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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