What’s a writer to do but keep writing while waiting, wishing, and wanting. For what you might ask? Well, what else would a writer want but their own wild words written with permanent ink while wealth and well-known well wishings become welcome to the waiting writer.
Last Of Sadness Thesaurus Confidence nounˈkän-fə-dən(t)s: blossomed eleven hundred miles away, 1100 hundred days later Anxiety noun: aŋ-ˈzī-ə-tē caused by hidden memories Rage verb: ˈrāj blamed for a deadly cough. I was last to see Grandfather. Remorse noun: ri-ˈmȯrsq an emotion burned away with drugs. See Numb. Lost adjective: ˈlȯst years, days, minutes Numb addiction: ˈnəm thoughts locked in a suit of steel, feelings burnt away Found transitive verb: ˈfau̇nd living clean of restraints, addiction is in the past Satisfaction noun: ˌsa-təs-ˈfak-shən when the chance to say goodbye to Grandfather granted Strange adjective: ˈstrānj: in the form of a doppelganger. Colour noun, often attributive: ˈkə-lər: with the shadow of Grandfather’s face. Confused adjective: kən-ˈfyüzd by his grey-faced similarities, posture. Suspenders. Friendship noun: ˈfren(d)-ˌship: an inner draw to want this man’s approval. Adoration verb: ˌa-də-ˈrā-shən, and he’s an author. Denial noun: di-ˈnī(-ə)l but this man, doesn’t accept friendship. He’s strong-willed, silent. Agitation noun: ˌa-jə-ˈtā-shən turned down on my quest Speech plot: ˈspēch one day, sassy man says, “I had a thought, you’ll be a famous author.” Surprise verb: sər-ˈprīz felt by his whispered praise Amazement noun: ə-ˈmāz-mənt sounding like words from beyond the grave Forgiveness noun: fər-ˈgiv-nəs granted by Grandfather
Is it the woman that hides her past, to ensure a future? It is the son that moves out, to prevent disappointment when his own son is born? Is it the daughter that fears her own perfection so much, that she mars it with cuts? Is it the husband that lost his father to death and his son to greed? Is it the grandmother with breast cancer, that won’t admit to a cough? No, it’s the new life, built by the woman… The joy from the son’s son. The inner beauty that daughter found. The husband’s best friend, dog, that listens silently. It’s just having these people around grandmother, to hold her hand when cancer bites. That is happiness.
Ghost In The Night- a suspense short story
“My puppy barks non-stop in the middle of the night. And it’s not the act of barking that bothers me. I hardly notice, she barks, and I sleep on most nights.
But not this one time. I can still recall the first few times, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I know that it’s not the puppy part of her that’s barking (the 6-month-old Bernese bark/yelp/cry/snap.) Our neighbors haven’t complained once.
Honestly. Or even the fact that it’s midnight when my puppy begins barking. What bothers me is that my two senior dogs hardly sniff the air. Loki (the middle boy Catahoula leopard dog) barely lifts a brow.
My three beautiful dogs: puppy (Xena, warrior princess (Bernese Mountain Dog), Loki beau, and of course, Roxy baby (Boxer/ Shepard Mix). The latter being the oldest of eight years and supposedly the most trained. We don’t need guard dogs; they are naturally elevated to it. Like Roxie, for example, the pup’s boxer blood makes her stupid but cute. She also has King Shepard’s blood making her the house’s queen and very protective of my husband and me.
I’m not here to talk to you about how wonderful my puppies are either.
I recall it had begun to bother me when I realized Roxie and Loki never moved a muscle. I honestly didn’t care if my neighbours were concerned. My initial fear was someone was trying to steal my 6-month-old puppy. She’s my baby, and she’s my life. You know, those days when you wonder why you’re busting your ass working. For the man. No human baby, just fur baby.
The barking, right. My husband was never bothered. He never woke naturally to Xena barking, only I did. Of course, I woke him a few times.
It often ended with him growling at Xena, glaring at me, and going back to bed.
The first night, oh. The first night I woke and vaguely could hear barking. Xena had been younger, her bark not much louder than a kitten’s growl. Like when an angry Pitbull runs to the fence only to meow, and then you notice the bark collar. It took weeks for me to acknowledge the sound of Xena’s bark. Now, I can’t even shut her up. My husband and I often argue if children or dogs are worse. Who makes more mess?
Of course, I want a baby. We’re still trying, but yes. Don’t stray me from the conversation.
This one night, though, months later, maybe. My puppy was almost one year old, and I had gotten fed up with her barking. I remember getting up, and the TV made the room green. Ramnes had left it on (again). I dug my arm under his pillow to click it off (and make sure not to bother him). He had to stay asleep. He often laughed at me when he knew I got up.
However, all that grumbling did nothing to help me get that remote. Ramnes is a solid man, my husband. Handsome grey fox of a man, and I got to keep him. Helpful until he’s sleeping (or giving up the remote for that reason either way.) I tell you; sleep weight is equivalent to dead weight. Not that I know from experience, what? Oh, whatever. You know. Oh, that’s ridiculous.” I rolled my eyes and exhaled the smoke. My nerves melted slightly with the last of the exhale. I leaned further into Xena’s fur. I talk full well, knowing she doesn’t answer. She won’t respond and can’t even if she wants.
It took a bold move on my part to come outside and set up my twelve-hour camp with Ramnes at home and awake today. Some witty remarks about how I should be doing Pregnancy Prep Yoga.
I’d had a feeling I had to figure this out now. To know why Xena barked every night on her own. Without any of the other dogs being bothered. Xena got sick of my talking and walked back into the house.
I pulled a blanket over my shoulders. Wishing Xena was still here, her thick dog hair is a built heat pad for me, plus I’ve self-proclaimed her as my emotional support. But, no matter my silent wishes, Xena remained in the house.
I sat through the sunset, leaning against a stack of cut firewood. In our little northern town, the sun hardly set. It stayed bright even well past sunset. My watch blared a time of 10:37. I listened to the crickets, and the birds went to sleep. My neighbours all had their lights off. My husband was undoubtedly sleeping with soft snoring sounds floating out the window.
With a flashlight, I read through the quiet of the sleeping night. It was peaceful, soul-refreshing. Xena’s jump to the floor disturbed my peace. The classic thump, I could picture her tail. The only telltale sign that my dog didn’t move through a third-dimensional vortex. She seemed to always appear out of nowhere if you didn’t listen for the swish of her tail.
I clicked the light off and closed my book. My elbow got bumped by Xena as she ran two feet further than I sat and began barking. My watch moved to midnight. My eyes trained on the alley fully lit with the lights, the shop light I’d tied to the top of the garage door.
Xena stood beside me and had barked for near ten minutes before I smacked her on the bum hard enough to make her stop. There wasn’t even a mouse in the alley. No wind, no rain, no clouds. Only a sliver of yellow light stretched over the back alley. As if the sun were peering between two clouds. It was no sun.
The long grass gave me a foot up from the ground privacy. The chain-link fence on its own does nothing.
I restarted my ridiculous story to Xena, wondering if whoever had appeared in the alley would show themselves. “It was that one night that Ramnes accompanied me to check on Xena.” I talked as if Xena were my coffee date in Starbucks. I struggled to keep my voice fearless. Her face remained trained on the alley. “He made such a stupid joke, but it stuck. Planted itself in my brain, and like a seed, it grew and spread.”
Xena remained intent on glaring in the alley. I talked away and kept my fingers tight in her curly hair. My perfect tricolour pup, literally a walking teddy bear.
“That joke, you know what it was?” I force a laugh, and Xena glances at me before jerking back to guard. “He said, ‘maybe she’s barking at a ghost.’”
“And what if she is?”
I yelped, the voice came from the alley, and Xena barked immediately. Her snaps are short and quick. Whoever it was must have come closer. The voice sounded close and caused fear to ripple through my body, total spinal chill. Even my body was telling me to go. I was positioning to run, but I found myself frozen in place when my foot tried to leave the ground.
My dry tongue rolled along my lip before I squeaked out, “pardon?”
Silence. Xena stopped barking and must have sensed my fear. I coughed, then attempted once more. “Hello? Is someone there? My dog, she’ll bite,” I stutter and stand up. The blanket fell to the ground, and Xena bolted to the fence, no longer barking but her tail wagging away. I rolled my eyes and attempted to stand taller. Without the cover of the woodshed on my left, Xena on my right and a heavy plaid blanket on my back: I felt vulnerable. I reached down to grab the blanket to appear larger but froze mid-air when the voice answered me, “I don’t think she’ll bite me, that puppy there, she’s a lover. Not a fighter. Besides, I have nothing for her to bite.”
I blinked, staring into the empty air on the other side of the fence. I half expected a punk-kid to be hanging out in my alley, or a stray cat was annoying Xena. But, instead, shock moved my legs, and I found safety in my room.
My feet are wet from the dewy grass, and my lungs burn from the sprint. Adrenalin burns up too fast. I hit the bed before I realize Xena is in the room also.
My phone’s light glared at me as the numbers flipped past 3:00. I wasn’t sure what to do. Terror kept me wide awake. It’s a hard feeling to describe, and once you recognize it, you’ll never forget it.
Ramnes snored loudly, unphased from my panic. There’s a ghost in the alley. Right now. Xena stared at me from the foot of the bed. I did what any average grown woman would do. I crawled back into bed and pretended nothing happened.
I swiped my phone open and typed- what to do if you see a ghost- into the search bar.
Don’t go alone if you feel a ghost will appear in any particular area! Ghost hunting is a two-person job! (well, Xena the Bernese Mountain Dog is company anyway, right?)
Don’t allow yourself to scare too easily (yeah– okay), but make sure it is easy enough to get you running if need be. Hopefully not. Goodluck.
Age matters, always. Too young, and they aren’t yet powerful, too old and again- get to running. Goodluck.
Be mindful of your questions.
Remember, what you don’t see is what you need to fear truly.
I woke, my husband was up and out of bed. The soft dent where he once had laid still scented of him. The end of that sensual thought was the voice. What had it said about the flesh? An involuntary fear gag slid up my throat.
No, it was someone hiding in the alley. I picked up my phone to glance at the time, but I immediately opened the google app. Closed the browser for ‘steps to ghost hunting’ and typed in- robberies Metro Napoulious.
There was someone in that alley. Fear diminished as my brain flooded ideas of hidden burglars, punk kids with rocks, and junkies looking for a quarter.
I was sure of it now. The warmth of my blankets added to the softening of my thoughts. It wasn’t a ghost. Ghosts weren’t real. It was some chick that wanted to see me piss my pants. Anything except a spirit was nothing like a ghost. That’s what I was telling myself. Maybe it was my neighbour, George’s grandson. Walkie-talkies stashed to scare me. For a five-year-old boy, he certainly made an excellent ghost woman voice.
“So, I laid there for more hours than I would want to admit comfortably. It was Saturday morning, and I didn’t have to work. Ramnes did, meaning I got to set up the trail cams all day. There were three I could find. I’m sure we have four,” Xena grunted under my arm, “okay- Ramnes had four. Luckily, I have a husband that enjoys keeping things in their place. It made life more manageable when I quickly found the cameras once I opened the garage door.
“A shop light, camouflage blanket, zap straps, and as many flashlights that I could carry. Ghost hunting was all set before he got home. I suffered through two hours of Pink Slips and enjoyed a dinner cooked by Ramnes. Okay, okay. I had to wash, cut, and chop everything. But at least he cooked it, right?”
Xena winked in acknowledgment. I continued, “by the time Ramnes went to bed, I realized I had been staring at the Netflix catalogue for an hour. I clicked it off and laid in bed with the same strange awe about me. Was it a person? Will this off-feeling ever pass?
I’m irritated. It’s like waiting for someone to stab me, holding the knife against my belly. Get it over with it. Drive the blade and be done. Whatever, you know what I mean, the action moment. You dread the outcome, yet the wait seems to be unbearable. Oh, Xena, I’m so tired.”
I pushed the button on the side of my watch, 10:00 pm. Xena must have understood my sleepy comment since she got up and walked into the warm house. I stayed on the lawn.
11:00 pm- My eyes were beginning to droop just as I heard the first footsteps. They were on the other side of the garage. I was sure this was it. Finally, I was confronting the presence.
Jesus, what was I thinking? I would only have an old wooden baseball bat to defend myself.
Ohmigawd, I’m dead.
The steps dragged through the damp grass, and I watched in my subconscious mind as the perpetrator made their way around the garage. I sat perched beside the woodshed. A pile of smaller cut pieces would be the perfect projectile.
My skin prickled cold, and my breath froze in the dewy air in front of my face. Finally, the footsteps stopped, and I felt I would die.
“Hunny,” it was Ramnes, and I had to bite my tongue from snapping at him. How did he not know he would scare me? I was ghost hunting! Or waiting to be murdered. One of the other. He walked past me to look in the alley, and his pyjama pants hung too low.
“When you are coming to bed?” he asked as he shuffled across the grass and poked at the one very visible trail cam. It was green, the size of a Big Mac box, and had buttons on the side to operate. Night vision enabled.
“Soon, yeah,” I replied, stifling a yawn.
“Where are the other two cameras?” he asked. Turning to face me, he was so strong and handsome. Unfortunately, he couldn’t manage to do the one thing I needed him to do: figure out this intruder. Good old Ramnes believes in nothing until said thing is on his doorstep. Laughing at me when I asked him to make a police report, he had inspected the alley for me. There was not a sign of people. He had turned up nothing, and I couldn’t help but feel frustrated by this.
I pointed to the rhododendron bush, where a camera sat watching. The second one I nailed to the garage siding. He still had an elbow leaning on the third camera that sat perfectly nestled between two fence planks.
“Okay, well. Scream if you need help.” He commented, kissed my forehead, and went back to bed.
I wasn’t sure how long Xena had been barking. Neither of the two older dogs seemed to care whatever ailed Xena. So, in the first few months, we wrote it off to her potty training.
After I picked up chewed bits of household items in the morning, Xena would crawl into her bed and sleep for the rest of the day. Wide awake and ready to play when I was home from work.
Her barking has gone on for at least six months. Or it could have been since we moved into this house four years ago! Maybe Roxi had even spent endless nights barking, and my deep slumbering ass never got a whiff of it till now.
Someone would have complained. Or Ramnes would have begun to hear it. Something.
Midnight- A sound made me jump. My hearing maxed with the devil’s hour creeping toward me. I could listen to everything in the darkness of night. Then, when all was silent, a bug scratching could be heard loud and clear. That makes everything eerie. The owner made the sound as Xena’s head pushed up underneath my right arm. Her hair was thick and curly, and no matter the layers of dirt, it was always soft.
She sat next to me; her fur warmer on one side than the other. She had probably been lying in my empty spot on the bed, next to Ramnes, who was perhaps fast asleep by now.
The warmth was welcoming, but she stayed for only one beat of my heart before she stepped away and began barking at the empty alley.
I leaned forward to get a better view of the woodshed. I glanced left then right, and still, nothing changed. There was no one there, yet Xena continued barking at the empty alley. Three flashlights positioned were illuminating the area nicely. I try to convince myself that someone could be walking in black clothes, but Xena’s head isn’t moving.
She is confident, whatever it is, was stationary. Waiting. I scanned the small yellow circles of the street lights. There was not a man. The views were unbroken, not a single stick or stone out of place.
Xena was beginning to foam at the mouth from her nonstop barking. Her ears flopping back and forth, “shhhhhh,” I whispered in her ear. Hoping to soothe her, but her barking was persistent. Then, finally, Xena stalked toward the fence. So, I took the sound of her movement as an opportunity.
Hunting with Ramnes for so many years, I was confident to move silently, like the grasshopper’s footfalls. Instead, with the spotlight tucked into my hoodie (button taped to off), I army-crawled the night’s dampened lawn.
Xena is barking, I’m crawling, and the alley is stone silent. I see nothing, but Xena seems to be following someone. Or something. Her head moves slowly to her left (which happens to be the side I’m crawling upon).
I was confused for a moment, there was someone in the alley, but there wasn’t. Instead, it was a strange outline. One that was only visible due to the distorted view of the fence across the way.
It’s pitch-black outside. The colour most people don’t understand as ‘pitch’ until they see it. The lights cutting through the thickness do nothing to add colour to the strange outline, but I think I see it move. I freeze and am not sure what to do next. The transparency slightly alters the view behind it disappears then reappears between Xena and me.
“Holy fuck!” I yelp and flop onto my back. A sad attempt to get away indeed.
“That’s a horrible language,” the voice reprimands me like a parent, but I’m mid-thirty and still see not a person near me. The blurred line moved gracefully, not a blade of grass disturbed. Xena’s barking stopped. She had no ‘tuff.’ Her hair was thick like a bear, but I could still see when she was perturbed. Her ears twitched, and she scanned the alley. But the ghost was past her, speaking to me or speaking in my mind.
I wasn’t even sure it was aloud or not. But then, just as quickly as I thought the woman was speaking, I realized she was placing the words in my mind. Then I saw her.
I considered screaming, but Xena’s barking was irritating me. I blinked and sat upright, as did she. Even her legs had been crossed haphazardly in the same form as mine were. In the upright seated position, I pulled my legs in to sit criss-cross, “apple sauce,” she finished in my mind.
“Are you reading my mind?” I asked aloud. You always wonder what your first question would be to a ghost, alien, or even a politician. That was my first question. And wow, it stunned me too!
“No, it was such a silly word you said to me! So, I said a silly word back.” Did she reply, comment or blink? She was a collection of time and memory. It is held together by some unknown force that creates the ‘ghost.’
“But it’s a nursery rhyme now,” I replied aloud.
“A what? That’s malarkey!” Her face was young, but the draw of being dead caused it to appear old at the same time. Her hair blew gently in the invisible breeze, and I only sensed it was the exact movements of my hair. Even as she spoke the words, I, too, felt my jaw twitch to yawn, hiccup, or something.
“Are you copying me?” The second question can be just as stupid.
“Yes, that’s the only way you can see me.”
“Who are you?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I need you,” her hands rubbing her ghostly arms made me aware that I had been doing it first. The last heat left from the dirt below my bottom, and I was freezing. Xena had grown bored (or could no longer see the ghost with her mimicking me only) and had gone back to bed.
“I have been trapped here longer than I can remember. The sides of your fence, barn and bodes are enough to drive me to drink!” The girl’s face was sad. Long, drawn nights of loneliness were apparent. I felt sorry for her suddenly, a feeling you would not associate with the initial meeting of a ghost.
The sadness passed and left me with curiosity. I tipped my head to one side then the next.
“No, we’re not playing this stupid game. Look, I’ve tried enough times to figure this out. We have only one sunrise to get my name.” Her words did nothing for the silence that surrounded us. My breath filled the small space between our noses. If I leaned forward the furthest my flexibility would allow, I would touch her nose with mine. She was a cute ghost. Maybe I only noticed because of my heightened hormones from ovulation-inducing drugs.
Then her comment sunk in, and I chuckled, “can you even drink?” I whispered. Unsure why I lowered my voice, but I was suddenly well aware of how crazy I would potentially look if someone saw me speaking to the grass blades in the backyard. She was only visible to me as long as her movements met mine exactly. I would even have moments my arm flinched, and she would disappear completely.
She glanced at the east, filling me in quickly on prior attempts at locating her name. Other’s that had been capable of matching movements for her to beg for the trade. “It’s magic of the Earth,” is what she explained, “within 24 hours of a wish, you have to grant me my birth name. Then I will be released from this haunting.” That’s what she called her ball and chain. The point in the world that chained her never to move.
My wish was easy enough, “I want a baby. I want a son to carry my husband’s name forward. If I don’t birth a son, his family name is gone. Like you are if I can’t find my name, lost forever.” And so, I went into the house and grabbed my cell phone, and the ghost and I googled local deaths. I went even as far as The Valley, a solid hour drive from home, but you never know how far spirits can travel immediately after death.
Crawling back into bed a mere thirty minutes before Ramnes alarm went off was due to the hours spent researching. I was clicking through hundreds if not thousands of articled newspaper stories online. While I was studying, the ghost woman had disappeared several times. She had trouble matching my iPhone googling movements.
Maybe that’s why there was so much distance between people to communicate. I pretended to sleep for the first ten minutes of Ramnes moving around the bungalow. By the time the coffee pot finished brewing, I was up and sitting with him (five hours into a 24-hour restriction on the magic.) I also needed to test her end of the bargain first. She insisted on that. I needed to have the reassurance that my half was indeed completed (meaning I was right now, sitting at this table with my husband of seventeen years, and I’m pregnant.)
So, we talked instead of me thinking. And I told Ramnes I would pull an all-nighter to catch the perp. Or a ghost., I added to myself. Or a kid, but I doubted.
“I hate it when people say they need coffee to be anything but bitchy. Bitch, you don’t need an excuse. You enjoy that attitude!” I took a sip of my sixth coffee of the day. There was even a nap between cups two and three. I subconsciously patted my pocket, where the fresh sleeve of caffeine tablets sat. Warming before, I would put them on my tongue at Ramnes bedtime. I had to catch this guy.
Zombie Kiona wouldn’t cut it. I needed more energy than that for tonight.
And that wasn’t a man’s voice- my subconsciousness reminds me. It was a soft voice with a surgery sweet venomous sliver. You keep a friend close, so she doesn’t become your enemy, type of voice. As the day had gone on, the hard edges of my fear had dissipated, and I had left the unnatural awareness that it had to be a ghost. Punks wouldn’t crack a joke, not without jumping out with baseball bats or rotten eggs.
She needs a name to move past the garage. So, I don’t tell Ramnes, only that I’d heard a voice and want to be the ghost investigator. He laughed and patted my head when I glared. Then, he winked at me and said, have good, honey.
She’s stuck between the two-door garage and the woodshop. The ghost wanted freedom, and I knew what I wanted. A baby. An infant in my belly to share with my husband, Ramnes. Then our son will carry the family name of Adrien. My heart warmed at the idea. Could it be so easy as that? What a blessing, this ghost that came to me. I mean, many nights weren’t considered a gift when I couldn’t sleep because of Xena’s barking. But I sat beaming after Ramnes left for work. Our son’s first names flooded my mind as the warmth of butterflies anticipating that pregnancy test filled my belly.
The ghost needs a name, and I often rolled the idea through my mind of just picking one. Would she know if it wasn’t’ her name? Would the magic still work? She had no memory further than the woodshop. She couldn’t tell me how old she was or where she died. We both concluded that she must have died there, but only the wilds knew how long ago!
I checked the library, which lost several precious hours and still found nothing. Then City Hall staff laughed at me when I asked for the warrant. So finally, I visited some old ma and pa stores around town, asking them questions. They had parents that’d been around town for long years. I’d hoped they would learn something but still nothing.
I ended up back home, fifty bucks poorer (from buying so many old-timers’ coffees and newspapers) and no richer information. I did, however, manage to stop at the pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test. The boxes were cheaper to buy a pack of three rather than one. Plus, they recommend trying the test twice before seeing your doctor.
That recommendation is meant to happen five days after your missed period. Was I going off the word of a ghost?
My life suddenly felt like that god damn flower in Beauty and the Beast. Unfortunately, this magic had a time restriction. I often touched my belly absentmindedly but reminded myself I did indeed have to learn her name before I could take the test. Otherwise, it would possibly mean useless.
The ghost told me 24 hours. When I learned the truth, I found the ghost woman her name and told her name. Then, I picked up a small stone from our alleyway. It was an impossibly smooth and soft amber colour. As if a fire had printed its colour but not a char. For a second, I thought maybe the strange colouring of the stone signified that it was lucky. But that made me laugh out loud.
Such as when someone hands you a loonie, stating its good luck. (why because you said it was?) And yet you keep the goddamn thing because success isn’t something you can afford to risk. It’s not a gift you can be granted, and bestowing it is not the way to go.
I stood in the kitchen, looked over at Xena, and she winked at me. I think anyways. I would be that mom that thinks their child said Astrophysicist before they said potty (although I’m a dog mom, so they don’t have many words at all.) I followed Loki and Roxi as they barreled into the house via the doggie door and straight to my room. Xena didn’t hesitate to run after them. They were barking at each other in the playful puppy way but fighting nonetheless. They jumped on the bed, not bothering to step around where I lay.
I was exhausted. No amount of coffee would help me get through the stack of old information from the library.
The dogs jumped off the bed, the two old bitches first, then Xena like a happy puppy following the pack for the reason that’s very primal. And before she knew why she was barking to copy Loki and Roxi’s bark. Which gave me an idea.
I threw on a sweater and walked out of my front door. Down the street and knocked on old MJ’s door. Her name was Jean-Louise, but no one could say how she chose to be called MJ. She was also older than the town itself, and I would never forget our first meeting.
I got the last one in the newspaper box, and she came running down the street screaming at me. When I offered it back, with a smile, she offered her name (Jean-Louise) but then yelled when I said good day, Jean-Louise. I then had to walk next to her the rest of the block and be sure to say MJ often enough that I wouldn’t forget for our next meeting.
I recalled when she insisted on telling Ramnes and me the history of our block. The Mayor’s house was at the end of the neighbourhood (next to the mailbox coincidentally). The most considerable lot on the block was the grocery store, and our house came from that.
I hobbled down to MJ’s door, knocked and entered without waiting as instructed.
She went on to tell me that, yes, a girl had died there. It was a tragic accident and one that wasn’t reported in the local papers. It was a suicide. Bethany Raleigh thought it was a more natural way to go than to divorce.
“Come to think of it. She somewhat looked like you. Kiona.” I shied my eyes away from MJ. “She was my teacher.” Her eyes glazed over, she pulled pictures up through Facebook quickly, and I nearly fell over from how similar she looked to me.
Her short brown hair had natural (or dishcloth-tied curls) pulled back slightly from her square, cream tone face. The pink blush kissed her cheekbones, and the red lipstick made her look smart. A hairband made of crystals adorned the sleek of her hair above her left temple.
MJ handed me a cup of warm tea; two tiny white rosebuds floated in the aromatic brew. “She had a book, and it had lists of ‘the birds we should know the first name of.” I had the sudden strange thought of Children of the Corn, “one of us,” type of comments.
“Mrs.…uh,” the wrinkles on her hands held lines of dust. Her movements were slow, and my lip was turning blue, waiting for the potential ghost’s name.
“What was her name?”
MJ stirred the sugar she had dumped into her teacup, “she couldn’t have a baby. Her husband grew mad, and it was the town’s embarrassment.”
I attempted the tea, but the dragon of heat’s bite jumped at me. The cup tipped past my lips anyway, something to keep my mouth preoccupied from the annoyance of MJ trying to recall the teacher’s name. The ghost. Her name was all I needed now.
“She couldn’t stand the challenge of being barren and her husband’s demands of an heir. She took her own life, and the village didn’t speak of it again. I remembered her. She used to bring sweets for us. If we read from the book without a single hiccup, we would receive a sweet.” Her smile widened, “I even used to draw the native symbols as secret code to my friends.”
“Mrs.…” she set her spoon down and lifted the cup to her lips. She gulped. I cringed, thinking how hot that mouthful of tea would have been, with not even a drop of cream.
“Mrs. Collins. Bethany Collins was the youngest teacher I had ever seen. Back then, our classes were twenty children with ages varied from diaper to doper.”
“Thank you!” I replied and turned to duck from the conversation before MJ started to talk about any other doper-type topics.
I inhaled, then exhaled. Two minutes is a long time when you’re waiting for a pregnancy test to complete.
Ramnes is pacing outside the bathroom door. “How long do those damn tests take?” he wasn’t asking me, muttering to himself, wearing the carpet thin. I parted my lips in anticipation of a positive as the first line began to bloom. Such a small window into your future, I stared harder as the second line darkened. I smile as they race each other to the top of the square-looking glass. Two lines. Pregnant. I’m pregnant!
I smile and place a hand on my belly. The pregnancy glow is accurate, and I feel it instantly as the truth washes over me. My cheeks flushed with warmth as I formed the words on my lips, but a thump outside the bathroom door interrupted.
“Babe, my Ramnes. Love?” I picture him bowing outside the door, hands folded to pray, waiting for me to tell him the good news. Charcoal hair pressed against the cherry wood, waiting for my response, is where I pictured him. I clear my throat, ready to announce that I’m pregnant. I had the ghost’s name, willing to offer and a baby growing in my belly.
All I had to do was wait until midnight, give the spirit her name, and tell my Ramnes the fantastic news.
The door handle felt too cold. It turned on its own accord, and Ramnes’ lifeless body collapsed to my feet. I screamed. It echoed and died in my ears. I had wanted to whip it open and jump into my husband’s arms to tell him the big news. Instead, tears flood my ears and fall to his hair, dampening the lifeless body. His cheek pushed tight against the bathroom door, caught my tears.
The apparent cause of the thump I heard only several seconds before. I don’t know much about ghost magic, but I knew this much. ‘Life for a Life’ is a law that cannot be broken. So, my heart broke that it was my love’s life.
I swallowed hard, but the lump in my throat didn’t want to move. The ghost had tricked me. Anxiety crushed my chest; tears blinded me as I stepped over my husband’s body and went to bed. Pregnant and crying.
But not before I locked Xena in her kennel to prevent the barking at the spirit. As she waited for her empty end of the bargain.
Clay Masked Beauty- an adventure short story
The wooden spoon bit Kiona’s palm, but no matter the sharp pain, she couldn’t stop. Her arm grew tired from stirring the peyote tea. Muscles weak, beyond spent of energy and still, her passion pushed her forward. She needed the tea to find the door to the sorcerer Moldan’s cabin.
Grandmother Lerier smoked her pipe. Then, she spoke words through tuffs of smoke on her exhale, “the tea is ready with the shade of an impossibly pink cactus flower.”
Grandmother Lerier’s voice is like grating two rocks together from too many pipes and twice as many barks.
Kiona nodded. This woman raised the girl even when no other Illyrian wanted the strange-looking child. Although no longer young, Kiona still felt like the yellow leaf on a trumpet lily tree.
Illyrian women painted kohl and passionflower powders on their faces. Kiona’s permanently encrusted with mud.
Grandmother Lerier pulled the young Kiona from under a rotting cow as her family, of the Thracians, lay slaughtered nearby.
Grandmother Lerier had said, “pure beauty in a natural Terra Mater way.”
The Illyrians called her clay mask dark magic. Grandmother Lerier protected Kiona, along with the dried mud that never left her face.
Kiona was going to offer her clay mask to Moldan. The magic would be in trade for a baby.
The night outside Grandmother Lerier’s hut darkened. Stars burst from their sleep and shone over the small village.
“This is going to work. I feel it in my soul,” Kiona said.
“What does your husband feel of your plan?” Grandmother Lerier asked.
Kiona silently stirred the pot, prying her thoughts away from the fight she had with Raffi. He slept in their hut, unaware.
“I see,” Grandmother Lerier said.
“What else am I supposed to do? It’s been years, and still, we have no child.”
Grandmother Lerier put the pipe to her lips, inhaled long, then pushed o’s into the air with her words, “Magic has a high cost.”
“I possess the last Illyrian clay mask. What is more valuable than that?” Kiona asked. She swallowed her anger that wanted to bubble.
Grandmother Lerier smiled kindly, “I suppose a child.”
Kiona waved a hand with a gesture saying, ‘you see?’
Her back screamed in pain from the horrible posture, but still, she stirred. “Besides, I may die before this brown goo turns pink,” she said.
The old woman cackled, pulling at her long grey dreads, “at least you would still be pretty.”
“You’re a beautiful soul. You’re the only one here that doesn’t call me ugly,” Kiona said.
“You should have beat them up, as I showed you.”
Grandmother Lerier picked up a petrified stick and whacked the side of the pot. The sound made Kiona jump, hitting her head on the low ceiling. Splinters cracked off and floated into the boiling pot. They caused a ripple that shifted the liquid to an ominous orange before fading once more to bland brown. Kiona sighed heavily, “can you take over, just for a few minutes?”
“The gateway tea needs to be brewed by you with commitment and sacrifice. There is no other way to find the door.”
Grandmother Lerier spat a phlegm ball onto the dirt floor. She grimaced. Her wrinkles sunk so deep there could have been dust at the bottom.
Kiona stopped stirring long enough to massage her achy arms. Grandmother Lerier growled and threatened her with the stick. Kiona quickly picked the wooden spoon back up.
Grandmother Lerier grunted as she attempted to stand in a crouched way. A cascade effect of bones snapping echoed through the cramped space.
“If you didn’t smoke so much, maybe you wouldn’t crack so much,” Kiona said.
The response was a grumbled, “stir.”
Kiona pushed renewed force into the circular motion. Her eyes caught on a tiny flake of mud that broke free from her cheek and danced mid-air. It elegantly floated down like a feather on a silent breeze to land in the pot.
The speck harmoniously melted, forcing the brown to spread out. Soft wisps of a peach hue grew. Kiona stirred faster as the colour shifted to a sunny yellow, and then the life-giving star branched out like a spring blossoming tree. Finally, the liquid top snapped to the pink of a lover’s kiss.
Kiona jumped and tossed the spoon in victory, “Grandmother!”
“Good,” she patted the girl’s back, “very good.”
In the swirl of the newly perfected peyote tea, Kiona smiled with pride at her reflection. Her black hair twisted high into a mohawk braid was elegant. But, unfortunately, the flat surface of her clay mask ruined any facial features she pined to see.
Kiona couldn’t remember a day without the dirt cemented to her face. It was hot and irritating on the best of days. On the worst of days, it pinched every crevasse of her emotions.
Grandmother Lerier shuffled to a shelf and reappeared with a wooden cup. Scooping up the stinky solution, she pushed it into Kiona’s hand.
Kiona pushed Raffi’s forbidding words from her mind. His disapproval is based solely on his fear of a sorcerer. Nevertheless, Kiona knew he would forgive her when she returned with the magic needed for them to procure an infant.
Kiona tipped the wooden cup to her lips. Whisps of rose-coloured steam caressed Kiona’s face as if promising all would be well. But, instead, the smell was horrid, like perfume covering the decaying corpse under the sun’s heat.
She parted her mud lips and poured the liquid into her mouth. Blisters burst immediately on the roof of her mouth, but she was pleasantly surprised it tasted simply of burnt lemongrass growing from cow dung.
The older woman shuffled Kiona out the door, “the time is now. Paddle across the lake and search until the door appears to you.”
Kiona saw Raffi’s grey-fox face appear at the exit of the hut. His kind features shift to a predator scenting blood. She gasped.
“The peyote begins, hurry,” Grandmother Lerier said.
Kiona heard his words whispered in her ear as if spoken now, “You are the last of your kind. This clay mask you wear pays tribute to your lost people.”
Those words hurt Kiona. It made her bitter, making her decision to leave when Raffi was sleeping so much easier. She was jealous, in a way, of his clean face. Like a frozen waterfall, Raffi’s skin is smooth and perfect. Kiona is merely his anomaly.
She would give the clay mask up in a downbeat of her heart for a child. Not to mention the chance to see her natural face hidden beneath.
A strange tingling numb crawled through Kiona’s body. Her limbs moved without the direction of her mind, and her thoughts dulled to a ghost of a dream.
Grandmother Lerier tied a thin water pouch to Kiona’s tan dress just above the swinging strands. “Sole to soul, Mother Nature will direct you from the lake.” She pulled Kiona’s shoes off and pushed out of the door.
Outside, the village was silent. The midnight moon hung low, giving Kiona lots of light. Each footstep toward the lake echoed in her mind with a word.
A child. A baby. An heir for her husband.
A child. A love. A baby to hold high in the village.
A child. A playmate. A friend to swim in the river.
Kiona selected a canoe from the several tied to the beach. Her hand seemed to go straight through the animal skin siding and become a part of it. She clambered into the canoe. Then out of the canoe and pulled it to the edge of the water.
Kiona rowed through clouds made of fireflies in the sky. She smiled at the thought of a bug landing on her bare cheek, at the idea the night air could stab cold needles into her skin.
Dardania is a volatile province in Rome. The Ramnes tribes, which disbanded Moldan long ago, are the most powerful. They don’t ransack for food or wealth. Instead, killing is their day game. At night, they slaughter prisoners and stain their clothes red to be prepared for the next day’s incursion.
Kiona didn’t know why the Ramnes tribe disbanded Moldan, and Illyrians were never ones for gossip.
Thoughts of dangerous lands faded as a colourful, mystical island came into Kiona’s view. Her memory told her it was dark green like any other island, but the peyote lit the area like an iridescent shell on a sunny day.
The moon smiled gently at Kiona before the blanket of the night wrapped over the island. A slap on the side of her canoe made her jolt. Kiona searched the black water but saw only her dirt-crusted face. She paddled harder to the island that was so close. Suddenly, the canoe bumped, causing her to drop an oar. She reached out to pluck it before it swept away, but a tentacle grasped her arm.
The water swallowed her, eating the cry for help. Her air bubbles escaped her wide mouth as something pulled her deep into the murky lake. Kiona twisted around and faced a giant sea monster. His head like an octopus with a shark’s jaw.
Kiona thrashed, trying to escape the tentacles as the monster pulled her straight for his open mouth. The teeth shifted, effectively moving to slice her to pieces. Kiona kicked fiercely, her foot came into contact with his nose. A solid connect, and his tentacle loosened just enough.
Kiona surged to the surface. She was choking and coughing when she broke free. She swam for the island. The monster behind her mistaken the canoe for her body and swallowed it in a gulp.
She connected with land and scrambled ashore as the monster realized his mistake and spat the boat out. It created a loud bang when it landed on the sand next to her feet.
The burnt sands reflected the moonlight like millions of diamonds. The moon appeared closer. Watching.
Kiona’s feet hardly sunk into the damp sands as she ran across the beach to the grass that tickled her toes. She lost her breath as she charged up a hill to the rocky entrance of a cliff. Then, with trees on one side and more water on the other, she headed for the cliff.
Kiona walked carefully to the edge. She looked down and saw a colourful forest: brown, green, purple and sapphire. Stones pulled out of the cliff edge, willing her to climb down. She turned and began her descent.
Kiona’s palms sweat with the first few grasps, then her confidence grew, and her speed picked up. The cliff face moaned as it produced more spaces for her feet to land. She was halfway down when the whole cliff decided it was no longer helping her.
The handholds above creaked back into the stone wall. Kiona felt the rock she held shiver then slid away. She scrambled to place her hand elsewhere. Then her other hand felt the same movement. Her heart slammed against her rib cage, and her whole body violently shook. The peyote coursing through her system tried to calm the worry.
The rock slid back into place, and Kiona was left standing on two rocks with nowhere to place her hands except hugging against the cliff.
A loud crack echoed. Kiona risked a glance down and saw the cliff pulling behind her as bedding pulled from a mattress.
She tipped with the motion, feeling a sickness in her stomach as the world shifted and turned. The rocks beneath her feet sunk into the cliff face, but Kiona laid nearly diagonal now.
She rolled to her back and pushed down toward the colourful forest. Or was it forward now? Her mind spun and cleared at the same time. She slithered along the cliff floor.
“Okay, okay,” she said to herself.
Then the cliff began to lift once more, like a wave tipping.
“Not okay, not okay,” she corrected.
Kiona began to slide. Rocks cut into the backs of her thighs as the incline increased as she sped up. The trees grew closer as the world tipped back to the correct angle. She jumped up and ran the last of the distance.
Her feet landed on solid ground. The cliff stood behind her, laughing with a silent joke.
The trees ahead of her created a rustic doorway for access to the forest.
The wind eerily whistled behind her until she stepped into the tree line. The leafy tops swallowed the moon, leaving no glint of light above. Perfect darkness. Something snapped a twig ahead, and fear flooded in where the peyote was supposed to numb.
An elk bugling shattered through Kiona’s fear that froze her in place. It broke her worry into ice shards, which rained to the ground. The peyote wasn’t numbing enough. Hungry coyotes barked in the distance, which woke a demonic screech of a hunting owl. Kiona shook her head at the impossible thought of hearing saliva drip from a ravenous mountain cat. The peyote was playing tricks with her mind. She knew it’s the creatures you cannot see that are the deadliest to your survival.
Kiona sighed with relief when she saw the beginning of a wooden path. The brown slabs fenced in with thin birch trees cut to three feet tall on either side. Perfectly symmetrical and downright eerie. Kiona couldn’t see the end of the path, but she stepped on anyway. She needed to find Moldan.
Kiona trailed her fingertips along the tops of the cut trees that smoothed to create a handrail. These were young trees, met with a horrendous ending to make this path for Moldan.
A glow ahead. Kiona peeked through the trees and saw a small clearing where a single rose grew. The top of the rose burned gently in the darkness. A light would be so good right now.
She whispered in awe, “a gift from the wilds.”
Kiona took a sip of her water and then clambered over the railing into the clearing.
The fire danced around the flower’s petals without scorching the delicate flora. The flames shifted from a heavenly blue to a passionate red, then an intense orange.
When she arrived in front of the burning flower, she found herself entranced by its beauty, not meant for this dark place. Kiona bent and plucked it from the ground. The flames wavered in the air. It would help aid Kiona in her travels, or so she believed.
She realized her toes felt frozen and near blackened from dirt. She quickly turned to return to the wooden path.
“That’s stealing,” a voice from the darkness.
Kiona tripped, trying to walk and turn at the same time. She crashed hard on her hands. The impact stung her palms, but the flowers continued to crackle and burn.
Was it Moldan? Kiona held the rose engulfed in flames up to lick away the night sky, but Kiona didn’t see a figure anywhere.
“Is someone there?” she asked.
A heavy sigh, “no. Not someone.”
Kiona jumped to her feet. She turned in a circle, “where are you? Step into the light.”
“I cannot step anywhere.”
“Are you Moldan, the sorcerer?” Kiona asked.
The voice made a throaty sound of irritation.
Kiona walked to where the voice had come from and rounded a tree. She found herself standing face to trunk?
It was a tree man!
Unlike the slim birches that created the fence for Moldan’s pathway, this cut tree was massive. It had to be a century-old with charred bark that moved with furrowed brows and a deep frown. His nose was flat and ran the whole length of his trunk body. A short twig sprouted from the left side of his head, in front of the giant ears that stuck out. His arms appeared unmoveable on either side of his body. He made an inaudible sound as Kiona neared him with large sad eyes that followed her movement.
“Oh my,” she gasped, “what are you?”
His trunk fused to the ground with large roots. There was not a flower or fellow tree in reach of him. His bark creaked as he shifted his deep-cut eyes. Grief dripped down his face with sap. Cracks lifted when he spoke, “yes, ‘oh, my’ is correct.”
His words were slow and forced.
Kiona inhaled sharply. She had never witnessed anything like him before, but one name came immediately to her mind, Moldan. “Are you Moldan,” she asked.
“How can you talk?”
Kiona reached to touch the tree bark. She wanted to resolve her curiosity about whether the tree man felt like flesh or wood. The colour of his skin resembled bloody red meat more than brown bark.
“Are you a hallucination from my tea?” she asked.
He laughed, moving only his lips, nose and eyes. The single stick on the side of his head quivered as well. “Sounds like some good tea, but sadly no. I am real. I was once a man.”
The edges of his mouth tried to turn up in a smile as Kiona’s petite hand fell to his cheek.
“You’re no man. You’re a tree.”
“Trees cannot talk,” he countered.
When a fresh sappy tear rolled from the corner of his eye, Kiona knew it had been a long time since he had felt touch. So, she decided not to make a snarky comment back.
“What’s your name, dear sad tree?” Kiona asked.
“My name is Sessile Oak.”
“I’m Kiona, of the Illyrian tribe.”
“You do not look Illyrian,” Sessile said.
Kiona’s lifted her unbending face with the comment, “no, but soon I will!”
“Must be nice to have such optimism,” he said.
She lowered the sheet of face, “how did this happen to you?”
“I’m being punished.”
The sappy emotion rolled over her hand. Kiona wiped it off on her dress. Her hand hit the water jug, and she wondered if she could make him feel better, even for a moment. She dumped the contents on Sessile, wiping away his sticky tears.
Kiona’s eyes met Sessile Oak’s. Like age lines, he had knowledge lines circling his eyes but were mixed with sorrow and showed horrific tales. His face morphed into something grotesque.
Then he spoke, “I made a trade with Moldan. I wanted infinite power. He gave me immortality in the shape of a cursed tree. Every leaf, twig or branch is made for Moldan to chop, mulch, and drain from my soul, effectively stealing my magic. He takes me apart, piece by piece. He cuts me apart whenever I begin to grow again. He takes my magic, leaving me in a frozen hell for all eternity.”
“You’re saying that twig is full of magic?” Kiona asked.
The peyote in her mind told her the answer. She found her hand moving toward the lone stick. She needed all the magic she could get right now. If Moldan denied her trade, maybe this twig would help her have a child? Or, perhaps she was meant to find Sessile, and this stick was going to help her find Moldan?
Sessile Oak rasped as he attempted to move his eyes to follow Kiona’s light steps. A sudden urgency came over her to snap that twig and run. She knew full well he would have no chance of chasing.
Almost as if he read her mind, his voice became frantic as he spoke, “you could take this twig and return it to Moldan’s hut. The magic could save me!”
His voice is frantic. Chunks of bark sailed off as he shook with hope.
“I’m sad for you, Sessile. I truly am. But that was your trade. Magic is expensive, and if you had nothing to offer, why, I’m not surprised Moldan tricked you,” Kiona said.
Sessile’s eyes widen with fear, “I hope you’re not planning a trade with that sorcerer!”
“This clay mask is the last of the lands. I have more than enough to offer without my safety at risk,” Kiona said.
Kiona stepped to the twig. It was within arms reach above her head.
“Kiona, you could save me and then I could help you. We could work together,” Sessile said.
He had a layer of panic weaved in his words. Somewhere, he knew already, Kiona would refuse his shaky offer.
“I cannot risk my chance,” Kiona said.
Her fingers touched the twig. A bolt of energy shot through her arm. The stick wrapped itself around her palm.
“I could try to help….”
Sessile began, but it was too late.
A quick snap and the twig sat free in Kiona’s hand. She felt the power course through her, and a vision of her running to Moldan’s hut to save Sessile swept in front of her sight. After being shown the option, Kiona chose it was far too risky. She turned away from the sad tree man.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, too low for Sessile to hear.
Her feet carried her further away. Kiona heard millions of bark shards falling off as he let out a wailing cry.
Kiona jumped over the railing back into the walking path. Sap bled onto the track as she ran, and worry set into her mind when the young birch trees bled red tears onto the blonde wooden planks. There was an ominous glow ahead.
The brightness grew, shattering the thick layer of clouds. The moon’s grey smile twisted into a frown. The stone sat lower in the sky, warning Kiona of the ticking time toward the devil’s hour.
The peyote added to the glow, shifting the single beam of yellow moonlight to a broad spectrum of all the rainbow colours. The moonlight stretched further. It scattered the darkness. Kiona felt exposed to the threats of the forest walking in the light.
A far-off wolf cry made Kiona’s heart slam in her chest. The white bones that held the sides of her dress closed suddenly felt too tight as if they came back to life and were crushing her chest. The wolf howled closer. Tears welled behind her eyes.
A third scream at the moon sounded like a flying banshee. Kiona saw claws reach out to tear out her throat. She ran.
Sweat, the temperature of snow deep in winter, broke out on Kiona’s skin. The trees made sounds like they were bowing and cracking under a giant’s footsteps. Kiona felt terrified out of her skin, making each movement forced. Decrepit ghosts broke free of their cloudy jails to fly at her in the dark.
Kiona screamed, swatting them away. The burning rose in one hand and the magic twig in the other kept her grounded. A shiver of fear made her neck shake, and the world threatened to tip. Instead, she focused on the echo of her feet smacking hard against the wooden planks.
The path stretched ahead like an unending nightmare. The bleeding trees bowed, slowly eating up the way forward. All the screeches of the night heightened into a single cry of pain. Kiona’s added to it.
The howl grew louder until it transformed from an octane of sound into a spectacular shock of colour. Trapped between the bleeding trees and the wooden path, the bolt of a twisted night scream bounced off the planks. Lilac, cyan and rose twisted together into a braided rainbow of pain and fear.
Kiona pushed her legs to move faster, to break through the thick band of colours. Barriers created by vibrant auras restricted her movement, threatened to stop her entirely so that the screaming banshee ghost would catch her. Kiona forced air into her lungs and pushed harder through the constraint. Finally, she broke through. There was invisible glass inside the rainbow that tore her skin apart.
The air on the other side of the bouncing colour band was thicker than sand. Kiona coughed, trying to breathe. She collapsed to the ground and opened her water pouch with shaking hands. The stream of water made it only partially in her mouth. The portion spilling between her clay-covered lips was refreshing, but the rest splashed on the wood planks. Every muscle in her body twitched from exhaustion.
The path spread to eternity ahead of Kiona, and the bouncing rainbow of torturous colours bounced behind her. There was only moving forward now for the girl that wanted to be a mother.
Kiona peeled herself off the wood. The path is ahead, impossibly dark and silent. She took one step away from the colourful rainbow, then another. She wondered how far she would have to travel when suddenly the blackness in front of her eyes parted like a curtain. It was the door!
Kiona had found Moldan’s hut.
She jumped with glee and shouted out before dashing up to the entrance.
The door sat in an ungodly large oak tree. The twigs hung around the home without a single leaf before sprouting up high into the sky. Branches circled where the moon sat. Faces were carved deep into the wood, glaring at Kiona.
She reached toward a golden handle shaped like a lion’s head. The majestic beauty of the large cat looked so real, Kiona hesitated before she grasped the handle.
The teeth moved on the gold face, pulling into a grin. The lion nodded. Kiona stepped forward, enticed to open the door. She felt warmth travel through her body, melting away the fear that stuck to her edges.
Kiona turned the handle, and the door took over. It swung open on its own accord. The air inside was sickly-sweet air. Kiona felt as though she were walking into a wall of cobwebs.
She stood in a room lit with a single red bulb swinging like a dead man in a noose. The light flooded the area with an ominous blood shade as if setting the scene for murder.
The floor groaned as she stepped further in, letting her hand fall away from the door, which slammed shut.
Shadows shifted malevolently on the bare walls as she examined the room. The oddly shaped furniture carved from bark massed together on every wall. Some were even attached to the walls. A chair swung mid-air. Covered with black leather and tiny buttons, it looked out of place between the wooden furniture.
A small table with colourful glass shards covered the top and hung next to the chair. So, they dangled, but they were also perfectly still. Next, a whole wall shelf adorned with leather-bound books matched the opposite shelf lined with jars of liquid. Kiona thought one had an eyeball and quickly turned away.
Kiona stepped toward the books, intrigued by the strange writings on the bindings. Grandmother Lerier brought home books for Kiona often.
The wood floor had painted exotic flowers with leaves that shook as Kiona walked across the room. Bright pedals climbed onto her naked toes, and Kiona stifled a cry. She tried kicking them away, unsure if this was the peyote in her mind or the floor trying to trap her.
Kiona felt like an ant in this room. Moldan’s world. Kiona suddenly wasn’t sure of this plan.
“Hello, Kiona,” a man said.
His voice sounded like a thunderclap. Kiona jumped, bumping into the bookshelf and knocking several books down. They landed open, staring up at Kiona. The magical painted flowers beneath her feet lifted the misplaced books one by one and put them back on the shelf.
Kiona turned to meet the profile of Moldan. His nose a long gnarly thing. Pocked and nearly rotting off his face. Moldan’s eyes fixed down, examining his hands, “I knew you were coming to see me,” he said without looking at her.
“Are you Moldan?” Kiona asked, to be sure.
“I am. But the real question is, does your husband know you are here?”
Raffi. Her handsome, strong husband sleeping soundly at home had forbidden her from seeing the sorcerer. But Raffi was utterly ignorant that she had disobeyed him. Kiona was confident he would forgive once she came home with the magic required. He may be sad to see the clay mask gone, but he might also be pleasantly surprised to see her natural face.
“Yes,” she said.
“There’s no need to lie.”
Kiona wanted to leave. She forced a manneristic curtesy as Grandmother Lerier had instructed. “Moldan, I wish to make a trade.”
“I don’t want to deal with you,” Moldan said.
He lowered his head, looking at the ground. His arms dropped, and Kiona noticed his skin looked stitched together.
“I implore you to hear my offer,” she said.
“If Raffi knows not of your presence, I want nothing of your words.”
Maybe it was the peyote wearing off or the frustration of what she’d gone through to get here, but Kiona snapped, a little out of character, “You need to listen to why I’ve come all this way!”
“I know why you’ve come, girl,” his voice boomed.
The echo caused knots to spin, revealing faces in the walls that watched. Not Kiona but Moldan, with ghastly eyes. The tree shivered with each breath Moldan took.
Kiona walked to stand in front of the sorcerer. Large black, sore-looking stitches covered his face. They ran in every direction, from his receding hairline to his crocked jaw.
Spit collected at the edges of his mouth as he spoke, “but I don’t think you know why you’ve come.”
Moldan turned away to show only his profile once more. He glared up at the knot faces, which slammed shut. Then the whole hut shook violently. Kiona had to catch her balance from the sudden upheaval.
“Why would I be here then?” Kiona asked.
Moldan’s jaw dropped. The stitches are stretching far and exposing fresh blood. “Because you are desperate.”
Kiona felt offended, “That’s one word. I would say driven.”
“Do you know what these stitches are from?” Moldan asked.
“No, why would-”
“They cut me to pieces. My blood mixed with dirt, and they left. The Ramnes people deserted my corpse for the flies. I prayed to anyone that would answer for help. Only dark magic answered. It helped me stitch back together. I returned to my people, but they called me a necromancer and cast me out,” he said.
He kept his face to the side.
Kiona wasn’t interested in his story but played along, “That sounds horrible,” she said.
“I got them too,” he said.
Moldan waved his hand, and the faces in the bark walls opened wide mouths with their silent screams. Kiona stepped back.
She had to get out of here, “I just want to trade. My mud mask for the magic capable of procuring an infant.”
Moldan lifted his hands to examine once more. Kiona wondered if the bloodstains under his nails were his blood. Or someone else’s.
He turned and lifted a jacket out of a trunk. He pulled it on as it pulled a string of memories from Kiona. She frowned. Why did it look familiar?
Gold buttons ran down the front.
Moldan spoke as he closed the button loops, “it was the clothing that first made you curious.”
Kiona stammered, “pardon?”
“That’s what first brought you to the Ramnes camp. You said you wanted to feel the silkiness between your fingers,” he turned suddenly and grasped her hand, “you were so tiny then.”
Moldan’s eyes rolled over Kiona, making her feel uneasy. She shifted from one foot to the next.
“I’ve never met you before,” Kiona said.
She tried to pull her hand from Moldan’s, but he was too strong. He plucked the twig from her fingers and said thanks for retrieving the magic for him. Kiona scowled.
“What makes you think you know me?” Kiona hissed.
“I don’t think. I know.”
Kiona swallowed hard. “I wish to trade my clay mask of beauty for an infant.”
“What makes you think I want a clay mask?” he retorted.
Moldan strolled across the room to the shelf of jars. He pushed some to the side, picked others up and glanced at the bottoms, then replaced them on the shelf. He finally opened a pot with salted meat.
The scent filled the hut with a rich aroma. Kiona’s mouth watered, and her stomach groaned.
Moldan bit the jerky, then looked at it, “do you want salted meat for that clay mask? That’s all it’s worth.”
Kiona’s face grew hot, her skin prickled with anger, “No! It’s worth so much more. It’s magical. No elements can penetrate it, and no wrinkles would ever alter my face.”
He chewed arrogantly and motioned to another jar, “sweet ginger pieces?”
She shook her head, “I’m the last of my kind. No one else has this clay mask. So, I will bestow the magic to you. In exchange, I want the ability to bear an infant.”
“Oh, because you have everything else you want?”
Moldan stuffed a whole piece of jerky into his mouth. Saliva dripped between the stitches.
“Well, yes. I’m the last of my kind.”
“Stupid girl, of course, I know that!”
The yell caused spittle to fly out with tiny bits of meat from his mouth.
Kiona stumbled back a step, “I don’t care what you’ve done in the past, Moldan. Can you help me?” She passed the distance between them and placed her hand on his arm, “please.”
Moldan glanced down at the burning rose, “what are you planning to do with that?” he asked.
The question caught her off guard, and she hadn’t thought of what to do with the rose. It felt proper in her hand.
“What of it?” she asked.
Kiona tried her best to stand tall when fear of failing threatened to crumble her. She held her ground. Kiona decided she had to convince him the clay mask was unique. “I have a beauty that is not matched by any other. This mask preserves my beauty to last ages beyond my own. Others have jewels and large huts too. Some have black hair, such as mine, but no one holds timeless beauty like this clay mask offers.”
She meant her words to sound firm but cringed at how weak her voice came out.
“I’ve given you your trade once. Isn’t that enough for you?” Moldan asked.
He walked past Kiona to the bookshelf. He removed a book that was shorter than the rest. It was as red as blood with gold letters that Kiona couldn’t read. He brought the book to Kiona.
“I know not of what you’re speaking. Please accept this trade. This mud can be jarred and used in many spells or sold for a high price to another that wants eternal beauty. Maybe she could be your wife.” Kiona said, trying to appeal to his passionate shite. “The clay mask is more than you can ever imagine.”
Kiona’s request felt desperate even to her, and she tried her best to keep the touch of venom out of her words.
“You expect a lot. First, ‘Give me this,’ then ‘take it back,’” Moldan said.
His hands’ movements in the air exaggerated the words, which only angered Kiona more. Then, finally, the layer of grief for her deceased family stripped back, and a memory tried to pull free.
“Can you tell me what you’re talking about?” Kiona asked.
Kiona forgot about the trade. It wisped from her mind just as the flames danced around the rose. Moldan backed away from her. The chair lowered from the ceiling, and he climbed in.
“Well, that rose you hold can show you the truth.”
“Why can’t you tell me?” she asked.
“I don’t want to.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Kiona stammered.
“I’ll take your beauty,” he snapped his fingers, “that book in your hand will give you the magic to have a baby.”
Kiona touched her face. The solidified dirt mask was still there. Stray mud flakes fell but no more than average.
“It takes time. Now go away.”
“What do I do with the rose?” Kiona asked.
“Read the book. It’ll tell you,” Moldan said.
He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. One eyeball peeked through at Kiona as the stitches had come loose.
Kiona shivered from the horror of his face and ran out of the cabin.
Moldan laughed as the door slammed shut behind her.
Kiona ran into the night. The pads of her feet smacked heavily on the wooden pathway. The swatches of bouncing colour were gone. Thankfully. She pretended not to hear Sessile call her name as she planted her feet on the dirt at the end of the path.
She climbed the cliff and ran to the beach with renewed force. She wanted to feel safe again. The memory thread twisted to a rope bunched in her throat. The truth of the clay mask. She swallowed hard, but it wouldn’t move.
Kiona wanted to be in the loving arms of her husband. She would tell him the truth, and he would forgive her, and they would have a baby and be happily ever after.
The night flooded her with emotion. The peyote was long gone, and a new heavy question sat in her chest. The cold air covered her with panic. It seeped into her like water into rocks, making them crack.
Kiona could no longer run. Her lungs burned with exhaustion. So, she walked as the first light smiled on the horizon. It illuminated the white sand beaches. She crossed the familiar coast when it dawned on her that the sun was warming her face. It was warm prickles on her skin, making the flesh feel sensitive. A feeling she had never felt before.
Kiona wiped the sleep from her eyes, and her hands came down clean. No sign of the rusty brown dirt. She blinked away her astonishment and exhaustion.
Kiona’s hands intimately examined her fresh, clean skin. She cried with joy. The mask was gone!
A delighted cry of victory resounded as if it came from the wilderness behind and not Kiona’s mouth.
Her energy renewed, she burst into a sprint, running to the edge of the beach. She slammed onto her knees beside the canoe on the edge of the water. Sand clung to her heels and fell silent as she looked at herself for the first time.
Kiona stared at the reflection. One she had never seen before. She ran fingers over the short hair of her eyebrows. She poked at the small pouches under her eyes. The line of her nose, the heart shape at the top of her lips, all new. She smiled and saw dimples crease underneath the edges of her lips. Soft orange lips touched with a brown hue. Her eyes. She’d always known her eyes, but now they had life behind them.
Kiona climbed into the canoe, careful to protect her burning rose from the water. She’d succeeded! She couldn’t contain her happiness and sang any verse of song she could recall at the moment. She paddled like that for some time before the memory rope began choking her again.
A lump in her throat. Truth is hidden deep in her soul. Moldan said she knew, but she didn’t. Instead, she glanced at the book on the floor of the canoe.
The words on the front were legible now.
A soft current continued moving the canoe toward her home. So, she set her oar next to her and leaned forward to read the words.
Burn this book.
Kiona blinked. She read the words over and over.
Burn this book.
Had it said that before? She didn’t think so.
Kiona picked up the paddle and pushed hard through the water. Why would Moldan give her a book with the magic to have a baby that’s titled ‘Burn this book?’ Did she need to burn it to activate the magic?
In front of her, the sun brightened the sky. Behind her, the green of Moldan’s island dissipated. It looked like a caterpillar bunched up to crawl away.
An eagle flew overhead, crying out the awakening of a new day. New indeed. It was the beginning of a new life for Kiona and Raffi.
But what was it Moldan spoke of?
Kiona put the paddle down again. Finally, she picked the book up, opening it to the first page.
To prevent the sorcerer from taking payment for the infant as requested, burn this book.
Kiona touched her face, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her forehead. She couldn’t imagine giving it up now. Instead, she imagined Raffi’s surprise when he got to see the natural beauty of his wife.
Kiona turned the page.
Payment for magic is never what it seems.
She lifted an eyebrow at this. She felt the smooth glide of her skin upward and loved the feeling. She tested the same with her other eye. It lifted at command. Kiona smiled.
“Not always,” she remarked.
Kiona turned another page.
To unveil truths hidden within, extinguish the rose.
That’s it? Kiona thought it sounded lame. But, no harm, the clay mask was already gone, and she wondered if she felt a little rounder in her stomach. Could she be with a baby already?
She didn’t hesitate to dip the burning rose into the lake water. It sizzled then went out.
Kiona looked back to the book. The words had shifted on the same page.
The memory is yours once more.
A wave of realization hit. Kiona remembered venturing to the camp outside her village. The Ramnes tribe is drinking around a fire, loud and belligerent.
Kiona recalled the other girls in her village calling her ugly. They threw stones and fists.
Moldan had sat alone with his gold button-adorned jacket. Kiona remembered approaching him, fearful. She asked if it could make her beautiful forever. He had inquired what she would give. She said the people of her tribe.
It was their deaths that made her mud mask. The magic created by their pulverized bones, that’s what made the clay.
A tear broke free from Kiona’s eye and left a wet streak down her face. She no longer thought it was worth it. How could she have forgotten?
Kiona recalled kissing her mother goodbye before promising to return. Instead, she came back to an empty hut.
Kiona felt sick. Her stomach lurched as she choked on the truth. His words from that fateful day many, many moons ago reappeared, written in the sky around her. As smooth as goat’s milk, as coaxing as the coyote’s call. “I can make you important, more important than those men that hunt all day,” he had promised, “I can make your beauty last forever. I can make your name whispered in awe.”
How was she to know what he would do?
The clay was gone, but the regret of her choice hardened on her face.
Tiny crystals danced along the top of the water. Kiona was so thirsty. Moving carefully, she positioned her body to hang over the edge of the canoe and dipped the leather bottle into the water. Cool droplets fell through her fingers as she lifted mouthfuls to her lips.
Kiona splashed the water against her cheeks, but it was no longer enough to erase what she’d learned, what she’d done.
The ripples slowly dissipated back to a smooth glass-like top on the water. Kiona’s heart sunk. This was not what she wanted. But it was, wasn’t it?
Kiona blinked away tears as she paddled home.
The canoe bumped to the rocky beach of her home. Kiona dragged the boat onto shore along with her broken soul. How could she approach Raffi now? Knowing the truth was a burden. She wished she’d burned the book.
Kiona stepped to the entrance of her grass hut, home at last. The smoke slipping through the opening in the roof told her Raffi was awake. She had expected as much. Raffi would be waiting. She only hoped he wasn’t furious with Kiona for disobeying his order.
Her hand moved to the door hatch but hesitated.
There was only silence behind the door. A weight burdened Kiona. She looked down to see the book had somehow found its way into the folds of her dress. She pulled it out and opened it to the first page.
You are with the infant now.
Kiona’s heart skipped a beat. She had a baby in her belly!
But then her fingers trembled as she turned the page.
Your beauty is not the skin protected by your clay mask.
It may be dampened by your greed, hidden beneath layers of your vanity.
But it is still there.
Your true beauty is the love you have for your husband.
I accept your trade. I take your true beauty.
As if opened by the hand of Moldan himself, her hut door swung open. The clay mask snapped back to place on Kiona’s face. The trick of magic returned double fold. Tighter than before. Her lips opened to speak when her eyes met Raffi’s, but it only lasted a second.
His final breath solidified in the cool air before he collapsed to the ground.
A single cry broke the silence from the mouth of a widow.
Who Makes The Monster- a dark short story
“Kimberly,” the voice whispered through the veil of airflow. The fans created a barrier to protect her from the chemicals in the reinforced plastic and steel cabinet. Kim manipulated the biologics required to develop the chemotherapy drug. The thin glass vial was delicate, and she was careful to steady her hands as she shook the contents.
“Kimberly,” the voice had a demonic growl. It came between the layers of blowing fans, nearly inaudible, but they’re all the same. She glanced involuntarily to her left, even with the knowledge no one could be there. The room was locked. A solid glass window separated her from the rest of the lab. She is numb to the color snaps in her vision, the shadows that creep with her but whispering her name? That was too far. A voice she could barely discern, yet it wretched her stomach and froze her sweat within a downbeat of her heart. She wanted this voice to go away.
Extreme caution was required, with her work. Concentration is needed, and perfection expected.
“KIMBERLY!” the insistence of the voice made her jump. The vial threatened to fall from her grasp, and her free hand shook uncontrollably. She placed the chemotherapy drug down and rested her hands, palms down, on the cabinet floor.
“Inhale,” Kim said aloud into her stuffy N95 mask. In, then out. Her breathes slowed, and they tremble in her fingers stopped. Her psychologist told her to sing, imagine your toes buried in the sand and sing. “Lullaby and goodnight…”
Singing is the ultimate hug of heart, no matter the age. Motherly words passed through the generations, and even alone, it was calming. As if everything were as it should be and the pressures of life weren’t suffocating Kim even here in the solitude of a biologic safety cabinet, “with roses bed light,” she sang on, to forget that her nerves were continually trying to rip her apart.
“Kimberly, Kimberly, Kimberly!” the voice hissed, and her neck muscles seized. The panic set in, the sweat rolled from under her gloves into her gown. Stale air inside her mask threatened to asphyxiate her. The safety of her world crashed down; the taste of anxiety crept up her nostrils and squeezed her mind. Thoughts became erratic, and fear grinned as it grew and caused her skin to swim off her chest. She was exposing her weak heart as it palpitated. She held the tremble out of her voice to continue the song, “lullaby and goodnight…” her lips quivered and frowned.
“Exhale,” she demanded between choruses, holding her breath without realizing. Sometimes, it took an extra moment, but this too would pass. She knew this. Also, this chemotherapy was necessary, and it meant life or death for this person. INH number 54240-094 was a returning patient. Her bonnet covered forehead leaned against the plexiglass shield to compose herself.
“Thy mother’s delight,” she finished the song, her chest loosened, and oxygen flowed freely. Her expert hands picked up the vial and syringe to complete the task.
The piles of charts grew taller than Dr. Borgny could stand. His usual grace of a cheetah gone, and the patients seemed extra demanding today. Diagnosis’ to be given with the confidence of a lion and his wavered on this extra-long Wednesday afternoon. Maximum fifty patients a day typically flew by in a whirl, but after the promise he made his wife, it dragged. The first patient, Alban, complained of a bump on his penis, which ended up being a pimple. Followed by Dulcie complaining of a sweat rash under her breasts, and it wasn’t even noon.
He knew the warning signs and understood full well when the quality of life began to decline, and it meant time to quit. But textbooks never express how hard it can be.
The next file on the tower was Malik, the town freeloader. He didn’t work, often begged for money and hardly showered. Women complained to the small-town cops of his straying eyes and hours spent sitting on the bench across from the park.
Dr. Borgny opened the door and gagged on the curtain of stench inside the room. Professionalism is already hard, and this guy’s body odor was too much to handle.
“Malik,” he felt breathless, taking a seat himself. “I got the results back.” No small talk today, all Dr. Borgny could think about was.
“Doc, I feel like shit,” Malik whimpered, face peeled to the floor.
“About the results…” Dr. Borgne tried to insist.
“I can’t do this anymore, and I feel sick all the time. I can’t think, I can’t breathe, and I can’t eat.”
Dr. Borgny held his calm, a rage ready to burst in his chest. An irritation started in his shined shoes and grew as it rose toward his head. Pressure in his skull made him want to scream and smash a chair into the wall. What was happening to him? What was this patient saying? He couldn’t concentrate; he had to get out. He had to break the promise he made.
Dr. Borgny stood, “Malik, I called you about your lab results. The white blood cell count has jumped again, and cancer has returned. You’ll start therapy immediately.” His lip quivered in anticipation of what he had already decided. A sweat broke out on his upper lip, and he wondered if Malik could see. His bones ached as if he had the flu; goosebumps broke out on his skin as if he were cold.
“What?” Malik’s jaw dropped open, apparent shock for the quick delivery of the diagnosis, but Dr. Borgne was halfway out the door. The need was crushing, the decision made, and today was not the day. She would understand, he thought to himself as he hurried to his private office in the back of the walk-in clinic. He’ll stop tomorrow, and his inner voice told his wife. The doorknob slid in his sweaty palm as he struggled to open it. All the muscles in his body contracted from urgency.
The door swung open and revealed a leather chair, a desk, and a computer. Dr. Borgne plucked the key from the back of his wife’s framed photo and unlocked the desk drawer. An aluminum pill case sat in the velvet drawer; he unscrewed the lid.
His wrist gave a quick snap, and two capsules fell into his palm. He twisted the blacktop off the Dexedrine and stuffed the open-ended orange spansules up his nose and snorted. An instant thrill zapped his brain, not yet from the amphetamine but the excitement. The sweat dried instantly, and the shakes would stop from the second capsule he swallowed. A quick drink of water and he was ready for the next patient.
“How did you get this number?” Floss spoke quietly, and her eyes darted around the oncology department to make sure no one was listening. The debt collector, on the other end, did not whisper. The brightness of the white lights overhead felt like a spotlight. Her face warmed from the sudden attention, one patient glanced over, and her heart slammed against her rib cage. She pulled at the collar of her scrub top as a lump formed in her throat. Maybe this patient was in on it.
It was bad enough the lead nurse had pointed out the black bags of sleepless nights under her eyes. As if the lead nurse wanted everyone in the department to take note, maybe they were all in on it. Perhaps they all knew Floss’s husband got laid off. How afterward, he pawned all the couple’s belongings for gambling tickets. He sold gas off his credit card, the cash used at the casino. They all know, Floss thought as her eye twitched.
Now the loan sharks were out for a bite, and the lead nurse was setting her up. She must have seen her stealing sandwiches from the patient fridges, and Floss had been so hungry. She couldn’t help it.
She put the phone down when the debt collector began dictating words of ‘repossession,’ ‘bankruptcy,’ and ‘social disgrace.’ Maybe a little too hard since the sound echoed, and Floss snapped her head up to ensure no one noticed.
“Everything okay, Flo?” Beth inquired. She was an RN just like Floss, the requirements of their daily tasks required two RNs on duty, but Floss felt like Beth was chosen today, not on accident. The lead nurse maybe wanted Beth to catch Floss stealing naps in the lunchroom after work hours, but her house was so cold without heat.
“Yeah,” she replied and watched Beth’s movements for too long.
“Okay,” Beth retorted slowly, “then we have work to do,” and held the chemotherapy infusion bag up for Floss to acknowledge.
Floss followed reluctantly to the patient bay, she could imagine the phone ringing again, and her lead nurse answering while she was busy. They were learning the shocking truth of Floss’s living situation, calling her into the office and doing away with such garbage. Nurses were better than this, and she could almost hear the lead nurse’s words.
“Mr. Malik Cathalin?” Beth read the label even though he was well-known. Word had it he was a closet drunk and thief. Rumors are calling him a thief. People said he had no couth and would even steal candy from a child. Emergency nurses knew him well. Ambulances are accustomed to picking him up.
“Yes,” Malik confirmed his name and held his arm out.
Beth hung the bag, attached the safety port to his IV line and looked to Floss. Beth tried not to look at her co-worker’s scrub top, with the significant sweat marks. Eyes that stared without blinking. Floss glared at the silent phone as she opened the flow of the drug.
“Flo?” Beth cautioned, but saying her name caused Floss to jump. The IV line in Malik’s arm tore and the drip of the chemotherapy drug leeched. The scent of smoldering copper wires on flesh filled her nostrils as Malik’s vein burst, and the chemotherapy drug ate his forearm from the inside out.
Malik kept his breath steady. Not from panic but because he didn’t want the nurse to smell his lunch drink. He wasn’t fond of how the chemo made him feel, but if it meant another year getting to see his daughter, it was worthwhile.
Although the only chance he had to see her was when she played at the park down her block.
Even if it was from the opposite side of the park.
Malik was lost in fond memories of his little Aubrey when a sudden weight hit his chest.
“Oomph,” a low grunt escaped his lips. Flo’s lips were moving, but Malik heard nothing. Heat swept from his brow to his toes. Flo’s hands were moving faster than Malik could follow. His vision shrunk to a circle, a fraction of what he could usually see. Another nurse appeared, then more. The wave of fire left a trail of icy cold pain behind. Every hair follicle felt as if it were scorched then impaled with icicles. He tried to inhale but coughed from the invisible weight on his chest.
A venomous snake of pain grew from his core, and the circle of vision snapped shut.
Cancer, like hate, distinguished him. Malik never chose to hate his ex-wife. She made that emotion grow between them. She fed it daily even years after their separation.
Malik found himself standing back in their living room. Aubrie was four years old, and his ex was drunk, hitting and biting him.
His ex tripped, on this particular night. She hit her temple, causing blood to spray. She called the police. Told them it was Malik’s fault. It was not.
But the story was bought and Malik lost everything. Including his daughter. His job loss came later, due to depression, his house to lawyer fees, and his health to cancer. Fights that twisted Malik, so he no longer recognized himself and succumbed to hiding in the shadows to watch Aubrie grow.
The poison of his ex-wife’s hate spread in his mind, blackened his heart, and soon began to manipulate Aubrie. When he walked away, he let her win. That’s when the monster of regret grew in him, fed by cancer.
Malik blinked at the brightness of the lights, oxygen squeezed from his lungs, and his blood seemed to chew at his arm. Heat pooled into a liquid and wet his clothing as the world tipped to black.
With no vision, the last sensation of the monster crushing his abdomen, Malik heard, “extravasation kit!” screamed above the wail of a code blue. His heart surged, slumped then stopped.
A needle stabbed him, and his heart jolted then jumped. Oxygen rushed back in, he coughed and choked and saw Aubrie’s smiling face through the black veil.
The monster was pulled off his chest with love for his daughter. Malik opened the swollen folds of his eyes, and he was on a stretcher. He was lying down. A new room, the darkness outside telling him quite some time had passed. More hours he’s lost from Aubrie.
“The drug leeched from the vein.”
Malik recognized the voice and turned to see a sliver of Dr. Borgne’s face, expert hands examining his arm where the heat once was. Malik looked to where the chemotherapy had burst through his vein and eaten away at his flesh. What was left was black-edged, yellow puss, white tendons with foaming bits of extravasated drug and blood-red ruined skin. The wound encompassed his entire elbow from the inside.
The lab technician had shaky hands as she pulled blood from his opposite arm. Her eyes stuck on the oozing purple wound.
“Doc?” Malik’s throat felt parched.
“Malik,” Dr. Borgne set a hand on his shoulder, “you’ll be just fine, son.”
Malik attempted a chuckle as he was sure he was older than the doctor but let it slide. “Pretty nasty, huh?” Malik joked.
The lab tech dashed with the blood test. A pretty nurse cleaned and bandaged the wound. The carnage if his flesh made him think he’d been bit by a rabid wolf.
A cold pack sat below the wound and sucked the last of the heat from his arm. Dr. Borgny disappeared for a time before he reappeared with a chart and printed results before him.
“What’s the damage?” Malik gasped. His throat stung; his arm bloodied even through the bandage.
Dr. Borgne couldn’t pull his eyes from the print outs. Malik tried his best to smile, but the drugs made his face feel heavy. “The white blood counts are normal,” then in a voice quieter, “you got a god damn guardian angel or, some monster has let you be.”
My feet threatened to drop me. They spun so fast as I fled down the stairs, I was sure my head was a mile ahead of my body. Nerves shook my hands as I attempted to hold the railing on my descent. Fear pushed my legs to spin like jet engine propellers. Fourth floor. Third floor. Second floor. I was surprised I hadn’t tumbled.
Then I missed a step.
I flew for a moment. Then my head connected with the concrete step. Snap, crunch, stars. One step after another, I hit each stair as I crumpled down the last floor. My body went limp as I slid to a stop.
A woman shrieked. Some yelled, “call an ambulance!”
I stood and brushed the dust off my rubbery legs. I didn’t feel a thing.
Footsteps banged down the stairs, “what the hell?” I stood still for a moment, waiting for someone to tell me I had a gaping wound in my skull, blood was leaking all over the concrete, and I should probably see a doctor.
I felt a ha,nd on my arm, “you look like a cartoon just stepped off a Manga page.”
Shit. I’m not dreaming.
“Go away,” I grumbled.
“What’s wrong with your skin?”
I exited the apartment, blocking out the numerous voices behind me questioning my fall, apparent okayness, and strange anime body.
I felt utterly average for a Thursday morning but caught my reflection for a split second in the glass, and it made the world tip, threatening my cartoon nose to smash on the concrete as I rushed away from my reflection.
“Nope, nothing abnormal here,” I screeched louder than intended.
“Is that a costume?” she called, her footsteps speeding up to stay with me.
I jogged down the road, “no. go away.”
“Come back here,” she gave chase.
I turned down the alley. A door swung open and hit me in the face. The force threw me backward onto my wide cartoon ass.
I didn’t feel a thing.
“What the hell?” a man’s voice.
I jumped and ran past the open door, where he called after me. I needed a cure. Or an antipsychotic.
I pushed the office door open. The chime made me jump.
All eyes came up from their cell phones at once. A woman fainted. A child giggled. A tall teen with shaved zig-zags on his head bolted back in his chair, causing a loud bang.
I walked to the front desk feeling the dozens of eyes poke and prod at my neon peach flesh.
The receptionist spoke on the phone, pinched between her cheek and shoulder while furiously typing. Her printer beeped that it was out of paper, another line beeped obnoxiously, and her cell phone vibrated nearly off the desk.
I considered smacking my head off the desk. That could knock me out of this nightmare. I certainly wouldn’t feel anything.
The door chimed. “What the fuck?” a man’s voice.
I mumbled, “tell me about it.”
The secretary looked up then. The phone dropped from her hand.
“Is anyone else seeing this shit, or have I completely lost it?” the man demanded.
“We’re all seeing it,” a woman’s voice.
“She’s a superhero,” a child’s voice.
I glanced back. The child’s voice had come from a little girl in the middle of the room. From what I guesstimated, the tall teenager looked petrified in his chair, still pushing hard against the wall as if the gyprock would cave and swallow him whole for the acid trip he must think he’s in.
Me and you both, buddy, me and you both.
I caught the stare of the new body in the doctor’s waiting room.
“This bitch is just walking around looking like Jessica Rabbit, and everyone’s cool about it? What the fuck is going on? I need a fucking psychiatrist or a good kick in the head,” his words grew louder as he appealed to everyone in the room. They all stared at me, not caring much about what he was saying.
“Stop making a commotion,” a woman snapped.
“This anime bitch is a walking commotion!”
I grinned and stepped toward him, “and I’m contagious.”
He screamed and ran out.
The woman’s face burst open, and she ran out as well.
I spun back to the secretary and glared. I could see the floating lines out of my peripheral, for my eyebrows were bouncing off my head. “I need a doctor.”
She nodded, mouth open so wide I could see the dangly ball in the back of her throat.
I couldn’t find mine this morning.
This morning. It felt like a lifetime away already. When I first woke, I honestly thought I was dreaming. I pinched my skin, smacked my cheek and slammed my hand in the drawer. Nothing hurt. Didn’t that mean it was a dream? I spent ten minutes making faces in the mirror, watching the three triangles beneath my eyes dance and shift. I wanted to know if it was me. Maybe I had been sucked into another body while I had slept? I had been hours deep into social media the night before.
The next ten minutes were spent exploring my new exotic curves. By thirty minutes in, I realized this new body was real, permanent, and unchanging, including my clothing, silk tank top, and silk shorts I’d worn to bed. They were unchangeable too.
Minute forty had me realizing I couldn’t drink coffee, eat a bagel or bite an ice cube. I’m unsure if that was the worst part or if I couldn’t have my morning poop.
This couldn’t even be a hangover-induced hallucination, on account I’ve been sober for two years to commit all my brain cells to my career in optical engineering. And yet I’ve landed as a walking visual anomaly.
I hit the counter with my neon fist, “doctor!”
I’m usually not so aggressive, but the look on this woman’s face infuriated me. I’m stuck in an anime body, and all she can do is spittle out of the corner of her mouth and stare.
I reached over the counter and hung the phone up for her. “My name is Mei Shokura. I called earlier. I need to see a doctor.”
Nothing. I’m not even sure she’s breathing. Her phone vibrated again. This time it did fall off the counter. That made her jump back to reality.
If this was reality.
“Doctor, now!” I demanded.
“Your eyes are so large,” she stuttered.
I rolled my eyes, “all the better to see you with.”
I wondered if I blinked at all. Finally, I forced a blink to feel normal.
“I was kidding,” I said, stopping the silence from stretching.
The secretary’s eyes blatantly dropped to my breasts. I wished I’d woken up a Minnie Mouse cute. But, instead, I was Food Wars level of cute.
The secretary’s eyes unglued for a minute, “am I dreaming?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“How is this possible?”
“That’s what I’m hoping the doctor will tell me,” I said.
She scanned the patient list. Twice. Then she asked my name again.
Her finger landed on my name. She crossed off the original reason for ‘psychotic break’ and replaced it with ‘cartooned.’
The secretary blushed. “I need to ask a few questions to build a profile.”
I’ve never had this kind of power over people. I’m just a plain jane girl in the crowd, or I used to be. I can’t blend in with shiny white squares on voluptuous thighs.
This cartoon body is powerful. I’m not sure why I was given this power. I wanted to enjoy this Tuesday at work like an average human. I had lunch plans with my best friend today, but this was unexpected.
Hana seemed to have overcome blushing, eye undressing as she stared at me intently and typed as she spoke, “date of birth?” Finally, back to business.
“June 12, 1999.”
“Happy belated,” she smiled, “any allergies?”
I shook my head.
Something touched my hand. I looked down to see a little girl. Her eyes sparkled, “are you magic?” she asked.
I considered the question. A scowling woman scooped the little girl away before I could respond.
“Address?” the secretary continued.
I turned back to face her. I think she purposely kept her eyes down now. “51- 151 Ginza 8 Chrome, Chuoku, Tokyo.” I recited.
“Nothing. Really. Until this morning, that is,” I said.
The weight of how real this situation was flooded hot nerves through my system. Funny, I can’t feel pain, but I certainly felt worried.
My fingernails reached my mouth, but I couldn’t bite them as I usually would. I squeezed my hands together to lessen my anguish, but I felt nothing.
“Do you have insurance?”
“Yes. With Foxconn.”
The secretary’s jaw dropped, “the suicide plant?”
“No, in camera quality testing,” I said.
The secretary shed her misplaced comment and grinned, looking up at me for the first time in a long minute. “Are you the poster girl?” she asked.
I heard a clatter from down the hall. She spun on her chair and waved away, “you can take a seat, Mei.”
I scanned the small space for a decent chair for my cartoon ass. All the other patients crowded along one wall. A man stood next to the last full chair. I had the whole other half of the room to myself. The little girl that had touched my hand sat in the middle of the floor, watching me intently.
The fainting woman silently cried with her head on a man’s lap.
My ass, it turned out, squeals like plastic as I sit in the plastic chair. The man with the crying woman glared at me as he fanned a magazine over her red face.
I mouthed sorry and lifted a magazine to hide my face.
The words on the page sat motionlessly. They didn’t register in my brain, they didn’t tell me a story, and most importantly, they didn’t distract me from my situation.
I shifted in my chair, which caused an ear-piercing squeal.
I should have virtually called a doctor, I thought. Then I remembered my first sip of coffee sliding off my tongue and down the front of my body. It didn’t even leave a stain on my white shirt. I need my coffee. I lifted the magazine higher to hide my worry.
A black square appeared over the edge of my magazine. I heard the shutter as someone took a picture. I lowered my magazine.
“Can you please not?” I asked the man.
His eyes widened, then he laughed. “Your mouth doesn’t even move when you talk.”
My phone buzzed. I threw the magazine at the man, but he stayed put.
Everyone else in the room hid behind their phones, not saying a thing.
I turned my back to his shutter and swiped open my phone, passively allowing him to continue photographing me.
It was from my best friend, Lou. I typed a quick response.
That’s my selfie.
The message was read, and then three dots spun for several long moments before I got the generic reply.
Okay, Facetime, let’s go. The musical ring brought the man one personal-space-bubble closer. I boldly pushed him away. Never have I aggressively touched a stranger. He wasn’t even phased, and his phone was back in my face. I grabbed it and threw it across the room.
My call was answered with a swoosh, but the screen went black.
“Wasssssssup,” Lou said.
The black curtain shifted, and I realized it was her long hair. The break-in of her locks is where I caught the upside-down outline of Lou sitting on the bathroom counter, straightening her hair.
“Look at the screen, Lou. That wasn’t an avatar I sent you. It’s me. That’s how I look.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll bite. Whatcha up to?” she said but didn’t look at the phone screen.
“Sitting at the doctor.”
That got her attention. Her cherry-shaped face filled the screen. “Wow, hun, you’ve upped your game. How did you do that? New tech at work?”
Her wide grin caused her dimples piercings to sparkle. She turned the phone one way and then the next as if trying to catch a break in the hologram that is my life. “Can you make me a big avatar, too?” she asked.
“This isn’t a game. I woke up like this,” I said.
Lou laughed, “is it a VR app?”
The secretary called a name which appeared to be the little girl. Her scowling mother dragged her from the waiting room as the girl reached and reached out to me.
When I turned back to my phone, Lou’s hair covered the screen again.
Lou was still talking, “So, what’s this for? Some new camera you’re advertising online or what?”
My patience ran out. I was about to snap at her and tell Lou I was serious and needed help, but there was a commotion down the hallway.
The little girl’s mother stormed out of the exam room with her kid stuffed under her arm. The secretary immediately stood and called another name.
No time to waste.
The little girl screamed, “I want to see the anime girl, not the doctor!”
“You’re smiling. I knew it was a new app,” Lou exclaimed, “Can I download it, or is it super-secret still?”
“It’s not an app, this is real, and I can’t reverse it.”
Lou’s hair swayed as the flat iron swung like a UFO through the night sky that was her silky black hair. I couldn’t see her face as she said, “Yes, that’s neat. I suppose this gig is the reason you cancelled our lunch today? Anyway, listen, I have to get going. I’m already running late. Teaching doesn’t give me fun breaks to play with new tech. I get yelled at by little kids and can’t say boo about it to their parents.”
That was the strip that broke my comic. I shrieked Lou’s name into the phone.
The small square in the top right with my reflection burst with red dashes, and my jewel-like eyes turned to clean white half-circles.
I screamed and dropped my phone. The man backed up several steps but kept his camera clicking.
The red dashes dropped with sounds like cutlery falling on a plate. They bounced, shattered, and then vanished.
Lou’s face filled the screen from the ground, “Mei! What happened?” her eyes creased at the corners.
My hand shook as I reached for my phone, “Come over tonight, straight from work, okay?”
Lou agreed a second before I hit the infamous red button.
Immediately after our call ended, I opened the camera app and hit the flip arrow to examine my face. My eyes looked normal. Or at least as usual as they are for today.
It was strange looking at my face in the camera reflection, a face that scrunched and moved and blinked when I commanded but was not my face. It didn’t feel like my face. When I poked my cheek, it didn’t feel like flesh under my fingertips. It felt like saran-wrapped watermelon.
I’m a fruit. I’ve been reduced to a sugary food that will eventually rot.
I stuffed my finger up my nostril. My fingertip disappeared, but there were no discernable nostrils, and no bump appeared when I pushed upward as if trying to tear my nose off.
I opened my mouth and stuck my tongue out, then made a strawberry in the air that caused exaggerated spit droplets the size of plums to fly out before crashing onto the carpet. Then they disappeared.
The man snapped more photos of it all. So, naturally gave him the finger, which also appeared with a dancing hashtag, to my enjoyment.
The secretary called a name.
I flicked through different filters on my phone to see if I could change how my new face looked.
“Mei Shokura,” the secretary repeated.
I hadn’t realized it was my name she called. I suppose I’m disassociating.
The man panned his camera down when I stood to watch my footsteps. I shoved him hard into a chair as I walked past.
I followed the secretary down the hallway and pretended not to care when she looked back at every other breath and nearly tripped twice. She opened the door to room three. “The doctor will be right in,” she said.
I heard the clunk of the clipboard fall into the letter holder affixed to the door before it closed slowly.
Then it quickly opened again, and the secretary looked embarrassed as she asked, “Can I, uh, have your autograph?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
She produced a prescription pad, and I scribbled my first name in Japanese.
My hand moved methodically. I never wanted to be famous. Not like this.
The door closed.
I sat alone in a cold, sterilized room. It felt so cold I was sure I could see my breath if I blew out, just like…
A cartoonish white cloud appeared, suspended in the air for a second, then crashed onto the white tiles, shattered, and disappeared. I frowned. Did I create that because the room is cold enough? Or because I thought that?
My head swam as if I were about to pass out. I jumped up to force blood to pump through my body. If I indeed still had that stuff inside me.
I examined a wall calendar a month behind, May. At least the year was correct, 2024. I adjusted a crooked picture of a human skull that was part of a collage of glass framed prints, each a different skeletal human body part and all separated by an inch strategically. Stunningly artful and a stark reminder that I’m not human anymore.
On the opposite wall, a poster of a white dove with wings spread for flight and tail feathers standing straight up as if ready for attack. It was the symbolic animal of Hachiman, the god of war, hanging in a doctor’s office. I chuckled, then frowned. Strange.
The door opened with a swish. Quiet as it was, it made me jump as if someone had smashed a tambourine. I have to get on top of my nerves.
“Miss Shokura, how can I help- “
I turned to see him look up from the clipboard, choke on his air, then hit the ground.
Oh, that’s right. I thought I couldn’t control my nerves because everyone was freaking out.
I suppose that means I’m in real trouble.
I felt like I got punched in my stomach. Nerves. “Ehh.”
The doctor shifted from my pained noise. He slowly lifted onto his elbows. Then one hand went to his nose.
“I think I broke my nose,” he said. Then he looked up at me and remembered why he’d fainted. “What is this?” he asked, adjusting his freshly cracked glasses.
I reverted a man a fifty-something-year-old doctoral degree to a blubbering child in a millisecond. He ignored the blood gushing from his nose and clambered to his feet.
I helped him, and he stared at my face. The blood from his nose stained his light blue shirt, but the few droplets that hit my shirt rolled down and splattered between our feet.
The doctor swayed. “What are you?” he asked.
“Maybe you should sit down,” I said.
He plopped into the leather patient chair. I sat on the spinning doctor’s stool. I reached over for the Kleenex, but I fumbled, causing the yellow daisy print to fall and box-walk two steps away. We both went for it simultaneously. Our hands touched. He jerked back as if electrocuted.
“Your skin feels warm,” he said.
“I would hope so. Otherwise, I’m already dead,” I said.
“I was wondering if I was dead,” the doctor said.
This isn’t good.
He fumbled for his clipboard that sat flush on the floor.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but I need your help,” I said.
The clipboard lifted quickly with my thin cartoon fingers. I passed it to him. He held my gaze for several moments.
“This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this. What did you put on your skin?”
“Nothing. I woke like this. I’m as scared as everyone else that sees me. If not more, I’m the one that looks like this,” I said.
The doctor slowly composed himself. He inhaled through his nose, exhaled through his mouth and exaggerated his chest movements.
He stood and squared his shoulders, looking professional once more. “Let’s start over. I’m Dr.Ikiel.”
He looked less professional when he stuffed two small balls of Kleenex up his nose.
“I’m sorry about your nose,” I said.
He waved my concern away. “What is this material on you?” he asked.
I pinched my skin. I think ‘pinch’ loosely since it was more like: my fingers squealed over the top of my cartoony flesh and lifted less than what you would lift silver skin from a rib. I didn’t feel the pinch either. “I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem to want to come off.”
Dr. Ikiel motioned for me to sit on the high examination table. He placed the back of his hand against my forehead.
“I don’t know what’s going on with you, but let’s try to figure this out. You feel average temperature for a cartoon woman,” he said.
I laughed. But the emotion lasted a weak moment before tears welled in my eyes and spewed half a foot from my face. At least I can still cry. It felt good. So good that I cried harder until my cartoon tears smacked into the doctor, and the walls formed a small cartoon puddle on the floor.
The bottle cap holding my emotions back popped like the top on a fizzy bottle of breakdown pop. I bawled. I scream-cried.
The scream-cry brought a small thundercloud and shot bolts of anger and frustration two inches in every direction.
Dr. Ikiel stepped back, “wow.”
That made me feel worse. The storm cloud grew, and thunder boomed with each crying yelp I made.
His eyes widened. He bent down to touch a cartoon tear but was too slow. Each tear he reached for disappeared.
I chuckled through my tears.
Then it became an insane game of trying to catch the vanishing cartoon tears. I joined in as well, and the tears soon vanished altogether. Neither of us won.
“This is amazing,” Dr. Ikiel asked.
“It was only amazing to me for the first ten minutes,” I said.
“May I examine you?” he asked, and this time he handed me the Kleenex.
I nodded, then wiped my nose with the Kleenex.
Dr. Ikiel placed a cold stethoscope against my back. I only knew it was meant to be cold. I felt nothing. He walked his fingers up my spine, crossed my shoulders, and squeezed my collarbone.
It seemed strange at first. I was about to ask him what he was looking for when I realized, beneath his touch, there was no pushback of firm bones.
He pulled the blood pressure cuff off the wall and motioned to lift my arm. “How did this happen?” he asked.
“I have no clue. I woke up like this,” I said.
The machine whirred and squeezed pressure above my elbow, deflated and began again. The little machine repeated this motion several times before Dr. Ikiel took it off. He placed two fingers over my wrist, shook his head then popped a thermometer in my mouth.
That, too, came out with nothing. He didn’t have to say it. I read his face. He found no trace that I was alive.
“Did you sleep at home? Is anyone with you? Were you drugged? Poisoned? Exposed to any toxins?” he asked.
“Nope, nothing. In my bed, by myself, as usual.”
Dr. Ikiel opened a cupboard and pulled out a thick book with a large skull and crossbones on the front.
“Do you take recreational drugs?” he asked.
“Even if I did, how would a little marijuana make this happen?” I asked.
“Do you have a headache?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
He looked in my ears, nose, and mouth. He checked my neck and reflexes as he rambled on with more questions.
“Dizziness? Vomiting? Nausea?”
“Erratic heartbeat? Night sweats? Tremors? Seizures?”
“No, no, no.”
“Any rashes? Fever? Signs of infection?”
“Look, doc, even the moles and scars I had before this happened are gone.”
He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before finally stating, “From what I can see, you’re still human.”
An exclamation mark fell from my head and shattered on the floor.
He cleared his throat, “Ms. Shokura, I’ve never seen anything like this. This condition is remarkable and completely new to me. Hell, it’s completely new to medicine altogether.”
“Is this,” I choked, “a condition? Are you going to tell me to get my affairs in order?”
Dr. Ikiel grimaced, “let’s not jump to conclusions. First, more tests. I’ll give you a prescription for some steroids and antibiotics, and we’ll book a follow-up.”
He scribbled classic illegible markings on a prescription pad and handed it to me.
A clock ticked. I crossed my arms.
“What’s the picture on the wall?” I asked.
I pointed to the dove. I was suddenly suspicious, and I had no idea why.
“The Hachiman Dove?” he asked.
“Why is it on your wall?” I asked.
He shrugged, “it compelled me. The god of war uses a delicate white bird as a symbol, as his spirit animal. It’s the same as practicing medicine. We want to offer everything at once but often must hold back, investigate, and learn. A pacemaker must rely on technology rather than the human heart. There is no simple solution. It is often intertwined with a bit of lesser evils. The god of war is just that. He’s still a god of something as terrible as war. So, tell me, Mei, why do you think this happened?” he asked.
I shook my head. I had no answer. “I can’t eat or drink.”
“Oh,” he grimaced.
“I don’t know why this happened to me, but I know it won’t be sustainable for long. I can’t imagine a machine would be able to fix this. I made a bagel for breakfast, strawberry cream cheese and all,” I said. “I couldn’t even bite it.” Then I peeled my lips back, “but I have teeth.”
He noted something on his clipboard.
“Also, I can’t use the toilet,” I added.
A red exclamation mark burst from my head.
“Do you control that?” he asked.
“No,” I said. Then reconsidered, “well, I suppose I do with my emotions.”
Dr. Ikiel’s beard turned a little greyer. He produced a trial-size bottle from a drawer, which he handed to me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
I lifted a brow. Exclamation marks smashed to the ground. “Will this help me?”
Dr. Ikiel cleared his throat, “it might help the inflammation.”
“Inflammation?” I asked.
He looked at me with unspoken words, saying he had no idea what was happening to me, but I should trust in him, that he’ll spread his wings and soar to an answer like the dove. “Call your mother.”
Nope, he was looking at me with a goodbye in his eyes.
I stood to leave.
“One other thing, Ms. Shokura,” he said.
“Go to the hospital if you feel light-headed, dizzy, feverish, or confused.”
At home, I showered with the hot turned to max. The steam made it difficult to see. I pumped extra soap onto my all-natural sea sponge and scrubbed until I should have been bleeding.
I smashed my face into the foamy sponge, trying to smell the olive-scented soap. I wanted so badly for that normality. The scent of the aromatic lather, anything, but I got nothing. I angrily scrubbed my unmoveable clothing until I ran out of soap and hot water (I only knew this because the steam was gone.)
I stepped out of the shower. Nothing had changed, as if I were a manufactured robotic doll pulled from the shelf in a row of half a dozen more.
My hand smears the steam on the mirror as it usually does, and the droplets roll down the glass, but no dampness is left on my palm. The face that stared at me in the mirror was not me.
“Okay,” I said. “Next.”
The bag of items I had purchased from a pharmacy drive-thru sat on the edge of the bathroom sink. Once the contents were dumped into the sink, I felt better. I had so many options of pills that could help—antibiotics from the doctor, steroids, vitamins. Even liquid vitamins, just in case, maybe I could bathe in them.
I tipped my head back and poured bottle after bottle into my mouth.
But that ‘just in case’ came quickly.
Every pill I put on my tongue to swallow ended up on the floor. I tried holding my mouth closed around the steroid tablets and liquid vitamins, but again, it all fell out as soon as I opened my mouth.
I gave up on the pills and picked up the tube of hydrocortisone cream. I squeezed half the contents into my hand and slathered my arm. It went on smoothly. I smiled. It slid off my arm like hot caramel on ice cream. I frowned.
The box labelled fleet enema appeared to wink at me. “Poisoned, huh?”
I glanced in the mirror. A red question mark burst into the air, hovered, and clattered into the sink full of open pill bottles.
Three minutes later, I tossed the garbage away.
This body is useless to me. It literally will not perform any task.
I screamed my frustration at the mirror.
The steam slid away from my scream, down the glass, creating a cross-hatched pattern. The lines curved out to each side and then dropped into a rectangle like a box with a lid. Not a box, a shrine.
“Yasaka temple?” I said to my reflection in the mirror, and indeed my lips didn’t move with the words. If I could still feel my heart, I’m sure at this point, it would have thumped erratically in my chest.
My phone rang, distracting me perfectly.
The hospital lab told me they received a faxed request for blood work.
It’s hour-seven since I woke an anime girl. My tongue felt like paper, no pun intended, and my legs moved slowly with the lack of nutrients. At least I didn’t suffer hunger pains or growls of embarrassment. I was aware of my depleting energy level by the speed of my thoughts. Sluggish. That’s a good sign. Maybe now my nerves will calm down.
I sat, scanning the parking lot from my car, for several long minutes before deciding it was quiet enough to park and exit. I walked quickly to the entrance, aware of how the sun reflected off my neon body like a glowing light for mosquitoes.
A man with his walker waved at me like an old friend. A woman fuming from her ears marched out of the automatic doors and nearly knocked him over. She collided with my shoulder.
She turned to curse at me but then caught my cartoon eyes.
Gasping, she spun on her heel and ran back to the hospital.
The old man chuckled, “karma’s a bitch, and I think you wear it elegantly.”
The automatic doors were about to slide shut when I stepped toward the entrance. I was grateful the door sensors registered my presence. It reminded me that I was still a person.
Inside the hospital, the fuming woman screamed hysterically at the front desk clerk.
“I need to be readmitted!”
“Ma’am,” the clerk said, “you’ll need to go back through the emergency department if that’s the case.”
“I’m hallucinating; you need to put me back in the same room as before. And I want the TV remote this time,” she yelled, stomping her feet like a child.
“Ma’am, please, other people are waiting,” the clerk said.
The woman glanced back, saw me and ran off toward the significant red letters spelling ‘emergency.’
I was at the back of the line. No one seemed to notice. They were all staring at their phones.
Ahead of me are two teenage girls, a grey-haired lady with a polka dot dress and a young boy that could hardly reach the counter with his nose.
“How can I help you, sweetheart?” the clerk asked the little boy.
“I’d like a job, please,” he said.
I grinned at his cuteness.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” the clerk asked.
The boy bounced on his toes to reach his words over the counter. “No, I need a job. I need to work here.”
“Then you need to go to med school, son. What grade are you in?” she asked.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” he said.
The teenage girls behind him giggled without looking away from their screens.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked, scanning the waiting area. Her eyes narrowly missed mine.
The boy crossed his arms, “she’s at work,” he said.
“Oh? And where does she work?” the clerk asked.
“Here. She cleans the floors. It’s not a very important job, so I want to be a doctor so I can be important and tell her how important she is.” The boy said.
The clerk leaned forward, “Your mother’s job is important. What would happen to our sick patients if she didn’t clean this place? Housekeepers are as important as doctors. Patients won’t recover in a germ-infested hospital.”
She smiled at the boy, then lifted her eyes to me. The smile faded.
“Ma’am,” she yelled down the line, “please remove your costume.”
That made the rest of the line turn to look at me.
Oh shit. “It’s not a costume,” I said.
The clerk stood, leaning her heavy arms on the counter and puffed her chest. “Kawakita Hospital forbids clown masks, mascot heads or other disguises that could potentially upset patients,” the clerk commanded.
“It’s not a disguise,” I said.
The older woman in front of me turned, gasped, then said, “I don’t think that’s a disguise.”
One teenage girl shrieked, and the other pulled out her phone.
“What are you?” the older woman asked.
“I’m a person, just like you,” I said to the woman, then looking past her to the clerk, “I’m supposed to get bloodwork done.”
The clerk snipped, “not like that. You won’t.”
“There’s something wrong with you,” the older woman said.
The teenager who’d shrieked got a glazed look.
The other girl walked out of the line up which was turning into a semi-circle around me, talking on her phone. The little boy snuck through the chaos to the elevator, destined for the doctor’s lounge, I was sure.
“Ma’am, you need to remove the mask or I will call security,” the clerk demanded.
“It’s not a mask,” I reiterated.
The dazed teenager stepped toward me, then wavered. Great, I was about to break another person’s nose today without lifting a finger.
An alarm went off and ‘code white’ spoke in a robotic voice over the intercom above my head. Red dashes crashed to the ground. I heard the thump of the girl hitting the ground.
Doors opened behind the clerk, and security piled out toward me.
“Remove the mask,” a security man ordered. His jacket threatened to burst a button or two if I didn’t comply.
“I have no face mask on! This is my face! Just let me get the tests done. I need to figure out what’s wrong with me!”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong. That you can’t listen to instructions,” he boomed.
“Forget this,” I said, and half turned toward the exit, but two dozen hospital workers stood to my side, forming a V shape.
I bolted through the doors.
The teenage girl on the phone stood outside, waving her arms hysterically.
A van screeched around the corner, tipping up on one tire as it turned toward the hospital. The teenager screamed into the phone, “you almost crashed!”
The van cut me off and slammed to a stop. I’m trapped. The door slid open; a camera appeared in my bubble, and someone demanded answers. Not much of a welcome. I wrinkled my nose, but the reflection in the lens showed only a pancake face with eyes turned into wide circles.
A voice behind the camera asked, “how did you become a cartoon? Were you born this way?”
I craned my neck to find my car. I quickly calculated how far it was parked. I determined I wouldn’t make it. The van blocked me in. A city bus purred at the curb half the distance from my car with the door open.
I went for it. My legs felt heavy.
“Miss! I have a few questions,” the reporter yelled.
As I rushed, I pushed my cartoon legs faster, causing a cartoon cloud to form beneath my feet. I was so focused on it that I crashed into the side of the bus. I scrambled over to climb the three steps onto the bus.
The driver jerked back in his seat, “what the- “
“Close the door,” I demanded.
He stumbled over his words.
Someone in the back yelled, “close the door!”
He closed the door. Automatically, he tapped the bus fare collector through his confusion.
“I have no money,” I said, looking down at my pocketless form. I clutched my cell phone as if it could save my life, but it could do nothing for my cartoonism now.
“I do.” The same voice that had yelled said.
A preteen girl appeared in the aisle, wearing a cat-ear headband. She marched to the front and pushed a Yen into the machine.
Great, another fan, just what I don’t need.
The bus driver tapped the machine again, frozen on my image.
“I paid, okay?” the girl said sternly. She flicked her wrist toward the front window, “can we go now?”
The bus driver blinked one eye at a time.
The girl stormed up and pushed a finger on his chin to close his mouth. “Okay?” she repeated.
The driver nodded.
A second wrist flick, “then let’s go. Can’t you see this woman’s running from the media?”
That’s right! I looked back and saw the camera pressed to the bus door, recording the ordeal. I stumbled down the aisle, but with each chair, the patrons shifted over. Just like in grade school, I had the cooties.
The bus rattled into motion.
“You can sit with me,” the girl said as she walked past. I froze. The girl grabbed me and pulled me to the back of the bus. Her bag hit the floor at the exact moment that she slid in against the window. I sat beside her with half my cartoon ass hanging off the edge of the seat. I muttered my thanks and kept my eyes down.
Now I know how celebrities feel. And how celebrities crumble under constant pressure.
The bus driver glanced in the mirror every few seconds at me.
“Keep your eyes on the road so we don’t die!” the girl snapped.
“I appreciate your help.”
She shrugged, “every superhero needs a sidekick.”
“I feel like the villain.”
“Then you watch too many movies and read too few manga,” the girl said with a wide grin. Her teeth exposed her age as too young to be riding a bus alone.
“Where’s your parents?” I asked.
“Where’s yours?” she retorted. “Name’s Emiko. That’s all you need to know.”
Wow. “I’m Mei.”
“You owe me a Yen,” she smiled.
“Can I Venmo you?”
“There’s the ‘too much tv again,’” she punched me jokingly on the shoulder.
She could have body-slammed me, and I wouldn’t have felt a thing, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I said, “Thank you.”
She shrugged. “So, do you have superpowers?”
“Not that I know of,” I said.
A tap on my shoulder.
“Where’d you get your costume?” the woman behind me asked, a bouncing baby on her lap.
I groaned, then turned back to Emiko, “why do you think I have superpowers?”
“All manga characters do.”
An exclamation mark fell from my head, tapped her on the knee, which caused the reflex to kick out.
Emiko giggled, “never mind.”
A man walked past nonchalantly but then positioned his phone to take a selfie with me in the background.
Before I got the chance, Emiko yelled, “go away.”
He grumbled, walking away, “she wouldn’t have agreed anyway.”
“I might have if you asked,” I snapped back.
Emiko gently elbowed me, “no, you wouldn’t. You were running pretty fast from that tv camera.”
I smirked, “true.”
Trees rushed by our window. We’re headed to the countryside. Further from my home, and I’m not sure I minded.
“Which bus is this?” I asked.
“Toei Asakusa Line,” she said.
An idea blossomed but was interrupted by my phone ringing. I stared at it, unsure who the number was, so I let it go to the answering machine.
I noticed the time- one o’clock—eight hours as an anime girl.
“You good?” Emiko asked.
“You look sad,” she said.
“I’m not sure what I feel. Or if I feel.”
Emiko blinked, causing her eyelashes to dash along the top of her cheeks. I was jealous. I had no emotion left on my face except red dashes or black hashtags. I couldn’t even tell when I blinked or breathed. I wasn’t even sure if I was blinking or breathing.
I blurted out, “I can’t eat.” Unsure if I was looking for sympathy or empathy.
Without waiting for an answer, I rambled, “I can’t feel the seat pressing against my back. I can’t smell that man’s sweat or the chocolate of the pokey stick from the baby behind us. I see them, so I know what they should smell like, but I have nothing; I get nothing. I won’t feel my mother’s hug at our next dinner. My appearance might even cause her final heart arrhythmia. And I certainly won’t be able to taste her okonomiyaki again.”
Emiko’s eyes watered with a mirrored emotion. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, I’m going to visit my grandfather. He’s a Kannushi at the Yasaka temple in Gion,” Emiko said.
Exclamation marks smashed on the ground. I heard five-camera shutters.
Emiko pulled her knapsack onto her lap, “have you been there?” She produced a granola bar and ripped open the sweat treat.
“Not since I was your age, but I had a vision and thought I should go there too,” I said.
I watched Emiko take a large bite of her granola bar. She noticed me watching, and her face paled. She quickly stuffed the bar back into her bag.
She wiped a crumb from the corner of her mouth, “my grandfather knows many things. Maybe he can help.”
The bus stopped. Neither of us moved. We remained seated until the bus was empty. Outside, the sidewalk was packed.
“I don’t know about this,” I said.
Anxiety had never been my thing, not through school or work. Now, it crushed my chest into a crumpled ball of paper and the dot for my nose no longer brought oxygen into my lungs to slow and draw my attention.
“There are too many people out there,” I said, pointing out the window with a finger that shook violently.
Emiko dug through her bag, “I have a hat.”
“I might need more than a hat.”
Emiko looked up at me, then down at what I was wearing.
“It is a little revealing,” she agreed.
“It’s a little cartoon,” I said.
“I have a hoodie too.”
When she wiggled the sweater out of her backpack, I noticed it was full of clothing and snacks.
“You moving to your grandfather’s?” I asked.
Her face morphed to horror before she wiped it away and shrugged, “no, just a visit.” She smiled as if I hadn’t seen the truth like a virus flashing on the computer screen demanding money.
She’s a runaway.
I accepted the hoodie and ended the conversation. I could tell she didn’t want to have it. I pulled the material over my head, not feeling the scrap across my nose and pulled the strings as tight as I used to when I was Emiko’s age and mad at my parents.
She handed me sunglasses too. It’ll have to do.
I stepped off the bus with shaky legs. Of all the things I couldn’t feel, why would anxiety be the one thing I could feel?
Everyone was too busy to notice me. Some even bumped into me without looking. Emiko grabbed my hand and led me straight to the train ticket machine. She didn’t hesitate to purchase two tickets for the train.
I felt like a freeloader on this little runaway girl. “I guess I owe you a few more Yen now,” I smiled weakly.
“What else are sidekicks for,” she said, beaming at me.
We rustled through the crowd to the edge of the tarmac and stood nervously, watching the flow of people move. I heard the train approach with metallic wheels screeching on the rail. I would trade sound for a taste any day.
The sound of the people talking increased.
A TV blared the news.
I heard ‘cartoon,’ and that hooked my attention. I turned to find the screen. The news anchor was a beautiful woman in a red pantsuit. She stood next to a large picture of my cartoon face.
Words scrolled across, but I was too late to read the beginning. The screen panned through several photos of me. I recognized some from the hospital and others from the walk-in clinic this morning. Then I saw the beginning of the scrolling caption, ‘Cartoon woman, Mei Shokura, where in the world is she?’
They had my name.
I could feel nausea too.
And dizziness. The world tipped, and everything went blurry. Then dark. I heard what I could only assume was my cartoon ass smacking hard on the ground.
“Mei,” I heard my name.
“Mei,” a voice through the heavy darkness. I couldn’t open my eyes. Where was Emiko? I couldn’t see her in this darkness.
I heard voices and my name sporadically. Not always Emiko’s voice. Then I heard, “it’s the cartoon woman,” and “call the police,” “no, call an ambulance,” and finally, someone said, “is she dead?”
After great effort, I opened my eyes. There were hands all over my body. Every stranger around me, helping or picture taking, had a hand touching my cartoon body. With palms spread wide, a hundred hands or more covered my body like the insane game of keeping your hand on the car the longest to win.
Faces and voices of strangers blurred into one, “it’s the cartoon woman. She’s really real.”
“Emiko,” I pleaded.
Large cartoon tears jumped from my eyes, and the crowd gasped and squeezed into my space tighter.
All those phones and cameras are in my face. Flashes went off, illuminating the dark space I was trapped in.
Then I saw the silver of the train between two people. Emiko stood at the door. I forced my way up to standing, then leapt through the crowd. A couple of cartoon springs bounced out in either direction of my feet. There was another tv channel with my anime face.
I lunged through the open train doors and landed hard on my face.
Emiko was at my side, “Oh, are you okay?”
She helped me up. There were a few drops of cartoon blood, but nothing hurt.
“Yeah, hey! I can bleed!” I exclaimed.
And that started the scene once more. A lady screamed. Someone fainted, a man yelled something about an award and another about police.
“Let’s go,” Emiko said.
She ripped me by my arm off the ground and through the cars.
I’d lost my hat and sunglasses. My hoodie was twisted sideways and torn. I frantically fixed the hood as she led the way through car after car of people freaking out. Once my hood was tightened sufficiently, we entered a car where I heard only silence.
I sat next to her and put my face in my hands. I could hear an inebriated man singing.
The train dipped into a dark tunnel. I rested my head back. When the train emerged, we were surrounded by a bright landscape of snow-capped mountains and fields of pink. Mt Fuji is close. I wished for that level of peacefulness. The many nights I had sat bored and alone, wasting that solitude. Now I may never know solace again.
I may never be me again.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing, but I felt nothing. No chest rising, no trunk decompressing. I imagined the universe stopping with each breath, whenever that was.
“I’m sure grandfather will have an answer,” Emiko said.
My phone binged with a voicemail. I hit the button to listen and had to turn the volume down. My cartoon ears were extra sensitive.
The message was from Dr. Ikiel asking me to call him back. My hands shook as I returned the call.
He answered on the first ring.
“Yes,” I said.
My voice shook as much as my hand.
“It’s called Axenfeld Rieger Syndrome.”
“It’s a rare genetic condition that can cause large cartoon-like eyes,” he stated, satisfied.
I considered this, then asked, “what about the rest of my body?”
The call was silent for so long that I thought he’d hung up. I pulled the phone away to check that we were still connected. He resumed speaking while I held the phone out, but even from there, I heard the disappointment in his voice.
“I’m sorry, I have no answer for that.”
Back to my ear. “Are you sure that’s what it is then?” I asked.
He asked about the blood work, diverting the answer. I told him the hospital story that brought me to this point. He promised to forward the requisition to a private clinic when I returned. I heard the echo of the news on his television. Dr. Ikiel told me to be safe, and I ended the call.
Staring out the window, Emiko didn’t say a word as she slithered her hand into mine. We sat silently until the train arrived at our destination.
I’ve only been to a temple once since I was ten because I refused the invitation every year when my father took my mother. I was a busy woman now. Work, friends, dating. It’s all a lot of work. I don’t have time for the temple visits. I hadn’t even read a book since I was in school. Maybe Emiko was right. Too many movies, not even manga.
I let Emiko lead the way up the path to the Yasaka temple. The temple’s curved roof is adorned with blue tiles atop a golden building. Pillars centred the pearly stairs up to the door. Atsuta shrine of a lion with a globe in his paw beckoned my first step.
Emiko yanked me back. “It’s been a while since you’ve been here, huh?”
My eyebrows lifted in surprise. I felt suddenly as if the printed information in my mind required to approach this temple had been torn off and thrown away. They were replaced by some redundancy, such as how to record a 15-second short for social media.
A pavilion with a water basin sat off to the side of the entrance. As tradition demanded, we cleansed our hands and trickled water from a ladle over our closed lips. Once we were up the stairs, we bowed at the doors. Emiko kicked her shoes off, then glanced at my stockings, “good thing you don’t have shoes drawn on, huh?”
Drawn. I hadn’t even considered that. All I kept feeling was printed and produced.
I followed Emiko through the doors, ready to shed this anime skin.
Inside, several wooden walkways were raised above a carpeted floor and offered numerous directions. Emiko chose the path that led to the main stage, where a man sat.
“Grandfather,” Emiko yelled, waved, then ran.
The man stood with swan-like grace, stretching his bent neck to be long and elegant. He wore a white shozoku with wide sleeves and a matching cap. The way he walked toward Emiko gave the illusion of him floating.
His face lit with a smile, “my dearest granddaughter.”
They embraced and quietly spoke a personal greeting.
I stood awkwardly, trying to pull the edge of the hoodie lower to cover those shiny white squares on the upper thighs.
“This is Mei,” Emiko said, “she needs help.”
His face softened at my embarrassment. “It’s okay, child,” he said, embracing me, “I see what has happened.”
A thrill of relief ran through my blood. I felt energized. His long grey brows hung off his face as he stared into mine. “The spirits are angry.”
“But I haven’t- “
Grandfather cut me off, “Emiko,” he waved, “feed the cow.”
Emiko spun on her heel and dashed out of the room.
“You have a cow?”
He shifted his small form under the robe, “It’s a statue, but Emiko likes to pretend to feed it sweet-scented flowers. It keeps her busy while I call her parents,” he winked, “works every time.”
Grandfather looped his arm through mine and led me through the same doors Emiko had run a moment before.
“But this time, this is about you,” he said.
“Emiko’s a good kid,” I deferred.
We followed a path through a luxurious garden with bonsai trees of all shapes, Asagao flowers coloured by an ocean beneath the sunset, and Osmanthus plants scented like curried apricots. Exotic flowers lined the steppingstone walkway, and butterflies bounced in the air.
Grandfather stopped to pluck a blossom off an Ume plant. He pushed his nose into the centre of the flower and inhaled exaggeratedly. Memory told me it would smell like honey. He looked sidelong at me, then popped the pale pink flower into his mouth and chewed. He plucked and offered a new bud to me.
“I can’t,” I began.
“You think you can’t, but did you try?”
“I tried with a muffin, an egg, cereal, and blueberries. I can’t eat and ingest anything.”
He insisted that with the flower, “every object is a new challenge just as every day has a new object. This one might be what you require today, and nothing will do except this.”
I popped the bloom into my mouth. I tasted nothing. My teeth moved, I think, and I tried to convince myself I tasted the nectar, yet there was nothing. I wasn’t even sure if the flower was still in my mouth. Grandfather looked at the ground, which answered my question.
My soul sank.
Grandfather met my gaze. He took my hand and said, “I know who’s angry.”
My soul lifted.
“Susanoo,” he said.
I frowned, “I never did anything against that deity.”
Grandfather looped my arm once more, and we walked as he spoke. “You wouldn’t need to. This god burned forests, destroyed mountains and flattened rice fields only to create chaos. His sister, Amaterasu, so distraught with his waves of destruction, sought a reprieve. She offered a challenge to distract him. To create five male sons.”
“But with no, mate, Susanoo resorting to theft. He stole a jewel necklace from Amaterasu and crunched up all the gems. When he spat them out, the deities appeared. Enraged, his sister ate his prized sword and spat out three gods of her own to battle her nephews. But they do not conquer. Susanoo mocks her, so, feeling defeated, Amaterasu locks herself in a dark cavern.”
“For his trickery, Susanoo is exiled to Yomi, the underworld. After many centuries, he finally finds a way back to Earth, where he hears crying. He follows the sound to find a devastated family: a mother, a father and only one daughter left out of five. The family claims it’s an eight-headed, fire-spitting serpent, Koshi, who emerges yearly and consumes a daughter. They beg Susanoo to defeat Koshi. But, being mischievous, Susanoo requests their last daughter’s hand in marriage for payment.
Grandfather let go of my arm. He walked several more steps, then suddenly spun around and clapped his hands loudly. “Deal, the sad father agreed.”
Grandfather jumped and swung an arm like a sword. “That night, Susanoo sought the serpent.”
Grandfather tiptoed with his hands to his ears. “Susanoo placed eight glasses of rice wine around the family’s home.”
He mimicked judging liquid spilling cups. Then he waves the vapour to his nose. “Fragrant, very fragrant. The Koshi couldn’t resist. He drinks all the sake. Then passes out drunk!”
Tipping so far back on his heels, I was sure Grandfather would fall. Then he lunged forward and landed on all fours to creep circles around me. “Susanoo casually sneaks from his hiding spot behind the sad father’s home.
He swung his arm wide, and I heard the crunch of the axe colliding with bone. Susanoo appeared and chopped, chopped, off every one of the beast’s eight drunken heads.”
“So, naturally,” Grandfather stands and shrugs, “a wedding ensues, and then a baby. She grows up, and she marries a man named Oho-Kuni-Nushi. Which this temple is dedicated.”
Grandfather ended his story by crossing his arms and giving a single head nod as if I had received the answer to my dilemma.
“Uh, how does that explain why Susanoo is mad at me?”
“I don’t think that story had anything to do with me,” I said.
“It has everything to do with you,” Grandfather said as he plucked a seed pod from a yellow Kowhai tree. He smashed the pod between his palms and tore the yellow flesh away. “This pod looks true to the Kowhai tree. But once you peel away its beautiful petals, there is no way to know what type of seed it is.”
He opened his palm to black, stringy seeds.
“And if you didn’t know where it was produced, how would you know it was poisonous or not? All seeds start the same. Beauty or beast? You wouldn’t know until it matures and becomes its destiny. But pluck it early, place it in a glass of water and force it to grow in your chosen direction; you can make a bonsai out of anything.” Grandfather closed his palm around the seed. He squeezed so tight that his knuckles turned white.
I shook my head, confused.
“You have been plucked. Susanoo has removed you from the pod of our world. He will groom you into something good or evil,” Grandfather said.
He lifted my hand and put his hand with the hidden seed on top. My phone buzzed in my other hand.
“What he’s doing feels evil,” I said.
“Susanoo is the god of destruction and love and marriage.”
“Okay,” I said uncertainly.
“You’re the perfect woman in cartoon form. One thought is if you find love, you find your answer,” Grandfather said.
“And the second?” I asked.
Grandfather unclenched his fist. Black dust from the crushed seed sat in my palm. “It takes only one tainted seed to ruin a crop, be sure to destroy the seed if that’s the case.”
Emiko’s voice made me jump, “I’m sure it’s love that she needs to break the curse.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
“The answer is waiting for you,” Grandfather said.
“Where?” I asked.
He walked through the wooden doors into the temple. Emiko followed, slinging her backpack high on a shoulder.
Emiko grinned, “somewhere special, I would guess.”
“A parent’s love is special, too,” I said.
Emiko stopped and looked back at me, “Not when you’re eleven.”
Grandfather reappeared, “Emiko, your parents say you can stay for supper.”
Emiko looked at him with surprise and then at me with a forfeit. I wondered when he contacted them; I don’t recall a moment away from him. My phone vibrated again.
“For you, Mei Shokura, Uber awaits,” he said.
I checked my phone. A notification from Uber. They’ve arrived.
Grandfather was gone. Emiko hugged me.
“Thank you,” I said and left.
The Uber driver stared at me the whole way home but at least never tried to take my picture, which was a relief. Finally, I got to collapse on my couch, exhausted.
I texted Lou.
How long til you’re here?
I put ClickBait on Netflix and tore open a bag of chips. I crunched them between my fingers, reducing the deep-fried taters down to glistening salt on my hand. It was the best I could do. I’m hungry. I know I’m hungry, but I have no sensation of being hungry. I stuffed handfuls into my cartoon mouth. No taste, no feeling. I angrily chewed. Chips ground to a gel slid out of my mouth.
I cracked open a pop and dumped the liquid into my mouth, ending in a chip hodgepodge on the floor.
I slammed the empty can down, crushing the tin under my hand like the inanimate garburator I’ve become. I crumpled the empty chip bag and threw that across the room as well. It didn’t go very far, which made me angrier.
I must have sat on the remote because the channel clicked to the news.
It’s the same woman in the red dress as before.
“Breaking story,” she said. “Anchorman Tim Neufeld was able to get a first-hand video of our cartoon woman running out of the hospital. Calls to the health authority gave no results on our concern about the condition of Mei Shokura. The hospital responds only by saying she is suffering from a mental ailment and wearing a disguise. They maintain that this is a ruse. But there is someone who thinks she’s very much real. The station received an email shortly after our original broadcast. The email stated-”
A typed excerpt popped up beside the woman’s face as she read. I fell to my news and crab-walked to the tv.
“Dear Tokyo Skytree, I’m writing to you in hopes of connecting with this lovely anime woman, Mei. Yesterday after you broadcasted her photograph, I became enamoured with her beauty. She is exactly what I created my Monster Hunter character to look like. I believe she may have come to be by a wish whispered by me. I implore you to ask her to contact me. I’m sure that she is destined to be with me.”
What? My face pressed against the tv.
“Mei, please come to arrange a meeting with your destined one. A heartwarming love story. In this day and age, this is what Tokyo needs. Susanoo would be proud.”
Susanoo! I stumbled backward. Shock electrified my skin and crawled down my neck, making involuntary twitches like a robot malfunctioning. For once, I was grateful for feeling the anxiety. But what did this all mean?
A knock at the door made me jump.
“Who’s there?” I yelled.
I heard something but couldn’t make it out. I stepped closer to the door. “Hello?”
“Emiko?” I asked.
I suddenly wished I had a peephole. I planted my ear against the door, “is that you, Emiko?”
It might not be. I couldn’t tell for sure. I sighed and creaked the door open a crack. Anticipation made me feel dizzy for the first centimetre that the door opened. I saw nothing. Then I saw her.
“Emiko? How did you find me?”
She grinned, “well, Grandfather had called that Uber for you.”
I laughed, “He is something.”
“He wanted me to give you this,” she said.
Emiko opened her palm to expose a white bead bracelet with four strands, a looped green string, and a sizeable plastic-looking lotus bud.
I touched the bud. It’s soft. It’s real.
“Wow,” I said.
“It’s pretty. Grandfather says it’s a Lotus Mala to help the reborn to find peace in their new land.”
I blinked. The statement was weighted more than my exhausted mind could comprehend. Emiko mirrored my thought again, and her eyes bulged. “Not saying this body is permanent.”
“Shouldn’t you get home?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she rolled her eyes, “Grandfather said I’m only allowed to visit again if I promise not to leave without permission.”
I nodded, “being a kid is hard, but it doesn’t matter what set of parents you end up with; we never seem to want them.”
“They never listen. They don’t understand. Their food is bland, and they only like old black-and-white movies. Even the games they want to play are boring. They didn’t even agree to the name of our cat!”
I chuckled, pulled Emiko in for a hug and said, “one day, that’ll all change, and you’ll be too busy to visit.”
Emiko stood back and wiped tears from her eyes, “thank you. Yes, I should go. It’s card game night.”
“I’ll walk you,” I said, “it’s the least I could do.”
I pulled on sweatpants and a new hoodie and returned Emiko’s sweater. I stuffed the Lotus Mala in my pocket and zipped it shut. I had to duct tape my pants around my waist. I tried to tie the shoes on several times with no luck. Toque and shades, we stepped out to the streets of Tokyo.
We walked at sunset – thirteen hours as an anime girl.
“What’s your cat’s name?” I asked.
“Joe,” she said.
I chuckled, “that is horrible, and what did you want to name the cat?”
She smirked, “I call her Seeatee, like C-A-T.”
My cartoon feet reflected the white of the streetlights. We turned down Takeshita Street, and it took only two seconds of my feet silently padding on the sidewalk before someone spotted me and hollered.
“Hey! There she is!”
In an instant mob took chase.
Emiko took off in a run, “let’s go!”
The hard part of running was my quickly lowering energy. Emiko didn’t complain, but each time I had to lift a leg was like pulling a refrigerator up with a rope. I felt like a paper doll standing in a pee tree dish of water. Thankfully, Emiko slowed in front of row houses.
A glance back showed a few die-hards followed but most had dissipated.
“Here,” Emiko said.
“This is cute,” I said, ignoring the grass that grew between the stepping stones and the paint peeling off the door.
Emiko didn’t look back, “don’t lie to me.”
I wondered how far from home she got off the bus each day so her friends wouldn’t see her poverty level. Then I remembered the money she’d spent on the bus, and I felt guilty. And the train! Ugh. I made a silent promise to return that money as soon as I could manage walking into a bank again.
We stood awkwardly for a few minutes.
A guy set up a tripod behind me.
“I should go inside,” Emiko said, “I wouldn’t want my face on the news. Not with this dump behind me.”
“The house doesn’t define the person,” I said.
Her face fell. “Tell that to my kids at my school.”
I was about to find another decent saying when Emiko’s face suddenly lit. “Do you want to see my Schleich horses? I buy them from garage sales and then paint them to look new. Then I sell them for more.”
Great, I feel worse that I take a juvenile’s hard-earned money. I ruffled her hair, “You’re amazing. I should go, take all this attention away from your house. I’ll come to visit when I get this problem solved.”
We said goodbye, and I left. The man with the camera packed up and followed me on my return trip home. His presence caught the attention of a few others. I glanced at my phone. Nine fifty-five. Lou should be off work soon. I had to get home, but I wanted to lose this group of fans.
I took a few different subway trains, jumping off and on as quickly and sporadically as I could until I was finally alone. I ended up ten blocks further from home but alone.
So, I finally walked in silence.
The streets darkened. The moon hung above the landscape, throwing an eery glow onto my skin.
A bus whirled past with squealing breaks. I kept my face down.
I stomped through a puddle. The droplets splashed up my sweatpants, but I didn’t feel the dampness. I jumped up and down until the water soaked me, the weight of my sweats threatening to tear the duct tape away and still, I felt nothing.
A woman appeared, “you okay, hun?”
“Eh?” Surprised, I tripped on my pant leg, tearing the duct tape.
“Oh! You’re that- “
I bolted, half-tripping on my soaked pants. Tired of running, I rounded the corner angrily, screaming at everyone to go away.
A large projection of my face was on the side of a building blaring the news over the neighbourhood—ten o’clock news. The newscaster was the red-dressed woman.
“Dear Tokyo Skytree- “
“Hey! There she is!” someone else yelled.
I turned to run but tripped. My nose collided with the concrete. I fought with my sweater to get it back down to cover my chest, but someone ripped it off over my head. I saw at least fifty phones glaring at me.
The people’s voices blended.
“What’s it like?”
“Where are you from?”
“How old are you? Are you married? Are you going to meet the email guy?”
“Is it contagious?”
“Does it hurt?”
“How long have you been this way?”
I ran blindly through the crowd and ended up in a dark alley. My footsteps slowed. I inched further into the darkness. People rushed passed, but no one entered the alley. A hum came from the broken street lights.
A homeless man was slumped on the ground. He slowly lifted his head. I stepped into the shadows.
The way he turned his head was ominous. Something was off, like a glitching program.
I slid along the edge of the building, away from him, and away from the crowded street toward the other exit. My foot found something hard. I muffled a grimace and lifted my heel to find a piece of glass. One drop of blood formed, dropped then the wound disappeared. I removed the glass. I would be bleeding profusely if I were made of flesh, but this body is simply lines made to hold my soul.
“Who’s there?” the homeless man growled.
A door banged.
I thought I saw someone enter the alley, but it was too dark. I waited. The man waited. Pitch black didn’t hide the brightness of my skin. He continued staring.
My worry became bigger than mine. My chest tightened. I can’t take this. Whether these crazed fans see where I live, I must go home. I’m so tired. Lou will be there soon. I needed the comfort of my friend.
I spun on my heel and booked it out to the street. The homeless man yelled an ‘aha!’ as if affirming he wasn’t hallucinating.
Evening dew had settled on the sidewalks, and when I looked back to see if I was being followed, I noticed I didn’t even make footprints.
My heart sank. I’m nothing. Simply an image moving along. My footsteps slowed. My energy spent and my will to continue teetered on quitting. My legs felt like the flimsy cartoon drawings they were. My heart hammered like a machine gun with empty shells. I’m just a paper woman, a flimsy reminder of what I once was, crushed into particle paper.
Finally, I arrived home.
I swiped into my apartment, shying away from the fluorescent lights. The stairs glared down at me.
Behind me, someone knocked on the glass. I looked back and saw two people watching, waving.
Up the stairs, I dragged my heavy legs. Six flights are a lot when you’re a cartoon woman running on paper fibres.
I let my head fall against the wood at my apartment door, “safe, at last.”
But suddenly, the door swung open so viciously that I got knocked back. I heard a thump and saw something smash into my shoulder. I caught a glimpse of a baseball bat just before it hit the side of my head. I stumbled backward. Then I got slammed in the gut with the bat.
The force threw me backward, and I landed halfway down the first flight of stairs. In a pretzel-like pile, I slow-motion slid the rest of the way to the first landing. I saw cartoon stars dance around my head.
Footsteps crashed down the stairs toward me.
I had to get away from this attacker.
It’s a good thing I don’t feel pain.
I threw myself over the centre railing of the fifth-floor stairs. I fell down the centre hole to the bottom of the stairwell.
I might not feel pain, but I could still hear the sickening crunch when my body landed.
I’m invincible, a simple girl that woke up this morning as a cartoon. Starving and tired as heck. But invincible.
The crowd at the front door gaped in horror. One lady screamed. She fainted when I stood and brushed her off. I ran out the back door. Whoever had broken into my apartment would possibly keep coming at me. Maybe they wanted to see if they could make the cartoon woman bleed.
In the alley, I searched for somewhere to hide. I wanted to rest. I’m so tired.
Concrete walls surrounded a green dumpster which created squeezeways. A non-cartoon would have to cut an inch off each hip to fit. I squished and cartooned into the impossible space. Then I collapsed like a scissor lift running out of electricity in the small area at the back. A cardboard roof sat overhead, stopping the drizzle of rain that began.
I pulled out my phone and typed a message to Lou.
Don’t come over. Someone broke into my apartment.
I closed my eyes.
Or I think I slept. It felt more like time travel. I opened my eyes, and the sky above my cardboard ceiling was police strobe blue with bubble gum pink clouds. Water droplets hung like crystals on the corrugated edges.
I unfolded my crinkled paper body and squeezed out into the morning light.
I blocked the brightness from my eyes and checked that no one was waiting for me. I checked my phone. Lou had responded.
That was you? I’m so sorry! I didn’t see the news until nearly midnight. I’m crashing on your couch, and I cleaned the chip mess to make up for the baseball bat incident.
I typed while walking. A newspaper got stuffed into my hands.
“Twenty Yen,” her smoke-damaged voice said.
“No, thank you,” I said.
She was unperturbed by my appearance. I pushed the paper back to her but stopped when I saw the headline. I pulled the paper closer.
“Twenty Yen,” she repeated.
“I don’t have any money,” I mumbled.
“Then no paper.”
I struggled to read the headline between her hands. I saw ‘anime’ and ‘boyfriend pleas.’ The woman ripped the paper from my hands, tearing the headline story in half.
“Worthless,” she moaned.
I still had the bottom half, ‘will he find love?’ I read.
She snapped the last piece from my hand and limped down the street, grumbling.
I yelled to her, “Half price?”
I’m yanked backward.
There’s a bag stuffed over my head. Potatoes. I tasted cotton. Blackness. I heard muffled voices.
I screamed—a fist connected in my mid-back. I let out an ‘eh,’ from surprise. My body’s lifted off the ground.
I’m being carried toward a sputtering engine.
“Put me down!”
I kicked, scratched, punched, and spat, but my useless paper body was tossed into a metal box.
Not a box. A van. The door slammed shut.
“Go, go, go!” a man demanded.
“Let me go!”
My hands are tied. I squished my wrists, trying to wiggle free. The movement of the speeding van knocked me to my side, making me lose what little headway I had achieved.
The vehicle hit a bump, lifting me off the ground and slamming me back against the bare metal floor. I’m growling under the burlap sack out of frustration. My anxious nerves about being seen as a cartoon are overruled by anger towards these clowns.
I’m sure my kidnappers think I’m groaning from pain, so I play into it a bit. I was moaning and groaning as I tried squeezing my hands from the cuffs. My cartoon lines are thin. I suppose those are my bones now.
“Slow down. You might hurt her,” a prepuberty-like male voice said.
“Shut up, Kin,” a deeper male voice snapped.
“No names,” a stern man’s voice said.
Okay, Kin, Mr. Feminine and Stern man are my captures. I can work with this.
“Kin, what is it you want from me?” I asked.
I heard a sharp inhale, pause, and question, “Steve?”
“What the hell, Kin? Now she knows my name too!” Steve said, aka Mr. Feminine.
“You two are useless. No one says another word,” Stern man said.
The van jerked to the side. I kicked my legs out to stop from tumbling over, but my energy zapped out of my cartoon lines, and I crumpled into the corner of the van.
“You idiot, watch where you’re going,” Stern man said.
“He’s the idiot,” Steve said, “now she knows our real names.”
A sharp flesh smacks sounded. Tires squealed, and the van came to a stop.
“What the hell, man? It wasn’t my fault he blurted out my name,” Steve exclaimed.
“She didn’t know those were real names until that comment, dumbass. Now drive, you fucking idiots are nearly ruining the whole plan before we start,” Stern man said.
The van jerked into motion.
I heard a sniffle.
The van stopped after half an hour, I guessed. I worried we were no longer in Tokyo. But when the door slid open and they carried me out, the sounds told me exactly where I was. The phenomenon of heightened senses works well when you can’t taste or smell anything. Then they took away my sight, and wow! The sounds were incredible.
It’s undeniably Keiyo industrial zone. The lapping of Tokyo Bay is rhythmically beautiful. I heard train cars clanking and cranes creaking.
I’m placed on a chair, the cotton sack removed, and light floods my cartoon eyes. I felt dizzy. I wanted to vomit, but that was my nerves telling me I wanted to. I don’t think I could, even if I tried.
Looking around, I realized I was in an empty warehouse. Three men stood in front of me, likely brothers. One had earbuds in. The other had the perfect cell phone outline on his pant pocket burnt into the material as if it never moved.
I picked out Kin quickly, with white down-like hair on his face. I imagined he shaves daily to make it grow thicker.
Staring him down, I said, “Kin, what’s going on here?”
The man with the outline of his cell phone stepped forward. His voice exposed him as Stern man. He had shoulder-length hair with the beginning of a cul-de-sac. “How did you become a cartoon?” He growled.
I growled back, “I ate a man like you.”
I looked to my right and examined stairs that went up three flights to a door.
“Don’t play with me. Is there anyone like this?” he persisted.
“Sure, they’re back at my home. Where you kidnapped me from!” I shrieked.
To the left was a wide-open space where I imagined a plane could park. Or an army tank.
Stern man kicked my chair. “How old are you?”
Ignoring that question, I looked up at the ceiling, realizing how massively empty this place was, like my cartoon body.
The Stern man tapped my forehead. “Anything in there?”
I spat in his face. The sputum was spectacular! A sizeable wet smack landed on his cheek. It dripped slowly, which made me grin.
He lunged forward and smacked a piece of rebar into my shoulder. I forgot to react, and he caught it immediately. His face contorted. “Can you not feel pain?” he asked.
Shoot. The gig is up.
“Oh shit, wow. Shit, shit,” Steve paced behind Stern man.
Kin stepped forward, “are you immortal?”
I lowered my chin, making doe eyes. Tiny red hearts bounced off my cheeks. I raised my shoulders with an innocent question, “if you untie me, I’ll explain everything. I might not feel pain, but this is not a comfortable position to sit.”
I shifted, trying to squeeze my hands out of the ropes.
Kin grabbed Stern man’s arm. He ripped it away and swung the rebar at my chest, narrowly missing.
Steve walked right up to me. He grabbed my chin and turned my face from side to side. “What are you?”
Stern man pushed Steve to the side. “We’re not untying you.”
I blinked big doe eyes. “What’s one girl going to do against three big strong men?”
“She’s right. There’s three of us,” Steve said.
Stern man hesitated, then nodded.
Just the answer I’d hoped for.
Steve cut through the zap strap on my hands. As soon as the pressure released from my wrists, I lunged from the chair, throwing my body weight at Steve.
My forehead collided with his throat. Crunch. The sound made me gag.
I spun and kicked Kin down.
I saw the rebar swing at my head. I ducked and kicked out. Stern man stayed back. Steve tottered around, clenching his throat, and Kin whined on the floor. I located Stern man and attempted a jumping fist throw, but he caught me mid-air. Stern man held me up like a scratching kitten.
I watched the cartoon ‘BOOM’ and ‘POW’ loud bubbles bang to the floor.
Stern man punched me square in the nose. I heard a crack but smiled. I wondered how that dot for a nose looked now.
Stern man smashed his forehead into my face, which caused a sickening sound, but I still felt nothing but air. I laughed in his face. He slammed me back onto the chair.
“Kin, the ropes,” he growled.
The rebar clamped down on my wrists. The cartoony flesh bubbled up, looking about to pop peachy bulbs of skin and bone.
Steve’s eyes bulged as he held his throat, staggering in circles.
Kin dropped a bag of supplies, spilling out scissors, knives, rope, duct tape and water bottles.
The ropes looped around my body, the rebar twisted to anchor the ties behind my back. My breasts poked out between the brown zig-zags of cord.
Stern man straddled me. “That’s a little easier to manage.”
He rolled a finger down my cheek, leaned in and licked my neck.
“Get the fuck off me,” I said.
He ignored me, cupping a handful of my breast. I struggled, trying to throw him off. He clasped his other hand over my mouth. He rolled his nose along my cheek, inhaling deeply. “Maybe before I collect my cash reward, I’ll see what this body is capable of.”
Steve bumped into Stern man, waving his hands for attention. Tears streamed down Steve’s face made him look years younger.
Kin grabbed Stern man’s arm, tearing the hand off my breast, “you promised we’d just get a good look, get our money, and leave.”
Steve flopped on the ground, gulping like a fish on the shore.
Stern man groaned and clambered off me. I felt like a coiled steel spring ready to snap, unbuckle my anger and tear his head off. I suppose I could, I don’t feel anger. It would take brute force and teeth, probably teeth.
He spun around and grabbed Steve by the hair. “Let’s go.” Then he turned to Kin, “watch the bitch.”
Stern man shuffled to a back room. I heard the door bang shut.
I looked at the down-haired brother. “Kin, you have to help me.”
He frantically shook his head.
“Please,” I whimpered, playing on his sensitive side.
“Get me out of here!” I barked.
Kin jumped at the force of my words. He covered his ears and walked away, shaking his head.
I pushed against the ropes, allowing my cartoon curves to bend and soften. Then I shimmed out of a loop. A plastic body has its perks. Kin paced the open warehouse. I worked my curves through each loop of the ropes until I slid out the bottom.
I jumped up.
I’m free. Kin turned just in time to see.
Like a gazelle past a sleeping cheetah, I carefully walked past Kin for the exit. His eyes were wide with uncertainty.
At any moment, the door behind me could open. I didn’t even dare look back. I picked up the pace of my footsteps. Kin unfroze enough to step toward me, but that was about it.
My heart banged against my rib cage. I heard the thump, thump, thump, which was proof enough that I still had a heart, soul and life. Kin opened his mouth to say something, but I opened the door and was out in the fresh air before I allowed his words.
I couldn’t run anymore. I could hardly walk. My internal engine was empty, all the gears were bald, and cartoonism was winning.
Plus, I no longer have my cell phone. I don’t even know where I lost it.
I jerkily walked through the industrial park in daylight. I’m confident that men from the cranes fifty feet in the air could see the neon on my body. But I didn’t care.
I boldly walked into the first convenience store, with signs stating card lock for trucks only.
Inside, the clerk tried to be nonchalant, but it looked like a glitch.
“Hi,” she said.
I demanded the phone. Her hand shook with the cordless.
A newspaper caught my eye.
Jonah Plight pleads to media stations with his claim about this anime girl. Cash reward. Where are you, Mei? Tokyo Skytree staff implore this anime girl to come forward. Let us hear your love story.
I was halfway through punching in Lou’s number when I hit the delete button. I followed the article’s listed phone number.
It only rang once.
“Hello?” a male voice asked.
“Jonah?” I asked.
“Is this the anime girl?” he retorted.
“Is this Jonah?” I repeated.
“No,” he sighed.
I removed the phone from my ear, a finger width from hanging up.
The man in the earpiece talked fast, “Please don’t hang up. You’re my nine-hundredth phone call today. I can help you! If it’s you. Where are you? I’ll pick you up.”
“What makes you think I’m her?” I asked.
There was a pause, “because everyone else said, ‘this is Mei.’ But you don’t feel like Mei Shokura anymore, do you? I can help you. Or at least, this Jonah guy, I believe, can help you. He claims to know the answer, the reason you are what you are. And I can set you up to meet Jonah.”
“Why would you do this?”
“To get an exclusive interview. Live, of course,” he pitched.
“Okay, okay, how about a pre-recorded interview?”
“No,” I said.
“Could we at least record you from a distance as you walk up to the door to initially meet this love of your life, Jonah?” he sounded desperate.
“What are you willing to give?” he asked.
I considered this. “You can take a picture of me as I walk to the door,” I said.
A long pause, “I hope you’ll consider contacting us after the initial meeting for a follow-up interview. So, we can hear about the love birds?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“So, where are you?”
“Circle K. On the harbour.”
Sitting in the journalist’s car was awkward and made more strained silence when he would inch his pinkie finger toward my forearm, trying for a feel of my neon skin.
He’d told me his name was Rocky, and I’m starting to see why. He’s pretty rocky regarding social interactions, especially for a journalist. But he had also explained that everyone else was out in the field searching for me, reasons for me, other me and cures for me. That left him at the studio, operating the phones.
I flicked his finger away again.
He shot me a peripheral glance—his hat low, covering his eyebrows, so he looked like wide eyes and an equally wide nose.
His hand went back to crawling in my direction. I groaned and grabbed his hand, slapping it on my arm. He jolted, and the car swerved.
“Please don’t crash,” I said.
Rocky regained control and said, “Wow. You feel real. I mean, you don’t feel cartoonish.”
“What would cartoonish feel like?” I asked.
He grinned, “I was hoping you could tell us.”
“Us?” I asked and looked at the empty back seat.
He pulled the corner of a voice recorder from his pocket, “meet my archivist, Archie.”
I chuckled. We fell back into a strange silence.
“How far is this Jonah guy’s house?” I asked.
“Studio,” he said.
“Jonah lives in a studio, not a house. We’re almost there,” he said. “I’m thrilled you accepted my offer, or well, I supposed it was the ride more, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, I was in a little bit of trouble.”
“Well, I’m happy to be added to your list of heroes. Another among them is Jonah, is he not?” Rocky asked.
“I don’t even know who this Jonah character is.”
“He claims he wished for you to be his girlfriend. Says you’re his dream come true.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?” I asked.
“What do you believe?”
I looked down at my hands, the outline a stark black, the flesh a feverish pink with an impossible glow. “I don’t know,” I said after a long pause.
I fell silent.
The car stopped.
“We’re here,” Rocky said.
He turned the engine off and looked at me.
I examined the building with sloping walls sprouting from either side, covered with dazzling windows. Jonah’s house looked like a diamond origami bird made of metal.
I clambered out of the small car and nearly tripped over my own feet. I heard the camera shutter as I walked to the metallic door. Hundreds of my reflections mocked me as I drew near.
I didn’t have to knock. The door slid soundlessly open when I got within five feet. Jonah wasn’t rich. He was loaded. Money can’t buy everything. But apparently, a wish can create an anomaly.
Inside, the house smelt like steel and bleach. A security guard looking like Johnny Bravo retired stepped back and hit a floor number. Of course, he didn’t have to ask me anything.
As the elevator went up, I felt like I was falling. My breath became erratic, and I grabbed the railing to stop it from hitting the ground. Each floor dinged past like a bomb ticking to the end— click, click, boom. But there was no explosion, just doors sliding open, and my dizzy, nauseous ass wandered out.
My nerves were distracted by the elegant chandelier, marble floors, and fainting couches. I wondered if he was royalty: An Arabian prince or something.
Lights seemed to glow brighter along the window-lined walls as I walked. The penthouse overlooked the Tokyo marketplace. I ran my hand across the sill, pretending I could erase this new divide between society and myself.
Of course, I could not. The only inevitable ending was my death. Was that even possible? Maybe I would be doomed to whittle away into nothing.
Maybe Jonah did have the answer.
A voice broke my dark thoughts, “I just cleaned those windows.”
I turned to meet my answer.
“Did you do this to me?” I asked.
“Cut to the chase, huh?” he said.
Jonah is tall and lanky, like Olive from Popeye but a man version. He had dark curly hair and equally dark smudges under his eyes as if he had hunched over his computer for days. He wasn’t not handsome.
The room tilted, and my cartoon foot squealed on the floor as I tipped.
His arms were around me in an instant.
“I think I’m running out of time,” I said.
I felt like a sticker printed and peeled from the computer in his arms.
“I got you now,” he said.
“I’m not an object,” I pulled away from him, wavering on my feet but standing on my own. “Why did you say you wished for me? Life doesn’t work like that, that fairy tale type of shit,” I said.
“You are a fairy tale type of shit,” he corrected.
I stepped back from the windows.
“So, when did you wish for me?”
His eyes softened, then he turned and motioned for me to follow. “On my birthday candle, the day before last.”
He led me to the kitchen, where every appliance had a computer screen scrolling cartoon images. The dishwasher had electric blue bubbles popping.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“I can’t eat,” I said.
Jonah motioned toward the fridge, where the screen scrolled bright green broccoli, orange squash noodles with butter and yellow cheese on top of red apple slices.
“What would you like?” he asked.
“Are we not speaking the same language?”
“Try me,” Jonah said.
He grabbed my hand and touched it to the screen. I gasped when a bundle of cartoon grapes appeared in my palm.
His brown eyes stared into my cartoon eyes. After a long moment, he mimed eating the fruit. I shrugged and slapped the grapes at my mouth. To my astonishment, they burst, and I tasted the juices. Droplets fell and splattered on the ground, mixing with large joyful tears.
We spent longer than I’d like to admit spinning through the images of the ghost food on the fridge screen. I ate everything Jonah’s fridge offered, including the cold chicken destined for his cat, who periodically meowed behind us. I couldn’t even tell you what colour he was. I was too enamoured with the food.
“This is amazing! How did you know it would work?” I asked.
Jonah leaned against the countertop and crossed his arms. “I didn’t, but the fastest way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. I’m so happy you’re here. I love you.”
“Jonah, this is all too much for me. Wonderful. But scary. Honestly, I’m so glad I came here, and if it is your wish that made me like this, then maybe I am destined to be here with you. But I am reeling in shock still. I need time for all this too. I don’t know, become my new normal, I suppose. I’m super appreciative that you found a solution to my hunger. I already feel better and stronger. But this ordeal has been anything but glamourous,” the words tumbled from my mouth faster than I anticipated.
Jonah’s face contorted through several emotions. He opened his mouth, then closed his mouth. Then his eyes sunk to my wrist, where Emiko’s bracelet was wrapped and taped to my cartoon skin.
“That’s pretty,” he said.
“Can you fix this, Jonah?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe you need to make another wish,” I said.
“What if I don’t want you to go back, I like how you look like this,” he said.
“I don’t even know you.”
“We have time for that,” he said.
“What if we don’t? I need you to undo this magic.”
“Well, no, never mind,” he threw the thought away.
“What? What is it? I need to try anything possible, please, Jonah!”
“I’m a video game programmer,” he said.
He motioned for me to follow out of the kitchen.
“You look a lot like my character from this game I’ve been coding. Maybe there’s something in there that can help you be uncartooned. I put this option in my game to change the character’s style for the character…” he trailed off.
“What do you mean, different styles?”
He opened a door and clicked the lights on. “You are a little Ecchi art style right now, which is one of the settings. I wonder…”
The room took a moment for every light to click on. Wall monitors woke, and computer towers began strobing all the rainbow colours.
“But Jonah, it’s not like I was here for you to choose this setting,” I said.
“My wish was to have my video game go worldwide popular—Halo level famous. I wished to be famous with my lead character, Ecchi, My Show Girl. You see, it is pretty close to your name, so I wonder if we plug you in and change the settings to get you back to human form,” he said.
“Where does the, uh, plug go?” I asked.
He snickered. “There’s no plug. It’s a power pad with augmented reality. Oh, wait, I almost forgot. Hang on,” he left the room.
The marble pad caught my attention.
I waved my hand over. A small lightning bolt connected my energy to the pad.
A low hum like street lights grew in the room. It vibrated the equipment around me. It jerked in me, causing my lines to blur. The room is pulsed with energy.
“Might as well go all the way,” I said and slapped my hand down on the marble pad.
Stars like the milky way arced over my fingertips. Planets with rings and moons burst into the air. I heard the crackle of electricity. Then I became the crackle of electricity. Code flooded me. I could feel, taste and smell the zeros and ones.
It was magnificent!
The computer took me in, absorbed me as energy, and my cartoon evaporated like water in a heat wave.
I’m in the ethernet, flying, buzzing on the internet, and becoming one with the computer code world.
Then I fell.
And it’s dark.
I heard footsteps. The light came on suddenly as if clicked with a little metal chain like my mother’s cold cellar. Long, skinny bulbs surround me over top of mirrors. You are just around me. I approached one. The vibration shivered and sent me into a bulb.
Then I was trapped.
In the mirror, I looked at myself looking at me.
My body was Kawaii, with large eyes and cartoon curves. Then a bulb flickered across the mirror room, and I suddenly stood there. My body was anime realistic, like me, but not quite me. The black lines around my body were thinner, but my head looked like a Margaret Keane painting. Big eyes.
I heard a low rumble, almost like laughter but kind of like an impending avalanche.
A second flicker increased until the bulb burst. Then, a different cartoon me reflected in a different mirror. I was short and round and extra cute, like a pink hamster.
“What is this?” My voice broke as if through radio static
Again, a bulb burst. The rumbling became maniacal growling laughter. I became tall, eerie cartoon-like Salad Fingers. Dark circles around my eyes, no hair, hunched back and long twitching fingers.
I screamed. My reflection called back.
But there was a slight separation between her and me. Like the cartoon was standing just in front of me, and I could almost see the human me behind me. I tipped my head to the side, and for a split second, I could see the difference between her and me.
A whole row of bulbs bursts.
The avalanche of a voice grumbled.
“Hello?” I called.
I glanced in the direction of his voice. A bulb flickered, and I changed to a realistic anime. Perfectly beautiful. Each strand of my hair danced above my head. My face was symmetrical and soft-featured with glittery stars shining around my head, my hair a light shade of blonde, my nose slim and elegant above a perfect upturned dash for my mouth. I wouldn’t say I liked it. The features that made me, me, were smudged away.
I stepped toward the mirror. Or did I step away? My reflection toyed with me.
The voice laughed clearer this time.
“Who are you?” I yelled.
All the bulbs shattered. But I saw him in the last second of a gloomy light in the far corner of the intangible room.
His gigantic head was shaped like a temple, but instead of defined points on the edges, they were like tentacles that folded slightly upward, painted in gold, around an angry red scowling face. The features are unclear.
Then the room fell to darkness.
He’s mocking me.
“Susanoo?” I guessed.
“Yesssssss,” the word pulled out long, hissing.
“Did you do this?” I asked.
“I gave you what humanity has been seeking.”
I stood in front of Ecchi me.
“This is not sought after,” I rejected.
Susanoo spoke, “perfectionism.”
“I want out of here,” I said.
“Artificial intelligence created by artistic strokes.”
“I’m not AI,” I protested.
Another bulb, another anime version.
“Stop this,” I demanded.
A flicker, I became a mechanical animation. Clogs and wheels and pulleys jerked and whined. I glared at him.
“I want to go home. Let me out of here!” I shouted.
“You are already out,” he replied, “I’ve freed you from humans.”
“Stop this game!” I screamed.
He snarled, “it’s not a game.”
“It is when you play with people’s lives,” I snapped.
The lights burst on. Susanoo charged at me. I felt his words crawl on my animated flesh. He said, “I play life like a video game. Keep it all on the pro side. You only get one life, but I get many.”
Asshole- by Eminem is literally my life All apologies- to those I’ve actually hurt Bad luck blues- are tattooed on my skin Come as you are- because that’s all I offer Don’t let me be misunderstood- it happens often Hurt- by others Kiss- my eyelids when I go to sleep Love is just a four letter word- no comment My name is mud- or so they tell me Nothing- like the usual Papa was a rolling stone- mama never shoulda been Oh happy day- when I'm respected, but, Quit playing games- with my words. Their just words Roxanne- is not me and never will be She don’t use jelly- but I do That’s the way I like it- easy, smooth Under pressure- by what you ask? You want a list? It’s longer than this musical alphabetical Valley girl- don’t care if you call me that Woman is the n***** of the world- this is too true x-kid- is me, the black sheep you oughtta know- or say you do- the story of my ABCs but you don’t know the PQRST