Tag Archives: fairy

Shadow Boy, by Lora Gray

I am sixteen and sitting on the edge of an empty subway platform when Peter, forever small, reappears. His black eyes are bright, and he smells like licorice and cinnamon. He is wearing purple mittens and a pigeon-feather skirt.

“Who the hell dressed you today?” I ask.

“I did.” Peter tips his head as if considering. “My taste is terrible. Tragic, really, but I didn’t have much choice.”

“Everybody has a choice.”

“Do they, dear Prudence?”

“Don’t call me Prudence.” Tugging my jeans more snugly around my hips, I shift. Chains rattle over the metal platform, and a safety pin fingernails across the yellow line at the edge.

“It’s your name.”

“Nobody calls me that anymore.” I tap a cigarette out of my pocket. It takes me three tries to light up.

“I call you that,” he says.shadow01

“You don’t count.” I drag and exhale into Peter’s face.

Peter doesn’t cough. “Feeling sullen?”

“I’m lonely.” I grit my teeth and shrug.

“How can you be lonely?” he asks. “You and me, we have a whole city to play with.” He kicks his legs back and forth, heels denting the platform gleefully. Thump. THUMP. A grin stretches his mouth wide.

My skin prickles and I feel the familiar lurch, reality threatening to wobble around me. “Why are you smiling like that?”

Peter levels his black eyes at me and says, “I found your shadow.”

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I am eight years old.

We arrive at midnight, Momma, “Uncle” Leon, my shadow and I, crammed into a Buick the color of old piss. The long stretches of upstate soybean peel away to reveal an army of high-rises marching into the light-polluted never-dark. My shadow surges up from the floor mats when the headlights hit him. He is excited and starry-eyed. He has never been to The City before.

He still believes in adventures.

“It doesn’t work that way,” I whisper. Adventures don’t begin with dodging landlords and eviction notices and shoving unwashed clothes into black trash bags.

“What was that, sugar?” Leon’s voice is Georgia-thick and he is dirty-grinning at me in the rear view mirror. He strokes the back of Momma’s neck, pressing greasy circles into her hairline, and my shadow bristles.

“I’m not sugar.” I tug my sweater over my fingers.

“Sugar and spice and everything nice.” Leon’s fingers dip beneath the collar of Momma’s shirt. “Isn’t that what little girls are-“

“I said this car smells like shit.”

“Prudence!” Momma whips around, but Leon’s hand turns vise-tight, and he glares the rest of the ride into silence.

My shadow seethes and I press my forehead against the rear window glass, neon lights flipping my reflection from infant to ancient. From ugly to divine. From girl to boy. I cling to that last like a secret as my shadow winds himself around me. Sinking into his embrace, I count cars until Brooklyn.

By the time we arrive, my shadow is strong. He hefts trash bags easily over his broad shoulders and pounds his new kingdom flat with giant boy feet as we walk to Leon’s apartment. I shuffle, but my shadow struts. He leaps up broken concrete steps and hurdles winos. He dodges dumpsters and conquers trashcan castles and ignores Leon’s angry shouts of, “Hurry up!” and “Oh for God’s sake.”

My shadow and I only stop when we reach the neighbor’s stoop. There is a small child there, huddled in an oversized trench coat, a paper bag lumped onto his small head like a fedora. For a moment, he seems to float, and my stomach swoops sideways, a boat tipping beneath my feet. My shadow begins to tiptoe around him when the boy looks up. Black eyes pin me.

“I’m Peter,” the boy says. His breath is licorice and cinnamon.

I lean closer to my shadow. “Peter?”

“Yup. Peter Pan. Peter Rabbit. Saint Peter. Take your pick.” He shuffles toward the edge of the stoop and squints, one pudgy finger inching over his nose. “What’s your name?”

“Prudence.”

Peter laughs like my name is a joke, the baby fat under his chin puckering. Then, very carefully, he shoves the brim of his paper hat back and looks directly at my shadow. “And who are you?” he asks.

Stillness.

Peter, perched on the edge of the concrete like a pigeon, waits, but by the time I open my mouth, Leon’s voice, belting bright and dangerous, jabs the world into motion again.

“We haven’t got all night!”

Goosebumps rocket me to where he and Momma are waiting before I can gather the courage to see if Peter is still watching me.

Later, when Momma and Leon are kissing, I peer out the window of shadow02my new room, bare feet on a dirty mattress, and look for Peter, but there is only a rumpled paper bag tumbling end over end down the lonely alley. I imagine an empty world, Peter flying with trenchcoat wings, tiny naked toes gripping the concrete like talons and lifting it up, up, up! Peeling the skin off the city like an orange.

And who are you?

I look down at my shadow and whisper, “P.J.”

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I am twelve years old.

“You’re not wearing that.” Momma circles the living room in a pencil skirt and a broad, black hat. “It’s a funeral. Don’t you want to look pretty for your grandpa?”

“Why? What’s he going to do? Sit up and applaud?” I flop onto the sofa to avoid the pinch of her eyes. “Besides, he’s not really my grandpa. He’s Leon’s dad.”

Exasperated, Momma grimaces at my jeans, my t-shirt, my short hair. I tap my toe against my shadow’s long foot and brace myself for the inevitable, “You used to be so pretty. You used to have such nice hair. If you would just try to look a little more feminine…”

Before Momma can say it, Leon’s voice roars from the kitchen. “Change your clothes, Prudence! I won’t have a freak at my father’s funeral.”

I grind my fingers into the arm of the sofa. “I told you. It’s not Prudence, it’s P.J.”

“Now!”

For a breath, my shadow refuses to move. He stays stubbornly glued to the shag carpet until the memory of bruised wrists and a hard slap send him stomping to my room. I slam the door behind us.

It takes me five minutes to unearth the only dress I haven’t hacked into a t-shirt. The lace scratches my neck as I wrestle myself into it, my wrists torqueing sideways as I shove them through puff sleeves.

When I’m finally done, my shadow gapes at me. His hair is spiked at odd angles, fingers splayed, long legs awkwardly knocked under the wide bell of the dress. Biting my cheek, I turn slowly. Breasts jut out of him, sharp and pointy as new teeth. My shadow snaps forward again, boyish and narrow, but the damage is done. He is quivering and he tugs at my heels, trying to crawl inside me and away from that foreign, curving shape as I hurry out of the room.

shadow03At the funeral, Leon parades us through a church the color of old bones. My shadow shrinks further into me as Momma makes introductions. “This is my daughter, Prudence.” This is my daughter. This is my daughter. My shadow clutches at my little finger from the inside, frantic to shake the untruth of the word, but I don’t know how to comfort him and I close my eyes. It’s only when I smell licorice and cinnamon that I finally look up.

Across the aisle, dwarfed by the lily-white rental casket, is Peter. He is no bigger than the last time I saw him, but the trench coat and paper bag have been replaced by a daisy-print dress and combat boots. He lifts his head and winks at me, narrow lips pursed around a cigarette. Dizziness sloshes over me and, for a moment, the mourners, fat and watery and pale, seem to dissolve. I can’t look away as Peter jigs a circle around the casket, stomping a rhythm only he can hear. Black eyes shining, he laughs and then, very carefully, he leans over the casket and taps ash onto the body’s waxy cheek.

Nobody else sees him.

Nobody stops him.

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I am sixteen years old.

The October sun tosses shadows across the fire escape. Ropes. Fingers. Cages.

And the shadow sprawled beneath me? It isn’t mine. She’s a wide and rounded thing, wasp waist, thick hips, and an empty space between her thighs. Four years of trying to escape her and, still, she clings to me like tar.

My true shadow has become a furious refugee in my own body. He claws at femurs, scrapes bone to marrow, tears muscle apart in bursts of rage. In dreams, he rushes through my pores like water through a sieve, but every morning he is still there, howling for a larger shell.

The howling never stops.shadow04

I flick open my lighter and pass the razor blade through the flame three times.

Through the cracked living room window, I can hear Momma and Leon, their voices, serrated and angry, cut through the buzz of day time T.V.

“Leon, please, it’s just a phase. She’ll grow out of it.”

“Like she outgrew that haircut? Or those clothes? Did you hear what Mickey Barlow said about her? The whole neighborhood thinks your daughter’s a dyke.”

“Prudence isn’t gay. She doesn’t even like girls.”

“I suppose she told you that.”

“Well, no, but-“

“You’re going to tell me the whole neighborhood is wrong? She’s disgusting. Don’t you look at me that way.” A beat of dangerous silence. “I caught her stuffing a sock in her underwear. You’re going to tell me that’s normal? You’re going to tell me your daughter parading around as a boy is normal?”

The razor blade is still warm as it opens my skin. Blood slugs down my forearm, swerving over the familiar cross-hatch of scars. My shadow strains against the shallow breach. If I just close my eyes and let him ease out of me, if I just let him out…

The window opens with a groan. “Prudence?”

Startled and guilty, I whirl around and the blade resting against my skin accidentally slips sudden and deep. I gasp. Blood fountains over the window sill and the rusted drain pipe and into Momma’s hair as she clamors onto the fire escape. There is a flash. Pain. No, lightning. Momma’s eyes are wide and inches from my own. Heat gushes over my hand.

The world smells like licorice and cinnamon.

There is a rush and a screech, a thousand tires peeling rubber. Above me, a trio of pigeons pause mid-wing, hieroglyphs punched into the autumn sky. Above me, Momma flickers out like a candle snuffed. Above me, the sky is changing from blue to black.

I look down and there, mingled with the blood rushing out of the slit in my arm, is my shadow. He crawls out, prying my flesh apart with long, dark fingers. He curls upward like smoke until he is facing me, dream-heavy and naked. Tension quivers between us and there is a deep, aching pull, a cable stretched too far. He opens his mouth, but there is no sound, no breath, and desperation swells behind his eyes.

He is only a shadow. He will never be strong enough to become a real boy. He’ll never speak. He is nothing but a wailing ache.

In a flurry of teeth and nails, he tackles me. It’s graceless and uncoordinated, his body too new for quickness, but his shoulder slams into my belly and I collide with the railing. A crack of pain, the sharp corner jarring my ribs. The fire escape shudders and we grapple, my hand jammed against his face, fingers full of inky hair, grunting and shoving even as we topple and fall.

We crash into the dumpster below, our bodies a snarling tangle of blood and shadow that bursts apart as we ricochet onto the concrete. My shadow staggers away from me, disconnected and confused. Hands clutching his head, he turns and sprints down the deserted street, dodging smashed cars and cabs, still smoking where they’ve rammed into telephone poles, street signs, each other.

Their drivers have disappeared. The sidewalks are empty. There are car alarms, but no sirens.

The city is silent.

story_bullet

I am crouched at the mouth of the Battery Tunnel when Peter appears beside me, the smell of him sudden and overwhelming. The can of spray paint clatters out of my hand and I scramble back until I hit the tunnel wall. Peter is backlit and wearing a polka-dot onesie two sizes too big. The sleeves spill over his hands, and the collar dangles off one narrow shoulder as he shuffles toward me. He is holding a dead pigeon like a rag doll in one hand.

With a thoughtful hum, he examines my graffiti, the faltering outline of my missing shadow boy, the uneven words. “‘Help, I’m still here.'” Peter snickers. Any part of me that might have been relieved at the sight of another person shrinks. “Oh, that’s cute.”

“They all disappeared.” Distantly embarrassed, I scrub the tears on my cheeks with the heel of my hand.

Peter shrugs and squats in front of me, resting his round cheek against his fist. “I’ve been looking for you for ages,” he says. “You’re shorter than I remember. Paler, too. But maybe it’s all that black you’re wearing.” He reaches out to flick the collar of my jacket, and I twitch my head against the concrete.

shadow05“You don’t understand,” I say. “Everybody’s gone. Momma. Leon. Everybody. Like they were never even here.”

“You’re here.”

My laugh is wild and unhinged. “So are you.”

“Oh I don’t know about that. Maybe you’re just imagining me. Maybe you’re still on that fire escape dribbling all your blood away. Drip, drip, drip.” Peter’s mouth splits into a rubbery caricature of a smile. He has too many teeth. “Maybe you’re the one who disappeared.”

After two weeks of screaming for help and sobbing in the corners of empty delis and bus stops, my brain is sluggish and thick. I blink hard. “Is this hell or something?” Nausea spikes through me. “Am I dead?”

“Do you want to be?”

I shake my head, trying to dislodge the memory of razor blades. “What kind of question is that?”

“A pretty simple one. How do you feel about morgues? Cemeteries? Funerals? You didn’t seem too keen about the last one. And that shadow of yours? He never shut up after that. Day and night, night and day. You know you hated it.” Peter cocks his head to one side. “Listen. He’s still at it.”

“Shadows don’t talk.” I try to believe it and coil my hand against my stomach as if I could stopper the empty space my shadow used to occupy. “And anyway, mine disappeared. I can’t hear anything.”

“He must be playing hide and seek with you,” Peter says and covers the dead pigeon’s eyes with his thumb. “Count to one hundred and we can look for him together. Oh! Or find a mirror and we can play Bloody Mary. Say his name three times and he’ll magically appear.”

Anger flares past the fog in my head. “This isn’t a game! What’s going on?”

“Everything’s a game. Just because you didn’t make the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to play.”

A sharp gust of wind tumbles a fistful of newspapers down the vacant street. Peter’s black eyes make the world quiver.

“What do you want?” I finally manage.

Peter raises his finger. “Your shadow.”

My gut clenches cold. “My shadow?”

He swings the dead pigeon idly from side to side. “I don’t have one of my own.” I look down and his feet are completely surrounded by sunlight. He seems like he’s floating and, woozy, I avert my eyes. “Nobody trusts a kid without a shadow and you don’t want yours. He’s been nothing but trouble from the start. I’ll help you find him and then you’ll give him to me and then poof! All is right with the world.”

I hesitate. “If I do that, everything will go back to normal?”

Peter smirks and raises three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”

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After three weeks of searching, Peter is wearing a kimono and a ten-gallon hat with a pigeon feather tucked into the brim. The bird’s head dangles around his neck like a bloody talisman. He’s told me that the mannequins in the department stores dress him every night. A ball gown from Macy’s, a purple velvet suit from Barney’s, a pair of neon underwear and lipstick war paint from Bloomingdale’s. It’s hard not to stare, and I’m certain he knows it.

“You should feel honored.” Peter hikes the hem of his kimono up as he climbs over a mangled Yellow Cab.

“Why should I feel honored?” I kick at the dangling headlight and huddle more deeply into my jacket. “This is all a game to you. You just want my shadow. You don’t give a shit about me.”

Peter grunts as he stands atop the hood, hands on his hips as he turns in a slow circle. “My guts are made of chrome and feathers, goblin piss, and griffon tails. There’s no room for shit.”

“Poetic.” I snort and light another cigarette. “Come on. I want to search the West Side before the sun goes down.” I remember how my shadow had warmed when we sneaked into Chelsea last summer, his howling softening when a tall man in a white blazer called me son.

Peter clucks his tongue and leaps off of the car with a spectacularly loud thud. A street sign teeters from the impact. “You should feel honored because I don’t adopt just any shadow. Only the dark ones.”

I roll my eyes and begin walking faster. “They’re shadows. They’re all dark.”

“Oh, no, dear Prudence, they’re not.”

“It’s P.J.”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Peter waggles a finger as he falls into step with me, stubby legs churning impossibly fast beneath the kimono. “P.J. is your shadow boy. You don’t own that name any more than you own all those little boy bits you were convinced you needed.”

I keep my eyes fixed on the street ahead of me. “I named him. The name is mine.”

Peter waves a dismissive hand. “You’re giving him to me.”

“It’s my name!”

Peter tugs me to a halt, moon-round face peering up at me, black eyes narrow. “You think he cares what you named him? You think he cares about you at all?”

I shake myself from his grip and flip my cigarette against a rusted scaffold.

“He lied to you every day,” Peter continues. “Told you you were a boy. Take a look at yourself. Why, you don’t look anything like a boy! But that didn’t stop him from tricking you into believing it.”

“I know what I am.” My shadow’s absence is like a stone in my throat. I try to swallow. The stone rolls deeper.

“Of course you know what you are. You’re a smart girl. You don’t like lies. Your shadow is a liar. Why would you want him back?”

My fingers curl, but there is no shadow hand to hold onto. I tell myself that the sting in the back of my eyes is from the cold.

“Everything will be easier without him, Prudence.” Peter pats my sleeve with his tiny palm. “Everything will be normal.”

Jerking away from him, I duck my head and walk briskly down the abandoned street. As Peter patters after me, I try to ignore the emptiness lodged deep in my chest, abnormal and heavy and very, very real.

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“I found your shadow.”

Peter’s words propel me out of the subway terminal, through the arteries of the city, past the yawning windows of untenanted store fronts and the twisted wreckage of cars. Peter scampers beside me, laughing. He dances over drainpipes, scales streetlights to crow, hops over an upturned bus and squeals his way into Brooklyn.

I run.

The sun is melting over the skyline by the time we arrive, and I am wheezing. Tar webs my throat, wet and thick, and I pause to hack onto the pavement. When I look up, the familiar apartment building is crawling out from behind the shamble of dumpsters in the back alley. I half expect to see Mickey Barlow smoking weed on the corner or Leon and Momma kissing in the window.

But the only one there is my shadow boy. He is slumped against the apartment’s fire escape, his arms twined around his waist, head bowed. The tangled mop of hair obscures his profile, but I can see the plump of his lower lip, the flutter of his long throat as he swallows. He is trembling.

“Ah-ha!” Peter dashes past me and thrusts a triumphant finger at him, legs planted wide. “Get him! Get him, get him!”

My shadow heaves a sigh and I exhale and, slowly, we look at each other. Breath shushes between us, murmurs secrets through the back alley. Edging carefully around Peter, I heft myself onto the Dumpster and grip the lower wrung of the fire escape.

“Don’t let him get away!” Peter is hopping from toe to toe, hands clapping hysterical polyrhythms, but I don’t answer him.

Instead, I climb, fist over fist over fist until I am standing face to face with my shadow boy. He raises his head and, for the first time, I feel the weight of his eyes. This is the boy who for sixteen years has been screaming through the pockets of my lungs. This is the boy in my fingers, longing for a broadness that never was. This is the boy who sobs every month for five days when I bleed. This is the boy who scratches my breasts with sewing needles and demands to know why they are there because they don’t belong on his body.

They’ve never belonged on my body, either.

“What are you waiting for?” Peter is screeching and I can feel the earth quaver. Metal rungs creak. Brick and mortar moans. Window glass crackles. The sky begins to darken. “What are you waiting for?”

I look at my shadow. My shadow looks at me.

He raises one dark hand, my shadow boy, and touches my cheek.

And the moment before our arms and bodies and souls reconnect, I whisper, “I don’t know.”

end-of-story-nov

 LoraGrayBioPhotoLora Gray is a native of Northeast Ohio where they currently reside with their husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil.  A 2016 graduate of Clarion West, Lora’s work has most recently appeared in Flash Fiction Online and Strange Horizons. When they aren’t writing, Lora works as an illustrator and dance instructor.

Who Are Youuuu:

The One They Took Before, by Kelly Sandoval ~ Rift opened in my backyard. About six feet tall and one foot wide. Appears to open onto a world of endless twilight and impossible beauty. Makes a ringing noise like a thousand tiny bells. Call (206) 555-9780 to identify. Kayla reads the listing twice, knowing the eager beating of her heart is ridiculous. One page back, someone claims they found a time machine. Someone else has apparently lost their kidneys. The Internet isn’t real. That’s what she likes about it. And if the post is real, the best thing she can do is pretend she never saw it.

Caretaker, by Carlie St. George ~ A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.

The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira ~ The first time you saw her, she was getting change from the machine in the lavandería; copper and nickel clacked against her metal palms, a rain of clicks pricking your eardrums. She was just as grotesque as your sister said: silvery fingers stiff as stone, jointless and smooth, unable to pluck the money from the open mouth of the change-maker. She struggled to scoop the coins into the stiff basket of her hands but you wouldn’t help her. You were too busy praying to Saint Lucy to take away your voice for good this time.

The One They Took Before, by Kelly Sandoval

craigslist > seattle > all seattle > lost&found
Sat 23 Jul
FOUND: Rift in the Fabric of the Universe – (West Seattle)

Rift opened in my backyard. About six feet tall and one foot wide. Appears to open onto a world of endless twilight and impossible beauty. Makes a ringing noise like a thousand tiny bells. Call (206) 555-9780 to identify.

Kayla reads the listing twice, knowing the eager beating of her heart is ridiculous. One page back, someone claims they found a time machine. Someone else has apparently lost their kidneys.

The Internet isn’t real. That’s what she likes about it. And if the post is real, the best thing she can do is pretend she never saw it.

After all, she’s doing better. She sees a therapist, now. She’s had a couple of job interviews.

She calls the number.

“Hello?” It’s a man’s voice. Kayla can’t identify his accent.

“Oh. Hi.” Her words come out timid and thin, almost a whisper. She stands and starts pacing the length of her apartment, stepping over dirty clothes and cat toys. “I’m calling about your Craigslist ad.”

“Oh!” He sounds surprised, but not displeased. “I’m glad to hear from you. So, when did you lose it?”

“Pardon?”

“The rift. When did you lose it?”

Yesterday? A thousand years ago? Time was meaningless there. She’s pretty sure it all happened a very long time ago.

“It’s complicated,” she says.

“Well, can you describe it, then? Tell me what color it is? I just need to be sure it’s yours.”

It isn’t hers. “Have you had a lot of calls?”

“A few crazies,” he admits. “Someone claiming to be my evil twin. That sort of thing.”

The cats, Ablach and Thomas, twist around her ankles. She leans down to stroke Ablach and presses her face into his fur. He hasn’t spoken to her since they got out. Neither of them have. “Have you tried going through it?”

“No. It’s not mine.” He tries to sound firm, but she knows the longing in his voice. They opened a door for him. It’s only a matter of time. “Listen, if this thing isn’t yours—”

“Don’t go through it,” she says. “Even if they ask you to.”

She hangs up before he can reply.

The cats watch her, unblinking. Gold eyes and silver. She tries not to imagine their voices.

“What?” she asks them. “I warned him. What else can I do?”

Ablach turns his back on her, tail lashing. Thomas rolls onto his back and lets her stroke his stomach.

“I’m not going back.” She repeats the phrase, over and over. Words have power. They taught her that.

After a few hours pass, she tries the number again. No one answers.

The Stranger Lovelab
23 / Man / Cal Anderson
Faerie Queen, saw you in Cal Anderson Park by the tennis courts. You wore a dress of hummingbird feathers and a crown of tiny stars. I asked for a light. I should have asked for more. Coffee?

For two days, Kayla avoids the Internet and every local newspaper. If they’re hunting again, she doesn’t want to know. On the third day, she dares to go out for coffee. A newspaper waits at the only open table, and she flips to the classifieds before she can stop herself.

The ad draws her eye immediately. It’s highlighted. She wonders if it was there before she sat down. If it will still be there when she leaves.

tookbeforeCal Anderson is only a few blocks away. And she’s still weak enough to need to know. Kayla leaves her full cup on the table and heads outside, flinching as she enters the sunlight. Long weeks of gray skies and soft rain don’t bother her, but these brief days of garish blue leave her longing for twilight.

Shirtless men and girls in bikinis crowd the park, and Kayla tries not to see them. They remind her of someone she was, and she still longs to slip back into that skin. It’s best not to think of it. Nostalgia, for either life, is poison.

She keeps her head down, and makes her way to the stand of trees that lines the tennis courts. No hummingbird feathers wait for her there. No tiny stars litter the grass. A group of teens jostles past and one of them reaches up to pluck an apple from the branch above her head. The fruit in his hand is the deep red of exposed muscle. Looking up, she has to tell herself that apples, not hearts, hang heavy on the branches. They are huge and numerous, an out-of-season abundance. Also, it’s not an apple tree.

She runs home and sobs quietly until Ablach and Thomas climb into her lap and lick her tears with rough tongues. After that, her sobs aren’t quiet at all.

Seattle Times Online
Category: The Blotter
August 1, 2013

King County Sheriff’s Office seeks the public’s help in locating a Seattle area woman

Josey Aarons, 24, was last seen on July 30th at the Triple Door on 216 Union Street, where she was performing with her band, The Sudden Sorrows. According to her friends, Aarons was supposed to meet them at an afterparty but never arrived.

Witnesses report Aarons was seen outside the venue with a woman described as having skin the color of a summer moon and eyes as deep as madness. Aarons is 5 feet 9 inches tall, 150 lbs, with short blond hair and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing black jeans and a green trenchcoat. She was carrying a gray messenger bag.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of either Ms. Aarons or her companion is asked to call the Sheriff’s Office at 206-555-9252.

Kayla sits, her guitar in her lap, and strokes the smooth wood like it’s one of the cats. When she first got back, she took a knife to the strings, sawing through them one by one. It didn’t hurt at the time. It hurts now, when she longs for the comfort of melody. But she knows better.

If she plays, they will hear her.

They will take her back.

She is trying so hard. She goes to yoga class. She watches TV.

She rocks in the dark of her apartment, the glow of the computer screen creating a sort of twilight.

Is she loved, this girl that they have taken? Do they kiss her, their lips honey-sweet and dizzying as brandy? Does she realize she is theirs? That they will pet and praise and keep her, drape her in diamonds and bask in her light, but never let her go?

Until they do.

Freedom is its own kind of prison.

In Kayla’s apartment, the computer glows, and it is nothing at all like twilight.

She tries to tell herself the girl will be okay. They will keep her for a few eternities, but they will also set her free again. She can rebuild.

Kayla is.

She picks up the phone and dials the number for the Sheriff’s Office. She tells them she knows about Josey.

“Wait a year and a day.” She says. “They won’t keep her forever.”

Except, of course, they will. They kept Kayla even longer than that.

That’s two, Kayla thinks. They’ll claim one more. They like patterns, cycles, rules.

She tells herself to ignore it. It isn’t her problem. She can’t save everyone. If she interferes, they’ll find her.

She tells herself she doesn’t want that. She says it out loud. There’s supposed to be power in that.

Seattle Times
August 3, 2013
Explanation sought after fatal hunting trip

The death of James Garcia, a Tacoma area accountant, has left police with more questions than answers. He was hunting in Silwen Falls with his brothers Marcus and Eric Garcia when the fatal accident occurred. While the details are still unclear, the brothers said James Garcia separated from his party early on the morning of the August 3- at a blind he was accustomed to using, and where he intended to remain for most of the day.

Sometime around noon, James Garcia left his shelter and removed all his clothing, including his orange safety vest, before approaching the blind his brothers were sharing. In the ensuing confusion, the brothers said they mistook him for, in the words of Marcus Garcia, “a stag of shadow and dream, its antlers cast from sunlight.” Eric Garcia admits to taking the fatal shot. Investigations are ongoing, police said.

Kayla remembers the bright cry of horns, horses with hot breath and red eyes, stags with human screams. Her keepers, clad in spider-silk and frost, the mad need in their joy. She tries to think of the dead man. She thinks, instead, of trays piled high with venison, air spice-laden and thick with laughter. Hunger twists in her stomach and she forgets to be ashamed.

She makes herself a sandwich, ham and cheddar on white bread, but only manages a few bites. Everything tastes like beige.

Thomas jumps into her arms, a furry mass of gold and shadow, and purrs deep and low. The sound usually calms her, reminds her to settle and stay. She should sit down, stroke him, find center.

“I don’t need them,” she whispers into his fur. She tries turning on the TV, but every show is a meaningless mix of colors and noises.

Ablach paces at the door, his cries high and bright as a hunting horn.

“Don’t trust him,” she tells herself. “Don’t trust any of their gifts.”

But he sings her heart, and she sets Thomas aside.

Outside, the stars are hidden behind a thin wash of cloud. Kayla follows Ablach down major roads and through slender alleys lined with overflowing Dumpsters. The route is circuitous and random but she recognizes where he leads her. Cal Anderson Park. She’s alone on a tree-lined sidewalk, looking for a shadow in a world of them.

Ablach cries above her. She looks up, finds him watching her from the branches, his eyes like silver coins. She reaches to stroke him and her fingers close around a heavy fruit made russet by the night. It doesn’t smell like an apple. It smells of blood and honey, of sex and song.

The juice is silver and she licks it from her fingers when she’s done. Ablach lets her carry him home.

Seattle Times
August 4, 2013
Obituary

James Carlos Garcia, 43, was lost in a tragic accident on August 2. A man of courage, humor and intelligence, he was an active member of his community and a dedicated husband and father.

He leaves behind three children, Peter Garcia, Mary Winner and James Garcia Jr. He is also survived by his wife, Alice Garcia.

He loved hunting, Bruce Springsteen’s music and his family.

A celebration of his life will be held on August 10 at 7:30 PM at the North Tacoma Community Hall.

The funeral, Facebook tells her, is on the sixth. She sends flowers, the biggest bouquet the florist has. Money isn’t an issue; they sent her back decked in gold and strange jewels. She waited weeks for it to fade or turn to leaves but the gold, like the memories, refused to leave her. It means she doesn’t have to work, or leave her apartment, or forget.

An obvious trap, and she’s been trying to fight it. Of course, she hasn’t sent out a job application since she called about the rift. Hasn’t answered her phone, or emailed the people she tells herself are her friends.

tookbefore2She doesn’t intend to go. The one responsible is sure to be there; they love to watch. Even on the morning of the sixth, as she puts on a dress of black silk and gold lace, she imagines she will stay home. The dress was her favorite, before. Now she can only see it as an echo of something grander. She has worn a cloak of dragonfly skin over a gown woven from the scent of roses. They set her at the feet of the queen and when she played, they drank the notes from the air.

It will not happen again, Kayla tells herself, as she restrings her guitar. And maybe it won’t. But she isn’t sure anymore.

She lets the cats out before she leaves. Ablach disappears with a confident stride but Thomas presses himself against her legs, crying to be picked up and trying to follow her into the cab.

“If you would only ask me to stay,” she whispers, as she sets him back on the pavement, “I might.”

But he doesn’t ask.

The cab pulls up at the church well after the service is scheduled to begin. She considers going in, makes it all the way to the door before deciding against it. The family already has one voyeur to their pain. She can at least save them a second one.

She waits beside the door and tries to enjoy the feeling of the sun on her skin. She remembers longing for daylight, then screaming for daylight, then forgetting what daylight meant.

It’s a difficult thing to learn again.

“They are crying in there.” The words settle onto her skin like she’s walked into mist, a cat’s purr of a sound: low, self-satisfied, demanding. “Painting their faces with ash,” it says, “and tearing their clothes with sorrow.”

Its skin, Kayla sees, is more the color of an autumn moon than one from the summer, but its eyes are certainly deep as madness and the iridescent feathers of its hummingbird gown shame her simple dress. She lowers her eyes, curtsies. The gesture is automatic, and she hates herself for it.

“What did he do?” she asks. It’s fear, not excitement, that sets her heart racing. She’s glad to fear them again.

“Do?” Its purr warms with amusement. “He did nothing. He did not catch me bathing or cross my path to start a riddle game. He sat in his tent and did nothing at all. He bored me.”

Yes, that was a sort of crime. What use were humans if they refused to be fun? She stopped being fun, near the end. She sat and rocked and sobbed and would not give them their music.

They sent her home, after that. She thought they freed her. But here she is, standing before one, her guitar at her side.

“You have not played,” it says. “We listen, still. And you give us nothing. Are you still broken?”

“Not like I was,” she says. And realizes her mistake as it smiles.

“You were her favorite,” it says. “Our Lightning Bard.”

“You have a new one now,” she says. She tries to keep her breathing even, but the scent of it makes her dizzy. “Unless she’s already broken.”

“So unkind. We offer her wonders.” It glances up, stares at the sun.

Kayla wants to kiss its neck, drink eternity from its veins. She digs her nails into her palms. “Did you offer her a choice?”

“Of a sort. She followed me.”

“She didn’t know what she followed you to.” But Kayla does.

“Are you jealous?” it asks, voice silken with amusement. “You needn’t be. We can still take you.”

And yes, she is, isn’t she? She wants those first wondering months, before she could see the rot beneath the gilt. She wants the luxury of not yet knowing what it means to love them.

“No.” She forces the word out through clenched teeth.

“I have leave to barter,” it says. “We have no need for two musicians. And it would be novel to win the same soul twice.”

The church door opens and the mourners begin to stream out. Kayla catches sight of a man’s face, ugly with pain, and recognizes him as one of the dead man’s brothers. It doesn’t even glance his way. The man’s loss is no more than a daytime rerun of a once amusing show.

“No,” she whispers it this time, crossing her arms in a vain attempt at comfort. “It wouldn’t last.”

“You could be our pretty one again, our summer storm.” Its voice is thick and sweet. The world fades and reduces itself, the sun hiding, the mourners hushing their cries.

Kayla’s tears are hot on her face and she’s afraid to brush them away. She could say yes. She could tell herself she was being generous, playing the sacrifice. “Did you take her just for that? To offer in trade?”

Is it her fault, or does she only want to believe she means that much to them?

“I care little for your questions, Pet. Will you come?”

This is the part where she says yes and it drags her back to that land of endless twilight and impossible beauty. This is the part where she falls.

“No,” she says, the third time she’s rejected it. She stands straighter, meets its eyes. Her guitar case falls from limp fingers. If it makes a sound as it hits the steps, she doesn’t hear it.

“Very well,” it says, the purr gone from its voice. “But we will be listening. And you will tire of mortality and dust.”

She is already tired of mortality and dust. Tired, too, of being locked into the need of them.

“You can’t keep me,” she says.

It leans in and kisses the salt from her lips. Its breath smells like storm clouds, all electric promise. “Oh, pretty one. We already have.”

The world lurches, empties, and she’s alone on the church steps. The mourners are leaving, a long procession of cars already disappearing down the street.

She calls the cab back. Rides home in silence.

A year and a day. An eternity. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But they always send back what they take, shattered husks of what they once found beautiful.

Kayla will wait. Apply for jobs. Mark the calendar.

She’ll be ready, when the time comes. No one waited for her. No one understood. It can be different, this time. She can help.

And that can be a sort of winning.

fin

Kelly Sandoval lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. Her family includes a patient fiance, a demanding cat, and an extremely grumpy tortoise. In 2013 she attended Clarion West and lived to tell the tale. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Esopus, Asimov’s, and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her online at kellysandovalfiction.com.

Kelly Sandoval
Kelly Sandoval
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