’ll deliver the news about your exile to your family. Goodbye, Atticus.” With that, the bodyguards’ lights were extinguished as they left Atticus alone with his new-found misery. Time crept by without any concern for him as he lay motionless, allowing the dew to cover him in a wet blanket.
He didn’t know when sleep overcame him, nor how long he slept. A pair of cracked, muscled hands worked delicately, placing cold objects on his back rousing him.
“Lie still, these will help with the swelling. Someone was looking out for you to cauterize your wounds. I wish mine would have been.” Atticus didn’t recognize the deep voice, but this simple act of kindness meant the world to him. The cold objects being placed around his shoulder wounds bit at his skin with a stinging sensation. “You’ll need different clothing now that your wings are gone. When we see the others, I’ll find you something else to wear.”
“Would you unbuckle my vest?” Atticus’ voice was raspy and hoarse as he spoke. The man removed the buckle at the base of his neck and the three at his lower back. Searing pain caused him to forcefully exhale as Atticus raised his torso slightly so the man could pull the vest out from under him. Laying back down, fingers danced along his back, readjusting the cold objects.
“What are those? They’re so cold,” he questioned the man shuffling next to him.
“We call them; ice-stones. They are small, smooth stones that are unaffected by heat, no matter how intense. We keep them in our water supplies to cool it for us. They are extremely useful in many ways, as you can see.” The man paused and moved a few of them around, “I am sorry about your exile. I’ve seen so many exiles go mad from the loss of their friends and family, but you must hold onto your dignity. You have done so much for us, it wouldn’t do for you to quit now.”
“I’ve lost everything.”
“Not everything. You are now a part of our community of exiles. We look after each other like family, because we have no one else.”
“I’ve broken the law; I’m worthless now.”
“Nonsense. You have broken a corrupted law made by corrupted people. You have stood up to the Council and denied their idiocy. That says a lot about who you are. They see you as a villain; but to us, you’re a hero.”
Silence settled in as a companion between the two men as Atticus focused on the cold emanating from the ice-stones. What else remained a secret from him in the world?
A heavy hand beat against the door of Oaken-home, awakening those inside. Jill sat up sharply and scrambled to the door with Lucien on her heels. Opening the door, a small gasp parted her lips as she took in the three dark forms on the landing.
Jimna stepped forward, “Jill Strongheart. It is my duty to inform you that your husband, Atticus Strongheart, has been found guilty of transgressing the law, and exiled from the people.” She buried her eyes in Lucien’s chest, away from the bloody masses the bodyguards held. Lucien’s eyes burned with fury.
“What did he do?”
“He was found guilty of aiding the exiles.” Jimna hesitated, dropping his eyes, “I had his wounds cauterized to help with the healing process. I only did this because we were friends, once.” Squaring his shoulders and slowly raising his head, “Thank you for your time.” The three men dropped off the landing and headed towards the capital city, home of the Council.
“No, he can’t be gone. He can’t. Why? Why did he do this to me?” Jill’s shrilling voice echoed through the trees.
The two of them collapsed on the landing, holding one another. Lucien stroked his mother’s back, trying to calm her down. He was now the lead male of Oaken-home. This position wasn’t to come until his father was late in years. Looking out over the smaller tree-tops, three black dots were barely visible.
“He’s still alive and I’ll find him.”
Lucien lighted on the landing with the whisper of a mouse. Another day of relentless searching proved nothing different; he still had no idea where the group of exiles lived whom Atticus was helping. He turned away from Oaken-home, bellowing with every fiber of his being. Birds took flight while the small rodents cowered in the tree-tops.
Walking to the edge, he stared down at the ground as the sun painted the clouds purple and blue. The problem with having wings was it left too much time to change your mind.
“There is still hope.”
“It gets harder each day without him. He never told you where they lived?”
“No. He wanted to protect me.”
“That sounds like Dad, always looking out for others.”
“Come inside. I’ll get you something to eat.”
With one last look at the sunset, Lucien followed his mother inside.
“Don’t eat that.”
Atticus looked down at the red berry in his hand, “Why not? I thought these were edible.”
“They are, after you soak them in water. Tiny worms hide between the small pods of the berries and infest your gut after you eat them. It’s painful to say the least.”
Using his thumbnail to tear the berry in half, he peered intensely at the berry. A small movement caught his eye as he noticed small, red worms on the berries. “You weren’t kidding. Do animals eat these berries as well?”
Still picking berries, “Yes. Which is why we avoid eating any of the organs.”
“I see.” This new world continued to baffle him. All it took was a small, simple mistake to end it all. The two of them continued picking berries, placing them in the woven baskets they carried. Nothing was cultivated in the rows of crops like what he remembered. Every thing out here was natural and free, all-the-while being ruthless and unforgiving.
“What were those bird things I saw earlier by the fern bushes?”
“Did it run from you when it saw you?”
“Once I was close enough to it.”
“We call it a Ground-scratcher; or Scratcher for short. We get eggs from it.”
“How are the people out here able to do so much with animals when I haven’t seen a single fence or pen since I came?”
“When you work with the animals as a friend, they learn to trust you. Except the Scratchers, they don’t trust anyone.”
“How are you able to get eggs from them if they run away all the time?”
“We keep tabs on where they nest. If we hold them in a pen, they refuse to eat and die. So, we keep an eye out for them in the wild.”
A grin broadened her face, “Like family.”
“Atticus! Come quickly!” The man was yelling from across the clearing.
Leaving the baskets, the two of the them raced to the village fully expecting an attack on the people. Coming around the trimmed hedge growing around the perimeter, Atticus slid to a stop seeing platinum-blonde hair that he could paint with his eyes closed.
“Jill,” forcing the words out, “What are you doing here?”
Tackling him with full force and knocking him backwards, they landed with a heavy thud on the lush grass. Grabbing his face, she kissed him with a furious passion. She kissed every part of his sweaty, dirty face before forcing her arms around his neck.
“I thought I lost you.” She released her grip and sat up on his stomach. He gazed up at her flowing curls of hair as they traced the side of her face. A hint of a smile tugged at her lips. Without warning she slammed her fist down on his sternum, “I’m going with you from now on, mister.”
“Okay, dear. Please get off me now, everyone is watching.”
“We’ve been apart for two months, I will kiss on my husband regardless of who’s watching.”
“That’s fine, but you’re hurting my back. I do have two large holes in it that are still healing.”
“Fine,” rising, “But don’t think I’m letting you out of my sight ever again.”
Standing next to her, pulling her close, “Fine, I never wanted us apart to begin with.”
“As much as I always wanted a younger brother, I hardly feel like now is the time and place for it.”
Atticus beamed with joy, “Lucien! You came too. I never thought I would see either of you again. How did you find me?”
“A friend of yours said he owed it to you and that you would know who it was.”
Atticus opened his arms and pulled his family into a big hug, “Whether I’m a good guy or a bad guy; as long as I have the two of you, I don’t care.”
A shadow passed over them, Thank you, friend.
“Wake up, Stephanie.”
Twisting under the blankets, Stephanie wanted nothing more than to slip back into the wonderful dream she was having about Trevor. He was holding her in his arms as they lay in her bed. This was one of her favorite dreams with him.
A sharp and furious male voice commanded, “Wake up! Let’s go. I’m tired of waiting around for you to drag your butt out of bed.”
A sarcastic smile pulled at the corners of Stephanie’s lips. “Good morning, sunshine.”
Trevor scoffed at this, “Nothing morning about 11:30. Are you going to do anything today, or am I stuck here in this rat-hole apartment with you all day?”
Stephanie tucked a loose lock of strawberry-blonde hair behind her right ear, “Would you like to go somewhere? We could go to the park?”
“I don’t care where we go, as long as we go somewhere. You’re killing me keeping me cooped up in here.”
Trevor was over six-foot tall and wore a fitted, athletic shirt that clung tightly to the muscles underneath, and black gym shorts. He had paced the apartment for hours, waiting for Stephanie to wake up.
Sliding her bare, freckled legs out while flipping back the blankets, Stephanie teased her hair a little and stretched her arms overhead. Chiding him, “Oh, Trevor. Don’t be so dramatic. It’s not that bad in here, is it?”
Trevor crossed his tanned arms across his chest as he looked around the messy bedroom considering her question. “Um, yeah. It is.”
Stephanie crossed the stained carpet towards Trevor who was a full head taller than she, while a playful tone filled her questions, “Why are you so grumpy today? Did you not sleep well?” She played with the buttons on her oversized nightshirt as she waited for his answer.
He averted his eyes to a picture on the wall of running horses to avoid the barely concealed form of Stephanie, “I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
Covering her mouth with her hand in a feigned state of shock, “Not at all? You poor baby. Was it because you were thinking of me all night?” She took a step forward and unfastened the top button, daring the shirt to reveal more.
Not this again. Will she ever stop doing this? Meeting her eyes with an icy stare, he coldly said, “Being stuck with you is hell enough without my thoughts being filled with visions of you as well. So don’t flatter yourself. You know that I can’t stand you and I’ll do anything to get away from you.”
Stephanie let her eyes fall to the floor as she traced small circles into the carpet with her left foot, “It hurts my feelings when you say things like that, you know.”
“Then let me go. Please, stop hanging on to things that are not yours and let me go.”
She spoke with a small, pitiful voice, “But, you came to me. I’ve never had anyone my entire life until I met you that night. Why do you not like me? Am I not pretty enough?” I practically throw myself at him and all he ever does is look away. What do I need to do get his attention?
Trevor let out an exasperated sigh as he rolled his eyes and looked away, “I had a wife and two kids before you came along. If you’re trying to replace Kathy, here’s a hint; it ain’t happening.”
Stephanie was quiet as she walked to the door. Turning in the doorway, “I hope that one day, your hatred towards me ends and you see me for who I really am.”
Trevor kept his back to her as he heard her footsteps leave and the shower water begin raining down. He wanted more than anything to get away from this demented woman. He tried scrubbing the frustration from his face with his hands. His wife was always there for him when he needed her. Now, the only person he could talk to was the one he couldn’t stand to be around.
What do I have to do to get her mad enough to make me leave? I’ve done everything I can think of, and she still won’t let me go. I feel like I’m border-line abusive towards her, but I’m stuck here with her anyway. I would leave in a heart-beat if I could.
The park was one of Trevor’s favorite places to come with his family. Seeing the trees families were having lunch under, reminded him of the times spent with his own family. He taught his son to catch a football over by the massive oak tree. The four of them would play Frisbee in the clearing next to it.
He hadn’t seen his family since the evening he left to go jogging while Kathy stayed home with the kids. He wanted more than anything to see her again and tell her what really happened that evening he didn’t come home. Stephanie didn’t kill him on purpose, she had apologized a thousand times the first few days after it happened. However, no amount of apologizing could return his former life to him. His resentment towards her was building, but he didn’t feel like he could change anything about it.
It was a slightly breezy day as the two walked along the narrow, asphalt path that serpentined its way through the manicured hills.
They hadn’t spoken since leaving the apartment and the tension between them was obvious. Trevor was the one to break the silence.
Blurting out, “Why are you not seeing your therapist anymore? You were going once a week, and now not at all.”
She spoke with decisiveness in her voice, “I’m fine now, I have you to talk to.”
“But, you were making progress getting passed the incident and moving on to recovery. I don’t understand why you quit.”
Stephanie was tight-lipped as they walked. A brief silence with only the sound of her flip-flops setting the pace. This topic always frustrated her. “Why do you bother me with that crap? We’ve had this discussion before, I’m not going back to therapy. End of story.”
“Whatever.” A dismissive tone shoved the word at her.
Stephanie sat on one of the benches along the pathway near the thicket of trees. As she put her face in her hands, Trevor looked around at the other people enjoying the park. A group of kids were playing Ultimate Frisbee while others were watching and cheering on the players. A black and white border-collie dog was fetching a rubber toy thrown by a middle-aged woman with blonde hair.
The wind picked up some nearby dandelion seeds and hurled them towards Trevor. As they passed through him he took a moment to realize again that he wasn’t in this world anymore. A memory. His eyes wanted to fill with tears as the amount of grief collecting within him began to swell. He would have boldly shed the tears if they would come, yet they never did.
A gentle sobbing caught his attention. He looked towards Stephanie to see that she was having another one of her melt-downs. She had started the day looking better than normal with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, black yoga pants, and a light blue cotton shirt. It was loosening now due to her rubbing her head as she rocked back and forth. She seemed so out-of-place at times. Not being completely devoid of compassion, he walked over next to her and sat down on the bench beside her.
“It sure is a nice day to spoil it with tears, don’t you think?”
She managed to gain control over her emotions long enough to voice, “What do you care? Go away and leave me alone.”
He continued looking out at the other people, “You and I both know that twenty feet is hardly considered ‘space’. Look, if I’m stuck with you, could you at least quit crying all the time?”
Stephanie looked up at him through blood-shot eyes, “I can’t help it that I’ve been ignored my whole life making me who I am now.”
Trevor turned slightly towards her, “You know, my wife went through the same thing when she was younger. Although, the difference between her and you is that she didn’t let that define who she is. You won’t let go of the past, which is why I’m still around serving time as your personal prisoner. Let go of all the bad stuff in your life and move on. You could have a wonderful and fantastic future, but you refuse to live anywhere but in the past.”
“As terrible as my past is; it’s all I have.”
Trevor leaned toward her expecting more, and when she offered nothing, he leaned back again and looked out over the park, thinking to himself.
That was the most she’s ever spoken about her past. I’ve been wrong about her this entire time. It’s not that she’s in love with me, rather, she doesn’t have anyone else in her life to get attention from. I don’t think I would let go either. I’ve been so selfish since that night, I couldn’t see her pain that she’s in. Have I been making it worse?
The sunset had cast its wonderful pinks and reds across the clouds as they made their way towards the apartment.
“Do you ever cook for yourself?” Trevor asked as they walked along the sidewalk in the downtown area.
“Does warming up left-over Chinese food count?”
A lighthearted chuckle highlighted Trevor’s answer, “No, I’m afraid not.”
Holding her hands up, a bashful smile surfaced on her face, “Do you cook? Maybe you could teach me.”
He took a moment to ponder her question, “I can teach you to cook, if you promise not to get mad at yourself if it doesn’t turn out right. Deal?”
The corner of Stephanie’s mouth lifted in a sly smile, “Deal. What do I need?”
“Do you like soup? It will be way healthier than that junk you eat now.”
“I don’t eat junk!”
Trevor intentionally looked at her stomach to draw attention to it.
“Okay, so I have a little pudge, so what?”
“It’s hard on your heart and other organs, that’s all I’m saying.” Pointing ahead, “Head down to 2nd and I’ll show you a hole in the wall.”
Stephanie cocked an eyebrow at Trevor, “What’s so great about a hole in the wall? Does it grow magical, healthy food in it?”
“Sorta, I’ll show you when we get there.”
As they rounded the corner of the building, Trevor pointed ahead to an awning. “The blue one.”
“They all look black to me.”
“Just follow me, please.”
Stephanie was genuinely shocked, “Manners all of a sudden? What did I do to deserve this?”
“Normally, I would hold the door open for people as well.”
“But you can’t. So, I’ll get the door myself. Thanks, anyway.” She was playfully being sarcastic with him. She pictured him holding the door for people with a smile on his face. He cared about people, but seemed to hesitate when it came to her. She wondered if they would ever get along like a normal couple could.
As Stephanie entered the shop, she was immediately bombarded with a vast variety of smells. Spices, herbs, and many others she had never smelled before. Dried produce hung from hooks and various fruits nested in hanging baskets. “What is this place?”
Trevor came close to her ear, “Prem’s Foods. Order half a pound of lintels there.”
Whispering to him, “You do realize that I have no idea what is what in here, right?”
“I do now.” Going over to a display of large, hand-woven baskets, Trevor pointed at one basket in particular with red handles and said, “Lintels, half a pound.”
“Okay.” Stephanie caught the Indian shop keeper’s attention. When he came to the basket, he pulled out the scoop piercing it and said through his thick accent, “How much?”
“Half a pound, please.”
“Very good.” The man scooped out lintels, weighing them with the scale. Satisfied, he dumped the lintels into a white, paper bag and rolled the top closed. “What else, Miss?”
Trevor ran over to the other side and pointed at a canvas bag with a rolled down top, enunciating the syllables, “Keen-wah.”
Stephanie pointed to where Trevor stood and said, “Keen-wah.”
As the man walked to it, he questioned again, “How much?”
She looked to Trevor with a questioning expression.
She repeated this to the shop owner. Reaching under the counter, he pulled out a measuring cup and dipped it into the quinoa, leveled it, and dumped it into another paper bag. The man raised both eyebrows anticipating the next item.
Trevor sauntered over to Stephanie and spoke in her ear, “Now for spices. Say: cayenne pepper, turmeric, and crushed red pepper.”
She echoed the list of spices to the man, who held up his right hand with all the fingertips touching the tip of his thumb. Trevor leaned towards Stephanie, “Do what he is doing with his hand.” She reciprocated the gesture and the man nodded. He turned his back to her as he pulled out several small clear bags and filled them with the various spices lining the back wall.
Trevor explained to her, “What he did with his hand is how much he measures out, a generous ‘pinch’ of each. When he gets those done, say to him, ‘Thank you’. He will then bag all the stuff together and hold out his empty hand. Put a ten in his hand and then we get our food.”
“He doesn’t ring it all up?”
“He only charges what people can afford. When I came here, I would give him extra money to help offset the costs. He’s an honest man just trying to help people.”
She pulled her leather wallet out of the small purse she carried and found enough small bills to total a ten. When the shop owner turned around, Stephanie held out the money and said, “Thank you.” A large smile warmed the face of the man as he took the money with a grateful nod and handed her the bag.
When she placed her hand on the door handle the man called to her, “Miss!” Looking back at him, he said in a genuine tone, “Enjoy your soup.”
Six weeks later, Stephanie asked through a mouthful of food, “What is this called again?”
“Toad in a hole. My wife would make it for our breakfasts on the weekends.”
She mumbled appreciated moans as she scooped more into her mouth. Her phone vibrated on the nightstand. “Would you see who that is?”
Trevor walked over to the phone, “It says, ‘message from Abby, Do you want to hang out today?’”
Stephanie let out a little squeal as her feet danced in place under the table. “I haven’t hung out with Abby in forever!” She wiped her mouth with a napkin and raced across the room snatching up her phone as her thumbs danced around, typing her response. After sending her message, she threw her arms up in a triumphant celebration while laughing excitedly.
“Who is Abby?”
“Abby is my younger sister. I can’t remember the last time we hung out together.”
“Finish your breakfast and let’s go. I want to be outside today as much as possible.” Trevor said as he paced in front of the window occasionally looking out at the street below filled with people.
Wolfing down her remaining breakfast, Stephanie raced to the bedroom to get dressed. Calling from the other room, “What should I wear? Is it nice outside?”
“Put on your light blue skirt and those sandal things you have. Wear something light weight for a top because the sun is shining and it might be hot outside.”
A few minutes later, as she came into the room asking, “Should I wear my hair up or down?”
Looking at her as she modeled her hair, “Up with the chop-sticks.”
“This is going to be so much fun!” Stephanie laughed as she hurried to the bathroom to fix her hair.
As she entered the bathroom, Trevor slid several feet towards her. This was his curse; invisible shackles keeping the distance between them in check. All she had to do was confess what she did to him, and freedom was his. Yet, she still refused to relinquish her hold on him.
As they approached Tito’s Pizza Parlor, a younger, shorter version of Stephanie with pink tipped hair, ran up to her and embraced her as the two women elated in their excitement at seeing one another. Trevor hung back as the two shared their exchanges.
Seated in a corner booth, they began looking over the menu while Trevor paced the floor mentally distant within his limits. Stephanie never knew exactly what was on his mind while he paced. She stopped assuming he was mad at her because he was acting differently towards her now. He was starting to become a friend to her.
Abby was quick to engage the conversation, “So, tell me what you have been doing? We haven’t spoken to each other in months.”
Stephanie had hoped that this would come up later, but she forgot that her sister was very pointed when it came to these things. “The same. Nothing much is different.”
Abby looked up from her menu, “Don’t lie to me. I can tell when you do and I can see that you’re hiding something, what is it?”
Stephanie was terrible when it came to lying, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” She tried hiding behind her menu to avoid making eye contact with her sister.
Pulling Stephanie’s menu down, “Oh, come on now. Tell me, please? What are sisters for if we can’t share secrets with one another?” She was pleading with her eyes.
Stephanie opened her mouth to speak when their approaching waiter interrupted them.
“What can I get you lovely ladies to drink? Perhaps, some sweet tea?”
Abby looked up at him as she said, “I would love some sweet tea with lemon.”
Winking at her, he turned to Stephanie, “And you, Miss?”
“I’ll bring those right out.” As he walked away, Abby watched him go.
“Now that, was some sweet tea. Do you think I have a chance with him?”
“You’ve always been able to catch any boy’s eyes.”
Abby faced Stephanie, “So tell me about yours.”
Startled by this, “Mine? You know that I haven’t dated anyone in years.”
“You’re dressed up, wearing make-up with a bright smile; you’ve got a guy, now tell me about him.”
Stephanie stole a glance at Trevor to see if he was paying attention. He was staring in the distance as a waitress passed through him carrying a steaming pizza. She didn’t like that objects and people could pass through him as though he weren’t real, because he felt so alive to her.
She let out a big sigh, “It’s complicated.”
Abby perked up at this, “Those are the best ones. And…”
As Stephanie started to continue, the waiter returned with their drinks. “One water for you,” as he slid the drink to Stephanie. “And, one sweet tea for you.” With a complimentary wink, he slid the tea to Abby.
Grabbing his pen and notepad, “Are you ladies ready to order?”
Abby popped in, “Do you want to split one, Steph?”
“I’ve recently started a diet actually, so, I think I’ll have the Roadhouse Salad with the dressing on the side.” Stephanie imagined that if Trevor heard what she ordered, he would have been proud. He wasn’t a health nut, but he did know how to cook good, clean food. She noticed that her clothes were starting to fit differently. He had taught her how to make several meals and she actually looked forward to their evenings cooking together.
Was this what it was like being married? Getting to spend every waking moment with someone who cares about you?
“That is my favorite salad. And for you?” he said directing the question to Abby.
“Well,” looking up at his name tag, “Drew, what would you recommend?”
“I really like Tito’s Deluxe. It has everything on it.”
“Get me a large then, because I want left-overs.”
“Sounds good, I’ll get this on the board for you.” Drew gathered up the menus and gave Abby an award-winning smile as he left.
“I’m so getting his number before we leave. Now, about your guy, what is he like?”
Stephanie was uncomfortable with the idea of talking about Trevor. What if she said too much and lost him? What would she do then? “I don’t want to say too much about him, because I don’t want to jinx it.”
“What, are we in the eighth grade again talking about our crushes? I want to hear some details, girl.”
Telling Abby the details about Trevor struck fear in her heart. She wasn’t ready to live without him yet.
As long as I don’t tell her what I did to him, he should stay. Hopefully, I don’t say too much.
Slowly, she began speaking, “His name is Trevor. He is becoming one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. He’s been teaching me a lot about myself and giving me encouragement to become a better person.”
Abby interjected, “You mean he’s not an alcoholic dirt-bag named Nick?”
Stephanie had a pained look in her eyes as she looked to see if Trevor noticed they were speaking about him. He was in his reclusive state that meant he was thinking about his family. Seeing him like this always made her feel guilty about her decisions.
Why can’t I let him go? I know he would leave me if given a chance, I know I would.
Abby broke the silence, “Steph, I’m sorry. I forgot that you don’t like talking about what happened then. I thought you were past all that. Are you still seeing Dr. Hodge?”
Stephanie dropped her eyes, “No…I stopped seeing her some time ago.”
Abby deflated in her seat, “I’m sorry to hear that. Can I ask why, or would that be too much?”
“She almost got me to talk about what happened that night.”
“The night of the wreck?” Stephanie nodded. “Would it be a bad thing if you told someone what happened?”
“If I tell anyone the truth about what really happened that night, I’ll lose the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t think I’m ready for that, yet.”
Abby spoke with a calm confidence, “But, think about how much you could gain if you would speak to someone about it.”
“I do speak to Trevor about it. He thinks I should talk to someone about it too.”
Slowly, “Then why don’t you?”
Stephanie looked to Trevor sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up to his chest and his forehead resting against them. He was clearly very distraught with grief over his family. Looking around the restaurant reaffirmed her assumption. Several groups of people gathered around tables eating as a family. She could hear ‘Happy Birthday’ being sung to someone and the cheers that follow the candles being blown out.
We shouldn’t have come here. What was I thinking? She knew the hurt he felt at that moment. It pained her to see him this low. On cue, Trevor raised his head revealing how deep his grief rooted itself within him. Stephanie’s heart felt as if it had been slowly removed from her chest.
What am I doing to him? How could I not see this sooner? He’s miserable because of me and my selfishness. But, I don’t think anyone would want to be around me. Why would anyone want to?
She could no longer keep eye contact with him.
“Stephanie, are you okay?” Abby’s question awakened Stephanie.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Steph, you’re my sister and I love you. Please, tell me what is wrong. Mom and Dad told me that you don’t return their calls or messages anymore. They say that you don’t speak to anyone in the family anymore. Will you tell me what is wrong?”
Stephanie was looking down at her interwoven fingers, “Abby, I have a secret that no one knows about except Trevor. The reason he knows, is because he was there that night of the wreck. And the reason I keep it secret, is that, if I tell anyone what happened, Trevor will leave me.”
“But, the police report said that you were alone in the wreck. No one else was around.”
“That’s what I told them; but that wasn’t the truth. Trevor was with me.”
“This Trevor is sounding like one of those guardian-angel type of guys.” Leaning in on the table, “How often do you get to see him?”
“Every day.” At this, Trevor slid into the bench beside Abby with pleading eyes.
If she’s going to tell anyone, it’s here and now. She hasn’t been this open with anyone except me. Maybe if she could see that people really do care, she would tell and let me go.
Abby began rubbing her left arm as the goose-bumps rose on her skin. “I’m getting a cold-chill talking about this stuff. So let me get this straight. You and Trevor have a secret about the wreck, and if you tell it to someone, then he will leave you. Did I miss anything?”
“Nothing I’ve told you.”
A look of shock dropped Abby’s jaw, “You mean there’s more?”
Stephanie nodded as the fear surmounted to an ever-increasing high. Could she answer the questions resting on the tip of her sister’s tongue? Trevor leaned forward adding to her uneasiness.
“Wow. Will you tell me more about Trevor? I’m intrigued now.”
A smile lifted the corners of Stephanie’s mouth, “What I can, yes.” She took a breath as she gathered her thoughts. “Trevor is everything that Nick wasn’t. Although, he didn’t like me at first. We fought and argued as much as I did with Nick. I wasn’t sure if I did want him around.”
“I’m still pissed at Nick for getting you drunk all the time. Just saying.” Abby blurted out.
“Me too.” Stephanie looked up into Trevor’s eyes, “Trevor has been helping me get off the stuff. He is helping me become a better person now. I don’t deserve his kindness.”
“Have you two made out yet? It sounds like I couldn’t keep my hands off him if I were you.”
Stephanie broke eye contact and looked down at her hands, “No. The most we can share is a conversation, and at this point, I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”
Trevor leaned back with understanding in his heart. She wants nothing more than for people to notice her. Her advances towards me were never about love or sex, it was purely for attention. I don’t know why I didn’t see this sooner. She’s told me before she’s been ignored her whole life, so that’s why she can’t stand the thought of losing me. She doesn’t want to be alone. This is going to take time for her to heal and the best thing I can do both of us is to help her with it.
“It sounds to me like you might have something for Trevor.”
Stephanie placed her interlocked fingers on the table, “I do. Which is why I’m terrified to lose him.” I desperately want to release him from this prison I’ve made. But, if I do, then I place myself in one instead. I don’t know which is worse; entrapping those I love, or letting them go.
Abby enclosed Stephanie’s hands in her own, “Part of loving someone, is being able to let them go. I can help you with this, if you will let me.”
Trevor reached forward and placed his hand inside the sisters’ hands, “You have those around you that love you and are willing to help you move past this. Please, don’t shut them out. I’m going to help as well, no matter what it takes. We’ll get past this together.”
A tear trailed its way down as Stephanie smiled. Looking at both of them in turn, she said, “Thank you. I never knew people cared about me this much.”
As he walked along the hillside, his right hand with its wrinkled palm was turned uphill to feel the pull. He had done this same thing for years, yet his pulse quickened each time the magnetic pull began to entice him to come closer. Nugget was a true prospector at heart and no amount of years added to his life would ever change this fact.
He walked on for a few more paces and then his right hand began to tingle. He was getting close to gold and was pulling at it with minimal effort to locate it. Up the hillside underneath a sedimentary rock about the size of his small refrigerator at home hid the treasure. As he approached the rock, he began to pull harder at the gold to pinpoint it. To the right of the rock, a little over fourteen inches from where he knelt was the hiding place of this golden treasure.
Pulling his wide-brimmed hat off, he squinted up at the sun and called out to it, “Thought I was gonna miss it, didn’t ya?” A small chuckle escaped his lips as the crow’s feet increased their presence around his eyes. He used the cuff of his white and brown plaid shirt sleeve to remove the salty sweat building upon his brow daring to flood down into his hazel eyes.
Nugget was a man of the land. The muscles of his body had been shaped years ago by the hard work needed to sustain his way of life in southern Arizona. Being in his late sixties had only slowed his movements slightly as he continued to walk his land every day looking for more treasures. He knew the vast acres he owned better than any of his fore fathers before him because Nugget held a secret. He knew how to pull the gold from the ground like opposite sides of magnetic fields yearning and pulling for each other. He couldn’t walk past any type of natural metal without it whispering to him and begging him to come closer.
Gold was the easiest for Nugget to find and manipulate, not to mention the main staple that kept him going through the tough economic times. He could even remember a time when he traded his gold for water. The remaining residents of Vapid Meadows were practical people, not vain when it came to commerce.
Reaching around and unclasping the heavy canvas bag he used for holding his haul of the day, Nugget placed it on the ground in front of him. Other prospectors would need to bring along a shovel, bucket, screen, pan, and sucker bottle to get the gold out of the ground and into their hands. Nugget always counted himself lucky that he didn’t need all that equipment, not to mention access to water in order to pan out the fines. Nugget only needed his canvas bag to hold his pieces that he pulled.
This was a big secret that Nugget held closely because it not only meant that he could pull gold long into his later years, but he also didn’t want anyone else to force his hand at finding it. There are a lot of greedy people in the world but Nugget strived to be one of the most humble around.
Placing his right hand palm down on the ground, he slowly moved in counter-clockwise circles barely disturbing the ground surface at all. Within a minute of doing this, he felt a soft thump as the gold surfaced directly into his palm. Closing his hand around the mass and upturning his palm, his fingers slowly uncurled revealing a rough and misshapen, dusty bit of gold. Taking a big breath and blowing off the dirt and dust, he began rolling the lump between his palms. He started out slowly at first and soon picked up the pace to a dizzying speed and within a few moments the lump of gold was now a smooth ball the size of a marble.
Holding it up so the sunlight danced along its surface, he was pleased with his find. This amount would have taken other prospectors hours to collect and Nugget did it within fifteen minutes. A hearty chuckle burst from him as he dropped the golden ball into his bag and began lightly pulling the area to see if there were any other pieces worth pulling. Only sensing loads of fines to the left of the rock, he decided to call this area good for now. It always took more energy than he seemed to have these days to pull gold that was more than a few feet down. Fines took time to gather because there needed to be a sizable amount to make it worth the effort and Nugget was late in his years with a certain amount of laziness beginning to creep into his bones.
With his bag in hand, he pushed himself off the rock and stood on the hillside taking in the scenery for a moment before heading on. This area of his land wasn’t the most appealing to anyone except him because he was looking below the surface. The landscape was full of the drought resistant plants that populated the area. The dry bed at the bottom was only useful when the skies opened up with generosity and flooded the area with more water than the plants could ever use.
His late wife would always comment, “It isn’t much to look at is it? But then again, neither are you my love.” She meant it with all the love she could posses for Nugget. It had been twenty years since she left him alone in the world and he never could adjust to life fully without her. Although the years were adding up, the wound remained ever fresh for him.
Loose rocks skipped ahead of Nugget as he made his way down the hillside. It was always hard for him to come here because of all the memories that connected back to Helen. However, the amount of gold he was able to pull consistently from this area always called him back. With his head hung low, he made his way back to his shop.
As he came to the front door, he paused and looked up at the old weather-beaten sign above the door. Helen and him had made the sign years ago out of scrap wood that was left over from a remodel of their kitchen cabinets. Faded hand-painted lettering read, NUGGET’S TRINKETS. It was a simple sign that had a simple purpose, serving as the store signage for customers.
He pulled a small ring of keys from his pocket and worked the lock open. As he pushed through the doorway, the small bell above gave its familiar tinkle letting him know someone had entered the shop. Closing the door gave the bell another chance to sound its call to all that could hear.
“Yes, yes. I’m in already.” Those that did business with Nugget knew that he was a different person when Helen was still alive. Now, they put up with his strange quirks with a sympathetic smile riding the corners of their lips because they knew he still struggled with her loss.
Nugget placed his hat on the set of hooks by the door and turned to face his all too familiar shop. At a first glance within the door, a person would think that they were in a rock museum instead of a jewelry shop. It was a standoffish log cabin on the outside covered with white washed cob to protect it from the harsh weather. The next nearest building was one hundred yards away and deteriorating under the elements. The people of Vapid Meadows enjoyed their privacy and kept it with vast acres of land surrounding their houses instead of tall fences.
When Nugget was first building up his clientele in the earlier years of their business, Helen had them participate in a local trade show. This caught the attention of several jewelry dealers of Tucson that happened to be at the show. Many of the larger jewelers in Tucson, Arizona now sent a representative to him weekly to buy gold because he provided 22 karat or better. He refused to add a large mark-up to the price because he felt that he didn’t do that much to it besides cleaning it with some spit and roll it into a ball. Commission offers from them were turned down as well because he knew it would only lead to more work than he ever wanted to commit to.
Nugget’s shop was as humble as he was. It was bare wood on the inside and lit with Edison style lights hanging from the ceiling. A twinkle of light would catch your eye on every shelf in the small, quaint 400 square foot shop. Along the left wall was large clusters of crystals and minerals. Spikes of quartz and calcium carbonate erupted out among the shelves like little disturbed porcupines. Clumps of amethyst with their deep purples complimented the unpolished rubies nearby. Blues, greens; browns, blacks; and every color you could ever think of littered the shelves in all shapes and sizes.
In the middle of the room sat Nugget’s desk constructed of solid maple. The surface was scratched and the knobs of the drawers had lost their luster years ago from the amount of service they provided him. It was littered with brown paper balls of various sizes and shapes contradicting Helen’s advice to keep a tidy shop. His reasoning was that if you have something of value, you should hide it in plain sight and no one will ever find it. The safe he kept in the corner would draw any thieving eyes to it allowing his true treasure to lie unsuspected on his desktop. The safe merely held his tax records and other useless paperwork he hoarded over the years.
Along the back wall was his living quarters which he separated with a piece of string that held a sign aloft that read, PLEASE RESPECT MY SPACE.
With a big sigh he walked to the desk. Collapsing in the chair and opening the top right drawer, he removed a single sheet of brown paper. Unclasping his bag and dropping it in the middle of the desk, he took out the ball of gold and rolled the paper around it and tossed it on the desk with the others.
The bell tinkled announcing someone’s arrival. It was a young woman in her mid-thirties with straight black hair pulled into a loose braid over her left shoulder. He assumed she wasn’t from around Vapid Meadows because she wore cutoff shorts and a low cut tank top that was dangerously close to revealing things that shouldn’t be seen. Vapid Meadows was a conservative area in beliefs and the residents only bared their skin to wash after a long day in the desert. As she pushed up her aviator framed sunglasses she asked, “Do you have a restroom?”
“Not in here I don’t. It’s around back, ya can’t miss it unless you’re blind. I assume you’re not blind since you don’t have one of those tapping sticks with ya.” Nugget replied as he rocked gently in his chair.
“No, I got 20/20 vision from my mom. Around back you said?”
“Yep, go back out the front door and make two lefts or two rights and you’re there.”
“Thank you.” As she left, Nugget could see that she had a small cloth backpack tucked away in the small of her back. Within a second, Nugget knew that the buckles were a cheaper grade of brass and that she had a handful of loose change in the side pocket of the backpack.
Outside, the woman pulled her sunglasses back down over her eyes as she looked to the right and left, “I guess it doesn’t matter which way I go.” Taking a left, she made her way around the building to Nugget’s bath house.
It was a small building with white washed cob on the outside and a simple door. As she stepped through the door, the simplicity of the room surprised her. On the right was the crude but effective facilities she sought after. Dropping her backpack to the floor after latching the door, she hurriedly took to it. The man inside the shop was indeed a simple and kind man. Anyone else would turn her away or tell her to squat in a bush, but not this man, he was different.
Light from the skylight was all that was needed to illuminate the room during the day and various candles were in holders with wax stalactites hanging below. Looking around the room while she relaxed, she noticed that in the corner to her right was a hand-made tub. Small smooth stones the size of her thumbnail were inset into the front of it to catch the light spilling into the room.
With her task completed, she walked to the wash basin. It was a simple bowl and pitcher of water on a large shelf accented above by an oval mirror. A bar of simple soap lay on the wooden shelf by the pitcher. As she picked up the bar, she caught the scent of lavender. It reminded her of the home she grew up in and the flowers that would bloom around it.
She quickly pushed aside these memories and washed her hands. Grabbing her backpack, she unlatched the door and made her way back to the shop front to thank the man again.
Coming back into the shop, the little bell above the door announced her arrival.
“Hey! You made it out okay.”
This made her a bit uncomfortable, where she was from people didn’t make comments like this after one relieved themselves. Shifting her weight to her left foot she said, “Yeah, I just wanted to thank you again for your kindness. It’s nice to know there is still nice people in this world. The tub is pretty, did you make it yourself?”
“Oh, that old thing? My wife and I made it years ago. It didn’t stink in there did it?” There was a genuine concern to his voice.
“All I could smell was the warm wood.”
Nugget let out a sigh as he wiped his forehead, “That’s good because I got to thinking about it and remembered that I had some chili the other night and…”
“No, no, really. It was fine.” This guy has been out in the sun too much, she thought to herself. “Look, I need to be going now. I’ve got somewhere to be at one.” She turned to leave.
“Well, if you leave now, you might get there before midnight. You’re walking right?” Nugget was a little eccentric but no fool. “Why don’t you stay a bit and enjoy some tea with me and quit your lying. It’s already 2 o’clock and the nearest town is forty miles from here.”
This stopped her in her tracks. Without turning around she asked, “Earl Grey?”
She reached up and removed her sunglasses as she turned to face him, “Alright. But just one sugar please.”
“One sugar for one name.”
She took a moment to answer, “My name is Kara. And you?”
“I must need to repaint the sign out front more than I thought, th’ name’s Nugget. Come on in here and I’ll get the water going. You drink water with your tea right?”
Was he teasing or being serious? A small laugh came from Kara as she answered, “Yes. I typically drink water with my tea. It gets a little strong without it.”
“I’ll have to try that sometime.” Nugget shuddered at the thought of putting straight tea in his mouth and got up to go prepare the tea. “So where you from young lady?”
Wandering towards the colorful crystals and minerals Kara responded nonchalantly, “It doesn’t matter because I won’t be going back.”
“I see. I gotta warn ya though, you need to be careful walking out there. Had you been a few miles south of me, you wouldn’t have found anyone around to take shelter with. It’s not so much the heat factor as much as a lack of water that I’m concerned about. You don’t look like you’re outfitted for walking around in the desert with those shorty-shorts of yours. Although, hitch hiking shouldn’t be much of an issue provided you don’t turn into a lobster first.”
“What? You don’t think I can handle myself out there?” She picked up a small ruby and examined it.
Nugget had his back to her and was mumbling to himself.
Kara giggled softly as she removed her backpack and placed it on the floor. Nugget reminded her of a client that she worked with before she left the city. She was sorry for ever taking pity on Brandon and his addictions. He caused her to lose her job after slipping her something in a drink one evening. Luckily for her, Brandon passed out on the floor of her apartment. The company was strict on enforcing the rules concerning associates using narcotics and having social interactions with clients. Had she kept herself removed from Brandon, she would still be in the comforts of her apartment in the city with a rewarding job allowing her to make a difference in the lives of others. Placing the ruby back where it belonged and she turned her attention to the other wall and its contents.
This wall was lined with reinforced shelving supporting large lumps and clusters of metals. As she walked closer to it, she recognized several of them in their raw state; copper, silver, and gold being the most evident to her. She tried moving one she didn’t recognize but the dense weight prevented her. Her curiosity was soon captivated by a unique rock she had never seen before.
In the middle of all the metal clusters, there was on a shelf by itself, a multicolored rock.
It was unlike anything she had ever seen. Hues of blue, purple; yellow, green; and gold illuminated its surface. It was layered almost in a pyramid style with its right angles and broadening formation.
“Bismuth,” a voice behind her said.
A small, uncontrolled scream pierced the air as she spun around to face the voice.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Nugget apologetically said as he held up his hands in a surrendering manner.
Catching her breath, Kara reassured him, “No. It’s okay, I just got lost in the moment that’s all. You’re pretty quiet for an old man.”
Shrugging, “I’ve had time to practice I guess.” Pointing to the rock, “It’s called bismuth.”
Kara let her gaze go back to it as she stepped towards it, “Is this real?”
“Pick it up. Just be gentle with it as you handle it.”
As she held it in her hands, she turned it over and over completely mesmerized by its shapes and colors. “How is this possible? This can’t be natural.”
Nugget put his hands in his pockets and began to rock back and forth on his heels and toes as he began to explain, “It’s natural and at the same time, it’s not natural.”
Kara cocked an eyebrow at the statement, “It’s real but it’s fake? That doesn’t make sense. It has to be one or the other.”
A chuckle sounded from Nugget, “What you are seeing is bismuth, but not in its natural form. I made this crystal from a block of bismuth in its raw form by heating it to its melting point and allowing it to partially cool. While in its raw form, it is rather bland actually. Just a plain silver in color and nothing great to look at. But, after heating and cooling it, we are able to morph its appearance to this.”
She turned the rock over in her hands as she thought about it. “So you changed it on purpose? Why would you want to do that? Why not leave it in its natural state?”
Nugget took a step towards the shelves and pulled off a silver colored rock. Turning to face her, he opened his left hand and asked, “May I?”
She gently placed the bismuth crystal in his open hand.
Extending his right hand so she could see, “This is raw bismuth. Rather dull in color and shape. It hasn’t had to face any difficulties in life so far to shape its character.” He pulled back his hand and then extended his open left hand, “This is a bismuth crystal. Gorgeous colors, wonderful shapes, and textures. It has been through trials of heat and flames. After surviving the fire, it developed this unique color scheme and texture.” Now he held out both on equal plains, “On the one hand, we have a new person. They are just developing in life and haven’t endured any trials. On the other, we see someone that has been around and survived what life has thrown them and developed their character from the experiences.”
Kara reached out and took back the bismuth crystal and used a finger to point at it, “But why does it develop these right angles? That doesn’t seem natural to me.”
Nugget used his hands as visuals while he explained, “Like so many of us in life, these angles represent a choice they made. They didn’t like the way they were headed, so they made a conscious choice to change. As with all choices in life, we can either go right or left. Each of these individual shafts represent a part of our life that eventually suffers a change. You can see that several of them make several directional changes before eventually finding where they want to end at. I believe that many people are just like this bismuth crystal. We are unhappy with the direction our life is going, so we change a bit here and a bit there until our entire being is different from what first entered the fires of life.”
As he spoke, Kara’s face became downcast and her gaze fixed on the crystal as she listened to his words. “I don’t think that everyone is capable of being this beautiful though. Some of us are scarred and scratched. Ugly.”
Nugget reached up and raised her chin, “I know that many people can be brittle and delicate at times. But life is both delicate and harsh, exactly like the fires that produce these bismuth crystals. No one that enters the fire comes out the same as they were before. Some will be burned and scarred perhaps, but others can shine with a brilliance beyond any that the world has ever seen. Only the Creator knows the full potential of those put to the test. However, our inner beauty can not and will not shine until we face the trials this life hurls at us.”
A tear trickled down Kara’s cheek as she managed to choke out, “But it’s so hard sometimes.”
“Yes. Life is hard. I once was married to the most amazing woman God ever created. We had plans of growing old together and making fun of how wrinkly the other was getting. I didn’t get these crow’s feet around my eyes because we took life seriously. I got these and other wrinkles because we endured the trials life threw at us.”
“Where is she now?”
Nugget’s eyes began watering up and reddening as he slowly answered her, “Death… called her away many years ago. Back when she was younger… and less wrinkled than I am now.” A smile lifted the corners of his mouth as the memory of his late wife warmed his heart.
Kara was trying to keep herself from breaking down, “I’m sorry that you had to go through that.”
“I am too. I live out here alone now because I didn’t take her passing well. I blamed myself for God’s intent and purpose for her. She is the reason I can smile and laugh today. She taught me to love others despite their flaws on the surface because she could see their inner beauty when I couldn’t.”
The kettle on the stove began its shrieking, alerting others that the water was at the desired temperature. Nugget placed his raw bismuth on the shelf and took the crystal from Kara, “Would you mind getting that?”
“Sure,” she said handing the crystal to him. She wiped her eyes trying to regain her composure as she made her way into the kitchen ducking under the string holding the sign.
With the kettle silenced, she looked in the cupboards until she found the mugs. Placing two mugs on the counter and finding a pair of spoons, she dropped a tea bag in each mug. “Where is your sugar?” Kara called out over her shoulder as she poured the water.
“When Helen was around, I would point to my lips and say, ‘I got your sugar right here!’ But for you, it’s on the table.”
Kara took the two mugs to the small fold up table mounted to the wall and sat on the accompanying stool. She looked across the room and noticed Nugget crouched over her backpack. “Hey, get out of there.”
Nugget’s head lifted as he had been caught, “I was just leaving a couple of things in there that will help you out.”
“Uh-huh. Leave my stuff alone and get over here and drink your tea.” A playful, scolding tone highlighted her words.
As Nugget came closer, a relieved look showed on his face, “Oh good, you put water in mine.”
“Of course.” A smile stretched Kara’s face as she removed her tea bag and pressed it against the inside of the mug. Nugget pushed forward a small glass bowl with a lid. Lifting the lid off, she saw a brown, grainy substance inside. She cocked an eyebrow at Nugget in a questioning manner.
“Coconut sugar. Same as regular sugar, only better.”
Kara spooned out roughly half a teaspoon and stirred it into her tea. She placed the lid back on it and slid it back to the middle of the table. “So what did you put in my bag?” she asked picking up the mug and warming her hands with it.
Nugget climbed up on the opposite stool and removed his tea bag and placed in on a napkin. Blowing on the tea, he took a slow sip and placed the cup back on the table. “Two things: enough gold nuggets to get you home, and the bismuth crystal.”
Kara voice held a solemn tone to it, “Why did you do that? I didn’t ask you for anything?”
Waving a finger in the air, “That’s not true, you asked to use my bath house. So that constitutes me giving you a few gifts and hopefully some advice.”
“The only thing people ever give me when I ask to use their restroom is a hard time and sometimes some paper.”
A look of fear overtook Nugget’s face, “There was paper in there, right?”
She let out a giggle as she answered, “Yes. Thank you for keeping paper stocked in your bath house.”
“Don’t scare me like that.” He exhaled heavily as he brought his tea to his lips.
“What makes you think that I’ll go back?
“Just like the crystal, eventually you find where you want to end.”
“Is that why you gave me the crystal? So I will know where to end?”
Nugget raised his eyes to met hers, “I’m giving the crystal to you so that you will remember that your inner beauty will not shine until you pass through your trials.”
“And the gold?”
“I can find all I need out here. I won’t miss what I gave you.”
“How much?” she asked looking over her mug as the steam trickled towards the ceiling.
A big smile lit up Nugget’s face, “You will know when you sell it. God has blessed me with gold on this land, so I will pass on that blessing to you.”
A sense of humility overcame Kara, no one had ever been this kind to her. “Thank you.”
“No trouble at all. How is your tea?”
It was a bitter cold day in October. I had layered myself with my wool clothing to stay warm as I made my way down to the boat. Being a part of a commercial fishing enterprise had its perks and setbacks. Near-freezing temperatures being some of the worst without the mention of possible death with each passing hour. However, the pay was worth the risk of death for anyone brave enough to endure the hardships.
My sister Augustine had visited me yesterday evening to see me off for another three months at sea. She begged and pleaded with me to decline the venture but my stubborn will refused to concede to her. If every fisherman declined to venture into uncharted waters for the possible unknown advantage that lay in wait for them, mankind would have starved ages ago.
However, this time she might have been right.
With a heavy thump my boots hit the upper deck of the Hoodwink. My breath materializing before me, I took in the excitement at hand.
The Hoodwink’s captain, Mortimer C. Roughstone, was not an abusive captain, but one that demanded respect. Catching his eye, I lifted a hand to signal that I was at service.
With a nod he shouted over the clamor, “To your station, Master Holt.”
Nodding, I raced below to claim my hammock for the trip. I was extremely thankful for the new gloves my sister had brought me. Several members of the crew had lost fingers due to frostbite and I did not want to be included among their numbers.
With things in order, I return to the upper deck to see to my post. Men were shouting as various ropes were loosed and others tightened down. Everyone had a job and did it well.
Captain Roughstone was a shepherd before turning his life over to the sea and carried his sling with him always. If one was caught slacking on the job, a musket ball to the torso was expected within seconds of the Captain seeing them as he was deadly accurate. He didn’t believe in using gun powder due to the moisture of the sea and he could take out eight men before the fastest man could reload a pistol. The precision of Captain Roughstone was something I deeply admired.
With the Hoodwink underway, I wrapped my scarf around my face to keep from breathing the cold air. Learning small tricks like this proved to my benefit numerous times on the various winter expeditions upon the Hoodwink. Others among the crew did likewise.
With the ship safely out to sea and under full sail, the captain roused us all. “Gentlemen! Gather together!” I took my place among the others as we listened to the captain’s orders.
“Gentlemen, as many of you know, we are fishermen.” Many of the men gave whoops and hurrahs at this statement of pride. “But what many of you don’t know is that we are sent on other expeditions during the winter months when fishing is the hardest. This is one of those expeditions. I wasn’t able to tell you until now due to the secrecy of the mission. While I can’t tell you our direct heading or purpose of going there, I can tell you that this is our highest paying voyage yet.”
All of the men gave loud hurrahs at this statement because Captain Roughstone was a generous man when it came to payments and the last voyage had set us up for months of feasting and drinking. The list to join the Hoodwink’s crew lengthened with each flamboyant story told by members of the crew.
“The King himself has entrusted us with a voyage that has been declined by numerous greater vessels than the Hoodwink. I have no doubt in my mind that this voyage will forever change our fortunes should we succeed.” Captain Roughstone paused as he collected his thoughts. “What you don’t know about this mission will get you killed. I pray that I not lose a single man, but fate so often has different views on the lives of men.”
The entire crew was silent at this point, not many of us had undertaken something as dangerous as this mission was playing out to be.
“The King’s voyage is to find an island in the uncharted waters to establish a trade route with. He wishes to establish the longest trade in the world, even at your expense. None of us have ever gone this far from home before and some of you may not return. We must look out for one another if we are to succeed in our mission. What you need to know is this: we are to retrieve evidence of the island and return it to the King. Should we succeed in our mission, the King has personally promised that every man aboard this ship will live a life of luxury for the end of his days.”
That was all the crew needed to hear to explode in hearty cheers. As for me, I swallowed a lump in my throat.
As the cheering died down at the gesture of Captain Roughstone, he concluded, “The success of this mission depends upon each and every one of you doing your duty without fail. If you fail, we all fail. Master Holt, to my quarters. The rest of you, to your posts.”
It was rare that one be invited to the captain’s quarters. I didn’t know what to expect.
Making my way through the bustle of people, I knocked on the door.
“Enter Master Holt,” he was deep inside his quarters judging by his muffled voice.
Swinging the heavy door inward, I stepped inside and closed it behind me. The windows at the rear of the room filtered the light that illuminated the room. I could see a cedarwood incense burning on the corner of his desk. The gentle rolling smoke lifting up to the ceiling helped to take the smell of fish and saltwater out of the air. This finally explained why I could smell the trees of my homeland strong upon my captain.
Sweeping my glance around the room proved to glean little more information about the captain. Maps and charts lined the walls and a washing stand over in the corner reinforced the fact that Captain Roughstone paid attention to the details of life.
“Take a seat Master Holt.” He was looking out the window without any intention in mind. “Do you know why I called you here?”
I had no clue so I took my dagger out of its sheath and used the handle to tap twice on the arm of the chair I sat in.
“I thought not.” He turned back to me and walked back to his desk and sat down. “We both know that you are the most challenged of the crew, would you agree?”
A single tap revealed my answer.
“I won’t deny that I’m glad you are aboard, son. Besides my first-mate Finn, you are the only other person on the Hoodwink I feel I can trust.”
I gave a single tap.
“While I wish that we could speak as countrymen do among their brethren, we are disadvantaged by your state of being.”
I could never tell a lie nor hide one. I gave another single tap.
“Has anyone ever entrusted you with a secret?” He had a piercing look about his eyes.
“Do you still hold true to it to this day?”
“Good. I want to be able to depend on someone should something happen to Finn. We’re on a dangerous mission Master Holt, bear that at the forefront of your mind. You’re dismissed.”
I nodded and returned my dagger to its sheath. An unexpected weight had been added to my load. Would I be able to bear it when the time came?
For several days, it was as if nothing had transpired between the captain and I. Keeping my nose to my work allowed my mind to relax and enjoy the sea.
The sea can be a wonderful blessing to those that want to escape the land life. However, it can also be a curse to those that are unfortunate enough to be caught in its grasp.
A terrible storm had built in the west and we were caught in its path as it unleashed its fury upon us. Each of us was responsible for our own lifeline. This was one of Captain Roughstone’s rules. If you wanted to die sooner than others then simple neglect would bring death to you quickly.
I hated storms this time of year because one not only had to stay warm but also dry if you wanted to survive. With the ship heaving skyward and crashing down without relent, I wondered if this would be my last day.
I prayed to God for us to be spared.
The storm laughed at us as it tossed us around with glee. Had the sun been visible, it would be kissing the horizon soon, leaving us alone for the night to endure.
There was no use trying to light the oil lamps because the waves were engulfing the deck and soaking everything in sight.
Captain Roughstone ordered everyone below deck for an all night in. With Finn at the wheel holding the ship ahull, and Captain Roughstone keeping a close eye on the dogvane, the hours crawled by as it was near impossible to sleep in the hammocks due to the movement.
Several of the men became sick in the night from the relentless tossing of the ship. Even the most sea-hardy of the crew admitted to this being one of the worst storms they’ve ever endured.
In the early hours of the morning, the storm finally subsided allowing the crew to assess the damage done to the Hoodwink. After a careful inspection issued by Finn, no damage could be found except some lengths of rope were adrift.
Due to ferocity of the storm, Captain Roughstone declared that we were horribly off-course. It would take nothing short of a miracle to get the Hoodwink to their destination with the supplies on board. Disappearing into his quarters, he worked out the details of their situation. The rest of the crew were under Finn’s command while the Hoodwink sped to a nearby island.
Due to my inability to carry on a lively conversation, even without the crew speaking to me, I could tell that something was brewing among the crew. What it was, I did not know.
We were put on a strict ration schedule until we landed at the island. Our supply of salted pork would last us several more weeks but our water supply was getting dangerously low. The cook would often gather small jars of snow and melt it near the cook fire to help lengthen our supply.
After two days, land was spotted and hope took hold of the crew. Save for one.
Out of all the men on board, I disliked Copper the most. Just saying his name left a bad taste in my mouth. He was an irritable man unafraid to cut his losses at any given time. To me he seemed self-centered and cold-hearted but to the rest of the crew, he was a hardworking equal.
Circling the island, we located a place for anchorage. We were farther south than I had ever been and the temperature was tolerable with a coat. The trees of the island were unlike any I had seen before. They reminded me of the pines back home except these were three times as large. The ground surrounding the trees was a red so dark it resembled a spilt inkwell.
An ominous feeling crept up my neck as the rowboats slid up the beach of the island. I was glad to have my feet ashore and not with anchor watch.
The crew scattered as they began gathering dry wood for cook fires. A newcomer named Flint began gathering the large pine cones from under the trees. As he reached down for another, he shrieked with pain. Many of the crew raced to his cry only to stop short in fear when they saw what happened. His skin had been pierced with the tree’s needles. The tree shuddered and rained down more needles on Flint as he dropped to the ground in pain. No one dared risk their life to save him.
He lay there in pain as the roots of the tree slowly began moving up and around his body. Within a minute his body was no longer visible. It was then we realized that the deep red around the tree’s base was the blood of its former victims.
This island was indeed deceptive and dangerous.
The deathly silence of the night told us that we were either the only ones on the island or that we were in harm’s reach. No birds called during the night. No small animals scratched at the ground. It was nothing but deathly silence and that set everyone on edge.
The next morning proved that our difficulties would not relent. A thick fog had developed and visibility was rendered to around five paces making it impossible to see the Hoodwink from the beach.
Captain Roughstone ordered fresh water to be sought out and brought to camp. I was enlisted alongside Copper and several others.
We were each armed with fishing spears and hooks if we didn’t already posses a weapon. I was given a pole hook to compliment my onyx-embellished dagger that I carried.
Setting out, we circumvented the pines out of deadly fear of them. With Finn leading, our task for the day was to find a fresh water supply.
With the realization that even the plants of the island were dangerous, our progress was slow. After traveling two miles inward, Finn called a short rest.
Mounting a large smooth stone, I stretched out my legs and took a draft from my canteen. With it only half-full, I had to keep a conscious thought about how much I drank if it was to last.
Suddenly without warning the stone raised itself up several feet and began moving. I quickly jumped off and ran towards the other men. Turning back to see what was about to kill me I saw that what I thought was a stone was merely a large turtle sauntering off into the woods.
Copper let out a hearty laugh, “What’s the matter lad? Scared of a turtle? Maybe you’ve not got what it takes to be among us men.” The rest of the group except Finn joined in on the merriment of the situation.
Finn finally barked out, “Quiet! If the turtles are this large here and even the trees can kill a man, I hate to find out what else is on this God-forsaken island. Let’s move out.”
Copper was still chuckling to himself under his breath as we gathered our gear and trudged deeper into the woods. We were only three miles from base camp but it felt like I was the only one in the world. My silence was an ever-expanding void separating me from all mankind.
After several more hours, Finn called a halt to break camp for the evening. I was reluctant to camp here, but I had my orders.
Several men including myself began gathering wood for the fire. While we were in warmer waters than the time of year should have produced, a fire was still necessary at night. I walked southward in hopes of getting some peace from Copper if only for a few minutes. Finn had warned us not to go far, but I wanted to rid myself of Copper’s tormenting voice.
No sooner had I walked beyond earshot did a dark figure leap from the tree boughs and land heavily on me crashing us both to the ground. I thrashed and struck at the figure only to have a calloused heavy hand strike me against the temple sending me to darkness.
I awoke the next morning to a stinging feeling on my left cheek. Reaching a hand up to my face I felt a large slimy object stuck fast. As I pulled with all my strength, I felt it loosen until finally it came off. A large palm-sized leech was squirming in my hand as the blood ran down my face. I pulled out my knife and made an end to this beast.
With a quick look around I could see other leeches coming in my direction. Without anymore attached to me, I left the area to find the rest of the group.
The campsite was wrecked. No one was around and no bodies were present either. Something bad had happened and I suspected it involved the creature that struck me unconscious.
I raced over those those few miles towards base camp with a pace unmatched by any of the crew. Breaking upon the beach, I saw that the other members of the crew were still safe.
Drawing upon my reserve of strength, I flew down the beach to Captain Roughstone. Waving my hands frantically as I ran, Captain Roughstone and the others came to meet me.
I was out of breath and a canteen of water was given me to drink. The questions were flying from all around me but I was unable to answer them so I did the only thing I could.
I slowly drew out my dagger with the onyx stone in the hilt and took a drop of blood from my finger and placed it on one side of the stone and beckoned Captain Roughstone to do the same.
As soon as he placed his finger on the opposite side of the stone, I was able to exchange thoughts with the captain about the capturing of the crew members and my struggle with the dark figure through a single thought.
Captain Roughstone was deeply grieved by this turn of events.
This was a story that was specifically written for a contest and here is the parameters that surrounded it.
Must be an original story with less than 3,000 words and contain the following prompts:
- Action: Capturing
- Emotion: Cold-hearted
- Object: An onyx-embellished dagger
I hope that you enjoy this story. If you like what you read, please share it with your friends.