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More Things In Heaven And Earth

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There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Hamlet

One

Man was so created by the Lord as to be able, while living in the body to speak with spirits and angels as in fact was done in the most ancient times; for, being a spirit clothed with a body, he is one with them. – Emmanuel Swedenborg

In the past three years, I lived a lifetime. It’s hard to imagine so much change can come so quickly to so many. I suppose you could trace the roots of it to the dawn of time but, for me, it all started on an ordinary Tuesday.

The heavy, rich scent of freshly-wakened, rain-damp earth drifted in on a warm breeze that brushed my cheeks with butterfly kisses. Outside the kitchen the birds and squirrels chattered, going on with their springtime business, but I was as good as deaf to them. A thousand voices only I could hear vied for my attention. I squeezed my eyes shut. My hands gripped the edge of the sink so hard they ached. I was aware of the pain. I focused on that. My hands hurt and my head throbbed dully with my heartbeat: a slow, steady, unending rhythm. I counted the beats as they pushed my blood through my veins again and again. Breathe in. Breathe out. That’s all that’s required. Focus on that. Put your attention on what’s real.

Donovan’s voice broke through my thoughts. “Can’t we do something?”

My eldest child often repeated this plea. His need to be constantly entertained and distracted was, at times, exhausting. He seemed even more desperate than usual today. How could I blame him? I was more desperate than usual today, too. I longed for a single moment of inner peace.

“Wanna go slide!” Ike chimed in.

The chatter quieted, as I directed my attention to my boys. The dirty breakfast dishes were still on the table, like the homeschool math worksheets which remained untouched in front of the boys. Laundry beckoned, the floors were filthy, and I needed to call the cable company about the last bill. There must have been a dozen chores that seemed urgent, but in front of me lingered two sets of the saddest little puppy dog eyes you could ever imagine. I couldn’t help but laugh at their dramatic efforts. I knew Michael would still be at work in his studio for a few more hours. Beyond the window, the clear blue sky offered hope of clarity and new beginnings.

I determined to ignore the restless, crawling sensation in the pit of my belly; to shut my mind to the whispers in my head, and convince myself my troubles were caused by cabin fever. Or perhaps exhaustion. How long had it been since I’d had a decent night’s sleep? I filled my lunges with the fresh air, and it really did feel good, like spring, after a long, cold winter. Wasn’t that exactly what I needed?

I shoved the disconcerting internal voices to a far, dark corner, and forced my voice into a cheerful tone. “Know what, guys? I’m in. Go put on your mud boots and coats. Let’s get out of here.” The dishes and worksheets could wait.

They cheered. I was a hero! My spirits lifted. Yes, a trip to the park was just what we all needed. I stuck a note on the fridge, just in case Michael came in early, and we headed out on a grand adventure. My giggling boys ran ahead and came back to me and ran ahead again like rambunctious puppies. They chased each other, splashing through every puddle. Warm sun seeped into my pores and eased the ache in my spirit. I took deep breaths, allowing the sweet scents to sweep away the worry. The earth beneath my feet, the breeze on my skin, the chirping of the birds in my ears: It was good. It was solid and real.

The park was packed. We were not the only people with a major case of spring fever. A clamor of noise reached out to us, loud enough, I hoped, to smother my internal chatter.

I always dreaded this part. The boys rushed onward to the playground. I looked around. I didn’t know any of the women who were lining the benches, talking in little groups, or gazing into their smart phones while rocking strollers with their toes. They all seemed so content and certain of their places in the social hierarchy. I had never been the type of person to sit down next to a stranger and make conversation, for fear they would think me weird. I thought I was weird, so it was only logical.

In the grassy area just east of the playground, a young woman with the longest, most golden braid I’d ever seen sat in the lotus position, face to the sun, looking more serene than I had ever been. I watched her for a moment, trying to absorb some of her peace. As I stood there, I realized that the day was even warmer than I’d thought and shrugged off my jacket. A low wooden border circled the play area. I sat, stretching out my legs to let the sunshine do its work in melting the winter’s brutal frost from the marrow of my bones.

Maybe it was because I’d become so accustomed to the never-ending noise. Maybe it was because I was exhausted, or maybe it was that the park was so busy. He was just another solid form among dozens of solid forms, but I never heard the man, or saw him approach. Although, as he sat next to me, I felt him. Energy buzzed all around him, making the tiny hairs on my arms stand up. My entire body tensed. I won’t look at you, I thought. You’re not real. You’re not part of my world. You need to go.

“Being real and being part of your world aren’t mutually exclusive.” He spoke aloud in answer to my thoughts.

His voice washed over me. The earth trembled at the sound of it. The deep, resonant beauty overwhelmed me. My heart raced. Unwilling tears sprang to my eyes. The ache in my head intensified to a sharp, stabbing pain. The sound paralyzed me, crushing me beneath its enormity. I was accustomed to bothersome voices in my mind, but nothing like this had

“Please don’t!” I whimpered. “You need to go. Please go.” I said all of this without looking at him. I refused to acknowledge him in that way.

He made no motion to leave, but he drew back. He became less. His energy pulled away from me, and the flooding tidal wave of emotion receded with it.

“Simone,” he said.

He had an exceptional voice. It could have belonged to a great actor or singer. I begged him silently, you need to leave. Please go. Please leave me alone.

“I need you to hear me, Simone.” He hesitated. “Please.” He spoke the word like it was far from familiar to him.

I watched Donovan. He was Iron Man, running with two other boys who were, no doubt, also members of The Avengers. Ike sat on a swing, pumping his little legs furiously in attempt at getting as high as the big kids. He wouldn’t ask me to push him. He was far too independent for that. Everything was OK. Everything was normal. I was OK. All of this was real. I faced the man sitting next to me.

He appeared to be just a man: a gorgeous, tall, broad-shouldered man with flawless mahogany skin and extraordinary green eyes. He wore jeans and a navy blue hoodie. He could have stepped out of an advertisement for a popular urban clothing store.

“It is very important that you hear what I have to say to you. I swear I will not deceive you,” he promised me.

Something in the deepest part of me was coming unraveled. How could no one see my slow disintegration? Perhaps they saw and just didn’t care.

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Dwelling In Heaven And Earth (Book Two of the Heaven & Earth Series)

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“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” -Friedrich Nietzche

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” -Coco Chanel

One

I stood in the shadow of the tower and watched the funeral pyre collapse in a crack of smoke and sparks. Our leader, Hala, wept openly. The others stood closest to the front of the crowd, a hedge of strength around the family. The dead  woman’s co-workers and friends formed a circle behind them. Further back, friendly acquaintances and the old ladies who came as mourners to every funeral shared in the communal grief. I lingered behind them, a girl, alone on the fringe.

I had known of her, of course. Everyone did. She’d been that kind of person.

Just a few days ago, I’d seen her, standing on top of a transport, a book clutched in her hand, shouting that our city is doomed. “There is morality in looking after your own interests! You have to find your own delight before you can share any good with others. There is beauty in being allowed to experience failure–for therein lie the roots of success!”

A small group of men and women stood nearby, nodding in agreement with her words.

A much larger group frowned and muttered. Our city thrived on each of us looking out for the greater good. They whispered about her selfishness and greed.

I was curious enough to stop and listen. She didn’t sound selfish. She sounded ambitious–like a leader, trying to stir her people to action. Then my father had come along and insisted that we get home to help my grandmother make dinner. “Nothing good comes to those who stir up trouble, Shifrah,” he’d said. He stomped along next to me, seeming half angry, and half sad, and completely unapproachable.

That same night his prediction came true. No one seemed to know exactly what happened, only that she had broken one of the cardinal rules and been caught outside after dark. In the morning, she’d been found standing near the city limit, unresponsive and staring toward some invisible horizon.

She’d been a victim of The Bloodless. The monsters had fed on her will to live, leaving a shell of her former self behind.

A few days later, her body gave out to the brokenness of her soul.

I envied her in death. It must be wonderful to be free from the slavery of the physical world. It was a bad way to go, though.

As one, we knelt to pray the prayer of thanks to That Which Is for the opportunity to have walked the earth with the woman. Everyone else closed their eyes in pious submission, but I contemplated the vast tower.

Forged of steel and plated with black glass panels, the tower was the center of my known universe. It dominated the landscape and set demands upon the people as workers. Since I was a little girl, I’d been taught that it was our protection against the horror that dwelt beyond our borders. In time, I understood that it was the penultimate symbol of our pride.

We all stood once more. The family and their close friends drifted away to break bread together. From the back, they could easily have been my own family. Black hair and brown skin; soft, loose, cream-colored clothes made from the cotton we grew outside the city; slim figures with strong backs from honest work; they were all the same.

The others varied: they were every size and shape, every color, all shining brightly with an inner light. But among the humans, only I appeared different. My grandmother joked that I was born into the wrong generation–a throwback to a more ancient, primal ancestor with darker skin and longer, leaner muscles. She meant no harm, but the truth of her words stung. In a city where conformity ruled, I was unique.

 

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Loving in Heaven and Earth

I lived in darkness and silence, the child of a marauding fisherman and a restless goddess. In that northern, snowy land of enduring night, the name of our tribe struck fear into the hearts of warriors. We weren’t soldiers. We were murderers, killing every man, woman, and child we encountered. We were thieves, helping ourselves to the hard-won possessions of others. We were evil, every one of us, so I can’t imagine why the angel told his assassins to spare me. I was never better than anyone, yet I am alive, and everyone I knew as a child is dead.

Most of my people had gathered around a fire, stomping to keep their feet warm while they debated if the time was right to raid the town near the sea. I squatted near the ground in the shadows, watching, and hoping they would decide to wait. We had just returned from our raid on the little island nation. My muscles still ached from rowing through the heavy half-frozen water.

I didn’t mind that pain so much. It was better than the pain of having endured a whipping for not doing my part. No chance of that this time. I’d done my fair share and more. My father had told me to see if I could find medical supplies. The long night had started weeks ago. Soon we would be trapped in our own village, forced to survive on what we had until the sun peeked above the horizon again in spring.

“Find food and medical supplies,” he had said. “Pretty baubles won’t feed us through the winter.”

Under a barrage of exploding grenades I’d run for cover behind the nearest building – a sturdy, circular structure of stone and wood. With my back pressed against the hard stone I watched the sky pulse with bright yellow flashes of fire and a little voice in my mind spoke to me. This building is the strongest, best-constructed in the entire village. It seems like a place you’d store your most valuable belongings.

Staying close to the wall, I made my way around the corner and found a heavy wooden door. It was locked, but three shots from my handgun opened it.

Gunfire exploded out at me.

I crouched low and peeked around the doorframe. A young boy, maybe ten years old, stood in front of a group of children with a rifle far too large for him. The room was illuminated by a single glowing bulb. Behind him, rows of shelves were filled with jars of food and boxes with large red crosses on them.

He fired again. A bullet chiseled a splinter from the wood and it left a stinging trail across my cheek.

I leaned forward again and fired high, hoping to scare the boy into surrender.

The next time I looked, he had inched closer. His dark eyes were narrowed on me. He would go down fighting.

I withdrew again and let my head fall back against the wall. This building contained invaluable treasure. If I were the one to take it, I’d be spared from the wrath of my father and the others–possibly for the entirety of winter.

Gritting my teeth, I stood and fired into the crowd of children.

As I stepped over the boy’s corpse and waded through their blood to take a closer look at what I’d found a woman ran at me with a knife.

My body moved without thought. In a moment her weapon was in my hand and the blade opened the flesh across the front of her throat.

That’s how my father found me. Standing in a sea of childish bodies, a bloody knife in my hand.

He grinned at me. “Maybe you’re good for something besides warming my bed after all.”

Relief poured over me.

There would be no beating and, maybe, if I were lucky, no more fighting until spring.

Please decide to wait. I thought. We have enough to see us through. No more fighting until spring.

When the first man fell to the ground next to the fire, no one realized what was happening. The assassins moved too fast for us to see. When the second fell, it was clear someone was attacking, as we had attacked others so many times before.

A dozen more fell before I saw the killer. He was tall and pale, with a shock of dark hair that fell across his forehead and scarlet eyes that glowed in the darkness. Blood dripped from his hands and chin. A smile danced on his lips. My father shot him three times to no effect before running at him with a sword. The man deflected the blade with his hand, pulled my father into his arms, and drank his blood. Dika’s sword struck the killer in the back. He broke my father’s neck and turned his attention to her. In a moment, she’d been crushed to a bloody tangle of limbs, and he was once again moving among my people; an angel of death.

It was the killer’s woman who found me. She leaped from a rooftop and lifted me to my feet by the front of my coat. Her bloody hands were steel bands on my arms. The darkness of her skin and clothes made her a shadow among shadows.

Tears blurred my vision because I knew I would die, and I’d not done a single worthy thing in life.

But she didn’t kill me.

Her lips moved in rapid nonsense patterns. She set me on my feet and pointed with a trembling hand toward the caves in the distance. I stood, the sweat of terror pouring down my spine, until she pushed me in that direction. Then I ran, stumbling through the snow, grateful my broken ears could not hear the slaughter taking place behind me.

I pressed my back against the stone wall of the cave, sitting with my knees drawn to my chest. While the snow began to fall, I waited. It piled at the door, and I waited. My hands and feet and face ached miserably, but I did nothing to warm them. In time, the ache was replaced with a dull, numb sensation that crept toward my heart. Fear lost ground to mindless sleepiness, and the essence of who I was tried to lift itself from my body.

What a strange thought: that perhaps my true self had little to do with this body in which I dwelt.

What I’d seen done to my people was no more terrible than what I’d seen my people do to others. The violence against them kindled a tiny fire of satisfaction in my dark heart. They’d had it coming. We’d had it coming.

I’d been spared. Why? For what purpose? What was expected from one set apart? Would I be a slave? Would I be killed in some other, more horrible way? And by whom? The two killers I’d seen were like no one I’d ever known. They were undoubtedly not human. Were they ghosts? Gods? The cold carried me toward sleep. I cared less and less, but in the moment before I gave myself over, thinking I was going to die after all, the woman appeared in front of me again. Her skin and clothes were clean and beautiful. Her red eyes shone in the night. No malice lingered in her gaze. I would never have guessed she was capable of bringing death to an entire village. Again, her lips moved rapidly, but I could make no sense of the movements. Her man bent down next to her and pressed a gentle hand to my face. He gazed at me with eyes full of concern and, despite all I’d seen, I trusted these two. They were not bad. I was sure of it. They were like me, kind in their hearts, but forced by something beyond themselves to kill. The woman lifted me in her arms, wrapped me in her grey fur cloak, and raced through the storm faster than any creature I’d known. In her arms, I finally slept.   

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Curmudgeon

Old age was the most vicious of bullies. Life had already scorned him, knocked the books out of his hands, and beat him to a pulp. Now, here came Old Age to kick sand in his face. It wasn’t fair. All his life he’d been promised a retirement from hardship–a handful of golden years before Death’s bony hand reached for him. Now, when it was far too late to do anything about it, he realized the whole blasted world had conspired against him.

There were no golden years. Only a lonely descent toward oblivion waited for him.

Everest Senior Living Facility was not the nursing home of his nightmares. As a younger man, in his seventies, Richard had woken up in a cold sweat with visions of dirty, closed-in rooms, abusive nurses, and seeping bedsores. The reality of his old age was nothing like that.

The old folks home was bright, full of sunlight that streamed through enormous, plentiful, spotless windows. Perky young girls who always smelled faintly of coffee bustled about with rhinestone studded stethoscopes draped around their necks.

The food was bland and mushy, but it was at least as good as what he’d lived off in the years since his sweet Barbara had died and there was ice-cold prune juice at every meal, so his guts kept moving like they were supposed to. Thanks be to the Holy Lord above, there were no olive loaf sandwiches. He’d eaten enough olive loaf to last a dozen lifetimes.

All in all, Everest was as good a place as any to be abandoned by your family while you waited for death.

Well, it would have been, if it weren’t for Stanley Kapcheck. Stanley with his shiny bald head and perfect teeth that were all his own. Stanley had a flat stomach and a British accent. He wore a leather coat.

Honestly! What kind of respectable senior citizen wore leather?

Pretty nurses, young enough to be his grandchildren, giggled and blushed when Stanley spoke.

Richard loathed Stanley.

Was it so much to ask for a man to grow old and die the way nature intended? Something was weird about a man Stanley’s age who still wore well-shined lace-up shoes that he tied himself.

Consequently, the sight of Stanley’s pristine wingtip tapping on the white tiles of the dining hall floor was chipping away at the core of Richard’s soul. And if that weren’t enough, the pompous old peacock had an extra helping of chocolate pudding on the table in front of him. That new girl with the wild black curls had brought it to him, offering it like she was presenting her dowery.

Richard used the back of his chair and the edge of the table to push himself to his feet. He held on for a moment to make sure his balance was good and steady, and then moved his hands to his walker and shuffled in Richard’s direction.

The insufferable old fart smiled at him. “Good evening, Dick! You’re looking well. How’s that hip of yours?”

How dare he act like they were friends? And, Lord, but how he hated being called Dick.

Richard lifted his chin and looked down his immense nose at Stanley. “I see you have two puddings.”

“Yes, a little indulgence is good for the soul, don’t you think?”

“No. I disagree completely. I think this world is a sick and broken place where people indulge all too often and abstain not nearly often enough.”

“Oh, come on now,” Stanley reached forward and patted the round paunch of Richard’s stomach. “It seems perhaps you’ve enjoyed one or two indulgences over the years.”

That was it. That was going to be the comment that sent his blood pressure so high something inside would finally burst. He pointed a shaking finger at the other man and tried to get a word out, but his lips were pressed into a thin, tight line of fury and he couldn’t quite seem to remember how to get them to move.

“Mr. Bell,” The wild-haired girl said. “Did you want to have dessert over here with Mr. Kapcheck? Here, let me move your pudding for you.” In a flash, she scooped the little bowl away from his seat and plopped it down across from Stanley. “There you go. Now you can sit with your friend.”

She trotted away to refill the teacup Mrs. Wiler was holding in the air and left Richard standing there, red-faced and trembling with rage.

“Your shoes are ugly!” Richard spat the words out of his mouth with all the force he could muster.

Stanley threw his head back and laughed.

Richard spun on his heel–or, well, he turned around with pathetic, tiny, careful little steps and did his very best to stomp out of the room. It was difficult since he lived in mortal fear of falling down again and therefore never lifted either foot more than an inch or two off the ground.

Back in his room he lowered himself into the soft brown arm chair and clicked the TV on, just to have some noise. He sat there, staring at some stupid nature documentary. After a minute or two, he realized that he never enjoyed a single bite of dessert, but he’d left Stan Kapcheck sitting in the dining room with three bowls of chocolate pudding laid out in front of him.

The unfairness of life was a burden nearly too great for someone as old as him to bear.

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Spinning: A fairytale for the modern woman

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Eddie Miller was poor, but he had a beautiful daughter. Since his wife died, the girl was his one true pleasure; clever, and hard working, and the most loving person he’d ever known. He relied on her too much and he knew it. She was just a girl. She should have been in college, going to parties and dating, like other girls her age. Instead she lived in the old run-down house with him and worked two jobs to help keep the roof over their heads. She’d be better off on her own than with him. His debts were too great, and his own salary was barely enough to keep him in liquor and cigarettes – habits he knew he should stop but, since his wife died, he couldn’t seem to find much motivation to quit. But Abby never left and he had no will to push her out the door.

Now it happened that he was called into his boss’s office one day. Marcus King was wealthy beyond Eddie’s wildest dreams and made no attempt to hide his love for the power his wealth brought him. It was rumored that, whenever an employee needed to be fired, King insisted on doing the business himself so that no one would ever forget that it was he who wielded more power than any other over the thousands of men and women who worked for him.

Eddie knew the only reason he’d been called to King’s office was because his number was up. The accident yesterday had been his fault, and it hadn’t been the first time something like that had happened. Thankfully, it was just a broken foot this time. Next time someone might be killed. He’d fire him, too. He’d already called his daughter and told her to come pick him up. Her disappointment had been evident in her voice. He dreaded having to actually see it written on her face. He knew he was a failure. He’d learned to live with it, but seeing his failure reflected in her eyes was more than a man could bear.

On leaden legs he trudged the length of the carpeted hall that led to the executive office.

“May I help you?” The receptionist asked him with a pretty smile that failed to touch her eyes.

“Name’s Eddie Miller. I was told to come on up here.”

“Yes, Mr. Miller. Mr. King is expecting you. It will just be a moment. Have a seat, if you like.”

Eddie wandered in the direction of the seating area but remained on his feet. He was covered in grease. It didn’t seem right to sit on such pretty furniture. Only a minute or so later, the door opened and the tall, imposing figure of Marcus King emerged, one hand on the shoulder of a younger man. “I have a good feeling about this, R.S. Ever since you came around, things seem to have a way of working out.”

“I’m happy to do my part,” the man said.

King clapped him on the back and he headed off, down the hall.

“Mr. King,” the receptionist said. “Mr. Miller is here to see you.”

He looked toward Eddie, standing next to the overstuffed sofa. “You’re fired.”

“Mr. King, if I could just…”

“I don’t have time to debate, Miller. You have a history of negligence which finally resulted in someone else’s injury. Now my company has to pay his medical bills. You’re fired.”

“No!”

Eddie’s heart sank. He’d thought his daughter would wait for him in the downstairs lobby. He couldn’t even think who would have sent her up. She raced toward them.

“You can’t fire him,” she argued. “He needs this job. Please, we’ll be ruined. We’re hanging on by a thread.”

King’s eyes widened and then made a slow, leisurely journey down the length of her body all the way to her slim ankles, peeking out from the tops of her white canvass shoes, and back up again. “And you are?” He asked.

“I’m his daughter, Abby.”

“I see. Well, Abby, your father’s failure to follow procedure could have resulted in a man’s death. As it is, he’ll be in a plaster cast for the next six weeks.”

“He can do better. He’ll do better.” A fierce light sparkled in her eye. It reminded Eddie so much of his wife that he could have sat down right there and cried into the soft pillows.

“How old are you, Abby?” King asked.

Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Indulge me, please.”

“I’m twenty two.”

The tiniest hint of a smile touched the corner of his lips. He crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame. “OK, Abby Miller. I’ll make you a deal. I have an important colleague coming into town this weekend. We’ll be attending an event together at The Manor House. His wife will be with him and I know that it will make a better impression on both of them if I have a charming young lady at my side – someone to help me spin the situation to my advantage. Your father can keep his job if you agree to accompany me.”

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Full Circle

A short story of redemption.

He ran through the night without direction. His feet fell hard and fast against the mirror of wet pavement. Drops of cold rain ran down his cheeks but he paid no attention. If he stopped running they would kill him. He was fifteen years old and had no wish to die.

The end of the block was obscured in darkness and mist. Anything could be lying in wait for him there but the unknown was a better choice than surrendering to the monsters who chased him.

A cathedral—a fortress of stone and iron—loomed. All of the windows were dark. Any priest with common sense would have the doors tightly locked at this hour, in this neighborhood.

There was no way he’d be able to keep up this pace long enough to get away. They’d find a car. They’d track him down.

Was that a man, standing on the steps of the church?

The boy faltered. If they had already gotten in front of him, there was nowhere left to run. (Read more…)

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Top Level

A short story of hybrid romance

“What in the world am I supposed to wear?” I asked.

“Hold on.” Tatiana bounced up off my king size bed and disappeared into my closet. “You have to be who you are. You’re a big time executive, right? So you’re smart and powerful. But you’re only twenty four, so you’re still playful and young. And you founded a company that builds equipment used by every rock band on the radio, so you’re clearly a little bit edgy.” She reappeared with an armful of clothes. “Here,” she said, laying the items out on the bed, one at a time. “Black skirt. Smart and powerful. Bright red shirt and heels. Playful and young. Leather jacket. Edgy.”

I didn’t even know I owned a bright red shirt and I hadn’t worn that skirt since I begged the bankers for start up money three years ago.

Tatiana rolled her eyes at me. “Seriously, Kate. Just wear the clothes. You know a sense of fashion is the one and only thing I have that you don’t.”

It was undeniable.

“OK,” I agreed. “But if this date sucks I’ll never forgive you.” The whole thing had been her idea. She’s the one who’d convinced me I’d been working too hard and needed a night on the town. She’s the one who registered me on ExecuMatch.com. She even picked the guy.

“Look at this one!” She’d said. “Top level male. Worth millions. Works eighty plus hours, guaranteed. He sounds perfect for you. He’s as rich as you, so you know he’s not in it for the money. And he works just as much as you, so you know he won’t be all weird and clingy.”

“Let me see the graphic,” I insisted.

She turned the screen toward me. He wasn’t a movie star, but he was solid. His dark skin was smooth, his hair cropped short. He was clean shaven, and he had a nice smile with straight, white teeth. His brown eyes looked clear and intelligent. Nothing about him screamed, ‘serial killer.’

“How can I be sure he’s not a serial killer?” I asked.

My best friend rolled her eyes at me. “Do you have any idea the background checks required to even be listed on a site like this?”

“I never agreed to a background check,” I said.

“Yes you did. You just don’t remember me clicking the authorization button while you weren’t in the room.”

I’d finally caved and let her give him a green light. Almost instantly, he’d responded with a date and time. I was stunned to see that it was the one night that month when it would actually be OK for me to schedule a social meeting.

And now the moment was upon me. And I was wearing a skirt. Lord have mercy.

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The Gift

A short story of Christmas romance.

The roast was cold. The homemade gravy was beginning to congeal. Wax dripped from the freshly polished antique silver candlestick, forming an impressive stalactite that was a hair’s breadth from kissing the ivory lace table runner. Jessica yanked the diamond clip from her hair and threw it onto the table, letting her soft red curls fall around her shoulders. “It’s three days before Christmas. It’s the season of joy. I am not going to cry.” Her statement was a firm declaration made to an empty room.

She stood, blew the candle out, and stomped out of the room, not bothering to clean up the food. Let him deal with it when he got home. Maybe he’d be there in time to eat it for breakfast.

When you lived in a castle, it took a while to make your way from the dining room to the bedroom. It was, quite frankly, too far to stomp. The burning embers of fury still glowed hot in her belly, but perhaps they’d dimmed just a bit. Upon opening the door, however, the fire was instantly stoked to a blazing inferno.

She’d had the room all ready. Strings of white Christmas lights lent a soft glow to the opulent room. A fire crackled softly, the smoke drifting lazily up the chimney and away to the heavens. The bed was made with new sheets; 400 thread count combed cotton in kelly green. It was his favorite color. It was the same color as the silk underthings she’d worn just for him. A bottle of champagne sat in an ice bucket next to the bed.

Taking some satisfaction from the violence of the action, she slammed the door shut so hard the magnificent paintings in their gilded frames rattled on the walls. She flipped the switch for the bright, overhead light, yanked the cork from the bottle in an act of pure anger-fueled strength and drank deeply, straight from the bottle.

A pair of faded cotton pants that might have once been pink, or perhaps orange, were buried in the very bottom of her very deep pajama drawer. A black tee-shirt, four sizes too big with multiple holes seemed the perfect accompaniment. There would be no display of silk and lace for his benefit on this night.

She climbed into the feather-down softness of their king sized bed and covered her legs with the thick duvet. Another long draught from the champagne bottle drained it nearly to midpoint. The bubbles made her eyes water a little but, as she almost never drank alcohol, it was quickly doing its work of quieting the beast that had awakened in her. She picked up the Nora Roberts book on her nightstand and read and drank until she couldn’t hold herself upright any more.

Morning came, according to the clock, but in this place, at this time of year, darkness reigned. Too miserably hungover to be angry any more, the young woman padded to the bathroom in her bare feet and stood before the enormous mirror upon which was taped a note.

Sorry I was so late last night. Work was nuts. You know how it gets this time of year. Hope you went ahead and ate without me. Not sure what time I’ll be home tonight.

Love, K

She pulled the paper down. Sadness filled all of the holes drilled by last night’s self-destructive rampage. Giving in to the tears now, she shed her ratty old clothes and stepped into a shower that was a single degree away from scalding and she cried as she had done too often in these past months. Great shuddering sobs were wrenched from her. It didn’t matter. No one was there to hear. No one was there to judge her. In the exquisitely crafted bathroom that was larger and more expensive than the houses of three quarters of the world, set in the upper corner of a castle that was the stuff of legend and fairy tales, surrounded by a lovely, rare, splendid collection of belongings that would make any museum curator groan with longing, Jessica was crushed by the weight of unbearable loneliness.

Finally, raw from the blistering heat, empty from the purging of the hateful tears, ill from her over-indulgence, she halfheartedly dried off, went back to the bed, flopped down on her stomach and drifted off to sleep once more.

The second time she woke it was because someone was rapping softly at the door. “Ms. Jessica? Are you OK?”

She rubbed a hand over her sandpaper eyes and tried to work the taste of rot and heartache from her mouth. “Yes,” she answered in a voice that sounded like she’d been snacking on gravel. “Just a moment, please.” Time to rejoin the living. Rally. Pull herself up by her bootstraps. Put on her big girl panties. Pick your motivational phrase. She slipped her arms into the sleeves of the cashmere robe that she’d gotten for her last birthday and opened the door.

Tanta stood with the plastic carrier full of cleaning supplies looped over one arm. Her smile was as quick as ever, but concern touched her bright eyes as she took in Jessica’s disheveled appearance. “Are you ill, child?”

“No, Tanta. Not really.”

The older woman went to the bathroom and set her burden down on the granite countertop. There was no reason why she needed to come clean this place. There was no shortage of help and no struggle to pay them well, but it was her way of showing her love and she insisted that they let her have charge of keeping the grand castle in order. Every morning she was the first to arrive, usually shortly after breakfast, and she stayed until she was certain that a hot and hearty meal was prepared for dinner. “I take it the romantic dinner didn’t go as planned?”

Jessica pouted, knowing full well that she looked like a child but unable to make herself care. “He was too busy at work. I never even saw him. I’d have thought he spent the night at the shop except that he left me a note in the bathroom.”

Spritzing blue liquid on the mirror, Tanta didn’t seem phased by this information. In fact, Jessica couldn’t remember Tanta ever being phased by anything, ever.

“His work is very important to him, you know. It’s not just a job.”

She sighed. “Yes, yes. I know. Millions of people are counting on him. Children all over the world. Blah, blah, blah. I get it. I do. I realize he’s some kind of a saint but, let’s face it. I’m not. I’m just not as good as him. I’m not that selfless. I’m not that kind. I am happy to give but, you know what? Sometimes I need to get, as well. I’m sorry if that’s horrible but it’s the truth.”

“I suspect that’s true of all of us, dear. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? My husband is so busy being Mr. Wonderful for the rest of the world. In the meantime, here’s me, alone, day after ungodly dark day, in this enormous place.”

“You knew what he was when you married him.” It was not an admonishment. Coming from her, it seemed more like a question. What changed? After all, his uncommon selflessness was one of the things that Jessica had fallen in love with.

The dreaded tears pricked her eyes once more. “I didn’t know it would be so lonely. When I left my family and quit my job to come here I thought…”

“You thought you would be the center of his world?”

She shrugged. That was exactly what she’d thought, but she felt foolish for giving voice to it.

(Read more…)

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The Arbor Society

A tiny bit of terror.

Dad swore that things would be better in this town. Business would improve. The schools were great. The cost of living was so much lower that they could afford a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, and still have enough left over to pay for karate lessons.

The big moving truck turned laboriously onto the tiny residential street. If some little late model hybrid coupe had been approaching Danny was sure they would have driven right over it, crushing it, exactly as the monster trucks had done to the cars in the middle of the arena at the show Dad had taken him to last summer. That was before The Big Deal had been lost and his parents had started worrying all the time. That was before anyone had even started talking about leaving every good thing in their life and moving from the awesome warmth and sunniness of the desert to this place where it rained more days than not and the trees grew much too tall.

And speaking of trees, this street was virtually a forest. It seemed like every house was in danger of being overwhelmed by nature. The houses were nice enough, he supposed. Definitely bigger than the houses in his old neighborhood. They all had two levels. In Arizona such a thing was rare. Heat rises, you know; better to stay close to the earth. The place on the corner of this street actually had half of a third floor. Why would anyone want to sleep two floors above the ground? What if there was a fire? These old wooden houses, with their peeling paint and shingled roofs certainly looked more likely to burn up in a blaze than any of the solid adobe buildings he was used to. They seemed kind of shabby. Maybe the people who lived here should spend a little more time taking care of their houses and less time playing in the yards.

Despite the slick grey sludge of leftover snow from last week’s storm still in the gutters, and temperatures that hovered around freezing, everyone was outside. The big three-story place had a couple that actually looked a lot like his own parents in the yard. They were picking up the little sticks and larger branches that littered the ground. The yellow house next to it, had a little old man filling bird feeders. Across the street from there, a young couple appeared to be wrapping the base of a tiny sapling with two arm-like branches in a thick blue blanket. Who knew? Maybe such a new, delicate plant could be damaged by cold like this. After all, this wasn’t a chill that could be kept at bay with a comfortable hoodie. You had to bundle against this weather, and still it would find ways to slither into the warm cocoon you worked to create.

Dad parked the truck badly in front of a green house with a sagging front porch. One tire was up on the curb and the left rear bumper was sticking out so far that any passing car would have to ease around it with utmost care or be in danger of following suit and riding right up onto the curb on the other side of the street.

He sighed and looked over at Maddy. She was asleep in her car seat, like always. The kid never slept at night when she was supposed to, but the second you strapped her into a moving vehicle her head was back, eyes closed, mouth open, a little line of drool running down her cheek. She held her grubby little grey bunny loosely in her lap with one chubby hand. Even in sleep, some part of her wouldn’t let go of that thing. It was a wonder Mom could wrestle it away from her at bath time. Stupid baby.

Stupid truck.

Stupid neighborhood.

He knew he was going to hate it here. He was determined that it should be so. His seething, unrelenting hatred of this place would reign supreme. It would ruin their lives. It would make them so miserable they would realize the only way to find peace would be to go home again.

He fought to suppress the smile that resulted from his pride in the excellent level of his sheer evil genius.

(Read more…)

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Let Things In

A short story about holidays and horror.

(Written for an anagram contest. Let Things In = Silent Night.)

With one finger, he traced the length of her arm. The journey began at the sharp angle of her shoulder, moved slowly over the gentle swell of her slim, well-toned bicep, through the deep valley of her slightly bent elbow, along the long straight stretch of her forearm, beyond the tender skin of her delicate wrist, with its tiny dandelion tattoo, and across the slight edge of the inner side of her hand, right down to the tip of her long, elegant pianist’s finger. The moment he reached the end of the path he retraced his steps. She shivered deliciously. Though her back was to him, he heard the smile in her voice. “It’s torture!”

He nuzzled into her thick curls and breathed deeply of the mild floral scent of her hair. The rug beneath them was soft against his bare skin. The crackling fire was warm and comforting, a powerful warrior battling on their behalf against the subzero chill that laid siege against the walls of the ancient cabin, seeking entry by any means it could find. Expensive red wine diluted the blood in his veins, making the world far softer, kinder, and more intimate than it ever seemed when he was fully sober. Soft piano jazz, carried along a radio wave with the tiniest hint of static, dulled the harsh impact of the bone-jarring silence of a snow-filled night in the dep woods.

“Aren’t you glad we got out of the city, away from all the Christmas nonsense?”

Deep in the heart of the woods, where no human with sense would ever dare venture on a night like this, the beast woke with a start, its yellow eyes instantly alert beneath the inky blackness of the new moon sky.

The woman stretched, luxuriously, turning onto her back to look at him. She exhibited no hint of bashfulness at her nudity. She was utterly at ease in her near-flawless skin. “Come on. Tell the truth. You must love it a little.”

“Christmas?” He seemed astounded by the very idea that one could love such a thing.

“Everybody loves Christmas, at least a little. There’s music and colorful lights, the scent of pine, and chocolate drinks, and shortbread cookies.”

A line formed between his perfectly groomed eyebrows. His mouth turned down at one corner. “Noise and crowds. Screaming brats in every store, and bums expecting an extra handout because they’ve managed to steal a fake white beard. Terrible traffic. Fat people eating too many calories in the name of being festive.”

The beast was fully awake now, on its feet and scenting the air. It felt the powerful pull on its frigid black heart and began moving through the trees at a quick trot.

(Read more…)

winner

Just A Child

A Short Story by EA Comiskey

The little girl might have been four years old. She skipped along in her aggressively bright yellow raincoat, twirling her purple butterfly umbrella over her head. Her mother followed along behind her, hunched against the chilly drizzle. She was keeping watch over the child and obviously attempting to hurry her along, but the child had no concern for time. Her world was entirely of her own making.

Who could know what wonderful place the girl was in? A land where fairies flew along side her? Or where handsome princes rode on fabulous white steeds? Wherever she was, she was obviously utterly content as her rubber boots landed solidly in a puddle that splashed thick black mud on her fuzzy rainbow colored tights.

Her umbrella smacked and dragged against a tree branch, ripping off several tiny twigs but it didn’t slow her down a bit. (Read more…)

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Hunter

A Short Story by EA Comiskey

The man behind the desk looked up when the tiny brass bell over the door rang out its tinkling melody. A wide smile crossed his sun-browned face, revealing a row of perfectly straight white teeth. “Well, Hank Brito. Haven’t seen you around here in a coon’s age!”

Hank nodded. “True ‘nuf. I’ve been up north. Good huntin’ up there.”

“That’s what I hear. Did your dad go with you? Man always was one of the best hunters I knew. Had a real sixth sense about which way things were coming from.”

“Dad’s been gone almost a year now. That sixth sense wasn’t enough, I guess.” (Read more…)

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