Site icon Norma Rrae

The Reading One

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 (yeahokay), 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.

“Now, drink.”

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.

Kiona screamed.

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.

“Hello?”

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.

“No.”

“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.”

“Why?”

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.

Moldan shrugged.

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.”

Clay Masks

As a child, I had clay masks hung upon the wall.

With strong nails, I was assured, they would never fall.

Faces painted with sparkles, stars or a musical note.

The best one; had a peacock with feathers that float!

I wore them everyday, never a day, or whenever I pleased.

No matter the words I heard, I wore them even if teased.

But then, one day, I grew old.

“Those masks aren’t the right masks for you,” I was told.

New ones were bought for me and hung upon my wall.

And it didn’t matter if the old ones were knocked over to fall.

Childhood dreams stomped and crushed and left.

Because these new masks, I was told, is what fit best.

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

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